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NFL Week 16 countdown

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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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The Manning family and the Giants may not like it, but most NFL people would choose Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers over Eli. And that’s exactly what Sunday’s showdown game in Green Bay is all about — which one of these young quarterbacks will make the most plays and also the fewest mistakes. This is a mini-playoff game for the Packers. They lose, and they will be going on vacation.

The last time Manning was in Green Bay was for the NFC championship game at the end of the 2007 season. That sub-zero night, he outgunned the legendary Brett Favre in what eventually was Favre’s final game with the Packers. Manning didn’t throw a touchdown or an interception, but he did complete 21 passes for 251 yards as he and Plaxico Burress dominated Packers cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson.

The significance of this game is pretty similar to the end of the 2007 season. The Giants just choked off a big loss to the Eagles last Sunday, and in 2007 they needed a win late in the season (in Buffalo) to secure a playoff spot after losing to a subpar Redskins team at home the previous week. Tom Coughlin kept reminding his players of that scenario this week. As we all know, 2007 ended up being a great season for the Giants, as they upset 18-0 New England in the Super Bowl and Manning flew home with the MVP trophy after tossing the winning touchdown to Burress in the final minutes.

Manning’s interceptions are up this season — 20 — but he was rather sharp in the loss to the Eagles, throwing for four touchdowns. He made enough plays, obviously, to win the game. So much so that a lot was made this past week of his desire to speak before Coughlin did in the Giants’ first team meeting after the Philadelphia loss. Manning has definitely evolved into a leader of the Giants, even though he rarely is the most demonstrative player on the field. I mean, he’s not Phil Simms.

Manning said of his talk: “A lot of it is you just man up for your mistakes, you take responsibility, you put it behind you and you look forward to the situation. It’s not the time to start going in the tank or being in a bad mood. Now’s the time to look at the bright side of things and be optimistic. We’ve got a great opportunity to make the playoffs.”

We can talk all day about New York’s defense and its superior running game, but Manning is the key to everything. Even without favorite target Steve Smith, Manning has adjusted his game and built up a rapport with Mario Manningham. He definitely loves throwing down the seams to tight end Kevin Boss. And Hakeem Nicks, although not as polished as the Packers’ Greg Jennings, has the explosive ability to make game-changing plays.

Manning is catching Rodgers at the right time. The Packers quarterback missed the New England loss because of concussion. Rodgers passed for 30 touchdowns last season, something Eli has never done. He is also 711 yards shy of his third consecutive 4,000-yard season. Manning has been excellent off play-action this season, and he needs to excel in that area Sunday.

Yes, the Packers can bring pressure with Clay Matthews, but Manning has enough weapons to exploit the Green Bay secondary. If Eli wants to be mentioned in the same breath as Peyton, he needs to win a showdown like this one.

NFL ON FOX GAMES: New York Giants at Green Bay, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Giants could have won the NFC East last Sunday and gotten a first-round bye, but instead they blew a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Eagles. Giants coach Tom Coughlin called the loss “the worst one that I want to remember. We’re all angry. We’re all miserable.” How the Giants, who said they had a couple of good days of practice this week, respond to that loss will be critical.

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who missed the Patriots’ loss because of a concussion, is 9-1 in his past 10 starts at Lambeau Field. In those 10 starts at home, Rodgers has passed for 2,664 yards with 21 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. The Packers’ Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn ran well against the Patriots, and Green Bay will test the Giants’ front seven. Rodgers is the Packers’ second-leading rusher, and the Giants must not break containment.

The Giants’ offensive line must be prepared to deal with LB Clay Matthews and LB A.J. Hawk. Matthews has 12-1/2 sacks and must be chipped by running backs and tight ends. Hawk has been the Packers’ most reliable tackler against the run. Look for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to roll the dice with run blitzes and other exotic stunts to crash the line and stuff Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw before they find an opening. It that works, it will force Eli Manning into throwing mode. The Packers have been victimized by tight ends this season, so look for Manning to zero in on Boss. On paper, the Giants have the best offensive and defensive lines in this game.

CZAR’S SCOOP: The Giants have allowed only 15 sacks, tying them with the Colts for the NFL lead, while the defense has collected 42 sacks, two behind the Chargers and Steelers for the NFL lead. The Giants could become the first team to have the highest sack total on defense and allow the fewest sacks on offense since the 1992 Saints, who gave up only 15 sacks while recording 57 sacks on defense. The Giants’ team record for fewest sacks allowed in a 16-game season is 24, set in 2002. Their record for the most sacks in a 16-game season is 68, set in 1985.

You can bet the Giants had a good laugh inside their offices when the foot fetish videos of Rex Ryan’s wife took their collapse against the Eagles off the tabloid pages.

Rodgers, who suffered his concussion in the Dec. 12 loss at Detroit, said he plans to slide better next time. His teammates, meanwhile, were making fun of his headgear. “He does have an ugly-looking helmet,” said CB Charles Woodson, who has only two interceptions this season after having nine last season. “I’m not really so worried about how I look in it,” Rodgers said. “I’m just a little more worried about how I play in it.” Although there has been talk of moving Woodson to safety next season, it’s unlikely to happen. Woodson doesn’t want to do it, plus the team is satisfied with his performance this season. Woodson can tend to freelance and bait receivers and quarterbacks in order to make big plays, but the coaches say he has adhered to the scheme. Capers said he couldn’t recall the last time Woodson flat dropped coverage.

Packers OLB Frank Zombo, who suffered a sprained knee against Detroit, won’t play. Free agent Erik Walden started against New England but had to leave in the third quarter with a bruised thigh. He participated on a limited basis the past three days of practice and is questionable. If Walden can’t play, Rob Francois or Curtis Young could be a lot at outside linebacker.

Seattle at Tampa Bay, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This could be a slugfest with both teams planning to force their running games. Seattle loves to run inside with Marshawn Lynch, while the Bucs have their own pounder in 6-foot, 248-pound LeGarrette Blount, who leads all rookies with 777 yards on 164 rushes for a 4.7-yard average and six touchdowns.

The Bucs are hurting on defense (allowing 136 yards rushing per game), so look for Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck to run an up-tempo game, hoping to keep the Bucs’ defensive specialists off the field. Buccaneers CB E.J. Biggers, who has one interception, must be able to stop Seahawks WR Mike Williams. Biggers is filling in for Tampa Bay's top corner, Aqib Talib, who’s out for the season with a hip injury. Bucs QB Josh Freeman should attack with a short passing offense and then go over the top to TE Kellen Winslow and rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Three Seahawks – WR Mike Williams, RB Justin Forsett and KR Leon Washington – will be returning home this weekend. Williams grew up in Tampa and was a standout football and basketball player before leaving for USC. Forsett grew up in nearby Lakeland, while Washington was Mr. Football in Florida in 2002 and went on to star at Florida State. “I love going down to Florida,” Washington said. “I don't know what the weather is going to be like, but it’s a great trip. I haven’t seen a lot of my extended family during the season so I look forward to it.”

Both Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and Bucs coach Raheem Morris think the current playoff structure is fine, which means a 7-9 team from the West could host an 11-win team from the NFC South. The Bucs could finish with a better record than the West champion, too. “You win your division, you go to the playoffs, period, in my opinion,” Morris said. “You guys earn your respect weekly. You get in there and you play against what’s lined up in front of you, and for whatever reason, the NFC West has the ability to beat up on each other this year, and their records are what they are. But if you win the division, you go to the playoffs and you’re a playoff football team.”

The Seahawks made yet more roster moves this week, placing DE Junior Siavii on IR and elevating LB Joe Pawelek from the practice squad. The Seahawks will have a plan to contain Blount after facing a similar, physical runner in Atlanta’s Michael Turner last week. Seattle held the Falcons to 98 rushing yards. “He’s a brute,” Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said of Blount. “I mean, he’s playing really hard, breaking tackles. It’d be interesting to know his yards after contact – he’s that type of runner. Guys are hitting him at the line of scrimmage, but he’s breaking tackles.”

Other Sunday Games

Indianapolis at Oakland, 4:05 p.m. ET: This game is pretty simple. Can the Colts stuff Oakland’s running game, which is No. 2 in the NFL. Raiders QB Darren McFadden needs 183 rushing yards to pass Napoleon Kaufman (1,294 in 1997) for the second-highest single-season total in franchise history. Hall of Famer Marcus Allen’s 1,759 yards in 1985 is the club record. McFadden has 339 rushing yards in the past three games. The Colts held Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew to 46 rushing yards last week, but he was hurting. Colts QB Peyton Manning got some big run production from Donald Brown last week, and he needs it again in order to keep Oakland’s pass rush honest. Manning has thrown 15 interceptions and been sacked 15 times this season.

Houston at Denver, 4:05 p.m. ET: The Texans are the only team with at least one player ranked among the NFL’s top five in rushing, receiving and passing yardage. However, WR Andre Johnson has further damaged his high ankle injury that he’s been playing with since Week 2 and may not play today. Unless the Texans lose these final two games, owner Bob McNair is inclined to keep coach Gary Kubiak. But staff changes will be made. Defensive coordinator Frank Bush and secondary coach David Gibbs are likely to be fired. The Texans are allowing a league-worst 275 passing yards a game and the defense is ranked 30th in total yards allowed. Rookie Tim Tebow gets his second start, and he should have RB Knowshon Moreno available.

San Diego at Cincinnati, 4:05 p.m. ET: The Chargers can’t afford to lose, but it’s looking more and more like Pro Bowl TE Antonio Gates will miss these final two regular-season games. He has been dealing with a tear in the plantar fascia in his right foot. Gates has played in pain, but the foot isn’t getting any better. “Time is the key,” Gates said. “There’s not magical treatment for an injury like this.” The Bengals snapped a 10-game losing streak last Sunday when RB Cedric Benson rushed for 150 yards on 31 carries. Chargers QB Philip Rivers is 20-1 as a starter in December. Interesting stat: The Bengals have had 16 defensive backs play at least one snap this season while Rivers has had at least 17 different receivers catch a pass this season.

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Colts, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Jaguars, Ravens, Chargers, Texans, Michael Vick, Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Tom Brady, Ricky Williams, Al Harris, Donovan McNabb, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck, Mark Brunell, Mike Williams, Shaun Hill, Andre Johnson, Chris Johnson, Antonio Gates, Anthony Davis, Madieu Williams, DeAngelo Hall, Steven Jackson, Eli Manning, Michael Turner, Wes Welker, Aaron Rodgers, Frank Gore, Alex Smith, Alex Smith, Mike Williams, Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Jacobs, John Kuhn, Eric Smith, A.J. Hawk, Maurice Jones-Drew, Leon Washington, Brandon Marshall, Kevin Boss, Troy Smith, Corey Hilliard, Steve Smith, Brandon Jackson, Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis, Drew Stanton, Joe Flacco, Tyrell Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Chris Long, Peyton Hillis, Ryan Torain, Rashad Jennings, Mike Thomas, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Michael Crabtree, Clay Matthews, Donald Brown, Nate Allen, Anthony Davis, Joe Webb, Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mike Williams, Joe Joseph, LeGarrette Blount, Frank Zombo, Joe Pawelek

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