Vikings at Redskins by Jeremy Fowler of the Pioneer Press
Impact Injuries: Left guard Steve Hutchinson and cornerback Asher Allen hadn't passed their concussion testing protocol as of Thursday, which makes them questionable at best for Saturday. Peterson has fully recovered from his high ankle sprain and is eager for a big performance.
The X-Factor: Tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser. The longest-tenured Viking at 13 years is a free agent after the season and is likely playing his last two games in purple. Expect an inspired effort from one of the team's leading run blockers as the Vikings look to expand the workload of Adrian Peterson, who had 10 carries last week.
Don’t be surprised if: Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder bounces back from two ugly games with a solid performance. Three interceptions while playing on a hip pointer injury led to his Dec. 11 benching at Detroit, and he played passively the next week against New Orleans, either trying too hard to avoid turnovers or becoming mentally affected by the benching. This week, Ponder is looking for a balanced effort against Washington, being aggressive downfield while playing smart enough to avoid picks.
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Dolphins at Patriots by Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald
Impact Injuries: The Patriots have received some actual positive injury, as safety Patrick Chung looked like his old self at practice. The fact that he was leading the sprints and hopping around would indicate that he makes his grand return vs. the Dolphins. That would give the secondary a playmaker presence it hasn’t had in a while. Meanwhile, linebacker Brandon Spikes missed practice on Thursday, and that makes him extremely iffy for Saturday. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is still in crutches for his foot injury, and he’ll be out. And finally, the Patriots are playing their first game without defensive end Andre Carter, who is on Injured Reserve. Fellow sackmaster Mark Anderson will take his place.
The X-Factor: Rookie running back Stevan Ridley has seen limited carries this season, but he had a breakout performance a week ago. A 24-yard run capped off a 65-yard rushing day, helping kick-start his team’s rushing performance. That offered the offense more balance, opened up the middle of the field, and gave them the opportunity to hold the ball. If BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still slowed by that toe injury, Ridley is the team’s next best option. Look for a second-straight big game.
Don’t be surprised if: The Patriots throw cold water on the Dolphins recent burst of energy. Miami is 5-2 in its last seven games, giving the franchise some new optimism and finally showcasing their considerable talent. Reggie Bush has shown he’s an every-down running back, and the defense is making plays. But doing that against the likes of the Bills is different from replicating it against a Patriots team that is clicking. A No. 1 seed is in their grasps, so expect the Patriots to come out firing.
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Falcons at Saints by Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times-Picayune
Impact Injuries: The Saints have a few question marks early in the week, with linebacker Jonathan Vilma, guard Jahri Evans, tailback Mark Ingram and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis nursing injuries. They would especially miss Vilma and Evans, two of their premier starters, though it’s possible that both guys will play, especially with the extra day of rest this week.
The X-Factor: This time the Saints will be facing a healthy Julio Jones, who was banged up in their previous meeting with the Falcons. The rookie receiver has been a dynamic addition for Atlanta, and it’s a tough task for defenses to cover both him and No. 1 receiver Roddy White, since they can’t roll their coverages to just one guy. The Saints’ pass defense improved last week but needs to be on its best behavior against a deeper and more diverse opponent.
Don’t be surprised if: This game is decided by exactly three points. That’s been the case the last four times these division rivals have met, including the Saints’ 26-23 overtime victory at Atlanta earlier this year.
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Giants at Jets by Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News
Impact Injuries: DE Osi Umenyiora (knee) is still out, so the pass rush is hurting, as usual. TE Jake Ballard (knee) likely won't play, and he's been the only pass-catching tight end in the Giants' offense. They could get a boost by the return of Travis Beckum, though.
The X-Factor: WR Victor Cruz. Hakeem Nicks will be locked down on Revis Island, which at the very least will limit what he's able to do. The Giants usually either can't run or don't bother. So that means the passing attack that will drive the Giants' offense will have to come from elsewhere, and the most likely candidate is Victor Cruz. Mario Manningham could have his hands full with Antonio Cromartie, but Cruz has been a big play guy and could find room running out of the No. 3 spot.
Don’t be surprised if: Corey Webster has a couple of interceptions. He's been playing a lot better lately and is much better when he's going up against big receivers. He'll probably be on Plaxico Burress, though that could change. Either way, Mark Sanchez is inaccurate at times, especially when he's rushed, and Webster could be in position to make him pay.
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Giants at Jets by Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News
Impact Injuries: Kick returner/running back Joe McKnight (separated shoulder/hyperextended elbow) will be a game-time decision. Antonio Cromartie will be the primary kick returner if McKnight doesn’t play. Mark Sanchez took his normal amount of first-team snaps in practice this week and will start despite residual neck stiffness.
The X-Factor: Outside linebacker Aaron Maybin. The Jets need to bring consistent pressure on Eli Manning to have a chance of slowing down the Giants third-ranked passing attack. Maybin has been the only consistent pass-rush threat this season. If he can make Manning uncomfortable in the pocket, it will go a long way to slowing down a Giants offense that has no semblance of a run game.
Don’t be surprised if: The Jets lean on Shonn Greene early before Mark Sanchez attacks the Giants’ porous secondary off play action. The Eagles turned the Sanchez & Co. into a one-dimensional outfit last week by scoring four early touchdowns. The Jets offense needs some semblance of balance to be effective. They proved earlier this season that relying on Sanchez’s arm from start to finish is a recipe for failure.
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Raiders at Chiefs by Vittorio Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle
Impact Injuries: McFadden and receiver Jacoby Ford are out with foot injuries, and defensive tackle John Henderson (knee) and safety Michael Huff (hamstring) haven't practiced all week either.
The X-Factor: RB Michael Bush. The Raiders RB ran over the Chiefs last year for 137 yards and a touchdown in the 31-10 win in Kansas City. Coach Hue Jackson rested him in practice this week as Bush has carried the load for an injured Darren McFadden for eight weeks now.
Don’t be surprised if: Gunslinger Carson Palmer tries his luck deep with Denarius Moore a couple of times, even if Palmer threw three interceptions in a half the last time against the Chiefs. That 28-0 loss on Oct. 23 was Palmer's first game after being acquired from the Bengals just five days early.
Follow Vittorio on Twitter: @VittorioTafur
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Eagles at Cowboys by Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer
Impact Injuries: Asante Samuel did not practice on Wednesday which did not bode well for his playing against the Cowboys. That being said, his hamstring injury was never termed as being a serious one and Samuel is savvy enough to start without the practice time. The rest of the Eagles roster is fairly healthy.
The X-Factor: If Michael Vick plays anywhere near how he played the first time the Eagles and Cowboys met, it won't matter how well Dallas' defense plays. The Eagles quarterback and his offense won't be able to be stopped. In the first game, Vick completed 21 of 28 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns. It was only the second game this season that he did not throw an interception. Vick was so effective because he was able to read the Cowboys' defense and forecast when they would blitz. Vick's early success in the game paved that way for LeSean McCoy's career day of 30 carries for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Vick hasn't come close to playing at that level for most of this season, but he rebounded nicely last week against the Jets and should be looking to finish the slate on a high note.
Don’t be surprised if: The Eagles defense continues to blitz as much as they have in the last few games and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo sprinkles in more looks up front. Last week Jason Babin recorded two of his three sacks when he lined up standing in the middle of the line and ran stunts. Castillo seems to have gotten more comfortable mixing things up and changing his coverages in game. This could come in handy against Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who has been on fire of late. Romo, though, often crumbles under the first sign of pressure.
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Rams at Steelers by Michael Bean of BehindTheSteelCurtain.com
Impact Injuries: Ben Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain is obviously the focus of attention heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. Big Ben gave it a go against the 49ers in Week 15, and looked noticeably in pain throughout the evening. Now there's unverified reports that the Steelers may shut Roethlisberger down for the next two weeks in preparation for the playoffs. The Steelers have locked up no worse than the No. 5 seed, and with games left against the Browns and Bengals, the Ravens are a good bet to lock up the AFC North. Roethlisberger's tendency is to play at all costs, but it may be smart to sit him down at least this week against a weak Rams team. The same can be said of, say, Troy Polamalu and anyone else who might benefit from a week off rather than playing on such a short week.
The X-Factor: Rams RB Steven Jackson needs just 34 yards to reach 1,000 for the sixth consecutive season. If the Steelers make him work hard to surpass the noteworthy milestone yet again, the Rams should have next to no chance at tripping up the Steelers, even if Ben Roethlisberger does not play. If Jackson can somehow take the pressure off Kellen Clemons with a big day against a Steelers' rush defense that's been good but not great, the Rams could find themselves in the game in the second half assuming the Steelers offense is inconsistent with either Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon at the controls.
Don’t be surprised if: With James Harrison set to return to the lineup following his one-game suspension last week, don't be surprised if the Steelers' defense gets back on track following their less-than-stellar showing against San Francisco on Monday night. The Steelers have feasted on inferior offenses when Harrison has been in the lineup, giving up just 9, 7 and 3 points to Kansas City, Cincinnati and Cleveland respectively in the trio of games preceeding his suspension. Also don't be surprised if Rashard Mendenhall receives 20 or more carries for just the second time this season (23 vs. Jacksonville in Week 6). Mendenhall was impressive against the 49ers, rushing for 64 yards on 15 carries and catching three balls for an additional 25 yards.
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Chargers at Lions by Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune
Impact Injuries: Outside linebacker Travis Laboy (knee) will likely miss the game, leaving the rotation thin while the Chargers attempt to generate pressure.
The X-Factor: Eric Weddle has to be on. The Chargers' secondary (primarily the cornerbacks) have been beat for more big plays this season that in recent years. Now comes the task of covering Calvin Johnson.
Don’t be surprised if: This game is a shootout with the team scoring last winning -- a circumstance that has worked well for the Lions but not the Chargers.
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49ers at Seahawks by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee
Impact Injuries: The 49ers look to be without the player who propelled them to victory in their Week 1 matchup against the Seahawks. Ted Ginn returned two kicks – a punt and a kickoff – for touchdowns in the game but sprained his ankle during Monday’s win against the Steelers. Kyle Williams likely will handle punt returns. He could handle kicks, too, although there are a number of players who could step into that role as well.
The X-Factor: Williams has been the team’s second-half surprise. He was the team’s fifth receiver at the start of the season but has had to step up in recent weeks due to injuries and underperforming teammates. He’s responded by being one of the team’s most reliable pass catchers who has done an excellent job on third downs in particular. It remains to be seen whether his special teams duties will curtail his snaps on offense.
Don’t be surprised if: If the 49ers struggle in this game. Although the final score of the Week 1 affair suggested a comfortable 49ers win, the Seahawks were charging back late in that game and San Francisco was bailed out by Ginn’s touchdowns. Saturday’s game is in Seattle, where the 49ers have struggled in recent years and the Seahawks are on a roll, scoring 30-plus points in their last three contests. Furthermore, the 49ers have one fewer day of rest and preparation and are coming off an emotional victory against Pittsburgh.
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49ers at Seahawks by Danny Kelly of FieldGulls.com
Impact Injuries: Seahawks starting QB Tarvaris Jackson is fairly healthy again after suffering from a partially-torn pectoral muscle the last few months, and should be good to go this week. There are no major injuries to report except that WR Mike Williams has been placed on the I.R. this week with a broken ankle. Taking his spot on the active game-day roster is Ricardo Lockette, who was just called up from the practice squad. Look for Ben Obomanu and Doug Baldwin to get more snaps in Williams' stead though.
The X-Factor: Turnovers. Neither team turns the ball over all that much, and both teams employ game manager type quarterbacks in Tarvaris Jackson and Alex Smith. Smith has the least amount of turnovers for any quarterback that's started every game this year in the NFL, and TJack has played very efficiently in the last three games. Seattle's defense thrives on forcing turnovers - they had five last week against Chicago - and will look to keep that going but will face stiff competition. I expect that this will be a close game with very few turnovers but the team that does better in that category will likely come out on top.
Don’t be surprised if: This is a low-scoring affair. Both teams rely on strong run games and stout defense. Neither team has a very scary passing offense. I would guess we'll see a lot of 9, 10, 12 play drives and slow-plodding, run-heavy offense in this one. If the Seahawks can make some explosive plays through the air and limit those of the 49ers, they could pull off the upset.
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Rams at Steelers by Tony Softli of 101 ESPN
Impact Injuries: QB – Sam Bradford - His protective boot was removed on Monday and he did not participate all week. While he has the passion and desire to play, his body along with the head Coach and medical staff say, no. Status: Out
QB - A.J. Feeley – Fractured right thumb several weeks ago is still healing. He lacks the ability to squeeze the football and again didn’t participate in practice sessions. Status: Out
DE - Chris Long – For the third straight week, was limited in practice sessions. This iron horse has played well on one leg for three weeks and this week will be no different. Status: Questionable
The X-Factor: Despite their 2-12 record, the Rams continue to fight, battle and play the game with passion, they just lack the talent to compete at a high level on a consistent basis. While the offensive struggles continue, their dead last in rush defense, the X-factor is pride and off season momentum. There will be no playoffs, no run for the Lombardi, not this year. To avoid a long and painful off season, look for Coach Spagnuolo to continue to coach, motivate his players and coaches to gather that momentum the last two games of the season.
Don’t be surprised if: With the Steelers coming off a short week, their leader Big Ben struggling like Bradford with a high ankle sprain, and a defense that is playing very well, not to mention their bell cow is back in the lineup in James Harrison. The weather and field could play a factor and whoever runs the ball the best could win this game. Rams Coach Spagnuolo continues to prepare his team as if it is week one. Look for this game to be low scoring.
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Buccaneers at Panthers by Rick Brown of The Ledger
Impact Injuries: With cornerback Aqib Talib out, the Bucs will rely on veteran Ronde Barber as well as E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis to try to contain Carolina’s Steve Smith. Defensive tackle Brian Price has been struggling with an ankle injury. He’s going to be needed against Carolina’s strong run game.
The X-Factor: Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman. He hasn’t had a great season but the team needs him to tune down the turnovers and assume leadership of the offense. He has to have a great game in order for the Bucs to have a chance.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bucs go to a hurry-up offense. The team has struggled with its base offense during its eight-game losing streak but has found a spark going to hurry-up offense. They may turn to it early against Carolina.
Follow Rick on Twitter: @LedgeronBucs
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Jaguars at Titans by Terry McCormick of TitanInsider.com
Impact Injuries: Chris Johnson's ankle has limited him in practice this week and he might not be a full-go, though he should play. Matt Hasselbeck's calf is much better and he practiced all week.
The X-Factor: Despite an inexcusable loss to the Colts, the Titans remain in the playoff chase and need to play like it in the final two weeks. There appears to be some players who are at the end of their contracts who may be letting that distraction affect their play on the field, even though the postseason is not completely loss.
Don’t be surprised if: The Titans allow Maurice Jones-Drew to gain the upper hand on them in this game. Jones-Drew has had his way with the Titans the past couple of years, averaging nearly 130 yards in his last four games against them.
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Vikings at Redskins by John Keim of the Washington Examiner
Impact Injuries: RB Roy Helu was limited in practice this week with toe and knee issues, suffered in the win at New York. He’s expected to play, but if he can’t then rookie Evan Royster would take his place. Royster ran well in limited action vs. the Giants, showing more confidence in his cuts. But Helu is more of a big-play back.
The X-Factor: Motivation. The Redskins are coming off a big win playing at home the day before Christmas. Will they be satisfied just having won at New York? Or do they want to parlay that into a strong finish? Minnesota is bad, but the Vikings have only played two games against teams that currently have a losing record. If the Redskins take the game seriously, they should win. If not, the win over the Giants wasn’t the start of any strong finish but rather just one good game. If they’re serious about where they think they’re headed, they’ll show it Saturday.
Don’t be surprised if: Returner Brandon Banks finally has a big game. The Vikings kick and punt coverage units both rank 29th in the NFL. Banks has been ordinary in kick returns, averaging just 22.6 per run as teams have done a good job pinning him to the left sideline – he prefers to start elsewhere and run to his left. But it could be punt returns where he breaks out Saturday as the Vikings allow 13.5 yards per return.
Follow John on Twitter: @john_keim
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JAN 28 The Sports Quotient
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