Broncos face critical stretch

The schedule-makers outdid themselves this week.

Rivalries and grudge matches abound. Jamal Lewis and the Browns play host to the Baltimore team that let him go. Daunte Culpepper goes back to Miami. Matt Schaub gets to rub it in against Atlanta for trading him. Darrell Jackson of the 49ers can make the Seahawks pay for dealing him. Former Steelers assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm can get back at the Steelers for passing each of them over for the head coaching job.

But the best games of the weekend feature AFC teams. The Patriots don't play the Bengals much, which is too bad. As a tune-up for a big conference showdown against the Colts on Nov. 4, the Patriots visit the Bengals on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN 8:30 p.m. ET).

Cincinnati's Carson Palmer is mastering the Peyton Manning style of offense. The Bengals, who average 31 points, don't huddle, and Palmer works his passing magic with ease. The goal for Palmer, who has a 64-percent completion rate, is to bump that number to 70 percent or above.

What could make life tough for the Bengals is that Rudi Johnson might not play because of a hamstring injury. The Bengals are running out of offensive weapons. The suspension of Chris Henry and a hamstring injury to Tab Perry take away options at wide receiver.

New England's Tom Brady hasn't made any bold predictions, but he's torching NFL record books. Thanks to the additions of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and others, Brady is completing a staggering 79.5 percent of his passes.

The Bengals' problems on defense are well documented -- they give up 31.7 points per game -- and Cincinnati has a banged-up linebacking corps, so expect a high-scoring game.

1. Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts : Remember Mike Shanahan's thoughts a couple of years ago? To be a champ, you need a Champ, so he brought in Champ Bailey to be his Deion Sanders-type shutdown cornerback. The Broncos made the playoffs that season but were eliminated by Peyton Manning. This year, the Broncos revamped their defense by trading for Dre Bly, giving them two excellent cover corners. They hired Jim Bates to re-do the defensive line and got bigger at tackle. But the Broncos still can't stop the run.

After a devastating home loss to the Jaguars, the Broncos embark on a three-game stretch in which they play the Colts, Chargers and Steelers. They start with the Colts, who are 3-0 and feeling good about themselves after road division wins over the Titans and Texans. Shanahan must get his running game cranking to keep Manning off the field. Travis Henry has 1,500-yard potential, but the Colts have done a good job stopping the run.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: For those who thought the Saints were going to run away with the NFC South, they must eat crow and shift attention to these teams. The winner will be 3-1 and have the feel of a division champ.

After a 4-12 record in 2006, the Bucs brought in Jeff Garcia to run the offense, and they have enough running talent to shorten the number of possessions and be more physical. A good draft has added youth and vitality to the Bucs' defense.

The Panthers won't have Jake Delhomme at quarterback because of an elbow injury, but the Panthers might have struck gold by signing David Carr as a backup. As long as the Panthers manage a solid running attack to make the job easier for him, he could be a hero.

3. Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions: Many Bears' fans got their wish. Rex Grossman has been benched. But here is a scary thought: What if Brian Griese loses? Griese, considered the best backup quarterback in football, has an impossible job. He signed to help out a team loaded on defense, but injuries have him playing for a team that doesn't look like the Bears.

Injuries could keep Tommie Harris, Charles Tillman, Nathan Vasher and Lance Briggs out of the lineup. To make matters worse, the Bears are playing a Mike Martz offense. Sure, the Lions can't play defense well. But the Lions are averaging 345 yards a game through the air, and the Bears could be facing them without their two starting cornerbacks. A loss could put the Bears two games behind the Lions in the NFC North and maybe three games behind the Packers.

4. Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers: Mike Holmgren didn't like losing two games to the 49ers last season. Sunday's game will be his chance to make a statement. The 49ers are a solid contender in the NFC West, but they have lost key playmakers to injury and aren't scoring enough.

The matchup of Frank Gore (right hand) and Shaun Alexander (left wrist) should be interesting because both backs are playing with broken bones that could affect their ability to carry the ball. Despite giving up a lot of yards to the Bengals, the Seahawks' defense is much improved over last season. But it must do a better job shutting down Gore, who gouged Seattle for 356 yards rushing last season.

The 49ers have lost Manny Lawson, taking away a pass-rush threat and a linebacker who can cover the tight end. They also lost tight end Vernon Davis for a couple of weeks with a knee injury. San Francisco wide receiver Darrell Jackson, Matt Hasselbeck's favorite receiver in Seattle, has something to prove in this game.

5. Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: The Saints were the Cinderella story last year. This season it might be Brett Favre, who has led Green Bay to a 3-0 record. The Packers' chances of being successful seemed remote in training camp. Green Bay has new seven offensive starters who are 13 years younger than Favre. But despite the absence of a running game, Favre has managed an effective offense through the air. That might not work in November and December, but he can worry about that later. What's interesting about this matchup is the Vikings are so good against the run, opponents simply don't run against them.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals: When Bill Cowher left, Steelers assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm each was stunned he lost the job to former Vikings assistant Mike Tomlin. So far, Tomlin has been a great fit in Pittsburgh, so Whisenhunt and Grimm, now the Cardinals' head coach and assistant head coach respectively, have a lot to prove in this game. Each knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Steelers.

Whisenhunt didn't like some of the critical comments made about him by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after his departure. Roethlisberger is doing well with Bruce Ariens, who took over for Whisenhunt at offensive coordinator.

Cardinals fans will be wondering if Whisenhunt will go back to QB Kurt Warner in no-huddle situations to try to take away some of Dick LeBeau's blitz packages. Matt Leinart is still the starting quarterback, but he's struggling. He doesn't look as confident, and his play has been inconsistent.

7. Houston Texans at Atlanta Falcons: Bobby Petrino put all his quarterbacking eggs in one basket, Michael Vick. With Vick out for the foreseeable future, all that work was a waste. Sunday could be the ultimate embarrassment. He traded Matt Schaub, who has revitalized the Texans with his smart play and quick decision-making. Petrino wants a 65-percent passer. Schaub's completing 75.9 percent of his passes. Whoops.

As for the Falcons, they are running through quarterbacks. Joey Harrington is holding the job until Byron Leftwich is ready. If Leftwich doesn't work out, the Falcons will be looking to draft a quarterback in the first round, further delaying their chances of contending.

The Falcons are a mess. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall had a mental meltdown and isn't happy about his $100,000 fine for getting three dumb penalties and getting into the faces of coaches along the sidelines. You just wonder what might have been had the Falcons kept Schaub.

8. Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers: The Chargers have been disappointments. They needed to beat the Packers in Week 3 and didn't. Now they turn their attention to the AFC West and the pressure is on. Sure, they've faced good defenses during the first three weeks, but the team hasn't been able to run the ball despite the presence of LaDainian Tomlinson.

Opponents are guessing right with run blitzes. The defense isn't putting fear into opposing quarterbacks. Even though the Chiefs are rebuilding, they still have a decent defense. KC ranks fifth in total defense, giving up only 268.7 yards per game. However, they are vulnerable to the run, giving up 113 yards each week.

San Diego head coach Norv Turner's mission is to get the running game going. After the Chiefs, the Chargers face the Broncos and Raiders, two AFC West teams getting gashed in the run game. If the Chargers put together a three-game winning streak, they will be 4-2 and sitting tall in the division.

9.Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns: This has the look of a blowout, but there are plenty of interesting elements. First, Jamal Lewis plays against the Ravens. Brian Billick wanted to change the style of the offense, getting away from the fullback-oriented running game and using more one-back sets. Willis McGahee is averaging 91 yards a game. Lewis has 308 yards rushing, a 5.8-yard average, and is the main hope for the Browns.

The other part of this game is its importance to Cleveland head coach Romeo Crennel. If the Browns lose, they are 1-2 in the AFC North with no more division home games left. They face the Patriots next week. A 1-4 start could heat up the potential of a coaching change during the Week 7 bye week.

10. Oakland Raiders at Miami Dolphins: Last season, the Dolphins thought Daunte Culpepper would save the franchise at quarterback even though he was coming off a knee reconstruction. Nick Saban worked him too much during the offseason and the knee needed another surgery. Culpepper wanted out of Miami, but the team held him until near the start of camp, which Culpepper didn't appreciate. Culpepper re-emerged in Oakland, and, thanks to Josh McCown's broken big toe, he will get his first Raiders' start.

The Dolphins are 0-3 with Trent Green as starter. Green is moving the ball decently, but he hasn't turned the Dolphins into a winner -- yet. The loser of this game will be doing a lot of reflecting over what happened to them during the offseason and during September.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.