- 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 13.
Too bad not all Sundays are like Week 13 in the NFL.
Since realignment into eight four-team divisions, Paul Tagliabue has had only 96 division games to spread over a 17-week schedule. NFL schedule makers tend to view divisional games like prizes for later in the season. The NFC South, for example, had only four of its 12 division games during the first 12 weeks.
This week there are 12 divisional games, exactly one-eighth of the total allotment for the season. Four divisional games stand out above the rest -- Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Atlanta at Carolina, Dallas at the New York Giants, and Denver at Kansas City. By Sunday evening, some of the league's tightest races will have more clarity and a better idea of the playoff picture will emerge.
First Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers | Scouting report
The Bengals-Steelers game is the headliner. Monday night's 26-7 loss to the Colts makes this game even more interesting because the Steelers suddenly look vulnerable. The problem for Bill Cowher is his running offense. Even though running back Willie Parker, who entered the season as the team's No. 4 running back, has had a great season rushing for 717 yards and a 4.4-yard average, the Steelers have had four games in which they haven't rushed for 100 yards as a team.
Jerome Bettis said it best Monday night when he said, "When you are a running football team and you can't run, what are you? You are a shell of yourself." A year ago during their 15-1 season, it didn't matter who the Steelers put in the backfield. The running game worked. If Bettis was banged up, Duce Staley would rush for 100 yards. The Steelers love to pound defenses with their talented offensive line and big backs, who weigh more than 230 pounds.
The strategy has worked well against the Bengals, who have lost six of the past seven games to the Steelers, including a 27-13 one-sided victory in Cincinnati in Week 7. That victory kept the Steelers in charge of the NFC North. Even though the Bengals have more wins, until they beat the Steelers, they can think only of being a wild-card team.
Ben Roethlisberger has depended on a great running game to make his life easier as a quarterback. He was charmed during his 15-win rookie season. He was rarely asked to throw more than 20 passes in a game. With his big body and ability to scramble, Roethlisberger could pick his spots as a thrower and come up with big plays.
Now, more than ever, he needs the running game. But Cowher has to decide which style of running he wants. Parker, who will start, is a quick, small back who can break long gains but is not going to wear down a defense. Bettis and Staley are power backs who can punish an opposing defense. As good as Parker has been, Cowher needs to bring back some form of the big-back offense. The Bengals aren't great at stopping the run. They give up 122.1 yards a game. The Steelers need to be able to exploit that. Pittsburgh has always been a smashmouth team and they need to go back to that style.
One problem, though, is that the offensive line hasn't been playing well. Blocking up the middle hasn't been as consistent. Left tackle Marvel Smith is out with two ankles injuries and has been replaced by a rookie, Trai Essex. Guard Kendall Simmons and right tackle Max Starks haven't been as consistent in the past couple of weeks.
For the Steelers, this game is their most important in two years. If they lose, they would be two games back in the AFC North with four games left and probably wouldn't be able to catch the Bengals. Their hope would rest on a wild-card spot.
The Steelers are used to big games under pressure. The Bengals are still learning how to deal with the pressure of a big game. The Bengals have a chance to clinch their first winning season since 1990 with a victory, but more important, they have a chance to take control of the AFC North.
And 10. Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers | Scouting report The Panthers have nightmares about Michael Vick. Even though John Fox built a Super Bowl-caliber team around his defense, the one player who drives the Panthers crazy is Vick. The Panthers have never beaten a Vick-led team. Vick has played in six games against the Panthers (five as a starter) and the Falcons have won all six. In those games, he's completed 74 of 127 passes for 954 yards and four touchdowns. He's rushed 43 times for 378 yards. It's been said the Panthers don't have the type of athletes on defense to match Vick. The Bucs did well against him because linebacker Derrick Brooks has enough speed to chase Vick all over the field. The Panthers defense isn't as fast but they have drafted better athletes over the past few years. The pressure is on the Panthers in this one. If they can't beat the Falcons in Carolina, they surely won't beat Vick on the carpet in the Georgia Dome at the end of the regular season. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan of the Panthers is questionable with an ankle injury, and Fox really needs him to be healthy to provide Carolina with another mobile athlete to chase Vick. Heavy rain is forecasted, which could give the Panthers an edge. If Vick can't keep his feet because of a sloppy track, the Panthers might be able to stop him. But the Panthers also have to run the ball well to win. DeShaun Foster has pretty much taken over for struggling Stephen Davis, and Fox needs a big game from Foster to keep Vick off the field.
9. Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants | Scouting report Figure this game to go down to the wire and be determined by a field goal. That can't be a comforting thought for either Bill Parcells or Tom Coughlin. Both coaches have watched their teams win and lose at the mercy of field-goal kickers. The Cowboys beat the Giants earlier this season in overtime, 16-13, thanks to a 45-yard game-winning field goal by Jose Cortez. But Cortez struggled, and Parcells is on his third kicker since that game. How's the new kicker working out? Billy Cundiff missed a 34-yard field goal that could have won last week's game against the Broncos. Coughlin is coming off a loss to the Seahawks that saw Jay Feely miss three field goals that all would have won the game for the Giants. But both coaches have done great jobs with their teams this year. After a slow start on defense, Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis has turned his team into one of the best run-stopping units in the NFL. Linebackers not only flow to the ball well, but they hold their gap responsibilities. The Giants are giving up only 93.7 yards a game on the run. Parcells has shaped the Cowboys into a tough 3-4 defense that allows only 99.5 yards a game on the ground. Ultimately, this game comes down to the quarterbacks. The Giants have a favorable matchup with ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora going against Cowboys tackles Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti. That will probably force Parcells into more two-tight end, maximum protection schemes. The Giants also will have an advantage if cornerback Anthony Henry misses his fourth straight game with a groin injury. Henry has been been a big key to the Cowboys' defensive turnaround this year.
8. Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs | Scouting report The way this series usually works is that the Broncos win in Denver and the Chiefs win in Kansas City. Well, the Broncos won in Denver in Week 3 and the Chiefs better win this week or they might not make the playoffs, and that could have dire consequences. Dick Vermeil might retire if the Chiefs don't make the playoffs. The offense is old and could be up for a lot of change after the season. The Chiefs are coming off an encouraging 26-16 victory over the Patriots last week. The key for the Chiefs, though, is their defense, and that is giving Vermeil a lot of hope. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is getting this defense to hit its stride. He has great speed at linebacker, although opponents have used three-receiver sets against them to get linebacker Kendrell Bell off the field. The key for the Chiefs is keeping Jake Plummer in the pocket. The Broncos are 9-2 and can put some distance on the division with a victory. Mike Shanahan continues to use the formula of having Plummer throw fewer than 26 passes.
7. Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers (Sunday, 8:30 ET, ESPN) | Scouting report The Chargers won the first game in October, 27-14, but this is an important game for Raiders coach Norv Turner. Turner is clearly fighting for his job. At 4-7, the Raiders have a chance to salvage a decent season, but two things are working against Turner. Al Davis probably won't stand for double-digit losses in back-to-back seasons, and Turner is heading in that direction. Worse for Turner is his 1-9 record in AFC West games since taking over the team last season. The Raiders are 0-4 this year. The Raiders are the Chargers' most bitter rivals and the crowd usually gets a little crazy in San Diego. The Chargers are hot. They are scoring close to 30 points a game, and LaDainian Tomlinson is on fire on the ground. The goal for the Raiders is to get 20 carries for running back LaMont Jordan. When he gets 20 carries, the Raiders are 4-1. The Chargers need this win to stay in contention against Denver for the AFC West title.
6. N.Y. Jets at New England Patriots | Scouting report The Patriots have one of the easiest closing schedules in football. Their opponents' records are a combined 19-36, the reason being the AFC East is terrible. The Patriots, despite their problems, should roll through the four remaining division games and wrap up the division in the next couple of weeks. The Patriots have two games against the Jets in the next four weeks, which should help. The Jets are counting the days until the draft to get help for their aging offense. Brooks Bollinger continues as the starting quarterback but keeping him healthy hasn't been easy. The Patriots should be able to get their running game going a little better. Corey Dillon appears to be over his calf and ankle injuries and should give the Patriots' rushing offense a much needed boost. Tom Brady has been asked to carry the offense through the air and with different receivers each week because of injuries. For this game against a depleted Jets team, the Patriots don't have to get too exotic with their game plan. The Jets defense is good but the offense can't do too much. A simple running game could make for an easy Sunday for the Patriots.
5. Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles (Monday, 9 ET, ABC) | Scouting report At the beginning of the season, this looked like a great Monday night matchup between two of the NFC's top contenders. Then everything went wrong for the Eagles. They lost quarterback Donovan McNabb, offensive tackle Tra Thomas, cornerback Lito Sheppard and others to injuries. Wide receiver Terrell Owens was suspended for the season. Now, the Eagles are trying to win with a patchwork offensive line, Mike McMahon at quarterback and young backup receivers. The Seahawks are 9-2 but still have to worry about the Eagles' aggressive defense and the crowd. The Eagles crowd can be feisty on a Monday night. The Seahawks have been showing signs of strain in their passing offense. They won't get Darrell Jackson back from a knee injury until next week, and they need him. Matt Hasselbeck has done a marvelous job managing the passing game with backup receivers, but opposing defenses have been sticking more defenders at the line of scrimmage to stop Shaun Alexander. It's been tougher and tougher each week for Alexander to find running lanes early in the game. The Eagles, believe it or not, are running the ball more of late. In the first eight games, they ran the ball only 18 times a game. In the past three games, they've been averaging 33 runs a game for 4.67 yards a carry.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints | Scouting report On paper, this game shouldn't be much of a problem for the Bucs. But paper can be deceiving. The Bucs are 7-4. The Saints are 3-8. The Saints are playing in Baton Rouge without much of a home-field advantage because of the unsold seats. But what is dangerous about this game for the Bucs is that the Saints are talented and they usually play well against them. Jim Haslett is 4-3 against Jon Gruden, even though the Bucs have won two of the last three games. How the Bucs do against the Saints could determine their chances of making the playoffs. They have to play the Saints again on New Year's Day. Even though last week's loss to the Bears was tough, Chris Simms continues to get better each week. He was pounded by the Bears and didn't have enough time to throw passes. The Saints have a talented defensive line, and Haslett may blitz a little to put the pressure on Simms. Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is running at full speed again for the Bucs and knows the Saints have difficulty stopping top running games. This could be closer game than expected.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars at Cleveland Browns | Scouting report Bad things usually happen to teams on three-game road trips. Even though the Jaguars won their first two games of the trip, they lost starting quarterback Byron Leftwich for four to six weeks with a broken leg. That injury is devastating but it shouldn't derail the Jaguars' playoff run. The Jags' closing schedule features teams with a combined record of 21-34. The Colts are the only winning team they face. At 4-7, the Browns are the second-toughest team the Jaguars face. David Garrard, who takes over for Leftwich, is a good quarterback. He's big, strong and mobile. With an easy schedule, he should be able to get the Jaguars to the 11-win mark. Fred Taylor should be back this week to help out with the running game. But this road game will be a tough challenge. The Browns aren't great on defense, but they are solid. There could be added excitement in Cleveland with the possibility that rookie quarterback Charlie Frye will see his most extensive action this season because of Trent Dilfer's knee injury. The crowd could be into this one, and that could be a problem for the Jags.
2. Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins | Scouting report These are two teams going in different directions. The Dolphins are getting better under Nick Saban, who showed he really is thinking about this year with his victory over the Raiders last week. The Bills are going nowhere fast, and that puts pressure on coach Mike Mularkey and general manager Tom Donahoe. Second place in the AFC East is pretty meaningless because it doesn't involve the playoffs. Each team is 4-7, two games behind the Patriots. But a second-place finish for the Dolphins would give them momentum for next season. Saban hasn't won an AFC East game. The Dolphins are 0-3 in the division, so there is an importance to this game. The Bills continue to develop quarterback J.P. Losman, who will see a number of different schemes this week from Saban. The Dolphins can't let running back Willis McGahee run wild.
1. Washington Redskins at St. Louis Rams | Scouting report Can Ryan Fitzpatrick find the magic for another week? Coming off the bench last week, Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round rookie from Harvard, led the Rams to an improbable 21-point comeback to beat the Texans. That was a magical moment for the Rams this season, who are realistically struggling to get to 8-8. Jamie Martin suffered a concussion and is expected to be the backup this week. The problem facing Fitzpatrick is the Redskins have had a week to prepare for him and will probably blitz him like crazy. Fitzpatrick can play. He showed promise in the preseason and is obviously a very smart quarterback. He has plenty of weapons. But how he handles the Redskins' blitz will be his test. Gregg Williams is a master of confusing young quarterbacks. The Redskins are coming off a three-game losing streak, and they have been beaten by more experienced quarterbacks -- Chris Simms, Kerry Collins and Drew Brees. At 5-6, the Redskins can roll the dice. Making the playoffs is almost impossible. They can gamble even more. Expect some crazy schemes and blitzes in this one.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
John Clayton previews a loaded Week 13 of NFL action that is highlighted by great divisional matchups.