Tough two-week stretch for both teams
Former AFC East rivals, the Patriots and Colts meet in the top matchup on the Week 13 schedule.
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 13.
First ... New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts: The Patriots have been lauded for their depth and ability to fight through injuries. They are 9-2 having used more than 40 different starters.
The next two weeks will be defining moments for each of these teams. The Colts play the Patriots on Sunday and the Titans next week. The Patriots visit the Colts, then host to the Dolphins next Sunday. By next Sunday, the playoff picture in the AFC should come into clear focus.
It's been fascinating watching the Colts adjust their offense without some of their key parts. When James was missing, Peyton Manning still got enough out of his play-action fakes to keep the passing attack moving smoothly. The more interesting transition has involved James, though, particularly when Harrison has been fighting his hamstring injury the past couple of weeks.
Since having his knee reconstructed in 2001, James is a different back. He's regained explosion at the line of scrimmage, but he doesn't break as many long runs downfield. Knowing that, the Colts have called more inside runs for James.
In the past three games, offensive coordinator Tom Moore incorporated more screen passes, a move James didn't seem pleased with at first. Harrison was hobbled in the second half of the second Jaguars game. The move was brilliant. It got James more into the open field, but most important, it got game more offensive touches.
Over the past four contests, James has gotten and average of 32 touches a game. It's allowed him to be the workhorse. And there is a good chance Sunday that the Colts could have most -- if not all -- of their offensive weapons on the field.
The Patriots offense has struggled in recent weeks because of the injuries at wide receiver. David Patten is out for the season with a knee injury, and Troy Brown has been in and out of the lineup. It's forced Tom Brady to throw to a young group of receivers and put two receivers signed a week ago -- J.J. Stokes and Dedric Ward -- on notice that they might get some action.
Sunday's game in the RCA Dome could come down to who has the healthiest offense. Both defenses have enough depth to survive injuries.
The importance of this game could be reflected in playoff seedings. The winner could be the top seed and the loser might be second or third. That is as long as each team doesn't lose the next week in their key division games.
And 10. Philadelphia Eagles at Carolina Panthers: What keeps the Panthers going is worry. Doubt can sometimes be a good thing even for a team that is 8-3. Doubt is great for keeping teams humble. Even though the Panthers are 8-3, they still remember last year second-half collapse and worry that they will go on a prolonged losing streak. That's where home games helped. The Panthers bounced back from a four-point loss to the Texans by beating the Bucs and Redskins at home. The Cowboys humbled the Panthers last week with a four-point win, but they come back with a home game against the Eagles, who are on a six-game winning streak. It can be argued the Eagles are the best team in the NFC because of their recent run. Games against the Panthers Sunday and the Cowboys next week could confirm that. Donovan McNabb is playing well, but he's still not lighting up the scoreboard. He has only eight touchdown passes and the Eagles have only one game in which they've put more than 30 points on the board. Their biggest concern is their run defense. The Panthers win by calling Stephen Davis' number. The Eagles give up 120.5 yards a game on the ground and 4.3 yards a carry. At home, their running game is even more effective. This could be a tough one for the Eagles.
9. Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams: Holding the Lions to no offensive touchdowns may not mean anything to a lot of teams, but it was a confidence builder for the Vikings. For four weeks, the Vikings couldn't stop anybody and panic was starting to set in. Going into the Edward Jones Dome with a mentally fragile defense isn't the best thing because Marc Bulger can pick a defense apart. Something has to give in this game. Bulger has been throwing too many interceptions. Though he's completing 63.2 percent of his passes and is averaging 276.5 passing yards a game, Bulger has 17 interceptions compared to 15 touchdowns. When the interception number is higher than touchdown passes, thoughts of benching spread through the stands. There has been at least two times in the past month Mike Martz considered going to Kurt Warner, but he stayed with Bulger. One thing the Vikings do well is read quarterbacks and get interceptions. They lead the league with 22 picks, but they aren't the best blitzing team. Blitzes have forced Bulger into a lot of his interceptions. And the Vikings don't have the corners to matchup in man situations against Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.
8. Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys: Recap: Dolphins 40, Cowboys 21
7. San Francisco 49ers at Baltimore Ravens: Anthony Wright had a wonderful win over the Seahawks last week. Marcus Robinson had four touchdown receptions, and fans still can't believe this Ravens offense put 44 points on the scoreboard. However, Sunday won't be as easy. A lot of Wright's success was simply throwing the ball downfield and letting his receivers go up and make catches. He struggled in the first half of the Seahawks game against some blitzes. Guess what? The 49ers blitz as much as any team in football, and if the Ravens can't handle the blitz, San Francisco will blitz more. Because of that, expect the Ravens to stay with a very conservative running game plan. The 49ers can be worn down by a power running attack, and Brian Billick knows that. Though he got away with a pitch-and-catch game against the Seahawks, the 49ers have a better defense, so this is a game Jamal Lewis will have to win.
6. Cleveland Browns at Seattle Seahawks: Can the Seahawks bounce back from their emotionally-draining loss to the Ravens last week? It won't be easy. There have been two examples of teams not completely bouncing back from hard losses. The Bucs dropped four of six games after blowing a 21-point lead to the Colts. A couple contests after blowing a Monday night game to the Patriots, the Broncos lost to the Bears and looked flat. The Seahawks situation is pretty easy to figure out. They have two home games, including Sunday, against teams with losing records, so they should get to nine wins. But they can't win games on the road, and if they lose their final road games in Minnesota, St. Louis and San Francisco, they will be 9-7 and might miss the playoffs. Lost in the controversy of having officials make critical mistakes in the Ravens loss is the great play of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Despite being held back by an offense that has dropped the second most passes in the league, Hasselbeck has completed 60.1 percent of his passes and has 19 touchdown passes.
5. Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers: No team has made the playoffs after a 3-7 start, and the Steelers know they are fighting history. They also know that the Bengals aren't the same team they beat in Week 3, 17-10. The Bengals are better. Of all the teams in the AFC North, the Bengals give the Steelers a lot of trouble. A couple of years ago, the Bengals were the first team to spread the field with receivers against the Steelers' 3-4 scheme and had great success passing the ball. In the past two weeks, Jon Kitna has been calling more no-huddle plays at the beginning of games to get the offense kick-started and that could cause trouble. Until last Sunday against the Browns, the Steelers have struggled getting their pass-rush to the quarterback. The hope for the Steelers is that they are at home and Jerome Bettis is coming off a 93-yard rushing day. The Bus is probably in his final season with the Steelers. He also knows that the Steelers could overcome their two-game deficit in the division standings if they can beat the Bengals and Ravens. They haven't given up.
4. Tennessee Titans at New York Jets: Even though Jeff Fisher is holding out hope of having Steve McNair for this Monday night road trip, don't you think he'll be cautious. After all, McNair may be a warrior, but he's not had many pulled leg muscles to deal with during his career. Playing McNair with a slightly popped calf could be dangerous. After all, the Titans have to come back after a short week and be ready to face the Colts the next Sunday. That's their most important game of the season. Lose that one and they may have to play the AFC North winner in a wild-card game. The more likely scenario is that Fisher gets McNair ready to be a backup and let Billy Volek handle the first three quarters. Volek has a strong arm and is smart. The Jets struggle against the run, so Eddie George may have a chance to have back-to-back 100-yard games. McNair is the league's most valuable player, and there have been plenty of times in past years he's been asked to come off the bench to rescue the team in the fourth quarter. Still, it might be dangerous to start him and possibly lose him if the calf injury gets worse.
3. New Orleans Saints at Washington Redskins: Neither team has a lot going for it. At 5-6, the Saints only have a long-shot of making a wild-card bid if teams such as the Vikings, Seahawks and Cowboys fade down the stretch. The Redskins continue to be one of the most underachieving teams in football. There is too much talent on this team to be 4-7. Both teams are banged up at quarterback. Aaron Brooks has a medial collateral knee sprain, but the MRI showed no damage and he's listed as probable for the Saints. Patrick Ramsey couldn't survive longer than the first quarter of the Dolphins game before suffering a concussion. That gave him a chance to rest his broken foot, giving Tim Hasselbeck the chance to prove he's a capable backup. Redskins coach Steve Spurrier apologized for the Redskins trouble. It makes you wonder if the team will start going through the motions in the final five games. If so, the Saints could keep their remote playoff hopes alive.
2. Buffalo Bills at New York Giants: Gregg Williams of the Bills and Jim Fassel of the Giants have tough missions. Both coaches are fighting for their jobs, and their 4-7 records leave them virtually out of the playoffs. How do you motivate when little hope is left? Even worse, the loser of this game will be a coach with a 4-8 record. That won't look good in the postseason reviews by owners and the front office. Both offenses are puzzling. The Bills have a great runner, Travis Henry, but they can't get much play-action passing working consistently. Drew Bledsoe remains a standing target behind the line of scrimmage. The Giants average 352 yards a game in total offense -- fourth best in the league -- but they can't get the ball into the end zone consistently. They leave more points on the field than anyone in the NFL. They average 17.7 points a game and are plagued by penalties, fumbles and interceptions.
1a. Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders: The Raiders downfall became more pronounced in Week 3 when the Broncos blew them out, 31-10. After the game, Bill Callahan said that defenses have caught up to the Raiders offense, and things spiraled into a 3-8 disaster. Because both teams hate each other, the Raiders could play interesting spoilers. What's happened to the Broncos? Their 5-2 start has been ruined by three losses in the past four games. Two of the losses were understandable because the Broncos didn't have their top two quarterbacks. What's puzzling is that Jake Plummer comes back and they lose by nine points at home against the Bears. Mike Shanahan is furious about his special teams, but how do you score only 10 points against the Bears when Clinton Portis runs for more than 150 yards? The Raiders proved last week they can stay competitive. Rick Mirer managed a balanced offensive attack and gave the Chiefs problems at Arrowhead Stadium. Beating the Broncos won't mean much in the long-term equations of the Raiders, but it would be an act of revenge.
1b. Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: Recap: Lions 22, Packers 14
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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