NFL: Jets-Patriots, Steelers-Ravens: Juicy
AP Pro Football Writer
There’s a preview of the AFC title game in Foxborough this weekend.
Or is it in Baltimore?
The NFL serves up a tasty Week 13 featuring not one but two games of the year: the Jets and Patriots, tied for the AFC East lead at 9-2, on Monday night, 24 hours after the Steelers and Ravens, each 8-3, face off for the AFC North’s top spot.
Those megamatchups overshadow some other intriguing games, including NFC overall leader Atlanta at Tampa Bay, and a will-they-shake-hands affair between Todd Haley’s Chiefs and Josh McDaniels’ Broncos.
As for the big ones:
The Jets beat New England 28-14 in Week 2 with a strong second-half comeback, blanking Tom Brady and company. Recently, New York has sneaked by a collection of weaker opponents, while outside of an inexplicable misstep in Cleveland, the Patriots have handled stronger opposition, including the Steelers and Colts.
Some might have expected the trash-talk meter to register seismic numbers this week.
“There’s no love lost out there between those two teams,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick monotoned. “We both want to win. That’s what we’re here for, Jets and the Patriots. I mean, both teams are walking out onto the field to come out victorious. Is that a big news story? That’s something we didn’t know?”
Inquiring minds want to know how each team will win. For the Jets, it’s pretty simple: pressure Brady or, as they say in Brooklyn, “fuhgeddaboutit.”
“It’s going to be very imperative,” linebacker Calvin Pace said, “that we get to him and kind of get in his head a little bit.”
They did in the first meeting, picking off two of the four interceptions Brady has thrown all year. New York has the defensive backs, particularly CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, to match up. But give Brady time and he could pick apart a 15-man defense.
“He’s a guy that’s going to the Hall of Fame, a guy that has all of the numbers, has the rings, so it all starts with him,” defensive end Shaun Ellis said. “If we can make his job a lot harder, it’ll be more to our advantage.”
Disrupting the QBs also is the plan in Baltimore – for both sides.
It’s especially vital for the Ravens because Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger already is plagued by a sprained right foot that could limit his mobility. Not that star linebacker Ray Lewis expects anything like that.
“Ben is the ultimate competitor. He is that guy,” Lewis said. “He keeps plays moving when you think they’re going to be dead. That’s the energy he brings to their ballclub, that confidence that I can keep plays going when they’re not supposed to be going.”
Baltimore won at Pittsburgh 17-14 in Week 4, the final game of Roethlisberger’s suspension. Both teams have relatively unchallenging schedules in the last month of the season, so the winner here is in excellent shape.
Week 13 began Thursday night with the Philadelphia Eagles beating the Houston Texans 34-24 behind Michael Vick, who threw for 302 yards and accounted for three touchdowns.
Elsewhere Sunday, Denver is at Kansas City; Oakland at San Diego; Chicago at Detroit; San Francisco at Green Bay; Dallas at Indianapolis; Jacksonville at Tennessee; New Orleans at Cincinnati; Carolina at Seattle; St. Louis at Arizona; Washington at the New York Giants; Cleveland at Miami; and Buffalo at Minnesota.
— Atlanta (9-2) at Tampa Bay (7-4)
Unbeatable at home, the Falcons can grab home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs by winning out. They have three straight on the road and this is a nice little test; even though the Bucs have lost to every winning team they’ve faced, they are a difficult out.
Still, the Falcons might have something special going since QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner and coach Mike Smith came aboard, joining WR Roddy White and DE-LB John Abraham to form the core of a contender.
“Once we got together, we started winning,” Turner said. “We’re building a new tradition. Three winning seasons in a row, we’re not even blinking right now. We’ve got our eyes set on something bigger.”
Denver (3-8) at Kansas City (7-4)
Now shake hands, boys.
Chiefs coach Todd Haley refused the ritual on Nov. 14 after a 49-29 loss to Denver. Perhaps he knew something about the Broncos’ taping of a walkthrough in London before the game with the 49ers for which Josh McDaniels was fined $50,000 and the team also was hit for that amount.
KC has made quite a turnaround since Haley’s debut season with the Chiefs, when they went 4-12. Denver is 5-16 since starting 6-0 under McDaniels in 2009.
Oakland (5-6) at San Diego (6-5)
Here come the Chargers, on their typical November-December surge toward the playoffs. Philip Rivers, who never loses in December, has been spectacular despite working with an ever-changing cast due to a slew of injuries.
Oakland, which won three in a row to get into contention, has been routed the last two weeks. In its win over San Diego two months ago, it blocked two punts.
Chicago (8-3) at Detroit (2-9)
Time to give respect to the Bears, who just might sneak off with the NFC North title. They shouldn’t be pushed too much by the Lions, whose problems at quarterback and with the ground game play directly into Chicago’s hands.
The Bears have won four straight.
“It’s exciting and I think guys are looking forward to this process going throughout the rest of the regular season,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “And with the teams that we have coming in at home and three division games on the road, I think it’s going to be a fun final five games.”
San Francisco (4-7) at Green Bay (7-4)
The 49ers will have the best running back on the Lambeau Field tundra, and it’s not Frank Gore. With Gore gone because of a broken hip, rejuvenated Brian Westbrook gets the start and comes off a superb performance against Arizona.
Green Bay has no running game to speak of, which was all too evident in Atlanta. That could be a killer down the road, if not here.
Dallas (3-8) at Indianapolis (6-5)
Dallas has been revitalized since the coaching change from the fired Wade Phillips to Jason Garrett, winning twice and nearly upsetting New Orleans on Thanksgiving Day. The offense is making some big plays, but the defense remains problematic.
That should play right into Peyton Manning’s hands – except the four-time MVP’s hands are tied by all the injuries around him. Manning appears to be forcing things in trying to carry the Colts and has been picked off seven times in the last two outings, both losses.
Jacksonville (6-5) at Tennessee (5-6)
Tennessee seems to be imploding, from Vince Young’s tantrum to Cortland Finnegan’s brawl with Texans receiver Andre Johnson to uncertainty if owner Bud Adams will back his quarterback or longtime coach Jeff Fisher at season’s end.
Neither team’s season would be over even with a loss because of the mediocrity in the division. Jacksonville technically is ahead of Indy because the Jags won their first meeting; they play again Dec. 19.
New Orleans (8-3) at Cincinnati (2-9)
Looks like the biggest mismatch of the week. The Bengals have lost eight in a row and coach Marvin Lewis looks like a lame duck. The Bengals can’t stop the run and can’t run.
Not that New Orleans has an impressive ground game. But with Drew Brees hitting his stride and the defending champs getting healthier, this figures to be a nice stroll through Paul Brown Stadium.
Carolina (1-10) at Seattle (5-6)
St. Louis (5-6) at Arizona (3-8)
The NFC Worst, uh, West, is led by the Seahawks and Rams. Unless one of them gets hot down the stretch, the first losing record for a division winner in NFL history is possible.
Hard to tell who has the easier task this week. Carolina has been awful, yet was a missed field goal away from winning at Cleveland last weekend and has found a running game in former fourth-stringer Mike Goodson. The Seahawks usually are tough at home, but were routed by Kansas City a week ago.
Arizona is in the midst of a major meltdown just as St. Louis has come on.
Washington (5-6) at N.Y. Giants (7-4)
Despite injuries to the offensive line and receiving corps, the Giants moved back into a tie with the Eagles atop the AFC East heading into Week 13 with their rally against Jacksonville. They hope to get some hobbled players back, and their D-line seems to be warming to the task as the weather gets colder.
Donovan McNabb is 11-7 against the Giants, all while an Eagle, with 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Of course, he doesn’t have the outstanding group of receivers he had recently in Philly.
Cleveland (4-7) at Miami (6-5)
No secret what the Browns will try to do here: run Peyton Hillis as much as possible. But Miami was stingy against Oakland’s high-powered running game last week.
The Dolphins are 1-4 at home and their playoffs plans disappear with a loss. They hope to get receiver Brandon Marshall (right hamstring) and linebacker Karlos Dansby (left wrist) back in the lineup.
Buffalo (2-9) at Minnesota (4-7)
It could take the rest of the schedule for the Bills to get over the heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh in which Stevie Johnson dropped a TD pass in overtime. But Buffalo plays hard and has been very competitive the last six weeks, with both wins coming in that span.
Minnesota got the expected boost from the coaching change to Leslie Frazier and won at Washington as Brett Favre finally protected the ball. A key here is the availability of star RB Adrian Peterson, who sprained his right ankle against the Redskins.