FOXSports.com NFL insider John Czarnecki shares the inside scoop on all of the Week 15 action as teams shuffle for playoff positioning.
By John CzarneckiFoxSports
There is no team in the NFL that is more fun to watch, especially on offense, than the Philadelphia Eagles.
Head coach Andy Reid and his offensive coordinator sidekick, Marty Mornhinweg, have devised an almost college-like spread offense because of quarterback Michael Vick’s special abilities and his trio of playmakers.
Yes, it’s a young bunch. But receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin plus running back LeSean McCoy remind me of the Rams’ "Greatest Show on Turf" of a decade ago. Granted, Marshall Faulk is on my Hall of Fame ballot, and Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt will be one day, too. But the Eagles’ triplets possess the same explosiveness, although they may lack the experience of that Rams group. And there’s no denying that the trio aren’t playmakers, considering their 24 combined touchdowns.
Plus, unlike then-Rams QB Kurt Warner, Vick is always a threat. He has seven rushing touchdowns.
If Philly's defense doesn’t fold down the stretch, I like the Eagles to win the NFC East and contend for the Super Bowl. The one playoff game many would love to see is Philadelphia vs. Atlanta and Vick’s return to the Georgia Dome.
Four weeks ago at the Linc, the Eagles stuffed New York’s running game, holding them to 61 yards en route to a 10-point victory. Since that loss, the Giants benched starter Ahmad Bradshaw and have started 262-pound Brandon Jacobs, who is bigger than some defensive linemen. The Giants have averaged 182 yards rushing in those three games with Jacobs leading the way.
Jacobs, who had just 78 carries in the Giants’ first 10 games, is coming off of back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances.
The Giants will definitely test the Philadelphia middle, where rookie Jamar Chaney makes his first NFL start in replacing injured middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, who’s sidelined with a dislocated elbow. Chaney has been a solid performer on special teams and gets the nod over Omar Gaither, who was deactivated by the Eagles last week. The Eagles have a shot because of how well defensive tackles Antonio Dixon and Mike Patterson have been playing lately.
Chaney was the 220th player taken in the April draft and he replaced Bradley in the second quarter of the Dallas game.
“I thought he did a good job,” Reid said of Chaney. “You could tell he did his homework when he stepped in for Bradley. He really didn’t miss a beat as far as the calls go. He preps hard and is one of those guys who comes in early and stays late and makes sure he stays up on his game.”
But the main reason for liking Philadelphia over the Giants is pretty simple. Vick looks more reliable to make a big play and win a game on Sunday than Eli Manning does.
Whereas Vick is second behind the unreal Tom Brady in the NFL quarterback rating system, Manning ranks 17th among NFL starters — and would be 18th if injured Tony Romo was still playing for Dallas. Manning leads the league with 19 interceptions, one more than Carson Palmer, who leads the league with five pick-sixes this season.
Yes, the Giants have the NFL's best defense and are getting healthy along the offensive line. But the Eagles have Vick and that amazing big-play threesome. They are the better team.
NFL ON FOX GAMES: Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: If it’s not a windy day, the Eagles and their high-powered passing game figure to have the edge. Wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin have combined for 27 catches, 433 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games against the Giants, who plan to have CB Corey Webster defending Jackson. The Giants will bring a ton of pressure on Michael Vick, hoping to force him to his right, hoping to make it uncomfortable throwing the football. The Giants figure to bring the pressure against RT King Dunlap with Justin Tuck, and also against LG Todd Herremans with Barry Cofield and Chris Canty. New York also has several safety-blitz packages in the game in order to put some early shots on Vick. Despite their attention to Vick, the Giants don’t want RB LeSean McCoy to kill them like he did in the last game with a 50-yard go-ahead TD.
Both teams are running well right now and Giants RB Brandon Jacobs has averaged 102 rushing yards in the three games since he resumed his role as the starter. Jacobs is 307 yards shy of a thousand. Ahmad Bradshaw already has 1,116 yards rushing. Center Shaun O’Hara is back in the lineup after almost two months on the sidelines. The Eagles held the Giants to 61 rushing yards in the first meeting, but they need rookie MLB Jamar Chaney to play the game of his life as he replaces injured Stewart Bradley. If they can neutralize New York’s running game, then they can concentrate on QB Eli Manning, who has a league-high 19 interceptions — including 12 on third down. Eagles CB Asante Samuel returns after missing the last three games and leads the team with seven interceptions. Without Steve Smith, Manning will concentrate on TE Kevin Boss in the middle while hoping to get Hakeem Nicks open on deep outs and post routes against safety Quintin Mikell.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Giants never gave WR Steve Smith a new contract, and now Eli’s favorite target goes into next season as an unrestricted free agent. However, he's also coming off a serious left knee injury. Smith is expected to have a mosaicplasty procedure on the posterior lateral femoral condyle, which is a non-weight bearing area of the knee. However, the rehab could last as long as 6-9 months and is expected to be on crutches for 6-8 weeks. No one really knows how this will impact Smith’s career, but it seems unlikely that teams will be racing to give him a long-term contract. The Giants other free-agents will be Mathias Kiwanuka, who is on IR with a bulging disc in his neck, Kevin Boss, Barry Cofield and Ahmad Bradshaw.
The Eagles’ Jackson, whose 210 receiving yards against the Cowboys last week were the third most in a game in franchise history, was chirping again this week about wanting a contract extension.
Giants safety Antrel Rolle said he was never more tired of blitzing as he was in the first Philadelphia game. One thing is certain; the Giants defenders aren’t intimidated about facing Vick. “Everybody was so amped that we were playing them the last time,” said safety Deon Grant. “I just didn’t see any fear coming in the room. I didn’t see it in anyone’s eyes or anybody’s hearts.”
Washington at Dallas, 1 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: With backup QB Rex Grossman replacing a benched Donovan McNabb, you can bet that the Redskins will pound the Cowboys with RB Ryan Torain, who gained 158 yards in the first half last week against Tampa Bay. Torain, who is a powerful runner, reminds many in Dallas of Stephen Davis. Washington would like to get TE Chris Cooley and WR Anthony Armstrong (six catches, 52 yards against the Bucs) more involved to help Grossman, a favorite of Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The two were both in Houston last season. Of course, WR Santana Moss, who caught the tying touchdown last week, has always hurt the Cowboys. A lot of the success of Washington’s passing game will depend on how well rookie LT Trent Williams fares against Dallas pass rusher DeMarcus Ware.
The Cowboys may decide to run, too, with WR Roy Williams joining Dez Bryant on the sideline. QB Jon Kitna will be throwing a lot toward TE Jason Witten and WR Miles Austin as reserves Jesse Holley and Sam Hurd get playing time opposite Austin. Marion Barber is still out, which means Felix Jones and Tashard Choice will be sharing the running load. Redskins CB Carlos Rogers returns to the starting lineup.
CZAR’S SCOOP: McNabb, 34, said that he’s not concerned with reports that Kyle Shanahan doesn’t want him to be the quarterback long-term. “I can’t afford to,” said McNabb, a six-time Pro Bowl selection whose 77.1 passer rating is the worst of his 11 years as a starter. “If I don’t get that from the (Mike Shanahan) who makes the decisions, then I don’t focus on it. There have been reports and sources saying stuff all throughout the last couple years.” McNabb recently signed a five-year contract extension, but most likely will see just $3.5 million of it as he walks out the door. The biggest reason the Shanahans don’t like McNabb because he doesn’t fit their offensive system, plus he has struggled with learning it all season long. Where McNabb ends up is anyone’s guess. One team that needs a QB, but isn’t interested, is Arizona.
The entire benching decision was Shanahan’s as owner Daniel Snyder was out of town last week. But you can bet that Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen can’t be too pleased with Shanahan’s decision, considering few in the NFL believe Grossman is the long-term answer at the position for the Redskins. Grossman, though, is unsigned for next season and Shanny wants to know if he should keep him around.
Sam Paulescu becomes Washington’s fourth punter this season after Hunter Smith was cut for failing to control the snap on the game-tying extra point try against the Bucs last Sunday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Washington will be the first team during the 45-year Super Bowl era to employ four punters in consecutive years. That 17-16 loss was the Redskins’ fifth in six games. It dropped them to 5-8 overall and included two Graham Gano missed field goal tries of 24 and 34 yards. “I’ve been a part of a lot of stuff, but I’ve never been a part of nothing like that,” said Moss, who scored on a fourth-and-goal play.
New Orleans at Baltimore, 1 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Saints QB Drew Brees has played pretty well on the road and he’s catching the Ravens on a short week, plus they just surrendered a season-worst 378 yards to Houston on Monday night. The Ravens have given up over 300 yards passing four times this season. The Saints have been able to get some balance in the last couple of games with an improved running game that gained 146 and 132 yards in wins over Cincinnati and St. Louis. RB Chris Ivory is expected to play as well as Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas for the Saints. The Ravens, though, are allowing just 99 rushing yards a game. Play-action could be critical for Brees if the Saints can get the running game going. Brees, who has thrown 16 INTs in his last nine games, better keep an eye on Ravens FS Ed Reed, who has 50 career interceptions.
Baltimore QB Joe Flacco has the NFL’s second-best passer rating since Week 5, throwing 16 TDs and two interceptions during that time. In the same span, Ravens RB Ray Rice has the fifth-most net yards from scrimmage, averaging 118.9 total yards per game. But he has only scored three TDs in that span. Baltimore has again re-adjusted its offensive line, returning Chris Chester to right guard and moving Marshal Yanda back to right tackle. This unit has allowed 13 sacks in the last three games, 22 in the last five games. Ravens LT Michael Oher needs to contain Saints RDE Will Smith or Flacco could be running for his life again. With KR Courtney Roby out with a concussion, Thomas and Robert Meachem will share the role. Of course, it may not matter much with Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff leading the NFL with 37 touchbacks.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Saints are 5-1 away from the Superdome this season and have won 13 of their last 15 road games since late in the 2008 season. The Ravens are one of the six teams that Sean Payton hasn’t beaten as a head coach. The Saints have scored at least 30 points in five consecutive games.
The Ravens should provide the stiffest defensive test New Orleans has faced the second half of the season. Look for Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to dial up some safety blitzes. And speaking of solid head-coaching candidates, isn’t it time for Williams to get another chance running a team? He’s done a super job with the Saints.
Brees needs 145 passing yards to join the Colts’ Peyton Manning (1999-2004, 2006-10) as the only players in NFL history with at least five consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons. The Ravens’ Michael Oher has committed seven false start penalties this season.
Baltimore is one of those teams who would like to see the Competition Committee revisit the playoff seeding format where a division winner doesn’t automatically receive a home game if its record is worse than the wild-card team.
Arizona at Carolina, 1 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Panthers have a horrible pass offense and will struggle if rookie Jimmy Clausen is forced to make plays. Look for the Panthers to feed Jonathan Stewart, who has averaged 107 yards rushing over the last three weeks. Mike Goodson has scored in three straight games. Defensively, the Cardinals must concentrate on stopping the run. The Cardinals have been scoring defensive touchdowns in bunches this year, six off of fumbles, which is bad news for the Panthers, who have the second-highest giveaway total in the NFL (32) behind the Giants (33). Clausen has to protect the football. In many ways, he’s playing to keep his job next year. If the Panthers lose Sunday, they probably won’t win again this year, with road games upcoming against Pittsburgh and Atlanta. That means the Panthers would secure the No. 1 pick overall and probably take quarterback Andrew Luck from Stanford.
On offense, Arizona must protect QB John Skelton, who is making his second career start. The Panthers ought to pressure Skelton, who wasn’t tested by the Broncos last week. Defensively, the Panthers are pretty banged up. The Panthers now have 14 players on injured reserve. It looks like Panthers CB Chris Gamble will start and face Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is as good as ever, but the Cards have trouble getting him the ball. He caught six passes last week despite being open a lot more than that. Cardinals LT Levi Brown must slow down Carolina DE Charles Johnson, who has 8.5 sacks and a team-high 24 quarterback hurries.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Both of these teams could be looking for new quarterbacks in the offseason. The Cardinals still haven’t gotten over the retirement of Kurt Warner and don’t know what the future really holds. QB Derek Anderson has not been cleared medically to play following a concussion.
What has hurt the Cardinals most is that some veteran players haven’t produced this season. ROLB Joey Porter was signed in free agency to provide an outside rush. However, he has just five sacks and hasn't been able to consistently bring pressure. Left outside linebacker Clark Haggans, also 33, has been hampered by a groin injury and hasn’t made much of an impact. Gerald Hayes, the strong inside linebacker, was ineffective after coming off the PUP list and has lost his starting job to Daryl Washington. Hayes, 30, may not be back with the team next season.
Arizona PK Jay Feely scored 25 points in the win against the Broncos, the second most for a kicker in league history. Tennessee's Rob Bironas had 26 in 2007.
Detroit at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Bucs are still alive in the wild-card race because QB Josh Freeman has thrown only six interceptions. The Bucs have gotten huge contributions from rookies like running back LeGarrette Blount and receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, who is coming off a career-high 122-receiving-yard effort against the Redskins. But the team has been decimated by injuries, having lost six starters in the past three games and are undergoing their seventh different offensive line alignment. Bucs rookie guard Derek Hardman will do his best to contain Lions DT Ndamukong Suh. Hardman played tackle at Eastern Kentucky and has been moved to guard, where he started last week at Washington. He struggled early in the game but got a little better as the day wore on. Look for the Bucs to use center Jeremy Zuttah on Suh as well.
The Lions have lost 26 straight games on the road and to turn the tide, coach Jim Schwartz may start QB Shaun Hill, looking to spark his offense. If Hill isn’t successful, the Lions can go back to Drew Stanton. WR Calvin Johnson should benefit if Hill can play and throw accurately. With talented Bucs CB Aqib Talib out for the season, Johnson should have an easy time against CB E.J. Biggers. Despite the revolving door of QBs, Johnson leads the Lions with 63 catches for 916 yards.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Bucs are 8-0 this season against teams with losing records.
The big news in Tampa this week was the arrest of LB Geno Hayes for disorderly conduct and trespassing. “I apologize to the fans, this organization and I promise you it won’t happen again,” Hayes. “I’m ready for Sunday. Let’s get these Lions.” Hayes was arrested around 2 a.m. Monday morning outside the Blue Martini nightclub in Tampa after an alleged altercation with police. An officer reportedly attempted to subdue him using a Taser, then tackled him when the device proved ineffective through Hayes’ thick coat.
Freeman defended coach Raheem Morris, who has taken some heat for three player arrests this season, plus the season-long suspension of safety Tanard Jackson. TE Jerramy Stevens was released after his arrest. “We need to take care of business off the field,” Freeman said. “It doesn’t speak well on the type of coach Raheem is. He is a great coach. Everybody has the utmost respect for Raheem, and the talk’s really just been, ‘We’ve got to stop screwing this guy over by getting in trouble off the field.' In every one of these circumstances, it’s all on the player. His job is to coach us and put us in position to win football games. And he's done that.”
Atlanta at Seattle, 4:05 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Falcons have a 3,000-yard passer (Matt Ryan — 3,147 yards), a 1,000-yard runner, (Michael Turner— 1,174), and a 1,000-yard receiver (Roddy White — 1,219). That’s why Seattle is going to have trouble on defense, especially with safety Jordan Babineaux being moved to covering the slot receiver. You can bet that Ryan will test Babineaux early. Then there’s future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez, who has 68 catches for 565 yards. The Falcons love to run over their right side behind RT Tyson Clabo and RG Harvey Dahl. Clabo will also have the tough assignment of checking pass rusher Chris Clemons, who has 9.5 sacks. Clabo was beaten last week for a sack.
Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck, who tossed four interceptions last week, will have his two starting receivers, (Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu) back in the lineup after a one-week absence. Hasselbeck is 3-1 against the Falcons lifetime. If there is one knock on the mighty Falcons is that they give up too many yards on defense, but they are allowing only 18.7 points per game (seventh-best in the NFL). Hasselbeck better be careful, too, because Atlanta is a takeaway machine with 16 interceptions. Seattle needs their special teams, particularly Leon Washington, to give them a boost.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, 49, has let it be known that he’s interested in becoming a head coach again. There could be a number of openings next year — Cincinnati, San Francisco, Denver and Carolina — and Mularkey’s name has already popped up in Denver. Mularkey was head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2004 and 2005. He was 9-7 in 2004, Buffalo’s last winning season before dropping to 5-11. Under Mularkey, Atlanta’s offense finished sixth in total offense (361.2 yards) in 2008 and is currently ranked No. 9 overall with 355.8 yards per game. Mularkey and assistant head coach/quarterbacks Bill Musgrave have been credited with the development of Matt Ryan and with helping head coach Mike Smith guide the Falcons to three straight winning seasons.
Jason Snelling, the team’s second leading rusher, returns to help take the load off Michael Turner, who’s rushed 52 times for 200 yards and four TDs in the last two games. Seattle’s run defense gives up 119.2 yards per game, which ranks 20th in the league. Seahawks safety Babineaux and younger brother Jonathan Babineaux, a defensive tackle for Atlanta, will meet for the third time in the NFL in a rubber match. The two are 1-1 so far when their teams meet. Jordan said he and his brother have about 25 people from their hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, flying to the game.
Seattle has made a league-high 266 transactions since January. Only 22 members of Seattle's 53-man roster were with the team last year.
Other Sunday games
Kansas City at St. Louis, 1 p.m. ET: The Chiefs expect to have QB Matt Cassel available just 11 days after an appendectomy. Cassel said he felt great last night, but how much punishment can he take once he takes the field? The Chiefs have won nine straight vs. NFC West opponents. With the Chargers winning Thursday, the Chiefs need a win to remain a game ahead in the AFC West race. After being the hottest receiver in November with 37 catches and eight TDs, Dwayne Bowe has just one catch for three yards in his last two games. The Chiefs are tied with New England with an NFL-low nine giveaways.
Buffalo at Miami, 1 p.m. ET: Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown combined for 200 rushing yards in last year’s game in South Florida. The Bills are playing better, winning three of their last five games, and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is making a case to keep the starting job next season. He’s thrown 21 TD passes since replacing Trent Edwards with Stevie Johnson serving as his main man with Lee Evans out. Miami figures to slow down RB Fred Jackson, but the Dolphins have scored only 10 points in their last two games. The Bills need to pressure Dolphins QB Chad Henne, who was sacked five times and lost two fumbles last week.
Houston at Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET: The Texans are 3-1 in their last four against the Titans. RB Arian Foster rushed for 143 yards in a 20-0 win over Tennessee at home on Nov. 28. Foster is currently leading the NFL in rushing, and if he finishes with the title he’ll join Priest Holmes as the only undrafted player since the advent of the common draft in 1967 to accomplish that feat. Houston’s Matt Schaub has thrown for eight TDs and no interceptions in his last three games against Tennessee. Conversely, the Titans have been struggling on offense. 2009 rushing champ Chris Johnson trails Foster by 193 rushing yards.
Jacksonville at Indianapolis, 1 p.m. ET: About 2,000 fans were at the airport on Saturday to cheer off the Jaguars, who can win the AFC South with a win today. The Colts haven’t been swept by a division rival in eight seasons. Five of the past six meetings have been decided by four points or less. However, the Jaguars’ two biggest offensive stars, QB David Garrard and RB Maurice Jones-Drew, missed a lot of practice time this week because of hamstring and knee injuries, respectively. The Jags re-signed backup QB Todd Bouman just in case. Jaguars PK Josh Scobee has had fluid drained from his left knee. This figures to be a high-scoring game as both teams are hurting in the secondary. Peyton Manning gets WR Austin Collie back and his next 300-yard passing game will be his 64th, a new NFL record. Meanwhile, coach Jim Caldwell is pleading for his fans to cheer louder because the new Lucas Oil Stadium doesn’t hold the noise level as well as the old RCA Dome.
Cleveland at Cincinnati, 1 p.m. ET: Terrell Owens is on pace to collect on $1 million worth of incentives in his contract, but he infuriated coaches and teammates with comments on his Versus reality show that the 2-11 Bengals were “underachieving from the top down.” That included owner Mike Brown, the coaches and then the players before circling back to the coaching staff. The Bengals have won nine of the last 12 games against the Browns, but they also have lost 10 straight games overall. Bengals QB Carson Palmer has thrown five pick-sixes this season, and his 15 since 2004 are an NFL-high.
Denver at Oakland, 4:15 p.m. ET: The Broncos are going to get their first serious look at rookie QB Tim Tebow, who makes his first NFL start with Kyle Orton’s ribs too sore to play. The Broncos have won six of their last seven games here, but the Raiders are still alive in the playoff race and figure to make amends. Raiders RB Darren McFadden is coming off a 123-yard rushing game. He ran for three TDs and 165 yards when the Raiders won at Denver, 59-14. McFadden needs seven rushing yards to become Oakland’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Fargas in 2007. The Broncos are still on track to hire John Elway for a front-office position once the season ends.
N.Y. Jets at Pittsburgh, 4:15 p.m. ET: Jets QB Mark Sanchez has thrown an interception in eight consecutive games, but the good news for him is that Pittsburgh’s great safety Troy Polamalu will be sidelined with an Achilles injury. Sanchez, who was sacked six times in Miami last week, is going to have to make some plays because the Steelers allow a league-low 60 rushing yards per game. The Jets are 0-6 all-time in Pittsburgh, but figure to put pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger, who has been decked 17 times in his last four starts.
Green Bay at New England, 8:20 p.m. ET: Since being upset by the Browns, the Patriots have won five straight. In last week’s drubbing of the Bears, Deion Branch and Wes Welker combined for 16 catches and 266 of Tom Brady’s 369 passing yards. It was the first time this season the Patriots' two receivers collected more than 100 yards each. In the last five games, Brady has completed 72 percent of his passes for an astounding 132.5 passer rating. His last interception was nine games ago. The bad news for Green Bay is that Matt Flynn will be starting for Aaron Rodgers, who suffered his second concussion of the season last week. Brady also enjoys a 26-game home winning streak.