Commentary

Best second-half game? Start with Steelers at Patriots

New England's pursuit of an undefeated season makes its matchup with Pittsburgh the biggest game of the second half, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: November 7, 2007
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Bill Belichick may be turning the lights out on opponents, but the Patriots had better be prepared to spend the rest of the season under the lights.

Networks are scrambling to get the Patriots in prime time as often as possible. NBC grabbed the game against Buffalo on Nov. 18. The Dec. 9 matchup against the Steelers has been moved to 4:15 p.m. More changes are probably in the works.

New England's pursuit of a 16-0 season and Tom Brady's assault on Peyton Manning's touchdown record will attract television viewers. The biggest game down the stretch may be the Steelers game in Foxborough, Mass., as the Steelers might be the only team remaining that could beat the Patriots.

The Patriots' remaining opponents, including three AFC East teams with a combined 5-20 record, have an average winning percentage of .421. The Steelers might be the one opponent Belichick has to worry about.

Tom Brady
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIREThe spotlight will be on the Pats the rest of the season.
Ben Roethlisberger has the ability to escape defenders and make plays downfield. He's battle-tested on the road. The Steelers' defense is hard-hitting and can blitz Brady. To beat the Patriots, you must be able to score, and the Steelers are averaging 27.8 points per game.

Success does bring some headaches. Belichick has only two 1 p.m. starts the remainder of the season, and those times could be in flux. Following their bye week, the Patriots will play three consecutive night games, including a Monday night game in Baltimore. There is also plenty of interest in the Dec. 16 game against the Jets because Eric Mangini was responsible for the Spygate scandal.

The most interesting scenario for the NFL is the Patriots' final game, against the Giants on Dec. 29. At the moment, the game is slated to be televised by the NFL Network. Brady may already have Manning's touchdown record, but the Patriots could be going for the unbeaten season. With only 35 million homes with cable access to the NFL Network, a historic game might be unavailable to most fans.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has launched a public campaign to dump cable operators who refuse to carry the NFL Network, but those who want to keep their cable will be furious at the NFL if they're not able to watch the game.

1. Green Bay at Dallas, Thursday, Nov. 29: Both teams are 7-1, so this could be a preview of the NFC Championship Game. Brett Favre is a big draw, while Tony Romo is becoming more popular by the week. The only problem is this game also will be televised on the NFL Network.

Dallas fans outside the local area who don't have access to the NFL Network will be furious if the game can't be seen. Packers fans who live outside the local Green Bay market will also be unhappy. To have the second-most anticipated game of the second half of the season available to only 35 million homes via the NFL Network is ludicrous.

Having leverage in the battle for cable access is one thing, but not having larger viewership for big games is a nightmare for the league.

2. Green Bay at Detroit, Thursday, Nov. 22: Finally, the Lions don't open Thanksgiving with a turkey of a game. For six years, the Lions have put football fans to sleep before the Thanksgiving meal with bad football. Now, they are 6-2 and in contention for the NFC North title. This game will determine if they have a chance to catch the Packers.

The Lions have an explosive offense and a defense that plays with great energy at home. In home games, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers looks almost unstoppable. If the Lions win, the Dec. 30 meeting in Green Bay could also be a huge game.

3. Dallas at New York Giants, Sunday, Nov. 11: I cheated a little bit. The Cowboys-Giants is this week's lead to my First and 10 column, so I moved the game down a notch. The NFC East features the best divisional race in football.

The Cowboys, Giants and Redskins have long rivalries. The Giants' defense now is so much better than the one that lost to the Cowboys, 45-35, in the opener. Have those Tom Coughlin contract extension talks started yet?

4. Washington at Dallas, Sunday, Nov. 18: If the Redskins can make a little bit more of a push, they could get to 10 wins, but so much depends on this game. The chances of three NFC East teams making the playoffs are pretty good.

This is a tough stretch for the Cowboys. They have back-to-back games against the Giants and Redskins, then have a game against the Jets and a short week for the Thursday night game against the Packers. If the Cowboys stumble, the NFC East race could become a three-way battle. These teams meet again in Washington on Dec. 30, and that game could have great meaning.

5. San Diego at Kansas City, Sunday, Nov. 25: The Chargers should be having a cakewalk to the AFC West title, but they are not playing good football. They were embarrassed by the Vikings in Week 9. Adrian Peterson ran through their talented defense. As a result, they are keeping the Chiefs in the AFC West race.

The Chiefs stunned the Chargers, 30-16, in San Diego on Sept. 30. It's debatable whether halfback Larry Johnson will be available. He is definitely going to miss a couple of weeks with a sprained foot, but if the foot has a crack in it, he might miss this game.

6. Tampa Bay at New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 2: Someone has to win the NFC South, and that someone is starting to look like the Saints. They shocked everyone by stumbling to an 0-4 start, and most thought the season was over.

The Saints pulled out a big victory over the Seahawks and haven't looked back. They have won four in a row, and Drew Brees is starting to get into a rhythm. Plus, their remaining schedule is the second easiest in football (.364). As long as the Bucs have Jeff Garcia, they have a chance. He's been able to keep the team competitive, despite the loss of running back Cadillac Williams.

7. Arizona at Seattle, Sunday, Dec. 9: At some point, the Seahawks must get hot. They are playing the league's easiest schedule and should be ashamed if they cannot reach 10 wins.

The Seahawks should have beaten the Cardinals in their first meeting, but a botched handoff to Shaun Alexander gave the Cardinals a chance to come from behind. Neither team has been too impressive since, but someone must win the NFC West.

8. Tennessee at Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 30: The Titans are only one game behind the Colts and appear to be destined for a postseason berth. The Colts have a tough schedule over the next two weeks, but they have been the only team capable of competing with the Patriots. This game could determine the division, but it also could be a game in which both teams rest their starters.

9. Carolina at Tampa Bay, Sunday, Dec. 30: Don't count out John Fox in the NFC South race, but the loss of quarterback Jake Delhomme has been devastating. The Panthers are left with David Carr and 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde.

If the Saints don't run away with the NFC South, this could be an important game in Week 17. It's not out of the question for a wild-card spot to be on the line.

10. New England at Baltimore, Monday, Dec. 3: The Ravens went 0-3 against teams with winning records during the first half of the season. Now, they close with six games against good teams.

Ray Lewis has the pleasure of facing Tom Brady and Peyton Manning at home. The Ravens are a proud team with a talented defense. Too bad they don't get to face the Ravens' offense in the second half of the season.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer