NFL: Bucs and Bears can prove their mettle
AP Pro Football Writer
Seems like the Buccaneers and Bears have few believers despite their 7-3 records. They get to prove themselves as playoff contenders – or reveal themselves as pretenders – on Sunday.
Tampa Bay, which trails Atlanta by one game and is tied with New Orleans in the NFC South, visits AFC North co-leader Baltimore. Chicago, picked by some to straggle in at the bottom of the NFC North, is even with Green Bay atop the division and hosts NFC East leader Philadelphia.
Tough tests, but not insurmountable challenges.
“We’re making progress, but that’s what you’re supposed to do,” says Bears coach Lovie Smith, whose team has won three in a row. “No team has peaked that early in the season, so it takes a while. We knew the reasons. … There were things that were going on. We stayed the course, but I think each week we have identified problems and tried to fix it, and it’s good to see the results turn out that way.”
Just as things have turned out well for the Bucs, winners of four of the last five games, including a shutout in San Francisco last Sunday that was Tampa Bay’s first in six years. A win at Baltimore would help back up coach Raheem Morris’ claim the Bucs are the best in the conference.
“I don’t think it was bulletin-board material that I was looking for,” he said. “I think it was instilling a belief in my team. If mentality flows into reality and we don’t believe we’re the best, then we’ve really got no chance at anybody else believing it. So when we go out and play, it’s more about us than anybody else. Somebody has to finish No. 1. Why not us?”
The week’s action began with the traditional Thanksgiving games, which now number three. New England (8-2) was at Detroit (2-8), New Orleans (7-3) visited Dallas (3-7) and the New York Jets (8-2) hosted Cincinnati (2-8).
On Sunday, it’s Green Bay at Atlanta, San Diego at Indianapolis, Kansas City at Seattle, Pittsburgh at Buffalo, St. Louis at Denver, Jacksonville at N.Y. Giants, Miami at Oakland, Tennessee at Houston, Minnesota at Washington, and Carolina at Cleveland.
On Monday night, San Francisco is at Arizona.
— Philadelphia (7-3) at Chicago (7-3)
While the Bears attempt to justify their record, the Eagles try to live up to the high standard Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy have set recently. Philadelphia’s explosiveness – 112 points in three straight wins, at least 26 points in each of its victories this season – and video-game pace have made the Eagles a tough challenge for any defense. Even Chicago’s third-ranked unit.
“Now that he’s throwing the ball so well, it adds a whole element to it,” linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa says of Vick. “You knew he was going to run so it was like, ‘All right, let’s contain him some.’
“But we feel comfortable and confident in the talent we have here. We feel like we match up well.”
Tampa Bay (7-3) at Baltimore (7-3)
The Bucs’ wins have come against teams currently with losing records – the Rams at 4-6 have the best record of those victims. The defeats were to top-tier opponents Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Atlanta. So it’s time to put up for Tampa Bay if it’s serious about making the postseason.
Bucs QB Josh Freeman has won six of his last seven road starts, but figures to see plenty of Ravens LB Ray Lewis, who averages 14.3 tackles against the Buccaneers.
Green Bay (7-3) at Atlanta (8-2)
Already being pegged as a potential NFC title game matchup, the league’s hottest teams face off. Each has won four straight and the Falcons are nearly invincible in the Georgia Dome since QB Matt Ryan became the starter in 2008. Ryan is 18-1 there, with 14 consecutive wins.
But the Packers have won at Philadelphia, at the Jets and, last week, in their usual chamber of horrors, the Metrodome, where they humbled Brett Favre and the Vikings 31-3. So there’s no fear of the road for them.
San Diego (5-5) at Indianapolis (6-4)
If San Diego truly has begun its charge to the top of the AFC West, then the banged-up Colts will have a formidable foe. The Chargers have won three in a row – all against losing teams – behind the sensational passing of Philip Rivers, who could get back top receiver Vincent Jackson. His regular supporting cast on offense is just as hobbled as Indy’s is, yet Rivers has outperformed even four-time MVP Peyton Manning this season.
The Chargers have won four of the last five meetings and have won seven straight November games. Indy comes off a valiant comeback at New England that fell short on Manning’s third interception, and the Colts have problems rushing the ball and stopping the run.
Kansas City (6-4) at Seattle (5-5)
Few venues are as difficult as Qwest Field, where the Seahawks are 3-1, the only defeat coming to the Giants when Seattle was hamstrung by injuries. With four home games remaining, the Seahawks have to be favored in the weak NFC West, especially if they can find a running game.
KC has won eight in a row against the NFC West and has found an aerial threat in Dwayne Bowe to complement its top-rated runners, Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. Bowe has a franchise-record six straight games with a touchdown reception.
Pittsburgh (7-3) at Buffalo (2-8)
Give Buffalo credit for not quitting after losing every game in the first half of the schedule. The two victories were against weaklings Detroit and Cincinnati, and now the Bills really step up in class.
Oakland did exactly that last week and was routed by Pittsburgh. The Steelers have won three straight and six of the past seven against Buffalo. LB James Harrison is on a tear and speedy WR Mike Wallace has three straight 100-yard receiving games.
Jacksonville (6-4) at N.Y. Giants (6-4)
New York might be calling Amani Toomer out of retirement to bolster a receiving corps minus leaders Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks. Look for the Giants to concentrate on the run with reinstated starter Brandon Jacobs; Ahmad Bradshaw’s fumbling problems got him demoted.
Jacksonville is a surprise co-leader with Indianapolis in the AFC South after winning three straight and is averaging 26 points on the road. Maurice Jones-Drew has three straight 100-yard rushing games and needs 122 yards to reach 1,000 for second straight year.
Miami (5-5) at Oakland (5-5)
Chad Henne could be back at quarterback in Oakland, where the Dolphins have enjoyed recent trips, winning four in a row. Indeed, Miami is 4-1 on the road in 2010, but has struggled at home and was manhandled by Chicago last week.
The Raiders know all about being manhandled after that lopsided loss in Pittsburgh. They look to win four straight home games for first time since 2002-03.
Tennessee (5-5) at Houston (4-6)
With Vince Young out of the mix for the rest of the season, if not forever in Tennessee, the Titans turn to rookie Rusty Smith to keep their playoff hopes alive. Fortunately for Smith, Houston’s secondary is a sieve, and he always has Chris Johnson to hand the ball to.
The Texans keep piling bitter defeats on top of each other, endangering coach Gary Kubiak’s security despite his receiving a contract extension after last season.
Minnesota (3-7) at Washington (5-5)
Wonder if the Vikings will get the same kind of boost from a coach’s firing as the Cowboys did. Leslie Frazier makes his debut as their head man after Brad Childress was fired, and he plans to let Brett Favre continue his record starting string. Frazier would be wise to focus more of the offense on Adrian Peterson, and he must find a way to inspire the pass rush that has gone flat.
No team is more up and down than the Redskins, but they can take comfort in Donovan’s McNabb’s 5-0 record against Minnesota (including playoffs) with nine TDs, one interception and a 109 rating.
St. Louis (4-6) at Denver (3-7)
Since beginning 2009 with a six-game winning streak, the Broncos are 5-15 under Josh McDaniels. Some of the defeats have been embarrassing, including to division rivals Oakland and San Diego. But there also was a 49-29 romp past Kansas City in Denver’s last home game.
The Rams have been coming on defensively under Steve Spagnuolo. James Hall has 7 1/2 sacks and Chris Long has five sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in the last five.
San Francisco (3-7) at Arizona (3-7), Monday night
Months ago, this looked like a juicy prime-time matchup. Considered preseason front-runners for the NFC West title, which the Cardinals won the last two years, both teams have crashed in a plague of miscommunications, bad quarterbacking and late-game problems.
The 49ers are only NFC West team with a winning record (4-2) against Arizona since Ken Whisenhunt became Cardinals coach in 2007.
Carolina (1-9) at Cleveland (3-7)
The Browns have played well for a month, even though they have suffered key injuries, and they get back QB Jake Delhomme just in time to step in for Colt McCoy (left ankle). Delhomme faces the team he guided to one Super Bowl and another NFC championship game.
That team barely resembles the vintage Panthers, although fourth-string running back Mike Goodson has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the last two games.