Countdown: Previewing NFL Week 17
N.Y. Giants at Minnesota, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Vikings are working on getting RB Adrian Peterson more touches, but he hasn't reached 100 rushing yards for six consecutive games as the run blocking has deteriorated. How did OT Bryant McKinnie make the Pro Bowl? Of course, the Giants could be just what Minnesota needs after getting run over for 247 yards by Carolina.
Without the consistent threat of Peterson (six lost fumbles) popping big runs, opponents have successfully alternated between pressuring QB Brett Favre and dropping more defenders into coverage. The Vikings have lost three of the past four games. All three were on the road and on prime time in Arizona, Carolina and Chicago, where the game-time temperature was 26 degrees.
There has been talk that the team has zero momentum, but Favre says perhaps there was more momentum in that second half in Chicago than people realize. The Vikings trailed 16-0 at halftime and were down 23-6 before Favre rallied them to game-tying touchdowns twice in the fourth quarter.
The Giants will be minus CBs Aaron Ross and Corey Webster, plus lineman Chris Canty.
Defensively, Minnesota's once-impenetrable run defense has taken a hit since losing MLB E.J. Henderson for the season and with NT Pat Williams nursing a bruised elbow. The good news is the Giants will be minus RB Brandon Jacobs (knee) and possibly RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot). Giants QB Eli Manning is 0-3 with two touchdowns and eight interceptions in three career games against Minnesota.
CZAR'S SCOOP: Giants defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan believes Tom Coughlin won't fire him when the season ends. Sheridan sold Coughlin on the idea he could put the players in the best position to win. But the results have been horrendous. The Giants defense has been gouged for 40-plus points four times this season. It is the league's fifth-worst in terms of points allowed. It also has surrendered 4,711 yards this season, an average of 314.1 per game. Finally, it has just 32 sacks, 10 fewer than the 2008 regular-season total.
Favre took control of the game in the second half, and now coach Brad Childress says his quarterback does have the latitude to change plays at the line of scrimmage and always has. Favre said this week that "all the talk about audibling and all that stuff was not me. I don't know where that came from, but it is what it is." Favre said he still likes the offense, but every team is going to have a bad day or not as productive a game. "I think the philosophy that has worked for us this year is the philosophy we stick with," he said. "I don't think hitting the panic button and all that stuff … it would be easy to say, 'Well, they're on to that. We have to go to this.' The second half [last week] was obviously more productive because we had to shift gears a little bit first of all because we were down."
Favre then mentioned he's not a big believer in audibles and changing plays all the time. "You don't want to be changing plays at the line all the time, especially away in hostile environments," he said. "If one guy doesn't get the check, it screws the whole play up. That goes back to when I was with Mike Holmgren. The less you can audible, the better. In today's game, most teams have built in run-to-run, run-to-pass checks. It's the quarterback's job to get you into the best play. That's not always the case. I'd love to sit here and say I can get us into the best play, but it doesn't happen that way all the time."
This game includes two players with the most consecutive games played in NFL history. Giants punter Jeff Feagles has played in 351 consecutive games, a record for those kicker types. Favre, of course, has played in 286 consecutive games.
Atlanta at Tampa Bay, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The good news for the Bucs is Atlanta RB Michael Turner is a no-go, but the bad news is QB Matt Ryan is back and he played for only a series in the first meeting before suffering a turf toe injury. The Bucs almost won that game before Chris Redman pulled out a 20-17 victory.
The Bucs should expect a heavy dose of RBs Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood, considering they are allowed 156 yards rushing per game. However, Ryan's favorite play-action target, TE Tony Gonzalez (calf), will be a game-time decision.
Falcons WR Roddy White has joined Andre Rison as the only Falcons with three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
The Bucs' ground game – Cadillac Williams is a worthy Comeback Player of the Year candidate — is equally important as Tampa Bay attempts to protect rookie QB Josh Freeman.
The Falcons have clamped down on their run defense of late, limiting Buffalo to 2.2 yards per carry last Sunday. Since embattled rookie coach Raheem Morris has taken over the defense, the Bucs have allowed about 17 points per game compared with 29 points per game under Jim Bates.
If the Falcons win, they will end the longest streak in professional team sports for no consecutive winning seasons – they have never been over .500 in back-to-back seasons since entering the league in 1966.
CZAR'S SCOOP: Atlanta's Gonzalez and White were not thrilled with the results of the Pro Bowl voting. "Yeah, I'd be lying to you if I told you that I wasn't disappointed," Gonzalez said. "I thought I played pretty well this year, but if the players and the coaches don't think that I should be over there, then that's their vote."
Gonzalez's streak of 10 straight trips to the Pro Bowl ended. White made the Pro Bowl last season for the first time. "I was upset a little bit," White said. "But those guys are playing well, and their teams are in the playoffs."
Falcons PK Matt Bryant, who kicked for the Bucs last season, will test his hamstring in warm-ups this morning. If he can't go, the Falcons signed kicker Steve Hauschka, who was released earlier this season by Baltimore. Bryant hasn't been around the team because of the death of his father.
Atlanta offensive linemen Justin Blalock and Will Svitek and Bucs LB Barrett Ruud were among eight players who met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and former Colts and Bucs coach Tony Dungy this week as part of the Players Advisory Board.
New Orleans at Carolina, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Saints are mailing it in by sitting seven starters, including making Drew Brees the third quarterback. If they lose, it means the NFC's No. 1 seed will enter the playoffs without a victory over a four-week period. Mark Brunell will start, and if he gets hurt — New Orleans' offensive line hasn't been blocking that well lately — then Chase Daniel will enter the game.
Three-quarters of the Saints secondary – Darren Sharper, Tracy Porter and Roman Harper – will sit, although CB Jabari Greer, who had sports hernia surgery a month ago, is expected to get some playing time.
The Panthers won't have RB DeAngelo Williams, but they should be able to run on the Saints. Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart has 315 rushing yards the past two weeks. Carolina's ground game must lead the charge because emerging young QB Matt Moore is without WR Steve Smith (broken forearm). Stewart has three 100-yard rushing games the past four weeks. They have come in the three games in which he has had more than 17 carries this season.
Saints coach Sean Payton has several other "dotted players," starters such as WRs Marques Colston and Devery Henderson, who will open the game and play through the first quarter before taking a seat like TE Jeremy Shockey and RB Pierre Thomas.
CZAR'S SCOOP: You have to wonder how Brees feels about breaking Ken Anderson's NFL completion percentage record of 70.55, set in 1982, without taking a snap in the game. Brees will finish the year at 70.62. He wears No. 9 in honor of Ted Williams, who played in a doubleheader on the final day of the regular season rather than sit on his .400 batting average. Williams went on to raise his average to .406 in 1941.
Panthers coach John Fox seems resigned to be a lame-duck coach next season in Carolina. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is uncertain about the current labor negotiations and wants to see what happens before making a long-term commitment. You can bet several teams would want Fox as head coach. Richardson might let him go, but he would want compensation.
However, this could be DE Julius Peppers' final game with the Panthers because Richardson may be reluctant to commit a franchise-tag price of $20 million for the 2011 season on Peppers. It would make sense to tag him and then trade him, but the price tag is pretty rich even for a future team. And it is unlikely any team would give Carolina fair compensation in exchange.
San Francisco at St. Louis, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Rams hope to get RB Steven Jackson (herniated disk) back in the lineup, but they just don't have the passing game to compete. Rookie QB Keith Null is cutting his chops behind a poor offensive line and with little experience at receiver position, plus an overall lack of game-breaking speed.
The 49ers want to see QB Alex Smith end his resurgent season on a good note, and he's been far more efficient with RB Frank Gore more involved again. The Rams, who will be minus DE Leonard Little, must be able to stop Gore, who is the first player in San Francisco history with four consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. The Rams have lost 24 of their past 25 games.
With Joe Nedney down, the 49ers will give PK Shane Andrus a one-game tryout today. They released Ricky Schmitt, who kicked for them last Sunday.
CZAR'S SCOOP: Even if the Rams were to win today and possibly tie the Lions for the league's worst record, they will probably still own the draft's first overall pick based on a stronger win-loss strength of schedule. With no quarterback on their roster for the long-term future, there will be pressure within the organization to draft a quarterback first.
However, the top quarterback prospects are U. of Washington's Jake Locker and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. Bradford is coming off his second throwing shoulder operation, and Locker, who is a big-armed quarterback with legitimate 4.4 speed at 6-3, 226 pounds, says he plans to play for the Huskies next season. He still has a couple of weeks to change his mind, and one member of the NFL's college advisory committee told me he was the best quarterback prospect in the draft, better than Jimmy Clausen, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy.
So, if the Rams end up drafting Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh with the first choice, they just might be forced to bring back Marc Bulger, because neither Kyle Boller nor rookie Keith Null look like long-term solutions at the position. It makes the decision to pass on QB Mark Sanchez for OT Jason Smith all the more questionable in last year's draft if they don't pick a franchise quarterback in the 2010 draft.
Chicago at Detroit, 1 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Bears showed plenty of life in Monday night's big win over the Vikings, and you figure coach Lovie Smith wants to end the season on a positive note. Lions coach Jim Schwartz has opted to start QB Daunte Culpepper, who will be an unrestricted free agent, over Drew Stanton.
Sure, the Lions must stop the run. Matt Forte rushed for 121 yards on only 12 carries against the Lions on Oct. 4 at Soldier Field, and he was one of three Bears to score a rushing touchdown. But the Lions can't let QB Jay Cutler get hot. Cutler has been streaky and thrown a lot of interceptions this season, but he showed Monday night how deadly he can be with time in the pocket. Cutler checked out of a run play to throw the game-winning TD against the Vikings. He has passed for 3,390 yards this season, well short of the club record of 3,838 by Erik Kramer in 1995.
The only chance Culpepper has is for LT Jeff Backus, who has quietly put together a strong season, to neutralize Bears DE Alex Brown, who has five sacks this season.
There is a good chance the Lions rookie S Louis Delmas, who has had a great season, may not play, and that should help Cutler's deep passing game, especially with the big-play potential of Devin Aromashodu with Devin Hester and rookie Johnny Knox.
CZAR'S SCOOP: Stanton really struggled in his first NFL start last weekend, and that's why Culpepper gets the start. Who knows where both of these quarterbacks stand in regard to the Lions' backup job next season behind Matthew Stafford?
Stanton failed to generate any points after a field goal on the opening drive. He finished 11-for-21 for 130 yards, with three interceptions and a fumble. "Anytime you turn the ball over four times at my position, you're not going to win," Stanton wrote on his blog.
Culpepper, who signed a one-year contract, won't be back in Detroit next year. "All I'm thinking about is winning right now," Culpepper said. "That's the only thing I can worry about. That's the only thing that really matters. That's how everybody's judged." Culpepper is 0-9 over two seasons as a starter for the Lions. This year, he has one TD pass, five interceptions, and he's failed to produce an offensive TD in his past 14 quarters as a starter.
LB Julian Peterson, who will earn $7.5 million next season, doesn't expect to be back with the Lions, who have lost 14 straight to NFC North opponents. They have lost 121 games in the decade.
If the Bears do make a move and dump offensive coordinator Ron Turner, ex-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis will be considered. The guy Cutler wants is USC offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates.
Philadelphia at Dallas, 4:15 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Eagles head into Sunday's showdown for the NFC East title breaking in new starting C Nick Cole, a guard sliding over to replace injured Jamaal Jackson. Cole has had a week of practice after struggling a bit after Jackson went down last Sunday. The worse news is he'll be facing the Cowboys' best defensive lineman in NT Jay Ratliff, who had two sacks and two pressures when the Cowboys beat the Eagles earlier in the season. The Cowboys plan to put a lot of pressure on McNabb, who is now missing three offensive line starters since the start of the season.
In order to slow the Cowboys, look for the Eagles to use a lot of middle screens to RB Brian Westbrook, who was on the field for 23 snaps last week, his first since suffering two concussions. The Eagles, should McNabb get some time to throw, would prefer to attack CB Anthony Newman and S Ken Hamlin with some deep crossing patterns to big-play WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.
The Cowboys are a physical offense up front that typically comes out looking to use RBs Marion Barber and Felix Jones to set up the pass. QB Tony Romo led the way in the first meeting, passing for 307 yards with completions to seven different receivers. In his past five games, Romo has nine TD passes and one interception.
Dallas is concerned about short-yardage offense after failing to convert two fourth-and-ones last Sunday following a loss to the Chargers in which Barber was stuffed three straight times at the goal line.
Philadelphia is strong in the secondary and look for the Eagles to be in a nickel scheme much of the game. CB Asante Samuels' nine interceptions are the most by an Eagle since Bill Bradley had nine in 1972, and fellow CB Sheldon Brown, who was beaten on a double move in the first game, has had a solid December despite hamstring problems.
CZAR'S SCOOP: QB Michael Vick practiced Thursday for the first time since suffering a quadriceps contusion two weeks ago against San Francisco, and he figures to be the Eagles backup quarterback today. Vick's future, though, remains uncertain in Philadelphia. The team owes him a $1.5 million bonus in early March. Most believe they will trade him. But if McNabb falters today and in the playoffs, all bets are off on what Andy Reid will do for the long haul. One thing is certain about Vick; he doesn't like being a wildcat quarterback. He wants to be a starter again.
Cowboys WR Roy Williams is getting frustrated, but much of it is his own doing. Williams has 10 drops this season. No starting receiver has more. According to STATS, Inc., Williams has caught only 44.7 percent of the passes thrown to him, which is the sixth-worst percentage among receivers who have been targeted at least 50 times. The coaches have been on him to work harder in practice like Miles Austin does. You can bet Williams doesn't like hearing that.
If the Cowboys win, there is a chance Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett have saved their jobs. Jerry Jones owes Garrett $7 million over the next two seasons, and it seems unlikely the Dallas owner would eat that amount and fire him.
Washington at San Diego, 4:15 ET