Things are heating up as the NFL season rushes past the halfway mark. Our NFL correspondent Tea Manuel looks at ten key match ups for the weekend and the ten players you need to watch.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS vs. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Here’s a little stat to start this weeks piece: if the Patriots beat Washington this week, they are guaranteed to finish the season with a record of .500 or better for the 15th consecutive season. That’s just ridiculous.
Here’s something else: The Patriots and Redskins meet for only the tenth time in history and for only the third time at Gillette Stadium. What is interesting about the two games at Gillette Stadium is that the Patriots won both. The very first game in 1972, 24-23 and the last game in 2007, 52-7. The Redskins won every game in between.
Player to watch: Dion Lewis.
Lewis’s two seasons at the Eagles weren’t exactly the stuff of legend but he has blown up as a feature back in the Belichick-led Patriots. He has more total yardage this season as a Patriot (569) than he completed in his entire Eagles career (192).
BUFFALO BILLS v MIAMI DOLPHINS
Here’s something for you: The Miami Dolphins were founded in 1966, twenty years after the last professional team to be based in the retirement capital of America. The Miami Seahawks, who played in the All-America Football Conference in 1946, were whipped away to become the Baltimore Colts.
This will be the 100th matchup between these two teams, and the Dolphins lead the series 57-1-41.
Player to watch: Tyrod Taylor.
Taylor suffered a sprained MCL in Week 5 against the Tennessee Titans and now has declared himself fully fit and raring to go. Taylor is a vital cog in the Bills plans to progress to the play-offs.
CAROLINA PANTHERS v GREEN BAY PACKERS
Could this match-up be a preview for the NFC Championship game later in the season? Yes it could. The Carolina Panthers are still undefeated and the Packers suffered just their first loss of the season last week against the Denver Broncos.
The Panthers (7-0) are the only undefeated team in the NFC. The Packers (6-1) have the second-best record in the conference.
The very first game between the Packers and Panthers was in 1997, the Packers winning 30-13 at Lambeau Field in front of 60,216 Green Bay faithful. The Packers lead this series 9-4.
Player to watch: Aaron Rogers.
Rodgers will want to bounce back after playing, statistically, his worst game as a Packer last week. He finished the game with just 77 yards and zero touchdowns against the Broncos.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS vs CHICAGO BEARS
Good news for Bears fans: The Bears two victories this season have both come against AFC West teams – Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. Could it be that Bears head coach John Fox, who coached the Denver Broncos (AFC West) last season, has inside knowledge about his former division foes? Yes, it could be.
San Diego has lost four straight games, but all of them have been decided by eight points or less, whereas the Bears have lost two straight games by a total of a combined six points. Expect a close one here too.
Player to watch: Alshon Jeffery.
Jeffery missed a full four games due to a hamstring injury but has exploded over the last two games, with 263 yards and a pair of touchdowns. It seems that the love affair quarterback Jay Cutler had with Brandon Marshall last season is over. His new BFF is Jeffery.
DALLAS COWBOYS vs PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
This is an NFC rivalry match that has been one of the best over the last 30 years. One thing that makes this rivalry a bit spicier this season is that former Cowboys running back and reigning NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray is now an Eagle.
When the Cowboys travelled to Philadelphia in Week Two to face the Eagles, they kept Demarco Murray to a pathetic two rushing yards on 13 attempts in a 20-10 win.
What else happened in this game? Tony Romo was knocked into next week by Eagles rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks, and he hasn’t been seen since.
Player to watch: DeMarco Murray. After his dismal game against the Cowboys in Week two, motivation will be at an all time high to rectify that disastrous two yards.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS vs OAKLAND RAIDERS
They may be long time rivals but the Raiders and Steelers will be meeting for the first time since 2013 and for the first time in Pittsburgh since 2010.
It shapes as a big game for Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey who was originally selected by the Raiders in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Pittsburgh has played the top three offences in the league in the first half of their 2015 season, and have held each team to their lowest total points scored to date. The offence was supposed to be the major factor for the Steelers this season. Forget that. It’s still all about the Steel wall.
Player to watch: Amari Cooper.
Cooper has three 100-yard efforts in his rookie season thus far and you can see the chemistry between him and quarterback Derek Carr quite positively bubbling. This is one dangerous combination.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS vs. DENVER BRONCOS
What’s up with Andrew Luck? He has thrown twelve interceptions this season, the most in the NFL. The AFC South title was supposed to be a lock for the Colts this season. OK, they are still first in the division with a 3-5 record (tied with the Houston Texans), but a brick-wall in the form of the Broncos stands in their way this week.
Player to watch: Demaryius Thomas. Thomas had his best game of the season last week against the Green Bay Packers. Thomas finished with eight receptions for 168 yards and was unlucky not to have scored a touchdown.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS vs. ST LOUIS RAMS
Would you believe that the Vikings have won six straight home games and are coming off winning their first road win at Chicago since 2007. A win for the Vikings would give them their seventh consecutive win at home, the third-longest streak in the NFL. Also, it would give the Vikings their first home win against St. Louis since 2005.
Meanwhile, Rams fans are excited about their side’s opportunity to go on their first three-game win streak since 2012 – which was ended, you guessed it, by Vikings.
Player to watch: Todd Gurley.
Gurley is taking the NFL on a roller coaster ride, and the ride has not come down yet. He has now rushed for 125 yards or more in four consecutive games and scored three touchdowns.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS vs. TENNESSEE TITANS
The most exciting thing to happen to the Titans since their Week One victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the firing of head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt’s record with the Titans was 3-20 even after taking Marcus Mariota with the second overall draft pick.
The Saints now own a three-game winning streak after a record tying performance by Drew Brees (7 touchdowns, 505 yards) against the New York Giants. The Saints and Titans have met each other thirteen times, with the New Orleans Saints winning 5 games and the Tennessee Titans winning 7 games. They have also tied once. The very first game between these two franchises was in 1971 in Houston, when the Titans were the Houston Oilers.
Player to watch: Mark Ingram.
Ingram may only have passed the 100-yard mark once this season (Week 7 vs. Colts), but the room Ingram has against the Titans, with Drew Brees full of confidence, has no ceiling. He has five touchdowns this season and will look at add to that this weekend.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers vs. ATLANTA FALCONS
The very first game between the Niners and Falcons was in 1966 at the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Niners won 44-7 and lead the head to head series 46-30. They have also tied one game.
The 49ers are in the bottom five of nearly every defensive category, while the Falcons have a top 4 offence with numerous play-makers. The Atlanta Falcons have the league’s leading rusher, DeVonta Freeman, and leading receiver, Julio Jones.
After winning their season opener, the 49ers have lost six of their last seven games. To make matters worse, this week the decision was made to bench Colin Kaepernick for Blaine Gabbert. Yes, the same Blaine Gabbert who wasn’t good enough to start for the Jacksonville Jaguars. It spells disaster with eight capital letters.
Player to watch: Matt Ryan. Ryan is the key for the Falcons to win this game after the shock loss at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. Ryan’s fourth multi-turnover game of the season was a major factor last week. He is among the top five passers in the league in terms of yardage and has a huge opportunity against a terrible 49ers secondary to have his best game of the season.