Saints, Cowboys in battle for playoff seeding
The Cowboys-Saints tilt highlights a Week 14 that features numerous games with playoff implications, writes John Clayton.
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 14.
New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys
The NFL had the right idea when it scheduled 30 divisional games in the final four weeks of the season.
Divisional races go to the heart of this league. That's where the rivalries are. Coaches preach to their players that the main goal each season is winning the division. Divisional rivalries usually draw the best ratings, and the league is wise to hold these assets until the end of the season.
Whoops. The eight divisional races are all but wrapped up through 13 weeks. Every divisional leader is at least two games ahead. The Bears have already clinched the NFC North. The Seahawks, Chargers, Patriots and Colts can clinch their divisions with victories over the weekend. That has taken the luster out of a remaining schedule that is nearly half (30 of 64) divisional games, including 10 this week.
That shifts the emphasis to the nondivisional games. Potential division winners are playing for seeding and the four wild-card spots are being tightly contested. In the NFC, four 6-6 teams are battling it out for the final two wild-card spots and even the three teams at 5-7 are still in the hunt. Five 7-5 teams are going at it in the AFC, which should make for great nondivision drama.
Sean Payton came to New Orleans from Parcells' staff in Dallas and inherited the toughest situation of any of the 10 new head coaches. The Saints were coming off a 3-13 season that included playing the entire year on the road after Hurricane Katrina. But Payton shook up the roster by bringing in 27 new players and the Saints gambled that the 360-degree tear in Drew Brees' labrum would heal in time for training camp.
Now, the Saints and Cowboys are the hottest teams in the NFC as they head into this showdown. Who would have thought the Saints would be battling for the No. 2 seed in the NFC? That's what is at stake in this game.
The Saints are an unbelievable 7-1 in the NFC, but things are getting tougher in the final month. Starting with the Cowboys, the Saints play three straight NFC East teams (versus Redskins and at Giants) and then finish at home against the Panthers. That's not an easy stretch.
Payton needs to keep winning to gain distance on Eric Mangini for Coach of the Year. The Saints could be a team of award winners, though, if Payton can pull off the victory. Wide receiver Marques Colston was running away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year honors until he suffered a high ankle sprain three weeks ago. He's still in contention along with Reggie Bush, who jumped into the competition late with a four-touchdown game last week and the outside chance of reaching 100 catches. Drew Brees is perhaps the leader for Comeback Player of the Year and in contention for MVP .
Parcells, meanwhile, isn't worried about the honors. He wants to lock up the NFC East and start preparing for the playoffs.
Kansas City Chiefs
9. Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio knew going into the season that it was going to be hard to catch the Colts. Del Rio did everything he could to get the Jaguars off to a fast start, but Peyton Manning and the Colts blew by them with an 8-0 start and the division race is basically history. For the Jaguars, it's not the division race at this point that's important, it's playoff survival. At 7-5, the Jaguars are fighting to reach the postseason. The Colts have a three-game winning streak against the Jaguars, but Del Rio usually does a good job of coming up with ways to keep the Jaguars close. He'll do it on offense by pounding the ball early against the Colts' run defense. On defense the Jaguars will play tough, run-stopping defense. The Jaguars have lost 14 players to the injured reserve, including many of their key playmakers on defense. Jacksonville will need a big game out of Fred Taylor to keep this one close.
8. Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers
When these teams first met on Nov. 19, the game figured to be a huge rematch with the AFC West on the line. But the Chargers stunned the Broncos 35-27, coming back from a 24-7 deficit, and both teams have gone in different directions ever since. The Chargers kept winning and are set to lock up the AFC West. They lead the division by three games. LaDainian Tomlinson is as hot as any player in the NFL, rushing for 851 yards and scoring 18 TDs over his last six games. He's on his way to shattering the single-season TD record of 28. While the Chargers have stayed hot, the Broncos have fallen apart. They've lost three in a row and made a quarterback change. Jay Cutler looked like the rookie that he is in his first start last Sunday against the Seahawks. Marty Schottenheimer figures to unleash Shawne Merriman on Cutler this Sunday.
7. New York Giants at Carolina Panthers
Pity the loser of this game. Even though you could make the argument that these are the best of the NFC's four 6-6 teams (the Falcons and Eagles are the other two), the loser of this game might have too much emotional baggage to overcome. The Giants have lost four straight games. They've been bickering with the coach. Players have called out other players. Eli Manning has struggled. The Giants played better against the Cowboys last Sunday but they still lost. Still, they seemed to feel better about themselves after the loss. You can't call it a moral victory, but maybe Tom Coughlin is close to getting this team back on track. The Panthers are another story. They lost road games to the Redskins and Eagles. Their offense looks anemic. And now there is there is an injury to quarterback Jake Delhomme that should keep him out at least a week. Delhomme partially tore a ligament in his right thumb in the first quarter of the Monday night loss to the Eagles. Though he played the remainder of the game, he wasn't sharp. Of course, receivers weren't completing their routes and the offensive line's blocking was suspect. Now, the Panthers will likely have to rely on Chris Weinke, who hasn't started since Week 7 of the 2002 season and has lost the last 15 games that he's started. It's do or die in this game because you sense the loser might not be able to recover.
6. New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins
Nick Saban probably could have been the next coach at Alabama if he wanted the job, but he's going to stick it out with the Dolphins. The AFC East isn't as hard as the SEC, but Saban is still trying to figure out the right way to win these NFL races. He's been the master of second-half charges. Last season the Dolphins won their last six games to finish 9-7 and this year the Dolphins won four straight after a 1-6 start. However, last Sunday's loss to the Jaguars pretty much ended their playoff hopes for this season. This game is more of a setup for next year. The Patriots have won six of the past eight games against the Dolphins and Bill Belichick has won two of his three meetings against Saban. It figures to be hard for the Dolphins to change that trend this week with running back Ronnie Brown (hand) out. The lack of a running game hurt the Dolphins in last week's 24-10 loss to the Jaguars. Saban has to rely on Joey Harrington and home-field advantage to get an edge on Belichick. I thought this was going to be the year the Dolphins would catch the Patriots. Maybe next year?
4. Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans
Face it, a good part of Bud Adams remains in Houston. Even though he moved the Oilers from Houston to Nashville and changed the name of the team to the Titans, he's still a Houston guy. He loves Texas football, which is why he's delighted the team drafted Vince Young. Jeff Fisher planted the seeds of a contract extension when he beat the Texans 28-22 with Young at quarterback. Now the Titans are developing into a playoff contender for 2007 with Young at the helm. Young is 5-4 as a starter and most of his losses were close. He and Fisher have made the Titans competitive again. So if Fisher can get one more win over the Texans in Houston, Adams might try to sign him to a contract extension before he gets back to the locker room after the game. Fisher's deal is up after 2007. This was the game most people predicted would be Young's debut as an NFL quarterback. Instead, he's got nine starts behind him and is looking pretty good.
3. Buffalo Bills at New York Jets
Jets fans must be pinching themselves. The team that wasn't expected to win six games this season has the best chance of the 7-5 teams to make the playoffs. New York's closing schedule features no teams with winning records. The Bills will try to spoil the Jets' chances. The Jets won the Sept. 24 meeting, 28-20, with the help of a Victor Hobson 32-yard fumble return for a touchdown. The challenge for coach Eric Mangini is stopping Willis McGahee, who has four consecutive 110-plus-yard games against the Jets. He's averaging 134.5 yards a game against the Jets during the stretch. But the Jets have won the past four games in this series and scored at least 30 points in three of those games. It's up to Chad Pennington's arm to top McGahee's legs for the Jets to continue this surprising playoff run.
2. Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins
I had the Lions-Vikings in this slot, but Vikings coach Brad Childress doesn't look like he's going to change quarterbacks, so there isn't much interest in that game. The Eagles might be coming to life. Jeff Garcia threw three touchdown passes in beating the Panthers on Monday night, and Andy Reid usually does well against the Redskins. The Eagles have won eight of their past 10 games against the Redskins. Reid is 10-5 against the Skins, including a 27-3 victory on Nov. 12. Once Donovan McNabb went down with his knee injury, the Eagles were given up for dead. If they beat the Redskins, they will be 7-6 and alive in the playoff race.
1. Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For years, the Bucs held the edge in this NFC South series. Derrick Brooks always had the speed to contain Michael Vick, and Monte Kiffin's Cover 2 magic usually worked against the Falcons' offense. Jon Gruden is 7-3 against the Falcons and the Bucs have won three of the past four games in the series. But the Bucs' defense is slowing down. The Falcons won the Sept. 17 meeting, 14-3, and set a franchise record with 306 rushing yards. Warrick Dunn had 134. Vick had 127. Both are on the verge of getting over 1,000 yards rushing, and if they can repeat their September numbers, they will be pressing for 1,100-yard seasons. At 6-6, the Falcons are hanging by a thread in the NFC playoff race. A year ago, they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Bucs in a 27-24 overtime loss. They won't want to relive those memories; a loss to the Bucs this Sunday could do about the same thing.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.