- 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 12.
First Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: While the defense will attempt to slow down New England's star tailback, the Ravens will have to survive without theirs.
Baltimore travels to New England without star running back, Jamal Lewis, who has an ankle injury that could keep him out for more than a week. The Patriots made a bold move this offseason trading for Corey Dillon, who has allowed the Patriots to use more play-action passing plays in their offense.
Will Dillon's presence and Lewis' absence be the difference in Sunday's showdown between the two teams in Foxboro? Probably. Dillon is averaging 4.8 yards a carry and is only two yards shy of 1,000 yards. His ability to hit holes hard allows quarterback Tom Brady to work more games against the linebackers, hoping to make them bite on play-action fakes.
Quarterback Kyle Boller, who has actually performed better over the last month, has been forced to increase his production. Since Lewis has missed time because of a two-game suspension and injuries, the Ravens have allowed Boller to throw more and challenge defenses with down-field passing.
Still Lewis, who has 651 yards on 159 carries, is one of the league's best power runners. He wears down defenders with his hard, physical style. Chester Taylor did well filling in for Lewis with 370 yards and a 4.4-yard average, but it's going to be hard for him to do what Lewis does.
The Ravens, who are 7-3, have the league's toughest closing schedule. They pulled out a big road victory two weeks ago in New York by beating the Jets, 20-17, even though the Jets could have scored a short touchdown in the final minutes of regulation. They have December road trips to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
And the Patriots are still considered the league's best team. Coach Bill Belichick did an unbelievable job of mixing man and zone coverages for road trips against high powered offenses such as the Chiefs and Rams, and pulled out convincing victories.
The return of Deion Branch gives the offense more firepower because of his downfield speed and ability to make big plays after catching the ball.
For a game such as this, the Ravens need all of their weapons. Unfortunately they don't have them.
It will be tough.
And 10. Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants: The good news is that the Giants are at home. The bad news is they are playing the NFC's best team and if they lose, they are eliminated from contention for the NFC East crown. Rookie quarterback Eli Manning did several things well in his first start against the Falcons. For one, he didn't take a ton of sacks last week. Kurt Warner was sacked 24 times during his first four starts and had 39 sacks in nine starts. Manning got rid of the ball quickly and only had one. But getting rid of the ball too quickly led him to having a 43.5 completion percentage. In a league of 60-percent plus passers, that's not good enough, and a repeat of that won't give the Giants much of a chance against the NFC's best team. The Eagles come into this game down another offensive lineman. Guard Artis Hicks is out with a sprained medial collateral knee ligament will be replaced by Steve Sciullo. Coach Andy Reid has been patching the guard position all season since they lost first-round choice Shawn Andrews for the season. Jermane Mayberry has also been banged up. The Eagles won the season opener against the Giants, 31-17, and now the Giants play them without Warner at quarterback and Michael Strahan on the defensive line. With a rookie at quarterback, the Giants are lacking key playmakers to counter the Eagles.
9. St. Louis Rams at Green Bay Packers (9 ET, ABC): The Packers are on a roll. They have won five games in a row and they have done a lot despite adversity. Brett Favre has had a lot of family problems, but he's having one of his best seasons. He's completed 64.9 percent of his passes and has 19 touchdown passes. Last week against the Texans, he brought the team from a 10-point deficit despite having three halfbacks, including Ahman Green, out with injuries. The Rams didn't show the same resilience in a road loss to the Bills last week. Coach Mike Martz complained blocks on Rams cornerbacks forced three injuries that left the secondary depleted. Drew Bledsoe and the Bills offense picked them apart in what turned out to a 34-17 win. Now, the weather will be colder and road games will be tougher for the Rams. The return of defensive tackle Grady Jackson from an early-season knee injury has improved the Packers run defense. While the Packers may not have much of a running game because of injuries, they still have Favre. A Favre-Marc Bulger showdown could be fun the watch, but the Rams defense now suddenly looks the more vulnerable of the two.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings: Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio was hurt when Vikings coach Mike Tice didn't give him the defensive coordinator job with the Vikings a couple of years ago. Del Rio went off to the Ravens and then emerged as the Jaguars head coach. The former teammates remain good friends, but this a vital game for both teams. The Jaguars should have Byron Leftwich back at quarterback after missing two games with a knee injury, but things aren't as good with the offense as they were before he rested. Critics are saying the offense is getting too conservative. One of the big problems has been the receivers haven't played well. Rookie Reggie Williams has only 19 catches and isn't open much. Rookie Ernest Wilford was deactivated last week even though he's a big target. That's fine for the Vikings, who are trying to find their confidence on defense. What the Vikings can't afford is a fast start by the Jaguars offense. Too many times in the past month, the Vikings have been two touchdowns down in the first half. Even though he's starting the week as doubtful because of his hamstring, Randy Moss is expected to return. He had a good Monday workout, and having him back should open up more big plays for the offense.
7. San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: Even though there has been a dramatic improvement in the defense, the Chargers know they don't matchup as well against good passing teams. The Chiefs are a great passing team and they are at home. But poor defensive play is killing the Chiefs and putting the offense into horrible positions. This might be one of the worst tackling defenses in football. Despite the coaching of defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, the Chiefs allow too many offensive players to run free. That's good news for a Chargers offense that is hot. LaDainian Tomlinson looks great now that he's had an extra week to rest a groin injury. The one-two threat of tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Keenan McCardell is hard for teams to cover, and the Chiefs defense has problems matching up against good tight ends. Still, this contest and the Jan. 2 meeting in San Diego are dangerous games for the Chargers. The Chiefs at 3-7 are now spoilers. They won't have Priest Holmes and don't have much of a running game without him. But as good as the Chiefs passing game is, they couldn't score more than 19 points against a Patriots secondary that was filled with an undrafted free agent rookie, a former practice squad player and a wide receiver playing cornerback. This is a victory former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer needs.
6. Buffalo Bills at Seattle Seahawks: The Bills have won four of their past six games after an 0-4 start, but they haven't won a road game this year. They know they are hitting the Seahawks at the right time. A knee surgery to Chad Brown and a wrist operation to Anthony Simmons leaves the defense without their best two linebackers. The receiving corps is down wide receiver Koren Robinson for the next four games because of a drug suspension. Right tackle Chris Terry is in Mike Holmgren's doghouse and didn't even play last week. The Seahawks played poorly against the Dolphins but won thanks to a dumb interception by A.J. Feeley. Seahawks defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes does have defensive end Grant Wistrom back to help the pass rush, and everyone knows Drew Bledsoe struggles against a good pass rush. The Rams didn't pressure him last week and Bledsoe picked the Rams defense apart. There is an emotional tie for Bledsoe, who played across the state at Washington State. He knows his starting days in Buffalo might be numbered, so he wants to use this rare return to his homestate as a springboard for next year.
5. Washington Redskins at Pittsburgh Steelers: Duce Staley returns to the Steelers offense at the right time. Plaxico Burress won't be available for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger because of a hamstring injury, so the Steelers will be trying to run even more, knowing their deep threat isn't going to play. Roethlisberger is 8-0 and has mastered every challenge. This week, he will be facing a team that blitzes more than any in the NFL. New Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams brings the heat with his many blitzes, and even though Roethlisberger does well against the blitz, he hasn't faced a team that blitzes every other play. Patrick Ramsey makes his second start for Joe Gibbs' struggling offense, which suddenly lost it's running game. Clinton Portis gained only 37 yards last week on 17 carries against the Eagles. The Redskins line lost its best guard, Randy Thomas, because of a hamstring injury. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau won't have Kendrell Bell to help out his blitzing schemes because of a groin tear that should end his season. No problem. He'll blitz inside linebacker James Farrior, who is having a Pro Bowl season. Farrior is making more big plays than any inside linebacker in football.
4. New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: Can things get any worse for Saints coach Jim Haslett, a good friend of Falcons coach Jim Mora? Saints owner Tom Benson said the Saints played like a bunch of high-schoolers against the Broncos and that it was one of the worst performances he's seen since owning the team. Rumors of a Haslett firing had to be extinguished early in the week. Still, Haslett is having a tough time motivating this defense, which is the worst in football. His offense is making too many dumb mistakes. The Falcons, meanwhile, are winning despite the limitations of their offense. Michael Vick is carrying the team with his running and throwing, but the Falcons offense isn't pretty to watch. They don't get the ball to the wide receivers. It's usually a few Vick throws to tight end Alge Crumpler, a Vick run here or there and a few handoffs. It works. The Falcons are 8-2 and should have the NFC South wrapped up within two weeks.
3. New York Jets at Arizona Cardinals: Wonder what surprises Dennis Green has this week? Last week, he benched starting quarterback Josh McCown and went with Shaun King, who didn't play particularly well. Every week, Green comes up with a surprise. King is expected to start again, and the Cardinals play well at home. Or it is that opponents play bad in Arizona? The Cardinals are 3-1 at home even though their home crowd is smaller than a Kansas City Chiefs tailgating party. The Jets are just trying to survive until Chad Pennington comes back in two weeks. Quincy Carter will run a conservative offense featuring Curtis Martin and LaMont Jordan, who is finally getting some action. Martin is playing with a banged up knee, so Jordan may have to do a little bit more.
2. Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: Cleveland coach Butch Davis has been assured he won't be fired if he loses but the writing is on the wall. Davis is out after the season if not before. The Browns are in depression. Their season has slipped away at 3-7 and fans are furious. Owner Randy Lerner is making public apologies to fans for the team's horrible performances, and things should only get worse. Kelly Holcomb will start at quarterback because Jeff Garcia has a damaged shoulder and back. To be honest, I'm surprised he lasted this long because that offensive lineis terrible. Holcomb's timing couldn't be worse because left tackle Ryan Tucker was lost for the season with a knee injury. The Bengals had seven sacks against a pretty good Steelers offensive line, and Holcomb isn't the most mobile quarterback. For the Bengals, this is a game of pride. Marvin Lewis was furious at the Bengals poor effort last week against the Steelers. Bengals players like Lewis and should respond. Can we say the same about the Browns and Davis? We'll find out Sunday.
1. Miami Dolphins at San Francisco 49ers: Won't this be a classic? It's the battle for the first pick in the draft. The Dolphins stayed on the West Coast for a week prepping for this showdown. Of the two, the Dolphins are playing better. The 49ers continue to get worse. The injuries have caught up to them, and their performance level has dropped each week. They haven't been within 10 points of an opponent in the last four games of their five-game losing streak. The Dolphins played hard for interim coach Jim Bates last week against the Seahawks but the same scenario re-emerged. There wasn't enough offense and A.J. Feeley threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Here's a thought. Ricky Williams is over in Oakland visiting his sister and goes to school learning holistic medicine about an hour away. Maybe he can come by for an inspirational talk to the guys.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
2dEric D. Williams
2dMel Kiper Jr.