Pass defense a concern for Ravens
The Ravens and Colts meet in an AFC showdown that will carries significant playoff implications.
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.First Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts (Sunday 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): It was hard to tell last week if the Ravens made any improvements in a pass defense that had been struggling.
Deion Sanders returned as the third cornerback, but the Ravens had a fairly easy time during a 37-14 victory over the Giants. Eli Manning had a zero passer rating. Giants receivers couldn't get separation. The offensive line was patched and struggling.
Statistically, the Ravens are pretty good. They allow only 185 passing yards a game. They have 17 interceptions, and free safety Ed Reed is having an MVP season.
But just two weeks ago, the Ravens allowed three fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Carson Palmer in a loss to the Bengals and Peyton Manning is the type of quarterback who eats up good defenses if they are a little off. Because this is a Sunday night game, the Colts' crowd will be extra loud and that may hurt the Ravens' chances of calling for the adjustments needed to stop Manning.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this game is that it could be a preview of the playoffs. It's unlikely the Colts can make up the two-game gap between them and the Steelers and Patriots to get a first-round bye, so they are destined to be the third- or fourth-seed, which means playing during the first week of the playoffs.
At 8-5 the Ravens need to keep winning to make it to the playoffs, where the chances of meeting the Colts again are good. In fact, that sixth spot in the playoffs is a battle between the Ravens and the Broncos. The Broncos host the Colts in the final week of the season. With a playoff berth and a home game already in hand, the Colts can use this game and the Broncos game to pre-scout their potential playoff opponent.
Of course, if they win both games, the Colts could help the Bills or Jaguars slide into that last spot in the playoffs. Talk about controlling a situation. The Colts know they will make the playoffs and can almost dictate who they play.
The good news for the Colts is that they don't have to risk using injured players to win a game. The Ravens, meanwhile, have to do everything possible to make the playoffs. At 8-5, the safest way is to get to 10 wins and hope they have the right tiebreakers. These next two games will determine their chances. After the meeting against Indy, Baltimore goes to Pittsburgh.
Ravens halfback Jamal Lewis is expected to play 40 and 50 snaps after being restricted to 30 plays a week ago coming off the ankle injury. Tight end Todd Heap is playing and getting healthier each week. However, the game will come down to the Baltimore's secondary.
And 10. Seattle Seahawks at New York Jets: The Chad Pennington-Matt Hasselbeck matchup is interesting. Hasselbeck and Pennington were in the last year of their contracts when training camp began. Talks between the Seahawks and Hasselbeck were moving along until Pennington got a seven-year, $64 million contract extension. Knowing he made the Pro Bowl last year and Pennington didn't, Hasselbeck upped his demands and talks have gone nowhere since. Playing without a contract this season has affected Hasselbeck's psyche. Though he put together back-to-back solid games against the Cowboys and the Vikings, Hasselbeck doesn't know what will happen to him after the season. Pennington, meanwhile, is taking some heat. He's been back in the lineup for two games after being sidelined with a shoulder injury and his timing is off. He's a little late making reads. Plus, he's not known for having great arm strength, but there seemed to be a little less zip on the ball last week against the Steelers. Still, Pennington is a winner. Over his last 15 starts, he's won nine games, though he has 14 touchdown passes compared to 15 interceptions in that stretch. Against playoff-caliber teams, he is taking some heat. For example, he has no touchdown passes against the Steelers and Patriots this season. Both teams need victories to push their playoff hopes. The Jets are playing for a wild-card spot. Because of the stumbles of the Rams, the Seahawks can win the NFL West.
9. Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals: The Bills have made an amazing playoff run since their 0-4 start. They have won seven of their past nine games. The defense is getting better each week. Defensive tackle Sam Adams is making a late run to the Pro Bowl and has been dominating blockers at the line of scrimmage. Troy Vincent has returned to play free safety and gives the defense an ability to come up with more turnovers. The only problem for the Bills is the tiebreakers. They need to win out to make the playoffs. They have six conferences losses, which hurts them when matching up against other teams for that last wild-card spot. The Bills play the 49ers next week, and then finish the season at home against the Steelers, who may rest players heading into the playoffs. Carson Palmer isn't expected to play for the Bengals because of a knee injury. The shame is that Palmer was a hot quarterback before hurting his knee. He was making big play after big play and seemed to be on a roll. However, Jon Kitna runs the offense well and rallied the Bengals against the Patriots last week. Other problems for the Bengals could be on defense because they may have to play without defensive end Duane Clemons and cornerback Deltha O'Neal.
8. Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs: This is a dangerous game for the Broncos. Even though the 5-8 Chiefs have nothing to play for, they would love hurting the Broncos' playoff chances. Where the Broncos have to worry is if this becomes a high-scoring game, which it should. The good news for the Broncos is the Chiefs' defense isn't good and has a history of not being able to keep Jake Plummer in the pocket. When Plummer gets out of the pocket, he can have a three- or four-touchdown game. When he is restricted to the pocket, his accuracy isn't strong. This is an important game for Plummer. He has a $6 million option bonus next season that the team needs to make a decision about. Though coach Mike Shanahan is inclined to exercise that option, Plummer could alter that thinking if he finishes poorly. Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil is considering changes on defense, but they probably don't involve too much near the line of scrimmage. Vermeil is thinking about benching cornerback William Bartee and replacing him with Dexter McCleon. Larry Johnson, who has been making big plays in the running game the past couple of weeks, is expected to get his first start at halfback. Priest Holmes is on injured reserve. Derrick Blaylock is questionable with a knee injury.
6. Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions: On paper, this looks like a lock for the Vikings. But in the NFC, there are no locks. The Lions will start Joey Harrington, but not with much enthusiasm. Once again, coach Steve Mariucci considered benching Harrington but opted to keep Mike McMahon as the backup. Were McMahon on a long-term contract, the story might be different. McMahon is a free agent after the season and the team gains nothing by giving him playing time. Harrington needs to rally. His completion percentage has dropped to 54.9. His quarterback rating has fallen to 77.2. Halfback Kevin Jones is one of the league's hottest runners, but the Lions can't take too much advantage of it because of the puny numbers coming from the passing game. With all that in mind, the Lions played the Vikings a month ago in Minneapolis and led 19-7 through three quarters. The Vikings scrambled and came away with a 22-19 victory, but it wasn't convincing. This is an important game for Mike Tice. Next week, he plays the Packers on Christmas Eve. The option for the final year of his contract comes due Jan. 1 and Tice can convince owner Red McCombs to execute it if he wins his next two games.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants: Talk about Eli Manning's worst nightmare. He's been terrible in his four starts, and now Ben Roethlisberger, whom the Giants bypassed to make the Manning trade, comes to town to show him up. All eyes will be on Roethlisberger, who is succeeding because he has a stronger arm, more mobility and a better team. Manning's completion percentage fell to 38.2 percent after his horrible performance against the Ravens. His quarterback rating is 33.7. That's worse than punter Jeff Feagles, who threw one pass -- an incompletion. Coach Tom Coughlin may have lost the locker room last week by benching Manning in the fourth quarter against the advice of some of the players on the sidelines. Kurt Warner came off the bench and the team gained 160 quick yards. Manning starts again this week, but the team knows the situation would be better had Warner stayed as the starter. Manning's not ready at this stage for the defenses he faced. Roethlisberger probably won't have wide receiver Plaxico Burress and halfback Duce Staley, but he only needs to make a couple of plays a game for the Steelers to win. With all the injuries on the Giants' defense, Roethlisberger might actually air it out and throw more than 25 passes.
4. St. Louis Rams at Arizona Cardinals : Talk about disappointments. Arizona coach Dennis Green admitted he may not have done his best job with this team. He talked in the preseason about a 10-win season. A defeat to the Rams would instead be their 10th loss. Josh McCown will start, but the offense seems to be in disarray. Emmitt Smith hinted recently that things aren't completely right with the offense. The offensive line coaching isn't going well with former player Everett Lindsay taking over as the coach. Bob Wylie was fired by Green early in the regular season. But as bad as things are for the Cardinals, the Rams are facing even bigger problems. Marc Bulger hopes to be available with a sore shoulder and he almost has to play. Chris Chandler threw six interceptions last week in a loss to the Panthers. Steven Jackson could be back after missing a game with a knee injury. The Rams need to get a victory. This is their last road game, and if they lose, they will be 6-8 and could lose the NFC West to the Seahawks, a team they beat twice. Free safety Aeneas Williams reinjured his neck and will miss a couple of weeks. That takes away some leadership. This doesn't figure to be a pretty game, but the Rams have to win if they want a shot at the playoffs.
3. Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons (Saturday 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): A victory would put the Panthers at 7-7 and feeling like a playoff team. That would be their sixth straight victory, but it won't be easy. The Panthers are playing the Falcons and Michael Vick. They never beat Vick. He's 4-0 as a starter against them, and he's playing at home. Injuries to halfback T.J. Duckett and fullback Justin Griffith are huge losses for the league's best running offense, but Vick usually beats the Panthers with his legs alone. He did it early in the season in Carolina. Even though the Falcons have clinched the NFC South, why would things change? For the Panthers to win, they have to forget they are playing Vick. It helps the Panthers that Dan Morgan is back at middle linebacker. But it hurts that they don't have defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who is out with a shoulder injury. A loss could cost the Panthers a trip to the playoffs, but the Falcons have recent history on their side.
2. Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles are getting banged up along the offensive and defensive lines, but with the NFC East title clinched, they can rest players until the second week of the playoffs. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, meanwhile, can't figure out his team. The Cowboys had an emotional victory over the Seahawks before a national audience on Monday Night Football, and then followed that up by getting destroyed at home by the Saints. It's hard to figure out, though, why Parcells sticks by Vinny Testaverde. Okay, he probably has been one of the team's best offensive players, but the team is learning nothing about rookie quarterback Drew Henson. Parcells is thinking about sending him to NFL Europe for playing time. Testaverde's quarterback rating has fallen to 75.5, one of the worst in the league, but it looks like he will be the starting quarterback for the rest of this season and for next season.
1. Tennessee Titans at Oakland Raiders: Can things get worse for the Titans? They have 17 players on the the injury report, and their salary cap is so overextended, they only have room for four players on a practice squad that is allowed to have eight. Steve McNair is probably done for the year because of his bruised sternum. Coach Jeff Fisher wants McNair to forget about retirement and resting him seems like the most logical way to start thinking about next season. Chris Brown re-aggravated his toe injury and the swelling is worse than last week. The Titans were so banged up along their offensive line Monday night, that Fisher considered punting once on first down. The Raiders can't complain about injuries. They just aren't very good. Kerry Collins has 15 interceptions compared to 14 touchdown passes. The running game is non existent. And defensive players are going over the head of coordinator Rob Ryan and talking to owner Al Davis about their playing time. What a mess.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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