It’s already desperation time for some NFL teams. Without wins this weekend, the Cowboys, Chargers, Vikings and Bengals, all division winners a year ago, might become irrelevant.
Minnesota has the best opportunity to set things right when Brett Favre leads the Vikings into Lambeau Field, where the sight of him in purple makes the Cheeseheads turn, well, purple in anger.
Favre will set yet another NFL mark Sunday night with his 119th start at Lambeau, the most in one stadium, surpassing John Elway, who had 118 at Mile High in Denver.
The Vikings haven’t won on the road since beating the Packers last Nov. 1. But a win puts them right back in the NFC North race, where Chicago is a surprising 4-2, yet has showed lots of slippage lately.
“I’m reluctant to say I’m excited about coming back,” Favre says. “I know how tough it is to play there. But it’s a huge challenge and we need a victory.”
Dallas can make inroads in the NFC East on Monday night with a win over the New York Giants, who finally get to play a division opponent.
The Bengals travel to Atlanta knowing they can’t afford many more slips in the AFC North, which also houses two of the league’s best teams, the Steelers and Ravens.
San Diego, shockingly tied for last place in the AFC West at 2-4, might have the toughest assignment when it entertains New England. But the Chargers’ wins both came at home.
Elsewhere Sunday, it’s Pittsburgh at Miami, Philadelphia at Tennessee, Arizona at Seattle, Washington at Chicago, Buffalo at Baltimore, St. Louis at Tampa Bay, Cleveland at New Orleans, Jacksonville at Kansas City, San Francisco at Carolina, and Oakland at Denver.
Off this week are Indianapolis (4-2), the New York Jets (5-1), Detroit (1-5) and Houston (4-2).
|Minnesota (2-3) at Green Bay (3-3)|
Despite the distractions surrounding Favre and allegations he sent lewd photos and racy messages to a former game hostess with the Jets in 2008, the Vikings beat Dallas last week with some big plays, notably Percy Harvin’s 95-yard kickoff return. If they don’t keep the turnaround going, the climb back to contention could become too steep: Minnesota visits New England next weekend.
The Packers are banged-up, especially on defense, and will need a strong pass rush in what is sure to be a ramped-up atmosphere. They should get back linebacker Clay Matthews, who leads the NFL in sacks with 8½ sacks, but missed the loss to Miami with a hamstring injury.
“The guy, he’s something else, man,” Packers DT Ryan Pickett says. “We definitely need him. Our defense is not the same without him.”
|New York Giants (4-2) at Dallas (1-4), Monday night|
No game will have more focus on pass protection than this one. The Giants have won three straight thanks greatly to a sacks parade: DE Osi Umenyiora has seven sacks and six forced fumbles in that span. New York has 21 sacks, tied for the NFC lead.
The Cowboys also can get after the quarterback with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
One major difference between these teams is that Eli Manning is calmer under pressure than Tony Romo. And the pressure sure is on in Dallas.
“We believe in each other,” safety Gerald Sensabaugh says. “We’ve got a good team. We’re just making simple mistakes that we need to correct.”
|Cincinnati (2-3) at Atlanta (4-2)|
The Bengals rate in the middle of the pack statistically, but their last two outings were disturbing. After losses to Cleveland and Tampa Bay, they step up in class — even if the Falcons looked pretty weak last week at Philadelphia.
“It’s do or die,” Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco says. “We’re 2-3. To get into a hole at 2-4 is a no-no. This is a must-win. I’m sure people are not going to take it like that, but it is, to salvage what we do have left of our season. And that’s it.”
This is a chance for the Bengals to prosper on offense. Atlanta rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will miss his second straight game with a sprained right knee and cornerback Dunta Robinson sustained a concussion on his hit on Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson. Robinson is appealing a $50,000 fine from the league for the hit that also left Jackson with a concussion.
|New England (4-1) at San Diego (2-4)|
Panic hasn’t quite set in yet in San Diego because the Chargers often start a season slowly. Last year, they went from 2-3 to 13-3 and ran away with the AFC West.
TE Antonio Gates has been unstoppable and Philip Rivers ranks third in passer rating. The numbers are impressive: top-rated overall in yards gained and yards allowed, in passing and in pass defense. Yet the Chargers are struggling mightily with an AFC-high 14 giveaways and awful special teams.
Now here come the efficient Patriots, who rarely beat themselves and always seize on opponents’ mistakes.
|Pittsburgh (4-1) at Miami (3-2)|
The last time the Dolphins beat the Steelers was 1998, a 21-0 romp in which the quarterbacks were Dan Marino and Kordell Stewart. Pittsburgh has won four straight since.
Ben Roethlisberger had a strong return after ending his four-game suspension, throwing for three TDs against Cleveland. And the Steel Curtain has allowed 60 points, by far the fewest in the league. The Steelers’ point differential of 10.8 per game is the NFL’s highest.
Miami has lost both home games and won all three on the road. It ranks last in punting average and next to last in kickoff return average.
|Philadelphia (4-2) at Tennessee (4-2)|
Uncertain quarterback situations in both cities, but the backups — Kevin Kolb for Philly, Kerry Collins for Tennessee — led wins a week ago and are capable replacements, Kolb for Michael Vick (ribs) and Collins for Vince Young (left knee).
Also more than capable is the Titans’ ultra-physical defense, which leads the league with 24 sacks and tops the AFC with 10 picks. The Titans won’t face dangerous WR DeSean Jackson (concussion), but Jeremy Maclin had a big game after Jackson went out against Atlanta.
|Arizona (3-2) at Seattle (3-2)|
The winner emerges as the favorite in the NFC West, particularly if it is the Cardinals because of how hard it is to beat the Seahawks at home. Coming off a bye, Arizona starts undrafted rookie QB Max Hall against a defense that ripped Chicago’s offensive line — doesn’t everyone? — for six sacks in Seattle’s most impressive victory so far.
The Cardinals have won four straight and six of seven against Seattle.
|St. Louis (3-3) at Tampa Bay (3-2)|
St. Louis won one game in 2009 and Tampa Bay won three. Look at them now.
The Rams seem to have more of a chance to contend in the weak NFC West than the Buccaneers do in the stronger NFC South. Top overall draft choice Sam Bradford has excelled more than any rookie QB can be expected to, and Steven Jackson is within 32 yards of surpassing Eric Dickerson team’s mark for yards rushing.
Tampa has four sacks all season, a league low. The Rams had seven last week against the Chargers.
|Cleveland (1-5) at New Orleans (4-2)|
It looks like the Saints found their stride against Tampa, and now they face an injury-plagued club that doesn’t match up well at all in the Browns. Just think: Drew Brees, winner of eight straight against the AFC — including last February’s Super Bowl — against Colt McCoy at QB. McCoy was 23 of 33 for 281 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in his debut against Pittsburgh.
Linebacker Scott Fujita might find himself on the wrong sideline Sunday. He spent the past four seasons with the Saints, then signed with Cleveland as a free agent.
|Washington (3-3) at Chicago (4-2)|
If the Bears can’t shore up their blocking, their fast start will disintegrate. Washington ranks 31st in pass defense, and other than Brian Orakpo, has no true sackmasters. But the Redskins are plus-5 in turnovers.
Chicago’s defense has held opponents to a 31.8 percent conversion rate on third downs, fourth in the league. But that’s offset by an offense that is at 18 percent (13 of 74) and went 0 for 12 last week.
|Buffalo (0-5) at Baltimore (4-2)|
The Bills come in rested off a bye week. The Ravens come in rankled after blowing a game in New England.
Buffalo has a league-low four takeaways, has scored the fewest points in the AFC and yielded the most of any team that’s played only five games. Time to switch from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 to hopefully improve the worst run defense in football.
The Ravens complained loudly about the league’s decision to suspend players for illegal hits, but their defense is plenty good enough to dominate without flagrant shots and macho intimidation tactics. They hope to have safety Ed Reed, who spent six weeks on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from offseason hip surgery.
|Jacksonville (3-3) at Kansas City (3-2)|
If the Chiefs truly are contenders, now is the time to prove it. They play the Jags, Bills, Raiders and Broncos in the next month, teams with a combined 7-16 record. Plus, the Jaguars could be without starting QB David Garrard (concussion) and backup Trent Edwards (right thumb), leaving two retreads from off the street, Todd Bouman and Patrick Ramsey, to play.
KC will match last year’s win total with a victory and stop a two-game slide.
|Oakland (2-4) at Denver (2-4)|
Another team unsure about its QB, the Raiders, against a club with no such worries. Oakland isn’t sure if Bruce Gradkowski, Jason Campbell, Kyle Boller … Kenny Stabler or Jim Plunkett will start.
Denver’s Kyle Orton has emerged as one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks since coming to Denver to replace Jay Cutler. He’s doing well this year without a running game — Denver ranks last in rushing with 404 yards (2.7 a carry).
This is the 100th meeting of these AFC West rivals and AFL originals. The Raiders lead 56-41-2.
|San Francisco (1-5) at Carolina (0-5)|
Thankfully, the 49ers won last week against Oakland or else this game might have been banned from the airwaves. Carolina goes back to Matt Moore at quarterback after rookie Jimmy Clausen struggled as much as he did while at Notre Dame. The Niners are at the bottom with a minus-8 turnover margin, and their 15 giveaways are one fewer than the league’s worst: by Carolina.