Cardinals at Bengals by Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds
Impact Injuries: Kevin Kolb still has not had a full day of practice and all signs seem to be pointing towards John Skelton starting again on Saturday. RB Beanie Wells, as has been the case for most of the season, is dealing with a knee injury, but will play. Tight end Todd Heap, who finally made an impact against the Browns last week, was not on the injury report at all this week. Safety Kerry Rhodes, who also returned to action last week, was not on the injury report all week, so expect to see him to be on the field with a full load of work, unlike the 50 percent clip he played last week.
The X-Factor: The road has not been kind to Arizona this season. They are 2-5, but have had a few close games. Playing in the East, on a Saturday and in the early game will be a challenge for a team that plays its home games in ideal weather conditions. How they react to this will be key. Another key factor is that both teams are fighting for their playoff lives, but don't control their own destiny. Both should be ready to play.
Don’t be surprised if: Arizona plays a close game. The team's defense has been great during its streak, and even when they were playing terribly early on, three of their five road losses were by a combined seven points. Add in the fact that John Skelton is best when the game is close late in the game, and you have a recipe for a nail-biter in Cincinnati on Christmas Eve.
Follow Jess on Twitter: @senorjessroot
For more on the Cards click here
Falcons at Saints by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Impact Injuries: Cornerback Brent Grimes, who normally plays well against the Saints, returned to practice after knee surgery. He missed the past three games. He’s expected to start. Also, nickel back Kelvin Hayden has returned from a dislocated toe and could be available. If strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas (knee) can’t answer the bell, veteran linebacker Mike Peterson will step in.
The X-Factor: WR Julio Jones, who’s played two strong games after coming back from a hamstring injury, did not play in the previous meeting. The Falcons stalled in the redzone three times in the last meeting and settled for field goals. Jones should add more explosiveness to the attack, especially when they are running their no-huddle attack.
Don’t be surprised if: WR Harry Douglas has another big game against the Saints. He caught eight passes for a career-high 133 yards in the last game. With Roddy White and Jones, the Saints will have to leave Douglas in single coverage. He got a lot of yards after the catch and should be a factor on third downs.
Follow Darryl on Twitter: @AJCFalcons
For more on the Falcons click here
Browns at Ravens by Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times
Impact Injuries: Anquan Boldin won’t be a part of the Ravens’ bid to claim the AFC North division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. The veteran wide receiver underwent surgery Thursday to repair a slight tear in his meniscus, a development that will sideline him for the final two remaining games of the regular season. Boldin will be replaced in the starting lineup by Lee Evans, and the Ravens will lean heavily on rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. The Ravens will likely have rookie wide receiver LaQuan Williams active this week.
The X-Factor: Will the Baltimore Ravens go undefeated at home? The Ravens (10-4) are a perfect 7-0 at M&T Bank Stadium heading into Saturday's kickoff against the Cleveland Browns (4-10), and defeated them earlier this season 24-10 in Cleveland. The Ravens have won 17 of their past 18 home games and are 26-5 under coach John Harbaugh in his four seasons in Baltimore. The Browns have lost seven of their past eight games, including four in a row and are 1-6 in road games and 0-4 in the division. They haven't won a game in Baltimore since 2007. The Ravens are 9-3 all-time against Cleveland at home and have won seven consecutive games against the last-place Browns. The Ravens have won six consecutive AFC North games and eight of their last nine. The Ravens are 4-0 this season in the division and have never swept the AFC North before in franchise history.
Will the Ravens contain Peyton Hillis again? The power back rushed for only 45 yards during the first meeting, and that was without All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis in the lineup due to a toe injury. Lewis displayed some signs of rust against the San Diego Chargers a week ago as they rushed for three touchdowns, but led the Ravens with 10 tackles. Hillis is healthier now after battling hamstring and hip injuries earlier this season. Lewis has 257 career tackles in 22 games against the Browns with four interceptions and seven sacks.
Don’t be surprised if: If quarterback Joe Flacco is successful. Flacco is 7-0 for his career against the Browns with eight touchdowns and three interceptions against them. He has completed 64.4 percent of his throws for 1,396 yards for a 97.3 quarterback rating.
Follow Aaron on Twitter: @RavensInsider
For more on the Ravens click here
Buccaneers at Panthers by Greg Jones of Examiner.com
Impact Injuries: The Carolina Panthers (5-9) could be without starting safety Charles Godfrey, who has an injured right shoulder. Jordan Pugh will replace Godfrey, who is having the best season of his NFL career. Last week, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he believed Godfrey wasn’t as aggressive in the Panthers’ 31-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons due to his injured shoulder. Pugh has been inconsistent for most of the season. But the Panthers coaching staff still thinks highly of his skill level and his ability to replace Godfrey. The Panthers could be without starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who has a sore hamstring and a sore ankle. Godfrey and Munnerlyn didn’t practice Wednesday and didn’t finish last weeks’ game against the Houston Texans because of their injuries. The Panthers will either start Darius Butler or R.J. Stanford if Munnerlyn can’t go. Rivera hasn’t indicated which cornerback will start if Munnerlyn is sidelined with his injuries. Stanford also filled in at safety against the Texans when Pugh was shaken up on a play.
The X-Factor: Can the Panthers avoid having a letdown in the third quarter and finish strong? In last weeks’ 28-13 win over the Texans, the Panthers had another third-quarter lull, but they were able to finish strong. After giving up 13 straight points in the second half, Carolina put an impressive scoring drive together in the fourth quarter and finished the game by running out the final 7 ½ minutes of the game to defeat the Texans. If the Panthers can play better in the second half they should easily defeat the struggling Buccaneers, who have an eight-game losing streak.
Don’t be surprised if: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton continues to take more of a leadership roll on the team. Last week during another third-quarter disaster, Newton gathered with the rest of the offense and began to voice his opinion after Texans running back Arian Foster scored on a 1-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Panthers’ lead was cut to 21-13. The Panthers responded on their next possession with an impressive seven-play, 80-yard drive that ended in a 24-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams. And don’t be surprised when Newton breaks Peyton Manning’s 13-year record of most passing yards by a rookie quarterback. Newton has passed for 3,722 yards and needs just 18 yards to top Manning’s 3,739 passing yards. At this point, there really shouldn’t be any surprises with Newton.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @gjjones_sports
For more on the Panthers click here
Bears at Packers by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune
Impact Injuries: Any discussion of injuries starts with quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte but the Bears have had some other players get banged up the last few weeks. Defensive tackle Henry Melton, who has seven sacks, was held out last Sunday with an infection on his shin. The hope is he will be available against a Packers’ front that has been decimated by injuries. The Kansas City Chiefs were successful rushing Aaron Rodgers with four linemen last week and the Bears would like to replicate that. Of course, having Melton available is one of the keys to the pass rush. Running back Marion Barber, who missed about three weeks during preseason with a calf muscle injury, has another calf injury and his availability remains in question. If Barber is down, the Bears will turn to Kahlil Bell, who has gained 139 yards the past three weeks.
The X-Factor: It hasn’t been entirely the fault of Caleb Hanie that the Bears are mired in a four-game losing streak, but the backup to Jay Cutler has not played well and Chicago finally made a move this week, benching the fourth-year player. Josh McCown, who hasn’t started in the NFL since 2007 and wasn’t signed until Nov. 23 when the team failed in a waiver bid to land Kyle Orton, has been promoted. The Bears don’t know what to expect with McCown but figure it can’t be much worse. Hanie had a 41.8 passer rating and threw three touchdowns and nine interceptions, the last two returned for touchdowns by the Seattle Seahawks in a grisly 38-14 loss last Sunday at Soldier Field. McCown vs. MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers hardly seems like the way the Bears want to go into the game but it highlights one of the club’s needs heading into the offseason – a backup quarterback. Coach Lovie Smith was asked if the team would consider rookie fifth-round draft pick Nathan Enderle and he said it’s not a time for “tryouts.” Still, unless Enderle has been terrible in practice, you would expect him to get a look at some point during the final two weeks. If the Bears are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs after this weekend, the Bears certainly should get a look at him next week in Minnesota. Otherwise, why try to develop homegrown backups?
Don’t be surprised if: This isn’t much of a game for the national spotlight on Christmas night. The Bears have lost five of their last six meetings with the Packers, including the NFC Championship Game last year, but four of the matchups have been decided by one score. It will be surprising if the Bears, a 13 1/2 –point underdog, will be able to stay close. The offense has produced next to nothing since Cutler was lost to the fractured right thumb, and the Bears have only two offensive touchdowns in the last 188 minutes. The only chance they have is to get a dominating performance by their front seven and force Rodgers into many errors.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @BradBiggs
For more on the Bears click here
Cardinals at Bengals by Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer
Impact Injuries: WR A.J. Green (shoulder) has been limited in practice but all indications are he will play. Green said the shoulder has been making progress and that it actually feels better compared to the last time he suffered the injury two years ago. WR Andre Caldwell (groin) is doubtful which means Andrew Hawkins and Ryan Whalen will play the slot. OT Andre Smith (foot) is expected to return to the lineup.
The X-Factor: Penalties. The Bengals were flagged 11 times last week and there have been many cases where it has taken them out of great field position. TE Jermaine Gresham was flagged three times for a false start and RG Mike McGlynn had two infractions in the first half. There have been way too many presnap penalties this time of the year which has taken them out of prime field position and has stalled drives.
Don’t be surprised if: The defense plays a lot of nickel against the Cardinals. The secondary remains banged up and the Cardinals could take advantage by running a lot of three-receiver sets.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @joereedy
For more in the Bengals click here
Browns at Ravens by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Impact Injuries: In addition to Browns quarterback Colt McCoy sitting out with his concussion, receiver Jordan Norwood will sit out with his. The Browns also placed safety T.J. Ward on injured reserve with his sprained foot.
The X-Factor: How will Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace fare against the Ravens' 3rd-ranked defense? Last season, he completed 18 of 24 attempts for 141 yards, with one TD and one INT. His 75% completion rate and 103.0 rating were both superb. Wallace's mobility will come in handy.
Don’t be surprised if: Peyton Hillis runs well against this 2nd-ranked run defense. He stunned the Ravens with 144 yards, a touchdown and a long gain of 48 in Baltimore last season. This did not make Ray Lewis happy.
Follow Mary Kay on Twitter: @MaryKayCabot
For more on the Browns click here
Eagles at Cowboys by Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram
Impact Injuries: Running back Felix Jones had his hamstring tighten on him late in last week’s game against the Bucs. He is the only remaining tailback from the four who started the season with the Cowboys. Dallas signed veteran Sammy Morris off the street last week, and they could promote Chauncey Washington from the practice squad this week. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware (stinger) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff (rib muscle strain) were held out of the second half last week, but they will start Saturday.
The X-Factor: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he was “scared” of the Eagles after the beating they put on his team Oct. 30. The Eagles scored on their first six possessions in a 34-7 blowout. Michael Vick passed for 279 yards and two touchdowns, while running back LeSean McCoy had a career-high 185 yards and two scores. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan took the blame, saying his game plan never gave Dallas a chance. Cowboys players, especially the defensive players, are excited about the opportunity to get a second chance against the “all-hype team,” as Ryan called the Eagles during training camp.
Don’t be surprised if: Tony Romo continues his hot streak. The Cowboys are only 1-2 this month, but not because of Romo. He is 72-for-103 for 869 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions and a 121.4 passer rating in three games this month. Romo has an 8-12 record in December.
Follow Charean on Twitter: @NFLCharean
For more in the ‘Boys click here
Broncos at Bills by Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post
Impact Injuries: The Broncos missed safety Brian Dawkins' tackling and communication last week against the Patriots, and are hopeful he will be able to return this week from the neck injury suffered two weeks ago against Chicago. Dawkins participated in practice on a limited basis all week and is officially listed as questionable as he and team doctors decide if he is able to withstand collisions.
The X-Factor: Broncos running back Willis McGahee is only 10 yards away from reaching the 1,000-yard milestone, and he would love to get there against the team that drafted him in 2003. McGahee played little through the last three quarters last week after suffering a minor hamstring injury against the Patriots, but he has practiced all week and is listed as probable. That's good news for the Broncos, because the run-heavy offense is at its best when McGahee is on the field. If McGahee gets 10 yards this week, he'll become the first Broncos' running back to reach 1,000 yards since Tatum Bell in 2006.
Don’t be surprised if: The Broncos pass rush duo of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller have to work fast to get to Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Bills' quarterback has been sacked only 19 times this season, the second-fewest of any quarterback who has started all 14 games this year. Miller needs three sacks in two games to tie the NFL rookie sack record, a tough task this week against a quarterback who is able to get rid of the ball quickly.
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @PostBroncos
For more on the Broncos click here
Chargers at Lions by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press
Impact Injuries: It appears as if Louis Delmas will miss his fourth straight game with a Grade 2 MCL tear. Delmas underwent arthroscopic surgery late last week and hasn’t played since injuring his knee on Thanksgiving. The Lions have given up 300-plus yards passing in two of the three games Delmas has been out. Chris Harris returned from a concussion Thursday and should start in Delmas’ place, and Corey Williams said he intends to play through a hip injury that kept him out of practice all week.
The X-Factor: History. As in, the Lions will try to make some Saturday. At 9-5, the Lions have a firm grasp on the NFC’s final wild-card spot and can clinch their first playoff appearance in 12 years with a win or a tie against the Chargers. Considering the circumstances, this is the biggest regular-season game ever at Ford Field, and the crowd should reflect that. Of course, the Lions have history working against them, too. San Diego is a remarkable 25-2 in December and January regular-season games since 2006. That experience has to count for something.
Don’t be surprised if: One way or another, the Lions clinch a playoff spot this weekend. In addition to beating the Chargers, the Lions can lock up a postseason spot with losses by the Bears, Seahawks, Cardinals and either the Cowboys or Giants. All but the Cowboys are underdogs this week. Considering they close the season at Green Bay, where they haven’t won in 20 years, the Lions would be wise to take care of business this week.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveBirkett and @freeplions
For more on the Lions click here
Bears at Packers by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press Gazette
Impact Injuries: The offensive line is a mess. Two tackles —Bryan Bulaga (knee), the starter on the right side, and his backup Derek Sherrod (broken leg) — went down in Sunday’s loss at Kansas City. Sherrod is done for the season after breaking both his tibia and fibula, and Bulaga is out for at least this week. The Packers already were without opening-day starting left tackle Chad Clifton, who has been sidelined since Oct. 9 with hamstring and back injuries. Clifton returned to practice this week on a part-time basis but probably isn’t ready to play yet. That means the Packers will have only one of their top-four tackles available for Sunday night’s game against the Bears. That’s Marshall Newhouse, who has started at left tackle since Clifton’s injury. To fill the right tackle spot, they had to move T.J. Lang from left guard and bring in Evan Dietrich-Smith to play in Lang’s old spot. That combination played the final 1½ quarters against the Chiefs, and gave up three sacks in that span.
The X-Factor: Randall Cobb. Not only will Cobb’s role as a receiver increase because Greg Jennings remains out with a knee injury, but coach Mike McCarthy also unveiled a ‘Wildcat’ formation with Cobb, a former college quarterback at Kentucky, at the helm. The Packers ran it just once against the Chiefs and Cobb rushed for 4 yards. But it could become more prevalent in the offense.
Don’t be surprised if: Tight end Jermichael Finley has a big game. In the Week 3 game against the Bears at Soldier Field, the tight end caught three touchdown passes. Also, he’s sure to be motivated by the fact that he dropped several passes against the Chiefs.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @RobDemovsky
For more on the Pack click here
Jaguars at Titans by Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union
Impact Injuries: Receiver Mike Thomas is a game-time decision, receiver Cecil Shorts most likely won't play and DE Matt Roth is expected to miss his fifth consecutive game. If RT Guy Whimper, who didn't practice all week, can't play, undrafted rookie Cameron Bradfield will start in his place. If safety Dwight Lowery can't play, he missed Thursday's practice and was limited Wednesday, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, who has been on the roster 18 days, will start.
The X-Factor: The Jaguars are aware they still have a chance to finish with a winning record in the division despite their 4-10 record. The only team they've lost to is Houston, which beat Jacksonville twice. Games against Tennessee and Indianapolis remain.
Don’t be surprised if: Maurice Jones-Drew essentially seals the rushing title on Saturday. He has a 60-yard lead over Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy with two games left in the season. Even though the struggles of the Jaguars passing game have meant opponents can focus on their running game, Jones-Drew and the Jaguars ground game have excelled.
Follow Tania on Twitter: @taniaganguli
For more on the Jags click here
Raiders at Chiefs by Joel Thorman of ArrowheadPride.com
Impact Injuries: Now that Kyle Orton's finger is healed, the Chiefs are very healthy. They have just two players listed on the injury report this week. It's the Raiders that have the injury problems, most notably Darren McFadden. The Raiders RB is likely to miss Saturday's game in KC and he'll be replaced by Michael Bush, who might be the top backup running back in the league. Bush has had a lot of success against the Chiefs so McFadden's loss may not be a significant one.
The X-Factor: Kyle Orton. Last week he looked terrific in beating the Packers and he'll need the same in Week 16 against Oakland. The Chiefs running game isn't great and I suspect Oakland will be able to shut that down. That leads us to Orton and the Chiefs passing game, who need to be on point to beat the Raiders. Orton is still the new guy in town but he showed an ability to understand the offense and manage it effectively. Doing the same this week is a must against a big Raiders defensive line that will create pressure on the Chiefs.
Don’t be surprised if: There's some scoreboard watching going on. The Chiefs' playoff hopes rest on A.) beating the Raiders and B.) the Bills beating the Broncos (and other stuff in Week 17). Buffalo and Denver play at the same time as the Chiefs so you can bet the Chiefs are going to be doing some scoreboard watching to see if their hopes are still alive.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @ArrowheadPride
For more on the Chiefs click here
Dolphins at Patriots by Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post
Impact Injuries: The Dolphins' key injury this week is to TE Anthony Fasano, who suffered a mild concussion Sunday against Buffalo. The Dolphins likely won't know if they will have Fasano, tied for the team lead with five touchdowns, until he wakes up Saturday morning. LT Jake Long missed last week's game with a lower back injury, snapping his consecutive start streak at 61 games, but he has returned to
practice this week and should be back in the lineup.
The X-Factor: Cornerback Will Allen. He wasn't on the team when Tom Brady threw for 517 yards in the Patriots' 38-24 win over the Dolphins in Week 1. In fact, Brady's 99-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker against Benny Sapp is the reason Allen is back on the team. He's the only Dolphins cornerback without an interception this year, but Allen, 33, has been invaluable resource this year for the Dolphins' young secondary, acting like a player-coach on the field. He's also playing well of late, with a team-high seven tackles and a pass defensed in last week's win over Buffalo. For the Dolphins to have any chance of pulling off the upset, Allen will have to do a much better job of shutting down Welker this time.
Don’t be surprised if: The Dolphins play the Patriots a lot closer this time. The last three meetings have been blowouts, with the Patriots winning by a combined score of 117-45. And the Patriots gained 622 total yards in Week 1, a Dolphins franchise record. But the defense, which was admittedly out of shape and undisciplined early in the season, is much different now. They enter today's game fifth in the NFL in points allowed (19.2 per game) and third against the run. Don't expect the Dolphins to come away with a win, but don't be surprised if this is a closer game, either.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @BenVolinPBP
For more on the Phins click here
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