NFL Nation: Patriots-Seahawks

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Seahawks can't blame their latest defeat on poor production from Deion Branch.

The oft-injured receiver scored two touchdown passes in his first game against the team that traded him to Seattle for a first-round choice in the 2007 draft. The Seahawks might have won Sunday if the Patriots hadn't used that draft choice for safety Brandon Meriweather.

Meriweather's fumble-forcing sack in the final minutes stopped a promising Seattle drive, allowing the Patriots to run out the clock.

The Seahawks are beyond worrying about outcomes. At 2-11, they are looking for smaller victories. A few stood out Sunday:

  • Rookie tight end John Carlson continued to play at a high level.
  • Quarterback Seneca Wallace played perhaps his best game as a professional.
  • Branch flashed the talent that made Seattle pursue him in the first place.
  • Cornerback Marcus Trufant played at a Pro Bowl level against Patriots receiver Randy Moss.
  • Seattle's patched-together offensive line played better than expected against an injury-depleted Patriots defense.

The biggest victory of all: Only three games remain on the schedule. The offseason can't come quickly enough for Seattle.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

St. Louis Rams (2-10) at Arizona Cardinals (7-5), 4:15 p.m. ET
The bar keeps getting lower in Arizona's continuing efforts to claim its first division title since 1975, when the Cardinals called St. Louis home and the Rams played in Los Angeles.

The Cardinals have given up 85 points in defeats to the Giants and Eagles over the last two weeks. The Rams have scored 63 points during their current six-game losing streak. But the defense allowed only 12 points to the Dolphins in Week 13, and having Steven Jackson back in the lineup gives the Rams at least an outside chance.

While Arizona simply needs a 49ers defeat to win the NFC West crown, anything short of a victory over the Rams might send them down the road to 8-8.

We've spent the week dissecting the Cardinals' problems running the ball. Let's not forget about Anquan Boldin. He dropped two passes and lost a fumble against the Eagles in what might have been the worst game of his career. Expect much better from him Sunday.

New York Jets (8-4) at San Francisco 49ers (4-8), 4:05 ET
The Jets haven't exactly played their best on the West Coast this season, but the 49ers' season-long issues at safety could make them vulnerable against Brett Favre.

This would be a good week for the 49ers' safeties to record their first interception of the season. Favre's occasional carelessness gives them a chance, but the overall matchup favors the Jets.

Both teams feature young and talented tight ends. The Jets' Dustin Keller has more receptions as a rookie (40) than the 49ers' Vernon Davis has managed in two of his three seasons. Watch to see how much time Davis spends in pass protection.

N. England Patriots (7-5) at Seattle Seahawks (2-10), 4:05 ET
Deion Branch's first game against his former team lacks sizzle. The injury-plagued Seattle receiver has 13 receptions this season, his third since the Seahawks acquired him from the Patriots for a first-round draft choice.

Branch has been mostly a non-factor for Seattle since the trade two years ago. He's been a non-factor in New England since the Patriots signed Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

Safety Brandon Meriweather, the player New England selected with the choice from Seattle, leads the Patriots with four interceptions.

Update: New information on the Seattle injury front.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Miami Dolphins (7-5) vs. Buffalo Bills (6-6) in Toronto, 4:05 p.m. ET

While the Bills wallow in their playoff futility and are almost certain to stretch their drought to an eighth straight year, the Dolphins are trying to enter the next phase of their turnaround from laughingstocks to AFC East contenders.

The Dolphins, with games remaining against the Bills and Jets, can win the division if they run the table.

Sunday's game also is critical for the Bills, whose playoff hopes are mathematically alive, though their disgusted fans know how remote that possibility is. Even if the Bills finish 10-6, it probably won't be enough. But without a victory over the Dolphins we'll never find out.

Buffalo's J.P. Losman will make his first start in a year with Trent Edwards unable to practice because of a groin injury.

Perhaps Losman will be a sparkplug, but he mostly has misfired when given an opportunity the past two seasons. His mobility could help Buffalo against Miami outside linebacker Joey Porter, who ranks second with 14.5 sacks.

Miami will play without left guard Justin Smiley, who was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last Sunday. Buffalo's defensive line hasn't been a dynamic force, but Smiley's absence is a profound weakness on a shallow offensive line the Dolphins have struggled all year to bolster.

New York Jets (8-4) at San Francisco 49ers (4-8), 4:05 p.m. ET

New York came crashing down last Sunday from the ozone layer, where they had been flying after back-to-back road victories over the Patriots and Titans.

The Jets could have taken an imposing lead in the AFC East race but were humbled at home by the beatable Broncos. Now the Jets have to fend off the rest of the division with a tricky final four games.

This weekend's trip will encompass 5,146 miles round trip. They'll host the Bills next week then fly another 4,804 miles round trip to play the Seahawks. There won't be any respite when they return to the Meadowlands for the regular-season finale. They'll meet the Dolphins in what could determine the division title.

San Francisco has earned its laughingstock reputation but has been playing well lately. Even so, the Jets' defense, with something to prove after last week's poor performance, should control running back Frank Gore and the tone of the game.

New England Patriots (7-5) at Seattle Seahawks (2-10), 4:05 p.m. ET

If the Patriots can't win this game, they don't deserve to return to the playoffs. They need at least a 3-1 record over their final four games based on where they are in the wild-card pecking order and the ease of the Dolphins' schedule.

Seattle looks like a fine place for the Patriots to rejuvenate themselves. The Patriots haven't lost to an NFC West opponent since early 2005, and the Seahawks have been horrible in head coach Mike Holmgren's swan dive season.

Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel is in his first real bounce-back situation. After establishing what he's capable of as an NFL starter -- consecutive 400-yard games against the Jets and Dolphins -- he had won of his first outings in last Sunday's 33-10 loss to the Steelers.

The Patriots should tee off on both sides of the ball.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

The New England Patriots need a boost.

Longest Win Streak vs. Other Conference
TeamWinsSeasons
New England Patriots 13 2005-present
New Orleans Saints 13 1987-90
Miami Dolphins 13 1978-81
Kansas City Chiefs 11 1996-98
Oakland Raiders 11 1973-76
Miami Dolphins 11 1970-73

With only four games left in the regular season, they need to make a run to return to the playoffs. They have won two games in a row only twice all year, and the last time was in October.

To honor Bill Belichick's one-game-at-a-time mantra, here are a couple of trends that should help Patriots Nation relax at least for Sunday, when they visit the Seattle Seahawks.

The Patriots have won 13 straight games against the NFC (in the regular season, of course), tying them for the longest win streak versus the other conference since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

If ever the Patriots needed to break a record, this one is it. They also host the Arizona Cardinals in two weeks.

The last time the Patriots lost a regular-season game to an NFC opponent was Sept. 18, 2005. The Carolina Panthers beat the Patriots 27-17 in Charlotte. That was 58 regular-season games ago.

Another trend working in the Patriots' favor is the Seahawks' five-game losing streak. It's the Seahawks' longest skid in eight years. They haven't dropped six in a row since 1994.

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