Denver Broncos (7-6) at Arizona Cardinals (4-9)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 8th meeting. The Denver Broncos are 6-0-1 against the Arizona Cardinals. The last time the Broncos and Cardinals met was at the end of the 2002 season, and Denver won 37-7.
2006 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 23rd (5th rush, 27th pass); defense 14th (12th rush, 23rd pass). Cardinals: offense 26th (31st rush, 10th pass); defense 31st (19th rush, 30th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 17-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals discovered rare offensive balance in victories over St. Louis and Seattle, but Denver has a significantly superior run defense to the other two. If the Broncos can bottle up RB Edgerrin James, they can blitz rookie QB Matt Leinart more often and attempt to push him into bad decisions working against CBs Champ Bailey and Darrent Williams. Denver has to force the issue because it can't be certain what it will get out of its own rookie signal-caller. QB Jay Cutler was effective working out of the shotgun last weekend, but the Broncos remain a run-first offense that needs to get RB Tatum Bell involved. Expect the Cardinals to use any opportunity to blitz with OLB Karlos Dansby or SS Adrian Wilson.
FAST FACTS: Broncos: Are 30-16 (.652) against the NFC under coach Mike Shanahan. ... WR Rod Smith needs eight receptions to reach 50 for the 10th consecutive season. Cardinals: Seek first three-game winning streak since 2002. ... James needs 75 rushing yards to become franchise's first 1,000-yard rusher since Adrian Murrell in 1998.
--CB Darrent Williams was downgraded to questionable on the injury report. Williams has toe and shoulder injuries. He hasn't participated in the team portion of practice this week, but he hasn't been ruled out.
--CB Karl Paymah would be in line for more playing time if Darrent Williams can't play. Paymah was one of three cornerbacks the Broncos drafted in 2005, but he has played the least of the three.
--TE Stephen Alexander didn't practice Thursday because of rib injuries. He is a valuable part of Denver's running game and could play this week. He is questionable on the injury report.
--OT Adam Meadows missed practice again Thursday because of a hamstring injury. He could miss his third consecutive game.
--K Jason Elam kicked in practice Thursday for the first time since suffering a left hamstring injury on Dec. 3. He said he's not 100 percent yet, but he is very close, and his range shouldn't be affected much this week.
--QB Matt Leinart has completed more than 60 percent of his passes in each of the past four games. He's enjoyed great protection, with just four sacks in five games.
--SS Adrian Wilson thinks he will have been robbed if he's not named to the Pro Bowl next week. And he's right. Wilson has four interceptions, four sacks and has returned a fumble and an interception 99 yards for touchdowns this year.
--RB Edgerrin James has 925 yards rushing this year and seems assured of becoming the first Cardinals back to gain 1,000 in a season since Adrian Murrell did it in 1998. No Arizona Cardinal has gained more than 1,070 in a season.
--RB Marcel Shipp has a fractured rib, but he was upgraded Thursday from doubtful to questionable. Shipp practiced Thursday and is intent on playing against Denver.
--DE Chike Okeafor, who has 3.5 sacks the past two games, hasn't practice this week because of a calf injury. He's listed as probable, but that might be a little optimistic. He might not be 100 percent if he does play. There isn't much depth behind him. Calvin Pace is the likely replacement.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Broncos rookie quarterback Jay Cutler said he has noticed what fellow rookie Matt Leinart has done with the Cardinals, but he doesn't think there's a rivalry between the two.
"I'm not into that," Cutler said. "We've got our own stuff to worry about here."
Leinart went with the 10th overall pick of the draft, and Cutler went one pick later. They meet for the first time in their careers on Sunday. Add Tennessee's Vince Young to the mix, and the quarterback class of this year has a chance to be historically good.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said it's possible this class reaches the heights of the 1983 quarterback draft class, which included John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.
As for who is better among Cutler and Leinart, Shanahan said that won't be settled this week or for a while.
"We did the same thing with Elway and Marino," Shanahan said. "We'll just let it play out."
The Broncos studied Cutler and Leinart before the draft because they knew they'd have a chance to trade up and possibly draft one of them. The decision became easy when Leinart went to Arizona, but Shanahan felt both would be good pro quarterbacks.
"These guys are both slam dunks, in my opinion," Shanahan said.
The Cardinals are concerned that they might be without right tackle Reggie Wells for Sunday's game against Denver.
Wells has missed practice all week with an illness and spent Wednesday night in a hospital. He hadn't been released as of Thursday afternoon.
Numerous tests came back negative, and doctors think Wells has a "a bug" that's just slow to go away, coach Dennis Green said.
Wells played last week against Seattle with a fever of over 100 degrees and hasn't improved much since then.
If he can't play, Oliver Ross would start, and that's a big decline in talent level for the Cardinals. Ross has struggled in his two years with the team, especially in pass protection.
And with a left-handed quarterback, Matt Leinart, right tackle has become a more important position because he protects Leinart's blind side.
Wells was downgraded from probable to questionable Thursday. In past seasons, Green has been reluctant to play anyone who doesn't practice on Fridays.
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