Colts host Steelers in Week 12's top matchup
Can anyone stop Peyton Manning and the Colts? The Steelers will try Monday night in Week 12's best game.
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 12.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts (ABC, Monday, 9 p.m. ET) | Scouting report
In the first half of the season, Edgerrin James was arguably the NFL's Most Valuable Player. As the Colts head toward a potential undefeated season, Peyton Manning seems to be taking the award away from him.
Manning is the Answer Man. Eight years in the Colts' offensive system, Manning has answers for just about anything a defense can throw at him. In some ways, the years of frustration over losing to Bill Belichick and the Patriots are now paying off. Manning has thought through all the things a defense can do, and he has the answers.
Monday night's game against the Steelers is another challenge. The Steelers have one of the toughest 3-4 defenses in football. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has some of the best Fire-zone blitz schemes in football. Like Jim Johnson in Philadelphia, LeBeau blitzes a lot, but it's impossible to guess which player or players are coming.
The problem for LeBeau will be deciding whether to blitz. Manning is the best quarterback against the blitz in the NFL. The Bengals tried to blitz Manning on Sunday. They called more man-to-man defenses and tried to be aggressive. Manning burned them for five touchdown drives in five possessions in the first half, and the Colts won 45-37.
In the past five games, the Colts are averaging 39.8 points. They have scored 25 touchdowns on their past 50 possessions. Their offensive efficiency is at an unparalleled level. They've basically become so good, they are turning in 10-possession games.
The normal NFL game has about 12 possessions per team. In the first 10 games, the Colts have had 98 possessions, with 36 touchdown drives and 11 field goals. Translated, that means they score on just about every other possession they have the ball.
The Colts are averaging close to 30 yards per possession. They lead the league with 25 10-play drives. They have the fewest three-and-outs this season -- 15. They've only punted 28 times.
This MNF game could be a playoff preview, and the Steelers have to figure out ways to slow Indy down. After going 2-2 this season without Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers have to keep him healthy because they don't have much room for error in the AFC North. They are tied for the division lead with the Bengals, but a loss this week could put them a game behind Cincinnati heading into next week's showdown versus the Bengals (in Pittsburgh).
Roethlisberger will start, but coach Bill Cowher has to decide which direction he wants to take the running offense. He's relied mostly on Willie Parker, a quick, small back. The team has had its best success with big backs -- Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley -- and the Colts have a smaller defense that could have problems with big backs who pound the ball.
The key for the Steelers is keeping the Colts' offense off the field. The Bengals came out in a no-huddle offense against Indianapolis on Sunday and scored. But the problem with the no-huddle is that it gives the Colts more possessions. The Bengals scored 37, while the Colts scored 45. It's been the Colts' year. Will it continue to be Monday night?
And 10. N.Y. Giants at Seattle Seahawks | Scouting report
Until the Seahawks' Week 16 contest against Indianapolis, this could be the biggest challenge in their bid to get the NFC's No. 1 seed. They've beaten the Falcons and Cowboys at home. They've swept their main division rival, the Rams. In fact, they could become the NFL's first division winner if they beat the Giants and the Rams lose to the Texans. But the Seahawks have been showing signs of vulnerability lately. The 49ers almost came back to tie them in the final seconds of Sunday's win. Seattle still doesn't have its most talented receiver, Darrell Jackson, and the lack of speed at wideout has caused some problems because teams squat on routes. But the Seahawks have the confidence that goes with the league's No. 1 offense. Shaun Alexander is averaging 122.9 yards per game rushing and has scored 19 touchdowns. The Giants face the tough decision of trying to stack an extra defender at the line of scrimmage, which puts more pressure on their defense. Conversely, this game is an interesting challenge for quarterback Eli Manning. The only true road game Manning has won was against an inferior 49ers team. He gets credit for beating the Saints on the road, but the game was played at Giants Stadium in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Giants' tall receivers will present matchup problems for the Seahawks' shorter cornerbacks. Tiki Barber, a quick running back, is a different challenge for the Seahawks, who have had a steady diet of big backs. At home, though, the Seahawks should have an edge.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
8. New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs | Scouting report
The Patriots are destined to win the AFC East, but this is a game that could determine the Patriots' place in the playoffs. The AFC East is so messed up that the Patriots should go 6-0 in division play. They have four division games remaining in their final six and should win them all. Out of the division, they play the Chiefs and the Bucs, but the Bucs game is in Foxborough, Mass., where the Pats will be favored. If the Patriots lose to the Chiefs, they face the possibility of being 5-5 in nondivision games. For a three-time Super Bowl champ, mediocrity is hard to swallow, but it's been a tough year. The defense, which ranks 31st in yards allowed (382.9), is still trying to fix itself. The Pats are giving up more than 25 points per game. On the other side, the Chiefs have problems of their own. Running back Priest Holmes is out for the season. Offensive tackle Willie Roaf has missed nine games due to an injured hamstring, and without them, the Chiefs have turned into a Larry Johnson-running team with an inconsistent passing attack. Stopping the run has been a problem for the Patriots. Of course, New England has lost so many cornerbacks and safeties to injuries, it's just as tempting to pass the ball. The Patriots went into Kansas City last year and won a big game with a depleted secondary. The Chiefs need to win this game to stay in the AFC West race with the Broncos. This should be an offensive game. Quarterback Trent Green is still good, and he's really sharp at home. Tom Brady is sensational at home and on the road.
7. Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys | Scouting report
The Cowboys' problems at tackle are showing in their offensive numbers. Coach Bill Parcells isn't taking as many chances passing downfield with offensive tackles Rob Petitti and Torrin Tucker in the lineup. In his first six games, quarterback Drew Bledsoe completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 277 yards a game. In the past four games, Bledsoe is completing more shorter routes: He's completed 64.2 percent of his passes but averaged only 166 passing yards. The Cowboys haven't had a 100-yard receiver in the past four games after having four in the first six. This will be a tough matchup for the Cowboys' offensive line because the Broncos' defense is unpredictable. Denver loves to blitz. The Broncos probably run more full-out blitzes than any team in football. They aren't afraid to put 10 players at the line of scrimmage and have no safeties deep. They are talented enough on a deep defensive line -- with Trevor Pryce, Gerard Warren, Courtney Brown and others -- to send just four pass-rushers. The key for the Cowboys will be establishing the run; Julius Jones is back and capable of running for 100 yards. Marion Barber developed as a dependable option during Jones' recovery from a high ankle sprain. Meanwhile, this is an important two-week period for the Broncos. The AFC West is theirs for the taking, but they have this road game in Dallas and a road game coming next week against the Chiefs. They have a two-game lead, but it could vanish quickly with two losses. Denver quarterback Jake Plummer continues to be "No Mistakes"' Jake. He's not throwing interceptions, in part because coach Mike Shanahan limits his throws with the Broncos' great running attack.
6. Carolina Panthers at Buffalo Bills | Scouting report
The Bills' 48-10 loss to the Chargers was an embarrassment. To go cross-country and be whipped as soundly as the Bills were beaten has to have owner Ralph Wilson concerned about the team's direction. The Bills beat the Chiefs at home two weeks ago and looked good. However, everything malfunctioned against the Chargers, and a repeat of that performance could cause some serious reevaluations in Buffalo. The defense has some older linebackers and safeties, so the window for winning might be short. It still makes you wonder why the Bills gave away Drew Bledsoe without knowing for sure that quarterback J.P. Losman was ready to be the starter. This season is just slipping away too quickly, and the Panthers present one of the final challenges. A loss by the Bills will send this team into a serious funk. They have four playoff-caliber teams on their schedule during the final six games. Along the same lines, Panthers coach John Fox has to get his team to quickly forget about Sunday's loss in Chicago. The concern is the running game; Stephen Davis is struggling and he's at the stage of the season in which he usually wears down. DeShaun Foster is a good runner, but he tends to bounce more of his runs to the outside -- and the Panthers are at their best when they run up the middle. The Bills still can't figure out why they can't stop the run. They're giving up 149.7 yards per game on the ground. Both teams expect to run the ball a lot, so this could end up being a fast-moving game.
4. Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals | Scouting report
Even though the Bengals showed they can play with the league's best team, they took their loss to the Colts hard. But some of their thinking was a little weird. The Bengals made it sound as though Sunday's game against the Colts was the most important of the season. But for the Bengals, their most important games are in the AFC North (Pittsburgh is their biggest rival). Just because Indianapolis is a two-hour drive away and has Peyton Manning at quarterback doesn't make the Colts' game more important than a game against the Steelers. To be a player in the playoffs, a team has to win a division, and Pittsburgh is the top dog in the AFC North. The Ravens are also a serious division rival. Baltimore comes in with very little passing offense but an aggressive defense. If the Bengals' offense lets down from the disappointing loss to the Colts, Cincinnati could have trouble in this game. After all, the Ravens almost pulled out a road win in Pittsburgh a month ago. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has to keep his team focused for this game.
3. Cleveland Browns at Minnesota Vikings | Scouting report
The Vikings are climbing back into the NFC North race. In the next three weeks, they have winnable games against the Browns, Lions and Rams. Trailing the Bears by two games, the Vikings have little margin for error. They won an emotional game over the Packers on Monday night and found out a little about themselves. They can run the ball and dominate a second half. Mewelde Moore ran hard, and despite two changes in personnel along the offensive line, the blocking kicked in. Quarterback Brad Johnson managed to lead the team to its third straight win. Wide receiver Koren Robinson continues to get more confidence from the coaching staff. The defense is also getting some momentum. Meanwhile, the Browns have little to play for and are starting to look at next season. Coach Romeo Crennel plans to get backup quarterback Charlie Frye a series or two in this game even though starter Trent Dilfer isn't fond of the idea.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars at Arizona Cardinals | Scouting report
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio has to worry more than any coach in football about a trap game. Rarely do teams go on three-game road trips and come away with three wins. But the Jags have a chance to do that. They started their three-game trip with a win over the Titans and now they have winnable games against the Cardinals and Browns -- but the Cardinals can be tough to play at home. The Cards run an aggressive, creative defense that often puts five defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Kurt Warner has also gotten into a passing rhythm the past three games, with the offense getting a boost from having receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin back together on the field. The Jaguars have to be careful. If they lose either of the next two road games, they could fall four games behind the Colts and face the possibility of being eliminated from the AFC South race before the two teams meet Dec. 11 in Jacksonville. In a game like this, the Jaguars need Fred Taylor to show up -- he's their best back. Against the Cardinals, you don't have to be too tricky. A strong running game on the road can silence a crowd, and it's not as though the stands are going to be packed in Phoenix.
1. Miami Dolphins at Oakland Raiders | Scouting report
At coach Nick Saban's Monday press conference, he said the results this year are meaningless. He's using this season to see which players fit his needs and desires and to determine who will be back next season. Whoops. Somebody got to Saban and encouraged him to come back and say he's trying to win this year. But with quarterback Gus Frerotte and Sage Rosenfels as his quarterbacks, they don't have much of a chance. Miami faces a Raiders team that believes it's back in the playoff hunt after Sunday's win at Washington. While the Raiders won't concede they're out of the playoff race, they really are. But they aren't quitting on coach Norv Turner. This matchup clearly favors the Raiders. With Ted Washington and Warren Sapp in the middle of the Raiders' D-line, the Dolphins could have trouble running. The Raiders would be 5-6 with a victory, giving them hope of a 7-9 season. Under the circumstances, that's about as good as it gets.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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