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Week 12: NFL Game Previews

The Sports Xchange

Green Bay at Detroit

Thursday, 12:30 p.m. ET, at Ford Field, Detroit - TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver

*Keys to the game: The Lions' defense will play chicken with Aaron Rodgers, betting on its front four finding the quarterback before he can get the ball out. That's a gamble many have lost this season, and the Lions' secondary isn't so improved that it will hold up if Rodgers has time to step into throws. RB James Starks (knee) has taken the lead role but left last week's game. The Lions' run defense has holes Starks and RB Ryan Grant can exploit. RB Kevin Jones provided Detroit with a much-needed boost in the ground game last week, and Jahvid Best might be cleared this week to return from his concussion. That balance is critical with QB Matthew Stafford proving to turnover prone when forced into a one-dimensional gameplan. Jones had 201 yards from scrimmage against Carolina.

*Matchup to watch - Lions WR Calvin Johnson vs. Packers CB Charles Woodson: Woodson brings his best for showcases such as this one. He's known for jumping short routes and biting hard inside, a tendency the Lions can exploit with Johnson and many of their secondary targets.

*Player spotlight - Lions C Dominic Raiola: He started his 150th straight game last week against Carolina. Raiola, in his 11th season, has missed just four games while playing for four head coaches and seven offensive coordinators. The 295-pounder's assignment Thursday? Keep 350-pound NT B.J. Raji away from Stafford.

*Fast facts: Stafford has four games with three or more touchdown passes, most by a Lions quarterback since Scott Mitchell (1995). ... The Packers have not trailed in the fourth quarter during their 16-game winning streak.


The Lions have fared well against mobile quarterbacks -- Cam Newton, Josh Freeman, Tim Tebow -- using LB Stephen Tulloch as a spy. But self-inflicted wounds have buried Detroit the past two weeks, and if the run of mistakes continues, so will the Packers' winning streak.

*Our pick: Packers 38-30

Miami at Dallas

Thursday, 4:15 p.m. ET, at Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas - TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms

*Keys to the game: The Cowboys have their legs under them with their first three-game winning streak since the end of the 2009 season, but they've made their hay against struggling teams. The Dolphins no longer fit that description. Miami's resurgence, behind a more decisive backfield of QB Matt Moore and RB Reggie Bush, and a stonewalling defense appears to be legitimate. After seven straight losses, the Dolphins have also won three straight -- with 20 combined points allowed. They can crimp any running game, and Dallas has to get creative to involve RBs DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones. The Dolphins' offensive scheme isn't elaborate but they have executed with precision of late. What it does include is an offensive line equipped to battle a 3-4 defense -- each of their three wins came against base 3-4 teams. LT Jake Long will be paired against DeMarcus Ware in one of an abundant number of key one-on-one matchups.

*Matchup to watch - Dolphins front seven vs. Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray: Not only do the Dolphins have a potent pass rush, their depth at the defensive line positions and range at linebacker has led to mostly flawless execution against the run. Murray's agility and elusiveness will test Miami. The Dolphins didn't allow a third-down conversion last week and teams are 13-of-45 in the last three games.

*Player spotlight - Dolphins RB Daniel Thomas: He's itching to show he's healthy and reclaim the workhorse title the team envisioned him holding entering the season, but the rookie sputtered when injuries hit and Bush took off in the lead role. Thomas, a quarterback in junior college, initially lagged as a blocker but has progressed. The Dolphins need his between-the-tackle brawn.

*Fast facts: The Dolphins have allowed only three rushing touchdowns in 2011. ... It's been 19 years -- Thanksgiving, 1993 -- since Cowboys DT Leon Lett's blunder, trying to scoop up the ball in the snow after a blocked Pete Stoyanovich field goal, cost Dallas that game, 16-14.


The emergence of Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray has lightened the load for Tony Romo, but look for Romo to work the ball to his outside receivers, challenging the Dolphins' one-on-one coverage and forcing Miami into a nickel defense.

*Our pick: Cowboys 22-17

San Francisco at Baltimore

Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET, at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore - TV: NFL Network

*TV announcers: Brad Nessler, Mike Mayock, Alex Flanagan

*Keys to the game: Ravens MLB Ray Lewis (toe) wasn't on the field against the Bengals last week, but the run defense wasn't challenged with Cincinnati opting to test the secondary. One option if Lewis remains sidelined is adding a linebacker or safety -- something of a "big nickel" defense -- to mimic what the Giants did with a high success rate stopping the run at San Francisco. The 49ers are finding offensive success by being unpredictable. They thrived using their "Hammer" formation with two fullbacks and an extra offensive lineman early in the season, but recently haven't used it much, instead running away from the strong side and finding daylight consistently. With defenses zeroed in on RB Frank Gore, QB Alex Smith hasn't had to take many risks and his confidence is through the roof. Given Baltimore's youth at cornerback, Smith should be more willing to push the ball downfield to WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis.

*Matchup to watch - Ravens LG Ben Grubbs and LT Bryant McKinnie vs. DE Justin Smith: Smith demands attention and fills run lanes to funnel the ball to the 49ers' excellent linebacker tandem of Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Handling Smith is the first order of business if the Ravens are to make RB Ray Rice a priority.

*Player spotlight - Ravens MLB Dannell Ellerbe: Ellerbe missed four straight games and five in six weeks with a hamstring problem before he started in Ray Lewis' customary spot last week. He was quiet alongside ILB Jameel McClain, but will be tested by the powerful 49ers ground game if Lewis sits again.

*Fast facts: The 49ers' Jim Harbaugh and the Ravens' John Harbaugh will be the first brothers to face each other as head coaches in NFL history. ... The Ravens' win last week gave them 35 straight games without consecutive losses.


The Brothers Harbaugh might not complete a cordial handshake, and they expect their teams to bring the same intensity in what should be a rugged homage to throwback football that begs for a high-wire finish.

*Our pick: Ravens 16-13

Carolina at Indianapolis

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 709

*TV announcers: Chris Myers, Tim Ryan

*Keys to the game: The Panthers are no stranger to shootouts. The Colts want to avoid trying to match touchdowns, but they lack the defensive firepower to hold up. They've allowed 145.6 rushing yards and 245.0 passing yards per game with miserable third-down numbers -- 47.5 percent conversions allowed. Controlling the clock is a reach for Indy's patchwork offense. The Colts do expect Joseph Addai (right hamstring) to return in some capacity, which might not create a significant boost in the running game -- he has just 58 carries this season -- but would aid in protection of QB Curtis Painter. Under constant duress while living in a two-minute type of offense, Painter and the Colts have given up 56 points off turnovers in the past seven games. Carolina causes matchup problems for the cover-2 defense. The Colts' focus is to contain QB Cam Newton, setting the edges with DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. However, they aren't built to control the line of scrimmage if offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski commits to pounding the ball between the tackles.

*Matchup to watch - Colts WLB Kavell Conner vs. Panthers TEs Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey: The Panthers' running game is a tough challenge for the Colts' undersized front seven, and FS Antoine Bethea has to stay home in deep third to help contain WR Steve Smith.

*Player spotlight - Colts DT Drake Nevis: A building block for the defense, Nevis returned before the bye week after missing five games with a back injury. The rookie gets consistent movement at the point of attack with the quickness and agility to get to the quarterback.

*Fast facts: The Colts have won their last six games coming out of a bye week. ... The Panthers (12) and Colts (10) have a total of 22 players on injured reserve.


The Panthers have too many skill players for the Colts' beleaguered defense to contend with as their march to the No. 1 overall pick next April continues. Carolina has struggled to close out games, but should be able to pull away comfortably.

*Our pick: Panthers 30-19

Minnesota at Atlanta

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Georgia Dome, Atlanta - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 707

*TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin

*Keys to the game: The Falcons have one of the best run defenses in the NFL, which might heap more responsibility on rookie QB Christian Ponder with RB Adrian Peterson (ankle) uncertain. The Falcons can stubbornly adhere to their stop-the-run priority presenting Ponder chances to strike if he makes quick, accurate throws - he admitted poor decisions led to interceptions last week. Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez, still thriving at age 35, is a major concern for a secondary that also has to match up with WR Roddy White. White picked up the slack without Julio Jones (hamstring) last week with 147 yards on seven grabs. If Jones rejoins the lineup, QB Matt Ryan should pick apart the Vikings' suspect secondary. As the Vikings compensate, RB Michael Turner could be facing six- and seven-man fronts by the middle of the second quarter. Minnesota allowed 162 rushing yards to Oakland last week.

*Matchup to watch - Vikings FB Ryan D'Imperio vs. Falcons MLB Curtis Lofton: Lofton, among league leaders in tackles, tracks the ball well to the flanks. Where he struggles is in stacking and shedding blocks on runs directly at him, and the Vikings are skewing conservative to protect Ponder. They might be even more vanilla if Peterson is sidelined, leaving Toby Gerhart, Lorenzo Booker and, in select formations, Percy Harvin to handle the ball-carrying chores.

*Player spotlight - Vikings LDE Brian Robison: Long the backup to current Falcon Ray Edwards, the brash Robison publicly pleaded with the Vikings to let Edwards walk in free agency. He's making the most of his chance as a fulltime starter opposite Jared Allen and continues to stand out with a sack and fumble recovery last week.

*Fast facts: Peterson has missed just one of the Vikings' 58 games since 2007 (40-14 loss vs. Chicago). ... Turner has scored a touchdown in seven straight games.


The Falcons can play multiple styles effectively, and QB Matt Ryan has been very difficult to beat at home during his young career. The Vikings' ability to compete likely rests on RB Adrian Peterson's availability.

*Our pick: Falcons 28-13

Tampa Bay at Tennessee

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at LP Field, Nashville - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 710

*TV announcers: Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale

*Keys to the game: Rookie QB Jake Locker had an impressive showing in relief of Matt Hasselbeck (right elbow), guiding two late scoring drives to make a game of last week's loss to the Falcons. He looked regularly to WR Nate Washington and used his mobility to keep plays alive. The Titans don't know what to expect from RB Chris Johnson, who last week followed up a season-best 130-yard game with 13 yards on 12 carries. Tampa Bay's run defense had problems containing QB Aaron Rodgers last week at Green Bay. But the Bucs showed their offense hasn't gone into permanent hibernation. QB Josh Freeman threw two more interceptions, but found open receivers on plays that might have gone as coverage sacks for other passers confined to the pocket and made a concerted effort to get WR Mike Williams the ball. It will help Freeman against the Titans to keep the ball in RB LeGarrette Blount's hands in the first half. Blount showed explosiveness last week and because he motors through arm tackles, the Titans might need to add a safety to their front seven.

*Matchup to watch - Titans C Eugene Amano vs. Bucs DT Brian Price: Price has sacks in consecutive games and has been freed to knife into the backfield with heavyweight Albert Haynesworth drawing attention inside. Amano has drawn criticism for being pushed back in the running game.

*Player spotlight - Titans LB Colin McCarthy: He led the Titans in tackles for the second straight game and compiled 22 stops in his first two career starts. McCarthy also had a forced fumble last week. He'll be on the spot against Blount and is likely to remain a starter even if Barrett Ruud is ready to return.

*Fast facts: Hasselbeck has missed 13 games since the start of the 2008 season. ... The Bucs have been outscored 207-109 in the first three quarters this season.


The Titans won't meet great resistance leaving on RB Chris Johnson, which sets up either quarterback with winnable matchups downfield. The Bucs' offense is simply too sporadic to count on against solid opponents.

*Our pick: Titans 26-20

Cleveland at Cincinnati

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 706

*TV announcers: Bill Macatee, Steve Tasker

*Keys to the game: The Browns were built as a power-running offense but haven't had starter Peyton Hillis in five straight games and six total this season, while backup Montario Hardesty hasn't played in November. RB Chris Ogbonnaya staked his claim to a role going forward with 115 rushing yards against Jacksonville last week. That should aid QB Colt McCoy, even in this horizontal-passing West Coast offense. The Bengals are stout up front, with the depth to rotate through multiple defensive linemen and linebackers, but coverage downfield has leaked without CB Leon Hall (Achilles). Bengals rookie QB Andy Dalton uncharacteristically forced the ball and threw multiple interceptions for the fifth time in his last eight games last week at Baltimore. He's reliant on WR A.J. Green in jump-ball situations, and Green (knee) should return after sitting at Baltimore. Without him, Dalton was hindered by drops from his outside receivers but spread the ball around evenly. The Bengals can break their two-game slide by establishing RB Cedric Benson early, attacking the Browns' weakness to buy Dalton time.

*Matchup to watch - Bengals RCB Kelly Jennings vs. Browns WR Josh Cribbs: He's still known more for his impact as a returner, but Cribbs has touchdown catches in three of his last four games, including last week. He's a strong runner with sudden change-of-direction agility. Even if Jennings keeps him in front, he'll be tested as an open-field tackler.

*Player spotlight - Browns DT Ahtyba Rubin: He led all defensive linemen in tackles last season (82), and with 47 this season he remains one of the most productive interior linemen in the NFL. Rubin covers plenty of ground for a 330-pound run stuffer.

*Fast facts: The Browns have five wins since 2009 when scoring 14 or fewer points, the most such victories in the NFL. ... Each of the Bengals' four losses have been by no more than seven points.


The Browns are too challenged offensively to post a decisive win. But if they contain the Bengals' return game, another close one is likely, making Cleveland's kicking game woes a magnified worry.

*Our pick: Bengals 24-18

Houston at Jacksonville

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla. - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 704

*TV announcers: Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots

*Keys to the game: The Texans had the bye week to dust off backup QB Matt Leinart for his first start since 2009 -- and second since '07 -- with Matt Schaub (foot) gone for at least the next six games. Leinart knows the system and should benefit from an offense that relies on the bootleg and moving pocket, keeping the passing game a second option to pounding RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The pair had 38 carries for 154 yards vs. the Jaguars in Week 8. There's also the luxury of getting All-Pro WR Andre Johnson back with the Jaguars sure to stack the box and force Leinart to prove he's as "on top of the offense" as coaches insist. The Texans gave Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert fits in the Oct. 30 game at Houston, when he completed just 10-of-30 passes for 97 yards and threw two picks. Houston's quick-strike offense has dominated the first quarter all season. The Jaguars can only win this tortoise-vs.-hare matchup if RB Maurice Jones-Drew does much better than his 18-carry, 63-yard output in a 24-14 loss at Houston in Week 8.

*Matchup to watch - Jaguars RCB Will Middleton vs. Texans WR Andre Johnson: Johnson hasn't played since Oct. 2, but he's the type of security blanket that will help keep a backup afloat and regularly lines up to the left the formation as Leinart's primary read. The Jaguars had communication and coverage errors at Cleveland last week.

*Player spotlight - Texans C Chris Myers: The unsung hero of an offensive line that has excelled in all aspects, Myers is considered a lightweight by NFL standards at 295 pounds, but he more than makes up for it with quickness, intelligence and experience. He's been in the zone scheme and played mostly in Gary Kubiak's offense since they were together in Denver in 2005.

*Fast facts: The Jaguars have won four straight in the series at home. ... The Texans have outscored AFC South opponents 99-28 this season.


The Jaguars have penetrated the opponents' 20-yard line just 18 times this season. The Texans, backed by the NFL's top-ranked defense, have scored 19 red-zone touchdowns. Advantage, Houston, as long as QB Matt Leinart proves he's ready for the challenge.

*Our pick: Texans 24-13

Arizona at St. Louis

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Edwards Jones Dome, St. Louis - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 708

*TV announcers: Sam Rosen, Chad Pennington, Tina Cervasio

*Keys to the game: QB Sam Bradford's sophomore struggles continued last week as he completed 20-of-40 passes - with several of the completions being superb catches by his receivers. Two significant contributing factors are injuries to both offensive tackles and WR Danny Amendola, who was Bradford's security blanket. WR Brandon Lloyd has quickly become Bradford's new favorite target, but this is an offense that needs games to be close so RB Steven Jackson remains the focal point. That shouldn't be too big of an issue against Arizona. Last week many were questioning whether QB John Skelton was playing well enough to unseat Kevin Kolb already, but Kolb (turf toe) may return this week in the wake of Skelton throwing three interceptions in San Francisco. Like the Rams, when the Cardinals fall behind they're in deep trouble because they desperately need to keep RB Beanie Wells involved.

*Matchup to watch - Cardinals DL Darnell Dockett vs. Rams LT Mark LeVoir/Kevin Hughes: The Rams' offensive line situation went from bad to worse when LeVoir was thrust into the starting job after Rodger Saffold was placed on injured reserve Saturday. LeVoir promptly left Sunday's game with a shoulder injury and was replaced by Kevin Hughes. Dockett doesn't generate a lot in terms of the pass rush, but the Cardinals will use stunts and blitzes from every angle to test the protection on Bradford's blind side.

*Player spotlight - Rams C Tony Wragge: Yet another question mark on the offensive line, Wragge replaced Jason Brown two games ago and had several poor shotgun snaps against Seattle.

*Fast facts: Wells is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry on artificial surfaces this season. ... Lloyd has touchdown catches in consecutive games.


Both offenses have traded glimpses of development with longer stretches of sloppy play and general ineffectiveness. Unlike last week, the Rams should be able to run the ball well enough to set Sam Bradford up in more manageable third-down situations.

*Our pick: Rams 23-17

Buffalo at N.Y. Jets

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 705

*TV announcers: Marv Albert, Rich Gannon

*Keys to the game: RB Fred Jackson had 120 yards from scrimmage in the first meeting, but wasn't a big factor after the Bills fell behind in a 27-11 loss on Nov. 6. Playing from behind, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick struggled against the Jets' aggressive defense that was able to stick with Buffalo's receivers in man coverage. While Fitzpatrick wasn't sacked, he was under constant pressure and the Jets limited Jackson's effectiveness in the screen game. The Jets have dropped consecutive games and QB Mark Sanchez is again taking criticism for his inconsistency. The ground game wasn't explosive in the first meeting, but Shonn Greene, Joe McKnight and LaDainian Tomlinson combined for 33 carries. The Jets hope Greene (rib) and Tomlinson (knee) can return with three extra days between games. They missed Tomlinson's versatility in converting just 3-of-14 third downs at Denver.

*Matchup to watch - Bills WR Stevie Johnson vs. Jets CB Darrelle Revis: Johnson had just three catches for 84 yards in the first meeting and Buffalo's other receivers contributed little. Fitzpatrick's receiving corps has contributed significantly to his turnover issues of late, with a pair of deflected balls leading to interceptions in Miami last week. Johnson will likely be matched with Revis much of the game and his ability to produce is critical with the rest of the unit struggling.

*Player spotlight - Jets LILB Bart Scott: It was Scott who said the Bills called the same plays from last season in the first meeting and predicted Buffalo wasn't able to handle success. So far he's proven right with Buffalo getting trounced in three consecutive games.

*Fast facts: Buffalo has a four-game road losing streak. ... Sanchez has a 68.5 passer rating with one touchdown and four interceptions in the first quarter this season.


Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick couldn't figure out the Jets' defense in the first meeting and the offensive line has struggled during an ugly three-game losing streak. The Jets had a chance to regroup with a few extra days between games and QB Mark Sanchez should be successful against Buffalo's secondary.

*Our pick: Jets 23-13

Washington at Seattle

Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at CenturyLink Field, Seattle - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 712

*TV announcers: Ron Pitts, Jim Mora, Drea Avent

*Keys to the game: QB Rex Grossman can expect to have the offensive burden fall on his arm. The Redskins' fledgling ground game average just 2.5 yards per carry last week and the Seahawks' big front seven has been difficult to run against all season. Grossman did play well down the stretch in nearly leading an upset of Dallas last week and has found a pair of dependable receivers in WR Jabar Gaffney and TE Fred Davis, who he targeted a combined 17 times against the Cowboys. Seattle's offensive line has been racked by injuries, and QB Tarvaris Jackson felt increased heat from the pass rush as a result last week in St. Louis. He must get production out of RB Marshawn Lynch, but also look for the Seahawks to utilize their no-huddle offense frequently and try to keep the Redskins off-kilter with quicker passes.

*Matchup to watch - Redskins RT Tyler Polumbus vs. Seahawks DE Red Bryant: Polumbus was released by Seattle on Sept. 25 after starting five games at left tackle and three games at left guard last season. He's now starting at right tackle for the Redskins, which helps mask his lack of foot speed. But the Seahawks don't rush the passer well and this matchup is all about Polumbus' strength. Bryant is a behemoth former defensive tackle who pushes the scale at more than 320 pounds and anchors the left side of Seattle's run defense.

*Player spotlight - Redskins WR Donte Stallworth: Injuries to Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson opened the door for Stallworth, who struggled to be active on game days the first half of the season. He caught four of six passes sent his way last week, including an impressive 20-yard touchdown.

*Fast facts: The Redskins have a six-game losing streak. ... Lynch averages just 3.1 yards per carry at home this season.


The Redskins' offense showed signs of life in nearly upsetting Dallas last week. But riding a six-game skid and traveling cross-country to play a nondescript opponent in a lost season, they won't muster enough energy to overcome a one-dimensional attack that leaves Rex Grossman prone to too many mistakes.

*Our pick: Seahawks 23-19

Chicago at Oakland

Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at O.co Coliseum, Oakland - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 711

*TV announcers: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa

*Keys to the game: The good news for the Bears is QB Caleb Hanie knows coordinator Mike Martz's offense. That doesn't mean the gameplan won't change significantly. While Cutler was beginning to find a nice rhythm with WR Earl Bennett and adjusting to defenses, Hanie will need a consistent assists from RB Matt Forte. Forte was bottled up by San Diego, but Oakland's run defense has been far more inconsistent this season. Raiders QB Carson Palmer was unable to take advantage of an undermanned Vikings defense last Sunday because his protection broke down. He was sacked four times, hit eight and didn't complete a pass longer than 21 yards. However, Oakland took advantage of short fields. RB Michael Bush continues to provide a power presence on the ground should Darren McFadden (foot) miss another game. Chicago's secondary does a good job of keeping completions in front of it, and the Raiders' vertical passing game would also take a hit if WRs Jacoby Ford (foot) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (neck) are out.

*Matchup to watch - Raiders vs. penalties: Coach Hue Jackson has made no excuses for the most penalized team in the league. But last week he finally took issue with the referees calling Oakland for four personal fouls among the 12 penalties that were accepted against the Raiders. With 103 penalties through 10 games, Oakland continues to be its own worst enemy.

*Player spotlight - Bears LG Edwin Williams: The second-year player out of Maryland started last game in place of injured Chris Williams. Veteran Frank Omiyale entered against San Diego when Edwin Williams had to come out.

*Fast facts: Rookie Nathan Enderle is Hanie's backup. He has yet to attempt a regular-season pass. ... Bush has 30 carries in back-to-back games.


Jay Cutler's broken thumb dramatically altered what was shaping up as an excellent litmus test for two emerging contenders. Caleb Hanie is a capable backup, but doesn't bring the firepower of Cutler, who has found a comfort zone in this offense.

*Our pick: Raiders 22-16

New England at Philadelphia

Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET, at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 713

*TV announcers: Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf

*Keys to the game: The Patriots' patchwork pass defense will be on its heels with the Eagles' deep group of playmakers. WR Riley Cooper stepped up in Jeremy Maclin's (shoulder, hamstring) absence last week, and QB Vince Young showed he can run the offense if Michael Vick (ribs) needs another week to recover. RB LeSean McCoy has found running lanes tough to come by in recent weeks, but the Eagles complement the ground game with a bevy of screens and crossing patterns to stress the assignments of linebackers in coverage. Patriots QB Tom Brady has forced more passes than usual this season, but his quick release will help thwart the Eagles' pass rush, which is the clear strength of the defense. New England will keep the tempo high and has used its two-minute offense more as part of the no-huddle look to prevent defenses from substituting.

*Matchup to watch - Patriots NT Vince Wilfork vs. Eagles C Jason Kelce: The first rookie to start a regular-season opener for the Eagles since 1968, Kelce has quietly gone about his business. But there's nowhere to hide against Wilfork, one of the game's premier nose tackles who has around a 50-pound weight advantage. Wilfork will work against Kelce and the Eagles' guards in freeing the Patriots' linebackers in run defense.

*Player spotlight - Eagles WLB Brian Rolle: The sixth-round pick has stepped up since fellow rookie Casey Matthews was benched and has helped solidify the run defense. He'll also have his hands full dealing with Patriots TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

*Fast facts: The Eagles have a league-high eight turnovers in the red zone this season. ... Philadelphia has lost five games after leading in the fourth quarter this season.


The Eagles rallied for a season-saving victory at the Giants last Sunday night, but too many holes have been exposed over the course of the season. New England is fresh off its bye and focused on a six-game run for home-field advantage.

*Our pick: Patriots 31-23

Denver at San Diego

Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET, at Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 714

*TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

*Keys to the game: Lost in the drama of Tim Tebow's latest come-from-behind heroics against the Jets in Week 11 were the real struggles of the offense. Despite the Jets having just three days to prepare, Denver had a stretch of seven three-and-outs in eight possessions and the final game-winning drive produced the offense's lone touchdown. The question will be whether San Diego's spotty run defense can play sound assignment football and contain the ground game. Denver is just 33 percent on third downs and Tebow is completing only 44.8 percent of his passes while often missing wide open receivers. San Diego comes in depleted along the offensive line, and the Broncos' defense has been the unsung hero in the team's resurgence. Denver has 27 sacks. As much as QB Philip Rivers loves to stretch defenses vertically, he's going to need plenty of help from RBs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert on the ground and in the underneath passing game.

*Matchup to watch - Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil vs. Chargers LT Brandyn Dombrowski: The Chargers will face a serious problem with Marcus McNeill (neck) possibly out for the season. Dombrowski doesn't have real quick feet and Dumervil is on a role with all 3.5 sacks coming in the past three games. The Broncos will also send hard-charging OLB Von Miller off the edge.

*Player spotlight - Broncos TE Dante Rosario: Brought back after failing to make the team out of camp, Rosario has carved a niche for himself as a blocker. He could be more involved downfield with Daniel Fells recovering from a concussion.

*Fast facts: In Tebow's five starts, Denver has scored 40 combined points in the first three periods and 53 in the fourth quarter and overtime. ... The Chargers play three of their next four games at home.


In years past, the Broncos would be in serious trouble entering San Diego with an offense that struggles to sustain drives. But their pass rush combined with solid coverage outside will cause the Chargers' beat-up offensive line fits.

*Our pick: Broncos 20-17

Pittsburgh at Kansas City

Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET, at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo. - TV: NBC

*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya

*Keys to the game: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is expected to play despite a broken right thumb. How it affects his velocity and accuracy will be the early story of the game because Pittsburgh shouldn't need a whole lot of offense to pull away from the Tyler Palko-led Chiefs. In just his second career start, Palko will be charged with figuring out the Steelers' zone blitz defense, protecting the ball and leading time-chewing drives to help protect the Chiefs' defense. It's a tall order, and Kansas City has to string together lengthy drives because the offense has lacked many big plays. That hasn't been a problem in Pittsburgh, when Roethlisberger has a slew of downfield weapons. His biggest threat is poor pass protection, but OLB Tamba Hali is a lone ranger when it comes to Chiefs getting after the passer with any regularity.

*Matchup to watch - Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall vs. Chiefs run defense: Kansas City's run defense had been trucked far too often, including 244 yards by Denver in the Chiefs' last home game. With Roethlisberger ailing and playing an inferior opponent, expect to see Mendenhall get plenty of early touches. If he's effective, Roethlisberger will have the table set for the short drops and quick passes that have been so effective of late.

*Player spotlight - Chiefs LT Branden Albert: The Chiefs' pass protection has been a serious issue the past several weeks and Albert draws Steelers OLB James Harrison as he attempts to keep Palko's blind side safe.

*Fast facts: The Steelers have won three consecutive games following bye weeks. ... Palko play for the University of Pittsburgh, which plays its home games at the Steelers' Heinz Field.


Look for the Chiefs to move the pocket to protect QB Tyler Palko and set up high percentage passes. But in the end he lacks the experience and the personnel to pose any threat. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger should have his broken thumb on ice early.

*Our pick: Steelers 30-15

N.Y. Giants at New Orleans

Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans - TV: ESPN

*TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden

*Keys to the game: Saints coach Sean Payton gave his players an extended break over their bye week to recharge their batteries. New Orleans has taken advantage of the extra time in recent years, winning their past two games following bye weeks. Look for New Orleans to use a lot of screens and crossing patterns to attack the weakness of the Giants' linebackers in coverage - especially if LB Michael Boley (hamstring) misses a second consecutive game. New York's offensive line has been struggling, and it has been compounded by the absence of RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot). The Giants hope he can return this week, especially with D.J. Ware leaving last week's game with a concussion. Brandon Jacobs lacks the explosion needed to generate consistent positive yardage and QB Eli Manning has been taking a pounding in long passing situations.

*Matchup to watch - Giants LT Will Beatty vs. Saints DE Will Smith: Smith leads all Saints defensive linemen with 4.5 sacks, while Beatty has had significant struggles this season. If the Saints are able to build a lead, Smith will be able to pin his ears back. But Beatty's role is just as important as a run-blocker and the Giants' offensive line is coming off a difficult all-around game against the Eagles.

*Player spotlight - Giants TE Jake Ballard: After being a revelation as a receiver most of this season, Ballard dropped an easy pass deep downfield last week and failed to reel in another potential third-down reception.

*Fast facts: The Giants have at least one takeaway in an NFL-high 23 consecutive games. ... Saints PK John Kasay, 42, has 42 career field goals of 50-plus yards.


Expect a back-and-forth affair, but the Saints have had the Giants' number of late - winning the past two meetings by a combined score of 78-34. Throw in the added rest and planning time courtesy of a bye week and New Orleans gets the edge in a seesaw affair.

*Our pick: Saints 28-27

--By Derek Harper and Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange

Copyright (C) 2011 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.


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