Every Thursday, Steve Wyche examines a handful of the week's premier matchups on the field.
Staying off Tebow's hit list?
Lance Briggs says he wouldn't be happy -- or, more to the point, "frickin' pissed" -- if he can't solve the Broncos' read-option offense. **More ...**
Kryptonite for Tebowmania?
Each week, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow leaves defenses -- better yet, defenders -- annoyed. He makes plays when he has to. What frustrates opponents is that he looks like such an easy mark. It befuddles players that he somehow evades the big hit or doesn't throw an interception, doesn't mess up and wins.
The Bears, the desperate Chicago Bears, have the next shot to knock off Tebow -- and salvage their once-promising playoff hopes that are now on life support. They also could become the next victim to walk out of the stadium wondering what happened.
Chicago might be the one team that has Tebow Kryptonite: Julius Peppers. For years in Carolina, Peppers was a heat-seeking laser that tracked Michael Vick. He flips from right end to left end when needed and when teams run away from him, he's got the speed, instincts and discipline to make plays from the backside without leaving himself too vulnerable to an end around or throwback pass.
With a fleet-footed linebacker crew led by Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher that can fill some of the lanes Peppers can't cover, Chicago has the personnel to seemingly thwart what Denver likes to do. The test with Denver is that it doesn't move the ball consistently.
It almost allows defenses to gain a sense of confidence -- not intentionally, of course -- before springing the timely play or drive that breaks things open. Call it the "Tebow Rope-A-Dope." With quarterback Caleb Hanie struggling and running back Matt Forte out with a knee injury, the defense has no margin to lapse.
Chicago has the players and scheme to confound Denver, but if it's close at the end then the stage will be set for you know what. Then it will be time to talk about another defense trying to find a way to stop the Broncos.
Bengals' loss was Texans' gain
When the Bengals reported for training camp in Kentucky this summer, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was not in a good mood. The team failed to re-sign free-agent cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who landed with Houston. Zimmer was hot; he knew what type of player he lost because he cultivated him.
The Texans quickly learned what type of player they gained. There might not have been a better defensive free-agent acquisition in the NFL. Joseph (four interceptions, forced fumble, 35 tackles) added much-needed experience to a young secondary, and now the weakest part of the team -- Houston's pass defense was beyond awful in 2010 -- is a strength on what's arguably the best defense in the NFL.
Joseph is being used as a lockdown corner that follows the opposing team's top receiver. He'll be on Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green on Sunday and he knows that even though Green is a rookie, he's a physical player who doesn't fear making plays in traffic. Joseph told me Wednesday that he won't be too ramped up to face his old team because there are no ill feelings.
He's told me several times how much he likes and respects Zimmer and coach Marvin Lewis, and that he's happy Cincinnati has done well without him. I'm not buying that he's not amped up, though. He knows he's had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, and there's nothing athletes like more than showing their former team what it's missing.
High-stakes NFC East showdown
The last time the Giants and Cowboys met in Dallas, Giants linebacker Michael Boley ended Tony Romo's season (collarbone) and a woeful start in Big D extended through the season. When they face off Sunday in the first of two crucial meetings in the final four games on the season, both are licking wounds -- although the Giants are feeling a lot better about their misery. Twisted, but ...
After losing their fourth straight game last week to Green Bay, Giants players went the moral victory route as a measure to gain momentum for the matchup with Dallas. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are reeling from "Time-Out Gate." In a way, the late-game blunder has allowed the team to practice on what needs to be done under a distraction it would rather not have.
The Giants need to figure out how to stop Cowboys rookie running back DeMarco Murray, and Dallas has to generate turnovers, as New York's mode of transportation comes via the pass.
Throw away the matchups in this game. The real story is which team will have the poise to deal with the pressure of what's at stake. Both have swooned in December but with the rest of the NFC East in shambles, one of these teams has to stand up and make its mark.
Quiet contender in the South
Outside of Nashville, have you heard anyone mention the Titans and playoffs in the same sentence? Tennessee is making the quietest surge in the NFL on the legs of running back Chris Johnson and a defense that's been consistently decent.
The Titans are among five 7-5 teams in the AFC and are firmly entrenched in the wild-card hunt. Each game is fragile, and they've got a rough challenge against offensively frightening New Orleans. However, with Johnson finding his lane and the Titans controlling things, they have the potential to keep New Orleans' offense off the field and keep it from steadying into a tempo.
There is no more dangerous offense in the NFL when it gets into a rhythm than the Saints. Drew Brees, when he gets and stays on schedule, can drive a team 90 yards like it's got wind in its sail. However, if Tennessee can grind things out in the ground game -- New Orleans is susceptible against the run -- it has a chance at home.
Should it manage an upset, it closes the season with Indianapolis, Jacksonville and the AFC South-leading Houston, which could end up resting starters if it has already clinched the division. Tennessee is lying low right now, but should it knock off New Orleans, it will have earned the attention coming its way.