The final six weeks of the season could be a real treat for the New England Patriots.
Tied with three other teams for the AFC's best record, the Patriots face their toughest foe on the remainder of the schedule when they visit Philadelphia on Sunday. And the Eagles are 4-6, the most disappointing team in the league this year, on the verge of falling out of contention in the NFC.
So the prospect of the Patriots once again having the conference's best record is very real. No, they won't be the dominating 14-2 they were in 2012, but a sweep of the last half-dozen games will land them at 13-3, even if it isn't quite as impressive a performance.
After the Eagles, New England plays the Colts, Redskins, Broncos, Dolphins and Bills. Not a winning mark among them.
As is their wont, the Patriots are looking at every opponent as if they were, well, the 2007 Patriots — the undefeated Pats.
"I think that we need to play really well, certainly better than we've played the last few weeks," Tom Brady said. "There're a lot of people on our team and our offense that have really taken the challenge that our coaches have given us and are going to go out there and try to play our best. I think we need to do that. This is the time of year when it's most important. There aren't a lot of games left. When you play a tough team on the road, that came off one of the biggest wins of their season, we have everything we could ask for. We're going to go out there and try to play our best."
Philly beat the Giants 17-10 on the road last Sunday night behind one of the best drives in the league for any team: 18 plays, 80 yards to a winning touchdown pass. Vince Young led it, and he might be at quarterback again with Michael Vick's ribs still tender.
"Anytime you go into a game with a guy who hasn't really played yet, and you come out with a win like that, especially late in the game when you persevere through it, that breeds confidence in his abilities," center Jason Kelce said. "I don't want to say that I was ever not confident that Vince could do it, but I'm definitely more confident now, having been through the (Giants) game."
The holiday weekend began on Thursday with the traditional Thanksgiving Day games at Detroit, where unbeaten Green Bay faced the Lions, and at Dallas, with Miami visiting the Cowboys. The night game was the first between head-coaching brothers in NFL history, with Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers at John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens.
On Sunday, it's Denver at San Diego, Chicago at Oakland, Pittsburgh at Kansas City, Houston at Jacksonville, Minnesota at Atlanta, Carolina at Indianapolis, Buffalo at the New York Jets, Cleveland at Cincinnati, Tampa Bay at Tennessee, Washington at Seattle, and Arizona at St. Louis.
The Monday night game features the New York Giants at New Orleans.
New York Giants (6-4) at New Orleans (7-3), Monday night
Two straight defeats erased the Giants' lead in the NFC East, and they have swooned a few times late in past seasons under Tom Coughlin. With Green Bay on deck after this prime-time visit to New Orleans, New York needs a quick remedy.
"We know the Saints are a very good home team," said Eli Manning, who grew up in New Orleans, where his father, Archie, was the Saints quarterback. "It's a loud stadium. ... We can try to start fast and move the ball and don't give up big plays to their defense, (that) should always help the occasion. It's just about being consistent."
The Saints haven't been all that consistent this year, either, but their deep corps of receivers, particularly tight end Jimmy Graham, will test the Giants' defense, which must find a pass rush that was absent last week.
Denver (5-5) at San Diego (4-6)
Tebowmania heads to Mission Bay, where the Chargers are drowning. They have lost five in a row, with their last victory coming at Denver, where Tim Tebow nearly rallied the Broncos to victory.
Tebow is 4-1 since supplanting Kyle Orton as Denver's starter, with three fourth-quarter comebacks.
"I obviously feel pretty comfortable with them. I played against them one and a half times (including last season), so that's the most I've played against any team," Tebow said. "I feel like I'll be able to know them pretty well."
Chicago (7-3) at Oakland (6-4)
A marquee matchup even though Bears QB Jay Cutler is out with a broken right thumb that could sideline him the rest of the way. So Caleb Hanie, who acquitted himself well in a relief stint in the NFC title game loss to Green Bay in January, takes over.
Hanie has a strong running game thanks to Matt Forte and an improving offensive line to support him. Chicago also has dynamic special teams and a defense as stingy as any in the NFL — outside of the Bay Area (meaning the 49ers, not the Raiders).
Oakland is hoping to get back star runner Darren McFadden (right foot), but Michael Bush has done just fine in his place with two straight 100-yard games.
Pittsburgh (7-3) at Kansas City (4-6)
Don't look for Kyle Orton, claimed on waivers by the Chiefs, to get much action this week. Tyler Palko, who played college ball in Pittsburgh and once was with the Steelers, gets the call at quarterback again. He didn't do much in a lopsided loss at New England on Monday night and needs Jackie Battle to get the running game off to a quick start.
That's hardly easy against this version of the Steel Curtain, which ranks second in overall defense and comes off a bye.
Houston (7-3) at Jacksonville (3-7)
Another quarterbacking change takes place in Houston, which also comes off a bye and must replace Matt Schaub, sidelined for the rest of the season with a right foot problem. Matt Leinart gets the call in what could be his final chance to prove he has the goods for the NFL.
Like Hanie, Leinart has plenty of help around him in RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, plus a solid defense. Star receiver Andre Johnson looks set to return after a six-week absence with a hamstring issue.
The Jags are good defensively, but other than Maurice Jones-Drew, they don't threaten offensively.
Minnesota (2-8) at Atlanta (6-4)
With Adrian Peterson likely to miss the game with a high left ankle sprain, the Vikings will be severely undermanned against a Falcons squad in the thick of the NFC wild-card chase. Minnesota has won four of its last five visits to the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons need to prosper the rest of the way to make the postseason.
Atlanta has its own injury issues and hopes rookie WR Julio Jones recovers from a right hamstring problem. But the Falcons won without him last week against the Titans, a more difficult foe than the Vikings.
Carolina (2-8) at Indianapolis (0-10)
OK, this might be it. With New England, Baltimore, Tennessee, Houston and Jacksonville — which just won at Indianapolis — on their radar, the Colts' best shot to avoid 0-16 ignominy could be in this one.
To get that win, though, the Colts must slow the No. 5 overall offense, led by dynamic rookie QB Cam Newton and revitalized wideout Steve Smith.
"We're not really in a position to judge anybody's record," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "When you're 2-8, at that point we're all just kind of in the same boat. We're just looking to win. I'm sure they're looking at us the same way, saying this is great opportunity for us to right the ship."
Buffalo (5-5) at New York Jets (5-5)
The Jets do everything in bunches: two wins, three losses, three wins, two losses. Their offense has struggled as quarterback Mark Sanchez has regressed behind a suddenly ineffective offensive line. Rex Ryan, who was fined $75,000 this week for cursing out a fan during a loss to New England, was stunned by his defense's collapse against Tebow and the Broncos on Nov. 17.
Buffalo is in even worse shape, dropping three in a row, including 21-11 to the Jets, a game in which the Bills were manhandled. They won't have their best offensive player, RB Fred Jackson, who is sidelined the rest of the way by a right leg injury.
Coach Chan Gailey doesn't want to hear about sagging spirits, though.
"If you've got a professional football team that's in the hunt and I've got to go give them some kind of talk to keep them motivated, we're in trouble," Gailey said. "My feeling is that if you've got a team that is that fragile, you're in trouble. I believe we have guys that understand about fighting through tough times and fighting through adversity."
Cleveland (4-6) at Cincinnati (6-4)
Cincinnati's chore is easy: beat the dregs of the league and likely make the playoffs. After the Browns, the Bengals do have Houston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but also St. Louis and Arizona. A 9-7 mark might be good enough, and a win over one of those better teams would get Cincinnati to 10 wins and almost certainly a wild-card berth.
The Bengals won at Cleveland to open what has been an uplifting season even though they have lost to their toughest opponents, the Ravens, Steelers and 49ers. Rookie Andy Dalton has progressed nicely at quarterback, and the defense is strong.
Cleveland has the No. 1 pass defense in football, yardage-wise, but only because teams run the ball down the Browns' throat every week.
Tampa Bay (4-6) at Tennessee (5-5)
Tampa gave Green Bay all it could handle last week but, like so many times this season, the disappointing Bucs fell short.
They bring an old, uh, friend back to Tennessee in DT Albert Haynesworth, a former All-Pro in his Titans days and now a situational player for the Bucs. Whether he gets a chance to sack Matt Hasselbeck is problematic: Hasselbeck injured his right arm in a loss to Atlanta, but vows he will start Sunday with Tennessee still in the thick of the wild-card race.
Washington (3-7) at Seattle (4-6)
Seattle seems to have found some spark with consecutive victories over Baltimore and St. Louis. It's too late for the Seahawks to repeat their NFC West crown — they're on the verge of elimination — but three more future opponents have losing records, so a .500 season isn't impossible.
The Redskins almost certainly won't get to the break-even mark. On a six-game skid, they have a pitiful run game and their minus-10 turnover differential is tied for last in the league.
Arizona (3-7) at St. Louis (2-8)
Among the league's most lopsided rivalries, this game also has become the least inviting on the holiday schedule. The Cardinals have won nine of the last 10 in the series, six straight in St. Louis, and outscored the Rams 278-161 in those 10 games. This is the third straight road game for Arizona, which won at Philadelphia and lost at San Francisco.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company