NFL: Big week for division leaders
AP Pro Football Writer
Three division leaders get a chance to prove their worth this weekend. For the Rams and Bears, the task couldn’t be much more difficult. For the Jaguars, the challenge is somewhat easier.
St. Louis, which won only once last season, heads to New Orleans, where the Saints celebrated their first Super Bowl title in February. A mismatch? Hardly.
The Rams are tied for the NFC West lead at 6-6 and won their last two road games. Even if beating the Saints is beyond their reach, getting into the postseason isn’t.
“Of course we respect the fact they won the Super Bowl, but that was last year,” Rams cornerback Ron Bartel said. “We’re more concerned with ourselves. It’s a big game for us, we’re trying to get to the playoffs. It’s a big game for them, they’re trying to win their division just like us. So the Super Bowl and all that, that’s out of the window.”
Chicago (9-3 and atop the NFC North) hosts AFC East leader New England and gets the opportunity to show all those skeptics that its turnaround is for real.
Bill Belichick believes. After calling the Bears’ third-ranked defense “disruptive,” the Patriots coach then praised Chicago’s offense and special teams.
“They’re a very explosive team that can score on any play from anywhere,” Belichick said. “They can throw a 90-yard touchdown pass or (Matt) Forte can make a 67, 70-yard run. Or (they get a) strip sack, turnovers, kick returns. They’re very, very dangerous.”
Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio was on the hot seat when the season began. Now he is in the AFC South driver’s seat: if the Jaguars win out, they take the division title. The first step toward that could be taken against Oakland on today.
“We’ve embraced every challenge, kind of identified what it is and then gotten prepared for the opportunities,” Del Rio said. “It hasn’t always played out the way we’d like, but I think we’ve learned some lessons from those experiences, and then we go back and make the corrections and keep plugging ahead, and so that part’s been very good.”
Four teams: New England, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and the New York Jets, can clinch playoff berths, although it’s a complicated scenario for all but the Patriots (10-2). If they win, they’re in.
at Jacksonville (7-5)
The Raiders rarely fare well traveling way east, but they almost never used to beat San Diego either, and last week’s 28-13 win gave them a sweep of the Chargers. Oakland has lost 38-13 at Tennessee and 35-3 at Pittsburgh this year.
Watch the running backs in this game, and keep close attention to the field because this one could be done in 2 1/2 hours or less.
at San Francisco (4-8)
Yes, the Niners remain alive in the NFC West, and they’re even favored, despite their record, over the Seahawks, who are tied for first with St. Louis. But a loss could eliminate San Francisco, which began the season as the division favorite. Alex Smith is back as 49ers starting quarterback following a five-game absence.
Matt Hasselbeck is one victory from tying Dave Krieg as Seattle’s all-time winningest quarterback with 70 wins.
St. Louis (6-6)
at New Orleans (9-3)
New Orleans has won five in a row and now hits the toughest portion of its schedule, with Baltimore, Atlanta and Tampa Bay still to come. Saints coach Sean Payton definitely includes the Rams as part of that difficult stretch.
“It’s a different team now,” Payton said. “They’re doing so many different things better than a year ago.”
Especially at quarterback, where overall No. 1 draft pick Sam Bradford has been sensational.
New England (10-2)
at Chicago (9-3)
Forget 45-3. That’s the mantra in New England, where Belichick emphasizes that the annihilation of the Jets on Monday night will have no effect on the matchup with the Bears, who have won five in a row, one more than the Patriots have.
The Patriots also could get into the playoffs even if they lose at Chicago. They’d need a loss or tie by Miami plus a loss or tie by Jacksonville; or a loss or tie by Miami along with a loss or tie by Indianapolis. They could also earn a spot by clinching a complicated strength of victory tiebreaker over certain teams.
New England leads the league with 379 points. Chicago has yielded 192, third fewest overall.
at Pittsburgh (9-3)
Oddsmakers have the Steelers as the favorite to win the Super Bowl heading into the final month of the schedule. They shouldn’t have much trouble with a Bengals squad on a nine-game skid and with 25 turnovers; Pittsburgh leads the AFC with 27 takeaways.
After this, the Steelers have the Jets, Panthers and Browns left, so their path to the playoffs shouldn’t be too bumpy. They’ll be in with a win and a combination of other results this weekend.
at Carolina (1-11)
The last time the Falcons were 10-2 was 1998, when they made the Super Bowl. They clinch an NFC playoff berth with a win if two of the following three teams lose today: Giants, Eagles and Packers. Their seven-game winning streak is the longest since ’98.
Carolina has lost six straight. One way of measuring the difference in these teams: Falcons WR Roddy White leads the NFL with 91 catches. WR Steve Smith tops Carolina with 39.
Miami (6-6) at N.Y. Jets (9-3)
How the Jets react to their pasting by the Patriots will say a lot about the team that still is in great shape for the postseason. Remember, the Jets sneaked is as a wild card last year, then went to the AFC title game and even led Indianapolis at halftime.
New York can clinch a berth with a win and losses or ties by San Diego and Jacksonville, or by San Diego and Indianapolis.
Miami is 5-1 on the road and LB Cameron Wake leads the NFL with 12 sacks.
at Houston (5-7)
Late-game flops by the Ravens are getting to be worrisome; they did it against Pittsburgh last Sunday and also have fallen short in fourth quarters against Atlanta and New England. They are 15-1 against sub-.500 teams since 2008, though, and the Texans have dropped five of six.
Texans RB Arian Foster leads the NFL with 1,230 yards rushing, 13 TDs rushing and 1,709 yards from scrimmage. But Baltimore is stingy on the ground.
at Dallas (4-8)
For Philly to win the NFC East, it might need to beat the Cowboys twice in the next four weeks. Of course, Donovan McNabb, who struggled when the Eagles lost three straight to Dallas, two at the end of last season – including a playoff game – now is in Washington.
This prime-time affair features the league’s top offense with Michael Vick. Philadelphia has set an NFL record averaging at least 4 yards per carry in 12 consecutive games, with Vick’s running as challenging to opponents as his passing.
Dallas is 3-1 under interim coach Jason Garrett.
N.Y. Giants (8-4)
at Minnesota (5-7)
New York has survived very nicely despite a slew of injuries at receiver and on the offensive line. The Giants are getting healthier at the right time, while Minnesota is banged up.
The Vikings may be better off with the more mobile Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback given Brett Favre’s health concerns. New York has 35 sacks, led by Osi Umenyiora with nine and Justin Tuck with eight.
Vikings RB Adrian Peterson really has come alive since the coaching change from Brad Childress to Leslie Frazier, who is 2-0.
“I think we got a taste of some success,” said Vikings TE Visanthe Shiancoe, a former Giant. “We tasted that blood. We’re like cannibals, man. We want more, man. We want more, more, more.”
Green Bay (8-4)
at Detroit (2-10)
Shockingly, considering their record, the Lions are plus-1 in turnover differential. That’s about the only positive to report out of Detroit as the team slinks toward yet another high draft choice. It’s lost 19 straight in the division and 10 in a row to the Packers.
Green Bay’s running game must come around down the stretch, but the Packers are a matchup nightmare in the passing game, especially the way WR Greg Jennings is playing. And LB Clay Matthews leads an aggressive defense that quickly could rattle third-string QB Drew Stanton.
Kansas City (8-4)
at San Diego (6-6)
Four-time defending AFC West champion San Diego will be eliminated from the division race with a loss, dropping three games behind the Chiefs with three to play, and the Chargers would have been swept by KC. But Chiefs QB Matt Cassel, having an excellent year, underwent an appendectomy Wednesday.
A week after allowing 251 yards rushing in a 28-13 loss to Oakland, the Chargers face Jamaal Charles, who’s third in the NFL with 1,137 yards, and Thomas Jones, who has 765 yards.
Tampa Bay (7-5)
at Washington (5-7)
One major distraction has been removed in DC as Albert Haynesworth was suspended for the remainder of the season for conduct detrimental to the Redskins. Even so, this is a team with deep-rooted problems on both sides of the ball.
Even with losses in their last two games, the Buccaneers remain in wild-card contention. They are winless against teams with winning records in 2010. The league’s youngest team has 15 TDs scored by rookies, the only team with rookies accounting for more than half (15 of 29) of its TDs.
at Buffalo (2-10)
Buffalo crashed to earth at Minnesota after testing some of the league’s top teams and winning two games. The Browns have been competitive for six weeks and RB Peyton Hillis joined Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly as the only Cleveland players to score 11 TDs rushing in one season. Add two touchdowns receiving, and Hillis accounts for more than half the Browns’ 25 scores.
Denver (3-9) at Arizona (3-9)
Denver’s first game under interim coach Eric Studesville could be a success considering how the Cardinals have nose-dived. Not many people will be paying attention.