Seven for Sunday: J.J. Watt could tear through Eagles
All eyes will be on Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady, Round 16 Sunday.
But there is a pretty compelling matchup in the trenches shaping up in Houston, where Chip Kelly's high-octane, Philadelphia Eagles (5-2) face coach Bill O'Brien's 4-4 Houston Texans.
First overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney saw his first game action last Sunday since the explosive pass rusher underwent arthroscopic knee surgery after he was injured in Houston's season opener. But he is battling knee soreness and is uncertain to play this week. That would leave defensive star J.J. Watt to continue his dominant play on his own.
But if Clowney is able to play, he helps give the Texans an added bonus.
"The thing about Jadeveon is that he impacts the game because he's so explosive," Texans general manager Rick Smith told USA TODAY Sports. "That's one of the reasons why we drafted him where we drafted him. He does get after the quarterback. Once he gets completely healthy, that combination of he and J.J. Watt will give us a chance to play some good defense here for a while."
Clowney played just 52% of the snaps in Houston's win against the Tennessee Titans. But he got off the ball fast and proved a handful for rookie tackle Taylor Lewan — literally so when a frustrated Lewan grabbed Clowney by his dreadlocks at one point.
"You're talking about a guy who has some real rare trait with a combination of speed, size, athleticism, explosiveness and instincts," Smith said. "The guy has a knack for making plays when the game is on the line. That's an indicator he understands football.
"It's a nice combination that gives him a chance to be a good player for us."
Here's a closer look inside the seven most compelling Week 9 matchups beginning with Eagles at Texans:
Watt vs. the Eagles offensive line
The skinny: Eagles center Jason Kelce will see his first game action since offseason surgery for an abdomen injury. Kelce doesn't sound impressed about Watt dictating tempo or blowing up the run-centric Eagles scheme.
"We don't care who we're playing, we're just playing our offense," Kelce said. "I don't care if we have Jesus Christ himself on the field. We're running our offense."
Why it matters: At 5-2, the Eagles are trying to remain in the race for NFC home-field advantage as well as keep up with the NFC East-leading, Dallas Cowboys (6-2). The Texans view this as a potential tone setting game for their second half facing winnable games down the stretch againstJ. Tennessee, Jacksonville (twice) beginning with the Cleveland Browns after next week's bye.
Who has the edge: Watt. Watt has been a freakish force even without a healthy Clowney. The relentless Watt has rung up seven sacks and a league-best 24 quarterback hits in addition to scoring three touchdowns. He takes his motivation where he can find it. Kelce's remarks no doubt provide all the fuel Watt will need Sunday. And if Clowney is cleared to play after taking Wednesday off to recover from knee soreness, a banged-up Eagles line starting two inexperienced guards could be in trouble. Look for Watt and Clowney to flash their tag-team sack act in a game that would launch the Texans as a surprise contender. Nick Foles has thrown nine interceptions through seven games.
Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady
The skinny: This is the NFL equivalent of Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird back during the NBA's most riveting rivalry. Cherish this meeting while you can since we don't know if there will be a Manning-Brady 17 sequel.
Why it matters: Both teams are trying to gain momentum for second-half stretch runs. The Denver Broncos are 6-1, while the Patriots (6-2) have been on fire since the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Who has the edge: Manning. Brady is 10-5 versus Manning. Brady has 14 touchdowns and no interceptions during New England's four-game win streak. Still, Manning has the better supporting cast and defense. Pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware can pressure Brady into resembling the skittish Brady of earlier this season who was releasing the ball early as the pocket collapsed around him. There is also former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, who is well acquainted with Brady's love for throwing those quick crossers across the middle.
Brady has three Super Bowl rings compared to one for Manning. But this time, Manning not only has more weapons on offense. General manager John Elway has given him the pieces on defense to win just this kind of heavyweight battle come January. And with Patriots pass rusher Chandler Jones expected to miss a minimum of six weeks with a hip injury, it will be hard for coach Bill Belichick to generate enough heat to knock Manning off his rhythm.
Pittsburgh Steelers receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton vs. the Baltimore Ravens cornerbacks
The skinny: Baltimore's best cornerback, Jimmy Smith is out for several weeks after suffering a left foot injury in last week's loss to Cincinnati. That opens the door wide for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for a franchise-record 522 yards and six touchdowns Sunday.
Why it matters: At 5-3, the Ravens and Steelers each trail the AFC North leading Bengals by half a game.
Who has the edge: Brown, Bryant and Wheaton.Brown leads the league with 60 receptions and he and Bryant each caught two touchdowns during Roethlisberger's record-setting performance. A healthy Smith would have covered Brown, who has caught seven touchdowns. Now that challenge falls to Lardarius Webb with Dominique Franks lining up on the other side. Franks was out of football during the season's first five weeks. Roethlisberger's trust is growing in Bryant, the fourth-round pick with speed to burn who has caught three touchdowns in Pitttsburgh's two straight wins. The Steelers pose too many matchup issues with running back Le'Veon Bell so dangerous as a receiver and a healthy veteran slot receiver Lance Moore.
Tony Romo vs. Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' blitzes
The skinny: Bowles comes from the mad scientist school of defense. Figure Bowles to throw the kitchen sink along with the coffee maker and toaster at Romo to test his bruised back.
Why it matters: The Cowboys look to bounce back after having their six-game winning streak snapped by the Washington Redskins and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's cover-zero blitzes. The 6-1 Cardinals are motivated to disprove the doubters who still think they're a desert mirage.
Who has the edge: Romo. The Cowboys broke down on outside blitz pickups against the Redskins. It was the running backs and receivers who failed to make the proper adjustments as quick-answer safety valves when Haslett sent safeties Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark flying off the edge unblocked. As good as running back DeMarco Murray has been running the ball this season, he needs to be better picking up the blitz. Expect coach Jason Garrett, passing game coordinator Scott Linehan and offensive line coach Bill Callahan to make the necessary adjustments, even if it means maximum protection at times. If Romo can't go, Brandon Weeden will get the start. The key will be getting the ball out quick to the check downs and tight end Jason Witten.
New York Jets quarterback Michael Vick vs. the Kansas City Chiefs defense
The skinny: Andy Reid's surging Chiefs have won four of five after starting off 0-2. Vick couldn't have picked a much tougher environment than Arrowhead Stadium to help resuscitate his career and the free-falling, Jets (1-7).
Why it matters: Losers of seven straight and coming off a six-turnover loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Jets have nothing to lose. Their playoff expectations long ago disappeared with second-year turnover machine Geno Smith. This might represent the last chance for Vick to show he can still be a winning NFL starter.
Who has the edge: Bob Sutton's Kansas City defense. Sutton has the ability to set the edge and contain Vick's default scrambling setting with pass rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. And Vick is a chronic fumbler. So Chiefs defenders will be raking away. But Vick grew up in the same Norfolk, Va., area as recently-acquired Percy Harvin. No better time to get Harvin going than Sunday. Vick needs to feed Harvin on jet sweeps and receiver screens off the hard running of Chris Ivory and the forgotten Chris Johnson.
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III vs. Mike Zimmer's Minnesota Vikings defense
The skinny: Coach Jay Gruden said RG3's dislocated ankle has improved to the point where he's ready to start Sunday. Question is, what has RG3 learned from watching Colt McCoy, who led Monday night's surprising upset of the Cowboys? Griffin needs to borrow from McCoy's success by getting the ball out of his hand quick to playmakers DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Andre Roberts.
Why it matters: At 3-5, the Redskins and Vikings are both fighting to stay relevant. This is a chance for the Redskins to capture momentum coming off their biggest win. The Vikings? They're trying to get some consistency from turnover-prone rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Who has the edge: RG3. He's fresh and driven to disprove critics who say he'll never develop as a pocket passer. He's always going to rely on his legs as a weapon. But Gruden can help him by moving the pocket and giving RG3 the chance to maximize his strength, roping accurate throws on the move. This should be a big game for running back Alfred Morris, who hasn't been the same 100-yard per game rusher without the threat of Griffin's scrambling to force defenders to honor him. The best way to get RG3 comfortable is by running Morris and settle him into play-action rhythm.
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers vs. the Miami Dolphins defense
The skinny: Rivers is having an outstanding season with 20 touchdowns, five interceptions while completing 68.3% of his passes. Miami's Ryan Tannehill remains inconsistent in his third, make-or-break season.
Why it matters: San Diego can't afford to fall off the pace with the Broncos, Patriots and 5-3 Colts in the race for the AFC's top seed. This is the 4-3 Dolphins' chance to beat a good team and show they're legitimate as an AFC wild-card contender.
Who has the edge: Rivers. He looks so unorthodox with that quirky delivery and Tin Man footwork. But he's a remarkably accomplished slider within the pocket. And Rivers might have the league's fastest delivery. The Dolphins defense had a strong Week 8 with a pair of pick sixes by safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Brent Grimes. But that was against overmatched Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles. Rivers is a different animal. And he's going to be fired up since few outside of San Diego are paying attention to his strong season.
Follow Jim Corbett on Twitter @ByJimCorbett.