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Murray sets the pace for 'Boys offense
Green Bay at NY Giants, 4:15 p.m. ET
What to watch for: The Giants are hopeful that RB Ahmad Bradshaw, who has missed four games with a broken foot, can play and resuscitate their dormant running game and short-passing games. The Lions found success last week against the Packers utilizing screens, and the Giants could find some room with rookie D.J. Smith and second-year player Rob Francois starting at inside linebacker in place of injured Packers starters A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop. On the other side of the ball, with pass-rushing specialist Osi Umenyiora out, the Giants need Justin Tuck to step up his game and put some pressure on Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. He didn’t get to Drew Brees on Monday night, a huge reason why New York lost. The Packers have young offensive tackles in Marshall Newhouse and Bryan Bulaga, so there should be some openings for Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul. Both of these teams love to throw the ball and the Giants have matchup issues with both WR Greg Jennings and TE Jermichael Finley. The Packers last lost 351 days ago; the Giants have lost three straight.
Czar’s scoop: The Giants look geared to pull another December fade. Last season, they helped Green Bay to its Super Bowl run with a 45-17 loss in Lambeau the day after Christmas, a game featuring four Eli Manning interceptions. If the Giants miss the playoffs again, coach Tom Coughlin’s future will be in jeopardy and Giants ownership could take a run at big-name former coaches Bill Cowher and Jeff Fisher. The Packers and the NFL apparently are going to wait to see Brown County decides to charge starting Packers OLB Erik Walden, who spent Thanksgiving weekend in jail after being arrested on suspicion of domestic abuse against his girlfriend. Walden will start today. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell wants his cornerbacks banging the Packers’ receivers at the line of scrimmage; Fewell has been unhappy with his players’ effort of late and this game will give them a chance to prove to him they can still get the job done. Packers LT Chad Clifton suffered a back injury while rehabbing a pulled hamstring and could be sidelined another two weeks. The Giants know something about injuries, having placed 10 players on injured reserve this season.
Dallas at Arizona, 4:15 p.m. ET
What to watch for: Well, the Cowboys have taken advantage of their soft schedule to win four straight and take the lead in the NFC East (leading the Giants by a game). However, the Cardinals have won their last two meetings with the Cowboys. This is one of those games in which the Cowboys, if they are going to really be a factor in the playoffs, might want to blow the other team away. Kevin Kolb will start for the Cardinals after missing four consecutive games; the Cowboys must contain Beanie Wells (849 yards) and force Kolb to beat them. The Cowboys will get CB Mike Jenkins back in the lineup and that should help against WR Larry Fitzgerald. The other key for Dallas is to punt away from Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson, whose four punt return touchdowns this season are tied for the most in one season in NFL history — and all of them have been for 80 yards or more. Cowboys rookie RB DeMarco Murray rushed for 434 yards in November, winning offensive rookie of the month. The Cardinals’ biggest worry may be stopping Dallas TE Jason Witten, who had eight catches and a touchdown against them last season.
Czar’s scoop: Where would the Cowboys be without rookie K Dan Bailey, who has made 26 straight field goals? Dallas WR Miles Austin (hamstring) hopes to return next weekend. Dallas FB Tony Fiammetta, however, remains sidelined by an unknown illness, but he says he is feeling better and hopes to return this season. On defense, Arizona is pleased with rookie OLB Sam Acho, who has five sacks in the last six games. He has also forced two fumbles and his play means that Joey Porter won’t return next season.
St. Louis at San Francisco, 4:15 p.m. ET
What to watch for: Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the Rams this season. Now, it looks like 34-year-old A.J. Feeley will start as Sam Bradford re-aggravated a high ankle injury that caused him to miss two starts earlier this season. Feeley did start when the Rams upset the high-flying Saints, but St. Louis still has a shaky offensive line and that’s never good against San Francisco’s talented front seven. San Francisco DE Justin Smith could be too much for Rams LT Adam Goldberg. Both teams love to run the ball, but the 49ers could be running a little harder knowing a win clinches their first playoff berth since 2002. What’s more, the Rams are allowing a league-worst 159 rushing yards a game (calling Frank Gore). And finally, Rams DE Chris Long is bothered by an ankle injury and the amount of snaps he can play remains in question.
Czar’s scoop: The Rams released LB Ben Leber in order to activate QB Tom Brandstater from the practice squad just in case Bradford can’t play. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh had been reluctant to talk to his players about playoff scenarios, but now he’s actually encouraging the conversation. Harbaugh is definitely an odd duck at times, but now he wants to make sure his goal is clear: At 9-2 San Francisco still has a shot at the No. 2 seed in the NFC behind the unbeaten Packers. World Series of Poker Hall of Famer Phil Hellmuth talked to the team on Wednesday. Hellmuth became friends with Harbaugh when he was coaching at Stanford. Hellmuth is known for his "poker-brat" personality. The 49ers are also looking for payback against St. Louis after last season’s loss at St. Louis, one that dropped them from the playoff race. This is the 49ers first game since the defensive domination the Baltimore Ravens served them on Thanksgiving night. There are many who wonder if the 49ers have enough offense to even win a playoff game come January.
OTHER SUNDAY GAMES
NY Jets at Washington, 1 p.m. ET: The Jets survived a scare from the Buffalo Bills last weekend and now they must deal with Rex Grossman, who passed for 314 yards and two touchdowns in a road win at Seattle to end a six-game losing streak for Washington. The Redskins have also found a running back in rookie Roy Helu, who rushed for 108 yards in that Seahawks game. Jets QB Mark Sanchez is coming off a four-touchdown game, but New York’s running game still doesn’t scare anybody. The Redskins are getting healthy on offense, so the key is Rex Ryan’s pass rush and defensive scheme against Grossman.
Kansas City at Chicago, 1 p.m. ET: The Chiefs have failed to score a touchdown on their last 45 possessions, but they will start Tyler Palko once again even though Kyle Orton says he’s ready to play and knows the offense. It could be snowy and cold at game time, another reason why both teams should be running a lot. Matt Forte leads the NFL with 1,475 yards from scrimmage while Marion Barber has been adding some power runs of late. The Bears need a win to maintain a wild-card chance in the NFC; the Chiefs may be playing for coach Todd Haley’s job.
Tennessee at Buffalo, 1 p.m. ET: The bad news for the Bills is that Chris Johnson got untracked last Sunday with 190 yards rushing in a win over the Bucs. The Titans still have eyes on the AFC South title with the Texans two games ahead but starting a rookie QB. Buffalo is 4-1 at home this season but needs to control the tempo and give QB Ryan Fitzpatrick a shot at 10,000 career passing yards (meaning a 347-plus yard day).
Oakland at Miami, 1 p.m. ET: The Raiders have won three straight but suddenly the AFC West leaders find themselves in a playoff race with Tebow’s Broncos. The Dolphins have been playing well lately for coach Tony Sparano, winning three of their last four. The key matchup will be Miami’s No. 7 rush defense against Oakland’s fourth-ranked ground attack. Michael Bush has two 100-yard rushing games in his last three outings while Carson Palmer is getting real comfortable with the Oakland offense. Raiders are 4-1 on the road this season.
Indianapolis at New England, 1 p.m. ET: This is no longer a marquee game as the Colts continue on their Suck for Luck season. Yes, they would draft Stanford’s Andrew Luck based on all the uncertainty with Peyton Manning’s neck surgery. Owner Jimmy Irsay has a list of big-time decisions to make in the off-season, starting with Manning, followed by what do with coach Jim Caldwell and whether he wants Bill Polian to play a major role in picking the next head coach should there be a change. There seems to be more wrong in Indy than recently fired defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. Pats WR Wes Welker leads the league with 547 yards after the catch.
Baltimore at Cleveland, 4:05 p.m. ET: Browns QB Colt McCoy has gotten very little support this season with his receivers sporting a league-high 30 dropped passes. The news stands to get worse for McCoy because the Ravens are very efficient at sacking quarterbacks on third-and-long. Baltimore has 27 sacks this season either on third or fourth down, or that result in a turnover or a safety. Ravens QB Joe Flacco is 6-0 vs. Cleveland with eight TDs and only three interceptions.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, 4:05 p.m. ET: The Bengals lost consecutive games to the Steelers and Ravens in November; if they have any playoff aspirations they must beat one of them. Despite their lofty defensive rankings, the Bengals ranks last in play-action defense, having surrendered seven TD passes. And here comes Ben Roethlisberger, who excels at play action with eight TDs versus no interceptions on play fakes. Ever since the Bengals lost star CB Leon Hall in the first game against the Steelers, their pass defense has struggled. On the ground, Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall scored two touchdowns in Nov. 13’s seven-point Pittsburgh win.
Detroit at New Orleans, 8:20 p.m. ET: The Lions have a very good defensive line rotation despite the loss of Ndamukong Suh to a two-game suspension. Rookie DT Nick Fairley has started to play well and he better be on his toes tonight as the Saints have revved up their running game to complement Drew Brees. Detroit should struggle in pass coverage against Saints TE Jimmy Graham, the NFC’s No. 1 pass catcher with 67, with safety Louis Delmas likely out. Plus, Detroit’s linebackers struggle in coverage and no one throws more to his running backs than Brees.
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