- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton's "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 13.
First Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants
Tom Coughlin has a Giant mess on his hands. A bye week resolved the New York Giants' first crisis of the season. Defensive players weren't happy with the schemes during a 1-2 start in which the Giants gave up 92 points in three games. Slow starts by the offense had players concerned.
During that bye week, Coughlin showed his great coaching skills. He scaled back some of the defensive playbook and concentrated on execution. The offense refocused and relied more on the running of Tiki Barber. The Giants reeled off a five-game winning streak and seemed to have the NFC East in control.
But this is different. On a three-game losing streak, coming across as the most unhappy football team in the league and with no bye week to regroup, the Giants are on the verge of saying goodbye to the playoffs. Eli Manning appears to have lost his confidence along with his footwork. Jeremy Shockey should change his job description to "Up-tight end"' for the visual explosions he displays on the sidelines. Plaxico Burress gets ripped on radio by Michael Strahan and then Strahan rips the reporters covering him Wednesday.
Coughlin needs to calm Mt. Giants from this emotional volcano for one Sunday. If the Giants beat the Cowboys in Giants Stadium, they are back in the race. If they lose, pity the fool who ventures into the postgame locker room for comment.
Fingers are pointing everywhere except the sidelines. Coughlin lost a third of his starting lineup to serious injury, and he lost them at the key positions -- defensive end, cornerback, wide receiver and left tackle. The downfall actually started in the Oct. 23 victory over the Cowboys in Dallas. Five key Giants were injured in that game. They haven't been the same team since.
Still, general manager Ernie Accorsi had done a great job of assembling depth. The Giants have drafted well and while Accorsi filled around the cracks well enough, the team should have survived better. It hasn't. Now the heat is on Coughlin and Manning.
It seems silly for critics to think that Coughlin's job is on the line, but the Giants' collapse is so enormous you never know. Ownership can look at a coach who had a division title in his second year and had the team off to a 6-2 start, winning three division games. Fans and players, however, are looking at a disciplinarian running a locker room that sounds chaotic.
What can't be forgotten is the most outspoken people are some of the best leaders in the game. Barber is the elder statesman of the offense and is trusted enough to make a pregame speech each Sunday. Strahan is one of the best defensive leaders in the game but he's been sidelined with a lisfranc sprain in his foot. It's hard to lead from the sidelines, even though he returned to the practice field this week.
It's still hard to believe the Giants will be the more volatile team in Sunday's matchup against the Cowboys. Everyone expected the Cowboys to be a team constantly in chaos because of Terrell Owens. Bill Parcells somehow calmed T.O. by giving him the quarterback he wanted, Tony Romo. Romo's been the story of the second half of the season. Parcells settled his own stomach by cutting inconsistent kicker Mike Vanderjagt.
So much has happened since the first time these teams played. Dallas lost to the Giants, but is 4-1 since then. Meanwhile, Coughlin won the game, but the injuries his team sustained in that game could cause him to lose the season. It's been an amazing turnaround.
And 10. Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
Including the Giants' game against the Cowboys, the NFL is really having what could be called Desperation Week. The Thursday night game is do-or-die for the Bengals if they have any hopes of staying in the AFC North race. The Ravens have a three-game lead and even if the Bengals win, they probably won't catch the Ravens. The best thing they can do is secure a wild-card spot and do what the Steelers did last season -- beat them in the playoffs on the road. It's been a turbulent season for the Bengals. Six players, dating back to last season, have been arrested. Carson Palmer came back from major knee surgery. Injuries have decimated the offensive line and linebacking corps. Plus, the schedule has been a killer. The Ravens are on a roll. Steve McNair has the total faith of his teammates if the team is in trouble late in games. The defense is just peaking. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has some of the wildest schemes in football to take advantage of the Ravens' athleticism. While the Patriots might be the most versatile defense in football, with linebackers who were once defensive linemen, Ryan takes the concept to the next degree in Baltimore. He runs a Patriots defense in fast forward. He'll switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 to a 46 on any given play. Ravens defenders fly around the field and they are having a blast. They are different from the 2000 Ravens defense, but that team didn't get off to a 9-2 start. The Ravens smell blood, but the Bengals are getting better each week on offense as Palmer feels more mobility coming off the knee injury.
9. Seattle Seahawks at Denver Broncos
Mike Shanahan had no choice but to go to rookie quarterback Jay Cutler. Though he had no plans to use the rookie this season, Jake Plummer was leading the Broncos out of the AFC West race. At 7-4, Plummer gave the Chargers a two-game head start with five games left. Figuring Plummer faced his usual tough game in San Diego Dec. 10, Shanahan needed a spark. Can Cutler do a "Tony Romo" for Denver? Who knows? The Broncos face a Seahawks team that is trying to come together despite an injury-marred 7-4 start. Shaun Alexander shook the rust from a six-game absence with a 201-yard game against the Packers. Matt Hasselbeck made four turnovers in the first half of his return from a four-week absence with a knee injury before he got hot with three touchdown passes in the second half. He should be more in a groove. The problem facing Cutler is the same thing that got Plummer in trouble. The Broncos aren't as consistent at the skills positions on offense. Tatum Bell's toe injuries have left the running game wanting. The season-ending injury to left tackle Matt Lepsis limits the times Shanahan can send a tight end downfield because he's needed for protection. Rod Smith has lost a step. To ask a rookie to pull this all together is tough. Of course, Ben Roethlisberger faced a similar situation and lost just one game as a rookie. Can Cutler do something similar over a shorter stretch? We'll see.
This is the Cinderella Bowl. The Saints are the darlings of the league and rightfully so. Drew Brees is on pace for a 5,000-yard season, which is amazing for a quarterback coming off a 360-degree tear of his labrum. At 7-4, the Saints are in position to start securing the NFC South title. They have a one-game lead over the Panthers and a two-game lead over a Falcons team they swept. Three of their last five games are at home. It's all set up for an unbelievable scene. New Orleans fans deserved something like this following the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina. The 49ers have had their own version of the Cinderella season, although they lost a little luster last week in a last-second defeat to the Rams. The offense shows great promise with the growth of quarterback Alex Smith and the power running of Frank Gore. Mike Nolan is still a draft or two away from plugging the holes in his defense, but they play hard. Trailing the Seahawks by two games, it's going to be hard for them to catch Seattle in the NFC West, but they are still in the hunt for a wild-card. This was a game that wasn't on the radar weeks ago. Now, there is a great feeling about it because these are two of the surprise teams in the conference.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars at Miami Dolphins
Call this the AFC's first wild-card playoff game. Nine teams in the AFC have winning records, and only six are going to make the playoffs. This game starts the real battle for the last wild-card spot, and if the Dolphins win it, they have an outside chance of joining the hunt. Rallying around quarterback Joey Harrington, the Dolphins have won four games to get to 5-6 and keep some hope alive. But the loss of halfback Ronnie Brown could betray them. Brown took a lot of pressure off Harrington with his power running. With his broken left hand expected to sideline him for two or three weeks and Ricky Williams suspended, Nick Saban has to rely on Sammy Morris to go against one of the best run-stopping units in the league. The Jaguars have been a tale of two teams. They are 5-1 at home. On the road, they are 1-4. Maybe because the game is in Florida, they can feel as though they aren't on a road trip. Jack Del Rio has done a great job of keeping the defense playing hard despite losing almost half of the starting lineup. David Garrard has played respectably at quarterback, but these next two weeks will determine their season. This road game is a must win. Next week, they play host to the Colts, who could clinch the AFC South this weekend.
6. Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
All the Bears need to do is win to clinch an NFC North race they seemed to have wrapped up two months ago. Talk about a game without pressure. The Bears had a five-game lead over the Vikings before losing to the Patriots Sunday. Winning the division is only a timing issue. Within the next week or so, the competition runs out of games. The only thing the Bears have to be concerned about is turning around quarterback Rex Grossman. Grossman has been part of an offense that has made 19 turnovers in the past six games. Some of those who praised Grossman as the next great quarterback and an MVP candidate during the first five weeks of the season are saying he's going to be the one who will cost the Bears a Super Bowl. To his credit, Grossman handles the criticism as well as he does the praise. He's calm and he should be. He plays behind a defense that allows him to play a little loose. But he can't continue throwing that many interceptions and think it's going to be all right once the playoffs start. Grossman's job is not in jeopardy. The Bears don't play a team with a winning record the rest of the season and pretty soon Lovie Smith will start resting starters for the playoffs. The Vikings, meanwhile, have to use this rivalry to somehow get back in the wild-card race. They struggled to end a four-game losing streak by nipping a bad Cardinals team. If they lose to the Bears, their season is just about over.
Say what you want but the Packers are getting better. Sure, they are young. They have more rookies and first-year players on their roster than any team in football. Brett Favre seems energized being around this young talent, and there's a good chance he will come back for another year. But the Packers have to start reestablishing some sort of home-field advantage again in Lambeau Field. They are 1-4 in Lambeau this year. Teams no longer fear going there. With remaining home games against the Jets, Lions and Vikings, the Packers can put thoughts back in people's mind that winning in Lambeau is tough. The Jets are the AFC's surprise team at 6-5, and they don't have a team with a winning record on their schedule the rest of the season. That alone could keep them in the wild-card race. The talent levels of both teams are pretty even. The Packers have more to lose in this one because they have to reestablish home field advantage. Of course, the Jets could lose hopes of making the playoffs if the Packers win. That was a longshot anyway.
4. Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles
At some point, the Panthers have to get on a roll and start playing well, don't they? Every time it looks like they're going to get on a big roll, they stumble and lose. They are 6-5 and still in the playoff picture, but the offense isn't in gear and the defense hasn't played the type of shutdown football most expected. Jake Delhomme has been rather average of late and the running game has been inconsistent. The NFC South and the conference in general is set up well for them to make a run, but they have to start getting up to speed pretty soon. Last week's lethargic loss to the Redskins was a major setback. Still, at 6-5, the Panthers still can catch the Saints because they beat them earlier in the season and play them again at home Dec. 31. But first, they have to get back on track this week. The Eagles are beatable without Donovan McNabb. Jeff Garcia isn't going to beat any team with downfield throws, so the Panthers have to make the Eagles play the long field. On offense, the Panthers need to start pounding the ball. DeShaun Foster should be healthy enough to play. This is the time for the playoff run to start and the Panthers need to get the running game going to get things started.
With tight end Dallas Clark out with a knee injury, the Colts have to test more three-receiver sets for Peyton Manning. The Colts have been hampered by injuries all season and still have the NFL's best record at 10-1. The Titans will be a tough assignment because Jeff Fisher knows how to defend the Colts from playing them twice a year. The Colts barely squeaked by the Titans, 14-13, earlier this year, so this game figures to be a struggle. Fisher has done a masterful job this season with the Titans. The team is 4-3 since Vince Young took over as the starting quarterback. Travis Henry has had a great season running the football, and the Colts have their problems stopping the run. This should be a more interesting game than it would appear to be on the surface.
2. Atlanta Falcons at Washington Redskins
Michael Vick needs a road game. The pressure had built up so much at home that he made an obscene gesture to fans following last week's loss to the Saints. But somehow, Vick has to stop the free fall the Falcons are in. The Falcons have lost four games in a row and jobs are on the line. Vick didn't like former Saints coach Jim Mora's comment about his being a coach-killer, but assistants could lose the jobs if Vick doesn't turn things around. And who knows what players will lose their jobs if the Falcons finish out of the playoffs. Vick needs his receivers to step up and help. Credit Vick for trying. He's a one-man band. Last week, he tried to win the game with his feet but that didn't work. He has 865 rushing yards this season, but he needs more help. The Redskins showed some life last week, beating the Panthers with Jason Campbell as the starting quarterback.
1. Kansas City Chiefs at Cleveland Browns
This game is pretty simple. Larry Johnson leads the league with 1,202 yards rushing. Despite using a 3-4 that should stop the run, the Browns are giving up 133 yards a game on the ground. Herman Edwards will keep this one simple. He'll run the ball until the Browns show they can stop it. If the Browns can't stop the run, the Chiefs will get off the field quickly with a victory. The Browns' offensive players have to stop their bickering and just play some ball. Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. have been putting up some pretty good numbers, but the running game has been missing this year in Cleveland. This is an important game for quarterback Charlie Frye, who is taking some heat of late.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2dDoug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Information