Panthers at Falcons by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Impact Injuries: Wide receiver Julio Jones (hamstring) will not play. He will be replaced in the lineup by Harry Douglas. Jones leads the team in receiving yards with 385 on 25 catches, but no touchdowns. Defensive end John Abraham will be slowed by a hip/groin injury if he’s able to answer the bell.
The X-Factor: Harry Douglas. Douglas, who was playing the slot receiver, has 11 catches for 80 yards. This will be his fifth career start. His best game as a pro came during the 2008 season (Oct. 12) when he caught five passes for 96 yards against the Bears. Jones has caught 59.5 percent of the passes thrown his way (25 on 42 targets) and Douglas has caught 61.1 percent (11 of 18 targets).
Don’t be surprised if: WLB Sean Weatherspoon comes through with a mega-performance. He’s stacking up tackles and had a sack last week. He’s the key to the Falcons improving their third down efficiency rating (46.3 percent, 30th in the league) and needs to make more impact plays.
Follow Darryl on Twitter: @AJCFalcons
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Texans at Ravens by Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times
Impact Injuries: Wide receiver Lee Evans is still bothered by a sprained left ankle that has hampered him since the preseason. Left offensive guard Ben Grubbs has a painful right turf toe and has been limited in practice. Rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith remains out with a high left ankle sprain and veteran cornerback Chris Carr will miss this game due to a lingering hamstring injury. The Ravens expect Foster to be the focal point of the offense since Texans star wide receiver Andre Johnson is out with a right hamstring injury. Explosive kick returner David Reed is close to returning from a left shoulder injury that has kept him out since the second game of the season when he got hurt covering a kickoff.
The X-Factor: The Ravens want to avoid a repeat of last season's overtime victory over the Houston Texans where they squandered a three-touchdown advantage and nearly lost the game. The Ravens are extremely concerned with containing NFL rushing champion Arian Foster, who rushed for 100 yards on 20 carries against them last season.
“You’re not going to bring him down with an arm tackle,” linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “You’ve got to get a body on him. It’s a great scheme. He’s perfect for it. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Added free safety Ed Reed: “He can break a run, man, from anywhere. He is a perfect back for that offense. He has his own running schemes, the cutbacks and bouncing it. He’s a playmaker.”
Foster is an artist in the zone-stretch play, beating defenders around the perimeter with his combination of size, speed, body lean and moves.
“He’s a stretch-and-cut runner, great vision,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Everywhere is the point of attack in that scheme.”
Don’t be surprised if: The Ravens do everything possible to apply some heat to quarterback Matt Schaub. When Schaub gets into a rhythm, he's extremely difficult to slow down and is capable of piling up points. Keep an eye on two former Texans lining up against their old team: fullback Vonta Leach and strong safety Bernard Pollard.
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Bills at Giants by Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News
Impact Injuries: Bills starting receiver Donald Jones is out four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain. It's a big deal, because Jones can stretch the field. None of the other receivers quite have Jones' speed. Wide receiver was one of the deepest positions on the team entering the year. But the Bills lost Roscoe Parrish and Marcus Easley for the season to injury. Now Jones is out. Sure-handed Naaman Roosevelt takes Jones' spot. We'll see how much impact it makes. … The Bills also may be without defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who has not practiced this week due to a foot injury.
The X-Factor: The Bills are No. 1 in the NFL in interceptions and No. 32 in quarterback sacks. On the surface, it doesn't make sense. The Bills are getting more pressures than their sack numbers indicate. But lack of sacks is a big issue for the Bills' defense.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bills' offensive balance tips back in favor of the pass this week, because the Giants' defensive front is more physical than that of the Eagles, who got pushed around by the Bills last week.
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Panthers at Falcons by Greg Jones of Examiner.com
Impact Injuries: The Carolina Panthers will be without backup linebacker Omar Gaither due to a sprained (MCL) knee. He will be out for two to four weeks. The Panthers should have all starters healthy for quarterback Cam Newton’s homecoming in the Georgia Dome against the Atlanta Falcons.
The X-Factor: The Panthers have to quell Michael Turner. The Panthers have struggled with good running backs this season. Three weeks ago, Jacksonville Jaguars Maurice Jones-Drew had 122 yards on 24 carries, and he had three receptions for 45 yards. The following week Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte rushed for 205 yards on 25 carries. But the Panthers defensive line showed improvement last week against the New Orleans Saints, but the Saints don’t have a Jones-Drew or a Forte. Charles “Big Money” Johnson is having a good season, and he has responded well to being the focal point of the front four. Rookie defensive tackles, Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, will have to maintain their gaps against the Falcons. And defensive end Greg Hardy continued to show why the Panthers have no regrets of waiving 2009 second-round pick Everette Brown before the season.
Don’t be surprised if: Running backs, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, have big games against the Falcons. After struggling in the first three games, the running game has picked up in the last two weeks. Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is using Williams in the Wildcat, and Chud is even featuring Stewart and Williams in the passing game. In addition, Newton had been a factor in the running game. He has five rushing touchdowns.
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Vikings at Bears by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune
Impact Injuries: Julius Peppers could play vs. the Vikings but he suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee on Monday night at Ford Field. While he missed only minimal time, Peppers was largely ineffective when he returned and was hobbled. Without him, the Bears are going to get little in the way of a pass rush vs. Donovan McNabb from their base front four, making it difficult to play Cover 2. Defensive tackle Matt Toeaina will miss a week or two with a sprained PCL, and that could create an opening for second-round pick Stephen Paea, who has yet to be active on gameday this season. Wide receiver Earl Bennett will likely be sidelined with a chest injury that he suffered in Week 2. His absence hasn’t given quarterback Jay Cutler much to work with in the middle of the field.
The X-Factor: Much of the focus all season for the Chicago Bears has been on the offensive line, a rebuilding project for Mike Tice that has been forced to deal with injuries since first-round draft pick Gabe Carimi suffered a right knee subluxation in Week 2. The Bears were terrible in their 24-13 loss to the Detroit Lions on Monday night at Ford Field, committing nine false starts, eight by the offense. The six false starts in the first half set an NFL record, according to Stats LLC. But the offense was able to run the ball effectively with Matt Forte, and the more pressing issue here is on the other side of the ball. No one expected the Bears to be dominant on offense, but they were supposed to have one of the better defenses in the league. Suddenly, they’re struggling and the problem has been giving up big plays. The Lions hit the defense for a 73-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson and Jahvid Best went untouched on an 88-yard touchdown run, the third-longest ever allowed by the Bears. The defense is 30th in the NFL allowing 6.5 yards per play. The issue here is the Tampa Two scheme Lovie Smith uses is designed to prevent big plays and the Bears are being gashed. They’ve allowed 18 passing plays of 20 yards or more already this season after being hit for just 44 all last season. The pass rush has been inconsistent, at best, and what they believed would be one of the best defensive lines in the NFL has been mediocre. The safety play has been poor and Smith continues to make changes there looking for the right combination. No one expected the Bears to be an offensive juggernaut, but if they don’t play better defense, this team will struggle to finish above .500, and that gives Adrian Peterson and the Vikings a shot on Sunday night in a game that can’t be very appealing to NBC executives at this point.
Don’t be surprised if: Vikings running back Adrian Peterson hasn’t gone over 100 yards vs. the Bears in his last three games in the series, and he’s fumbled three times. But he could be due for a big game here because the Bears have been playing so poorly when it comes to gap discipline. Peterson only needs a crack to turn a small hole into a big gain, and the Bears have not been tackling well in the secondary. Look for the Vikings to feed him the ball a minimum of 25 times, looking for him to spring some big runs.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @BradBiggs
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Colts at Bengals by Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer
Impact Injuries: LB Rey Maualuga (ankle) was limited in Thursday's practice. If he is unable to play that means Dan Skuta would get the call at middle linebacker.
The X-Factor: The secondary. For the first time in 30 years a Cincinnati defensive back does not have an interception through the first five games. Curtis Painter has not thrown an interception in his first two starts but he should see plenty of pressure by the Bengals defensive line which could force him into plenty of mistakes and a possible pick.
Don’t be surprised if: The Bengals try to resort to a power running game against the league's 31st-ranked run defense. Cedric Benson averaged only 2.2 yards per carry last week against Jacksonville and the line struggled to open run lanes. With both Benson and the line in a foul mood about last week's performance, expect the Bengals to try to pound things early.
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Browns at Raiders by Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Impact Injuries: Browns Pro Bowl center Alex Mack underwent an appendectomy on Oct. 3, and hasn't practiced all week. He'd be replaced by Steve Vallos, who's started seven NFL games at center. Raiders' tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly will be gearing up to attack a very young interior line if Mack can't play. Browns cornerback Joe Haden, arguably their defensive MVP, will likely sit out with a sprained knee and be replaced by Dimitri Patterson.
The X-Factor: The late Al Davis. The Browns will have to try to overcome an emotion-packed, gamelong tribute to Al Davis in the Raiders' first home game since their beloved owner's passing. It might be too much for this young Browns team to tune out.
Don’t be surprised if: Browns running back Peyton Hillis channels all of the negative attention he's received over the past few weeks into his first 100-yard game of the season. The Raiders are 22nd against the run.
Follow Mary Kay on Twitter: @MaryKayCabot
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Cowboys at Patriots by Charean Williams of the Star-Telegram
Impact Injuries: The Cowboys are as healthy as they’ve been all season coming off their bye week. Among their top players, only defensive end Jason Hatcher (calf) isn’t likely to play. He’ll be replaced for the second consecutive game by Marcus Spears.
The X-Factor: The Patriots have scored 30 or more points in 13 consecutive games. The last time they didn’t was when the Browns upset them 34-14 as Rob Ryan’s defense limited Tom Brady to only 19-of-36 for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The Cowboys believe Ryan has the secret to stopping the league’s top-ranked offense. He has a better cast of defenders now than he had in Cleveland. Dallas, which ranks fourth in total defense, sees the Patriots as both a challenge and as an opportunity to prove that last year’s franchise-worst defense was an aberration.
Don’t be surprised if: Orlando Scandrick holds the league’s leading receiver, Wes Welker, to season lows. Welker has had only one sub-100-yard game. He had seven catches for 81 yards against the Chargers. Scandrick has been out since suffering a high-ankle sprain in the season opener against the Jets. Sunday’s game will be the first this season that the Cowboys have had their top three cornerbacks on the field together.
Follow Charean on Twitter: @NFLCharean
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49ers at Lions by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press
Impact Injuries: Justin Durant has missed the last two games with a concussion and did not practice Thursday. Durant was close to returning last week before he suffered a relapse of post-concussion symptoms during pre-game warm-ups. Bobby Carpenter has played well in Durant’s absence. Tight end Tony Scheffler is likely out because of a concussion, too. Scheffler only has five catches this year, but he’s second on the team with two touchdowns. Nate Burleson and Titus Young could see more targets if Scheffler does not play.
The X-Factor: The Monday night hangover. The Lions insist there won’t be any against a good 49ers team. But they are coming off their first Monday night appearance in a decade and the most electric game Ford Field’s ever seen, so it’s human nature for emotion to slip a little. If it slips too far, the Lions will fall from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Don’t be surprised if: Jahvid Best has a minimal impact in the run game. Best was averaging just 3.2 yards per carry before breaking out for a career-high 163 yards last week – the first 100-yard game of his career. He carried just 12 times, had an 88-yard touchdown run, and reinforced to opponents who may have been sleeping on him that he can still make big plays. He still may be a factor catching passes out of the backfield, but the 49ers have one of the best run defenses in the league.
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Green Bay Packers
Rams at Packers by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press Gazette
Impact Injuries: Left tackle Chad Clifton, the most veteran member of the offensive line, sustained a serious hamstring injury last Sunday at Atlanta and is out for at least several weeks, if not months and possibly the rest of the season. The good news is they expect right tackle Bryan Bulaga to return after missing the previous two games with a knee injury. But it means that Marshall Newhouse, the second-year pro who started the last two games at right tackle, now must move over to left tackle. Newhouse made the switch in the middle of the game against the Falcons and held up just fine. Rookie first-round pick Derek Sherrod saw his first extensive action, playing right tackle against the Falcons after Newhouse took over for Clifton. Sherrod allowed a sack on his first series but then settled in and played OK.
The X-Factor: Spreading the ball around. With the weapons quarterback Aaron Rodgers has at his disposal, someone’s going to get left out. Lately, it’s been veteran receiver Donald Driver. Coach Mike McCarthy got agitated with reporters this week, when questions were asked about Driver’s lack of playing time. It was the third time this season that playing time has been an issue for the receivers or tight ends. In the opener against the Saints, receiver James Jones played very little and then publicly lobbied for more playing time. After the Denver game in Week 4, tight end Jermichael Finley said the coaches need to find ways to get him the ball even if he’s double teamed. McCarthy finally boiled over and said: “Every week it’s somebody else that we’re going to pick at because he didn’t have the numbers he had the week before. Frankly, I think it’s a bunch of garbage.”
Don’t be surprised if: The Packers finally get their pass rushing against the Rams. Clay Matthews, who has only one sack, is healthier than he has been since he injured his quadriceps in Week 2. Another outside linebacker, Frank Zombo, is expected to get his first game action of the season after breaking his scapula in the preseason. In Zombo’s last real game, he had a sack in Super Bowl XLV.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @RobDemovsky
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Texans at Ravens by Steph Stradley of the Houston Chronicle
Impact Injuries: Playmaker OLB Mario Williams put on IR for the year with a torn pectoral muscle. The number one question mark for the team right now is how that effects the defense. An injury to watch is QB Matt Schaub who was hit repeatedly in the game against the Raiders. He had limited practice on Thursday, listed with a right (throwing) shoulder issue.
The X-Factor: The Texans plan to use newly acquired WR Derrick Mason in some of their packages. The Texans were already thin at WR before the Andre Johnson hamstring injury (did not practice, not expected to play). Will be interesting to see how quickly they can incorporate Mason into the offense.
Don’t be surprised if: Texans diminutive WR Trindon Holliday returns kicks. The Texans have expressed concern with position players, WR Jacoby Jones and S Danieal Manning getting so many snaps and kick returning as well, so Holliday was added this week to the 53 man roster as a possible option. Holliday has world class speed but is an unknown risk at returns as he has never done it during a regular season NFL game, much less one on the road
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Colts at Bengals by Brad Wells of StampedeBlue.com
Impact Injuries: RB Joseph Addai told the media earlier this week that it was a 'long shot' that he'd play this weekend after suffering a hamstring injury last week against the Chiefs. CB Jerraud Powers is also unlikely to play, making an already bad Colts secondary even more enticing for rookie Q Andy Dalton and the Bengals receivers.
The X-Factor: Delone Carter. He's the rookie running back who will step in for Addai this week. Other than comically leaping straight into Chiefs' DT Kelly Gregg on a short yardage play last week, Carter has played very well. Look for him to get the bulk of the carries this week against Cincy.
Don’t be surprised if: The Colts go to 0-6, continuing their trend of losing close games. This is a poor football team lacking talent, especially in the secondary. Dalton has looked good early this season, and he should have success throwing the ball Sunday.
Follow Brad on Twitter: @StampedeBlue
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Jaguars at Steelers by Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union
Impact Injuries: Left tackle Eugene Monroe could miss Sunday's game as he re-injured his shoulder during last week's game. Cornerback Derek Cox missed the past two games and missed practice Wednesday. Linebacker Daryl Smith could be a big loss. He suffered a concussion against the Bengals last weekend.
The X-Factor: The Jaguars have lost four consecutive games to drop to 1-4 with losses to the Jets, Panthers, Saints and Bengals. They have never in Jack Del Rio's nine seasons as head coach lost five consecutive games.
Don’t be surprised if: Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis picks off Ben Roethlisberger. Mathis has had his best games against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's caught six interceptions and returned three of those for touchdowns.
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Kansas City Chiefs
Dolphins at Jets by Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post
Impact Injuries: The loss of Chad Henne to a season-ending shoulder injury is obviously the biggest change of the season. Fifth-year veteran Matt Moore takes over now at quarterback, armed with a 7-6 career record as a starter and 16 touchdowns against 18 interceptions. He threw for 167 yards and an interception in relief of Henne two weeks ago, but the Dolphins won't be forced to change much of the playbook for him. Moore is more than competent under center, and may ultimately be better than Henne, who continued to struggle in the Red Zone and on third-downs this year. Otherwise, the Dolphins had all 53 players participate in Thursday's practice, although CB Vontae Davis (hamstring), CB Nolan Carroll (hamstring), S Chris Clemons (hamstring) and RB Daniel Thomas (hamstring) were all limited. Davis hasn't played since Week 2, while Thomas has missed two of four games with his hamstring injury.
The X-Factor: Receiver Brandon Marshall. He's been mostly quiet this year, with four times as many dropped touchdowns (four) as touchdown catches (1), but Marshall vowed to explode on Monday Night Football against the Jets — and not just on the scoreboard. Marshall, who revealed in August that he was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, said he's been trying to keep his emotions in check this year, and it's not working. Marshall vowed on Thursday that in order to play with more passion and aggression, “my goal is to get thrown out midway through the second quarter. Hopefully I achieve that. That’s what I need to get the season going.” He's kidding — we think. But Marshall promised to unleash his inner-beast on Monday night.
Don’t be surprised if: The Dolphins keep it close. We're done predicting victories for this team — they've burned us three times already this season — but Tony Sparano is 3-0 playing in New York as the Dolphins' coach. In each of the past two years, the Dolphins have beaten Rex Ryan's Jets with 131 and 104 yards of total offense, respectively.
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Vikings at Bears by Jeremy Fowler of the Pioneer Press
Impact Injuries: Cornerback Antoine Winfield hasn't undergone a full practice since Sept. 30 because of a neck strain. He's listed as day-to-day. Wide receiver Percy Harvin missed Thursday's practice with rib soreness but is expected to play Sunday.
The X-Factor: Defensive tackle Kevin Williams. The potent pass rush of ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison will garner the attention of a struggling Bears' pass protection, but Williams is improving after plantar fasciitis in the preseason and still commands the occasional double team. Watch for Williams to open up lanes for Robison and Allen.
Don’t be surprised if: Running back Adrian Peterson breaks off a long touchdown run. Peterson's longest run of the year is 46 yards, despite several rushing attempts that are a shoestring tackle short of going 80-plus. And surely Peterson saw how Lions running back Jahvid Best exposed the Bears defense for runs of 88 and 43 yards.
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New England Patriots
Cowboys at Patriots by Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald
Impact Injuries: Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a career day against the Jets, rushing for 136 yards in a career day. Yet he may have suffered a toe injury during the game or afterward. Green-Ellis was limited in practice on Wednesday and he missed Thursday altogether. That could be huge, especially considering how impressive the running game has been, both in controlling the clock and keeping the defense off the field. If Law Firm can’t go, expect more of Stevan Ridley and a healthier Danny Woodhead. On the flip side, tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle) and receiver Julian Edelman (ankle) have looked better.
The X-Factor: The Patriots pass-rush has not been a dominant force this season, with just eight sacks (24th in the NFL). Teams have focused on unloading quickly on the Patriots defense, and they’ve struggled to affect a quarterback. Meanwhile, they have also been reluctant to blitz because of the fear of allowing big plays. Yet Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo can make crucial mistakes when he’s flustered, making one think the Patriots will send the house. How the Patriots attack Romo may determine this game.
Don’t be surprised if: Quarterback Tom Brady faces another serious challenge once he approaches the line of scrimmage. It’s not Rex Ryan this week, but it’s Rob Ryan. The Cowboys defensive coordinator was the last person to hold the Pats under 30 yards, doing so in Cleveland last year. He’ll mix it up, disguise and it’s likely he used the bye week to come up with something new. Brady’s arm is important, but his mind is more important.
Follow Ian on Twitter: @RapSheet
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New Orleans Saints
Saints at Buccaneers by Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times-Picayune
Impact Injuries: The Saints are looking great in this department. Only two players are definitely out for Sunday – tight end David Thomas and right tackle Zach Strief, both of whom are closer to returning from lingering injuries. Meanwhile, center Olin Kreutz should be back in the lineup, and guys like receiver Marques Colston and linebacker Jonathan Vilma seem fully recovered from early-season ailments.
The X-Factor: Does Drew Brees count? The Saints’ quarterback has been spectacular this year, especially in clutch situations. He has led the Saints to two fourth-quarter comebacks, and nearly pulled off a third in Week 1 at Green Bay. He is also the NFL’s best passer on third downs with a gaudy passer rating of 149.9 (seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions). The Saints lead the NFL with a third-down conversion rate of 58.7, which has given them a huge edge in time of possession.
Don’t be surprised if: The Saints pull away in the game, and in the NFC South. … Sure, the prevailing wisdom is that the Bucs are eager to erase the bad vibes from their 48-3 loss at San Francisco last week. But the fact remains that they’re