Bears can clinch division title in Week 12

Nov 24, 2006 - 4:10 PM By John Pezzullo SportsTicker Pro Football Editor

BRISTOL, Connecticut (Ticker) - The Chicago Bears can clinch their second straight division title on Sunday. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots know all about winning divisions.

The interconference battle between the Bears (9-1) and Patriots (7-3) is the marquee matchup of Week 12 in the NFL.

The Sunday night meeting between the Indianapolis Colts (9-1) and Philadelphia Eagles (5-5) was supposed to be another intriguing interconference game featuring quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb. But the contest lost much of its luster when McNabb suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.

The Bears can become only the fourth team since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 to clinch a division title by its 11th game. The other three are the 1985 Bears, the 1997 San Francisco 49ers and 2004 Eagles.

Chicago can seal the NFC North crown with a win at New England, coupled with losses by the Minnesota Vikings (4-6) and Green Bay Packers (4-6). The Vikings host former coach Dennis Green and the Arizona Cardinals (2-8) on Sunday and the Packers visit the first-place Seattle Seahawks (6-4) on Monday night.

But beating the Pats will be difficult. New England has won three of the last five Super Bowls under coach Bill Belichick and with Brady at quarterback.

The Patriots are seeking their fourth straight AFC East crown. They own a two-game lead over the New York Jets (5-5), but all three of their losses have come at home this season.

Led by middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and a strong defensive line, the Bears have allowed a league-low 12.0 points per game with two shutouts. They have held opponents to 10 points or fewer six times and lead the NFL with 29 takeaways.

Last week, Urlacher, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, compiled 11 tackles and an interception in a 10-0 victory over the Jets.

The Patriots flexed their defensive muscle as well in a 35-0 triumph at Green Bay last week. New England has allowed just 13.1 points per game.

The Colts are tied with the Bears for the league's best record and hold a three-game lead over the Jacksonville Jaguars (6-4) in the AFC South. The Jaguars will visit the Buffalo Bills (4-6).

Indianapolis' bid for an unbeaten season was spoiled by Dallas last week. But the Colts will be heavily favored to bounce back against the Eagles.

A five-time Pro Bowl quarterback, McNabb suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the Eagles' 31-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans last week. McNabb had entered last Sunday's game tied with Manning for the league lead with 18 touchdown passes and was second with 2,569 passing yards.

Losing McNabb is a crushing blow for the Eagles, who have lost four of their last five games following a 4-1 start.

Eagles coach Andy Reid will turn to Jeff Garcia in McNabb's absence. McNabb also missed the final seven games last season with a sports hernia. Philadelphia went 2-5 with Mike McMahon filling in for McNabb.

A six-time Pro Bowler, Manning has faced the Eagles twice in his career, leading the Colts to a pair of wins by a lopsided score of 79-30. He has dissected defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's aggressive schemes, completing 34-of-49 passes for 554 yards and six touchdowns without an interception.

LaDainian Tomlinson looks to continue his march toward history Sunday when the first-place San Diego Chargers (8-2) host the Oakland Raiders (2-8) in an AFC West matchup.

Arguably the NFL's best running back, Tomlinson has 22 touchdowns - 19 rushing - in just 10 games. His TDs are more than 18 teams in the league.

"Every down he brings it. Whether he's blocking or catching or running, his value to us can not be measured," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said.

Tomlinson is on pace to shatter Shaun Alexander's single-season record of 28 TDs set in 2005. He has rushed for 1,446 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 career games against Oakland. Tomlinson carried 31 times for 131 yards and a TD as the Chargers beat the Raiders for a sixth straight time with a 27-0 rout on September 11.

The Baltimore Ravens (8-2) can deliver another huge blow to the Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff hopes Sunday when the bitter AFC North rivals meet for the first time this season.

After winning the Super Bowl last season, the Steelers (4-6) will have an uphill climb to make the playoffs. Pittsburgh is behind both Baltimore (8-2) and the Cincinnati Bengals (5-5) in the division.

The Steelers have a huge task against the Ravens, who are seeking their first five-game winning streak since a seven-game run to close the regular season in their Super Bowl-winning season in 2000.

The Bengals look for their fifth straight win over the Cleveland Browns (3-7) when the AFC North rivals meet on Sunday.

Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson has 17 catches for 450 yards and five touchdowns in his last two games.

The New Orleans Saints (6-4) visit the Atlanta Falcons (5-5) in a pivotal NFC South contest.

After a surprising 6-2 start, the Saints are trying to avoid their third straight loss. They are tied with the Carolina Panthers (6-4) for first place.

The Falcons won five of their first seven games this season but have not won since, enduring key injuries along the way. Patrick Kerney is out for the season, fellow defensive end John Abraham has missed the last four games with an abdominal injury and cornerback Jason Webster is out for at least another month with a groin injury.

The Panthers visit the Washington Redskins (3-7), who will give Jason Campbell his second straight start at quarterback.

The New York Giants (6-4) look to avoid a third straight loss when they visit Tennessee (3-7).

Dallas moved ahead of the Giants in the NFC East with a 38-10 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-8) on Thursday.

The San Francisco 49ers (5-5) have their first three-game winning streak since 2002. They trail Seattle by one game in the NFC West and will visit the St. Louis Rams (4-6), who have dropped five in a row.

The Jets, who are two games behind New England, host the Houston Texans (3-7).

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