Weekend notes: Five key questions

The National Football Post’s Matt Bowen looks at some key Week 14 matchups and asks five questions that need to be answered.

1. Did the loss to Arizona expose some issues for the Vikings?

Too often in the NFL, we put too much stock into one Sunday of action, which happened this week after Minnesota was handled by Kurt Warner and the Cardinals. But let’s not sell the Vikings short just yet. This team, without a doubt, is still a contender to represent the NFC in Miami this February, but as we saw last weekend, there are ways to game plan this team with expected success.

The Cardinals were able to force pressure with their front four, and when you do that against Brett Favre and the Vikings, you’re able to drop seven into coverage, which takes away throwing lanes and takes away weapons such as the Vikings’ slot receiver, Percy Harvin. And now that those schemes are on tape, Favre can expect more of the same throughout December and into the postseason — starting Sunday with the 9-3 Bengals coming to the Metrodome. By no means is it time to panic for the Vikings, but we’ll see if they were able to adjust from their own film study this week, because I see the Bengals having a similar defensive game plan. Once you put something on film, it’s your responsibility as a team to correct it and come up with new ways to move the ball and have success — because your opponents are watching the same tape.

2. Are the Jags for real?

Is anyone else struggling to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars as a playoff team? As of today, the Jags are sitting at 7-5 and holding on to the last playoff spot in the AFC. But can they continue to win games in December with the likes of the Dolphins (whom they play tomorrow), the Ravens and the Jets all sitting one game behind them at 6-6?

Here’s a glance at Jacksonville’s December schedule:

12/13 vs. Miami (6-6)
12/17 vs. Indy (12-0)
12/27 at New England (7-5)
1/3 at Cleveland (2-11)

Not an easy stretch coming up, and that’s counting the Browns, who showed us the other night that they can put a defensive game plan together that will allow them to stay in a ballgame. Yes, Maurice Jones-Drew is a unique running back because of his ability to carry an entire game plan on his back, but to win in December, you still need production from the QB position, and that’s where I question this team. Can David Garrard make enough second half plays? Can David Garrard protect the football? And can David Garrard bring this team back when it’s faced with a fourth-quarter deficit?

From my perspective, the Jags — who are dealing with key injuries — don’t get in, and it starts with a loss to the Dolphins.

3. Can Denver match up with the Colts’ offense?

I’m excited to watch the Broncos play the Colts in Indy because of Mike Nolan’s defense. The issue, whenever you play Peyton Manning, is finding the proper matchups on defense to contain the Colts’ skill players. In my opinion, the Broncos have them because their secondary under Nolan has playmakers, leadership and enough experience to go on the road and play big.

I love the idea of Champ Bailey matching up with Reggie Wayne. This is one reason we love to watch the NFL in December. Big games with big names going up against each other on Sunday. I like the Colts at home — just as I like them to go 16-0 — but if you’re the Broncos, this is a chance to see how you match up. Because if this team is going to get to Miami come postseason time, it will have to go back through Indy to do it — and they have the defensive players to compete with Indy.

4. Has the December slide already begun for Tony Romo and the ‘Boys?

We know Romo’s December record is going to be brought up each and every time the Cowboys take the field this month, but until this franchise can show us that it can win meaningful December games, it isn’t going away. It started last week in New York, where the ‘Boys gave up big plays to the Giants, and it could continue Sunday with the streaking Chargers coming to town.

Philip Rivers is having an MVP season for the Chargers, and unlike their early struggles in September, this club is scoring touchdowns in the red zone and getting hidden production from running back LaDainian Tomlinson. LT is not having a big season compared to the numbers that a Chris Johnson of the Titans is putting up, but those hidden yards — such as the third-and-shorts, the goal-line carries and the production in the red zone — are starting to add up. Instead of kicking field goals, the Chargers are getting the ball into the red zone, and when they do that, the opposing team is forced to keep pace.

Another chance for Romo and the Cowboys to win a big December matchup (with New Orleans up next), but they have to limit the number of big plays, rely more on the running game instead of Romo’s arm and play better in the kicking game — where their coverage units are being exposed. Another loss and this team could be fighting for a playoff spot instead of wining the NFC East, which looked like a reality a couple of weeks back.

5. Can the Giants stop Donovan McNabb and the Eagles?

What do we make of the Giants? If you look at just the numbers, they were outplayed by the Cowboys last week in their win, but they found a way to get those explosive plays on offense and in the return game that have been missing for months. Yes, they’re now right back in the hunt for a wild card — or even a divisional championship — but I still don’t think they have the players in their back seven to compete with an offense like McNabb’s in Philly.

I expect the Eagles to use the play-action game and the max-protection game — where they use two-man routes down the field — to set up the G-Men and take advantage of a secondary that has been an issue all season since the loss of FS Kenny Phillips in September. Plus, it carries over to the red zone, where DeSean Jackson should have a favorable matchup against Giants CB Corey Webster. We all know that Philly is a big-play team, and yes, that does present its own issues when they’re stuck in a ball control game. But against the Giants, coach Andy Reid and McNabb will feature a game plan that’s designed to take advantage of big-play opportunities.

Follow me on Twitter: MattBowen41

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