Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers
A lot has been made of the past scrums that these teams have butted heads in. From the even amount of points scored to the repeatedly close victories, there is one statistic that looms larger than the rest.
In the five games that quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have squared off, "Big Ben" has won each time. The most recent came with a broken nose suffered by Roethlisberger in the Steelers 13-10 victory just over a month ago. Baltimore had won the first encounter of 2010 by winning 17-14 with Roethlisberger missing the game while serving a suspension.
Both quarterbacks are similar in that they are large, mobile, and difficult to tackle at times. Roethlisberger may be the most difficult to bring down amongst NFL quarterbacks, thanks to immense strength in his 6'5" 241 frame. Despite missing four games to suspension this year, he has tossed just five interceptions all year. He also has thrown for just 422 yards less on 100 less attempts than Flacco this season.
Flacco has been no slouch himself in 2010. Though the offense for Baltimore hasn't been as explosive as some predicted, he has played mostly mistake-free football and has just ten interceptions. While the offense leans heavily on halfback Ray Rice's 1,220 rushing yards and 63 receptions he provided this year, wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, and T.J. Houshmanzadeh, along with tight end Todd Heap, are all capable of taking over a game themselves.
Pittsburgh has the only offensive Pro Bowler amongst the two teams in rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. They have an extremely explosive wide receiver in Mike Wallace, who averaged over 20 yards on 60 receptions while scoring ten times. Halfback Rashard Mendenhall has scored 13 times while churning out 1,257 yards on the ground.
Defense, however, is king in both clubhouses. The Steelers allowed the least amount of rushing yards this year and the Ravens ranked fifth. Pittsburgh had the second rated overall defense in the NFL in 2010 while Baltimore's ranked tenth. Four Raven defenders were named to the Pro Bowl this year, while two Steelers were named also.
Special teams may be a deciding factor. While both teams have excellent punters, Baltimore's Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff holds an edge over journeyman Shaun Suisham. Suisham has been at his best this season after joining the Steelers in week 11, missing just one field goal in 15 attempts. Eight came from attempts of 40 yards of more.
Cundiff bounced around on seven teams since 2002 before finding his groove with Baltimore this year. He tied an NFL record with 40 touchbacks on kickoffs this year, while missing just three field goals on 29 attempts. He has made five field goals of 45 yards or longer.
Both teams will try to run the ball, but Baltimore's starting center Matt Birk is hurting with a knee injury. Both teams come into this game in good health, though Roethlisberger has been playing with an injured foot for quite awhile. Any success on the ground for either team will provide a major shot in the arm.
This game should be like any other game for the squads. It will be close late into the fourth quarter most likely as they struggle to win in the turnover department. Pittsburgh was plus-17 in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department this year, good for second best in the NFL, while Baltimore was a plus-seven.
Pittsburgh averaged 23 points this year while giving up an NFL best 14.5 to opponents, and Baltimore scored 22 while giving up 16. They know each other well and have a genuine dislike for one another that is tempered with respect. Baltimore keeps trying to get over the hump by defeating Pittsburgh, something I expect them to finally accomplish because the Ravens were my preseason pick to win Super Bowl XLV.
Ravens 21 Steelers 16
Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons
Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Pro Bowler Matt Ryan may get the most ink for this game, the other aspects of the game hold just as much interest and maybe more impact. Joining Ryan at the Pro Bowl with be four other Falcons. This includes their starting backfield. The Packers sent two offensive players to the Pro Bowl as well.
Green Bay appears to have an edge on paper. Despite a plethora of major injuries to their roster all year, they have the fifth overall rated defense in yards allowed this year, as well as the ninth best offense in yards gained. The 15 points per game they gave up this season was the second best, and they are a plus-ten in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department.
Three Packer defenders will go to the Pro Bowl this season, and linebacker Clay Matthews III leads the charge. He is a candidate for NFL Defensive MVP this year, something teammate Charles Woodson won last year. Atlanta sends one defender, defensive end John Abraham, but the defense was underrated all year.
Though Atlanta gave up just 23 more yards than Green Bay this season, it ranked them 16th in the NFL. Yet they gave up just 18 points per game all year and were a plus-14 in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department. When Atlanta played Green Bay in Week 12 this year, the defense led them to a 20-17 win.
What may make the difference in this game is a balanced attack. The Packers rely heavily on Rodgers and the defense because their 24th ranked rushing attack has been wildly inconsistent all year. The Falcons can run the ball well, led by halfback Michael Turner with his 1,371 yards and 12 scores. Both teams have Pro Bowl wide receivers in Greg Jennings and Roddy White, who have nearly identical statistics.
Green Bay has been susceptible in stopping the run in 2010, ranking 18th this year. If they can slow down Turner, the key to this game might be which secondary receiver stands out. The Packers have excellent talents in Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones, while Atlanta counters with Pro Bowl, and future Hall of Famer, tight end Tony Gonzales with wide receivers Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas.
Considering how much the Falcons passing attack relies on White, his getting shut down by Woodson could have a tremendous effect on the game. Gonzales averaged less than ten yards a reception in 2010, while Jenkins and Douglas have been inconsistent all year. Reserve halfback Jason Snelling has also snagged 44 passes this year.
Cornerback Brent Grimes may end up being the most important Falcon this game. He had five interceptions and 23 defended passes this year, making him the teams top defensive back. He will be matched up against Jennings often most likely. If he locks down his position, possession receivers with less explosiveness than Jennings become primary targets.
Both teams should try to establish the ground game, but Atlanta expects to do so and wear the Packers down. If Green Bay is forced to pass too often, their defense may end up being on the field longer than expected. If this occurs, that and the home-field advantage should prevail.
Falcons 27 Packers 24
Seattle Seahawks @ Chicago Bears
No one really knows how the Seahawks have gotten this far into the NFL season. That includes all of Seattle as well. Pete Carroll might have sewn up the Coach of the Year award last week after his squad sent the defending champion New Orleans Saints home for the year.
Seattle won the NFC West with seven wind and being ranked near the bottom on both offense and defense. No one will represent them in the Pro Bowl, though return specialist Leon Washington played well enough to make it. Earl Thomas is just a rookie, but he is probably the best Seattle defender.
Neither team has a quarterback that in considered top notch, but both have had moments of excellence in their careers. Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck is three time Pro Bowler who drew a breath from his past last week by throwing four scores against the Saints. Seattle obviously needs a repeat performance from him if they want to move forward.
Jay Cutler was thought of so highly by the Bears in 2009 that they traded two first-round picks, a second-round pick, and veteran quarterback Kyle Orton for his services. Orton has played better than Cutler since the trade, but his team was putrid in 2010 and Cutler's is still playing. With 16 interceptions against 23 touchdown passes, Cutler makes too many mistakes and is known to have melt-downs on the gridiron.
Matt Forte is the primary weapon on offense, leading the team with 1,069 rushing yards and 51 receptions. The Chicago defense is a huge reason the team is in the playoffs, ranking ninth overall in yards allowed. Led by a pair of Pro Bowl linebackers in Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, and Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, Chicago is fourth in the NFL in points allowed.
Peppers is the player to watch. Matched up against rookie Russell Okung, who has battled ankle problems all year, he could provide a huge force off the edge that causes Seattle to help Okung with more blockers. This would free up defensive end Israel Idonije, who put virtually identical statistics as Peppers.
If the Bears stifles the Seattle offense, that gives Pro Bowl return specialist Devin Hester more opportunities. Hester scored three times off punt returns this year, giving him ten in a career. It is tied with Eric Metcalf as the most in NFL history. He and Washington have the ability to carry their teams to victory on their returns.
Playing in Soldier Field, on a turf that the greatest players ever once walked, is a privilege. Bears players are well schooled on knowing how the ghosts can trip up present opponents. Chicago should ride their defense to a win here.
Bears 31 Seahawks 17
New York Jets @ New England Patriots
The Jets trash talk has jumped the shark so much that even Reggie Jackson, a baseball Hall of Famer who once played with the New York Yankees, is telling them to just shut up and play. They are even being clowned by Patriots receiver Wes Welker, who recently made innumerate innuendos about feet that some feel was a stab at Jet's coach Rex Ryan. Ryan and his wife purportedly have a foot fetish that was broadcast on a video.
New York is coming off a win against the Indianapolis Colts last week that ended with a field goal as time expired. Though they dominated much of the game, questionable play calling almost allowed the Colts to pull it off. They cannot afford these types of mistakes again.
Ground and pound is how the Jets win. With a fourth ranked rushing attack and third ranked defense, they are sixth in the NFL in points allowed and are fifth in the Giveaway/ Takeaway statistic. They have done this despite intercepting just 12 passes this year.
New England does not turn the ball over anyways. Tom Brady is the front runner of the 2010 MVP Award, a future Hall of Famer, and probably the greatest quarterback in Patriots history. He threw a paltry four interceptions all season while tossing 36 touchdowns that led the league.
New England is not only the highest scoring team in the NFL this year, but their plus-28 on the the Giveaway/ Takeaway department also leads the NFL. Though critics point to a defense with a young secondary, the 19.6 points allowed per game by the Patriots ranks eighth best in the league. While ranking 30th in yards allowed passing, they did rank 11th in rushing yards allowed.
Of the two games New England has lost this year, one came in the second week of the season to the Jets. New York won it by shutting down the Patriots ground game, intercepting Brady twice, and running the ball well enough that quarterback Mark Sanchez tossed three touchdowns.
New England still needs to run the ball to win here, much like they did while whooping the Jets 45-3 just over a month ago. While Brady has been on fire the past few months, this would relieve him of the pressure of having to be perfect while allowing him to be human by possibly making a mistake. The need to run the ball well is only outweighed by their need to stop the Jets on the ground.
While beating the Colts last week, they decided to lean on the run in the second half. It led to all of their points scored as halfbacks LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene combined for 152 yards on 35 carries. Though it happened against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, New York must continue with this formula against the Patriots.
If the Jets run the ball, it will keep Brady off the field much like it did with Peyton Manning last week. Facing two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in consecutive weeks is an unenviable task few would want, but this is the hand the New York is dealt. The task becomes especially daunting due to fact the Jets are the road team in each contest.
Brady should be ready to nail down his MVP Award this week. With Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie calling him an expletive this week, Brady will look to make a fool out of the Jets cornerback most picked on by opponents. Though veteran receiver Deion Branch is hobbled by a sore knee, Welker and Brandon Tate are capable of picking up the slack.
Patriots 30 Jets 21
As a new year squirts out Father Time's loins, an old relic gets dug up out of desperation. The 2010 regular season of the NFL concludes on Sunday, a perfect time to lament and cherish it with some POINTLESS PONDERING that lovingly holds and nurtures life the same way Lorena Bobbitt did with her husbands manhood.
Last week we heard Terrell Owens, a resident NFL psycho, do his annual Adolph Hitler impression where he blamed everyone but himself for the woes of the Cincinnati Bengals. He had been to busy mentoring Chad Ocho Cinco on a weekly television show that probably carries an audience of less than 100.
Owens decided to tell everyone he gave up because everyone around him is inferior. His peon came out this week saying the same thing. While the Bengals might be the biggest disappointment of the 2010 season, winning four games a year after winning the division, it really is amazing no one saw this coming if they claim they had not.
Their season was doomed the day they signed Owens to a contract. Cincinnati already had been dealing with the boorish stupidity of Ocho Cinco, a drama queen who once punched a coach in the face during halftime of a game, but signing Owens just said they preferred to lose by singing this loser. T.O. is easily the biggest idiot the NFL has seen the last decade.
Marvin Lewis should lose his job on this decision alone, gambling two clubhouse cancers were going to play well as a duo instead of tap dancing on a bunch of lies and monikers as they led the team to losses. Not only did this decision kill that special bond the locker room shared last season, but it destroyed the offense on the field too.
Carson Palmer is the quarterback who seems to have lost 65% of his arm strength over an arm injury a few years ago. He also has a roller coaster relationship with Ocho Cinco, and he certainly saw Owens call quarterbacks losers, homosexuals, and other pearls from his lunatic wisdom. He wrongly decided to look for harmony by force feeding the two big mouthed geezers at the expense of the offense's flow.
While the demonic duo did grab 139 passes and 13 scores, neither averaged more than 13 yards per catch. The inability to stretch the defense was probably more frustrating to the aging egomaniacs than the team losing weekly. The best passing weapons the team had, two rookies, took a back seat all year and halfback Cedric Benson was not as effective as last year due to less touches per game in order to appease a pair of over the hill psychopaths.
While they probably keep Ocho Cinco, cutting Owens is much needed. Cincinnati scored a season high 34 points last week mostly because the old receivers sat on the bench, proving they are probably a better team without either player.
Was anyone really shocked that Roger Goodell yet again defiled the NFL last week? Who didn't see it coming? He tried to claim there was no proof that Brett Favre harassed anyone, and tried to compare it to sexual harassment at the workplace. Of course he had this view, because Goodell grew up in an ivory tower his Senator dad provided and never left. He's never had to work a day in his life, and further alienates the working man by showing how soft in the head he is too.
If anyone at any other work place had texted a female coworker pictures of him exposing himself and masturbating in between of demands for sex "because I'm Brett Favre dammit", they would have been immediately suspended or fired. Even if a few weeks away from collecting a gold watch at a retirement home like Favre is.
Not in Roger Goodell's NFL, a league now committed to castrating defenses, performing fellatio on quarterbacks, pretending to care about player safety to get a players agreement contract signed, and spitting on the legacy of a league that has meant so much to millions of people. Knowing Favre was finally retiring after this season, Goodell purposely dragged his heels under the guise of mulling over the obvious facts.
The reality is that Favre was given a pass because of fear from Goodell for a guy who has made the NFL lots of money and has some media outlets in his pocket. If a sweaty lineman had done any of the things Favre did, he would have met immediate suspension. Knowing the drama queen Goodell is, it most likely would have been a lifetime ban so the commissioner could flex his fake, flabby muscles while proclaiming he was keeping the NFL free of scum bags.
Yet he left his favorite scumbag alone. Who knows what other women he has harassed since, or still may be? Women in the age area of his daughters. Who really knows how vile and despicable Favre is because Goodell and Favre's media buddies will never report it.
Yes, it is good that Brett Favre is finally gone. As predicted, he ended his career like Y.A. Tittle and other Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the field by playing one too many seasons. Yet he found a new niche for himself along the way. Long known as a selfish man, he went overboard this year and even had his own agent tired of the act. He might go into Canton with little said about how poorly his career ended both on and off the field, but many hope his victim steals some of that thunder by taking Favre to civil court.
Long the headline grabber for all of the wrong reasons, it would be fitting karma to see him experience some negativity at the apex of his career.
Most NFL fans like to predict how a season will go before it starts, and yours truly is not any different. I did quite poorly, but decided to pay the piper by reviewing things.
1. Dallas Cowboys
Dallas decided to start their season ignoring the run play on offense, and it bit them hard. The defense looked old and overmatched often too. After firing head coach Wade Phillips as the scapegoat, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett finally decided to run the ball. Too late. Hopefully owner Jerry Jones gets a better coach than Garrett in 2011.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
Philly won the NFC East with some players they knew what to expect from and one that shocked them. Instead of Kevin Kolb leading the charge at quarterback, Michael Vick had the best year of his career and could very well win NFL Comeback Player of the Year as well.
3. New York Giants
The Giants are a strange bunch. After a poor start to their season, many were calling for the firing of head coach Tom Coughlin. This was retracted after the Jints went on a winning tear and led the division. They are playing poorly again now, so Coughlin has his back to the wall once more.
4. Washington Redskins
The team is a mess, as well as the oldest in the NFL. Mike Shanahan will need time to prove what is the method behind his madness. Washington appears to be many years away from being consistently competitive again.
1. Green Bay Packers
Losing halfback Ryan Grant was a crushing blow, but the team lost loads of players and somehow stayed in the playoff hunt. Good defense can take a team a long way, and the Packers have one of the best in the league despite losing so many valuable players. Probably the best work defensive coordinator Dom Capers has done in his fine career.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Pat Williams came back to this? Too bad the fine defensive tackle retires on such a sour note as the Vikings are a loss away from last place. Let the rebuilding on this old team begin immediately.
3. Detroit Lions
I said the Lions would improve and win five games this year. Detroit goes for six on a very winnable game Sunday. It is obvious how good the kids have gotten, and no one should be shocked if they are in the playoff hunt in 2011.
4. Chicago Bears
I wasn't a fan of the Bears blockers, receivers, except Johnny Knox, and defensive backs. While blocking is still an issue, receivers like Devin Hester have improved. The defensive secondary has done a decent job, but that is mostly thanks to a ferocious pass rush.
Defensive ends Julius Peppers, who should get several votes for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Israel Idonije have nearly identical numbers in sacks and tackles. This pair of 6'7" monsters give Chicago a luxury few have.
1. New Orleans Saints
Defending an NFL title is hard, but the Saints have done a great job so far. No one wants to face them in the playoffs.
2. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta has been a nice story in 2010, holding the best record for several weeks. They are a smart bunch who hit you with a well balanced attack.
3. Carolina Panthers
Even worse than I thought, this team needs to draft great the next few years. Some think they want quarterback Andrew Luck, showing how much faith they have on the current group of signal callers that they employ.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Every season has a "Cinderella Team". Tampa Bay was just that for the NFC. Young quarterback Josh Freeman has Bucs fans excited about the future, and the kid does seem to have a knack on how to win already.
1. San Francisco 49ers
Head Coach Mike Singletary was fired a few days ago because the Niners are in last place. He didn't draft quarterback Alex Smith, but that is a big part of the reason Singletary is gone.
2. Arizona Cardinals
I thought Derek Anderson would experience a rebirth with a fine group of Cardinals receivers, showing his 2007 Pro Bowl form. He was lousy, being benched by a pair of rookies throughout the year. The only question left for Arizona is if to blow up the roster and rebuild or try one more time to duplicate their 2009 magic.
3. Seattle Seahawks
Give Seattle credit, even if they play in the lousy NFL West. No one could have seen them get so close to making the playoffs. Pete Carroll deserves a few votes for Coach of the Year.
4. Saint Louis Rams
They might win the division with seven wins, but it still counts big for a franchise that won three total games the previous two seasons. The reason for the improvement has been defense.
1. New England Patriots
Many saw this coming.
2. New York Jets
The Jets still are alive in their quest to support all that Super Bowl talk.
3. Miami Dolphins
Quarterback Chad Henne has a rough year, so some now wonder if he is the future. But they need a young running back now that Ricky Williams retires after Sunday.
4. Buffalo Bills
The team played well for a month, but they appear to be many years away from playing well for a longer period of time.
1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens are tied for first place in spite of erratic play from quarterback Joe Flacco.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals prefer to being the Bungles. What a disastrous season they had in 2010.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Overcoming a four game suspension of the starting quarterback to begin the year, Pittsburgh is in first place with a lot of help from an excellent defense.
4. Cleveland Browns
It appears Eric Mangini's final day as a head coach in the NFL is this Sunday.
1. Indianapolis Colts
How Peyton Manning made this happen after a bunch of injuries was excellent. Maybe one of his finest accomplishments ever.
2. Houston Texans
A very disappointing Season that could cost head coach Gary Kubiak his job. Their best story was halfback Arian Foster.
3. Tennessee Titans
Halfback Chris Johnson did not duplicate last years performance, but Vince Young had a lot to do with that by quitting on the team again. Big changes are needed in Tennessee, but getting a franchise quarterback may prove difficult.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
One the best stories in 2010 for the NFL, thanks to the MVP caliber play of halfback Maurice Jones-Drew. It probably saved the job of head coach Jack Del Rio for at least one more season.
1. San Diego Chargers
A miserable head start to their season, combined with holdouts and having a horrible head coach, did the Bolts in early. They need to get a coach interested in getting his players be their best.
2. Oakland Raiders
Oakland improved on offense, but were held back by a bad head coach.
3. Denver Broncos
They had a really bad season. It led to the firing of the head coach. There were a few bright spots with the play of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, and quarterback Kyle Orton.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Good running back performance, as well as excellent blocking, led the Chiefs to a AFC West crown this season. Their quarterback, Matt Cassell, did not turn over the ball much, and the defense was led by a young and exciting secondary.
This team was not only the Cinderella of 2010, but one of the best stories all year too.
Super Bowl XLV
@ Green Bay
Most Valuable Player : Tom Brady, New England Patriots
- Who else will win this? Maurice Jones-Drew is worthy and Michael Vick might get a few votes, but Brady should have this.
Offensive Player of the Year : Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
- Peterson surely had a year worthy of winning, but his team lost too much and AP still fumbles too often. He might get a few votes.
Defensive Player of the Year : Patrick Willis, San Francisco - With 128 tackles, six sacks, and two forced fumbles, Willis was great this year. Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews III should get more votes than him.
Offensive Rookie of the Year : Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati
- Gresham caught over 50 balls and has a bright future. Quarterback Sam Bradford might get it if the Rams win their division. Redskins receiver Anthony Armstrong came out of nowhere to average almost 19 yards on 42 receptions, but is a dark horse at best.
Defensive Rookie of the Year : Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
- The clear winner. Third on his team in tackles, his nine sacks leads all rookies. He is a huge reason the Lions are much improved.
Coach of the Year : Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers
- He will get a lot of votes for keeping his team in the playoff hunt despite massive amounts of injuries to his roster. He did a great job.
Week 17 Picks :
Miami Dolphins @ New England Patriots
New England wants to keep momentum while getting out healthy. Tom Brady might wrap up his MVP trophy here.
Patriots 31 Dolphins 20
Minnesota Vikings @ Detroit Lions
Detroit might win their sixth game Sunday, a feat not all expected because of recent struggles of the past. They will play hard, no matter what the outcome is.
Lions 24 Vikings 20
Cincinnati Bengals @ Baltimore Ravens
If the Ravens want to win their division and get a first-round bye in the playoffs, they must win this game first before hoping for help. Marvin Lewis might be coaching his last game with the Bengals.
Ravens 28 Bengals 20
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints
The Bucs had a surprising season, and you just get the feeling they will give it all they got Sunday. The Saints need this if they are to have a shot at home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Saints 27 Buccaneers 20
Buffalo Bills @ New York Jets
Buffalo can't wait to go home and the Jets will play hard.
Jets 24 Bills 10
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cleveland Browns
Mike Holmgren didn't hire Eric Mangini, but he will fire him after Sunday.
Steelers 27 Browns 17
Oakland Raiders @ Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City wants to get out this game healthy. Tom Cable's career as a NFL head coach should end Sunday.
Raiders 16 Chiefs 13
Carolina Panthers @ Atlanta Falcons
Carolina goes into this knowing head coach John Fox is fired, but they axed their 2010 season long ago.
Falcons 34 Panthers 10
Chicago Bears @ Green Bay Packers
Game of the Week
Chicago already owns the NFC North crown this season, as well as having obtained a bye in the playoffs. Green Bay would need a lot of help to sneak into the playoffs if they lose, but go in with a win. This is the oldest rivalry in the NFL, and the Bears would love to out Green Bay just so they don't face them again until next year.
While Green Bay has no running game, they are dangerous with an excellent defense and a passing game that can be explosive. While Chicago has nothing to play for here, it is hard to see Lovie Smith having them lie down. The Bears head coach would love to keep their winning momentum going.
Packers 23 Bears 21
Arizona Cardinals @ San Francisco 49ers
The loser of this one owns sole possession of last place in the NFL West.
Cardinals 27 49ers 21
San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos
Hopefully the Chargers players lay down on this one since neither team is playing for anything. Denver fired their head coach, something San Diego should have done two years ago. The players could send a strong message upstairs by laying an egg here. Only Norv Turner would lose leading a team in the top-five on both offense and defense in the NFL. Plus, it adds to the Tim Tebow legacy that has grown so quickly the past few weeks.
Broncos 27 Chargers 24
Tennessee Titans @ Indianapolis Colts
Jim Caldwell deserves some Coach of the Year votes. His team is about to win their division despite not being very good. It helps, of course, to have Peyton Manning constantly bailing out a very leaky ship.
Colts 31 Titans 17
Dallas Cowboys @ Philadelphia Eagles
Kevin Kolb started 2010 as the Eagles starting quarterback, yet his finishing the year as one was not quite the journey he had in mind. He will show he is one the best backups in the league today, cementing the idea Philadelphia needs him on their roster next season.
Eagles 34 Cowboys 20
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans
Jacksonville had a season that probably saved the career of head coach Jack Del Rio and their franchise by selling out all home games. They should finish 2010 strong.
Jaguars 30 Texans 24
New York Giants @ Washington Redskins
Washington might be trying to look at the positives of benching Donovan McNabb for Rex Grossman last week, yet it should be noted the Redskins played a team that has struggled on defense all year. The Giants, who really need this win, are a truer test of the abilities of Grossman.
Giants 37 Redskins 16
Saint Louis Rams @ Seattle Seahawks
Real simple : winner takes the NFC West crown. You know Seahawks fans will be pumped for their surprising team, so the young Rams defense needs to win this so halfback Steven Jackson can attack the third worst defense in the NFL with frequent touches.
Rams 23 Seahawks 20
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Tom Brady is having one of his very best seasons in 2010, which is not easy to do if you consider the quarterback has already won three titles in four tries since he was drafted in 2000.
The offense is a mixture of veterans and youngsters, while the defense is heavily slanted towards youth. Brady has stepped up his game and his role of leader, helping the Patriots sit on top of his division with the best record in the NFL.
While the obvious flaws of the team have been highlighted in the back seven of the defense, the kids have been improving each week. This was shown three weeks ago when they stopped future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning with the game on the line, and that point was accentuated by shutting down the Jets in their 45-3 destruction that allowed the team to take control of the AFC East.
What has made the season even better is how wide receiver Wes Welker came back from a knee injury to not miss a beat and excel as if he was never hurt. They unloaded Randy Moss after three games, a star wide receiver who went to the Pro Bowl in two of his three previous years with the team, but have not missed him. They got back Deion Branch, who left them in free agency after 2005, and he has 36 receptions and four scores in just eight games.
Then there is Danny Woodhead, a guy who couldn't consistently find his way onto the field for the Jets since 2008, and all the diminutive running back has done for New England is give them 689 all-purpose yards, good for second best on the team, in the 10 games he has played for them. They also have a rookie tight end tandem combine for 65 receptions for 835 yards and 10 touchdowns so far.
As long as Brady stays healthy, this team is a threat to win it all. The defensive secondary could let them down from their inexperience, but head coach Bill Belichick will put them in the right position to make plays just as he once had wide receiver Troy Brown, a Patriots legend, excel as a defensive back one season when the secondary was bereft by injury and needed him to fill a hole.
Facing the Bears and Packers the next two weeks, a pair battling it out for the NFC North crown, New England suffers no let down from oppositional intensity. If they can match that and prevail, the last two games against Buffalo and Miami can be spent to fine tune areas for the playoffs. If this plays out in that scenario, they might be the team to beat in the AFC.
Since Hall of Famer "Mean" Joe Greene and Pittsburgh legend L.C. Greenwood were drafted in 1969 by the Steelers, defense has been king in the Steel City. The 2010 team continues on that tradition by destroying opponents weekly so well, NFL know-nothing commissioner Roger Goodell spends his time fining Steelers for tackling opponents too hard.
Dick LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback, is known as "Coach Dad" in the locker room. The innovator of the zone blitz, LeBeau has a defense that knows how to play their positions correctly with technical excellence while rarely getting fooled. This unit has carried the team all year, which now has them sitting on top of the AFC North, and they will need to do so the rest of the way in 2010.
Pittsburgh has few weaknesses, though waiting for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shake off the rust coming back from suspension tested the defenses mettle. Halfback Rashard Mendenhall has carried the offense all year, breaking the 1,000-yard rushing barrier last week, in the face of having three different starting quarterbacks hand him the ball against defenses keying on him.
If Pittsburgh has one weakness, it is at place kicker. Jeff Reed was cut a few weeks ago and replaced by erratic journeyman Shaun Suisham. Though he has yet to miss in his three games for Pittsburgh, he has missed 25 in 226 attempts over his career and is not known for having good leg strength past 40 yards. 14 of his misses have come from attempts of 40 yards and beyond. If he is called upon to hit one from a long distance with the game on the line, Pittsburgh will probably end up regretting cutting Reed.
The remaining schedule only has the Jets and improved Cleveland Browns as games that could present problems. Roethlisberger has been improving weekly, Pittsburgh could end up winning each game and have tremendous momentum heading into the playoffs. They are a team, because of the defense, no one will want to face.
Sitting on top of the AFC South with the best record in football, Atlanta is riding a six game winning streak and showing the ability to close games as well as coming from behind. They were tested by Tampa Bay in their latest victory, but put up the last two touchdowns of the game to prevail 28-24.
Atlanta runs an offense of balance, passing just 71 times more than rushing. They do not turnover the ball often, yet their defense has swiped 16 passes so far while defensive end John Abraham has piled up nine of the teams 20 sacks.
Cornerback Brent Grimes and strong safety William Moore are quietly having Pro Bowl caliber years. Both have four interceptions while Grimes 17 defended passes leads the NFL and his 62 tackles is second on the team. Moore's five defended passes is second on the team and he is fourth in tackles.
Atlanta relies on wide receiver Roddy White to get open. He has 91 of the teams 280 receptions and seven of their 21 touchdown catches. Though he has yet to be slowed down, a team shutting him out in the playoffs could be lethal to their Super Bowl dreams. While tight end Tony Gonzales has 54 receptions, the future Hall of Famer is obviously slowing down and averages nine yards per catch. Atlanta has no true deep threat to stretch the seam, and their longest pass play went 46 yards so far.
Their longest play from scrimmage in 2010 went 55 yards on a run by halfback Michael Turner. Turner carries the load, but backup Jason Snelling has provided good hands and respectable numbers off the bench. If White were to be throttled in the postseason, this duo would have to carry the load because defenses would come closer to the line of scrimmage.
As they continue to hold off the defending champion Saints for first place, Atlanta will face them in three weeks and have the luxury of facing the lowly Carolina Panthers twice. They are in control of their destiny, but it will be interesting to see how young quarterback Matt Ryan handles having White taken away if it happens. Considering it hasn't occurred much since the pair met, this could be a team that represents the NFC in the Super Bowl.
In one of the more interesting season starts in recent Eagles history, Philadelphia traded their all-time passing leader Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington and tabbed Kevin Kolb the starter after he spent three years learning from McNabb.
Michael Vick was the first person drafted in 2001. After three Pro Bowls in six years, Vick went to jail after 2006 and did not return to the NFL until 2009 when Philadelphia signed him as a no-risk project. He didn't play much because McNabb had a Pro Bowl season, but he continued to work hard with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, former NFL quarterback and current offensive quality control coach Doug Pederson, quarterbacks coach James Urban, and head coach Andy Reid, a former quarterbacks coach himself.
After Kolb suffered a concussion in the first game of the year, that hard work was showcased. Once a running quarterback who never learned the nuances of his position, choosing to rely on his excellent athleticism, Vick has become well rounded and now shows off his rocket arm along with his legs. Though Kolb did well when Vick missed a few games with broken ribs, Reid inserted Vick back into the starting lineup when he healed.
Philadelphia scores the ball often. They are not only second in the NFL in scoring, but they do not turn the ball over. Their plus 15 Giveaway/ Takeaway ratio, the same stat they earned last season, leads the NFL. With a balanced attack on offense, they can beat you in several ways.
If they have a weakness, it is one that Andy Reid has faced most of his tenure in Philadelphia. LeSean McCoy is their primary runner, and he has excelled with a 4.9 yards per carry average this year. At 215 lbs, he is not the type to run over many defenders. His primary reserve is the smallish James Harrison, who they acquired for Mike Bell. Bell excels at short yardage situations, something no other runner on the Eagles roster does.
Like in the Brian Westbrook Era, Philadelphia is full of small running backs who do not pound the ball consistently in short yardage. This is an issue that cost the team in the past. Compounded by inconsistent offensive line play that has seen even the nimble Vick get slammed often, the running game on the short yardage play could make the difference between a champion or a spectator in the playoffs.
The other issue the Eagles need to shore up is run defense. Though Sean McDermott has done a good job replacing the late Jim Johnson at defensive coordinator, the defense has given up its share of yards and is ranked 12th in the league. Though few teams can match the Eagles in offensive output, there are skeptics if Vick will continue his progression behind an offensive line that has already given up 33 sacks and is questionable in short yardage situations.
The defensive line, considered small by NFL standards, gets after the quarterback but can be run over as well. They face an improving Dallas team twice in the last month of the season, along with Minnesota and a Giants team that is in a first place battle with them right now.
These games not only can dictate momentum in their playoffs, but it has a good chance of showing just how far this team is headed by how they handle things.
Baltimore's general manager Ozzie Newsome is a Hall of Famer who is amongst the best at what he does. Knowing he had to improve the teams receiving corps, the Ravens brought in Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, and Donte Stallworth.
While Boldin leads the team with 56 receptions, Houshmanzadeh is backing up the ageless Derrick Mason, and Stallworth has appeared in just the last three games after recovering from an injury. Baltimore has enjoyed a relatively healthy 2010 season. They lost starting left tackle Jared Gaither and starting cornerback Domonique Foxworth to injuries, but have not missed a beat thanks to Michael Oher and Josh Wilson.
While the offense has been pretty average this season, the defense has done well. They rank fourth in points allowed, sixth in rushing yards allowed, and seventh in overall yards allowed. However, Baltimore has just 22 sacks and 11 interceptions this year, while quarterback Joe Flacco has been sacked 27 times. Flacco has tossed just eight interceptions, but he has fumbled seven times.
The Ravens have a veteran defense led by graybeards like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Kelly Gregg. Haloti Ngata is one of the very best defensive linemen in the NFL, and defensive end Terrell Suggs has nine sacks. Reed has played just six games this year, but his four interceptions lead the team.
When Baltimore lost to Pittsburgh last week, it knocked then down to second place behind the Steelers. In their last four games of 2010, the Saints present their biggest obstacle. The Texans, Browns, and Bengals will try to ruin Baltimore's playoff aspirations as well, but these are games most expect the Ravens to win.
This is a team no one wants to face in the playoffs because they have a veteran defense that knows how to win the big game. The offense has the talent to be explosive, so there is the worry they will finally find their stride in the playoffs. Even if they play all year like they have done so far, Baltimore is no easy out.
NEW YORK GIANTS
The mettle of the Giants have been tested all season. After opening the season with a win, they got hammered two straight weeks to the point a former player told the media head coach Tom Coughlin had lost respect in the locker room. The team responded five straight wins before losing two in a row.
Now it appears they are back on track with two straight wins, mostly because they inserted halfback Brandon Jacobs into the lineup. Though Ahmad Bradshaw was very effective, gaining over 1,000 yards and catching 33 balls, he did fumble six times and catch the ire of Coughlin. Jacobs has 577 yards at a 5.8 yards per carry average.
The passing game entered the year with a young and deep wide receivers corps. Injuries hit this unit hard, and now the team has spent the past two games starting a man, Derek Hagan, who was cut by them before the beginning of the season. Hagan did play with the Jints since December, 2008 mostly on special teams, so quarterback Eli Manning was familiar with him and the pair have hooked up 12 times and a score in the two games.
Two of Manning's favorite receivers, Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks, appear to be a couple of weeks away from returning to help bolster the fourth rated offense in the NFL in yards gained and fifth rated in scoring. But the bread and butter of the offensive attack is the rushing attack behind one of the best offensive lines in football.
While the 12 sacks the Giants have allowed are the fewest in the NFL, the defense has a NFC-leading 35 sacks. The defense has just 13 interceptions and gives up over 20 points per game, yet they rank second in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed and are ranked seventh in rushing yards allowed.
Losing defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka for the season because of injury after three games hurt, because he already had four sacks. The caused New York to play first round draft pick Jason Pierre-Paul sooner than planned, and the rookie has responded with four sacks himself. Justin Tuck and Omi Umenyiora have combined for 17.5 sacks as well.
The secondary of the Jints has been a point of interest, yet three of their safeties are amongst the top six tacklers on the team and cornerback Terrell Thomas leads the Giants in both tackles and interceptions. His 17 defended passes is tied with two others as the most in the NFL.
The last four games the Giants have will be a test this mostly veteran team has encountered before. After facing the Vikings this weekend, they host the Eagles in what could a battle for sole possession of first place in the NFC East. They then battle a Packers team who is trying to win their own division. After that, they face an erratic Redskins team, but history in the NFC East shows that no games between division rivals should ever be taken lightly.
The Giants are a team built for the playoffs. They can pound you with the run game while shutting the opposing offense down. The passing game can be explosive, but it is a solace to Manning to know he has that running game and defense to carry him.
This is the same formula the G-Men used to win Super Bowl XLII in 2007. Though Manning got the headlines, it was really the trench play that won it all. History could certainly repeat itself again.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Defending a championship is hard, and the Saints have done a wonderful job so far. Despite innumerate injuries that have dinged up most of the roster, especially at the running back position, losing two important defensive players and a key special teams player for the season, the team has stuck together and reeled off five straight victories so far.
Undrafted rookie Chris Ivory has done a fantastic job in the place of a injured halfbacks duo Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush that has missed a 17 combined games so far. Ivory has 623 yards on the ground at an impressive 5.2 yards per carry average. This effectiveness has opened things up for quarterback Drew Brees.
While Brees isn't having the other worldly season he did in 2009, he still is playing at a Pro Bowl level. Seven players have 23 or more receptions so far, with wide receiver Marques Colston leading the way with 71. Three receivers have five or more touchdown catches.
Last year, the defense had 35 sacks, 26 interceptions, and 25 fumble recoveries. Though they have recovered 17 fumbles so far this season, they only have 23 sacks and seven interceptions. Yet they give up almost three points less per game than last year, which ranks fifth best, and they rank eighth in points scored.
Despite less interceptions, the pass defense is the third best in the NFL in yards allowed, and the overall defense is ranked ninth. Players are getting healthy again for the Saints, and the timing couldn't work better for them. In the last month of their 2010 season, they face four teams trying to get in the playoffs themselves.
After facing the Rams this weekend, they face off against the tough Ravens, red hot Falcons, and finish with the pesky Buccaneers. Though they are a game behind Atlanta, it would be a real feat to win all four games. They are still very much in contention for a Wild Card slot, actually holding home field advantage so far.
If they get back into the playoffs, New Orleans presents big problems because of their good ground game and explosive aerial attack. They are a defending champion no one wants to face in a game that ends a season for the loser.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers defense gives up the least points in the NFL while scoring the seventh most. They have outscored their opponents an NFL best 182 points and they are sixth in the Giveaway/ Takeaway category.
When you look at the Green Bay offense, the focus goes primarily to quarterback Aaron Rogers and his wide receivers. Rogers is one of the more exciting young quarterbacks in the league and has made the organization look like a genius by parting ways with clubhouse cancer Brett Favre. He mostly targets Greg Jennings when passing, but Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson all have put up very healthy numbers themselves.
Halfback Brandon Jackson was thrust into the starters job after Ryan Grant went down for the season in the first game. Grant, who has two 1,200 rushing yard seasons in his previous three years, has been sorely missed. Jackson has caught a career best 36 passes so far, but he is not as good on the ground as Grant. He has churned out just 527 yards on the ground so far at an average of under four yards a carry.
He is also suspect in short yardage situations, propelling Green Bay to try fullback John Kuhn and undrafted free agent rookie Dimitri Nance unsuccessfully at that role. The inconsistent ground game is sure to cause a big problem in the playoffs.
Defense has made the headlines in Packerland mostly this year. Second year linebacker Clay Matthews III gets most of it due to 11.5 sacks, the most in the NFC, and a touchdown off his lone interception, but defensive end Cullen Jenkins has contributed seven sacks, nose tackle B.J. Raji is showing exactly why he was a first round draft pick last year, and Charles Woodson is rivaling a 2009 season that saw him named NFC Defensive Player of the Year.
Not only does he lead the team in tackles, but Woodson is one tackle away already from matching last years total. What makes the defensive units achievements even more impressive is the fact they battled through several injuries that have cost them eight players they planned to rely on for the year.
Factor in the season long suspension of defensive end Johnny Jolly and the loss of three offensive starters for the year because of injury, it is amazing that the Packers are just a game behind the Bears in the NFC North and in Wild Card contention. It may be the best coaching job defensive coordinator Dom Capers has done so far in his illustrious career.
Ted Thompson is the general manager of the team. His drafts since being hired in 2005 have built a deep team, which has been on display this year. If there is one criticism of the man, who learned from Hall of Famer Ron Wolf, it is that he rolled the dice on Jackson and didn't get anyone to add to the running attack after Grant went down. Marshawn Lynch was available, but he watched Seattle grab him for just a a fourth-round and a conditional pick, a low price for a fourth year player with a Pro Bowl and two 1,000-yard rushing seasons under his belt.
Green Bay still has to face a pesky Detroit team, the Patriots, and Giants before facing Chicago in a season finale that could decide the winner of their division. If Rodgers keeps doing what he has all year, they have a very good shot at winning the division. However, it is hard to see a team go all the way with a poor ground game, no matter how stout the defense is.
NEW YORK JETS
The Jets went on a television show during training camp with a head coach loudly announcing his team was Super Bowl ready just a few months after they snuck into the playoffs and reached the AFC Championship Game.
Since then, the results have been mixed. They were shut down in their first game, then rattled off five straight wins before being shut out at home. They won the next four games, two in overtime, by having to come from behind before being trounced in front of America in a must-win game that decided who would be on top of the AFC East.
Though the team has been relatively healthy all year, they did lose starting nose tackle Kris Jenkins in the first game. Jenkins, one of the most important players in their 3-4 scheme, has played just seven games the past two years after a Pro Bowl 2008 season. New York also recently lost safety Jim Leonhard for the season, the second leading tackler on the team.
The defense has 27 sacks and only has seven interceptions. It is the second lowest amount in the NFL, and 10 less than they had in 2009. The team is also giving up almost five more points per game than they did last year while scoring at about the same rate.
The offensive line, one of the better units in the AFC, has been even better than last year. They have given up just 20 sacks, 10 less than last year, and they have led their halfback tandem to over 1,400 yards on the ground so far.
While the passing attack is still a work in progress, second year quarterback Mark Sanchez is turning the ball over less than he did in 2009. They also have five players with 31 or more receptions.
While the Jets aren't forcing turnovers like they did in their surprising 2009 season, they have tempered this by holding onto the ball better. They are still stout at stopping the run, but they have already given up over 100 more passing yards than they did all of last year. They ranked first in six different defensive categories last year, none this season.
For all of the bravado the head coach and media have espoused on the team, their play on the field so far has not matched it. They face the Steelers and Bears in their last four games, sandwiched by the Dolphins and improved Buffalo Bills. New York obviously needs to run the table to maintain their dream of winning the division, while hoping the Patriots stumble badly.
Even if New England maintains their one game lead, the Jets want to make the playoffs. They showed last year they could win then, but it is becoming more clear this team isn't the same as the 2009 squad that went 9-7. Whether they are better will be shown in the last month and hopefully beyond.
Much like most of the Lovie Smith Era, 2010 has been a wild roller coaster ride for Chicago. The season started by winning a game they shouldn't have, thanks to a bad call by an official. Then they lost three of four games, causing the faithful Bears fans to boo in disgust when Washington beat them 17-14.
The defense has taken over since that defeat, and Chicago is now riding a five game winning streak as they get ready to host the Patriots in their most important game of the season so far. The Bears sit on top of their division with a one game lead and they will have to face the Vikings and Jets before they square off against the second place Packers.
Part of the resurgence has to be attributed to quarterback Jay Cutler, who was vital in their 31-26 shootout victory over Philadelphia two weeks ago. It was the most points the team put up in a game in 2010 as Cutler tossed four touchdown passes. Halfback Matt Forte is the main offensive weapon, and he is one of five Bears with 30 receptions or more.
Though he has 17 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions this year, the past five games have seen Cutler toss 10 scores against three interceptions. Yet the offense is ranked 29th in yards gained, so the defense carries the load. They are ranked third in the NFL in yards allowed and excel on stopping the run, where they rank second.
While middle linebacker Brian Urlacher gets most of the press, the offseason signing of defensive end Julius Peppers has been huge. Not only does he have seven sacks and an interception, as well as being named NFC Defensive Player of the Month in November, but Peppers presence has helped defensive end Israel Idonije get seven sacks as well.
While the best route to beating the Bears is through the air, that task is difficult with a pair of 6'7" defensive ends crashing the edges. Another chance of beating Chicago is providing heat on Cutler. The offensive line has generally been a mess all season, giving up an NFL-leading 45 sacks.
If Forte is shut down, causing Chicago to pass, sacking Cutler often might cause turnovers. The Bears only allow 16 points per game, so opponents must shut down their inconsistent offense for a chance to win. Chicago is heading into the most difficult month of their 2010 season by facing three teams battling for the playoffs, including their most hated rival on the last Sunday of the regular season. When the smoke clears, a more definitive picture of who the Bears are will be more apparent.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The Chiefs 2010 season can be better termed consistent than surprising. While few saw much success coming for them this season, the Chiefs are ranked ninth in points scored and points allowed.
Not only do they have the top-rated rushing attack, they have been near or at the top all season in that category. The passing game is ranked just 25th, but quarterback Matt Cassell has tossed only four interceptions all season. They are plus seven in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department, which is ranked seventh in the NFL.
The defense is prone to giving up yards, especially in the air where they are ranked 21st, but they stiffen in the red zone. Former defensive end Tama Hali is in his second season at outside linebacker and leads the team with 10 sacks. Linebacker Derrick Johnson was drafted by the Chiefs in the first round of the 2005 draft and is having perhaps his best season. He is just four tackles away from matching his career high total already, and his career best 11 defended passes is the most by any NFL linebacker and is just six behind the leader.
Cornerback Brandon Carr leads the NFL with 17 defended passes, and fellow cornerback Brandon Flowers has 13 himself, which in ranked as the ninth most in the NFL. One of the men Flowers is tied with in leading the team in interceptions is safety Eric Berry. Berry is a rookie who is second on the team in tackles.
Not only does defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel deserve a pat on the back, but Hall of Famer and Chiefs legend Emmitt Thomas deserves a mountain of praise for the job he has done as the defensive backs coach.
While halfback Jamaal Charles already has 1,137 yards rushing and fellow halfback Thomas Jones has 765 more, the Chiefs offensive line deserves extra praise. They have given up just 17 sacks, which is tied with Atlanta as the third least allowed in the NFL.
The reacquisition of guard Ryan Lilja was key. Lilja, who was born in Kansas City and went to college at Kansas State, was signed as an undrafted rookie by the Chiefs in 2004 but was cut a few week later and was quickly picked up by Indianapolis. After becoming a starter in 59 of the 66 games he appeared in and earning a Super Bowl ring, the Colts released him two years after having signed him to a $20 million extension. Going back to Kansas City, he has teamed with four-time Pro Bowler Brian Waters to give the Chiefs maybe the best guard tandem in the AFC.
Although the Chiefs hold a commanding lead in the AFC West with eight wins, twice as many victories as they had in 2009, they must finish strong to complete this surprise regular season. Three of their final four games are against the Chargers, Rams, and Raiders, teams that are battling for a playoff berth themselves.
While Oakland struggles trying to stop the run, they did beat the Chiefs in overtime five weeks ago. Kansas City has not been to the playoffs since 2006, and has made it three times since 1997. They haven't won their division since 2003, so their fans are hopeful this squad can complete the task after having seen them win just 10 times over the previous three seasons.
It seems almost every NFL season has a team unexpectedly reach the playoffs, and this might be the Chiefs turn.
SAINT LOUIS RAMS
When the Rams used the first pick of the 2010 draft on quarterback Sam Bradford, they figured it would take a few years for him to mature. Although he has excellent veterans in center Jason Brown and guards Jacob Bell and Adam Goldberg, they came into the season with very young tackles.
Right tackle Jason Smith was the second overall pick of the 2009 draft and left tackle Rodger Saffold was a second round pick this year. The offensive line has progressed nicely as the season has gone along. Though they have given up 24 sacks, halfback Steven Jackson is just 15 yards away from his sixth consecutive 1,000 yard rushing season.
Although Bradford has had typical rookie struggles, he has done a good job minimizing his mistakes and has shown a propensity of spreading the ball out. Six players have 23 or more receptions, with a team leading 65 by Danny Amendola. Amendola, in his second year with the club, went undrafted in 2008 and led the NFL in kickoff returns and kickoff return yards last year. He is not a deep threat, but he catches practically every pass thrown in his direction.
What makes Bradford's season even more impressive is the fact the team has lost three wide receivers and two tight ends to injury this year. Two, Mark Clayton and Donnie Avery, were expected to be the starters. Despite all of this, Bradford has thrown just 10 interceptions so far.
While the Rams rank 20th in both rushing and passing yards, as well as 25th in points scored, the defense seems to be at its best when the opponents near the end zone. While they rank 14th in yards allowed, they also rank ninth in points allowed.
They have 35 sacks, which is the most in the NFC and one behind the Raiders and Steelers for the most in the entire league. This has helped, because they have just 10 interceptions. The interior of the Rams defense is their strength. Defensive tackles Chris Long and Fred Robbins have combined for 11.5 sacks while middle linebacker James Laurinaitis leads the team with 79 tackles and has chipped in three sacks.
Saint Louis is a team that has won six games the previous three years before winning six this year. Second year head coach Steve Spagnuolo took the job knowing he had to rebuild, and it appears they are on their way. Playing in the NFC West helps their cause, as does a weaker schedule due to a 1-15 2009 season, but the Rams have defeated the Chargers and lost to the Buccaneers and Raiders by a total of three points.
It is fun watching a young team grow up before your eyes, and that is what Rams fans are enjoying this season. The team will get their first true test this year in the final month, as they face the Saints, Chiefs, and Seahawks. All three teams are trying to get in the playoffs as well. Even if the Rams fade in the stretch, it has been a season no one can say they expected from Saint Louis before it began.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
It is strange to see Brad Childress and Josh McDaniels fired, but Norv Turner still employed as a head coach in the NFL. When will the San Diego front office get tired of the slow starts and desperation finishes? It almost seems underachieving is accepted, because Turner continues to wallow in this mire his entire career as a head coach.
It is as if only a Turner-coached squad could be second in the NFL in yards gained and passing yards, third in passing touchdowns, first downs earned and allowed, first in yards allowed, passing yards allowed, net yards gained per pass attempt and net yards allowed per pass attempt, as well as fourth in touchdown passes allowed, would be sitting with a mediocre 6-6 record at this juncture.
The season started out ugly, as the owners refused to pay left tackle Marcus McNeil and wide receiver Vince Jackson the moneys they two thought they were worth. Both sat out at the start of the season. McNeil returned the sixth game after getting the contract he desired. Jackson did not, so he sat out until the 12th week and promptly got injured before catching a pass. If both had been brought into the fold at the beginning, perhaps the Bolts would not have stumbled out of the gates. Yet the team had before with both playing.
Despite losing his favorite wide receiver and best blocker, quarterback Philip Rivers has put together a performance that will garner him MVP votes. The entire receiving corps has been in flux most of season because of nagging injuries, but Rivers has hardly missed a beat and made the replacements productive. He has done this in the face of a running game that has been dealing with injuries as well.
Rookie Ryan Matthews, a first round draft pick, has missed four games because of injuries and has been dinged up virtually the whole season. His backup, the diminutive Darren Sproles, is second on the team in receptions. Fullback Mike Tolbert has been carrying the load on the ground and has done a better job than expected with 625 yards and nine scores.
Antonio Gates is the Chargers Pro Bowl tight end who has been running around gingerly much of the season with the same foot problems that have dogged him over the last couple of years. He still leads the team with 50 receptions and 10 scores in spite of being in pain virtually every moment he plays.
The defense said goodbye to linebacker Shawn Merriman this year, but did not miss him after cutting Merriman before the fourth week started. Shaun Phillips has more than replaced him by getting 10, tied for the third most in the NFL, of the teams 35 sacks, which is the second most in the league. Inside linebacker Kevin Burnett is having the best season of his career, already getting a career high marks with 74 tackles, five sacks, and two interceptions. One swipe was returned for a score.
Despite losing two long snappers to the injured reserve, including Pro Bowler David Binns, who has played the most games in Chargers history, the special teams has still done well. Punter Mike Scifries is averaging a whopping 47.9 yards per punt, and placekicker Nick Kaeding has missed just four attempts.
There is no doubt the Chargers have enough talented players to lead the team to the Super Bowl, but their head coach seems to hinder them at every turn. They seemed to be on the comeback trail in December yet again until the Raiders beat them up last Sunday.
Despite the slow start, they are just two games away from being in first place. After squaring off against division leader Kansas City this weekend, the Bolts finish the season against the 49ers, Bengals, and Broncos. All three of those teams are struggling and their 2010 seasons were done weeks ago.
San Diego's only hope is to win all of their games and hope the Chiefs and Raiders stumble. Even if this happens, one has to question if it will be enough to save Norv Turner's job.
In a season that has run hot and cold for Oakland, they started out 2-4 and are now on a 4-2 run. Part of the erraticism is because of their line of scrimmage play on both sides of the ball and how head coach Tom Cable keeps juggling starting quarterbacks.
This helped slow down halfback Darren McFadden, who gained 16 yards in two recent losses after running for 757 in seven other appearances. Now that it appears Oakland has settled on Jason Campbell due to a season ending injury to Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback, McFadden gained 97 yards, along with 95 more by Michael Bush, as the Raiders trounced the Chargers in San Diego last Sunday to crawl into a second way tie between them.
Oakland's offensive line has given up 34 sacks, but the defense has countered with an NFL best 36 of their own. They have six players with at least four sacks, and leading tackler Tyvon Branch has three of his own. The starting safeties of Oakland, Branch and Michael Huff, lead the team in tackles with 79 and 70 respectively. While the secondary has just seven interceptions, tied with the Jets and Saints as the second least in the league, the pass defense is ranked ninth in the NFL in yards allowed.
Oakland has struggled to pass the ball this year, and it isn't only the fault of the offensive line. Campbell, who was acquired in a trade before the start of the season, is learning his seventh offensive system in eight years while working with a group of young wide receivers learning the pro game themselves. While the team has missed Chaz Schilens all year, he appeared in his first game of the season last week and should help in the final games.
Rookie Jacoby Ford has been a big help in the passing game and special teams, but only three Raiders have 30 or more receptions. Three of their last four games come against teams that struggle to stop the run, so McFadden and Bush will be called upon to lead the team to the playoffs.
If things work out, their final game will be in Kansas City against the division leading Chiefs in what could be another historic chapter of the many battles between organizations that have done that before on several occasions. With the way the Raiders seem to now be jelling, Oakland could be dangerous to face if they reach the playoffs. Especially if the defense plays as well as they did last Sunday.
While leading the AFC South, Jacksonville had jumped on the back of Pro Bowl halfback Maurice Jones-Drew. He already has 1,453 yards from scrimmage, including 1,177 yards on the ground. With the 29th ranked passing attack, their second ranked run game has been almost the entire story to their surprising success.
Defense has not done well for the Jags in 2010. Their defense is near the bottom in points allowed, passing yards allowed and overall yards allowed. They have just 21 sacks and 11 interceptions and their leading tackler, linebacker Darryl Smith, has a paltry total of 66. They are second to last in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department and have been outscored 43 points by opponents, which is 24th in the league.
While quarterback David Garrard has been inconsistent this year, wide receiver Mike Thomas and tight end Mercedes Lewis have been playing at a Pro Bowl level. This has helped Drew and the team pull off quality victories over the Colts, Cowboys, and Texans. Wins that probably have bought head coach Jack Del Rio another season after coming into 2010 with rumors he was on the hot seat.
The last four games of the year are winnable, but two will be against teams desperately fighting to get into the playoffs in Oakland and Indianapolis. If Drew can keep averaging 4.5 yards per carry like he has all year, the Jaguars could end up with their first division crown since 1999 and their first playoffs appearance since 2007.
It is almost surreal to be discussing the Seahawks and the 2010 playoffs in the same sentence. This was a team that was beginning the long journey of rebuilding under first year head coach Pete Carroll. While playing the AFC West is a huge reason as to why they could be playoff bound, Seattle has defeated Chicago and San Diego.
How they win is part of the fun to the mystery that is the Seahawks. They rank 24th in scoring and 21st in points allowed. Seattle has the 30th ranked defense in yards allowed, and rank 28th in yards gained. Part of their offensive woes is an inability to rush the football, where they rank 30th.
Though the offensive line lost depth with Ray Willis, Ben Hamilton, and the versatile Max Unger for the year because of injuries, the mostly veteran unit has underachieved. The defense lost veteran linebacker Leroy Hill for the year because of injury, yet his replacement, David Hawthorne, leads the team in tackles.
Pass rush specialist Chris Clemons has 8.5 sacks, but the secondary has played poorly this year with the exception of rookie free safety Earl Thomas, who has five of the teams 10 interceptions and is third in tackles on the team. No other Seahawk has more than one interception. Seattle coughs up the ball more than they create turnovers, but they create problems on the special teams unit.
Leon Washington has returned two kickoffs for scores and averages over 20 yards on 10 punt returns. Rookie Golden Tate averages over 11 yards on 15 punt returns. Placekicker Olindo Mare has been solid, missing just four kicks all year. Punter Jon Ryan averages over 43 yards per attempt.
Though excellent special teams play can win games, it is not a long lasting formula typically. Seattle does have a veteran quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck, but he has thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes and has been sacked 27 times so far. He has been able to throw three passes for over 60 yards so far.
His favorite receiver is Mike Williams, a reclamation project whose 52 receptions this year exceeds his career total of 37 over three previous seasons. Williams, a former first round draft pick in 2005, has been out of football since 2007 and is a candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Seattle has two difficult games against the Falcons and Buccaneer after they face division rival San Francisco this weekend. If they get through that, the season finale will be against the Rams in what could be a battle for the NFC West crown. Even if they fall short, Seahawks fans have to be pleased with the pleasant surprise this squad gave them over the 2010 season.
The face of this franchise is Peyton Manning, and his recent struggles are a part of the reason Indianapolis has lost four of their last five games. After starting off on a sizzling pace that exceeded any other of the future Hall of Famers previous seasons, Manning has tossed 13 of his 15 interceptions in those four losses.
A big reason for that is injuries. Losing Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark, maybe his favorite target, for the year after six games hurt, but there are several players on the roster dinged up unable to play at this time without need of being placed on injured reserve.
The biggest loss might be halfback Joseph Addai, who has played in only six games so far. His absence has left the Colts one-dimensional because they have no running game at all now. Donald Brown, a first round pick last year, has been an absolute bust so far and has given the Colts very little. Addai still leads the team in rushing by more than 100 yards despite missing half of the teams season so far.
Defense has also been bitten heavily by the injury bug. Six players, five being defensive backs, are on injured reserve. Bob Sanders, an oft-injured safety who was the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year, has yet to play this year because of torn biceps.
Despite all of the losses to their secondary, the Colts rank fourth in the NFL in pass defense. A part of that reason is because teams choose to ram the ball down the throats of their 29th ranked run defense. Indianapolis has a porous run defense, but they have two undersized defensive ends in Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney who provide speed off the edge. The pair has accounted for 16.5 of the teams 24 sacks.
Since the team has just nine interceptions and 10 forced fumbles so far, this pairs effectiveness is paramount to the defenses successes. If they are throttled, then Manning is put in a situation where he needs to be near perfect and outscore the opponent.
The last month of the season is very important to the Colts. They face the struggling Titans twice and the division leading Jaguars once, as well as an Oakland team still fighting to win the AFC West. Indianapolis has picked a good time to have a down season, because the entire AFC South is also struggling this year.
At 6-6, the Colts are in second place and just one game behind Jacksonville. While the Colts could make their way into the playoffs for the ninth straight year, it is hard to see them go far in the playoffs with their defense and non-existent running game. Addai getting healthy again will go a long way in helping Manning, who is capable of taking the Colts all the way despite all of the problems the team is having right now.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Still in the running for at least a Wild Card spot, Tampa Bay has taken people by surprise all season. They excel behind a young quarterback and a rushing attack that came unexpectedly from a rookie picked up off waivers.
They do not score much, and slightly give up more points than they put up. Though they rarely turn over the ball, they do not cause many themselves and the 18 sacks they have gotten is tied for second fewest in the league.
Yet they win. Three interceptions have been returned for scores, as well as a kick return. When they lose, they do not make it easy. Three losses are by a combined 19 points. No one expects them to make the playoffs, but no one expected them to get this far.
Three of their last four games are winnable, so expect Tampa Bay to keep the pressure on the Falcons and Saints. Their last game is in New Orleans, a game that could be for the NFC South title since the Buccaneers will not go away without a good fight.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Redskins
Tampa Bay needs this to stay in the playoff run. Washington is in shambles again this season, and first year head coach Mike Shanahan has little to no respect in the locker room.
Buccaneers 24 Redskins 21
Atlanta Falcons @ Carolina Panthers
The team with the best record in the NFL takes on the team with the worst record. Expect Atlanta to roll.
Falcons 31 Panthers 10
Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers
For all the talent the Bengals have on their roster, they might be the most disappointing NFL team in 2010. They can't seem to play four quarters. Pittsburgh prides themselves on defensive dominance for entire games. Expect more of the same.
Steelers 27 Bengals 17
Oakland Raiders @ Jacksonville Jaguars
Both teams desperately need a win here. The Jaguars want to maintain their lead in the AFC South, while the Raiders are trying to catch up to the Chiefs for first place in the AFC West. Both teams run the ball well, but neither can stop the opposition at running the ball.
Raiders 27 Jaguars 24
Green Bay Packers @ Detroit Lions
Green Bay knows division leading Chicago has a tough game this weekend, so this is their chance to jump into a tie for first place. The Lions are young and pesky, but they aren't as hungry for a win because their 2010 season was over a long time ago.
Packers 30 Lions 24
New York Giants @ Minnesota Vikings
If clubhouse cancer and egomaniac Brett Favre plays, the Giants win thanks to Favre's weekly turnoverfest. If the Hyckocrite sits, the Vikings have a shot.
Giants 37 Vikings 14
Cleveland Browns @ Buffalo Bills
These two teams have inproved greatly the last month, but both of their 2010 seasons were over before that. Thestar of this game will be the blizzard conditions surround the city of Buffalo. Expect Fred Jackson and Peyton Hillis to get a lot of touches.
Browns 13 Bills 12
Seattle Seahawks @ San Francisco 49ers
Rumor is that quarterback Alex Smith will start, probably the last ones of his feeble career. Seattle needs to win to stay in first place in the NFC West.
Seahawks 17 49ers 10
Saint Louis Rams @ New Orleans Saints
The Saints are a game behind Atlanta, so winning is vital to them. The same importance rings true for the Rams, who are in a first place tie in the NFC West with Seattle. Saint Louis has a young defense and excellent pass rush, but not enough defensive backs to stop Saints quarterback Drew Brees from spreading it all over the Super Dome.
Saints 26 Rams 21
Kansas City Chiefs @ San Diego Chargers
The Bolts mythical December winning streak was halted by Oakland last week, causing them to fall two games behind the first place Chiefs in the battle for the AFC West. A Chiefs win here ends their season.
Chiefs 28 Chargers 24
Miami Dolphins @ New York Jets
While Miami is only playing for pride right now, the Jets are still stinging from the embarrassment of a thorough butt-kicking on Monday Night Football a few days ago. They should be very angry this weekend.
Jets 23 Dolphins 13
Denver Broncos @ Arizona Cardinals
Two of the worst teams in the NFL face off. The Broncos first game head coach should prevail over the rookie Cardinals quarterback playing his first game.
Broncos 34 Cardinals 14
New England Patriots @ Chicago Bears
Game of the Week
Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher recently told people he was confident Chicago would win this game. His logic is feasable because his teams offense has been playing better while the Patriots are coming off a short week after defeating the Jets on Monday Night Football.
Both teams lead their divisions by a game. Defense decides this one more than any other area, but Tom Brady is better than Jay Cutler by a wide wargin.
Patriots 23 Bears 17
Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys
Eagles fans hate Dallas, and for good reason. Michael Vick looks to keep his team in first place against a mediocre Cowboys defense playing for nothing.
Eagles 30 Cowboys 21
Baltimore Ravens @ Houston Texans
After losing to Pittsburgh last Sunday, Baltimore fell to second place in the AFC North. They cannot afford any more defeats. Houston is still mathematically alive in the AFC South, but their defense just isn't good enough.
Ravens 27 Texans 24