WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Saints are saying it will be a game-time decision, but it’s looking like RB Reggie Bush will miss an eighth straight game and also an opportunity to play against his former USC coach Pete Carroll. Defensively, the Seahawks likely will try to pressure Saints quarterback Drew Brees into some mistakes. Brees has 18 TD passes on the season, but he also has thrown 12 picks. But Brees has been more consistent in his last two games and Seattle is allowing 272.2 yards a game, while the Saints are fifth in passing with 276.2 yards per game. Saints TE Jeremy Shockey is also out, but New Orleans has two decent backups at the position.
Offensively, the Seahawks are facing the best pass defense in the league, led by blitz-happy New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, so look for Seattle to try and establish the run with Marshawn Lynch now that their best run blocker, rookie offensive tackle Russell Okung, is back in the lineup. The Seahawks had their best two-game stretch of the season running the ball with No. 1 pick Okung on the field, rushing for a total of 111 yards at Chicago and 144 yards at home the next week against Arizona. The Saints are also getting back cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. The only downside is that safeties Darren Sharper and Malcolm Jenkins could be out, meaning Usuma Young will start at free safety. The Saints also better be careful about Leon Washington’s return game for Seattle.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck is playing with two broken bones in his left wrist, one near his pinkie finger and the other closer to his thumb. The trainers taped him during halftime of last week’s win in Arizona and he was given an oral painkiller. He will wear a more elaborate brace for this game and a glove on his left hand. He will probably take a similar painkiller. Hasselbeck is having a very good season compared to recent ones and he will be a free agent after 2010. It looks like the Seahawks will have to pay to keep him because there isn’t much confidence in the organization that backup Charlie Whitehurst is the answer based on his limited playing time this season.
Friends of Mike Ornstein with the Saints said that the marketing guru was stunned that he was given an eight-month sentence on Friday after pleading guilty to Super Bowl ticket scalping and other charges. Ornstein, who was heavily involved with the Saints during last year’s push to the Super Bowl, wasn’t expecting jail time after paying a $350,000 fine.
Tampa Bay at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The forecast predicts a chance of heavy rain, which could turn Candlestick Park into a mud bowl, and probably tip the scales to the 49ers considering Frank Gore knows how to and where to run on such a soggy field. The Bucs have allowed a 100-yard rusher in virtually every game this season. The Bucs need to get pressure on 49ers QB Troy Smith and keep him from rolling to his right. Smith makes a lot of throws on the run. The Bucs are considering sticking veteran CB Ronde Barber on 49ers TE Vernon Davis, who leads the team with 513 receiving yards.
Seven rookies, not including leading rusher LeGarrette Blount, started in a win over Carolina last week. But for all the contributions from first-year players like receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, fullback Erik Lorig, guard Ted Larsen and Blount, the Bucs wouldn’t be winning without QB Josh Freeman, who is making fewer mistakes with the football. He’s no longer throwing silly interceptions and he can take off and run when flushed out of the pocket. Look for the Bucs to continue using QB Josh Johnson in the Wildcat formation. Johnson had a 14-yard run on first down during his only appearance in Carolina last Sunday.
CZAR’S SCOOP: After a meeting of the team captains and coach Raheem Morris, the Bucs decided that rookie Mike Williams should be allowed to start despite his arrest on a DUI charge. Apparently, there are questions regarding his DUI — he wasn’t actually over Florida’s legal limit — and he also voluntarily agreed to urine test, believing he would pass. Morris and the players have decided to accept the rookie’s version of events until proven otherwise.
Even with a reduced playbook, Troy Smith has been performing admirably in the offense and the offensive players apparently have more confidence in him than injured starter Alex Smith. There’s a good chance that coach Mike Singletary will stick with Troy at quarterback even if they lose today.
Shane Andrus will do the kicking for San Francisco with Joe Nedney missing the game after straining a knee ligament on the opening kickoff last Sunday against the Rams. Nedney’s injury is not considered long-term. The 49ers lead the series, 15-3, but the Bucs arguably won the most important game between the two teams, a 31-6 romp in the second round of the 2002 playoffs. 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci was fired after that loss.
Atlanta at St. Louis, 4:05 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Rams will need to be at their best against a balanced Falcons offense that presents numerous challenges to any defense. Thirteen of the Rams’ 15 takeaways have come in their five home games, but Atlanta has just 10 turnovers all season. The Falcons, who could open in a no-huddle offense, have gotten back to their fast-starting ways under head coach Mike Smith. They have a 22-6 record in games where they score first and own a 22-1 mark in games where they hold the lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Rams will return RCB Bradley Fletcher to the starting lineup after Kevin Dockery was burned by the 49ers. The Rams need to put plenty of pressure on Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who is coming off a big game against Baltimore. Ryan tends to focus on TE Tony Gonzalez, who has caught 41 passes for 402 yards and three touchdowns, and WR Roddy White, who leads the NFL with 70 receptions for 934 yards. He caught 12 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns, including a 33-yard game winner in the final seconds against the Ravens.
On offense, the Rams will look to control the ball with RB Steven Jackson and hope that Sam Bradford can hit some plays against a pass defense that has allowed 245.3 yards per game and a 67.3 percent completion rate.
CZAR’S SCOOP: No Ram is playing with more confidence than DE Chris Long, who has excelled the past month with a sack in every game. Plus he’s tied with Dwight Freeney of the Colts with a league-high 12.5 quarterback pressures. Long has 5.5 sacks, and the Rams are tied with the Packers for the NFL lead (28). The big reason for Long’s success is that he’s more comfortable playing left defensive end.
A big reason why the Falcons are only three-point favorites is because St. Louis has won four straight at home, where its scoring defense is tops in the NFL. With all the new talk about a potential downtown stadium in Los Angeles, St. Louis fans should remember that the city’s lease runs out with the Rams in 2014. The two teams that could be the most attractive to Los Angeles developers are the Rams and Chargers because both teams have franchise quarterbacks. The Rams are always looking for receiver help, but will pass on ex-Eagles receiver Kevin Curtis, who has been trying out for teams after coming back from testicular cancer.
Other Sunday games
Indianapolis at New England, 4:15 p.m. ET: This is the eighth consecutive year these two AFC powerhouses have met in the regular season. Their last five encounters, including playoffs, have been decided by seven points or less. Peyton Manning figures to attack a young New England secondary that is allowing 277 yards a game. Tom Brady is coming off a great game against the Steelers and figures to stick with the short, underneath passing game. The Colts won last year’s encounter by one point. Brady has won 24 consecutive home games during the regular season, one shy of Brett Favre’s NFL record.
N.Y. Giants at Philadelphia, 8:20 p.m. ET: Well, Michael Vick is coming off the greatest game a quarterback has ever had in the NFL. Two others, Bill Kenney and Eric Hipple, also passed for over 300 yards, threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more in a single game, but neither of them was able to also run for 80 yards. Granted, the Giants have a lot better and quicker defense than the Redskins. The sky’s the limit for Philadelphia’s offense now that Vick has become an all-around quarterback, studying like a Tom Brady.