Colts, Bengals heading in opposite directions
John Clayton breaks down the best games of Week 15, highlighted by the Colts' playing host to the Bengals on "MNF" in a battle between teams heading in opposite directions.
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 15.
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts (Monday, 8:30 ET, ESPN)
Marvin Lewis always has been a defensive head coach. But with the Bengals, he had a defense that couldn't stop the run. At times, no matter how efficient his no-huddle offense was, fans of his team feared a fourth-quarter collapse by the defense.
Then, overnight, Lewis appeared to have fixed it.
The Bengals have turned their season around, winning four straight games to improve to 8-5. After giving up 49 points in a loss to the Chargers in Week 10, the Bengals have allowed just 33 points over their last four games.
Tony Dungy needs to find some similar magic for the Colts' defense. The Colts met on Monday and discussed the previous day's embarrassing loss to the Jaguars in which Indianapolis allowed 375 yards rushing. The answer isn't within the scheme the Colts are using. It's in the tackling. Linebackers need to tackle better. Defensive linemen need to stay in their gaps and make plays.
Can the Colts use the Bengals as an example?
This Bengals-Colts game has been one of the most anticipated of the season. Most people can remember last year's epic in Cincinnati, which the Colts won 45-37. The Bengals matched the Colts touchdown for touchdown. In shootouts like that, though, Peyton Manning and the Colts usually come out on top. Manning lives for this type of game.
A mistake here or a mistake there by his opponent, and Manning gains the edge. He's become so much better at not panicking as the game progresses. He knows he can convert a game-winning drive.
The Bengals blinked slightly last year, and Manning put up enough points to win. But if the Colts don't fix their defense soon, even Manning's heroics won't be enough.
When Manning took over the team in 1998, the defense lacked athletes. General manager Bill Polian needed a few drafts to restock the defense with athletes. Then he brought in Dungy to teach the Cover 2 defense, which fit nicely with an offense that could get a lead and let the Colts' aggressive pass rushers attack.
But injuries and losses in free agency have caught up to the Colts' defense. Defensive tackles Corey Simon and Montae Reagor were lost for the season, thinning the tackle rotation and taking away big bodies. Safety Bob Sanders has missed nine games because of a chronic knee problem. Safety Mike Doss was lost for the season in Week 7 with a knee injury. The Colts have been vulnerable up the middle all season.
Dungy has stressed better tackling all week, and he needs to see improvement against the Bengals.
What will be interesting will be the strategy of Lewis and Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. Because of their great receivers and quarterback Carson Palmer, the Bengals are a passing team. But coming out and trying to just pound the ball with Rudi Johnson will be tempting. The Bengals have won 18 in a row when they get Johnson 25 carries or more.
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But if Manning can cut up the Bengals defense, it might be hard to just run the ball. So much of this game depends on the start. If the Bengals can sustain drives and score touchdowns, they'll be able to maintain a good run-pass balance on offense. But if they fall behind, the game could open up, giving the edge back to Manning.
The Colts, losers of three of four games, need a confidence boost. But that might be tough to get against a Bengals team that is playing very well. The Bengals, who follow this game with a trip to Denver, are in a desperate two-game road swing that will determine whether they will be a wild-card team.
Of all the wild-card contending teams, the Bengals are the most dangerous. But they also have a tough schedule, and losing to the Colts would deal them a bad hand.
And 10. Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
Heading into the season, forecasters believed the tough schedules of the NFC East teams would create a tight division race that could go down to the final week. The Giants understood. They had the toughest schedule in the NFC, so repeating as East champs was going to be tough. A four-game losing streak and constant grumbling in the locker room almost put the Giants out of the race early. However, the Cowboys' loss to the Saints and their Saturday road game against the Falcons reopened the division race. The Giants rebounded from their three-point loss to the Cowboys with a win over the Panthers. Whether they get back into the NFC East race or get a wild-card depends on how they do against the Eagles this week and the Saints next week. The Eagles are another story. They've won two in a row with Jeff Garcia at quarterback. He's moved the chains well, but the Eagles are in their toughest stretch of the year. This is Game 2 of a dreaded three-game road trip. They beat the Redskins last week and put themselves back in the playoff hunt. Consider this the equivalent of the wild-card game because the loser might have a tough time bouncing back. The Giants won such a game last week and have gained momentum.
9. Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons
Bill Parcells kept warning Cowboys' fans Tony Romo was human. He sees him in practice and realizes young quarterbacks will make mistakes. What he didn't anticipate was that his entire team would melt down against the Saints last week. Now, Parcells has to regroup and regroup quickly. This Saturday night game is crucial for the Cowboys. If they win, they are in good shape because they finish with home games against the Eagles and Lions. The Cowboys get a huge break in this game because the Falcons might be down to their third-string running back. Warrick Dunn is a long shot to play, and Jerious Norwood is all but a scratch. That forces the Falcons to use fullback Justin Griffith as the halfback. Of course, the Falcons' best runner is quarterback Michael Vick, and he will no doubt look to run against the Cowboys' 3-4 defense. For the Falcons, this is a must-win game. At 7-6, the Falcons can't lose a home game if they want to stay in the NFC wild-card race. Falcons coach Jim Mora needs a great game from the defense. He needs to harass Romo into mistakes, and he has to make sure potential interceptions in the hands of defensive backs aren't dropped. If the Falcons are going to have a chance against the Cowboys, Vick has to carry this team more than ever before.
8. Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers
It's a tough week. The Chiefs lost their owner, Lamar Hunt, and Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer lost a friend because he coached for Hunt so long. Hunt was a treasure. He was a great American sportsman for his generosity and willingness to find new ideas to make games better. As for the Chiefs' playoff hopes, this could be tough. The Chargers are emerging as perhaps the league's best team. They are 11-2 and could get a first-round bye if they win and the Bengals beat the Colts. The Chargers can beat teams in so many ways. Their red-zone offense is scary with LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. Philip Rivers is emerging as an elite quarterback. The Chargers have the league's best front seven and are getting healthy at the right time. The Chiefs won the first meeting in a high-scoring affair, but the Chargers have Luis Castillo and Shawne Merriman back for this game. Merriman is angling for defensive player of the year and facing a tough battle against Jason Taylor of the Dolphins. He'll want to have a big game against Trent Green. The disappointment for the Chiefs is how the defense has been showing some wear. The killer was the 31-28 loss to the Browns. The Chiefs' defense played better against the Ravens, but it needs one of its best games of the year against the Chargers.
7. New York Jets at Minnesota Vikings
This might have been a bigger game had the Jets taken care of business and won a home game against the Bills last week. Still, the Jets' easy schedule gives them a chance to get to 10 wins, and 10 wins should secure an AFC wild-card spot. If the Jets can't win this game, they won't make the playoffs. They play the Dolphins on the road on Christmas and that will be a tough game to win. The Dolphins are finally playing like a good team, even though it's too late for them to think playoffs. Jets coach Eric Mangini has done an amazing job, but things might be catching up to this team. New York doesn't have a lot of stars and there is only so much that can be done with a roster that underwent a major cap shakedown in February and March. The key to this game will be quarterback Chad Pennington. The Jets really don't have a featured back; they tend to use a different back to feature every week. One thing you can say about the Vikings is that you can't run on them. What teams tend to do is spread the field with receivers and force plays to the outside, making the defensive tackles run. By beating the Lions last week, the 6-7 Vikings moved ahead of the Carolina Panthers for eighth place in the NFC playoff race. That puts them on the on-deck circle for a possible 8-8 playoff spot. Brad Childress won't complain if he has to make the playoffs with an inferior record. The playoffs are the playoffs, so he will have his guys playing hard.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans
That sound you hear is the Titans racing to reestablish themselves as the future power in the AFC South. With Vince Young 6-4 as a rookie, and Jeff Fisher doing one of this better coaching jobs, the Titans are establishing themselves as a playoff contender for next year. The Jaguars are fighting for their playoff lives, but there is more to this game than just that. Their hold on second place in the division could be in jeopardy. Although that might not mean much this year, it means a lot next year. The Jaguars don't want to give the Titans reason to believe the teams are on the same level. The Titans are making the transition from Steve McNair to Young and that transition is going faster than expected. The Jaguars still don't know where they are at quarterback. David Garrard is doing a nice job. With the Jags at 8-5 overall and 5-2 since losing Byron Leftwich to injury, Garrard is making the argument for the team to pick him as the permanent starter. This could be the defining game for Garrard. A loss could hurt the Jaguars' wild-card chances. The Titans like to play games close, and Young gets better as the game gets closer to the end. The Jags won the first meeting, 37-7, but this figures to be a much closer game being in Nashville.
5. Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
Third place in the AFC East means little, but that's what is at stake in this game. For the Dolphins, third place is a bad consolation price to a disappointing season. They started 1-6. Five wins in the last six games have helped team morale, but they won't earn the Dolphins a playoff spot. Third place for the Bills means a lot. Dick Jauron has players believing in his style of coaching. J.P. Losman is coming on as a quarterback. Willis McGahee is doing well despite some injuries. And the defense is slowly coming together. Both teams are 6-7, so the winner is at .500 and thinking more positive thoughts than before. What will be interesting to see is how the story about the Dolphins' buying tapes of Tom Brady's cadence and protection calls will go over. Will the Bills be worried about Losman's cadence and make some adjustments? The funny part about Miami Tapegate is that every team does it. Every team studies tape to get an edge on opposing quarterbacks. Now that the story is out, will teams make adjustments?
4. Pittsburgh Steelers at Carolina Panthers
A lot of people probably thought this would be a Super Bowl preview. Instead, it's a battle of two of the NFL's biggest disappointments. The Steelers' hopes of a Super Bowl repeat were squashed thanks to turnovers and injuries. The Panthers have just been baffling. Their inability to run the football consistently has made it hard to get the offense going. It's funny how both teams miseries are similar. Without Jerome Bettis, the Steelers haven't been able to establish the power run game that is part of their personality. Willie Parker has had a Pro Bowl season, but his running style has turned the Steelers into more of a finesse passing offense. The Panthers really needed to run the ball well last week against the Giants but couldn't get anything going. That forced Chris Weinke to throw the ball 61 times. Jake Delhomme's partially torn right thumb ligament hasn't healed quick enough and it looks like he'll miss another game. Weinke will need some running help from DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams. The Steelers learned this week that coach Bill Cowher will make a decision on his future right after the end of the regular season. The Steelers want to play hard to convince him to stay. The Panthers will play hard because they are fighting for their playoff lives.
3. Washington Redskins at New Orleans Saints
Unless the Saints get overconfident -- which they shouldn't -- they will clinch the NFC South with a victory. This should be a fun matchup for the Saints, who live for the big play. The Redskins die giving up the big play. The Redskins have surrendered 45 pass plays of 20 yards or longer, which is the third worst in football. They have given up 10 touchdown passes of 20 yards or longer, which is the second worst in the league. The Saints lead the league with 55 plays of 20 yards or more and have 16 touchdowns of at least 20 yards. Sean Payton is aggressive with his playcalling and he's hitting on most of his gambles. The Redskins can't afford to get into a shootout with Jason Campbell as their quarterback because it's only his fifth start. But Payton won't make that an option. The Saints sense blood and they are going for it.
2. Denver Broncos at Arizona Cardinals
Anyone who has given up on the Broncos' playoff chances should watch this game. If the Broncos get a victory, they have a chance for 10 wins. They finish the regular season at home with games against the Bengals and 49ers. This Cardinals game will show if they have a chance to make those games interesting. Jay Cutler showed progress in last week's loss to the Chargers. Mike Shanahan knew he was taking a big gamble going with Cutler after the Broncos' loss to the Chiefs. But if the Broncos can manage to earn a playoff spot with Cutler at the helms, it makes for an interesting future. Cardinals rookie quarterback Matt Leinart is coming on to the point that he might be able to save coach Dennis Green's job.
1. Houston Texans at New England Patriots
This game shouldn't be too interesting. It should be a Patriots' blowout. But the interest in the game is what Bill Belichick will do to bounce back from last week's loss to the Dolphins. Naturally, he will adjust Tom Brady's cadence and some of his protection calls after a story broke about the Dolphins' studying audio tapes of Brady. Belichick will be forced to make adjustments on defense because of an injury to defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and to the offense due to the possible loss of tight end Benjamin Watson. Last week, the Patriots used more of a 4-3 look because of injuries to the linebacking unit, and they might have to do the same without Wilfolk. Watson has been the key to the Patriots' passing game this season, and losing him will force them to make adjustments.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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