1. Texans 2. Falcons
3. Broncos 4. Patriots
Chargers coach Norv Turner, below, seems to be on the hot seat every year. But it sounds like it might not be his seat for much longer. Turner and general manager A.J. Smith will be fired after this season, the U-T San Diego newspaper reported last week.
It's not that Turner has been awful. He has made three playoff appearances (and one AFC title game) over his six seasons. But in what could be labeled the most successful and the most disappointing era in team history, the Chargers need a spark. San Diego has lost six of seven and is poised to miss the playoffs for a third straight season. Turner is 21-23 since 2009, and considering his talent, including quarterback Philip Rivers, much more was expected.
One week after getting benched, Jets QB Mark Sanchez has held on — barely — to his starting job. Coach Rex Ryan, who replaced 2009's fifth overall draft pick with Greg McElroy vs. the Cardinals, said Sanchez gives them a better chance to win today at Jacksonville. Considering McElroy, the new fan favorite, is untested and everyone's favorite backup, Tim Tebow, is hurt, Ryan had little choice. And there's the $8.25 million Sanchez is guaranteed in 2013. Given a second chance, Sanchez will be on a short leash. "Hopefully, you learn from it and move on and never look back," he said. "It definitely was the worst, but it could turn around and be one of the best things that's ever happened."
Giants (7-5) over Saints (5-7)
Should be a high-scoring affair, but Eli Manning & Co. pull out a close one.
Return of the week
Big Ben is back. The Steelers will be boosted today by the expected return of QB Ben Roethlisberger, who missed three games with a sprained right shoulder and a dislocated rib. He'll have extra armor: a custom-fit rib chest compression shirt and a layer of Kevlar-lined composite in his shoulder pads.
Roethlisberger won't be 100 percent, but his presence is huge for Pittsburgh, which lost two of the three games without him and is 7-5, right in the thick of the AFC wild card race.
"He looks like himself, for the most part," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "Now I don't know what he's feeling when he's doing some of those things, but it looks like he's moving around pretty good."
Times wires contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Houston's big test
The Texans are, by record, the best team in the AFC.
At 11-1, Houston, which has clinched a playoff spot, is primed for a potential top seed in the franchise's second postseason trip.
The offense is very balanced, led by quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson. The defense is one of the league's toughest.
But as the Texans brace to face the Patriots in Foxborough on Monday night, some believe they still have something to prove. New England has been the class of the AFC for more than a decade. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and the Texans — whose only loss this season is to the Packers — believe this is a huge test.
"You know how big it is?" Johnson told the Houston Chronicle. "The biggest game in the history of this franchise. As long as we keep winning, every game is going to get bigger and bigger. When you've been somewhere you've never been, everything gets bigger."
It's hard to imagine what the Chiefs went through last week in the wake of linebacker Jovan Belcher committing suicide in the team parking lot Dec. 1 after fatally shooting his girlfriend, leaving their infant daughter an orphan. Many Chiefs attended the funeral of Belcher, 25, on Wednesday and are trying to find answers for why such a horrible event occurred. "A lot of guys are still hurting," cornerback Travis Daniels said. The games go on as Kansas City is at Cleveland today. "We have to deal with the events of the last few days, and it's not over, and it may not be over for some of us for most of our lives," said coach Romeo Crennel, left, who along with general manager Scott Pioli witnessed Belcher's suicide. "But time heals all wounds, and so we're going to start working on the time thing."
Calvin Johnson's goal is to be the best receiver of all time. "No doubt," the Lions star, left, said. Johnson is chasing Jerry Rice, who set the standard at the position. Though Johnson has an impressive blend of talent and athleticism —they don't call him "Megatron" for nothing — he has a ways to go to match the Hall of Famer. But Johnson is getting close to Rice's season NFL record of 1,848 yards, set in 1995. Johnson, who is 420 yards shy, needs to average 106 over his final four games to pass Rice. He is averaging 119. "I was telling Calvin, this record he's chasing, if you want it, you've got to eat it, you've got to live it, you've got to breathe it — everything about it," Lions receivers coach Shawn Jefferson told Sports Illustrated. "If you do that, you can get it. Jerry Rice, when he broke it, he lived it."