Huge MNF matchup highlights Week 9
There is a lot on the line when the Patriots host the Colts in John Clayton's top matchup of Week 9.
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 9 of the 2005 season.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (ABC, Monday, 9 p.m. ET) | Scouting report
Monday night's Colts-Patriots game is the most anticipated of the year, and there are some interesting twists to the rivalry this time around. For once, the Colts don't have everything to lose if they can't beat the Patriots.
Since 2003, the Colts and Patriots have met four times with everything on the line, and the Patriots won all four. The regular-season losses cost the Colts the chance to play at home in the playoffs. The playoff losses propelled the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick realized once he got into the season that his team was in for a tough fight. The schedule was ridiculously tough, with a five-game stretch from Week 2 to Week 6 in which the Patriots faced five non-division teams that won an average of 11 games last season. The Patriots limped into their Week 7 bye at 3-3, with a roster damaged by injuries. They had lost safety Rodney Harrison, left tackle Matt Light and halfback Kevin Faulk. Their secondary was patched together weekly because of injuries. Defensive tackle Richard Seymour had missed games with a knee injury and running back Corey Dillon struggled with an ankle injury.
The Colts, meanwhile, have lived a charmed life. They have faced only one team that currently has a winning record, division rival Jacksonville. Their 7-0 record came at the expense of teams with a combined record of 17-34. But that has helped solidify the Colts' confidence. The defense fought through its own injuries but ranks fourth in the league for fewest yards allowed (277.9) and is allowing an NFL-low 11 points a game.
Perhaps the most interesting thing happening with the Colts is how they are responding to being "Belichicked" on offense. Opposing teams have copied what Belichick has done so often to the Colts' offense. Knowing how efficient Peyton Manning can be slicing a defense apart through the air, defenses have dropped seven and eight men into coverage, taking away Manning's ability to go downfield.
Under those circumstances, Manning has no chance to repeat his 49-touchdown season. No problem. Manning cares more about the seven wins than the seven points and he is content handing the ball off to Edgerrin James and letting James be the team's most valuable player in the first half of the season. James leads the NFL with 801 rushing yards because Manning is seeing so few defenders in the defensive box in front of him and simply handing the ball off to James.
The interesting twist in Monday night's game is what strategies Belichick comes up with this time against the Colts. How will the Patriots be able to execute them? Because of a lot of different factors, this hasn't been a typical Patriots defense. It's given up 128.4 yards a game on the ground. Problems in pass coverage have let the Patriots fall to 26th in the NFL in total defense (359.1 yards per game) and points allowed (25.7 per game).
The return of Tedy Bruschi came at a perfect time. His presence helped seal the victory over the Bills, the only true team left in the AFC East to challenge the Patriots for the division title. With that victory Sunday night, the Patriots took a 1½-game lead and shouldn't have to worry about winning the division. But despite Bruschi's presence, the Patriots still gave up 394 total yards and 147 rushing yards.
At this point, the Patriots' biggest concern is getting a higher playoff seed. But they seem to be destined to get a third or fourth seed, which would add an extra game to their bid to win a fourth Super Bowl.
No doubt, this game will be the biggest challenge to the Colts' defense. Despite problems running the ball because of injuries in the backfield, the Patriots remain explosive on offense with Tom Brady leading the way. He's better than ever. He's completing 63.1 percent of his passes and he's getting the ball downfield to David Givens and Deion Branch.
This has the chance to be a high-scoring game.
The Patriots need to win just to keep the seeds of doubt in the minds of the Colts. If these teams meet again, it will be in the playoffs, probably in Indianapolis. Keeping doubt in the minds of the Colts' players is important, which is why Tony Dungy knows he needs to take advantage of the situation and get this victory.
He won't find a better time to beat the Patriots. They still haven't gotten their defense together. By January, it could be a different story because Belichick will find ways to get this defense to peak at some point.
In some ways, the Colts come into this game with nothing to lose, but they also come in with more to gain. If they win, they would have a four-game edge over the Patriots in the playoff standings. They would gain a slight psychological edge if they win. But the Patriots are the Patriots. They have been the obstacle the Colts haven't been able to jump to get to the next level. Can they jump it this week?
This game should be fascinating to watch.
And 10. Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Scouting report
It's about time the schedule finally had some NFC South games. The NFC South had only two division games in the first two months. One of the best divisions in football is one of the least defined because none of the teams have played each other. The Bucs are 5-2, but three of those wins came against the NFC North, which is the weakest division in football. In some ways, the Bucs don't know where they are as an offense. Chris Simms was terrible last week in his first start since Brian Griese was injured. Heck, he lost to the 49ers. Now he's facing one of the best teams in the division. Jon Gruden has faith in Simms, but he must respond or Tim Rattay will be starting in a few weeks. The problem facing the Bucs is how well the Panthers have played against the run. They are allowing only 78.3 yards a game, and if Cadillac Williams can be taken out of the game, it's going to be tough for the Bucs. Williams was totally stopped last week by the 49ers, and the Panthers are a much better defense. Helping the Bucs is the league's top defense. They'll be tested by Steve Smith, but don't expect him to be able to run free like he did last week against the Vikings.
9. Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs | Scouting report
Are the Raiders really going to make a playoff run? It could begin or end Sunday in Arrowhead. The Raiders are starting to play much better ball after a 1-4 start. LaMont Jordan had more carries (48) in the last two games, resulting in wins over the Bills and Titans. Despite major losses in the secondary (Derrick Gibson and Charles Woodson), the defense is getting better. The Chiefs won the first meeting this year (23-17 in Oakland), so if the Raiders lose Sunday, their playoff run could be shot early. A loss would drop them to 0-3 in the AFC West with two losses to the Chiefs. Plus, they still have to make trips to Denver and San Diego. It's do or die for the Raiders. Unfortunately, Randy Moss is still banged up. He's gutted out the last two games with sore ribs and a painful groin injury. Even though he's still a threat, he's not the same receiver because of the injuries. The Chiefs know the importance of this game. They came out of the Chargers loss banged up, but they also match up well against the Raiders. The Raiders have problems covering with their safeties. The Chiefs can destroy defenses that don't have safeties who can cover because Tony Gonzalez and Priest Holmes create mismatches. In the first meeting against the Raiders, the Chiefs had to keep Gonzalez in more to block because left tackle Willie Roaf was out with a hamstring injury. But Roaf has returned, so Gonzalez and Holmes are free to attack the Raiders.
8. Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins (ESPN, Sunday, 8:30 ET) | Scouting report
The Eagles know their season has reached a critical stage. They have been outscored 62-14 in the first quarter of games, and opponents are finding successful ways to attack them. Because Andy Reid refuses to run the ball, Donovan McNabb must get the offense kick-started in the first quarter, but that's tough until he loosens up the sports hernia he's battling. The Broncos blitzed eight and nine players to open the game last week, and McNabb responded with 12 straight incompletions. To make matters worse, McNabb is also playing with sore ribs, and Terrell Owens could miss two weeks with an ankle injury. Reid is also trying to figure out what's wrong with his defense, which gave up 33 points to the Cowboys in Week 5 and 49 points last week against the Broncos. The Redskins learned in last week's blowout loss to the Giants that to beat good teams they have to play a perfect game. A few mistakes against the Giants, and they ended up losing 36-0. Still, the Redskins will create major problems for the Eagles. The Eagles have some of the best blitz packages in the league. But the Redskins max protect with seven or eight blockers around Mark Brunell, and a max protection scheme neutralizes good blitzing packages. Injuries to key Eagles defensive starters could give them problems winning the individual matchups. This is unfamiliar territory for the Eagles. After dominating the NFC East for four years, the Eagles are actually at a crossroads in the regular season.
7. Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens | Scouting report
Brian Billick hopes to use the Ravens' strong performance against the Steelers Monday night as a rallying point. Even though they lost on the road by one point, they played hard and well, even though Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were out of the lineup. Against the Bengals, they are at home, and they might be able to use their physical running game. The Bengals had trouble stopping the Steelers' running attack two weeks ago, and the Ravens know that. They are trying desperately to get Jamal Lewis' confidence back. The Bengals will cause more offensive problems for the Ravens' defense because they try to throw the ball more than the Steelers. Chad Johnson is one of the league's best receivers. Carson Palmer continues to develop as an elite quarterback. It was hard to tell Reed and Lewis were missing Monday night. But their absences could be more noticeable Sunday.
6. Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings | Scouting report
It's hard to think that any NFC North game would rank so high in "First and 10." Well, the only reason it does is that this weekend's schedule is a weak one. Division games always get higher marks, even in this sorry division. Talk about two teams going in the wrong direction. As bad as things are in Minnesota, the Lions appear to be in shambles. Jeff Garcia's broken leg is still bothering him, so the Lions may have to go back to Joey Harrington. Charles Rogers and Roy Williams could be back, which would help. But the team can't have much confidence in Harrington. The Vikings are facing the rest of the year without their leader, Daunte Culpepper, who blew out three knee ligaments last week. Brad Johnson takes over at quarterback. The Vikings know they have to win this game or it's going to be a long, cold winter. They would drop to 2-6 with only one home division game left.
5. Atlanta Falcons at Miami Dolphins | Scouting report
This game should get over in about two hours and 45 minutes. Each team's game plan is simple: run the ball. The Falcons aren't going to get fancy and try to pass too much against the Dolphins' physical front seven. Michael Vick will work his scrambles and bootlegs and he will hand off to Warrick Dunn to keep the offense moving. Nick Saban finally settled into the offense he had been planning for all season last week against the Saints. He wants Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to get the ball more than 15 times each and wear down defenses.
4. San Diego Chargers at New York Jets | Scouting report
Before the season started, this was one of the road games the Chargers feared. Now, it could turn out to be the team's easiest road game, which means it's a must-win. At 4-4, the Chargers know they face an uphill climb to be a playoff team. They still have road games at Washington, Indianapolis and Kansas City. With four losses, the margin for error is rapidly vanishing for the Chargers. At 2-5, the Jets are a totally vulnerable team and the Chargers have to take advantage of that. This obviously isn't the same Jets team that beat San Diego in the playoffs last year. Vinny Testaverde is the quarterback. Chargers defensive tackle Jamal Williams will give all kinds of problems to center Pete Kendall, who is filling in for injured Kevin Mawae. The Jets still have a good defense that will cause problems for the Chargers, but the Jets don't have the offense to cause much of a problem for the Chargers' defense.
3. Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals | Scouting report
The Cardinals entered the season as a sleeper team, but so far it's been a nightmare. The injuries just won't go away, and the losses keep mounting. But Dennis Green has a chance to salvage something if he can get a win over the current NFC West leader. It's no surprise he went back to Kurt Warner. Warner is more experienced and has more wins under his belt than Josh McCown. The Seahawks come out of their bye week with confidence. They are 5-2 and the division is theirs to take control of in the next week or two. If they can pull out wins over the Cardinals this week and the Rams next week, they would have a big lead in the NFC West and would be playing out the schedule for a higher playoff seeding. Matt Hasselbeck runs the league's No. 1 offense, and Shaun Alexander has 12 rushing touchdowns. A year ago, the Cardinals were talking trash to the Seahawks' offensive line, so Alexander made a point to punish them on the ground.
2. Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints | Scouting report
This could be a trap game for the Bears. At 4-3, the Bears suddenly have emerged as the team to beat in the NFC North. But they are also a team that can be beaten. On paper, the Saints are a better team. They have enough offensive weapons to cause problems for the Bears' defense, which ranks No. 3 in football. Away from home, the Bears are 1-2. The loss of Mark Bradley for the season with a knee injury is another concern. Justin Gage takes over but he's not enough of a threat to pull double coverage away from Muhsin Muhammad. The Saints also have a pass rush that could cause problems for rookie quarterback Kyle Orton. The Bears better not get too overconfident. Good thing they have a solid coach in Lovie Smith, who will preach humility and hard work.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers | Scouting report
Ben Roethlisberger will miss this game after having arthroscopic knee surgery Thursday. For the second time in a month, they have to go to a backup quarterback. Tommy Maddox ended up costing them the Jacksonville game, so the next option is Charlie Batch. That means the Packers will have to load up to stop the run, but they don't have the personal to totally shut it down. Batch hasn't started since 2001, so this game could end up being an adventure. The Steelers still are shaking off the cobwebs from their physical Monday night victory over the Ravens, and with Batch at quarterback, it could be a closer game than people expect. Remember, the Packers still have Brett Favre.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.