Week 10 doesn't offer the box-office football hits fans have enjoyed in recent weeks.
The slate doesn't feature a Peyton Manning-Tom Brady showdown, nor does it offer up a battle for conference supremacy like Arizona-Dallas last Sunday. And many of the week's divisional matchups pit teams at opposite ends of the standings. What Week 10 will do is begin to eliminate several playoff hopefuls, sending them into early draft preparation.
Some teams are in panic mode in Week 10 -- particularly in the NFC -- as several expected contenders clinging to postseason life support could finally wave the white flag. Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers can almost forget about extending their three-year playoff run should they lose to the resurgent New Orleans Saints. A Chicago Bears loss to Green Bay would put them at 3-6, essentially ending what began as such a promising season. The Giants could soon join the Jets in making early vacation plans. Coming off a bad Monday night loss to Indianapolis in which they looked completely overmatched, Eli Manning & Co. travel to Seattle to face the defending champs with an inconsistent offense and an injury-ravaged secondary.
Here are the trends to watch for in Week 10:
1. Possible end of an era: Sunday's game between the 49ers and Saints could set the wheels in motion for the end of Jim Harbaugh's tenure by the Bay. Since Harbaugh took over the 49ers in 2011, he is 40-15-1, has been to three consecutive NFC title games and was one play away from beating his brother, John, in Super Bowl XLVII in the Superdome. But this is also Year 4 of his five-year contract, a deal that appears unlikely to be extended. It has been well noted that Harbaugh's personality can wear on the players and people in the front office. For the relationship to continue, Harbaugh needed to deliver a title to ownership this year. In return, the organization needed to make him one of the highest-paid coaches in the NFL.
A loss Sunday may end those hopes as the 49ers would fall to 4-5 and lose significant pace in the NFC's playoff hunt. If Arizona beats St. Louis, the 49ers could be four games out of first place in the West and in rough shape for a possible wild-card berth. After taking over first place in the NFC South, the Saints and coach Sean Payton will be driven to pad their lead and knock out the 49ers in the process. Things could reach an all-time low Sunday for Harbaugh in the building where his career nearly reached its peak.
2. The defense won't rest in Ford Field: The Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions face off Sunday in a battle of two of the NFL's staunchest defensive units. Despite being known best for the presence of Matthew Stafford and plenty of offensive weapons, the Lions have the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense. Led by DT Ndamukong Suh, the Lions are giving up only 290.4 yards a game, and it's becoming increasingly hard to run against them.
While the Lions have been building a stout defense over the years, few would guess the Dolphins would be the NFL's third-ranked defense, yielding only 304.6 yards a game and a mere 4.68 yards a play -- best in football. All of a sudden, the Dolphins have the look of one of the best and deepest front sevens in the game. Over the past five games, the Dolphins have surrendered 13.5 points a game and have forced 14 turnovers. Safety Reshad Jones has been sensational since returning from a four-game suspension, and Dion Jordan has provided quality play to the rotation. Combine that with the improved play of QB Ryan Tannehill, and the Dolphins have the look of a very interesting contender.
3. Thursday night woes carry over to Sunday: Much has been made about the large number of blowouts on Thursday nights. If you really think about it, there are plenty of blowouts in the NFL, regardless of the day. Last year, 131 of the league's 256 games (51.2 percent) were decided by eight points or fewer. In more than half the games, the losing team was within one score of tying or winning. This season, only 41 percent of the games (55 of 134) have been one-score contests. There have been an inordinate number of blowouts through nine weeks. Seventy-six of the 134 games (56.7 percent) have been decided by 10 points or more while 22.3 percent have been 20-point margins or more.
Week 10 may feature several one-sided affairs with Denver-Oakland, Pittsburgh-New York Jets, Baltimore-Tennessee, Dallas-Jacksonville in London and Chicago-Green Bay the most likely candidates.
4. Teams experiencing QB transitions: Coaches aren't being shy sacking their QBs in favor of backups. Not satisfied with Mike Glennon's play, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith went back to Week 1 starter Josh McCown, who lost his first three games before suffering a hand injury. During their bye week, the Houston Texans handed the starting job to Ryan Mallett, benching an ineffective Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Another QB change to keep an eye on in Week 10 and beyond is Mark Sanchez grabbing the helm in Philly. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in Sanchez's final three seasons with the Jets, his responses to pressure got so bad he had an awful 15.1 QBR against the blitz. The other thing to watch for is his downfield passing (20 or more yards). In New York, Sanchez tallied 20 interceptions against 16 touchdowns on such throws.
Aside from backups being thrust into the spotlight, it also could be a tough week for rookies. Zach Mettenberger of the Titans plays a Baltimore defense ranked fourth in points allowed (19.3), Blake Bortles may have to keep pace with Dallas' explosive attack, and Derek Carr could drop to 0-9 with Peyton and the Broncos coming to town.
5. Sorting out the AFC playoffs: I can't remember a conference having as many winning teams as the AFC does right now. The AFC boasts 11 teams with winning records, yet there isn't much drama in three of the divisional races. New England, Denver and Indianapolis appear to be locks to win their divisions. Week 10 won't sort out much in the race for the other three spots, as the most interesting matchup of potential wild cards is Kansas City's visit to Buffalo.