In a year filled with injuries to key players, it has been the NFL teams that have been able to substitute and move forward that have positioned themselves as playoff contenders.
For example, look at the NFC Central: Injuries to Green Bay Packers (5-4) quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Chicago Bears (5-4) quarterback Jay Cutler have tightened the race in that division.
And defensive problems have plagued the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys (5-5), who have been without linebacker Demarcus Ware. The Cowboys are now feeling the pressure from the Philadelphia Eagles (5-5), who have produced an offensive explosion after plugging in quarterback Nick Foles for an injured Michael Vick.
Although the slate of 1 p.m. Eastern Time games carry their fair share of exciting match-ups, the first must-see game of the week kicks off at 4:25 p.m. Eastern Time when the San Francisco 49ers (6-3) travel to the Superdome to face the New Orleans Saints (7-2).
The key to this game will be to watch the early play of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to see which version of Kaepernick takes the field. Kaepernick has been one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in the league this season by Total QBR, a stat developed by ESPN which measures a quarterback’s performance on a scale of 0 to 100, with 50 being the median. Kaepernick has been responsible for two of the three best games played by a quarterback this season, registering Total QBRs of 99.8 and 99.0, while also contributing two quarterbacking performances that ranked in the top 25 worst this season with QBRs of 7.7 and 11.8.
Despite his inconsistent play, coach Jim Harbaugh continues to stand behind his quarterback, telling The Sacramento Bee, "It's been a very good, steady progression for him," Harbaugh said. "We don't think anything's wrong with Colin. We feel like his progression's been very good. He's played winning football for us and that's what we expect."
Kaepernick will have to be at his best this Sunday to put up enough points to compete with Drew Brees and the Saints’ explosive offense.
From a quarterback who is trying to avoid a sophomore slump to one that seems to be moving on from his, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers (6-3) play host to the New England Patriots (7-2) on Monday Night Football. Coming off a bye, the Patriots have had ample time to prepare for the physical style of football the Panthers feature, led by second-year standout linebacker Luke Kuechly and the Carolina defense which ranks fifth against the pass and second against the run.
When asked about the prospect of playing a tough defense this week, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley praised the Panthers defense but also reminded Boston Herald reporters that the NFL is a tough league. “We've played a few physical defenses along the year,” Ridley said. “That’s not going to be anything we’re not expecting from (the Panthers). They’re talented, man. I don’t care what anybody says. Their defense has some players there, and they fly around and move well.”
The Patriots offense might finally be getting back to full speed, but it is the defense now that is trying to piece itself together without All-Pro defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. The Patriots are hoping to have cornerback Aqib Talib back soon, but it is likely he will see limited play at best this week against a revitalized Cam Newton.
Newton had a down year last season and came out of the gate struggling this year as well. But, in the last five games for Carolina, which have been all wins, Newton has thrown seven touchdowns to only three interceptions while also adding two scores on the ground. The Patriots offense will look to get out to a quick start against the stingy Carolina defense and hope that its own defense can keep the explosive Newton in check.
From a game that features a good offense versus a good defense, we move to a game that pits the best offense in the league against the best defense. This week’s Sunday Night Football match-up is a battle of the two best records in the league as the Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) travel to Denver to face the Broncos (8-1). The Chiefs defense comes into the game allowing the fewest points per game to the opposition, 12.3, while Denver’s offense, led by MVP-favorite Peyton Manning, scores 41.2 on average, 10.8 more than the second-best Saints.
In a game where something has to give, it all may come down to the health of Manning, who suffered a minor ankle injury last Sunday which has forced him to miss out on practice this week. When asked about whether he could play, Manning gave Yahoo Sports reporters their answer and also a glimpse into how important preparation is to the All-Pro.
"I probably feel like I could do it, but it kind of goes against what I believe in," Manning said. "I believe in practice, I believe there is a reason for it. So it's certainly my preference to be out there, but at the same time I'm trying to do what's best for the team and in order for me to get healthy."
While the Chiefs understand they cannot score like the Broncos, they have to feel that the match-up that will dictate this game is the battle between Denver’s offensive line and Kansas City's front seven. The Chiefs, who lead the NFL in sacks, will hope to get pressure on Manning early and often to disrupt his rhythm and, more importantly, see how healthy his ankle really is. In a game in which both the division and the AFC might be at stake, fans would be remiss to miss out on what might be the game of the year.