In second half, divisional battles take center stage
Don't expect any Super Bowl previews in the second half, because marquee division games dominate the rest of the schedule, writes John Clayton.
The dominating 8-0 start by the Titans has taken all the drama out of the AFC South race. Entering the season, the debate was whether the AFC South was better than the NFC East. Then the Colts stumbled to a 4-4 start and the Texans and Jaguars have been disappointments at 3-5. At least the NFC East, with the exception of the fading Cowboys, has lived up to billing.
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In fact, most of the best second-half games will be divisional matchups, which have been significantly more competitive than nondivisional games this season.
The home team has won 61.5 percent of the time this season. This has been the toughest season for road teams since 2003, when the road team won 38.7 percent of the time. The biggest reason for this has been the abundance of games between eastern and western teams, something that happens every four seasons with the schedule rotation.
West Coast teams are 0-10 when traveling three time zones to play an East Coast team. The East Coast teams have had a better time out West, winning five of 11 games.
The real surprise is how well road teams are doing in division games, which enhances the competitiveness of those contests. Home teams are only 24-20 in division games.
1. New York Giants at Washington, Week 13, Nov. 30
The Redskins, improved because Jason Campbell is having a season similar to David Garrard of the Jaguars last year, have only three home games left, all in the NFC East. Campbell and first-year coach Jim Zorn were a little lost in the regular-season opener against the Giants, a 16-7 loss. If the Zorn-Campbell alliance gets hot against the Giants, the Redskins have a chance to capture the NFC East title.
2. Pittsburgh at Tennessee, Week 16, Dec. 21
This is a matchup of the two best teams in the AFC. They play a similar style. Instead of winning with a passing attack, both teams concentrate on winning with a strong running game and great defense. The Titans have the most feared defensive line in football. The Steelers, who lead the league with 32 sacks, have the most feared blitz package.
3. New York Giants vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Week 10, Sunday at Philadelphia, and Week 14, Dec. 7 at Giants Stadium
This is the only NFC East matchup that still has both games remaining. The pressure is on the Eagles to win Sunday and stay in the division race. A loss to the Giants would put them three games behind and probably make the Week 14 meeting irrelevant.
So far, NFC South matchups have been blowouts, and unlike in the rest of the league, the home team has dominated. The Bucs beat the Panthers 27-3 on Oct. 12. The Panthers blew out the Saints 30-7 on Oct. 19. The Bucs and Panthers each have six wins, and the loser of this game might have to think wild card instead of division championship.
5. Carolina at New York Giants, Week 16, Dec. 21
The fact the Giants appear in four of the top five remaining games is an illustration of the difficulty of their closing schedule. All eight games are against teams with .500 records or better and five of them are on the road. Panthers coach John Fox used the exposure of being the Giants' defensive coordinator during a Super Bowl year to get the Panthers' head-coaching job. He has won enough games in Giants Stadium not to let his players get intimidated by the trip.6. Philadelphia at Washington, Week 16, Dec. 21
The Eagles will be seeking revenge after losing 23-17 to the Redskins at home. That loss affected the Eagles' confidence and pushed them back into third in the division.
7. New York Jets at New England, Week 11, Nov. 13 (Thursday)
This game completes a five-day stretch in which the AFC East race could be sorted out. The Buffalo Bills, winless in two division games, visit the Patriots on Sunday. Then, coming off a short week, the Patriots play host to the Jets. The Jets lost 19-10 to the visiting Patriots on Sept. 14.8. Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers, Week 11, Nov. 16 in Green Bay, and Week 16, Dec. 22 (Monday) in Chicago
The NFC North was supposed to be a battle between the Vikings and Packers, but somehow the Bears sneaked into the picture and lead the division by one game. Much of the reason has been the play of quarterback Kyle Orton, who is expected to miss Sunday's game against the Titans with hopes of being ready for the first Packers game.9. Pittsburgh at Baltimore Ravens, Week 15, Dec. 14
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco proved he was ready for prime-time games by hanging in against the Steelers' blitz in a hard-fought 23-20 overtime loss in a Monday night battle. Flacco awaits the chance for redemption, and the NFL will be watching to see if there are any Ravens bounties on Hines Ward and the Steelers. Between now and this game, the Ravens have three tough games against NFC East foes that have given the Steelers their only two losses.10. Denver Broncos at San Diego, Week 17, Dec. 28
At 3-5, the Chargers are hanging in the AFC West race only because the Broncos can't play defense. The Chargers felt they should have won their Sept. 14 meeting in Denver, but a mistaken call by referee Ed Hochuli gave the Broncos a chance to win the game 39-38. That loss has forced the Chargers to chase the Broncos all season.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
NFL MIDSEASON REPORT
The season is far from over, but John Clayton's early grades are in. The champs are passing with high honors while Oakland and Cincinnati are failing (again).
AFC SOUTH: Houston: C | Indianapolis: C
Jacksonville: D | Tennessee: A+ | Video
AFC NORTH: Baltimore: B+ | Cincinnati: F
Cleveland: D | Pittsburgh: B | Video
AFC EAST: Buffalo: B | Miami: B+
New England: B | NY Jets: B | Video
AFC WEST: Denver: B- | Kansas City: C
Oakland: F | San Diego: C- | Video
NFC EAST: Dallas: D | NY Giants: A+
Philadelphia: B- | Washington: B | Video
NFC NORTH: Chicago: B | Detroit: F
Green Bay: C | Minnesota: C | Video
NFC SOUTH: Atlanta: A | Carolina: A-
New Orleans: C | Tampa Bay: B+ | Video
NFC WEST: Arizona: B+ | San Francisco: D
St. Louis: D | Seattle: D | Video
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