Jets at Dolphins by Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post
Impact Injuries: Long is the biggest impact injury, missing his second game in three weeks after playing the first 61 of his career. Reggie Bush has sat out of practice with a knee injury all week, but should play. The Dolphins also expect to get TE Anthony Fasano back from a concussion that kept him out of last week's game.
The X-Factor: Left tackle John Jerry, who will get the start now that Jake Long has been placed on Injured Reserve with a torn bicep. Jerry has only played 1.5 games at left tackle in his entire NFL and college career, but the Dolphins will need him to pick up the Jets' tricky and creative blitz packages. Reggie Bush has been running well lately, with 519 rushing yards in four December games, but those holes could close quickly if Jerry doesn't have a good game. And after allowing five sacks to the Patriots last week, the Dolphins are now 0-8 this year when allowing four or more sacks. They have allowed 51 sacks this year, two short of the Franchise record set in 1969.
Don’t be surprised if: The Dolphins finish their season with an impressive win over the Jets. This team has every reason to mail it in Sunday, but the players refused to give up when they started 0-7, and don't expect any different this Sunday. The Dolphins are much improved on both sides of the football since that 24-6 loss to the Jets in Week 6, and expect a Super Bowl-like effort from the Dolphins, who want nothing more than to send Todd Bowles out in style and end the playoff hopes of the hated Jets.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @BenVolinPBP
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Bears at Vikings by Jeremy Fowler of the Pioneer Press
Impact Injuries: Quarterback Christian Ponder (concussion) hasn't missed a practice despite taking a dizzying hit from Redskins linebacker London Fletcher on Saturday. Right guard Anthony Herrera (lower back) returned to practice Thursday after missing the previous day. Both players are expected to start.
The X-Factor: Tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser, who will play his last game as a Viking after 13 years in purple. He's retiring, and the Vikings want to send him out the right way -- with a catch or rush at the goal line.
Don’t be surprised if: Ponder is efficient in leading the offense. After a rough three weeks that included a one-game benching, a hip injury, a concussion and a stagnate passing game against New Orleans, Ponder needs to punctuate the season on a high note. How he responds to the blitz will play a large factor in his success.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @VikingsNow
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Bills at Patriots by Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald
Impact Injuries: Intrigue is surrounding the ailing left shoulder of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, as he missed Wednesday’s practice and was limited on Thursday. Brady dinged it against the Dolphins, though there are no long-term issues. Brady is a tough guy, and he has played through worse. He will almost certainly play on Sunday, but until the bye week gives him time to rest, he won’t be quite right. In addition, the Patriots will be without starting guard Logan Mankins on Sunday, as he’ll be out with a sprained MCL. Expect him to be replaced by Donald Thomas, though he’ll likely be back by the playoffs.
The X-Factor: Linebacker Brandon Spikes and safety Patrick Chung have both missed nearly two months with injuries, a big shot to the middle of the defense. Spikes is a run-stopper, while Chung is a play-maker in the secondary. They could have returned last week, but coach Bill Belichick held them out. This game, Chung’s foot and Spikes’ knee may allow them to play, and both will solidify an ailing unit. It will give them a chance to get acclimated for the playoffs, while also providing some thump. Expect it to be more difficult for the Bills to run the ball.
Don’t be surprised if: The Patriots get up big if they pull Brady from the field. The playoffs are far more important than a win in Week 17, even if it could decide whether they are the No. 1 seed. If they are up big, Brady may be yanked in favor of Brian Hoyer. Or, if the Patriots are down big – meaning ends will be rushing hard – Brady could be relegated to the bench in that instance. Nothing is worth getting him hurt with the playoffs looming.
Follow Ian on Twitter: @RapSheet
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Panthers at Saints by Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times-Picayune
Impact Injuries: Receiver Lance Moore appears doubtful for Sunday’s game after re-injuring his hamstring last week. Moore is an underrated, reliable talent for the Saints, but they can absorb his loss since they have so many options in the passing game. On defense, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and safety Malcolm Jenkins are dinged. Both players would be harder to replace if they can’t play Sunday.
The X-Factor: It’s hard to call Cam Newton an ‘X’ factor since he’s such a dominant player for the Panthers, but that’s exactly what he is – a guy who can turn a game on one or two plays, with his big arm or his elusive feet. The rookie QB will put pressure on every level of the Saints’ defense, as he has done to teams all year. The Saints’ biggest problem on defense this year has been those two or three big plays per game that burn them, and Newton is capable of producing them. … Of course, the Saints QB, Drew Brees, will be even harder to deal with.
Don’t be surprised if: Panthers receiver Steve Smith breaks free for a deep touchdown. Smith has been doing it to the Saints for years, and he’s having one of his best career seasons this year with Newton firing the ball to him. Smith scored on a 54-yard TD pass against the Saints in their previous meeting this year.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @miketripletttp
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Cowboys at Giants by Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News
Impact Injuries: Nicks is limited by a hamstring injury, but he expects to play, so the only missing piece in the offense figures to be TE Jake Ballard (knee).
The X-Factor: WR Mario Manningham. As exciting as the Giants' win over the Jets was, the Giants' passing attack was very off. The obvious reason was that with Hakeem Nicks limited by a hamstring (and Darrelle Revis' coverage) they were stuck relying on Victor Cruz, who played well but can't do it alone. The Giants had no one else to throw to. Ramses Barden and Devin Thomas had a catch each and plenty more balls they didn't catch. The return of Manningham, who missed that game with a knee injury, adds another dimension to the passing attack. His presence alone will create room for Nicks and Cruz and give Eli Manning more opportunities to move the ball down field.
Don’t be surprised if: Osi Umenyiora makes his presence felt immediately. When he returned from missing the first three games of the season with a knee injury, he started off with back-to-back two-sack games. Umenyiora has a habit of not returning from an injury until he's 100 percent, and after four weeks off, he believes his ankle is fully healed. He's looked quick and agile in practice this week and his teammates say he's hungry. He could be a force, especially when he lines up opposite Jason Pierre-Paul, who has been a beast of a defensive player in Umenyiora's absence.
Follow Ralph on Twitter: @TheBlueScreen
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Jets at Dolphins by Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News
Impact Injuries: Outside linebacker Garret McIntyre is likely to miss the game with a knee injury. Several starters are dealing with an assortment of bumps and bruises, but they’re all expected to play.
The X-Factor: Mark Sanchez’s ball security and decision making. The struggling third-year quarterback has committed six turnovers in the past two weeks. For an offense that has scored only 33 points in their last 31 possessions (only the Jaguars and Rams have been more inept), every possession matters. Sanchez can’t afford to give away drives with any more mistakes. The Jets’ playoff chances depend on it.
Don’t be surprised if: The Jets, believe it or not, use the pass to set up the run. Although offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has been criticized for dialing up an unfathomable 67 pass plays in last week’s loss to the Giants, don’t expect the Jets to ground and pound 40+ times against the Dolphins’ third-ranked run defense that only allows 93.4 ypg and 3.6 ypc. Expect much more balance this time around. If Sanchez finds early success in the passing game, that could lighten the box for Shonn Greene.
Follow Manish on Twitter: @TheJetsStream
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Chargers at Raiders by Vittorio Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle
Impact Injuries: WR Jacoby Ford practiced this week for the first time after missing six weeks with a foot injury. RB Darren McFadden (RB) and DT John Henderson (knee) are still out.
The X-Factor: Will the Chargers show up? Raiders have physically dominated San Diego their last two meetings. Chargers aren't playing for anything, not even their coach's job, and will get a heavy dose of Michael Bush.
Don’t be surprised if: Carson Palmer and Denarius Moore hook up for big plays, just like they did seven weeks ago in San Diego.
Follow Vittorio on Twitter: @VittorioTafur
For more on the Raiders click here
Redskins at Eagles by Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer
Impact Injuries: Cornerback Asante Samuel (hamstring) did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday and is likely out for the second straight week. LeSean McCoy didn't practice on Wednesday because of a slight ankle sprain, but the running back did on Thursday and said that he expects to play Sunday.
The X-Factor: Can there be an X factor in an otherwise meaningless game? Probably not, but here's one to consider for the Eagles: Jaiquawn Jarrett. With Kurt Coleman's season shut down after he tore his biceps, Jarrett has another opportunity to make a bid for a starting safety spot next season. The rookie hasn't been able to crack the starting lineup without injury this season. When Nate Allen was out in November, Jarrett stepped in and did OK. He was abused by Larry Fitzgerald a few times, but that doesn't put him in select company. But Sunday should provide a fairer test against the Redskins, and another opportunity for the Eagles to see what their second-round draft pick can do on defense.
Don’t be surprised if: Andy Reid plays his starters for the entire game. The coach needs this win if he can sell a four-game winning streak and an 8-8 record as salvaging the season. Most fans will know that 2011 was an unmitigated disaster, but there is something to say for finishing at .500 after a 1-4 start and for finishing 5-1 in the NFC East.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @Jeff_McLane
For more on the Eagles click here
Steelers at Browns by Michael Bean of BehindTheSteelCurtain.com
Impact Injuries: Good and bad news on the injury front for the Steelers heading into their Week 17 matchup in Cleveland. The good news is Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger have returned to practice after ankle injuries that forced both to sit out last Saturday's win over St. Louis. Pouncey is reportedly pain free and ready to prove he was deserving of his second Pro Bowl nod in as many seasons. Big Ben is not exactly pain free, but he did practice on Wednesday for the first time since Dec. 8th when he got injured against the Browns. It's hard to keep this guy down for any amount of time, but certainly consecutive weeks.
The bad news is LaMarr Woodley's injured hamstring continues to give him trouble. He appears unlikely to play this weekend. And finally, it's not the same hamstring injury that caused Troy Polamalu to miss practice this week. Instead it's some sort of knee injury. Obviously Polamalu was outstanding in the shutout win over the Rams, and he looked as healthy and active as he ever has. Needless to say Steeler Nation nervously awaits more news on that front.
The X-Factor: As odd as it may seem, one x-factor might have nothing to do with what's unfolding on the field in Cleveland, but instead in Cincinnati. If the Ravens take a commanding lead into halftime, perhaps Mike Tomlin opts to rest some guys in the second half. The odds of that occurring are slim though, at least not until the fourth quarter, as the Bengals should be in a dogfight with Baltimore in front of a rare, large and rowdy crowd in Cincinnati.
Don’t be surprised if: Mike Tomlin and the Steelers coaching staff do everything they can to start fast and build a comfortable lead sometime in the first 30 minutes. With key injuries to Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Pouncey and Woodley -- arguably four of their top five or six players -- you have to think that the Steelers want to get in and out of this game unscathed, even if it means winning ugly. I would not be surprised to see Big Ben play on Sunday, but I would be surprised to see him play a full 60 minutes. If that turns out to be the case, let's just hope it's not because he's injured himself further.
One final fun thing to keep an eye on is whether the Steelers make a concerted effort to try to get Hines Ward his 1,000th catch. He's five shy heading into the season finale. It would be nice, of course, if Ward could accomplish that milestone in front of fans at Heinz Field, but don't be surprised if Tomlin and Bruce Arians call one or two more of those bubble screens for Ward so that he's in position to get to 1,000 on a more befitting play call down the field.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @btsteelcurtain
For more on the Steelers click here
Chargers at Raiders by Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune
Impact Injuries: Vincent Jackson could sit the finale due to a groin injury that limited him last week. The Chargers are nowhere near the offense without one of their "Big Three" that they are when they are whole. Mike Tolbert, the Chargers' third-down back, is also a possible inactive, which could prove crucial against the Raiders pass rush.
The X-Factor: Norv Turner's offensive play-calling and ability to align his offense better than when the Chargers faced the Raiders on Nov. 10 and Philip Rivers was lucky to leave in one piece.
Don’t be surprised if: A mistake-filled, ugly game ensues. The Chargers have rarely "laid down" in recent seasons, but these are unprecedented times in San Diego with the almost-certain end of the Norv Turner era coming.
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @sdutChargers
For more on the Bolts click here
49ers at Rams by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee
Impact Injuries: The 49ers released a wide receiver, Braylon Edwards, on Tuesday, leaving them with only four on the active roster. Furthermore, two of those receivers are injured. Kyle Williams suffered a concussion Saturday in Seattle while Ted Ginn missed the game with an ankle injury. Neither practiced on Wednesday. What’s more, Ginn and Williams are the team’s Nos. 1 and 2 return men. No other player has attempted a punt or kickoff return this season.
The X-Factor: Rookie tailback Kendall Hunter has been getting more and more carries as the season has gone on. That’s partly to keep veteran Frank Gore fresh for the playoffs. But it’s also because Hunter has earned the responsibility. Hunter has incredible burst through the line of scrimmage and is a threat to break off big runs on any given play. He also figures to be the team’s primary kick returner if Ginn and Williams don’t play.
Don’t be surprised if: The 49ers begin resting key players if they get a comfortable lead. A win would earn the 49ers a first-round bye in the playoffs. But they don’t want to see anyone injured either. The 49ers suffered a potentially huge injury last week when tight end Delanie Walker broke his jaw. They don’t want to see the same thing happen to critical starters like Justin Smith, Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Carlos Rogers or Dashon Goldson.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattbarrows
For more on the Niners click here
Seahawks at Cardinals by Danny Kelly of FieldGulls.com
Impact Injuries: Wide receiver Ben Obomanu is banged up, suffering from a knee injury that may sideline him on Sunday. This leaves Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Deon Butler, and Ricardo Lockette at receiver for the Hawks. Tate, Baldwin, and Bulter are all south of 5'10 or so, which is a stark contrast to their 6'5 Mike Williams, 6'5 Sidney Rice starting duo from the beginning of the season. With Williams and Rice on IR, and Lockette a former practice squad player and last on the depth chart, the Seahawks are smaller but quicker on offense than in earlier games, which will be of interest. Also returning, likely, are key special teamers Kennard Cox and Malcolm Smith, which should give the Seahawks' coverage teams a boost.
The X-Factor: Marshawn Lynch. Lynch ran for 107 yards and a touchdown last week on a team, San Francisco, that hadn't allowed a 100+ yard rusher since 2009 nor a rushing touchdown all season prior to Beastmode busting through. He'll look to continue with his late season dominance against a Cardinals' defense that is partly anchored by DE Darnell Dockett, who famously said earlier that the Seahawks are 'soft as cotton' on the road. It will be a good test for Seattle's offense, as Arizona boasts one of the better pass defenses in the league. In other words, they'll likely have to run the football well to get the win.
Don’t be surprised if: This one gets chippy. Much like last week's NFC West rivalry game against the Niners, the Seahawks and Cardinals game is developing into a bit of a grudge match of its own. In their first meeting earlier in the season, Kam Chancellor upended Cardinals TE Todd Heap, blocking on a called-back interception return by Earl Thomas, and the Cardinals thought the play was dirty. It turned into a bench clearing mini-melee and emotions ran high. The replay proved the play wasn't dirty, but needless to say there's no love lost between these two teams and both teams will be vying for 2nd place in the division and a .500 record. It should be a great game.
Follow Danny on Twitter: @FieldGulls
For more on the Seahawks click here
49ers at Rams by Tony Softli of 101 ESPN
Impact Injuries: QB – Sam Bradford; continues to rehab his high ankle sprain and did not participate all week in practice sessions. Coach Spagnuolo listed Bradford as day to day. Status: Doubtful
QB – A.J. Feeley; the Rams back-up quarterback is still feeling the effects of the fractured thumb on his throwing hand. Squeezing a football is still not possible and he was a non-participant in practice all week. Status: Out
DE – Chris Long; was limited all week with a sore ankle, but worked through it with a very productive week. Status: Questionable
DC - Josh Gordy; the young productive corner has been slowed with an abdomen strain, but seems to show up on game day. Status: Questionable
Rams Team; several players fought through the flu or virus that was circulating through the locker room most of the week.
The X-Factor: While the 49ers are fighting for a first round bye, the Rams offense, defense and special teams are looking to generate their third win in what has become a very dismal season. Quarterback Kellen Clemens will get his third start, Steven Jackson will gear up to run the ball better in this game than the first outing and the Rams receivers must escape bump & press and create separation in route to give the offense a chance outside the numbers and down the middle of the field. The X-factor for me in this game like the first contest just five weeks ago is how well the Rams offensive line handles, excuse me, slows down the 49ers dominating defensive front for 60 minutes, allowing Clemens time to throw the ball and open some holes for SJ39. Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel must make some strategic changes in the running game in order to set-up the play action.
Don’t be surprised if: While there are injuries in the game of football every year, the Rams have taken their fair share of lumps in the 2011 season. When you compare their roster to the other 31 teams, they do fall short on overall talent despite having a good core of players to build a championship foundation. Don’t be surprised if owner Stan Kroenke allows Coach Steve Spagnuolo to retain his job, for several reasons. Besides the injury bug, his leadership qualities are very good, I know I worked next to him for two years, and just ask his players that continue to fight each and every week, they are just not talented enough to get it done. His X’s and O’s are creative on defense with the help from Ken Flajole the defensive coordinator, he just needs the offense to become more explosive, step up and deliver points each and every game and be dominate when needed. While learning several lessons in a long season, one thing he has learned is don’t kick the ball to top return men that you can’t cover, not because of lack of scheme NO! But lack of overall team speed which affects the special teams unit big time. Spagnuolo, in my opinion, deserves another chance to show what he can do with a healthy team, a full off season under a new offense and start building your roster with more Blue (playmakers & difference makers) players through the draft and free agency period, immediately.
Follow Tony on Twitter: @SoftliSTL
For more on the Rams click here
Buccaneers at Falcons by Rick Brown of The Ledger
Impact Injuries: Keep an eye out for defensive tackles Albert Haynesworth (knee) and Brian Price (ankle) who missed last week against Carolina. If they can’t go, that leaves a gaping hole in the Bucs’ defense. Last week, Carolina rushed for 270 yards. Atlanta is a better rushing team than Carolina so the Bucs need those huge bodies there.
The X-Factor: Turnovers. The Bucs have committed 28 turnovers during their nine-game losing streak. Tampa Bay has to win the turnover battle to have any chance Sunday against Atlanta.
Don’t be surprised if: Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount gets pulled early and the team goes to a no-huddle offense. The Bucs moved the ball successfully against Carolina using the up-tempo offense. Unless Blount is making an impact early, expect to see Kregg Lumpkin and Mossis Madu in the Tampa Bay backfield.
Follow Rick on Twitter: @LedgeronBucs
For more on the Bucs click here
Titans at Texans by Terry McCormick of TitanInsider.com
Impact Injuries: Chris Johnson's ankle isn't 100 percent and he says cutting on it is the problem. He will play, however, and needs 14 yards to reach 1,000. DE Jason Jones is a question mark with a high ankle sprain suffered against Jacksonville.
The X-Factor: Jared Cook has finally emerged after the Titans have waited nearly three years. Over the past two games, he has 17 receptions for 272 yards. Now if he could just develop some consistency.
Don’t be surprised if: The other games fall the right way for the Titans to get into the postseason. The question is can the Titans take care of their own business by winning at Houston to potentially earn a postseason trip.
Follow Terry on Twitter: @terrymc13
For more on the Titans click here
Redskins at Eagles by John Keim of the Washington Examiner
Impact Injuries: The only one of significance is RB Roy Helu, who was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday. If he can’t play then Evan Royster will get his second straight start. The Redskins also would be thin in the backfield if anything happened to Royster. FB Darrel Young would have to take over.
The X-Factor: QB Rex Grossman. He’s averaged two turnovers a game in his 12 starts this season and he threw four interceptions in the first meeting vs. Philadelphia. The Eagles’ pass rush has recorded 16 sacks in the past three games combined and will be facing a line that starts two rookies. Grossman gets in trouble when trying to make big plays. If they’re close or behind and he does this under duress, it’s big trouble for the Redskins.
Don’t be surprised if: The Redskins have a much harder time running the ball this week. They’ve produced a 100-yard rusher in four of the past five games, including a 132-yard effort vs. Minnesota last week. But the Eagles have held six of their last seven opponents to less than 110 yards rushing as a team. Washington will try to hit the Eagles with quick inside tosses to help slow the rush of the ends and hit gaps inside. The speed of the Eagles’ linebackers will be crucial in whether this works or fails.
Follow John on Twitter: @john_keim
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APR 15 Jerry Angelo
A strategy session for draft day as well as my top-five players in this year’s rookie class.
APR 14 Jeff Fedotin
Oakland has whiffed on its first-round picks.
APR 12 Joel Corry
Jacksonville’s pursuit of center Alex Mack came up just short after a valiant effort.