AFC game previews - wild card contenders

The Baltimore Ravens (8-5) are fighting for a berth into the post season. Winning one of the two wild-card spots in the hotly contested AFC conference is now their only option for the playoffs. Both the Denver Broncos (8-5) and the New York Jets (10-3) are each capable of winning either spot and their performance in the last three weeks of the regular season will be scrutinized by Ravens' fans and foes alike.<br><br> RavensInsider breaks each team's week 15 game down in detail.

Denver Broncos (8-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (5-8)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/19/04
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Randy Cross; DirecTV, 713

SERIES: 89th meeting. Kansas City leads the series 49-39, but Denver has won the only playoff meeting between the teams. Denver won the first meeting between the teams this season, taking the regular-season opener 34-24 at Invesco Field at Mile High.

2004 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 5th (5th rush, 7th pass); defense 4th (5th rush, 9th pass). Chiefs: offense 2nd (3rd rush, 3rd pass); defense 31st (13th rush, 32nd pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: It might be a good time for Broncos QB Jake Plummer to be on the road following a tumultuous week after making an obscene gesture at a fan last Sunday. Denver must have him focused and avoiding the mistakes that have plagued him recently. He hurt the Chiefs with bootleg runs and passes in the first meeting, and the Chiefs secondary is struggling mightily. Kansas City's best hope is to stop the run first and get in Plummer's face in passing situations. The way the Chiefs' offense is rolling, the defense doesn't have to get too many stops. The Broncos might use CB Champ Bailey to cover TE Tony Gonzalez, but the Chiefs' receivers have been playing very well of late and the Broncos' secondary is very thin due to injury. But the key will be RB Larry Johnson having a solid four quarters to force Denver to respect the run.

FAST FACTS: The last three meetings in Arrowhead have been decided by a combined seven points. Broncos: Are 7-1 when leading at halftime. Chiefs: Are 16-1 at home in December since 1995. ... Have averaged 38 points in their past three games.

PREDICTION: Broncos 30-27

--QB Jake Plummer will be around Denver for at least one year and probably many more. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said the team is planning to exercise the $6 million option bonus due Plummer in March. Shanahan said he usually doesn't talk about contracts during the season but he wanted to announce it because of all the talk surrounding Plummer's future.
--RB Tatum Bell took some handoffs in practice on Thursday. He was sore, but Shanahan said he still thinks Bell can play on Sunday at Kansas City.
--DT Monsanto Pope has started every game this season, as has tackle Mario Fatafehi and end Marco Coleman. End Reggie Hayward has started 12 of 13 games for the Broncos' defensive line, and all of the past 12. Hayward came off the bench in the first game, and Raylee Johnson started.
--DT Luther Elliss has missed four games with a calf injury, and now Elliss has a back injury that could force him to miss more time. Elliss has dealt with injury problems the past few years.
--CB Jeff Shoate hasn't played on defense since Week 4 and has been inactive for six straight games. But the rookie will probably be Denver's dime cornerback on Sunday because of injuries. The Broncos like Shoate's intelligence and are confident they can trust him to play a big role in the secondary.

--WR Johnnie Morton, who caught a 30-yard touchdown pass in last Monday night's win over Tennessee, did not practice again Thursday and likely won't play Sunday against Denver because of a sore knee.
--DT Ryan Sims, who recorded two of Kansas City's five sacks against Tennessee this past Monday, did not practice Thursday but hopes to work out Friday and be available for Sunday's game with Denver at Arrowhead. Sims has a sprained ankle.
--FS Jerome Woods, who missed Thursday's practice and is expected to miss a fourth straight game against Denver, sought a second medical opinion this week on his injured knee that has kept him out of action since the Nov. 22 loss to New England. The diagnosis apparently was the same as that of the Chiefs doctors -- a bone bruise on the knee -- but the injury isn't responding quickly and Woods might well miss the rest of the season.
--CB Dexter McCleon could end up back in the starting lineup against Denver after losing his starting job following a toasting against Jacksonville Oct. 17. But whether McCleon starts over William Bartee, badly burned in the Tennessee win last week, may be immaterial as the Chiefs likely will play a good deal of nickel defense against the Broncos, meaning both McCleon and Bartee will play extensively.

The Broncos have to deal with the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive line this week, and Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer wasn't shy about what he believes are shady tactics by Kansas City's line.
"They get by with murder," Coyer said. "That's the truth, too. I hear everybody griping about ours (linemen), but these are the worst holders I ever saw in my life. They get by with more holding than any team in this league and it's starting to aggravate me a little bit. Because it's outlandish."
The Broncos have faced plenty of accusations about their line. The Broncos have put two defensive linemen out for the season with cut blocks, which re-started the controversy about Denver's cut blocking tactics.
Coyer didn't intimate that the Chiefs didn't have talented linemen, only that they bend the rules.
"They don't need to (hold), they're that good. But they're awful," Coyer said. "They grab, they hold, and sooner or later these guys (referees) are going to have to start evening this game up a little bit. Because truly, they talk about our guys, but this is outlandish. It truly is."
The Broncos allowed Kansas City's Priest Holmes to rush for 151 yards in the first meeting between the teams this season, the most yards a running back has gained against Denver this year. Coyer conceded that Kansas City's line is a big reason the Chiefs have continued success running the ball, even without Holmes who is out for the season with a knee injury.
"They're talented, big-time linemen, but they cheat," Coyer said.

Larry Johnson doesn't give a flip about the Finger Flap -- the controversy in Denver created when Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer flipped off a heckler at Invesco Field last week.
What's all the hubbub, Johnson asked rhetorically. It happens more than you might think.
"I've done that many times this season, but they don't put the camera on me because I'm not starting," Johnson said Thursday when asked if he would handle a heckler the same way Plummer did. "I do it in visiting stadiums like Oakland when people mouth off, just to make fun of them.
"They expect us not to do that, but I don't care. I'm not starting; I've got nothing to worry about."
That was Johnson's way of saying a couple of things in his usual uncompromising way. One, that he doesn't care much for customer relations. And two, he clearly isn't happy about having to wait 1 3/4 seasons to get his first start with the Kansas City Chiefs.
But that will change Sunday when Denver comes to town. With Derrick Blaylock, the backup to the injured Priest Holmes, experiencing a mild knee injury himself, Johnson will be Kansas City's only healthy halfback against the Broncos.
It's an opportunity the vocally frustrated Johnson has been awaiting -- one he suggests is long overdue.
"I wasn't brought here to be a No. 3 back. I deserve to be more than that," Johnson said in an interview earlier this week with Kansas City station KCSP. he added. "I understand that you've got to pay your dues, but I've been paying my dues since high school and college. Now I'm ready to go to the bank and cash in."
After running for 222 yards and three touchdowns while adding 75 yards on five receptions with one more TD in his last two games -- both Kansas City victories -- Johnson looks ready to be a featured back.
"Now they've opened the door and they can't close it because I've stuck my foot in the door," he said. "I just want to keep going and going. I just wish there were six more games at end of season instead of three."

Seattle Seahawks (7-6) at New York Jets (10-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/19/04
SURFACE: FieldTurf

TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Cris Collinsworth, Pam Oliver; DirecTV, 711
SERIES: Seattle leads the series, 8-7, but the Jets have won four in a row and seven of the last eight. The Seahawks last defeated the Jets on Sept. 8, 1991. Seattle nearly pulled off a victory at the Meadowlands in 1998, but Vinny Testaverde's notorious phantom touchdown gave the Jets a hotly disputed victory.

2004 RANKINGS: Seahawks: offense 6th (7th rush, 9th pass); defense 22nd (17th rush, 23rd pass). Jets: offense 12th (4th rush, 22nd pass); defense 7th (6th rush, 8th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Seahawks' beleaguered defense lost DE Grant Wistrom last Sunday, although OLB Chad Brown is expected to return and should give the run defense a boost. The Jets will pound away with RBs Curtis Martin and LaMont Jordan until Seattle proves it can stop them. QB Chad Pennington doesn't throw the long ball well, but will likely test a Seahawks secondary that has been repeatedly burned by big pass plays. Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck has completed 68.9 percent of his passes the past two games, and combined with RB Shaun Alexander the offense must sustain drives to keep the defense on the sideline. Look for the Seahawks to use a lot of three and four-receiver threats to exploit a Jets secondary that doesn't boast much depth.

FAST FACTS: Seahawks: Lead the series 8-7. ... Alexander needs 1,385 rushing yards to break Chris Warren's single-season team record of 1,545 set in 1994. Jets: Are 7-1 (.875) when leading after three quarters. ... QB Chad Pennington has thrown 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in his past 15 starts.

PREDICTION: Jets 19-16

--WR Bobby Engram practiced again Thursday and looked great, making several impressive catches. Engram appears to finally be shaking the ankle injury that has bothered him since Oct. 17.
--OL Jerry Wunsch missed practice again Thursday. He remained probable with a knee injury.
--DT Rocky Bernard missed practice again Thursday. He remained doubtful with a knee injury.
--CB Bobby Taylor missed practice again Thursday. He remained doubtful with a knee injury.
--PK Josh Brown blamed a temporary concentration lapse for his missed 38-yard FG try at Minnesota. The miss followed 16 consecutive made FG tries by the second-year pro. In the bigger picture, Brown says his body feels quite fresh because he's kicking less frequently in practice.

--LB Victor Hobson practiced again Thursday and he appears healed enough from a high ankle sprain to play this week. He's listed as probable but he may not start because Mark Brown has played well in the three weeks Hobson has been out.
--LG Pete Kendall practiced this week with a sore knee but is probable for Sunday's game against the Seahawks.
--P Toby Gowin has been on again, off again all season. His latest game was a good one, a 41.4-yard net average on five punts in Pittsburgh, but he has done poorly for a majority of the season. He was the fourth punter in four seasons for the Jets - they also wanted him for kickoffs - and they'll likely be looking for a fifth next season.
--RB LaMont Jordan had just three carries last weeks after averaging almost 14 carries the previous three weeks. It was a very questionable call considering how physical the Steelers were and how better suited Jordan would have been up the middle instead of Curtis Martin. Jordan, however, kept quiet about his limited role. He's biding his time until hitting the open market this offseason.
--S Jon McGraw has played extremely well on special teams and in his limited role in the Jets' dime package. If he isn't slowed by a groin pull that has kept him out of four games this season and lingered most of the year, McGraw could see more time in the base defense if veteran Reggie Tongue continues to struggle.

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren was a driving force in the NFL's push to bring back instant replay. His work on the competition committee gave him a high profile on the once-controversial issue.
But now, after a few brushes with poor officiating, Holmgren said he might vote against replay in the future.
"I led the bandwagon on instant replay the first time, and I might vote against it this next time," Holmgren said this week.
Holmgren is most angered by the replay official's failure to review a late touchdown credited to Dallas WR Keyshawn Johnson during the Cowboys' recent victory at Qwest Field. The Dec. 6 game saw Dallas overcome a 10-point lead in the final two minutes, thanks largely to a Johnson touchdown that did not hold up upon unofficial review; replays showed Johnson's arm landing out of bounds before his second foot touched inbounds.
"I think we, as a team, have been victimized by more bad things than any team in the league," Holmgren said. "I'm not going to go into it, but I could give you four examples of not necessarily poor judgment things but just mechanics, rules, you know.
"I'm discouraged by that because we worked very, very hard to implement a (working system)."

Wally Pipp references are all the rage on the Jets. That's because, in most cases, defensive players won't always get their starting or primary jobs back immediately after returning from an injury. That's how coordinator Donnie Henderson has been running things.
That's what happened to rookie corner Derrick Strait the past few weeks. A third-round pick, Strait played so well in training camp that he earned a spot in the dime package and was immediately promoted as the team's nickel back after Ray Mickens was lost for the season to knee surgery.
Strait played well and made four tackles against Miami in the third game of the season. But he broke his foot in practice the next week and was inactive the next six weeks. Strait dressed against Cleveland once he was healthy but didn't get in the game and he was limited to just special teams play the last two weeks.
"When you get hurt and you go down, you have to work your way back. You have to go on the (scout team), be the practice look team guy," coach Herman Edwards said. "You've got to do that for a week or two, you've got to earn your stripes back. I think he's starting to quietly earn his stripes back, get back into shape. I know he wants to play."
Strait will likely get his chance this week against the Seahawks. With Terrell Buckley struggling as the nickel back and the Jets getting burned too often by his gambling style - like the 46-yard pas to Pittsburgh's Lee Mays last week - Strait will see more time in the nickel.
The secondary as a whole has played well - not allowing more than 186 yards passing in the last seven games, but the Jets still lack a cover corner and strong safety Reggie Tongue has also struggled lately.
It will also be curious to see how linebacker Victor Hobson is used after missing the last three weeks with a high ankle sprain. Hobson has been able to practice all this week and looks ready to return but Henderson may opt to continue starting second-year player Mark Brown since he and the defense has continued playing well.

Baltimore Ravens (8-5) at Indianapolis Colts (10-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/19/04
SURFACE: AstroTurf

TV: ESPN, Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, Suzy Kolber

SERIES: Fifth meeting. The teams have split the series with two wins apiece. The home team has won all four times. The Colts relocated from Baltimore in 1984. Indianapolis won the last meeting in 2002 when a late pass interference call set up Mike Vanderjagt's 38-yard game-winning field goal.
2004 RANKINGS: Ravens: offense 31st (12th rush, 32nd pass); defense 6th (8th rush, 7th pass). Colts: offense 1st (11th rush, 1st pass); defense 29th (20th rush, 28th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: All eyes will be on QB Peyton Manning, who needs just two touchdown passes to tie Dan Marino's NFL single-season record of 48. But the Ravens have allowed just 10 touchdown passes all season and will try to disguise their coverages to keep Manning from getting into a rhythm. The Colts struggled when Houston was able to get to Manning last Sunday, emphasizing the importance of RB Edgerrin James' ability to run well to set up the play-action attack. The Ravens expect RB Jamal Lewis to carry the ball about 20 times, mostly between the tackles to wear the Colts down and control the clock. It's important to stay out of long passing situations in which DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can come off the edges after QB Kyle Boller. The return of TE Todd Heap gives Boller a much-needed target over the middle and in the red zone.

FAST FACTS: Ravens: Boller has thrown eight touchdowns and two interceptions in his past five games. ... Have allowed three touchdown passes in just 10 of their past 100 games. Colts: Manning needs 81 passing yards to become the first player in NFL history with five consecutive 4,000-yard seasons. ... Manning's 126.3 passer rating is 13.5 points higher than Steve Young's NFL record of 112.8 set in 1994.

PREDICTION: Colts 27-20

--CB Deion Sanders did not practice Thursday, his usual day off given by coach Brian Billick. Sanders is expected to return at nickel back for Sunday. He is approaching 90 percent.
--RB Jamal Lewis was limited in practice for a second straight day and said the ankle remains sore. But he said he could handle 20 to 30 carries if called upon.
--QB Kyle Boller is throwing an interception just once for every 46 pass attempts. The Ravens are 8-1 when Boller does not throw an interception this season.
--TE Todd Heap will again be a focal point of the Ravens offense especially since the Ravens believe the Colts have trouble defending pass-catching tight ends in the middle of the field.
--PR B.J. Sams averaged nearly 11 yards a return last game and could have a big impact against Indianapolis. The Colts have allowed 14.4 yards a return, which is worst in the NFL.

--LB Cato June (ankle/thigh) returned to practice on Thursday and is expected to start Sunday night.
--WR Brandon Stokley (groin) saw light work before Thursday's practice. He will be a game-time decision. If Stokley can't play, WR Troy Walters would get the start.
--C Jeff Saturday (calf) practiced Wednesday and Thursday. He is expected to start against the Ravens.
--OG Tupe Peko (ankle) practiced both Wednesday and Thursday. Peko should be available to start the Baltimore game.
--S Gerome Sapp (ribs) saw limited work on Thursday. Expected to be a game-time decision.
--FS Bob Sanders (knee) will not play on Sunday night. Continues to rehab sprained MCL in right knee. Might be available for the San Diego game.
--TE Dallas Clark (arm/shoulder) has practiced Wednesday and Thursday. Will play against the Ravens.
--DE Robert Mathis (back) practiced Thursday and will be available for the Baltimore game.
--DT Josh Williams (shoulder) has practiced Wednesday and Friday. Will start against the Ravens.
--LB Gilbert Gardner (virus) saw light work on Thursday. Is expected to be available for Sunday night's game with Baltimore.

Although the Colts defense often gets criticized, the Ravens have a great deal of respect for the Indianapolis pass rush.
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, both undersized, hard-charging defensive ends, rank first and second in the AFC with 13 and 10 1/2 sacks, respectively. Freeney's total leads the NFL.
The Ravens' mindset is to be physical with them because Freeney and Mathis' pure speed is their major asset. Freeney, in particular, uses the crowd at the RCA Dome to get an even faster start against tackles, often finding himself in the backfield before a lineman is in his stance.
"It will be tough on that turf on the road with all that noise, but we have to make plays," said Jonathan Ogden, who shut out Freeney when the two met two years ago. "I have to block him, there is no way around it. He might be the fastest person off the ball in the league right now.
"I'm just going to have to be on top of my game, that's all."
Ogden's strategy is simple - maul the smaller Freeney. If Ogden, 6-feet-9, 345 pounds, can get his hands on Freeney, 6-1, 268, then advantage Ogden.
"You have to be limited in your physicality," said Ogden, who has been beaten twice for sacks this season. "They do a lot of movement. But once I get my hands on him, I've got to be physical with him."
Right tackles Orlando Brown and Ethan Brooks will surely employ the same technique. Brown, at 360 pounds, outweighs Mathis by 125.
Mathis, though, is a situational rusher and substitutes for Raheem Brock in passing situations. The rotation keeps Mathis, a second-year player out of Alabama A&M, from wearing down late in the game.
Brown and Brooks will have their own rotation as well.
"Sometimes, with a speed guy that is just going to run up the field all day, you can run him by the quarterback," Brooks said. "But when you have a speed guy who is quick and shifty, that poses a whole other set of problem. Personally, I prefer a bigger guy where we can wrestle."
Indianapolis is second in the league with 41 sacks, one behind the Philadelphia Eagles. Unlike the Eagles, the Colts get pressure by simply beating the opponent. Thirty-seven of those sacks have come from defensive linemen, and Colts coach Tony Dungy estimates his team blitzes less than five plays a game.

Colts WR Brandon Stokley knows the Baltimore Ravens very well.
Stokley began his NFL career with the Ravens in 1999 as a fourth-round draft choice. After four often injury-plagued seasons, he became an unrestricted free agent and subsequently signed with the Colts.
During his four seasons with Baltimore, Stokley caught a combined 60 passes for 913 yards and seven touchdowns. In just one full season with the Colts, he has 58 receptions for 936 yards and nine TDs.
While he has good memories of his time with the Ravens - he had a touchdown catch against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV and is the only Colts' player with a Super Bowl championship ring - Stokley thinks he may have found a home in Indianapolis.
"I had a great time (in Baltimore). It was a great four years. There were some ups and downs and some disappointments there with some injuries," he said. "I'm thankful for those four years.
"Things have worked out well here, injury-wise. I feel good. I can go out there and show my ability, show that I belong."
Colts coach Tony Dungy is glad that Stokley is around, especially since it gives Indianapolis three viable weapons at wide receiver.
"Brandon started to give us this type of production at the tail end of last year and it just kind of carried over to this year," Dungy said. "He's been perfect for us."

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