Jags bring tremendous confidence into matchup
The Colts would clinch home-field advantage and could start resting players later this month with a win at Jacksonville.
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 14.
In that game, the Jaguars successfully used a 3-3-5 defense and frustrated quarterback Peyton Manning. Usually, Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio comes up with good plans to stop the Colts. Because they are a division rivals, the Jaguars' defenders know the Colts better than just about anyone.
In that 10-3 Colts victory, Indy generated only 268 yards of offense. Manning completed only 13 of 28 passes for 121 yards and had an interception. But with the Jaguars dropping so many guys into coverage, Edgerrin James found enough space to gain 128 yards on 27 carries. The Colts scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
What's changed is that the Colts have grown up. It's hard to say that a successful quarterback who's been in the same place for eight years has matured, but Manning and the Colts are operating with amazing efficiency since that game. Manning has seen it all. He has answers for blitzes. James is the answer to defenses in which seven or eight players are in coverage. Tight end Dallas Clark has emerged as a threat from the slot and is forcing defenses out of seven- and eight-man defensive fronts to stop James.
Since that contest, only one foe has managed to keep the final score within seven points, and that was the following week (a 13-6 victory over the Browns). Look at the Colts' 35-3 victory over the Titans on Sunday. Tennessee is a division rival. The Titans know the Colts. Coach Jeff Fisher has devised a lot of things that have worked against the Colts previously. However, Manning came out with his no-huddle and needed only nine possessions to beat the Titans.
Two of those possessions were end-of-the-half or end-of-game kneel-downs. Manning can do more in fewer possessions than any quarterback in football history. He needed only 48 plays during those seven possessions. Critics wondered about the 48 plays and 292 yards, thinking it was an off day for the Colts. Think about it. They needed only seven drives. They averaged seven plays and 42 yards a possession. For the season, they've had 42 touchdown and 15 field-goal drives in 119 possessions, including kneel-downs.
The Jaguars won't concede anything. Del Rio thinks he has a good defensive plan for this game, and the Colts know this won't be a breeze. However, Jacksonville isn't going into this game in optimum shape. Quarterback Byron Leftwich is out with his broken ankle, and starting center Brad Meester is out with a torn biceps, further weakening a line that isn't particularly strong. Fortunately for the Jags, David Garrard is one of the league's most talented backup QBs. He's strong, he's got a good arm and he runs better than Leftwich. But Garrard's style might not be conducive to getting into a scoring shootout with Manning.
Since Garrard took over for the injured Leftwich, the Jags' wide receivers haven't been much of a factor. Matt Jones has hit a bit of a rookie wall, while Reggie Williams has been relegated to the bench.
Del Rio needs a big game from Fred Taylor, who should be available. The Jaguars rested Taylor the past two weeks to help him get over a nagging ankle injury.
The Colts are focused for this game because a victory would clinch AFC home-field advantage, which means they could begin to rest their starters next week. James, on pace for 405 carries this season, needs a rest. Outsiders also forget how the Colts use their offense and why they need rest. The Colts' offense is on the field for 62.5 plays a game, and most starters stay on the field every play because Manning runs a no-huddle.
Victory for the Colts means rest, which is more important to them than an unbeaten season.
And 10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers | Scouting report
This is a better Bucs team than the one the Panthers dominated in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 8 in a 34-14 blowout. RB Cadillac Williams is healthy and back to producing at the 100-yard level. Chris Simms looks like a winning quarterback. He's won three of his past four starts since that Bucs loss and he's thrown only one interception during that stretch. Bucs coach Jon Gruden had made life simpler for Simms. He's gone to more of a two-tight end offense, knowing that defenses are going to blitz Simms. Simms is a good deep thrower but needs work on his short game. With the maximum protection against the blitz, Simms is throwing at a lot of one-receiver sets. The one man is Joey Galloway, one of the fastest receivers in the league despite being 34 years old. Galloway has 63 catches for 1,075 yards and a 17.1-yard average. Simms is being coached to look at his first couple of reads, and if they aren't open, he can either run or get rid of the ball. A concern for Tampa Bay is that the Panthers are peaking at the right time. They've allowed a combined 31 points over the past four games. The secondary has played so well in coverage, the Panthers can play eight-man schemes at the line of scrimmage with an emphasis on pressuring the quarterback. The key to the Panthers' stretch run, though, is the health and success of halfback DeShaun Foster. If Foster can copy the 131-yard effort he had against the Falcons, the Panthers will be tough to stop. Foster has taken over for Stephen Davis as the feature back, although John Fox had Davis in the starting lineup against the Falcons.
9. Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers | Scouting report
Kyle Orton is becoming a concern. Though the Bears are on an eight-game winning streak, the rookie quarterback is regressing. In the past five games, Orton has averaged only 108 passing yards and 11 completions per game. Orton is doing a good job of not taking sacks and not killing the team with too many turnovers, but the Bears will need more from their offense if they're going to win in the playoffs. Rex Grossman, who suffered a broken ankle in the preseason, is getting closer to being an option although he still hasn't regained all of his mobility. Bears coach Lovie Smith issued a subtle challenge to Orton to play better. Orton got it. Hey, the guy has exceeded expectations. Orton wasn't supposed to play this season, and he's taken the team to a 9-3 record. Everyone in Chicago sees the concern, and this game against the Steelers is a great test. There will be a playoff atmosphere. The Bears have a Super Bowl-caliber defense, but you need to score points to win playoff games. Don't expect a quick hook by Smith this week, but it could eventually come. On the other side, the Steelers are a desperate team. They've lost three in a row and have all but lost the AFC North to the Bengals. The Steelers have to scramble to get a wild-card spot. Three of their final four games are against NFC North teams, and the Bears and Vikings -- next week's opponent -- are playoff contenders. The Steelers, traditionally a running team, haven't been able to rely on even that as injuries and inconsistency have forced them to switch back to Willie Parker at halfback. In addition, they've had offensive-line problems.
8. Kansas City Chiefs at Dallas Cowboys | Scouting report
The loser of this game could be in trouble. Each team is trailing in its division race. Their closing schedules are among the toughest in the NFL. The pressure is building. Desperation is setting in. And Bill Parcells of the Cowboys and Kansas City's Dick Vermeil aren't looking for moral victories for this season. They want the playoffs and they want it now. Vermeil still has to decide if he wants to coach next year, but a nonplayoff season could make that decision for him. With an old offense, Vermeil probably will step down at the end of the year. But his team is gaining momentum. That was a huge win over the Broncos on Sunday, so they've beaten the Patriots and Broncos in the past two weeks. The return of left tackle Willie Roaf has been a big boost for the offense. Larry Johnson continues to be one of the hottest running backs in the NFL. On the flip side, the Cowboys are struggling. The impact of OT Flozell Adams' season-ending injury has been as huge as the Chiefs' losing Roaf earlier with a hamstring injury. Adams played only six games before blowing out his knee. During those six games, Drew Bledsoe completed 63.3 percent of his passes and had a 100.4 quarterback rating. He had 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions. The Cowboys were 4-2 during that time. Since then, the Cowboys have been 3-3 and Bledsoe has been just as average. He completed only 59 percent of his passes during the next six games and his quarterback rating has been 70.4. His touchdown-to-interception ratio has been six touchdowns to seven interceptions. Bledsoe tends to hold onto the ball until the last second, trying to take advantage of his strong arm. The Chiefs figure to be aggressive trying to put pressure on Bledsoe. Chiefs QB Trent Green will try to take advantage of the injured Dallas cornerbacks; Anthony Henry has been out three of the past four games with a groin injury and Aaron Glenn plans to play despite an ankle injury.
Maybe the Vikings are for real. They've won five games in a row and six of the past seven. QB Brad Johnson is 5-0 as a starter and coach Mike Tice perhaps has a chance to earn a contract extension. With three homes games in the final four, the Vikings have the realistic hope of getting to 10 wins. Credit Tice for doing a great job of rallying the team through adversity. The Vikings survived the Love Boat scandal. They survived the season-ending injuries to two of their best players -- QB Daunte Culpepper and DT Kevin Williams. However, they still have some things to work on. Tice is concerned that the Lions recorded eight tackles for loss last week, so he is considering making some changes along the offensive line. That said, Tice has found one thing the offense does well -- he likes the outside run and expects a breakout game for the running offense this week or next. Whether it's Mewelde Moore or Michael Bennett, the Vikings need to have a back who rushes for 100 yards. On the other hand, the Rams come limping into the Metrodome. They are loaded with rookies. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick gets his second start, but the rookie seventh-rounder looked like a rookie Sunday against the Redskins. Expect the Vikings to blitz. Injuries have made the Rams' linebacking corps and secondary young. The Rams can't afford youthful mistakes on the road. The Vikings can't afford a letdown.
6. New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills | Scouting report
The Patriots are playing the Bills at a perfect time. The Bills are an internal mess. A couple weeks ago, defensive tackle Sam Adams feuded with coach Mike Mularkey about playing time and ended up getting less time on the field. Now, the Eric Moulds problem has emerged. Moulds grew frustrated because he felt he was being ignored by quarterback J.P. Losman. Moulds pulled himself out of Sunday's game against the Dolphins and faces either a suspension or a deactivation. Moulds is one of the team's most popular players in the locker room, but a lot of changes seem to be brewing on this team. Mularkey is losing some of his key veteran players, and that has to be disturbing to owner Ralph Wilson. What was supposed to be a playoff season has dropped into a 4-8 disaster and a three-game losing streak. Losman is struggling at quarterback. Consequently, RB Willis McGahee has been ineffective -- averaging just 60 rushing yards a game the past four contests. The team just isn't winning. The Patriots may not be playing great football, but they don't have to be at their best to win the AFC East. The Jets are an injury wreck. The Dolphins are being rebuilt under Nick Saban. The Bills have underachieved. As a result, the Patriots have a two-game lead over the Dolphins and could clinch the division if they win and the Dolphins lose in San Diego. That gives Bill Belichick three weeks to get the running offense going now that Corey Dillon is back, and he can continue to tighten the defense. Unlike past years, the Patriots won't get a first-round bye. They will make the playoffs and get a home game in the first round, so wrapping up the division early could give Belichick a chance to rest a few guys before the playoffs.
5. Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals | Scouting report
Don't worry about the Bengals' getting overconfident now that they rule the AFC North. They've worked too hard to be overconfident. The organization suffered through 14 nonwinning seasons in which they were known as the Bungles, the team with the funny helmets and the funny uniforms. Sure, they could have a little bit of a letdown following last week's big win at Pittsburgh, but it helps that they are playing a division rival. Carson Palmer is too efficient to let the offense drop off. They are having fun in the no-huddle. Last week, they ran 21 no-huddle plays, and Palmer gets better each week calling plays at the line of scrimmage. More and more, the Bengals of 2005 look like the Peyton Manning Colts of 2002 or 2003. They are having fun learning what they can do out of the no-huddle. The Browns continue to learn what they have in quarterback Charlie Frye. The Akron rookie is intriguing. He's not great in practice, but the guy is a gamer. He did well last week against the Jaguars, but Jacksonville won 20-14. The loss of wide receiver Braylon Edwards hurts because Frye was starting to get into a pretty good groove with his rookie teammate. Dennis Northcutt moves back into the starting lineup.
Maybe there is some life in QB Kyle Boller. He looks a little more relaxed since returning as the starter after missing six games with a toe injury. Boller engineered a game-winning drive (for a field goal) to beat the Texans last week. His yards-per-completion average in the past two games is up to 11.6, which is around the league average. He had three touchdown passes against the Bengals two weeks ago. While those numbers won't wow everyone, it shows some hope. For the Broncos, this game is one in which the players can help their coach. Mike Shanahan has lost four straight to Brian Billick. Shanahan is a proud coach. He hates losing and sets his roster each year to try to make a Super Bowl run. The Broncos want to bounce back from last week's heartbreaking loss to the Chiefs. They are 6-0 at home and they have three healthy running backs. With Tatum Bell healthy and averaging 6.2 yards a carry, he can probably expect more carries this week. The Ravens' defense is quick. Holes close fast, so Denver needs to utilize an explosive back such as Bell. RB Mike Anderson will start, but don't be surprised if Bell gets featured in the second and third quarters.
3. Oakland Raiders at New York Jets | Scouting report
For weeks, QB Kerry Collins has said this is his team. Not any more. Against Collins' wishes, Raiders coach Norv Turner took away Collins' starting job and gave it to Marques Tuiasosopo, a more mobile quarterback who Turner hopes will provide a spark. This is a dangerous move for Turner. What if it doesn't provide a spark? The Raiders are 4-8. The Jets are so decimated on offense that Collins could have gone into New York and pulled out a pretty easy win. The Jets have scored only 25 points over the past four games. QB Brooks Bollinger is still the starter. A loss to the Jets won't help Turner's future, who could be putting together back-to-back 10-plus loss seasons. RB LaMont Jordan returns, but he's pretty humble these days. Although he was considered the running-back prize in free agency, Jordan hasn't been putting up numbers worthy of his $5.5 million per year contract. He has 844 yards and a 3.6-yard average. Though he is one of the better pass-catching backs out of the backfield, Jordan and the Raiders expected a better average. The offensive line has been a little disappointing. Jordan would love to have a good game against his old teammates. He was a popular player there and he left on good terms.
2. Miami Dolphins at San Diego Chargers | Scouting report
Coach Nick Saban has done a nice job. Despite inconsistent play at quarterback all season, the 5-7 season offers encouragement. If the Dolphins can secure a quarterback this offseason, they suddenly have a chance to challenge the Patriots for the division. Last week's 21-point comeback to beat the Bills was huge. It put the Dolphins in second place in the AFC East and ripped the hearts out of the Bills. Still, Saban is a realist. He knows this will be a tough game. The Chargers can take away Miami's two-headed running back attack of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and try to force QB Gus Frerotte to win the game. Plus, the Dolphins have serious matchup problems trying to stop Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. The Dolphins have had coverage issues all season. The Chargers see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Steelers' loss to the Bengals last week gives the Chargers hopes of getting at least a wild-card spot.
1. New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles | Scouting report
What figured to a good NFC East game should be pretty one-sided. The Eagles are barely functioning. They have $29 million of their cap tied up with players who are out for the season with injuries or deactivated (Terrell Owens). The loss of RB Brian Westbrook on Monday night makes things even tougher. Coach Andy Reid was just starting to run the ball more after the loss of Donovan McNabb. He went from 18 carries per game under McNabb to 33 without him. Now, except for Lamar Gordon, the Eagles don't have an every-down back. Reid plans to use packages and rotations, saying he doesn't have a starter. A win would be a good confidence-booster for the Giants, who have struggled on the road. Their only road win came against the lowly 49ers -- and the Eagles, with all of their problems, are almost like the 49ers. QB Eli Manning needs a good game for confidence. While the Giants beat the Cowboys on Sunday to be in good shape to win the NFC East, Manning wasn't very accurate. A good performance against the Eagles would be good for Manning's psyche.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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