Steelers at Cardinals by Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds
Impact Injuries: Todd Heap is still hampered by a hamstring injury, but the tight end corps are getting some help. Jim Dray, who has been out since after the final preseason game, has started practicing.
The X-Factor: For this game, the name of the game is familiarity. The Cardinals have been known for some time as Steelers West. Between Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm, Ray Horton and other players and coaches, there is plenty of familiarity of what the Steelers do. The question is can they stop them from doing what they do.
Don’t be surprised if: Don't be surprised to see a close game. Arizona is coming off of their bye and the Steelers have been anything but world-beaters outside of Heinz Field.
Follow Kent on Twitter: @senorjessroot
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Falcons at Lions by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Impact Injuries: Wide receiver Julio Jones (hamstring) is not expected to play. Harry Douglas, who had a big 34-yard catch on a key third-and-12 in the win over Carolina, will replace the rookie in the lineup. The Falcons are hoping to get nickel back Christopher Owens back from the concussion protocol in time for Sunday’s game.
The X-Factor: Michael Turner. Turner ran for a season-high 139 yards on 27 carries last week. It will be important for him to get rolling so that Detroit’s defensive line can’t pin their ears back and concentrate on rushing the passer.
Don’t be surprised if: WR Harry Douglas turns in a big game. He was targeted just four times last week, but was open deep on two passes that were overthrown. If Douglas and Ryan would have connected, he’d likely been over 100 with two touchdowns.
Follow Darryl on Twitter: @AJCFalcons
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Ravens at Jaguars by Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times
Impact Injuries: Wide receiver Lee Evans remains sidelined with sprained left ankle that has hampered him since the preseason. Left offensive guard Ben Grubbs has a painful right turf toe and is questionable for this game. Rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith has been out since the first game with a high left ankle sprain, but has returned to practice on a limited basis as well as veteran cornerback Chris Carr (left hamstring).
The X-Factor: The Ravens want to avoid falling prey to the dreaded trap game, particularly with the entire league and nation watching Monday night. Although the Jaguars (1-5) have lost five consecutive games, they’ve been competitive in all but one of those defeats. The Jaguars haven’t performed well in prime time, though. They lost their past three Monday night games, their last three Thursday night games and their last Sunday night game.
The Ravens (4-1) can’t afford to overlook a Jacksonville squad that has a great running back in Maurice Jones-Drew and a respectable defense. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio is coaching under a mandate from owner Wayne Weaver that he has to make the playoffs to save his job one more time. At this rate, he’s probably a dead man walking. Del Rio, though, might also throw caution to the wind against his old team, which once employed him as linebackers coach during its Super Bowl season.
Don’t be surprised if: The Jaguars can make this something of a contest. They have a stingy defense and an ability to hang with more talented teams despite ranking last in the NFL in total offense. With Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield, the Jaguars have one consistent offensive threat while rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert learns on the job.
Follow Aaron on Twitter: @RavensInsider
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Redskins at Panthers by Greg Jones of Examiner.com
Impact Injuries: The Carolina Panthers on Wednesday placed right tackle Jeff Otah on season-ending injury reserve because of a sore knee and back. Undrafted rookie Byron Bell will replace Otah, who missed last week’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. Bell has started two games, and he has alternated with Otah in several games. Otah, a former 2008 first-round pick out of Pittsburgh, is probably the most talented offensive linemen on the team. The offensive line also includes Pro Bowler left tackle Jordan Gross and Pro Bowler center Ryan Kalil. But Otah’s injury gives the Panthers an excellent opportunity to see if Bell can become a starter and replace Oath, who has been on injured reserve three times since getting drafted.
The X-Factor: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s ability to play well with six games under his belt will be enormous against the Washington Redskins and the following nine games. There is more than enough tape on Newton, so teams will be better prepared for the rookie signal caller. The Redskins have an excellent coaching staff, and it will be up to the Panthers coaching staff to continue to put Newton in situations to succeed.
Don’t be surprised if: Newton throws for more than 300 yards, and the Panthers rush for more than 100 yards against a No. 6 ranked defense. The running game has improved in the last three weeks, and Newton is a better quarterback going into Week 7. Newton is one of the best playmakers in the NFL, and he ranks fourth in passing yards (1,847). Only Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have passed for more yards.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @gjjones_sports
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Bears vs. Buccaneers by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune
Impact Injuries: The good news for the Bears is that wide receiver Earl Bennett could return from a chest injury after being sidelined since Week 2. Bennett is probably the target quarterback Jay Cutler is most comfortable with and he gives the offense a presence in the middle of the field that has quite frankly been missing with tight end Kellen Davis failing to develop in the passing game as expected, at least to this point. Rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi remains out with his right knee injury and could be back following the bye, which comes after the London game. Defensive tackle Matt Toeaina remains out with a sprained knee, and rookie second-round pick Stephen Paea showed well in his place last week.
The X-Factor: Generally, the team that has arrived first in London for the annual NFL regular-season game has fared best. It takes time to adjust to the time difference in London – six hours for the Bears and five for the Buccaneers. Tampa arrived Monday night, leaving a little more than 12 hours after they defeated the New Orleans Saints last Sunday. The Bears do not come in until Friday morning, opting to spend most of the week preparing for the game at their headquarters in Lake Forest, Ill. The Bears will practice Friday afternoon and if the players don’t decent sleep on the overnight flight, it’s going to be tough for them to put the finishing touches on preparation for the game. They don’t seem concerned by it and point out the game will kick off Sunday at noon Chicago time. The question is, how will their bodies feel when it’s 6 p.m. in London?
Don’t be surprised if: Even if they’re jet-lagged, the Bears’ defense should look fast against the Bucs, who have a slow offense. Tampa lacks a consistent explosive playmaker and it’s kind of a plodding offensive attack. That could play into Chicago’s favor, especially with running back LeGarrette Blount out with a knee injury.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @BradBiggs
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Seahawks at Browns by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Impact Injuries: The Madden curse strikes again. Peyton Hillis suffered a pulled hamstring against the Raiders and will most likely sit. Montario Hardesty will replace him. Cornerback Joe Haden is likely to miss his second straight game, with Dimitri Patterson stepping in. Linebacker Scott Fujita suffered a concussion and will also likely sit.
The X-Factor: Will the Seahawks no-huddle offense foil the Browns' defense? The Browns' young unit is playing surprisingly well, ranking seventh overall and fourth against the pass. But the Seahawks have scored 64 points over the last two games after just 30 in the first three.
Don’t be surprised if: Colt McCoy, who's come under heavy fire lately for his spotty play, pulls it together and has good game. On three occasions, he's completed fewer than 50% of his passes. The Browns are last in the league with only eight plays of 20 yards or more.
Follow Mary Kay on Twitter: @MaryKayCabot
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Rams at Cowboys by Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram
Impact Injuries: Starting defensive end Jason Hatcher will miss his third consecutive start with a calf injury, and running back Felix Jones will miss at least two weeks with a high ankle sprain. Marcus Spears will start in Hatcher’s spot, and DeMarco Murray is expected to get the bulk of the carries in place of Jones. Left guard Bill Nagy is out for the year with a broken ankle. Dallas signed Montrae Holland, who the Cowboys had released before the season, and he will start in Nagy’s spot since Derrick Dockery is out another week with a fractured tibia and sprained MCL.
The X-Factor: Receiver Dez Bryant has failed to catch a pass in the second half of three of the four games he has played. He has only two catches for 50 yards in the second half of games this season. Bryant was targeted only twice in the second half last week. Three of Tony Romo’s six interceptions have come on passes intended for Bryant, so there is some speculation that Romo has lost faith in Bryant.
Don’t be surprised if: Rookie DeMarco Murray rushes for 100 yards. The Cowboys rank 27th in rushing, and Felix Jones has only one 100-yard game. In fact, the Cowboys have had only two games this season when they have had 100 yards rushing as a team. But the Rams rank last in the league in rushing yards. Murray has 24 carries for 71 yards this season.
Follow Charean on Twitter: @NFLCharean
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Broncos at Dolphins by Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post
Impact Injuries: The Broncos returned from the bye week at full strength, with all 53 players practicing for the first time all season. Key returns include wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (Achilles, finger), who is expected to make his 2011 debut, and Eddie Royal (groin), both of whom should help Tebow and try to make up for the loss of Brandon Lloyd.
The X-Factor: How could it be anyone other than Tim Tebow? The 2010 first-round pick quarterback will make his first start of 2011 after replacing Kyle Orton midway through the Broncos last game. Tebow has injected noticeable energy into the huddle and locker room, but the key will be if he is able to translate his enthusiasm into good quarterback play for a team desperately needing a win. It will be interesting to see how much the Broncos? coaching staff has tweaked the offensive scheme over the bye week to account for the different playing styles of Tebow and Orton, and if the Broncos can surprise the Dolphins defense, coached by former Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Don’t be surprised if: The key defensive match-up for the Broncos pits former teammates against each other. Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall and Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey spent plenty of time practicing against each other when they were teammates here in Denver from 2006-2009, and Bailey ? the team?s top corner ? is energized by the idea of trying to shut down Marshall.
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @PostBroncos
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Falcons at Lions by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press
Impact Injuries: Jahvid Best suffered his second concussion of the season last week, and since their trade for Ronnie Brown fell through after Jerome Harrison was diagnosed with a brain tumor the Lions are woefully thin at running back. Maurice Morris is the expected starter. Linebacker Justin Durant and Tony Scheffler both returned to practice on Thursday after missing the 49ers game with concussions and could be back for the Falcons.
The X-Factor: Ford Field. After years of struggling to sell out their stadium, the Lions suddenly have one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. According to STATS LLC, opponents have committed 15 false-start penalties at Ford Field this year, most of any venue in the league. The place is ear-splitting, the Lions’ relentless pass rush helps make opposing offensive lines antsy, and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has taken his share of hits this year.
Don’t be surprised if: Morris has a surprisingly effective day at running back. The 10-year vet has been used sparingly so far this season – just nine carries for 20 yards – but he’s delivered big games in fill-in situations for the Lions in the past. Last year, Morris rushed for 109 yards to help snap the Lions’ record 26-game road losing streak against Tampa Bay when Best was bothered by turf toes, and after Kevin Smith tore his ACL in 2009 Morris delivered a 126-yard game in a loss to Arizona.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveBirkett and @freeplions
For more on the Lions click here
Green Bay Packers
Packers at Vikings by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press Gazette
Impact Injuries: Last week against St. Louis was the first time all season the Packers were able to use their rotation of Erik Walden and Frank Zombo at right outside linebacker. Zombo had missed the first five games of the season because of the broken scapula he sustained in the preseason. The platoon system at the spot opposite Clay Matthews worked beautifully. Walden and Zombo combined for nine tackles and one quarterback hit while alternating series. But somewhere along the way, Zombo sustained a hyper-extended knee. Even though he finished the game, he won’t be available for Sunday’s game at Minnesota. Zombo sets the edge against the run better than Walden, who is more of a pass rusher. Considering the Packers will face one of the game’s premier running backs, Adrian Peterson, that could be a substantial loss.
The X-Factor: Marshall Newhouse. The second-year pro has performed well in relief stints at both tackle spots, making two starts at right and one at left this season. But he hasn’t yet faced anyone like Jared Allen, who has a league-leading 9