Seahawks at Cardinals by Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds
Impact Injuries: Kevin Kolb is still limited with concussion symptoms, and it looks more and more that he will not play on Sunday. Patrick Peterson suffered a strain of his Achille's tendon and as of now is about 50/50 for the game. Kerry Rhodes suffered an ankle injury against the Bengals and missed Wednesday practice, but practiced after that. Beanie Wells, as he has all season, has been limited in practice to allow him to play on Sunday. Right tackle Brandon Keith has an ankle injury and did not practice on Wednesday.
The X-Factor: Both Seattle and Arizona are playing very well and are fighting for pride, second place in the division, for a .500 record and for their jobs in 2012. Add that to the fact that it is a divisional game and you should see both teams play hard, despite the fact that neither can make the playoffs. What will be key is how the Arizona defense can contain Marshawn Lynch, who is the only back this season to log 100 yards rushing or score a rushing touchdown on the San Francisco defense. If Arizona can contain him, it will force Tarvaris Jackson to beat them. Arizona's offense is wildly inconsistent and produces little for three quarters with John Skelton at quarterback, so the defense has to deliver until the offense can get something done.
Don’t be surprised if: Calais Campbell has another big game for Arizona. Last time the two teams met, Campbell had a huge game, logging ten tackles and 2.5 sacks. He was a noticeable snub from the Pro Bowl and is in contract negotiations. Expect to see him make some big plays as he has all year. He is as dominant player as there is in the game.
Follow Jess on Twitter: @senorjessroot
For more on the Cards click here
Buccaneers at Falcons by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Impact Injuries: Strongside linebacker Mike Peterson has a torn tricep and Nickel back Kelvin Hayden has turf toe and both were placed on injured reserve. Spencer Adkins, who’s played mostly on special teams, will make his first NFL start. Cornerback Dominique Franks will continue to play in the slot in the nickel package.
The X-Factor: LB Spencer Adkins. He will start for Peterson, 35, who was filling in for Stephen Nicholas. Adkins, who has been inactive for five games this season, was drafted in the sixth-round of the 2009 NFL draft from the University of Miami. He has excellent speed and is a fierce hitter. He doesn’t have the football savvy of a veteran like Peterson.
Don’t be surprised if: RB Michael breaks loose. Since rushing for 100 yards against Tennessee, his numbers have been down over the last five games. He’s peaked at 76 yards against Carolina and has just one touchdown. But the Falcons know they need to get Turner going heading into the playoffs.
Follow Darryl on Twitter: @AJCFalcons
For more on the Falcons click here
Ravens at Bengals by Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times
Impact Injuries: Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda is a question mark due to a rib contusion. He hasn't practiced so far this week. Cornerback Cary Williams is coming off a concussion. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis' play has been lackluster since returning from a right turf toe injury and doesn't seem to be getting enough push off of it to shed blocks effectively and pursue backs in the open field.
The X-Factor: The Ravens yielded 373 passing yards and a touchdown pass to Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton during the first meeting. They also intercepted him three times, which made the difference in the Ravens' 31-24 victory. Now, the Ravens (11-4) square off with the Bengals (9-6) in a game that has major playoff implications. If the Ravens are unable to slow down an explosive passing game that features Pro Bowl rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, this game could get out of hand. And a loss would likely cost the Ravens a shot at a first-round bye and the AFC North division title since the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) can win the division by beating the Cleveland Browns coupled with a Baltimore defeat. If both teams lose, the Ravens win the division by default due to their sweep of the annual series against Pittsburgh.
Except for a pair of red-zone touchdowns, the Ravens stonewalled Bengals running back Cedric Benson as he gained only 41 yards during the first game. That prevented the Bengals from running as many play-action passes as usual. The Ravens are 3-4 on the road this season and have lost their past two games at Paul Brown Stadium. They've also lost five of six road games against Cincinnati.
Don’t be surprised if: Billy Cundiff has missed 3 of 5 field goals in December and is coming off a left calf injury. And the Ravens have allowed three returns for touchdowns this season. Brandon Tate has set a Bengals franchise record with 498 punt return yards with one for a touchdown and five returns of at least 20 yards, which is tied for 10th in the NFL. The Ravens have given up two returns for touchdowns on punt returns this year, matching a franchise worst established nine years ago.
Follow Aaron on Twitter: @RavensInsider
For more on the Ravens click here
Panthers at Saints by Greg Jones of Examiner.com
Impact Injuries: The Carolina Panthers (6-9) could be without starting defensive tackle Andre Neblett due to a concussion he received last weekend against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Neblett has been the Panthers’ best defensive tackle this season, and he has helped improve a run defense that has ranked at the bottom of the league for most of the season. Defensive end Charles “Big Money” Johnson is still dealing with a sore back, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes he will be fine and ready to play in the season finale against the New Orleans Saints (12-3).
The X-Factor: Can the Panthers limit Drew Brees? The Saints quarterback could have locked up the MVP with his performance last week. The Panthers have to put pressure on Brees and force turnovers if they are going to win. This will not be an easy task because the Saints are playing really well, and New Orleans is trying to over take the San Francisco 49ers for the second seat in the NFC playoffs. Carolina doesn’t have a hard time scoring due to Cam Newton’s ability to make plays and raise the level of play of others. And the Panthers have proven they can play with the better teams in the NFL, but the Saints have too much riding on this game to have a letdown.
Don’t be surprised if: Newton reaches another milestone. He will be the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 500 yards. Newton currently has 3,893 passing yards and 674 rushing yards. And don’t be surprised if Darren Sproles has a huge day against the Panthers. He is a matchup problem for the Panthers’ linebackers because he so much faster than any of the three starters (James Anderson, Jordan Senn and Dan Connor). Saints coach Sean Payton will be looking for a way to get him involved in the passing game and in one-on-one situations against one of the Panthers’ linebackers. In addition, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham should have a better day than Sproles. Don’t be surprised to see Graham catch 10 or more passes for more than 100 yards. In the Panthers-Saints first meeting in early October, Graham had eight receptions for 129 yards. Even though he didn’t catch a touchdown, Graham was a difference maker in a game that Carolina should have won.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @gjjones_sports
For more on the Panthers click here
Bears at Vikings by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune
Impact Injuries: Of course, the offense has not looked the same since quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte went out. Both were placed on injured reserve this week. The Bears actually got a boost from their third running back, though, as Kahlil Bell replaced Marion Barber last week at Green Bay and rushed for a career-high 121 yards. Barber was sidelined with a calf muscle injury and will likely miss this game as well. Bell spent three months with the Vikings in the summer of 2009 after he was an undrafted college free agent from UCLA. He believes the Vikings gave up on him too soon and he’ll be running with a chip on his shoulder in this game. Bell has played well enough that the expectation is Barber will probably not return in 2012, not with a base salary of $1.9 million. Bell runs hard between the tackles and Barber has not only been injury-prone the last few seasons, his errors cost the Bears victories over the Chiefs and Broncos earlier this month.
The X-Factor: The Bears discovered a long missing spark on offense when they replaced Caleb Hanie with Josh McCown at quarterback last Sunday at Green Bay. Against a struggling Packers defense, the Bears put up a season-high 441 yards of offense and McCown showed poise in the pocket that had been missing. His performance was nothing spectacular, but he delivered the ball on time and the Bears were able to move the ball. Things had been so erratic under Hanie that the offense was bogged down in a mess where it went 188 minutes with two offensive touchdowns. McCown isn’t going to be challenging for a starting job next season anywhere, but the 32-year-old might be putting himself back on the map as an option to be a backup in Chicago or somewhere else. McCown gives the Bears a chance to move the ball, particularly against a Minnesota secondary that has been a wreck. That gives the Bears a chance to win a game at the Metrodome, something they haven’t accomplished in their last four trips there. Chicago won last season when the game was played on the campus of the University of Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bears come out and play hard in a meaningless game. The only thing on the line for Chicago is a .500 record and that would make the team’s draft pick worse for 2012. But Lovie Smith typically has his team ready to play and the veterans are embarrassed how this team has fallen out of contention. The Bears should give a strong defensive effort and that might be more than Christian Ponder can handle.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @BradBiggs
For more on the Bears click here
Ravens at Bengals by Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer
Impact Injuries: The biggest one right now is that DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring) did not practice on Thursday after being limited on Wednesday. Dunlap has missed four of the past seven games but had his best game since the Week 9 win at Tennessee last week against Arizona, when he had a sack. WR A.J. Green (shoulder) has been limited all week but should be set to start.
The X-Factor: QB Andy Dalton had three interceptions in the first game against Baltimore which resulted in two Ravens touchdowns. Cedric Benson has five fumbles over the past two weeks and has lost two. If the Bengals can play turnover free, they could get their seventh win in Cincinnati over the Ravens in Marvin Lewis tenure.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bengals secondary is tested early and often. The Ravens had three of their 12 longest pass plays in the first game and rookie Torrey Smith dominated Nate Clements and Adam Jones. The Bengals need to sustain a pass rush and get pressure on Joe Flacco. They got only one sack in the first meeting in Week 11.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @joereedy
For more in the Bengals click here
Steelers at Browns by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Impact Injuries: Browns quarterback Colt McCoy still hasn't passed his baseline concussion exam, and is expected to be inactive for the third straight game. Question is, will he be the Browns' starter next season? Or will they look elsewhere?
The X-Factor: Can Seneca Wallace keep up his perfect completion percentage against the Steelers? He completed one pass for 13 yards to tight end Evan Moore in relief of Colt McCoy -- who was later diagnosed with a concussion -- in the first meeting Dec. 8. Wallace has gone 0-2 in place of the concussed McCoy.
Don’t be surprised if: Browns returner Josh Cribbs follows his 84-yard punt return for a TD last week with another big return to spark the Browns.
Follow Mary Kay on Twitter: @MaryKayCabot
For more on the Browns click here
Cowboys at Giants by Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram
Impact Injuries: Linebacker Sean Lee missed the biggest two days of practice with an illness. He was the only starter to miss practice Thursday. Running back Felix Jones’ tight hamstring appears no worse for wear after six plays and five touches against the Eagles. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware (stinger) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff (rib muscle strain) will start Sunday.
The X-Factor: Tony Romo bruised his throwing hand on the fourth play against the Eagles. He practiced with his right hand taped Thursday. Romo still has swelling in his hand, which the Cowboys hope subsides by Sunday. They will try to protect him as best they can against a Giants’ pass rush that has produced 42 sacks.
Don’t be surprised if: The Cowboys’ secondary gets burned by Eli Manning again. Manning passed for 400 yards against the Cowboys on Dec. 11. He led the Giants on drives of 80 and 58 yards in the final five minutes as New York overcame a 12-point deficit. Cornerback Terence Newman has been especially vulnerable of late. The Cowboys have simplified their game plan to try and get more pressure on Manning. He dropped back 47 times in the last meeting, and the Cowboys had no sacks and only two pressures.
Follow Charean on Twitter: @NFLCharean
For more in the ‘Boys click here
Chiefs at Broncos by Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post
Impact Injuries: Starting safety Brian Dawkins has missed two straight practices this week and has missed all or part of the last three games with a neck injury. The Broncos' defense has struggled without his leadership, communication and especially his sure tackling in the run game. If Dawkins can't play, fourth-year safety David Bruton would likely start in his place.
The X-Factor: This game is all about the quarterbacks. Tim Tebow and the Broncos against their former starter Kyle Orton, who is starting for the Chiefs. The Broncos' defense practiced against Orton every day in training camp this season and know his tendencies, and surely understand that Orton struggles when faced with significant pass rush, especially interior pressure. The Broncos had four sacks and 12 quarterback hits against the Chiefs on Nov. 13 as the pass rush benefitted from the Broncos playing with a lead for the entire game for the only time this season.
Don’t be surprised if: The most entertaining matchup of the day is between Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey and Kansas City wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. Bowe has clearly emerged as Orton's most trusted receiver, but it will be interesting to see how often Orton chooses to target his former teammate.
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @PostBroncos
For more on the Broncos click here
Lions at Packers by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press
Impact Injuries: Chris Harris continues to start at safety in place of Louis Delmas, who’ll miss his fifth straight game with a knee injury. Cornerback Chris Houston said he’ll be available Sunday, but he barely practiced Wednesday or Thursday and has his left hand in a cast. It might make sense for Houston and defensive linemen like Nick Fairley (foot) and Corey Williams (hip) to rest with the playoffs ahead.
The X-Factor: Matthew Stafford. Stafford is having the finest season by a Lions quarterback ever. He’s already set franchise single-season records for passing yards, touchdowns, completions and attempts, and he’ll have a little extra motivation for his first game in Green Bay (he was injured for Lions’ trips each of the last two years) after he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl earlier this week.
Don’t be surprised if: The Lions play their regulars the entire game (or as long as the outcome’s in doubt). While Green Bay has little to play for with home-field advantage locked up, the Lions need a win (or an Atlanta loss or tie) to clinch the five seed in the NFC. That means an easier first-round game against the NFC East champ instead of a trip to New Orleans or San Francisco. It’s also been 20 years since the Lions last won in Green Bay, one of the last losing streaks the current regime has yet to exorcise.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveBirkett and @freeplions
For more on the Lions click here
Lions at Packers by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press Gazette
Impact Injuries: Greg Jennings (knee) won’t be back until the playoffs, and it looks like Randall Cobb (groin) will miss this week, too. So that leaves the Packers with just three available receivers — Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson — for the regular-season finale against Detroit. Since they already have locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, the Packers probably won’t play their starters the entire game, but they may not be able to rest Nelson. They probably won’t add a receiver this week. Instead, they can get by because they have four tight ends on the roster. They will get a starter on the offensive line back — left tackle Chad Clifton, who has been out since Oct. 9 because of a torn hamstring. The Packers plan is to play Clifton extensively in order to see if he can be an upgrade in the playoffs over Marshall Newhouse, who has filled in.
The X-Factor: The Packers are still searching for someone to make an impact at right outside linebacker. The last two weeks, they’ve reduced snaps for starter Erik Walden with the hope that Brad Jones, Frank Zombo and Vic So’oto can provide some pass rush, although it hasn’t happened yet.
Don’t be surprised if: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers doesn’t play much, if at all. Though Rodgers has said he wants to play, he has sounded like a guy who knows he’s going to be rested for the playoffs. That means one last chance for Matt Flynn to impress other NFL teams. Flynn will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and likely will seek a chance to be a starter elsewhere.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @RobDemovsky
For more on the Pack click here
Titans at Texans by Steph Stradley of the Houston Chronicle
Impact Injuries: Win or lose, the Texans' playoff seeding remains the same. They would prefer not to go into the playoffs losing three games in a row, but it is difficult to figure how many plays key starters will get if any. Most notably, Andre Johnson is recovering from a hamstring injury. He has practiced this week, but it is unclear how many reps he will get on Sunday. The Texans would like to work on getting their offense to be more consistent but worry about further injuries prior to the playoffs.
The X-Factor: Turnovers. The Texans offense has been struggling since Matt Schaub was injured during their game against Tampa Bay. The Texans have been managing risk with TJ Yates as quarterback: twice leading to wins, twice leading to losses, but all close games. The Texans margin for error is limited with as many injuries that they've suffered at key positions.
Don’t be surprised if: The Texans' defensive performance rebounds this week with the return of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips from kidney/gall bladder surgery, and playing an inconsistent Titans offense at home.
Follow Steph on Twitter: @StephStradley
For more on the Texans click here
Colts at Jaguars by Brad Wells of StampedeBlue.com
Impact Injuries: This is not really an 'injury,' but quarterback Dan Orlovsky did miss some practice time this week while his wife gave birth to triplets. It will be interesting to see if the time away, and the 'tired factor' of having been there while his wife gave birth to THREE BABIES AT ONCE (wow), will affect Orlovsky's play.
The X-Factor: The Colts have won two games in a row. If they win Sunday and the Rams lose, the Rams will earn the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. The Colts covet that pick no matter what the owner or the coaches say. The game this Sunday is in Jacksonville, where the Colts have normally struggled. The two wins Indy has already were home games. The Colts are winless on the road this year thus far. While Indy clearly has momentum, a road game under these sorts of unique conditions makes this game very interesting.
Don’t be surprised if: The players will continue to give great effort, as they have done all year. Don't be surprised if this game is the last one coached in Indianapolis by Jim Caldwell. Indeed, this could also be the end of the Bill Polian regime in Indy as well. A 0-13 start was inexcusable for this franchise. Should Irsay not fire both coach and front office, it would send a message that the Colts owner was 'ok' with the start and would, thus, make Jim Irsay look like even more of the bubbling fool he paints himself as on Twitter.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @StampedeBlue
For more on the Colts click here
Colts at Jaguars by Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union
Impact Injuries: Safety Dwight Lowery was very limited Thursday and could miss the game. Maurice Jones-Drew is expected to be fine despite not practicing Wednesday or Thursday.
The X-Factor: Both teams will have very high draft picks and how high could depend on this game. If the Colts win, they could lose the top overall pick to the St. Louis Rams. Meanwhile, the Jaguars could have a pick as high as third. That kind of talk annoys the players in the Jaguars locker room who would rather win than play out draft scenarios.
Don’t be surprised if: Maurice Jones-Drew gets the ball a lot. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter noted that wouldn’t be much different from most games. But against a Colts defense that struggles against the run and with Jones-Drew gunning for Fred Taylor’s franchise rushing record, the Jaguars will try to help Jones-Drew as much as they can.
Follow Tania on Twitter: @taniaganguli
For more on the Jags click here
Chiefs at Broncos by Joel Thorman of ArrowheadPride.com
Impact Injuries: The Chiefs will likely be without running back Jackie Battle when they travel to Denver this weekend. Battle is in a walking boot after suffering a foot injury and he's doubtful to be playing. That means the Chiefs will likely rely on a combination of Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster with some Le'Ron McClain mixed in. Battle's effectiveness has been on a downward trend this season so the running game shouldn't be significantly affected by his absence.
The X-Factor: Kyle Orton. Yeah, you knew I'd have to pick him. Orton returns to Denver after the Broncos released him earlier this year but he does so as a starter for the Chiefs. Orton could potentially keep the Broncos out of the playoffs with a win, so despite the Chiefs best efforts, he'll more than likely be extra motivated for this game. Another x-factor is, of course, Tim Tebow. He completed just two passes the last time the Chiefs and Broncos played yet Denver found a way to win. He'll need to do better than that this time around as Chiefs interim coach Romeo Crennel plans to make the Broncos pass as much as possible.
Don’t be surprised if: The Chiefs pull off the upset. The Chiefs have nothing to play for and the Broncos can secure a playoff spot with a win but KC will be motivated to win this game. They haven't won three divisional games in a season since 2006 (which they can do on Sunday by beating Denver). Romeo Crennel is hoping to secure the full time head coaching position. Kyle Orton has every reason to play well. There is potential for the Chiefs to play well and win this game.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @ArrowheadPride
For more on the Chiefs click here
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