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 The Bell Tolls: Gut-check time for NFL playoff hopefuls

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PostSubyek: The Bell Tolls: Gut-check time for NFL playoff hopefuls   The Bell Tolls: Gut-check time for NFL playoff hopefuls I_icon_minitimeFri Nov 04, 2011 6:38 pm

Sure, there's half a season yet to be played.
But it's never too early for talk about controlling your own destiny.

"This game couldn't get any bigger for being a midseason game," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Sunday's tilt at the Superdome against the Buccaneers. "Here we are at 5-3, sitting atop the division with others and understanding our future and destiny -- we controlcheap nhl jerseys that. That's right in front of us, and it starts this week."

MORE: Staff picks for Week 9
BLOG: NFL previews in The Huddle

The Saints, coming off that embarrassing road loss last weekend to the then-winless Rams, have a slim lead over the Bucs (4-3) and Falcons (4-3) in the NFC South -- and a golden opportunity to widen the gap.

Next weekend, they'll visit Atlanta in another pivotal game.

But first things first. The Bucs have had the Saints' number the past couple of times out, winning a matchup in Tampa last month and claiming a 10-victory season in 2010 by winning the regular-season finale.

So destiny has a partner namednfl jerseys wholesale comeuppance.

"Obviously, we have that sour taste in our mouths from a few weeks back," said Brees, who with 2,746 passing yards is on pace to set the NFL's single-season record, but threw three picks in the 26-20 setback at Tampa.

"We understand the importance of this week and how it pertains to the rest of the season."

The Steelers (6-2), with a slim lead in the AFC North, can relate as they head into a showdown at Heinz Field on Sunday night against the Ravens (5-2).

In Week 1, Baltimore drubbed Pittsburgh, 35-7. The Ravens defense forced seven turnovers that afternoon, but the Steelers D was humbled, too, allowing 385 yards.

There have been constant reminders of that performance -- especially this week.

Never mind that the defending AFC champions have reclaimed the division lead with a four-game winning streak, and that the defense extinguished Tom Brady last weekend.

Thoughts on Baltimore?

"The best team in the AFC North," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "The team we know we're going to have to beat, if we're going to be anything. Because that's the team we have to beat every year.

"That was a lot of dancing they did," Clark recalled of Week 1. "A lot of celebrating. So, for us, we've got to play a team better thanCheap NFL Jerseys
us, and we're excited about the challenge."

The past couple of seasons, the NFL has back-loaded a heavy share of divisional matchups on the schedule to make the final two weeks of the regular season more meaningful. But it didn't ignore the middle of the season, sprinkling in a few enticing games.

Then there are the unexpected midyear showdowns, such as Jets-Bills.

The Bills (5-2) are neck-and-neck with the Patriots (5-2) atop the AFC East, and at the moment even hold the tiebreaker edge after the Week 3 comeback victory against New England. But Buffalo must also fend off the Jets, whose destiny is underscored by this weekend's trip to Buffalo, followed by next weekend's visit from the Patriots.

Then again, with the Bills emerging as one of the NFL's biggest surprises this season, maybe Jets-Patriots won't mean as much.

"I don't want to say (the Jets) are too much of a hype, because they've gotten it done," Bills receiver Stevie Johnson told the Associated Press. "I think it's our turn now. It's our turn to show that we're going to come in and try to take over this division and make this run for real."

Johnson, the Bills' most flamboyant player, wore a campaign-styled red-white-and-blue T-shirt this week with the slogan, "Fitzpatrick-Johnson 2012: Yes We Can."

If Johnson, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (and others, such as running back Fred Jackson) can stay hot, the implication with the slogan is that their 2011 season can extend deep into 2012, when the postseason ends.


"Yes we can," Johnson preached. "Yes we can get to the playoffs, we can get to the Super Bowl. Whatever they say new can't, we can."

Other items to ponder, heading into Week 9:

•Key matchup:Anquan Boldin vs. Ike Taylor. One of the keys to the Steelers' victory against New England last weekend was the work provided by Taylor against Wes Welker, the NFL's leading receiver. Taylor moved to an inside post typically played by nickel backs to shadow Welker, who generally operates from the slot. For Taylor, that adjustment was significant. It meant less of the vertical coverage dictated on the outside corner and more horizontal work, 53 yards across the field, with the array of crossing patterns and other underneath routes that formulate Welker's signature. Taylor kept Welker in check, limiting him to 39 yards and no TDs on six catches -- and virtually no YAC. As Taylor put it, his urgent reaction was harped on throughout the week, with the mandate to "tackle the catch." His effectiveness inside, where he began playing more last year in situational cases, demonstrated the versatility that makes him an elite corner, alongside the likes of Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha. Now, with the Steelers and Ravens to tangle Sunday night in another A-North showdown for the division lead, comes a different type of receiver -- the big, physical Boldin, coming off a monster game against the Cardinals (7 catches, 145 yards) that helped Baltimore shake an offensive funk that had lasted six quarters. Boldin, who leads Baltimore with 34 catches for 539 yards, can work from the slot, but primarily roams on the outside. He works the sideline with precision and mixes in the deep stuff, too. Taylor will have his hands full. Again.

•Who's hot:Frank Gore. He was definitely Mr. October. The 49ers running back heads into Sunday's game at Washington with a streak of four consecutive games with at least 125 rushing yards and a touchdown. He's just the fourth player since 1970 to achieve that feat, adding himself to a short list that includes O.J. Simpson (1973), Terrell Davis (1998) and Larry Johnson (2005). That has helped the 49ers, sixth in the NFL for rushing O, average more rushing yards per game over the past five weeks (188.5) than any team in the league. After struggling with injuries in September, Gore rushed for 527 yards on 81 carries in October. The seventh-year pro also surpassed Roger Craig for the second slot on the franchise's all-time rushing list (7,089 yards). This is not good news for the Redskins' 21st-ranked run defense, which started well this season but has been shredded lately, allowing Philadelphia, Carolina and Buffalo to run for 192, 175 and 138 yards in its past three outings -- all losses.

•Pressure's on:Rex Ryan. The next two games -- beginning Sunday at Buffalo, then against New England -- will reveal much about the Jets' chances to get to a third consecutive AFC title game, or beyond, as promised by their super-confidence-sized coach. New York, coming off a bye, has won two in a row to get to 4-3. But three of the Jets victories this season came against teams with losing records. The running game has been a problem. New York ranks 28th in the NFL for rushing yards with a 3.7-yard average carry that is tied for fourth-worst in the league. Shonn Greene had his first 100-yard game of the season in Week 7 against the Chargers, but in the other six contests averaged 52.3 yards.

•Rookie watch:Jonathan Baldwin. The Chiefs are finally getting something from their first-round pick, as the big receiver from Pitt -- who missed several weeks after breaking his hand during a locker room fight with Thomas Jones -- made his first catch in Week 7 at Oakland and first touchdown on Monday night against San Diego. Kansas City, which has impressively climbed into a three-way tie for first place in the A-West with a four-game winning streak, can use the boost. At 0-3, it seemed like defending their division crown was a lost cause, given the talent on the IR list. Now they've got a shot, and the, well, scrappy Baldwin can go high -- and deep.

•TiVo it:Bucs at Saints. When the teams met in Tampa in mid-October, the Bucs rode a 300-yard game from Josh Freeman and an assortment of big defensive plays to hang on to a 26-20 victory. The rematch comes as Tampa Bay (4-3) and New Orleans (5-3) seem to be settling into distinct patterns. The Bucs have lost two straight away from home (including the trip to London), while the Saints have been unbeatable in the Superdome (3-0), where they are averaging 44 points per game. That means the Bucs, lacking explosiveness while averaging just 18.7 points per outing, had better pack a lot of points for the trip.

•Upset stomach:Giants at Patriots. The last time these teams met, in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants pulled off an upset for the ages by ruining the Patriots chance for a perfect season. Now, with both teams in first place with 5-2 records, the G-men are challenged to derail a team that has won 20 consecutive regular-season games at Gillette Stadium -- and one that rarely loses consecutive games. The Giants have a shot, with Eli Manning gunning against the league's worst pass D.

•My road to Super Bowl 46 goes through …San Diego. The Chargers avoided their usual early-season stumbles, but have made up for it by losing two in a row. Monday night's overtime setback at Kansas City was disturbing for its shoot-in-foot complications. Philip Rivers fumbled the snap in the final seconds of regulation, with San Diego in range for a game-winning field goal and at the point of running to merely position the football in the center of the field. Still, San Diego should have never been in position for Nick Novak to kick a fifth field goal. But Rivers -- whose 11 picks have already exceeded his total from all of last year -- and his offense have struggled tremendously in the red zone. The Chargers rank 26th in the NFL for a red-zone TD rate of 42.9%. Part of the problem stems from the foot injury that has hampered all-pro tight end Antonio Gates and the physical woes that have slowed power back Mike Tolbert. But the tall wideouts, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, have proven to be more dangerous on the deep throws than in the in-close area that is the red zone. It doesn't get easier as the undefeated Packers visit Sunday. The Chargers have improved later in the season under Turner, and they'll need to do that again to establish themselves as a Super Bowl contender. We'll see. After the Packers, the Chargers will have four days to get ready for a visit from the Raiders.

•Fantasy meets reality: It has been a nightmarish season for Marion Motley Crew, now 1-7 and contemplating ways to get Andrew Luck -- for this season! Quarterback has been a problem. Just like in real football, there's a dearth of quarterback talent in the 20-team super league. MMC started off with Kevin Kolb, traded for Jason Campbell, claimed Sam Bradford, then got stuck with Charlie Whitehurst. This week, a quick claim on Arizona's John Skelton -- who could start against St. Louis for an injured Kolb, and in the fantasy world start against Will Lyles All Stars while Bradford nurses his foot injury. MMC picked up Kevin Faulk last week, and it's too bad Faulk doesn't play quarterback … or else he might be entrenched in the starting lineup by now. MMC's team MVP? Jason Hanson's on a bye this weekend. Welcome back, Rian Lindell.

•Quick slants: Defense is the name of the game in the AFC North. Sure, it's no surprise that the Ravens and Steelers have two of the NFL's top defenses. Baltimore ranks No. 1 for yards allowed, Pittsburgh No. 2. More startling is that all four of the A-North teams rank among the top 5 in the league. The Bengals rank fourth and the Browns are fifth. The Texans are the only non-AFC North defense to crack the top five. … Matt Forte heads into Sunday night's game at Philadelphia with his 1,091 yards from scrimmage having accounted for 43.6% of the Bears' offense. If he maintains that clip, it would be fifth-best in the league since the 1970 merger. The highest-such mark for a season was 47.9%, set by O.J. Simpson with the Bills in 1973. … The 49ers have scored a rushing touchdown and not allowed a rushing score in each of their seven games. The last team to do that? The 1920 Buffalo All-Americans. … The Packers, averaging an NFL-best 32.9 points per game, are aiming to become only the third defending Super Bowl champ to start 8-0. The 1990 49ers were first to do it, followed by the 1988 Broncos. … Linebacker Aaron Maybin, the Penn State product who was a bust for the Bills after being drafted 11th overall in 2009, returns to Buffalo as the Jets' leader with three sacks.
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