Pats-Colts matchup remains critical
The 2007 season will certainly feature plenty of matchups between the league's elite teams, writes John Clayton.
The first goal of any team is to win its division, so games against divisional foes tend to be regarded as the most important. But something strange happened last season.
Divisional races, particularly in the AFC, failed to materialize. The Ravens (AFC North) and Chargers (AFC West) won their respective divisions by five games, while the Colts topped the AFC South by four games.
Overall, the average gap between the first- and second-place teams in the NFL last year was 3.1 games.
With that in mind, the top games featured this year will not be divisional matchups. The elite teams in the AFC will likely remain the Patriots, Colts, Chargers and Ravens, as each is expected to repeat as division winner. In fact, those were my top teams when I submitted my ESPN.com power rankings.
Divisional races will regain their importance as the season progresses, but for this preseason forecast of the top games, let's focus on the best non-divisional matchups.
1. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts -- Sunday, Nov. 4
Until further notice, this matchup remains the best in the league. Each team has controlled its division for years, and their meetings tend to have a major impact on homefield advantage in the playoffs. The two franchises have combined to win four of the last six Super Bowls. From 2000 to 2004, Bill Belichick had control of this series. He seemed to get in the head of Peyton Manning, forcing him to make mistakes. The Patriots had a four-game winning streak until 2005 when Manning turned the tide. By controlling the clock and the managing the games to perfection, Manning has forced Belichick to go for fourth downs early and take bigger risks to score points. The Colts have won the last three meetings, including last year's AFC Championship game.
2. San Diego Chargers at New England Patriots -- Sunday night, Sept. 16
This Week 2 matchup rises to the top because of the talents on both sides. The Patriots had arguably the best offseason of any team in the league with the additions of Randy Moss and Wes Welker at wide receiver. On paper, the Chargers have the best team in the league. Both will be coming off tough opening games. The Patriots face the Jets on the road, while the Chargers host the Bears in another of the top games of the season. The Patriots beat the Chargers in the playoffs last year, costing Marty Schottenheimer his job. This game could very well hold great importance in the playoff picture, as the winner will have the tie-breaker in playoff seeding. The Chargers certainly don't want to go to New England in January.
3. Indianapolis Colts at San Diego Chargers -- Sunday night, Nov. 11
Manning and Tony Dungy finally found ways to defeat the Patriots. They must do the same against the Chargers, who beat the Colts in a 2005 regular-season game in Indianapolis. The Chargers create a lot of problems for the Colts. They have a blitzing, physical 3-4 defense, and the ability to control the clock with LaDainian Tomlinson. They also have a quarterback in Philip Rivers who is moving into the elite group of AFC quarterbacks. The Chargers can score points, while their defense has the ability to pressure Manning into mistakes. Like most teams that face the Colts, the Chargers will try to emphasize the running game, keeping Manning on the sidelines.
4. New England Patriots at Baltimore Ravens -- Monday night, Dec. 3
Playing in Baltimore this late in the season and on a Monday night will be tough. The Ravens are clearly one of the NFL's elite teams. Steve McNair looks more comfortable in his second season in Brian Billick's offense, and Billick looks more comfortable spreading the field and being more creative on offense. The highlight of this game will be Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan matching wits against Tom Brady. Brady is a master at frustrating blitzing teams. He can read defenses quickly and deliver the ball without hesitation. Ray Lewis will be doing his best to protect his house.
The good news for the Ravens is their two toughest matchups, against the Patriots and Colts, are both at home. The bad news is they face those teams in consecutives weeks, setting up an impossible three-game stretch that begins with a matchup against the Chargers in San Diego. The Colts game comes at the end of a short week, as the Ravens face the Patriots on Monday night. Billick also has to make sure the team does not expend too much energy during this stretch because its closing schedule is equally tough. The Ravens follow these three matchups with road games against Miami and Seattle, and a season-ending game against the Steelers at home.
6. Baltimore Ravens at San Diego Chargers -- Sunday, Nov. 25
This is a great game to set the table for the triple-header on Thanksgiving Day. Both teams love to blitz and be creative on defense, and both teams have physical offenses that are fun to watch. The Ravens will be coming off three November games against NFC North teams and will have played five divisional games. Because of their tough closing schedule, they will probably need at least a two-game lead heading into this game to feel comfortable about winning the division.
7. Chicago Bears at San Diego Chargers -- Sunday, Sept. 9
We finally arrive at a game involving an NFC team. The Bears are clearly the best team in the NFC North, as they won the division by five games last season, and none of their three competitors did enough to catch up. This matchup could be a Super Bowl preview. Rex Grossman has been driving Bears fans crazy with his inconsistency. He opens the season against a defense that can drive him crazy.
8. Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers -- Monday night, Nov. 5
This the first divisional matchup in the list. Ben Roethlisberger looks much stronger running no-huddle schemes and making his own adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Mike Tomlin has set a good tempo with his defense in preseason games and practices. After a difficult season, the Steelers appear to be back. The Ravens face a tough second-half schedule, so the Steelers have a chance to reestablish themselves in this game. The Ravens physically pounded the Steelers in both meetings last year. This could be one of the most emotional games of the season.
9. Dallas Cowboys at Chicago Bears -- Sunday night, Sept. 23
This could be a preview of the NFC Championship game. With a defense that should be among the league's best and Tony Romo leading a high-scoring offense, the Cowboys looked poised to emerge as one of the NFC's elite. Dallas certainly should have the edge over Philadelphia in the NFC East. The Bears will likely run away with the NFC North and be one of the league's top teams. The Saints are also regarded as a Super Bowl contender, but their game against the Bears doesn't come until Dec. 30. By then, division races could be wrapped up and coaches could be resting starters. As a result, the Cowboys-Bears matchup is the top NFC game of the season.
10. Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars -- Monday night, Oct. 22
This is the second-best divisional matchup. The Jaguars believe they can challenge for the AFC South title, and they will have plenty going for them this season. Their first three divisional games are in Jacksonville -- Sept. 9 against the Titans, Oct. 14 against the Texans and Oct. 22 against the Colts. They must win all three games or they will likely be playing catch-up to the Colts. This is the most important game of Jacksonville's season. For years, the Jaguars have been chasing the Colts without success. If they can't beat them on Oct. 22, they will once again be dismissed as a pretender.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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