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bama4256 12-04-2003 12:28 PM

ESPN's John Clayton's Views on Games in Week 14
I really enjoy his work.

Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 14.

First ... Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans: After losing 38-34 to the Patriots on Sunday, Colts players and coaches left the locker room at the RCA Dome quickly.

Though the loss was demoralizing, failing to punch over the game-winning touchdown with four shots inside the Patriots 2-yard line, the Colts gave the look of a team with confidence. It better not be misguided because their season is on the line Sunday when the visit the Titans, an AFC championship finalist last season who have about the best home-field advantage in the league.

Until their 33-7 victory over in Week 2 at the RCA Dome, the Colts had never beaten the Titans since they moved to Tennessee. With the rout, the Colts gained a lot of confidence. Edgerrin James rushed for 120 yards against one of the league's best run-stopping units. Peyton Manning was only asked to throw 21 passes for 173 yards. The Colts jumped ahead 17-7 in the second quarter and the game never got close again.

Still, Sunday's loss should and probably did put a big scare in the Colts. The loss to the Patriots temporarily put them a half-game behind the Titans. The Jets bailed them out by beating the Titans to keep their division hopes alive.

A lot is at stake. The difference between first and second place in this division could be the difference between going to the Super Bowl or being on the road for every playoff game. The winner could get a bye week to start the playoffs. The loser faces the possibility of being a wild-card and being on the road three times during the playoffs just to make the Super Bowl.

Both teams, however, haven't been playing their best football coming into this game. The Colts' problem has been a defense that has been wearing down. Over the past seven games, the Colts have given up 172 points -- nearly 25 per game. While their offense has overcome an amazing amount of injuries to play at a high level, the Colts defense hasn't had the same margin of error. Teams have been attacking their successfully cornerbacks, putting Manning and the offense into a high-scoring mode.

Still, the Colts internally feel as though they play better on the road than at home. They had an incredible 21-point comeback in the final four minutes of their Monday night game against the Bucs. Because of Manning's calm, no-huddle approach to comebacks, they feel as though no deficit is insurmountable. Last week, they overcame a 31-10 deficit to the Patriots. Manning threw three touchdown passes in six minutes against a defense that allowed only six touchdown passes in the first 11 games.

The Titans also haven't played their best football in their past three games. They barely beat the Jaguars, 10-3. They had to overcome a 21-point deficit against the Falcons without Steve McNair finishing the game. With McNair ignoring any problems from a right calf tear, the Titans lost to the Jets, 24-17.

Regardless, these are two of the best teams in football, two teams that could meet again in the playoffs for a possible trip to the Super Bowl. It's one of the most anticipated games of the season.

And 10. Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: It's December, and it's usually the time the Dolphins fade. Unlike past seasons, though, you don't get the feeling that this Dolphins team is about ready to roll over. The return of a fresh Jay Fiedler brought a spark to the offense. Fiedler looks like a different quarterback then he did before suffering a knee injury. Early in the season, he kept missing wide receiver Chris Chambers and others on a lot of downfield throws. Now, he's hitting them. Chambers had three touchdown receptions against the Cowboys. Ricky Williams is running harder and stronger after being called out by Hall of Fame back Jim Brown. The defense seems to be recharged. But winning in Foxboro is a lot to take on for anyone. The Patriots have been amazing. They are 6-0 against teams with winning records. Nobody in football is even close to that. Underappreciated leaguewide is the play of quarterback Tom Brady. Brady isn't affected by the constant change at wide receiver because of injuries. He's hitting Dedric Ward and J.J. Stokes -- two players signed off the street a couple weeks ago -- as easily as he's hitting his other receivers who have been with him for the past couple of years. The defense is better now that nose tackle Ted Washington is healthy and stopping the run and linebacker Ted Johnson is back in the mix. The Patriots won the first game in Miami 19-13, partially because of two missed field goal attempts by Olindo Mare while the baseball infield was still in Pro Players Stadium. Kicking on the road isn't easy. But the Dolphins concede the division if they lose this one.

9. Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: It wasn't surprising to see the Eagles pass the Cowboys in recent weeks for their one-game lead in the NFC East. The Eagles have won seven in a row and are hot. They don't have the offensive firepower to blow out teams. Defensively, they aren't as good in past years stopping the run, but they make enough big plays against the pass to win football games. Neither of that is coming together for the Cowboys of late. They have no running game. Troy Hambrick is getting less action each week. Quincy Carter is losing more of his composure each week. Though he's good enough to make big plays -- something not seen from Chad Hutchinson -- he's making too many mistakes. His interception total has swelled to 16. That's scary. And the past two road games have produced two shutouts for the Cowboys offense. Bill Parcells knows he has to play a limited game with strategy because of his talent inadequacies, so he needs his greatest coaching effort of the season in this game. The Cowboys have the confidence of their 23-21 victory over the Eagles earlier this season, but confidence can only get you so far. A loss to the Eagles puts the Cowboys out of the division race and into the wild-card race, where the Cowboys still have a decent chance of making the playoffs. It was a bold move, though, by Parcells to release his third cornerback and kickoff returner, Derek Ross, before their biggest game of the season. Ross didn't get it. He missed mandatory meetings and functions. Parcells won't tolerate that. He'll hope to fill in that loss with Pete Hunter, the team's fourth cornerback.

8. Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens: Nobody anticipated this would be a big game, but it is. Each team is 7-5 and hot. The Bengals won the first game against the Ravens, 34-26, but a lot has changed since then. Kyle Boller hurt his knee and has been replaced by Anthony Wright, who put together back-to-back 40-point games. But don't be misled -- Wright's not a 40-point quarterback. Neither is this offense. But the Ravens are at home. They have one of the league's best defenses, and they will try to pound the ball with halfback Jamal Lewis. In fact, expect this to be more of a low-scoring game. The Ravens defense ranks fourth, allowing 282 yards a game. On the flip side, the Bengals are one of the hottest teams in football because of the play of quarterback Jon Kitna. Kitna has thrown 19 touchdown passes in a stretch in which the Bengals have been 7-2. What's helped him is how much more loaded the Bengals are on offense. In the backfield, he has two proven runners -- Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson. The three-receiver set of Chad Johnson, Peter Warrick and Kelley Washington is on fire. The Ravens aren't even close as loaded with offensive talent, so they have to take ticks off the clock by running the ball with Lewis. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is trying to fulfill a promise of winning three consecutive road games, something that is very tough to do in this league

7. Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: Ultimately, this game doesn't mean a lot. The Broncos trail the Chiefs by four games in the AFC West race with four games and left, and even if they win, they will be three games down with three games left. Realistically, the Broncos aren't going to catch the Chiefs. But for the Broncos, this game means everything. They are 7-5 and fighting desperately against the Dolphins, who are 8-4, for a wild-card spot. A loss could kill their chances, and the Broncos are playing before their home fans. Of late, the Chiefs play to their competition level, barely beating the Raiders and Chargers. There has been growing concern about the Kansas City secondary, which ranks 18th in the league allowing 210 yards a game. Because the Chiefs usually have the lead, they are trying to get more running plays in the fourth quarter to finish the games by wearing down defense. Still, after using Priest Holmes for 31 carries Sunday against the Chargers, they don't want to wear out their MVP candidate in the process. The Broncos have confidence in this game. The Chiefs needed a Dante Hall's punt return to win the football 24-23 in Kansas City, so the Broncos know they can play with the Chiefs. They have Jake Plummer back at quarterback, but they aren't as strong on defense because of season-ending injuries to three linebackers. That could hurt the Broncos against the Chiefs even though the Broncos rank second on defense.

6. Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings: On paper, this could end up being a 50-49 game. Both offenses are potent. Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks is pushing for a Pro Bowl spot with 22 touchdown passes and a 61.4 completion percentage. The problems with dropped passes with wide receivers Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson appears to be corrected. Like they did at the end of last season, the Seahawks are a team that can consistently put more than 400 yards of offense on any defense. But don't overlook the Vikings offense. They are No. 1 in the league and they are averaging 25.8 points a game. Daunte Culpepper is a 64 percent thrower and even though his turnover numbers have increased of late, he's still thrown only eight interceptions. The teams give each other matchup problems. The Vikings are having a hard time stopping anyone in losing five of their past six games. Mike Tice is thinking about making changes at linebacker and at cornerback. The Seahawks can't really make many changes. Mike Holmgren may move Shawn Springs ahead of Ken Lucas at cornerback, but he's having trouble finding pass-rush combinations to improve the defense's ability to get sacks. For each team, it's a must win. The Vikings need this game to stay ahead of the Packers in the NFC North race. The Seahawks are 1-4 on the road and need a road victory to make the playoffs.

5. Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers: Talk about overreaction. People in Chicago are promoting this game as the Bears chance of making the playoffs. Please. They are 5-7 and have the worst offense in football no matter who is playing quarterback. Still, it should be noted how well this team is coming together on defense. The Bears are young and they are pretty good. Every team is having a problem against them, which is why they have been 4-2 in their past six games. What's interesting and pleasing is that the latest run by the Bears has people thinking Dick Jauron could keep his job. And that's nice. Jauron is a nice man and good coach. If his offense wasn't so dreadful to watch, people would be outrage on thoughts he would be fired. To his credit, Jauron has his team focused on these games. A victory over the Packers ties them for second place with the Packers and they could pull closer in the division race if they could beat the Vikings next week. The Packers won the first meeting in Chicago, 38-23, when Soldier Field reopened. This game is in Lambeau and the Packers had a few days of extra rest. It will be tough for the Bears.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: This one is pretty simple to figure out. The Saints have the Bucs number, winning three consecutive games against them since entering the NFC South. Teams that run the ball give the Bucs problems, and that's what the Saints do. Deuce McAllister is going for his 10th straight 100-yard game. Statistically, though, the Bucs don't look to bad. They are fifth in defense, and the 112 rushing yards per game they are allowing isn't a bad total. But the injuries are mounting, making it tough for the Bucs to match up. They lost another cornerback for the season, Tim Wansley. That will limit their ability to play man-to-man and free up extra defenders near the line of scrimmage. The Saints have had a weird season. They are 6-0 against teams with losing records and 0-6 against teams with winning records. The Bucs are 5-7 and on the verge of officially being eliminated from the playoffs.

3. Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons: The only thing that makes this Sunday night game interesting is the return of Michael Vick as a starter. But really, his return does make this an interesting game. Much like the Monday night game between the Titans and Jets, this game could play a lot into the playoff race. The Panthers have lost two in a row and need to lock up their NFC South title. Vick ran around last Sunday and looks like the old Michael Vick filling in for Doug Johnson as a backup. John Fox has done a masterful job of matching up his team's talent to the teams in the NFC South, which is one of the reasons he's 5-0 in the division. Though Vick has created a lot of excitement on offense, his efforts may be wasted if the defense doesn't come through. The Falcons rank last on defense. They are the second worst team stopping the run, so figure another busy day for Panthers halfback Stephen Davis.

2. St. Louis Rams at Cleveland Browns: Butch Davis is having a hard time keeping everything together. Kelly Holcomb is looking more and more like a backup quarterback each week as he struggles. Of course, how can he not struggle. The offensive line is horrible, and there is no running game. I still think the passing offense is struggling after the release of Kevin Johnson, but wow, hasn't that moved improved the downfield blocking on running plays. Because they are at home on Monday night, though, the Browns could be dangerous. The Rams have fixed a lot of the problems Marc Bulger had against blitzing teams because the return of Marshall Faulk and the addition of fullback Joey Goodspeed. Davis has had the ability to make game games low-scoring. He had a 9-6 loss to the Colts at home. They lost at the Patriots 9-3. What they don't want to do is get into a shootout with the Rams.

1. Oakland Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers: Before the season, this looked as though these would be two potential division winners battling each other. Now, they are two teams battling for top 10 draft choices. The Steelers fell out of the playoff race last Sunday losing to the Bengals, so there isn't a lot to play for. Still, fans remember the old rivalry with the Raiders, so there will be emotion at Heinz Field. Bill Callahan has to worry that he is losing his team. Coming out last Sunday and saying this was the dumbest team in American was stupid. Players resented it. Though there is a good chance Callahan could be fired after the season, the coach is going to stress to his players about playing for pride. If they are playing to get him fired, though, they may be succeeding.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for

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