It's a broken record to say Indianapolis has problems with the running game and problems with injuries. Neither problem is going to get any better these next four games, so it becomes a question of whether Peyton Manning can tone down the interceptions. Indy may be going through a bit of an identity crisis right now--given the situation, they realistically need to play a little more conservatively on offense, be safer and let the defense try and help them out. The D is nothing spectacular, but with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis pressuring the quarterback off the ends, you at least have playmaking possibilities. Manning needs to pull in his horns a little bit. He hasn't had to do that since...well, ever. But trying to operate as though he still has all his playmakers is only producing interceptions.
Indy is playing a team that has more than injury problems. Tennessee appears to be in complete dysfunction. I've generally supported Jeff Fischer's regime here, and in the specifics of cracking down on Vince Young, I also agree. But his overall record is starting to come under question. While Fisher has done well at keeping the Titans competitive, the hard facts are he only has six winning seasons and this is his 16th year. I'm forced to conclude that this isn't Marty Schottenheimer, a steady winner who always got unjust heat for playoff losses. It's reported Fisher is losing the support of owner Bud Adams. Losing tonight on your homefield obviously won't help. The Titans have to get Chris Johnson re-established on the ground. They don't have to worry about Indy outgunning them, as documented above, so that does work in favor of Tennessee's ground-first approach. But in the end, I'll take a hurt team over a truly dysfunctional one and pick the Colts to win tonight.
Jacksonville's game with Oakland is one of the better ones on the early part of the Sunday schedule. The Raiders are back in the playoff discussion after beating San Diego last week, but they are still two games back in the AFC West and in the wild-card race, so it's all must-win from this point forward. Bruce Gradowski was put on injured reserve, moving Jason Campbell into the starter's role. Oakland's opportunity in the passing game comes over the middle, as the Jaguar safeties are suspect. The Raiders have the tight end who can exploit that with Zach Miller and if they establish the run with Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, they can set up play-action and try and maneuver safeties out of position. Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard is playing well right now and the Raiders have to keep him contained. The ability of Garrard to scramble and that of Maurice Jones-Drew to make plays in space, both on cutbacks and off short passes, can make Oakland pay for blitzing or force them to abandon a key part of their defensive strategy. I'm looking for a lot of points here and the Jags to pull out a 34-31 win.
Keeping with the South Division theme, Atlanta takes its 10-2 record in the NFC South to last-place Carolina. There's nothing here to really discuss except the question of focus. Will the Falcons overlook the Panthers? I doubt it. They've got New Orleans breathing down their neck for the division and the Bears only a game back in the push for the #1 seed. I could see them being a little sluggish after coming off late wins over Green Bay and Tampa Bay the last two weeks, but actually losing to an 1-11 team that can't move the ball and has no real playmakers defensively is not in the cards.
We'll look at New Orleans' game with St. Louis tomorrow in conjunction with the NFC West, where the Rams are tied for first. Tampa Bay travels to Washington. The Bucs are 7-5 and probably out of the playoff race, but they still have a flicker of hope, and more importantly, they need to finish strong and get a winning season to solidify the gains they made this year. They've got some injury problems on the offensive line. But as in the case of Indy-Tennessee, pick a hurt team over a disintegrating one, and Washington's been in the latter category for a few weeks now.
Image from bleacherreport.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.