From the NFL's official press release last night:
RETURN OF THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL KICKS OFF SEASON'S SECOND HALF
The second half of the NFL season gets underway this week and the race to the playoffs is in full swing. Week 10 starts on Thursday night (8:00 PM ET, NFL Network) when the San Diego Chargers host the Oakland Raiders. Both teams are tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for first place in the AFC West.
"It's the quarterbacks in this division that ultimately will determine the winner," says NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
All four teams in the AFC West are separated by just one game. In fact, 11 of the 16 AFC teams are either in or within one game of first place in the division, the most such teams in a conference through Week 9 since realignment in 2002.
"It's huge to be in the mix of the division race," says New York Jets linebacker David Harris, whose team is tied with the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots for first place in the AFC East. "Now we've got to take it week by week."
In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers are the league's lone undefeated team and the third defending Super Bowl champion to start the following season 8-0 (1990 San Francisco 49ers and 1998 Denver Broncos). The San Francisco 49ers lead the NFC West with a 7-1 record and three other clubs - Detroit Lions (6-2), New York Giants (6-2) and New Orleans Saints (6-3) - have six victories.
"November is the time when a lot of teams separate themselves from the pack," says Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Entering Week 10, there are 20 teams with a .500+ record. That's two shy of the most in NFL history through the first nine weeks (22 in 1997).
There's a lot of football left to be played, and if the second half is anything like the first, expect close games, comeback wins and exciting finishes.
So far in 2011... 64 of the 130 games (49.2 percent) have been decided by seven points or fewer... five teams have trailed by at least 20 points and come back to win, the most in a single season in NFL history... and the last seven games of Week 9 were all decided in the final minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. Some of the key games in Week 10:
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (6-3) at ATLANTA FALCONS (5-3) (Sunday, FOX, 1:00 PM ET)
The top two teams in the NFC South will meet on Sunday in Atlanta when the 5-3 Falcons host the 6-3 Saints. Both teams are coming off victories in Week 9. New Orleans knocked off Tampa Bay 27-16 and Atlanta defeated Indianapolis 31-7.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees passed for 258 yards and two touchdowns last week. He leads the NFL with 3,004 yards and is the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 3,000 yards through the first nine games of a season. Brees also extended his streak of games with a touchdown pass to 36, tied with Brett Favre for the second longest in league annals (Pro Football Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, 47).
"This is a pretty critical time for us," says Brees. "We want to be on a roll. Hopefully this is the start of that."
The Falcons have won three in a row and last week got an impressive performance from rookie wide receiver Julio Jones. The first-round pick out of Alabama had three catches for 131 yards (43.7 average) and two touchdowns (80 and 50 yards) as he became the first rookie since at least the 1970 merger to have an 80+ yard and 50+ yard touchdown catch in a single game.
"He is the most talented rookie I've ever seen," says Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez. "The future is so bright for him. I think he can be one of the best receivers, if not the best receiver, in the league once he puts it all together."
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (6-3) at CINCINNATI BENGALS (6-2) (Sunday, CBS, 1:00 PM ET)
The AFC North is the only division in the NFL with three teams boasting six wins - Baltimore (6-2), Cincinnati (6-2) and Pittsburgh (6-3). The Steelers have won four of their past five and the Bengals are riding a five-game winning streak.
"We're at where we want to be, and that's in the thick of things in our division," says Cincinnati rookie wide receiver A.J. Green "We've got some division games coming up that are going to be tough, but we're going to fight and compete."
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 330 yards last week - his third consecutive 300-yard game - and reached the 25,000-yard mark in 3,109 passes, the second-fastest in NFL history (Kurt Warner, 3,076). Before Warner, Pro Football Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas (3,117) held the record from 1965 until 2008.
Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton threw three touchdown passes last week in the Bengals' 24-17 win at Tennessee as Cincinnati erased a 10-point deficit. His 12 TD passes are the most by a rookie in his team's first eight games of a season since the merger in 1970.
"We're doing whatever we have to do to win games," says Dalton. "That's the biggest thing for the season."
NEW YORK GIANTS (6-2) at SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (7-1) (Sunday, FOX, 4:15 PM ET)
Two of the NFC's hottest teams will meet in San Francisco. The Giants have won six of their past seven games - including a come-from-behind win in New England last week - while the 49ers boast a six-game winning streak.
"You have to have a short memory when it comes to winning and losing," says New York linebacker MIchael Boley. "We had a big win in New England but we have to put it behind us and look forward to the next game. It is going to be a big game this week. Everybody sees that they're doing well. Us going out there, it's going to be a tough challenge."
In the Giants' Week 9 victory at New England, quarterback Eli Manning, who leads the NFL with a 121.7 fourth-quarter passer rating, threw two touchdown passes in the final 3:03 to end the Patriots' 20-game regular-season home winning streak.
San Francisco running back Frank Gore rushed for 107 yards in the 49ers' 19-11 win at Washington, Gore's franchise-record fifth consecutive 100-yard game.
"It was a tough 100," says head coach Jim Harbaugh. "It was a consummate team 100."
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 30 games in a row, the longest current streak in the league. San Francisco has yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (5-3) at NEW YORK JETS (5-3) (Sunday, NBC, 8:20 PM ET)
Three teams sit atop the AFC East at 5-3 - Buffalo, New England and the New York Jets. The Patriots and Jets will meet on Sunday night as New York tries to even the season series. The Jets, who defeated the Bills last week 27-11, have won three games in a row and look to avenge their Week 5 loss to New England.
"All these divisional games, this is for a championship and we need to win that thing," says Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. "It's going to be a big one for us."
The Patriots will look to sweep the season series from their division rivals. In the Week 5 home win over the Jets, running back Ben Jarvus GReen-Ellis rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns while quarterback Tom Brady passed for 321 yards and a score.
"They know they need it and we know we need it," says New York head coach Rex Ryan about Sunday night's matchup with the Patriots.