Every Tuesday I’ll take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding NFL teams for that week. This week I take a look at the huge Monday night matchup in the NFC South, the “Battle for New York” and the late-pushing Chargers.
1. Can the Falcons be the team to slow the Saints?
The Saints have looked unbeatable the past six weeks. If there’s one team that could knock off the Packers in the playoffs, it’s universally believed to be New Orleans . While they’ve been inconsistent and conservative on the road at times, they’ve been unstoppable on their home turf. Considering they already knocked off the Falcons in Atlanta earlier this year, what makes anyone think the Saints will lose on Monday night when they host their biggest rivals on primetime? For starters, the Falcons have looked like a completely different team since they faced a 23-7 deficit in Carolina two weeks ago. They scored 24 unanswered points to beat the Panthers and then turned around four days later and humiliated the Jaguars in every facet of the game last Thursday. Granted, beating Carolina and Jacksonville is a little less daunting than bringing down the Saints in New Orleans . But if Matt Ryan and the Falcons have finally found some consistency offensively thanks to their no-huddle attack, then there’s no reason to believe Atlanta can’t go score-for-score with the Saints on Monday. Remember, this isn’t the same opportunistic defense that the Saints had in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl. The Falcons should be able to move the ball with their assortment of weapons. But again, beating Brees on his home turf will be Atlanta ’s toughest task of the year. If they can pull it off, the Falcons won’t just have a shot to win the NFC South – they’ll have confidence that they can beat anyone.
2. Which New York team will rise to the challenge?
Despite their epic fail in Philadelphia over the weekend, the Jets are still in good shape in the AFC (where they’re currently the sixth seed in the conference). But considering Rex Ryan’s defense just allowed 45 points to the Eagles and Mark Sanchez is still their quarterback, the Jets can’t feel too good about their present situation. The same can be said for the Giants, who failed to show up last Sunday against the Redskins. Their 23-10 loss to Washington came just seven days after their huge 37-34 win over the Cowboys (a win that allowed them to temporarily claim first place in the NFC East), so it was more than a little surprising that the G-Men didn’t bother to get up for Rex Grossman and Co. Searching for answers, the Giants will now put their playoff hopes on the line against a Jet team in a similar boat. At this point, it’s hard to figure out which team has an advantage, or if there’s even one to be had. If Eli Manning takes care of the football and the Giant defense shuts down Shonn Greene, then the G-Men shouldn’t have any problems collecting a huge victory. But the Giants never make anything easy, so flip a coin when it comes to which team will show up on Saturday. Whichever one does is going to have a shot at playing beyond next week, while the loser is potentially looking at a long offseason.
3. Can the Chargers make things really interesting in the AFC West?
The Chargers, those sand-bagging sons of bitches, are now just one game behind the Broncos in the AFC West after rattling off three consecutive wins. Just a few weeks ago Norv Turner looked like he was heading for the unemployment line and now San Diego has a legitimate shot of catching Denver in the division. That said, the Bolts have a tough task this Saturday. They play a Lions team with playoff aspirations of its own, and even if the Bolts can take care of their own business they still need Denver to lose in Buffalo. But we’ve seen a run like this before out of San Diego. In 2008 they were sitting at 4-8 before rattling off four straight wins to sneak into the playoffs and wound up upsetting the Colts in the Wild Card round before losing to the Steelers the following week. Thus, if there’s a team that could make things interesting not only in the AFC West but in the entire conference, it’s the Bolts. So strap in tight: Turner’s boys still have life.
4. Will the AFC North crown be decided in the final week?
To answer my own question, I’m sure it will. The Steelers host the hapless Rams this Saturday while the Ravens host the punchless Browns. Neither Pittsburgh nor Baltimore are expected to lose, so first place in the division will come down to the final week. But something of note is how inept the Steelers looked offensively on Monday night. Granted, San Francisco has one of the top defenses in the league but Pittsburgh continues to struggle on the offensive side of the ball. Outside of a 35-point effort against the Bengals in Week 13, the Steelers have managed just 13, 35, 14 and 3 points in their last four games. Ben Roethlisberger didn’t look right against the Niners on that bad ankle, which could severely affect the Steelers’ chances of repeating as AFC champions. While their defense is still solid, there’s no denying that Pittsburgh’s offense is in a funk. And if they can’t wrangle home field advantage away from the Ravens these next two weeks then Pittsburgh has a tough roe to hoe come playoff time.
5. Will the top seeds in both conferences be decided after this week?
All the Packers need to do to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC is beat the Bears on Sunday night, which they should. But there could be some jockeying for the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the conference these next two weeks as the Niners and Saints are each tied at 11-3. While the Saints have a tough game against the Falcons on Monday night, the Niners play a rejuvenated Seahawks team in Seattle on Saturday. Thus, it’s possible that we could see a one-game separation between San Fran and New Orleans for the right to have home field advantage and a first round bye. In the AFC, the Patriots have moved ahead of the Ravens and Texans for the moment, but they still need to win out or have Baltimore or Houston lose. The Patriots host the Dolphins and Bills these next two weeks, so it’s very likely that New England will be the top seed. Baltimore hosts Cleveland and Houston plays at Indy so there may not be a change between the Ravens (who are the No. 2 seed by virtue of tiebreakers) and the Texans (who are the No. 3 seed) this week.