San Diego Charging as Contenders Come Into Focus
New Orleans? It wants to play things out and finish unbeaten, although middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma declared Sunday after they barely got by backup quarterback Chris Redman in Atlanta that a title is more important than finishing 16-0. Minnesota can challenge them, Arizona might -- and so might Philadelphia, if it can tackle better than it did Sunday night against the Giants.
In other words, we're finally getting to a point in the season where we can look ahead to the playoffs. And, quite frankly, other than the six teams noted above, is there anyone who can think of any other candidates to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy? Certainly not Dallas, which continued its annual swoon by losing at home to the Chargers, then fell behind the Eagles in the NFC East when Philly beat New York 45-38.
Green Bay? Maybe Aaron Rodgers and an increasingly stout defense led by the amazing Charles Woodson give the Packers a shot. But the offensive line may not be able to protect Rodgers well enough against teams like the Vikings or Eagles.
A short rundown by conference.
It's difficult to say the Colts don't scare people. They set a record Sunday by winning their 22nd straight regular-season game and are 13-0 this season and they have a point-producing machine at quarterback, even if Peyton Manning did throw three interceptions against Denver Sunday.
But they really haven't overpowered anyone all season.
Sunday's 28-16 win looked like it was over at 21-0, then got to 21-16 before Indy scored a late TD to clinch it. The Colts don't run especially well; they are inexperienced in the secondary; and with all the regular-season wins have only one title in the nine seasons that Manning has been putting up thousands of yards. If it's not the Chargers beating them in the postseason, its the Steelers or Patriots. In fact, the season the Colts won, 2006, was the only time they played out the regular season, playing hard into the last week in an unsuccessful effort to secure a first-round bye.
Nonetheless, team president Bill Polian said after the game they would start resting people now that they've clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs to rest guys playing with injuries and to give playing time to others who have been off because of injury. That was seconded by coach emeritus Tony Dungy on NBC after Polian talked to Dan Patrick.
"Ultimately, I think the No. 1 thing you want to be in the playoffs is healthy,'' said middle linebacker Gary Brackett, echoing the party line.
The Chargers will keep playing to secure a first-round bye, which can happen if they win in Cincinnati next week against a team that will win the North but was only competitive for a half in Minneapolis on Sunday. Even though the Chargers will meet the Colts in Indianapolis, it will be indoors and they match up well -- receivers all over 6-2 against a secondary that is playing with cornerbacks under 6-feet, in some cases well under.
San Diego, on the other hand, matches up pretty well on defense with Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer at the corners. It's not good against the run with Jamal Williams, the massive nose tackle, out but running isn't what Indy does a lot.
Their meeting is pretty far down the line, but they should get there.
Yes, New England has a lot of history and should have won in Indy last month, but its defense is much too inexperienced for a sustained playoff run. Equally experienced Pittsburgh is fading from the picture and the potential wild-card teams -- Miami, the New York Jets and Baltimore -- all have inexperienced quarterbacks.
Everything has bounced right for New Orleans this season, which is just fine, since everything bounced wrong for the Saints for so long. But it makes sense for them to rest people, too -- they'd love to have Reggie Bush healthy and in shape as a playoff playmaker, just another threat to add to Drew Brees' already substantial arsenal.
And they're clearly tiring. Their last two wins -- against 4-9 Washington and over Atlanta and Redman -- were by three points each. "We're battle tested,'' Brees joked after Sunday's 26-23 victory.
So line up the challengers.
Minnesota is close to clinching a first-round bye, which will allow it to rest Brett Favre. Although Favre joked after the 30-10 win over the Bengals: "I don't think I'm falling apart in December like most people seem to think.''
Assuming the Saints and Vikings clinch, it will give the two teams an indoor advantage -- the Superdome and the Metrodome are probably the noisiest venues in the NFL in a way that Indianapolis is not.
Arizona is starting to play as it did last year on its unlikely run to the Super Bowl. The plus for the Cardinals is the experience of that run and the fact that they are an indoor/ warm weather team. The minus is that no one will take them lightly and that they are unlikely to get a title game at home.
The Eagles have to win a Super Bowl to make the season an success.
After five NFC title games in nine years and just one Super Bowl trip, a loss, their fans will stand for nothing less. And as explosive as they are on offense, especially if Brian Westbrook is back for the playoffs, they looked very iffy against the Giants Sunday night, allowing 512 yards, missing more tackles than they made, and generally playing only a little less shoddily than the Giants in a game that might have set a record for missed tackles on both sides.
So yes, Philadelphia can win.
Will it? Probably not.
Oh yes. Dallas.
"You don't want to fade out in December, you want to be peaking," Rivers said after he and the Chargers beat the Cowboys.