Jags hoping to stay hot against Bills

Losing isn't what it used to be.

Before switching to a four-team, eight-division format, the NFL used to reward its worst teams with the easiest schedules. First-place teams played first-place teams. Fifth-place teams had a chance to rebound on a steady diet of fifth-place teams.

Now, thanks to the division realignments, only two of a team's 16 games in a season are based on how the team finished the previous year.
The spoils of losing are part of this weekend's Thanksgiving leftover fare.

Divisional teams have 14 common opponents, but it's five non-common opponent games -- based on last year's finishes -- that take the spotlight in Week 12 after
Indianapolis, Dallas and Green Bay provided the feast on Thanksgiving.

Heading the list is the Jaguars' game against the Bills. Don't minimize the value of these games, because they often turn into the difference between a team being a division winner or a wild card. For example, the Eagles won the NFC East last year and have games ahead against the Seahawks and the Saints, which won't be easy. The Giants, who finished third last year, already puffed up their record with wins over two third-place teams: the 49ers and the Falcons.

The success or failure of the Jaguars' season will come down to how they do against the Colts next Sunday and how they do against their third-place, non-common opponents. The Jaguars drew the Bills this week and the Steelers on Dec. 16.

Jack Del Rio has done a remarkable job of keeping the Jaguars in the playoff race despite injuries and other problems. Too bad the fans aren't buying into it. The game is blacked out in Jacksonville because 2,200 tickets weren't sold.

That's sad. Unless the home crowd is loud, this could end up being a trap game for the Jaguars. They lost their best linebacker, Mike Peterson, last week with a broken hand. Rashean Mathis is expected to miss the game because of a groin injury. Plus, it has to be a downer to not have the full support of the crowd.

The Bills come to town after last Sunday's 56-10 spanking by the Patriots. In getting the Bills to 5-5, former Jaguars defensive coordinator Dick Jauron has fought through more problems than Del Rio. The Bills lead the league in injuries. Including the time missed by four players who ended up on the injured reserve list, the Bills lead the league with 70 missed starts.

They come into this game without star rookie running back Marshawn Lynch, who has a high ankle sprain. If Mathis is out, expect the Bills to go more to a passing offense with J.P. Losman. Anthony Thomas is a good pass-blocker and could buy some extra throwing time for Losman.

Overall, five of the 32 non-common opponent games are scheduled for Sunday. The AFC South, which is 19-7 against the rest of the league, has three home games against non-common opponents. The Titans draw the Bengals. The Texans draw the Browns.

There are playoff implications in the Bucs' game against the Redskins, two fourth-place teams from a year ago. The Ravens' tough season continues as they travel to San Diego, a game featuring two division winners from a year ago.

1. Houston at Cleveland: The Browns have become the Cinderella story in the NFL. They are a thrill a minute. Derek Anderson is the league's surprise quarterback, heaving long passes and watching athletic catches. Jamal Lewis is steadying the running attack. Josh Cribbs electrifies the crowd in the return game.

Because the Browns' offense is so good, teams are forced to kick to Cribbs rather than give Cleveland good field position with squib kicks.

For the Texans, this is their last push to see if they are a wild-card contender, which makes them dangerous. They have snuck up on the league with a 5-5 record, despite juggling running backs because of Ahman Green's chronic knee troubles. A loss would make Houston an also-ran down the stretch.

2. Washington at Tampa Bay: Although the Bucs' schedule appeared favorable heading into the season, who would have expected them to be in this position? A year ago, they were 4-12. Now, they are 6-4 and hold a two-game lead in the NFC South. However, it's still too early to celebrate. Linebacker Cato June was charged with a DUI after the Bucs returned from their road win at Atlanta in Week 11.

The Bucs haven't clinched anything yet. Three road games in the next four weeks follow. It's not that the schedule is tough -- the Bucs just can't afford to think too highly of themselves. The Bucs are a scrappy team that must play at a high level to win. They have older, veteran receivers and are patching together a run game without their best back, Carnell (Cadillac) Williams.

The Redskins have lost two straight, and there's plenty of pressure on coach Joe Gibbs. Dan Snyder hired Gibbs to win Super Bowls. The Redskins have been pretty average under Gibbs, and they don't want to start thinking about next year this early in the season.

3. New Orleans at Carolina: A year ago, the Panthers were a trendy NFC Super Bowl pick. The Saints were this year's trendy NFC Super Bowl pick. Wow, how things have changed. The loser of this game will be 4-7 and a long shot to make the playoffs .

Panthers coach John Fox is under the gun. There are rumblings his job could be on the line. What has to disappoint owner Jerry Richardson is an 0-4 home record. Fox took the Panthers to the Super Bowl once. He's a good coach. Week to week, he doesn't know who is going to be healthy enough to be his quarterback, and the options aren't great: Vinny Testaverde or David Carr. This week, it will be Carr. Talk about a game of desperation.

4. Baltimore at San Diego: This was supposed to be a matchup of AFC playoff contenders. Now, it's a matter of the Chargers trying to turn around a disappointing season and the Ravens playing for next season.

The Ravens basically have hit the wall. Against the Browns in Week 11, Baltimore didn't get a first down until the final possession of the first half. The Chargers must be in crisis mode. The Broncos are gaining momentum and are tied with San Diego for first place in the AFC West. Fans could be ready to turn if the Chargers don't beat the Ravens. Heck, fans were upset a couple of weeks ago when Norv Turner was calling second-half running plays to LaDainian Tomlinson when the Chargers were beating the Colts 23-0. That's a tough crowd.

5. Philadelphia at New England: Since when did the Eagles become a doormat? The Eagles are 22-point underdogs to the Patriots.

The Patriots are in the midst of becoming a forensic drama series. Here's the plot: The opponent is the corpse. Each week, you have to see how badly the Patriots bludgeon it. Welcome to CSI: New England.

6. Minnesota at N.Y. Giants: This one shouldn't be too hard to figure. For whatever reason, the Raiders didn't put much pressure on Tarvaris Jackson in Week 11, and the Vikings' quarterback had a career day. The Giants lead the NFL with 32 sacks. New York will try to pressure the Vikings into mistakes.

The Vikings showed they can survive without running back Adrian Peterson because Chester Taylor is a starting back who can gain 100 yards on any given Sunday. The Giants are smart enough on defense. They won't be vulnerable to the trick plays and should handle the Vikings conventionally.

7. Denver at Chicago: Jay Cutler is maturing into a quarterback who should be a playoff regular for years to come. Cutler-led victories over the Chiefs and Titans put the Broncos back in the AFC West race, but playoff quarterbacks have to win on the road.

The Broncos finish the season with four of six games on the road. Cutler hasn't been too bad on the road this year, winning two of four, but only six of his 15 career starts have come on the road. He's completed 61 percent of his passes in road games with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Road games will be his next challenge.

8. Tennessee at Cincinnati: Vince Young had a career game statistically in the loss at Denver, throwing for 305 yards. What's clear is that he needs more help from receivers and tight ends.

The good thing is the Titans will catch the Bengals, who are moving over to rookie cornerback Leon Hall and won't be able to pressure the quarterback. Young should have good numbers this week, too.

9. Miami at Pittsburgh: The Steelers have lost three games to teams with a combined record of 12-18. That smacks of a team that plays to the level of its competition. Coach Mike Tomlin says the Steelers don't believe in trap games. Well, they better learn they can be trapped. Fortunately for the Steelers, they play the 0-10 Dolphins at home, where they are 5-0. There are no traps there.

10. Seattle at St. Louis: The Seahawks must beware of the trap. They have switched to the pass-oriented offense, but their quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck didn't practice this week because of an oblique muscle injury. Halfback Shaun Alexander will miss the game at because of a knee injury. Wide receiver D.J. Hackett, who has been hot in recent weeks, has a sore knee. Plus, the Rams are playing better. Marc Bulger's ribs feel better, so he's playing better. The key for the Seahawks is getting their defensive line to overwhelm the injured Rams offensive line. The more hits they can get on Bulger, the better chance they have of stretching their winning streak to three games.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.