Seahawks out to avoid sweep
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 10.First Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams: For more than two weeks following their Oct. 10 loss to the Rams, the Seahawks were in a funk.
They had blown a 17-point lead to the Rams during the final eight minutes of their important home game and lost in overtime, 33-27. Coach Mike Holmgren's clock management was questioned. Coverage problems were exposed in the secondary. Confidence waned.
What followed was a flat first-half performance and eventual loss to the Patriots and then a bad loss to the Cardinals on the road. Then, Holmgren pulled in the reins. He uncomplicated the offense, cutting down the offensive game plan by more than 30 plays. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck called less play adjustments along with blocking changes at the line.
The Seahawks relied on their talent and play execution and scored 65 points in victories over the Panthers and 49ers. But these are the Rams coming up Sunday. To get over the hump and be a division winner, the Seahawks need to exorcise their ghosts when playing the Rams. It won't be easy.
As they did in October, the Rams enter the game in a bit of a crisis. The Seahawks were 3-0 heading into that game. The Rams were 2-2 and in jeopardy of falling 2½ games behind. Division hopes could fade if they lose this crucial home game. They would fall behind by two games and face tough road trips to Buffalo and Green Bay.
Conversely, the Seahawks follow Sunday's game with three home games against teams with combined records of 7-18. Even if the Seahawks lose, they have a good chance of being 8-4 heading into the final four games.
Execution will be the key for the Seahawks. They have let Shaun Alexander carry the offense more with his running game. He's averaging 29 carries and 177.5 yards the past two weeks. Hasselbeck has been pinpoint precise even though his receiving corps has been banged up with ankle injuries. The offensive line has come together for its best games of the season.
Pressuring the quarterback won't be as easy for the Seahawks. Grant Wistrom may try to play after coming off a broken kneecap, but he won't be at full speed if he can be on the field. The four-man rush without him has had a tough time applying pressure.
The Rams have their own problems. They've lost back-to-back games and their defense is getting carved up. Coach Mike Martz is thinking of making a change or two along the offensive line.
The Oct. 10 game might have been the game of the year, and this one has the potential to challenge it.
And 10. Baltimore Ravens at New York Jets: This game has major playoff implications. The Jets started 6-1 but they face an uphill climb of catching the Patriots for the AFC East crown. Their second-half schedule features six games against teams with .500 records or better and they might have to play half of them without quarterback Chad Pennington. The Ravens trail the Steelers by two games in the AFC North, so they can't afford to lose a potential wild-card tie-breaker to the Jets unless they get hot. It's a big game. It should also be a quick game. Both teams will try to run the ball. That's been the strategy all year for the Ravens, who have one of the thinnest wide receiving crews. Baltimore's Jamal Lewis wasn't happy he didn't get 25 carries against the Browns and coach Brian Billick agreed. Lewis needs 25 carries to wear down defenses. With Pennington out, the Jets will continue to overuse halfback Curtis Martin, who is on pace for 390 carries this season. New Jets signal caller Quincy Carter ran a ball-control offense in Dallas last year and took them to the playoffs. He has better runners in New York. Of the two teams, the Ravens may have to take a few more chances because they are on the road. The defense rarely allows teams to score 20-plus points, but the Ravens need a few big plays to win.
9. Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers: Coming off their Monday loss to the Colts, the Vikings proved they could move the football without wide receiver Randy Moss, who will sit out against the Packers. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper threw for only 169 yards, but the Vikings scored 28 points in a three-point loss to Indy. The Packers are well rested from a bye week and face a tough second-half schedule. Quarterback Brett Favre was able to rest a bruise hand and crooked right thumb. Running back Ahman Green was able to get his second wind and should come out with a strong running effort. For the Vikings to win, they will need a big defensive effort and a strong running game. Onterrio Smith will start and is their best pure running back. Coach Mike Tice will mix in Michael Bennett and Moe Williams in situations. What Tice can't do is leave his defense on the field too much to be picked part by Favre. Last year, the Vikings got off to a 6-0 start with a season-opening victory in Green Bay. The Packers took the entire season to come back and take the division title away from them. Their rivalry is starting late and will be even more intense.
8. Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: The Texans were flat in last week's 31-13 loss to the Broncos. Coach Dom Capers couldn't explain it. The Texans spent the first half of the season putting themselves in playoff contention for the first time in franchise history. The Colts could extinguish it quickly if they don't get out of that funk. Offensively, the Texans have the firepower to stay with the Colts and their confidence could be boosted by watching tapes of the Jaguars victory in Indianapolis. The Texans play the Colts two times over the next five weeks so they have the ability to stay in the race. Finding answers for Peyton Manning won't be easy. He has 26 touchdown passes and the Texans have coverage problems at safety. Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer was responsible for having Eric Brown benched following a long completion last Sunday, so the Texans will be relying on a rookie Glenn Earl. Earl is the third rookie in the Texans starting defensive lineup, a defense that appeared to turn the corner before the Denver loss.
7. Detroit Lions at Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars will have to run a different offense now that 245-pound quarterback David Garrard is replacing the injured Byron Leftwich. The Jaguars' success was going to a more finesse three-receiver, shotgun offense for Leftwich. He was regularly getting 20-25 point scoring efforts from the spread offense. Now, coach Jack Del Rio will have to pull back the offense and rely more on the running of Fred Taylor. Garrard can make plays on draws and bootlegs, but he can't match the throwing skills of Leftwich. Running up the middle won't be easy because the Lions have defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson. Still, the Lions have hit the wall. Coach Steve Mariucci says the team has about 10-12 Lions playing with injuries and it shows. The Lions are on a two-game losing streak and both sides of the ball are starting to fade. Quarterback Joey Harrington doesn't have a completely healthy Roy Williams at wide receiver because of an ankle injury. The running game is nonexistent. Blocking along the line is crumbling. This might be the last chance for the Lions to get their confidence back on defense. Following the Jaguars game, the Lions face the Vikings and Colts in a 11-day stretch.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons can start to wrap up the NFC South if they can win this game. They would open a four-game lead on the Bucs if they can win, and they already have a three-game lead on the Saints. But the Bucs are playing better football with Brian Griese at quarterback. He's working the offense efficiently and things are getting better now that he has offensive weapons. The receiving corps is healthy for the first time this year and Michael Pittman is a hot running back. This game will be the barometer whether the Falcons can cruise to the division title or if it's going to be a dogfight. Only two NFC South games have been played to date. Each team has five of its six division games remaining. The Falcons are coming off a bye week and know they can make a statement by winning. The Bucs defense excels against the pass. They have a 77 quarterback rating against them and allow only 55.7 percent of completions. Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has only eight games in the West Coast offense and will have trouble on third downs, but he needs to get at least six or seven third down conversions against the Bucs to win.
4. Chicago Bears at Tennessee Titans: Quarterback Steve McNair should be back but will the Titans? This is a proud team that had a miserable season before the bye week. The salary cap forced them to be young at several positions, and injuries have held them back all season. On paper, though, this should be a mismatch. Going into the season, the Titans had hopes of the Super Bowl. Now, they are fighting an uphill battle to get to .500. The rest should help the Titans. McNair does not have all the offensive weapons of the past, but he has a good line and a powerful running back, Chris Brown who has 810 yards. The Bears defensive line has come together. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris is making a bid for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Last week against the Giants, the Bears had 15 quarterback hurries and 15 knockdowns. But to win, they need quarterback Craig Krenzel to pull a victory against a good team on the road. Running back Thomas Jones probably won't play because of a toe injury. Titans coach Jeff Fisher knows how to drive young quarterbacks crazy. Though the Bears are showing promise, this game isn't a good matchup for them.
3. Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots (Sunday 8:30 ET, ESPN): Patriots coach Bill Belichick survived a crisis in the secondary by playing wide receiver Troy Brown at cornerback and linebacker Don Davis at safety in beating the Rams last Sunday. Cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole are out, so Belichick will be patching again, but at least he will be doing it at home. At least, he will be doing it against the Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, whom he's always had success against. For the Bills, this is their season, and Bledsoe has to rally the offense. Since their last meeting, the Bills offense has rallied. Willis McGahee is regularly getting 100-yard rushing games. Wide receiver Eric Moulds is having a Pro Bowl season, and Lee Evans, the rookie, is coming on. But a loss puts the Bills five games behind the Patriots with only seven games left. It won't help that third receiver Josh Reed may not play with a knee injury and that right tackle Mike Williams is questionable with a neck injury. It also won't help if reporters hang around owner Ralph Wilson asking for critiques of the offensive game plan. The only chance the Bills have is to run a boring ball-control offense to keep down the score.
1. Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers: For draft watchers, this is an important game. The 49ers and Panthers have only one victory apiece and the 49ers play the one-win Dolphins in two weeks. This will start to sort out the first pick in the draft. The 49ers have the edge because the Panthers are running out of players. Panthers halfback Stephen Davis can't figure out why his sore knee doesn't get any better. He may try to play but don't count on him. Since the start of the season, the Panthers have placed seven players on injured reserve. The 49ers have some spark on offense with Tim Rattay at quarterback, but their injured defense is crumbling because of injuries. Too bad we can't get Mel Kiper Jr. to officiate this game. This is a draft special.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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