- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

The New York Jets showed the nation last Thursday night that the acquisitions of Kris Jenkins, Alan Faneca and Brett Favre, among others, have made them a legitimate playoff contender.

Their game Sunday in Tennessee may determine if they can be more than that.

The Titans enter the contest 10-0, the NFL’s only unbeaten team. The Jets, who lead the AFC East at 7-3, are the most formidable opponent they will face until the final two games of the regular season, when they play host to Pittsburgh, then finish at Indianapolis; Detroit, Cleveland and Houston are in between.

Tennessee, which has a four-game lead over the Colts in the AFC South with six games to go, can clinch a wild-card spot with a victory, although it’s a foregone conclusion the Titans will win the division, which they could clinch in a couple of weeks. As their run has continued, they’ve played down the unbeaten aspect, a good idea because New England’s unbeaten season last season was spoiled by a Super Bowl loss.

“We’ve got 10 wins,” says guard Jake Scott, who twice played on teams in Indianapolis that started with a double-digit unbeaten streak, including one in 2005 that started 13-0, then was eliminated in its first playoff game. “That’s a lot. To go undefeated, we’d have to win nine more. We’re just a little over halfway. You’re not even in that ballpark yet.”

The Jets look at it differently.

“You always want your guys to have the mentality that they can’t lose,” coach Eric Mangini says. “I think that’s a great spirit to have in any locker room, so I’m sure they’re really happy that they have that right now. We go into every game with the assumption that we’re going to win, as well.”

New York had its biggest win last week, beating the Patriots 34-31 in overtime after losing a 24-6 first-half lead. That gave the Jets a one-game lead over New England and Miami in the division, with Buffalo a game behind them.

In that sense, their focus has to be on the division race.

Yes, it would be great to knock off an unbeaten team. But staying in first is a higher priority.

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The weekend opened Thursday night with Cincinnati at Pittsburgh.

In other games Sunday, Tampa Bay is at Detroit; Chicago at St. Louis; New England at Miami; San Francisco at Dallas; Buffalo at Kansas City; Houston at Cleveland; Philadelphia at Baltimore; Minnesota at Jacksonville; Oakland at Denver; Carolina at Atlanta; Washington at Seattle; the New York Giants at Arizona; and Indianapolis at San Diego.

Green Bay is at New Orleans on Monday night.

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New York Giants (9-1) at Arizona (7-3)

The Cardinals can clinch the NFC West with a win and a loss by San Francisco at Dallas, a fact that says more about the division than the Cardinals. The Giants, after all, are two games better but aren’t within a sniff of a division title yet because the NFC East is much better.

The NFC West title will come to the Cards eventually; 8-8 would be good enough to win in any case. This game may be more important because it gives Arizona a chance to prove its legitimacy against the defending Super Bowl champion and a team that many folks regard as the NFL’s best.

For New York, it’s a return to the site of that title-game triumph last February over the unbeaten Patriots. How are the Giants winning? Consider they had their third-straight 200-plus yards rushing game last week against the Ravens, who were giving up 65 yards a game on the ground. As a result, their five offensive linemen were all nominated for NFC offensive player of the week.

Indianapolis (6-4) at San Diego (4-6)

In this fixture last season, Peyton Manning threw six interceptions, and still the Colts barely lost, 23-21. Sunday night’s game is between two AFC powers heading in opposite directions.

The Colts, all but out of the race for an AFC South title they have captured five straight times, have won three straight to put themselves in the thick of the wild-card race. But they again could be without oft-injured safety Bob Sanders, last season’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

The Chargers have lost three of four to fall two games behind Denver in the AFC West, a title they probably have to win to make it to the postseason.

“We’re not out of it but it’s like the blown opportunities we keep on talking about, when we could have been easily tied with Denver right now,” LaDainian Tomlinson says. “And whenever you keep blowing opportunities, then at some point, as they say, opportunities don’t come about anymore.”

Washington (6-4) at Seattle (2-8)

How come the Redskins aren’t 10-0 and blowing out opponents by 40 points each week? According to their fans, they should be. Dan (The Fan) Snyder’s minions have been bombarding their fans with messages to vote for anyone who wears the burgundy and gold, so 16 Redskins are leading the Pro Bowl balloting at their positions. Or maybe Snyder has voted 100,000 times or so.

This is a one-week respite for Washington, which has lost consecutive games to the Steelers and Cowboys and gets the Giants next week. Matt Hasselbeck was back at QB for the Seahawks in their loss to Arizona, but is still hurting.

Carolina (8-2) at Atlanta (6-4)

Their record says the Panthers are the second-best team in the NFC, but they haven’t really looked the part in shaky wins over two of the NFL’s worst, the Raiders and Lions. Jake Delhomme, one of the reasons for Carolina’s NFC South-leading status, is only 17-of-46 for 174 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions against two teams with a combined 2-18 record.

The Falcons lost 24-9 to the Panthers in Charlotte, a game in which Carolina held Michael Turner to 56 yards. Take away one 28-yard run last week in the 24-20 loss to Denver and Turner has just 53 yards rushing on 24 carries, an indication he’s just as important to Atlanta’s resurgence as rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.

New England (6-4) at Miami (6-4)

This might be an elimination game for two teams a game behind the Jets in the AFC East. How quickly can a year (and a major injury) change things? A year ago, when New England finished 16-0 and Miami 1-15, the Patriots were 17-point favorites in this game. This week, the Patriots are 2-point underdogs to lose both ends of a season series to a division opponent for the first time since 2000.

The difference became evident in the first meeting, which came in Week 3 in Foxborough. That’s when the Dolphins unveiled the “Wildcat” formation and won 38-13 with Ronnie Brown rushing for four touchdowns and throwing for a fifth.

Philadelphia (5-4-1) at Baltimore (6-4)

The Philadelphia media, notably the broadcast segment, are in overdrive because of Donovan McNabb’s comment after last week’s tie in Cincinnati that he didn’t know NFL games could end that way. McNabb’s dismal performance _ 28-of-58 with three interceptions _ might merit criticism, but his ignorance was apparently shared by many of his teammates.

McNabb will probably have to throw often against a riled-up Baltimore defense. It was leading the NFL allowing just 65 yards rushing per game until it went to the Meadowlands last week and the Giants ran for 207.

Green Bay (5-5) at New Orleans (5-5) (Monday night)

Two teams with the same records but different positions in the standings. The Packers are tied with the Vikings and Bears for first in the NFC North; the Saints are last in the South, primarily because Drew Brees’ passing hasn’t overcome a running game that’s 28th in the league.

Reggie Bush, who has missed the last three games with a knee injury, could be back for the Saints, although it’s probably the proverbial game-time decision. One item for New Orleans to be wary about is Green Bay’s offensive defense that has scored seven touchdowns, just two fewer than the Raiders have accounted for on offense.

Minnesota (5-5) at Jacksonville (4-6)

The Jaguars know their playoff chances are just about shot. “It’s absolutely as dismal an outlook as you can have and not be out,” coach Jack Del Rio says. “We’d have to win every one to have a chance to qualify. It’s a very remote possibility.”

Minnesota’s offense had problems in Tampa last week against one of the NFL’s consistently good defenses. That might have been a problem against the Jaguars in the past. But Jacksonville is in the bottom half of the NFL in most defensive categories, one of the reasons it is losing.

San Francisco (3-7) at Dallas (6-4)

The Cowboys should continue to get well against the 49ers, bolstering the suggestions by Jerry Jones, Terrell Owens and others that they will make the playoffs and then make a decent run when they get there. Seattle comes in on Thanksgiving, but the schedule gets harder after that, meaning that Tony Romo must perform up to his standards and the reinstated “Adam” Jones must contribute.

The 49ers look like a more motivated team under Mike Singletary, although Singletary hasn’t yet passed Game Management 101. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who should know better, hasn’t helped either.

Oakland (2-8) at Denver (6-4)

The Broncos’ win in Atlanta last week is one of only two they have over a team with a winning record, and it gave them a two-game lead in the AFC West over San Diego, which shows few signs of living up to its potential. Jay Cutler has been carrying Denver heroically, throwing the winning TD pass against the Falcons last week for a team whose running backs are now Peyton Hillis, P.J. Pope and the recently re-signed Tatum Bell.

The Raiders? The main recent news about them was speculation over their future coach. Jim Harbaugh? Jim Fassel? Al Davis?

Houston (3-7) at Cleveland (4-6)

The Browns might be able to start a run here _ probably not at the playoffs but perhaps to save coach Romeo Crennel’s job. Brady Quinn hasn’t been great yet, but he’s 1-1 as a starter, hasn’t thrown an interception and hasn’t made any glaringly bad decisions.

Houston continues with Sage Rosenfels at QB while Matt Schaub heals. It’s become clear that Rosenfels is one of those backups who can put up numbers but is exposed when he starts too often.

Tampa Bay (7-3) at Detroit (0-10)

Lions coach Rod Marinelli used to be the defensive line coach in Tampa, so maybe he knows things about the Bucs that others don’t. In any case, the Lions are likely to be 0-11 when they play host to Tennessee on Thanksgiving, when the Titans could be 11-0.

Chicago (5-5) at St. Louis (2-8)

Kyle Orton had a miserable return last week as Bears QB in the 37-3 loss to the Packers, losing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and passing for just 133 yards. But he should be healthier this week against a team that has been outscored 82-19 in the last two weeks, reverting back to its early-season form under Scott Linehan.

Buffalo (5-5) at Kansas City (1-9)

The Bills have now lost four straight after being one of the pleasant early-season surprises. Last week’s loss to Cleveland raised memories of a much more bitter loss by the 1990 team: A potential winning field goal from 47 yards was wide right, this time by Rian Lindell rather than Scott Norwood.

The Chiefs are starting four rookies and an equal number of second-year men, including QB Tyler Thigpen, who might be a long-term answer at that position.

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