As Tom Brady and the New England Patriots walk onto Soldier Field for Sunday's crucial contest against Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears, the air will be bitter cold and the snow will be falling. Who could ask for a better setting for Week 14's best and most important game?
No one would have thought, prior to the season, that this game would look so much like a Super Bowl preview. It does, though, and it is not the only game on the schedule with playoff implications. Read on for the key players, match-ups and X-factors in this week's five biggest and most exciting games.
Michael Vick and company stand neck-and-neck with the New York Giants at the head of the NFC East, and they badly need the win on Sunday night against the Cowboys. Vick has been spectacular this year, making plays with his arm and his legs while avoiding turnovers. He weathered a rough third quarter and brought the Eagles back to beat the Houston Texans last Thursday night.
Of course, the Cowboys are among the hottest teams in the league, so this game is no gimme. Dallas is 3-1 under new head coach Jason Garrett, whose audition for a potential permanent gig is going swimmingly. If Dallas is able to pull off the upset, it will be crushing for the Eagles and a redemptive personal victory for the Cowboys.
The key match-ups are along the defensive front for Dallas. DeMarcus Ware and company must generate a sufficient pass rush to make Vick (who has looked poised and smooth all season) make some poor decisions. Yet, they also must be disciplined enough to uphold their gap responsibilities and keep Vick contained.
When the Cowboys have the ball, the main concern for Philadelphia will be stopping the running game. Their front seven has overachieved wonderfully this season, but the Cowboys have run wild over the past few weeks and Tashard Choice ran up 100 yards against Indianapolis last week. The match-up is a good one for the Eagles, though, who are physical enough to win those battles against an offense that lacks elite speed.
Prediction: 28-20 Eagles
New England destroyed the Jets on Monday night and have the inside track to the AFC East title. The loss leaves New York reeling, but the team still sits in great position to make the playoffs as a Wild Card contestant: They are currently 9-3, and likely need just one more win to secure a playoff bid.
For the Dolphins, a win over the Jets in New York would provide legitimacy and could help lengthen Tony Sparano's career as head coach. The team stands at 6-6 and would have to win out to have any hope of a playoff berth, but realistically, this game is one of only two more opportunities to get a big win and feel good about the season as a whole entity.
The Jets offense remains a smooth operation, despite their bumbling performance against the Pats. Quarterback Mark Sanchez is still finding his way as a leader, and has turned the ball over five times in the last three games. Therefore, the Jets should turn to the ground game to carry them Sunday, Miami's run defense is anchored by Karlos Dansby, who will have to be at his best Sunday to slow down LaDainian Tomlinson.
The Jets have the defense on the edge to shut down the Dolphins' receivers and the inside muscle to slow down Ronnie Brown in the running game. Therefore, the Dolphins' key offensive contributor may be tight end Anthony Fasano. Fasano is a great young player, and there will be room over the middle for him to make some plays.
Prediction: 31-27 Jets
Ostensibly, the AFC West remains up for grabs. The Chiefs stand at 8-4, but the Chargers and Raiders are both 6-6 and each have games remaining against Kansas City. This week, it will be Philip Rivers and San Diego charging into Arrowhead Stadium to face off with a Kansas City team looking to prove itself ready for prime-time.
Rivers was very recently on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record, but has fallen off in that regard. The nadir of the Chargers' season so far may have been their loss to the Raiders Sunday, which gave Oakland a season sweep of the Chargers and made any road to the playoffs a rough one. Rivers is elite and will do just fine against Kansas City's inconsistent secondary. The real key for San Diego is to generate a ground game, after their utter and galling inability to do so last week led to 21 net rushing yards and the 28-13 loss.
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs run the ball better than anyone in the league. Their linemen are built for pushing people around, and the twin threats of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones out of the backfield have proven impossible for opponents to contain. Inside linebacker Kevin Burnett, who leads the Chargers in tackles and has made every type of big play on defense, will be the key to combating that dimension for San Diego.
Prediction: 21-17 Chiefs
If someone told you before the season that the Rams-Saints match-up in Week 14 would feature one division-leader, you would have been a foll to expect that team to be the Rams. Yet, here we go.
The Saints cannot lose since their rough start. They have won five in a row and are suddenly entirely healthy, with Reggie Bush already back in action and Pierre Thomas returning this week. New Orleans has turned the ball over too much this season: They have 22 giveaways and a -4 turnover differential. Getting their stable of solid running backs back on the field give the team a chance to control the ball better and improve their offensive balance.
The Rams will try to counter with an offense centered upon Steven Jackson, who is 15 yards away from his sixth straight 1,000-yard season. Jackson is perpetually banged-up, and his numbers have suffered this season as he has played through injuries that might have sidelined others. If he can gash the Saints' modestly vulnerable rush defense, the Rams can at least make this a game.
Prediction: 21-3 Saints
Twenty-five years ago, the Bears and Patriots met in Super Bowl XX, which turned into a Chicago rout. That team has never faded from the memories of Chicago fans, and they still revere the team a quarter-century later without a championship.
Meanwhile, almost everyone in New England has forgotten that Super Bowl XX team, in favor of the three teams since that have won the big game. Brady and the Pats come in riding as high as they have been all season, a staunch 11-2 after beating up the Jets on Monday night. The match-up does not look good for the Bears, who play the Tampa Two defense and are therefore highly vulnerable to the kind of underneath passing game the Patriots use to gash opponents. The ability of the Bears to adjust, and especially to tackle well and minimize the damage done by Wes Welker, will determine how much success they have in containing New England.
On the flip-side, the Bears offense has a chance to make some big plays. Running the ball is not a great option against a Patriots defensive front with plenty of beef. If the team tries too hard to get the vertical passing game going, they will be snowed under by constant Belichick blitzes. Therefore, Jay Cutler's best bet is to get the ball out early and often and let the speed of Johnny Knox and Devin Hester exploit the Patriots' 31st-ranked secondary.
Prediction: 27-20 Patriots