Cowboys at Cardinals by Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds
Impact Injuries: Kevin Kolb has been practicing all week and looks like he will get the start. Rookie TE Rob Housler also is on track to return. Todd Heap played a week ago, but might not get a full load. OLB Joey Porter and S Kerry Rhodes are still out.
The X-Factor: This has to be whether or not the much improved Cardinals defense can contain rookie phenom DeMarco Murray. The Cowboys are 5-1 since his emergence. Taking him out of the game plan would force the Cowboys hand at passing. Rookie OLB Sam Acho has been emerging in making plays. His two sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery were huge defensive plays. If he can keep it up, the secondary will look much better.
Don’t be surprised if: It shouldn’t be surprising to see the Cardinals with decent field position after punts. Patrick Peterson has returned four punts for touchdowns, so they will likely punt away from him, which leads usually to better field position unless the punter can get it perfect.
Follow Jess on Twitter: @senorjessroot
For more on the Cards click here</em>
Falcons at Texans by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Impact Injuries: Left cornerback Brent Grimes has arthoscopic right knee surgery on Thursday and is out for two to three weeks. Also, nickelback Kelvin Hayden (dislocated toe) is very doubtful. Cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens will split up the duties. 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. Both Franks, who played 58 snaps, and Owens were inconsistent last week according to defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
The X-Factor: QB Matt Ryan. He’s one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league. Over the last four games, he has passed for 1,204 yards, thrown nine touchdowns and just two interceptions.
WR Roddy White has a big day. The Texans like to leave their corners in man-to-man coverage when they play quarters, according to Ryan. White has been on a tear with two straight 100-yard games.
Follow Darryl on Twitter: @AJCFalcons
For more on the Falcons click here
Ravens at Browns by Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times
Impact Injuries: Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis hasn’t practiced yet this week due to a right turf toe injury that has sidelined him for the past three games. It makes more sense for Lewis to sit this game out and try to return in the next few weeks.
The X-Factor: Will the Baltimore Ravens’ pass rush keep it up? The Ravens generated a season-high nine sacks against the San Francisco 49ers, tying a franchise record during a 16-6 victory on Thanksgiving. Baltimore is led by Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ nine sacks followed by five for All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. The Ravens lead the NFL in sacks and sack yardage (24) and are on pace to more than double their total from last season of 27 sacks. Although the Browns have a Pro Bowl left offensive tackle in Joe Thomas, they have allowed 27 sacks this season. The Ravens will look to pressure Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy into miscues. Will the Ravens exploit the Browns on the ground?
The Browns are vulnerable in this area, ranking 29th against the run and giving up 138.6 rushing yards per contest. Plus, strongside linebacker Scott Fujita was placed on injured reserve with a hand injury this week. The Ravens remained committed to the run against the 49ers as Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice grinded out 59 yards on 21 carries against the top-ranked run defense and backup Ricky Williams finished with 29 yards on seven rushes. It’s hardly eye-popping numbers, but it kept the 49ers honest and the formula of a balanced offense could give the Ravens a lift going forward.
Don’t be surprised if: Ed Reed has a big game. The All-Pro free safety has 10 career interceptions against the Browns, his most against a single opponent. He has returned three of them for touchdowns. Reed has also deflected 18 passes and forced one fumble.
Follow Aaron on Twitter: @RavensInsider
For more on the Ravens click here
Titans at Bills by Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News
Impact Injuries: The Bills have a ton. Strong safety George Wilson still is recovering from a shoulder injury and is looking doubtful. Rookie Da’Norris Searcy likely will take his place for a third straight game. With Fred Jackson out for the year, C.J. Spiller handles the rushing duties. He managed 55 yards against a stout Jets defense last week, but the Bills would like more rushing yards this week. Aaron Williams will make his second straight start at cornerback in place of Terrence McGee, who is on injured reserve.
The X-Factor: The weather forecast is calling for 55 degrees Sunday, unseasonably warm for Buffalo, which did not have any measurable snow in the month of November for only the fourth time on record. If the winds are mild, it would figure to help the Bills, who rely more on the passing game than the Titans.
Don’t be surprised if: Titans running back Chris Johnson has a big all-purpose day. Johnson rushed for 132 yards and caught nine passes for 100 yards in a 2009 meeting against the Bills. Buffalo may have a hard time containing Johnson on swing passes and screens out of the backfield.
Follow Mark on Twitter: @gggaughan
For more on the Bills click here
Panthers at Buccaneers by Greg Jones of Examiner.com>
Impact Injuries: Carolina Panthers kickoff returner Kealoha Pilares missed Wednesday practice due to a sore calf. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said there is concern about Pilares’ injury. In the Panthers’ 27-19 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, Pilares had a 76 yard kick return. Two weeks ago against the Detroit Lions, the rookie had a franchise-record, 101-yard touchdown return and was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Rivera said the Panthers will use punter returner Armanti Edwards and receiver Brandon LaFell if Pilares can’t go against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The X-Factor: It is critical that the Panthers continue to run the ball well. Despite the running games’ slow start, Carolina has the 6th ranked rushing offense in the NFL. The Panthers have gone nine consecutive games with at least 100 yards rushing. If the Panthers can take advantage of a terrible Bucs’ run defense, then Carolina should win consecutive games for the first time since 2009 and climb out of the basement of the NFC South.
Don’t be surprised if: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton throws for more than 400 yards and ties former New England Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan’s NFL record of 12 touchdown rushes. Newton has 10 scores on the ground, which breaks the record for rookie quarterbacks by three touchdowns. The Bucs will stack the box against the run, which will allow Newton to exploit the defense with two good tight ends, Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, and leading receiver Steve Smith. In addition, LaFell has really come on this season and has become another weapon for Newton.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @gjjones_sports
For more on the Panthers click here
Chiefs at Bears by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune
Impact Injuries: Other than missing quarterback Jay Cutler, who will sit out his second game as a he recovers from surgery to repair a fractured right thumb, the Bears are in decent shape. Caleb Hanie replaced Cutler last week and was athletic, rushing for 50 yards in a loss at Oakland, and he settled down in the pocket as the game went along. Brian Iwuh, a linebacker who led the team in special teams tackles, was placed on injured reserve with a pulled hamstring. Iwuh was the third special teams player to be lost for the season in November with a hamstring injury. That’s challenging the team’s depth in a phase in which the Bears typically excel.
The X-Factor: The Bears benefitted last season when they encountered three teams who were down to their No. 3 quarterback and they could very well get a look at the Chiefs’ third quarterback on Sunday at Soldier Field as Kyle Orton, claimed by Kansas City last week on waivers from the Denver Broncos, has been splitting first-team reps in practice with Tyler Palko. Either way, the Bears defense will face a quarterback that isn’t as talented as starter Matt Cassel, who is out with a broken hand. Playing at Soldier Field, it should give the Bears quite an advantage against the Chiefs, who have had dramatic struggles scoring since Cassel went out. But the Chiefs do have a couple of big playmakers on the outside in Dwayne Bowe and rookie Jonathan Baldwin, and they are the kind of targets that have given the defense fits at times this season.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bears continue to lean on complementary running back Marion Barber more. He got 10 carries for 63 yards last week at Oakland and his downhill running style has fit what the offense has been able to produce on the ground recently. In the last three games, Barber has 30 carries and starter Matt Forte has 50, showing you offensive coordinator Mike Martz is comfortable mixing it up. Opponents have focused on limiting cutback lanes for Forte and he’s danced around the hole too much, leading to more chances for Barber.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @BradBiggs
For more on the Bears click here
Bengals at Steelers by Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer
Impact Injuries: DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring) will miss his third game out of the last four. RB Cedric Benson (foot) and DT Domata Peko (foot) did not practice on Wednesday and Thursday but they should be in the lineup on Sunday. One injury to watch is CB Nate Clements, who tweaked his hamstring on Thursday and was limited in practice.
The X-Factor: Can the Bengals secondary match up against the Steelers’ outside receivers? Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown are the quickest pair of receivers that Pittsburgh has had in awhile and the Bengals are thin after the season-ending injury to Leon Hall. Adam Jones still has some rust after not playing in over a year, Brandon Ghee is inexperienced and Kelly Jennings has been inconsistent. If Clements is limited, safety Chris Crocker could be seeing plenty of time as slot corner in nickel packages.
Don’t be surprised if: Andy Dalton has a better game. He threw two fourth-quarter interceptions in the first meeting but will have A.J. Green this time for the entire game. Green can help stretch the field, which should open things up for Jermaine Gresham, Andre Caldwell and Andrew Hawkins.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @joereedy
For more in the Bengals click here
Ravens at Browns by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Impact Injuries: Browns starting linebacker Scott Fujita (hand) and starting right end Emmanuel Stephens (pectoral) were both placed on IR this week. The Browns will catch a huge break if Ray Lewis sits out again with his toe injury. His seven sacks are the most he has against any team and his four INTs are his second-most against any opponent.
The X-Factor: Will Browns quarterback Colt McCoy emerge unscathed? The Ravens celebrated Thanksgiving by sacking 49ers QB Alex Smith a whopping nine times to tie a club record, and they lead the NFL with 38 sacks. With two young guards, the Browns have had some protection problems this season.
Don’t be surprised if: Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs notches his 13th sack against the Browns. His 12 are the most by any one player against the Browns in club history. But he’ll most likely have to get past Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas to record it.
Follow Mary Kay on Twitter: @MaryKayCabot
For more on the Browns click here
Cowboys at Cardinals by Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram
Impact Injuries: Receiver Miles Austin’s still sore hamstring could keep him out another week. He has missed the past three games. Fullback Tony Fiammetta could return against the Giants next week. He has an unknown illness that has kept him out the past two games. In the six games Fiammetta played, the Cowboys averaged 145.8 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry. In the past two games he has missed, they averaged 85.6 and 3.2.
The X-Factor: Cowboys rookie kicker Dan Bailey has become Mr. Automatic. Dallas has struggled for years to find a reliable kicker, and Bailey is the team’s fourth kicker in three years. But he is having a Pro Bowl-worthy season, having hit 27 of 28. He has 26 in a row since missing in Week 2 against the 49ers, one short of the team record. His kicks have won the past two games – a 39-yarder to beat Washington in overtime and a 28-yarder as time expired to beat Miami.
Don’t be surprised if: The Cowboys struggle in Arizona. They have lost their past two in the desert and four of the past five, including last season’s 27-26 loss on Christmas Day. During their four-game winning streak, the Cowboys have had only one blowout – a 44-7 victory over the Bills. The other three games were decided by a total of 14 points. Dallas has needed last-play field goals from Dan Bailey to win their past two games against Washington and Miami.
Follow Charean on Twitter: @NFLCharean
For more in the ‘Boys click here
Broncos at Vikings by Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post
Impact Injuries: Star rookie linebacker Von Miller, currently third in the NFL with 10.5 sacks, has not practiced this week after undergoing surgery on Tuesday to repair ligament damage in his thumb. He has not been ruled out for Sunday’s game, but without practice time and only a few days post-surgery, it seems unlikely Miller will be in the lineup. That would insert Mario Haggan into the starting lineup at strongside linebacker. Haggan, a veteran who started every game in 2009 and 2010, might be a better run defender than Miller, but the Broncos would definitely miss Miller’s pass rush.
The X-Factor: It’s all about Tim Tebow. There is no secret any more about what the Broncos are doing offensively, but for five straight weeks, no opponent has been able to fully shut down the Broncos’ read-option, run-heavy offense. The Broncos’ running game is now ranked No. 1 in the league, but Tebow’s next challenge is to score more points with it. Denver is No. 21 in scoring offense, at 20.1 points per game, and has score more than 20 points only once in Tebow’s 6 starts.
Don’t be surprised if: Eric Decker remains Tebow’s favorite target. Sunday’s game in Minnesota is a big one personally for Decker, the Broncos second-year receiver. Decker is beloved in Minnesota after a stellar two-sport career for the Gophers, and with No. 2 receiver Eddie Royal ailing (toe), the Broncos and Tebow will depend even more on Decker to lift the passing game. Eight of Decker’s 37 catches have gone for touchdowns this season.
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @PostBroncos
For more on the Broncos click here
Lions at Saints by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press
Impact Injuries: Running back Kevin Smith practiced Thursday and is hopeful he’ll be a go Sunday after spraining his right ankle against the Packers. Smith has given a lift to a struggling ground game and will be sorely missed if he can’t play. The Lions’ biggest injury issues, though, are in the secondary. Safety Louis Delmas is out with a knee injury and cornerbacks Chris Houston (knee) and Brandon McDonald (quad) missed practice most of the week. Chris Harris will start in place of Delmas at safety, and Alphonso Smith, who had five interceptions last year but has barely played this season, could see time in nickel packages at cornerback. Brees leads the league in passing.
The X-Factor: The Suh-spension. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was suspended two games by the league and has an appeal pending for stomping Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving. Suh is not expected to play Sunday, and the Lions will miss the presence of their best interior lineman. Rookie first-round pick Nick Fairley and Sammie Hill will share Suh’s reps, and the Lions still need to generate a pass rush against hard-to-sack Drew Brees.
Don’t be surprised if: Matthew Stafford cuts down on the turnover problems that have plagued him the last three weeks. Stafford has nine interceptions in the last 10 quarters after throwing just four in the first half of the season. His struggles have coincided with a fractured right index finger, which is closing in on 100 percent. Stafford practiced all week without the help of gloves or a splint, contraptions he wore in recent games to help him get a better grip on the ball.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveBirkett and @freeplions
For more on the Lions click here
Green Bay Packers
Packers at Giants by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press Gazette
Impact Injuries: The Packers could be without three starters — one on offense, two on defense — on Sunday at the Giants. Right guard Josh Sitton has been ruled out because of the right knee sprain he sustained on Thanksgiving against the Lions and will be replaced by Evan Dietrich-Smith, the previously unknown second-year pro who gained fame for getting stomped on by Ndamukong Suh in the play that led to Suh’s two-game suspension. Dietrich-Smith held up fine against Suh and rookie first-rounder Nick Fairley, but this will be his first start. Both starting inside linebackers, Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk, also could miss this week. Both dropped out of the Detroit game because of calf injuries. Neither has practiced yet this week, but coach Mike McCarthy hasn’t ruled them out. Rookie D.J. Smith replaced Bishop and finished with seven tackles. Journeyman Robert Francois, who snapped a string of being inactive for five straight games, replaced Hawk and had an interception.
The X-Factor: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers loves to take shots down the field off the play-action fake, and it usually works once or twice a game. Against the Lions, he hit on a 65-yard touchdown pass to James Jones. It was the sixth time this season he’s thrown a touchdown pass of at least 50 yards. Jordy Nelson has three of them — 84, 50 and 93 yards. Jones also has a 70-yarder, while Greg Jennings has a 79-yarder.
Don’t be surprised if: The Packers try to get Jermichael Finley going this week. The tight end has caught just three passes in his last two games combined and hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since Nov. 6 at San Diego.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @RobDemovsky
For more on the Pack click here
Falcons at Texans by Steph Stradley of the Houston Chronicle
Impact Injuries: With injuries to starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart, the Texans are relying on TJ Yates, a 5th round rookie as their quarterback. In limited time, he looked fairly composed in a two minute drill at the end of the half in the last game. The Texans hope Yates can run the system offense because both more experienced backups in Kellen Clemens and Jake Delhomme have been with the team less than a week. It is an unusual circumstance for a rookie: Yates in coming to an offense with players very experienced in the system at pretty much all the positions except fullback.
The X-Factor: Will the Texans be able to run the ball given the inexperience at quarterback and the Falcons’ top-rated run defense? After feasting on poor offenses in recent weeks, will the Texans defense continue to play at a high level even if the offense struggles? Against Jacksonville’s defense, the Texans punted 10 times, tied with the second most in team history, and most since 2003. The coaching staff shut down the offense with a lead and only TE Owen Daniels as an emergency quarterback, but the Texans won’t be able to do that against Atlanta.
Don’t be surprised if: Arian Foster has an explosive pass-receiving day. Foster was unhappy with his two fumble performance and dropping a pass, both things uncharacteristic of his game. Predictably, the Falcons will want to stop the run, but the Texans use Foster a lot in the receiving game, and likely more with a rookie QB.
Follow Steph on Twitter: @StephStradley</a>
For more on the Texans click here
Colts at Patriots by Brad Wells of StampedeBlue.com
Impact Injuries: Tight end Dallas Clark is still considered out, and it seems likely Joseph Addai will sit this week or be limited if he does play.
The X-Factor: The Colts got a tad desperate this week when they finally acknowledged that their quarterback play was, shall we say, less-than-stellar. Curtis Painter was benched for Dan Orlovsky. Orlovsky outplayed Painter during training camp and the preseason this year, and now he will get his second shot at preventing a team from going 0-16. Orlovsky was the starting QB for the infamous 0-16 Lions in 2008.
Don’t be surprised if: The QB for the Colts plays well. Painter was a turnover machine, and crumbled under pressure. Orlovsky has started on other teams before, and he knows how to conduct himself in a hostile environment. That doesn’t mean he will light up the scoreboard, or make the Colts think twice about drafting Andrew Luck in 2012. It just means he could be effective.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @StampedeBlue
For more on the Colts click here
Chargers at Jaguars by Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union
Impact Injuries: The Jaguars have the most populous injured reserve in the NFL with 18 players on it. That means the players with injury questions aren’t quite so numerous. DT Terrance Knighton hasn’t played since week 8 and missed practice Thursday as did defensive end Matt Roth who is out with a concussion.
The X-Factor: Major changes happened in Jacksonville this week and the shakeup has changed the atmosphere for the Jaguars. With an interim head coach and their owner watching one of his last home games, a lot of non-football storylines are swirling around the Jaguars.
Don’t be surprised if: The Jaguars defense has another great night. Philip Rivers has struggled this year and playing on the east coast is never east for west coast teams.
Follow Tania on Twitter: @taniaganguli
For more on the Jags click here
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