New England Patriots running back Corey Dillon (28) takes the handoff from quarterback Tom Brady during the game against the Seattle Seahawks in Foxboro, Mass., on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2004. Not since 1973 have two NFL teams gone this deep into the season undefeated and then played each other. Adding more spice to the New York Jets-Patriots matchup is New England's 20-game winning streak and their shared place atop their division.
AP Photo/ Robert E. Klein
The New England Patriots are finally getting what they say they've been craving a game in which their record winning streak is secondary.
That's because the winner of Sunday's game in Foxboro with the New York Jets will take sole possession of the AFC East lead. That's why Bill Belichick and his players have been downplaying the streak, now at 20 games, including playoffs: They say their only goal is to win titles, the division first, then the conference and then ... their third Super Bowl in four seasons.
This game features two of the NFL's three unbeaten teams, the first meeting between 5-0 teams since 1973 when Minnesota and the Los Angeles Rams met at 6-0.
''Anytime you play a division opponent, it is different,'' quarterback Tom Brady says. ''Any time you play the Jets, it is different. It is our sixth game. This is the best team we have played all year.''
In truth, the Patriots haven't been playing that well. All they had to do to beat winless Miami was show up. But Brady had his worst game since becoming a starter in 2001.
Against Seattle, they jumped off to a 20-3 lead. Then Brady lost a fumble, threw an interception and the Seahawks closed twice within three points.
But as they always do, the Patriots wrapped it up because someone made a big play. This time it was Bethel Johnson, benched the week before, with a diving 48-yard third-down reception that led to the clinching touchdown.
''That's what so unique about their players. They get big plays and they get them from different players every week,'' Jets coach Herman Edwards says of the Patriots, who can set yet another record with a win Sunday 18 straight regular-season victories, the only streak officially recognized by the NFL.
''They've played in all kinds of games. They've won them all in different ways. They win them by three points, by 10 points and they can win them by a big blowout,'' Edwards says. ''They play the game as it's being played, and they know how to obviously change their game plan in the middle of the game and find ways to win.''
Actually, they've only had one blowout during the streak, Herm. But the 20-game winning streak makes people think they've had a bunch.
Jacksonville (4-2) at Indianapolis (4-1)
All four of Jacksonville's wins weren't clinched until the final minutes.
But if the Jaguars want to truly challenge in the AFC South, they have to win this game, the first rematch of the season. They lost 24-17 to the Colts in Jacksonville and an Indy win would give it a two-game lead in the loss column plus a tiebreaker.
The spotlight is always on Peyton Manning and the Colts' offense. But the defense has been playing decently. Dwight Freeney has just two sacks, but is tying up so many blockers that obscure Robert Mathis, a 235-pound second-year defensive end, leads the team with four sacks and rookie defensive back Jason David has made two big plays.
Jacksonville is winning because Byron Leftwich seems to be maturing into one of those clutch quarterbacks who can engineer last-minute drives. He did it last week against Kansas City with a sprained ankle that should be fine this week.
Tennessee (2-4) at Minnesota (4-1)
Daunte Culpepper already has 18 touchdown passes. He may have to play this one without Randy Moss, whose strained hamstring might be a little more severe than first thought. Still, the Vikings always seem to find offensive players, the latest rookie running back Mewelde Moore, who's stepped in for the injured Michael Bennett and the suspended Onterrio Smith with no falloff.
This looks like a rare off season for Tennessee, which lost some good players because of salary cap problems and now through injury. But a healthy Steve McNair can still be dangerous, as the Packers learned two weeks ago.
Atlanta (5-1) at Kansas City (1-4)
One of the remarkable things about the Falcons' record is that Michael Vick is still struggling to learn the West Coast offense. They've won because a defense that allowed 26 points a game last season is giving up just 14.
This may be the last shot for the Chiefs at salvaging their season. If they thought they had turned things around by winning in Baltimore before their bye, they reversed that by losing in Jacksonville last week.
Detroit (3-2) at New York Giants (4-1)
Two of the NFL's surprises, although the Lions lost some luster by getting beaten 38-10 at home by struggling (or desperate) Green Bay. Still, after going 0-for-three years on the road, they have two away wins this season.
Tom Coughlin speak: ''I did watch or participate in watching a lot of games,'' he replied when asked if he had seen other teams during the Giants' bye week. When we was asked what he learned, he replied, ''primarily ways to lose,'' insight into why his team is almost mistake-free during its four-game winning streak.
Philadelphia (5-0) at Cleveland (3-3)
The last game and clearly the toughest in Cleveland's early-season tour of the NFC East. The sideshow is Terrell Owens for the Eagles against Jeff Garcia, the Browns quarterback for whom he had no use in San Francisco.
It's probably inevitable the Eagles will lose a game, but they're the most dominant team in the NFL, much more so than the Patriots. They've outscored opponents 137-63, or an average of 27-13 per game.
St. Louis (4-2) at Miami (0-6)
The Dolphins are playing like a team that has a chance to go winless they may have lost their best chance for a victory in Week 2 against Cincinnati. So the 1972 Dolphins, who will celebrate when Philadelphia, New England and the Jets finally lose, may have to mourn after the season.
The Rams, who could have fallen far behind Seattle in the NFC West if they hadn't rallied there two weeks ago, now lead the division. But they could easily have lost to Tampa last Monday night and don't seem nearly as good as the team that was 56-24 from 1999-2003.
Seattle (3-2) at Arizona (1-4)
The Seahawks were cruising until the last eight minutes of the Rams game two weeks ago. Then they blew that one, lost (predictably) in New England and face a game they hope will get them back on their expected run at a title.
Now that Seattle has Jerry Rice, this game becomes the first in nearly 20 years in which the NFL's leading career rusher faces the leading career receiver: Rice and his 1,524 catches against Emmitt Smith and his 17,771 yards. The last time was on Dec. 3, 1984, the year before Rice entered the NFL, when San Diego and Charlie Joiner (651 receptions) faced Chicago and Walter Payton (12,980 rushing).
Note: Joiner is now tied with Michael Irvin for 13th.
Denver (5-1) at Cincinnati (1-4) (Monday night)
The Bengals' respectable 2003 season earned them their first Monday night game in a dozen years. But they won't get one next season off what they've shown so far.
''They can't worry about what's written about them or said about them,'' Marvin Lewis says of his players. ''They're going to be attacked somewhat deservedly so. We've earned it. The only way we're going to get out of it is to go and fix it.''
Dallas (2-3) at Green Bay (2-4)
Two playoff teams a year ago that are clearly in struggle mode. The Packers' 38-10 win over the Lions was their first since the opening week, but they're 0-3 at Lambeau Field, where they used to be invincible.
Dallas led most of the way against Pittsburgh last week, but lost late after Vinny Testaverde's fumble set up the Steelers' winning score. ''I believe that the better team did not win,'' Testaverde said.
San Diego (3-3) at Carolina (1-4)
A second consecutive cross-country trip for the Chargers, who lost in Atlanta last week but remained competitive. They lost Reche Caldwell in that game, then added holdout Keenan McCardell in a trade with Tampa, although he may not play Sunday.
Mark Fields might be back at linebacker for the injury-plagued Panthers, but Stephen Davis left practice this week with swelling in his knee, leaving another question at the paper-thin running back position.
Buffalo (1-4) at Baltimore (3-2)
The Bills will take their victory, even over winless Miami. The highlight was 111 yards rushing by Willis McGahee in his first start, though coach Mike Mularkey says Travis Henry will be the starter again when he recovers from a foot injury.
This will be the first of two games for the Ravens without suspended Jamal Lewis. Coach Brian Billick thinks Chester Taylor and Musa Smith can fill in adequately.
New Orleans (2-4) at Oakland (2-4)
Raiders coach Norv Turner won't acknowledge it, but he's probably happy Jerry Rice has left, allowing him to build around younger receivers as much as Al Davis will let him, of course.
The Saints have lost three straight since a dramatic overtime win in St. Louis and two of the losses were the only wins for their opponents, the Cardinals and Bucs. There's talent, but not much cohesion.
Chicago (1-4) at Tampa Bay (1-5)
Jonathan Quinn, who replaced the injured Rex Grossman at quarterback for the Bears, is on shaky ground and rookie Craig Krenzel or even street pickup Chad Hutchinson could see action.
Brian Griese has had two decent games for the Bucs since replacing an injured Chris Simms who replaced Brad Johnson who ...
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