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The Pro Football Notebook


December 17, 2010 7:21 AM

Jacksonville & Kansas City Continue Unlikely Quests

JaxGoesToIndy.jpgJacksonville and Kansas City face huge road tests as they continue their unlikely quest to win division titles. The Jaguars will be in Indianapolis, while the Chiefs face in-state rival St. Louis. For the Jags, the stakes are highest--win and they clinch the AFC South, lose and drop into a tie with Indy. For the Chiefs, win and they keep their edge on San Diego and have two easier games ahead. With a loss, they fall into a tie and would lose the tiebreaker with the Chargers, who won last night and have only Cincinnati and Denver in their way the final two weeks.

The Jaguars-Colts showdown should see the scoreboard lights get a workout. Jacksonville has problems in their secondary and their defense gets worse as the game wears on. Peyton Manning should have a field day picking them apart. But the Jags will be a ready with a response. The Colts' notorious problems in defending the run will come to a head with Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield. Jacksonville can establish the run, draw up the Colt defense and allow David Garrard to make some big plays of his own. I think it imperative that Jacksonville open up the offense as quickly as possible. It's tempting to run Jones-Drew and try and keep Manning off the field, but the Indy quarterback can put up points in a hurry, and the Jags first priority has to be matching them blow-for-blow. They also need to force Manning into some bad throws. That was how Dallas and San Diego won games here in recent weeks, as the Colts' complete lack of a running game gives opposing defensive coordinators complete freedom to tee off on the quarterback. In the last analysis, I think Indianapolis has too many veteran playmakers--starting with both Manning and defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney--to lose this game at home to a team with defensive problems of its own. Indy wins it 38-34.

St. Louis is fighting for an unlikely division title of its own, both in terms of preseason expectations and the fact they're 6-7 yet still tied for first in the NFC West. They and the Chiefs are very similar in a lot of ways--each team has a top running back, in Stephen Jackson for the Rams and Jamaal Charles for the Chiefs. Each has a good young pass rusher in Chris Long and Tamba Hali respectively. Each is putting the foundation in place to be playing big games in Decembers to come under young coaches Steve Spagnuolo and Todd Haley. They differ in how they approach the passing game--the Rams lack a go-to receiver and rookie Sam Bradford has done an admirable job spreading the ball out. Kansas City is locked in on Dwayne Bowe for their big plays and Tony Gonzalez underneath. It's the health of their quarterback, Matt Cassell, that's the overarching factor in this game. Cassell had an appendectomy last week and missed his team's loss in San Diego. Brodie Croyle is completely inadequate as a backup and threw for only 40 yards. Cassell has practiced this week, and I'm guessing he's going to play. While he won't be 100 percent, the fact the offense is built more around the run makes me still lean Kansas City's way. If he doesn't play, the Chiefs have no shot.

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The AFC South's other two teams are also head-to-head this week, as Houston visits Tennessee. I don't think two more disappointing teams have met on the field, since the Dallas-Minnesota game early in the year. About the only thing interesting in this game is the renewal of the feud between Tennessee corner Cortland Finnegan and Houston receiver Andre Johnson, who came to blows in the first meeting. Both teams' head coaches may be on their last legs--Houston's Gary Kubiak certainly is, and I would predict Tennessee's Jeff Fisher is also going to changing jobs in the offseason.

Is it possible to have a game more uninteresting than Arizona-Carolina? The Cardinals at least showed some interest in playing football last week in taking apart Denver. As rough as this year has been in the desert, I still hold head coach Ken Wisenhunt in high regard and think he'll pull the Cards through this transition period and back to contending status in a division where the bar isn't very high. He'll have his team set to win this one, against a Panther squad drowning in ineptitude and dissension.

Image from Getty Imagess

Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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