- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
The best chance of the Packers suffering their first loss this season was quickly gobbled up on Thanksgiving with Green Bay destroying the Detroit Lions. Meanwhile, the Giants keep trending downward in the second half of the season as they have for so many years under Tom Coughlin.
Could the Giants reverse the trend and pull off the upset? It's possible, but odds are against it. Still, anything can happen on any given Sunday .
Since taking over as the Giants head coach in 2004, Coughlin is 47-17 in the first half of the regular season and only 24-35 in the second halves. No one can explain why the Giants go from winning 73 percent of their games in the first halves of the season to losing 59 percent of them in the second halves.
Eli Manning is one reason there's hope for a Giants win. Manning has had a great year, particularly in the fourth quarters of games. With the Packers defense giving up 287.8 passing yards per game and with the injuries Green Bay has at linebacker, the Giants could put up some points.
If they can't top the Packers, though, the Giants' season comes down to two games against the Dallas Cowboys in the final four weeks to see which team can win the NFC East. Assuming the Cowboys beat the Cardinals, a loss to the Packers could put the Giants two games behind the Dallas.
That could put next week's Giants-Cowboys showdown in Dallas as a potential elimination game for the Giants.
1. Sorting out the AFC North: Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton proved in seven-point losses to the Steelers and Ravens that he will be tough for them to contain over the next several years. Backed by Mike Zimmer's stingy defense, the Bengals have a decent chance at the last wild-card spot. Sunday's rematch against the Steelers in Pittsburgh will determine whether the Bengals have a chance at the division title. The Steelers won the first game in Cincy 24-17, but they lost cornerback Leon Hall. Hall's absence creates matchup problems in this game because they have to match up against three-receiver sets with cornerbacks Nate Clements, Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings. Only four teams use three-receiver sets more than the Steelers, according to ESPN Stats & Information, so Marv Lewis figures to keep his three corners on the field most of the game. Ben Roethlisberger completes 61.6 percent of his passes out of three-receiver sets, but he's also thrown 10 interceptions in three-receiver formations. Dalton lost A.J. Green for the second half of the Bengals' loss because of a knee injury, and he'll draw cornerback Ike Taylor in single coverage. Elsewhere in the division, the Ravens take on the Cleveland Browns in what will be the first of four games the Browns have against the Steelers and Ravens in the next five weeks. If the Browns lose all four, the Steelers and Ravens will end up at the 11-, 12- or 13-win level by the end of the year.
2. It's Yates or bust in the Texans' playoff run: Down two Matts (Schaub and Leinart) to season-ending injuries, the Texans will try to navigate through their final five games with fifth-round choice T.J. Yates as their quarterback. For this to work, RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate need big finishes. The Texans will need the league's No. 1 defense to stay No. 1. But Sunday will be tough. Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will be challenged to stop Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offense. Yates, meanwhile, will have to find a way to generate some offense and get some points. Last week, Yates was fortunate the Texans were playing the Jags. In the second half after Leinart broke his collarbone, Yates had 26 plays for only 47 yards and had six three-and-outs in eight possessions. If he repeats that against the Falcons, the Texans could lose 31-0. Against the Jags, the Texans had a victory.
3. Will Tyler Palko be intercepted before kickoff? Awarded a priority waiver claim because of their record, the Chiefs stole Kyle Orton away from saving the Chicago Bears' season after Jay Cutler had thumb surgery. It's fitting that the Chiefs play the Bears Sunday because Orton against the Bears is a great story. During the week, though, Palko took 60 percent of the snaps and felt as if he was going to start. After six interceptions in two starts, you wonder if coach Todd Haley would intercept Palko before he heads out on the field and choose to start Orton. Orton arrived in Kansas City late last week and had about as much time to pick up the offense as Carson Palmer did in Oakland. Palko, a lefty, has been able to run around and complete 65.3 percent of his passes, but he's only getting 6.2 yards per attempt. He has six interceptions and no touchdowns in two starts. Caleb Hanie had three interceptions in his first start for the injured Cutler, who admitted Wednesday that he's likely done for the season. What offers some hope for the Bears is Hanie led them to 20 points in a five-point loss to the Raiders on the road last Sunday.
4. AFC wild-card rush on the road: Barring some upsets, the Ravens, Steelers, Raiders and Patriots should fill out four of the six AFC playoff spots with the second-place team in the AFC North being the conference's No. 5 seed as a wild card. What is shaping up is Houston trying to hold off Tennessee in the AFC South. The battle for the No. 6 seed seems to be coming down to the New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals, with the Titans having an outside chance if things break right for them. At 6-5, the Denver Broncos also have an outside chance at that final wild-card spot. This week, the Titans, Jets and Bengals all have road games, which adds to the intrigue. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez probably won't be allowed back in New Jersey if he loses to Rex Grossman and the Redskins. Though it's often not pretty, Sanchez makes key plays to win games, as he did last week against Buffalo. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will try to flush Sanchez outside because, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez's accuracy drops to 50 percent when he's outside the pocket. The Titans travel to Buffalo hoping running back Chris Johnson stays hot. He's coming off a 190-yard rushing day, and Matt Hasselbeck hopes to ride his running back into contention in the AFC South.
5. Tebow time in the Twin Cities; pressure on the Lions: With a 5-1 record as a starter, Tim Tebow continues to electrify his fan base. Though his passing numbers are awful (45.5 completion percentage), he has the ability to win close, low-scoring games. Sunday's game against the Vikings sets up well for him. First of all, the Vikings will not have Adrian Peterson because of an ankle sprain. Minnesota also lost wide receiver Michael Jenkins for the season, thinning out its receiving options. Without Peterson, rookie QB Christian Ponder only threw for 186 yards and was sacked four times against Atlanta in Week 12. During Tebow's run as a starter, the Broncos' defense has stepped up. It has allowed only 15.0 points per game and is holding teams to 27.8 percent efficiency on third downs. It won't help the Broncos that rookie linebacker Von Miller will probably miss the game because of a thumb injury. If the game is low scoring as expected, it sets up another opportunity for Tebow to get a fourth-quarter victory to get the Broncos to 7-5. Meanwhile, the Lions have a must-win Sunday night game against the Saints in New Orleans. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, still struggling with a fracture at the tip of his index finger, will take the gloves off and try to keep up with Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered offense.
6. "Must Not See TV" The annual meeting between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts is usually the most-anticipated matchup of the regular season because it features future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. This is the ninth consecutive year in which the Patriots and Colts have met, but it's only the second time they've met with one team having a losing record. With Manning sidelined because of neck fusion surgery, NBC considered this game so unwatchable that they flexed it out of the Sunday night slot and made it an afterthought at 1 p.m. ET. For the interest it's generating, the game could be scheduled against infomercials at 3 a.m. Dan Orlovsky against Brady doesn't resonate. This game figures to be a blowout by the Pats, as Brady pads his stats and the Colts continue their march toward a winless season. The way things are looking in Indianapolis is if Manning shows he can play in 2012, the Colts will give him his $28 million option bonus and then draft Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley to learn behind him.
7. New man in charge in Jacksonville: Before the completion of his ninth season, Jack Del Rio was fired on Nov. 29, six days before the Jaguars' Monday Night Football showdown against the San Diego Chargers. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker takes over as coach, and he's shuffled the coaching staff to see if he can get more out of the Jags' offense, which ranks last in the league in yards per game and points scored. Like Leslie Frazier in Minnesota one year ago, Tucker has a chance to get the head coaching job. He does have a good defense: The Jags have forced 46 three-and-outs, which is tied for most in football. What will be interesting to see is if Tucker follows the model opponents have been using to contain Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. Since the Chargers let LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles go over the past two seasons, Rivers is having more defenders drop into coverage, not respecting the run or the underneath pass to the running back. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers saw six or fewer defenders in the box 61.7 percent of plays in 2010 and is seeing 66.3 percent of the time in 2011. In 2008 and 2009, when Tomlinson and Sproles were on the roster, Rivers faced six or fewer defenders in the box just 49 percent of the time.
8. Switching spots at the bottom: The significance of Sunday's Carolina-Tampa Bay game is that the Panthers can not only climb out of the cellar of the NFC South but also put a lot of jobs in jeopardy in Tampa Bay. Weeks ago, the Panthers appeared to be destined for last place. Their defense surrenders 27.7 points a game, and their run defense gives up 4.8 yards per carry. Even though Cam Newton has been good enough to be on pace to shatter most rookie quarterback records, he can't overcome the problems with the defense or mental mistakes throughout the rest of the team. After a 10-6 season, the Bucs have regressed under Raheem Morris. Believe it or not, the Bucs' defense is worse than the Panthers', who rank 24th. The Bucs rank 31st and are giving up 26.5 points a game. Bucs QB Josh Freeman admitted he ripped up his right thumb while shooting a gun during a day off in late October. Though he's completed 62 percent of his passes since the accident, his up-and-down play has led to more interceptions and sacks allowed. Now a shoulder injury makes him as a question mark for Sunday. A loss by the Bucs could put Morris on the coaching hot seat.
9. Palmer fulfills Raider quarterback requirements: Al Davis always believed in the vertical passing game and wanted to win games with big, long pass plays. Since coming over from Cincinnati in a midseason trade, Carson Palmer has done what Raiders quarterbacks are asked to do. His nine completions on throws that travel in the air 21 yards or more is only topped by the Packers' Aaron Rodgers and the Bengals' Dalton, who have 10 each over the past three weeks. Raiders coach Hue Jackson is counting on Palmer completing three bombs per game to spark the offense. Sunday's game against the Dolphins may be dangerous, though. The Dolphins had a three-game winning streak stopped in a one-point loss to Dallas on Thanksgiving. Matt Moore has picked up the Dolphins' offense in the past four weeks, but he still can't solve the Dolphins' red zone problems. Miami has only seven touchdowns in 38 trips in the red zone. If the Dolphins settle for field goals, Palmer will be going for the big play and touchdowns.
10. Sun setting the NFC West: The 49ers can clinch the NFC West with a victory over the St. Louis Rams, which would put Rams head coach Steve Spagnoulo in further jeopardy of losing his job. Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will be trying to make a statement against Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who has done well against the 49ers. In two career starts against the 49ers, Bradford has completed 73.4 percent of his passes for 543 yards and two touchdowns. The Arizona Cardinals, meanwhile, anticipate the return of Kevin Kolb at quarterback. He missed four starts with a turf toe. John Skelton won three of those games but his passing numbers have been Tim Tebow-like. He's completed just 50.4 percent of his throws, averaged 6.4 yards an attempt and had seven interceptions and 11 sacks. The Cardinals play a Dallas Cowboys team going through an easy part of their schedule. A Cowboy win would give them a five-game winning streak and an 8-4 record.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Giants have usually swooned in the season's second half. Reversing that trend with be tough against the Packers, writes John Clayton.