- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel made a lot of money in the past two weeks with back-to-back 400-yard passing games. If he does it again Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cassel might break the bank in free agency next season.
The Steelers rank first in defense in three main categories -- total defense, stopping the run and pass defense. They have 37 sacks. Opposing quarterbacks have a 71.1 quarterback rating against them, and they are surrendering only 168.8 passing yards a game. Yards will be tough to come by Sunday for Cassel and the Patriots.
For the Steelers, this is the first of a tough four-game stretch; they face four playoff contenders -- after the Patriots, it's the Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans. At 8-3 and playing an already-tough schedule, the Steelers still have to worry about staying ahead of the Ravens in the AFC North race. The Ravens continue to hang one game behind them, so the division championship isn't by any means safe.
What's interesting about this game is how the roles have been reversed. With three Super Bowl rings in this decade, the Patriots have controlled this series. They've won four of the past five games and have stopped the Steelers in the playoffs and in championship games. Of course, Tom Brady was running their offense during those games. Knowing the offense would be able to pull out close games, coach Bill Belichick could focus on stopping Ben Roethlisberger.
For this game, Roethlisberger and the Steelers have the advantage at the quarterback position. Using more no-huddle and spread formations, Roethlisberger continues to evolve as one of the league's top quarterbacks. Although a shoulder injury has hindered him at times in the past month, he still has put up better offensive numbers because of the evolution of his game.
Unlike the Dolphins, who lost to the Patriots on Sunday in Miami, the Steelers will go after New England's cornerbacks and not try to be tricky. The Dolphins seemed to get too caught up with their Wildcat formation and didn't focus on some of the weaknesses the Patriots have in the secondary. Opposing quarterbacks have a 91.8 quarterback rating against the Patriots, and the usually stingy Belichick pass defense has surrendered 19 touchdown passes.
Clearly, the Patriots figure this will be a low-scoring game, completely different from the 34-31 and 48-28 shootouts they've played the past two weeks against AFC East rivals. There will be playoff intensity in Foxborough, Mass. At 7-4, the Patriots trail the Jets by a game in the AFC East. They still have to worry about how a loss affects their playoff hopes.
Injuries will be a concern for the Steelers because they could be without as many as five starters. Halfback Willie Parker continues to have problems with a knee injury. Defensive tackle Brett Keisel is out with a knee injury. Left tackle Marvel Smith won't play because of back problems. Cornerbacks Bryant McFadden and Deshea Townsend are doubtful.
Still, the key to this game is the play of Cassel and how he does against the No. 1 defense in football.
1. New York Giants at Washington Redskins: The season opened with the Giants dominating a 16-7 victory over the Redskins in which Jim Zorn and quarterback Jason Campbell didn't appear to be ready for prime time. Zorn was a little off in his play-calling in his first game as the Redskins' head coach. Campbell was staring too long at his main receiving targets. After that game, Zorn grew up as a head coach, and Campbell bounced back and took control of the offense, improving his leadership and the way the manages the offense.
Weeks ago, this seemed like a great showdown, but something in Washington went wrong. Even though the Redskins had the benefit of three second-half-of-the season home games, a 14-10 loss to the Cowboys virtually killed any chance of their catching the Giants for the NFC East title. That loss has left the Redskins scrambling for a wild-card spot. The Giants, meanwhile, continue to play like a Super Bowl champion. That was a huge win over the Cardinals on the road on Sunday even though they didn't have Plaxico Burress and Brandon Jacobs. At some point, you would think there would be a letdown for the Giants, but coach Tom Coughlin hasn't let that happen. The Giants have won four of their past five meetings against the Redskins.
Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings:
The lead in the NFC North is up for grabs, but all the pressure is on the Vikings for this Sunday night game. By next Tuesday, the Vikings could lose the heart of their defense if defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams are suspended for four games because a banned substance was found in their diet pills. Thanks to their play at tackle, the Vikings have the second best run-stopping unit in football, allowing only 70.4 yards a game.
Though it's been tough playing without middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who was playing at a Pro Bowl level before being lost for the season to injury, the Vikings' defense would be vulnerable against the run and the pass without the Williams duo, which is very likely. For the Vikings to do anything in this divisional race, they have to beat the Bears on Sunday, because they won't be the same team for the final four weeks of the season.
The Bears' biggest worry is stopping Adrian Peterson. Peterson has rushed for 423 yards and scored seven touchdowns in three games against Chicago. Though the Bears' defense finally showed some life last week, it will have to play its best game of the season to stop the Vikings and Peterson.
New York Jets
The Raiders scored 31 against the Broncos even though JaMarcus Russell had to throw only 11 passes. Denver coach Mike Shanahan tried Roderick Rogers as a starting safety last week. He felt so good about that move that he cut him on Tuesday.
Brett Favre is getting into a rhythm with the Jets' offense. For the season, he's completing 70.6 percent of his passes. Over the past three weeks, the Jets have averaged 38.3 points a game. The only worry for the Jets is taking this game too lightly, but coach Eric Mangini isn't about to let that happen. The Jets, confident from their win over the Titans, are angling for the second seed and a bye week in the playoffs. The Broncos still lead the AFC West by two games, but their defense's problems could help keep the Chargers' playoff hopes alive.
New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Drew Brees put on a show Monday night against the Packers, but his stats won't mean anything if the Saints can't mount a winning streak. Coach Sean Payton can't figure out why his Saints can't get on a roll. Obviously, a 1-4 road record is one of the problems.
Brees is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season yardage record, but the stats mean nothing if you finish in fourth place in the NFC South. A loss to the Bucs on Sunday could doom the Saints to that fate. Brees passed for 343 yards and three touchdowns against the Bucs in their Sept. 7 meeting in the Superdome. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin bounced back from that game and has the Bucs' defense doing its usual excellent Cover 2 work. The quarterback rating against the Bucs' defense is a paltry 71.4, and opponents are completing only 56.2 percent of their passes against them.
5. Atlanta Falcons at San Diego Chargers: This is the final stand for the Chargers. An eighth loss would all but end any hopes the Chargers have of making the playoffs. This is a game the Chargers should win. Even though the Falcons are 7-4, they are traveling across the country to face a desperate team. The Chargers continue to show flashes of breaking out of their season-long funk, but it all hinges on this game.
The interesting sidebar is the return of RB Michael Turner to San Diego. Turner, who left the Chargers last offseason as a free agent, is having a Pro Bowl season, while LaDainian Tomlinson is starting to slow down. LT is averaging only 3.8 yards a carry.
6. Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers: Panthers coach John Fox can't figure out why his offense is having so much trouble at the start of games. Over the past four games, the Panthers have scored only seven first-quarter points and gained only 76 yards.
That's right, only 76 total yards in the past four first quarters combined. Carolina's only first-quarter touchdown during that stretch came after the Raiders fumbled the opening kickoff at their 16-yard line, setting up an easy touchdown drive for Carolina. Quarterback Jake Delhomme hasn't been sharp of late. Although he played OK against the Falcons in Week 12, Delhomme needs to pick up his game down the stretch if the Panthers are going to keep pace in NFC South.
The Packers will be desperate. Their defense was burned for 51 points by the Saints on Monday night. If the Packers drop to 5-7, they would have to run the table to have any chance of winning the NFC North or making a stab at a wild-card berth. Packers fans must be going crazy. Brett Favre has the Jets in first place in the AFC East, and the Packers are scrambling to win one of the worst divisions in the NFL. Strange.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: Coming off a playoff season, the Jaguars and the networks figured Jack Del Rio's team was ready for prime time. Wrong. The defense got old and slow. The offense line continues to get worse. Tony Pashos, the right tackle, had four holding penalties in Week 12. Major roster changes are coming after the season, so Jaguars players are fighting to keep their jobs and salaries. Traditionally, the Jaguars have had trouble against the Texans. The Jags barely beat Houston in overtime, 30-27, earlier this season, but Gary Kubiak has won three of five games against Jacksonville since becoming the Texans' head coach.
8. Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns: At the start of the season, the Colts' offensive line was without center Jeff Saturday, who was out with a knee injury. Saturday (strained calf muscle) is injured again, but rookie replacement Jamey Richard is better prepared to get the team through the next two or three games. Richard has learned the line calls, so QB Peyton Manning won't have to slow down the tempo of the offense by adding line calls to his language at the line of scrimmage. Richard will need help from his linemates because he'll be going against nose tackle Shaun Rogers, who has been dominating.
9. Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: When these teams met in the season opener, Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco scored on a 38-yard touchdown run and Mark Clayton had a 42-yard touchdown on a double reverse. Since then, the Ravens have become a playoff contender and the Bengals have been a disaster. Cincinnati, which has lost three key defensive players to injured reserve in the past week, figure to be overpowered by the Ravens.
10. San Francisco 49ers at Buffalo Bills: West Coast teams are 0-14 after traveling three time zones to play East Coast teams. Those West Coast teams are averaging 15.8 points per game and allowing 26.9 points in those games. Oddsmakers give the Bills a seven-point edge in this game, but this has all the looks of a Bills blowout, particularly with Buffalo coming off a 54-31 blasting of the Chiefs. A victory would put the Bills at 7-5 and feeling a little better about a season that could have been better. This also will be an interesting return for former Bills cornerback Nate Clements, who was torched in Week 12 by Terrell Owens.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
22hMel Kiper Jr.
2dEric D. Williams