|Patriots QB Matt Cassel has been on fire, but he faces his toughest challenge yet against Troy Polamalu and the Steelers.|
Here are some key matchups to watch for Week 13:
Chicago LB Lance Briggs vs. Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson
These two teams combined for 89 points in Week 7, the highest-scoring game in the series. The Vikings and Bears were tied for first entering that game, which was won by the Bears, 48-41. They are again tied for first entering this weekend's game. This game will be all about the Vikings running the ball -- they rank fifth overall in rushing offense -- and the Bears, who rank fifth in rushing defense, trying to stop them.
Peterson has rare speed and skills, and he has owned the Bears. In his three career games versus Chicago, Peterson has run for 423 yards and seven touchdowns. Three of those scores came on runs of 54 yards or more. Peterson ran for a then-rookie record 224 yards (he would later break that mark with an NFL-record 296 yards against San Diego) in one game against the Bears last year. Simply put, Peterson is able to make the defense miss. He will come out of games sometimes on third-and-long -- not because he can't catch the ball, but because of his blocking skills.
Briggs is the Bears' starting weakside linebacker and leading tackler. A star running back in high school, he has very good athletic ability and can run to the ball with a burst. He understands the "fits" in the front -- finding the gap and taking on guards with his shoulder to leverage the ball. Briggs makes plays and shows ability to attack the pocket.
Another matchup to watch: Vikings' LB Chad Greenway, who is the team's leading tackler and has 4 sacks, versus Bears RB Matt Forte, who has rushed for 909 yards and caught 45 passes, leading the team in both categories.
Jacksonville CB Rashean Mathis vs. Houston WR Andre Johnson
The Texans, playing their first Monday night game ever, face a division rival they have had some success against. Houston has a 7-6 series edge over the Jaguars, and has denied the Jags a playoff spot twice -- in 2004 and 2006. The Texans seem to score about a touchdown better at home than on the road. Reliant Stadium will be loud, whether the roof is open or not. This will be the first Monday night game in Houston since the Oilers hosted the Giants on Nov. 21, 1994.
Mathis is a very instinctive player in the passing game, and he is always around the football even though his deep speed is not rare. He makes up for the speed with height and long arms. Mathis is very experienced in the Cover 2 defense and is very good at luring the quarterback into a Cover 2 trap. He is very aware, and has good hands. Of his three interceptions this season, two were returned for touchdowns.
Johnson leads the NFL in catches (81) and yards (1,071). He has averaged 131 receiving yards in five home games this season. Johnson is the Texans' big-play guy -- an excellent slant threat with outstanding separation speed. He is a very good deep threat on go routes and post routes. He catches balls over the middle and can slip off tackles. One critique is that he needs to protect the ball better after catches.
Another matchup to watch: Jaguars LB Justin Durant versus Texans RB Steve Slaton. Durant is a second-year player who will remind you of Derrick Brooks -- he plays fast and will hit. Slaton is third in the AFC in rushing yards and had eight catches in his first meeting against Jacksonville this season.
Kansas City WR Dwayne Bowe vs. Oakland CB Nnamdi Asomugha
This is the 96th meeting between these teams. The series began in 1960 and, except for 1982, they have played twice every year. The teams have met seven times on Monday night -- and it remains a very intense rivalry regardless of their records. The Chiefs have won five consecutive games in Oakland; the Raiders beat the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 2 of this season.
Bowe had 70 catches in 2007 -- which was a Chiefs rookie record. It was also the most among the 34 receivers who have been drafted in the first round since 2000. Bowe is an outstanding competitor who will not hesitate to block in the running game, frequently flattening people. He will catch short passes across the middle and turn them into big plays. Bowe had 15 plays of 20 or more yards last season. He has very good leaping ability. He's scored three TDs in his last two games, and has six for the season.
Asomugha might be the best cornerback in the NFL. A very high percentage of opponents' passes are thrown away from him. He is best when playing press coverage and is very effective getting his hands on the receiver. He does a good job of studying the opponent. Asomugha can be beat at times with a double move. Still, he had 8 interceptions in 2006 and teams have had a tendency since then to test his cover skills as little as possible. He has good size (6-1, 210) and excellent speed.
Another matchup to watch: Raiders RB Darren McFadden, who seems to be healthy, versus Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson, who is very good at following the ball and making tackles. McFadden ran for 164 yards in the Week 2 meeting.
Pittsburgh S Troy Polamalu vs. New England QB Matt Cassel
Last year Tom Brady passed for 399 yards and 4 TDs in a 34-13 Patriots win over the Steelers. Cassel has looked a lot like the Brady of '07 the last few weeks, but this week's challenge is entirely different. Pittsburgh leads the NFL in overall defense this season -- ranked first against both the pass and the run. They allow just 168 passing yards per game. This is a very important contest for both teams. Pittsburgh enters this game as the No. 2 seed in the AFC, but it leads Baltimore in the AFC North by just one game; the Steelers face the Ravens in Week 15. New England, meanwhile, would not be in the playoffs if the season ended today, and they play three of the last four games on the road, including back-to-back trips to the West Coast.
Polamalu leads the Steelers with five interceptions. On first and second downs he'll line up in the box as part of Pittsburgh's 8-man front. When he's not in the box, he will be in a Cover 2 shell. He's very good at disguising what he is doing. One clue: The more he moves around and jumps around, the less likely that he will blitz. Polamalu might be the most explosive player in the NFL.
Cassel is starting his 11th game for the Patriots and is easily among the biggest success stories in the NFL. Cassel has passed for 400 yards and 3 TDs in each of hs last two games, and he's completed an impressive 66.3 percent of his passes for the season. This will certainly be his toughest test yet, as Steelers defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, will have some blitzes and coverages he has not seen yet. Cassel has good mobility and running ability -- he's rushed for 199 yards this season. He has above-average arm strength with good short- to medium-range accuracy. Cassel must make big plays to beat Pittsburgh; third-down conversions will be the make-or-break statistic in this contest.
Another matchup to watch: Steelers WR Santonio Holmes, who has good speed and quickness, versus Patriots CB Ellis Hobbs. Pittsburgh has passed 21 more times than it has run the ball this season, which is extremely unusual.
New York, New York
Key matchups to watch for the two New York teams:
Giants offense vs. Washington defense: The Giants own the fifth-ranked offense in the NFL and lead the league in scoring, averaging 29.9 points per game. They've scored 30 or more in the last four games. Washington, meanwhile, is fifth in scoring defense (18.1 points per game) and has not allowed more than 24 points all season.