Week 16: NFL Game Previews

The Sports Xchange

Houston at Indianapolis

Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET, at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis - TV: NFL Network

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

*Keys to the game: Houston blasted Indy in Week 1, 34-7, but with a much different cast than the outfit that is headed to the playoffs. The Colts haven't seen much change, and protecting the quarterback is a major concern. To preserve Dan Orlovsky, the Colts use a shorter passing game and should have better luck selling the run in play-action after RB Donald Brown's career day last week. The Texans would be thrilled if WR Andre Johnson gets back on the field for meaningful reps with QB T.J. Yates. Johnson has missed eight games with hamstring injuries but might be held out until the regular-season finale next week. There's no debate which side wins a tug-of-war when the Texans decide to line up and run RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate between the tackles with the Colts unfit to put up much resistance. Tate ran 24 times for 116 yards in the opener with Foster (hamstring) idle.

*Matchup to watch - Texans C Chris Myers vs. Colts DTs Fili Moala and Antonio Johnson: Myers goes unnoticed but is regarded as one of the top technicians in the NFL. He's very well suited for the one-cut-and-go backs the Texans feature. If he can turn the Colts' 300-pound tackles and get to the second level, the Texans will pick up rushing yards by the dozen.

*Player spotlight - Colts WR Reggie Wayne: If this is indeed Wayne's swan song in Indy, he'll have his hands full. The Texans keep quarterbacks uneasy with regular pressure packages while preventing a clean release to outside receivers. Wayne has only one touchdown catch and one 100-yard game since he caught a season-high seven passes for 106 yards at Houston on Sept. 11.

*Fast facts: The Texans' total defense (they are allowing 277.9 yards per game) improvement would be the best one-season turnaround since 1970. ... The Colts last earned the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 1997 season, and drafted Peyton Manning No. 1 in '98.


The Texans are trying to keep pace for one of the top two playoff spots and wouldn't mind the ancillary benefit of sweeping the rival Colts on their way to the postseason.

*Our pick: Texans 27-19

Miami at New England

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, at Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass. - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 705

*TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

*Keys to the game: The first meeting was a rollout of the Patriots' three-headed monster of Wes Welker-Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez as Tom Brady passed for 517 yards, four touchdowns and all three of his top targets averaged more than 14 yards per reception as New England won 38-24 in Miami in Week 1. The Dolphins' defense has hunkered down, but continues to be susceptible against teams that spread the field with four or five receivers. New England utilizes little more than a show-me running game, but the Patriots do lean on BenJarvus Green-Ellis if defenses try to live in a nickel or dime defense. The Dolphins might be more unbuttoned without Tony Sparano, a highly conservative, defensive-minded coach, but not at the expense of forfeiting balance. QB Matt Moore has been sacked 16 times in five road games and the offensive line has been banged up enough that two-tight end formations became the norm. That very look helped Denver gouge New England's run defense last week -- the Broncos had 167 rushing yards in the first quarter alone. Even with two-man routes, the Dolphins can take their shots on post routes and deep-ins.

*Matchup to watch - Dolphins RB Reggie Bush vs. Patriots MLB Jerod Mayo: Bush's renaissance season included nine catches and a touchdown in Week 1 against the Patriots. He was a one-man wrecking crew last week, with a 76-yard fourth quarter run punctuating his 203-yard game. Mayo is a sure tackler, but the absence of team speed shows up for the Patriots in matchups like this.

*Player spotlight - Patriots DE Brandon Deaderick: Andre Carter, the team's most valuable defensive player this season, left last week's game on a cart. Deaderick can be a stronghold against the run but offers minimal push as a pass rusher. Carter has a team-high 10 sacks.

*Fast facts: The Patriots have scored at least 400 points in five straight seasons. ... The Dolphins won in New England in 2008, when Brady was injured, but have lost the other four meetings at Gillette Stadium since 2005 by 10 or more points.


The Patriots have a number of equalizers if the Dolphins jump ahead. Miami hasn't shown it can handle Tom Brady or his array of weapons, and New England keeps the pressure on opponents to continually score.

*Our pick: Patriots 24-14

Tampa Bay at Carolina

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 711

*TV announcers: Sam Rosen, Chad Pennington

*Keys to the game: Cam Newton should be salivating to get at the Bucs' defense. The Panthers put up 38 points in a 19-point win to open December, and five of Tampa's last six opponents scored at least 31. Not only does the Bucs' pass rush reek, their secondary has been undisciplined, rolling out the red carpet for big-play breakdowns. Case in point: The Panthers had six receivers, including Newton, with a catch of 19 yards or more. Carolina easily bulled the Bucs' front four off the line and can keep Newton out of harm's way with more of the same, and letting RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart move the chains and the clock. Tampa has just one first-quarter touchdown since Week 1. Without controlling the ball and playing keep-away, the Bucs have struggled. They aren't built to score with explosive teams like the Panthers and with 30 turnovers -- including 18 Josh Freeman interceptions -- have a miniscule margin for error.

*Matchup to watch - Panthers WR Steve Smith vs. Bucs CB Ronde Barber: Barber might draw this assignment from start to finish if Aqib Talib's hamstring injury, which forced him out of the Dallas game Saturday, keeps him sidelined. Smith had just two catches for 32 yards in the last meeting, a game Talib also left injured.

*Player spotlight - Panthers DT Andre Neblett: Pushed into a starting role because of injuries, Neblett is finishing the season with a purpose. At 295 pounds, he's not an earth mover, but has quick feet and hands to disrupt plays in the backfield.

*Fast facts: The Bucs have five losses by 15 or more points and seven by double-digits. ... The Panthers had a lead in 13 of their 14 games and have at least 100 yards rushing in 12 straight games.


The secondary that not only holds up but shows up when Josh Freeman (18 interceptions) and Cam Newton (16) get greedy should be able to celebrate. The Panthers' offense puts them in position for Carolina's third season sweep of the Bucs in six years.

*Our pick: Panthers 30-15

St. Louis at Pittsburgh

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 713

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

*Keys to the game: The Rams' popgun offense has to be flawless. That might seem implausible given the matchups, which heavily weigh in the Steelers' favor. The place to start is RB Steven Jackson, the only consistent threat the offense has, but he'll draw full attention from Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau. If QB Kellen Clemens can't find WR Brandon Lloyd, he risks winding up on his back with nowhere to hide behind a woeful offensive line. Jackson led the team with nine catches for 72 yards last week, but Pittsburgh has been stellar covering backs in the flat with SS Troy Polamalu. The Steelers are playing lip service to the need for better blocking to preserve Ben Roethlisberger. Coach Mike Tomlin really believes that can happen with better results from RB Rashard Mendenhall. The Rams have been game run defenders, but their group of cornerbacks doesn't match up with Steelers speedsters Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace.

*Matchup to watch - Rams LT Mark LeVoir or Adam Goldberg vs. Steelers LB James Harrison: Returning from a one-game suspension, Harrison can be expected to be amped up. He'll give the Rams fits as a run-defending anchor as well as a quick and powerful pass rusher.

*Player spotlight - Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger: A high ankle sprain won't allow Roethlisberger to be his usual elusive self. How he operates when bridled might force offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to be more conservative than usual.

*Fast facts: The Rams are 3-19 in games played after Dec. 1 since 2007. ... Jackson needs 44 rushing yards for 1,000 in 2011, which would be his seventh straight 1,000-yard season.


If Sam Bradford misses the rest of the season as expected, the Rams fall even deeper into the abyss. The Steelers can lean on their defense and running game to stay in the picture for a prominent seed in the AFC playoffs.

*Our pick: Steelers 26-13

Minnesota at Washington

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, at FedEx Field, Landover, Md. - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 715

*TV announcers: Chris Myers, Tim Ryan

*Keys to the game: The Vikings have played the run well at times, but their inability to limit damage downfield makes this a welcome matchup for Redskins QB Rex Grossman. Washington remains rooted in West Coast balance with RB Roy Helu flexing some muscle as a runner and receiver. Helu's emergence isn't a surprise, but his consistency has been with the Redskins suffering several injuries up front. The Vikings avoided turnovers -- QB Christian Ponder's lone interception was a throw into the end zone on the game's final drive -- but the offense had to turn away from RB Adrian Peterson early in the 42-20 loss to the Saints last week. The same issues with soft coverage and missed open-field tackles can spoil Christmas Eve for the Vikings if Ponder can't create his fair share of big plays. He has the mobility to challenge the Redskins to cover every inch of field, but the Redskins have five interceptions in the last four games.

*Matchup to watch - Vikings DE Jared Allen vs. Redskins LT Willie Smith: Allen's nonstop motor tests elite blockers, and Smith isn't quite in that class -- he's made two starts after sitting the first 13 games after being an undrafted free agent. Smith, signed out of East Carolina because of his quickness and long arms, held his own against Patriots DE Andre Carter and Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul.

*Player spotlight - Redskins SS DeJon Gomes: LaRon Landry had his season end with a trip to injured reserve again. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said he's extremely confident Gomes will be a very good player, but the Redskins will miss Landry's combination of power and speed against Vikings RB Adrian Peterson.

*Fast facts: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson needs 105 yards to break Robert Smith's Vikings career rushing record. ... The Redskins have averaged 125.8 rushing yards in the last four games.


Washington has remained competitive by avoiding mistakes and relying on its running game. The Vikings pose little threat to take the ball away, giving QB Rex Grossman a free pass to fling it downfield.

*Our pick: Redskins 24-16

Cleveland at Baltimore

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 706

*TV announcers: Spero Dedes, Rich Gannon

*Keys to the game: When the Ravens maintain play-calling balance and don't forget about using versatile weapon Ray Rice to set up the rest of the offense, Baltimore can be unstoppable. QB Joe Flacco is much more productive at home with developing threats in rookie speed demon Torrey Smith and TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta as complementary options to No. 1 receiver Anquan Boldin. The Browns managed 10 points, including a garbage time touchdown, in the first meeting - a 24-10 Ravens victory in Week 13. Colt McCoy was hit often and sacked three times, totaling just 140 passing yards. The Browns don't have receivers who separate easily from coverage, meaning McCoy or Seneca Wallace, who started last week in place of a concussed McCoy, have to thread the needle to prolong drives. WR Greg Little played more consistently against the Cardinals and Mohamed Massaquoi was a factor as well, and the Browns need them to step up with TE Ben Watson done for the season. RB Peyton Hillis toted the ball 26 times last week and ran hard, providing the offense some rare balance.

*Matchup to watch - Ravens RB Ray Rice vs. Browns LB D'Qwell Jackson: S T.J. Ward missed his sixth game of the year last week and his foot injury weakens the Browns' run defense. Jackson has excellent instincts and is a tackling machine, but too much of the run defense falls on his shoulders.

*Player spotlight - Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs: His stats are getting him more attention, but coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano are gloating of his two-dimensional development and imploring observers to recognize Suggs as a "complete player."

*Fast facts: Rice is averaging just 4.0 yards per carry at home this season. ... The Browns scored their second first-quarter touchdown of the season last week.


The Browns want to grind the game to a halt, but they'll have to hit on a few deep throws to keep the Ravens from teeing off in their pass rush. The Ravens can put the game out of reach quickly if they keep their foot on the accelerator.

*Our pick: Ravens 27-10

Arizona at Cincinnati

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 712

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

*Keys to the game: The Cardinals kept dim playoff hopes alive with an overtime win last week. It was their sixth win in seven games, all by six points or fewer, but their prospects fade when they leave the desert with just one road win -- at St. Louis -- in 2011. QB Kevin Kolb (concussion) could be ready to return, although John Skelton played well against Cleveland. Both have learned to lean heavily on WR Larry Fitzgerald and RB Beanie Wells, but Kolb is prone to trying to needle the ball through traffic - a no-no against the Bengals' bump coverage. Cincinnati's offense depends on QB Andy Dalton's improvisational skills when the inconsistent running game sputters. His completion percentage has been under 58 in six of the last seven games, but he's still money in the red zone with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions inside the 20.

*Matchup to watch - Bengals WR A.J. Green vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson: High-impact rookies and former SEC rivals who became top five draft picks in 2011 renew acquaintances in a matchup that has a chance of swinging the game's momentum. Both have the big-play ability to make a game-changing play. Green injured his right shoulder at St. Louis but said he expects to play this week.

*Player spotlight - Bengals WR Brandon Tate: His 56-yard punt return in the third quarter last week changed the momentum in a 6-6 game with the Rams and made him the franchise leader in single-season punt return yards. The Bengals have four return touchdowns this season and depend on their special teams to provide short fields.

*Fast facts: Green became the first rookie wide receiver with 1,000 yards receiving since Marques Colston (Saints) in 2006. ... Arizona has converted only 31.6 percent of its third downs this season.


The Cardinals have fought their way back into playoff contention, but have done most of it at home. They don't travel well, while the Bengals solid defense and QB Andy Dalton's emerging playmaking ability give Cincinnati the edge.

*Our pick: Bengals 24-15

Denver at Buffalo

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, N.Y. - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 704

*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms

*Keys to the game: The Broncos lived by the blitz much of the season but were picked apart by the Patriots last week. SS Brian Dawkins (neck) is expected to return and his vocal presence can spare Denver communication breakdowns against QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Bills thrived when they put the ball in the hands of C.J. Spiller but were 0 for 11 on third down last week and Fitzpatrick threw three more picks. The Bills can't afford miscues from Fitzpatrick and need to tighten up the run defense against the Broncos, who lead the NFL in rushing. The Bills are trying to bandage things together but their run defense has been a season-long weak spot. RB Willis McGahee suffered a leg injury last week but is expected to play, while Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson are also contributing. Denver has devised an effective offensive scheme that has QB Tim Tebow tucking and running if his primary receiver is covered up. Buffalo has to be disciplined in its upfield rush and attempt to keep Tebow in the pocket while not creating gaping running lanes.

*Matchup to watch - Bills NT Marcel Dareus vs. Broncos C J.D. Walton: The Broncos double-team block to bust seams in the front seven, and Dareus has the agility and strength to split the tandem blocks. He was moved often last week, when the Bills allowed 254 rushing yards on 38 carries.

*Player spotlight - Bills RB C.J. Spiller: Coming off the best game of his two-year career with 91 rushing yards, 78 receiving and two scores, Spiller might have finally started to fill the void left with RB Fred Jackson (leg) was lost for the season.

*Fast facts: The Bills have allowed 15 touchdown passes in their last six games. ... Denver has scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter in 12 of its 15 games this season, including eight of the last nine games.


Turnovers have backed the Bills into a corner, and the inability to stop the run feeds right into Denver's strength. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick must be more careful with the ball when pressured for Buffalo to be competitive.

*Our pick: Broncos 23-22

Oakland at Kansas City

Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Arrowhead Stadium, CBS - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 708

*TV announcers: Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots

*Keys to the game: The Chiefs are coming off an inspired first game under coach Romeo Crennel in which his defense paved the way for the unlikely upset of the Packers. Two of the keys, however, were QB Kyle Orton bringing stability to the offense and RBs Thomas Jones and Jackie Battle helping the Chiefs sustain drives and keep the defense fresh to the end of the game. Kansas City still lacks offensive firepower, but knows the defense can keep it in most games. The Chiefs shut the Raiders out, 28-0, in Week 7 when Carson Palmer relieved Kyle Boller just days after signing with the team. Palmer rebounded from consecutive poor games to dissect the Lions' secondary last week. He won't have it so easy against the Chiefs' underrated tandem of CBs Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr, who play on an island a lot and combined for three of the Chiefs' six interceptions in the first meeting.

*Matchup to watch - Raiders LT Jared Veldheer vs. Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali: Veldheer has good feet and has controlled smaller pass rushers well this season. Hali was a nonfactor in the first meeting with only one assisted tackle despite the Raiders throwing the ball 35 times. However, Hali is coming off a monster effort against Green Bay that included three sacks and a forced fumble.

*Player spotlight - Raiders WR Darrius Heyward-Bey: The much maligned former first-round pick has speed to spare and is developing into a more polished route-runner. He's coming off an eight-catch, 155-yard receiving game last week that included a 43-yard touchdown but also lost a fumble and had a back-breaking drop.

*Fast facts: The Raiders have won the past four meetings in Kansas City. ... Five of the Chiefs' seven home games have been decided by seven points or less.


The first time the Chiefs saw Carson Palmer, he was only days removed from practicing with high school kids. Palmer is finding his groove and coming off a strong game against Detroit, but he's also facing a motivated Chiefs team trying to help Romeo Crennel land the fulltime coaching gig.

*Our pick: Chiefs 17-16

N.Y. Giants at N.Y. Jets

Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 709

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

*Keys to the game: Both teams laid serious eggs last week, inviting dogfights in the final two weeks to earn playoff spots. In both cases, turnovers led to early deficits and rendered the ground games that are so vital to each offense largely ineffective. The team that is able to come out, get a few early first downs and establish some offensive rhythm will have a big edge. Giants QB Eli Manning struggled with three interceptions last week, but he'll still take aim at a Jets secondary that was gashed by crossing patterns by the Eagles last week and clearly misses injured S Jim Leonhard. Yards after the catch will play a big role for the Giants' receivers, who continue to drop too many easy receptions. While the Jets need to get RB Shonn Green rolling early, it's the Giants' poor secondary play that has a bulls-eye on the secondary. Jets QB Mark Sanchez will see a strong pass rush, but will also have open receivers if he's able to step up in the pocket and make accurate throws.

*Matchup to watch - Giants CB Prince Amukamara vs. Jets receivers: Amukamara plays in nickel situations, but didn't see the field much after halftime last week following a rough first half. The Giants are too thin to hide Amukamara, and the Jets will utilize plenty of three-receiver sets and test the first-round pick as much as possible.

*Player spotlight - Jets S Brodney Pool: Starting in place of Leonhard, Pool has good coverage skills but also has a propensity to miss some assignments. Manning attempts several deep shots per game, putting the onus on Pool to be in the right place at the right time.

*Fast facts: While the teams both play their home games at MetLife Stadium, this will technically be a road game for the Giants. ... The Giants have won the past four meetings dating back to 1996.


The Jekyll and Hyde element inherent in both teams makes this anyone's game. The bet here is Giants QB Eli Manning rebounds from a rare poor game this season and outplays maddeningly inconsistent Mark Sanchez in a seesaw affair.

*Our pick: Giants 27-24

Jacksonville at Tennessee

Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at LP Field, Nashville - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 707

*TV announcers: Bill Macatee, Steve Tasker

*Keys to the game: The Jaguars have personnel issues across the board, but an extra three days between games could help get a few contributors back on the field. Jacksonville needs to see QB Blaine Gabbert stand tall in the pocket and fire the ball downfield in the final two games, and he'd be helped if WR Mike Thomas - the team's best possession receiver - can return from a concussion that has sidelined him the past four games. Tennessee will stack the box against RB Maurice Jones-Drew and dare Gabbert to take advantage of man coverage. Jacksonville has also been hit hard by injuries along the defensive line and in the secondary. The Titans will give RB Chris Johnson an opportunity to establish the run early and help set up play-action. With the Jaguars minus their top three cornerbacks and lacking formidable pass rushers, Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck should have plenty of opportunities to blow the top off the secondary.

*Matchup to watch - Jaguars wide receivers vs. Titans secondary: Gabbert has plenty of detractors who believe the Jaguars need to draft another quarterback in the spring. But Jacksonville also hasn't surrounded him with receivers who can gain separation on a consistent basis, and they drop too many balls even when Gabbert gets it to them. Even Falcons CB Dunta Robinson slammed the receiving crew after the last game. Titans CBs Cortland Finnegan and Alterraun Verner will be left in plenty of single coverage.

*Player spotlight - Titans TE Jared Cook: Tennessee has speed on the outside that Jacksonville's depleted secondary will be stressed to contend with, leaving Cook to work favorable matchups down the seam.

*Fast facts: Gabbert has a 49.5 passer rating with no touchdowns in the first quarter this season. ... Johnson is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry at home.


Jacksonville is limping to the finish line on both sides of the ball. The threat of RB Chris Johnson will keep the safeties honest and give QB Matt Hasselbeck plenty of opportunity to attack a group of backup cornerbacks.

*Our pick: Titans 27-17

San Diego at Detroit

Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at Ford Field, Detroit - TV: CBS; DirecTV: 714

*TV announcers: Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf

*Keys to the game: Chargers QB Philip Rivers loves the vertical passing game and the Lions are giving up a ton of yards. But San Diego also has to be wary of the ability of Detroit's front four to abuse the Chargers' patchwork offensive line and lay consistent licks on Rivers. Much like the Eagles, the Lions use wide sets to apply pressure off the edges, which exposes them to interior runs. TE Randy McMichael is doing an excellent job of chipping on edge rushers and if RB Ryan Mathews rips off a few good gains early on, Detroit's secondary will truly be ripe for the picking. It doesn't seem to matter how many points the defense gives up or how slow a start QB Matthew Stafford gets off to. Detroit keeps firing away until the offense finally clicks. With the Chargers lacking elite pass rushers, Stafford should enjoy time in the pocket - especially if RB Kevin Jones is given an opportunity to establish a bit of a presence in the ground game.

*Matchup to watch - Chargers RT Jeromy Clary vs. Lions DE Cliff Avril: San Diego has to be cognizant of LT Jared Gaither protecting Rivers' blind side against Kyle Vanden Bosch. He'll require some help, leaving Clary in a lot of one-on-one situations with Avril. An underrated pass rusher, Avril had a pair of sacks last week and another that was negated by a penalty as he plays for a big payday at the end of this season.

*Player spotlight - Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew: Targeted 11 times last week, Pettigrew came up with just five receptions for 49 yards. But the one-on-one matchups will be there with Detroit using plenty of three-receiver sets that feature developing rookie WR Titus Young.

*Fast facts: The Chargers are 20-2 in December and January under coach Norv Turner. ... Detroit has four comebacks when trailing by 13-plus points this season, an NFL record.


The scoreboard should be churning like a pinball machine, and San Diego is making its typical December charge. With San Diego figuring out how to protect QB Philip Rivers, the Lions' secondary will be too exposed.

*Our pick: Chargers 31-28

Philadelphia at Dallas

Saturday, 4:15 p.m. ET, at Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 715

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

*Keys to the game: The Eagles dominated the first meeting from the onset, routing the Cowboys 34-7 at home in Week 8. The key for Dallas in the rematch will be containing RB LeSean McCoy, who rushed for a career-high 185 yards in the first meeting. That allowed QB Michael Vick to enjoy a rare turnover-free game. But Eagles coach Andy Reid doesn't always give McCoy consistent touches, and if Dallas can negate the ground game it can pressure Vick into the mistakes that have marred too many of his outings this season. Falling behind early in Philadelphia robbed the Cowboys of offensive balance. RB Felix Jones is coming off a strong game at Tampa Bay as he's charged with once again being the feature back. If Dallas can take better advantage of the Eagles' shaky run defense in the rematch, QB Tony Romo won't be as exposed to Philadelphia wide sets and strong pass rush.

*Matchup to watch - Eagles head coach Andy Reid vs. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan: After promising over the summer that Dallas would beat the Eagles' all-hype team, Ryan's unit was gashed for big plays in Philadelphia. Ryan said he devised a "terrible game plan" and took the blame for the loss. He'll be locked in a chess match with Reid, who will look to exploit whatever the defense is giving him. Dallas couldn't stop McCoy the first time around, and the secondary will be under fire if Ryan commits more resources to defending the run.

*Player spotlight - Eagles TE Brent Celek: Celek's involvement in the passing game fluctuates significantly on a weekly basis. He was targeted nine times in Week 8 and hauled in seven receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown.

*Fast facts: McCoy's 30 carries in the Week 8 matchup was a career high. ... Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware had four sacks in the first meeting.


The Cowboys' defense was gashed for big plays and Dallas was in chase mode for the entire Week 8 meeting. The second time around the Cowboys will stick closer, maintain offensive balance and QB Tony Romo is spreading the ball around to a multitude of downfield options.

*Our pick: Cowboys 30-27

San Francisco at Seattle

Saturday, 4:15 p.m. ET, at CenturyLink Field, Seattle - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 716

*TV announcers: Ron Pitts, TBD, Drea Avent

*Keys to the game: The 49ers will see a far different Seahawks team than the one they routed 33-17 at home to begin the season. Despite a slew of injuries on the offensive line, Seattle has remained committed to RB Marshawn Lynch and the ground game, and in a similar style to the 49ers they look to wear defenses down by sticking with the run in the second half. That won't be easy against San Francisco brick wall run defense, which held Seattle to 2.9 yards per carry in Week 1. QB Tarvaris Jackson needs a strong ground game to buy time when he drops back, especially with his receiving corps dealing with multiple injuries and lacking a lot of options who gain separation. San Francisco settled for four field goals in the red zone in the first meeting, which has been a running concern throughout the season. QB Alex Smith should enjoy several short fields to work with and the onus will be on Seattle's big defensive front to contain the ground game and force Smith to throw into tight windows on long passing downs.

*Matchup to watch - 49ers WR Michael Crabtree vs. Seahawks CB Brandon Browner: A big, physical cover corner, Browner was known most of the season for his penchant for picking up contact penalties. But he also has long arms that have helped him pick off six passes and return them for a single-season record 220 yards through 14 games. However, Crabtree can also beat Browner with double moves if Smith is given ample time in the pocket.

*Player spotlight - Seahawks WR Ricardo Lockette: A track star out of Fort Valley State with 4.2 speed, Lockette was promoted from the practice squad last week. He's extremely raw, but the Seahawks are excited about his upside and Lockette could be active this week due to injuries at the position.

*Fast facts: Lynch has a touchdown in a franchise-record 10 consecutive games. ... The 49ers have lost consecutive road games after starting the season 4-0 away from home.


The 49ers have sewn up the division but are still fighting for a first-round bye. In what could be a drag-down, physical defensive battle, San Francisco's defense will set the tone and create short fields.

*Our pick: 49ers 19-16

Chicago at Green Bay

Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET, at Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis. - TV: NBC

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

*Keys to the game: The Bears will be without RB Matt Forte (knee), but hold some outside hope that QB Jay Cutler can return from his broken thumb to stabilize the offense. Caleb Hanie has now thrown three touchdowns with nine interceptions in four starts, and the pass protection is struggling to hold up without the versatile threat Forte provides out of the backfield. Green Bay's weakness lies with a secondary that gives up a ton of yards, although the Packers do have 27 interceptions and will attempt to bait Hanie - or whoever is under center for the Bears - into mistakes. With winter weather starting to become a factor and the offensive line dealing with multiple injuries, Green Bay needs to show it can move the ball more consistently on the ground. QB Aaron Rodgers shredded Chicago's pass defense in a 27-17 win at Chicago in Week 3 that included three touchdown catches by TE Jermichael Finley. But minus WR Greg Jennings (knee), Rodgers needs to get Jordy Nelson involved early - his first catch last week didn't come until the fourth quarter.

*Matchup to watch - Bears DE Julius Peppers vs. Packers offensive tackles: With the offense in shambles, Chicago is desperate for big plays from its veteran-laden defense. Peppers had a strip-sack that led to a touchdown last week. Who he'll line up against is anyone's guess. Packers RT Bryan Bulaga hurt his knee last week and backup Derek Sherrod was lost for the season, although LT Chad Clifton, who has been out since suffering a hamstring injury Oct. 9, is getting close to returning.

*Player spotlight - Bears DT Stephen Paea: After a slow start, the second-round pick has come on extremely strong down the stretch. He has shown excellent short-area quickness and is earning more snaps with Anthony Adams generally ineffective.

*Fast facts: Chicago's defense scored as many points, seven, as the offense last week. ... Rodgers has 19 touchdown passes with four interceptions at home this season.


If Jay Cutler can return, the Bears have a chance to be competitive. But minus Matt Forte, the offense lacks any dynamic element. The Packers, fresh off their first loss of the season, will be motivated to sew up home-field advantage.

*Our pick: Packers 24-14

Atlanta at New Orleans

Monday, 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: The Falcons had five pass plays of 20-plus yards last week and now have 49 on the season, compared to 38 all of last year. With WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones healthy and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey sprinkling in some no-huddle, Atlanta finally is displaying the balance and big-play ability that was lacking earlier in the season. Jones left the first meeting with a hamstring injury, and the Falcons went on to lose 26-23 at home in Week 10 while committing 10 penalties. They can't afford to play sloppy with Saints QB Drew Brees keeping the defense on its heels all game. He picked apart the secondary while completing 30-of-43 passes for 322 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Atlanta. Brees does an excellent job of attacking the middle of the field, putting pressure on Ss James Sanders and Thomas DeCoud to handle big targets in TE Jimmy Graham and WR Marques Colston while also being wary of the deep speed of Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem.

*Matchup to watch - Falcons RG Joe Hawley vs. Saints NT Aubrayo Franklin: Falcons RB Michael Turner rushed for 96 yards on 22 carries in the first meeting, but was stuffed on a key 4th-and-1 that led to the Saints' overtime victory. Hawley took over for Garrett Reynolds midseason, but the right guard spot has been troublesome for the Falcons since losing Harvey Dahl in free agency.

*Player spotlight - Saints RB Jed Collins: He had a key 12-yard reception in overtime in Week 10. He's far more valued for his run blocking, however, and has quietly been very solid on a unit loaded with big-name stars.

*Fast facts: White is the first player in franchise history to top 1,000 receiving yards five consecutive seasons. ... Brees has a 122.4 passer rating with 20 touchdowns and three interceptions at home this season.


There won't be a lack of scoring with the Falcons hitting their stride and possessing a strong ground game to set up an explosive passing attack. But New Orleans keeps the pedal to the metal, averaging 35.3 points indoors this season.

*Our pick: Saints 34-30

--By Derek Harper & Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange.

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


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