Rams at Cardinals by Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds
Impact Injuries: QB Kevin Kolb is suffering from turf toe and foot sprain. He has yet to practice this week, but his availability for Sunday is not known. Most suspect he will not be able to play. RB Beanie Wells is still dealing with his injured knee but is expected to play. TE Todd Heap should be back from his hamstring injury, but rookie TE Rob Housler hurt his groin and is not expected to go. FB Anthony Sherman is also out.
The X-Factor: This game could be a battle of two 1-6 teams and backup quarterbacks. Both teams have struggling defenses and solid running backs, so it will come down to which QB can execute better. AJ Feeley is a journeyman for the Rams while John Skelton has only four starts under his belt for the Cardinals.
Don’t be surprised if: Defensively, it should surprise no one to see both teams stack up eight men in the box to force the quarterbacks to make plays. Both Steven Jackson and Beanie Wells will be the focal points of their team’s offense.
Follow Jess on Twitter: @senorjessroot
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Falcons at Colts by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Impact Injuries: Left tackle Sam Baker (lower back) will miss his second consecutive game. The team announced he’ll be out for three to four weeks. Will Svitek took over for him against Detroit and held his own against Kyle Vanden Bosch, whom he held sackless.
The X-Factor: Julio Jones. The rookie wide receiver returns to action after recovering from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the last two games. He’s caught 25 passes for 358 yards.
Don’t be surprised if: RB Michael Turner rumbles for another 100-yard game. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in the last two games and has scored five touchdowns over the last four games. When he has 21 carries or more his teams are 25-1 (.962).
Follow Darryl on Twitter: @AJCFalcons
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Ravens at Steelers by Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times
Impact Injuries: Offensive guard Ben Grubbs has missed the past six games since suffering a right turf toe against the Steelers, but returned to practice this week on a limited basis and is regarded as a game-time decision. If Grubbs can’t go, then Andre Gurode will start in his place. All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has a hamstring injury, but is expected to play. Wide receiver Lee Evans is still dealing with a left ankle injury and is likely to miss his sixth game in a row.
The X-Factor: Trounced by the Baltimore Ravens (5-2) to open the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) have won six of seven games since that 35-7 rout to launch the season. Now, they’re eager for payback Sunday night at Heinz Field after turning the football over seven times during the first meeting. It was the biggest margin of victory in history of the series, and the Steelers complained afterward about chop blocks, punter Sam Koch’s two-point conversion in the third quarter and some late end-zone throws by Joe Flacco with the game already in hand for Baltimore. Serious playoff implications are contained in this game. If the Ravens sweep the season series, they’ll be in ideal position to win the AFC North and earn an automatic playoff berth and remain in the hunt for home-field advantage during the playoffs. The Ravens haven’t won the division title since 2006. If the Steelers win, they’ll have an immediate opportunity to jump ahead in the division since they play the Cincinnati Bengals twice this month. The Steelers’ pass protection and the play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have improved markedly since the first encounter with Baltimore. They’re coming off an emotional victory over the New England Patriots. The Ravens haven’t forgotten how they were booted from the playoffs in two of the past three years by their archrivals, including last January.
Don’t be surprised if: The Ravens have a tendency to not stick with the hot hand when it comes to their receivers. Anquan Boldin is coming off a seven-catch, 145-yard performance against the Arizona Cardinals. And he has a strong track record against the Steelers. He has scored three touchdowns in four games against Pittsburgh, averaging six receptions and 94.5 yards in those contests. The Steelers will counter with the top-ranked pass defense in the league. They haven’t allowed a team to throw for more than 257 yards against them, holding five teams to under 200 yards and one to only 76 yards.
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Jets at Bills by Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News
Impact Injuries: The Bills still are without starting left tackle Demetrius Bell, who has a shoulder injury, but guard Andy Levitre moved out to the left tackle spot and played very well against Washington’s Brian Orakpo last Sunday. Buffalo may get a key receiver back. Donald Jones, who started the first five games, has been able to practice this week and would help against the Jets’ tough secondary.
The X-Factor: Bills running back Fred Jackson is second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage and is one of only three Bills all-time with 1,000 yards from scrimmage in the first seven games (joining O.J. Simpson and Thurman Thomas). The Jets rank 25th against the run this season, but they are eighth overall in yards allowed.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bills win because they can keep the Jets under 140 rushing yards. In the last four meetings, the Jets averaged 279 rushing yards a game on the Bills. Buffalo stands 20th in rushing yards allowed. They need rookie Marcell Dareus to have a good game in a tough matchup against Jets center Nick Mangold.
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Bears at Eagles by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune
Impact Injuries: Coming out of their bye, the Bears are as healthy as they have been since the start of the season. Wide receiver Earl Bennett will play after missing the last five games with a serious chest injury. Right tackle Gabe Carimi, the first-round draft pick from Wisconsin, is available but will not start. Because he’s so inexperienced, the Bears want to let him take his time before they put him back in the mix at right tackle. Plus, a struggling offensive line has started to settle in and fill-in right tackle Lance Louis and substitute right guard Chris Spencer are playing well. It’s going to create an interesting decision for the Bears when Carimi does return. Do they go with the younger Louis they want to develop or the veteran Spencer at right guard? Spencer was signed to replace Olin Kreutz but has shown improvement each week at right guard and could force a conversation for the coaching staff.
The X-Factor: Lovie Smith set a goal of getting to 4-3 at the team’s bye week after an embarrassing loss at Detroit on Oct. 10. His team met that goal and now the Bears come out of the bye with a big game at Philadelphia and back on the Monday night stage the team was on at Ford Field. The Bears face a familiar foe in Michael Vick, a dangerous quarterback they’ve had success defending over the years, even before Smith’s Tampa Two was the defense of choice. Vick is 0-3 as a starter vs. the Bears, although much of the idea that he has struggled vs. Chicago stems from an awful outing he had in Week 15 of the 2005 season at Soldier Field. It was a Sunday night game and the wind chill at kickoff was minus-3 degrees. Vick was terrible and the Bears rolled to a victory. But the athletic Bears’ front and the Cover-2 scheme helps Smith’s unit defend Vick. All of the defenders have their eyes on Vick and the Bears are able to converge on him. In Philadelphia, they believe Vick has taken a step recently to elevate his game so it makes for an intriguing matchup. Can the athletic quarterback foil the defense that sacrifices size for speed in order to cover the entire field?
Don’t be surprised if: Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg goes after the young Bears’ safeties on the opening drive of the game. The Bears have changed their starting combination of safeties on an almost weekly basis and on Monday rookie Chris Conte and second-year player Major Wright figure to be called on. Vick will challenge them deep with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin right out of the gates. At the minimum, it should open up the crossing routes the Eagles love to use with Jason Avant and Brent Celek. The Bears have been beaten deep too many times this season and the young safeties have been told over and over not to get beat deep.
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Bengals at Titans by Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer
Impact Injuries: It looks as if CB Adam “Pacman” Jones (hamstring), TE Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) and LB Rey Maualuga (ankle) will all be out for Sunday’s game. In the case of all three though it is better they are out for this game than push coming back, especially with four straight division games upcoming. Kelly Jennings and Chris Crocker will play corner in nickel situations while Donald Lee will see most of the snaps in place of Gresham. Dan Skuta and Brandon Johnson will split time for the third straight game at middle linebacker.
The X-Factor: Once again it comes down to the run game. Tennessee has the fifth-worst run defense in the league and allowed 6.1 yards per carry against Indianapolis last week. Since running for 104 yards against Buffalo in Week 4, Cedric Benson has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry against Jacksonville and Indianapolis. If ever there was a good time to get Benson going and mix in some outside runs from Bernard Scott, this would be the week.
Don’t be surprised if: Mike Zimmer dials up plenty of pressure packages in order to get at Tennessee QB Matt Hasselbeck. He has been sacked only nine times this season and could take advantage of a Bengals secondary that gave up five pass plays over 20 yards last week.
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Browns at Texans by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Impact Injuries: Will Texans WR Andre Johnson return after missing four games with a surgically-repaired hamstring? If so, it will be a great battle between him and Browns CB Joe Haden, who’s off to a superb start this season.
The X-Factor: Browns running back Montario Hardesty will sit out the game with a torn calf muscle and will be missed against the Texans’ 6th-ranked run defense.
Don’t be surprised if: Peyton Hillis gets back on track after missing two games with a pulled hamstring and helps Colt McCoy look better than the league’s 25th-ranked QB.
Follow Mary Kay on Twitter: @MaryKayCabot
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Seahawks at Cowboys by Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram
Impact Injuries: Running back Felix Jones is expected to miss his second consecutive game with a high left ankle sprain. Rookie DeMarco Murray will start his second game. Cornerback Mike Jenkins will miss at least three weeks with a hamstring injury. He will be replaced by nickel back Orlando Scandrick. Punter Mat McBriar has nerve damage in his left (plant) foot but is expected to try to play through it. He left at halftime last week and was replaced by kicker Dan Bailey.
The X-Factor: Linebacker Sean Lee dislocated his left wrist against the Eagles. Lee consulted with Dr. Bo Frederick, a Dallas hand and wrist specialist, on Monday. The doctor determined Lee’s wrist does not need immediate surgery, which would end Lee’s season. But Lee’s status this week is in doubt. He leads the Cowboys in tackles, interceptions, pass deflections and fumble recoveries. Bradie James, the Cowboys’ leading tackler each of the past six seasons, will fill in. He has played only 187 snaps and his 24 tackles ranks eighth on the team.
Don’t be surprised if: The Cowboys defense rebounds. Dallas allowed 495 yards in the 34-7 loss to the Eagles. Michael Vick passed for 279 yards, using the middle of the field, and ran for another 50 yards. LeSean McCoy ran for a career-best 185 yards and two touchdowns. It is a copy-cat league, but the Seahawks don’t have Vick or McCoy or any of the Eagles other weapons.
Follow Charean on Twitter: @NFLCharean
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Broncos at Raiders by Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post
Impact Injuries: Running back Willis McGahee expects to return after missing last week while recovering from surgery to repair a broken bone in his hand. The Broncos had no running game against Oakland in the season opener, and need a healthy and productive McGahee to help take some of the pressure off Tebow.
The X-Factor: No player in the NFL is under more pressure to improve and quickly than Tim Tebow, who will be making his third start of the season. His first career start, last year, was also in Oakland, so the Raiders shouldn’t be caught off guard by Tebow’s running abilities like they were last year, when he scored on a 40-yard run. Tebow has to improve as a passer if the Broncos are going to have success. He completed only 46 percent of his passes last week against Detroit and didn’t take care of the ball (a fumble and interception were returned for touchdowns).
Don’t be surprised if: The Raiders run right at the heart of the Broncos defense. It looks like Oakland will be without Bronco-slayer Darren McFadden, but the Broncos are expecting a heavy dose of Michael Bush. And with good reason. Oakland has run for 742 yards in the last three games against Denver — all Raiders wins.
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @PostBroncos
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Green Bay Packers
Packers at Chargers by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press Gazette
Impact Injuries: Coming off the bye week, the Packers are as healthy as they’ve been in a while. The only two players who won’t be available for Sunday’s game at San Diego are defensive end Mike Neal (knee) and left tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring). Neal, who hasn’t played all season, is hoping to begin practicing next week. He could give the Packers’ sagging pass rush a boost when he returns. The timeline on Clifton, who was hurt in Week 5, is less clear. He still has several more weeks of rehab before he can return to practice. Even then, the coaches might be inclined to stick with Marshall Newhouse, who has been an adequate fill-in. The Packers will get two key defensive players back — nickel cornerback Sam Shields (concussion) and right outside linebacker Frank Zombo (knee). Both missed the previous game at Minnesota but have been cleared to return.
The X-Factor: Coming off the bye. Under coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers are 4-1 coming out of their bye week, and the only loss came in overtime at Tennessee in 2008. Before McCarthy, the Packers were just 9-8 coming out of the bye dating back to 1990, when the byes were implemented.
Don’t be surprised if: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has something waiting in the wings to boost the pass rush. Perhaps it will be a different blitz package or some new personnel grouping, but it’s a good bet he’ll try something new in order to get more pressure on the opposing quarterbacks in the second half of the season.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @RobDemovsky
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Browns at Texans by Steph Stradley of the Houston Chronicle
Impact Injuries: Andre Johnson did not practice this week, and Gary Kubiak says that Johnson is day to day. It may be the Texans, in an abundance of caution, will hold him out until after the bye week, which would mean missing two games before the bye.
The X-Factor: The Texans have been near the bottom of the league in penalties but after the last game, the Jaguars complained about the Texans “dirty” play. Will be interesting to see if some of the plays that weren’t flagged last week are flagged this week.
Don’t be surprised if: The Texans running game has a great day. This is the first time fullback Lawrence Vickers is facing his former team, and the Texans plan every week is to run the ball a ton if the Texans get an early lead.
Follow Steph on Twitter: @StephStradley
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Falcons at Colts by Brad Wells of StampedeBlue.com
Impact Injuries: At this point, the question is more, ‘Who isn’t hurt for the Colts?’ Punt returner Blair White can now be added to the walking wounded with a knee injury. The Colts signed corner Prince Miller this week to return kicks should White not play. Joseph Addai is still nursing nagging injuries, paving the way for the impressive rookie, Delone Carter, to start yet another game at running back. Surprising guard Quinn Ojinnaka might also miss the game with a knee injury. However, the good news on the injury front is that Anthony Castonzo, the first round pick for the Colts in 2011, is back at practice this week and looks healthy. If Castonzo can return to playing left tackle, it will go a long way to stabilizing Indy’s decimated offensive line.
The X-Factor: The Colts hold a dominating 13-1 record over the Falcons in recent years. Likely, without Peyton Manning, that record doesn’t mean much. Still, should Castonzo return, and should oft-injured veteran Ryan Diem play some at RG this week, the Colts o-line will be near full strength. Atlanta’s pass rush is nothing special, nor is their secondary. This might play to Indy’s strengths (what few they have left).
Don’t be surprised if: The Colts get their first win. No slight to the Falcons, but the match-up here might give the Colts just enough to scratch out their first win of 2011. Matt Ryan is not a deep ball thrower, and the Falcons rely heavily on their run game. This season, Indy has been somewhat better about stopping the run. DT Ricardo Mathews has played well recently, and linebacker Pat Angerer is a tackling machine. In years past, Falcons back Michael turner has KILLED the Colts. But, if they can contain and control him, Indy probably wins this game.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @StampedeBlue
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Kansas City Chiefs
Dolphins at Chiefs by Joel Thorman of ArrowheadPride.com
Impact Injuries: Jon McGraw. The Chiefs starting safety has been absent from practice after suffering a shoulder injury last week. It’s unclear if he’ll be available on Sunday. McGraw is already Eric Berry, who is out for the season, so the Chiefs are really digging into their depth chart at the position. McGraw is the only name on the Chiefs injury report which marks the second consecutive week they’ve had just one player listed. Injuries won’t be a huge problem for the Chiefs this week.
The X-Factor: Motivation. Or, for the Chiefs, how to avoid the classic trap game. KC is coming off a four-game winning streak including two consecutive physical wins over AFC West teams. The’re working on a short week and, after last Monday night’s thrilling and emotional overtime victory over the Chargers, you have to wonder if the Chiefs can maintain the same level of motivation against the Dolphins. The Chiefs are saying all the right things about taking the Dolphins seriously but you have to wonder if they can get up for this game the way they did against San Diego last Monday.
Don’t be surprised if: This game is closer than the 5.5 point spread. If the Chiefs win, I think it comes by a field goal. The Dolphins are not as bad as their record indicates and the Chiefs may not be as good as their record says they are. Outside of the shutout over Oakland, every Chiefs victory has come down to the last few minutes of the fourth quarter. I wouldn’t expect this one to be different given the type of week the Chiefs are coming off of.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @ArrowheadPride
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Dolphins at Chiefs by Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post
Impact Injuries: The Dolphins likely will be without starting cornerback Vontae Davis (hamstring) for the second straight game, meaning rookie seventh-rounder Jimmy Wilson will likely start and match up against Chiefs rookie Jonathan Baldwin, who caught a 39-yard touchdown last week against the Chargers. And running back Daniel Thomas is still hobbled by a hamstring injury that kept him out of last week’s game against the Giants, though he is optimistic about playing this week.
The X-Factor: Right tackle Marc Colombo. He has been a matador this season, allowing three sacks, a league-high eight quarterback hits and 22 pressures, fourth-most in the league. The Chiefs, meanwhile, have one of the game’s best pass rushers in OLB Tamba Hali, who has six sacks, seven quarterback hits and 17 pressures this year. He gave Chargers tackle Marcus McNeill fits last week, sacking Philip Rivers twice and forcing McNeil into six false start and holding penalties. The Dolphins better give Colombo some help on Sunday, or else he and Matt Moore could be in for a long, painful day.
Don’t be surprised if: The Dolphins finally make a few plays on defense. They have cretaed just three turnovers on defense this year, but the Chiefs could be just the cure. The Chiefs have 16 turnovers this year, tied for second-most in the NFL, including nine interceptions from Matt Cassel. If the Dolphins can actually turn some of those turnovers into touchdowns, they may be able to pull off the upset.
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New England Patriots
Giants at Patriots by Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald
Impact Injuries: The Patriots are finally healthy, with only reserve linebacker Dane Fletcher missing practice on Thursday and Friday. The Patriots did receive a scare on Wednesday, as receiver Wes Welker missed practice, but the NFL’s leader in receptions should be OK. He suffered a neck injury when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu hit him. In addition, defensive end Shaun Ellis bruised ribs, and he could be out on Sunday.
The X-Factor: The Patriots need to run the ball against the Giants, both to control the clock and limit their ability to rush quarterback Tom Brady. Yet BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been slightly slowed with a toe injury, even if he hasn’t missed time. That makes rookie Stevan Ridley the X-factor. The quick, slashing, bruising back isn’t as consistent as Green-Ellis, but he can attack defense’s faster. That makes him more dangerous this week. He may even eclipse 100 yards for the first time.
Don’t be surprised if: The Patriots turn Eli Manning into the quarterback the NFL saw in 2010. Manning has been efficient this year, taking care of the ball in a career season. He has just five interceptions. Yet it’s not clear how long this will last. Perhaps the Patriots defense, one that saw its criticized all week for its ineffectiveness, responds. This may be the week it busts out of its slump, created a few turnovers. Manning may be in for a rough game.
Follow Ian on Twitter: @RapSheet
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New Orleans Saints
Buccaneers at Saints by Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times-Picayune
Impact Injuries: The Saints will likely be without tailback Mark Ingram again this week as he continues to recover from a bruised heel. The Saints are deep at tailback, with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory all able to share the load, though the entire run game fell flat last week at St. Louis. The Saints lost right tackle Charles Brown to a season-ending hip flexor this week, but the timing worked out OK since veteran starter Zach Strief is ready to come back from his own knee injury.
The X-Factor: The Saints’ run defense has been a bit sloppy over the past four weeks, allowing occasional big plays to break out. That’s what happened three weeks ago at Tampa Bay. And this week the Bucs will have their most dynamic tailback, LeGarrette Blount, back from injury.
Don’t be surprised if: The Saints win the turnover battle. The Saints lost at Tampa Bay three weeks ago because they lost the turnover battle 4-0. Turnovers have been the primary point of emphasis all week in practice. … Then again, turnovers were a big emphasis before that last Tampa Bay game, too. This time, the Saints need to do a better job of disrupting quarterback Josh Freeman, and their defensive backs need to hang on to balls in the air after dropping too many potential picks this season.
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New York Giants
Giants at Patriots by Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News
Impact Injuries: WR Hakeem Nicks is nursing a hamstring injury that may keep him out of the game, which is a big blow to an offense that may need to win in a shootout. Worse, RB Ahmad Bradshaw has a swollen, sore foot and won’t play either. Those are arguably Eli Manning’s two biggest weapons, and going into a game against Tom Brady and the Pats without a full arsenal is a dangerous thing. Other injuries to be concerned about: C David Baas is nursing a sore knee and DE Osi Umenyiora injured his shoulder. Both are expected to play, but may be limited.
The X-Factor: CB Aaron Ross. The Giants switched their defensive philosophy this year and instead of having their corners play halves of the field, they’ve been locking Corey Webster on the opponents’ best WR. The problem with that is the Pats’ best WR is the 5-9 Wes Welker, and Webster admittedly has trouble with “little jitterbug-type” guys. Ross, who isn’t nearly as good as Webster, likes playing smaller guys in the spot, so it looks like the assignment of containing the NFL’s slipperiest (and possibly most dangerous) receiver falls to him.
Don’t be surprised if: WR Ramses Barden takes on a bigger-than-expected role in the Giants’ offense in what is expected to be his season debut. He’s been on PUP all year while recovering from ankle surgery, but he’s 6-6, he knows the offense, and he was starting to look like a somewhat reliable target when he got hurt last year. He may have to play if Nicks is out, but even if Nicks plays, Barden could be a good red-zone target. He also may steal some snaps from either WR Victor Cruz or TE Travis Beckum running routes out of the slot.
Follow Ralph on Twitter: @TheBlueScreen
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