Here’s an inside look at Sunday’s NFL games, including teams like Detroit and Atlanta battling for playoff positioning in the NFC.
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NFL ON FOX GAMES
Chicago at Denver, 4:05 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Bears appear to be the best defensive matchup against Denver’s new option offense, orchestrated by QB Tim Tebow, who runs better than he throws. Chicago has the veteran linebackers who figure to be disciplined enough to hold their lanes and tackle Tebow. Denver RB Willis McGahee has a sore knee, but claims he’ll be ready to go. The Broncos are averaging 42.2 rushing attempts per game during their five-game winning streak and, believe it or not, McGahee and Tebow have had their longest carries of the season in the fourth quarter and overtime of games.
The Bears are hurting offensively without both starting QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte, and those injuries have also exposed a below-average offensive line. Backup QB Caleb Hanie invariably has been scrambling for his life in his two starts (sacked 11 times), and the constant pressure has led to six interceptions. The good news is that Denver doesn’t score many points (between 10-17 in five of Tebow’s seven starts), so if Hanie can hit some deep throws to Johnny Knox or Roy Williams, the Bears have a chance. Turnovers figure to be critical in this game, and Chicago’s return game with Knox and Devin Hester could also prove to be decisive in what promises to be a low-scoring contest.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Broncos LB Von Miller will play with a club-like cast on his right hand, protecting his surgically-repaired thumb. Miller, who has 10 1/2 sacks, sat out last week as a precautionary measure.
Although Broncos president John Elway is saying all the right things about Tebow, there are some in the NFL who believe he’d really like to draft someone like Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III to be his quarterback. Elway has already scouted Griffin, who is considered right now to be college football’s second-best NFL prospect behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Griffin’s foot speed is considered a plus, especially over USC’s Matt Barkley.
The Broncos are 6-1 with Tebow starting this season and are now the favorites to win the AFC West in Las Vegas.
Bears injured QB Jay Cutler seemed to be the only one in Chicago who would have pulled the trigger to sign retired quarterback Brett Favre.
San Francisco at Arizona, 4:05 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: This could be a defensive struggle because the Cardinals are playing better on defense (five sacks against the Cowboys last Sunday, while allowing only five offensive TDs in the last five games) and the 49ers are simply one of the best defenses in the entire NFL. The Niners still haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown this season, and Beanie Wells (nine rushing TDs) should be a good test.
Arizona’s offense has a great chance of getting both tight ends (Todd Heap and Rob Housler) back on the field and that should provide QB Kevin Kolb with some underneath targets, and also some edge blocking for Wells and the running game. Kolb, who missed four starts, wants to play well down the stretch, and WR Larry Fitzgerald should be a good matchup for the 49ers Carlos Rogers.
The 49ers are still playing for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye, considering the Saints are only a game back.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The 49ers considered an offseason trade for Kolb, who ended up in Arizona and still has yet to prove his worth to Cardinals fans and some others in the organization.
Who knows what the 49ers are going to do long-term at quarterback, but they most likely will offer Alex Smith, who is playing on a one-year, $4 million contract, an extension. The team can make a reasonable offer for two or three years to Smith, who may not have many starting opportunities on the open market. And it definitely doesn’t make sense for Smith to leave his biggest fan, coach Jim Harbaugh. Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, but it hasn’t enjoyed that much success in San Francisco until this season.
The 49ers may have to rest injured star LB Patrick Willis (hamstring) for a couple weeks. The roof in Arizona is expected to be open for this game.
SUNDAY’S OTHER GAMES
Oakland at Green Bay, 4:15 p.m. ET: When the sun goes down today, it will be December chilly in Lambeau Field. Aaron Rodgers has thrown at least two touchdowns in each of the Packers’ 12 wins this season as the Green Bay’s regular season winning streak sits at 18. One big reason why the Raiders would appear to have no chance against the unbeaten Packers is the fact that they’re still minus their three fastest big-play threats in RB Darren McFadden, RB Taiwan Jones and WR-KR Jacoby Ford. QB Carson Palmer needs those weapons if Oakland is going to win the AFC West. The Raiders were run over at Miami last Sunday, but are 4-2 on the road. They still have a huge lead in the penalty department this season. Oakland is No. 1 with 119 penalties for 1,027 yards, 183 yards more than second-place Seattle.
Buffalo at San Diego, 4:15 p.m. ET: Future games against Baltimore and Detroit should give San Diego fans some pause, but the Chargers do have a solid track record in December. Since 2006, the Chargers are 19-1 in the final four games of the regular season. Plus, QB Philip Rivers has a career mark of 21-2 in December as a starter and he’s coming off a super game Monday night in Jacksonville. The good news for Rivers is that Ryan Mathews has run for 249 yards in his last two games. Ryan Fitzpatrick has one more TD throw (20-19) than Rivers.
NY Giants at Dallas, 8:20 p.m. ET: This game should have a playoff feel because first place in the NFC East is at stake. Interestingly, the Giants have won two straight in Dallas and Eli Manning has thrown for 10 touchdowns in his last four against the Cowboys with a 3-1 record. New York played well in a loss against the unbeaten Packers last Sunday, but can they sustain pressure on Tony Romo? The Cowboys are excited about WR Miles Austin returning and also FB Tony Fiammetta, who had been sidelined with an inner ear problem. His blocking should help the Dallas running game.