Published December 14, 2012
Six days after thrashing the Houston Texans, the New England Patriots take on another likely division winner with Super Bowl aspirations when the San Francisco 49ers visit them on Sunday.
Should New England, the NFL's highest-scoring offense, do the same to the 49ers, who have allowed the second-fewest yards, then nobody will doubt the Patriots have earned the favorite's role.
Quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots, winners of seven in a row, tend to live up to such challenges.
"Brady's going to make plays. His offense is going to make plays," 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "Our defense is going to make plays. We just want to make more than him at the end of the game."
But even with the No. 2 defense in the league, the 49ers are dealing with some special stuff as the Patriots take aim at several NFL offensive records.
Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said of the Patriots: "Multiple strengths: A really good scheme, really good play calling and then great individual effort at each position, the great ability they have to play as a team. You could talk for hours about how good they are."
The game is just one of many in a week that might be even better than the playoffs, with so many matchups between contenders.
AFC West champion Denver is at AFC North leader Baltimore, NFC South champion Atlanta meet the NFC East-leading New York Giants, NFC North leader Green Bay is at Chicago, Indianapolis at AFC South leader Houston, Pittsburgh at Dallas, and Minnesota at St. Louis.
The Denver Broncos have won eight straight as their defense has become staunch. That gives them an edge in that area over the sputtering Ravens, which says a lot in itself considering how good Baltimore's defense usually is.
Then there's the comfort level Peyton Manning has gained with his Broncos playmates on offense. In contrast, the Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron this week, replacing him with Jim Caldwell -- coincidentally, Manning's last coach in Indianapolis before the four-time MVP headed to Denver.
"I really felt he took my game to another level," Manning said. "He's also been a tremendous friend to me and mentor. I miss being around him every day and I miss his friendship every day. That's how I feel about Jim."
Although Atlanta has the best record in the NFC, its looked vulnerable for more than a month. One of two undefeated teams at home -- Seattle is the other -- Atlanta needs to re-establish some momentum after a weak performance in a loss at Carolina.
What better way than against the Super Bowl champions?
"When you set out at the beginning of the year, you want to win every game that you play," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "You can't worry about what everybody else is doing and what that means in terms of your playoff picture. I think we just played poorly last week and that's something we can't do again this week."
The Giants also have been up and down and have only a one-game lead in the NFC East, where Dallas and Washington have better divisional records.
Elsewhere on Sunday, it's Seattle against Buffalo in Toronto; Washington at Cleveland, Tampa Bay at New Orleans; Jacksonville at Miami; Carolina at San Diego; Detroit at Arizona; and Kansas City at Oakland.
On Monday, the New York Jets are at Tennessee.
The action began on Thursday when the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Philadelphia Eagles 34-13, as Andy Dalton threw a touchdown pass and ran for another score.