49ers at Cardinals by Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds
Impact Injuries: Arizona is getting healthy. Todd Heap finally appears to be recovering nicely to be able to play on Sunday. Joey Porter and Kerry Rhodes are finally practicing, but will not play. RB Beanie Wells has an assortments of ailments (knee, hamstring, thumb), but all points to his playing on Sunday, as he has the past few weeks. Kevin Kolb was not even listed on the injury report this week.
The X-Factor: How can Kevin Kolb follow up his second half play against Dallas? That will be the deciding factor. The defense has been very good, allowing only five touchdowns over the past five games after having allowed 20 in the first seven games. Against the 49ers just a few weeks ago, the offense was unable to produce anything, as they held the ball less than 16 minutes of the game. It will be tough running the ball against San Fran, as always is the case, but if Kolb can be efficient and move the ball in the air, the Cardinals will have at least a shot to win and keep at least the hope of the playoffs alive. That is an amazing thing to consider when they started the season 1-6.
Don’t be surprised if: The two teams should be emotional. The teams do not like each other at all. The last time they met, there ended up being $60,000 in fines allotted for behavior on the field. Arizona has lost their last five games to the Niners, so it will be a physical, emotional game as they try to get over the hump against a very good 2011 team.
Follow Jess on Twitter: @senorjessroot
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Falcons at Panthers by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Impact Injuries: Left cornerback Brent Grimes has arthoscopic right knee surgery and is out. Cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens will split up the duties much like they did last week against the Texans. Franks will start at left cornerback and slide inside in the nickel. Owens will come on to left cornerback when the Falcons go to the nickel. The Falcons were able to contain Steve Smith in the first meeting.
The X-Factor: LB Mike Peterson. Peterson is expected to start for Stephen Nicholas. In the previous meeting, Nicholas was responsible for Newton on bootlegs and some running plays. Newton rushed six times for 50 yards, mostly on scrambles. Peterson, 35, and in his 13th year in the league, is a fierce hitter.
Don’t be surprised if: RB Michael Turner rambles all over Bank of America Stadium. He has rushed for 707 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven games against the Panthers, who put both of their starting rookie defensive tackles -- Sione Fua and Terrell McClain – on IR. Turner is eight yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark.
Follow Darryl on Twitter: @AJCFalcons
For more on the Falcons click here
Colts at Ravens by Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times
Impact Injuries: Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis is expected to miss his fourth consecutive game with a right turf toe injury. He's projected to return next week against the San Diego Chargers.
The X-Factor: Can the Baltimore Ravens keep it up without Ray Lewis? They're undefeated in the past three games without the All-Pro middle linebacker, defeating the San Francisco 49ers, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. Sunday, they square off with the winless Indianapolis Colts. Collectively, linebackers Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, Albert McClelland and Brendon Ayanbadejo have filled the void created by Lewis' absence due to a right turf toe injury. He's expected to return next week against the San Diego Chargers. During the three games without Lewis, opponents are averaging 13.3 points. The defense has recorded 14 sacks, forced five turnovers and limited opponents to average totals of 295 yards of total offense and 83 rushing yards. The defense is ranked third in total defense, second against the run, fifth against the pass and third in scoring defense, surrendering 16.0 points per contest. The Colts are ranked 29th in total offense, 26th in rushing and 26th in passing. This looks like another week that the defense can afford to be without Lewis.
Will the Ravens end their streak of losses to Indianapolis? The Ravens have lost eight consecutive games to the Colts, including a 20-3 AFC divisional playoff loss on Jan. 16, 2010 when Peyton Manning threw two touchdown passes late in the first half and Joe Flacco was intercepted twice while Ray Rice and Ed Reed lost fumbles. The Ravens last beat the Colts on Jan. 2, 2001. Only Lewis was still on the roster. The Ravens are still haunted by a Dec. 16, 2007 overtime loss to the 0-13 Miami Dolphins.
Don’t be surprised if: The Colts' quarterback might need extra pads today. The Ravens lead the NFL with 41 sacks and sacked 49ers quarterback Alex Smith nine times. They lead the NFL with 27 sacks at home.
Follow Aaron on Twitter: @RavensInsider
For more on the Ravens click here
Bills at Chargers by Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News
Impact Injuries: The Bills likley will be without tight end Scott Chandler this week. He has a sprained ankle. Chandler is having a solid season. Given all of the Bills' other offensive injuries, they can ill afford to lose another weapon. Chandler has been a good target in the red zone. On the defensive side, the Bills will get strong safety George Wilson back after missing three weeks to a neck injury. That helps against the Chargers' pass offense.
The X-Factor: Bills running back C.J. Spiller had a breakout of sorts last week against Tennessee. Spiller rushed for 83 yards and had a 35-yard TD run. He also had a 41-yard run for a score that was wiped out by a dubious holding penalty. The Chargers' defense is vulnerable. The Bills need another very good day from Spiller to have any chance.
Don’t be surprised if: San Diego QB Philip Rivers has a big day. The Bills have no pass rush whatsoever. Even with San Diego's offensive line struggles, Rivers should have all day to throw.
Follow Mark on Twitter: @gggaughan
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Falcons at Panthers by Greg Jones of Examiner.com
Impact Injuries: The Carolina Panthers will be without rookie defensive tackles, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, for the remainder of the season. The first-year starters were added to season-ending injured reserve on Tuesday. The Panthers now have 14 players on IR. Before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Fua severely strained his right hamstring during pregame warm-ups. McClain injured his left knee in the third quarter of the contest and didn’t return. The Panthers will start Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse in place of Fua and McClain. The Panthers will use defensive ends, Charles “Big Money” Johnson, Greg Hardy and Antwan Applewhite, at defensive tackle too. The three defensive ends moved inside during last weeks’ 38-19 win over Tampa Bay. The Panthers have signed free agent defensive tackles Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Jason Shirley. In addition, the Panthers should have kick returner Kealoha Pilares (quadriceps injury) back after missing the last week’s game.
The X-Factor: The Panthers have to limit Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner. He rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns when the teams met almost two months ago. It will be difficult to quell Turner because he is a tough runner and has the ability to make defenders miss tackles. If the defense can limit Turner, the Panthers will have an excellent opportunity to win their third consecutive game, which hasn’t happened since 2009.
Don’t be surprised if: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton finishes the game without a turnover and rushes for two touchdowns. Newton, who had three rushing scores last week against the Bucs, has improved since his first meeting with the Falcons. He is coming off back-to-back wins, and Newton continues to play with a lot of confidence. And the Panthers’ running game and defense have made progress since the first meeting with the Falcons.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @gjjones_sports
For more on the Panthers click here
Bears at Broncos by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune
Impact Injuries: The Jay Cutler doubters have been disappearing quickly as Caleb Hanie struggles from week to week in his absence. Chicago managed just three points in a home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday as the offense was nothing short of terrible. As bad as it was, Hanie still would have thrown two touchdown passes had Roy Williams not dropped one pass at the goal line that was then intercepted and if Marion Barber had lined up properly on a play that fooled the Chiefs and left him wide open. Hanie’s footwork has been off and it’s led to accuracy problems and now the Bears won’t have their trusted running game to lean on as Matt Forte is out at least a few weeks – and perhaps for the remainder of the season – after he sprained the MCL in his right knee. Barber and Kahlil Bell will be called on to replace him. Barber is a complementary back to Forte, so he can’t do the same things, but he runs well downhill and Bell can hit some of the plays on the edges. It’s a big problem for offensive coordinator Mike Martz. One bright spot on the offensive line crippled the Bears last week too. Fill-in right tackle Lance Louis, a guard, was beaten for five sacks by the Chiefs. He’s made seven starts at right tackle and filled in nicely before the meltdown, making him a target for dangerous Broncos rookie Von Miller.
The X-Factor: Tebowmania has not exactly swept over the Chicago Bears, but they are mindful of the unique talents Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow possesses. The young quarterback has been getting better as the season goes along and proved last week in a victory at Minnesota that he could win as a pocket passer. The Bears, though, have paid close attention to what the Broncos do with the read option, something defenses are not accustomed to seeing in the NFL. The athleticism of defensive end Julius Peppers and linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs should give the Bears a better chance to have success than some previous Broncos’ opponents. But it requires discipline and when the Bears have struggled this season, they’ve been caught out of position. Gap integrity is a must and the Bears don’t have much margin for error on defense given the collapse of the team’s offense with injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. The Bears must find a way to force Tebow into errors and that will not be easy. He’s thrown only one interception and lost two fumbles this season.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bears continue to struggle on offense. Martz isn’t going conservative with Hanie and that’s going to put him in a dangerous position against a defense with a top pass rush (Miller teams with Elvis Dumervil) and skilled man-to-man cornerbacks in Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman. The Bears don’t have any wide receivers that are going to strike fear in the Broncos, and this could snowball on Chicago.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @BradBiggs
For more on the Bears click here
Texans at Bengals by Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer
Impact Injuries: DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring) will miss his third straight game and CB Nate Clements (hamstring) is doubtful after not practicing the past two days. Clements was hopeful about practicing Friday and did not rule himself completely out. RB Cedric Benson (foot) did not practice on Thursday but should play.
The X-Factor: The Bengals run defense. They have given up an average of 120 yards over the past four games, including a season high 136 yards in last week's loss to Pittsburgh. Tackling has been sloppy and too many guys have gotten overaggressive and are not playing their gaps. LB Rey Maualuga needs to start playing more consistent and the defense also has to stop giving up big plays on first down. Last week six first-down plays gained 12 yards or more.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bengals try to be very aggressive and go after Johnathan Joseph with A.J. Green. Joseph spent five seasons in Cincinnati and left as a free agent. Green has a five-inch height advantage and will try to play more physical against the extremely athletic Joseph.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @joereedy
For more in the Bengals click here
Giants at Cowboys by Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram
Impact Injuries: The Cowboys will get receiver Miles Austin (hamstring) and fullback Tony Fiammetta (illness) back this week. Tight end Martellus Bennett (ribs) is not expected to play, and backup quarterback Jon Kitna (back) still is out.
The X-Factor: The Cowboys’ December and January woes have been well documented. Since Tony Romo took over as the starting quarterback in 2006, the Cowboys are 12-16 after November, including the postseason. Romo is 9-14, including a 1-3 playoff record. The Cowboys lost last week in their first December game this season. Now, Dallas hosts the Giants on Sunday night. The Cowboys have lost five consecutive Sunday night games.
Don’t be surprised if: Eli Manning beats the Cowboys in Arlington again. After the first regular-season game at Cowboys Stadium, Manning signed the wall in the visiting locker room with “First Win in the New Stadium.” He has left his mark in the $1.2 billion stadium, with a 2-0 record. In the two games there, Manning has completed 50 of 73 passes for 636 yards with six touchdowns, three interceptions and a 105.7 passer rating.
Follow Charean on Twitter: @NFLCharean
For more in the ‘Boys click here
Bears at Broncos by Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post
Impact Injuries: Starting running back Willis McGahee missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a knee injury, but is adamant that he will play against the Bears. McGahee has previously missed practice time because of hamstring and ankle injuries but went on to play in the game. Wide receiver Eddie Royal did not pass post-concussion tests in time to practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
The X-Factor: The Broncos pass rush took a hit last week when Von Miller was relegated to the sidelines because of a thumb injury. Miller, who has 10.5 sacks this season, has tested several different casts on the right thumb this week and he expects to play Sunday against the Bears, even with one hand. Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie was sacked seven times last week. As long as they don't have anything on his legs, I think we're going to be alright, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said Thursday.
Don’t be surprised if: Punter Britton Colquitt and kicker Matt Prater try to take Devin Hester out of the game. Colquitt is in the midst of a Pro Bowl-caliber season, with a net average of 41.6 yards per punt, and 23 punts inside the 20-yard line. Prater, meanwhile, consistently knocks kickoffs for touchbacks here in Denver.
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @PostBroncos
For more on the Broncos click here
Vikings at Lions by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press
Impact Injuries: Where to begin? Defensive backs Chris Houston and Louis Delmas are expected to miss their second straight games with Grade 2 MCL tears. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley is battling soreness in his surgically-repaired foot, running back Kevin Smith is nursing a high ankle sprain, and linebacker Justin Durant is day-to-day but expected to play with a hamstring injury. Fairley’s loss would be especially huge for a defensive line already short tackle Ndamukong Suh because of a suspension and end Lawrence Jackson because of a thigh bruise.
The X-Factor: Playoff pressure. This is a game the Lions should win. They’re at home against a two-win team with injuries to its quarterback and star running back, and in a must-win situation if they’re going to make the playoffs. But that’s where things get tricky. The Lions haven’t had a winning record this late in the season in more than a decade, so playoff pressure is new to much of the locker room. Will they get too uptight or consumed by the moment and wilt under pressure? It’s not likely, but it wouldn’t be the first time a team has succumbed to the spotlight, either.
Don’t be surprised if: The Lions get their penalty problems under control. Jim Schwartz gave his team a tongue lashing last week after they committed 11 penalties and three personal fouls against the Saints. Locker-room leaders have voiced their displeasure, too. Schwartz has threatened to bench anyone who commits a “selfish” after-the-whistle foul going forward, and he could start Sunday with receiver Titus Young, who committed the most egregious penalty against the Saints and worked behind Rashied Davis in the receiver rotation earlier this week.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveBirkett and @freeplions
For more on the Lions click here
Raiders at Packers by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press Gazette
Impact Injuries: For the third time in as many games, running back James Starks injured his ankle. This time, the Packers may have to sit him for a week or two. They’ve been reluctant to do that because Starks could still function, but now they may have no choice because they want their primary back healthy for the playoffs. Starks left Sunday’s game against the Giants late in the first half after he aggravated his troublesome right ankle. He originally sustained the injury on Nov. 20 against Tampa Bay but was able to return for the Thanksgiving game at Detroit, but he came out of the Lions game hobbled as well. Since Starks has been hurt, the Packers have incorporated rookie Brandon Saine in the offense more, although Ryan Grant remains the first option behind Starks. The Packers will be without starting right guard Josh Sitton (knee) for the second straight game and also could be without starting inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk, both of whom missed the Giants game because of calf injuries. Of the two, Hawk has the better chance to play this week.
The X-Factor: Tim Masthay. The Packers punter has found his groove — and just in time. With the league’s best punter, Shane Lechler, coming to Lambeau Field on Sunday, the Packers are going to have to stay competitive in the field-position battle. Masthay is coming off his best game of the season. He was named NFC special teams player of the week after placing four of his five punts against the Giants inside the 20. He had a net average of 44.2 yards and allowed no return yardage.
Don’t be surprised if: Charles Woodson has a big game. Though he’s coming off a concussion last week against the Giants, the cornerback has been cleared to play. Given that he’s going against his former team, one that didn’t want him back as a free agent in 2006, you better believe Woodson will want to be a difference maker in this game.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @RobDemovsky
For more on the Pack click here
Texans at Bengals by Steph Stradley of the Houston Chronicle
Impact Injuries: Texans backup quarterback T.J. Yates got the majority of his passing yards with wide receiver Andre Johnson. Johnson had to leave the game with an injury to his hamstring, the opposite one from the one that was surgically repaired. The injury was deemed to not be very severe but I would be surprised if Johnson plays this weekend. Typically, when Johnson goes out, coverage switches to give extra attention to tight end Owen Daniels.
The X-Factor: This is T.J. Yates' first start on the road and second overall start. The Texans had an uncharacteristic number of pre-snap penalties at home against Atlanta. Does this get worse on the road? The Texans are in unknown territory with Yates trying to get them into the playoffs.
Don’t be surprised if: The Texans defense feasts on the Bengals offense. After the Steelers beat the Bengals, it took the Texans defense from number 1 in the league to number 2 after the Steelers. They may take this game as a challenge to take over number 1 spot again.
Follow Steph on Twitter: @StephStradley
For more on the Texans click here
Colts at Ravens by Brad Wells of StampedeBlue.com
Impact Injuries: For the first time since Nov. 16, tight end Dallas Clark returned to practice this week. This could be big for new Colts' quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who looked and played much better against the Patriots than Curtis Painter did in his previous six outings. Middle linebacker Pat Angerer is a concern after sustaining a knee injury. On his Facebook page, Angerer said he expects to play. But, don't be surprised if he sits.
The X-Factor: Orlovsky outplayed Curtis Painter in preseason, yet Painter was retained as the primary back-up behind Kerry Collins when the regular season began. Now, Collins is on I.R. and Painter is on the bench after throwing one touchdown and nine INTs in his last five games. Orlovsky is an experienced quarterback, and knows a thing or two about playing through adversity (he quarterbacked the 0-16 Lions in 2008). He's also highly motivated to help the Colts win a game seeing as he does not want to have two 0-16 seasons on his resume.
Don’t be surprised if: The Ravens have played down to their competition all season, and they might do so against the Colts this Sunday. The real test is whether or not the Colts defense can stop Ray Rice. If Rice has a field day, the Colts have absolutely no chance. If they stop Rice and force Joe Flacco to throw more than he's used to, the Ravens are then a bit more vulnerable.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @StampedeBlue
For more on the Colts click here
Buccaners at Jaguars by Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union
Impact Injuries: Defensive ends Aaron Kampman (hamstring) and Matt Roth (concussion) didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday and aren’t likely to play. Kampman has only played in three games this season.
The X-Factor: Maurice Jones-Drew took over the NFL’s rushing lead with 1,137 yards rushing this season. He had 97 yards Monday night against the Chargers. Jones-Drew won’t say the rushing title means anything to him, because his team is 3-9, but he’s got a shot at it and the Buccaneers have struggled against the run.
Don’t be surprised if: The Jaguars defense struggles again. Jacksonville placed another key defensive player on injured reserve Sunday, defensive end John Chick. They were very deep at defensive end when the season started, but that depth, especially with Roth and Kampman’s injuries, has dwindled.
Follow Tania on Twitter: @taniaganguli
For more on the Jags click here
Chiefs at Jets by Joel Thorman of ArrowheadPride.com
Impact Injuries: Kyle Orton. The Chiefs (backup?) quarterback suffered a finger injury in his one and only play last Sunday against the Bears. His status entering Week 14 is currently unknown but the best guess right now is that, if he's available, the Chiefs will have a specific set of plays for him to run. On the one play he was in last week, Orton was going deep on a flea-flicker so that's perhaps an indication of why the Chiefs want him -- the deep ball. Tyler Palko is clearly ineffective going down field so I think if you see Orton on Sunday, it will only be in various packages and not necessarily the entire game.
The X-Factor: Chiefs offense. Can they score? That's really what this game comes down to. The Chiefs defense has played well the last few weeks and I think there's a strong indication that they can hold the Jets offense in check. But...the Chiefs offense has major issues. They've scored just one touchdown in the last three games and even that came on a hail mary at the end of the first half last week. If the Chiefs can put two touchdowns on the board, they're going to have a strong shot at winning this game. The problem? They have yet to score two touchdowns in a game during the Tyler Palko era.
Don’t be surprised if: This is a close game. Yes, the Chiefs offense is very, very bad but KC has been playing well the last three weeks, despite a 1-2 record to show for it. The 31-3 score didn't show it but the Chiefs defense played well for most of the New England game, save a 10-minute stretch at the end of the first half and beginning of the second half. They held Pittsburgh to 13 points and Chicago to three points, while getting after the quarterback in both those games. I can see the Chiefs hanging with the Jets on Sunday because of their defense. A 13-6 score in favor of New York sounds about right.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @ArrowheadPride
For more on the Chiefs click here
MAY 24 Joel Corry
Keep an eye on what happens in Miami between the Dolphins and first round pick Dion Jordan.
MAY 13 Jeff Fedotin
Former discus star launches football career with 49ers.