Commentary

Starting a December to remember

Entering Week 13, tight divisional races promise fantastic finishes

Originally Published: December 2, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The NFL could not start December any better.

Five divisional races are tied. Three have teams with one-game leads. Over the final five weeks, 45 divisional games are scheduled, including 16 in Week 17 that include potential division-deciders such as Chicago-Green Bay, Tennessee-Indianapolis and St. Louis-Seattle.

Week 13 features the best of the best in the AFC. The Pittsburgh Steelers play at the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night. The New England Patriots are host to the New York Jets on Monday night. The Ravens edged the Steelers in Week 4, 17-14, when Ben Roethlisberger was serving the final week of his suspension. In Week 2, The Jets beat the Patriots, 28-14.

As long as these four teams don't suffer too many injuries in these games, each should make the playoffs. The AFC wild cards should come out of the AFC East and AFC North with 11-5 or possibly even 12-4 records.

1. Revis Island must find a home: In the Week 2 matchup against the Patriots, Jets coach Rex Ryan didn't have to do too much thinking. He put cornerback Darrelle Revis on then-Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss and worried about the 10 other players on the field. Moss caught two of the 10 passes thrown in his direction, but with Revis fighting a hamstring injury Moss caught a touchdown pass.

The Pats have no Moss now, so who does Revis target for coverage? Do they put him on slot receiver Wes Welker? What about tight end Aaron Hernandez? Maybe Bill Belichick's new offensive style of having five equally-available receiving options puts Ryan in a position of using some zone coverages. That would take away some of the Jets' blitzing options.

Against the Patriots, Ryan loves to have Revis take away Tom Brady's most dangerous target and use defensive backs to blitz. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan blitzes a Jets defensive back 40.6 percent of the time against Brady, compared to using the same ploy just 8.6 percent of the time against the rest of the league. Brady has completed only 51.9 percent of his passes with two interceptions and no TDs when the Jets use that strategy.

2. Troy Polamalu is the X-Factor: The Steelers are at their best when they have Roethlisberger, Polamalu and Aaron Smith, who is considered the best 3-4 defensive end of the 2000s. Over the past two years, the Steelers haven't had all three available for a Ravens game. As long as they have at least two out three, they give the Ravens problems. Smith is out with a torn triceps muscle, but Polamalu and Roethlisberger will play. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco continues to grow as a top quarterback, but he has had his problems with Polamalu, who is all over the field creating chaos for quarterbacks. Against Flacco, Polamalu plays more of a center-fielding-type of safety instead of being the blitzer and disrupter. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Polamalu ventured into the tackle box only 18.6 percent of the Ravens' offensive snaps in the teams' past four meetings. That's taken away Flacco's deep throws. Flacco completes 33 percent of his 15-plus-yard passes in games Polamalu plays. His quarterback rating in those games is 34.2 and interception-to-touchdown ratio is 3-to-1, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

3. A Giant problem for the Redskins: When Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder traded for Donovan McNabb, he thought he acquired the keys to having an edge in the NFC East. Without a running attack, it's hard to tell how much McNabb has helped the Redskins. They are 2-1 in the NFC East, thanks to an opening week win over the underachieving Dallas Cowboys and a split with the Philadelphia Eagles. Sure, the New York Giants enter without five starters on offense, but the Redskins don't have a legitimate backup or name receiver to pull double coverage away from Santana Moss or Chris Cooley. The Redskins face the Giants twice in the final five weeks, but their role in the NFC East might be only as a spoiler. It's a role they could fulfill.

[+] EnlargeMicheal Spurlock
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Bucs' Micheal Spurlock (81) was a one-man band against the Falcons earlier this season.

4. Two yards --- or a mile -- from victory? Four weeks ago, the young Tampa Bay Buccaneers left the Georgia Dome feeling as though they were 2 yards away from victory. The Atlanta Falcons stopped them on a fourth-and-1 at the Falcons' 2-yard line with 2:37 left to preserve a 27-21 victory. In some ways, though, the Falcons could have had a blowout victory. Buccaneers kick returner Micheal Spurlock single-handedly kept his team in the game with a 66-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown drive after the Falcons jumped to a 14-0 lead. He added an 89-yard touchdown return that pulled the Bucs within six points, 27-21. Since then, Falcons coach Mike Smith has moved some veterans to the coverage teams and fixed that problem. Since that game, the Bucs lost by injury or cut their best blocker (guard Davin Joseph), a defensive end (Kyle Moore), a defensive tackle (Ryan Sims) and two safeties (Cody Grimm and Sabby Piscitelli). They now have 16 rookies. The Falcons are fighting for the No. 1 seed. The Bucs hope management doesn't card them.

5. Will Todd Haley have Josh McDaniels shaking? When we last saw Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley and Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels together on a football field, Haley pointed his finger toward the face of a stunned McDaniels, apparently angry McDaniels kept in his starters and kept throwing deep in the Broncos' 49-29 blowout. If Haley returns the favor in this Week 13 rematch, Haley could point McDaniels closer to unemployment. A lot has changed in a month.

[+] EnlargeTodd Haley and Josh McDaniels
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesWill Todd Haley (left) and Josh McDaniels repeat this scene after their rematch?
McDaniels was fined $50,000 because one of his videographers shot six minutes of a San Francisco 49ers walkthrough in London. With a 3-8 record and a team that is falling apart on defense, giving up 71 points in the past two games, McDaniels needs a strong finish to make sure he's back as head coach. Owner Pat Bowlen said McDaniels will be back, but the franchise is embarrassed and is a mess. Knowing the Chiefs can't afford to lose if they want to stay ahead of the San Diego Chargers, Haley might show no mercy.

6. Jaguars enjoy first place but no respect: Because of their 31-28 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 3, the 6-5 Jacksonville Jaguars are technically in first place in the AFC South. The Tennessee Titans don't buy it. On Oct. 18, the Titans destroyed the Jaguars, 30-3, in Jacksonville. Jaguars quarterback David Garrard suffered a concussion in that game. Tennessee QB Vince Young banged up his knee, but the big thing was the Titans showed the Jaguars weren't ready for prime time, as they were steamrolled in a Monday night home game. After missing a couple weeks with a calf injury, Kerry Collins is expected to be back at quarterback. Between now and next Thursday, the Titans, who play host the Colts on Dec. 9, will know if they can stay in the AFC South race. Garrard's body is starting to show signs of wear from weeks of recent hits. The Titans would like to deliver the knockout punch Sunday.

7. The Raiders could be in trouble: Two weeks ago, the Oakland Raiders were 5-4 and on a three-game winning streak. Jason Campbell was directing an offense that averaged 38.3 points a game during the streak. Since then, Campbell has been benched. Bruce Gradkowski, his replacement, has suffered a separated right shoulder again. The Raiders dropped to 5-6 and seem on the brink of playoff elimination. The worst possible team they could meet is the Chargers, their Week 13 foes. The Chargers are hot and quarterback Philip Rivers has been unstoppable during a four-game winning streak. Plus, the Chargers remember their 35-27 loss to the Raiders in October that ended a 13-game winning streak over the Silver and Black. The Raiders head to San Diego with a secondary that is physically ailing and could be statistically wounded.

Drew StantonMatthew Stafford
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesLions third-string QB Drew Stanton (5) is ready to face the Bears.

8. Divisional games or continental divides?: As it's so often said, the NFL is all about the quarterbacks. That should be the focus in divisional games between the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals, and Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. Normally, home field means a lot in divisional games, but home field means nothing when Arizona's Derek Anderson and Detroit's Drew Stanton are the quarterbacks. Anderson was caught laughing on the sideline during the Cardinals' Monday night loss to the 49ers. Because Max Hall isn't ready to start again, Anderson remains Ken Whisenhunt's quarterback in an embarrassing 3-8 season. Anderson goes against 2010 top overall draft pick Sam Bradford, who has completed 68 percent of his passes in the past four games. For the second time in the past three weeks, the Bears draw a third-string quarterback as the starter. In this case, it's Stanton. Shaun Hill (finger) and Matthew Stafford (right shoulder) are out, so Stanton must see if he can fare better than Tyler Thigpen. The Bears shut out the Miami Dolphins' third-stringer 16-0 in Week 11.

9. Once again, the junior conference: This is the last hurrah for the NFC as it tries to catch the AFC. The New Orleans Saints should beat the Cincinnati Bengals, even though the game is at Paul Brown Stadium. The Minnesota Vikings should win a home game against the Buffalo Bills -- unless you think Ryan Fitzpatrick can outgun Brett Favre. The NFC doesn't have enough winnable games to top the AFC in the season series -- the AFC hasn't lost to the NFC since 1995. The AFC entered Week 13 with a 28-22 lead over the NFC. The Cowboys visit the Colts, and already Cowboys receiver Roy Williams is on fumble alert. In coming weeks, the Steelers will play the Carolina Panthers; the Jets and Patriots have three games against NFC North teams; and the Chargers will be host the 49ers. In other words, the AFC isn't going to go 4-14 in its closing games against the NFC. The "N" in the NFC stands for "not-as-good."

10. Bottom-Feeders: Too bad the Panthers can't use one of those UPS one-size boxes to mail in a potential loss to the Seattle Seahawks. In the 2010 draft, the Seahawks considered current Panthers QB Jimmy Clausen as a possible option if safety Earl Thomas didn't fall to them with their second pick in the first round. The cross-country travel and Seattle crowd noise should make it impossible for a rookie quarterback to pull out the Panthers' second win of the season. The 49ers might feel good about their Monday night victory over the Cardinals, but the 49ers head to Green Bay without injured halfback Frank Gore. They're playing another road game on a short week -- that should result in a loss. In Week 12, Cleveland Browns QB Jake Delhomme survived two second-half interceptions and somehow beat the Panthers, but a trip to Miami couldn't have come at a worse time. Brandon Marshall could return to the Dolphins' lineup, and Chad Henne is coming off a 300-plus-yard game without him.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer