Urgency setting in for Lions, Giants
The winner of Sunday's Giants-Lions clash will take a big step toward securing a wild-card spot in the NFC, writes John Clayton.
Week 10 was dedicated to division races. With 10 divisional matchups on the schedule, four of the eight divisions started to settle themselves. Like last year, many are runaways.
This weekend will start to sort out some of the wild-card possibilities. It might sound strange to focus on wild cards when four division races are still up for grabs, but that's the reality of this season. Thanks to some poor divisions and how they can jack up the records of teams in the better divisions, key games start to emerge. Only 14 teams have winning records at the moment, leaving three teams per conference in a great position for wild cards.
Take the Giants' visit to the Lions as an example. The Giants probably lost the NFC East to the Cowboys in Week 10. The Giants trail Dallas by two games and would lose a tiebreaker after being swept by the Cowboys. Sunday's game at Ford Field against the Lions could play a big role in what might happen in the wild-card race.
The Lions haven't played the Packers yet, but, like the Giants, they trail the division leader by two games. With a home game against the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, the Lions will test their playoff readiness over a five-day period. The last thing they can do is look ahead to Green Bay and end up losing a potential tiebreaker to the Giants.
Both teams are burdened with two of the toughest closing schedules in football. The Lions play four winning teams (including the Packers twice) in their last seven games; their closing schedule consists of teams with a combined winning percentage of .667. The Giants play four winning teams and a .524 schedule. A slip here or a rash of injuries there could send either team spiraling downward.
Giants critics are well aware of how the Giants have turned 5-2 starts into mediocre seasons, so head coach Tom Coughlin has to get his team to rebound from its loss to the Cowboys. It will be tough. The Giants bounced back from an 0-2 start with six straight wins, but they were dominated by Dallas.
The Lions are in a new environment. Their last winning season was in 2000. At 6-3, their season comes down to how they fare against the Giants and Packers. If they lose both games in this upcoming span, the playoffs could slip away from them.
At Ford Field, the Lions play with a different energy. The defense, particularly the defensive line, can be dominating at home. Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers is almost unblockable at home.
However, the Lions' fate might be in the hands of their offense. Even though the offense is averaging 24.6 points a game, more consistency is needed. The Lions had spotty efforts against the Cardinals (Week 10) and Redskins (Week 5). Halfback Kevin Jones is feeling some pain from his Lisfranc foot injury. Rookie WR Calvin Johnson hasn't stepped forward each week.
The pressure is starting to build. The loser of this Giants-Lions game might have plenty of regrets when sorting through tiebreakers at the end of the season.
1. Cleveland at Baltimore: The Ravens fell three games behind the AFC North-leading Steelers with their loss in Pittsburgh in Week 9 and a home loss to the Bengals in Week 10. Sunday could be the ultimate embarrassment. The Ravens lost to the Browns, 27-13, in Week 4 and trail them by a game for wild-card consideration. Losing to the Browns at home would be emotionally devastating for the Ravens. Being swept by Cleveland and dropping to 4-6 could kill Baltimore's playoff hopes.What's worse is the players who might be responsible. Quarterback Derek Anderson was cut by the Ravens in 2005 when they tried to slide him through waivers and get him on the practice squad. With the Browns, he's on pace for a 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown season. Jamal Lewis wasn't re-signed by the Ravens and is Cleveland's lead running back. Though Willis McGahee has done a nice job in the Ravens' backfield, Lewis would get extra satisfaction by virtually eliminating the team that let him get away. The Browns have their own pressure. They haven't proved they can win a divisional road game. They're going to need to do that if they want a spot in the playoffs.
2. Washington at Dallas: Weeks ago, this looked like a potential showdown for the NFC East. Though the game has lost some of its luster, this is still a great rivalry. The Redskins trail the Cowboys by three games in the division with little chance of catching them. The Skins, who are fighting for a wild card, have some wild things working against them.Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd broke his clavicle on the final play of practice on Wednesday. Wide receiver Santana Moss might miss another game with a heel injury. Head coach Joe Gibbs likes to run the ball, but that might be his only recourse if he loses another receiver. The Cowboys have dominated this series at home and are playing with a swagger. One of the best matchups of this series was taken away when safety Sean Taylor was lost for a couple weeks with a knee injury. Taylor patrols the middle of the field and has delivered big hits on Terrell Owens for years. That element will be missing with Taylor on the sidelines.
3. San Diego at Jacksonville: The Jaguars are like that piece of sticky paper that won't come off your shoe. They keep hanging around the playoff race. Three weeks ago, they faced long odds. Quarterback David Garrard had a high-ankle sprain. Three players were in the process of being suspended. The Jaguars were embarking on a three-game road trip with Quinn Gray as their starting quarterback. Not only did the Jaguars survive with two wins, but they beat the Titans on the road and are still in the playoff race with a 6-3 record.The Chargers got a huge victory over the Colts in Week 10, but their offense is in a complete funk. Quarterback Philip Rivers is struggling. Opposing defenses are containing their running game. The run defense played well against the Colts, but Peyton Manning picked the pass defense apart in the second half with mostly backup receivers. One team is going to come out of this game not feeling good about itself.
4. Carolina at Green Bay: It might be fun to see Vinny Testaverde go against Brett Favre. Favre's first career start was against Testaverde and this would be the oldest matchup of two starting quarterbacks in NFL history.
Favre joked that Testaverde is playing at 44 because he either loves the game or needs the money. There is a friendship between the two. The Packers can't afford to look past this game, but they might. They have two big Thursday games ahead that will define them. They play the Lions on Thanksgiving and at Dallas a week later. Being sentimental is nice, but the Packers must keep winning.
5. Tennessee at Denver: Jay Cutler played in Nashville as a popular quarterback at Vanderbilt. With Vince Young hitting some growing pains as the Titans' quarterback, Jeff Fisher can't afford to lose to a Tennessee favorite son and hope to make the playoffs. The Titans' Week 10 loss to the Jaguars hurt. Young put up a lot of passing yards, but he's making some mistakes, which shouldn't be a surprise. He's young and learning on the job. But the Titans are fighting for that first wild-card spot, and this Monday night game is an important one for them.Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan continues to juggle personnel on defense to turn around a horrible start. The Broncos stopped a Chiefs team that lacked Larry Johnson, but Fisher will challenge them with his running attack. Chris Brown might be healthy enough to back up LenDale White and help the Titans regain an advantage on the ground. In Week 10, the Jaguars frustrated the Titans' running attack, forcing Young to win the game through the air. He didn't. Against the Broncos, the Titans simply have to win.
6. Kansas City at Indianapolis: Peyton Manning has a slight edge over Tom Brady in the Pro Bowl voting, and what he did against the Chargers shows why. At his worst, he's still one of the best. Manning threw six interceptions against the Chargers. Despite that, he almost overcame a 23-0 deficit without most of his offensive weapons. Incredible. The Colts still have the injury problems, but the schedule shifts mostly to the RCA Dome the rest of the season. The Colts play the Chiefs at home without Larry Johnson and have three AFC South home games remaining.The loss of DE Dwight Freeney was devastating, but this Colts team is feisty. Tony Dungy has defensive players flying to the ball. This week, they will have to fly in the path of new Chiefs starting quarterback Brodie Croyle.
7. Buffalo at New England: NBC either struck gold or made a programming blunder. The Patriots might be going for an unbeaten season, but this is only Week 11. They are coming off a bye. NBC decided to dump Chicago-Seattle for this potential blowout.
The Bills probably won't have Marshawn Lynch in the backfield because of a bad ankle. In Week 10, the Bills struggled to put up 13 points on the winless Dolphins. This has the makings of a 41-10 game, which doesn't make for compelling television The only drama in this one will be if the Patriots try to run up the score.
8. Chicago at Seattle: Heading into the season, this matchup had the look of a potential NFC Championship Game. The Bears whipped the Seahawks twice last year -- once in the playoffs -- and went on to the Super Bowl. NBC tagged this game for prime time, but, frankly, both teams played their way off the prime-time radar.Seattle and QB Matt Hasselbeck are trying to generate more offense by leaning on the passing attack. Running back Shaun Alexander is out, but he's been off all season. The Bears will go back to Rex Grossman to provide a spark to an underachieving offense.
9. Tampa Bay at Atlanta: The Falcons have a brewing quarterback controversy. Joey Harrington has led the team on a two-game winning streak, but he will be replaced when Byron Leftwich is healthy. Harrington is furious, but he's been around so many losing teams, players and coaches must think he's a jinx.The Bucs come in fresh and relaxed from a bye week. They have a one-game lead over the Panthers and Saints in the NFC North. The Bucs play the Falcons twice in five weeks, and a sweep would help Tampa Bay's chances of winning the division.
10. New Orleans at Houston: The Saints' Week 10 home loss to the previously winless Rams was baffling. The Saints were on a four-game winning streak but simply came out and laid an egg. They have the easiest closing schedule in the NFC South, but wasting opportunities against losing teams is gut-wrenching to a coach.This game against the Texans will be tough. Wide receiver Andre Johnson will play for Houston, but RB Ahman Green (knee) won't.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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