Indy, Saints look to stay unbeaten
The Indianapolis Colts can clinch home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs and set the league mark for consecutive regular-season victories if they beat Denver on Sunday. There’s also a chance, if they reach 13-0, the Colts could shut it down a bit as they prepare for the playoffs, perhaps tossing aside a shot at a perfect season.
The other unbeaten team, New Orleans, won’t have such a luxury even if it reaches 13 wins Sunday at Atlanta. The Saints are being pressed by Minnesota in the NFC, although they gained some breathing room last week when the Vikings lost and fell to 10-2.
One of the most intriguing developments for December, along with the various playoff pushes, will be how the Colts and Saints handle the chance for a spotless regular season.
“It (16-0) is not that important,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “You’ve seen a lot of great records in the regular season, but the ultimate goal is to win it all. So the regular season really doesn’t matter except to get in. Going undefeated in the regular season isn’t really that big a priority.”
Counters Saints quarterback Drew Brees:
“We’re here, aren’t we? I mean, who knows if we will ever get this close again. All I’ll say is this: You’ve got an opportunity to make history.”
Indy’s next three games are against teams in the AFC playoff chase. But once home-field advantage is secured, the pursuit of perfection will take a back seat to seeking a second NFL championship in four seasons.
The Broncos (8-4) have righted things after a four-game slide and have won two in a row to take control of the wild-card race. They also are one game behind San Diego in the AFC West.
New Orleans travels to undermanned Atlanta (6-6), which could be missing its most critical offensive players: RB Michael Turner (ankle) and QB Matt Ryan (toe). The Saints get Dallas next Saturday night at home in what could be the final real test before the postseason – New Orleans’ last two matchups are with Tampa Bay and Carolina.
Also Sunday, it’s Cincinnati at Minnesota, San Diego at Dallas, Philadelphia at the New York Giants, Carolina at New England, Miami at Jacksonville, Green Bay at Chicago, Detroit at Baltimore, the New York Jets at Tampa Bay, St. Louis at Tennessee, Seattle at Houston, Washington at Oakland and Buffalo at Kansas City.
On Monday night, Arizona is at San Francisco with a chance to clinch the NFC West.
Week 14 action began Thursday night with Pittsburgh at Cleveland.
CINCINNATI (9-3) at MINNESOTA (10-2)
Most weeks, this would be the marquee matchup and there might even be whispers about a Super Bowl preview. Minnesota gets a playoff berth if it wins, and clinches the NFC North if it wins and Green Bay loses. Cincinnati, the turnaround story of the year, gets the AFC North crown with a victory.
“At this point in the season, you want to peak,” QB Carson Palmer said. “You want to play your best football in late December and January. We have two big weeks ahead of us with Minnesota and San Diego.”
SAN DIEGO (9-3) at DALLAS (8-4)
Although they can’t secure the AFC West this weekend, the Chargers can surge into the postseason with their eighth successive victory and a combination of losses by other teams. Though they lead Denver by only one game, the Chargers have their sights as much on a first-round bye as on holding off the Broncos.
The Cowboys are tied with the Eagles atop the NFC East, with the Giants one game back after they handled Dallas last weekend. And the Cowboys can’t look to the recent past for inspiration: quarterback Tony Romo is 5-9 in December.
PHILADELPHIA (8-4) at NY GIANTS (7-5)
The winner will be in strong position for a playoff run, and the Eagles have taken the last three meetings, including two at the Meadowlands – one a playoff game. Philly expects game-breaking wideout/punt returner DeSean Jackson to return from a concussion, but star RB Brian Westbrook’s status is much more sketchy.
New York used big plays to beat Dallas, but few NFL teams are as capable of long scores as the Eagles.
CAROLINA (5-7) at NEW ENGLAND (7-5)
Not much is going right in Foxborough, with key players even being late to meetings. The Patriots rarely lose two straight, but they have done so and their AFC East lead is down to a game over the Dolphins and Jets. The defense has holes that the offense has not been able to compensate for.
The Panthers have turned over the ball 31 times, and the Patriots are plus-9 in turnover margin. Carolina figures to start inexperienced Matt Moore at quarterback.
ARIZONA (8-4) at SAN FRANCISCO (5-7)
Last year, the Cardinals clinched the NFC West with three games remaining, then went into the tank for the next two. Coach Ken Whisenhunt lambasted them, they got the message loud and clear and nearly won the Super Bowl.
Arizona can grab the division title with a win in this one, and Whisenhunt will take a repeat of where they wound up in February, if not the same result.
MIAMI (6-6) at JACKSONVILLE (7-5)
A loss will seriously damage the playoff hopes for one of these teams. Although the Jaguars can’t win the AFC South, they are a wild-card team right now and this Florida confrontation is vital for them with Indy and New England ahead on the schedule.
The Dolphins started 0-3, but have been one of the AFC’s more consistent and best-coached teams since that distressing opening month.
GREEN BAY (8-4) at CHICAGO (5-7)
The oldest rivalry in the NFL usually has extra meaning to go along with the animosity, but not for the Bears. The struggles of would-be savior QB Jay Cutler have been matched by the woes of the rush defense, so look for Green Bay to run as much as possible.
Not that having Aaron Rodgers throw is a bad idea, particularly if Packers career receiving leader Donald Driver holds onto the ball. The only reason last Monday night’s game with Baltimore was close was because of Driver’s problems.
NY JETS (6-6) at TAMPA BAY (1-11)
New York is shutting down the “Sanchise” this week, letting rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez rest his aching right knee in hopes he will be healthy the rest of the way. Not that there is much to fear from Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranks 26th overall and 31st versus the run. That means lots of carries and yards for the underrated – if any athlete in the Big Apple can be called that – Thomas Jones.
DETROIT (2-10) at BALTIMORE (6-6)
If the Ravens are plagued by a handful of pass interference calls against the Lions, it might be time to stop lauding their defense. With a loss, it will be time to stop considering Baltimore a contender.
ST. LOUIS (1-11) at TENNESEE (5-7)
No shame in having their five-game winning string snapped in Indy. Plenty of shame, though, if the Titans can’t handle the Rams, which would end chances for a winning season after an 0-6 start.
SEATTLE (5-7) at HOUSTON (5-7)
Just when the Texans got in position for a surge into the postseason for the first time, they fell apart. Four losses later, coach Gary Kubiak’s status is shaky and top running back Steve Slaton is done for the year with a neck injury.
The Seahawks know all about injuries disrupting a season, but they have won two straight.
WASHINGTON (3-9) at OAKLAND (4-8)
Now that the Raiders own Pennsylvania, having swept the Steelers and Eagles, they can stake a claim to the nation’s capital. The Redskins come off perhaps the most disheartening loss of the season, and they placed RB Clinton Portis on injured reserve this week.
BUFFALO (4-8) at KANSAS CITY (3-9)
Two teams headed nowhere this year, but at least the Chiefs have some direction under the first-year regime of GM Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley. Buffalo interim coach Perry Fewell probably needs to get the Bills to .500 to have any shot at remaining as the head man. Not likely to happen with the Patriots and Colts still on the schedule.