WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Back in September, the Bucs beat the Falcons 16-13 while holding Falcons RB Michael Turner to 20 yards on 11 carries. The Falcons want to get their groove back and plan to play their starters to get a win, regardless of what happens in the early games. They were embarrassed by the Saints on Monday night and want to go into the playoffs feeling good about their chances. So look for Matt Ryan, who needs 79 yards to beat Jeff George’s single-season Falcons passing total, to come out throwing. Rookie WR Julio Jones needs 117 receiving yards to reach 1,000, and he’s already had five 100-yard games despite missing three games with hamstring injuries.
Bucs QB Josh Freeman wants to use the shotgun, but he figures to be minus WR Arrelious Benn. The Bucs have been frustrated with RB LeGarrette Blount’s three lost fumbles, but they’d like him to end the season on a high note. It’s been a difficult season for Freeman, whose protection has broken down, while hand injuries have impacted his passes for at least half the season. Falcons OLB Spencer Adkins will make his first start, in place of Mike Peterson, who suffered a torn triceps Monday night.
CZAR’S SCOOP: With dismal home crowds, many expect the Glazer family to pull the plug on Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. Regardless, there will be staff changes. If Morris is fired, many wonder if veteran CB Ronde Barber, who likes Morris, will decide to retire. GM Mark Dominik appears to be safe because his personnel operation is run on a shoestring budget.
There’s been a lot of speculation among pro scouts that Atlanta’s Turner is losing a step.
Many in the league have been praising Falcons coach Mike Smith for not making a big deal about the Saints and Drew Brees going for Dan Marino’s record in the second half and with the game Monday night well in hand.
Here’s an interesting personnel stat: The Bucs are 0-7 since getting Albert Haynesworth, while the Patriots — you guessed it — are 7-0.
Seattle at Arizona, 4:15 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Well, only one of these teams will finish with an 8-8 record. The Cardinals have rallied to win six times while facing fourth-quarter deficits, and the team has responded to backup QB John Skelton, who has secured a position for next season. The outcome figures to be decided by which team has the more productive running back: Beanie Wells already is at 1,047 yards with 10 TDs, while Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch has rushed for 855 yards since Week 9.
Both teams are playing pretty well on defense. The Seahawks may have the best young secondary in the NFL, while the Cardinals probably have a better front seven that Seattle. The Cardinals had a four-game winning streak snapped by the Bengals last week, while the Seahawks are coming off a tough home loss to the 49ers. The key to the game will be if Skelton has time to go deep to WR Larry Fitzgerald, who is averaging 17.8 yards a catch. Arizona rookie CB Patrick Peterson (Achilles) wants to play, but he will be a game-time decision.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Seahawks have said all the right things regarding QB Tarvaris Jackson’s long-term status with the team. But eventually the bottom-line thinkers must come to grips with the queston of whether Jackson could beat either Rodgers or Brees in a playoff game. Seattle’s turnaround has been aided by an improved defense and Marshawn Lynch’s running, not by Jackson’s quarterback play. Coach Pete Carroll keeps saying that Jackson is the solution at the position, but you have to question those words.
QB Kevin Kolb, who cost the Cardinals money, a draft pick and a starting cornerback, will miss his seventh game of the season to injury, but the club has decided to pay his March bonus and give him another chance next season.
OTHER SUNDAY GAMES
NY Jets at Miami, 1 p.m. ET: The Dolphins have a much better offense than the one that was trampled by Rex Ryan’s team 24-6 in Week 6. Miami’s Matt Moore is comfortable at quarterback, and he’s being aggressive downfield. However, the Dolphins lost red-hot RB Reggie Bush — four straight 100-yard games — to a sprained right knee. There’s a lot of talk about Ryan making some changes to his offensive staff in the new year, and we’ll see how that affects QB Mark Sanchez and New York’s passing game. The Jets still have a playoff shot. And it sounds like LaDainian Tomlinson wants to play next season; it just won’t be with New York.
Buffalo at New England, 1 p.m. ET: The Bills shocked the Patriots back in September, but they have lost 10 straight in Foxborough. Patriots QB Tom Brady will start despite a bruised left shoulder that caused him to miss two practice days this week. Brady is 190 passing yards behind the Saints’ Drew Brees, who set the single-season mark in Week 16. New England’s porous defense must cope with Bills RB C.J. Spiller, who has rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns over the last two games.
Baltimore at Cincinnati, 1 p.m. ET: Bengals rookie QB Andy Dalton threw three interceptions when losing to the Ravens before Thanksgiving, but fellow rookie WR A.J. Green missed that game and his deep-threat ability could be a turn-around factor today. The Bengals are 0-3 against the Steelers and Ravens this season. Ravens QB Joe Flacco will be minus WR Anquan Boldin, and you can bet the Bengals will be loading up to stop RB Ray Rice, who had 147 rushing-receiving yards and two TDs in the teams’ first meeting in Week 11. Cincinnati’s pass rush is much improved, too.
Pittsburgh at Cleveland, 1 p.m. ET: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger wants to play with his left ankle sprain, but how much sense does that make? Can’t the Steelers beat the Browns and backup QB Seneca Wallace with their own backup Charlie Batch? The Steelers could end up with 12 wins and still not get a first-round bye. Browns RB Peyton Hillis has run for 211 yards over the past two games. The Steelers did struggle in the first meeting (winning 14-3 in Week 14), with RB Rashard Mendenhall unable to score on four straight attempts from inside Cleveland’s 3-yard line.
Tennessee at Houston, 1 p.m. ET: Win or lose, the Texans are going to be the AFC’s No. 3 seed. But they would like to have some momentum going into the playoffs after losing to Carolina and woeful Indianapolis in back-to-back games. Rookie QB T.J. Yates has been a 60-percent passer, but head coach Gary Kubiak isn’t allowing him to do too much, and it’s cost the team a win or two. Getting WR Andre Johnson and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips back on the sidelines is good news for Houston. The Titans are still alive, but one scenario they need is for the Chargers to upset the Raiders in Oakland.
Indianapolis at Jacksonville, 1 p.m. ET:The Colts are close to blowing the No. 1 pick. Colts QB Dan Orlovsky (5 TD passes, 2 INT in three starts) played well in December, especially in the fourth quarter, and now Indy is looking at ending the season with three straight wins. Orlovsky’s wife gave birth to triplets on Wednesday, all boys. When the Jaguars won in Indy in Week 10, Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL’s leading rusher with 1,437 yards, dominated the game, and that’s their lone hope again, considering an anemic passing game. Jones-Drew would like to break Fred Taylor’s single-season Jaguars mark of 1,572 yards.
Kansas City at Denver, 4:15 p.m. ET: The Broncos pounded the Chiefs into submission with 244 rushing yards on 55 carries on Nov. 13. The amazing thing was that leading rusher Willis McGahee, who has gone over 1,000 yards with three NFL teams, was limited that game by a sore hamstring. Kyle Orton returns to Denver and would like to show local fans he’s a better throwing quarterback than Tim Tebow, who is completing 48 percent of his passes. Tebow has accounted for 18 touchdowns, 11 fumbles and been sacked 30 times. The Chiefs put power RB Jackie Battle on IR Saturday.
San Diego at Oakland, 4:15 p.m. ET: The Raiders still have a plausible chance at a wild-card spot even if Denver wins the division. The Raiders need to win, with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the Jets all winning on Sunday. That scenario puts Oakland in the playoffs. Still no RB Darren McFadden for the Raiders, while Norv Turner likely is coaching his last game for the Chargers, who had no answer for Detroit’s Stafford last Sunday. Chargers QB Philip Rivers has a career-high 24 turnovers this season. The Raiders need four penalties to set a single-season NFL record.
Dallas at NY Giants, 8:30 p.m. ET: The Cowboys have been self-destructing all season, blowing five fourth-quarter leads of 12 points or more, but only QB Tony Romo knows if he can overcome a painful right hand and throw deep against a questionable Giants secondary. The winner captures the NFC East and will host a wild-card playoff game next Sunday. To win, the Cowboys must stop New York’s running game while hoping that Romo will have time to throw and avoid pressure from Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. Right now, though, there might not be a hotter combination than Giants QB Eli Manning to WR Victor Cruz. The Cowboys have lost six straight Sunday night specials, and five of their last six games against the Giants.