- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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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 15.
After a near-disastrous 1-2 start that cost Kurt Warner his starting job and raised questions about the Rams throughout the league, the Rams have bounced back like champions. They've won nine of their last 10. They've become invincible at home and Marc Bulger has fought through some growing pains as the starting quarterback in his second season.
Sunday could be celebration day. The Seahawks come to town two games behind in the NFC West standings. A victory over the Seahawks, who beat the Rams 24-23 in Week 3, would clinch the NFC West for St. Louis and put the Rams in a great spot to eventually secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
More so in the NFC, home-field means everything. The Rams' high-powered offense is built for the dome. As long as Bulger has the pass protection, he can throw all day to Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Marshall Faulk came back at the right time to bail out Bulger, who was having problems against teams that blitzed him a lot.
With Faulk in the backfield, Bulger has the ultimate in blitz deterrents. For one, Faulk is a smart player who knows how to block in blitz situations. Second, Faulk is exceptional at taking a draw or a quick pass when the blitzers storm toward Bulger.
Except for linebacker Robert Thomas, the Rams defense is reasonably healthy. Sure, they're a little sore coming off a Monday night game in which they whipped the mistake-prone Cleveland Browns. But Leonard Little played well enough at defensive end to put pressure on the Browns quarterbacks and not totally destroy his already partially-torn pectoral muscle. The secondary is healthy. And each week, defensive coordinator Lovie Smith keeps stepping up the number of blitzes.
Even though the Seahawks won the first meeting, this is not a good matchup for Seattle. First of all, the Seahawks are awful on the road. They are 1-5 and they tend to make too many mistakes in road games.
Just like last week against the Vikings, the Seahawks defense, which is one of the worst at applying pressure on quarterbacks with their defensive line, will have a hard time beating one of the best offensive lines in football. To get to Bulger, opponents have been forced to blitz. With outside linebackers Anthony Simmons and Chad Brown banged up, the Seahawks don't have a lot of blitz options. Simmons will probably have to miss the game because of a sore neck that prevented him from playing the Vikings game.
That puts all the pressure on Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to try to outscore the Rams. Though Hasselbeck has the talent and the offensive weapons to get into a shootout with the Rams, the worry for the Seahawks is turnovers. Offensive turnovers could kill Seattle's chances of winning.
And 10. Philadelphia Eagles at Miami Dolphins: For the Dolphins, this game is their season. A loss could kill their playoff hopes because they are in a game of wild-card survival with the Broncos. Playoff elimination could lead to a lot of changes for the Dolphins. For one, coach Dave Wannstedt is fighting to keep his job. And no he is not heading off to Nebraska. Wannstedt's trying his best to ride Ricky Williams' legs into the playoffs. Secondly, quarterback Jay Fiedler is fighting to stay a starting quarterback. Though he sparked the Dolphins offense with victories over the Redskins and Cowboys during a five-day stretch, Fiedler couldn't pull off a road victory in the snowy, cold conditions in New England last week. That shouldn't be held against him too much. Winning on the road is tough. But Fiedler slightly reinjured his left knee and if that limits his mobility, it could cause more problems for an offense that struggles with shaky pass blocking. Naturally, the Eagles love to blitz and will try to come after Fiedler hard. That puts more pressure on Williams to have a big game. The Eagles give up 124 yards rushing a game. Williams and the Dolphins need a 100-yard rushing game.
9. Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins: The Cowboys are sinking, and sinking fast. They are showing more and more signs that they can't win a big game on the road, and if they don't, their best hope is having the right tie-breaker combinations to get a wild-card spot. The Cowboys haven't won a road game outside of the two they won in September in the Meadowlands. You can see Bill Parcells getting more impatient. First, he cuts third cornerback Derek Ross for disciplinary reasons. Then he benches defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban and right guard Andre Gurode for last week's loss to the Eagles. Beating the Redskins on the road won't be easy. The Redskins will be going with Tim Hasselbeck at quarterback, who actually runs Steve Spurrier's offense pretty well. The Redskins defense ranks No. 21 in the NFL. But their weakness is against the run, so they don't really have to worry much about the Cowboys. Troy Hambrick can be contained. He's averaging only 3.3 yards this season. The Cowboys should beat the Giants next week at home, but beating the Redskins and the Saints on the road might be tough. That would leave the Cowboys with a possible 9-7 record.
8. Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans: Steve McNair said last Sunday that if he finishes the game he should be able to play the next week. This week will challenge that. McNair won't practice all week after spraining his left ankle. An MRI revealed a bone spur and a crack in the bone spur that is painful. Billy Volek will get all the preparation for the game against the Bills. The Titans look like they are falling flat. They have lost two in a row and haven't been sharp in three games. Still, this is a good matchup for the Titans, particularly if McNair is back. Their physical front four should pressure quarterback Drew Bledsoe and contain halfback Travis Henry, who has had remarkable games despite a broken leg. Still, the Bills are a dangerous foe for the Titans. Their defense ranks second in the league allowing just 267.2 yards a game. The problem in Buffalo has been that the offense can't score points. They've had only four games this season in which they've scored 20 or more points. That's not playoff caliber. Along with Henry's hot running, the Bills are getting better play out of wide receiver Josh Reed. After catching only 14 passes in the Bills first six games, Reed has 39 catches for 374 yards and two touchdowns in seven games.
7. Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos: If he weren't so embarrassed, Tim Couch might be wearing a big smile these days. Butch Davis tried everything in the world to run him out of Cleveland. He kept going back to Kelly Holcolmb, who looks more and more like a backup quarterback every time Davis starts him. Now, Davis can be blamed for that because he surrounded both quarterbacks with inferior talent, bad blocking and no consistent running game. Where Couch has to be smiling is that he has come out of this season looking like the franchise's best quarterback. Which creates an interesting dilemma. Davis may have to stay with Couch as the starter next year despite his massive salary cap number. In many ways, this is a nightmare game for Butch Davis. His defense must contain his former University of Miami halfback Clinton Portis, whom Davis bypassed in the draft to select William Green, who is currently out with a drug suspension. Davis' defense isn't that bad. It ranks 10th, but is banged up with the Browns having to place five players on injured reserve Tuesday. They are running out of bodies. The Broncos can't afford a flat performance if they want to make the playoffs. This is their last home game. They have road trips to Indianapolis and Green Bay. Those games will be tough, but they can't afford to look ahead.
6. Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: Bravo, Dick Jauron. Even though it would make sense to start veteran quarterback Kordell Stewart or Chris Chandler to give the Bears a better chance to get to 7-9 or 8-8, Jauron took one for the organization and decided to start rookie quarterback Rex Grossman. While it would seem to be a no-brainer to go with Grossman for three games, Jauron could have been selfish and just tried to go with experience. Unfortunately, that might not be enough to save his job. Last week's loss to the Packers ended the Bears final hopes of making the playoffs. For the Vikings, it's good news that the Bears are going to a rookie. Though Grossman will excite the Bears fans, his inexperience could give the Vikings defense a better chance of winning. Rookie quarterbacks make mistakes, and the Vikings will try to blitz him and force turnovers. The Vikings still need to get to 10 wins to lock up the NFC North. The Packers have an easy closing schedule, and this game is vital for tiebreaker purposes for the Vikings.
5. San Francisco 49ers at Cincinnati Bengals: Coming back from a disappointing loss to the Ravens last Sunday may be difficult for the Bengals. They seemed to be so confident they would take the AFC North by beating the Ravens, but they were outperformed at the worst possible time. They face the NFL's Jeckyll and Hyde team. At home, the 49ers are 6-1 and have had games in which they've scored 49 and 50 points. On the road, though, they've only scored more than 20 points once. Go figure. Jeff Garcia is coming off one of his best games, but he must translate that success on the road in the cold. It's an important game for 49er running back Kevan Barlow, a free agent after the season. Barlow is playing for a big contract next year and he could be the top free agent running back available. Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna has to worry about one of the league's best blitzing defenses. Defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. finds blitzes teams can't block and then just keeps running them until a team figures it out. Kitna continues to excel in a three-receiver offense but will need a good day from the offensive line.
4. Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders: Reality has to set in sometime. The Ravens are coming off an incredible three-game home stand in which they outscored opponents, 129-56. And that's with Anthony Wright at quarterback. Will the road bring reality back to the Ravens? It's possible. Of course, Brian Billick is usually ahead of the curve when it comes to trends. He knows the Raiders are allowing 149.4 yards a game against the run, and Jamal Lewis has an outside shot at a 2,000-yard season. The Raiders have become so young and inconsistent in their defensive front seven, it's hard to believe they will have the ability to slow down the Ravens' powerful running attack. Still, Wright can't afford a bad game in which he gives away fumbles or interceptions. The key to beating the Raiders is getting them out of the game early.
3. Atlanta Falcons at Indianapolis Colts: Just when you thought the Falcons were ready to generate some excitement with the return of Michael Vick, owner Arthur Blank tells Dan Reeves he won't be back next season, and suddenly there is a coaching change. Just what the Falcons need. Although Wade Phillips might be the best interim coach in NFL history, he has to find a way to get a banged-up defense to stop Peyton Manning, who is on a roll. Vick dazzles fans and opponents with his running and throwing on the run, but it's still early to ask him to generate 30 points of offense, which is what they'll need. The Colts defense has the speed to chase around Vick, but as long as they can contain him in the red zone, the Colts should win. Edgerrin James hasn't had a 100-yard game in a couple weeks going against some of the league's top run-stopping defenses. But the Falcons rank near the bottom as far as stopping the run, so James figures to be the star in this game.
2. Green Bay Packers at San Diego Chargers: Logic says the Packers should beat the Chargers and Raiders on the road the next two weekends. The two teams are 3-10. Of course, logic would say that the Packers wouldn't lose on the road to the Cardinals and Lions. They did. Well, Mike Sherman can't afford any more slip ups. Whether this a good thing or not, the Chargers are expected to go back to Drew Brees to give him another chance to regain his confidence. Marty Schottenheimer may keep his job for next year, but the organization needs to see where they stand with Brees. More than likely, they will be looking for a new quarterback after the season. Brett Favre should be getting over the last effects of his broken thumb, and that should improve his passing accuracy. That may not change the Packers style. They've been running the ball more with Ahman Green and following the blocks of perhaps the league's most unappreciated offensive line. The Packers defense has been getting back into blitzing more and more. Expect them to pick up the blitzes against Brees.
1. Carolina Panthers at Arizona Cardinals: The Panthers have an ace in the hole to stop their three-game losing streak. Back-to-back games against the Cardinals and Lions, teams with combined records of 7-19. Now, the Panthers have to make sure they don't blow this gift. The Cardinals are making life a little easier for the Panthers by turning to the future. They benched quarterback Jeff Blake to give Josh McCown a look at quarterback. The only thing good about the Cardinals offense this year has been the Blake-Anquan Boldin combo. Boldin has 79 catches for 1,155 yards. McCown might not get him the ball as well. Of late, the Cardinals haven't been competitive. In their last five losses, they have been outscored, 180-65. They are just what the Panthers needed. The worry for the Panthers is motivation. Only 23,000 will be in the seats if they all show up. For the Panthers, the game will have the feel of an exhibition, but this is an exhibition they must win.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.