Real contenders know to finish strong

Finish strong. That is the goal of every NFL team, but particularly for the teams that have taken advantage of September and October and kept themselves in position to make a playoff run. The last six weeks of the regular season are critical.

"After Thanksgiving, you better be playing your best football or on your way toward playing your best football if you're going to be representative," New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said this week.

That's where we are. The bye weeks are now over. It is the delicious stretch run. Six more weeks for teams to jell and gain momentum for the ultimate season: the second season.

There are typically two ways teams make Super Bowl runs. One is through sustained excellence throughout a season, like New Orleans (13-3) and Indianapolis (14-2) did in 2009 and New England (16-0) in 2007. The other is by getting hot late, like the Giants did in 2011 (6-6 heading into Week 14) and Green Bay did in 2010 (8-6 heading into Week 16).

With eight teams entering Week 12 with seven wins or more, sustained excellence is the frontrunner for the winning path this season, which begs the question: Of those eight, which two are best positioned for a postseason run?

In the AFC, the drama over which teams will win the divisions is all but gone. Houston, New England and Denver all hold healthy leads over their divisional counterparts. Baltimore has a two-game lead over Pittsburgh, which will be without Ben Roethlisberger again this week at Cleveland and may be without him next week for the rematch at the Ravens.

In the NFC, Atlanta has a three-game lead over 6-4 Tampa Bay and a four-game lead over 5-5 New Orleans, two teams that are surging but probably dug too deep of holes early to prevent the Falcons from winning the NFC South. San Francisco has a 1˝-game lead over Seattle in the NFC West. Things are murky in the NFC North with Green Bay and Chicago both 7-3, and the NFC East should be a dogfight between Dallas and the New York Giants, teams that split their season series.

If the playoffs started after Week 11, nine teams that played in the postseason in 2011 would be in: Houston, Baltimore, New England, Denver and Pittsburgh in the AFC; Atlanta, San Francisco, Green Bay and New York in the NFC. The three newcomers would be Chicago, Seattle and Indianapolis. So there should be plenty of teams with postseason experience playing in January, which would add another layer to the equation.

At this point, here is my revised Super Bowl pick: Denver against Green Bay.

Yes, the Broncos will be without Willis McGahee for the stretch run and the beginning of the playoffs, a huge blow given that McGahee has had three 100-yard rushing games this season. McGahee forced opponents to stay honest against the run. He will be out at least until the AFC Championship Game with a fracture in his leg and torn medial collateral ligament.

But Denver can endure. During their five-game winning streak, the Broncos have scored at least 30 points every game, averaging 33.2. Overall, they have the third-ranked offense (394.2 yards per game), are third in touchdowns (36) and second in scoring (30.1 points per game).

After an understandably slow start, Peyton Manning has been terrific, completing 71.4 percent of his passes for an average of 295.2 yards in the past five games, with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. And the Broncos' defense ranks sixth in the league in yards allowed (312.8 yards per game) and 11th in scoring (21.2 points per game).

The Broncos' schedule down the stretch should help them maintain momentum. Three of Denver's next four games are on the road, and they close with Cleveland and Kansas City at home.

The Packers should have an asterisk next to their 7-3 record. Were it not for a botched call by a replacement official at the end of the game at Seattle, Green Bay would be a strong 8-2. The Packers' much-maligned defense of 2011 has vastly improved. A season after finishing last in the league in yards allowed, Green Bay is 16th, allowing 343.9 yards per game, and 10th in scoring, allowing 20.7 points per game.

After an early season slump, Aaron Rodgers has settled into a groove. During their five-game winning streak, the Packers have averaged 30.2 points per game. In essence, they are who we thought in the preseason they would be: one of the best teams in the best conference in football.

The Packers' remaining schedule: at the Giants (more on that below), Minnesota, Detroit, at Chicago, Tennessee and at Minnesota.

Finish strong. It is imperative. That's what I expect the Broncos and Packers, teams that have two of the best quarterbacks in the game, to do.


November wasn't kind to the New York Giants last season. In a four-week stretch from Nov. 13 until the first week of December, the Giants lost to San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Green Bay to go from cruising at 6-2 to ailing at 6-6. They regrouped, of course, and the rest is history.

A year later, New York is facing a similar swoon, one that might be tougher to overcome given how soft of a schedule the Dallas Cowboys face the rest of the season. Coming out of their bye week, the Giants enter their game Sunday against Green Bay on a two-game losing streak and then will play at Washington, against New Orleans, at Atlanta, at Baltimore and against Philadelphia.

How rough a go has it been for Eli Manning? He hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in a month. In the past three games, Manning has completed 54.5 percent of his passes for an average of 177.3 yards, with zero touchdowns and four interceptions. By comparison, Green Bay's quarterback enters Sunday's game on a tear. During the Packers' five-game winning streak, Rodgers has completed 65.7 percent of his passes for an average of 264 passing yards per game, with 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Manning said this week that he thinks the Giants are "close" to putting things together. He better hope so. The Packers are ninth in the NFL in scoring, averaging 26.3 points per game, and during their winning streak have averaged 30.2 points per game.

The Giants desperately need to get on a run. They'll be hard-pressed to do that against quite possibly the hottest team in the NFL.

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The old adage in the NFL is if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one. Add this addendum: unless you are Jim Harbaugh.

Of course Harbaugh wants to "go with the hot hand" when San Francisco plays at New Orleans on Sunday. He has two of them. In his first career start, Colin Kaepernick picked apart an above-average Bears defense that has lived off creating turnovers. Kaepernick did it, in part, by utilizing one of the 49ers' best, and recently ignored, weapons: Vernon Davis. Lost in the haze of Kaepernick's dazzling performance was the memory that in Week 8 against Arizona, Alex Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and a near-perfect 157.1 passer rating.

So Harbaugh really can't go wrong. Kaepernick or Smith? Harbaugh has two quarterbacks, but he's got two No. 1s. That's a nice problem to have.

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It took more than a year, but Roethlisberger finally got his wish. For the first time since Roethlisberger's rookie year in 2004, Plaxico Burress is back in the fold. The only question is: What took Pittsburgh -- or, for that matter, any of the other 31 teams -- so long?

Yes, Burress is 35 years old and hasn't played this season, but he's still 6-foot-5. He's still got great hands. He's still a monster target in the end zone. He can still catch touchdown passes. And he's coming off a season when he caught 45 passes for 612 yards and 8 touchdowns for the New York Jets.

Burress doesn't have to be more than a role player for the Steelers. He doesn't have to be their No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. He will play Sunday at Cleveland -- Jerricho Cotchery has broken ribs and Antonio Brown has a sprained ankle -- as either the No. 3 or No. 4 receiver. He just needs to do what he does and provide a big target for Charlie Batch to find in the end zone.

This is a critical time for the Steelers, who will be without Roethlisberger for at least another week. After Cleveland, they face Baltimore again. They can't afford to fall too far behind in standings and are counting on Burress, their first-round draft pick in 2000, to provide an offensive spark.

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Even with the suspended-not-suspended Ed Reed back in the fold, the Ravens have a challenging remaining schedule, beginning Sunday at San Diego, which is 2-2 at home this season and has lost five of its past six games overall. Then they host Pittsburgh, play at Washington, host Denver and the Giants before finishing the regular-season at Cincinnati.

Given their troubles on the road and their overwhelming success at home, the Ravens are desperately trying to secure home-field advantage through the playoffs. At the least, they would like a first-round bye and to host their first playoff game. It's going to come down to math. Can the Ravens stave off the Steelers in the NFC North, and can they catch the 9-1 Texans. It will be critical to their ability to finally get to the Super Bowl under coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco.

Five of Baltimore's eight wins this season have come by a touchdown or less, which running back Ray Rice says shows "we're maturing."

"That's what it says," Rice said. "We've been a young team, but now we are a team that's maturing and we're finding ways to win games, which is important. Right now, it's the toughest time of the year for us, and we just continue to plug away. Harbs is not taking his foot off the pedal, and we're more self-critical of ourselves than anybody else."

That is an essential quality for a team that is trying to break through. Don't be satisfied. As Rice said, keep striving for perfection.

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With a win Sunday at Kansas City, Peyton Manning will surpass John Elway and move into sole possession of second place in career wins. He currently sits alongside Elway with 148 career victories, 38 behind Brett Favre.

Let that soak in.


San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith told ESPN on Wednesday that his backup, Colin Kaepernick, will take all of the first-team practice reps this week as the 49ers prepare for Sunday's game at New Orleans. Kaepernick dazzled in his first NFL start Monday against Chicago, completing 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

What did the film show of Kaepernick, a second-round pick out of Nevada in 2011?

"Kaepernick must be very smart," said Greg Cosell, executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup." "The 49ers were very multiple with personnel and formations, plus he was given responsibility at the line of scrimmage to change plays and protections. Kaepernick showed good footwork on his drops from center. He had excellent balance as he planted his back foot, transferred his weight and delivered."

One example came early in the Bears game. In the first quarter, facing third-and-seven from the San Francisco 40-yard line, Kaepernick noticed that the Bears rotated from a two-deep shell to man-free coverage at the last second. He found Kyle Williams out of the slot with what Cosell called a "beautiful touch throw." Williams beat cornerback Kelvin Hayden and the Niners picked up 57 yards to set up first-and-goal from the Chicago 3-yard line. They scored a touchdown on the next play.

"Overall, Kaepernick was outstanding in a brilliantly orchestrated offense that defined reads and throws for him," Cosell said. "The 49ers coaching staff did a tremendous job. The game plan did not feature much designed movement or read option. I was surprised by that, but the coaching approach was brilliant."

Expect more of the same if Kaepernick ends up getting his second career start on Sunday.


With Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III having strong rookie performances, Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin probably won't win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. But he should garner serious consideration. The 31st pick in the 2012 draft out of Boise State, Martin leads the NFL with 1,319 yards from scrimmage and has 1,019 of those yards in the past six games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only two other rookies in NFL history have ever amassed 1,000 yards from scrimmage in a six-game span: Eric Dickerson in 1983 and Edgerrin James in 1999. That's pretty good company.

Martin will add to that total this week against an Atlanta defense that has allowed a league-high 2.2 yards per rush after first contact this season. Martin has averaged 2.3 yards per rush after contact, fourth best among players with at least 75 rushes.


The conference realignment edition.

Agreed. Like ESPN's Scott Van Pelt, I grew up in Atlantic Coast Conference territory, attending the ACC men's basketball tournament, most frequently in Greensboro, N.C., when the league had eight teams. My favorite college basketball players all played in the ACC: Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Ralph Sampson, Dereck Whittenburg, Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker and Len Bias, among many others. Basketball came first, football second. Now football drives college athletics and the ACC, like most conferences, is unrecognizable.

So true. Maryland leaves the ACC and Rutgers leaves the Big East, both headed to the Big Ten.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith played at Maryland from 2008-2010 and finished as the ACC's career kickoff return leader. The Ravens selected the Virginia native with the 58th overall selection in the 2010 draft.

New England cornerback Devin McCourty and his twin brother, Tennessee cornerback Jason McCourty, both went to Rutgers. They have a joint Twitter account.


All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.

Tennessee (4-6) at Jacksonville (1-9), 1 p.m.
Jacksonville's starting quarterback job now belongs to Chad Henne, who passed for 354 yards and four touchdowns in relief of Blaine Gabbert against Houston. Can he do it again? Jaguars 24, Titans 21.

Buffalo (4-6) at Indianapolis (6-4), 1 p.m.
Despite giving up 59 points to New England on Sunday, the Colts are still alive for the postseason. Time to rebound at home. Colts 27, Bills 17.

Pittsburgh (6-4) at Cleveland (2-8), 1 p.m.
The Browns have not quit. They're still playing hard. This is a division game against not Roethlisberger. Perfect time for a big win. Browns 19, Steelers 17.

Oakland (3-7) at Cincinnati (5-5), 1 p.m.
The Raiders have been outscored 135-69 in the past three weeks. The owner is embarrassed. The players should be, too. Bengals 24, Raiders 20.

Denver (7-3) at Kansas City (1-9), 1 p.m.
The Broncos are rolling, and it is not all Manning. Von Miller is making a case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Broncos 35, Chiefs 10.

Seattle (6-4) at Miami (4-6), 1 p.m.
The Dolphins are in a three-way tie for second place in the AFC East. They need to create separation if they hope to get to the postseason. That's tough to do against the Seattle defense. Seahawks 24, Dolphins 13.

Atlanta (9-1) at Tampa Bay (6-4), 1 p.m.
The Buccaneers are on the move, winners of four straight and averaging 34.8 points in their past four games. They won't catch the Falcons, but they can push into the playoffs. Bucs 35, Falcons 34.

Minnesota (6-4) at Chicago (7-3), 1 p.m.
Jay Cutler can't get back fast enough. Bears 24, Vikings 20.

Baltimore (8-2) at San Diego (4-6), 4:05 p.m.
The Chargers are inconsistent and unreliable at home. The Ravens are motivated to bury Pittsburgh and take the AFC North. And, they have Reed. Ravens 20, Chargers 17.

St. Louis (3-6-1) at Arizona (4-6), 4:25 p.m.
Is there a team with a worse quarterback situation than Arizona's? Sadly for Larry Fitzgerald, no. Rams 17, Cardinals 16.

San Francisco (7-2-1) at New Orleans (5-5), 4:25 p.m.
If the 49ers can get the type of quarterback play they got from Kaepernick on Monday against the Bears, they could be Super Bowl bound. Niners 30, Saints 27.

Green Bay (7-3) at New York Giants (6-4), 8:20 p.m.
Gut check time for the Giants, who have lost consecutive games for the first time since November 2011 and play a Packers team that has won five straight. Packers 35, Giants 31.

Carolina (2-8) at Philadelphia (3-7), 8:30 p.m., Monday
What a nightmare for the Eagles. Six straight losses and a game on "Monday Night Football." Disaster. Panthers 20, Eagles 12.

Last week: 12-1. Season: 99-51.