Four impact games kick off stretch run

ON THE NFL

December 07, 2003|By KEN MURRAY

This promises to be the best day of the NFL season, pre-playoffs, and not just because of the "weather" games.

December's stretch run begins to unfold today. Even better, Week 14 features four tantalizing matchups that will help set the pecking order for the postseason.

The New England Patriots can achieve the earliest clinching of the AFC East title in 12 years by beating the Miami Dolphins. The Ravens can take a major step toward returning to the playoffs by beating the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Indianapolis Colts can put the Tennessee Titans on wild-card alert, and the Philadelphia Eagles can restore normalcy to the NFC East.

Three of those games will be played in the frosty Northeast - in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Foxboro, Mass. - with the emphasis on the wind, cold and running games. Not surprisingly, the home team is favored in each game.

Let the fun begin.

Bengals (7-5) at Ravens (7-5)

What's at stake: First place in the AFC North and the automatic playoff bid. The losing team is going to be hard-pressed to make the playoffs.

Undercurrent: NFL fans are agog at the job Marvin Lewis has done in Cincinnati. Can he lift the Bengals from 2-14 to a division title in one year?

Determining factor: The team that runs the ball best should win on a day when throwing will be dangerous.

Dolphins (8-4) at Patriots (10-2)

What's at stake: The AFC East title. New England clinches with a win; a loss leaves the Dolphins dangling on a short rope.

Undercurrent: The Dolphins have endured seven straight December swoons. Another one will cost coach Dave Wannstedt his job.

Determining factor: The Dolphins will call Ricky Williams' number all day, but how quarterback Jay Fiedler throws will decide whether they can stay in the game.

Colts (9-3) at Titans (9-3)

What's at stake: The AFC South lead. Because Indianapolis won the first game (33-7), a loss would be difficult for Tennessee to overcome.

Undercurrent: Titans quarterback Steve McNair is gimpy going into the stretch once again. But that's also when he's at his best.

Determining factor: If the Colts can spring Edgerrin James (120 rushing yards last time) again, they should have the edge. They're 5-1 on the road.

Cowboys (8-4) at Eagles (9-3)

What's at stake: The NFC East title. Philadelphia clinches with a win.

Undercurrent: After Dallas won the first game, 23-21, on Oct. 12, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said: "Now, people say, `Is Dallas for real or are they the best team?' Clearly, if you watch the film, they're not. So what does that tell you?" That McNabb better back it up today.

Determining factor: Cowboys coach Bill Parcells has the league's No. 1 defense and has had nine days to scheme. That alone should make it close.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Dome-field advantage

How big is the advantage the St. Louis Rams enjoy at the Edward Jones Dome? Huge. That much was evident when another dome team, the Minnesota Vikings, came to town and got shredded last week, 48-17.

The Vikings were guilty of six false starts and allowed Daunte Culpepper to be sacked a career-high eight times in the Rams' raucous dome. St. Louis scored 31 unanswered points and became a serious candidate for home-field advantage in the NFC.

McNabb is no Vick

Quarterback Michael Vick returns as the Atlanta Falcons' starter tonight, and that's bad news for the Carolina Panthers. Vick had two stellar games a year ago when the Falcons swept the Panthers, 30-0 and 41-0. He completed 35 of 46 passes for 450 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 111 yards and had 28 receiving yards.

After Vick's belated season debut last week, because of a broken leg, ESPN analyst Merril Hoge made this observation: "[Sunday's game] truly shows me that there is nobody like him. ... People are talking about Donovan McNabb. Let me tell you this: Donovan McNabb is not even in the same hemisphere with Michael Vick. When it comes to arm strength and running with the football, nobody has got what he's got and it does not appear to me that he's lost anything."

Chasing Faulk

A hip injury kept Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes from breaking Marshall Faulk's single-season touchdown record of 26 last season, and it would take a great finish to do it this year. Holmes has 17 touchdowns, and he needs 10 in the final four weeks to get the record. But he doesn't rule it out.

"They always say the things you do in December, you will be remembered by," Holmes said. "My first year here, I wanted to prove that I was an every-down back and rush for a lot of yards. Last season, I wanted to prove the first season wasn't a fluke. Those things were kind of personal.

"This year, I wanted to be more productive in a team way, and scoring touchdowns certainly helps your team win. But next year, it might be something different."

Closing fast

The hottest team in the NFC North certainly isn't the Vikings, who've lost five of six, or the Green Bay Packers, who've lost four of seven. It's the Chicago Bears, who started the season 1-5.

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