It's a big day in the heated NFC East race between Philadelphia and the NY Giants, as both teams go on the road for key games, one to begin the television day and the other to end it. In an ironic twist, both are playing teams that were considered Super Bowl material at the start of the year, fell by the wayside, but have picked it back up after midseason coaching changes. In short, both teams are matched up with playoff-caliber teams with losing records, an oddity to say the least.
The Giants go to Minnesota (1 ET, Fox) for a game that most of the country will see, unless your local team is in the same time slot. It's still unknown as of right now whether Brett Favre plays or not. Favre's many critics look at last week's blowout of Buffalo, occurring after he was knocked out with a shoulder injury, as an example of the fact the team is better off with Tavaris Jackson in the lineup, a conclusion that requires ignoring the three interceptions Jackson threw and the fact the Vikes clearly don't have much interest in going with him next season if they can avoid it. The fact Minnesota won this game, as they did the Washington game a week earlier, underscores the fact that Leslie Frazier is helping them re-establish their identity as a rushing team, with Adrian Peterson leading the way and Toby Gerhart right behind him. New York is also better off when they go run-first, as Eli Manning trails only Favre when it comes to throwing interceptions. Both teams get strong play from their defensive front four. This game will be a key test of whether Minnesota has turned it around enough to beat good teams, and I think regardless of who plays quarterback, they're going to pressure Manning, run the ball and chisel out a 21-17 win. As a Favre fan, what I would like to see most in this game is an announcement beforehand that the old gunslinger will not be playing. Let him do what Cal Ripken did when his legendary consecutive games streak ended, and take a standing O from the crowd and the opposing team. Brett's taken the worst hits of his career this season and just shouldn't be out there right now.
Philadelphia ends the day with a prime-time showdown against Dallas (8:20 ET, NBC). The Cowboys seem have to decisively re-established their running game and chosen Tashard Choice as the back to do it with. Jon Kitna is playing very efficient football at quarterback right now. The points will be necessary, as the Cowboy defense hasn't followed the offense when it comes to meeting their potential. They gave up 35 to Indy last week and 30 to New Orleans on Thanksgiving. There's no reason to expect them to contain Michael Vick. But the Eagle ground game is still very inconsistent and there are only so many big plays a quarterback can make. I'm looking for Dallas to have a more balanced offense and to use its homefield advantage to get a 31-28 win. If these results work out as I'm projecting, with both the Giants and Eagles losing--in fact, if even one of them loses, the odds are good the NFC East is out of the wild-card picture.
In between the Giants, Eagles and their resurgent opponents, is a marquee game between New England and Chicago (4:15 ET, CBS). Chicago's really coming on right now, with Jay Cutler playing relatively mistake-free, and Mike Martz mixing in the run game a little more. Those two unlikely circumstances have enabled the Bear offense to give their solid defense credible support and with New England on a short week off an emotional win and playing on the road, mean Chicago has a real chance to steal an upset here. I think the Bears can contain the Patriot ground game. The issue then is whether Tom Brady can get the ball deep, or if Chicago can make him rely on all short passes. Making an offense like that work is the equivalent of drawing to an inside straight--you can't have any mistakes--but Brady and Bill Belichick are the best dealers in the business and can make it work. Then we ask the question of whether New England's defense can force Cutler into the interceptions he can prone too. Here too, I think they pull it off. There's only one organization on earth I'd pick to win a road game against a first-place team coming off a big MNF win and that club is the New England Patriots. Let's call this one 21-20.
Image from philly.com
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.