10 Spot: A lot at stake for Colts, Saints
Unbeaten New Orleans and unbeaten Indianapolis are vying for records, reputations, history and hardware.
Each team has a legitimate chance to go 16-0 in the regular season.
And each is on the verge of clinching something Sunday: The Colts can clinch home-field advantage through the playoffs with a win over the Broncos; the Saints can clinch a first-round bye with a win over the Falcons.
Then, beyond those indirect and unintentional battles, are the individual ones.
New Orleans' Sean Payton and Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell are the two leading coach of the year candidates -- and could anyone actually prove that one of those head coaches is more worthy than the other?
Hard to imagine these individual competitions could be any closer than they are at this time. The next month will determine who wins the coach of the year and who wins the most valuable player award.
And the next two months will determine whether either of these teams can play up to the level they have during this season's first 12 weeks, when they began rolling into the city limits of the '72 Dolphinsville.
Pull up a chair. Football history is about to be written.
And now, on to this week's 10 Spot.
Rather than focusing on December, the focus here, ever so briefly, is going to shift to February. On Feb. 9, 2007, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hired Wade Phillips as head coach. Eleven days later, on Feb. 20, the Chargers hired one of the men whom Jones passed over, Norv Turner. Now back to Dallas' least favorite month. Nearly three years later, Turner gets his chance for payback in -- and it seems to always go back to this month with Dallas -- December. Dallas could not be getting San Diego at a worse time. The Chargers have won seven straight games and San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers has never lost any of the 15 NFL games he has started in December. Turner is 10-0 in December as Chargers coach.
The Cowboys are the anti-Chargers. Since 1996, they're 19-32 in December. Should Dallas drop its second consecutive December game, it might not want to look at the schedule. The Cowboys still have games remaining at New Orleans, at Washington and at home against Philadelphia, which finished off Dallas in the regular-season finale last season.
After Atlanta won the NFC championship and went to Super Bowl XXXIII, nobody could imagine that the Falcons wouldn't win with regularity again the next season. But they didn't. After they went to the playoffs last season, nobody could imagine that the Falcons wouldn't win with regularity again this season. But they haven't. In fact, in one of the quirkiest stats in all of football, the Falcons have never had back-to-back winning seasons. At 6-6 this season, with a game against the Saints looming, this team still might not snap the streak. This season will come with valid built-in excuses. Doctors have told Atlanta's Matt Ryan that he is expected to miss multiple games with a turf toe injury, even though the quarterback is determined to return sooner. Falcons running back Michael Turner already has missed multiple games with a high ankle sprain. And Atlanta's top two draft picks from April, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, each were placed on injured reserve with season-ending injuries long ago. Still never back-to-back winning seasons? At least this team has the pieces in place to snap the streak, if not this season then in 2011 -- assuming there's no work stoppage.
As much as most might think it, football's sack leader is not Minnesota's Jared Allen or Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney. It is Denver's Elvis Dumervil, a natural pass-rusher who leads the league with 15 sacks going into Sunday's key game against Indianapolis. Dumervil's contract is up after this season, and when he signs a new deal, he should give a percentage of it to Denver's new defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, who shifted Dumervil from defensive end in a 4-3 to outside linebacker in a 3-4. In the Broncos' new scheme, Dumervil often gets matched against a running back, who is overmatched.
Just look at the results. Dumervil is one sack away from tying the Broncos' season franchise record that DE/OLB Simon Fletcher set in 1992 with 16, and it's possible Dumervil could become the first Bronco to lead the league in sacks in a season. Where Dumervil has been most dangerous is on third down, on which he has 10 sacks, one short of the season third-down sack record that 49ers linebacker Tim Harris set in 1992 with 11. Now on pace for 20 sacks this season, Dumervil will have a tough time matching or beating Michael Strahan's season record of 22.5. But it's not out of the question, either.
Three quarterbacks -- Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman -- were drafted in the first round in April. And very few would have guessed that, in Week 14, the only one starting would be Freeman. Stafford is out with a shoulder injury, Sanchez is out with a knee injury and Freeman is expected to be the lone rookie quarterback starting Sunday.
Injuries are one issue; interceptions are another. In Week 13, Freeman threw five interceptions against the Carolina Panthers. In October, Sanchez had his own five-interception game against the Buffalo Bills. And in November, Stafford threw five interceptions against the Seattle Seahawks. After Sanchez and Stafford experienced their five-interception games, each rookie quarterback had his confidence shaken and both the Jets and Lions tried leaning more on the run in the ensuing weeks. Using that formula, look for the Buccaneers to try to run the ball against the Jets, and look for the Jets to continue to lean heavily on the run with Kellen Clemens replacing Sanchez.
Jacksonville is 7-5. It has won five straight games at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium. It's poised to seize one of the AFC's two wild-card spots. It's coming off a big divisional win against the Texans and has another home game on deck Sunday against in-state rival Miami. And yet, hardly anyone in Jacksonville cares. In Week 13, the Jaguars drew a measly 42,079 fans, the smallest crowd in franchise history. It might not be better for Sunday's game against the Dolphins, which will be blacked out. It's possible that none of the Jaguars' home games this season will sell out and each will be blacked out. The stands are not filled with fans, but rather tarps that cover the empty seats -- an eyesore in more ways than one. And consider this: The Florida State-West Virginia Gator Bowl in Jacksonville sold out in two hours.
Making the situation worse is that the NFL announced it is eliminating its revenue-sharing program, which could cost the Jaguars an additional $15 million per season. The situation is growing increasingly bleak. It is getting more and more difficult for the Jaguars to survive in Jacksonville. And when the idea of moving franchises gets bandied about, it's not unfair to contemplate the sound of the London or Los Angeles Jaguars.
Running the football is passé. Passing the football is it. Numbers support it. The league has seen an explosion of passing numbers. This year, the NFL already has set a season record for most 300-yard passing games (82). The previous season high was 81 in the 2004 and 2007 seasons. But this season still has four weeks left to play. If the current pace keeps up, there will be well over 100 300-yard passing games this season, an obscene increase over previous seasons. There has been no announcement, but maybe there should be. We have reached a golden passing age. And we have seen the passing of the dominance of the running game.
Plaxico Burress never did it, Amani Toomer never did it. In fact, no Giants wide receiver has gone to the Pro Bowl since 1968, when Homer Jones was voted in. But this season, Giants wide receiver Steve Smith has supplanted Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith as the most dominant Steve Smith in the league. New York's Steve Smith is second among NFC receivers with 78 catches and now not only is he vying for a Pro Bowl spot, but he also is vying for a slice of Giants history. With five more receptions, Smith will break the Giants' season reception record that Toomer set in 2002 with 82.
In a season in which the Giants wondered where a replacement for Burress would come, Smith has become their go-to receiver. He came up big in Week 13 against Dallas and will need to do the same Sunday night in a pivotal NFC East matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles and their young standout wide receiver, DeSean Jackson. With the emergence of Smith, Jackson and Dallas' Miles Austin, this looks like it could be a receiving rivalry for seasons to come.
Even more unlikely than the rise of the Saints is the emergence of New Orleans wide receiver Robert Meachem. (Personal confession here: At my fantasy football draft in August, I wound up drafting Meachem by default in the 10th round only because New Orleans' Lance Moore went shortly before him. I was so despondent over not getting the Saints receiver I wanted that I wound up trading Meachem for running back LenDale White in a deal that I could not make fast enough. Now the fantasy gods, like everyone else, are laughing at me.) Two seasons ago, Meachem was a first-round pick who never played. Now he is leading the NFL with an 18.8-yard reception average. Eight of those catches have produced touchdowns, tying him with Marques Colston for the team lead in touchdown receptions.
The fact that Meachem is tied with Colston is a sure sign of how much he has developed. But take note fantasy footballers: Meachem also has at least one touchdown in five straight games. In Week 13, he had two, including one that came on a fumble return in which Meachem stripped the football from Redskins defensive back Kareem Moore in what was one of the top plays of this NFL season. On the long list of New Orleans offensive weapons -- Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Devery Henderson -- Meachem has taken his place alongside, and maybe even above, any of them.
Cincinnati has had three different running backs -- Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott, Larry Johnson -- register seven 100-plus-yard rushing games this season. Yet Cincinnati's unheralded offensive line has been virtually the same all season, and few mention it as one of the key reasons for the Bengals' success. The most well-known member of the Bengals' offensive line is first-round pick Andre Smith. But in his most extensive action of the season Sunday, he played only a few snaps versus Detroit. The rest of the line -- Andrew Whitworth has started at left tackle, Nate Livings at left guard, Kyle Cook at center, Bobbie Williams at right guard and Dennis Roland at right tackle -- has been stellar.
What makes their performance even more impressive is that Whitworth is the only player the Bengals drafted, in the second round of the 2006 draft. Three of the Bengals' starting offensive linemen -- Livings, Cook and Roland -- were undrafted free agents. Williams left Philadelphia and signed with Cincinnati in 2004. And the Bengals are excelling without any significant contributions from Smith, their first-round pick from Alabama. Now these Cincinnati linemen draw one of their toughest assignments of the season, lining up in the Metrodome and trying to slow the Vikings' pass rush. If they can do it, maybe these Bengals linemen will start to draw some of the attention that their running backs have.
Three games left to perfection, a feat few prognosticators thought could be done. Mike Ditka is now that close to a perfect season. No, Ditka no longer is coach of the unbeaten New Orleans Saints. But he is the owner of a 13-0 record picking the winner of this season's Monday night matchups. Ditka has nailed every Monday night winner (ESPN analysts didn't pick the winner of the second game of an opening week doubleheader between San Diego and Oakland). In its own way, this is a remarkable performance, the prognosticator equivalent of Drew Brees setting a season passing record.
The NFL is down to its last unbeatens -- the Saints, Colts and Mike Ditka, who isn't letting up. He's not resting any of his researchers. Even though he has all but clinched this season's picks title, he's studying just as hard as he ever has for Monday night's pick.
The Schef's Specials
Game of the week: San Diego at Dallas -- Should this matchup remain close, keep in mind that Cowboys kicker Nick Folk has missed five of his past seven field goal attempts.
Player of the week: Ravens QB Joe Flacco -- A struggling Ravens team gets the chance to get a W, momentum and a shot of confidence it needs for its stretch run.
Upset of the week: Chicago over Green Bay -- The Packers have won four straight, are coming off a Monday night game -- and are due for the letdown that is awaiting them in Chicago.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.