Winner takes over AFC East lead

In what could be a rarity this season, the Jets and Patriots square off in a big divisional battle.

Updated: October 22, 2004, 11:36 AM ET
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 7.

First … New York Jets at New England Patriots: The Jets-Patriots showdown in Foxboro, Mass. on Sunday offers NFL fans a rare treat -- a big-time divisional game. It's starting to look as though those types of games might be rare this season.

In an age of supposed parity, divisional drama is starting to evaporate. The Broncos are running away with the AFC West, building a two-game lead over San Diego and a 3½-game advantage over the surprising last-place Chiefs. The Falcons pretty much own the NFC South with a 2½ game lead over the Saints. The Steelers have a 1½ game lead over the Ravens, but they have to survive the toughest part of their schedule with a rookie quarterback and a defense that lost Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton and cornerback Chad Scott.

The Vikings and Eagles may have only one-game leads in their divisions, but it appears that they will make their races runaways. In the NFC as a whole, the six best teams -- Eagles, Vikings, Rams, Seahawks, Falcons and Giants -- should be in good shape to have 10-win playoff seasons. With eight NFC teams already having four or five losses, the teams that hit their sixth losses may be out of the playoff races early.

But that is what's so great about the Jets-Pats matchup. It's a statement game. The Patriots are on a 20-game winning streak playing like a champion. The Jets are the upstarts. They are 5-0. The criticism is that they have beaten five teams with a combined record of 6-22. The other criticism is that they won the five games by eight points or less, making outsiders question their dominance.

Of course, that's the AFC East. It's a division of defense and different type of offenses. The Patriots win with a team concept that features solid defense and gradually moving the chains on offense. Their style is not conducive to blowing out opponents. Their specialty is battling until the final two possessions and making big plays to win games. In modern day football, nobody does that style better than the Patriots.

John Abraham
Jets DE John Abraham leads the AFC with seven sacks.
Meanwhile, the Jets have stepped it up on defense. They hired an aggressive defensive coordinator, Donnie Henderson, and he's done a wonderful job blending in younger, more mobile linebackers such as Jonathan Vilma, Victor Hobson and Eric Barton. Henderson altered a game plan in which the team was going to spend 30 percent of the snaps in a 3-4 by going to more of a 4-3 scheme because John Abraham is a better defensive end than he is a rush linebacker.

Expect the Jets defense to do well against the Patriots. The true test of the Jets will be their offense. Chad Pennington loves throwing underneath coverages. He's completed 70.4 percent of his passes, but he's not getting the ball to the wide receivers. Backs Jerald Sowell and Curtis Martin are the leading pass-catchers with 23 and 22 catches, respectively. Santana Moss, Wayne Chrebet and Justin McCareins have combined for only 38 catches.

To open up the game, the Jets need to get the ball to the outside receivers. But this game is more than just about statistics. Even if the Jets lose, they have to show they can play with the Patriots. The Patriots swept the series last year with five- and seven-point victories, but this is a younger, more vibrant Jets lineup.

The game will set the tone for one of the few hot divisional races left.

And 10. Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts: This is desperation for the Jaguars if they want to contend in the AFC South. It's desperation because the Jaguars lost at home to the Colts three weeks ago, 24-17. As expected, the Jaguars defense proved it could contain the powerful Colts offense, limiting them to 24 points and 337 yards -- 52 yards and a touchdown below their average. But the Jaguars continue to suffer problems along the defensive line. They lost end Lionel Barnes for the season and filled in his spot with linebacker Greg Favors. The Jaguars are down to the end of their roster for ends. Two weeks ago, they moved defensive tackle Marcus Stroud to end and the Chargers ran all over them. Another worry for the Jaguars is they may have to expect less on offense because of the health of Byron Leftwich. The Jaguars quarterback passed for 318 yards and had a touchdown pass against the Colts three weeks ago. He was on. Now, he has an ankle in a cast and he has a bruised shoulder. One problem on offense has been dropped passes -- the Jaguars are near the top of the league with 19. If Leftwich has to concentrate more to fight the pain, he will have no chance succeeding against the Colts if his receivers betray him. Meanwhile, the Colts defense plays faster and better at home on the artificial turf. It's desperation for the Jags.

9. Detroit Lions at New York Giants: The Giants are rested coming off a bye. With a 4-1 start, the players are having no problem showing up early for Tom Coughlin meetings. Winning solves a lot of problems. Losing brings back ghosts. All of a sudden, the critics of Lions quarterback Joey Harrington have resurfaced. He had a horrible game against the Packers last week. He had only 92 net passing yards and completed only 12 passes. What people failed to recognize is that Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Kevin Jones weren't factors in this game. Williams and Rogers weren't healthy enough to play, so Harrington was basically going with an inferior group of receivers that failed him last season. If Williams can't help this week because of a sprained left ankle, Harrington might have no chance of succeeding in the Meadowlands. Az-Zahir Hakim has a banged up ankle. Jones had only a couple of carries because of a sore knee. Meanwhile, the Lions defense will be facing a hot quarterback, veteran Kurt Warner. Two weeks ago, the Lions were America's darlings at 3-1 and filled with optimism. Now, they are in the midst of a two-game road trip and on the verge of starting a road losing streak again. How fame is fleeting.

8. Tennessee Titans at Minnesota Vikings: A hamstring injury may force Randy Moss to miss the first start of his career, but that might not stop Daunte Culpepper. He's the player of the year in the first half of the season. He has 18 touchdown passes in five games, and three five-touchdown games. He's enjoying one of the greatest hot streaks in recent quarterback history. Suddenly, the Vikings offense is the talk of the league. The Vikings are down to their fourth-string halfback, Mewelde Moore, but they still have 100-yard rushing and 300-yard passing days. And the Titans come in as one of the most battered teams in football. The scarier news is there are a lot of questions whether the new turf in the Metrodome is good for the players. Even though the Vikings are the home team, they have had a bunch of injuries during home games. The Titans can't take too many more hits for injuries, but the likelihood is there because this will be a physical game. Vikings coach Mike Tice is asking defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell to blitz more to put pressure on opposing offenses. That might be tough against Steve McNair, who does a good job of keeping plays alive by rolling out until receivers get open.

Jeff Garcia
Jeff Garcia is coming off a 300-yard passing game for the Browns.
7. Philadelphia Eagles at Cleveland Browns: Too bad Terrell Owens doesn't play defense. Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia would love to throw at him after all of the negative comments he made about his former teammate since they left the 49ers during the offseason. Owens and Garcia didn't get along well in San Francisco, but they were a productive offensive pair. As much as Owens has ruined many of Garcia's days before he joined the Browns, Owens is the least of Garcia's worries. The bigger concern for him is Jevon Kearse, the Eagles most important defensive acquisition. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is having a blast finding new ways to have The Freak expose weaknesses in an opponents offensive line. Where does he start with the Browns offensive line? There are holes everywhere. Garcia has been sacked 14 times in six games and he is having center exchange problems with Jeff Faine. Owens would take satisfaction in seeing Garcia's Browns lose their home-field advantage. They are 3-0 at home, 0-3 on the road. This game is personal between the two.

6. New Orleans Saints at Oakland Raiders: It's been an emotional week for the Silver and Black. Quarterback Rich Gannon was put on the injured reserve list for the rest of the season and is expected to be released in March. Wide receiver Jerry Rice was traded to the Seahawks so coach Norv Turner can go with younger receivers. Now, the pressure begins. Turner needs to start winning with young receivers Ronald Curry and Doug Gabriel and tight end Courtney Anderson. Something better happen quick because Kerry Collins is losing any kind of fan base in Oakland. Fans are clamoring for a quarterback change. Colllins is on a three-game losing streak as a starter. He has eight interceptions and a 55.8 quarterback rating. It's starting to get to the point in which players are wondering when the offense will get moving under Collins. Point production has fallen from 17 to 14 to 3 over the past three weeks. The Saints have their own problems. They can't stop the run. Teams are going pass crazy against them of late. Saints coach Jim Haslett is suddenly on the hot seat, and the Saints are on a three-game losing streak. This is a game in which you don't want to be the loser.

5. Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens: For the next two weeks, the already struggling Ravens offense will have to work without Jamal Lewis, who is serving a suspension. Chester Taylor should do a decent job as his replacement, but this is an important game for the Ravens. Next week, they have a tough road game against the Eagles, and they can't afford to go on a two-game losing streak without Lewis. First, they trail the Steelers by two games, and with limited offensive striking power, they could suddenly fall quickly out of the playoff race. Even though the Bills come to town with a 1-4 record, they are pretty good on defense. They rank eighth in yards allowed (298) and are only giving up 17.2 points a game. There was a little turmoil last week when defensive tackle Sam Adams was benched in the second half of the Dolphins victory and Ron Edwards came off the bench and played well. To be honest, the Ravens would take 17 points on offense this week. They are averaging only 266 yards a game on offense, and losing Lewis takes away almost 100 rushing yards. There is a lot of pressure on Kyle Boller to win this game.

4. San Diego Chargers at Carolina Panthers: If the Chargers have hopes of competing for a playoff spot, this is a game they need to win. The Panthers are down on their luck because of injuries. Teams can run on them because defensive tackle Kris Jenkins is out for the season. The running game is bottled up because Stephen Davis has a sore knee and DeShaun Foster is out until December with a broken collarbone. The season is slipping away so fast, the Panthers may just let Foster and Steve Smith sit out until next year. But the Chargers have hope with a 3-3 record, and they almost had a victory on the road against the Falcons last week. General manager A.J. Smith shuffled the receiving corps by trading for Keenan McCardell and signing Bobby Shaw. Even though they will be learning a new system on the fly, the Chargers have a little more talent for Drew Brees to use.

3. Atlanta Falcons at Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs were a trendy Super Bowl pick during the summer. They were coming off a 13-3 season and returned almost the entire starting lineup. A loss this week could kill all hopes of winning the division because they would fall 4½ games behind the Broncos if Denver beats the Bengals on Monday night. In some ways, this is a good matchup for the Chiefs, who are built better on offense than defense. The Falcons defense plays primarily zone and doesn't mind letting opponents complete 68-70 percent of their passing attempts. The Chiefs love to mix the run and the pass. The problem with the Chiefs is that their touchdown production has dropped off dramatically. The Chiefs were the league's highest scoring team last year averaging 30 points a game. They are only averaging 21 points this year. And the Falcons aren't a high-scoring team, averaging only 19.8 points a game. Michael Vick is averaging only 21 passes a game. This could be a tough road game for the Falcons.

2. Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers: Packers coach Mike Sherman took over the offensive play-calling last week while offensive coordinator Tom Rossley was recovering from a heart procedure. He did so well in replacing him that he plans to keep calling the plays, and so far the players seem to like it. Though they will go back to Rossley at some point, the Packers are building a little momentum. They scored 38 points against the Lions. Brett Favre is reenergized and the Packers don't want to jinx anything knowing they've dropped three games at home and fans are restless. The Cowboys are an enigma. Opponents are picking on their best cornerback, Terence Newman, and the Cowboys are resorting to three-receiver sets to establish a running attack. They having better success with draws and reverses than straight handoffs to Eddie George. Both teams enter this game searching for answers but the Packers seemed to have found some answers last week.

1. Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals: This is only one of three divisional matchups. What is of interest is wide receiver Jerry Rice, acquired in a trade from the Raiders on Tuesday. Seattle coach Mike Holmgren suggested he may use more four-receiver sets to get Rice on the field. Rice is a nice change of pace for the Seahawks, who continue to be plagued of late by dropped passes and dumb offensive penalties. The Seahawks have lost to the Rams and Patriots, and need to run off a three-game winning streak before their next meeting with the Rams. The defense suffered a big loss when defensive end Grant Wistrom suffered a leg fracture that will sideline him for 4-6 weeks. Wistrom vows to return for the Nov. 14 Rams game, but the team has to do its part by winning to make his return important. Meanwhile, Cardinals coach Dennis Green took the bye week to review what went wrong during their 1-4 start and he suggests a few changes may be noticeable Sunday in their first game back.

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

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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