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Czar's countdown: Playoff hunt heats up in Week 16

Eli Manning (Getty Images)_20091227020422_JPG
(L-R) Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants talks with teammate Steve Smith #12 during the...
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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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Carolina at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m. ET


WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Can the Panthers rock Eli Manning's world like they did last Sunday to Brett Favre? Julius Peppers and Co. better show up, because Manning has been hot lately.

In his past three games, Eli has thrown eight TDs and one INT and completed 64 percent of his passes for 900 yards. He's also the first Giant since Phil Simms in 1984 to throw for three TDs in consecutive games. The last time Eli was this hot late in the season, the Giants went on to the Super Bowl. LT David Diehl will have to negate Peppers, who has 24 sacks in his past 28 games.

Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams made the trip, but he remains a game-time decision and unlikely to play. If that happens, the Carolina running game will be in the hands of Jonathan Stewart and rookie Mike Goodson. However, with three starters out in the secondary, it makes more sense for Panthers QB Matt Moore to attempt to duplicate last week's effort, when he passed for 297 yards and found Steve Smith twice for touchdowns. Moore can move in the pocket, and he figures to be under heavy pressure, considering he's operating behind two second-string offensive tackles.

The Giants' Steve Smith leads the NFC with 90 catches for 1,093 yards, but he's still not the game-breaker Plaxico Burress was for all those years in New York. Rookie Hakeem Nicks, who had six TDs, could turn into Burress, but he still drops too many deep throws and remains inconsistent.

CZAR'S SCOOP: Not even the Panthers are convinced Moore is more than a capable backup quarterback, and that's why GM Marty Hurney said Jake Delhomme, who went on IR this week, will return next season, even though he had 18 INTs in 11 games this season and a passer rating ranking 32nd in the league. Delhomme (58-40 as a Carolina starter) is on the financial books for $12.7 million in 2010.

Carolina coach John Fox has one more season left on his contract, and no one really knows what owner Jerry Richardson plans to do. But if Fox is on the open market, he would make sense in Tampa Bay and Washington. Who knows what Mike Shanahan wants to do now with Urban Meyer out at Florida? At one time, Shanahan wanted to return to Gainesville.

Even if they make the playoffs, the Giants figure to part ways with defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan. Though the Giants started the season 5-0, the secondary has been minus FS Kenny Phillips and CB Aaron Ross most of the year. Today, Giants CB Corey Webster is also out. The Giants signed 6-7, 270-pound TE Scott Chandler off the Cowboys' practice squad.

Tampa Bay at New Orleans, 1 ET


WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
The Bucs are coming off a startling win in Seattle, while the Saints were knocked from the unbeaten ranks and their first priority will be shoring up Drew Brees' blind side. LT Jermon Bushrod was beaten four times by the Cowboys and look for Zach Strief to get some playing time, plus TE Jeremy Shockey to help with the pass rush.

The Bucs plan to rotate RBs Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward and hope to sustain a running game in order to take some heat off rookie QB Josh Freeman, who should have a full complement of receivers for this game. Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton will both play. Look for the Saints to return to a more balanced offensive attack because the Bucs are 30th in the league against the run.

Yes, Tampa Bay is playing better overall defense since switching back to the familiar Tampa Two zone, but the Bucs are still short-handed on pass rushers to really harass Brees, who has thrown 40-plus passes in his past three starts. The Bucs have a six-game losing streak against NFC South foes. The Saints say FS Darren Sharper will play.

CZAR'S SCOOP: The Cowboys were the first team to totally expose the Saints' defense, which really struggles against the run whenever NT Sedrick Ellis is out. The Saints probably will be without WLB Scott Shanle and CB Randall Gay, who both suffered concussions last weekend. The good news is CB Jabari Greer, who underwent a sports hernia surgery three weeks ago, had started to practice on a limited basis and looks good for a playoff return, if not sooner.

There is no doubt Gregg Williams' defensive schemes for the Saints have featured a multitude of blitz packages while teams have figured out Sharper plays a freelance defense, not really following a particular game plan.

There is nothing new to report on any potential coaching or front-office changes for the Bucs.

Seattle at Green Bay, 1 ET


WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who has been sacked 49 times this season, should rest easy today because the Seahawks have gone two straight games without getting a sack. So look for the Packers to spread the field with their three- and four-receiver formations and take advantage of Seattle's undersized secondary despite the cold weather.

The Seahawks have struggled with an identity this season on offense, but they should attack RCB Tramon Williams and nickel back Jarrett Bush as Ben Roethlisberger did last Sunday while throwing for 503 yards. The key is staying away from Charles Woodson, who has been involved in forcing 13 turnovers this season. Woodson has been beaten for five touchdowns, a pretty low figure for any starting cornerback.

Seattle coach Jim Mora wants to run the ball better, but his offensive line generates little push while his offense is generally playing from behind. The Seahawks have nobody who can block rookie pass rusher Clay Matthews, and the Packers have developed an excellent defensive line rotation.

If the game settles into a slugfest, Ryan Grant has been running well, and the Packers believe they can control the line of scrimmage. Matt Hasselbeck generally doesn't get enough time to throw deep and has been relegated to a dink-and-dunker.

CZAR'S SCOOP: The hilarious story of Seattle's Darryl Tapp biting Aaron Rodgers on the arm last year at Qwest Field took a funny turn when Tapp again denied the incident while demonstrating to reporters that it would have been impossible for him to do it while wearing a helmet. He said he couldn't get his mouth through his facemask. "He's not my concern as far as if I bit him or not, because it didn't happen," Tapp said. "I know if someone were to bite me, I wouldn't wait a whole year to bring it up to somebody to get it handled. That's all I'm saying about it."

Packers coach Mike McCarthy knows all about Brett Favre changing plays at the line of scrimmage. It wasn't until his second season in Green Bay, that McCarthy had it out with Favre about using audibles way too much.

There is no question that Mike Holmgren turned his back on the Seattle job because he was going to have to report to Tod Leiweke and also because in Cleveland he can totally alter the face of the front office and the scouting department. There would have been more constraints in Seattle, where they have so many employees already in place. In Cleveland, Holmgren is going to be able to hire and fire anyone he wants and build a staff that he wants without answering to anybody other than owner Randy Lerner.

Some may say getting rid of Favre was the wackiest decision made during the McCarthy era, but football people will tell you the Packers made a critical mistake in releasing punter Jon Ryan, who has averaged 46.3 yards for the Seahawks. Not only was Ryan an improving young punter, but he also had developed into a dependable holder for Mason Crosby. McCarthy has had to rely on Derrick Frost and now rookie Jeremy Kapinos.

St. Louis at Arizona, 4:05 ET


WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Rams are leaning toward starting Kyle Boller and then bringing rookie Keith Null off the bench. With the offensive line depleted and minus No. 1 pick Jason Smith, both quarterbacks figure to be under constant pressure from Arizona's defense.

Rams RB Steven Jackson is playing despite a herniated disc in his back, and he keeps producing despite not being able to practice. The Rams don't have the playmakers to sustain a shootout with Kurt Warner and his trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Boldin needs 125 yards for reach 1,000 yards for the fifth time in his career. Warner has been struggling of late, forcing some passes into double coverage, and the Cardinals may come out running with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower in order to take the onus off their veteran quarterback.

The Rams have been rotating a number of players at cornerback this season and have relied as much as possible on a pass rush in order to protect a shaky secondary. Fitzgerald doesn't seem hindered by a bone contusion and sprained ligament in his right knee.

CZAR'S SCOOP: Arizona K Neil Rackers is out again. The Cardinals have won the past six meetings by an average of 16.5 points, while the Rams are 2-15 in their past 17 road games.

With Marc Bulger on IR and the current state of the Rams quarterbacks, you can see why the team will take a hard look at drafting one in the first round in April. The Rams need an offensive identity to go with RB Jackson. There are not any free-agent quarterbacks worth pursuing, and trying to make do with castoffs like Trent Edwards or Derek Anderson doesn't make much sense. The current top-rated quarterbacks are Notre Dame's Jimmy Claussen and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, who has had two operations on his throwing shoulder.

Arizona's Sean Morey, a key special teams player, is recovering from his second concussion of the season and has not been cleared to play. Wells likely won't get a starting assignment this year, but he has carried the ball nearly three times as much as Hightower over the past three weeks.

Rams RB Steven Jackson is an inspiration to FB Mike Karney. “It says a lot to this team; you couldn't ask for more from him,” Karney said. “I love the guy. I'll put my body on the line for him any time. Guys like that, that's who you want to play for. And you don't have enough of them in this locker room. We need more guys like that.”

Detroit at San Francisco, 4:05 ET


WHAT TO WATCH FOR: In his first career start, Lions QB Drew Stanton (129 passing yards, 3 INTs) needs to protect the ball (Lions lead the NFL with 33 turnovers) and discover a way to find WR Calvin Johnson, who had only three catches last week.

The Lions almost upset the Cardinals last Sunday, and rookie head coach Jim Schwartz wants to keep the momentum going. RB Maurice Morris starts over Kevin Smith (knee), and he's coming off a 126-yard game.

The 49ers have split their past four games, but have a shot at an 8-8 season if they win today and beat the Rams next week. The 49ers will continue to run the spread offense with QB Alex Smith while making sure Frank Gore gets at least 18 to 20 carries. Gore needs 58 yards for his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season.

Smith has thrown 10 touchdowns in his past five starts, and he wants to keep focusing on WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis (11 TD catches).

The Lions are shaking up their defense and will have Anthony Henry starting at cornerback for Phillip Buchanon and probably will start rookie MLB DeAndre Levy, Schwartz wants to see how Levy and former No. 1 pick Ernie Sims play together inside. Brian Witherspoon, who was recently cut by the Jaguars, will return kicks for the Lions and probably play some cornerback, too.

CZAR'S SCOOP: The Lions put QB Matthew Stafford on IR, and he will have right knee surgery that the club said will be a minor clean-out procedure. There had been speculation Stafford has a floating kneecap. Schwartz said Stafford will be able to "walk out of the hospital" after the surgery.

Lions rookie S Louis Delmas is the first rookie to return an interception and a fumble for touchdowns this season. His touchdown last week was changed to 101 yards from 100 yards. Delmas also has a safety, and he's known for his hard knocks.

The 49ers continue to talk about not using either one of their two 2010 first-round picks on a quarterback, believing Smith will continue to improve. The team continues to move ahead with hopes of a new stadium in Santa Clara, one it wouldn't share with the Raiders.

The Lions plan to cut the cord with Daunte Culpepper after this season. It was pouring on Saturday, and conditions at Candlestick Park figure to be wet, muddy and miserable. The Lions feel really good about this year's draft, although they are still a long way behind the other three teams in the NFC North.

Other games


Jacksonville at New England: The Jaguars are 0-5 here, and the last time was in a 2007 playoff loss in which Tom Brady completed his first 16 pass attempts and finished with a playoff record of 26 completions on 28 attempts. The Patriots are unbeaten at home this season, and their beat-up offensive line should benefit from facing a Jaguars defense with only 14 sacks. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio gave his players Christmas Day off, while Bill Belichick had his team practicing. The Pats are 3-3 in their past six games, and the Jaguars believe they have a shot at winning if they can get Mo Jones-Drew (16 touchdowns) untracked.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh: The winner today has a very good shot at being an AFC wild-card team. The Ravens barely beat the Steelers at home when Dennis Dixon had to start for Ben Roethlisberger (concussion), and now Big Ben is coming off that 503-yard passing performance and miracle rally against the Packers. This game will be missing the NFL's two best safeties in Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. Baltimore's defense does have Terrell Suggs, but also is down to its third starting left cornerback (Chris Carr) after knee injuries to the first two. Joe Flacco will stick to his ball-control, short passing game hoping to keep the Steelers off the field.

Houston at Miami: The Texans are 4-3 on the road this season as they face what is a mini-playoff game. Both teams need to win to keep their faint wild-card hopes alive. You can bet Texans QB Matt Schaub will come out firing and probably attacking rookie CB Vontae Davis over Sean Smith. The Texans have basically given up on the running game; Schaub is the only NFL passer this season with five games of over 350 yards. The Dolphins want to control the tempo with Ricky Williams, who went over 1,000 yards last weekend. It has been six years between 1,000-yard seasons for Ricky.

Kansas City at Cincinnati: The Chiefs are 0-3 here since 1984. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis (55-55-1) attempts to go above the .500 mark in his Cincinnati career. Bengals RB Cedric Benson should have a good game, considering the Chiefs are allowing 163 yards rushing per game. Chiefs QB Matt Cassel is coming off his best passing game of the season — 323 yards against the Browns — plus his receivers dropped nine other passes. Bengals QB Carson Palmer is still struggling to find an effective deep-threat replacement for the late Chris Henry. It looks as if first-year coach Todd Haley will get a second season, but he must find some help on the offensive side because his quarterback and receivers haven't really progressed this season.

Buffalo at Atlanta: The Falcons, despite losing consecutive games at home this season, still have a great shot at becoming the first team in Atlanta history to have consecutive winning seasons. The Bills may be forced to start former Packers practice squad QB Brian Brohm if Ryan Fitzpatrick (ankle) is unable to go after testing himself in morning warm-ups. Brohm was a very good, accurate passer at Louisville, but his delivery and set-up have been pretty slow in the NFL. The Falcons plan to have QB Matt Ryan (turf toe) but probably not RB Michael Turner (ankle). Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez is six receptions short of 1,000.

Oakland at Cleveland: The big news in Cleveland is the hiring of Mike Holmgren as the Browns' new czar of everything football, earning in excess of $5 million a year and still in need of hiring a general manager (Randy Mueller?) to help him find his personnel way. There is no doubt Holmgren is a great coach and communicator, but his resume is a little lacking when it comes to making great personnel decisions. On field, the quarterback matchup will feature Oakland's Charlie Frye against Derek Anderson, the guy he beat out three years ago for the Cleveland starting job. Go figure, right? The Browns have won two straight under Eric Mangini, who figures to lose his coaching job once Holmgren arrives. Mangini is used to power and control, having already run off his former friend, George Kokinis, who recently filed a $4 million suit seeking back pay from his old GM job in Cleveland. Michael Bush has three 100-yard rushing games for the Raiders, who will have to find a way to stop Josh Cribbs on kick returns and out of the wildcat offense.

Denver at Philadelphia: This is S Brian Dawkins' return to Philadelphia, and he leads a talented Denver secondary against Donovan McNabb, who is 9-1 in his past 10 December starts. Broncos OLB Elvis Dumervil is one sack shy of the team's club record of 16. The good news in Philadelphia is the left side of the offensive line, G Todd Herremans and T Jason Peters, has been dominating lately, allowing the Eagles to run a little more (at least 24 rushes in eight of the past nine games) and giving McNabb the protection to go deep to DeSean Jackson. There is a chance rookie WR Jeremy Maclin will play, but backup QB Michael Vick (quad) looks to be inactive.

N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis: The Colts shoot for their 24th consecutive regular-season victory, and there's no doubt they want to finish the season 16-0 before the playoffs and a potential showdown with the Chargers, who have beaten them twice in the postseason. There is a chance Colts K Adam Vinatieri (right knee) and rookie RB Donald Brown are close to returning; it could come today. The Jets want QB Mark Sanchez to make better decisions with the football, but will rely on Thomas Jones and their running game, believing the Colts will be vulnerable inside. Led by CB Darrelle Revis, the Jets have the league's top-rated pass defense (160 yards per game) and No. 1 defense overall. Peyton Manning is averaging 297 yards passing per game.

Dallas at Washington: All the noise in Washington has been made by DT Albert Haynesworth, who ripped the defensive coaching staff during the week and then was sent home by head coach Jim Zorn for being late for Friday's practice. Haynesworth has been disappointing after receiving $44 million in guaranteed money, the most for a defensive player. The Cowboys need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Ex-Redskins K Shaun Suisham is now working for the Cowboys, who released Nick Folk, who had 10 misses this season, including a chip shot against the Saints. Suisham missed a 31-yarder for the Redskins in a 7-6 loss to Dallas on Nov. 22. This is also the first meeting between WR Roy Williams and Redskins S LaRon Landry since Landry said Williams was afraid to go over the middle in the last game.

Minnesota at Chicago: It should be in the 20s for this Monday night freezer in Soldier Field. It appears Vikings coach Brad Childress and QB Brett Favre have talked out their relationship, and Favre now knows Childress will take him out of games if he wants to and the quarterback better be careful about changing plays in the future. Apparently, the coach had never laid down specific ground rules until last week, once Favre went public Childress wanted to bench him last Sunday night. The Vikings are hurting on defense, where CB Antoine Winfield remains bothered by a bad right foot and where MLB Jasper Brinkley has been a liability in pass coverage. Adrian Peterson has scored nine TDs and averaged 128 yards rushing in five games against the Bears. Vikings still need to win in order to clinch No. 2 seed and a playoff bye that first week.

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