These five worth watching

Nfl Week

November 27, 2005|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

It's easy to focus on the Indianapolis Colts' flirtation with perfection, the Dallas Cowboys' almost-weekly dramatic finish on prime time, or the Philadelphia Eagles' stunningly swift descent in the NFC East.

Do so, however, at the risk of overlooking some of the truly remarkable stories in the NFL this season. In New York, for instance, the titillation is a brotherly Super Bowl, as in the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Giants' Eli Manning. Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Certainly not.

In Chicago, they're starting to talk about this year's Bears defense in the same giddy breath as the 1985 Bears defense and, gasp, the 2000 Ravens defense. Justified or not, it's out there and it's enticing.

So here are five intriguing story lines to follow as the stretch run approaches.

Seahawks soar under radar

One year after they were the insider's choice to reach the Super Bowl, only to fail miserably, the Seahawks (8-2) quietly hold the No. 1 seed in the NFC with six weeks left.

They pretty much have everything necessary to reach Detroit in February - the league's leading rusher in Shaun Alexander, an accomplished passer in Matt Hasselbeck and a defense that has played consistently well. The Seahawks are the only NFC team not to allow a 100-yard rusher so far.

They have a favorable schedule as well. They get the Giants today (at home) and the Eagles next week (away) in two winnable games. They may get lucky, too. If the Colts already have clinched home-field advantage in the AFC by Week 16, they may opt to rest their regulars in Seattle, assuming they have taken a loss by then.

Broncos back from brink

Things looked bleak after Denver lost in Miami in the season opener, 34-10, and Jake Plummer threw two interceptions. But the Broncos (9-2) have won nine of 10 games since then, stealing Thursday's game in Dallas. And Plummer has thrown only two interceptions in that time.

The Broncos have beaten five winning teams, the most quality wins of any team in playoff contention. They have road trips to Kansas City and San Diego left, and their five remaining opponents are a combined 23-27. Of course, their reward for winning the AFC West is another prospective trip to Indianapolis, where their season has ended the past two years.

Giants rise in NFC East

The Giants (7-3) were pretty much an afterthought early in the year in a heavyweight division. But the quick assimilation of Manning and a steadily improving defense have given the Giants something more than Tiki Barber on which to hang their hats.

They still may be vulnerable on defense, but with Manning, they have the potential to win any shootout. He has thrown a touchdown pass in 11 straight games, the longest current streak in the NFL. They have one of the toughest finishing schedules in the league, however, with road trips to Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington and Oakland remaining.

Steelers in a rush crisis

Pittsburgh (7-3) is still winning with defense and a running game, but that running game isn't what it used to be. The Steelers' rushing average per game is down from 154 yards in 2004 to 130.2 this year. Their average rush is just 3.9, which ranks 19th.

With Ben Roethlisberger missing four starts to an injured knee, the quarterbacking has been adequate (Charlie Batch) to terrible (Tommy Maddox). The Steelers are No. 31 in third-down conversions, and they're 24th in allowing sacks. Their next three games, at Indianapolis tomorrow, and at home against Cincinnati and Chicago, will either put them in control of the AFC North or perhaps out of it.

Bears no longer tame

Second-year coach Lovie Smith has quickly rebuilt the defense to where the Bears have given up the fewest points (110) in the league by a huge margin (the Colts are second with 152). Until they defeated the Carolina Panthers and Jake Delhomme last week, they hadn't beaten a quarterback in the top 10 passer ratings, however.

The Bears have the No. 2 seed in the NFC, with a fairly rigorous schedule left. After visiting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today, they travel to Pittsburgh in Week 14, get the Atlanta Falcons at home in Week 15 and finish against the Minnesota Vikings on the road in Week 17.

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