Browns at Cardinals by Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds
Impact Injuries: The Cardinals seem to have a laundry list of minor injuries. Only backup safety Sean Considine did not practice. However, Kevin Kolb is recovering from concussion-like symptoms. He has been cleared for practice, but it is unknown if he will miss the game on Sunday. Beanie Wells is still working through his knee injury. S Kerry Rhodes may be able to return to the field on Sunday.
The X-Factor: The Cardinals’ defense has allowed only six touchdowns in their last six games and opponents over that same span are only converting 27 percent of third downs. The result? A 5-1 record over that period. If the trend continues, a Browns’ offense that struggles to score points anyway is in for a long game. Another interesting thing of note is that the Cardinals, although they have never faced Colt McCoy, may end up facing a QB they are familiar with. Backup Seneca Wallace faced Arizona more than once during his time with the Seahawks.
Don’t be surprised if: If there is one thing that Cleveland has struggled with this year, it has been stopping the run. The last time the Cards faced a similar team (the Rams), Beanie Wells went for a franchise record 228 yards. Expect Arizona to “feed the Bean” and go from there. With Arizona fighting for an outside chance of the playoffs, no one should expect a letdown after a big win over the division champ San Francisco 49ers.
Follow Jess on Twitter: @senorjessroot
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Ravens at Chargers by Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times
Impact Injuries: With Lardarius Webb having suffered a left turf toe injury, Williams is the most qualified, healthy cornerback to guard wide receiver Vincent Jackson. He’s an imposing target at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. He’s tall, fast, jumps well, has good hands and is extremely physical. The Chargers like to throw the jump ball to Jackson. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Williams is large enough to match up with Jackson. However, Jackson might have an edge in speed. Jackson is a legitimate deep threat who’s also difficult to bring down in the open field due to his unusual size. Williams will likely require some help over the top from free safety Ed Reed, whose attention could be divided by the presence of tight end Antonio Gates. So, Williams will have to fend for himself at least part of the time. The Ravens will start rookie first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith opposite Williams.
The X-Factor: San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews is hitting full stride lately, recording three consecutive 100-yard rushing games for the first time in his career. Mathews is adept at jump-cutting out of holes and changing directions for maximum yardage. He’s also a threat out of the backfield on screen passes and swing plays. Batimore Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Lewis is coming off a right turf toe injury that sidelined him for four consecutive games and he might not be full-speed for this game. Defensive linemen Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody will look to shield Lewis from blockers so he can flow to the football and make the tackle. Lewis is a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who has played through injuries in the past. This kind of injury can rob an athlete of his change of direction skills, so it will bear watching to see how Lewis reacts.
Don’t be surprised if: Running back Ray Rice has success against the Chargers. The Chargers are vulnerable against the run, allowing 128.9 yards per game on the ground to rank 24th in the NFL and middle linebacker Takeo Spikes is dealing with a back injury. Rice has rushed for 1,029 yards and is an all-purpose threat with 1,622 yards from scrimmage and a total of a dozen touchdowns.
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Dolphins at Bills by Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News
Impact Injuries: The Bills will be without tight end Scott Chandler agian this week because he has a sprained ankle. Given all the other offensive injuries they’ve had (Fred Jackson and Eric Wood, most prominently), they can ill afford to lose any weaponry. The absence of Chandler hurts the Bills in the red zone because he’s a big target.
The X-Factor: It will be a weakness-vs.-weakness matchup when Miami passes and the Bills pass rush. Miami is last in the league in sacks allowed per pass attempt. Buffalo’s defense is last in the league in sacks per pass attempt. It would be a break for the Bills if Miami left tackle Jake Long (back) was unable to play.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bills put up a better showing than in the first meeting, when they were dominated, 35-8. The Bills’ defensive secondary was hobbling in that game. It’s more healthy now, with safety George Wilson and cornerback Aaron Williams back on the field. The Bills’ offense still is depleted, but this should be a much closer game.
Follow Mark on Twitter: @gggaughan
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Panthers at Texans by Greg Jones of Examiner.com
Impact Injuries: The Carolina Panthers on Tuesday placed middle linebacker Jason Phillips on season-ending injured reserve. The backup linebacker is the 15th Panther to make that list. Phillips didn’t make a start and has missed the last five games due to an injured calf. Phillips’ injury is another example of how dismal the position has become for the Panthers who lost Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason in Week 1. However, Phillips’ injury did provide an opportunity for Jordan Senn, who has started the last three games at weakside linebacker. The Panthers started the season with weakside linebacker Thomas Davis, who tore his right ACL for a third time in less than two years in September. He was replaced by an ineffective Jason Williams, who was benched for a journeyman, Thomas Williams. Thomas was placed on IR after injuring his neck against the Washington Redskins. Then Omar Gaither became the started, but he was later sideline due to an injured knee, which was suffered in a 49-35 lost to the Detroit Lions. Since then, Jordan has manned the weakside linebacker spot. The Panthers could also be without cornerback Darius Butler, who suffered a mild concussion against the Falcons.
The X-Factor: The Panthers have found ways to lose close games this season. Can the Panthers find a way to win those close games? That means eliminating penalties, turnovers and special team miscues. The Panthers have played well against good teams (Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints). The problem is Carolina can’t finish strong. The Panthers have had the lead in 12 of 13 games but have managed to win only four games.
Don’t be surprised if: The Panthers’ offense puts up some big numbers against the Houston Texans’ No. 1 ranked defense. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is always a threat to run or extend plays inside and outside the pocket. The Panthers also have rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 consecutive games. And it shouldn’t come as a shock if Arian Foster doesn’t reach 100 yards. The Panthers have struggled against the run the entire season. But Carolina’s run defense has improved. Last week against the Falcons, the unit held Michael Turner to 76 yards on 21 carries. Two weeks ago, Carolina held Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount to 19 yards on 11 carries. Despite the positive steps in that area, the Panthers still have a lot of work to do in that area.
Follow Greg on Twitter: @gjjones_sports
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Seahawks at Bears by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune
Impact Injuries: The loss of Jay Cutler to a fractured right finger and then running back Matt Forte to a sprained MCL in his right knee is crippling the offense. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie has struggled mightily with a 48.6 passer rating. He didn’t commit a turnover in the loss at Denver, but the Bears barely moved the ball and were forced to punt 11 times. Since Forte was injured in the first quarter of the Dec. 4 Kansas City game, the offense has converted just 2 of 24 third downs. Fill-in running back Marion Barber has made errors that have cost the Bears the past two weeks. His illegal formation penalty cost the team a touchdown in a 10-3 home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Barber ran out of bounds to stop the clock in the closing minutes of regulation against the Broncos and then fumbled in overtime, putting Denver in position to win. The offense isn’t going to be capable of carrying the team until these players return, particularly Cutler.
The X-Factor: As if replacing quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte was not enough for the Chicago Bears to deal with, now the team has to handle the intense scrutiny that has come after wide receiver Sam Hurd was arrested on federal drug charges Wednesday night, accused of masterminding a massive distribution network in which he was attempting to buy up to 10 kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 pounds of marijuana per week. The news stunned the team Thursday at Halas Hall, a team that was still reeling from Sunday’s overtime loss at Denver. There was a somber mood in the locker room and it’s clearly the kind of news that has had a major impact on the organization that signed Hurd to a $4.15 million, three-year contract in July, a deal that included a $1.35 million signing bonus.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bears are flat on Sunday. Coach Lovie Smith has almost always had his team ready to play during eight seasons but the locker room was devastated following the loss in Denver and with a Dec. 25 game looking at Green Bay, the Bears realize chances of reaching the postseason have faded badly. Now with the Hurd arrest hanging over the club – and who knows if there will be more fallout from this – it’s going to be difficult for the Bears to remain focused on the task at hand.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @BradBiggs
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Bengals at Rams by Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer
Impact Injuries: DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring) should return to the lineup this week after missing the last three games. OT Andre Smith (ankle) is likely to miss his second straight game. He was limited on Wednesday but did not go on Thursday as it appears Anthony Collins will get the start. The biggest concerns are at running back. Fullback Chris Pressley and Brian Leonard both have knee injuries and have not practiced all week. Leonard did not play last week. If Pressley cannot go, the Bengals could go with Cedric Peerman at fullback.
The X-Factor: The red zone. The Bengals are 6 of 14 over the past five games scoring touchdowns inside the opponent’s 20 and were only 1 of 3 last week. The running game has struggled inside the 10 and there also have been a myriad of penalties to self destruct drives.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bengals try to run it more and go to ball control as they try to wear down the Rams’ defense. St. Louis has the worst run defense in the league and five of Cedric Benson’s 16 100-yard games with the Bengals have been in December.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @joereedy
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Browns at Cardinals by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Impact Injuries: In addition to McCoy, the Browns will be without tight end Ben Watson and fullback Owen Marecic, who also suffered concussions. The Browns will be without a true fullback, and will use Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty together at times.
The X-Factor: Which of these two backup quarterbacks — Cleveland’s Seneca Wallace and Arizona’s John Skelton — will prevail in the concussion game. Both Colt McCoy and Kevin Kolb suffered concussions last week, and Wallace has virtually already been named the starter. Wallace knows this West Coast offense inside and out from his Seattle days.
Don’t be surprised if: Wallace looks efficient in the offense and pulls out a victory, despite the Browns losing eight of their last 10.
Follow Mary Kay on Twitter: @MaryKayCabot
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Lions at Cowboys by Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram
Impact Injuries: The Cowboys put backup quarterback Jon Kitna (back) on injured reserve. Stephen McGee will be Tony Romo’s backup the rest of the season. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware (stinger) and center Phil Costa (concussion) are expected to play.
The X-Factor: Felix Jones will have to carry the load the rest of the way. Jones has spent most of his career in college and in the NFL as a complementary back. He is the feature back now that DeMarco Murray has had surgery to repair a fractured right ankle. In the seven games Murray started and finished, he had 22.1 touches. That included only nine touches against the Eagles when the Cowboys fell behind early. Jones has averaged 15.6 touches in his 13 career starts.
Don’t be surprised if: Felix Jones has his fifth career 100-yard game, including the postseason. The Bucs rank 28th against the run and have allowed four 100-yard rushers. Jones rushed for 106 yards on 16 carries against the Giants, though he did lose a fumble. He has 413 yards and one touchdown on 90 carries this season and also has caught 23 passes for 151 yards.
Follow Charean on Twitter: @NFLCharean
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Patriots at Broncos by Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post
Impact Injuries: Starting safety Brian Dawkins (neck) and starting right cornerback Andre’ Goodman (concussion) each left last week’s game against Chicago with injuries and both sat out of practice on Wednesday. But both veterans were back on the field Thursday morning, a good sign for their prospects to play against the Patriots. The Broncos’ secondary will certainly need them against a New England offense that will likely try to spread the Broncos out as much as possible.
The X-Factor: The Broncos – and quarterback Tim Tebow – showed two weeks ago that they could win a high-scoring, shoot-out type game in a 38-35 win at Minnesota. But that was against Christian Ponder, not Tom Brady. The biggest question heading into Sunday’s game between the Broncos and Patriots is if Tebow can lead the Broncos’ offense to enough points to keep pace with Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker. Denver hasn’t scored a first-quarter offensive touchdown since Nov. 13 at Kansas City.
Don’t be surprised if: Von Miller continues his sack streak. Miller has downsized from the full club on his right hand to a partial cast, one in which the thumb is fully covered but the rest of his fingers are free. Miller has at least a full sack in each of his last four games, and has been held without at least half a sack only once all season.
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @PostBroncos
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Lions at Raiders by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press
Impact Injuries: Cornerback Chris Houston is on track to return from a knee injury, and that’s good news for a secondary that keeps losing players. Louis Delmas (knee), Eric Wright (hamstring) and Aaron Berry (shoulder) have not practiced this week, and Delmas hasn’t played since Thanksgiving Day. Running back Kevin Smith looks like he’ll return from his high ankle sprain, but linebacker Justin Durant is questionable with a hamstring.
The X-Factor: Ndamukong Suh. All eyes will be on Suh as the Lions’ best defensive player returns from his two-game suspension for stomping an opponent. Suh has vowed repeatedly that fines, penalties and suspensions won’t change his style of play. The Lions don’t want to him to be any less aggressive, especially against a pocket passer like Carson Palmer. But they need Suh to keep his emotions in check after the whistle as opponents surely will try to goad him into unsportsmanlike play.
Don’t be surprised if: Calvin Johnson has another sub-100-yard receiving game. Johnson’s production has dropped considerably since he started the season with 11 touchdowns in his first eight games. He has just one score and hasn’t topped 100 yards receiving since the last five weeks and was targeted just four times last Sunday. Defenses are focused almost exclusively on taking Johnson away, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has been content to work his other weapons, and over the last two months the Raiders have been one of the best pass defenses in the league.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveBirkett and @freeplions
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Green Bay Packers
Packers at Chiefs by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press Gazette
Impact Injuries: The left knee injury that receiver Greg Jennings sustained in the third quarter of last Sunday’s game against the Raiders is expected to keep him out for the remainder of the regular season. The injury is believed to be a sprained medial collateral ligament, but the Packers think they will have their Pro Bowler back for the playoffs. In the meantime, however, the Packers will be without their most well-rounded receiver. What makes Jennings so tough to defend is that he can play any of the three receiver positions in the Packers’ offense — split end, flanker and in the slot. The Packers have perhaps the deepest receiving corps in the league, but now No. 2 man Jordy Nelson will almost certainly see more attention from defenses. James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb all will move up a spot in the pecking order. Nelson and Cobb play almost exclusively outside, while Driver and Cobb will take on some of Jennings’ snaps in the slot. The Packers also could be without two more offensive starters — right guard Josh Sitton (knee) and running back James Starks (ankle). Linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf) isn’t expected to play this week, either, but linebacker A.J. Hawk (calf) is expected to return.
The X-Factor: Ryan Taylor. The rookie from North Carolina hadn’t played a single snap on offense until he lined up as part of a bunch formation in a four-tight end set in the first quarter against the Raiders. But Aaron Rodgers went right to Taylor and hit him for a 4-yard touchdown pass. Taylor, who previously had played only on special teams, could become another weapon in the red zone.
Don’t be surprised if: Fullback John Kuhn continues to get some carries. With Starks out and No. 3 running back Brandon Saine coming off a concussion, the Packers probably will split carries between Ryan Grant and Kuhn. Using that duo against Oakland, they had one of their best days rushing this season. Grant carried 10 times for 85 yards, while Kuhn had 10 carries for 46 yards.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @RobDemovsky
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Panthers at Texans by Steph Stradley of the Houston Chronicle
Impact Injuries: Seems like each week a different starter for the Texans gets a significant injury, and now defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is expected to miss two games after having kidney-related surgery and removal of his gall bladder. Guard Mike Briesel played 3 quarters of the last game on a broken leg, and is expected to miss the rest of the regular season. He will be replaced with Antoine Caldwell, a player very familiar with the system and who has had starter reps in the past. Andre Johnson has been rehabilitating his injured hamstring, has been described as day to day, but is not likely to play Sunday. Currently, the Texans have 12 players on IR.
The X-Factor: Will the Texans loud home field plus the number one defense in the league disrupt the Panthers’ prolific offense? Reliant Stadium tends to be a loud stadium due to its vertical design, and now that the Texans defense is good, and the team is in the playoffs, expect Reliant to be one of the loudest places in the NFL. Even so, Carolina is averaging roughly 50 more yards on the road than at home.
Don’t be surprised if: The Texans’ best defense ends up being a clock-burning offense. The Texans lead the league in time of possession, and it would not be surprising for all three Texans running backs to get carries against a struggling Panthers defense. In games against some solid defenses, the Texans had drives that lasted almost 11 minutes: Steelers (10:55; 180 yards rushing for day) Falcons (10:41; 162 yards rushing for day). If they can run against these teams, they can destroy bad defenses and chew clock against anyone in the league.
Follow Steph on Twitter: @StephStradley
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Titans at Colts by Brad Wells of StampedeBlue.com
Impact Injuries: Last week, Dallas Clark played after missing over a month. Now, he’s back to being held out of practice again. Clark did not participate on Wednesday, along with seven other Colts players, including starting linebacker Philip Wheeler. Wheeler has had a decent season after two disappointing ones. He’s also a solid run stuffer. Last week against the Ravens, he injured his ankle and did not return. With him out, the Colts 30th ranked run defense just got worse. Somewhere, Titans runningback Chris Johnson is licking his chops.
The X-Factor: The X-Factor this week might be Jake Locker, who, fortunately for him, does not play for the Colts. The status of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselback is uncertain for the Titans Sunday. Hasselback played well against Indy back in Week 8, throwing for 224 yards and a touchdown with no picks. The Titans waxed the Colts that day 27-10. If Hasselback is out and Locker is in, then the Colts might stand a better chance of earning their first win of 2011.
Don’t be surprised if: Regardless of who plays for the Titans, look for the quarterbacks to play well. The Colts’ defense is truly awful, and replacing defensive coordinator Larry Coyer with Mike Murphy has done little to help the Colts improve defensively. The last two weeks, the Patriots and Ravens scored a combined 55 points in six quarters of play. Both teams let up in the fourth. The Patriots had the Colts at 31-3 as the fourth quarter started in that game while the Ravens were 24-3 until the Colts tacked on a meaningless garbage touchdown in the final seconds. It doesn’t matter if the opposing QB for Indy is a rookie or a veteran. He’ll throw and have success against their secondary.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @StampedeBlue
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Kansas City Chiefs
Packers at Chiefs by Joel Thorman of ArrowheadPride.com
Impact Injuries: Once again, the Chiefs are dealing with a quarterback injury. Kyle Orton was in for one play in Week 13 before dislocating his finger, an injury that caused him to miss last week’s game against the Jets. The early word is that Orton is likely to be healthy enough to play on Sunday against the Packers, perhaps wearing a glove on his throwing hand (something he did in Denver). If he can’t go, rookie Ricky Stanzi will start. The starter over the last month, Tyler Palko, is not in the running to start against the Packers.
The X-Factor: The Chiefs ability to focus post-Todd Haley. Will they be too distracted by the firing of Todd Haley to play well? Or do they rally around Romeo Crennel, the interim head coach? That’s really the question here and we’re not sure how the team will respond. Given that the Chiefs have been arguably the most inconsistent team this year, it wouldn’t surprise me either way.
Don’t be surprised if: The Chiefs keep it competitive. I know, I know…this is the 13-0 Packers playing against a team that fired their head coach. On paper, the Packers should dominate. I think Green Bay wins this game but I think the Chiefs have the ability, in front of their home crowd, to keep it competitive for much of the game. I’m thinking somewhere around a 30-17 final score in this game.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @ArrowheadPride
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Dolphins at Bills by Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post
Impact Injuries: The Dolphins got banged up last week by the Eagles. QB Matt Moore suffered a minor concussion and sat out Wednesday’s practice, though he returned on Thursday and should start against the Bills. LT Jake Long left the game after seven plays with a lower back injury, but he returned to the field on Thursday and should play as well. Same with RG Vernon Carey, who left the game with an ankle injury but should play. The only starter who won’t play is OLB Koa Misi, who likely suffered a separated shoulder and is probably done for the season. Jason Taylor and Jason Trusnik should play more snaps in his absence.
The X-Factor: Interim head coach Todd Bowles is the ultimate X-Factor this week. Will the players have any fire left after Tony Sparano was let go with three weeks left in the season? Can Bowles help his coaching staff come up with a good enough game plan for the Dolphins to beat the Bills for the second time in four weeks? Can Bowles handle all of the responsibilities of being the head coach — knowing when to utilize time outs, challenge flags and two-point conversions? The Dolphins could beat Buffalo by four touchdowns again, or fall flat on their faces.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bills exact their revenge. The Dolphins left the Bills bloodied and bruised four weeks ago, beating them 35-8 on the scoreboard and injuring RB Fred Jackson, WR Donald Jones and CB Terrence McGee for the rest of the season.The Dolphins also angered the Bills with several hits to the head — two of which earned hefty fines from the league — and with Yeremiah Bell’s comments after the game that the Bills “laid down.” With the Dolphins coming off a demoralizing loss to Philly and losing a lot of steam after Sparano was fired this week, don’t be shocked if the Bills lay a revenge whooping on the Dolphins.
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