More than NFC East at stake when Philly visits Dallas

Jeff Garcia and the Eagles can inch closer to the NFC East title when they visit Dallas, and tweak T.O. as well in a game that highlights Week 16, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: December 21, 2006
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

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 16.

First … Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys

Given up for dead in the playoff race after Donovan McNabb blew out his knee, the Eagles weren't on the radar for weeks.

That's why their Christmas Day game against the Cowboys is the ultimate present to Eagles fans. First, a win puts Philadelphia in position to be the surprise winner of the NFC East. Second, a victory could leave the Cowboys and Terrell Owens, the Eagles' archenemy, scrambling into the playoffs as a wild card.

Losing to the Eagles could be another stake in the heart of Owens and his future in Dallas. Jerry Jones, admittedly citing desperation, signed Owens to make a difference on the team. He was supposed to be a threat on the other side of Terry Glenn and make it easier for Drew Bledsoe to succeed as a quarterback. Owens sabotaged Bledsoe with dropped passes and snide comments, leading to the rise of Tony Romo as a quarterback.

Rich Kane/US PRESSWIREJeff Garcia and the Eagles can take the NFC East title from T.O. and Dallas.
Statistically, Owens is a success. He has 77 catches for 1,140 yards and 11 touchdowns. But at what cost? He's been more of a distraction than anyone would have thought. He accidentally overdosed and ended up in the emergency room leading to the "Did T.O. try to commit suicide?" drama. He's admitted to dozing off in meetings because of a sleeping disorder. He's spit on Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

Bill Parcells' hands-off approach to Owens saved the locker room from internal damage. He's ignored Owens' sideline tantrums and treated him like a stranger. Smart move. Owens has complained how he feels alone in the locker room. Well, if you don't want to be a teammate, how do you expect the team to embrace you?

If the Cowboys can't clinch the NFC East because of a loss to the Eagles, it would be another sign to Jones to just let Owens go at the end of the season. Parcells is hinting he wants to come back for another year. Although he's not said anything, it's pretty apparent from the way he talks he's going to demand that Owens is elsewhere next season.

All Jones has to do is look at the Eagles. They've come together as a team because they don't have Owens. They've rallied around quarterback Jeff Garcia, one of the quarterbacks Owens trashed before he turned on McNabb.

Credit Andy Reid for adjusting his game. With McNabb at quarterback, Reid called way too many passes. He failed to develop a running offense even though Brian Westbrook is one of the most talented runners in the game.

With Garcia at the helm, the Eagles are running 45 percent of the offensive downs. They are doing more with less. If they beat the Eagles, it will be an education for Jones.

Hey, Jones was only doing what the Eagles tried. They thought Owens was the difference maker who could take them from the championship round to the Super Bowl. As they look back, they might have made the Super Bowl without him. They remember now Owens was hurt during the playoffs of their Super Bowl year. He came back to play in a Super Bowl game that they lost.

The next year, Owens tore apart the locker room. Now, they are together.

If the Cowboys get only a wild-card berth because they lost to a galvanized Eagles' team, Jones might realize Owens wasn't as much a difference maker as he thought.

And 10. Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos

Quarterback
Denver Broncos

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
82 48 543 6 3 90.1
This matchup is the reality of what the NFL schedule-makers do to division winners. Though it isn't as punishing to division winners as it has been in the past, it still makes a difference. The Bengals entered the season with the toughest schedule in the AFC. The Broncos have played one of the tougher schedules in the conference. As a result, the third-place finishers of the previous year have moved ahead of them -- Baltimore in the NFC North and San Diego in the AFC West. What will be interesting to see is whether Mike Shanahan could pull off one of the biggest decisions he's made in recent years. He benched Jake Plummer around Thanksgiving, figuring Plummer wasn't going to take the team any further than the wild-card round of the playoffs. His thinking was if Jay Cutler, the rookie, could take the team into the playoffs, it sets up a great future. He could be playoff tested along with having a stronger arm than Plummer. Cutler is starting to play well. He threw the ball well in beating the Cardinals. Now, Cutler has two home games to help get the Broncos into the playoffs. This is the bigger test because the Bengals are a better team than 49ers, the Broncos' final regular-season opponent. The Bengals are coming off a disappointing showing against the Colts on Monday night. QB Carson Palmer has a sore shoulder and WR Chad Johnson is banged up. It's a game of desperation that has a playoff feeling to it.

9. New Orleans Saints at New York Giants
Tom Coughlin knows people are calling for his firing if he doesn't get the Giants into the playoffs. As long as those people aren't named Mara or Tisch, Coughlin should be OK. Still, for all intents and purposes, this game is a playoff game for Coughlin and the Giants. The Saints have won the NFC South and have a chance to lock up the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. But Michael Strahan is trying to come back from his lisfranc foot injury to play this week, and the Giants defense isn't as good without him. His presence will inspire the Giant fans and give some momentum to the defense. What's baffling is why the Giants continue to make critical mistakes. The offense continues to come up with the untimely holding penalty or false start. Under Coughlin, the Giants are supposed to be disciplined. The Giants are fighting for their playoff lives but they can get a wild-card berth if they just play smarter. Coughlin needs to bring that focus together for two more weeks, or some interesting judgments might be coming.

8. New England Patriots at Jacksonville Jaguars
Even though they've won 10 games, the Patriots aren't dominating. Heck, they still haven't won their division officially although one win in the final two weeks will accomplish that mission. Bill Belichick knows the Patriots have their hands full with this game. Even though the Jaguars have been disappointments on the road, they are tough to beat in Alltel Stadium. At home, their defense is tough to run on and their coverage skills against the pass improve. Jack Del Rio has built this team like the Ravens team that won the Super Bowl. It's big along the offensive line and has speed at linebackers. Tom Brady has extra motivation this week because he didn't make the Pro Bowl. Brady's been playing with a little anger this season. He lost two of his best receivers -- Deion Branch and David Givens -- and his frustration has come out at times when his remaining receivers don't get open. Belichick's defense might have exceeded expectations, though. Even though Richard Seymour was the Patriots' only Pro Bowl selection, New England has given up only 13.8 points a game. Knowing the Jaguars have surrendered only 15.4 points a game, this figures to be a low-scoring, physical football game executed at a playoff level of intensity.

7. New York Jets at Miami Dolphins
Nick Saban is known for being able to design pressure packages on defense, but the folks at Alabama might have come up with a more relentless scheme. They won't take no for an answer. They want to talk to Saban as soon as the regular season is over. Saban has been professional and keeps saying he isn't interesting in the Alabama job, but the Crimson Tide still doesn't have a coach and the rumors persist. Last week's shutout loss to the Bills all but killed any hopes of the Dolphins' making the playoffs so the team is playing for pride and with a certain amount of fear. The fear factor involves Saban, who runs a tough practice and isn't afraid to show his displeasure. Losing to the Bills hurt. Losing to the Jets would hurt even more. If the Jets beat the Dolphins, there becomes an increasingly good chance the Jets could win out and go the playoffs That would mean Eric Mangini and Dick Jauron took over teams in Saban's division after him and produced better teams. Saban won't stand for that.

6. Tennessee Titans at Buffalo Bills

Running Back
Tennessee Titans

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2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Rush Yds TD Rec Yds TD
224 974 7 17 75 0
It's hard to believe the winner of this game will be 8-7. What an amazing comeback. The Titans are making a Rookie of the Year run for Vince Young, who is 7-4 as a starting quarterback. Quietly, Dick Jauron has turned around the Bills and QB J.P. Losman is showing fans that he is good enough to take the Bills to the playoffs in one of these years. This is a great matchup of two teams on the rise. By midseason both teams were given up for dead. Titans fans wondered if Jeff Fisher was going to be back as head coach next season. Buffalo fans questioned the direction of the Bills. Now, Fisher is a lock to get a contract extension, and the Bills are becoming a factor. Steve Fairchild continues to do a great job coaching Losman. The Bills offensive coordinator believed in him during the offseason. Losman has hooked up nicely with Lee Evans, a receiver who came close to making the Pro Bowl. As long as Tennessee RB Travis Henry is able to play with a sore ankle, he should be the main story of the day. Henry was traded to the Titans after the Bills drafted Willis McGahee. Henry needs 26 yards to get over 1,000 and he would love to do that in the first carry against the team that gave up on him.

5. Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers know they made too many mistakes in letting the Ravens take the AFC North away from them. Ben Roethlisberger threw too many interceptions in the middle of the field, and the holes in the secondary didn't get corrected until too late. Still, the Steelers want to make a stand. They know their playoff hopes are remote, but if they can finish at 9-7 by beating the Ravens and Bengals, they will have reestablished themselves in the division. Plus, they will give coach Bill Cowher more incentive to return. Cowher finally spoke about his uncertain job situation this week. He said he needs a few days after the season to decide if he still wants to coach the Steelers. The Steelers will give him those days, but the players want him back. The Ravens continue to stay focused under Brian Billick, who revamped the offense to fit what the skilled players wanted to do. The Steelers want revenge for their 27-0 loss in Baltimore a month ago. Ravens defenders Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Trevor Pryce will play angry because they were voted out of the Pro Bowl. Get ready for a physical game.

4. San Diego Chargers at Seattle Seahawks

Running Back
San Diego Chargers

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Rush Yds TD Rec Yds TD
310 1626 28 53 484 3
More than a million people in the Seattle area lost power two hours after the conclusion of the Seahawks' Thursday night loss to the 49ers a week ago. Gale force winds caused the problems. The Seahawks offense lost power five hours earlier and Mike Holmgren is trying to find a way to get it back. The team has had extra time off to reflect on its offensive problems. It's been one of the most inconsistent stretches for a Holmgren offense in years. Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander have been inconsistent. The offensive line has been inconsistent. What makes matters rough this week is they are facing one of the most dominant teams in pro football. The Chargers are red hot. No one has been able to stop LaDainian Tomlinson this year. The Seahawks held 49ers running back Frank Gore in check for three quarters, but he ran crazy in the fourth quarter to finish with 144 yards. If the Seahawks don't win this game, panic will set in. They still haven't locked up the division and if the 49ers win this weekend, the Seahawks might have to beat the Buccaneers in Week 17 just to make the playoffs. The 49ers swept the Seahawks, so Seattle would lose the tie-breakers if they end up tied. The Chargers have a chance to clinch a first-round bye (with a win) and home-field advantage (with a win and some help) in the AFC.

3. Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
This looked like it was going to be one of the most anticipated rematches of the second half of the season. Not any more. The Panthers have fallen off the face of the playoff map. Injuries killed their offensive line. The running game has been missing in action for weeks. Jake Delhomme is out with a partially torn thumb ligament. At 6-8, the Panthers have lost four straight games, and are on the verge of playoff elimination. The Panthers can point back to their 20-6 Week 1 loss to the Falcons as the start of a lot of their problems. Offensive tackle Travelle Wharton was lost for the season and the Panthers' line was never the same. A lot is at stake for the Falcons, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Jim Mora is fighting for his job. Michael Vick is going to fight through a groin injury to keep the offense moving. And the defense needs to play better. The loss to the Cowboys Saturday has owner Arthur Blank looking for answers to the Falcons' problems.

2. Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers
Could these be playoff teams next year? Possibly. Heck, it's not out of the question for the 49ers to make it this year if the Seahawks' collapse continues. The 49ers are starting to make a move on the Seahawks in the NFC West and are setting up an interesting race for next year. They've done enough on offense to make themselves competitive and they have enough cap room and draft choices to continue stocking up the defense next year. For the Cardinals, Matt Leinart continues to improve. Leinart and 49ers quarterback Alex Smith should have a lot of interesting battles over the next few years in the NFC West. Gore is emerging for the 49ers as one of the league's hottest running backs. The Cardinals' biggest challenge is going to be trying to stop him. If they try to blitz the 49ers, Gore will gash them with running plays.

1. Washington Redskins at St. Louis Rams
Talk about meaningless games. Well, maybe this one isn't actually so bad. The Rams are still trying to get to the .500 mark and have a little momentum after their shutout win against the Raiders. The Redskins are showing a little life with Jason Campbell, who somewhat resembles Doug Williams in the way he throws the deep ball, at quarterback. Although the Rams aren't technically out of the playoffs, there really isn't too much on the line for either team. Both teams love to blitz and if they're aggressive Sunday, it could be a high-scoring, fun game to watch.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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