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Battle for AFC supremacy in Foxborough

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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By Eric Edholm

There are not a ton of great matchups in Week 14, but there are some very important games — on both ends of the spectrum. With the postseason landscape starting to take shape, here's an early look at the biggest story lines for this week's games:

1. Want to know if the Patriots can make it back to a sixth Super Bowl under Tom Brady this season? Pay close attention the next two weeks. Media visitors to Foxborough will encounter a buttoned-up group as they prepare for the gauntlet of the visiting Texans this week, followed by the 49ers. It’s as good a two-week test as any NFL team will face this season. The Texans come in winners of every game on the road; the Patriots haven’t fallen at home since Week Two, in what will go down as the upset of the regular season to the Cardinals, now losers of eight straight. More impressive numbers: In his past 22 starts, Texans QB Matt Schaub is 18-4; over his past 23 (including playoffs), Brady is 19-4. And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the combined 20-4 record of both teams is tied for the best in "Monday Night Football" history when each team has played at least 12 games. So yeah, they’re good. "It's a big challenge, but you have to raise your level of play in games like this," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said Monday.

2. If you remember, Schaub kind of kicked off his career against the Patriots, similar to how Matt Flynn earned his free-agent contract, in part, with one of his two starts for the Falcons, his former team. Schaub’s first career start in Atlanta was against the Patriots in 2005, and though he lost 31-28, he was sharp. The Texans were convinced that he could be their starter and traded multiple draft picks to the Falcons for him after the 2006 season. Although it has not always been smooth, he has guided the team to the upper echelon of the NFL this season. The Texans’ best weapon is their play-action pass, and it’s obviously generated because of the work Arian Foster does up front. The threat of him running allows Schaub to roll out and hit WR Andre Johnson or TE Owen Daniels (most often) for big gainers. The Patriots’ sometimes-shaky secondary had best beware. “You’re talking about a very balanced, very well-put-together offense … between the run and the pass,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “Then the quarterback is obviously a talented player that is really doing a phenomenal job running the system they run. The biggest thing for us obviously is trying to somehow figure out how to stop this running game, which is a critical part of what they do, along with the passing game ability that they have.”

3. This is the rare regular-season game that merits three notes on the “First Fifteen.” We’d be amiss if we did not mention DE J.J. Watt, who is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year with Denver’s Von Miller and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, and this matchup. You have to think Belichick really respects and admires Watt, a Patriots-type player you could say (although Watt’s agent, Tom Condon, isn’t exactly a Patriots-type agent, you also could say), and will plan accordingly. Watt has helped create eight turnovers in 12 games. Five of his 15 pass deflections have been picked off, one of which was returned for a score and another that was taken back 86 yards, and he has 15½ sacks. The Patriots were stung for four sacks Sunday against the Dolphins, having special trouble blocking on the offensive right side (which is where Watt most often stalks). Expect tight ends, backs and extra tackles to be in on this team blocking assignment.

4. Are you ready for some mind-melting playoff scenarios, some of which (thanks for tying, Rams and 49ers) are a bit hairy to sort through? Here we go. The Patriots have clinched the AFC East. They’re still in the mix for a first-round bye, but the Texans can accomplish a lot — clinch the AFC South, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC postseason — with a win Monday night and some help from others (mainly the Colts, Ravens and Broncos) losing. Speaking of the Ravens, they can take the AFC North with a win and both the Steelers and Bengals losing this week. They can earn a playoff spot with a win and one of those two teams losing or tying. Got it? Onward. In the NFC, the Falcons have clinched the South but can earn a bye with a series of esoteric permutations that mostly involve beating the Panthers in Carolina and having the Bears, Packers and 49ers lose or tie. If the 49ers lose, the Bears and Packers lose or tie and the Falcons win Sunday, the Falcons will play at the Georgia Dome for whatever non-Super Bowl playoff games they are a part of. The Niners also can get into the postseason this weekend. But considering their standings-mucking tie, we’ll just say that winning and several other NFC teams losing will get it done.

5. It’s time to mention some individual achievements — including a couple on teams that might not make the playoffs. Lions WR Calvin Johnson has 1,428 receiving yards and is on pace for 1,904, which would break Jerry Rice’s all-time mark of 1,848, set in 1995. Johnson’s last 16 games (including the playoff loss at New Orleans) have accounted for 122 catches for 2,199 yards (137.4 yards per game, 18.0 yards per catch) and 11 TDs. In those 16 games, he has 12 100-yard games and four 200-yard games. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson has 1,446 rushing yards and is on pace for 1,928. Career-wise, he’s one of only seven NFL players to reach 8,000 rushing yards in 85 or fewer games and only six others have more 200-yard games than his total of three. If the Vikings (who are now 6-6 and currently outside out of the postseason picture looking in with envy) are out of contention and Peterson is within sniffing distance of 2,000, he is going to plead with Leslie Frazier to give him the chance. Jamaal Lewis (it’s amazing how far he has fallen from our memories) and the Titans’ Chris Johnson were the last two to do it, becoming only the fifth and sixth backs ever to ascend the 2K mountaintop. The fact that both Peterson and Johnson have performed this way while hurt this season — Peterson coming off torn ACL and MCL less than one year ago, Johnson battling a bad knee and nerve damage that affects his ability to grip the ball — has made their achievements the stuff of legend already.

6. Two more individual statistical notes on the defensive side: One man who figures to go to the postseason is 49ers LB Aldon Smith. His 17.5 sacks have him on pace to break Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 and ahead of any other player through 12 games except for the Jets' Mark Gastineau in 1984. The fact that Smith is likely to face off either against struggling Dolphins rookie OT Jonathan Martin or former lacrosse player Will Yeatman at left tackle with Jake Long (triceps injury) out only makes Smith’s chances of topping Strahan that much better. Smith has 31.5 sacks in 28 career games; no player ever (sacks became official in 1982, mind you) has ever had more in their first two full seasons.

7. Bears CB Tim Jennings’ chances of catching Dick "Night Train" Lane’s record of 14 picks in a season took a hit when Jennings had one called back against the Vikings, running his INT-less streak now to three games. Only seven DBs have had 10 in a season since 2000, and none since Antonio Cromartie in 2007, and Jennings can be the first to collect 11 in a season since a 22-year-old Everson Walls did it in 1981. If Jennings somehow ran his total to 12, he’d join rare air. Only 13 players (including Titans executive vice president Mike Reinfeldt and Chiefs DB coach Emmitt Thomas) have had a dozen or more in a season. It could still happen because Jennings is streaky. He has had his eight interceptions in five games (three two-pick games) and went three games in a row without one in Weeks Four through Seven. Worth noting: Jennings has a shoulder injury and could miss this weekend's game against the Vikings.

8. Jennings’ Bears and Peterson’s Vikings lock horns for the second time in three weeks after the Bears dispatched them at Soldier Field rather handily in Week 12. But it was the Bears’ only victory in their past four games, and the defense looked surprisingly tired down the stretch against the Seahawks last week. “We all had something to do with that performance that we're not proud of,” Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "And I still say we haven't had many of those, but it does happen. We've just got to make sure it doesn't happen again." Whatever happens, it appears the Bears could be without MLB Brian Urlacher (hamstring), OG Chris Spencer (knee) and WRs Alshon Jeffery (knee), Devin Hester (concussion) and Earl Bennett (concussion), plus Jennings. Peterson averaged six yards per carry against this team two weeks ago, although the Vikings failed to give him the ball in a few goal-to-go situations and didn’t really feed him until the fourth quarter. Expect that — with a struggling QB Christian Ponder and a banged-up Percy Harvin — to change.

 9. The Chiefs’ win was an emotional affair last Sunday against the Panthers, but it also had a significant effect on the 2013 NFL draft. The Jaguars and Chiefs now each have two victories, followed closely at three wins by the Raiders, Panthers and Eagles. The Raiders might actually be the worst team in football right now. They are 10½-point home dogs to the Broncos on Thursday night. The Eagles are not playing much better, and their finishing schedule includes four games against teams currently in the playoff hunt. All five teams are in the hunt for the No. 1 pick. Don't rule out the Eagles, who travel to Tampa Bay this weekend.

10. Hey, have you heard about this RG3 kid? Yeah, he’s all the rage. Robert Griffin III fumbled Monday night against the Giants and it turned into a Redskins touchdown. That’s how you know you’re in need of a Powerball ticket. Redskins fans certainly feel like they have won the lottery with Griffin, who helps cover up the Redskins’ weaknesses and seemingly gives them a chance to win every week. And every week from here on out — starting with Sunday’s short-trip visit from the Ravens (about a 40-minute drive) — is pretty much an elimination type of game with the Giants a game up in the division and the wild-card looking tougher to achieve. “We know that our backs are against the wall,” said Griffin, who has led his team from 3-6 to 6-6. “And even though we won (on Monday night), our backs are still against the wall.”

11. Beyond local bragging rights, the Ravens could use a win to not only close up the division (they’re two games up) but also to vie for one of the AFC’s top two seeds. Defending Griffin — who has nine TD passes in the Redskins’ three-game win streak — and RB Alfred Morris will be a lot tougher with Ray Lewis likely a game away from returning and with OLB Terrell Suggs possibly out with a torn biceps. The Ravens have been crushed by injuries on the defensive side of the ball, and they’ve been crushed — if you ask fans, anyway — by their own offensive coordinator. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called for seven passes on eight fourth-quarter plays against the Steelers, and none of those plays went into the hands of Ray Rice, who ran for a 34-yard score to give the Ravens a lead they frankly shouldn’t have given up to Charlie Batch and Co. And when Batch outplays Joe Flacco, your concerns are fairly raised. If Flacco struggles against the Redskins’ secondary — which just lost CB Cedric Griffin (no relation to RG3) to a four-game suspension — then we have ourselves a legit worry.

12. The Cowboys visit Cincinnati for the first time since 2004, and it might not be all bad. They have the same record at home as on the road (3-3 for both) and allowed five of their six opponents in Dallas to ring up double-digit leads in the first half. Both the Cowboys and Bengals are in the playoff hunt and each is coming off a close game against a team out of the postseason picture. In case you have not noticed, Cowboys QB Tony Romo is on fire. As hot as he was last season down the stretch. The past five games (since the four-INT game against the Giants) Romo has topped 300 yards in four of them and has a 10-2 TD-INT ratio. But the Bengals have been strong defensively — 11th in pass defense, ninth on third downs and first in sack percentage — and look like a better team than the playoff entrant of a year ago. “This team is getting better each week,” Bengals WR A.J. Green said. “A lot of people said it was out of our reach to make the playoffs, but I feel like we have momentum on our side coming down the home stretch of the season.”

13. The Packers might play in the tough NFC North, but that doesn’t mean they don’t own it. Even as things have not been quite as easy this season, they can run their win streak in the division to 11 with a victory over the Lions Sunday night. QB Aaron Rodgers now has thrown for a TD pass in 35 straight games at home, and the visiting Lions have given up 21 passing TDs, which is tied for eighth-worst in the NFL. Interestingly, the Lions might have played their best defensive game of the season three weeks ago when they met the Packers in Detroit. But Rodgers hit Randall Cobb with a late-TD pass and a subsequent field goal polished off the tough win. Since then, the Lions have blown second-half leads of 10 points (to the Texans) and 12 (to the Colts) in back-to-back home losses to fall to 4-8 and Ndamukong Suh has become Public Enemy No. 1. Other than that, things have been quiet. But ask the Packers, and they’ll say they’re scared like hell of Johnson (5-143-1 receiving last they met) and that every North game is a battle. We’ll let Packers LB A.J. Hawk give us the clichés. “We have a tough division,” Hawk said. “Every game is going to be like this. The NFC North is a fun division to be in as a linebacker. Every game is physical and I don’t think there are going to be many blowouts in the NFC North.”

14. Not too much to say about Saints-Giants at MetLife Stadium other than if the Giants don’t show up for this one, you have to wonder what’s wrong. No shame, really, in losing to the Redskins at their place. But not being able to beat a Saints team that has averaged more than 40 points against them the past three head-to-head meetings, one that has no real chance of making the postseason and that suddenly has been turnover-happy the past two games, well that would be cause for concern. And it’s in New York, unlike two of those past three Saints games. Drew Brees seldom has two bad games in a row, the Saints’ defense is coming off its best game of the year by far and the Giants’ defense has been banged up of late. But the Giants need this one. Badly.

15. It appears the Jets have three options this weekend as they travel to Jacksonville: 1. Start Mark Sanchez, who was benched for Greg McElroy. 2. Start McElroy, who led them on their only TD drive last week. 3. Or start Tim Tebow, who missed last week with a rib injury, against a Jaguars team that might want him. Tebow might be the most attractive option. Jaguars owner Shad Khan, watching from above, coveted Tebow last offseason (while the bulk of the organization didn’t, it should be noted). Khan clearly is unhappy with his team’s performance and needs a ticket-seller. Tebow might be a game-changer. If he were to play well here, Khan could demand that his minions orchestrate an offseason trade for the down-and-out Jets QB. Of course, if Tebow plays — and plays well — it could completely undermine head coach Rex Ryan and his decision to diddle with Tebow as a mock weapon/decoy all season. Of course, starting Sanchez could undermine Ryan, too, as could not giving McElroy another chance. Ahhh, headache!! Whatever. The Jets will start someone at QB and we’ll all watch to see what shenanigans happen. They’ve become a sideshow. Yet we still gawk.

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