- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton's "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 12.
First Chicago Bears at New England Patriots
Life changes quickly in the NFL, sometimes too quickly even for flexible scheduling.
The 12-day window NBC has before grabbing a key Sunday game still doesn't guarantee getting the best game. Look what happened leading to this Sunday. A week ago, Philadelphia visiting Indianapolis looked like the marquee matchup. Peyton Manning versus Donovan McNabb. The resurgent Eagles versus the undefeated Colts. Whoops. Now the Colts have one loss and McNabb blew out his knee and is done for the season. What appeared to be a great game could turn into a blowout.
The main game this week is in New England. Bears coach Lovie Smith must feel like he's an East Coaster the way the schedule has treated him. He's played back-to-back games in the Meadowlands, beating the Giants and the Jets. The completion of the three-game road trip is at Foxborough.
The Cowboys won two of three games on the road after making the change to Tony Romo, but crazy things happen on these ventures. In the middle of the trip, the Cowboys lost that wild game in Washington, the one when Mike Vanderjagt had a field goal blocked in the final seconds and Sean Taylor returned the blocked kick and was aided by a face mask penalty, giving Nick Novak enough room to kick a game-winning field goal.
The Bears have everything going for them. They could clinch the NFC North by Monday night if they win and the Packers and Vikings lose. They have a five-game lead in the division. They have a three-game lead for the NFC home-field advantage. Things couldn't be any better for the Bears.
Yet, Rex Grossman receives more criticism than praise, which seems strange. Going into the season, the Bears hoped and prayed Grossman could stay healthy and the Bears could score 21 points a game. Grossman has been a model of health and the Bears are averaging 28.2 points a game. Nevertheless, critics keep questioning how Grossman is handling pressure defenses and confusing pass coverages.
Bill Belichick will give Grossman another test Sunday that should help him get ready for the playoffs. Belichick has created tough defensive schemes for Peyton Manning and most of the top quarterbacks. Sunday should be no exception, even though the Patriots are so thin in the secondary they've gone back to using wide receiver Troy Brown as an occasional nickel back.
Some might look at this game as a Super Bowl preview, but the more pressing question is whether the Patriots are up for the task. They've lost three games at home and because of that, they are probably going to have to play most of the playoffs on the road. The AFC East is theirs even though they lost their recent home game to the Jets. They have a two-game lead over the Jets, who aren't going to catch them.
The Pats will likely be a third or fourth seed and will have to go through places such as Indianapolis, San Diego and Baltimore to get to the Super Bowl. Still, this home game is a good test for the Patriots.
The Bears fly around the field on defense and they are just starting to get their running game cranked up. This was billed as one of the best remaining games at midseason and it shouldn't disappoint.
And 10. New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons
It's fitting these two teams play in this division because both teams are going South. The Falcons have lost three in a row and can't get Michael Vick back into a rhythm. The Saints have lost two in a row and gave up 69 points in those games. But the pressure is on the Falcons and coach Jim Mora. The Falcons lost to the Saints, 23-3, in the emotional reopening of the Superdome. The Saints are tied with the Panthers for the division lead, so a loss Sunday doesn't knock them out. A Falcons loss could be devastating because it would put the Falcons two games behind the Saints in the standings, but that's really three games because they would lose the tiebreaker to New Orleans. This game should be fascinating. The Saints can't stop passing offenses of late, but the Falcons haven't been much of a passing offense the past three weeks. After seemingly gaining momentum in victories over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Vick has gone just 44-of-93 for 487 yards in the past three games. He's averaging barely five yards an attempt, so if he can't get the passing game going against the Saints, he may have to wait until next year.
This is the most important game in Jake Plummer's starting days in Denver. If he wins, he will continue as the starting quarterback the rest of the season. If he loses, Mike Shanahan has 10 days to reflect on the state of the Broncos and might go to rookie Jay Cutler. Plummer can't be Plummer under the current configuration of the offense. The Broncos are keeping tight end Stephen Alexander in to block instead of sending him out into routes because of the loss of left tackle Matt Lepsis for the season. Shanahan is calling more max protection plays, so fewer receivers are getting into routes and Plummer isn't being allowed to run bootlegs and scrambles. He doesn't have enough guys to throw his passes to on the run. If the Broncos lose and drop to 7-4, their hopes with Plummer are more set for a wild-card playoff berth than a division championship, so Shanahan might make a change even though he wants to stay with Plummer. The Chiefs are going to try to gut it out. Trent Green is back at quarterback. Guard Brian Waters rushed back from a knee injury after missing two games. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is going to try to play despite a second-degree shoulder separation.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens
Bet the under when these two teams meet. They usually play a tough, defensive game with scores in the teens and this one doesn't figure to be any different. The Steelers are playing better and more like a desperate team in wins over the Saints and the Browns. Though their playoff hopes remain remote, the Steelers have four more AFC North games to make life interesting. They have two games left against the Ravens and would love nothing more than to cause the Ravens problems. A Steelers loss would dethrone the Super Bowl champs. At 4-7, the Steelers would be almost officially eliminated from the playoffs. That is usually a symbolic part of a season that can't be ignored. It would add to the rivalry if the Ravens can do that. The Ravens are 8-2 and could keep the pressure on the Bengals by winning. Steve McNair continues to show great leadership and the defense continues to battle even though the unit is getting banged up.
7. San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams
Cinderella has to take her slippers on the road the next two weeks to see whether the 49ers are indeed a playoff contender. They've proven in six home games that they can be tough. They are 4-2 at home, but the true test of a playoff team is how well it performs on the road. The 49ers are 1-3 on the road and the defense has given up 129 points in those road games. The Rams hit the emotional wall with their close losses to the Seahawks. They crashed last week with a shutout loss to the Panthers. They didn't run the ball enough with Steven Jackson last week, and rectifying that has to be Scott Linehan's plan. The 49ers suffered a couple of linebacker injuries against the Seahawks last week, so they will be more vulnerable to the run. Plus, Jackson usually runs well in the Edward Jones Dome. Marc Bulger is a dangerous quarterback because of his accuracy. That's the weird part of the 49ers' season. They are a team that has surprised everybody with their 5-5 start, yet it's not out of the question for them to lose 41-10 in St. Louis.
6. Philadelphia Eagles at Indianapolis Colts
McNabb blew out his knee and the Eagles aren't as compelling with Jeff Garcia at quarterback. With McNabb at the helm, the Eagles led the league with an average of 6.15 yards per play. That stat is a result of McNabb's ability to make the big play. He leads the league in 20-yard completions. With their 60-40 pass-to-run ratio, the Eagles are built to be a passing team, but they won't be able to go downfield as much without McNabb. Plus, they aren't built to do much as far as power running. This could be a one-sided game for the Colts, who are coming off a tough loss to the Cowboys. What was expected to be an offensive shootout could be a one-sided execution.
5. Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks
Face it, the Seahawks should win the NFC West, but they aren't playing playoff football. After the defense picked up its effort in wins over the Raiders and Rams, it laid an egg against the 49ers in a loss last week. With the return of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck after four games, the Seahawks need to pick up their effort and they should. Seneca Wallace played well in four starts as a backup, but things caught up to him last week with three interceptions. Like Damon Huard in Kansas City, though, Wallace did enough to keep the Seahawks in a good position. Starting Monday night, Hasselbeck has to start the playoff charge. Shaun Alexander now has a game under his belt coming off the cracked bone in his foot. Being at home, the Seahawks will be energized by one of the loudest crowds in football. Brett Favre has been getting banged up of late. His nerve injury doesn't appear to be a problem, so he will start. Favre versus Mike Holmgren usually makes for good television and ESPN is banking on it for this game. Favre has cut down on his interceptions, and what happened last week ended any debate about next season. Favre needs to return. Once he went down with the elbow injury, the Packers lost 35-0. The Packers aren't ready to give up on Favre and let him retire. The campaign to bring Favre back for the 2007 season has begun.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars at Buffalo Bills
The loss of safety Donovin Darius comes at an interesting time for the Jaguars. The Jags have lost three of their best defensive players for the season -- end Reggie Hayward, linebacker Mike Peterson and Darius. With the Jaguars missing a pass-rusher and two of their best players up the middle of the field, the Bills will try to test that part of the field with wide receiver Lee Evans. Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild made a solid move last week. He junked the seven-step drops and had quarterback J.P. Losman wing it with more downfield throws on three- and five-step drops. Evans exploded and Losman gained some confidence. Darius is a valued leader in the middle of the secondary and the Jaguars' defense will miss him. The Jaguars are in a dogfight with the Chiefs and Bengals for the final wild-card spot. They can't afford a loss in Buffalo if they want to make the playoffs.
The Giants' free fall continues. The defense has been hit harder than just about any team in the league with injuries. Eli Manning is healthy, but his throwing mechanics look as though they should go on injured reserve. Manning's accuracy has gone in the tank and the Giants just can't blame the loss of Amani Toomer. Sure, Tiki Barber's thumb injury prevented him from going into routes, but even if he did, there was no guarantee Manning could hit him with an accurate pass. Quietly, Jeff Fisher and Norm Chow are doing some nice things with Vince Young. He's 3-4 as a starter, and the Titans are becoming more competitive by the week. Young has won three of his past four starts and the team believes in him. Tom Coughlin has to get his Giants focused on winning this game because his season will be on the line the next two weeks against the Cowboys and the Panthers. If the Giants are going to make the playoffs, they have to step up and play well Sunday.
2. Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns
The Steelers came out of their win against the Browns last week with praise for their long-buried AFC North rivals. They said the Browns are improving. Romeo Crennel is making some progress with the 3-4 defense. Charlie Frye is getting some positive things going with tight end Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards. The way the Bengals' defense has been playing of late, any quarterback could throw for 300 yards against them. In the last eight games, the Bengals are surrendering 398 yards a game on defense. That's the worst eight-game stretch in football. Marvin Lewis has been having trouble patching the linebacker position. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal is hurt and cornerback Tory James is having trouble on the other side of the field. The Bengals blew out the Browns, 34-17, in their first meeting in Week 2. Carson Palmer has the offense on a roll, but he doesn't want to get into an offensive shootout with the Browns.
1. Houston Texans at New York Jets
Can the Jets make the playoffs? Probably not, but their closing schedule (opponents' combined record of 21-39) is the easiest in football. They don't face a winning team the rest of the season, but the Jets sure don't sound like a playoff team. The concern is quarterback Chad Pennington. While Drew Brees seems to be getting stronger coming off his shoulder surgery, Pennington is fading after two shoulder operations. He hasn't had a 200-yard passing day since Oct. 1. In the past six games, he's thrown nine interceptions and only four touchdown passes. Some people believe he's playing for his future in New York. A few more sub-200-yard games might put him on the block next year when he's due a $2 million March roster bonus. Face it, if Pennington can't get 200 yards against the Texans' defense, he's not going to get 200 the rest of the season.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
13hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo