Fair warning: I’m going to be a little self-congratulatory here. Someone at the NFL Network knew what they were doing with the schedule this week. On Thursday night, you get full coverage of the undefeated Colts in Jacksonville on NFL Network and NFL.com, and then Saturday night we’ve got the undefeated Saints hosting Dallas. It doesn’t get any better than that, folks (and I get mild sideline temps in Florida and a dome in New Orleans, which is nice).
We can’t talk about the schedule or preview anything this week without starting with the 13-0 clubs. This is unchartered territory here. Could they both actually do it? I was a strident non-believer for a long time, but man, it’s like the Saints and Colts just find a way to get it done. Maybe the short week throws a little wrench in the program. Should be two great games, though, with the Jaguars and Cowboys nearing must-win status for their playoff hopes, in a week that otherwise features what would appear to be lopsided games, at least on paper.
Here is the rundown:
Colts at Jaguars: The Jaguars have allowed more than 50 points than they have scored, the running game isn’t as potent as it seemed at times, the defense is pedestrian and their only impact receiver (Mike Sims-Walker) is pretty banged up. It is hard for me to see this bunch derailing the Colts’ date with history, but as we know anything can happen in this league. Jacksonville’s tough schedule is going to start taking them out of the playoff race, I figure. The Jags will have their first sellout of season and will be plenty motivated to knock off their division foe. Peyton Manning looks pretty driven, though.
Cowboys at Saints: We know all about Dallas’ December woes, and suddenly the Cowboys can’t get in the end zone. Drew Brees should be able to pick on that secondary, and the Saints are hopeful that LB Scott Fujita and RB Mike Bell will be back. Dallas’ 2008 implosion was crystallized by a crumbling loss to the Ravens on a Saturday night on the NFL Network. Could it happen again?
Bengals at Chargers: Two division leaders clash, with the Chargers hotter than any non-undefeated team in the league. The Bengals have been lacking much downfield thrust lately and seem to be keeping it very conservative with Carson Palmer. Not everyone is sold that they can finish the year as well as they started. San Diego runs the ball enough to stay balanced, but is coming up against one of the best set of defensive backs in the league, led by Leon Hall. Philip Rivers won’t beat himself, however, and the Bengals’ last trip to California resulted in a loss to Oakland.
Packers at Steelers: Green Bay has won five in a row and the Steelers have lost five in row, including humbling losses to Cleveland, KC and Oakland. Opposite directions for sure. The Packers’ offensive line is much improved and Charles Woodson is my defensive MVP. Troy Polamalu could return for the Steelers, but it’s too late. Even a win won’t help their miserable conference record. Disturbing fact: Packers are 9-0 when Aaron Rodgers is sacked five or fewer times. Yeah, five. Ouch.
Dolphins at Titans: Two of the game’s elite running teams get together. Chris Johnson vs. Ricky Williams. Johnson’s got a legit shot to set a new single-season rushing record and Tennessee is a team no one wants to face right now. The Dolphins need a win to maintain their position in the playoff chase. Chad Henne (7-3 as starter in ’09) is playing very well for the Dolphins and Vince Young has been excellent for the Titans. If not for a tough loss to Colts, the Titans would be pushing for the postseason, too. The Dolphins haven’t run a Wildcat play in the last two games, and have curtailed the formation significantly since Ronnie Brown was put on IR.
Patriots at Bills: Why do I have the feeling this isn’t going to be a gimme for New England? The Patriots need a win to try to cement the AFC East title, but there is plenty of turmoil surrounding Randy Moss‘ effort, Tom Brady‘s health and Adalius Thomas‘ desire to be a Patriot. Buffalo has nothing to lose and there could be a vibe at Ralph Wilson Stadium similar to the one in Cleveland last week for a meeting with the rival Steelers. Buffalo can move the ball on the ground some and has a playmaking secondary. It could be interesting, that’s all I’m sayin’.
Giants at Redskins: Washington is in position to be a spoiler for the rival Giants and Cowboys, and despite all of their injuries and roster inadequacies, they’ll put up a fight. The defense, led by London Fletcher, is unyielding. Jason Campbell is making some plays. The Giants, however, know they cannot afford a slip-up of any kind as they complete a vital three-game stretch against NFC East foes. Look for Eli Manning and his young receivers to attack Washington’s secondary with double moves, the Redskins’ fatal flaw on that side of the ball.
49ers at Eagles: San Francisco has been awful on the road, and going cross country this time of year won’t help that trend. Each game for Alex Smith is like a final exam on his future with the organization, however. The 49ers have to get Frank Gore the ball more. Philadelphia’s screen and intermediate passing game should be too much for the 49ers.
Texans at Rams: It’s a little late for the Texans to make statements, but this a team that should be able to dominate with their passing game as they try to salvage something of the season. All of the division losses hurt, and beating another bottom-dwelling NFC West team won’t change any of that. Still, expect another beatdown here after they took out their frustration on Seattle last week. Dome conditions will help.
Bears at Ravens: Baltimore completes a three-game stretch against NFC North teams and plays its final home game of the season. The Bears have not fared well against power running teams, and the Ravens would be wise to use those unbalanced lines and jumbo packages and keep all three ball carriers involved. Ray Rice is absolutely embarrassing would-be tacklers in the screen game. Jay Cutler has been a disaster on the road and Baltimore might get ball-hawk Ed Reed back.
Cardinals at Lions: The Ravens weren’t even trying to score or move the ball anymore in the second half against Detroit last week and yet the scoreboard kept rolling. The Lions can’t stop anyone. The Cardinals could well end up resting most of their starters by halftime as well. I’d give Kurt Warner a rest whenever possible given his concussion issues.
Falcons at Jets: Both teams believe they have young franchise quarterbacks, but we might not get to see Matt Ryan or Mark Sanchez depending on their health. The Falcons’ playoff chances have essentially died the past few weeks, though Chris Redman has more than held his own in Ryan’s place. New York remains in the thick of the playoff race and Thomas Jones is carrying the offense. The Jets are as stingy as it gets in terms of scoring defense and have settled down after a four-game spiral. Jets haven’t allowed an offensive TD in five of 13 games this season.
Vikings at Panthers: John Fox‘s job security is a hot topic in Carolina, with Bill Cowher perhaps waiting in the wings. Expect a heavy dose of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Carolina’s offense is limited in scope, however, while the Vikings are balanced, and looking to nail down the No. 2 seed (and thereby ensure playing indoors up to the Super Bowl, no small matter for them).
Raiders at Broncos: I wouldn’t totally discount Oakland’s chances of biting another big boy in the backside (like they did with Eagles, Steelers and Bengals), but only if I was certain Bruce Gradkowski was running the offense. Well, that’s not entirely true … If I knew it was anybody other than JaMarcus Russell. It’s a division game and you have to factor that in, but Russell is a mistake machine. You can’t stop it. Denver knows a loss could drop them even with the Ravens, should they win, and Baltimore owns a head-to-head win the Broncos.
Buccaneers at Seahawks: Tampa Bay has few discernable strengths as a football outfit at this time. Rookie coach Raheem Morris‘ staff has been unstable all season, and the propensity for blowout losses is robust. Seattle is a different team at home, while the Bucs don’t have a road win this season. Disturbing fact: The Bucs were 0-for-14 on third down against the Jets last week.
Browns at Chiefs: Joshua Cribbs is playing, so it’s worth paying attention. Dude is one heck of an entertainer on the field and is coming off a one-man demolition of the Steelers’ playoff hopes. And my suspicions about Matt Cassel continue. Otherwise, um, not much to see here.