- 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 6.
First Seattle Seahawks at New England Patriots: Around Thanksgiving last season, the Seahawks had that similar sick feeling in the pits of their stomachs.
They blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Ravens in one of the strangest games of the season. Cornerbacks suddenly couldn't cover. Officiating calls went against them. Ravens quarterback Anthony Wright looked like Daunte Culpepper, hitting long completion after the long completion. In the end, the Ravens won in overtime, 44-41.
That loss virtually killed their chances to win the NFC West, but the team bounced back to win three of their final five games and earn a playoff wild-card berth. Following Sunday's meltdown against the Rams, the Seahawks have to be just as resilient. Even though they face the near impossible task of trying to beat the Patriots in Foxboro, Mass. this weekend, the Seahawks have to show some heart if they want to be considered a Super Bowl contender.
The timing of the Patriots game couldn't be worse if the Seahawks lose. Had the Seahawks beaten the Rams, they would have had a 2½ game lead in the division and would be coming to Foxboro unbeaten. Instead, a loss would put them in a tie with the Rams, and the Rams could take the division lead with a victory Monday night over Tampa Bay.
Though they are the best team in football, the Patriots aren't constructed to blow out opponents unless the foes are terribly inept. That gives the Seahawks hope of being competitive in this game. What also gives them hope is that they are 2-0 on the road, matching their win total away from home last season.
As a team evolving, the Seahawks have to learn how to close games if they want to get over the hump as just a perennial wild-card contender. Despite his disappointment about blowing a 17-point lead in the final eight minutes against the Rams, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren stressed the positive.
Even if they lose to the Patriots, the Seahawks are still in good shape. They follow this weekend's game with winnable games against the Cardinals and 49ers on the road and the Panthers in Seattle. Chances are, they could go into Nov. 14 rematch against the Rams at 6-2.
Holmgren is trying to stress the first three quarters of the Rams game in which their defense held the Rams to 232 offensive yards and 10 points. From the fourth quarter on, the defense, which entered the Rams game ranked first in the league, surrendered 209 yards. Marc Bulger threw for 202 yards and put up 23 points in 10 minutes.
The problem with Sunday's game is the Patriots are good enough to give Seattle another demoralizing loss and send their season spiraling. The Patriots play good, solid football for 60 minutes and win games in the fourth quarter. Tom Brady works a game by destroying anyone who blitzes him, but he stays patient and waits for big plays to happen.
The other problem coming out of this game is what Bill Belichick does to stop the Seahawks. Belichick is the master of coming up with innovative ways of ruining good offenses. He may find a few tricks that other teams can use against the Seahawks in weeks ahead.
The key for the Seahawks is finding a way to get that sick feeling out of their stomachs.
And 10. Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys: Steelers fan beware. Bill Parcells is a master of finding schemes to frustrate young quarterbacks. While the Steelers fans are reveling in Ben Roethlisberger's three-game success as a starter, Sunday's game in Dallas can be a trap game for them. Go back to the tapes of the Giants game. Kurt Warner is on fire as a quarterback, but he struggled with crowd noise and some of the Cowboys tricky defensive schemes. Parcells sometimes takes the safeties out of the deep area of the field to put more pressure and coverage up front. Roethlisberger could be trapped into making some mistakes. To make matters worse, the Cowboys are a desperate team, and Parcells is saying he's not hitting all the right buttons in figuring out how to stop the mental mistakes and penalties. This figures to be a low-scoring game as long as Roethlisberger doesn't make turnovers. Duce Staley needs to get 100 rushing yards, and the Steelers need to maintain their pressure packages on defense to frustrate Vinny Testaverde. Last week, the Cowboys tried to run the ball more, but Testaverde figures to do more throwing against the Steelers, who have concerns at cornerback. To give the corners less time to cover, the Steelers are blitzing more with great success. Roethlisberger deserves a lot of credit for not panicking and looking more mature than most rookies, but it has to be remembered the teams he's beaten have combined records of 3-11. The Cowboys are the toughest team he's faced.
9. San Diego Chargers at Atlanta Falcons: The secret to the Chargers success has been their kicking game. Punter Mike Scifres is consistently putting the ball inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Kicker Nate Kaeding is seven for seven on field goals. Kickoffs have distance. The coverage units on special teams are solid. Still, it's hard to believe those are the main reasons for the Chargers averaging 28 points a game, tied with the Vikings for second best in the league. Field position is working for the Chargers. Drew Brees is taking advantage of good field position and producing touchdown drives. He has eight touchdown passes and is doing a good job of auditioning for new teams when his contract expires after the season. Former Falcons defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has done a great job in stopping the run and is working to fix some of the holes in the pass coverage unit. This is an important game for the Falcons, who are 4-1 and hold a two-game lead in the NFC South. Michael Vick continues to go through growing pains in the West Coast offense. Last week, he appeared to drop back too many times and not roll out enough. Figure this to be a low-scoring game. The Falcons defense bends but doesn't give up a lot of touchdowns. It could come down to a game of kickers.
8. Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles: The Panthers are in a freefall because of injuries. They lost their best receiver, Steve Smith. They lost halfback DeShaun Foster, and now have to keep Stephen Davis healthy until Foster comes back in December. Knowing the team needs 30 rushing plays a game to win, Davis, who already has a bad knee, may be burned out by December from overuse. The biggest blow is the potential season-ending loss of defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, around whom the defense is built. With Jenkins struggling with his bad left shoulder over the past month, opponents have been running on the Panthers like crazy. It's gotten to the point where they are giving up 159 yards a game on the ground, unprecedented for this defense. With Jenkins likely done and Brentson Buckner struggling with knee problems, teams are just going to try to run up the middle on the Panthers. The good news this week is that the Eagles aren't a running team. Eagles coach Andy Reid has called running plays less than 30 percent of the time, the lowest pass-to-run ratio in the league. The bad news is that Donovan McNabb is having a career year and may want to punish the Panthers defense for taking a trip to the Super Bowl away from him last season.
7. Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders: Mike Shanahan stumbled into learning big backs work the best in the Broncos running scheme. Fullback Reuben Droughns re-energized the Broncos running attack last week against the Panthers by following the zone-blocking schemes and running over linebackers and defensive tackles for extra yards. Droughns should start against the Raiders but Quentin Griffin will be available to help out, and Shanahan still might keep Griffin more involved in the running game. As always, this game is personal between the Raiders and Shanahan. The coach is still steaming from not being paid the final debt from his firing of the Raiders years ago. The Raiders have suffered because Shanahan has won so many big games against them. Norv Turner needs this game to win over his players and pull the team out of a two-game losing streak. Kerry Collins needs an efficient game. The turnovers and penalties need to stop. The Broncos may still be looking past the Raiders knowing the Chiefs will somehow crawl back in the AFC West race. Winning this game will keep them at least three games ahead of the Chiefs and pretty much push aside the Raiders' bid to be considered a playoff contender. But given the rivalry, don't count out the Raiders.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams (9 p.m. ET, ABC): All is right with the Rams. Mike Martz called a brilliant game in rallying the Rams to a come-from-behind victory over the Seahawks last week. Young offensive weapons such as Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis emerged to make the offense more explosive. Backup halfback Steven Jackson is always a big play ready to happen when he gets the ball. Now, the team is more likely to rally around quarterback Marc Bulger because of the way he responded down the stretch during the victory over Seattle. The worry for the Rams is Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. He's always done a beautiful job of holding the Rams offense to low-scoring games whether they were in Tampa or St. Louis. Kiffin's defense is pretty good this year. It ranks fourth giving up 274.4 yards a game. It can be run on but it is particularly tough against the pass. Opponents are only completing 49.6 percent of their pass attempts and opposing quarterbacks have a 69.8 quarterback rating against them. If the Rams spread the field with three and four wide receivers, they could be playing into the strength of the Bucs defense. If they do that, expect cornerback Ronde Barber to try to drive Bulger crazy by blitzing from the slot.
5. Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: Talk about must wins. This game is vital for the Titans. The schedule makers were kind to them. The Titans had the fortunes of having their first three divisional games at home. Unfortunately, the Titans squandered that opportunity by losing at home to the Jaguars and Colts. With this being their final game at home in the AFC South, the Titans can't afford to lose and face the possibility of having a losing record in the division. Monday night's blowout of the Packers was a reminder the Titans can still play. Steve McNair can pick apart a defense, and as emotionally tied as the Titans were to Eddie George, it's clear their running game is more explosive and better with Chris Brown, who has rushed for 556 yards in five games. His 5.2 yard average is almost two yards a carry better than George's the past two seasons. This is a different Texans team than in the past. It has a much better offense, but the defense is less successful. David Carr and company are averaging 23.6 points a game. But the defense is giving up 25.4 points and 368.2 yards a game. This could end up being a high-scoring game, something you wouldn't have expected from this series.
4. Kansas City Chiefs at Jacksonville Jaguars: Chiefs scouts watched the Jaguars' adjustments on defense with interest in San Diego a week ago. The Jaguars moved Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud to end because of the team's lack of a play-maker at the position. The idea was to move Stroud to where they expected the Chargers to run. So the Chargers ran more up the middle, gained 176 yards on the ground and scored 34 points. In other words, the problems at end are becoming a hole that Jack Del Rio is struggling to fix. If Stroud returns to tackle, the Chiefs will run to the outside. If Stroud stays at end, Priest Holmes will plow over the middle as he did against the Ravens in their last game. The Chiefs should be better on offense now that Eddie Kennison returns after missing 2½ games because of a hamstring injury. The Chiefs played their first four games against good defenses and had only seven pass plays of 20 yards or more in four games. But the Chiefs should pick up the pace on the number of big plays now that they had a bye week to get healthier on offense.
3. Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): The Saints can't figure out what's wrong. They can't stop the run. They give up too many big plays on defense. They are making too many mistakes on offense. Owner Tom Benson spent a rare Monday hanging around the office wondering why the team is off to a 2-3 start when they should be 4-1. So the pressure is on. Facing the Vikings is the worst possible matchup. Though the Saints will have cornerback Mike McKenzie on the field to help to cover Randy Moss, they are facing an offense that has been almost unstoppable all season. Moss may be drawing two and three defenders around him but he's on pace to score 28 touchdown receptions. It doesn't matter who the Vikings put out in the backfield, but they are gaining yards on the ground. Daunte Culpepper is having his best season, completing a ridiculous 72.7 percent of his passes and having 13 touchdown passes. As much as the Saints may point to their defense, they need to have a great performance from their offense to stay with the Vikings.
2. Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: Save the criticism for Brett Favre, who threw three interceptions Monday night in a 48-27 loss to the Titans. Favre is falling into the trap of any quarterback who plays on a team that has a bad defense. Any quarterback knows each possession is more precious playing for a team with a defense giving up 28.4 points a game, worst in the league. Teams usually get 10-12 offensive possessions a game. The Packers are averaging 11.4 a game. Well, to counter a defense that bad, you have to get three or four touchdown drives a game. That means more forced throws and more picks. It's just the life of having a bad defense, and face it, the Packers are bad on defense. After blitzing more than 40 percent of the time in the first three games, the Packers have settled into more of a safe Cover 2 approach. They gave up 14 points to the Giants and 48 to the Titans. The Lions may or may not have Roy Williams for this game because of an ankle injury and that should give the Packers hope. The strength of the offense was Williams, Charles Rogers and Kevin Jones. If Williams can't play, the Packers will be facing the offensive talent of a year ago that scored only 28 points in two games against them. The bad news is one of those games was a 22-14 loss to the Packers in Green Bay.
1. Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills: The big question in this game will be whether there will be more quarterback sacks than points. The Dolphins are on a pace that would net them a 48-sack season on offense. Drew Bledsoe is on pace for a 76-sack season. You don't want to be the loser of this game. Bills owner Ralph Wilson said he was bored watching what he considers a conservative approach by new head coach Mike Mularkey. He wants more big plays. He wants more passing. Unfortunately, the Bills don't have the offensive line to execute those plays. Whether it's Jay Fiedler or A.J. Feeley at quarterback, the Dolphins are averaging a little more than eight points a game, the worst offensive production in a dozen years. Neither quarterback may be healthy by game time. You'd think this could be a scoreless tie, but there is a good chance the team that scores the most on defense will win.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
16hEric D. Williams
16hSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo