The 49ers at the Saints, a battle for NFC supremacy.
That’s what the script might have called for, except that the Seahawks have trumped both of them so far. And nobody wants to go to Seattle in the postseason.
So San Francisco and New Orleans will do everything possible to get lined up behind Seattle should the Seahawks stumble.
The Saints are in much better shape in that regard because the Niners (6-3) have to travel to the Big Easy, one hard place to play.
“You can definitely see offensively they are machine-like and really have things going and oiled up,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Same defensively, they are doing a very good job of getting stops, getting turnovers and creating negative plays.”
After blowing out Dallas, the Saints (7-2) know the chore will be more difficult against the defending NFC champs, who have one of the league’s most physical and versatile defenses.
“As good as they’ve ever been,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “There’s an expectation level every time you play those guys. They’re extremely disciplined and very talented.”
Also this week, the Game of the Year, Part I, has Denver hosting Kansas City.
Minnesota is at Seattle, Baltimore at Chicago, Cleveland at Cincinnati, Detroit at Pittsburgh, Washington at Philadelphia, Oakland at Houston, the New York Jets at Buffalo, Green Bay at the New York Giants, Arizona at Jacksonville, San Diego at Miami, and Atlanta at Tampa Bay.
Monday night has New England at Carolina.
Off this week are Dallas (5-5) and St. Louis (4-6).
In Thursday night’s game, Indianapolis once again dug itself an early hole before climbing out. Donald Brown ran for two touchdowns, Andrew Luck added another and the Colts rallied yet again, this time beating the Tennessee Titans 30-27 after trailing 14-0 in the first quarter.
Adam Vinatieri kicked three field goals, including a 50-yarder, and Coby Fleener had a career-high eight catches for 107 yards to help the Colts (7-3) bounce back quite nicely from a 38-8 home loss to St. Louis.
The Titans (4-6) lost their second straight and fifth in six games, scoring a touchdown with 1:54 left but failing to execute on onside kick for the second straight game.
Kansas City (9-0) at Denver (8-1)
A game so enticing NBC got it flexed to prime time, this one matches teams with the best combined winning percentage this late in the season since the merger.
Denver, with Jack Del Rio as interim coach while John Fox recovers from heart surgery, is on a record scoring pace, averaging 41.2 points a game.
But Peyton Manning, who has 3,249 yards passing, the most through nine games, and 33 touchdown passes, is plagued by a high ankle sprain.
And the Chiefs are as stingy as they come on defense, the first team to allow 17 points or fewer in each of their first nine games since the 1977 Falcons. They already have 36 sacks and 23 takeaways.
“We always have confidence in our defensive backfield, no matter who we play,” cornerback Brandon Flowers said. “We feel we match up pretty good with them.”
Minnesota (2-7) at Seattle (9-1)
The Seahawks feel the same way, and they have an intimidating defense, too. They rank third overall and second against the pass.
Winning at Seattle has been impossible recently and the Seahawks go for their 13th straight home win, which would be a franchise record.
Minnesota’s best chance for an upset is turning Adrian Peterson loose. Last season, Peterson rushed for 182 yards on just 17 carries against the Seahawks including runs of 74, 28 and 24 yards.
New England (7-2) at Carolina (6-3), Monday night
A surprisingly juicy Monday night matchup thanks to the Panthers’ surge. They have won five in a row, including an impressive 10-9 victory at San Francisco last week. They lead the league in time of possession, a key against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
New England comes off a bye and has not been dominant most of the time despite its gaudy record. In his last game, though, Brady had a season-best 432 yards passing and four TDs.
Baltimore (4-5) at Chicago (5-4)
An overtime win to break a three-game slide was encouraging for the Ravens, but they aren’t performing anything like last season’s champions. They can’t get the run game in gear and Joe Flacco has been sacked 30 times.
Banged-up Chicago might not have the horses to put that kind of pressure on Flacco, and it also is using second-string quarterback Josh McCown for the injured Jay Cutler. But McCown has played well this year, and he has weapons in WRs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and RB Matt Forte.
Cleveland (4-5) at Cincinnati (6-4)
A win makes Cleveland a contender for the AFC North crown and also for a wild card. The Browns can match their win total from 2012; they haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2007. Their defense has been staunch and veteran Jason Campbell is giving them steady quarterback play.
Cincinnati has lost two straight overtime games; no team has done it three successive times. But the Bengals are 4-0 at home this season, outscoring opponents 116-55.
Detroit (6-3) at Pittsburgh (3-6)
Winning at Chicago boosted the Lions to sole possession of the NFC North lead. However, this is not a place they can be confident of success. Detroit’s last victory in the Steel City came in 1955.
The Steelers have gone 3-2 since an 0-4 start, though their 3-6 record is the franchise’s worst through nine games since 2006. They need to solidify an offensive line that has yielded 35 sacks.
Washington (3-6) at Philadelphia (5-5)
Now is the time for the Redskins to make their run to the playoffs. At least, that’s what they did last year, beating the Eagles as the first of seven consecutive wins. Washington’s running game leads the league with 5.1 yards per rush.
Philly is just behind that and LeSean McCoy leads the NFL with 932 yards on the ground. Even better, Nick Foles has thrown 16 TD passes and no interceptions. And the Eagles’ defense has come on.
Still, their last win at home was 11 games ago.
Oakland (3-6) at Houston (2-7)
Texans coach Gary Kubiak will be back on the sideline after missing one game with a mini-stroke. It’s an uplifting story for a team in the midst of a horrendous season. Considered a Super Bowl contender, Houston has dropped seven in a row.
The Raiders have a solid running attack, but their air game is a mess as inexperienced QB Terrelle Pryor learns the pro game.
New York Jets (5-4) at Buffalo (3-7)
The Jets are the second team to alternate wins and losses through nine games. Like Buffalo, they are using a rookie QB, Geno Smith, but their pride and joy is an aggressive defense. Coach Rex Ryan campaigned to add safety Ed Reed when the long-time star was cut by Houston and got his wish.
The Bills have dropped nine of their last 11 meetings with New York and have lost five of their last six overall this season.
Green Bay (5-4) at New York Giants (3-6)
This group of New Yorkers was beaten in its first six games, then won three straight. Another victory could put the Giants in the midst of the NFC East race, believe it or not.
Getting it will be whole lot easier against a Packers team that lost Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone. Green Bay has fallen twice without its star quarterback, and might need to rely even more on a blossoming running game with third-stringer Scott Tolzien behind center.
Arizona (5-4) at Jacksonville (1-8)
Coming off their first victory of the season, the Jaguars have no reason to get cocky. They haven’t scored a TD at home in 2013, and have the league’s worst overall offense.
The Cardinals have the bad luck of being in the same division with powerful Seattle and San Francisco, but are holding their own. They’ve never won two games in Florida in the same season, and their only road victory so far has been at Tampa.
WR Larry Fitzgerald needs 94 yards receiving to reach 11,000 yards, which would make him the youngest player (30 years, 78 days on Sunday) to reach that milestone.
San Diego (4-5) at Miami (4-5)
The mess in Miami keeps building, and it has really plagued the offense. The Dolphins set a franchise low with 2 yards rushing in their loss at Tampa Bay. They’ve netted 22 yards or less three times this year; the line struggled even when guard Richie Incognito and tackle Jonathan Martin were in the lineup before the alleged bullying turmoil erupted.
The Chargers rank last in the NFL with six takeaways and are giving up 6.4 yards per play, worst in the league. But the Chargers lead the NFL in first downs per game, and in third-down efficiency at 47 percent.
Atlanta (2-7) at Tampa Bay (1-8)
Atlanta has lost three straight since beating the Bucs on Oct. 20, while Tampa Bay became the last team to win this season with a 22-19 victory over Miami on Monday night. Atlanta has been outscored 94-33 during the losing streak.