Green Bay: It looks like the worst is past the Packers. They're getting healthy, Clay Matthews is having an MVP year at linebacker and they're 6-3 without Aaron Rodgers having a huge year. Brandon Jackson seems to be settling into the running back position and Green Bay seems to be settling in for a strong late-season push.
Chicago: They started 3-0 and have slowed down, having split their last six games. They still have visits to Green Bay & Minnesota, although that latter one is looking less scary by the day. Pass protection has been an issue, as is Jay Cutler's tendency to throw interceptions at a Favre-like rate. Of course Cutler can also put up yards at a Favre-like rate when he gets time. The real issue is that the Bears don't run the ball very well and when the winds coming blowing off Lake Michigan in November & December that's a fatal flaw in an offense.
Minnesota: After last week's loss in Chicago, they are pretty much done. I'm not sure if Brad Childress will survive the season, but at this point I would bet that Brett Favre calls it quits before the season is over. It allows the Vikings to move forward and get ready next year, and enables Favre to get out of town ahead of the NFL posse in the Jen Sterger investigation. Mark it down--by the first Sunday in December, Brett will have announced his third and final retirement.
Detroit: The loss to Buffalo was a cold reality check for a team getting some deserved plaudits for improvement. Their still 2-7, but I would keep an eye on them down the stretch. Shaun Hill is back and healthy at quarterback and he was prolific early in the season before getting hurt, much more productive than Matthew Stafford. Look for Hill to put up some big numbers in climate-controlled Ford Field and the Lions to get some more home wins. Will one of them come on Thanksgiving against New England?
Baltimore: The 6-3 record is misleadingly low, with two of the losses being close road games at Atlanta and New England, plus road wins over the Jets and Steelers. The bigger problem the Ravens have is that close losses were a staple of last year's team and when something like that happens consistently, you wonder if there's a pattern and not just something that will even out. Right now I'm still giving this team the benefit of the doubt and standing by my preseason pick of a Super Bowl title for Baltimore.
Pittsburgh: Tied for first with Baltimore, the Steelers have inexplicably slipped since Ben Roethlisberger returned, especially the running game. It's as though there was a letdown by other parts of the team when he returned. If they can get Rashard Mendenhall muscling people on the ground and wreaking havoc with their outside linebackers, they'll be a handful, because Roethlisberger has a real deep threat in Mike Wallace. That's the one element Pittsburgh's always needed to rise above playing good "Steeler football" and reaching the next level.
Cleveland: They're sitting on 3-6, but have become a team no contender wants to play, with wins over New Orleans and New England and pushing the Jets to the bitter end of overtime. The defense is playing well, and running back Peyton Hillis is having a big year. It's made for a perfect growing environment for Colt McCoy, who's coming along nicely at quarterback. Don't be surprised to see the Browns make a push for .500 and to pull another upset or two that reshapes the playoff race,
Cincinnati: The season has gotten away from them at 2-7, but close losses to Pittsburgh and Indianapolis these past two weeks show Marvin Lewis still has them playing hard. The year hasn't gone well for Carson Palmer and the defense has slipped.
For tonight's game, the storyline is that Miami is playing their third-string quarterback in Tyler Thigpen. But I'm still picking them to win this game at home. I think they're going to get serious pressure on Jay Cutler with their linebackers, particularly Cameron Wake and force three interceptions. Chicago, as mentioned, can't run the ball to stem the tide and Cutler is willing to force things that aren't there. Miami runs a safe, conservative offense, makes the plays on defense and wins 24-13.
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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.