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NFL Week 9 preview: Broncos vs. Patriots, Cards vs. Cowboys, and Ravens vs. Steelers (+video)

This is the half-way point of the 2014 NFL season. Sunday's marquee matchup: Peyton Manning's Broncos (6-1) vs. Tom Brady's Patriots.

The first half of the season for the Detroit Lions (6-2), Buffalo Bills (5-3), and Dallas Cowboys (6-2) could not have gone any better. For others, like the Seattle Seahawks (4-3) and New Orleans Saints (4-4), the halfway point of the season offers the chance to gain some perspective from their performance so far and make the necessary changes to reach the playoffs.

Finally the teams looking up from the bottom, like the Chicago Bears (3-5) and Atlanta Falcons (2-6), require a wholesale reorganization if they hope to salvage the season. The teams involved in Week 9’s featured matchups all sit at or near the top in their divisions and are hoping wins over marquee opponents will help them in their fight for a playoff berth.

Week 9 begins with a clash of two division leaders, as the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals (6-1) travel to Dallas to take on the NFC East-leading Cowboys at 1 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday. The Cowboys come into this game after suffering a narrow defeat to the Washington Redskins, while the Cardinals cannot seem to lose, picking up a win last week against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowboys' loss to the Redskins was compounded by an injury to quarterback Tony Romo. Romo reappeared in the game after heading to the locker room, but looked noticeably less sharp. This week, his status is up in the air and many have reported that the Cowboys may have to turn to geriatric second-year backup Brandon Weeden.

The good news for Weeden is that Dallas still features the league’s top running back, DeMarco Murray, with 1,054 rush yards and 7 touchdowns. More impressively, Murray has reached 100 yards in every game this year. Murray’s success has come from his athletic ability, but also from a much stronger offensive line.

Cowboys’ executive Stephen Jones told ESPN that improving the offensive line was the focus this season, especially after an injury to Romo last season. “That’s when we said, ‘Look, if we don't start helping this offensive line, we're going to get our quarterback killed. We're not going to be able to run it. We're not going to be able to throw it.’”

If Weeden is called upon, Murray and the offensive line will have to have a big game to keep the game close.

Meanwhile, the six-win Cardinals enter Week 9 having won their last three games. The team’s strength so far this season has been their balance. The defense is solid across the board – stingy against the run and excellent at forcing turnovers, which has helped the team to the fifth-best points against mark in the league at 19.9. The offense, which ranks 15th  and 26th  in passing and rushing respectively, has been efficient and has limited its turnovers. Without Romo, the Cardinals will be the favorites and have an excellent opportunity to continue their dream season.

All eyes this weekend will be on the game of the week, and maybe the season, with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning reigniting their rivalry at 4:25 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday as the New England Patriots (6-2) host the Denver Broncos (6-1). This will be the 15th  time the two quarterbacks have played each other, with the Brady-led Patriots holding a 10-4 advantage. Going deeper into the numbers, Manning has been the more prolific quarterback, throwing for more yards and touchdowns, while Brady has been more effective, throwing fewer picks and for a higher completion percentage and quarterback rating.

Although it is amusing to compare the two quarterbacks and imagine that if one outplays the other that team will win, the reality is that Brady and Manning are facing two tough defenses. The QBs will each have their hands full, Brady especially as he takes on the league’s second-ranked total defense in value over replacement as compiled by Football Outsiders. The Von Miller-led front seven that now features Demarcus Ware has only given up 72.4 yards of rushing per game while the secondary has been strong when it counts. The team has credited some of their success to a ‘mean, feisty’ demeanor that has given them an edge. “We're a feisty group," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton told the Denver Post. "We have that at every level of the defense. In the game we're always getting into it with teams. When our defense gets feisty, I like it. Sometimes when we get a penalty, I don't mind." 

Manning will be seeing a Patriot defense that, despite injuries, has grown in stature and confidence the past several weeks. The defense’s strength is in their ability to stop the pass, as the team gives up only 210.9 yards per game, putting them second in the league. They also know how to force turnovers, taking 16 away so far this year in their eight games. This game will come down to which quarterback is able to unlock the opposing defense first and put points on the board. However, as always, expect the pomp and flair of a Brady versus Manning showdown.

Sunday winds down with a clash of division foes as the Baltimore Ravens (5-3) go on the road to Heinz Field to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3) at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday. In the already-tight AFC North, division wins are huge and this game will have a must-win feel to it.

The Steelers come into Week 9 having exploded on offense the week before, dropping 51 points on the Indianapolis Colts. In the win, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went for 522 yards passing, good for an 81.6% completion percentage and six touchdowns. The yards, touchdowns and completions (40) were all franchise records. Asked about Roethlisberger’s play, NFL Network analyst Brain Baldinger said, “Ben’s cutting the ball loose at the right time. He’s putting it in the right location. He might be playing as well as he’s ever played.” 

Roethlisberger has been aided by a talented cast of playmakers, namely running back LeVeon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Bell ranks third in the league in rush yards while Brown leads the league in receptions, and is second in both yards and touchdowns. It appears that after stumbling out of the gate to start the year, the Steelers might be putting it together on offense.  

The Ravens have their five wins by playing smart, efficient football on both sides of the ball. On offense, Joe Flacco has limited his mistakes and been much steadier than the player who threw 22 interceptions and lost eight fumbles a year ago. The running game has been split between Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce, and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro and has been steady and effective, combining for 9 TDs and 993 yards. The team has limited opposing offenses to just 16.4 points per game on the strength of their rush defense, which allows only 90.4 yards per game. If both defenses have any glaring holes, it is in the pass game, so expect a high scoring but close contest to close out your Sunday.

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