Friday, December 23, 2011
Jets, Giants engage in war of words
By John Clayton
Rex Ryan is the talk of the New York area. He'll have anyone within the sound of his voice believe the Jets are a Super Bowl team.
Tom Coughlin is a man of action. He's a no-nonsense disciplinarian, but his team tends to talk. He cringes on the sideline when his players make mistakes. He's a perfectionist in a not-so-perfect world.
Sunday's battle at MetLife Stadium is for more than just bragging rights. Coughlin's job is on the line. Ryan's credibility is at stake. The loser of the game could be knocked out of playoff contention.
"Regardless of what is said, 'Talk is cheap, play the game,'" Coughlin said Wednesday.
What's clear is both teams are struggling. Mark Sanchez is on a career-best pace for yards and touchdown passes, but he's completing only 56.9 percent of his passes. The Giants' defense ranks 28th in giving up 385.1 yards per game. New York has lost five of its past six games after a 6-2 start.
Listening to the players, though, they have carved the other team up like presidential candidates in Republican debates. Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes labled the Giants a poor tackling team. Former Giant Michael Strahan says he's tired of Ryan's talking.
Perhaps the most interesting comments came from the Giants receivers who said teams don't fear Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis anymore and are willing to throw on him. Opponents have thrown 76 passes in Revis' direction. They've completed 32. He's given up only one touchdown pass. Last season, quarterbacks were 19-of-56 against him for four touchdowns. In 2009, they were 40-of-108 with two touchdowns.
The numbers are up a little this season and down from 2009. Face it, the guy is still good.
While the Jets are going for a wild-card berth, the Giants are trying to win a wild card of a division, the NFC East. The pressure is on both teams, but the stakes are higher for the Giants because a loss could cost Coughlin his job.
1. Jerry Jones' fear factor: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones admits the Eagles scare him. They should. The last time the teams met, on Oct. 30, the Eagles blew out the Cowboys 34-7. The Eagles jumped to a 24-0 first-half lead and cruised with LeSean McCoy running for 185 yards. The Eagles know if they win, their faint playoff chances are alive for another week. It could also mean the NFC East as a division would drop to the status of the NFC West, which last season produced to a 7-9 division winner. A Cowboys loss could leave the door open for an 8-8 division winner. The biggest question mark is the Cowboys' defense. Dallas ranks a respectable 13th in giving up 333.4 yards a game, but it's the pass defense that's disappointing. Michael Vick was able to complete 75 percent of his passes against the Cowboys in the first meeting. It seems pretty clear there isn't going to be a coaching change in Dallas, and odds of a change in Philadelphia aren't great. Jeff Lurie, the Eagles' owner, is expected to stand by Andy Reid, but it would help the process if the Eagles can stay in the playoff race. Reid is starting to put some pieces together with this underachieving Eagles team. Jones' Cowboys need to play scared.
2. Elimination game at Ford Field: One of the best matchups of Week 16 is the Chargers versus the Lions. Seeing Philip Rivers go against Matthew Stafford is worth any price. Last Sunday, Rivers was at his best carving up the Ravens' defense in an effort to keep Norv Turner as the head coach. The Chargers know their playoff hopes are dependent on the Broncos losing. What's great about this game is it features two quarterbacks who throw some of the hardest passes to complete in the league. Rivers isn't afraid to throw deep and to throw against double coverage. He has big targets such as Antonio Gates, Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson. Over the past three weeks, the Chargers have had one of the league's hottest offenses, averaging 36.3 points and 404.6 yards a game. Stafford has four comebacks of 13 points or more and is averaging 94 passing yards a game to Calvin Johnson after the Lions drop behind by 13 points or more. If they win, the Lions clinch a playoff spot. For the Chargers, it's survival.
3. One of the league's under-the-radar great rivalries: I rank the Falcons-Saints rivalry as the third-best in football behind the Steelers-Ravens and Bears-Packers. When these teams meet, games are close and tensions are high. It's Drew Brees going against Matt Ryan. The last four times these teams have met, each game has been decided by three points. The last six games have been decided by eight points or fewer. The Saints have the edge. First, they are home -- although the Falcons pulled the upset last year in the Superdome early in the season. Sean Payton has won five of the past six games against the Falcons, who probably won't catch the Saints for the NFC South crown but could set up a possible meeting later in the playoffs.
What's going to trouble the Falcons is how well the Saints' offense matches up against the Falcons' style of defense. The Falcons love playing Cover 2. Thanks to the development of tight end Jimmy Graham and the addition of halfback Darren Sproles, Brees destroys Cover 2 defenses. That is reflected in ESPN Stats and Information numbers. Over the past six games, Brees is completing 79.6 percent of his passes inside the numbers with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions.
4. Clinching home field in Lambeau: Thoughts of an undefeated season for Green Bay slipped away last Sunday when the Packers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs. Now, Mike McCarthy can be smart about things heading into the playoffs. The first priority is beating the Bears on Christmas night and clinching home-field advantage. Were the perfect season on the line, McCarthy might have played Aaron Rodgers through the season finale. If the Packers win -- which should be a given because the Bears are starting Josh McCown at quarterback -- they can rest Rodgers for the finale. Playing Rodgers next week is a risk because of injuries along the Packers' offensive line. Once tackles Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod went down with leg injuries last week, Rodgers was a target for Chiefs defenders. McCarthy had to move guard T.J. Lang to right tackle, and Lang was destroyed by pass-rushing linebacker Tamba Hali.
Expect the Bears' Julius Peppers to rush past Lang and pressure Rodgers. That should force the Packers to go more to a running game in order to protect Rodgers. The Bears had no choice but to go to McCown because Caleb Hanie was 0-4 as a replacement for Jay Cutler and was getting more interceptions than big plays. But the Bears don't figure to get much offense and scoring now they are down Cutler, Matt Forte and Johnny Knox, which is why the Packers should try to win and rest players next week.
|Matthew Stafford has been the comeback kid this season.|
5. Respect in the NFC West: The past couple of seasons have been an embarrassment for the NFC West. The division has been so bad that it's changed the landscape of football. Poor play in the NFC West enabled teams in the two divisions that annually play against it to pump up their records by going 3-1 or 4-0 and thereby enhancing their playoff chances. Thanks to the additions of Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco and Pete Carroll in Seattle, the division has rebounded from rock bottom and is getting better. The NFC West is 18-20 in non-divisional games. Last season, it was 13-27. The AFC South, for example, is worse with a 14-26 record. Could the NFC West reach .500 out of division? Probably not. The Rams, who are an awful 2-12, play against the Pittsburgh Steelers and figure to lose with Kellen Clemens expected to start. The Cardinals have a chance to win in Cincinnati. The Bengals sold only a little more than 40,000 tickets and will have their sixth blackout of the season. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton has turned around that unit with aggressive blitzing. If they can get to 8-7, the Cardinals have remote playoff hopes, but the big thing is that Ken Whisenhunt has brought the team to respectability. The Seahawks
host the 49ers in an interesting Sunday matchup. The 49ers are coming off a short week because of the Monday game. The Seahawks have become a hot defense that now ranks eighth in the league. The best showdown will be the 49ers' run defense, which hasn't given up a rushing touchdown, going against Seahawks halfback Marshawn Lynch, who has a touchdown (11 rushing, one receiving) his past 10 games.
6. Tebowing in Buffalo: Even the draw of Tim Tebow couldn't excite enough loyal Buffalo Bills fans. More than 24,000 seats are unsold for this game, which figures to be the smallest Bills crowd in about a decade. A seven-game losing streak tends to turn off fans and create blackouts. Still, Tebow's the best show in football right now. At 8-6, a victory could move the Broncos closer to winning the AFC West. The Tebow story has been amazing. He's 7-2 as a starter even though he's completed less than half of his throwing attempts. The Bills have the ability to score, which could create problems for the Broncos. They average 22.2 points a game. Fitzpatrick has thrown for 3,329 yards but he has 15 interceptions in his past nine games. For the Bills to win, they have to jump to a big lead over the Broncos like the Patriots did last week. Tebow is completing only 40.5 percent of his passes in the first three quarters of games. In the fourth quarter, he completes 59.8 percent of his passes. If the Bills allow the Broncos to be in the game in the fourth quarter, their losing streak will continue.
7. Play Ben or rest him? The Steelers need only look across the field Saturday to see what they should do with Ben Roethlisberger. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has tried to come back twice from a high ankle sprain and he's only made the injury worse. While a quarterback can manage to play on a high ankle sprain, Big Ben made a heroic effort. Now he needs to rest, and the Steelers will reportedly start Charlie Batch. The Steelers gambled to get the No. 1 seed in the AFC by putting Roethlisberger out there against the 49ers despite his high ankle sprain. Making arm throws, Roethlisberger put up yards but not points. Coming up, the Steelers face the Rams without Bradford and the Browns possibly without Colt McCoy. Both teams are among the lowest scoring in football. What the Steelers need to do is get Roethlisberger ready for the playoffs and not risk losing him for a team that is probably going to be a No. 5 seed.
8. Wrapping up loose ends: The Patriots host the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens host the Cleveland Browns in easy games that should help determine if they are going to be the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the AFC. Losses by the Steelers and Ravens last week gave the Patriots a one-game edge in securing home-field advantage. The Patriots have won seven of their last nine games against the Dolphins. Even though they've lost their past two playoff home games, home is important for Tom Brady in the playoffs. In five road playoff games, Brady has six touchdown passes and six interceptions. In 10 home playoff games, Brady has 16 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. John Harbaugh is 7-0 against the Browns and doesn't figure to lose a home game to them. Because of McCoy's concussion problems, Seneca Wallace is expected to start for the Browns. The Ravens are 7-0 at home and need a win to stay ahead of the Steelers in the AFC North.
|Jim Harbaugh and the Niners have brought respectability back to the NFC West.|
9. Hoping experience can fix the problems: The Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans decided to go the experienced quarterback route to navigate through their schedules. Mike Munchak is staying with Matt Hasselbeck a week after the offense stumbled last week in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Even though Jake Locker showed plenty of spark coming off the bench, Munchak felt Hasselbeck could have the edge in games against rookie quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert of the Jaguars and T.J. Yates of the Texans. If the Titans could get to 9-7, they'd have an outside chance of getting a wild card, but that loss to the Colts watered down their hopes.
Raiders coach Hue Jackson faces even more pressure than Munchak. He traded away the future of the franchise to land Carson Palmer, but the Raiders (7-7) sit a game behind the Broncos in the AFC West. Palmer hasn't been able to link up on the long passes the Raiders hope to produce. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Palmer has completed only 11 of 30 passes that have sailed at least 21 yards in the air. His 11.81 yards per attempt for those throws ranks 18th, which is only average. A loss to Kansas City could be embarrassing. With Kyle Orton, coming off a 299-yard performance against Green Bay, the Chiefs have a chance.
10. Closing out the schedule: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the Carolina Panthers in a game that could determine whether Raheem Morris is back as coach next season. The Bucs have played horribly in the past two months while the Panthers are showing promise with Cam Newton at quarterback. The Vikings-Redskins game is more for positioning in the draft. The Redskins are hoping to be in position to draft a quarterback. The Vikings figure to be in position to take a tackle, possibly Matt Kalil of USC.
|The Titans will lean on Matt Hasselbeck's experience for their playoff push.|
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.