NFL teams must step up to stay in contention

Oct 20, 2015 3:07 AM

This Week 7 slate features a number of excellent duels. Rapidly approaching the NFL season’s halfway point, it already feels like teams are playing do-or-die games in an effort to stay relevant.

Here are the Top 10 matchups. Get a load of this first one.

Pro Football – Thursday

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers: Even though the Kam Chancellor holdout drama prevented a smooth start, the Seahawks couldn’t have envisioned entering with a 2-4 record. Seattle has dropped consecutive games with fourth-quarter meltdowns where its vaunted secondary has failed to get a stop.

Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick threw for 340 yards to lead the 49ers past Baltimore as a motivated Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin combined for eight catches and 198 yards against their former team. If the 49ers have overcome their early struggles in the passing game, they’ve got the ingredients to put together a formidable offense.

Kaepernick has historically struggled against the Seattle secondary, coming in 2-4 in regular-season games with two TDs against seven interceptions. He was also memorably picked off twice in the fourth quarter of the 2013 NFC Championship game. You get the feeling the season prospects for both these teams hinges on the outcome here.

Pro Football – Sunday

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars: We’re back at London’s Wembley Stadium for an early morning kickoff as the Bills look to get back above .500 against the struggling Jaguars. It remains to be seen whether Tyrod Taylor can return from his knee injury, but backup EJ Manuel held his own against a solid Bengals defense, passing and running for scores in a 34-21 loss. The Jags hope to have running back TJ Yeldon (groin) in the lineup.

Cleveland Browns at St. Louis Rams: The Browns have played consecutive overtime games and have been involved in four epic finishes since Josh McCown returned from a concussion that cost him a Week 2 start. Their last three contests have each ended on game-winning field goals. Another fierce defense awaits as the Browns visit the Rams, who come in fresh off a bye week.

New York Jets at New England Patriots: The Patriots knew that with every team in the division seemingly improved, winning the AFC East for a seventh consecutive time wouldn’t be as easy as it has been. The Jets have emerged from the pack as the top contender, led by Darrelle Revis’ return to the secondary and improved QB play they’ve gotten from Ryan Fitzpatrick. New England begins a stretch of three in a row at home. Bill Belichick has beaten the Jets in eight of the last nine meetings.

Atlanta Falcons at Tennessee Titans: After dropping their first game in New Orleans, we’ll see how Dan Quinn gets his Falcons to bounce back from adversity. With Devonta Freeman leading the NFL in touchdowns and Julio Jones battling through injuries to remain among the league’s top targets, Atlanta doesn’t lack for firepower. Still, it has struggled with turnovers for a couple of weeks. The Titans haven’t won since the season opener despite playing their fourth consecutive home game. Marcus Mariota has been hit hard during his rookie season and will be down a key offensive lineman with center Brian Schwenke lost to a fractured ankle.

New Orleans Saints at Indianapolis Colts: With Drew Brees’ injured throwing shoulder feeling better, the Saints’ prospects have dramatically improved as they go in search of their first road win. The Colts got Andrew Luck back and had some positive stretches in Sunday night’s loss to New England in trying to keep the sharks from circling around beleaguered head coach Chuck Pagano. If they lose, Indianapolis would be staring at a 3-4 start with games at undefeated Carolina and home against unbeaten Denver prior to its bye week.

Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers: The Chargers have dropped consecutive games to the Steelers and Packers that were tantalizingly close to winning, but no one on that offense is quitting on Philip Rivers. The key variable here will be Keenan Allen’s availability, as the NFL’s leader with 53 receptions left the field on Sunday with a hip flexor injury that may require him to miss a game. The Raiders are coming off their bye week and are eager to snap a two-game losing streak.

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: It sounds like Dez Bryant is going to try and be a part of this one, as the injured Cowboys wide receiver has been back on the field for conditioning drills in aiming to return from foot surgery earlier than expected. He’ll have a new quarterback in Matt Cassel, who takes over for an ineffective Brandon Weeden. The Cowboys have also promised to increase new running back Christine Michael’s responsibilities, so the Giants will essentially be seeing a new-look squad that has had a bye week to heal.

Philadelphia Eagles at Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton is playing like an MVP candidate and a defense that got LB Luke Kuechly back from a lengthy battle with concussion symptoms has a primetime stage to put their talent on display. Although Carolina certainly benefited from a light early schedule, beating the Seahawks on the road opened up a post-bye stretch that the team was pointing towards as a national coming out party. The Panthers host Indianapolis next Monday night and then welcome in the Packers on Nov. 8, so the tests intensify.

Monday

Baltimore Ravens at Arizona Cardinals: The Ravens are 1-5 and a sizeable underdog to go down again here. Aside from their 2013 demise, the Ravens have won a postseason game every year since 2008, so we’ll see if John Harbaugh finds a way to get his team to at least go down swinging. The Cardinals come off a loss in Pittsburgh but are 9-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium under head coach Bruce Arians.

Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He's also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].