Midway through the NFL season, surprises are starting to be recognized as legit.
The Indianapolis Colts, for example, are road favourites. The New Orleans Saints are home underdogs, though by less than a field goal against the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons. Of course, opposition matters, but it's still a statement indicating where these teams are in 2012, particularly when contrasted with 2011.
As usual, there are many competitive lines across the board, but there are also three double-digit spreads this week. New England (vs. Buffalo), San Francisco (vs. St. Louis) and Pittsburgh (vs. Kansas City) are the heavy favourites this week, while Sunday night brings the game of the week: Houston, the top team in the NFL Power Rankings, visiting fourth-ranked Chicago.
Check out this week's Power Rankings for more of my takes on all 32 teams.
A look at the Week Ten matchups in the NFL:
INDIANAPOLIS (-3) at JACKSONVILLE
The Colts may be vulnerable in the secondary, with corners Jerraud Powers and Vontae Davis injured, but the Jaguars are one of the team's least equipped to exploit weaknesses in pass defence. If anyone is going to capitalize, Cecil Shorts is more likely than rookie Justin Blackmon. The Colts' run defence isn't very good either, so that ought to provide opportunities for RB Rashad Jennings as well.
However, only Buffalo has allowed more rushing touchdowns than Jacksonville's 12, so Vick Ballard (or Donald Brown if he's healthier than he was last week) could be in for a good day. The strength of the Colts, of course, is the passing game and that should work just fine. Jacksonville has a league-low eight sacks, so Andrew Luck will have time to spread the ball around to Reggie Wayne, Donnie Avery (again, assuming he's healthy), T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen.
OAKLAND (+7.5) at BALTIMORE
The Ravens' defence is a far cry from what it has been for the past decade or more, so the Raiders will be able to move the ball, if they can muster a ground game. With Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson injured, Marcel Reece and Taiwan Jones will get the nod in the backfield. The Raiders also have a prolific passing game, with QB Carson Palmer connecting with preferred target Denarius Moore, but also TE Brandon Myers and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Baltimore's offence hasn't picked up the pace in recent weeks, so they really could use a big game against Oakland to get them on the right track. The Raiders have a subpar defence, so this is an ideal opportunity for QB Joe Flacco to rebound after a couple of pedestrian performances. Wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin should be threats to score and RB Ray Rice remains one of the elite backs.
DENVER (-4) at CAROLINA
Carolina has played better than their record indicates, so this shouldn't be automatically assumed to be an easy Broncos victory, but it's also easy to like what Peyton Manning is doing -- throwing three touchdowns in each of his last five games and raising the level of production of those around him. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, for example, rank fourth and 18th, respectively, among wideouts in receiving yards per game.
If Carolina is going to make a game of it, they need to find a way to run the ball against a Broncos defence allowing 3.7 yards per carry. Jonathan Stewart has taken over as the lead back in the last couple games, but hasn't run for more than 51 yards in a game this season. It won't be easy for Panthers QB Cam Newton to throw the ball either, since the Broncos allow just 6.5 yards per pass, sixth-best in the league, and with WR Brandon LaFell suffering the effects of a concussion, the Panthers' passing game isn't at full strength.
N.Y. GIANTS (-4) at CINCINNATI
After getting locked down by the Steelers at home, the Giants should appreciate the opportunity to face Cincinnati's defence. Questions persist about the health of Giants WR Hakeem Nicks and if he can't go, that means Domenik Hixon and Rueben Randle will get more looks across from Victor Cruz.
Aside from tying for the league lead in interceptions, the Giants' defence has struggled (ranking 30th in yards per pass attempt allowed), so the game could turn into a shootout, but Bengals QB Andy Dalton will have to protect the ball better than he has through the first half of the season -- his 11 interceptions is tied for third-most in the league.
TENNESSEE (+6) at MIAMI
The Titans expect Jake Locker back under centre this week and the Titans' best approach against Miami's defence will be to throw the ball, so look for Nate Washington, Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright to challenge a subpar Dolphins secondary.
Tennessee RB Chris Johnson appears to be back on his game, putting up 526 rushing yards in the last four games, but he'll face a good test at Miami, since the Dolphins allow just 3.6 yards per carry.
Though the Dolphins haven't been an explosive group offensively, they should benefit from a favourable matchup against Tennessee, which ranks near the bottom of the league in both rush and pass defence. RB Reggie Bush hasn't run for 60 yards in a game since Week Four, but he could break out, and WR Brian Hartline quietly ranks ninth in receiving yards per game (82.8).
DETROIT (-1) at MINNESOTA
It's a contrast in successful styles, as Lions QB Matthew Stafford has been putting up big yardage and hasn't slowed down even as Titus Young and rookie Ryan Broyles take on more significant roles in support of Calvin Johnson at wide receiver. Minnesota, on the other hand, is left with slumping second-year QB Christian Ponder and don't expect to have WR Percy Harvin due to a sprained ankle, limiting their passing game.
Of course, the Vikings have the only running back in the league averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game, Adrian Peterson, so their success will likely be predicated on Peterson keeping the ball out of Stafford's hands.
BUFFALO (+11) at NEW ENGLAND
Only the Kansas City Chiefs have allowed touchdowns in fewer attempts than the Bills' one for every 16.81 passes faced, which isn't the ideal matchup going against Tom Brady, who should have TE Aaron Hernandez back in the fold, nor is it beneficial to lose CB Terrence McGee to IR. So, it seems like a good week for the Patriots passing game, but that's pretty standard at this point.
Buffalo's strength offensively, is the running game, with C.J. Spiller providing more big-play ability than Fred Jackson, even though they split carries. New England has been better against the run too, though, so the Bills' best chance to consistently move the ball will be through the passing game. If Stevie Johnson's thigh injury keeps him out of the lineup, well, it will be awfully difficult to see the Bills taking full advantage of a Patriots' secondary that is ripe to be exploited.
ATLANTA (-2.5) at NEW ORLEANS
The league's only unbeaten team, the Falcons, have the high-octane passing game that can light up a Saints defence that allows 294.8 passing yards per game. Of course, the Saints also allow 5.3 yards per carry, so RB Michael Turner can't be ignored either.
The Saints are dangerous, particularly as 3-5 teams go, because they still have elements of the offence that can put defences on their collective heels. RB Darren Sproles hasn't been rules out, as he recovers from a broken hand, but Chris Ivory is an able fill-in if Sproles isn't ready to return to action.
SAN DIEGO (+3) at TAMPA BAY
The suddenly improving Bucs have scored 144 points over the last four weeks and RB Doug Martin has been the key to their success, but QB Josh Freeman can't be ignored, either, as Freeman has passed for 1257 yards in those four games, and the Bucs wide receivers, former Charger Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams give him big-play opportunities down the field if the Chargers get too focused on Martin and the running game.
While San Diego has a strong run defence, Tampa Bay's has become the league's best, allowing 77.3 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry, so it's not an easy matchup for Chargers RB Ryan Mathews. With the Buccaneers showing more vulnerability to the pass, QB Philip Rivers, WR Malcom Floyd and TE Antonio Gates are all prime candidates to produce. If Robert Meachem can't get back in the lineup for the Chargers, then Danario Alexander will provide a viable downfield option too.
N.Y. JETS (+6) at SEATTLE
Going cross country to take on the Seahawks won't be favourable for a Jets offence that lacks playmakers. If they are going to have some success, they'll need RB Shonn Greene to help control the clock and a relatively mistake-free game from QB Mark Sanchez, who has completed just 52.9% of his passes and will be going up against a Seahawks pass defence that allows just 6.1 yards per pass attempt, third-best in the league.
While the Jets' pass defence can make the day difficult for rookie QB Russell Wilson, the Jets have struggled to stop the run, so it's fair to expect Marshawn Lynch (332 rushing yards on 57 carries, 5.8 ypc, in the last three games) to have a field day.
DALLAS (-1) at PHILADELPHIA
It says something about how messed up the Eagles are right now, having lost four straight, that they are home underdogs against the 3-5 Cowboys.
Both teams have the talent to be better than they have been through the first half of the season, but any gains they make tend to be undone by mistakes by the quarterback. Tony Romo and Michael Vick have turned the ball over 15 and 14 times, respectively. Only Kansas City's Matt Cassel has been worse.
Both teams have been better than average in pass defence, so the game could come down to the runners, which seems like an advantage for Philadelphia as LeSean McCoy has been more productive than Felix Jones, though Jones did manage a season-high 109 yards from scrimmage last week.
ST. LOUIS (+11) at SAN FRANCISCO
The Rams have been beaten up in their last couple games and it doesn't seem like a visit to San Francisco will do them much good either. The Niners allow a league-low 5.8 yards per passing attempt, so QB Sam Bradford may be in for a long day.
It's not as though running the ball with Steven Jackson is likely to fare much better, since the Niners surrender just 3.6 yards per carry, so that leaves the Rams struggling to mvoe the ball. Their best hope may be to limit the Niners' running game, which is among the league's best and put the game in the hands of QB Alex Smith, who was terrific Monday against Arizona, but that was also just the second game this year in which he passed for more than 230 yards.
HOUSTON (+1) at CHICAGO
Two of the league's best teams square off, with the Texans perhaps boasting some advantage offensively, while the Bears are busy scoring so much on defence that it makes life infinitely easier on the Bears' offence.
The biggest concern for the Bears, though, is their offensive line, so this could provide another huge game for Texans star DE J.J. Watt.
There is some chance that Bears CB Charles Tillman, who is challenging Watt for Defensive Player of the Year, may not play because his wife is due to give birth, so that is an absence that would give Houston a definite advantage in the passing game.
KANSAS CITY (+12) at PITTSBURGH
Having seen what the Steelers did on the road against the Giants last week, it's hard to imagine the Chiefs moving the ball against them in Pittsburgh, though if RB Jamaal Charles gets enough touches, who knows just how he might break out? In the last three games combined, Charles has 88 rushing yards on 29 carries, so he's overdue for a productive game, even against the Steelers.
For Pittsburgh, it appears that WR Antonio Brown may be sidelined, opening the door for Emmanuel Sanders to get regular reps at wide receiver against a Chiefs secondary that has surrendered a league-high 8.9 yards per pass attempt.
The running back carousel in Pittsburgh seems to have landed on Isaac Redman, who rushed for 147 yards last week, but none of the Steelers' backs has been able to stay healthy long enough to seize the number one job on a full-time basis.