Game of the Week
The line: Steelers by 4½
The story: This may be a preview of the AFC Championship Game, only the Patriots would prefer a healthy Tom Brady if and when that happens. For the moment, Brady is bothered by a sore foot, though it didn't stop him from practicing Thursday and won't prevent him from playing Sunday. Good thing, too. The Patriots will need everything and everyone they have -- including Brady at his best and most complete -- to pull the upset.
It's not just that Pittsburgh is tough to beat. It's that the Steelers are tough to beat at home, where they're 21-6 under coach Mike Tomlin. I remember when the two played a meaningful regular-season game here in 2004 -- both were undefeated at the time -- and the Steelers prevailed. That was supposed to be a preview of the conference championship game then, and it was. Only New England returned to Heinz Field and won.
One difference: This New England team is coming off a hammering last weekend in Cleveland, and if there's one thing we know about Bill Belichick and his team over the years it is this: They rarely ever, ever lose two straight.
The key for them here will be containing Pittsburgh's running game in general and Rashard Mendenhall in particular, then forcing Ben Roethlisberger -- who improves each week -- to carry the offense. I know, the Patriots' pass defense is nothing special, but it's coming around. Besides, another dose of Peyton Hillis-caliber numbers against these guys, and the pass won't matter. The Pats are cooked.
They couldn't beat Cleveland because they couldn't get Hillis and the Browns' offense off the field -- which meant they couldn't get Brady on the field. If you can neutralize Pittsburgh's edge pass rushers and limit the pressure the Steelers put on the quarterback, you can beat their secondary. But tell me who does that.
The Patriots' offensive line better, that's who. Brady can win this game -- heck, he's 5-1 against the Steelers -- but he must have sustained drives and must operate without Pittsburgh's pass rushers in his grill. The Steelers are allowing the fewest points in the NFL and should stonewall the Patriots' rushing game. But Brady? Stay tuned.
Something to consider: The Steelers are 13-4 at home in regular-season prime-time games under Tomlin.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Jets by 3½
|Braylon Edwards plays for the first time in Cleveland since the Browns traded him. (Getty Images)|
Edwards this week called it his "personal war against Cleveland," but he'll have to get in line. It's more about Mangini and what he did in New York and what he has done in Cleveland. Let's face it, the guy's walking the plank this year, and he takes another step with each loss. Only there haven't been any lately. In their past two appearances, the Browns upset New Orleans and New England. They're not supposed to have a chance here, but tell that to the Saints and Patriots.
The Browns are built around Rob Ryan's aggressive, swarming defense -- one that limited the Saints and Patriots to 31 points combined and produced as many interceptions (4) of Drew Brees and Brady as Brees and Brady produced touchdowns -- and they're built around an effective and efficient offense.
In three games vs. Roethlisberger, Brees and Brady the Browns allowed six touchdown passes, and that's important to remember because they want to put this game on Mark Sanchez's shoulders. Their hope is that he'll struggle to beat them, and my guess is he will if he and his erratic wide receivers don't play better than they have the past few weeks.
The Jets, of course, want Sanchez to serve as a supporting actor in a cast that features the "Ground and Pound" offense, designed to hammer opponents into submission with equal parts LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. But that won't be easy. Cleveland ranks 15th against the run, but opponents have only one rushing touchdown on the Browns. If you want keys to this game, look no farther than turnovers. If the Browns don't make them, they win. They have one the past two weeks, and look what happened -- two upsets. Do it again, and Mangini can run for mayor.
Something to consider: The Jets are 5-0 this season when Sanchez has at least one touchdown pass.
The line: Vikings by 1½
The story: So the soap opera that is the Minnesota Vikings hits the road and takes its act to the Windy City, where we get another gut check on Brad Childress, Brett Favre and the House Divided Against Itself. That house, of course, is supposed to be the Minnesota Vikings, only I wouldn't minimize the healing that last weekend's come-from-behind defeat of Arizona might induce.
Favre was marvelous down the stretch. His teammates rose to the occasion. And Childress? He survived, which is something a lot of media outlets had him not doing. Anyway, if the Vikings are to make a run at the playoffs -- and they have the talent -- this is their chance. Chicago is ahead of them in the division and is supposed to be poised for a fall.
But that's only if the Vikings pull together and start playing the football we watched in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter last weekend. These are not the Dallas Cowboys. Minnesota not only is a club with a pulse; it's the only team in the NFC North with a running game. Plus, Chicago is a club with offensive-line concerns, trying five different combinations and this week practicing without center Olin Kreutz.
The Bears were not supposed to challenge anyone in the division, except they're two games up on the defending NFC North champions. So do something about it, Minnesota, and get the media off everyone's case. Favre must reduce the big mistakes, and the defense must produce the pressure on Jay Cutler that has been missing for Minnesota much of the year. Do that and the Vikings survive; fail and prepare yourself for another week of Childress death notices.
Something to consider: Adrian Peterson has 11 touchdowns in six career games against Chicago and aims for his seventh straight start with at least one rushing TD.
The line: Giants by 14½
|Maybe the Cowboys will give Stephen McGee a chance to show what he's got. (Getty Images)|
All I know is that Dallas can't be worse than it was the past two weekends when it thought it was still on a bye. The Cowboys couldn't run, tackle, catch or pass, but they sure looked good in their uniforms. Something had to change, and the head coach was it. Now it's Jason Garrett on the clock, and hallelujah. He was supposed to be head-coaching material a couple of years ago, so let's see if he is.
In essence, it's Garrett's chance to prove he can make the Cowboys competitive again, and that's not exactly raising the Titanic. They stink, but let's not forget they were a popular preseason pick to win the division and a favorite to go deep into the playoffs.
That won't happen, of course, but I'm not sure what will. That's why I'm tuning in. The Cowboys were smoked by the Giants three weeks ago in a game where they lost Tony Romo and any shot of recovery, and they probably get smoked again. But tell me you're not intrigued to see what Garrett does to shake this club out of its funk.
Does he run more? Will he consider playing Stephen McGhee at quarterback? Does he shake up the defense? Does he get these guys off life support and back on their feet? That's why we watch.
Something to consider: The Giants' Eli Manning has thrown for four TDs four times in his career, twice against Dallas.
Monday night lights
The line: Eagles by 3½
The story: If it's the Philadelphia Eagles on the clock, there must be a Donovan McNabb story out there waiting to be dissected by someone on talk radio. And, of course, there is. This is McNabb's first game since getting benched by Mike Shanahan, and tell me that's not worth, oh, say an hour or two of pregame fill on ESPN.
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But while McNabb is the story, the subplot involving Michael Vick is just as compelling. Two years ago he was in prison. Last season he played sparingly behind McNabb. Now, with McNabb out of the picture, he's front and center as the Eagles' playmaker and is performing so well he's at the top of this week's quarterback ratings.
The top-rated passer in the NFL is not Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers or Brees or Brady. It's Vick, which tells you something about his play. It's the best of his career, and it has the Eagles poised to make a second-half run to the playoffs.
Vick started against McNabb once before this year and lost ... but that was only after he was driven out of the game at halftime with a rib injury that kept him sidelined a month. Now he's back, and where McNabb had something to prove in October, it's Vick who has something to prove now.
And this just in: He's in the right place at exactly the right time. Vick is 3-1 on Monday nights, with five rushing TDs.
Something to consider: With 25 yards running, Vick will surpass Steve Young (4,239 yards) as the second most prolific rushing quarterback in NFL history. Only Randall Cunningham (4,928 yards) has more.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Bills by 3½
The story: Between them, they have two victories this season and zero playoff appearances in a decade. Both are coming off oh-so-close defeats, with the Lions blowing a 10-point lead to the Jets, and the Bills falling just short against Chicago.
Both teams seem on the cusp -- the Lions pushing for respectability and the Bills pushing for a victory. In its past three appearances, in fact, Buffalo has lost by nine points and two overtimes. Still, that's not enough to make this a sellout, one reason there's no local TV in a town where the Bills once were the only draw.
Hey, I don't blame Buffalo. I would have to be convinced to see Shaun Hill vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick, too. There's really nothing at stake here except draft position ... again.
Something to consider: Five of the Bills' eight games have been decided by eight or fewer points.
Upset of the week
The story: Are the Steelers the better team? Yes. Should they win at home? Probably. Should they beat the Patriots? Um, probably not. And here's why: New England almost never loses back-to-back games. You can look it up. In the past eight years, the Patriots have dropped two straight twice -- including once last season -- and never lost three or more consecutive times during that time.
I know Brady's foot is sore. I know the Patriots' pass defense is nothing more than ordinary. I know they couldn't solve Peyton Hillis or a rookie third-string quarterback in Cleveland. I understand all that. But I also understand that they're a club that just got waxed and that doesn't sit well with their head coach. Plus, the Steelers are coming off a short week, and that's always a consideration.
New England isn't as talented as Pittsburgh and its defense doesn't measure up to the Steelers, but my guess is that this isn't as much about talent as it is hunger. And after what happened last weekend, my guess is that New England needs this one more.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Minnesota QB Brett Favre: In his past two games against Chicago he completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 713 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He's also 23-11 in his career vs. the Bears.
2. Chicago QB Jay Cutler: In his last game against the Vikings he had a career-high four touchdowns and a passer rating of 108.4. When Cutler's rating is 100 or above his teams are 17-0.
3. N.Y. Jets QB Mark Sanchez: He's 4-0 on the road this year.
4. Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning: He's 6-0 vs. Cincinnati, with 17 TDs and three interceptions.
5. New England QB Tom Brady: Including the playoffs, he's 5-1 vs. Pittsburgh -- including two AFC Championship Game wins -- with 11 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
Five best mano-a-manos
1. N.Y. Jets coach Rex Ryan vs. twin brother Rob, defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns: Rex dressed up as Rob this week, then took questions as if he were his brother. "I know I'm going to hear from the league," said Rex, laughing, "but I'm placing a bounty on my brother's head. I do have some concerns. I have concerns that some of our players may bounce off of him."
2. Jets WR Braylon Edwards vs. Cleveland coach Eric Mangini, the Dawg Pound and Cleveland in general: Edwards calls it "my personal war with Cleveland," and there's a reason: He believes he was miscast by Browns fans and the local media, saying he unfairly was characterized as Edward Scissorhands. OK, then, here's your chance to prove them wrong, Braylon.
3. Chicago RB Chester Taylor vs. the Vikings: He spent four seasons in Minnesota before bolting to Chicago and a four-year, $12.5 million deal. The Bears envisioned him as an offensive threat, but so far he has only 65 touches, or 68 fewer than starter Matt Forte. The Bears promise to get him more involved in the offense, starting with this weekend's game against his former teammates, and the lie detector starts now, guys.
4. Miami CB Vontae Davis vs. Tennessee WR Randy Moss: Five weeks ago Davis blanked Moss in Minnesota and thought he had seen the last of him. Not so fast. "I guess he's on his revenge tour," Davis said this week. One thing to note: In each of his four previous debuts with clubs (including twice with Minnesota), Moss scored at least once and averaged 122 yards per game.
5. Dallas defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni vs. the New York Giants: In essence, the Cowboys changed defensive coordinators when they fired Wade Phillips, with Pasqualoni promoted to the position. His job is to straighten out a defense that leaked 121 points in its previous three games -– including 41 to the team it faces Sunday -- and he'll need more than solid players. He'll need a lot of luck.
Five things that may only interest me
1. Eleven games have gone to overtime this season, and in 10 of them each team had at least one possession. If that holds up it would be the highest percentage of any season since 1994 when the NFL moved overtime kickoffs from the 35 to the 30.
2. Sunday's Cincinnati-Indianapolis game will feature three of the top five receiving yardage leaders of the past decade. Cincinnati's Terrell Owens leads all receivers with 10,963 yards, while teammate Chad Ochocinco (10,425) ranks fourth and the Colts' Reggie Wayne (10,117) is fifth.
3. The Rams' Sam Bradford is on schedule to set rookie records for the most passes (584) as well as the most completions (342) and projects to finish among the top five in passing yards (3,348) and touchdowns (22).
4. Detroit rookie Ndamukong Suh not only has more sacks (6½) than any rookie; he has more sacks than any defensive tackle. He is on target to finish with 13 sacks, which would break Dana Stubblefield's rookie record (10½) for defensive tackles set in 1993.
5. Pittsburgh wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, who threw the decisive touchdown pass a week ago, is 21 of 26 in regular-season passing for 320 yards, five touchdowns and a near-perfect passer rating of 157.5. Randle El's rating and completion percentage are the highest in NFL history of anyone attempting 20 or more passes.
Numbers to crunch
0: Michael Vick interceptions this year
1: Braylon Edwards' drops this season
5: Consecutive games with a Terrell Owens TD
8: Arizona returns for touchdown
122: Yards needed for Brandon Lloyd to reach 1,000 yards receiving for first time in his career
9-0: Pittsburgh's record when Mike Wallace scores
10-1: Colts' record at home under Jim Caldwell
15-6: Denver after byes
• Buffalo: Few showers, high of 53
• Chicago: Cloudy, high of 49
• Cleveland: Few showers, high of 55
• Indianapolis: Partly cloudy, high of 53 (retractable roof)
• Jacksonville, Fla.: Partly cloudy, high of 76
• Miami: Partly cloudy, high of 79
• Tampa, Fla.: Partly cloudy, high of 80
• Denver: Partly cloudy, high of 37
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Partly cloudy, high of 60
• Glendale, Ariz.: Sunny, high of 74 (retractable roof)
• San Francisco: Sunny, high of 74
• Pittsburgh: Few showers, high of 60
Where we will be
• I'll be in Cleveland, conducting a write-in campaign to put Todd Rundgren in the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame. Excluding him is not a mistake; it's a disgrace.
• Mike Freeman will be in Pittsburgh to crown the next AFC champion.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Indianapolis to ring you up at Shapiro's.