A month ago, everything favored the Patriots in their divisional brawl with the Jets. New England won, handing New York its third straight loss.
Rex Ryan’s team has turned things around since, winning three in a row thanks to a bruising defense — exactly what New England has struggled against recently, and could have trouble with again Sunday night at the Meadowlands.
The Patriots have dropped successive games to the Steelers and Giants, both of whom got very physical with Tom Brady’s receivers in press coverage, then let loose the pass pressure up front. They hurried him into very un-Bradylike poor throws and mistakes.
Still, the Patriots almost never lose three in a row; the last time was in 2002 when, as defending Super Bowl champions, they dropped four straight and missed the playoffs.
“No doubts around here, and that’s me being honest,” wide receiver Deion Branch said. “Guys are still very enthusiastic about coming in, getting the game plan for this week and getting out to practice …
” As far as the two losses, we can see the mistakes that we made during the course of the game. Very coachable, and that’s why I do know and understand why the coaches are not all down on us. We’re all mad about the losses, but at the same time there are very coachable mistakes that were made during the course of the games, and hopefully we’ll try to go out and eliminate those things so we don’t go down that road again.”
The road is exactly where the Jets don’t want to be come playoff time, which makes this prime-time meeting so vital to them. Sure, they are 4-2 in the postseason under Ryan, all road games and the most recent victory at Foxborough. But Ryan has been stressing for months how badly his team needs to win the AFC East to ease the way to perhaps the Jets’ first Super Bowl appearance since 1969.
“We know what this game represents,” Ryan said. “We’re not afraid to talk about it. It’s not one of those, ‘well, if we don’t, there’s still a lot of season left.’ We’re approaching it like we have to have this game. We want to win our division. We think it goes through New England.”
Elsewhere Sunday, with nobody on a bye, it’s Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, Baltimore at Seattle, the New York Giants at San Francisco, New Orleans at Atlanta, Detroit at Chicago, Buffalo at Dallas, Denver at Kansas City, Houston at Tampa Bay, Jacksonville at Indianapolis, Arizona at Philadelphia, Tennessee at Carolina, Washington at Miami and St. Louis at Cleveland.
On Monday night, Minnesota is at Green Bay.
The weekend began with Oakland at San Diego on Thursday night.
Pittsburgh (6-3) at Cincinnati (6-2)
Yes, the Bengals are tied with the Ravens atop the AFC North. No, they haven’t beaten anyone special and this is their first true test since rallying past Buffalo five weeks ago.
But there they are.
“You have done a great job of setting yourself in a good position, but that good position doesn’t mean anything if you don’t capitalize on it,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “So, it is great. It’s more than people ever expected at this point even if we didn’t do anything good from here, but it is not what we expected.”
Cincinnati mirrors Pittsburgh’s success of the past, using a staunch defense and solid running game. The Steelers have gotten away from that on offense as Ben Roethlisberger becomes more comfortable with his strong group of receivers, but the defense let them down in the final minutes against Baltimore last Sunday night.
Baltimore (6-2) at Seattle (2-6)
Many in Baltimore believe quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ offense took the next step with the way it performed down the stretch at Pittsburgh. The defense already is staunch, so big plays from the offense could mean big results the rest of the way.
Certainly, the Ravens are solid favorites against Seattle, which has lost three in a row and has the next to worst offense in the NFC.
This could be a trap game for Baltimore with Cincinnati and San Francisco up next, except the Seahawks appear vastly outmanned.
N.Y. Giants (6-2) at San Francisco (7-1)
The winner at Candlestick Park will have the inside track for a postseason bye. Indeed, the 49ers have a five-game lead over their wretched NFC West opponents and are closing in on one of the earliest division clinchings in league history. They’ve won six in a row with a stingy defense that is tied for the league lead with 19 takeaways, and a steady, punishing running game sparked by Frank Gore.
New York comes off an uplifting comeback win at New England, breaking a bunch of Patriots home winning strings, and seems to fear no one. Without top receiver Hakeem Nicks and RB Ahmad Bradshaw, the Giants still had enough offense — and plenty of defense — to win in Foxborough.
This game also features two coaches at the top of their games: Tom Coughlin and rookie Jim Harbaugh, front-runners for Coach of the Year honors halfway through the schedule.
New Orleans (6-3) at Atlanta (5-3)
A Saints win, with a bye next week, sets them up beautifully for the rest of the season. To get it, they need to show more strength in run defense and find a way to get turnovers; their eight takeaways are the fewest in the NFC.
“There’s no question,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Having done this long enough, when teams are having success running the football against you and it’s second-and-2 or second-and-4, that has an effect on your team. When you’re the team that’s having success and are able to run the football, that’s important.”
Atlanta is one of those teams having some success running it and stopping the run.
Detroit (6-2) at Chicago (5-3)
One of the success stories of the first half of the season, the Lions come off a bye eager to prove they belong in the playoff discussion. A win at Soldier Field would do just that, but they need to locate a running game; Jahvid Best has been plagued by concussion symptoms.
Chicago inserted itself into the postseason discussions with its gutsy win at Philadelphia as versatile RB Matt Forte continued his brilliant work. The Bears, winners of three straight, also can’t be happy with how the Lions took them down on national TV last month.
Buffalo (5-3) at Dallas (4-4)
Dallas is so predictably unpredictable that its .500 record is fitting. The Cowboys must find some consistency quickly to become a contender, and after Buffalo they face Washington, Miami and Arizona. So now is the time, and with the emergence of RB DeMarco Murray, it might happen.
Remember, though, the Bills are no pushover, with an offense that will test Dallas’ inconsistent (of course) secondary and linebacking. Bills RB Fred Jackson could be even more of a force Sunday than is Murray.
Minnesota (2-6) at Green Bay (8-0)
No Brett Favre drama in this one. Probably no drama, period.
Sure, the Packers are showing vulnerability against the pass, especially the deep ball, and Minnesota gave them a tough game just three weeks ago. With Jared Allen coming after Aaron Rodgers, the Vikings can offer up a challenge.
Still, Rodgers and the Pack attack have been unstoppable, sending out more quality receivers than an all-star team could cover.
Denver (3-5) at Kansas City (4-4)
Shockingly, a Broncos win could put them right in the mix for the AFC West crown, and they are 2-1 with Tim Tebow at the helm — even if he has been mediocre, at best, for most of those games. Willis McGahee has re-emerged as a factor in the running game.
Everything was on course in Kansas City until the Chiefs laid an egg against Miami, handing the Dolphins their first win in a rout. Expect a far better effort this week from the co-leaders of the division.
Houston (6-3) at Tampa Bay (4-4)
Houston is cruising in the NFC South, so a non-conference loss here might not be all that damaging. But the Texans, closing in on their first playoff berth, should get back their best offensive player, WR Andre Johnson. Without him, the Texans have been dynamic on the ground thanks to Arian Foster and Ben Tate. With him: watch out, Bucs.
Tampa’s season quickly has eroded and the Bucs’ hopes for improving on their 10-6 record of 2010 depends on getting hot now. Their spotty defense has held them back, as has the up-and-down performances of QB Josh Freeman.
Jacksonville (2-6) at Indianapolis (0-9)
Perhaps the Colts’ best chance to avoid an 0-for-’11 comes against the Jaguars, who had a bye last week and are no pushover, despite their record, or against Carolina in the game following Indy’s bye. Normally by mid-November, the Colts are in the mix for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Of course, they normally have Peyton Manning.
Jacksonville is the only team to have scored fewer than 100 points. But the Jags get after teams on defense and it doesn’t take a whole lot of that to beat the Colts these days.
Arizona (2-6) at Philadelphia (3-5)
So the Eagles are back on the rise, ready to make a run for the postseason. That’s what a whole lot of folks thought until Monday night’s home loss against Chicago.
Philly is missing the decisive touch. All season, it has failed to put away opponents in the fourth quarter, whether it be with dropped passes, missed blocks or penalties on offense, or sloppy work on defense.
The Cardinals found one unique way to win, breaking a five-game slide when Patrick Peterson returned a punt 99 yards in overtime against St. Louis. Peterson broke every rule in the special teams book with that one. Don’t think anybody in the Valley of the Sun is complaining.
Tennessee (4-4) at Carolina (2-6)
Two teams in rebuilding mode with new coaches and, despite neither being a winner right now, two decent resumes.
The Titans were 3-1 and have gone downhill the last month, but if they can ever get RB Chris Johnson on track, they could challenge for a winning record.
Carolina, coming off a bye, has one of the NFL’s most exciting pass-catch duos in rookie QB Cam Newton and veteran wideout Steve Smith, a prime contender for comeback player awards. Smith against Tennessee’s cornerbacks could be a highlight in this match.
Washington (3-5) at Miami (1-7)
Four consecutive defeats and a slew of injuries have the Redskins plummeting toward the bottom of the NFC. They’ve thrown 13 interceptions and have 19 giveaways, both the most in the NFC.
Miami came close in recent weeks before breaking through for win No. 1 at Kansas City — in blowout fashion, too. A second victory in a row hardly would be a surprise, particularly if WR Brandon Marshall and RB Reggie Bush can repeat their KC heroics.
St. Louis (1-7) at Cleveland (3-5)
Both rosters have been ravaged by injuries, with Cleveland’s backfield hit particularly hard. That is not the case with St. Louis with Steve Jackson now healthy and productive.
All of which means the Rams could give Jackson 40 touches against the NFL’s 30th-ranked rushing defense.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.