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Lions' front four must bring the heat
Green Bay at Detroit
TIME: 12:30 P.M. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Lions played the Packers tough last season, knocking Aaron Rodgers out of the game in Detroit while losing by only two in Green Bay. Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham rushed five or more players at Rodgers only 11 percent of the time, a far lower percentage than every team this season.
Rodgers seems to excel under blitz conditions where he can use his feet to escape the pocket and then look downfield for his one-on-one targets. Rodgers connected twice with Jordy Nelson on touchdowns last Sunday, giving him nine on the season.
Some of the Packers’ top offensive players are a little nicked up, like receiver Greg Jennings (shin) and tight end Jermichael Finley (left elbow), while running back James Starks will be limited to 20 snaps if he does play. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Starks will be a game-time decision for knee and ankle injuries. This is good news for the Lions because Ryan Grant simply isn’t as physical a runner as Starks.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford needs to correct his erratic throws early in the game. He threw two interceptions among his first eight attempts last Sunday, only to finish 28 of 36 for 335 yards with five touchdowns, none of them to Calvin Johnson. The Packers have been moving Charles Woodson around the field and look for him to be blitzing against Stafford. The Packers know they must pressure Stafford to protect their safeties.
The Lions got a great performance from former draft pick Kevin Smith, who was out of football this season until the Lions called two weeks ago. Smith rushed for 140 yards and scored twice Sunday and also caught four for 61 yards and another touchdown as the Lions racked up 495 yards against the hapless Panthers.
Lions safety Amari Spievey will be back in the lineup after being benched for missing two open-field tackles. But veteran Chris Harris is ready to replace him. The Packers may be leading the NFL in scoring with 35.5 points a game, but the Lions are third with 30.1 points. They are two of only three teams above 30 points a game.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Lions have lost seven straight games on Turkey Day and the last team they beat was the Packers in 2003. Detroit visits Green Bay on New Year’s Day to finish the regular season. This game in Ford Field has Motown excited because the last time a 10-0 Packers team came to Detroit, the Lions sacked Bart Starr 11 times, including five by Roger Brown.
The Lions’ defense that day was led by Brown, Alex Karras and current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a Hall of Famer. Ndamukong Suh said this week that he believes the Lions are on par with the unbeaten Packers, but defensively they may be better. Green Bay has allowed 52 plays of 20 yards or more this season, including 46 pass plays.
The Packers are aware of the hype surrounding this game.
“It’s our Super Bowl, too,” Packers DE Ryan Pickett said. “If we go beat 'em, the division (race) is pretty much up. That would put them four games behind us. So, this is going to be a big game for us. We’ve got it circled as well.”
Green Bay can clinch a playoff berth with a win, but also needs some 6-4 teams to lose.
Miami at Dallas
TIME: 4:15 P.M. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Cowboys love running (122 yards a game) with rookie DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones, but it’s going to be harder without fullback Tony Fiammetta, who is out indefinitely with an unknown illness.
This is an issue because during Miami’s three-game winning streak its defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown. If the Cowboys can’t run, the pressure will be on Tony Romo, who hasn’t thrown an interception in his past three games. Romo has eight touchdown tosses over that span and Miami will need to put pressure on Romo so he can’t find Dez Bryant and favorite new target Laurent Robinson deep.
Although Matt Moore has completed 70.8 percent of his passes during the winning streak, the Dolphins should be hard-pressed to score a lot of points against Rob Ryan’s defense, which should be able to pressure up the middle and has enough cornerbacks and linebackers to deal with Moore's underneath passing game; Moore loves throwing to his tight ends and running backs, hence the high percentage.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Former Kansas City general manager Carl Peterson is working for Dolphins owner Steven Ross and the speculation continues that Peterson, whose relationship with Ross dates to their USFL days, would be in position to become involved in the franchise whenever Ross decides to fire coach Tony Sparano, who does have locker-room support.
It’s not so much that Ross is anti-Sparano, it's just that he wants to put his own imprint on this franchise with a coach who is totally beholden to him. Remember, Sparano and Jeff Ireland were hired by Bill Parcells, who has taken some heat from the locals for not making the right personnel moves. Yes, the Dolphins have taken themselves out of the Andrew Luck Derby, but there are several college quarterbacks worthy of first-round draft consideration next April. And with the rookie wage scale, all of them will be bargains compared to veteran quarterbacks.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has given coach Jason Garrett and special teams coach Joe DeCamillis credit for picking rookie Dan Bailey, who has made 24 consecutive field-goal attempts. The Cowboys might be out of the NFC East race without Bailey.
The Cowboys' Akwasi Owusu-Ansah has struggled with the full-time return duties on kickoffs and punts. But Garrett doesn’t want to make a change yet. Owusu-Ansah has five punt returns for 26 yards and three kickoff returns for 56 yards in two games. Dallas is hoping that wide receiver Miles Austin and cornerback Mike Jenkins, who have hamstring injuries, will return for the Week 13 game in Arizona.
San Francisco at Baltimore
TIME: 8 P.M. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: What better day for this NFL first — two brothers opposing each other as head coaches — than on most families' favorite holiday? Aside from the matchup of Baltimore's John Harbaugh and San Francisco's Jim, this game also features two of the best defensive teams and it should be interesting to see how long Baltimore sticks with Ray Rice. The Ravens tend to bail on Rice if the running game stalls in the first half. That could happen since San Francisco hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 32 straight games and hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown this season. The Niners are allowing only 73.9 rushing yards a game.
The 49ers will stick with their “Hammer” or jumbo offensive package that has a nose tackle as a fullback and with six offensive linemen with tackle Alex Boone subbing for Anthony Davis. They also have been using more three-receiver sets lately in order to keep wide receiver Kyle Williams on the field. Williams had five catches for 54 yards and a touchdown last week. It will be interesting to see if the Ravens can stay with 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, maybe the fastest tight end in the league.
With Ray Lewis (toe) expected to miss his second consecutive game, look for Niners RB Frank Gore to put more pressure on linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe, who’s subbing for Lewis. Without Lewis against the Bengals, McClain and safety Bernard Pollard both had nine tackles.
San Francisco has a great front seven and knows that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has lost five of a league-high 10 fumbles this season. Flacco is on pace to throw more than 620 passes, which would be a club record. His best deep threat is rookie Torrey Smith, who has five touchdowns and is coming off a career game (6 catches, 165 yds, TD). But look for receiver Lee Evans, who finally played last Sunday after missing eight weeks, to be more of a threat after going without a catch Sunday.
Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Williams grabbed his first interception last week and should help a talented Baltimore secondary. It makes sense for the Niners to run and see if Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs can stuff them.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The 49ers can clinch their first NFC West title since 2002 with a win and a Seattle loss or tie on Sunday to the visiting Redskins.
San Francisco has won eight straight games, its best start since the 1997 season.
Here’s an interesting twist to how the Harbaughs will celebrate their sons’ competition Thursday night: Jack and Jackie Harbaugh plan to be at the stadium for pregame pictures with their sons, but then will leave to watch the game elsewhere.
Jack Harbaugh doesn’t want to be perceived like Archie Manning.
“I remember a few years ago I watched when the Manning brothers opened the NFL season,” Jack said. “It seemed like the TV cameras spent as much time on the parents (Olivia and Archie) as they did the two boys. I perceived the anguish that they felt in watching the ballgame … we made up our mind that this day is about the 49ers and the Ravens.”
This will be San Francisco’s fifth Eastern time zone game this season; and the Niners eventually will fly the most air miles of any team this season. This is partly the reason why Jim Harbaugh was so upset about the quick turnaround and the road trip for this game. The league should have scheduled the 49ers’ bye last weekend.
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