My weekly look at key matchups and storylines to watch in one game at each time slot. (All times Eastern).
Sunday 1 p.m.Denver Broncos (8-4) at Indianapolis Colts (12-0)
The Colts can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win over the Broncos and they have been very clear that, unlike the unbeaten New Orleans Saints, 16-0 is not a priority. That means one more win and the Colts will be able to rest some of their starters for the remainder of the season. So Sunday's game could be the last hurrah for some of the Colts players and I am interested to see if they treat it that way.
What makes this game that I am calling nationally for Sports USA Radio so interesting is that the Broncos seem to have the key ingredients to beat a Colts team that has found a way to win every week, even when they haven't played their best. The Broncos are running the ball extremely well lately and will need to do that Sunday in order to possess the football and keep it out of Peyton Manning's capable hands. Rookie Knowshon Moreno has rushed for over 80 yards in the Broncos' past four games and his partner in crime, Correll Buckhalter, is third in the NFL with an average of 5.4 yards per carry.
The Colts very rarely slide the offensive line to the quarterback's backside in order to protect both the inside of left tackle Charlie Johnson and, of course, Manning. That is music to the ears of Broncos pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, who leads the NFL with 15 sacks, including 10 on third down. Couple that with a veteran secondary led by perennial Pro Bowlers like Champ Bailey, Ty Law and Brian Dawkins and you can see why the Broncos will not be fooled by Manning's normal gyrations and thus have a legitimate chance in this game.
Sunday 4:15 p.m.San Diego Chargers (9-3) at Dallas Cowboys (8-4)
Interesting matchup of the Chargers, winners of seven straight, against the Cowboys, the team with the December jinx. Dallas had a problem last week preventing the Giants from making big plays and that doesn't bode well for them considering Philip Rivers and his band of human mismatches are coming to town. The key defensively for the Cowboys will be getting a rush on Rivers from DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, and Jay Ratliff because their cover guys will not be able to hang with Chargers threats like Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates and Darren Sproles very long.
Offensively, Dallas was able to throw the ball against the Giants, so Tony Romo is not to blame for the first December defeat this season. That being said, the Cowboys still need to find a way to run the football and create some kind of balance so the Chargers pass rushers can't just tee off on the Dallas offensive line all game long. Look for the Chargers to double tight end Jason Witten and make somebody else for the Cowboys beat them.
Sunday 8:20 p.m.Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) at New York Giants (7-5)
It is highly unlikely the Giants will get a pair of surprising, big-play touchdowns again this week like they did last Sunday against the Cowboys in the form of Brandon Jacobs' catch-and-run and Domenik Hixon's zig-zagging punt return. That means it will either have to be Eli Manning's night or a return to the powerful running game that used to be such a big part of the G-Men's success. Pay particular attention to the Giants intensity, especially early in the game. They were clearly playing with a great deal of emotion against Dallas last week, but they came out extremely flat against Arizona and Denver the last two times they were in prime time.
The Eagles, on the other hand, have the look of a team ready to make a playoff run fresh off of a win over Atlanta that was so effortless head coach Andy Reid found the time to let Michael Vick score a couple of charity touchdowns against his former team. Speaking of Reid, his recent contract extension could give even more of a boost to a team looking like it is ready to peak at the right time. Did I mention that they get back their two best playmakers, Brian Westbrook and DeSean Jackson, from injury this week? That's a tall order for a Giants defense that has been disappointing pretty much all season.
Monday. 8:30 p.m.Arizona Cardinals (8-4) at San Francisco 49ers (5-7)
The Cardinals looked like a serious threat to make a repeat trip to the Super Bowl with their pasting of the previously invincible Minnesota Vikings last Sunday night. The great thing from a Cardinals perspective is it wasn't just Kurt Warner throwing the ball to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, although there was plenty of that. It was the Cardinals' intensity on defense, specifically guys like Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, that jumped off the screen. They got all over Brett Favre and will need to do the same thing Monday night against Alex Smith in order to cement their place atop NFC West.
Speaking of Smith, I had the opportunity to study him thoroughly and then watch him in person last Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks and it appears to me as if he is becoming the type of player the Niners thought they were getting when they drafted him No. 1 overall. The problem is this San Francisco squad can't find a way to make the plays they need to in order to win the close games. That is what separates the contenders from the pretenders in the NFL, and the drops by Vernon Davis and turnovers on special teams or by Frank Gore are what ultimately cost them last week against the Seahawks. That makes them a pretender for at least another season.
I get excited every week to see what you have for me in the mailbag ...
Interesting bit on practice squads. My question is about Jasen Esposito. I thought that if someone was on the practice squad, they were fair game to be picked up by another team if they were given a spot on the other team's 53-man roster. If that is the case, wouldn't the fact that no one else wanted him on their 53-man roster after two years of practice-squad experience make it more likely that they wanted someone newer with possible more upside to take up that valuable practice squad spot? I don't see any stats for him on NFL.com, so I'd assume that they were right in cutting him.--Derek, Fall River, Mass.
I understand your logic but you are off the mark on this one. You are right in the sense that practice squad players are free agents during the season and can be signed at any time but that really doesn't happen as often as you would think because those players typically have never played in a regular season game so their only film is from preseason. And by your logic, Bengals starters Kyle Cook, Nate Livings and Dennis Roland aren't any good because nobody ever signed them off the practice squad.
$30K for a sombrero? I don't understand the rules and fines that get people like Chad Ochocinco shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for entertaining the fans. The amounts fined are in the same ballpark as the fines for illegal and dangerous hits. You can't tell me that makes sense. So what is it that the fans don't understand (that apparently the league does) about the actions of such entertainers? How do other players feel about the things he does?--Steven Bergren, Edmond, Okla.
I hear you, but the NFL does not like when guys draw attention to themselves and Ochocinco takes that to a new level. They are also very wary of props and the road that could lead to. The specific amount of his fine is related to how many previous incidents he has had. The bottom line is they want him to be more of a football player and less of an "entertainer."
Ross, great work on the San Francisco-Seattle game last weekend; it was a very pleasant surprise to see you doing color for my beloved Niners. What is your view on the direction that Mike Singletary is taking the team? They've got some great talent, but I'm starting to get a little uneasy with Coach Samurai Mike...his timeout strategy especially is atrocious, and it has cost the team late in some ballgames. Also, the team has strayed far from the original mantra of "We hit 'em in the mouth" football (only 9 carries for Frank Gore this weekend?!?!), but can't seem to win games either running the ball or airing it out. Your thoughts?--Stefan van den Abeelen, San Jose, Calif.
I think you need to give Singletary some time, but there is no doubt last Sunday was not one of his better days as a coach with the wasteful timeouts and reverse punt return that led to a fumble. All in all I think next year will be the make or break year for this team because they need to get over the hump and find ways to win the close games.