Ahead of the Curve
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Late in the NFL season the playoff picture begins to take shape and aspirants are faced with a mettle game.  It's a game where play is tested and weaknesses exposed.  Do you have the grit, the skill needed for a serious run at the Super Bowl or are you a one-playoff pretender?

For teams in contention, the mettle game is a road test against a top-tier opponent.  It's a post-season atmosphere, and as such, the media overstates it's importance.  But coaches won't make that mistake.  It's a good test, but it's still just a test.  Their hope is to see the play-execution and mental resolve in the players that's needed to win, come playoff time.

Eagles at Giants; Broncos at Colts; Chargers at Cowboys; Saints at Falcons: all mettle games, though the Saints may not face much of a test from the injury riddled Falcons.

For teams not in the playoff mix, the mettle game is salvage time.  At home or away, it can be against a rival or a contender (Browns / Steelers; 49ers / Cards).  A win creates hope for next season and can save a job; a loss may convince an owner to make a change.

The Redskins might've had their mettle game against the Saints last week.  The fact that they played well and should've won, if not for a botched FG, bodes well for Jim Zorn.

Minnesota had their mettle game in Arizona.  Granted, the Cardinals were coming off a tough loss and Kurt Warner was in his groove, but the Vikings weren't even close.  As bad as that was, their bigger concern is how to replace star linebacker E.J. Henderson (broken leg) whose leadership will be as much missed as his tackling prowess.

The word is that Henderson's replacement, rookie LB Jasper Brinkley, can really stick.  Brad Childress hopes he's a quick learner, too.

The Vikings play host to the Bengal's heavy-mettle game on Sunday.  It's a marquee match-up.  A Cincinnati victory puts them firmly in the discussion (with the Colts and Chargers) on who is the AFC's best.

Green Bay has so far managed their own injury problems and heads into a near-mettle game against the Bears, brimming with confidence.  An old-guard rivalry, the Packers can lose and still get into the post-season.  Lovie Smith needs this win to keep his job.

Steven Keys

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