Few things are decided at this time of the year in the NFL but with the season half gone some issues will begin to sort themselves out. For example, the New England Patriots (5-2) can create some breathing room in the AFC East today if they can handle the run-obsessed Miami Dolphins (3-4). Miami are one of three teams running more than they throw, in part because their second-year quarterback, Chad Henne, has yet to master the offence after replacing the injured Chad Pennington.
But a bigger reason is the presence of their running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Together they lead a run offence ranked third in the NFL. The Dolphins use that running game to pin their opponent's offence on the sideline. That will be imperative against the Patriots, because their quarterback Tom Brady has begun to find his stride, throwing nine touchdown passes in the last two games.
Miami must control the ball, but with three rookie starters in the secondary Brady could bomb them into submission. The New Orleans Saints (7-0) will try to remain undefeated as they host the Carolina Panthers (3-4). New Orleans have one of the most productive attacks in football but their defence has mysteriously begun to slip, allowing an average of 29.3 points in their last three games. Fortunately, their offence has picked up the slack and it is unlikely Carolina can match such production.
The Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) travel to play the Baltimore Ravens (4-3) in a classic battle between the Ravens' defence and the Bengals' attack. Last time Cincinnati prevailed because of a late rally led by their quarterback, Carson Palmer, and the running back Cedric Benson, who hit Baltimore for 120 yards rushing. If Benson does that again, the Ravens are in trouble. The New York Giants (5-3) play host to the San Diego Chargers (4-3) in a critical game for both.
After a fast start, the Giants have lost three on the run by a combined score of 112-61 and their vaunted defence seems lost. The Chargers' quarterback Phillip Rivers will test them but their limping running game (30th in the league) is likely make San Diego one-dimensional and allow the Giants to exploit that weakness. The Philadelphia Eagles (5-2) take on the Dallas Cowboys (5-2) in a battle for first place in the NFC East. Dallas have won three in a row and their defence have been assertive with 17 sacks in the last 18 quarters, but the Eagles have begun to fly now that their quarterback Donovan McNabb is healthy.
The unbeaten Indianapolis Colts (7-0) face a difficult test against the Houston Texans (5-3) in part because four of their defensive starters, including three in the secondary, are out. That will put more pressure on Peyton Manning, who is on course to shatter the NFL record for passing yardage. He will need to be on his game to keep the Texans, winners of their last three games, at bay.
Around the rest of the league, the Atlanta Falcons (4-3) face the struggling Washington Redskins (2-5) at the right time. The Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown seven interceptions in his last three games and despite their strong pass defence the Redskins' offence seldom manage to score (13.7 points a game), meaning the pressure will be off Ryan. The Arizona Cardinals (4-3) face the Chicago Bears (4-3) in a game where whoever plays better of two struggling quarterbacks, Kurt Warner and Jay Cutler, will decide the outcome.
In the battle of the Bays, the Green Bay Packers (4-3) should outclass the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-7), who have allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw 16 touchdown passes in seven games. The Seattle Seahawks (2-5) host the Detroit Lions (1-6) and that long trip may be too much for the uninspiring Lions. The Kansas City Chiefs (1-6) are without their suspended running back Larry Johnson against the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-4) in a game not even the fans of the teams in question will watch.
The Tennessee Titans (1-7) will try to make it two wins in a row at the expense of the San Francisco 49ers (3-4). Vince Young gets another start at quarterback for Tennessee after completing 15 of 18 throws last week on a day when the Titans' running back, Chris Johnson, ran for 228 yards to help lift Young's record to 19-11 as a NFL starter. On Monday night, the Denver Broncos (6-1) try to bounce back from their first loss of the season when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2).