Every Game Counts
Breaking down a big NFL weekend
By Adam Hoff
I understand that unlike Major League Baseball or the NBA, every game is big in the NFL. The margin for error is low and the stakes are high. That said, this could be the most intriguing weekend of the season, and not for all the obvious reasons. Let’s go game-by-game and look at what is at stake.
Saturday Games. (Gotta love the Saturday games!)
Tampa Bay at New England. This one seems pretty obvious. Tampa Bay is in a dogfight for an NFC playoff berth, battling the Panthers and Falcons for both the NFC South title and a wild card spot. The Bucs host Atlanta and the Saints in their final two contests, so this isn’t a must-win, but it comes pretty close. Tampa Bay’s defense is playing well, they’ve got Cadillac back to full strength, and Chris Simms is doing a good job of avoiding the big mistakes. They need to make a statement against New England.
The Patriots are trying to maintain their current momentum and get guys healthy as they enter the playoffs where they will be, gulp, the big underdogs in the AFC. That won’t be an easy task with banged up players like Brady and Dillon facing a physical Tampa Bay defense. It will be interesting to watch whether the Pats start their big guns and cross their fingers, or play it safe and risk bringing all the progress they’ve made in regard to timing and cohesion to a grinding halt.
Kansas City at New York Giants. This is probably the biggest game of the weekend. It is pretty much a must win for both teams, as the Giants are trying to hold the Cowboys off in the NFC East (a necessity now that the Vikings and NFC South teams are clouding the wild card picture) and the Chiefs are staring down a brutal schedule and an uphill battle for a wild card spot. If the Chiefs lose here, they will need to win their final two home games against the Chargers and the Bengals. Yikes.
Denver at Buffalo. This seems like an easy win for the Broncos, but strange things happen on the road in December. Denver MUST take care of business to hold off the Chiefs and Chargers in the AFC West. Beyond the outcome of the game, I will be watching the running backs closely in this one. Mike Anderson is one bad game away from launching the Tatum Bell era (either that or the Ron Dayne era, also known as The Apocalypse), and Willis McGahee has been abysmal over the past five weeks. For a guy that runs his mouth as much as McGahee, he sure needs to go out and do something on the field. Call this subplot, “Running backs with something to prove.”
Arizona at Houston. This could be the answer to the “Are the Texans tanking to get Reggie Bush?” question. The Cardinals are pretty awful and have been particularly bad on the road (outscored 180-120 for the year). Despite the recent renaissance of Kurt Warner (don’t look now, but he’s thrown for more than 255 yards in his last six games and for over 300 yards in four of those contests), the Cardinals have no running game and no defense. If Houston can’t beat them, then perhaps they really are trying to lose. For the record, I don’t think they’ve been throwing games up to this point, if only because they are too stupid to recognize how good Bush is in the first place. Regardless, the “Bush League” storyline makes this a game worth watching. (That and the fantasy football implications, but that goes for every game.)
Pittsburgh at Minnesota. Close your eyes and think back to week seven. The Steelers were 4-2, coming off a big win at Cincinnati, and looking like the elite team in the AFC North, if not one of the best in the conference. The Vikings, on the other hand, were 2-4 and about to get thrashed at Carolina. Would anyone have taken a bet that the two teams would be sitting on identical 8-5 records heading into this matchup? I think not. Of course, now that the Party Boat fiasco has resurfaced, the Steelers still seem to be the favorites, so maybe things aren’t all that different. Neither team can really afford to lose here (Vikings still have to play Chicago and the Steelers are competing with the Chiefs and Chargers for a wild card spot and pretty much need to win out), so there is no shortage of drama for this one. Plus, we can watch both teams play running back roulette. Will it be Parker or Staley or Bettis? Moore or Bennett or just all passing? No one knows!
Seattle at Tennessee. The Seahawks are still playing for home field advantage and Shaun Alexander is still gunning for a rushing title and the NFL record for rushing touchdowns. Not only that, the latter knows that as soon as the former achieves its goal, he might be doing more resting and less running. Expect Alexander to have an enormous game for just those reasons. This game is also key because it will be the first time back on the field for star wideout Darrell Jackson. Seattle has been winning without him, but to reach the Super Bowl, they will need their top threat in the passing game.
Carolina at New Orleans. For starters, the Panthers haven’t been a very good road team. Not only that, there is positional uncertainty that could impact this game. Carolina isn’t sure whether Foster or Davis is going to be the main guy in the running game and that needs to be resolved. Furthermore, the Saints have benched Aaron Brooks in favor of Todd Bauman, which could cause crazy things to happen. Definite trap game for the Panthers.
New York Jets at Miami. Okay, I give up. There is pretty much nothing on the line for this game. Sure, the Jets need to lose to have any hope of staying in the Reggie Bush sweepstakes and the Dolphins are worth watching just to see if Chris Chambers can top 300 yards receiving, but that’s about it.
San Diego at Indianapolis. This is a very intriguing game to me. Obviously, you have the Colts going for perfection and the Chargers trying to salvage their playoff run. Those are pretty clear storylines. I think there is another layer and it has to do with the Colts and the “play them or rest them” controversy. I’m really not sure how I feel about gunning for 16-0 or resting for the playoffs, but I can tell you that they should definitely be playing all their stars for this game against San Diego. The reason is simple, yet I have yet to hear anyone discuss it: they should desire to eliminate the Chargers as a potential playoff opponent. Is that so crazy? Most people would agree that San Diego is one of the most dangerous teams in the league. They have one of the two best running backs in the game in LT, they have a potent passing game centered around Antonio Gates, and their defense is just the kind of opportunistic, pressing attack that can make a game changing play and facilitate an upset. Other than maybe Denver, this is the team best suited to beat Indy in a playoff game. Taking all that into account, it would be in the Colts’ best interest to hand the Chargers a crushing loss. Forget keeping Manning and Edge and Harrison in the game for 16-0, keep them in to make your playoff run easier. Anyway, I’ll be watching this one.
Philadelphia at St. Louis. This one is interesting because of all the controversy surrounding McNabb. Oh wait, he isn’t playing. Neither is Marc Bulger. Or Terrell Owens. Or Brian Westbrook. I think you get the idea.
San Francisco at Jacksonville. Another trap game. The Jags have the easiest schedule of all the AFC wild card contenders and they have young upstarts playing well in QB David Garrard and RB Greg Jones. However, they need to be wary of a San Francisco team that summons up an outstanding defensive effort every five games or so.
Cleveland at Oakland. Busted again. This game means nothing to anyone. I suppose you could make a case for Charlie Frye and his ongoing audition to be the Browns QB of the future, but that’s about it.
Cincinnati at Detroit. Bengals obviously need to win this game, but there is more to it than that. First of all, Chad Johnson had a brutal outing against Cleveland and needs to get his swagger back here. Furthermore, the Detroit fans are planning a “Millen Man March” in protest of Matt Millen still having his GM job. Good stuff.
Atlanta at Chicago. Huge game for both teams. The Steelers exposed the Bears and Atlanta can play the exact same style by running the ball at will, controlling the clock, and making Kyle Orton throw (although their run defense is horrible). This could be the game where Lovie Smith has no choice but to go back to Rex Grossman. If so, it will be the best thing that ever happens to this team, even if it takes back-to-back losses to do it. Neither team can really afford a loss here, as Chicago has the Vikings charging hard and the Falcons trail both the Panthers and the Bucs. Should be a good one.
Dallas at Washington. You might recall the dramatic comeback win for the Skins on Monday Night Football. Well, nothing would be sweeter for Dallas than to avenge that loss AND possibly move into a tie for the NFC East lead on the same day. Huge rivalry game with playoff implications.
Monday Night Game
Green Bay at Baltimore. This is interesting only because it brings up the old question: why can’t the NFL reschedule games as the season goes on? Would it have killed them to move Pittsburgh-Minnesota or San Diego-Indy to Monday Night? I know teams count on their Monday Night appearances, but this is just ridiculous. There is intrigue though, as Kyle Boller and Brett Favre are a good bet to challenge the NFL record for most combined interceptions in one game.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.