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NFL 2011 Season – Week Eight Preview

Mike Wallace
Hannah Foslien, Getty Images

A matchup of AFC leaders Pittsburgh and New England highlights the schedule for week eight of the NFL schedule. Soon, all teams will be through one half of the season, and playoff races will start to come into focus.

Here’s the NFL schedule for Sunday, Oct. 30. All times Eastern:

Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans – 1:00 PM

The odds are not in favor of a defensive struggle: Tennessee (3-3) has allowed 79 points in its last two games, while Indianapolis (0-7) allows 32.1 points per game, the most in the NFL. The Colts defense is also second-worst against the run, which may be a relief for Titans running back Chris Johnson, who is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry this season. Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck must break out of the funk that has contributed to the team’s losses in its last two games. If Indianapolis can pressure Hasselbeck into turnovers and short possessions, it can give Curtis Painter a chance to work on the Titans defense.

Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers – 1:00 PM

Minnesota (1-6) rookie quarterback Christian Ponder needs to build on the positives that came from his starting debut last week against the Packers. He should get help from running back Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s leading rusher, who is facing a Panthers defense that is 29th in the league against the run. Carolina (2-5) will counter with rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who completed 78.3 percent of his passes last week against Washington. It’s difficult to imagine Newton having much time to throw against the Vikings, who have 21 sacks in seven games, the best total in the league. Minnesota is also fourth-best against the run, so Newton may have to rely on his scrambling ability to lead his team. Though he has nine interceptions, Newton has eight touchdowns passing and seven via the run.

New Orleans Saints at St. Louis Rams – 1:00 PM

After dismantling the Colts, 62-7, in front of a national TV audience last week, New Orleans (5-2) looks to keep its momentum going by facing another winless team: St. Louis (0-6). Regardless of whether Sam Bradford or A.J. Feeley starts at quarterback, the Rams will see frequent blitzes on their flawed offensive line. St. Louis can stem that defensive tide with running back Steven Jackson, if they can keep from falling too far behind Drew Brees and company. The Rams average an NFL-worst 9.3 points scored per game. After giving up 253 yards to Dallas’ DeMarco Murray last week, St. Louis’ run defense has now allowed 183.8 rushing yards per game, the worst in the NFL. Worse still, the Saints backfield of Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas has even more talent and depth than the Cowboys. If that’s not bad enough for St. Louis, Brees gets to pick apart a patchwork Rams secondary.

Miami Dolphins at N.Y. Giants – 1:00 PM

The Giants (4-2) roll off their bye week healthy and atop the NFC East. If running back Brandon Jacobs, who missed the past two games with a knee injury, can be a threat, New York may see quarterback Eli Manning receive less attention from defenses. Miami (0-6) will try to erase the memories of last week’s collapse against Denver that saw the team allow 15 points in the last three minutes and then lose in overtime. The Dolphins offense has been putrid after starting the season with some promise. Miami is 30th in the league in scoring at 15.0 points per game. The Dolphins will need to keep Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and the rest of the New York pass rush away from quarterback Matt Moore. Pierre-Paul has seven-and-a-half sacks and a forced fumble this season.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans – 1:00 PM

Even though they found a way to beat Baltimore on Monday night, the Jaguars (2-5) need to do better than the 12 points per-game it averages on offense. Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert will rely on Maurice Jones-Drew to establish the run and stop the Houston blitz. The Texans (4-3) want to reunite quarterback Matt Schaub and injured wide receiver Andre Johnson to augment the monster games they are getting from Arian Foster, who has become a force out of the backfield, as well as carrying the ball. Foster has 725 combined yards in just five games. Jacksonville’s defense is sixth-best in the league in yards allowed per game (299.7), while the Texans are fifth-best in points allowed per game (18.7). This could make for a defensive struggle.

Arizona Cardinals at Baltimore Ravens – 1:00 PM

Arizona (1-5) enters the game allowing 25.5 points per game, fifth worst in the NFL. Fortunately, the Cardinals will be facing a Baltimore offense that is inept. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco must improve on his 76.2 passer rating by not forcing passes into coverage and using running back Ray Rice more effectively and more often. Baltimore (4-2) is the top defense in the league in both points per game and yardage allowed. The experienced Ravens defense will take advantage of the expected absence of injured Arizona running back Beanie Wells and key on quarterback Kevin Kolb, who has been sacked 18 times this season. The Baltimore defense leads the AFC in sacks and will look to get to Kolb often.

Washington Redskins at Buffalo Bills – 4:05 PM

Buffalo (4-2) comes off the bye week with the hopes of extending the Redskins’ two-game losing streak at the Bills’ home-away-from-home: Rogers Centre in Toronto, Canada where this game will be played. Buffalo needs to get running back Fred Jackson going against a suddenly soft Washington run defense. Jackson is second in the league in rushing yards per game with 100.2. Every yard Jackson gets takes pressure off of Bills’ quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will see plenty of Washington pressure, as the Redskins are tied for the league lead in sacks with 21. The Redskins (3-3) will look to quarterback John Beck to expose a Buffalo defense that allows 284.8 passing yards per game, third worst in the NFL. The Bills have never won during the regular season at Rogers Centre (0-3).

Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos – 4:05 PM

As happy as Denver (2-4) was to escape Miami with a thrilling come-from-behind overtime win last week, the  Broncos are aware that quarterback Tim Tebow needs to get better at reading blitzes and making the throws necessary to extend drives. With running back Willis McGahee day-to-day with a broken finger, Tebow will need to be more effective, especially against an aggressive pass rush from Detroit (5-2). The Lions need help from their backfield, as well. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is hurting from a sprained right ankle suffered last week against the Falcons, and he may not start. Sean Hill is his likely replacement. Broncos rookie linebacker Von Miller will target whomever the Lions play at quarterback, He already has six sacks on the season. With Detroit starting running back Jahvid Best out with a concussion, someone will have to step up and help the offense.

New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers – 4:15 PM

The matchup of the AFC’s two best teams features the defense of Pittsburgh (5-2), which is third best in the league in yards (279) and points (17.4) allowed per game, versus the offense of New England (5-1), which boasts an NFL-best 474.5 yards per game that yields 30.8 points per contest. Conversely, the Patriots secondary has been awful, giving up an NFL-worst 322.2 passing yards per game. The New England defense will need to pressure Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to relieve pressure off its defensive backs. With a 104.8 mark, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the top-rated passer in the AFC. However, it may be running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis who proves to be the key. If he can keep the Steelers linebackers respecting the threat of the run, Brady could get just enough time to throw downfield.

Cincinnati Bengals at Seattle Seahawks – 4:15 PM

As good a game manager as rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has been for Cincinnati (4-2), the Bengals defense has been outstanding, which has led to wins. The Bengals allow 18.5 points per-game, fourth fewest in the league, and just 278.5 yards per game, second fewest in the NFL. Seattle (2-4) scores just 16.2 points per game, good for second worst in the NFC, so the Seahawks have cause for concern. Even if starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and running back Marshawn Lynch both return from injuries, Seattle is hardly a yardage-gaining machine. Cincinnati is not an offensive juggernaut, either. They will be less so without team rushing leader Cedric Benson, who will serve a one-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Dalton will need to look to running back Bernard Scott to help him overcome a hostile road crowd.

Cleveland Browns at San Francisco 49ers – 4:15 PM

Despite managing only two field goals last week, Cleveland (3-3) was able to beat Seattle. The Browns scoring offense, 27th in the league at just 16.2 points per game, doesn’t figure to markedly improve this week. San Francisco’s stingy defense allows an NFC-best 16.2 points per game, the second fewest points in the league. The Niners (5-1) will see a lot of running backs Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty and will need to find a way to keep Cleveland from trying to win ugly by controlling the clock. Quarterback Alex Smith has quietly amassed a 95.2 passer rating. If Smith can continue to be that efficient — and hand the ball off frequently to Frank Gore — the Niners can win.

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles – 8:20 PM

Dallas rookie running back DeMarco Murray, who had a team-record 253 yards rushing last week against the Rams, comes into Philadelphia to face an Eagles run defense that had been dreadful prior to its game against Washington two weeks ago. The Eagles are still allowing an average of 4.8 yards per carry on the season. The Cowboys (3-3) need the running game to keep Eagles blitzes off quarterback Tony Romo, who is prone to bad turnovers when pressured. The Eagles (2-4) want to get running back LeSean McCoy to grind away against Dallas’ top-ranked run defense, so that the porous Cowboys pass defense can be exposed downfield by quarterback Michael Vick and wideout DeSean Jackson.

Monday, Oct. 31:

San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs – 8:30 PM

San Diego (4-2) has the third-most productive offense in the AFC with 391.5 yards-per game. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers figures to get even better with a healthy Antonio Gates at tight end and a two-pronged running attack from Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert. All that firepower figures to give the Chiefs outmanned defense headaches. Kansas City (3-3) also doesn’t expect to get two interception returns for touchdowns, as it did last week against Oakland. Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel needs the backfield-by-committee of Jackie Battle, Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster to help put him in advantageous passing situations. San Diego’s defense can be weak in the red zone, but Kansas City must get there first.

On Bye Week: Atlanta, Chicago, Green Bay, Oakland, N.Y. Jets, Tampa Bay

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