NFL: This week's games
What in the wide world of sports is wrong with the Pittsburgh Steelers? The defending Super Bowl champions seem unable to figure it out, and with Green Bay coming to Heinz Field on Sunday the answers might not come against a true playoff contender.
Pittsburgh has dropped five straight after winning five in a row, something we might expect from a middling team with a weak foundation, or a rebuilding club. But from the Steelers?
“In this league, there’s a very fine line between winning and losing,” coach Mike Tomlin says. “The line is not so fine when you’re playing dominant … But when you’re not playing dominant, we’ve got to find a way to make significant plays at correct moments.”
Even if they find the way, it probably is too late for the Steelers (6-7) to get into the playoffs. Sure, 24 teams remain in contention for postseason berths, but Pittsburgh needs to sweep just to stay viable.
The first obstacle is a huge one. Green Bay (9-4) has gone in the exact opposite direction from where the Steelers are headed, winning five straight to take hold of the top NFC wild-card berth. The Pack’s new 3-4 defense is beginning to resemble, well, the Steel Curtain, and Green Bay’s offensive weapons have found holes in the best defenses. Right now, the Steelers, without star safety Troy Polamalu, don’t have that kind of D.
Unbeaten New Orleans hosts struggling Dallas on Saturday night. Then, on Sunday, it’s Miami at Tennessee; Arizona at Detroit; Atlanta at the New York Jets; Houston at St. Louis; Chicago at Baltimore; New England at Buffalo; Cleveland at Kansas City; San Francisco at Philadelphia; Oakland at Denver; Cincinnati at San Diego; Tampa Bay at Seattle; and Minnesota at Carolina.
On Monday night, the New York Giants go to Washington.
The Indianapolis Colts became just the third 14-0 team in league history by beating Jacksonville 35-31 Thursday night. They extended their NFL record to 23 straight regular-season wins as Peyton Manning threw for four touchdowns and surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the 10th time.
Jacksonville fell to 7-7 and lost control of the race for the final AFC wild-card spot.
Dallas (8-5) at New Orleans (13-0)The Saints haven’t lost all year, obviously, and the Cowboys don’t win much in December (5-10 with Tony Romo as quarterback). New Orleans needs to keep winning to get home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, and actually could clinch that by beating Dallas on the NFL Network and if the Vikings lose at Carolina, also a prime-time game the next night.
Even with the Saints staring at history, this matchup is far more critical for the Cowboys, who have gone from leading the NFC East to struggling to hold onto a wild-card slot.
Cincinnati (9-4) at San Diego (10-3)A win gives the Chargers a playoff spot. A Denver loss and the AFC West is theirs, too.
San Diego’s eight-game winning string has been obscured somewhat by the two unbeaten teams.
“As good as they can be going, they can turn in the other direction,” QB Philip Rivers said of fortunate plays. “Just because you win eight in row doesn’t mean you’re going to win the ninth. As we found out last year, there’s a lot that can happen in the last two weeks of the season. We’ve just got to carry on like we have and take care of business.”
Cincinnati will take care of business in the AFC North with a victory, but the Bengals must get their passing game back on track, and they easily could be distracted by the tragic death of receiver Chris Henry.
San Francisco (6-7) at Philadelphia (9-4)Coming off a strong performance in an upset of Arizona that included forcing seven turnovers, the Niners face another high-tech offense that also can be victimized by interceptions and fumbles. Now that Philadelphia has climbed to the top of the NFC East with four straight victories, it’s not the time to stumble with Denver and Dallas on tap to finish the schedule.
San Francisco rookie receiver Michael Crabtree should take notes on what Philly’s fantastic DeSean Jackson does. Jackson has tied the NFL mark for touchdowns of 50 yards or longer in a season with eight.
Miami (7-6) at Tennessee (6-7)These clubs were a combined 2-12 at the end of October. Now look at them.
The Dolphins have a shot at the AFC East, although they need someone to beat New England to make up a one-game gap for starters. Miami has won four of five and finishes with home games against Houston and Pittsburgh.
Tennessee has gone from 0-6 to at least being in the postseason hunt. The turnaround coincided with Vince Young replacing Kerry Collins at quarterback and the secondary getting healthy, but Young was sidelined by a left hamstring problem during last weekend’s win.
Chris Johnson’s run toward 2,000 yards is healthy: CJ needs 374 in the final three games and is averaging 125, which puts him on target.
Arizona (8-5) at Detroit (2-11)The Cardinals need something to brighten their Sunday after last Monday night’s seven-turnover debacle. The Lions should provide it with their leaky defense and go-nowhere attack.
Arizona probably could rest star receiver Larry Fitzgerald and his injured right knee and still get by. A victory and a San Francisco loss gives the Cardinals the NFC West.
Atlanta (6-7) at N.Y. Jets (7-6)The Attrition Bowl. Atlanta has been without several key offensive players, including QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner and tackle Sam Baker, and has lost two in a row. The Jets didn’t have Mark Sanchez for most of their two straight wins, and have been operating without key performers RB Leon Washington and NT Kris Jenkins for weeks.
Yet both are in the wild-card mix, though neither has a tiebreaker edge. Each team must win out and hope.
N.Y. Giants (7-6) at Washington (4-9)If the Giants’ defense is as leaky against the impotent Redskins (22nd overall), any shot at the playoffs could disappear. Washington has been a tough out all season, particularly in divisional games.
Wideout Steve Smith set a Giants record with 85 receptions this season, and his matchup with the solid Redskins secondary could be a highlight on Monday night.
Oakland (4-9) at Denver (8-5)If Brandon Marshall can catch a record 21 passes against Indy, how many might he grab against Oakland? Actually, Marshall won’t likely be the key here with Nnamdi Asomugha covering him. Look for Denver to use rookie RB Knowshon Moreno extensively against a weak run defense.
And look for JaMarcus Russell on the sideline again as retread QB Charlie Frye gets his chance with Bruce Gradkowski hurt. How the never mighty have fallen.
Chicago (4-9) at Baltimore (7-6)Last season, Matt Forte was a standout rookie running back and Ray Rice was so-so. Now Rice is a 1,000-yard rusher with a team-high 68 receptions, and the man to watch in this one.
Baltimore still has designs on the playoffs and finishes with road games at Pittsburgh and Oakland. The Bears could be looking at a lame-duck coach in Lovie Smith if they don’t finish strongly.
New England (8-5) at Buffalo (5-8)As lopsided a rivalry as there is, the Patriots have won 12 in a row against the Bills, including an opener in which they rallied in the final minutes for a 25-24 victory. At least Leodis McKelvin, who fumbled the kickoff that set up the winning score, isn’t around to cost Buffalo; he’s been on injured reserve for weeks.
Tom Brady is within 170 yards of 4,000 in his comeback season from knee surgery. He also has thrown for 23 TDs and 11 interceptions and has a 95.4 quarterback rating, yet there’s the impression going around he is not having a good year because the Patriots are not running away with their division.
Cleveland (2-11) at Kansas City (3-10)Figures that after their only impressive performance of the season in a win over Pittsburgh, the news surrounding the Browns centers on Mike Holmgren’s availability, not any on-field achievements. At least the Chiefs have stability in the front office with GM Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley, who were brought in last winter.
Houston (6-7) at St. Louis (1-12)The Rams have the No. 1 overall draft choice in reach after using the No. 2 spot on tackle Jason Smith in April. Some things don’t change much.
The Texans have their sights on their first winning season, but need a sweep of St. Louis, Miami and New England. Clearly, the first step is the easiest.
Tampa Bay (1-12) at Seattle (5-8)The Bucs also have a realistic shot at the top overall draft position, and not much else to look forward to. They’ll continue trying to develop young players, particularly struggling rookie QB Josh Freeman.