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Week 16 in the NFL

Patriots are perfect, but don't forget Colts

December 23, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With the New England Patriots a one-two punch removed from a perfect regular season -- only tomato cans Miami and the New York Giants remain in their path -- the football world will see if Bill Belichick's team can not only go 16-0, but 19-0.

There is plenty going on elsewhere, though, in this second-to-last week of the NFL season, one filled with breakout players, some onetime star coaches on the ropes, a few surprising contenders, and a champion that has almost gone overlooked.

Yes, even at 12-2, the Indianapolis Colts are almost an afterthought. They play host to the Houston Texans today and are looking to stretch their winning streak to six games. The Colts, locked into the AFC's No. 2 spot, have a chance to sweep their division in the final two weeks. They finish at home against Tennessee.

Before they came alive in the playoffs last January, the Colts stumbled through December with a laughable run defense and losses to each of their three division foes. This season, despite being battered by injuries to key players, they became the first team to post 12 victories five years in a row.

Top to bottom, the AFC South is the league's toughest division, and second-place Jacksonville can clinch its second playoff berth in three seasons with a victory today over the visiting Oakland Raiders.

The Jaguars are coming off an impressive victory in snowy Pittsburgh, where they proved they can win in foul weather. That's a prerequisite in a conference where the path to the Super Bowl goes through bitter-cold Foxborough.

Jacksonville's backs are running angry, gaining 224 yards rushing against Pittsburgh. That Steelers defense is looking wobbly, even though it still has the league's top ranking. In the past three games, the Steelers have given up 87 points and 1,158 yards.

Having played Thursday at St. Louis, where they won by 17 but lost running back Willie Parker, the Steelers can relax and recuperate today while they watch the upstart Cleveland Browns play at Cincinnati.

The Browns, maybe the season's most startling contender, still have an outside chance at the AFC North crown. They need to win today and next week against San Francisco, and hope that the Steelers -- who swept them this season -- lose their finale at Baltimore.

Ah, Baltimore. The Ravens are perhaps the league's biggest disappointment this season. A year after going 13-3 before being upset by the visiting Colts in the playoffs, Brian Billick's team absolutely tanked it. The latest indignity was the most stinging -- the Ravens lost in overtime to the previously winless Dolphins, who were threatening to join the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the only teams to lose every game.

Word is, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti mercifully plans to keep Billick around another season. But things won't get any easier today for the onetime Super Bowl-winning coach. Baltimore plays at Seattle, where the NFC West champion Seahawks are 6-1 and get a big boost from their so-called 12th Man, their ear-splitting crowd.

Seattle has had problems of its own, however. The Seahawks, who once had a potent ground attack, seem to have forgotten how to run. In the past two weeks, they have pieced together only 80 and 44 yards on the ground.

After all, there's a chance the NFC playoffs could go through Green Bay, where the elements can wreak havoc on a passing game. The Packers are vying with Dallas to become the top-seeded team in the conference, although the Cowboys have the head-to-head edge if the teams wind up with the same record.

Green Bay is a very dangerous team, especially now that it has developed a running game to complement Brett Favre's passing.

Running back Ryan Grant wasn't even on the first team in early October, when the visiting Bears handed Green Bay the first of its two losses.

Since midseason, however, Grant has collected all but 27 of his 799 yards rushing. Like clockwork, beginning with his 104-yard performance at Denver on Oct. 29, Grant has run for more than 100 yards every other week. Seeing as he's coming off a 55-yard game at St. Louis, he's due for another big performance today.

No matter what, the Packers have secured a first-round bye. That's their third since the NFL went to a six-team playoff format in 1990, with Green Bay making it to the Super Bowl both of the previous two.

The signs are not so promising in New York, where the Giants blew a chance to clinch a wild-card berth last week by losing to Washington.

The Giants play at Buffalo today, and, if they were to somehow squander their opportunity to make the playoffs, it could spell the end for Coach Tom Coughlin.

Coaches can make incredible comebacks, though. Just look at San Diego's Norv Turner. His team, which plays host to Denver on Monday, won the AFC West last weekend despite losing three of its first four games.

The Chargers, shaky as they have looked at times this season, have a chance to secure the No. 3 seeding in the AFC.

That could set the stage for them to play Indianapolis - a team they've beaten -- in the divisional round.

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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