WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Cardinals complicated their NFC West-clinching scenarios by losing to the 49ers on Monday night, but another win and a 49ers loss in Philadelphia will give them a second straight title. QB Kurt Warner is coming off a subpar game, and he generally follows those efforts with a super game, and the Lions’ overall effort has been awful lately. They are allowing 400 yards a game on defense, and the offense sputtered last week with Daunte Culpepper, and now Mo Morris will be the starting running back with Kevin Smith out.
Warner will have LT Jeremy Bridges protecting his blind side with Mike Gandy out, but he will have WR Larry Fitzgerald, who suffered a right knee sprain against the 49ers. Also, WR Anquan Boldin’s ankle is finally healed, so Arizona’s passing attack should be OK.
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The Cardinals want to keep starting RB Tim Hightower, but he has lost four first-quarter fumbles this season, and they may decide to go with Beanie Wells. They definitely don’t want a re-creation of Monday’s seven-turnover fiasco.
With Neil Rackers out with a groin injury, Mike Nugent will kick for the Cardinals. If they do win another division title, it will be the first time in 34 years the Cardinals have accomplished that feat.
CZAR’S SCOOP: One of the more ridiculous items coming out of Detroit is the club should trade WR Calvin Johnson because he’s the one Lion who would have great value. "I heard one guy tell me — a really good personnel guy say — he would take one guy like Calvin Johnson over 10 draft picks because you’re trying to find one of those every couple years," Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said.
But even Linehan, whose personnel moves helped sink the Rams, had to admit trading Johnson would be insane. "Calvin Johnson is going to be and is one of the best receivers in football. He has struggled through some things this year from a health standpoint, but, man, once you got one of those, you don’t want to lose one," Linehan said. "I would be pretty depressed if that ever happened."
Bothered by a knee injury, Johnson has only 767 receiving yards this season after finishing with 1,331 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns last year for a team that went 0-16.
The Lions made the right draft moves this year, acquiring QB Matthew Stafford and TE Brandon Pettigrew, to help Johnson, but both of those rookies are now injured and Pettigrew is gone for the season.
Atlanta at N.Y. Jets, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: QB Chris Redman is expected to make his third consecutive start for the Falcons because of Matt Ryan’s turf toe. For an old insurance man who was out of football for almost three seasons, Redman has impressed off the bench with at least nine plays of 18 yards or more in his last start. Granted, he looks to TE Tony Gonzalez a lot, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
The Jets have given up a total of just 497 yards the past three games, and there’s a good chance they won’t be facing Falcons RB Michael Turner (ankle), who will be a game-time decision.
Offensively, New York leads the league with 169 rushing yards per game, and RB Thomas Jones is the first Jet since Johnny Hector in 1987-88 to have consecutive seasons of 10-plus touchdowns. Rookie QB Mark Sanchez (knee) returns to the starting lineup as the Jets try to stay in the AFC wild-card race.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Former Bucs and Falcons RB Warrick Dunn became a limited, minority owner of the Falcons this week.
Falcons DE John Abraham, a former Jet, returns to New York with only 3 1/2 sacks, and he got two of those in the season opener.
Sanchez was not officially cleared to play Sunday by coach Rex Ryan, at least not publicly. But Sanchez took 75 percent of the snaps Thursday, up from 50 percent the day before.
Ryan, though, was pushing his star cornerback Darrelle Revis for league-wide honors. "If he’s not the NFL Defensive Player of the Year," Ryan said, "something is wrong with the system. Nobody, and I mean nobody in maybe the history of the game, has had the challenges that he’s faced week in and week out. You look at the top receivers in this game now that he’s gone out and matched with and literally almost shut down. He’s come up with six interceptions, but it’s not about those numbers. Look at the passes that he’s broken up." Revis has broken up a career-high 27 passes.
San Francisco at Philadelphia, 4:15 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: You have to believe the Eagles will get a heavy dose of 49ers RB Frank Gore, but Philadelphia’s weakness, especially during the loss of LB Akeem Jordan, was their inability to cover a tight end. In the past 10 games, opposing tight ends have caught 70 passes against the Eagles, and that means Alex Smith should be looking for TE Vernon Davis, who leads the 49ers with 11 TDs.
The Eagles should have WR Kevin Curtis back to make up for the loss of rookie WR Jeremy Maclin (torn plantar fasciitis) and RB Brian Westbrook, who still hasn’t been cleared to play following two concussions. Eagles FB Leonard Weaver is averaging 6.8 yards per touch in his past seven games; the 49ers will see a lot of Weaver with rookie LeSean McCoy mixed in.
The 49ers have to create more pressure to rattle QB Donovan McNabb. If not, he likes to buy time for DeSean Jackson to work his double moves deep into the secondary. San Francisco CB Shawntae Spencer, who helped hold Larry Fitzgerald to two catches for 22 yards Monday night, will be isolated on Jackson.
Eagles LT Jason Peters is coming off one of his best games, and he must negate LB Ahmad Brooks, who had three sacks and two forced fumbles against the Cardinals.
CZAR’S SCOOP: NFL Defensive Player of the Year appears to be wide open this season — my vote is currently going to Green Bay’s Charles Woodson — but San Francisco LB Patrick Willis is having another great season. Willis leads the 49ers with 147 tackles, including 13 for a loss. He also has four sacks to go along with two interceptions and three forced fumbles.
San Francisco LT Joe Staley is expected to return after missing the past six starts because of a knee injury. Gore is coming off a 167-yard effort on Monday night.
Smith has thrown for multiple touchdowns in four consecutive games, the first 49er to do that since Jeff Garcia in 2003. "I think he will continue to improve as he gets more familiar with playing the game itself within the constraints of the offense," 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said. "I would think, for this organization, that he would be their quarterback in 2010."
Eagles TE Brent Celek has been hampered with back spasms all week, and there’s a chance he may not play. That means Alex Smith and Martin Rucker could see extended playing time. WR Reggie Brown starts for Macklin. This is Westbrook’s fifth straight missed game after suffering a second concussion against the Chargers.
Chicago at Baltimore, 4:15 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Bears need to focus on containing Ravens all-purpose RB Ray Rice. Rice rushed for a career-high 166 of the Ravens’ 308 yards on the ground last week and had 219 yards from scrimmage. Chicago DL Anthony Adams and Marcus Harrison must clog the middle against Rice, who has rushed for 1,041 yards on the season.
The Bears will take their chances against QB Joe Flacco, who has been slumping during the second half of the season. Once again, rookie Michael Oher will start at left tackle while Oniel Cousins assumes his right tackle position. Flacco won’t have WR Mark Clayton, and he needs Demetrius Williams to step up.
Bears QB Jay Cutler will rely heavily again on Devin Aromashodu, who starts for Devin Hester (calf strain) and Johnny Knox. Bears RB Matt Forte is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and the Bears are last in the league with 85.8 yards rushing per game, so look for the Ravens to overlook the run and attack Cutler with Terrell Suggs. Cutler leads the league with 22 interceptions.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Bears had to cancel their original travel plans to Baltimore because of the East Coast storm and arrived in Baltimore late Saturday night.
The Ravens’ three remaining opponents have a combined 15-24 (.385) record.
Forte leads NFL running backs with 114 receptions over the last two seasons.
Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner is in the last year of his contract, and he’s taking much of the blame for the Bears scoring more than 21 points in only three games this season. Turner could be a goner unless Cutler comes to his rescue.
OLB Lance Briggs said this week that the team missed former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who wasn’t a favorite of head coach Lovie Smith. It probably was Briggs simply being unhappy by this season, one that many in Chicago thought would end up deep in the playoffs. Despite the disaster in Chicago, Smith is reportedly safe to return next season.
Green Bay at Pittsburgh, 4:15 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Both of these teams are geared to stop the run, and they rank 1-2, respectively, in the NFL defensive standings. Dom Capers brought the Pittsburgh 3-4 scheme to Green Bay, and the Packers have excelled with the new defense with rookie OLB Clay Matthews being a star off the edge.
The Steelers have gone soft lately, losing to Oakland and Cleveland in consecutive games, and you have to wonder whether they will stuff Packers RB Ryan Grant based on their recent history.
Green Bay’s protection has been better lately, but so has QB Aaron Rodgers’ decision-making. He’s taking shorter drops and getting rid of the ball quicker. Still, he has been sacked 48 times, eight more than any other NFL quarterback. The offensive line will be under pressure to pick up the correct assignments against the Steelers’ well-disguised blitz packages.
When given time, Rodgers can be aggressive against a Pittsburgh secondary that is soft underneath, especially without S Troy Polamalu. Rodgers wants to be isolate either Donald Driver or Greg Jennings on Steelers CB William Gay as much as possible.
RB Rashard Mendenhall needs 60 yards to become the seventh Steeler to reach 1,000 yards, and look for Pittsburgh to run as much as possible. The Steelers want to keep the Green Bay rush off Ben Roethlisberger, who has struggled trying to connect with Santonio Holmes and rookie Mike Wallace deep.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Packers coach Mike McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native, had dinner at his mother’s house last night.
Kevin Colbert, Steelers director of football operations, has one year left on his contract, but he apparently doesn’t have the final say over the 53-man roster. To some club officials, the lack of such a clause in Colbert’s contract might give him grounds to escape. Of course, nobody sees Commissioner Roger Goodell ruling against the Steelers and owner Dan Rooney if this gets to the point where Colbert actually challenges the team and seeks to go elsewhere. The belief is that should Bill Cowher return to the NFL as a head coach, he would want Colbert as his general manager or team president.
Browns OT Joe Thomas recently accused Steelers OLB James Harrison of flopping on passing downs, hoping to generate a holding call from the officials.
There is no doubt Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has heard that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians hasn’t been too kind to him with his friends. Look for Tomlin to pull the plug on his offensive coordinator in the offseason.
Also, there continues to be a real split in the Steelers’ locker room about Roethlisberger and whether or not he could have played against the Ravens a couple weeks ago after complaining of headaches on Saturday following a concussion the week before. Hines Ward questioned Big Ben’s toughness, but some believe Ward was right that Roethlisberger may have been over-dramatizing his headaches.
Tampa Bay at Seattle, 4:15 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Bucs are scaling back the offense to help struggling rookie QB Josh Freeman, who has thrown eight interceptions the past two games. Bucs coach Raheem Morris criticized his offensive line this past week, demanding better protection and wanting more blocking punch for Cadillac Williams. That can’t be the answer, though, with the Bucs averaging only 98 yards rushing per game.
Seattle coach Jim Mora also mentioned he wanted tougher players after telling everyone most teams view the Seahawks as "soft." Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck is 3-0 against the Bucs, who have lost 16 of their past 17 games. Hasselbeck likes to move the ball through the air with deliberate, short throws.
The best matchup will be Bucs CB Aqib Talib vs. WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who leads the Seahawks with 65 catches. The Bucs surrendered 175 yards rushing last week, and it makes sense for Seattle to give Justin Forsett and Julius Jones a chance to get into a rhythm.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Besides Jim Zorn with the Redskins, Bucs rookie head coach Morris is probably occupying the next hottest seat in the NFL. Since the firing of both of his coordinators, plus a return to the old defensive philosophy, Morris simply comes across as a young coach making important decisions on the fly. And, now, are the players still listening to him? Do they believe in him?
One thing about Jon Gruden: The Bucs never looked unprepared on game day. Gruden had the offense, and Monte Kiffin took care of the defense. Yes, that unraveled last December as Kiffin decided to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee.
There has been tons of speculation that the Glazer family doesn’t have the financial reserves, because of their high debt obligations with Manchester United, to make a big-play move for someone like CBS studio analyst Bill Cowher, whose asking price is probably close to $10 million a season. However, some league insiders believe the Glazers would make such a bold hire if they thought it would turn the franchise around. One thing they do believe in is building a team through a draft, which is how Cowher was trained in Pittsburgh.
The other possible jobs you hear Cowher’s name linked to are the Cowboys and maybe the Texans, although Houston owner Bob McNair says he’s not making a coaching change this season. Many owners think it would be financially stupid to commit millions of dollars to a new head coach and coaching staff with the potential for a lockout in 2011. The thinking is: Struggle through 2010 with what you have and then make a drastic move in 2011 once you know what the collective bargaining agreement looks like.
New England at Buffalo: The Patriots have won the past 12 games against the Bills and 17 of their past 18. Teams are throwing on the Patriots, but Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown for a combined 184 yards the past two weeks, and WR Terrell Owens hasn’t practiced this week. T.O. will be a game-time decision.
Patriots QB Tom Brady continues to be hampered by a broken finger on his throwing hand, a bruised shoulder and sore ribs. The Patriots have become a passing team, but Brady better be careful, because the Bills have 25 interceptions this season and rookie FS Jairus Byrd has nine. Byrd wasn’t a starter in the tough Week 1 loss to the Pats in New England. Pats NT Vince Wilfork may not play.
Miami at Tennessee: Titans QB Vince Young will play despite a sore right hamstring. Young is 6-1 as a starter this season with seven TD throws and only three INTs. But the hamstring figures to limit Young’s mobility and scrambling ability.
Still, the Titans’ main weapon is RB Chris Johnson, who is 374 yards short of being the sixth NFL player to reach 2,000 yards rushing. Johnson already has 2,017 yards from scrimmage, 412 total yards short of Marshall Faulk’s NFL record. Faulk said he’s not worried about his record being broken. "Actually, I am kind of happy," Faulk said. "Here’s the beauty of having a record: When you have a record, when someone breaks it or someone comes near it, it brings attention to that record because people forget about the feat."
The Dolphins are 6-0 in December under coach Tony Sparano, who needs QB Chad Henne to remain a factor in the passing game.
Cleveland at Kansas City: It’s very depressing in Kansas City. The Chiefs failed to sell out Arrowhead, meaning this ends the blackout streak at 156 games. The Chiefs are 3-10, and, for the first time in their 50-year history, they have had double-digit losses for three consecutive seasons.
Todd Haley’s offense has been horrible, with young QB Matt Cassel throwing 13 interceptions and losing three fumbles while being sacked 40 times. Haley could be in trouble with owner Clark Hunt. Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles is coming off a career-best 143 rushing yards last Sunday, while the Browns figure to use Josh Cribbs in their wildcat look. Browns QB Brady Quinn has thrown 145 passes since his last interception.
Houston at St. Louis: The Rams are heavily reliant upon RB Steven Jackson, who is playing through a sore back and with a depleted offensive line. They released G Richie Incognito on Tuesday, and he was fined $50,000 for his two personal foul penalties last week. With Kyle Boller probably too sick and injured to play, QB Keith Null makes his second career start after throwing five INTs in his debut.
The Texans love to spread the field with four-receiver sets, and the Rams are also short-handed in the secondary. Texans WR Andre Johnson, who leads the league in receiving yards, already has 13 games with 10 catches and at least 100 receiving yards, too. The Rams’ Jackson has 36 runs of 10-plus yards.
Cincinnati at San Diego: Norv Turner’s team has won eight straight, and a win today could go a long way toward helping the Chargers secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Bengals are coming off an ugly loss to the Vikings in which Carson Palmer managed 94 passing yards. The Bengals plan to honor the late Chris Henry today with black circles on their helmets with the No. 15 inside. Coaches will wear buttons with Henry’s number, and WR Chad Ochocinco wants to wear Henry’s jersey in the game.
The Bengals have scored just five touchdowns in their past 69 drives. RB Cedric Benson could have a big game against the porous San Diego middle. Chargers QB Philip Rivers is third in the NFL with 13 completions of 40-plus yards. San Diego is looking for its 17th consecutive win in December.
Oakland at Denver: The Raiders gave up eight sacks last week and coach Tom Cable will start journeyman QB Charlie Frye because he can scramble. This is a huge indictment of JaMarcus Russell that he’s sitting behind Frye, who is making his first start since Oct. 12 last year with the Seahawks.
Look for the Raiders to also continue to get the ball in the hands of RB Darren McFadden, who made two big plays lined up at receiver last Sunday. Justin Fargas will get 10 to 15 carries, too. The Broncos rushed 45 times for 215 yards in a 23-3 Week 3 victory in Oakland, and rookie RB Knowshon Moreno will get a heavy load today with Correll Buckhalter a game-time decision. Broncos QB Kyle Orton is 19-3 as a starter at home.
Minnesota at Carolina: This could be a difficult night for Panthers QB Matt Moore. The Panthers have lost starting OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah for the season, so that means Geoff Schwartz, who spent his rookie season on the practice squad, will make his first start at right tackle. The Vikings enter the game with an NFL-high 41 sacks.
Minnesota PK Ryan Longwell has made 16 consecutive field-goal attempts and is making them at a league-best 95.7 percent rate. He’s 22 of 23, with the only miss being a blocked kick. Brett Favre said the only complaint he has about LT Bryant McKinnie "is that sometimes I can’t see over him and miss a guy who is wide open."
N.Y. Giants at Washington: The big news in Washington was the hiring of GM Bruce Allen and the expected arrival next season of Mike Shanahan to replace Jim Zorn. With Jon Gruden contractually committed to ESPN, Allen, the former Bucs general manager, had been talking with Shanahan about teaming up. It should still happen. The only wild card is whether Carolina’s John Fox is available.
In the game, Giants QB Eli Manning better worry about the Redskins’ tandem of double-digit sackers in Andre Carter and rookie Brian Orakpo. New York averaged just 3.3 yards per carry in a Week 1 victory over Washington.
The Giants have had nine different starting combinations on defense this season, and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan is under fire. He could be a goner. Redskins QB Jason Campbell has a 92.3 passer rating with 11 touchdowns in seven games since being benched at halftime in Week 6.