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Sunday, December 04, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 12

Today features four great games between divison rivals who are also playoff contenders. With just four weeks left after today, the stakes are high - a two-game swing at this point could mean the difference between winning the division or descending into the depths of the wild-card tiebreakers.

Sunday
Dallas (7-4) at NY Giants (7-4)

I wonder if Billy Cundiff and Jay Feely will share war stories before this game? Both kickers missed game-winning field goals last week that would have given their teams their 8th win of the season. Fortunately, both games were against non-divisional opponents, but a miscue today could end the NFC East race. The Cowboys defeated the Giants 16-13 in overtime in their first meeting back in Week 6, so a win today would give Dallas a one-game lead plus the tiebreaker. It will be interesting to see if Jeremy Shockey repeats his performance from that game (5 catches for 129 yards and a TD) against an improving Dallas defense. There's going to be some snow around in New England today, but I don't know if it will impact the playing surface at the Meadowlands. Both of these teams like to run, but the Cowboys 1-2 punch of Julius Jones and Marion Barber may be better suited to a slow track.

After this game, the schedules of the two teams diverge a bit. Both teams face Kansas City at home and Washington on the road, but the Giants get the edge in their other 2 games, playing at Philadelphia next week and finishing up at Oakland. Dallas ends its season with a tough road game at Carolina before hosting St. Louis. But that even 2-2 home/road split for the Cowboys may still give them an edge over the Giants, who play 3 of their final 4 games on the road. The Giants really need today's game, and I think they'll win it.

Cincinnati (8-3) at Pittsburgh (7-4)

This is a crossroads game for the Bengals. They were embarrassed by the Steelers, 27-13, back in Week 7, giving up 221 yards on the ground at home. Now Cincinnati can wipe that away with a win today, and build a two game lead in the AFC North. But a loss drops them into a tie and gives Pittsburgh the tie-breaker, which would likely relegate the Bengals to the wild-card. I must admit that I'm hoping Cincinnati wins, since they are an exciting team to watch. The only problem is, this is a bad matchup for them.

First, Cincinnati's top-rated (AFC) offense is going up against one of the best defensive teams in the conference, especially against the run. The Bengals need to hope that Carson Palmer turns in a Peyton Manning-esque performance today, with some big plays to put the Steelers in catch-up mode. I'm sure they spent a lot of time studying the Colts-Steelers game on Monday night.

But I'm more concerned about when Pittsburgh has the ball. Roethisberger's two picks on Monday night didn't help, but he'll play better today. Cincinnati has given up more points than any other division leader other than the 6-5 Patriots, and has struggled to stop the run. If the Steelers can keep Palmer in check, limit the big plays, and control the ball on the ground, they can bounce back from Monday night's debacle and regain a share of first place.

Atlanta (7-4) at Carolina (8-3)

These divisional rivals play their first game of the season today, and they'll meet again on New Year's Day to finish the year. Both teams played mediocre teams last week, and although Atlanta looked great against Detroit while Carolina struggled, I still love Carolina today. The Panthers have the best defense against the run in the NFC (82.2 yards per game) and will need to slow down the best rushing offense in the entire league (183.1 yards per game). Michael Vick is playing better as a passer, with just one interception in his last three games, but good games against Green Bay and Detroit don't impress me. Carolina's defense is going to win them this game.

Denver (9-2) at Kansas City (7-4)

Now this is a rivalry with some history. Denver-Kansas City has featured a lot of great games over the years, though I'm partial to those Elway-Montana matchups. Today, Kansas City will try to get some payback for a 30-10 loss in Week 3 at Denver. In that game, Larry Johnson carried the ball just 8 times for 13 yards, while Priest Holmes was limited to 61 yards on 14 carries after the Chiefs fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter. I watched the entire Denver-Dallas game on Thanksgiving and the Kansas City-New England game on Sunday and to me it's no contest - Denver is flat-out better on defense. It was easy to see why Denver has allowed 40 fewer points than Kansas City. The Chiefs did beat up Tom Brady, but he was operating behind a decimated offensive line. Denver beat Dallas into submission, holding them to 85 yards rushing and picking off Drew Bledose twice. Denver can't clinch a playoff spot today, but this win will move them one big step closer.

Monday Night
Seattle (9-2) at Philadelphia (5-6)

The Seahawks took advantage of the Giants kicking woes last week to move one step closer to clinching the NFC West. If the Rams lose on Sunday to the Redskins, the Seahawks will have already clinched before taking the field, but they still have home-field to play for - and last week's game (11 false start penalities by the Giants) is great example of why it is so important. Philadelphia is technically still alive for the playoffs, but I wouldn't get too excited about beating Green Bay last week. Unless Seattle has a gigantic letdown, they win this game with ease.

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