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Countdown: Running game could be key for Giants

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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N.Y. Giants at New Orleans, 1 ET

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ALTTEXT The Giants' stifling defense meets the Saints' explosive offense. Troy Aikman preview.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This is the NFL's first showdown between two of five remaining unbeaten teams, and the Saints are coming off a bye, meaning coach Sean Payton, who was the Giants' play-caller in 2000-02, probably has concocted something special for this game. New York has a great defense and it has 11 sacks in the past two games, but ever since Drew Brees became a Saint, he has been the league's toughest quarterback to sack (once every 40 attempts), and the other plus is he has a solid running game. The Giants must shut down Pierre Thomas and force Brees to the air, where their seconday might have a chance against Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. The Giants, though, don't have a linebacker who can stick with Jeremy Shockey, who leads the Saints with 18 catches. Conversely, this is Eli Manning's first game in the Superdome as a pro, and he's off to his best start ever. The Giants are No. 2 on offense, and Manning already has four pass plays over 43 yards. The Saints need to apply the pressure, considering Manning remains hobbled by a sore right heel. His best friend, though, is that stout Giants offensive line. But the whole key to the game could be New York's running game. If Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw can sustain drives, they can keep Brees & Co. off the field for long stretches. CZAR'S SCOOP: When there was the possibility of losing defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Saints coach Sean Payton wrote a check from his personal account for $250,000 to Williams just to make sure he stayed. Right now, the Saints own a +7 turnover edge, with safety Darren Sharper grabbing two interceptions, returning two for TDs. The other New York players, besides Manning, from Louisiana and returning home for the first time are CB Corey Webster, an LSU graduate, and RB Jacobs from Napoleonville, La. Jacobs has had a rough week; he walked out of one interview with several New York writers because he felt they were criticizing his powerful style of running, especially when compared with Bradshaw, who is averaging 6.5 yards a carry to Jacobs' 3.6. The past two seasons, Jacobs averaged 5 yards. One thing to consider is that the Giants have beaten two winless teams and the Raiders. The Saints have beaten two winning teams, Philadelphia and the Jets. Over the next six weeks, the Giants will be tested as their opponents own a cumulative 19-6 record. They don't play another bum until they travel to Washington on Dec. 21. Although he's back-tracked on his "revenge" talk, you know this is more than just a game for Shockey, who was traded after the Giants won the Super Bowl without him.

Detroit at Green Bay, 1 ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Lions last won in Wisconsin in 1991, and there's a very good chance Daunte Culpepper will be starting again for injured Matthew Stafford. The Lions say both Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson will test their knee injuries in the morning, but it's looking as though both could be inactive. (Detroit has a bye next week.) If that happens, the Lions could use a double-tight-end offense with Brandon Pettigrew and Will Heller or go three wides with Bryant Johnson, Dennis Northcutt and rookie Derrick Williams. The Packers will try to get WR Donald Driver a catch early; one more and he's the franchise's all-time leader. The Packers hope to get safety Atari Bigby back, and they need to in order to start bringing the pressure. The Steelers came after Culpepper last Sunday, but the Packers haven't been doing much of that since their win over Chicago. With LT Chad Clifton back, Daryn Colledge returns to his guard position. The Packers plan to get RB Ryan Grant untracked in this game. The Lions have only 22 players remaining from last season's roster, although they have added a lot of age. The average age is 27.15 years, fifth-highest in the NFL. CZAR'S SCOOP: With all the Packers' depth on defense, it would make sense to trade OLB Aaron Kampman, who has struggled with the transition from being a pass rusher in a four-man front, and ILB A.J. Hawk if there are any takers. Kampman does have one sack and one forced fumble this season, but he seems lost when asked to drop into coverage. The Packers' obvious long-term need is offensive tackles, even with the return of Clifton and the signing of Mark Tauscher, who will be inactive. Of course, it takes two to tango, and the Packers would want a premium for either of those players. Count the losses: Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham came from Tennessee, St. Louis and Kansas City, respectively, and those teams are a combined 0-15. I messed up this stat a couple weeks ago. Between 2002 and 2006, former Lions GM Matt Millen made 39 draft picks and only one, LB Ernie Sims, remains on the roster. Conversely, the Packers have 11 starters from that same era.

Carolina at Tampa Bay, 1 ET

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ALTTEXT Can Tampa Bay snap its 9-game skid vs. the team that started it? Charles Davis preview.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Tampa Bay's defense (4.6 yard a carry average) could be just what the Panthers need to get their offense cranked up. It has been shocking this season that Carolina hasn't been able to pound teams as it did last season with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers ran 32 times against the Redskins and managed 86 yards last Sunday. Jake Delhomme could be the key because Tampa Bay no longer favors the Cover Two scheme, meaning WR Steve Smith could get isolated on some single coverages. If that happens, Smith should end his scoring drought. The Panthers don't like to blitz, but they did some last Sunday, and Bucs QB Josh Johnson has struggled against blitzes, often pulling down the ball to run. The Bucs want to run, too, with Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward while using Earnest Graham as a blocking fullback. CZAR'S SCOOP: If the Panthers were thinking about drafting a quarterback in next year's draft, they ran into some bad luck. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, the potential No. 1 pick, might have damaged his throwing shoulder even more in the game against Texas, while Texas QB Colt McCoy had an awful game. Putting all of Gaines Adams' $11 million of acceleration into this year's salary cap proved to be a perfect bookkeeping maneuver by the Bucs, who were in jeopardy of not spending enough this season. The catch, though, is it's bonus money that was already paid, not money really spent this year. The trade means the Bears will benefit with cheap final contract years for Adams, who should really benefit from Rod Marinelli's coaching. Gaines, a quiet, introverted kid, had become coach Raheem Morris' whipping boy. Remember, this could be a one-and-done season for Morris, who's earning less than $1 million a year on a two-year contract. Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden may have a big interest in Notre Dame should Charlie Weis get fired for losing to USC for the fifth straight year.

St. Louis at Jacksonville, 1 ET

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ALTTEXT Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars host the winless Rams. John Lynch preview.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: QB Marc Bulger starts for the Rams; Bulger played last week in relief of Kyle Boller. The Rams have been beating themselves with numerous red-zone turnovers, but there's hope that with Bulger back and healthy WR Donnie Avery that there will be some chances to go deep. The Rams are sticking with RB Steven Jackson (they won't trade him) and the offensive line is playing better, although RT Adam Goldberg starts ahead of first-round pick Jason Smith. The Jaguars continue to search for an offensive identity, with Maurice Jones-Drew rushing for only 48 yards on his past 18 carries. David Garrard feels good about young WRs Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas, although all eyes will be on former Ram Torry Holt, who leads the team with 22 catches. Holt needs 34 yards to reach 13,000 for his career. The Jaguars start two rookies on defense, but the pass rusher to watch is Derrick Harvey. CZAR'S SCOOP: Although he has been pouting about not getting the ball enough, RB Jones-Drew really misses Fred Taylor, who left to play for the Patriots, Jaguars insiders believe. Taylor's muscle and power running helped set the stage for Jones-Drew, whose small frame isn't suited to be a 25-carry-a-game runner. But he was the perfect complement to Taylor. This game figures to draw about 35,000 fans, considering the Jags missed lifting the blackout by 20,000 tickets. Now, with Rush Limbaugh out of the picture as a minority partner with one of several groups bidding to buy the Rams, it's apparent someone in the league office gave the group's leader, Dave Checketts, poor advice on whether Limbaugh would be a deal breaker or not. Rams WR Donnie Avery apologized to his teammates last Monday for doing a celebratory TD dance after reducing Minnesota's lead to 31-10. One solution to saving the Jacksonville franchise might to be hire Florida coach Urban Meyer.

Philadelphia at Oakland, 4:05 ET

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ALTTEXT The Eagles try to hand Oakland its fourth straight loss. Tim Ryan preview.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Eagles will continue with the wildcat and Michael Vick and keeping three quarterbacks active. But the interesting twist is the rotation at RB with Brian Westbrook and rookie LeSean McCoy. There is no question that Andy Reid has decided to limit Westbrook's overall touches. This season, Westbrook has 32 carries, and only four of them have been for 8 yards or more. Also, rookie WR Jeremy Maclin has moved into the starting lineup ahead of Kevin Curtis with DeSean Jackson on the other side. Donovan McNabb won't have it easy, because Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha is as good as they come. Raiders DE Greg Ellis is unlikely to play. Oakland hopes to have WR Chaz Schilens back, which could take some pressure off Darrius Heyward-Bey. Only Cleveland's Derek Anderson has a lower QB rating than Oakland's JaMarcus Russell. CZAR'S SCOOP: Yes, the Raiders will trade away any of their bum players like WR Javon Walker, but not anybody a team would really want. Eagles LG Todd Herremans, who is recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot, practiced for the first time Wednesday and might play as soon as next week against Washington. He did some individual non-contact work for about 15 to 20 minutes. The Eagles already have committed 29 penalties in their first four games, including 10 in last week's win over the Bucs. Last year, they committed just 74 the entire season. Andy Reid has made it clear his team needs to cut down on penalties. Owner Al Davis is hoping that fans will refrain from booing Russell, who still looks overweight, and hopes everyone will have some patience with him. Is this the end of the line for WR Curtis in Philadelphia? Although Miami remains the NFL's best wildcat team at 7.1 yards per play, the Eagles are second at 5.5 yards per play. DE Richard Seymour wouldn't mind signing a long-term deal with Raiders, but there's also the good chance Davis will apply the franchise tag for next season.

Arizona at Seattle, 4:05 ET

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ALTTEXT Arizona looks for Kurt Warner's arm to lead the way. Brian Billick preview.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This figures to be a shootout despite the fact that Seattle's wins have both been shutouts at home. Seattle can put pressure on Arizona QB Kurt Warner, but if OTs Mike Gandy and Levi Brown slow the rush, Seattle should lose most of the individual battles with Arizona's top receivers, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston, who is finally healthy. The Cardinals have become one-dimensional (168 pass attempts vs. 73 runs) under Warner, who now has 50 career 300-yard passing games in 113 starts. It took Dan Marino 176 games to reach 50. Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck definitely is more comfortable in offensive coordinator Greg Knapp's system, and the good news is that Arizona is allowing a league-high 303.0 passing yards per game. Seattle will continue to use plenty of three-receiver sets and quick throws behind its patched-up offensive line. Seattle would be wise to run Julius Jones a little more in order to limit Warner's possessions. CZAR'S SCOOP: Some things never change. The Cardinals' defense is ranked first in the league against the rush but is last against the pass. The Cardinals allowed a NFL-high 36 touchdown passes last season and are on pace to do it again this year with nine after four games. Coach Ken Whisenhunt is allowing Warner to check out of run plays to passes, and that's why Arizona still didn't run much in the second half last week despite having a 21-0 halftime lead. "Obviously if that dumb guy that is calling plays will call more runs, then Beanie (Wells) will get more opportunities," Whisenhunt said of himself. The two names you continue to hear in Dallas, should owner Jerry Jones make a change at the end of the season, are ex-Seattle coach Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan. Both are capable of fixing what's wrong with Tony Romo.

Other games

Baltimore at Minnesota: The Ravens have gotten away from their running game as QB Joe Flacco has thrown 78 passes in the past two games. But can Ray Rice and Willis McGahee really get well against Minnesota's tough run defense? Believe it or not, Brett Favre has never been 5-0 in his career. Favre's big-play receivers could have a big day against Baltimore's relatively short cornerbacks. Baltimore has allowed 19 pass plays of over 20 yards this season. Rookie LT Michael Oher will have to slow down Jared Allen, who had 4 1/2 sacks in his last game in the Metrodome. Oher moves over from RT to replace the injured Jared Gaither. Kansas City at Washington: As bad as the Chiefs have been recently, they have never opened a season 0-6. The Chiefs have lost 28 of their past 30 games. Redskins QB Jason Campbell has fumbled eight times (losing two of them) and his offensive line is patched up again, with Stephon Heyer starting for six-time Pro Bowl pick Chris Samuels; Will Montgomery and Mike Williams starting his second game at RT since 2005. The quote to remember is Chiefs coach Todd Haley saying, after he took the job that he "could win two games in the NFL with 22 guys off the street." Cleveland at Pittsburgh: Bad news for Browns QB Derek Anderson: Pittsburgh's All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu (knee brace) returns to the starting lineup. Anderson completed only two passes in last week's 6-3 win over Buffalo, but Jamal Lewis ran well. It won't be as easy against the mighty Steelers, who have the league's No. 2 rushing defense while Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for eight TDs. Nobody really wants Browns QB Brady Quinn, who put his house up for sale. You have to believe Eric Mangini isn't wild about Bernie Kosar being owner Randy Lerner's eyes and ears in major team meetings. Houston at Cincinnati: One interesting note to this game is it features three former starting linebackers from USC. OLB Brian Cushing leads the Texans with 39 tackles, second among all rookies, while the Bengals start Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga. "We're best friends," Cushing said. "We talk and text all the time. Both of those guys are going to be great pros." Houston has 22 three-and-outs on defense this season, and it must slow Carson Palmer and RB Cedric Benson. Tennessee at New England: Tom Brady catches the winless Titans with second-string cornerbacks, and that should be enough to make him comfortable throwing the deep ball to Randy Moss. Brady still doesn't have a 40-yard completion this season. For some reason, Titans coach Jeff Fisher is sticking with Kerry Collins and keeping Vince Young on the bench. Yes, there is some bad history with Young, but don't the Titans have to find out whether he's worth keeping around next season as the starter? If not, they will surely be in the quarterback market come draft day. Buffalo at N.Y. Jets: The Bills may actually huddle on offense today, which should slow the game down for them. Their offensive line is struggling, and the Jets are better than they showed on defense Monday night. Buffalo returns defensive starters Donte Whitner and Paul Posluszny and the Bills need everybody to stop Jets rookie QB Mark Sanchez, who has a favorite new weapon in WR Braylon Edwards. Chicago at Atlanta: The Falcons are allowing 127 yards rushing per game, so it makes sense if Chicago allows RB Matt Forte to get untracked. Trouble is, Jay Cutler has been hot, coming off three consecutive games with over 100.0 passer ratings, something that hasn't happened in Chicago since 1970. The Bears right now are throwing on 59 percent of the snaps, a high under coach Lovie Smith. The Falcons beat the Bears here last year when Matt Ryan (9-1 in the Georgia Dome) completed a long pass to Michael Jenkins with one second remaining. Denver at San Diego: There is no bigger surprise in the NFL this season than Denver's being 5-0, including huge home wins over New England and Dallas. The Chargers are finally getting healthy and need this game to keep pace in the AFC West. But this is a horrible matchup for them; the Broncos are great stopping the run, while the Chargers are dead last in rushing with 53.8 yards a game. The Broncos are actually talking about giving WR Brandon Marshall a raise, meaning he's off the trade market. Chargers pass rusher Shawne Merriman says he's feeling better than ever.
Tagged: Brett Favre, Matt Hasselbeck, Paul Posluszny, DeAngelo Williams, Greg Ellis, Donnie Avery, Darren Sharper, Shawne Merriman, JaMarcus Russell, Falcons, Jared Allen, Bills, Keith Rivers, Calvin Johnson, Bears, Bengals, Todd Herremans, Nnamdi Asomugha, Steven Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jeremy Shockey, Dennis Northcutt, Jake Delhomme, Earnest Graham, Braylon Edwards, Rey Maualuga, Browns, Will Montgomery, Gaines Adams, Mike Gandy, Jamal Lewis, Eli Manning, Mike Thomas, Broncos, Lions, Levi Brown, Anquan Boldin, Packers, Titans, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo, Chiefs, Raiders, David Garrard, Michael Jenkins, Jason Smith, Pierre Thomas, Rams, Carson Palmer, Julius Jones, Saints, Matt Forte, Vince Young, Giants, Daunte Culpepper, Mark Sanchez, Jets, Kurt Warner, Derek Anderson, Kevin Curtis, Josh Johnson, Eagles, Seahawks, A.J. Hawk, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Buccaneers, Redskins, Jason Campbell, Torry Holt, Daryn Colledge, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, Derrick Williams, Donte Whitner, Cardinals, Richard Seymour, DeSean Jackson, Devery Henderson, Mark Tauscher, Michael Vick, Steelers, Chargers, Stephon Heyer, Ernie Sims, Texans, Ryan Grant, Jay Cutler, Donovan McNabb, LeSean McCoy, Atari Bigby, Randy Moss, Brian Westbrook, Derrick Ward, Jonathan Stewart, Tom Brady, Adam Goldberg, Brian Cushing, Ray Rice, Marc Bulger, Brady Quinn, Mike Sims-Walker, Brandon Jacobs, Larry Fitzgerald, Troy Polamalu, Kerry Collins, Drew Brees, Bryant Johnson, Joe Flacco, Steve Breaston, Jeremy Maclin, Donald Driver, Ben Roethlisberger, Fred Taylor, Brandon Pettigrew, Javon Walker, Maurice Jones-Drew, Corey Webster, Kyle Boller, Robert Meachem, Aaron Kampman, Chad Clifton, Michael Oher, Steve Smith Sr., Brandon Marshall, Mike Williams, Willis McGahee, Will Heller, Matt Ryan

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