WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Vikings are working on getting RB Adrian Peterson more touches, but he hasn’t reached 100 rushing yards for six consecutive games as the run blocking has deteriorated. How did OT Bryant McKinnie make the Pro Bowl? Of course, the Giants could be just what Minnesota needs after getting run over for 247 yards by Carolina.
Without the consistent threat of Peterson (six lost fumbles) popping big runs, opponents have successfully alternated between pressuring QB Brett Favre and dropping more defenders into coverage. The Vikings have lost three of the past four games. All three were on the road and on prime time in Arizona, Carolina and Chicago, where the game-time temperature was 26 degrees. There has been talk that the team has zero momentum, but Favre says perhaps there was more momentum in that second half in Chicago than people realize. The Vikings trailed 16-0 at halftime and were down 23-6 before Favre rallied them to game-tying touchdowns twice in the fourth quarter.
The Giants will be minus CBs Aaron Ross and Corey Webster, plus lineman Chris Canty.
Defensively, Minnesota’s once-impenetrable run defense has taken a hit since losing MLB E.J. Henderson for the season and with NT Pat Williams nursing a bruised elbow. The good news is the Giants will be minus RB Brandon Jacobs (knee) and possibly RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot). Giants QB Eli Manning is 0-3 with two touchdowns and eight interceptions in three career games against Minnesota.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Giants defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan believes Tom Coughlin won’t fire him when the season ends. Sheridan sold Coughlin on the idea he could put the players in the best position to win. But the results have been horrendous. The Giants defense has been gouged for 40-plus points four times this season. It is the league’s fifth-worst in terms of points allowed. It also has surrendered 4,711 yards this season, an average of 314.1 per game. Finally, it has just 32 sacks, 10 fewer than the 2008 regular-season total.
Favre took control of the game in the second half, and now coach Brad Childress says his quarterback does have the latitude to change plays at the line of scrimmage and always has. Favre said this week that "all the talk about audibling and all that stuff was not me. I don’t know where that came from, but it is what it is." Favre said he still likes the offense, but every team is going to have a bad day or not as productive a game. "I think the philosophy that has worked for us this year is the philosophy we stick with," he said. "I don’t think hitting the panic button and all that stuff … it would be easy to say, ‘Well, they’re on to that. We have to go to this.’ The second half [last week] was obviously more productive because we had to shift gears a little bit first of all because we were down."
Favre then mentioned he’s not a big believer in audibles and changing plays all the time. "You don’t want to be changing plays at the line all the time, especially away in hostile environments," he said. "If one guy doesn’t get the check, it screws the whole play up. That goes back to when I was with Mike Holmgren. The less you can audible, the better. In today’s game, most teams have built in run-to-run, run-to-pass checks. It’s the quarterback’s job to get you into the best play. That’s not always the case. I’d love to sit here and say I can get us into the best play, but it doesn’t happen that way all the time."
This game includes two players with the most consecutive games played in NFL history. Giants punter Jeff Feagles has played in 351 consecutive games, a record for those kicker types. Favre, of course, has played in 286 consecutive games.
Atlanta at Tampa Bay, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The good news for the Bucs is Atlanta RB Michael Turner is a no-go, but the bad news is QB Matt Ryan is back and he played for only a series in the first meeting before suffering a turf toe injury. The Bucs almost won that game before Chris Redman pulled out a 20-17 victory.
The Bucs should expect a heavy dose of RBs Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood, considering they are allowed 156 yards rushing per game. However, Ryan’s favorite play-action target, TE Tony Gonzalez (calf), will be a game-time decision.
Falcons WR Roddy White has joined Andre Rison as the only Falcons with three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
The Bucs’ ground game – Cadillac Williams is a worthy Comeback Player of the Year candidate — is equally important as Tampa Bay attempts to protect rookie QB Josh Freeman.
The Falcons have clamped down on their run defense of late, limiting Buffalo to 2.2 yards per carry last Sunday. Since embattled rookie coach Raheem Morris has taken over the defense, the Bucs have allowed about 17 points per game compared with 29 points per game under Jim Bates.
If the Falcons win, they will end the longest streak in professional team sports for no consecutive winning seasons – they have never been over .500 in back-to-back seasons since entering the league in 1966.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Atlanta’s Gonzalez and White were not thrilled with the results of the Pro Bowl voting. "Yeah, I’d be lying to you if I told you that I wasn’t disappointed," Gonzalez said. "I thought I played pretty well this year, but if the players and the coaches don’t think that I should be over there, then that’s their vote."
Gonzalez’s streak of 10 straight trips to the Pro Bowl ended. White made the Pro Bowl last season for the first time. "I was upset a little bit," White said. "But those guys are playing well, and their teams are in the playoffs."
Falcons PK Matt Bryant, who kicked for the Bucs last season, will test his hamstring in warm-ups this morning. If he can’t go, the Falcons signed kicker Steve Hauschka, who was released earlier this season by Baltimore. Bryant hasn’t been around the team because of the death of his father.
Atlanta offensive linemen Justin Blalock and Will Svitek and Bucs LB Barrett Ruud were among eight players who met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and former Colts and Bucs coach Tony Dungy this week as part of the Players Advisory Board.
New Orleans at Carolina, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Saints are mailing it in by sitting seven starters, including making Drew Brees the third quarterback. If they lose, it means the NFC’s No. 1 seed will enter the playoffs without a victory over a four-week period. Mark Brunell will start, and if he gets hurt — New Orleans’ offensive line hasn’t been blocking that well lately — then Chase Daniel will enter the game.
Three-quarters of the Saints secondary – Darren Sharper, Tracy Porter and Roman Harper – will sit, although CB Jabari Greer, who had sports hernia surgery a month ago, is expected to get some playing time.
The Panthers won’t have RB DeAngelo Williams, but they should be able to run on the Saints. Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart has 315 rushing yards the past two weeks. Carolina’s ground game must lead the charge because emerging young QB Matt Moore is without WR Steve Smith (broken forearm). Stewart has three 100-yard rushing games the past four weeks. They have come in the three games in which he has had more than 17 carries this season.
Saints coach Sean Payton has several other "dotted players," starters such as WRs Marques Colston and Devery Henderson, who will open the game and play through the first quarter before taking a seat like TE Jeremy Shockey and RB Pierre Thomas.
CZAR’S SCOOP: You have to wonder how Brees feels about breaking Ken Anderson’s NFL completion percentage record of 70.55, set in 1982, without taking a snap in the game. Brees will finish the year at 70.62. He wears No. 9 in honor of Ted Williams, who played in a doubleheader on the final day of the regular season rather than sit on his .400 batting average. Williams went on to raise his average to .406 in 1941.
Panthers coach John Fox seems resigned to be a lame-duck coach next season in Carolina. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is uncertain about the current labor negotiations and wants to see what happens before making a long-term commitment. You can bet several teams would want Fox as head coach. Richardson might let him go, but he would want compensation.
However, this could be DE Julius Peppers’ final game with the Panthers because Richardson may be reluctant to commit a franchise-tag price of $20 million for the 2011 season on Peppers. It would make sense to tag him and then trade him, but the price tag is pretty rich even for a future team. And it is unlikely any team would give Carolina fair compensation in exchange.
San Francisco at St. Louis, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Rams hope to get RB Steven Jackson (herniated disk) back in the lineup, but they just don’t have the passing game to compete. Rookie QB Keith Null is cutting his chops behind a poor offensive line and with little experience at receiver position, plus an overall lack of game-breaking speed.
The 49ers want to see QB Alex Smith end his resurgent season on a good note, and he’s been far more efficient with RB Frank Gore more involved again. The Rams, who will be minus DE Leonard Little, must be able to stop Gore, who is the first player in San Francisco history with four consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. The Rams have lost 24 of their past 25 games.
With Joe Nedney down, the 49ers will give PK Shane Andrus a one-game tryout today. They released Ricky Schmitt, who kicked for them last Sunday.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Even if the Rams were to win today and possibly tie the Lions for the league’s worst record, they will probably still own the draft’s first overall pick based on a stronger win-loss strength of schedule. With no quarterback on their roster for the long-term future, there will be pressure within the organization to draft a quarterback first.
However, the top quarterback prospects are U. of Washington’s Jake Locker and Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford. Bradford is coming off his second throwing shoulder operation, and Locker, who is a big-armed quarterback with legitimate 4.4 speed at 6-3, 226 pounds, says he plans to play for the Huskies next season. He still has a couple of weeks to change his mind, and one member of the NFL’s college advisory committee told me he was the best quarterback prospect in the draft, better than Jimmy Clausen, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy.
So, if the Rams end up drafting Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh with the first choice, they just might be forced to bring back Marc Bulger, because neither Kyle Boller nor rookie Keith Null look like long-term solutions at the position. It makes the decision to pass on QB Mark Sanchez for OT Jason Smith all the more questionable in last year’s draft if they don’t pick a franchise quarterback in the 2010 draft.
Chicago at Detroit, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Bears showed plenty of life in Monday night’s big win over the Vikings, and you figure coach Lovie Smith wants to end the season on a positive note. Lions coach Jim Schwartz has opted to start QB Daunte Culpepper, who will be an unrestricted free agent, over Drew Stanton.
Sure, the Lions must stop the run. Matt Forte rushed for 121 yards on only 12 carries against the Lions on Oct. 4 at Soldier Field, and he was one of three Bears to score a rushing touchdown. But the Lions can’t let QB Jay Cutler get hot. Cutler has been streaky and thrown a lot of interceptions this season, but he showed Monday night how deadly he can be with time in the pocket. Cutler checked out of a run play to throw the game-winning TD against the Vikings. He has passed for 3,390 yards this season, well short of the club record of 3,838 by Erik Kramer in 1995.
The only chance Culpepper has is for LT Jeff Backus, who has quietly put together a strong season, to neutralize Bears DE Alex Brown, who has five sacks this season.
There is a good chance the Lions rookie S Louis Delmas, who has had a great season, may not play, and that should help Cutler’s deep passing game, especially with the big-play potential of Devin Aromashodu with Devin Hester and rookie Johnny Knox.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Stanton really struggled in his first NFL start last weekend, and that’s why Culpepper gets the start. Who knows where both of these quarterbacks stand in regard to the Lions’ backup job next season behind Matthew Stafford?
Stanton failed to generate any points after a field goal on the opening drive. He finished 11-for-21 for 130 yards, with three interceptions and a fumble. "Anytime you turn the ball over four times at my position, you’re not going to win," Stanton wrote on his blog.
Culpepper, who signed a one-year contract, won’t be back in Detroit next year. "All I’m thinking about is winning right now," Culpepper said. "That’s the only thing I can worry about. That’s the only thing that really matters. That’s how everybody’s judged." Culpepper is 0-9 over two seasons as a starter for the Lions. This year, he has one TD pass, five interceptions, and he’s failed to produce an offensive TD in his past 14 quarters as a starter.
LB Julian Peterson, who will earn $7.5 million next season, doesn’t expect to be back with the Lions, who have lost 14 straight to NFC North opponents. They have lost 121 games in the decade.
If the Bears do make a move and dump offensive coordinator Ron Turner, ex-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis will be considered. The guy Cutler wants is USC offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates.
Philadelphia at Dallas, 4:15 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Eagles head into Sunday’s showdown for the NFC East title breaking in new starting C Nick Cole, a guard sliding over to replace injured Jamaal Jackson. Cole has had a week of practice after struggling a bit after Jackson went down last Sunday. The worse news is he’ll be facing the Cowboys’ best defensive lineman in NT Jay Ratliff, who had two sacks and two pressures when the Cowboys beat the Eagles earlier in the season. The Cowboys plan to put a lot of pressure on McNabb, who is now missing three offensive line starters since the start of the season.
In order to slow the Cowboys, look for the Eagles to use a lot of middle screens to RB Brian Westbrook, who was on the field for 23 snaps last week, his first since suffering two concussions. The Eagles, should McNabb get some time to throw, would prefer to attack CB Anthony Newman and S Ken Hamlin with some deep crossing patterns to big-play WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.
The Cowboys are a physical offense up front that typically comes out looking to use RBs Marion Barber and Felix Jones to set up the pass. QB Tony Romo led the way in the first meeting, passing for 307 yards with completions to seven different receivers. In his past five games, Romo has nine TD passes and one interception.
Dallas is concerned about short-yardage offense after failing to convert two fourth-and-ones last Sunday following a loss to the Chargers in which Barber was stuffed three straight times at the goal line.
Philadelphia is strong in the secondary and look for the Eagles to be in a nickel scheme much of the game. CB Asante Samuels’ nine interceptions are the most by an Eagle since Bill Bradley had nine in 1972, and fellow CB Sheldon Brown, who was beaten on a double move in the first game, has had a solid December despite hamstring problems.
CZAR’S SCOOP: QB Michael Vick practiced Thursday for the first time since suffering a quadriceps contusion two weeks ago against San Francisco, and he figures to be the Eagles backup quarterback today. Vick’s future, though, remains uncertain in Philadelphia. The team owes him a $1.5 million bonus in early March. Most believe they will trade him. But if McNabb falters today and in the playoffs, all bets are off on what Andy Reid will do for the long haul. One thing is certain about Vick; he doesn’t like being a wildcat quarterback. He wants to be a starter again.
Cowboys WR Roy Williams is getting frustrated, but much of it is his own doing. Williams has 10 drops this season. No starting receiver has more. According to STATS, Inc., Williams has caught only 44.7 percent of the passes thrown to him, which is the sixth-worst percentage among receivers who have been targeted at least 50 times. The coaches have been on him to work harder in practice like Miles Austin does. You can bet Williams doesn’t like hearing that.
If the Cowboys win, there is a chance Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett have saved their jobs. Jerry Jones owes Garrett $7 million over the next two seasons, and it seems unlikely the Dallas owner would eat that amount and fire him.
Washington at San Diego, 4:15 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Chargers coach Norv Turner wants to play his starters, but he also plans to sit starting LBs Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips and S Eric Weddle. This is good news for Redskins QB Jason Campbell, who has been taking a pounding behind a makeshift offensive line that could include Paul Fanaika, who has never played an NFL snap, at right guard ahead of Will Montgomery (three starts).
Turner is getting the last laugh on Washington owner Daniel Snyder. Turner’s record in his last 40 games with the Redskins was 24-16 nine years ago. Washington is 21 games under .500 since Turner was fired. Turner has a 34-18 record in three seasons with the Chargers, including playoffs.
Redskins FS LaRon Landry missed practice for a second straight day because of a concussion suffered against the Cowboys, and Lendy Holmes will likely start in his place. There is a good chance backup QB Billy Volek will replace Philip Rivers in the first half, possibly in the first quarter. RB Mike Tolbert should get the majority of the work for the Chargers.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Mike Shanahan could be announced as Washington’s newest head coach this week once Jim Zorn is fired.
It is very unusual, but two of the Redskins’ biggest television markets in Virginia have opted out of this game for the Eagles-Cowboys game. One of those markets is Richmond.
Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who was run out of Chicago by Lovie Smith, is scheduled to interview this week with the Buffalo Bills, who have a head-coaching vacancy. New Bills GM Buddy Nix used to work for the Chargers before having a falling out with A.J. Smith.
There is no question some of the veteran Washington players are upset with Albert Haynesworth and his open criticism of defensive coordinator Greg Blache and his selfish complaint about practice times during Christmas week. Haynesworth can play when he wants, but $41 million guaranteed was a mistake. "I’m not sorry that I came here. It was between here and Tampa, so you tell me," Haynesworth said last week. The Redskins are just 4-11, but they did defeat the Bucs, who are 3-12.
Green Bay at Arizona, 4:15 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Cardinals would like to wait until they know the outcome of the Minnesota-New York game before deciding how many key players to sit. But if the Vikings lose, the Cardinals may play for that higher NFC seed, which could mean a first-round bye should the Cowboys also beat the Eagles The Packers, though, are planning to play all their starters and attempt to win the game. The Packers have the league’s No. 1 rushing defense (1,265 yards), and if they can hold the Cardinals to no more than 77 rushing yards, they will set a team defensive record. It will be hard minus NT Ryan Pickett.
If the Vikings win, as expected, Kurt Warner may play a series or two before giving way to Matt Leinart. Arizona S Antrel Rolle has already been ruled out.
Why the Packers wouldn’t take a vanilla approach to this game, with a potential rematch right back in Arizona next weekend, is anyone’s guess. Of course, Mike McCarthy could change his mind once QB Aaron Rodgers gets hit a few times. Rodgers, who made the Pro Bowl, is the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in each of the first two years in which he started a game.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Warner has joined Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton as the only players in NFL history to throw at least 100 touchdown passes for two different teams.
Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald wants to play despite a sore knee and a badly bruised elbow. He has been playing through the pain and needs six receptions to get to 100 this season.WR Anquan Boldin needs 14 yards to reach 1,000 yards receiving for the fifth time in his seven NFL seasons.
Packers executive John Schneider is considered a long shot to be named general manager of the Browns by Mike Holmgren.
Look for the Packers to attack Arizona CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and force him to make some tackles by running at him and throwing short passes underneath him. Rodgers-Cromartie has team-leading totals of six interceptions and 33 passes defensed.
Packers GM Ted Thompson had one of his best drafts last April, which was his fifth draft in Green Bay. Five draftees started at least 10 games in 2006, but that was an easier team to start on, and no one from that year made the splash that Clay Matthews has this year. Matthews was the No. 26 overall pick, and he has 11 sacks after starting 12 games. The Packers are pushing him for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Right now, 82.4 percent of Thompson’s 51 selections still are playing in the league.
Indianapolis at Buffalo: The Colts are taking grief from fans and politicians alike for pulling their starters in the second half of last week’s loss to the Jets. Not only did the loss ruin their chance at a potential perfect season, but it also put the Jets into the driver’s seat for a playoff berth. Teams such as Pittsburgh and Denver won’t soon forget that decision. The Bills have placed 18 players on injured reserve this season, the most in franchise history, and they have struggled in the passing game with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm. Peyton Manning needs 153 passing yards to break his career high of 4,557 set in 2004. Manning is supposed to start and then take an early seat in favor of rookie Curtis Painter. The Bills promoted veteran pro personnel scout Buddy Nix, 70, into the general manager’s role, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to land a big name like Bill Cowher.
Pittsburgh at Miami: The Steelers are a long shot to make the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean Ben Roethlisberger won’t come out throwing. He has been awesome lately out of three- and four-receiver sets, although there is a chance WR Hines Ward, who hasn’t missed a game in two years, may not play. Miami is No. 19 overall on defense. RB Rashard Mendenhall hasn’t rushed for more than 53 yards in the past three weeks. Dolphins CB Sean Smith (four) is attempting to become the first rookie to lead Miami in interceptions since Lloyd Mumphord in 1969, while the Steelers cornerbacks still haven’t picked off a pass all season.
New England at Houston: The big question is: Will Patriots QB Tom Brady play, and if he does, how many snaps will he take? The Patriots can still earn the No. 3 seed, but with no shot at a first-round bye, several starters are expected to rest. The Texans, who entered the NFL in 2002, are seeking their first winning season. Houston received a boost from undrafted rookie RB Arian Foster last Sunday with some rare ground support for QB Matt Schaub, who has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in an NFL-high nine games. In games in which the Texans have over 400 yards of offense, they are 6-1. There continue to be rumors that Texans coach Gary Kubiak is on the hot seat, especially if Bill Cowher is available.
Jacksonville at Cleveland: With QB Derek Anderson still showing no signs of being able to lead an effective passing attack, the Browns will again lean on RB Jerome Harrison. In fact, this may be the best matchup all season of two short running backs. Harrison is 5-9 and has rushed for 434 rushing yards in the past two games, but will have to do his work against constant eight-man fronts. Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew is 5-7 and was just named to his first Pro Bowl. The Browns are seeking their first four-game winning streak since 1994, while the Jaguars blew their playoff chances by losing three straight. The Browns’ Mike Furrey played 59 plays at safety last week and then 19 plays on offense at receiver when Brian Robiskie was injured in the second half.
Tennessee at Seattle: This entire game is about Titans RB Chris Johnson. He needs 128 rushing yards to reach 2,000 and 75 to break Marshall Faulk’s single-season yards from scrimmage of 2,429. It could happen, because Seattle gave up five rushing touchdowns last Sunday as the overworked defense has worn down. The Seahawks will be minus rookie OLB Aaron Curry, too. Johnson has 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck has thrown eight interceptions the past two games. He’s forcing too many balls into coverage when Seattle falls behind and appears to lack velocity from a shoulder injury suffered midseason. The Seahawks have been outscored 106-24 the past three weeks. Titans RB LenDale White hasn’t carried the ball the past three games, and he has just 11 rushes for 26 yards since Nov. 8. Seattle RB Julius Jones (rib) is expected to play.
Baltimore at Oakland: The Ravens should continue to run the ball, especially with LT Jared Gaither returning, putting rookie Michael Oher back at right tackle. The Raiders have been allowing 150 yards rushing per game. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco has thrown seven touchdown passes and one interception in his past three games. No matter who starts at quarterback for the Raiders, they will struggle to move the ball unless RBs Michael Bush and Darren McFadden have some sustained success against the league’s sixth-ranked run defense. It’s amazing Charlie Frye continues to start ahead of JaMarcus Russell, and there’s a good chance Oakland’s first-round pick, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, will be inactive. Raiders P Shane Lechler is averaging 51.1 yards per punt. The single-season NFL record is Sammy Baugh’s 51.4 mark in 1940. The Ravens could be minus WR Derrick Mason, while FS Ed Reed, who has missed the past four games, will test his groin in pre-game. Reed wants to play, as does pass rusher Terrell Suggs.
Kansas City at Denver: The big news in Denver has been the benching of starting WR Brandon Marshall, who was named to the Pro Bowl last week, and TE Tony Scheffler, and neither player is happy about it. Apparently, Broncos coach Josh McDaniels was unhappy with the two players’ nursing injuries and not practicing. Who knows, maybe McDaniels has decided to trade Marshall after all and doesn’t want him to get hurt, believing his team is a long shot to make the playoffs as a wild-card team. Denver has too much experience in the secondary, and Chiefs QB Matt Cassel has been far too inconsistent for Kansas City to expect to compete with a pass-first offense. Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles has three consecutive 100-yard rushing games and will take aim at a Broncos run defense allowing 116.1 yards per game. Chiefs PK Ryan Succop has set a franchise rookie record with 22 field goals. Broncos OLB Elvis Dumervil has a franchise-record 17 sacks.
Cincinnati at N.Y. Jets: Well, the Jets are favored. They win and they are in the AFC playoffs as a wild-card team. Both teams love to run the ball. Cincinnati enters with the league’s No. 2 run defense, but that won’t keep New York from pounding away with RBs Thomas Jones (1,324 yards) and Shonn Greene. In fact, the Jets need 148 rushing yards to break the club single-season record of 2,646 set in 1979. Meanwhile, the Bengals use a lot of unbalanced lines and run right at eight-man fronts — usually with success. And with QB Carson Palmer a candidate to be pulled early, moving the ball against the league’s top pass defense sounds like a losing proposition. Bengals RB Cedric Benson (1,251) needs 208 yards to set a single-season franchise record for most rushing yards. Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco predicted he was going to score on Darrelle Revis, but it will be tough to do if he plays only a couple of series.