Loss would hurt Broncos' playoff hopes

Mike Shanahan must get his Broncos refocused if they want to avoid falling two games back of the Chargers.

Originally Published: December 1, 2004
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

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 13.

First … Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers: Mike Shanahan's coaching life might have flashed before him as the Raiders drove for two late touchdown drives in the snow for a win against his Broncos on Sunday night.

Here is this mastermind coach watching a three-win Raiders team beat his squad in the snow at home in the final minutes. Since winning back to back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998, he's been taking criticism for not winning a playoff game.

Drew Brees
Chargers QB Drew Brees is second in the AFC with a 108.0 passer rating.
Losing critical November home games cost teams division titles, and no one is more aware of that than the Broncos. Though Shanahan has managed two playoff trips since John Elway's retirement, almost every other team in his division has won it since then -- Seattle (before moving to the NFC West), Oakland (who went to a Super Bowl) and Kansas City last year. Now, trailing by one game in the AFC West, the Broncos come to San Diego during the crossroads of their season.

In training camp, the Chargers were considered one of the least talented teams in football. Yet, coach Marty Schottenheimer produced a lot of the magic he generated in Kansas City. He played Marty Ball, a close to the vest offensive style topped with a solid defense. With the help of general manager A.J. Smith, the Chargers have been the surprise team in football.

Success in the NFL is a matter of hardwork and luck. The Chargers' success is a combination of both. The Chargers completely rebuilt the offensive line from starters to backups. It worked. Quarterback Drew Brees ignored organizational rejection when Philip Rivers drafted and leads the league's second-highest scoring offense at 29 points a game.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips turned around the defense with a 3-4 scheme that stops the run better and covers up some of the holes in the pass coverage.

Where does the luck factor in? Luck was not trading for quarterback Mark Brunell, something that was high on the priority list before the Redskins grabbed him. Brunell has failed. Luck was Rivers holding out an extra week in training camp which limited the amount of practices he needed to be the starter. The Chargers wouldn't be 8-3 without Brees.

And luck was making two trades with the Bucs that gave them two starters who became leaders -- offensive tackle Roman Oben and wide receiver Keenan McCardell.

Sunday's game is a big one for both franchises. If the Chargers win, they open up a two-game lead on the Broncos with four games left. Overcoming two games in four weeks will be tough for the Broncos because they still have to play a game in Kansas City. The Chargers survived the trip to K.C. last week with a 34-31 victory.

The Broncos would hold the tiebreaker in a divisional tie with the Chargers if they win because they would have a sweep over them. Shanahan knows he has to win. Letting the Chargers win the division would mean that every other team in the AFC West has won a division title since 1998 except the Broncos.

Shanahan knows all too well how tough it is win as a wild-card team. Wild-card teams don't get home games. The pressure is on to win a playoff game for Shanahan. Sunday's game in San Diego is vital if that has a chance of occurring.

And 10. Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles: The Packers are a hot team. They've won six in a row, and Brett Favre is having one of his best seasons. Things were going well last year until they faced the Eagles in the playoffs. It took a long time for the Packers to recover from the fourth-and-26 play Donovan McNabb converted in the eventual Eagles win. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was fired as a result. Packers coach Mike Sherman fretted the entire offseason about that play and why it went wrong. What won't help, though, is losing to an Eagles team that is more talented than a year ago. The Eagles are in position for have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Terrell Owens has energized the passing offense with his big-play ability. Jevon Kearse has made the defense more explosive. And it's probably not going to help the Packers having the short week following their Monday night victory over the Rams. Teams coming off Monday night victories have had tough times winning the next week. The good news for the Packers is Ahman Green (rib injury) is back in the backfield as long as he doesn't have a setback. Najeh Davenport filled in well replacing him but he is questionable with rib problems.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday 8:30 ET, ESPN): Ben Roethlisberger is 9-0 as a starter, but he's starting to show signs of struggling. His sack totals have been increasing of late and the passing yards keep dropping. Of course, it probably hasn't helped that the team has been operating without halfback Duce Staley and wide receiver Plaxico Burress because of hamstring injuries. Both players are expected to return this week, giving Roethlisberger more weapons. This is an interesting showdown. Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich was the best rookie quarterback last season. Roethlisberger has been the best rookie quarterback since Dan Marino in 1983. Both came from the MAC and both quarterbacks have great futures. The Jaguars' playoff hopes are fading quickly, and if the Jags lose Sunday night, they can forget about the playoffs. This game figures to be a low-scoring, hard-hitting game. They used to be division rivals, but those days are gone and the Jaguars roster is so new, there aren't many carryovers from those days. The Jaguars will try to run the ball more with halfback Fred Taylor, whom coach Jack Del Rio thinks he hasn't gotten enough carries in recent weeks.

8. Houston Texans at New York Jets: Quincy Carter did well in winning two of his three starts replacing the injured Chad Pennington, but now it's time for Pennington to make his playoff stretch run. The schedule gets tougher after this week. The final schedule of Pittsburgh, Seattle, New England and St. Louis features teams with a combined record of 31-13 and is among the toughest closing slates. With the loss to the Ravens a couple weeks ago, the Jets probably need to go 11-5 to win a wild-card spot. Forget about the AFC East. The Patriots are going to win that, but the season could end up being a non-playoff season if the Jets lose to the Texans. Pennington might be rusty after missing three games. If the winds are blowing in the Meadowlands, he might not have full arm strength. Still, these are the games that are vital if the Jets want to make the playoffs. The Texans aren't a playoff team this season but are building toward being one next year. Quarterback David Carr has had a solid season, and wide receiver Andre Johnson will cause backup problems for the Jets cornerbacks. This game will be tougher than the Jets might like. The Texans are a physical team.

7. New England Patriots at Cleveland Browns: It will be interesting to see how the Browns respond now that coach Butch Davis is gone. All season under Davis, the Browns have been a pretty solid home team. Rumors surfaced last week that the Browns were going to fire Davis and the defense responded by laying an egg, giving up 58 points to the Bengals. Davis was so drained and distraught after that game he made a mutual parting with the organization and won't coach next season, giving himself a year to refresh himself for a potential college job. Terry Robiskie takes over as the interim coach. But now he could be without Kelly Holcomb and Jeff Garcia. Holcomb, who threw for over 400 yards against the Bengals, cracked ribs and is questionable to play. That could mean rookie Luke McCown will have to make his first start. Could the Browns get a worse team to play than the Patriots? No way. The Patriots are well coached and don't make many mistakes. The Browns don't have the weapons to cause them any problems, and it's not going to make the Browns fans happy to lose to a Bill Belichick-coached team. Belichick wasn't the most popular coach when he was in Cleveland.

6. Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: The Chad Hutchinson-Daunte Culpepper matchup might be interesting at a carnival if they were throwing baseballs, but this is the NFL. Hutchinson wasn't ready as a starter with the Cowboys last year. He wasn't ready to be a starter in NFL Europe this summer. What makes the Bears think he's ready to out duel Culpepper now? Well, the only reason Hutchinson is starting is because Jonathan Quinn is so bad. Craig Krenzel is out for a couple of weeks with a high ankle sprain, but Hutchinson has to maintain one of the most consistent stats in the NFL -- the three-and-out stat. The Bears have been uncanny for three plays-and-punt possessions, leading the league with 54 three-and-outs in 147 offensive possessions. Only Sammy Sosa swings and misses as much as the Bears offense, but Sosa does provide the longball. The Bears offense, which averages 15.6 points a game, doesn't. This has the potential of a blowout.

Peyton Manning
Manning and the Colts have won three straight against the Titans.
5. Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts: A year ago, Steve McNair and Peyton Manning were co-MVPs. What a difference a season makes. Manning is the NFL's MVP with 41 touchdown passes in 11 games. McNair is completing only 60 percent of his passes and has a 73.1 quarterback rating. He's even hinted that he's thinking about retiring after the season. But that won't happen. He's frustrated. He knows major changes are coming after the season. The Titans salary cap is $111 million, and McNair will lose many of his veteran friends. Meanwhile, Manning will try his best to attack and score touchdowns against the injury-depleted Titans defense. A week ago, the Titans had more injuries than they had slots on the inactive list, so players who weren't going to play were allowed to dress. They are on pace to have 90 missed starts because of injuries. This may not be pretty because the Colts proved in their last three meetings that they have the Titans' number even when the Titans are healthy.

4. New York Giants at Washington Redskins: As if Eli Manning needed anything else to bother him, he faces the NFL's most blitz-happy defense Sunday. The Redskins are all blitz. They send extra defenders on every other play, and they are effective in what they do. To rank second on defense allowing 267.7 yards a game on a team that is scoring only 12.5 points a game is incredible. Manning has been instructed to get rid of the ball quickly, and the Redskins know that. Manning will struggle to complete over 40 percent of his passes and will have to rely on making big plays to win. Ike Hilliard is in a slump and that hasn't helped. To combat all the blitzes, the Giants will have to try to gash the Redskins with Tiki Barber draw plays. Patrick Ramsey has a stronger arm than Mark Brunell, but he hasn't improved the Redskins' quality of play at quarterback.

3. Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: A month ago, the Panthers were in San Francisco with a 1-7 record and trailing 17-3 at the half to a bad 49ers team. Now, they are 4-7 and a game out of the playoffs. Only in the NFC can the meek inherit a chance to make the playoffs. The schedule has helped. Of course, finding winning teams in the NFC is becoming more and more difficult. The conference is terrible. A week ago, the five teams with 4-6 records all lost. Well, at least that can't happen to the seven 4-7 teams. At least two of them will be 5-7 (barring a tie) because four 4-7 teams are playing each other. The Panthers have been getting a good running game with Nick Goings. The Saints can't stop the run, so it's not too hard to figure out what the Panthers offensive game plan will be.

2. Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions: Lions fans are calling for the benching of quarterback Joey Harrington. Cardinals fans can't figure out why Dennis Green keeps benching quarterbacks. Go figure. Seventh-round choice John Navarre is getting the call after two horrible starts by Shaun King. You have to wonder what Josh McCown did. But at least McCown had Emmitt Smith to fall back on for leadership at running back. Smith is out 2-3 weeks with a toe injury, so Navarre has unknown rookie Larry Croom in the backfield. Advantage, Lions.

1. Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks (Monday 9 ET, ABC): ABC booked this Monday night game thinking it would be a battle of two NFC playoff teams. Well, maybe they were right because both teams are in the playoff hunt. Of course, that doesn't mean much in the NFC. At 4-7, Bill Parcells has gone back to Vinny Testaverde as the quarterback and is thinking playoffs. Owner Jerry Jones wanted Parcells to stay with Drew Henson. The Seahawks are a mess even though they have the fifth-best record in the NFC. Matt Hasselbeck can't get his receivers to catch balls instead of dropping them. The defense has holes. Last week, the Bills flew into Seattle and dominated them. Parcells is looking at this game as a possible win. Seahawks fans booed early during last week's game. Mike Holmgren has vowed that the same team won't show up on Monday night. They better not or there will be a lot of dissatisfied customers.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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