CBSSports.com pro football writers Pete Prisco and Clark Judge face off weekly throughout the season.
|Pete Prisco||Clark Judge|
|Is Peyton Manning a real MVP candidate?|
|You bet. After the slow start, Manning has quietly -- and I mean quietly -- brought the Colts to where they are the team that nobody will want to play in the playoffs. In the first four games of the season, when the Colts offensive line was banged up and Manning was trying to regain his form after missing the preseason recovering from a knee injury, he threw five touchdown passes and five interceptions. He was sacked seven times in those games. In the nine games since, he's tossed 17 touchdown passes and thrown seven interceptions. He was sacked five times in those nine games, once in the last four. The Colts are getting it together on offense and Manning is the reason why. He's held the team together. Manning is second in the AFC in passing yards per game at 248.1. Considering the slow start, he still has an outside chance to reach 4,000 yards passing for the third consecutive season. The Colts are now 9-4, having won six consecutive games, and the schedule is favorable the final three weeks. If they get to 12-4, after their 1-2 start, it would be an impressive turnaround. The offense hasn't always looked like the Colts of old, but it's getting there. Come playoff time, it will be there. Manning for MVP is definitely a possibility.||No question about it. The Colts lost a lot of people this season, including their top running back, offensive linemen and the league's defensive player of the year, yet they managed to overcome those setbacks to make another charge toward the playoffs. The reason? Manning. He's been the one constant through all this turmoil. Statistically, he's not having one of his best seasons, but the only stats I care about are wins and losses -- and the guy is on a six-game tear. Because of knee surgery he didn't play a preseason game, meaning that September would have to serve as his training camp. So the Colts lost two of three that month, and Manning was little more than so-so. Big deal. Since then, they've gone 8-2, with Manning throwing 19 touchdown passes and eight interceptions, and they're in the middle of the playoff picture. The Colts wouldn't be there without Manning, and isn't that the definition of this award? They had to survive all sorts of setbacks, yet they're the hottest club in the league now. Look no farther than number 18.|
|You buying Carolina yet as a Super team?|
|I did like what I saw from the Panthers on Monday night, but not yet. They ran all over Tampa Bay, showing brute strength at times, but I still think that come playoff time they will have to throw it better. I'm not sure they can. Teams that play the style of football they prefer -- run it and play good defense -- have small margins for error. If things don't go just right, they have trouble overcoming their mistakes. Jake Delhomme hasn't showed me enough the past month to give me confidence the Panthers can throw it well enough to win come playoff time. Yes, you need to run it to win in the playoffs, but you need to throw it to score. Even before the Panthers got the running game revved up Monday night, the passing game was struggling. Delhomme is completing just 58.5 percent of his passes for the season. That's not good enough. He's thrown 13 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. That's not good enough. In the last five games, he's thrown four touchdown passes and six interceptions, including two against Tampa Bay. It's not every game that you'll have two backs combine to run it for 300 yards. So at some point the Panthers passing game must improve. I'm not sure it can. If not, they can't win it all.||Not yet. The Panthers still have to win their division, and it won't be easy. They have Denver at home this weekend, and that looks like a gimme until you realize the Broncos won their last three road games. Then it's off to the Giants in what could be a showdown for home-field advantage. Finally, they wind up in New Orleans, and tell me why the Saints shouldn't win that one. So I'm not sold yet. But I'm closer, and here's why: Because this team is as good, if not better, than the 2003 club that went to the Super Bowl. Now, like then, it has Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, an underrated offensive line and a pair of effective running backs. Only I'll take DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart over Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, and if you wonder why, rewind the videotape to Monday's defeat of Tampa Bay. The pieces are in place, but I can't buy the Panthers until or unless they gain the home-field advantage. Their 3-3 road record (0-3 against opponents with winning records) makes me cautious.|
|Which of the three teams do you like most in the three-horse AFC East race?|
|I'll go with New England. The Patriots have been there before and that will help them down the stretch. Plus, their schedule is favorable. They play at Oakland this week, followed by home games against Arizona and Buffalo. I'm on record as saying they win all three. That would take them to 11-5. If Miami and the Jets both lose one more, the Pats win the division. The Jets and Dolphins play each other the final week of the season, so there's one loss for one of them. The Jets play home against the Bills this week and then at Seattle next week. They are 0-3 on the West Coast this season, so a loss there is possible. The Dolphins have a home game with San Francisco and then play at Kansas City. They'll be favored in both, but that Kansas City game will be tougher than expected. I think the Jets or Dolphins will lose in Week 16. That will set up a playoff game in the final week. If Miami beats Kansas City and the Jets win the finale, the Pats will be the division champ if they win out if the Jets lose to Seattle. If the Patriots are tied with either the Jets or Dolphins, they have problems. They lose tiebreakers to both. I don't see that happening. I think New England runs the table and the Dolphins and Jets both lose one.||I'm going with Miami for this reason: Momentum. The Dolphins have it; the Patriots and Jets do not. Believe me, it's difficult and probably downright dumb to pick against Bill Belichick, especially when you look at the Patriots' schedule. They could win out, with Arizona the only opponent remaining with a winning record. But the Dolphins should win their next two (San Francisco and Kansas City), setting up a showdown with the Jets in the Dec. 28 finale. The Jets have lost their last two, the Patriots lost three of their last six. Miami has won six of its last seven, and I don't care who the opponents were; the Dolphins won, which means they have the momentum you're looking for at this time of year. What I like most about them is that they don't make mistakes, with their 10 turnovers the fewest in the NFL. So they don't beat themselves. You must overcome them and good luck. They have won three of their last four at home and four of their last five on the road.|