Does the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC go through Houston or New England?
The Monday night game between the Houston Texans and New England Patriots could determine that. The Texans can clinch home field if they beat the Patriots and if the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos all lose. The Patriots are making their usual December scramble for AFC supremacy. They are trying to attain their third consecutive No. 1 seed and fourth in six years.
Clinching home field is one thing, but getting the most out of it is another. Recently, the No. 1 seeds have been devalued. Last year, the Green Bay Packers earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC and couldn't make it out of the divisional round. In 2010, the Atlanta Falcons and Patriots lost their first playoff game after getting the No. 1 seed.
In fact, since 2004, there has been only one season (2009) in which the No. 1 seeds went to the Super Bowl. Prior to that, getting home-field advantage for the playoffs usually meant making plans for the Super Bowl.
Quarterbacks have been the X factor. Eli Manning has won two Super Bowl rings even though the New York Giants were a lower seed each time. Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay) and Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers) have won Super Bowls as wild cards, and a Kurt Warner-led Arizona Cardinals team made it to one as a No. 4 seed. Only six quarterbacks have won Super Bowls since 2003, and these quarterbacks are so good it doesn't matter if they are at home or on the road.
Here are the trends for NFL Week 14:
1. Longing for Gronk: Too bad Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski can't play this week. The Monday night meeting between the Texans and Patriots is a tight end convention. Last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information, 80.5 percent of the Patriots' offensive plays were in two-tight end formations. And why not? Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez form the best tight end combo in football. Both have been hurt this year, so the Patriots have used more three-receiver sets, limiting the number of two-tight end plays to 57.2 percent. Well, the Texans have outdone the Pats. The Texans run 84.1 percent of their plays with two tight ends. Houston coach Gary Kubiak has parlayed that into an 11-1 record. Owen Daniels, the Texans' featured tight end, has 50 catches and six touchdowns. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have been scrambling with their offense all season. At the beginning of the year, they cut down on Wes Welker's playing time, but Welker's bounced back to have a career year. Last Sunday's game cost them Julian Edelman for the season, but Tom Brady shouldn't drop off much.
2. Tough road ahead for Ravens: The Baltimore Ravens have a two-game lead in the AFC North, but they aren't celebrating yet. Their closing schedule features teams with a combined winning percentage of .604, the fourth-toughest remaining schedule in football. On Sunday, the Ravens ride the bus over to FedEx Field to play a red-hot Washington Redskins team energized by rookie sensation Robert Griffin III. They follow that with home games against the Denver Broncos and New York Giants before concluding the season on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens have had difficulty stopping the run and that's a big problem facing the Redskins, who have assembled a running machine. RG3 broke Cam Newton's single-season rookie rushing record last week. Rookie RB Alfred Morris has 1,106 yards. To make matters worse, the Ravens' struggling pass rush suffered a blow when Terrell Suggs tore a biceps muscle. Suggs is hoping to play Sunday, but it's more likely he's going to be out at least a week. The Redskins will be a tough assignment.
3. Tough road ahead for Giants: The Giants' .583 closing schedule is the sixth toughest in football. Over the next three weeks, their pass defense will be challenged. They host Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, and the following two weeks they are on the road facing Matt Ryan and the Falcons and Joe Flacco and the Ravens. They close the season against Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. If the Giants go 2-2 down the stretch, they could give the Redskins and Cowboys -- who are 6-6 -- hope of stealing the NFC East. That's a concern. Because the Giants split with Dallas and Washington, their division record (currently 2-3) could cost them the division in a 9-7 tiebreaker. The Redskins are 3-1 in the division and the Cowboys are 3-2. One of those teams will have at least four wins (they play each other in the season finale). It's time for the Giants to pick up their game -- or else.
4. NFC North showdowns: Over the next two weeks, the NFC North should discover its true leader. The Chicago Bears visit the Minnesota Vikings this week. The Detroit Lions visit the Packers. Figuring both the Packers and Bears should win, it sets up next week's showdown at Soldier Field. Both teams are 8-4 and both have injury problems. The Bears lost linebacker Brian Urlacher, cornerback Tim Jennings and possibly wide receiver Earl Bennett (concussion) last Sunday against Seattle. The Packers have been juggling because of injuries all year. Safety Charles Woodson could return this week, but WR Jordy Nelson could be sidelined with a hamstring injury. Clay Matthews hasn't recovered from a hamstring injury himself. Halfback James Starks suffered a knee injury that will sideline him a couple of weeks. The Bears did catch a break when the Vikings gave up on waiting for WR Percy Harvin to recover from a serious ligament problem in an ankle and placed him on the injured reserve list. But it won't be easy stopping RB Adrian Peterson without Urlacher. Meanwhile, the Packers are catching the Lions when they are thin at wide receiver. They've lost Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles to the injured reserve list, but they still have Calvin Johnson.
5. Kaepernick experiment continues: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh left himself open to criticism by benching Alex Smith in favor of Colin Kaepernick. Although Kaepernick is more exciting and may have more upside, mistakes attributed to inexperience cost the 49ers in a loss at St. Louis last week. Harbaugh's not going back on that decision, but he needs to get some victories. Getting to face the Miami Dolphins at home could help. The 49ers' defense should make it tough for Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but Harbaugh will need more from Kaepernick. ESPN Stats & Information came up with an interesting comparison. Kaepernick has shown some difficulty completing passes under pressure. Opposing defenses have rushed him with five or more defenders 40.9 percent of the time. Against those blitzes, Kaepernick is completing 55.6 percent of his passes for 7.6 yards an attempt. Smith handles those situations better. He's completed 72.2 percent of his passes against five or more rushers with an 8.5-yard-per-attempt average.
6. AFC is rebounding: Early in the season, the NFC was winning more than 50 percent of the interconference games. Recently, the AFC has started to catch up. With 14 interconference games remaining, the NFC has a 27-23 lead. This week there are four AFC-NFC games, and the AFC is favored in three of those. The 49ers are 10-point favorites over the Dolphins. Cincinnati is a three-point favorite at home against the Dallas Cowboys. The Ravens are favored by a point over the Redskins. The Buffalo Bills are a three-point favorite over the St. Louis Rams. If the AFC wins three of the four games, the interconference battle could get interesting over the next couple of weeks.
7. Rookie QBs at home: Andrew Luck of the Colts and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks each executed incredible fourth-quarter comebacks on the road last week to enhance his team's playoff chances. Both quarterbacks return home with hopes of securing important victories. The Seahawks host the Arizona Cardinals, who are in the midst of an eight-game losing streak. Three of Wilson's final four games are at home, but the team can't afford to stumble. Cornerback Brandon Browner is suspended for four games because of the use of Adderall, and cornerback Richard Sherman has his Adderall hearing next Friday. He could be lost for the final two regular-season games and the first two games of the playoffs. Luck will try to outduel Jake Locker and the Tennessee Titans. A victory would put the Colts at 9-4 in the three-way scramble with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh for the two AFC wild-card spots.
8. Tough QB decisions: Plenty of pressure is on Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. After a 4-0 start, the Cardinals have lost eight in a row. After the failed experiment of using rookie Ryan Lindley, Whisenhunt has gone back to John Skelton for Sunday's visit to Seattle. It's a must-win for the Cardinals. A loss would give them their first nine-game losing streak in a season since 1944. Jets coach Rex Ryan is sticking by Mark Sanchez after horrible performances against the Patriots on Thanksgiving and last Sunday against the Cardinals. Last Sunday's Cards-Jets game may have set back the quarterback position for years. Sanchez was horrible, throwing three interceptions. Lindley was worse because he couldn't generate a touchdown drive or convert a third down.
9. The return of Big Ben? The Steelers hope to have Ben Roethlisberger back for Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers. Roethlisberger could have played last week, but the pain from his SC joint sprain prevented him from launching deep passes. Since then, Roethlisberger has shown coach Mike Tomlin he can make the necessary throws, which should lead to his return. The Steelers face a Chargers team that continues to make second-half mistakes that lead to losses. At 4-8, the Chargers are playing out a schedule that will lead to the firing of coach Norv Turner and major changes in the front office.
10. Is Foles for real? Eagles coach Andy Reid made the surprising move of benching Michael Vick for the rest of the season in favor of rookie Foles. Foles showed surprising poise in last Sunday's loss to the Cowboys. He is getting more comfortable as he settles into his new role. By the way, according to a source, Vick wasn't totally on board with losing his starting job. Though he is still recovering from a concussion problem, Vick wants to play once he's healthy. Foles faces a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that is giving up 309 yards a game through the air. Even though he has a rookie quarterback, Reid isn't afraid to let Foles air it out. This game will be a good test for Foles.