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Week 14 Countdown to Kickoff

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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 Giants spent most of Saturday stuck in the Kansas City airport waiting for the snow to quit falling in Minneapolis. Ultimately, the game was moved to Monday night. But if there’s one thing you can say about the Giants, it's that they have done a lot of bonding this season as seemingly every player on the roster has been needed to fill a role to keep them in the playoff hunt.

They will have a difficult task catching the Michael Vick-led Eagles in the NFC East. Vick has finally transformed the quarterback position into a live video game because no one can run and throw like he does. Mentally, Vick knows exactly what he wants to do and executes it.

The Giants had the perfect strategy in the first meeting against Vick and the Eagles, whom they host next Sunday with a short week to prepare. They kept the pass pressure on and they didn’t sit and watch Vick run around. They attacked him and filled every lane and when they had an opportunity, they smacked Vick as hard as they could. It was in that game when Eagles coach Andy Reid started to become concerned with how defenders were treating his new quarterback hero.

The Giants lost that game because the offense, particularly Eli Manning, didn’t help the defense. Also, the defense didn’t play really smart at the end, either, failing to keep a couple safeties back on a routine fourth-and-one play at midfield. LeSean McCoy, the Eagles’ running back, bounced through left end and once he crossed the line of scrimmage he was gone for a 50-yard touchdown with under five minutes remaining.

The Giants won’t make the same silly gambling mistake again.

After a dismal 8-8 season last year, Giants GM Jerry Reese needed to fill some defensive holes and he did just that by giving Cardinals free-agent safety Antrel Rolle a very lucrative contract. When Kenny Phillips, who is now back, went down a year go, the deep middle proved to be a sieve. Now, Rolle, Phillips and Deon Grant, another Reese acquisition, give the Giants plenty of deep support.

Reese made two other solid decisions. He decided against trading Osi Umenyiora and avoided moving up in the draft for Rolando McClain, the Alabama middle linebacker now with the Raiders. Instead, Reese selected Jason Pierre-Paul, a promising pass rusher from South Florida.

Today, Umenyiora looks like the player the Giants hoped he would be while Pierre-Paul seems to have finally figured it out, accounting for four sacks and two forced fumbles in his last two games. There were concerns when Mathias Kiwanuka went down early in the season, but New York’s depth along the defensive line has been strengthened by the emergence of Pierre-Paul and consistent play by reserve Dave Tollefson.

Of course, the best move might have been firing the defensive coordinator and replacing him with Perry Fewell from the Buffalo Bills. Fewell’s schemes have been creative at times and he’s had the secondary coverage in order to allow his front four to rush the passer. Jonathan Goff has been a solid surprise at middle linebacker, too.

When Umenyiora isn’t whining about his contract, he has been playing the run better and also playing his best football since 2007, the Super Bowl season. He has nine sacks. Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard both had rough first years with the Giants, but when healthy they have performed well. Canty has been a big-time performer at defensive tackle.

The Giants have the defense to beat Vick, but first they must end Manning’s winless streak against the Vikings.

NFL ON FOX GAMES: Green Bay at Detroit, 1 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Green Bay has won 10 straight against the Lions and 18 of the last 20. Packers coach Mike McCarthy is 9-0 against the Lions with a 14.5-point average margin of victory. Also, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has dominated Detroit, completing 70 percent of his attempts for 1,523 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating against the Lions is 105.3. With DE Kyle Vanden Bosch out, with a new, untested starter at cornerback in Brandon McDonald and a rookie strong safety in Amari Spievey, Rodgers should have another big day. Green Bay plans to rotate rookie running backs James Starks and Dimitri Nance, hoping to give each player 12 carries. Starks had 73 yards on 18 carries last week.

CB Charles Woodson is a proven Lion-killer. In Week 4, he had a pick-six against the Lions, his third in three years. He also had 13 tackles and made three straight huge plays that effectively killed the Lions’ last scoring drive in a two-point game. Woodson will try to negate Lions WR Calvin Johnson as Drew Stanton starts again at quarterback. Packers WR Greg Jennings has three straight 100-yard receiving games and leads the league since Week 6 with 43 catches for 761 yards and eight touchdowns. A victory would extend the Packers’ winning streak in Detroit to five. The only time the Packers have won more than five straight in Detroit was 1936-’44, when they captured nine in a row at University of Detroit Stadium and Briggs Stadium.

CZAR’S SCOOP: If the Lions lose, it will be their 20th straight loss in the NFC North. It is the longest division losing streak since 1970. With a lot of Green Bay fans in attendance, this will be Ford Field’s sixth sellout in seven games this season. Through the first six home games, the Lions have averaged 55,935 fans, an increase of 6,540 fans a game. This season’s home-attendance average is the highest since 2007, when the Lions started 6-2 and averaged 61,304.

End Vanden Bosch underwent season-ending neck surgery in Charlotte, N.C. on Tuesday and coach Jim Schwartz said he will definitely be back next season. Vanden Bosch, who was signed to a four-year, $26 million contract last summer, finished the season with 49 tackles, four sacks and a team-high 12 quarterback hits. The Lions also lost Alphonso Smith, who was leading the team with five interceptions. Lions DT Ndamukong Suh was fined $15,000 by the league for his hit on Bears QB Jay Cutler last Sunday. The hit was called “an unnecessary non-football act” by referee Ed Hochuli. It was the fourth time Suh was flagged for a personal foul in the regular season and the second time he’s been fined. He was hit for $7,500 for throwing Jake Delhomme to the turf in the preseason. The best-case scenario for Matthew Stafford is to play the final two games, at Miami and then the season-ender against Minnesota at home.

Atlanta at Carolina, 1 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Falcons will try to jump on the Panthers with RB Michael Turner and not back off. Atlanta lost at Carolina last season, so it is unlikely the Falcons will take the 1-11 Panthers for granted. Turner has gone over 100 yards in his last four games against Carolina. Panthers rookie QB Jimmy Clausen played well in the first half in Seattle before self-destructing in the second half. He finally connected on a long pass with WR Steve Smith, a 39-yarder. It was Smith’s longest gain of the season. Smith has just seven receptions of 20 yards or more this year. He is on pace for 664 receiving yards, which would be his lowest output for a season in which he was healthy. Smith had 982 receiving yards last year and 5,152 yards between 2005-08. With Chris Gamble still slowed by a hamstring injury, Panthers CBs Richard Marshall and Captain Munnerlyn will have to slow down Falcons WR Roddy White, the league’s reception leader with 91. White is having a record-breaking season.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Last season, the Falcons took a 3.5-hour bus ride up to Charlotte for the game. They lost 29-18 and also lost Michael Turner for the season. They’ve altered their travel plans this time around and took an airplane to Charlotte. Coach Mike Smith doesn’t like dealing with the current three-game road swing. “It is very difficult,” he said. “You look at teams that are in the hunt. They have to win at home, that’s usually the formula, and then be close to splitting on the road.” Thus far, the Falcons are 6-0 at home and 4-2 on the road. The Falcons are gaining in popularity. Their home game against Tampa Bay last Sunday was the highest-rated regular-season NFL game on FOX in Atlanta with a 31.3 percent rating. There was also a lot of interest in the Falcons’ game in New Orleans, which had a 34.7 rating. New Orleans over the last two seasons has had some of the highest TV ratings in the country.

Carolina owner Jerry Richardson sent out a letter to personal-seat license owners this week and took full responsibility for the team’s 1-11 record. Richardson didn’t go into specifics on how he’ll fix the mess that has become the 2010 Panthers, but did say, “Going forward, our plan of attack is to build through the draft while retaining our core players. We have one of the youngest teams in the NFL, and a number of those younger players have shown genuine promise in this otherwise disappointing season. We won’t give up on them. We also have a solid nucleus of veterans that we will seek to keep intact.” Still, there are a lot of fans who would like the Panthers to keep losing, thus guaranteeing a shot at Stanford QB Andrew Luck with the first overall pick.

Tampa Bay at Washington, 1 p.m. ET

NFL BLITZ: WEEK 17

We get you ready for all this week's games with our NFL Blitz.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Bucs (7-5) believe they still have a shot at 10 wins, but they have to win today and at home against Detroit and Seattle before finishing the season at New Orleans. Still, they have lost two straight and QB Josh Freeman has struggled lately. The Redskins figure to keep a safety over the top of rookie WR Mike Williams, Freeman's favorite target. Freeman needs to make more consistent plays with TE Kellen Winslow and also make some deep throws to Arrelious Benn. It won’t be easy behind a totally new offensive line.

The Redskins get RB Ryan Torain back for this game and that should help their play-action game with Donovan McNabb. The good news for McNabb is that WR Santana Moss (team-high 64 receptions) will be going against CB E.J. Biggers as Aqib Talib became the fourth starter in two weeks to land on IR. Biggers held his own against Roddy White last Sunday after Talib got hurt in the second quarter. The Redskins ran for just 103 yards on 29 carries in losing their past two games. McNabb has 15 interceptions and he’s been sacked 35 times this season.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Before he was suspended Albert Haynesworth collected $34.75 million in bonus money and salary from the Redskins, which includes that whopping $21 million last May. You can bet that the club will file a grievance in hopes of retrieving some of that, but despite months of documentation, it seems like a longshot that an arbitrator will rule in favor of the Redskins. “After this week, we won’t have to answer questions about Albert, whether he’s here or whether he’s not,” said outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. “You get tired of answering questions about it. I’ve been talking about it since March (when Haynesworth failed to finish the first day of the offseason workout program because he didn’t want to play nose tackle in Jim Haslett’s 3-4 scheme.)

DE Phillip Daniels, 37 and the senior player on the defense, said that he tried to convince Haynesworth to keep playing and accept his role. “I always feel bad for any guy who gets suspended, especially a guy I played with, a guy I went to battle with, a guy I care about as a person,” Daniels said. The Bucs signed C Donovan Raiola after placing Jeff Faine on IR with a torn triceps. Tampa Bay is pretty thin on the offensive line. G Jeremy Zuttah will move to center while Ted Larsen and Derek Hardman will start at guard. Rex Grossman split snaps with McNabb at Friday’s practice.

St. Louis at New Orleans, 4:05 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Saints have scored 30 or more points in five games this season, including their last four, as Drew Brees has gotten his passing game going. The Rams have to keep the game from becoming a track meet, which means a lot Steven Jackson running the ball and limiting big plays by the Saints. Brees figures to attack Rams CB Quincy Butler, who starts for the injured Ron Bartell. The Saints are finally getting healthy, too. RB Pierre Thomas (left ankle) returns and he’ll be rotated into action with Reggie Bush and Chris Ivory. Thomas has missed nine consecutive games since being injured on Sept. 26 against the Falcons.

The Rams are also hurting at linebacker with Na'il Diggs out for the season after tearing a pectoral muscle last Sunday. David Vobora is expected to start in Diggs’ strong-side spot with Chris Chamberlain at weak-side linebacker. This would be the sixth switch of starters there since the season started. The Rams' best defensive player, LDE Chris Long, will go against RT Jon Stinchcomb, who was a Pro Bowl pick a year ago. Stinchcomb has been hampered by nagging knee and shoulder injuries this season. Long has 6.5 sacks — one fewer than RDE James Hall — and he leads the league in quarterback pressures. Of course, it is difficult getting to Brees, who has quick feet and a quick release.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Since 2006, Brees has passed for 21,932 yards, the most by any NFL quarterback in a five-year period. Plus, he has four games remaining to pad that total. Because Bradford has the same agent, Tom Condon, as Brees, he called the Super Bowl hero last year before he underwent shoulder surgery. Brees had a similar surgery after suffering a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder in the last game of the 2005 season with the Chargers. “I just kind of asked him what the rehab process was like,” Bradford said. “He was awesome. He answered every question I had. He was very helpful.”

Brees has missed only one game in five seasons since the surgery. And Bradford appears to be fully healthy. He’s taken every snap this season for the Rams. “It means a lot,” Bradford said. “When you start any season, you never want to get hurt; you never want to miss any time. I’ve been fortunate this year to not miss any snaps and to be able to be out there with my guys all the time.” Saints coach Sean Payton likes Bradford. Payton said: “When you evaluate the college quarterback, you never know how the transition goes and how quickly it can happen. In his case, I think he’s transitioned very fast. When you watch him, when he’s blitzed and he knows he’s one short in protection, the ball comes out. He’s very poised. I think he has a live arm. He’s playing with a lot of poise. The Rams have improved defensively considerably, but it all starts with him.”

Seattle at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m. ET

POWER RANKINGS

Which teams are looking up in this week's NFL power rankings?

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The 49ers went back to QB Alex Smith, who was 1-6 as a starter this season, because they had to reduce the offensive load for Troy Smith and with Frank Gore done for the season, they needed to be able to use the entire playbook. “Right now, we just feel with the experience, and Alex having more of a feel for the entire playbook, it just allows us to open up our offense more,” coach Mike Singletary said. The 49ers also hope to be able to utilize RB Brian Westbrook more on the edges of the offensive line and also throw to him like the Eagles did.

Seattle’s defense gets DT Colin Cole back after he missed five games with a high ankle sprain. With the 6-2, 330-pound Cole playing the Seahawks held opponents to 77.5 rushing yards a game in the first seven games of the season. Without him, the Seahawks have given up an average of 165 yards a game. Cole’s return will allow Junior Siavii to roam around the defensive front. But on the receiver front, both Mike Williams (sprained left ankle and foot) and Ben Obomanu, who suffered a deep cut on his right hand, may not play. Williams leads the team with 52 catches. The Seahawks will try to build on last week’s season-high 161 yards on the ground. Seattle has scored just 27 total points in the first quarter this season, worst in the league. Look for Smith to attack Seattle CB Kelly Jennings with Michael Crabtree, hoping to take advantage of his size advantage. Some of Gore’s best games — 144, 207 and 212 yards — have come against Seattle.

CZAR’S SCOOP: These figure to be Smith’s final four games for the 49ers. He’s 17-30 as a starter with 46 TDs and 52 INTs. Singletary thought Smith gave the 4-8 team its best shot of staying in the playoff race in the NFC West. Troy Smith was 3-2 as a starter.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll grew up in the Bay Area and played football at the University of Pacific. Carroll also served as the 49ers defensive coordinator in 1995 and 1996 under then-head coach George Seifert. Carroll said, “It’s not going to affect me a whole lot, but I love San Francisco and I always loved the Bay Area. Candlestick is a big deal. I went there when I was a little kid; watching ballgames — baseball and football games growing up. I coached there too. There is a lot of background there.”

Singletary lost his main sounding board on the coaching staff when assistant head coach Johnnie Lynn abruptly resigned on Tuesday for “personal issues.” Lynn, 53, was Singletary’s right-hand man on the coaching staff and coached the defensive backs. Vance Joseph has assumed the day-to-day coaching duties for the defensive backs.

N.Y. Giants at Minnesota, 8 p.m. ET (Monday)

WHAT'S THE LATEST?

Get all the news from the football world on our NFL Buzz Blog.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: With Minneapolis suffering the worst storm since 1991, the NFL has pushed this game back until Monday night. This will allow the Giants, who were stranded in Kansas City last night, enough time to get to Minnesota and prepare for the game. It was going to be hard for the fans to get to the Metrodome for the game on Sunday. Giants QB Eli Manning, who will start his 100th consecutive game, is 0-4 against the Vikings, plus the Giants can’t forget last season’s 44-7 loss in the final game of the season. The Giants played like dogs that day.

The good news for Manning is that receivers Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks are scheduled to return to action as well as LT David Diehl. Behind a makeshift offensive line, Manning hasn’t been sacked in the last five games. But he will face more pressure from Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, two players who have been playing better lately.

The big news, though, could be the end of Brett Favre’s starting streak at 297 games. He plans to test his strained right shoulder in warm-ups, and there’s a chance that it will prove too painful for him to play, opening it up for Tarvaris Jackson. The Giants have the second-best pass defense in the NFL, plus they have 35 sacks. The Giants want to stack the line against Adrian Peterson, who hasn’t fumbled in 256 touches this season. He had 12 fumbles last year. Peterson has 1,123 yards and 11 TDs while averaging 4.8 yards a carry. The Giants have an effective 1-2 rushing tandem in Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson is expected to play with a broken thumb. Giants CB Terrell Thomas has five INTs and three forced fumbles and leads the NFL with 22 passes defensed.

CZAR’S SCOOP: With Jackson unsigned for next season, you can bet that Vikings GM Rick Spielman has been busy looking at all the quarterback prospects in next year’s draft. Auburn’s Heisman winner Cam Newton, according to scouts, has been pegged in the middle of the first round, from spots 8 through 20, and that could put him in play for the Vikings. QB Ryan Mallet of Arkansas has been projected in the same area of the first round. Everyone’s top quarterback choice is Stanford’s Andrew Luck, with Christian Ponder of Florida State at the bottom of the first round. There is no question that Bill Cowher’s first choice would be a job in New York, but there’s no opening now unless the Giants fade down the stretch and miss the playoffs. Tom Coughlin has one year remaining on his contract.

Other Sunday games

Pierre Garcon

NFL WEEK 14 PHOTOS

Check out the best action from Week 14.

Cleveland at Buffalo: Eric Mangini has four more four games to prove to Browns boss Mike Holmgren that he should keep his job. The Browns are 5-7 right now and have won two straight games. Cleveland finished strong under Mangini last year, winning their last four games. Browns QB Jake Delhomme didn’t throw an interception last week against the Dolphins, who held RB Peyton Hillis to 57 yards rushing. Hillis needs 38 yards to reach 1,000 rushing yards and become the first white runner in the league since Craig James in 1985 with the Patriots to reach that mark. He should do it, because Buffalo has allowed six teams to rush for at least 200 yards this season. Browns rookie CB Joe Haden has an interception in four straight games and hopes to do the same to Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh: The Steelers lead the series and own a 26-14 record in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won the first meeting in Cincinnati 27-21, but struggled in pass defense against Carson Palmer, who passed for two touchdowns and 248 yards. The Steelers plan to use more five- and six-defensive-back sets in the rematch. On offense, the Steelers believe they can run and throw on the Bengals. They hope to run and take some heat off Ben Roethlisberger, who will play with a surgically repaired nose. Terrell Owens burned CB Bryant McFadden for 10 catches and 141 yards in the first game.

Oakland at Jacksonville: After losing road games at Tennessee and Pittsburgh by a combined score of 70-16, Raiders coach Tom Cable decided to have his players arrive at 6:25 a.m. for meetings this week and practice three hours early to better prepare for the time change. “I just felt like we needed to really think about what it takes to go out there,” Cable said. Oakland’s third-ranked running attack is averaging 149 yards per game, but no running back is hotter than Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew. Jones-Drew is coming off a career-best 186-yard game and has 1,117 yards on 266 carries. Oakland’s front four has been super lately, and DE Lamarr Houston sacked Philip Rivers twice last Sunday.

Denver at Arizona: Hall of Famer John Elway continues to discuss a front-office position with the Broncos. However, the Broncos don’t seem to want to make any executive, scouting or coaching changes other than finding a head coach to replace Josh McDaniels. The Broncos have a great chance to win with the Cardinals starting rookie QB John Skelton. His backup, Richard Bartel, was home last week in Texas hunting wild hogs. Bartel was Daunte Culpepper’s backup with Sacramento of the UFL this season. The Cardinals are 6-1 at home against AFC teams in coach Ken Whisenhunt's four seasons.

Kansas City at San Diego: Chiefs QB Matt Cassel didn’t even make the trip to San Diego and might even miss next week’s game against the Rams because of an emergency appendectomy early Wednesday. QB Brodie Croyle, who hasn’t played this season, will start for the Chiefs in an AFC West game that the Chargers must win. Croyle did start the 2009 season opener against Baltimore when Cassel was out with a knee injury. RB Jamaal Charles, who had a 56-yard TD run in the season-opening win over San Diego, has only 222 yards against the Chargers in his three-year career. WR Vincent Jackson is expected to see his first action of the year for San Diego.

New England at Chicago: The Patriots are going to play special attention to Bears DE Julius Peppers, who coach Bill Belichick says is one of the league’s best defenders. Look for a lot of max protection with TE Alge Crumpler helping out the offensive tackle. The Bears turned around their season when offensive coordinator Mike Martz started to balance out the offense. In their five-game winning streak, the Bears have rushed 163 times compared to 137 Jay Cutler pass attempts. In the 4-3 start, Chicago passed 59 more times than they ran it. Tom Brady has never played in Soldier Field.

Miami at N.Y. Jets: Jets coach Rex Ryan literally buried the game ball from the blowout loss to the Patriots on Monday night. The only bright spot in that game was the rushing attack, one that gained 152 yards for a solid 4.9-yard average. Look for more of the same as the Jets look to rebuild Mark Sanchez’s lost confidence. The good news for the Jets is that Dolphins QB Chad Henne has been inconsistent. In the first meeting, Dolphins WR Brandon Marshall had 10 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. But Darrelle Revis will be covering Marshall today. He faced Antonio Cromartie when Revis had a hamstring injury.

Philadelphia at Dallas: The Cowboys are looking for their fourth straight win over the Eagles, who are in first place in the NFC East. Dallas is one Roy Williams turnover away from being 4-0 under interim head coach Jason Garrett. Good news for the Cowboys is that Philadelphia’s red-zone defense has been falling apart in its last five games. The Eagles have surrendered 14 red-zone touchdowns in 17 opportunities in the last five games, even though they managed to win four of those five. For the season, they have allowed 26 TDs in 33 opponent trips inside the 20, which is a league-worst 78.8 percent failure rate. In the last 12 years, no team has advanced to the NFC championship game with a defensive red-zone rate higher than 70 percent.

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Lions, Packers, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Cardinals, Steelers, Chargers, Michael Vick, Phillip Daniels, James Hall, Charles Woodson, Tom Brady, Jake Delhomme, Donovan McNabb, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Drew Brees, Steve Hutchinson, Steve Smith Sr., Mike Williams, Roy Williams, Albert Haynesworth, Osi Umenyiora, Kevin Williams, Jon Stinchcomb, Colin Cole, Roy Williams, Ben Roethlisberger, Steven Jackson, Chris Gamble, Eli Manning, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Ron Bartell, Vincent Jackson, Alex Smith, Alex Smith, Mike Williams, Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Jacobs, Chris Canty, Tarvaris Jackson, Jay Cutler, Richard Marshall, Ben Obomanu, Brandon Marshall, Brandon McDonald, Troy Smith, Steve Smith, Drew Stanton, Pierre Thomas, Richard Bartel, Terrell Thomas, Chris Long, Chris Chamberlain, Ryan Torain, Michael Crabtree, Alphonso Smith, Jason Pierre-Paul, James Starks, John Skelton

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