Here are five key matchups that I'll be keeping a close eye on for Week 13:
Jaguars QB David Garrard vs. Colts QB Peyton Manning
Eight of the 10 games played in this series between 2002 and 2006 were decided by 10 points or less, and a win by the Jaguars would put them in first place in the AFC South. Most people wouldn't look at the Jacksonville-Indianapolis game as a battle of marquee quarterbacks -- which is exactly why this is such a big game for Garrard, who has quietly played so well this season.
|Doug Benc / Getty Images|
|David Garrard can make a name for himself by beating the defending champion Colts.|
Garrard is a movement quarterback with a strong arm. He is accurate moving to his right or his left, completing 66.5 percent of his passes for 9 TDs and zero interceptions in eight games. He is averaging 7.78 yards per attempt, which is outstanding. In addition to the mobility that helps him turn a bad play into a good play, Garrard has a much quicker release than Byron Leftwich, whom he replaces this season.
The Jaguars, as usual, will likely run the ball twice as much as they pass in an attempt to keep Manning and the Colts offense off the field. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has some work to do this week. He likes to play two tight ends, but the Jaguars only have one healthy tight end, Marcedes Lewis, on the roster because of injuries. That means they'll use Dennis Norman, a sixth-year veteran out of Princeton, who is really an offensive lineman, as their second tight end.
Of course, the Jaguars know what they are up against in Manning -- an amazingly accurate passer who is not affected by edge pressure. Inside pressure does force him to be quicker with his release, and Jacksonville has a good inside rush. The Jaguars need to make him move, because it reduces his accuracy slightly.
Chargers LT Marcus McNeil vs. Chiefs DE Jared Allen
For San Diego to be successful in both the run and pass game, McNeil needs to bring his "A" game. McNeil started in the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year but then got off to a slow start in '07. He's picked up his game in the past few weeks but goes up against one of the best in the business this week.
Allen leads the AFC with 9.5 sacks despite missing Kansas City's first two games due to suspension. His motor never stops running, he has great quickness off the ball, and he's an excellent tackler. The Chargers must locate and account for Allen on every play. The Raiders tried running right at him last week, with little or no success.
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin vs. Saints QB Drew Brees
Kiffin is a big reason for the Bucs' success this season -- his defense is a plus-11 in takeaways and ranks second in scoring defense (164 points allowed). Tampa Bay has given up just 8 TD passes all season and allows an average of 188 passing yards per game. What's impressive is that Kiffin is getting the most out of previously unheralded players. He's got a new middle linebacker in Barrett Ruud, who is playing well, and veteran safety Jermaine Phillips is playing at a Pro Bowl level.
And then there is defensive lineman Greg White. Despite having been cut by seven teams in his pursuit of an NFL career, White currently leads the Bucs with 5.5 sacks. Not bad for a guy who is playing his 28th game of the year -- if you include the full season he put in this year in the Arena Football League.
That said, the Bucs defense will be tested here. In four career games against the Bucs, Brees has averaged 33 attempts per game and totaled 965 yards and 7 TDs. Brees may be short in stature, but he makes up for it with a very quick release. New Orleans passes about 65 percent of time -- more than any team.
Browns QB Derek Anderson vs. Cardinals QB Kurt Warner
Teams spend millions of dollars to scout and find a quarterback. Well, the Browns obtained Anderson via waivers -- so it cost them all of $100. His base salary for this year is a mere $435,000. Of course, Anderson is in the last year of his present contract. In other words ... cha-ching! Anderson is on pace to smash Brian Sipe's team record of 30 touchdown passes in a season. He's a big, strong-armed quarterback with good, young receivers at his disposal.
Of course, no quarterback has ever written a better rags-to-riches story than his opponent in this contest. Former grocery-bagger Warner may be years removed from his glory days in St. Louis, but he is coming off a career-best and NFL season-high performance last week in which he threw for 484 yards in a loss to San Francisco. Cleveland, meanwhile, has allowed more TD passes (25) than any team in the NFL this season.
Patriots WR Randy Moss vs. Ravens defense
New England is 3-0 versus the Ravens, outscoring them 90-44 in those contests. Baltimore's game plan, formulated by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, will have even more blitzes ready for the Patriots than they saw last week from the Eagles. Some of these blitzes were probably worked on in training camp just to get ready for this game.
After being held in check last week against Philly (4 catches, 0 TDs), look for Moss to be heavily featured in the New England game plan. Sure, he'll be double-covered, but that's been the case all season and he still leads the NFL in yards (1,095) and TDs (16). Any time a player such as Moss is held in check like he was last week, I think a smart coach like Bill Belichick would want to give him the ball early and often the following week. Moss' reputation for playing well in nationally-televised games doesn't hurt.
If the Ravens are to have any chance here, the defense has to tighten up -- because the offense can't be relied on to score too many points. Baltimore was the top scoring defense in '06, allowing 10 points or less in seven games -- including two shutouts -- but they have been a far cry from that in '07. They'll need an inspired effort here.