I’m loving this week’s slate of games, and loving the fact we get to kick things off again on NFL Network this Thursday night. Of the 16 games, seven have major playoff overtones, and only two include both teams with limited-to-no real playoff hope. Lots of good stuff to churn over so let’s get it started, as always, from best to worst:
Titans at Colts: I’ve been saying for weeks that the Colts’ wild ride ends right here, and this will be a heck of a game. Indianapolis has done a tremendous job of pulling off comebacks, but if you fall behind the Titans, Chris Johnson will rip you to shreds and Vince Young will stretch you out in the option game. The Titans are back to flat-out punching people in the face on both sides of the line and I think we forget just how difficult it is to go 16-0. Peyton Manning is not playing his best football the last few weeks and Tennessee’s secondary is back to its 2008 form. The Titans win this game and they’re back to 6-6 and right in the heart of the playoff scene, and perhaps poised to make history of their own after an 0-6 start. Two contrasts in offensive styles on display. Who doesn’t want to watch this game? Also, if Dwight Freeney can’t go, that’s all the more reason to like Young, who hasn’t lost a start in two years.
Cowboys at Giants: New York’s fast start is long forgotten and this is the first of three straight critical games against NFC East foes. A loss here puts the Giants in serious jeopardy of falling right out of the playoff scene, and would go a ways toward erasing some of Dallas’ December angst. New York won at Dallas in September with Eli Manning‘s surgical winning drive, but he is much more beat up now, and the Giants have lost defensive leader Antonio Pierce to IR. The Giants’ offensive line, long the team’s primary strength, will be challenged big time, and it needs to perform well above what we’ve seen recently. If the Giants can’t get Brandon Jacobs going, it could be a long night for Manning.
Vikings at Cardinals: The NFL’s two sage old quarterbacks, both future Hall of Famers, square off again, possibly for the last time. That is, if Kurt Warner plays against Brett Favre. At this point Warner may end up missing another game with concussion symptoms, which would change everything. Yes, Matt Leinart fared well last week, but with Antoine Winfield likely back for the Vikings, the corners might be able to pick on the novice quarterback. A win for the Vikings essentially clinches the division and would give them a tiebreaker that would put in them in great shape for securing a top-two seed and a bye. Favre just keeps blowing through teams and making his receivers look like stars. He’s having an MVP season.
Eagles at Falcons: Consider this an early wild-card game. This contest is essential for both teams, and Atlanta goes in without Matt Ryan, and with Michael Turner wounded. The Eagles will be without Brian Westbrook, and likely DeSean Jackson as well. The Falcons are very tough to beat at home, and the Eagles haven’t looked like world beaters lately, just finding ways to win games. You have to wonder, with Michael Vick making a return to the place where he became a Pro Bowler, is this the week he takes on a bigger role in the Wildcat? Would make for quite the homecoming. With no Westbrook or Jackson, that is all the more reason to try to get Vick on the field in some capacity, even if it’s lined up in the slot or as a back. Look for Asante Samuel to make his mark again, jumping on underneath stuff against a limited quarterback. He could be a big factor.
Ravens at Packers: The Pack is back, but this will be a big test. This is another contest neither team can afford to lose, and is a rare out-of-conference game with so much at stake. Both clubs have climbed back into the wild-card scene. Baltimore has three in a row against the NFC North, before finishing at Pittsburgh and Oakland. Losing any more than one of these games does them in. Aaron Rodgers is on a tear, but Baltimore’s defense is back to being an elite unit since its bye week. This could be a game where Green Bay’s loss of Aaron Kampman and Al Harris is felt. Both Rodgers and Ravens QB Joe Flacco are looking to take steps in the fourth quarter of games, and Ray Rice will end up carrying a significant load for Baltimore. Dude is playing incredible football right now.
Patriots at Dolphins: The Patriots have dropped back to the pack in recent weeks, while Miami’s damning loss to Buffalo last week crippled any of its division hopes, and badly bruised its overall playoff chances. We all remember the Wildcat giving Bill Belichick fits in 2008, but without Ronnie Brown back there, things are very different. The Patriots were very stout against that formation earlier this season. This could be a game where Pat White becomes a factor as a wildcard in the Wildcat. Ricky Williams is having an incredible comeback season regardless. The Patriots’ defense needs to make a stand of some sort. When the unit goes aggressive, it really leaves the corners vulnerable and good quarterbacks are slicing the defense up. Chad Henne is still finding his way and perhaps Belichick will have a new wrinkle for him.
Texans at Jaguars: I’m tempted to dub this “The Dream Bowl,” because I think you have to be a dreamer to consider either team a real playoff factor at this point. Jacksonville has benefited from a cushy schedule that’s about to get much tougher and I see the Jaguars stumbling down the stretch. The Texans, meantime, have taken ‘on the cusp’ to an art form, and the pressure is mounting after a good start. A loss here would be their fourth straight within their division — where they have traditionally faltered — and, I’m sorry, you don’t get in the playoffs that way. The way they collapsed against the Colts last week just crystallizes all of the issues there and is indicative of their struggle to get over the hump and into the postseason. Gary Kubiak‘s job security will be a weekly topic down the stretch, and Matt Schaub needs to show he is a winning quarterback, and not just a guy capable of putting up big numbers from week to week. Houston’s struggles to consistently run the ball worry me as well. This could be a game that Maurice Jones-Drew takes over, but even for the victor, there will be more challenges ahead to make the playoffs.
Saints at Redskins: Two years ago, Redskins players were clamoring, virtually begging, for owner Daniel Snyder to promote defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to head coach following the sudden retirement of Joe Gibbs. Snyder abstained, spent nearly six weeks interviewing coaches and then shocked his fans and the football world by hiring Jim Zorn, Seattle’s quarterback coach, to be offensive coordinator, before promoting him to head coach two weeks later. Zorn’s job security has been in question ever since, while Williams returns to FedEx Field with the undefeated Saints as someone very likely to get some consideration for head-coaching gigs. The Redskins have three wins this year, have won five of their last 19 games dating back to last season and there isn’t an executive in the NFL who doesn’t think Snyder will be searching for another coach in a few weeks. Washington’s offense is morbid, with injuries to Clinton Portis, Chris Cooley and a bunch of linemen. If the immobile Todd Collins has to start, it could get really ugly. Williams’ attack-minded defense should give the Redskins fits. Washington has been making a game of it recently, however, due largely to its defense, but somehow I think Drew Brees will make a play or two.
Jets at Bills: Okay, so I don’t think the Jets can get back in this thing, but if they’re going to, they need to win this game in Toronto (where I’m told the dome will definitely be closed, which is music to my sideline-reporting ears). Mark Sanchez is a little dinged up, but coach Rex Ryan said he would start. The Bills are playing hard for interim coach Perry Fewell, and T.O. is getting active with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center now. The injuries to the Bills’ offensive line and secondary have been staggering, but this is no gimme for the Jets. Kerry Rhodes‘ benching seems to have enlivened him, but I could see Fred Jackson being a factor on gadget plays and even lined up in the slot. Bills rookie safety Jairus Byrd continues to impress. Buffalo finishing the season strong could give a boost to this young team.
49ers at Seahawks: San Francisco has five games left against NFC opponents and has completed just half of its division schedule (3-0). Should the Niners run the table against the NFC West, they might end up a lot closer to the playoffs than some would have guessed a few weeks back. Alex Smith is coming off a nice game and we know they can run the ball. Vernon Davis is likely to give the Seahawks fits. Matt Hasselbeck will make the Seahawks a tough out for some teams, and they may climb back closer to respectability. They are still a difficult team to beat at home and the 49ers are just 1-4 on the road, a key to their slide from atop the division early on.
Raiders at Steelers: The Steelers again expect Ben Roethlisberger to start, but the reality is until we see how he feels after practicing all week, no one knows. Concussion symptoms cannot be predicted and Pittsburgh will heed all warning signs. Even if Dennis Dixon has to start again, you would like the Steelers’ chances to erase a three-game slide. The youngster looked very good against the Ravens for the most part and gave his team a fourth-quarter lead on the road against a very tough defense in a very difficult environment. That’s all you can ask for. Oakland has a way of playing at another level for a week here or there, but are unable to sustain that level. Maybe they smell some blood against their former playoff rival from the 1970s, but I tend to think the Raiders end up limping down the stretch as clubs adjust to Bruce Gradkowski.
Broncos at Chiefs: A legitimate rivalry game. Denver shocked some people, me included, with how it took care of the Giants on Turkey Day. Now the Broncos have to put together a string of wins to cement their playoff status. Something tells me the Chiefs will be ready to play, and they have been tough at home (just ask the Steelers). If they get a lead and grind it out on the ground, I could see an upset. Denver certainly was oozing more confidence and spirit after that big win last Thursday, though. The Broncos have scored just seven more points than they have allowed, however, which does not indicate elite status.
Chargers at Browns: A fantasy football dream, assuming you own key Chargers players. Fan frustration in Cleveland is off the charts and a slow start could lead to a complete implosion here. Losing Shaun Rogers is just another blow to a woeful Browns team, and this is the kind of game where LaDainian Tomlinson could put up numbers harkening back to his heyday. Even with a letdown, it’s hard to see the Chargers losing their grip on the AFC West here.
Lions at Bengals: Detroit has lost 17 straight road games dating back to Oct. 28, 2007, when the Lions won at Chicago. I have a tough time seeing that slump come to an end Sunday. The Bengals have not been steamrolling anyone lately, and could be taking a step back, but it is still hard to see them letting this game, and their grip on the AFC North, slip. Matthew Stafford looks more like a rookie on the road — as expected — and the Lions are losing starting pass-catchers, too. The Bengals expect to get Cedric Benson back, and coupling him with Larry Johnson could be too much for the Lions to handle. It might not be pretty, but style points don’t matter now. The Lions still have to go to Baltimore and San Francisco this season, so that road losing streak very well could be intact come 2010.
Rams at Bears: The heat is on in Chicago and unless the Bears take care of business against struggling teams, it’s only going to rise. Lovie Smith needs to have some success in December to position himself for the future, while it’s probably already too late for offensive coordinator Ron Turner. Chicago has been much better at home — and away from primetime — and I would expect the Bears to sell out to stop Steven Jackson, given St. Louis’ quarterback issues. Jay Cutler needs to play a simple game and start to gradually win back some of the fans there. Twenty interceptions through 11 games is a hard number to stomach, even if you chase it with a brat and a beer.
Buccaneers at Panthers: Matt Moore is expected to get the start for the Panthers with Jake Delhomme nursing a broken finger. Should Moore play well — and by play well I mean just make a few throws, limit turnovers and let the run game power along — you have to wonder if coach John Fox lets him play another week or two. Fox believes Delhomme gives him the best chance to win, as he has stuck with him despite all the picks. But there are plenty of other people in the Carolina community who seem ready to see what someone else could do. A loss here won’t do anything to help Fox’s long-term job prospects.