As the calendar turns to December, the NFL enters the final month of the regular season. With 11 games down, only five remain for teams to make their playoff push.
"December is such a critical time for all the teams in our league," says New York Giants head coach TOM COUGHLIN, whose team is tied for first place in the NFC East after a 24-20 win over Jacksonville. "There isn't any question about the season being a marathon and not a sprint. There are different facets of everyone's schedule that have to be recognized and no matter how you do it, we do it in phases. The reason it is the NFL and the reason it is so meaningful to be division champion and, of course, Super Bowl champion is because it is a grind."
As the league enters Week 13, there are 19 teams either in or within one game of first place in their divisions, the most at this point of a season in NFL history. And, for the first time, all eight divisions have at least two teams either in or within one game of first place through the first 12 weeks.
"This time of the year, you have big games," says Chicago Bears head coach LOVIE SMITH, whose team improved to 8-3 with a 31-26 victory over Philadelphia. "We're in first place in our division and I'm pleased with where we are. We like the position we're in. We're a confident football team and we know there are still some things we have to improve upon."
Week 13 kicks off on Thursday night (NFL Network, 8:00 PM ET) with two teams in the thick of the playoff chase. The 5-6 Houston Texans are one game out of first place in the AFC South and the Philadelphia Eagles are 7-4 and tied for the top spot in the NFC East.
"It feels good to know that we're still in the hunt for a playoff spot," says quarterback MATT SCHAUB of Houston, which defeated Tennessee 20-0 last week. "We have a lot of work to do. It was great to get a win over a good football team in our division. And now I'm looking forward to going up and playing in Philadelphia."
The week ends with two primetime showdowns featuring the AFC's best. On Sunday night (NBC, 8:20 PM ET), the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Baltimore Ravens with first place in the AFC North on the line. Both clubs enter Week 13 with 8-3 records. The AFC East will take center stage on Monday night when the New York Jets and New England Patriots meet at Gillette Stadium (ESPN, 8:30 PM ET). The Jets and Patriots are tied for the best record in the AFC at 9-2.
Those contests mark just the second time since 1970 that there are two games in the same weekend between division opponents with 8-3 records or better. The other instance was Week 13 in 2001 when the Green Bay Packers (8-3) hosted the Chicago Bears (9-2) and the San Francisco 49ers (9-2) visited the St. Louis Rams (9-2).
"You like to compete against the best," says New York Jets head coach REX RYAN. "I know it's a huge challenge, but I like to give my best shot every time out and I know that BILL BELICHICK will give us his best shot.
"Obviously, the Patriots are playing great. I'm pretty confident with where our team is right now. We've got the same exact record. There's a reason why both our teams are 9-2 and tied for the best record in football. We're going to go out there and see what happens. I know it's going to be a huge challenge, but our guys are looking forward to the challenge."
Running back JAMAAL CHARLES rushed for 173 yards and wide receiver DWAYNE BOWE had 170 receiving yards in the Kansas City Chiefs' 42-24 victory at Seattle. It was the first regular-season game in NFL history in which teammates reached the 170-yard mark both rushing and receiving. The only other instance was Super Bowl XXII when TIMMY SMITH rushed for 204 yards and RICKY SANDERS had 193 receiving yards for the Washington Redskins.
ATLANTA FALCONS (9-2) at TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (7-4) (Sunday, FOX, 4:15 PM ET)
Two NFC South rivals will meet on Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium. The Falcons boast the NFC's best record at 9-2 while the Buccaneers are just two games back in the division at 7-4.
"We've got a very meaningful game coming up this week against Atlanta," says Buccaneers head coach RAHEEM MORRIS. "We're still very much in the hunt."
The game features two of the NFL's premiere young QBs in Atlanta's MATT RYAN and Tampa Bay's JOSH FREEMAN.
Ryan completed 24 of 28 passes last week and tied a franchise record with an 85.7 completion percentage (minimum 20 attempts) as he became the second QB (DANNY WHITE) in the Super Bowl era to win 19 of his first 20 home starts.
"Matt Ryan is a superstar in progress," says NFL Network analyst STEVE MARIUCCI. "He is the leader and face of that organization."
Freeman has won nine of his past 14 starts and has orchestrated six fourth-quarter comeback victories in his career.
"This kid is the real deal," says Mariucci. "He gives the Buccaneers hope now and for the future."
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-3) at BALTIMORE RAVENS (8-3) (Sunday, NBC, 8:20 PM ET)
"Now we're playing the biggest game of the year."
That's what Ravens head coach JOHN HARBAUGH had to say about the upcoming showdown with the Steelers on Sunday night after Baltimore's 17-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"It's a beautiful thing to be sitting here right now and be playing for the division at home," says Ravens linebacker RAY LEWIS. "The season just doesn't get any better than that."
The Steelers improved to 8-3 last week with a 19-16 overtime victory at Buffalo as running back RASHARD MENDENHALL rushed for 151 yards and a touchdown.
"You don't want to miss this one," says Pittsburgh wide receiver HINES WARD, who had seven catches for 107 yards last week. "This is the one that you circle on your schedule. We're making strides in the right direction and I like where this team is headed, especially in the month of December."
NEW YORK JETS (9-2) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (9-2) (Monday, ESPN, 8:30 PM ET)
Week 13 concludes with a matchup between two clubs tied for the best record in the NFL at 9-2. First place in the AFC East will also be on the line when these two division rivals meet at Gillette Stadium on Monday night.
"You knew going in that this was going to be a huge game," says Jets head coach REX RYAN. "It's two 9-2 teams squaring off on Monday night. It's going to be huge. We have the same record and we beat them once. The great thing is that we get to prove it on Monday Night Football in their place. We'll see. I know I feel confident with my football team. I know everybody in our locker room believes we'll win."
The Jets are 5-0 on the road this season and have won eight consecutive regular-season road games. The Patriots are 5-0 at home this year and have won 14 consecutive regular-season home games.
Both teams played on Thanksgiving. The Patriots knocked off Detroit 45-24 and the Jets defeated Cincinnati 26-10.
In New England's victory, quarterback TOM BRADY completed 21 of 27 passes (77.8 percent) for 341 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions for a 158.3 passer rating, the highest possible mark. He is one of only three players in NFL history - KURT WARNER (three) and PEYTON MANNING (three) - to post the maximum passer rating (minimum 20 attempts) in multiple games .
For the Jets, BRAD SMITH had a 53-yard rushing touchdown and an 89-yard kickoff-return touchdown in the win over the Bengals. Smith, who added a 23-yard reception, joined BRIAN MITCHELL (October 1, 2000) asthe only players in NFL history with an 80 yard kickoff-return touchdown, a 50 yard rushing touchdown and a 20-yard catch in the same game.
"It's always a big game when we play the Jets," says Brady, who has won 25 consecutive regular-season starts at home, tied for the longest streak by a QB in NFL history (BRETT FAVRE, 1995-98). "It's a division rival and a division game at home. You can't expect to win the division if you can't beat a particular team. It's going to be a great game. I'm excited for it."