- 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 15.
After accomplishing all that the Colts could during the regular season -- wrapping up the AFC South title and home-field advantage through the playoffs -- Dungy said he will treat Sunday's game against the Chargers like any other game. The players were happy. As much as they would like a rest before the playoffs, some are intrigued by the idea of having the first undefeated season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Folks are making a little too much of the debate, making it sound as though this is some major controversy. Football is a physical sport and injuries happen. Dungy knows being healthy for the playoffs is more important than the undefeated season. The coach has a good handle on the situation. If players are at risk of injury, they will be rested.
He's not going to let Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and other key players get hurt so they can't play in the first playoff game. But with three games to go, the Colts have a month before that game. He's knows he can't just sit players down for a month. He has to keep the performance of the team sharp so he'll play his starters this week and then use the final two games to do some of the resting.
All of this is bad news for the Chargers. The Colts are essentially two touchdowns better than any team in the league. They've trailed only twice this season -- 3-0 to the Jaguars in Week 2 and 17-0 in a Monday night game in which they came back to blow out the Rams. They are one of the greatest front-runners this league has ever seen.
Manning has had to drop back for only 35 passes when his team has been behind. He's dropped back only 99 times when the Colts were tied. Manning is so good at getting early scores, and he's even more efficient when he's working with a lead.
Manning has been in complete control and the Colts' offense is like clockwork. The Colts play 10 possession games. With those 10 possessions, they produce roughly four touchdown drives and two field goal drives. Manning is particularly good out of the gate. In 13 games, he's led the Colts to eight touchdown drives on their first possession. He's opened the second half with seven touchdown drives and three field goals.
All of this is bad news for the Chargers, who need a victory over the Colts to stay in the playoff race. Last week's loss to the Dolphins seriously jeopardized their playoff hopes. Although the Chargers have the type of offense to challenge the Colts in a shoot-out, they face another problem. The Chargers' 3-4 defense poses no particular problem for the Colts. Six of their wins are against 3-4 teams (Browns, 49ers, Patriots, Steelers, Texans twice) and they are whipping these teams by an average of 16 points that is similar to their overall average margin of victory, 16.4 points.
Knowing that, the key for the Chargers is possessing the ball. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron calls a great game for Drew Brees and their offense. Believe it or not, the Chargers have had one more touchdown drive than the Colts (45 to 44). The Colts average 30.2 points a game. The Chargers average 29.1.
The Chargers know they are fighting for a wild-card berth and they are doing it with little margin of error. They would lose a tiebreaker to the Steelers because they lost to them in Week 5. They know they can't fall behind the Chiefs, because the Chiefs close the season with two home games, one against San Diego.
This is a must-win for the Chargers and they are going against a team that doesn't show any sign of being stopped. And Dungy wants them to play to win. That's bad news for the Chargers.
And 10. Pittsburgh Steelers at Minnesota Vikings | Scouting report Bill Cowher went back to being more physical last week by giving Jerome Bettis 17 carries. The result was a one-sided win over the Bears and renewed hopes of beating out the Chiefs and Chargers for the AFC's last wild-card berth. The snow got everyone excited. The defense played with fire. The offensive line played together and was physical. But will the Steelers go back to their finesse style of running when playing indoors this week against the Vikings? They could, and that would be trouble. Cowher remains intrigued by running back Willie Parker's speed and quickness. Playing on turf, Cowher might like Parker's quickness over Bettis' power. That could be a problem. Parker has had a remarkable season, rushing for 856 yards on 198 carries. But is he a feature back? He's 5-foot-10, 209 pounds, not the size to wear down a defense. He was the starter for all of the team's five losses, and in those games, he averaged just 3.4 yards a carry and 56 yards a game. Defenses can figure him out as games wear on and he takes more hits. In carries 16 through 20, his rushing average drops from 5 to 3.6 yards a carry. For the Steelers to be successful, as the game gets going -they need to get stronger as a running team, not weaker. With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggling to throw deep with his thumb injury, the Steelers are even more dependent on a good running game. For the Vikings, this is a playoff game, but they've been in the playoff mode for the past six weeks, and they won all six. Mike Tice stressed to the team that this is a playoff game. They've beaten only one team with a winning record. Beating the Steelers wins the team national praise, but the Vikings are focused on the playoffs. A win keeps their hopes alive.
9. Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins | Scouting report It's a good thing Bill Parcells has been through a lot of big games, because it seems like every week has been stressful for the Cowboys. Ten of their 13 games have been decided by a touchdown or less, seven by three points or less. After pulling out a last second victory over the Chiefs last Sunday, Parcells came out and said he liked this team. Three days later, he comes out and says he's not happy with how the Cowboys are practicing. Parcells knows he's in for a close and very dangerous game against the Redskins Sunday. In their meeting in Dallas earlier this season, the Cowboys built a late 13-0 lead, but wide receiver Santana Moss beat safety Roy Williams in a Cover 4 defense twice for long touchdowns in the final four minutes, giving the Redskins a 14-13 victory. The Redskins have climbed back in the playoff race with two straight wins, but a loss to the Cowboys ends their season. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will bring out his most aggressive rushing scheme against quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who is protected by two struggling tackles -- Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti. Williams has been working through a lot of injuries along the defensive line, but this is as healthy as the line has been in a month. For Joe Gibbs and the Redskins, this is their playoffs, which makes them dangerous. Redskins fans will be excited. This is the hottest Redskins ticket since 1999. The Redskins host the Giants next Saturday, and if the Giants lose to the Chiefs this weekend, and Washington wins, that game might be for the NFC East title. But that's jumping too far ahead. This is a huge game for the Cowboys and the Redskins and both will be focused on Sunday.
The Falcons might be the better team, but this is a dangerous matchup. Why? The Bears match up against the Falcons' offense almost as well as the Bucs, who have always been the Falcons' main nemesis in the NFC South. The Bears have speed at linebacker, which is one way to give Falcons quarterback Michael Vick problems. Vick is great rushing to the corner of the field and getting to the outside for a completion or a run. But Derrick Brooks of the Bucs usually can frustrate Vick because he has the speed to chase Vick to the corner. Against the Bears, Vick gets a double dose of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, who will alternate throughout the game being his spy. In 2001 and 2002 against Vick, Urlacher had three sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and a 90-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Those were two of the best games of Urlacher's career. And, for the first time, Urlacher gets to play Vick in Chicago, where temperatures are supposed to be in the 20s. Vick also will be uncomfortable because of the bruised ribs he suffered last week. Vick has played only one regular season game in temperatures below 40 degrees, so this won't be pleasant. Sure, Vick did win a playoff game in Green Bay following the 2002 season, but the Packers didn't have a defense as quick and as good as the Bears. At least the Falcons know they probably won't have to score a ton of points to win. The Bears' offense is pretty limited with Kyle Orton at quarterback. Unless the Falcons make a lot of turnovers, this should be a low-scoring game. This is a vital game for both teams. The Falcons are at 8-5 and know a loss could severely damage their playoff hopes. The Bears are 9-4, but have the suddenly red-hot Vikings right behind them in the NFC North.
7. New York Giants 27, Chiefs 17
Last Sunday's victory over the Eagles was costly for the Giants, who lost middle linebacker Antonio Pierce with a high ankle sprain. That's a big blow. One big reason the defense has come together after a slow start is the excellent execution of the linebackers. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis has been able to do a lot of good things with the defense because the linebackers are aggressive and do a good job of holding their gaps. Often, the Giants can get enough pressure with seven players, leaving an extra defender to work into pass coverages. The other costly part of the win over the Eagles was the possible losses of left tackle Luke Petitgout (back) and right tackle Kareem McKenzie (hamstring). That's troublesome. Eli Manning tends to have problems when he's pressured, particularly with his feet. The Chiefs know that. Even if they can't get to him, they will try to get to his feet. Manning is much less accurate when he's pressured because his footwork gets messed up. That's one of the reasons he is much better on longer passes than shorter passes. When given the time to take a deep drop for long patterns, Manning is deadly accurate. But everyone knows he needs work on the shorter passes, where his completions are just 50-50 propositions. Missing one or two offensive tackles could be a big issue. If Petitgout and McKenzie can't play, the Giants will make three changes on the offensive line. David Diehl would move from left guard to right tackle, Bob Whitfield would play left tackle and Jason Whittle would be the left guard. This will be Manning's ninth home game (including the Giants' Week 2 game against the Saints). In those eight games, he's completed less than 50 percent of his passes, connecting on 129 of 260 passes for 1,654 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Chiefs sense blood, and frankly, they have to. This is a critical game for them. The Chiefs are 8-5 and a loss could put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. But a win would be huge. Their final two games are at home, where they are 5-1.
6. New England Patriots 28, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 0
It's good to be the Patriots these days. Thanks to the easy AFC East, the Patriots should wrap up the division title pretty soon, maybe this week. All the Patriots have to do in the final three weeks is win one game or have the Dolphins lose one game. The Patriots are getting healthier and more confident after blowing through the Jets and Bills. During this recent run, the Patriots have regained their running offense with Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk returning to the lineup. So this game against the Bucs is a good test that doesn't have too many downsides. Mentally, it might be a slight setback if the Patriots lose. But the Patriots will make the playoffs, probably hosting the Jaguars in Foxborough. The Bucs could give them problems. Jon Gruden has found the sweet spot of this offense. Chris Simms is getting better every week. Gruden is putting Simms in two-tight end, two-back sets in which Joey Galloway is the only true downfield option. The Bucs will pound running back Cadillac Williams on the ground and use a high-percentage passing attack. The formula isn't that much different from what Mike Shanahan has done with Jake Plummer in Denver. The Bucs' strategy worked last week in the cold weather in Charlotte, N.C., enabling them to beat the Panthers. Still, it's a good test for the Patriots. They will be able to see whether the return of defensive lineman Richard Seymour has made them better against the run, and it will test how far their running offense has come. It's a good playoff tune-up for the Patriots.
The Panthers learned a lesson last week against the Bucs. They have to sustain a running game for 60 minutes to win. DeShaun Foster came out smoking on the first possession, but he banged up his shoulder and the running game vanished. With Stephen Davis looking as though he's hitting the end of his dominating days, the pressure is on Foster to take control of the running offense. That might be too much to ask. He's a physical runner who doesn't mind the contact. Unfortunately, he hasn't shown that he can be healthy for 16 games. For the Panthers to be big players in the playoffs, they need Foster. He's the key to their advancement. But the Panthers have to make the playoffs first, and they need a victory over the Saints. For whatever reason, the Saints give the Panthers headaches. They have for years. The Saints came into Charlotte and beat them earlier this year. But the Saints' problems continued this week. Jim Haslett benched quarterback Aaron Brooks and defensive end Darren Howard for the rest of the season and also had to respond to issues surrounding his job security. Brooks has been through the ups and downs with the Saints as their quarterback for 82 straight starts. But at 3-10, the Saints weren't going anywhere and Haslett is looking for anything that could provide a spark. What the Panthers need to do is establish themselves early. With the game being played in Baton Rouge, La., there won't be much of a home-field advantage for the Saints. The Panthers don't need to play pretty. They just need to come out with their 10th win.
4. New York Jets at Miami Dolphins | Scouting report For a coach who is only using this season to get ready for next season, Nick Saban is doing a pretty good job. He's within a game of being .500. If the Patriots lose to the Bucs on Saturday, the Dolphins are still in the AFC East race. His plan is to continue to try to get 20 touches each for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, who have done a great job working together in the backfield. That shouldn't be too much of a problem this week. The Jets are 0-7 on the road, and they haven't been very competitive, getting outscored 167-47. With Curtis Martin out for the season, the Jets are working with mostly backups at the main positions on offense. Saban's made a great climb with the Dolphins and getting to 7-7 would be a major accomplishment.
What did Norv Turner think was going to happen when he put Marques Tuiasosopo in as the starting quarterback last week, for an early East Coast start in the cold weather against the Jets? Foolish. Now, he's got a real mess. Turner had to return to Oakland and bench Tuiasosopo and give the job back to Kerry Collins. Had he stayed with Collins, the Raiders probably would have beaten the Jets last week and would be the favorites to beat the Browns this week. That would have put them at 6-8, with a shot at .500. Now, the Raiders are 4-9 and in crisis mode. Turner knows that a 10th loss would be damaging to his tenure as the Raiders' head coach. After two years, things are a mess. LaMont Jordan continues to say he's not getting the ball enough, but is there anyone in football that gets the ball this much and does less with it? Jordan is 10th in the NFL in carries with 247, but is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. He also leads running backs in receptions with 65, but also has 11 drops. Romeo Crennel's impact in Cleveland might not show in his win-loss total (4-9), but he's making a lot of progress with this team. The Browns are competitive. Rookie Charlie Frye shows promise at quarterback. This will be an interesting game for him because he's playing with a sore knee. If Frye shows toughness and plays well, he could win over more of his teammates as the quarterback of the future.
2. Cincinnati Bengals at Detroit Lions | Scouting report The pregame might be more interesting than the game. Lions fans unhappy with president Matt Millen and are supposed to have an angry fans march. Lions fans are being asked by protesters to wear Bengals gear to the game. "Fire Millen" signs might be everywhere. Although this won't do anything to change the fact that Millen will be back as president and general manager, it could make for an interesting atmosphere at Ford Field. The Bengals will be the benefactors of this. They get to play a road game that will sound like a home game. A Chad Johnson touchdown celebration might get more cheers than a Lions touchdown. This, mercifully, is the Lions' last home game, so a win for Dick Jauron would be a nice home send-off. But the Lions are just awaiting yet another coaching change.
1. Denver Broncos 28, Buffalo Bills 17
The Bills are like the Lions without the protest march. Things are a mess in Buffalo. There are plenty of rumors flying around that general manager Tom Donohoe might be gone. Mike Mularkey is being reviewed by owner Ralph Wilson, but he is liked by the owner and has a chance to get to his third season. The timely start for Kelly Holcomb at quarterback this weekend could have a soothing impact on the Bills. J.P. Losman is out with a shoulder injury. Holcomb is a good backup and rallied the team to back-to-back home wins early in the season. The problem for the Bills is that they are playing one of the AFC's best teams and the matchup isn't a good one for them. The Broncos have one of the best running schemes in the NFL and the Bills are one of the worst teams at stopping the run (No. 31). All the Broncos want to do is run a simple game plan and wrap up the AFC West title.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.