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Week 10: Flex scheduling makes matchups fun

(Nov. 7, 2006) -- The second half of the NFL season -- the final eight games for each team -- starts this weekend. The intensity of the run to the playoffs is about to begin.

In Week 10:

The Indianapolis Colts -- the NFL's only undefeated team -- will seek to lift their record to 9-0 when they host Buffalo. Last year, Indy won its first 13 games. They can become the first team in history to post consecutive 9-0 starts.

The Chicago Bears will now play the New York Giants on Sunday night as flexible scheduling begins. Flex scheduling will ensure quality matchups in all the Sunday time slots in Weeks 10-15 and in Week 17. In Week 10, the Bears at Giants game moves from its 1 p.m. ET spot to the 8:15 ET slot, and New Orleans-Pittsburgh changes from 1 p.m. ET to 4:15 p.m. ET.

There is a host of big division games this week. It's the Jets against the Patriots, the Redskins opposite the Eagles, the Rams versus the Seahawks, and the Bucs against the Panthers, among others.

So, second half, here we come, with who knows what in store? "It's obviously way too early to be writing anybody off or crowning anybody," says Giants center Shaun O'Hara. "We all know it's a dogfight."

Some key games to kick off the second half:

Buffalo bills (3-5) at Indianapolis colts (8-0) Storyline: Colts go for the record, but the Bills are ready.

Sure, there's the aura of the undefeated Colts, who can become the first team in history with back-to-back 9-0 starts. There's the crowd noise in the RCA Dome. And there's Peyton Manning and his crew.

But the Bills just handled another quarterback legend, Brett Favre, so they know it can be done.

Perhaps the one weakness -- on paper -- of the Colts is their rush defense, which is rated 32nd in the league. The Bills showed last week that they have an ample replacement for starter Willis McGahee (broken rib) in veteran Anthony Thomas. Running primarily to the left, Thomas piled up 95 yards on 20 carries and scored the clinching TD in a 24-10 win over Green Bay.

That potency aside, the Bills will face the NFL's top passing game, with Manning whipping the ball to the likes of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, the only two receivers from the same club in the league's top five yardage rankings. Former Colt DT Larry Triplett knows the tendencies of Manning. He hit Favre three times last week, deflected two passes and recovered a fumble.

Chicago bears (7-1) at new york giants (6-2)
Storyline: Bears. Giants. History.

Just the sound of these teams conjures up images of rock-hard fields, George Halas, Jim Lee Howell ...and sneakers. In fact, this Dec. 30 is the 50th anniversary of the teams' NFL title "sneakers" game -- a pivotal one in NFL history.

Fast forward to Sunday night and the same kind of drama will be evident. The teams have three loses between them. The Giants have won five in a row. The Bears lost their first last week. There are game-breaking running backs ready ... young quarterbacks primed ... and what else when it comes to "Bears-Giants?" -- hardened defenses.

"These are the kinds of games that you really want when you get to this part of the schedule," says NBC's John Madden, who will call the game with Al Michaels.

The meeting may be a perfect test of the theory that as temperatures drop, the importance of the running game rises. Both teams are in good shape here. The Giants' Tiki Barber leads the league in rushing with 830 yards, with the Bears' Thomas Jones tied for 13th with 612 yards. This will be the first NFL meeting of Univ. of Virginia grads Barber and Jones. Jones broke Barber's Cavalier career rushing mark of 3,389 with 3,998 yards.

The Giants, who have allowed 13 points in their last two games, confront the NFL's No. 2 scoring offense (234 points) without their spirited leader on defense, DE Michael Strahan (foot). "Regardless of who lines up for us, I'm confident in our defense," says Giants LB Antonio Pierce. New York completes its first three-game homestand since 1983.

New york jets (4-4) at new England patriots (6-2)
Storyline: Uh-oh! The Patriots lost.

That's not a good thing, say the Jets and the record. When New England loses, it comes back with a vengeance. It has been almost four years since the Patriots (coming off a Sunday night loss to Indianapolis) have lost back-to-back games. That was on December 16-22, 2002. Tennessee beat them first...and the division-rival Jets the next week.

"They're always scary after a loss," says Jets LB Matt Chatham, a former Patriot. "Any time they make mistakes (the Colts intercepted Pats QB Tom Brady four times), they're the quickest in the league to turn around and make adjustments and move ahead."

Of course, one of the coaches who helped New England develop this technique is now head man of the Jets -- Eric Magini. So he will be prepared for Patriots' adjustments. The Jets -- coming off a bye -- will have to adjust their plans too. The last time the teams met (a 24-17 New England win in Week 2), Patriots RBs Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney combined for 145 yards. Jets RB Leon Washington (397 yards) ranks behind only Indianapolis' Joseph Addai (490) and Maroney (458) in NFL rookie rushing.

St. louis rams (4-4) at seattle seahawks (5-3)
Storyline: Big one in the NFC West.

By game's end, the two could be tied in the division. Or Seattle could have a two-game lead with seven to go.

The Rams have lost three in a row after starting 4-1, with the first of those losses coming in Week 6 at Seattle on a Josh Brown 54-yard field goal as time expired. The Seahawks, without injured QB Matt Hasselbeck and RB Shaun Alexander, lost their next two, but rebounded Monday night with a 16-0 win over Oakland with Alexander replacement Maurice Morris rushing 30 times for a career-high 138 yards.

A key to the game will be the Rams' ability to protect QB Marc Bulger, the NFL's third-rated passer who has thrown only one interception this year -- to the Seahawks' Lofa Tatupu. Seattle will be coming, as they did against Oakland with nine sacks, tying for the most by any team this season. "We're halfway through with a .500 record," says Rams head coach Scott Linehan. "We have to get ourselves ready to play the most important division game of the year so far."

Tampa bay buccaneers (2-6) at Carolina panthers (4-4)
Storyline: Keyshawn again?

That's what the Bucs' defense has to prepare for -- facing its former teammate, WR Keyshawn Johnson, and his teammate, WR Steve Smith. The last time they all met, in Week 3, was the first time Johnson played against his old team. Result? He scored two touchdowns (one on a run) and had seven receptions for 97 yards, with one a clutch catch to help set up the last-second winning field goal. Smith added seven catches for 112 yards.

The Bucs are No. 2 in the NFC in red-zone production, the Panthers No. 1 in the conference in limiting first-down yardage, so something has to give Monday night.

Carolina has won six of the past seven in this division series. But Tampa Bay doesn't care about history. "We're going to try to beat Carolina in Carolina on Monday night," says Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. "That's the No. 1 objective."

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