Can't rival these 4 matchups

Nfl Week

December 04, 2005|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

December's cruel winds have arrived, and with them, the NFL's stretch run. This month is a season in itself. Better yet, Week 13 offers a veritable smorgasbord of pre-playoff treats that are certain to dash some dreams.

Of the week's 16 games, 12 are division matchups. Of the 12, these are the four best.

Bengals@Steelers

Cincinnati's biggest game since a divisional playoff against the Los Angeles Raiders in January 1991 could usher in a new era for the Bengals (8-3). They haven't won a big game under coach Marvin Lewis. They were eliminated from playoff contention at home each of the past two years, and they were badly outplayed in an October showdown at home against Pittsburgh.

But if they beat the Steelers (7-4) this time, they take a stranglehold on the AFC North title. They'll have a two-game lead with four to play, and the Steelers would be reeling with three straight losses.

Pittsburgh won't go easily, even if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has few body parts that aren't hurting right now. The key isn't Roethlisberger, but the running game. Since the start of 2004, the Steelers are 22-0 when they rush for 100 yards, 0-5 when they don't. Facing a home game against the Chicago Bears next week, the Steelers are in the must-win mode.

Cowboys@Giants

Dallas (7-4) holds the NFC East tiebreaker over New York (7-4) by virtue of its 16-13 overtime win in October. The Cowboys lost four turnovers and missed two field-goal attempts in that game. If they play that poorly today, they'll get blown out.

The Cowboys need a big game from running back Julius Jones and a passing-game spark from returning wide receiver Patrick Crayton, who was hurt in the first Giants meeting.

It should come down to strength against strength: the Cowboys' No. 6 defense against the Giants' No. 8 offense. The Cowboys hope it doesn't come down to the extra home game the Giants got from the NFL when the league sent the New Orleans Saints to New Jersey for their home opener in September.

Falcons@Panthers

Carolina (8-3) can pretty much lock up the NFC South by beating Atlanta (7-4) and taking a two-game lead. But the Panthers have a bad history against Falcons quarterback Michael Vick that will have to be obliterated to do that.

Vick is 5-0 against the Panthers. In those five starts, he completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 958 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. The streak includes a 2003 meeting when the 2-10 Falcons beat the Super Bowl-bound Panthers in overtime. Vick passed for 179 yards and ran for 141 in his first game after missing 11 with a broken leg.

Because this is another strength-on-strength game, Vick's improvisational ability to change a game could be huge. The key matchup is the Falcons' No. 1 rush offense (183.1 yards per game) against the Panthers' No. 3 rush defense (82.2).

Broncos@Chiefs

Kansas City (7-4) faces the hardest finishing schedule (five remaining foes are a combined 38-17) of any contender. Starting today, three of those games are at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs are 18-1 in December regular-season games with 16 straight wins.

The Broncos (9-2) know how good the Chiefs are at home. Denver is just 1-14 at Arrowhead in December, including 0-4 under coach Mike Shanahan. Last year, the Chiefs clobbered the Broncos in Kansas City in December, 45-17, as Larry Johnson ran for 151 yards.

A loss would virtually eliminate the Chiefs from contention in the AFC West. A win would get them within a game of the Broncos.

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