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NFL Week 17 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 Chicago Bears can thank Joe Webb for this predicament.

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Had the virtually unknown Minnesota rookie quarterback not beaten the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday night, the Bears would have a first-round playoff bye at stake today at Lambeau Field.

Instead, the Vikings and Webb gift-wrapped the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs to the Bears when they embarrassed the Eagles. So, now the Bears’ visit north is merely a trip based on pride, not incentive.

But instead of resting starters after a quarter or maybe a half of football, the Bears should be playing to knock the Green Bay Packers out of the playoffs altogether. I mean, why would the Bears want to risk their Super Bowl dreams on having to beat these pesky Packers again? In fact, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks like the scariest quarterback entering the playoffs. The Bears should do everyone a favor and take him down.

Yes, that may sound ridiculous when Rodgers has lost the only playoff game he’s ever played. But did you see him throw for 404 yards last Sunday? He wiped out the Giants defense, the group being credited with devising the scheme to bring Michael Vick down even though they were unable to finish the job themselves.

Chicago fans, well aware it was the Giants who gave quarterback Jay Cutler a nine-sack concussion earlier in the season, are asking why beat Green Bay and thus allow New York to get into the playoffs? Pretty simple answer: Rodgers scares more teams than Eli Manning does.

Bears coach Lovie Smith has been pretty coy about his plans regarding playing his starters and about how serious he is about trying to win the game. Yes, backups such as receiver Earl Bennett won’t play, but he's said nothing definitive about his aging linebackers, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher.

But it makes so much sense for Smith to go for broke, finish with 12 wins and maintain the momentum built up in the second half of the season. Chicago’s only blemish in its past eight games was the trouncing by the Patriots in Week 14.

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Believe me, if the Bears can beat the Packers at Lambeau, they would leave Wisconsin knowing they can beat anybody, even if it means going to Atlanta for the championship game in three weeks. That’s the mindset Smith should want to instill in his players. There’s no reason to have the mindset of resting and escaping Wisconsin with no more injuries. The best thing about football is displaying one’s dominance.

We’ll find out pretty soon what kind of statement the Bears want to make entering the playoffs.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Saints rushed for a season-high 212 yards in a 31-6 win over the Bucs on October 17, probably the worst game of the season for Tampa Bay. And they should expect more of the same with both Saints running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas ready to rumble. The Bucs are down five defensive starters from that first meeting. The Saints would like to build a good lead in the first half in order to give QB Drew Brees a break on the sidelines in the second half. Brees is on a bad streak of throwing an interception in 11 straight games, plus he has five games with multiple picks this season. Brees will be short-handed in the passing game with WR Marques Colston and tight ends Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas sidelined.

To counter the Saints, the Bucs will want to run rookie LeGarrette Blount, who has 941 yards and six touchdowns despite few carries in the first six games of the season. Blount is a 248-pounder whose physical style helps set up the play-action game of QB Josh Freeman, who has 23 TDs and only six interceptions. Freeman’s favorite targets are rookie WR Mike Williams and TE Kellen Winslow, who have combined for 15 TD catches.

CZAR’S SCOOP: One thing you can say about Saints coach Sean Payton, who turned 47 on Wednesday, is he makes some remarkable decisions that generally pay huge dividends. Remember when he benched kicker Garrett Hartley for missing a 29-yard field goal in overtime against the Falcons in Week 3? Well, Hartley redeemed himself in the big win over the Falcons on Monday night by nailing a career-long 52-yarder. He’s converted 13 of his last 14 attempts.

Bucs coach Raheem Morris could benefit from a voting backlash against Chiefs coach Todd Haley’s ego when AP voters pick their Coach of the Year. The Bucs were pegged as a three or four-win team this season, but with Morris leading the way and Freeman performing, they are 9-6. A year ago, there was talk that Morris might be a one-and-done coach. He has since made a remarkable recovery, and now ownership is looking at picking up his option, as well as that of GM Mark Dominik. The team also has its two most valuable assistants signed through the 2011 in offensive coordinator Greg Olson and offensive line coach Pete Mangurian.

Bucs RB Cadillac Williams said he plans to test free agency next season.

Carolina at Atlanta, 1 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Look for the Falcons to attempt to get the running game rolling as they head into the playoffs. The Panthers allow 125.5 yards a game. The Falcons need to feed Michael Turner, who was held to 48 yards on 17 carries by the upstart Saints on Monday night. Excluding his 27-yard romp, Turner averaged 1.3 yards on the other 16 carries. The Saints put eight defenders in the box and dared Matt Ryan to beat them, and he couldn’t. The Panthers can’t do the same thing because they are not as talented in the secondary as New Orleans. The Falcons will not take the 2-13 Panthers for granted, especially after watching Minnesota upset Philadelphia. Panthers DE Charles Johnson has had a sack in six straight games, and Falcons RT Tyson Clabo will have his hands full. Johnson has 11.5 sacks on the season. The Falcons need to return to dominating the time of possession and converting on third down, something they failed to do against the Saints. The Saints limited the Falcons to just 3-for-12 in that department on Monday of Week 16.

To keep the game close, the Panthers need RB Jonathan Stewart to duplicate his 133-yard performance in the first meeting. There’s a good chance that Carolina WR Steve Smith won’t play, further hampering rookie QB Jimmy Clausen, who is 1-8 with a QB rating of 56.8, worst in the NFL. Clausen has thrown only two TD passes with eight interceptions and has been sacked 30 times. Two of his eight picks have been returned for scores.

CZAR’S SCOOP: With John Fox coaching his final game with the Panthers, the club is expected to conduct interviews this week with prospective head-coaching candidates. Rob Ryan, defensive coordinator of the Browns, is on the list and possibly San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. There is no doubt that owner Jerry Richardson prefers to stay away from the high-profile coaches who would demand twice as much as an assistant coach. Arizona’s Russ Grimm could also be a candidate.

The Falcons are prepared to reward a very deserving Mike Smith with a raise and contract extension. A first-time head coach, Smith has never had a losing season in three years while putting together one of the most complete coaching staffs in the NFL.

Minnesota at Detroit, 1 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Although everyone expects QB Joe Webb to start, the Vikings continue to not rule out Brett Favre in what could potentially be his final NFL game. The Vikings are also saying that Favre did pass a preliminary concussion test. Whoever quarterbacks the Vikings will be minus WR Sidney Rice (concussion) and possibly Bernard Berrian, who pulled a quad muscle on Saturday. Berrian will be a game-time decision. Detroit must deal with RB Adrian Peterson, who ran for 160 yards and two TDs in Week 3. Peterson has averaged 131 yards in seven career games against Detroit, which has won three straight games. Defensively, Detroit has prepared for Favre, just in case. Lions MLB DeAndre Levy, who scored a touchdown last week, has made 59 tackles in his last nine games. Lions DT Ndamukong Suh should have an easier time going against Vikings RG Ryan Cook. Suh is looking to get two sacks in order to break Dana Stubblefield’s rookie record of 10.5.

QB Shaun Hill will start again for the Lions and remains bothered by a sore right index finger. WR Calvin Johnson is expected to start despite missing practice all week. The Lions did catch a break with Minnesota playing on Tuesday night in Philly and basically having only two practice days to prepare for this game.

CZAR’S SCOOP: While Vikings owner Zygi Wilf is working toward giving Leslie Frazier the permanent tag as head coach, it should be noted that linebackers coach Fred Pagac devised the corner blitz scheme and called the defense Tuesday night in the upset of Michael Vick and the Eagles. Pagac’s defense worked to perfection against the Eagles because it protected a rather shaky secondary while utilizing CB Antoine Winfield at what he does best — attack and tackle.

There are some in the Minnesota organization who would have preferred that the Wilfs had opened up the coaching search. Frazier is well-liked among the players for two reasons: One, he’s not Brad Childress, and two, he’s laid back and truly a player’s coach. Frazier’s record as the interim coach is 3-2, including two road wins.

Because the Vikings are short on receivers, they signed Juaquin Iglesias off of the Bears’ practice squad. He was the 99th pick in the 2009 draft but has been active for only one game in his career.

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NFL ON FOX GAMES: Chicago at Green Bay, 4:15 p.m. ET

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Packers’ passing game hit on all cylinders last Sunday against the Giants as Aaron Rodgers passed for four scores. The Packers’ receiving corps is not a good matchup for Chicago’s cover-two scheme. The Bears don’t have enough speed in the secondary to stay with Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Chicago is hopeful that good field conditions, which don't exist at Soldier Field, will allow them to get consistent pressure on Rodgers with their four-man defensive line. Julius Peppers could be a big mismatch against Green Bay RT Bryan Bulaga when he flops to that side.

On the flip side, Chicago’s offensive line has played better, allowing only five sacks of Jay Cutler in the last three games. B.J. Raji has developed into a dominant inside pass rusher to go with superstar OLB Clay Matthews. The Packers haven’t had an answer, either, for Bears WR Johnny Knox, who has averaged almost 24 yards per catch on his last 11 catches vs. Green Bay. The Packers are still struggling to find a consistent running game with Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn. One problem for the Packers is making sure they don’t punt to Devin Hester, who has three TD returns on the season. Since the 1970 merger, this series is tied 41-41.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Bears coach Lovie Smith could strongly change his course for this game if the unbelievable would to happen — both the Falcons and Saints get upset, thus giving the Bears a shot at home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win. “We’re going to try to win the game,” Smith said. “None of that has anything to do with what we’re doing. We’ll get into the game, and see what’s going on during the course of the game. We want to go into the playoffs on a high as much as anything.”

There has been talk within the Bears organization about giving Smith, who has one year remaining on his contract, an extension. In his seven years in the league, only Andy Reid (67) and Tom Coughlin (64) have won more regular-season games than Smith’s 63. There are others who question the wisdom of granting Smith a two- or three-year extension when no other team is clamoring for his services. Bears GM Jerry Angelo has a contract with two seasons remaining.

Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz is hoping to get some interviews for any head-coaching vacancies. The Packers have already received some feelers from potential special teams coaches should Shawn Slocum not be retained after this season. The Packers’ special teams have ranked near the bottom in the league the past two seasons.

N.Y. Giants at Washington, 4:15 p.m. ET

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: There is no secret to this game. Whoever runs the ball better will win. The Giants will make their seventh different offensive line change of the season as Shaun O’Hara won’t play and Rich Seubert will start at center. David Diehl will play left guard and Shawn Andrews will go at left tackle after taking a shot of Toradol for his back. This could be Andrews’ last game. In their nine wins, the Giants have outrushed their opponents 1,533 to 668. It is essential that RBs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw remain patient behind their line, looking for openings. Eli Manning has only one solid receiver in Mario Manningham, and he’ll be guarded by Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall. Hakeem Nicks will miss another game for the Giants. The Giants are currently playoff longshots partially because of their 41 turnovers this season; Manning has 24 interceptions. When the Giants beat the Redskins 31-7 on Dec. 5, they rushed for 197 yards, were also plus-5 in the turnover department and controlled the ball for over 34 minutes.

The Redskins will counter with RB Ryan Torain, who has averaged 4.7 yards a carry this season, while Rex Grossman continues to start at quarterback. Giants CB Corey Webster will be a game-time decision, and that could be good news for Santana Moss, who leads the Redskins with 84 catches and six touchdowns. Washington pass rusher Brian Orakpo returns to the starting lineup. CB Phillip Buchanon starts for injured Carlos Rogers in the Washington secondary.

CZAR’S SCOOP: All week Giants players have come to the defense of Tom Coughlin, saying ownership should blame their head coach for this two-game collapse that probably will cost New York a playoff berth. Even Redskins coach Mike Shanahan took exception with any media buzz that Coughlin’s job should be in jeopardy. “You just kind of scratch your head,” Shanahan said in a conference call. “They have one heck of a football coach that’s won very consistently and just won the Super Bowl a few years back. These people understand. If they watch the game film and they watch Michael Vick in a few of the plays, you just have to laugh as a coach and say, ‘How does a human being make those many plays?’ He’s the only guy who could bring a team back like that. I don’t think I’ve seen a comeback like that with one player being the difference in the many years that I’ve been in the league.”

DT Barry Cofield won the 10th annual “George Young Good Guy Award,” given to a player who consistently provides the members of the media with outstanding cooperation on a daily basis. Cofield edged out Rich Seubert.

Suspended DT Albert Haynesworth is expected at Redskins Park this week to take his exit interview and meet with club officials.

Dallas at Philadelphia, 4:15 p.m. ET

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Offensively, the Cowboys must sustain a running game in order to protect unproven QB Stephen McGee, who will focus on his two healthy pass options, TE Jason Witten and WR Miles Austin. McGee is an effective passer on quick slants while the Eagles will want to force him from the pocket and make him throw on the run. Veteran QB Jon Kitna has a strained oblique muscle in his left abdomen. He tried to throw on Friday and was only about 60 percent. The Cowboys signed former UFL quarterback Chris Greisen, who passed for five TDs while leading the Florida Tuskers to the title game.

Kevin Kolb will start for injured Eagles QB Michael Vick, who will sit because of a quad bruise. You can bet Kolb will be looking to burn a Dallas secondary that has allowed eight receivers to top 100 yards this season. DeSean Jackson had four catches for 210 yards in the first game, including a 91-yarder in which he took a showboating plunge into the end zone. Eagles LT Jason Peters had a rough time with Jared Allen on Tuesday night and now must deal with Cowboys LB DeMarcus Ware, who has 12.5 sacks on the season.

CZAR’S SCOOP: There is still no positive word that Jason Garrett will be elevated to the permanent head-coaching position with the Cowboys even if his team beats the Eagles. It will be curious if owner Jerry Jones will allow Garrett to interview for other openings while navigating through the interview process with a couple of big-name head coaching possibilities like Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher and Cleveland’s Mike Holmgren.

After no turnovers in his first six starts, Vick has six interceptions and three lost fumbles in his last six games. In 80 career starts, Vick has fumbled 66 times. The Eagles are locked into the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs regardless of the outcome of this game. There is no question that Vick needs the day off because he’s been getting hit on a regular basis now that he has become a pocket passer.

With rookie MLB Jamar Chaney playing so well, the Eagles will look to have him on the field in the playoffs as much as possible, even with the expected return of Stewart Bradley from a dislocated elbow.

Arizona at San Francisco, 4:15 p.m. ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The 49ers physically dominated the Cardinals in the first game, but there’s no Frank Gore this time around. Plus, how much gas is in Brian Westbrook’s tank? And rookie RB Anthony Dixon has a bad ankle. The Cardinals have lost three straight to the 49ers, who will start Alex Smith in possibly his last game at Candlestick Park. Defensively, the Cardinals are using four linemen on more snaps, and that plan likely will continue this week. Cardinals CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie must contain 49ers WR Michael Crabtree, who burned him for a 38-yard TD in the first game. The Cardinals do have one positive going for them. They have returned 12 turnovers for touchdowns this season, one short of the Seattle’s NFL record set in 2003.

On offense, the Cardinals need young QB John Skelton to concentrate on getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who was targeted just once last week. There is no question that the Cardinals are second-guessing their decision to sign Derek Anderson and wondering why they weren’t better prepared to replace Kurt Warner, especially after everyone in the organization knew Matt Leinart wasn’t the answer.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh remains the top choice of the 49ers to replace the fired Mike Singletary as head coach. In fact, there are rumors that owner Jed York is willing to offer Harbaugh an overall package of $40 million. But one serious hang-up for Harbaugh is York’s interest in promoting Trent Baalke to general manager. Baalke’s promotion could be a deal breaker. Harbaugh would prefer to have the NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi as his right-hand man handling personnel. Lombardi, who had success in Philadelphia and Oakland, started his personnel career in San Francisco under Bill Walsh. He and Harbaugh are great friends.

If Harbaugh does get a great financial deal from the 49ers, you can bet that his brother, John, will be interested in the final numbers. The Ravens head coach is heading to the playoffs for a third consecutive season and is deserving of a raise — or at least Jim Harbaugh money. The 49ers have four pending free agents among their defensive starters; linebackers Takeo Spikes and Manny Lawson, Aubrayo Franklin and safety Dashon Goldson. “This probably will be the last time that we're together as a whole,” Spikes said. The 49ers will also want to reduce CB Nate Clements’ $7.5 million salary for next season.

San Francisco LB Patrick Willis, will miss his first ever NFL start after X-rays showed the broken bone in his right hand became misaligned in last week’s loss to the Rams. Willis hasn’t missed a start since his junior season at Ole Miss. With Alex and Troy Smith not guaranteed of jobs next season, third-stringer Nate Davis could be the one San Francisco quarterback returning.

Other Sunday games

San Diego at Denver, 4:15 p.m. ET: The Broncos are hoping to avoid a franchise-record 12th loss against a Chargers team that has nothing but stats to play for, like QB Philip Rivers trying to add to a career-high 4,397 passing yards. Rivers will have receivers Vincent Jackson, who is playing for a contract, and Malcolm Floyd to throw to against a Denver secondary that could be minus Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. Broncos rookie QB Tim Tebow is coming off his first 300-yard passing game of his career as he tries to prove his worth for next season. Based on his play, the Broncos may decide to keep Tebow and part ways with injured Kyle Orton for next season.

Tennessee at Indianapolis, 4:15 p.m. ET: The Titans have lost 12 of their last 15 games against Peyton Manning and this time around they will have to stop an invigorated Colts rushing attack. The Colts retained their AFC South crown by running over the Jaguars and Raiders in consecutive weeks (346 yards combined) as all three backs — Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes and Donald Brown — are all healthy again. Who knows what owner Bud Adams will do with coach Jeff Fisher, who has one year remaining on his contract? The Titans have lost seven of their last eight games. Titans QB Kerry Collins, 38, is unsigned for next season as he makes final start for the injured Vince Young.

Jacksonville at Houston, 4:15 p.m. ET: This is another meaningless game with the Jaguars starting QB Trent Edwards for David Garrard and the offense also minus RB Maurice Jones-Drew. The Texans will go without WR Andre Johnson, who will have surgery on his right ankle next week. The Texans will be motivated to help RB Arian Foster (1,436 yards) win the NFL rushing title. The Texans were undone this season by a pass defense that allowed 277 yards a game and the big news in Houston is that fired Dallas coach Wade Phillips could replace Frank Bush as the defensive coordinator, thus saving Gary Kubiak’s job for another season. The Jaguars have won the past three meetings.

St. Louis at Seattle, 8:20 p.m. ET: The Rams go for a sweep of the season series, which would mean a NFC West title and a home playoff game next Saturday. The Seahawks are hoping by game time that QB Matt Hasselbeck (hip) will play despite not practicing all week. Charlie Whitehurst is more mobile, but Hasselbeck is more accurate down the field and a passing game is necessary considering the Seahawks average a league-low 85 yards rushing per game. Seattle has been outscored by 58 points during their three-game losing streak while Rams QB Sam Bradford has set an NFL rookie record with 335 completions. He also has a chance to be the first QB picked No. 1 overall in the draft to lead his team to the playoffs in his rookie season. Bradford does have a deep weapon in Missouri rookie WR Danario Alexander, who was drafted low because of three different ACL surgeries to his left knee. Alexander is averaging 17.2 yards a catch.

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Titans, Colts, Chiefs, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Chargers, Texans, Michael Vick, Nate Clements, Brian Urlacher, Jon Kitna, Chad Johnson, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Brian Dawkins, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck, Champ Bailey, Steve Smith Sr., Mike Williams, David Garrard, Shaun Hill, Brian Westbrook, Rich Seubert, Jason Witten, Andre Johnson, David Diehl, Shawn Andrews, Eli Manning, Michael Turner, Jason Peters, Aaron Rodgers, Vincent Jackson, Frank Gore, Alex Smith, Alex Smith, Mike Williams, Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, John Kuhn, David Thomas, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler, Ryan Cook, Troy Smith, Steve Smith, Brandon Jackson, James Jones, Charles Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis, Joe Flacco, DeSean Jackson, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne, Matt Ryan, Stevie Johnson, Peyton Hillis, Ryan Torain, Garrett Hartley, Nate Davis, Mark Sanchez, Michael Crabtree, Brian Orakpo, Donald Brown, Brian Hoyer, Joe Webb, Tim Tebow, John Skelton, Sam Bradford

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