Cardinals at Vikings by Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds
Impact Injuries: The Cardinals are actually pretty healthy among their key players. Beanie Wells is still limited in practice with his hamstring, but as we saw against the Giants, it was not a factor during the game. Punter Dave Zastudil has a sore knee. It was a big enough concern that the Cardinals brought back Ban Graham to back him up if 'Z' can't go. Starting tight end Todd Heap has a sore hamstring and will be a gametime decision. If unable to go, Jeff King will start with rookie Robert Housler getting more looks.
The X-Factor: This week it is desperation. With the 1-3 Cardinals facing the 0-4 Vikings, both teams are desperate to remain relevant and at least close to contending for the playoffs. The Cardinals have lost their last three games by a combined eight points. The Vikings also have been losing in excruciating fashion. Whoever plays with the most desperation will be the victor.
Don’t be surprised if: Kevin Kolb has some big plays down the field. Minnesota's secondary is suspect and their best corner, Antoine Winfield, is out.
Follow Kent on Twitter: @senorjessroot
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Packers at Falcons by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Impact Injuries: Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee) and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (calf) should be available and could boost the defensive unit. The defense has not recorded a sack in the three games that Babineaux has missed.
The X-Factor: Michael Turner. A common thread in the two Falcon’s victories over the Packers in 2008 and 2010 was running back Michael Turner running for more than 100 yards. He had 121 yards in the 2008 victory at Lambeau Field. In the 20-17 victory at the Georgia Dome, The Burner ran for 110 yards on 23 carries. In the playoff loss, he had 10 carries for 39 yards. Turner, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers have to do their part to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field.
Don’t be surprised if: DE Ray Edwards turns in a big game. Coming over from Minnesota, he knows all about the Packers. After a slow start, this could be the game he starts paying some dividends on that five-year, $30 million deal.
Follow Darryl on Twitter: @AJCFalcons
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Eagles at Bills by Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News
Impact Injuries: Bills left tackle Demetrius Bell is out with a shoulder injury. It's not a long-term injury, but rookie Chris Hairston, a fourth-round pick from Clemson, will have to make his first career start. He will line up opposite Jason Babin, who already has seven sacks. Trouble. The Bills will have to give Hairston some help, which will detract at least slightly from how quickly a back or a tight end will get out in the pass pattern.
The X-Factor: The Bills have a distinct edge in the run game. Buffalo ranks fifth in rushing offense. Philly ranks 30th in rushing defense. But can the Bills' offense do well on third downs and keep drives alive enough to get enough rushing attempts?
Don’t be surprised if: The Bills … give up a ton of yards to the Eagles. Buffalo has allowed 450-plus yards three straight games. The Eagles are averaging 435 a game. The Bills don't have much pass rush. It's hard to see the Bills containing Philly very well. Buffalo's offense may have to score 30, and Philly's defense may have to woefully underachieve (again) if Buffalo is going to win.
Follow Mark on Twitter: @gggaughan
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Saints at Panthers by Greg Jones of Examiner.com
Impact Injuries: The Carolina Panthers will have cornerback Chris Gamble back. Gamble missed last week’s loss to the Chicago Bears due to a concussion. But the Panthers could be without guard Geoff Hangartner and tackle Jeff Otah due to each having a sore back. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it is too early to tell if they will miss Sunday’s game at Bank of American Stadium against the New Orleans Saints. Hangartner and Otah didn’t practice Wednesday, and tight end Jeremy Shockey also missed practice. Shockey is recovering from a concussion, and may miss the New Orleans game.
The X-Factor: The Panthers must improve their run defense and that starts with the front four. Carolina is next to last in run defense, and the Panthers were burned by Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, who rushed for 205 yards on 25 carries in the Panthers’ 34-29 loss. The Panthers are young on their defensive front with two rookie defensive tackles and Greg Hardy, a second-year pro. Hardy and Charles Johnson have played well, but the Panthers need consistency from their front four because the Saints have upgraded their run game.
Don’t be surprised if: The Panthers’ pass defense plays well against the Saints. Drew Brees is a huge task. Remember, Gamble did an excellent job in Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals Larry Fitzgerald. The All Pro receiver had just three catches for 62 yards. And aside from an 84-yard touchdown catch by Jody Nelson and a 49-yard touchdown catch by Greg Jennings, the Panthers did a decent job against Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Panthers have had excellent play from cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn, Darius Butler and Gamble. In addition, the Panthers have two good safeties in Sherrod Martin and Charles Godfrey, a team captain.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @gjjones_sports
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Panthers at Bears by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune
Impact Injuries: Injuries continue to plague the Bears on the offensive line with right tackle Gabe Carimi still out with a right knee injury. Chris Spencer, who filed in at right guard last week, suffered a broken right hand and it’s musical chairs again for the Bears as they prepare for the ultra-talented Lions’ front four, which is led by tackle Ndamukong Suh. Lance Louis figures to go against Suh but he will need help. Meanwhile, safety Chris Harris is questionable and the Bears have struggled mightily at the position this season. A hamstring issue plagues him and he could still be a week away. Wide receiver Earl Bennett, quarterback Jay Cutler’s most trusted target, is still out with a rib injury. The passing game is a bit of a mess.
The X-Factor: No wide receiver in the NFL is hotter than Calvin Johnson, who has tied a league record with two touchdown receptions in four consecutive games. The 6-5, 236-pounder presents a real challenge for the Bears, who struggled to deal with Carolina’s Steve Smith last week, surrendering eight receptions for 181 yards. But history is on the side of the Bears in this NFC North meeting. Johnson has just one 100-yard game in seven vs. the Bears. He’s averaged 69 yards per game against them, and the Bears typically match up well using physical 6-1 cornerback Charles Tillman. But without an improved pass rush – the Bears have been lethargic getting after the quarterback since sacking Atlanta’s Matt Ryan five times in the season opener – it’s going to be next to impossible to control Johnson on the big Monday night stage, the first time the Lions have appeared on “Monday Night Football” since they played in the Pontiac Silverdome in 2001.
Don’t be surprised if: Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew has close to 100 yards receiving. The Bears have been giving up big games to tight ends this season and Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey just missed some more big plays last week. Shockey had a touchdown negated by an iffy pass interference call. With the defense focusing on Johnson, it should leave Pettigrew room to operate in the middle third of the field.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @BradBiggs
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Bengals at Jaguars by Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer
Impact Injuries: CB Kelly Jennings hasn't practiced this week due to a nagging hamstring injury. If he doesn't play, Morgan Trent would move into playing corner in nickel packages. LB Dontay Moch, who has missed eight weeks due to a broken foot, has practiced this week and might see his first action on Sunday. OG Bobbie Williams, who was suspended four games for a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, was added to the 53-man roster on Thursday and is on track to start at right guard.
The X-Factor: QB Andy Dalton. Which one shows up is anyone's guess. Will it be the one who didn't look like a rookie in the second half last week against Buffalo, where he led four scoring drives, and at Denver or the one who struggled against San Francisco and in the first half last week? For the San Francisco game and the first half against Buffalo, Dalton was 24 of 52 for 273 yards with no touchdowns, four interceptions and a 30.4 passer rating. However in the other five halves he played, Dalton is 51 of 72 for 595 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 114.1 rating.
Don’t be surprised if: There is more of a return to the running game, especially if the Bengals get ahead. Cedric Benson is tied for second in the league in carries and has two 100-yard games but things have been inconsistent on the ground due to the team's inability to convert on third downs and mostly they have played from behind.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @joereedy
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Chargers at Broncos by Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post
Impact Injuries: Starting safeties Brian Dawkins and Rahim Moore both sat out of practice on Thursday (and Dawkins missed Wednesday as well), leaving the team with only two healthy safeties rookie Quinton Carter and third-year special team standout David Bruton. Playing status for Dawkins and Moore won't be determined until later in the week. Receivers Eddie Royal and Demaryius Thomas, and tight end Julius Thomas will be out.
The X-Factor: The Broncos have had little success against Philip Rivers since Rivers became the Chargers' starting quarterback in 2006 (with a record of 2-8 in Rivers' 10 starts), but the Broncos come into Sunday's game with a healthy front 7 for the first time all year, which gives the team a chance to rattle Rivers. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil played pain-free against Green Bay last week after missing two games with a shoulder injury, and D.J. Williams made his debut after missing more than a month because of a dislocated elbow. If Dumervil and rookie Von Miller (4 sacks) can consistently get into the backfield, the rest of the defense might have a shot against Rivers, who has thrown six interceptions this season.
Don’t be surprised if: Willis McGahee remains the team's primary running back. With two 100-yard performances in four games, McGahee has taken over the starting job from Knowshon Moreno. The Broncos are settling into a committee that gives the bulk of the carries to McGahee with Moreno coming into the game as the third-down back.
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @PostBroncos
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Bears at Lions by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press
Impact Injuries: Safety Amari Spievey left last week’s win over the Cowboys with a hamstring injury and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. Spievey said he expects to play, but if he can’t the Lions will pair special-teams ace John Wendling with Louis Delmas in their back end. No. 3 safety Erik Coleman is out a couple weeks with an ankle injury. Justin Durant sat out the Cowboys game with a concussion but has been cleared to return.
The X-Factor: Monday Night Football. The Lions haven’t played in a Monday night game since 2001, when they lost to the Rams, 35-0, and the entire city is geared up for what should be an electric atmosphere. Lions coach Jim Schwartz has done his best to downplay the stage, but by going 5-0 for the first time since 1956 his team can prove it’s ready for prime time.
Don’t be surprised if: The Lions pad their somewhat disappointing sack totals. The Lions have just nine sacks through four games, and while Schwartz is fond of saying their objective isn’t to lead the league in sacks (or any other category, it’s to win games), the front didn’t get enough pressure on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo last week. The Bears have given up 15 sacks this year, second most in the NFL.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveBirkett
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Green Bay Packers
Packers at Falcons by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press Gazette
Impact Injuries: With right tackle Bryan Bulaga expected to miss at least another game because of the knee injury he sustained in Week 3 at Chicago, second-year pro Marshall Newhouse will make his second straight start. The Packers may have to give him some extra help this week. Last week, he gave up two sacks to Broncos rookie Von Miller, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers was flushed out of the pocket and ran more than usual. The Falcons surely watched that tape and may stick defensive end John Abraham, their best pass rusher, exclusively on Newhouse’s side.
The X-Factor: Frank Zombo. The second-year outside linebacker could make his 2011 debut on Sunday. And if so, perhaps the Packers’ sagging pass rush could get a lift. Zombo was originally ruled out for 8-12 weeks after he broke his scapula on Aug. 19 in warm-ups before a preseason game against Arizona, but he returned to practice this week, just 6