(Nov. 22, 2005) -- Turkeys, Colts and Seahawks.
Those are only some of the notable servings on the NFL menu this week as the league heads into Thanksgiving, the start of the -- here we go! -- NFL tiebreaker season that will decide which 12 teams go to the 2005 playoffs.
Actually, a playoff tiebreaker comes into play this week, but more on that later.
First, there are the two annual national television Thanksgiving Day games that a recent survey (see "NFL Thanksgiving Factoid" below) says sports fans prefer watching more than many other notable sports events.
On Thursday, the Atlanta Falcons are hosted by the Detroit Lions on FOX at 12:30 p.m. ET, and the Denver Broncos by the Dallas Cowboys at 4:15 p.m. ET. Those are just the appetizers for the weekend.
On Monday Night Football when they host Pittsburgh (ABC, 9 p.m. ET), the Indianapolis Colts can become only the 11th team in history to start a season at 11-0. To put that 11-0 in context, since the NFL's inception in 1920, there have been 1,572 clubs that have played at least 11 games in a season. The 10 clubs who went 11-0 compute to .006 -- less than one percent of all NFL teams. The 11-0 Club:
All that history is fine, say the Colts. But all we're worried about is this Monday. "You don't have time to think about the record," says Indy quarterback Peyton Manning. "The games are going to keep getting bigger and bigger."
Bigger as in playoff implications. For that, look no further than the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday. Tiebreaker time! Seattle (8-2), tied with Denver for the second-best record in the league behind Indianapolis, can win its second consecutive NFC West Division title by topping the visiting New York Giants, along with a loss by St. Louis to Houston.
The Seahawks can become only the fourth team since the 16-game schedule in 1978 to clinch a division title after 11 games, joining 1985 Chicago, 1997 San Francisco and Philadelphia last year.
"We want to make winning normal," says Seattle running back Shaun Alexander. "After that, the sky is the limit."
So, on to some of the key servings in Thanksgiving week:
ATLANTA FALCONS (6-4) at DETROIT LIONS (4-6)(Thursday, FOX, 12:30 p.m. ET)
STORYLINE: Stop Vick! Like the Lions did last year.
In October of '04, Detroit sacked Falcons QB Michael Vick six times and forced four turnovers in a 17-10 victory.
But the Lions know that replicating that will not be easy. Vick leads all NFL quarterbacks in rushing (377 yards) and comes off a 300-yard passing game. It's his unpredictability that scares defenses.
"When he runs to the corner, it's like he has another gear," says Lions S Terrence Holt. "It's hard to describe how he's able to do that. But that's Mike Vick. Some of the plays he does, you just say, 'That's Mike Vick.'"
DENVER BRONCOS (8-2) at DALLAS COWBOYS (7-3)(Thursday, CBS, 4:15 p.m. ET)
STORYLINE: Jake & Drew continue their renewal.
While quarterbacks Jake Plummer of Denver and Drew Bledsoe of Dallas certainly had impressive careers entering 2005, they have ratcheted it up even more this season to rank among the league's top 10 passers.
Plummer has taken the Broncs to their best start since 1998 (10-0), first place in the AFC West, and has set a club record by throwing his last 219 passes without an interception. Bledsoe, new to the Cowboys this year, has already led them to one more victory than in all of last season and a share of the NFC East lead with the Giants.
Super Bowls on the sidelines: Head coaches Bill Parcells of Dallas and Mike Shanahan of Denver have four Super Bowl championship rings between them (two each).
NEW YORK GIANTS (7-3) at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (8-2)STORYLINE: Seattle in November -- perfect weather for Shaun & Tiki.
Get out the long cleats! This battle features two of the top four rushers in the NFL -- Seattle's Shaun Alexander and New York's Tiki Barber.
Alexander, who two weeks ago became the first player to score 15 touchdowns in five consecutive seasons, leads the league with 19 this year and is the top rusher (1,229 yards). Three spots behind him is Barber with 967 yards. The real battle as these two match off will be between the big boys on the line. Giants DEs Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora will rumble with Seahawks Ts Walter Jones and Sean Lockyear. Added to the close contact will be Seattle LG Steve Hutchison, who former NFL defensive lineman/FOX analyst Tim Ryan calls "the best left guard in pro football."
CHICAGO BEARS (7-3) at TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (7-3)STORYLINE: Ex-Buc Lovie has done it again.
From 1996-2000, Bears second-year head coach Lovie Smith was a big part of the turnaround of the Buccaneers' defense as their linebackers coach under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. When the teams met last season (a Bucs win), the Bears' defense was ranked No. 26. Going into this Sunday, it leads the league and has allowed an NFL-low 11.0 points per game. Of course, that Tampa Bay defense is still top-notch under Kiffin, ranking No. 3 in the league.
On offense, there are two good young-quarterback stories. Bears rookie Kyle Orton has led Chicago to first place in the NFC North with seven wins -- the most for a rookie QB drafted in the fourth round or lower since the common draft in 1967. Tampa Bay third-year QB Chris Simms has taken the Bucs back into the NFC South race -- they're tied with Carolina -- with wins in the past two games with a 93.8 passer rating.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (6-4) at KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (6-4)STORYLINE: Throw it or pound it?
Those specialties may lead to a win in this one.
The Patriots rank fourth in the NFL in passing, the Chiefs fourth in rushing. New England QB Tom Brady leads the league in passing yards (2,782) and is glad the team is attempting to go long as he did with WR Andre' Davis for a 60-yard TD last week. "Kansas City is going to watch the film and say, 'All right, these guys throw deep,'" says Brady.
The Chiefs' RB Larry Johnson, the full-time back now that Priest Holmes is on IR, last week set a team single-game record with 211 yards -- his third 100-yarder of the year. "We're looking for big things from him," says Chiefs QB Trent Green. "His confidence is growing, and our offense's confidence is growing."
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-3) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (10-0)
(Monday night, ABC, 9 p.m. ET)
STORYLINE: Each wants to keep their streak going!
Of course, the big one belongs to the Colts, who have yet to lose this year and come off a resounding 451-yard game against the team Pittsburgh is tied with for first in the AFC North, Cincinnati. For the Steelers, they have never lost to the Colts in head coach Bill Cowher's tenure (since 1992), going 6-0 including playoffs.
Pittsburgh hopes to get back QB Ben Roethlisberger (knee), under who they are 18-1. The Steelers' sixth-ranked NFL defense faces the Colts' No. 2 offense just when Indy seems to be segueing into its 2004-like passing prowess. QB Peyton Manning has thrown 18 TD passes in his past seven games, after only tossing two in his first three.