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The Pro Football Notebook


December 6, 2010 7:45 AM

The Heavyweight Fight Is Here

PatriotsJets.jpgIt's time for the regular season's most significant regular season game, as the New York Jets go to New England tonight for Monday Night Football. The winner of this game takes the inside track to the AFC East title, the #1 seed in the playoffs and becomes the favorite to win the Super Bowl. The loser is still a threat to go all the way, but faces the prospect of probably having to go the long wild-card route. And given that these are two teams who won't consider anything short of the Lombardi Trophy to be a success, the stakes are only heightened.

The Jets got bad news this week when free safety Jim Leonhard broke his tibia and will miss the rest of the season. A heady player who calls the defensive signals, Leonhard's ability to play centerfield is vital for a team that wants to bring pressure and dare teams to beat them deep. How Tom Brady looks to exploit this unexpected advantage will be one of the key storylines tonight. But before Brady can get the ball downfield he has to get some time, and the Patriots will have to use some finesse to keep the Jets off balance. We're talking about things like quick runs up the middle from BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, hitting Wes Welker on the quick slants he excels at and getting the young tight ends into the offense. The matchup between the Patriot offense and the Jet defense is a battle of excellence. When the ball is flipped, it's a matchup of two units that are functionable, but have their problems. Mark Sanchez has been pulling rabbits out of his hat all year for New York, but he's also been inconsistent enough that the Jets have had to go down to the wire. The Patriot defense is still developing and goes from championship-caliber one week to looking silly the next. This part of the game is going to be a battle to see who can make fewer mistakes.

In the end, I like New England to win. They're playing at home and even if they can't get the ball deep, Brady is more than capable of the kind of high-precision short passing game that can pull out a win. The loss of Leonhard increases the likelihood the Jets will surrender big plays. The Pats scrape out a 17-13 win.

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We'll recap the biggest of yesterday's games tomorrow, along with the Patriots-Jets, when the playoff projections are updated. Another development that happened yesterday is the prospects of Jacksonville and Kansas City hosting playoff games took a giant step forward. The Chiefs won ugly against Denver. The Broncos finally got a running game, as Knowshown Moreno ran for 161 yards and they were nearly a wash with the NFL's top rush offense. It was Denver's passing game that disappeared now, as Kyle Orton was held to 86 yards in the air, while Matt Cassell ran another efficient game. Cassell is really settling in and yesterday's cool 17/31 for 196 yards came without a single completion to favorite target Dwayne Bowe.

Kansas City's win that moved them to 8-4 wasn't the biggest news in the AFC West though. Oakland completely dismantled San Diego on the road 28-13. The Chargers ability to look like a Super Bowl team one week and a 4-12 team the next is astonishing. The Raiders completely destroyed their rivals on the ground, 258-57 with both Darren McFadden and Michael Bush sharing in the glory. San Diego is now 6-6, and with the division loss to Oakland, may no longer control tiebreakers with Kansas City. SD certainly doesn't have a tiebreaker on the Raiders, who are also 6-6 and have beaten them twice.

Jacksonville got an impressive 17-6 win over Tennessee, as they shut down the Titan running game, with Chris Johnson only getting 53 yards. The Jags overwhelmed Tennessee on the ground, with Maurice Jones-Drew going for 186, while David Garrard played a mistake-free 14/19 for 126 yards game. Tennessee is falling apart, unable to do the things they usually do well, like run the ball and stop the run. Maybe they should try cutting Randy Moss, a move that rejuvenated both New England and Minnesota this year. The Jags are 7-5 and in sole possession of first in the AFC South, thanks to Indianapolis' overtime loss to Dallas. That's two straight home losses for the Colts and another interception-laden game for Peyton Manning, who threw four picks. The running game was decisive, as the Cowboys rushed for over 200 yards, while Indy's anemic attack got only 40. It's no wonder Manning is throwing picks, as no one on defense has to respect the run. For that reason, the 6-6 Colts are going to have a tough time turning this around.

Image from whdh.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.

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