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Backup QBs step to the fore

In most NFL cities, the popularity of backup quarterbacks is through the roof.

Unless Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and a few others are behind center, fans favor the unknown rather than the known. Each week, they watch the skills of the starting quarterback and debate the flaws.

When the flaws and mistakes lead to losses, fans clamor for the backup, thinking the next guy is better. Well, we're at the point of the season in which backups are surfacing either because of injuries or benchings.

This annual rite of passage only reminds us why backups are backups: They aren't good enough to be the starters. Since the start of the regular season, opening-day quarterbacks are 124-109. Replacements are 9-24.

Nevertheless, backups are at the top of the storylines for Week 10. Seneca Wallace has to make sure Aaron Rodgers' fractured collarbone doesn't fracture the Packers' chances of making the playoffs. The Bears' Josh McCown did a nice job filling in for the injured Jay Cutler, and some wonder if McCown did well enough in the Monday night victory over Green Bay to eventually challenge Cutler. The Eagles' Nick Foles has been great and terrible replacing Michael Vick, who's recovering from a hamstring pull. A week after throwing for a record-tying seven touchdown passes, Foles leads the Eagles into Green Bay as they try to get to .500.

No one is confusing the talents of Rodgers with Wallace. Rodgers is arguably the best quarterback in the league. In his absence, though, the Packers will learn if Wallace is the right quarterback to get them through the next month. If not, the NFC North could go to Detroit or Chicago.

Cutler is in position to return this week for Chicago, but McCown has scored a lot of points in the eyes of Bears coaches. Marc Trestman did a good job of getting more out of Jay Cutler. That's why he was hired. What surprised him was McCown, whom he instantly liked on the field and in the classroom.

But at 34, McCown isn't a hidden gem. He's just a very good backup, one that might flourish working with Trestman. That doesn't put him in a position to replace Cutler on a long-term basis. In 34 NFL starts, McCown's offenses have averaged 19.1 points a game. Those are just good backup numbers.

Good starting quarterbacks average 24 to 26 points. Great ones like Brady and Rodgers average 27 or 28. Jason Campbell did a nice job filling in for struggling Brandon Weeden at Cleveland, but he's averaged 19.8 points a game in 73 starts. Wallace has started 21 games and averaged 17.6 points a game.

Longtime NFL coach Ted Marchibroda said it the best. A good backup quarterback can come off the bench and win three games, but if you play him six, he will lose you three.

That's why there are only three backups with more than 10 starts who have winning records.

Here are the top 10 trends going into Week 10.

1. Is it "Monday Night Football" or a dramatic TV show? On paper, the Miami-Tampa Bay game on Monday night offers little juice. The Buccaneers are winless. The Dolphins are 4-4. They play in a state in which three teams have a combined record of 4-20. Yet the storylines are incredible. Jonathan Martin's walkout after allegedly being bullied by teammate Richie Incognito has created the biggest buzz in the NFL since the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal. The NFL is investigating this saga with great fervor. Meanwhile, Bucs fans want to run head coach Greg Schiano off the sideline. Signs calling for a Schiano firing will be everywhere. The game is secondary. This is high drama. The pressure is on both coaches in this game. Schiano kept his job for another week because the Bucs were competitive last week in an overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The Dolphins' Joe Philbin is under heat because of what went on in his locker room. If the Martin-Incognito saga causes the Dolphins to collapse, he could be out of work at the end of the season.

2. Shaky title defense: Sunday's home game against the Cincinnati Bengals isn't officially an elimination game for the Baltimore Ravens, but the game will define Baltimore's season. At 3-5, the Ravens could fall 3 1/2 games behind the Bengals with only seven games remaining. A sixth loss would hinder their hopes for a wild card. The thought of the Ravens being almost out of the race this early is amazing. So far, the Super Bowl run has fallen short because of the running game. Ray Rice is having an off season. He has only 259 rushing yards and three touchdowns. In fact, the Ravens' poor running stats could be historic. Their 2.79 yards per carry as a team is the lowest since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The record is held by the 1992 Indianapolis Colts, who rushed for a mere 2.91 yards a carry. The Bengals' defense has lost three starters to injury over the past two games, so it is more vulnerable. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is doing his best to patch those spots. This game will also be defining for the Bengals. For more than a decade, they've lost the physical and emotional battles with the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. A win over the Ravens could be a statement that the AFC North is their division to own.

3. The new, realigned NFC North: Rodgers' fractured collarbone changed the hierarchy of the NFC North. Wallace lost a backup battle to McCown on Monday night, putting the Packers, Bears and Lions at 5-3. On Sunday, a favorite in the division should emerge. Of the three, the Lions are the only team with a healthy starting quarterback, Matthew Stafford. The Lions travel to Chicago and could take the division lead with a victory over a motivated Cutler, who's coming back early from a groin injury. The Bears' problems are twofold. It will be hard for Cutler to match the throwing of Stafford, who is on pace for another 5,000-yard season. The second problem is containing wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who is coming off a 329-yard game against the Cowboys (Week 8) in which he beat triple coverage. The Bears have had defensive problems all season. The Packers have their own problems. Coach Mike McCarthy has to adjust his offense to fit the 5-foot-11 Wallace and knows they won't be as potent throwing the football. The other problem is facing the Eagles. Last year, the Packers had trouble stopping Colin Kaepernick and the read-option. The Packers are lucky they won't have to face the mobile Vick, but Chip Kelly still runs the read-option with Foles.

4. Cover 2 or Cover None? The Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator to bring the Cover 2 to Jerry's World. The result? The Cowboys have been consistently bad covering the pass. The Cowboys are giving up 305.2 yards a game through the air, which is on pace for an NFL record. Still, they rank as the second-worst pass defense in football because the Eagles are giving up 307.6 yards a game. Kiffin's problem this week is facing the Saints' Brees, who is now a master at beating the Cover 2. For years, the Cover 2 bothered Brees. Those were the old days. Brees can find tight end Jimmy Graham in the seams and Marques Colston and Lance Moore along the sidelines. If those players are covered, Brees will check down to Darren Sproles. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees leads the league in getting passes to tight ends and running backs. He's completed 147 of 195 passes to those two positions for 1,618 yards and 16 touchdowns.

5. A chance to catch up in the NFC West: The 49ers need a break to narrow the Seahawks' 1 1/2-game lead in the NFC West. Both teams have been trending in different directions of late. Even though the Seahawks are winning, they haven't played well. Their defense has allowed 200 or more rushing yards in each of the past two games. Offensive-line injuries have forced QB Russell Wilson to scramble more and take more hits. He's beaten up. The Seahawks pulled out close wins over St. Louis and Tampa Bay, teams with a combined record of 3-14. On Sunday, the Seahawks visit 2-6 Atlanta and know they have to play better to get a victory. The reason is Falcons QB Matt Ryan is better than Kellen Clemens and Mike Glennon. The 49ers, meanwhile, tied a franchise record with five consecutive games in which they scored at least 30 points. They might not score that many Sunday against a tough Carolina Panthers defense, but the 49ers are trending hot and they are at home. Stakes are high for winning the NFC West because the winner could end up with the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

6. On an interim basis: Last week illustrated the stress and strain NFL coaches endure. Denver Broncos coach John Fox became dizzy playing golf near his offseason home in the Charlotte, N.C., area and was taken to a hospital, where he found out he needed heart-valve surgery. After the first half of the Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak suffered a mini-stoke. Sunday will unveil how the teams will respond to their new leaders. Jack Del Rio has the tougher assignment. He replaces Fox for the Broncos' interesting matchup against Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. Del Rio knows Peyton Manning will handle his part of the equation. It's the defense that is in question. The Broncos are giving up 27.3 points a game. If Rivers gets hot, it will put Manning in a position in which he might have to gamble in the fourth quarter and end up throwing a costly pick. There isn't as much pressure on Wade Phillips, the interim coach for the Texans. The Texans are 2-6 and all but out of playoff contention. They visit the Arizona Cardinals.

7. A Giant step forward: Tom Coughlin knows the Giants caught a break before the bye week. They beat Minnesota and Philadelphia while both teams were going through quarterback messes. The two wins didn't make up for an 0-6 start, but they allowed him to tell his team they are only 2 1/2 games out of first place in the NFC East. Can the Giants catch the first-place Cowboys? The key will be getting to .500, which is where most people figure the Cowboys to be by the end of the year with their win-one, lose-one tendencies. Sunday's game against Oakland is winnable for New York. The Giants play the Seneca Wallace-led Green Bay Packers next week in a game NBC flexed away from to take on the Kansas City-Denver showdown. The following week, the Giants host the Cowboys. It could happen.

8. Protecting Andrew Luck: Pep Hamilton was hired as Indy's offensive coordinator and tasked with finding a way to limit the hits on quarterback Andrew Luck. Hamilton wanted a 50-50 run-pass balance, but Trent Richardson hasn't been running well since coming over from the Browns. Richardson is averaging only 3.0 yards a carry. As a result, the Colts are passing the ball 57.3 percent of the time and Luck is the third-most-hit quarterback in football. The Colts face a St. Louis Rams defensive line that could cause him more problems this week. Hamilton needs Richardson to have a good game to take the pressure off Luck and save his body for the stretch run and, possibly, the playoffs.

9. Calming down the coach: Mike Tomlin was furious Sunday night after his Pittsburgh Steelers team surrendered the most points in franchise history (55) in a loss to the New England Patriots. Tomlin couldn't wait to get back to the office and study the tapes to find defenders not hustling. His patience is wearing thin. A loss to the Buffalo Bills will only make life worse in Pittsburgh. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has almost a perfect record against rookie quarterbacks. EJ Manuel is expected to return after missing four games with a knee injury. He's a rookie and likely will be rusty. If Manuel can't go, Jeff Tuel would get his second start. The Steelers are 2-6 and going nowhere, but the ride will get very uncomfortable if Pittsburgh doesn't win this one.

10. Becoming the least-competitive team in NFL history: No one questions the hustle of the Jacksonville Jaguars. They play hard for Gus Bradley; they just can't execute well. Dating back to last season, Jacksonville has lost nine consecutive games by 10 points or more. The NFL record is held by the 1983-84 Houston Oilers, who lost 11 straight. Their 178-point differential is the worst since the merger in 1970. It's no wonder the Jaguars are 13-point underdogs at Tennessee this week. With the erratic Chad Henne at QB facing a Titans offense that has seen Chris Johnson get going in recent weeks, dubious history awaits the Jaguars.