Bears-Packers, Steelers-Patriots among Week 9 must attend games
Long before the Pittsburgh-Cleveland, Dallas-Washington and Kansas City-Oakland rivalries started to simmer, there was Chicago vs. Green Bay. The teams began playing each other in 1921 -- Chicago was known as the Staleys, not the Bears, back then -- and their series continued uninterrupted for 59 years until the 1982 players strike forced the cancellation of both contests.
The two teams will renew acquaintances for the 186th time Monday night in Green Bay. No other NFL teams have played each other as often as these two. If you haven't been scoring at home, the Bears lead the series 92-88-6 (including the postseason) but the Packers have won the last six meetings, including the 2010 NFC championship game.
The Chicago-Green Bay game heads the list of must-see games in Week 9.
It's not just the rivalry's rich history or the Monday night spotlight that makes this the marquee game of the week, but also it's the only contest matching teams with winning records.
The Packers have won four straight games, leaving their 1-2 start in their rear window. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing at his customary high level even though he hasn't had wide receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones, and tight end Jermichael Finley because of injuries. The league's fourth-ranked quarterback, Rodgers has passed for 2,191 yards and 15 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. He has been especially hot during the Pack's four-game winning streak, completing 67.7 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and only one interception.
It has helped that Green Bay finally has a balanced offense. Rookie Eddie Lacy (112 carries for 446 yards) and veteran James Starks (41 for 244) have helped propel the league's third-ranked rushing offense.
With outside linebacker Clay Matthews (broken thumb) sidelined for the last three games and expected to miss the next three, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has had to adjust his scheme, mixing in various blitzes. The Packers have sacked opposing quarterbacks 16 times in the last four games, and a dozen players have at least one sack. The one disappointment has been rookie end Datone Jones. Green Bay drafted Jones late in the first round last April primarily because of his pass-rushing skills, but he has had only six tackles and no sacks.
After losing three of their last four games, the Bears are hoping that a bye week helped them regain traction. They'll face the Packers without two of their key players, however. Quarterback Jay Cutler (groin) is out for at least three more weeks and weakside linebacker Lance Briggs (fractured left shoulder) could miss twice as much time as Cutler.
Josh McCown, who relieved Cutler in a Week 7 loss to Washington, will make his first start since the final two games of the 2011 season. A true journeyman -- in addition to playing for Arizona, Oakland, Carolina and the Hartford Colonials of the UFL, he has spent time on the rosters of the 49ers and Dolphins -- McCown completed 14 of 20 passes for 204 yards and one touchdown in the loss to the Redskins.
Khaseem Greene, a fourth-round rookie out of Rutgers who has played only one snap on defense (in the Washington game), could be first-year coach Marc Trestman's choice to replace Briggs in the starting lineup. Jonathan Bostic, another rookie, made his starting debut at middle linebacker against the Redskins in place of D.J. Williams (lost for the season with a torn pectoral).
A Bears victory would create a three-way tie for first place in the NFC North with Green Bay and Detroit.
New Orleans can match Seattle for the best record in the NFC with a victory over the Jets. Quarterback Drew Brees is coming off a five-touchdown performance against Buffalo (the eighth five-touchdown game of his career, an NFL record), but the Saints' running game has been irksome all season. New Orleans is averaging only 85.3 yards rushing per game (25th in the league) and has been stalled by too many negative plays. It will face a stiff challenge against the Jets' No. 1-ranked rushing defense (77.9 yards per game).
Despite their treadmill-like pattern (W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L), the Jets have been better than most prognosticators thought they would be. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith has bailed the Jets out several times, but he also has made a lot of mistakes, like the two picks-6s he threw in the second half of last week's loss to Cincinnati.
Keep an eye on Muhammad Wilkerson, the Jets' third-year defensive end, who is having the best season of his career (seven sacks, one interception, one forced fumble). If the Jets can hang in to the end, Nick Folk could help them to an upset win.He has converted all 19 of his field goal attempts this season, including three game-winners.
Another element that makes this game intriguing is the battle of the Ryan twins. Jets head coach Rex Ryan will be across the sideline from brother Rob, who is in his first season as the Saints defensive coordinator. The brothers squared off in the opening game of the 2011 season, when Rob was defensive coordinator of the Cowboys, with Rex and the Jets prevailing, 27-24.
For the first time since Dec. 23, 2001, the penultimate game of his rookie season, Reggie Wayne will not be on the field for the Colts. The wide receiver suffered a torn ACL while trying to catch an underthrown pass from Andrew Luck in a Week 7 game against Denver and will miss the rest of the season. Wayne's remarkable playing streak was snapped at 188 games, the most among active players, as was his league record of 71 consecutive games with at least three receptions.
Someone else will need to step up and become Luck's new No. 1 target. That guy could be Darrius Heyward-Bey, who joined the team as a free agent during the offseason. Heyward-Bey has both speed and size (6-2), but he has caught only 18 passes for 110 yards.
Coming off back-to-back AFC South championships, Houston was considered a Super Bowl contender coming into the season. Instead, the Texans have proved to be one of the biggest disappointments of the season's first half. And now a quarterback controversy could be developing.
Although coach Gary Kubiak said Matt Schaub is healthy and still is his starting quarterback, Case Keenum will be under center against Indianapolis. Keenum, a first-year player, made his first NFL start against Kansas City in Week 7 in place of Schaub (ankle) and turned in a respectable performance (15 completions in 25 attempts for 271 yards and one touchdown). If you're into reading tea leaves, this could be an indication that the Texans are thinking of cutting ties with Schaub, who threw a pick-6 in four consecutive games prior to his injury.
Together, these two teams have represented the AFC in eight of the 12 Super Bowls since 2001, winning a combined five championships. Overall, Pittsburgh has a league-high six Super Bowl titles and New England has three.
This is the time of the season when the Patriots really get rolling. Over the last three years, they have won 23 of 24 games in the second half of the season, going 8-0 in 2011 and 2012, and 7-1 last year.