Arizona Cardinals (1-6) at Green Bay Packers (2-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, Terry Donohue
SERIES: 69th meeting. The Packers lead the series 42-22-4, including a 41-16 victory over the then-St. Louis Cardinals in an NFC first-round playoff game during the 1982 season at Green Bay in the teams' only postseason meeting. The Packers have won four of the last five encounters, dating to 1988. The Cardinals, though, won the last meeting, 20-13 in 2003 at Arizona. The Packers have won the last seven meetings in Wisconsin, dating to 1955, and are 5-0 at Lambeau Field.
2006 RANKINGS: Cardinals: offense 26th (32nd rush, 14th pass); defense 23rd (18th rush, 24th pass). Packers: offense 10th (18th rush, 6th pass); defense 32nd (10th rush, 32nd pass)
PREDICTION: Packers 27-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: With the Cardinals and Packers combining to allow 518.3 passing yards per game, balls will be flying all over Lambeau Field. But the team that can mount the better running attack might prove to be the victor. While the Packers received their first 100-yard rushing game of the season last weekend from RB Ahman Green, Cardinals RB Edgerrin James continues to voice frustration that he has gone longer than ever before without a 100-yard game to start a season. Arizona coach Dennis Green hinted there will be changes along the offensive line, but didn't say what they would be. The Packers are holding out hope that rookie WR Greg Jennings can overcome a right ankle injury in time to play because the receiving corps is frighteningly thin and the Cardinals can key on shutting down Donald Driver. Either way, expect a heavier dose of Ahman Green early on as the Packers search for offensive balance.
FAST FACTS: Cardinals: SS Adrian Wilson leads NFL defensive backs with 12 sacks since 2005. ... QB Matt Leinart seeks to become team's first rookie quarterback to win a game since Jake Plummer in 1997. Packers: OLB A.J. Hawk is on pace for 155 tackles. The franchise rookie record is 166 by Rich Wingo in 1979. ... Have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in their past eight games.
--QB Matt Leinart needs better blocking to succeed. He was sacked three times last week and was hit on numerous other occasions.
--RT Oliver Ross likely will be benched this week. LG Reggie Wells will move to the right side.
--LG Reggie Wells likely will move to right tackle this week, replacing Oliver Ross.
--RG Chris Liwienski likely will move to left guard this week. LG Reggie Wells is moving to right tackle.
--LG Deuce Lutui, a rookie, probably will get his first NFL start Sunday in Green Bay. Lutui is part of three changes that are likely to be made in the starting offensive line.
--WR Larry Fitzgerald probably will miss a third consecutive game because of a pulled hamstring.
--WR Greg Jennings has yet to practice this week because of a sprained right ankle and remains doubtful for Sunday's game against Arizona. The rookie standout might practice Friday. After being on crutches earlier in the week, Jennings can walk fine. However, if the team is cautious and keeps Jennings out, first-year player Ruvell Martin would start along with Donald Driver on Sunday.
--WR Shaun Bodiford, claimed off waivers from Detroit on Monday, should be activated for the game but probably won't be used as a fourth receiver if WR Greg Jennings doesn't play. Bodiford is expected to be used on kickoff returns with RB Vernand Morency.
--RB Ahman Green practiced Thursday after being held out a day to rest a sore knee. Green is probable for the game and should make the start.
--DT Corey Williams returned to practice after missing a day. Williams suffered an unspecified knee injury in the last game and is questionable for Sunday. He has started the past three games beside Ryan Pickett. Colin Cole, who started the season opener, is a potential replacement for Williams.
--LG Daryn Colledge continued to practice despite having a calf injury, which has him questionable for the game. The rookie, though, is expected to make the start at guard after he started at left tackle in place of an ill Chad Clifton in the last game.
--LB Ben Taylor practiced for the second consecutive day and is questionable for the game. The backup, who is a big contributor on special teams, missed the past two games because of a sore hamstring.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Changing offensive coordinators didn't result in improved production from the Cardinals offense last week against Oakland. In fact, things looked worse.
The Cardinals rushed for just 50 years. Quarterback Matt Leinart was under pressure all day, partly because coaches never gave right tackle Oliver Ross any help in trying to block defensive end Derrick Burgess.
The club still tried to run out of offensive sets that included a fullback and a tight end, even though the team doesn't have a fullback or a tight end who can block.
There have to be some radical changes in scheme if the Cardinals are going to end their six-game losing streak. The club should go to three- and four-receiver sets and use running back Edgerrin James out of those formations. That might help give him more space to run.
But teams are stacking their defenses when the Cardinals use their tight ends and fullback, and it's hindered James instead of helping him.
The absence of receiver Larry Fitzgerald has hurt, too. Fitzgerald is expected to miss his third consecutive game with a hamstring pull. Without him in the lineup, teams have been able to concentrate on stopping Anquan Boldin, using press coverage and a safety over the top.
Keeping top rookie A.J. Hawk on the field has always been in the best interests of the Packers defense.
Yet, perhaps feeling a sense of urgency from an early-season start devoid of big plays, the coaches have recently put into action a well-rehearsed scheme that's begun to pay dividends. The "Frisco" package, which includes all three linebackers and three down linemen, is a substitute for the team's common nickel alignment of four linemen and two linebackers.
"It challenges the offense schematically," coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's putting good pressure players in position to be productive."
Weak-side linebacker Hawk and strong-side linebacker Brady Poppinga are just the players McCarthy and defensive coordinator Bob Sanders had in mind when "Frisco" was introduced in offseason workouts and employed some in the preseason.
The scheme finally got some play last Sunday at Miami, and the results belied the team's last-place rankings for total defense and passing yards.
Poppinga had an early interception while dropping back into coverage. Middle linebacker Nick Barnett picked off a deflected pass. Hawk had a breakout game with a sack on a blitz, a pass breakup and a season-high 16 tackles, including 13 solo.
"It's a great changeup -- getting pressure on the quarterback and when we drop back into zone. We can do whatever we want out of there," Hawk said of the scheme. "It makes the defense pretty versatile when you have the linebackers in there like that."
Hawk has been a regular on the nickel since the outset of the season. The improvement made by second-year player Poppinga, who struggled early in pass coverage, and his experience from college of playing on the line made it feasible to go with the 3-3 front in nickel.
The superb play by the linebackers was instrumental in the Packers' equaling their output through the first five games with three interceptions in the 34-24 win over the Dolphins. "Frisco" will get further exposure when Green Bay hosts Arizona on Sunday.
"When the linebackers are so involved (with) the run and the pass, when they're playing well, it makes the defense a lot better," said Hawk, who has a team-high 58 tackles, one more than Barnett.
Atlanta Falcons (4-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (4-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
SERIES: 11th meeting. The Falcons are 1-4 in the Queen City, with their only victory coming in the teams' first game, a 9-6 ugly-fest in 1971. In the last meeting, Atlanta wiped away memories off a disappointing Week 2 home loss to Chicago with a 30-3 win at the Georgia Dome against a 2002 Cincinnati defense that allowed him to complete 16 of 26 passes for 174 yards and two TDs. Vick ran five times for 56 yards.
2006 RANKINGS: Falcons: offense 6th (1st rush, 32nd pass); defense 20th (11th rush, 27th pass). Bengals: offense 18th (19th rush, 12th pass); defense 19th (25th rush, 13th pass)
PREDICTION: Falcons 23-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: There will be a critical battle of backups in the trenches when the Bengals have the ball. Cincinnati is without injured LT Levi Jones, replaced by rookie Andrew Whitworth, who will have to deal with DE Patrick Kerney. Kerney slides from the left to the right side of Atlanta's line because John Abraham is out along with DT Rod Coleman. The Falcons were still able to stuff Pittsburgh's running game last weekend with fill-in starters Chauncey Davis and Jonathan Babineaux combining for nine tackles and two sacks. If the Bengals are able to put drives together, they are difficult to stop with a 62.5 touchdown percentage inside the red zone, where they have scored on all 16 trips. The Bengals' defense has been poor against the run all season and will struggle to contain RB Warrick Dunn and QB Michael Vick on the ground. Cincinnati should get a boost with LB Brian Simmons and SS Dexter Jackson back in the lineup for the second consecutive week.
FAST FACTS: Falcons: Are 1-4 in Cincinnati. ... Vick is 15-4 when throwing at least two touchdown passes. Bengals: Have won eight consecutive home games against NFC teams. ... RB Rudi Johnson is third in franchise history with 15 career 100-yard rushing games.
--DT Rod Coleman returned to practice for the first time since suffering turf toe in Week 6. That's good news for the Falcons, who now list his backup, Jonathan Babineaux, as questionable after the second-year veteran missed practice with a bruised heel.
--QB Michael Vick is atop the NFL in yards per carry with an 8.6 average, a category he has led in each of his four full seasons as a starter. With 441 yards rushing, he's on pace to finish with 1,176. Chicago's Bobby Douglass set the single-season mark for a quarterback with 968 yards in 1972. Of his 51 carries this year, Vick has run for 28 first downs and two touchdowns.
--RB Warrick Dunn, at the age of 31, is off to the best start of his 10-year career. Ranking third in the NFL with 580 yards rushing, Dunn is on pace to finish with 1,547. Last season, he went to his third Pro Bowl after running for a career beset 1,416.
--TE Alge Crumpler has three catches for at least 25 yards this season, giving him 19 since the start of 2004 and more than any other NFL tight end. His three TD receptions last week were a single-game career high.
--LCB DeAngelo Hall has 10 interceptions since the start of 2005, which ties him for third in the league and trails only y Law, Champ Bailey and Deltha O'Neal.
--WR Chris Henry's status for Sunday remains clouded in coach Marvin Lewis' typical secrecy. Henry has yet to be activated to the 53-man roster, a move necessary by 4 p.m. Saturday if he is going to be eligible to dress Sunday.
--WR Antonio Chatman (groin) was downgraded to doubtful for the Atlanta game, increasing the probability that Chris Henry would play.
--RB Rudi Johnson (back) was added to the injury report as probable and did not practice Thursday. He will play Sunday.
--FB Jeremi Johnson (chest) remained probable but did return to practice Thursday.
--DT Sam Adams has played this season with a knee injury that he says will require postseason surgery. He remained probable Thursday but did not practice.
--LB Rashad Jeanty (foot) remained questionable but officially practiced for the first time since suffering the injury in Week 3.
--CB Greg Brooks (knee) is probable and did practice Thursday.
--LB Brian Simmons (neck) remained probable Thursday but did not practice.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The last time an Atlanta player walked off the field with a shoulder injury that looked as agonizing as Kynan Forney's last week, Will Overstreet had just one remaining comeback before his career ended.
Forney practiced Thursday, a surprise to those who figured the starting right guard would miss at least this week's game at Cincinnati.
Unfortunately, now his right shoulder has likely sustained a dislocation, a minor separation or a combination of both injuries in two of the last three games, one blow could cause a major separation, replete with torn ligaments, that would end Forney's season.
Either way, the joint is weak and painful, but the Falcons must believe Forney, at less than full capacity, is better than no Forney at all.
Quinn Ojinnaka's ankle injury puts head coach Jim Mora in a quandary as well. Earlier in the week, Mora indicated that Ojinnaka, whom the team drafted six months ago as a tackle, could have a brighter future as a guard.
In last week's win over Pittsburgh, however, Ojinnaka was too hurt to play, and second-year tackle Frank Omiyale was active for the first time in his career as the No. 3 tackle.
Ojinnaka practiced Thursday, which should boost the depth against the Bengals, but don't forget that Tyson Clabo made his first career start last week in place of suspended left guard Matt Lehr.
If Forney and Ojinnaka are out, Austin King would start at right guard.
In addition to the star-powered offenses and takeaway-happy defenses, the Bengals-Falcons game Sunday could be decided in the kicking game.
Because of injuries to top return men Tab Perry and Antonio Chatman, the Bengals are ranked 28th in kickoff and punt returns heading into Sunday. But Cincinnati is ninth defending against punt returns and sixth against kickoff returns.
Atlanta, meanwhile, is seventh as a team in punt return average and first in kickoff return average.
Individually, Allen Rossum is fourth in kickoff return average at 27.3 yards and sixth in punt returns at 11.1. He has longs of 51 yards for a kickoff return and 41 for a punt.
"You have a lane you have to fill and a certain fit you have to fill at the wedge, and if you don't, it will be a big gap," said Bengals safety Herana-Daze Jones, second on special teams with eight tackles. "You can't get pushed out of your lane. What you want to do is create lateral movement.
"They do a lot of gadgets and stuff. You've got to be alert for the gadgets on the punt return and kickoff return."
The Falcons also do a good job of covering kickoffs and punts. They're 10th against punts and third in kickoff coverage.
"They just fly, kind of like our team," Jones said. "A lot of teams have big linebackers. We've got smallish guys, kind of like them, so we match up well with them."
The Bengals would get a boost in the return game if Chatman can play. He was still questionable Thursday with a groin injury. Chatman leads the team in kickoff return average (23.3 yards) and punt return average (6.6 yards).
"They do well," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of the Falcons kicking game. "They've had the same group of guys."
Baltimore Ravens (4-2) at New Orleans Saints (5-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
SURFACE: Sportexe Momentum
TV: CBS, Dick Enberg, Randy Cross
SERIES: 4th meeting. The Ravens lead the series, 2-1. The Ravens won the first two meetings (in 1996 and 1999) before losing to the Saints, 37-25, in 2002. In that loss, the Ravens fumbled three times and quarterback Jeff Blake was intercepted twice. Saints running back Deuce McAllister rushed for three touchdowns. This marks the first regular-season trip to New Orleans for the Ravens.
2006 RANKINGS: Ravens: offense 28th (26th rush, 25th pass); defense 3rd (2nd rush, 7th pass). Saints: offense 7th (17th rush, 5th pass); defense 13th (21st rush, 9th pass)
PREDICTION: Saints 20-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: Ravens coach Brian Billick takes over the play-calling from fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, but there isn't likely to be a major overhaul. Expect Billick to maintain the personnel packages but trim the game plan a bit. The Ravens have struggled to run the ball with any consistency, but RB Jamal Lewis must get off to a strong start because Baltimore doesn't want to expose QB Steve McNair -- coming off a concussion in his last game -- to Saints DEs Will Allen and Charles Grant on obvious passing downs. Billick is also concerned about his secondary, and met with CB Samari Rolle over the bye week to discuss the unusually high amount of big plays he has allowed this season. Baltimore needs to be sound in the secondary because Saints QB Drew Brees has built a quick rapport with rookie WR Marques Colston and Joe Horn appears to be over his early season problems with drops.
FAST FACTS: Ravens: Were held to less than two touchdowns in 14 of 22 games under Fassel. ... Have won their past four games immediately following a bye. Saints: Are 5-1 or better for just the fifth time in franchise history. ... Are 8-9 in games immediately following a bye week.
--SS Dawan Landry has progressed well during the week with a sprained right knee, and it's looking more likely that he'll start.
--SS Gerome Sapp should be able to play with a hamstring injury and would start if Dawan Landry can't recover from a sprained right knee.
--P Sam Koch was added to the injury report with an illness. It won't affect his ability to play Sunday.
--CB Corey Ivy will return to the team sometime this season. Ivy suffered a kidney tear three weeks ago, but the Ravens don't expect to place him on injured reserve.
--QB Steve McNair (concussion) practiced for a second consecutive day without suffering a setback. He will make his seventh start for the Ravens on Sunday.
--TE Ernie Conwell will miss Sunday's game with the Ravens and probably at least one more after having arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus on Oct. 18.
--TE Mark Campbell will get the start replacing Ernie Conwell in Sunday's game with the Ravens. Campbell has played extensively this season in the Saints' two-tight end sets.
--RB Deuce McAllister is listed as probable for the game with the Ravens because of a strained right hamstring, but he has practiced this week with no problems and should play.
--DT Willie Whitehead, who has been a healthy inactive for the last three games, is questionable for Sunday with an infection in his elbow.
--T Zach Strief broke a finger during a pass-blocking drill Wednesday and is questionable for the Ravens game. He has been a healthy inactive for every game this season.
--DB Curtis Deloatch, a special teams player, should be available Sunday after missing the past two games with a right hamstring injury.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Injuries have hit the Ravens' thinnest position -- safety.
Two of Baltimore's three safeties on the roster are listed as questionable. Starting strong safety Dawan Landry (sprained right knee) and backup Gerome Sapp (hamstring) are both expected to play, but they won't be at full strength.
Landry, a rookie fifth-round pick, has progressed well enough through the week that the Ravens are optimistic that he'll start.
"He's moving around pretty good," coach Brian Billick said.
Landry said it's not his call whether he starts.
"I'm feeling pretty good right now," Landry said. "I did a little more running today. ... Whatever the coaches do, I'll be OK with it."
If Landry can't play, Sapp -- who is also questionable with a thigh injury -- likely would suit up alongside free safety Ed Reed.
"They brought me here to play," Sapp said. "So every week, whether I'm starting or not, I'm ready to play. So whatever happens to either Ed or Dawan, I'm ready to go."
When the Ravens sent a 2007 conditional draft pick to Indianapolis for Sapp on June 19, Sapp -- who had made two starts in 16 games with the Colts last season -- was considered to be the front-runner to replace Will Demps, who was signed by the Giants.
But Sapp was quickly overtaken on the depth chart by Landry, a fifth-round choice in April's draft, and an intestinal illness that forced him to miss the final two preseason games lessened Sapp's chances. Since then, Sapp has largely been relegated to special-teams work, posting four tackles.
Dennis Thurman, who coaches the secondary, said he has confidence in Sapp.
"Gerome knows the defense and he understands what we're doing," Thurman said. "He's been ready. ... He's aware of what we want and what we're trying to get done. We're very comfortable if Gerome has to go in and play."
--Vic Fangio, a defensive coordinator in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Houston, has been assisting the Ravens' coaching staff in film study.
It is unknown exactly when the Ravens hired Fangio as a coaching assistant, but a team official confirmed that he has been with the team since the beginning of the regular season. Fangio also will have a role on game day in aiding Brian Billick in his dual role as head coach and offensive coordinator.
"That's where Vic Fangio will help me out a great deal now, to make sure that my attention is where it needs to be at critical times," Billick said.
--Quarterback Steve McNair said the transfer of power in the bye week -- coach Brian Billick firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assuming control of the offense -- moves the Ravens in the right direction.
"It's a great change," McNair said. "We're on the right pace for doing things offensively. We're doing something that puts some guys in position to make plays."
The Saints and their adoring fans have made the refurbished Superdome a real home-field advantage again for the first time in several years as coach Sean Payton's team has won all three of the games played this season in front of raucous crowds.
After having dispatched Atlanta (23-3), Tampa Bay (24-21) and Philadelphia (27-24), the Saints will try to start 4-0 at home for the first time since 1991 when they play the Ravens on Sunday. The Saints were 18-22 at home from 2000-04 under former coach Jim Haslett.
Ravens coach Brian Billick talked this week about what it's going to be like to play the resurgent Saints, who are 5-1 overall going into Sunday's game, in the noisy Superdome.
"You've got to be impressed obviously with what they've been able to do, particularly under the circumstances," Billick said. "Obviously, they are the darlings of the country and the darlings of the NFL. Everybody loves (them), and deservedly so.
"You go in and beat them, you might as well go and beat up Mother Teresa. You know, 'You scums, what are you doing here?' But that is what we are going to try to do because there is a great deal of energy and emotion there right now."
Saints running back Reggie Bush politely disagreed.
"I wouldn't say the whole world loves us right now, definitely not," Bush said in response to Billick's comments. "I do feel like we've surprised a lot of people and maybe have earned some respect to a certain degree across the NFL.
"I definitely wouldn't say that everybody loves the Saints because a lot of people went through Hurricane Katrina. If anything, their feelings are shared for the people here, not so much the Saints. We're still a football team. We still have to go out and win football games. Nobody's just going to give us anything."
Houston Texans (2-4) at Tennessee Titans (1-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Gus Johnson, Steve Tasker
SERIES: 9th meeting. Tennessee Titans lead the series, 6-2, and the Texans are looking for their first victory over the Titans since 2004 when RB Domanick Davis ran for 129 yards and a touchdown as Houston staged the biggest comeback in team history after trailing 21-3 early in the second quarter. Houston scored 28 unanswered points to get the 31-21 victory.
2006 RANKINGS: Texans: offense 27th (30th rush, 19th pass); defense 31st (27th rush, 31st pass). Titans: offense 25th (14th rush, 28th pass); defense 29th (32nd rush, 12th pass)
PREDICTION: Titans 20-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: While Texans QB David Carr has an NFL-best 70.3 completion percentage, Titans rookie Vince Young is at 47.5 -- ahead of only Kerry Collins, the man he replaced three games ago. Young should benefit from extra practices over the bye week and returns to the state of Texas, where he led the Longhorns to the national title in January, but it has been the running game that has allowed Tennessee to be competitive in its last two games. The Texans give up 4.6 yards per carry and need to focus on containing RB Travis Henry so they can then pressure Young into mistakes. Houston is wary of Young's mobility, but he has also fumbled five times -- losing three to go along with four interceptions. The Texans' offense received a huge boost with rookie RB Wali Lundy rushing for 93 yards last Sunday. If Lundy can produce on the ground from the start, Carr should have plenty of success setting up shots downfield against the Titans' secondary.
FAST FACTS: Texans: A victory would give the team its first winning month since October 2004. ... QB David Carr leads the AFC with a 125.6 fourth-quarter passer rating. Titans: Seek consecutive victories for the first time since 2003. ... RB Travis Henry has 308 rushing yards in two career starts against Houston.
--TE Jeb Putzier (ankle) is still expected to be another week away from returning. He hasn't practiced the past week and a half.
--WR Jerome Mathis (foot) is still not practicing or working out. The Texans have not yet decided if he will be able to be activated from the physically unable to perform list.
--DE Jason Babin (back) will be ready to play this week. He is practicing and feels about 95 percent healed.
--DE Anthony Weaver (knee) sat out practice Thursday for precautionary reasons, but he is expected to play.
--C/T Scott Jackson was signed Wednesday to help with depth at tackle, but he is not expected to join in the games for another couple of weeks as he familiarizes himself with the scheme.
--QB Vince Young still throws a lot of passes that don't end up close to an intended receiver, and improving his 47.5 completion percentage has to be a priority.
--RB Travis Henry had two big games against the Texans when he played for Buffalo, running for 159 yards in 2002 and 149 in 2003.
--RB LenDale White is likely to be the Titans' second running back Sunday against the Texans, meaning Chris Brown probably will be deactivated.
--RB Chris Brown is likely to be deactivated Sunday as he will rank behind Travis Henry and LenDale White.
--WR Drew Bennett has scored three touchdowns in his last five games against the Texans.
--G Zach Piller (ankle) was placed on injured reserve and may have played his last game for the Titans.
--K Rob Bironas is on the injury report with a groin problem, but he kicked Thursday and indications are the ailment isn't serious.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
After two-consecutive weeks of the running game being anemic (99 rushing yards total and 2.0 yards per carry), the veterans on the offensive line could have blamed their inefficiency on injuries. But something was bothering them even more than their ankles, knees, groins and hamstrings. Their pride hurt the most.
"I think after the Dallas game, everyone kind asked themselves, 'Is that the best I can play?'" right tackle Zach Wiegert said.
It obviously wasn't. Wiegert, right guard Steve McKinney, center Mike Flanagan, left tackle Ephraim Salaam and guards Fred Weary and Chester Pitts combined to have their best game of the season against the Jaguars. They opened up holes for running back Wali Lundy and provided solid protection for David Carr.
The Texans finished with a season-high 134 rushing yards and allowed just one sack. Against Dallas, the Texans allowed no sacks. It's only the second time in Carr's five-year career that he has been sacked only once in back-to-back games in which he started.
Wiegert, McKinney and Salaam were the last Texans to leave Reliant Stadium on Sunday. They were in the training room receiving treatment as the rest of their teammates celebrated the victory in the locker room.
"Ephraim has been battling stuff all year," Wiegert said. "I think Flanagan has had every single body part hurt at one time or another. This is the most I've ever seen Steve hurt. He's always been kind of an injury-free guy.
"We've got some guys who have played awhile. People seem to like older linemen in this league because they've seen all the looks and they're easier to coach. But when you get the older linemen, you're going to have some nicks and you just have to play through it. I think to last in this league, you have to play with nicks."
It was their ability to put their injuries aside and put together their best performance that Carr said inspired him, and Kubiak send sent a positive message to everyone on the team.
"Those guys played their best game as a group, and those are the type of steps we have to take to get better as a football team," Kubiak said. "And that rubs off. That rubs off in that locker room. That rubs off on every player down there."
The Titans have returned from their bye to lose their next game the past two years, and they are 2-3 over the past five years after their week off.
Safety Chris Hope said that coach Jeff Fisher told the team all about the pitfalls of restarting a season after time off for a bye. After the Titans broke through for their first win of the season in Washington on Oct. 15, they practiced three times before taking five days off.
They returned to work Wednesday, and their two practices so far have seemed crisp.
"That was the first thing Coach Fisher talked about, the importance of us getting back to work," Hope said. "That's why we went out in full pads today. He let us know how the facts show teams coming off a bye week come out flat, they miss more tackles, they get penalized more often.
"He stressed that and the importance of tempo, and we did a good job."
The Titans have gotten 301 yards from Travis Henry on the ground in their past two games, and they will look to keep him rolling.
The worst run defense in the league has to control Wali Lundy and Ron Dayne to keep Houston from building on the momentum gathered during wins in two of its last three games.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (4-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
SERIES: 3rd meeting. The Jaguars lead the series, 2-0, winning 38-21 in 1997 and 28-25 in Tom Coughlin's final season in 2002. Both games were played at home. This is the Jaguars' first trip to Philadelphia in the 12-year history of the franchise.
2006 RANKINGS: Jaguars: offense 22nd (12th rush, 24th pass); defense 9th (12th rush, 11th pass). Eagles: offense 1st (8th rush, 1st pass); defense 16th (14th rush, 21st pass)
PREDICTION: Eagles 27-19
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Eagles are hardly pressing the panic button -- all three of their losses have come on the final play of the game. What they are focusing on is tightening up a few areas, including their pass rush. Philadelphia has 15 sacks in two games and just 10 in their other six. Jaguars QB Byron Leftwich has a sore ankle and must prove to coach Jack Del Rio he is healthy before getting the nod Sunday, but backup David Garrard provides far more mobility. Regardless of who is behind center, the Jaguars don't want to get caught up in a scoring duel and need RBs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew to control the field position in a tough road environment. Jacksonville's defense could be without DT Marcus Stroud for a third consecutive game, making it easier for Philadelphia to establish the running game. RB Brian Westbrook and TE L.J. Smith give the Eagles the ability to exploit mismatches in the short running game with the Jaguars starting a rookie in OLB Clint Ingram and Daryl Smith forced inside with Mike Peterson out for the season.
FAST FACTS: Jaguars: Taylor needs 82 rushing yards to become the sixth active player with 9,000. ... Drew has already tied Greg Jones' team rookie record of three rushing touchdowns. Eagles: QB Donovan McNabb has thrown for at least two touchdowns in every game this season. ... McNabb needs 12 completions to tie Randall Cunningham (1,874) for second place in franchise history.
--QB Byron Leftwich was held out of practice Thursday, a sign he won't play Sunday in Philadelphia.
--QB David Garrard took all the snaps with the first team Thursday, a sign he'll start Sunday in Philadelphia.
--OL Stockar McDougle was downgraded to out for the Philadelphia game with an ankle injury.
--DT Marcus Stroud returned to practice Thursday but is still listed as doubtful with an ankle injury.
--RB LaBrandon Toefield was added to the injury report with a back ailment, but he's listed as probable.
--CB Rod Hood, who has missed the past four games with a heel injury, was downgraded from probable to questionable Thursday, but he did practice. It will be a game-time decision whether he plays Sunday.
--CB Joselio Hanson probably will be the third corner in the Eagles' nickel package Sunday even if Rod Hood returns.
--RB Brian Westbrook is having no problems with his knee. He is listed as probable for Sunday's game and has practiced the past two days.
--TE L.J. Smith practiced Thursday but still was listed as questionable on the injury report with a strained back. He is expected to play Sunday, though the injury might have an effect on his play.
--FB Thomas Tapeh remained questionable Thursday with a groin strain. Tapeh is the only fullback on the roster. He did practice, though, and he is expected to play Sunday against Jacksonville.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
You can all but pencil in David Garrard as the Jaguars' starting quarterback Sunday in Philadelphia.
The Jaguars sent another signal that Byron Leftwich will be benched Sunday when he didn't practice Thursday.
The decision to hold out Leftwich, who was supposed to split snaps with Garrard, was another sign that coach Jack Del Rio isn't convinced Leftwich's ankle has healed enough for him to play well. Del Rio said Wednesday he'll only play Leftwich if he feels his ankle has healed well enough for him to play effectively.
The real question is what happens if Garrard plays well Sunday. The team could then have a full blown quarterback controversy.
Both Garrard and Leftwich said before practice that they haven't been told which one will get the start.
"I don't know anything," Leftwich said. "I guess I'll find out whenever Sunday or pregame. I don't know. I'll find out at some point. I'll be ready for any situation. I don't want to say too much."
Garrard said he wasn't even told Wednesday he was splitting snaps until after he called his wife at lunchtime and she told him the news that had already appeared on the team Web site. At the start of practice, quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson gave him the official word on the field, and Garrard said, "I already know."
Garrard is trying not to spend time thinking about what a chance to showcase his talent in Philadelphia in a duel against Donovan McNabb could mean to his career.
"I'm looking at it as an opportunity to help the team win," he said. "I'm really tired of (talk) of trying to showcase. If you start getting into all the hype of what it means and showcasing your talent and all that stuff, (you can get distracted). I just believe in playing well and showcasing your talent that way."
Of the signs he's going to start, he said, "Is this just smoke or because you're going to play? You never know. That's probably the most difficult part when you hear some stir in the news and the media going on."
Garrard, who's started eight games in his career since being drafted in the fourth round in 2002, said he hasn't lost his drive to become a top player.
"I want to play here or somewhere else," he said.
Garrard said he can't compete with McNabb because he doesn't play defense, but he added, "He's someone I look up to as a quarterback. He has a similar style. He's somebody I'd like to hone my game after."
Leftwich seemed encouraged about the condition of his ankle after the Wednesday workout, although he said it wasn't 100 percent.
"It was the best it felt prior to the last two weeks. Hopefully, I can keep getting better and won't have any setbacks or anything and be ready to go on Sunday," he said.
Leftwich, though, appeared dejected, and when he was why he seemed to be taking it personally, he said, "I'm cool."
But then he was more candid as he said, "Even though I know it's about the ankle, anytime you're questioned just when you give everything you've got week in and week out, sometimes it bothers you. I know what I can control, and I try not to worry about everything else I can't control."
Cornerback Rod Hood, who has missed the past four games with a heel strain, was downgraded from probable to questionable on the injury report Thursday.
Hood did practice Thursday, but defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said a decision on whether he plays Sunday against Jacksonville probably won't be made until a few hours before the game.
"We're going to wait and see," Johnson said. "A lot of things depend on how he feels. We'll make that decision game time possibly."
If Hood, who is the team's nickel corner, plays, it will be the first time since Week 1 that the Eagles will have their top three corners. But Johnson has been very impressed with the Hood's replacement the last four weeks, Joselio Hanson. He hinted Thursday that even if Hood were able to play Sunday, he still might use Hanson as the third corner.
"(Hanson) is playing good, and it will be a factor," Johnson said. "Rod was going to start in our situations (package), and he'll play some. But right now, we're pretty happy with Hanson."
Seattle Seahawks (4-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (3-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Matt Vasgersian, JC Pearson, Jay Glazer
SERIES: The Chiefs lead, 30-18. Kansas City dominated this rivalry when Seattle was in the AFC West from 1977 through 2001. The Chiefs hold a 19-5 series lead in Kansas City. Seattle was winless there between 1990 and 1999.
2006 RANKINGS: Seahawks: offense 21st (20th rush, 17th pass); defense 15th (8th rush, 25th pass). Chiefs: offense 24th (21st rush, 21st pass); defense 11th (24th rush, 6th pass)
PREDICTION: Chiefs 24-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: Seahawks QB Seneca Wallace gets his first career start in place of injured Matt Hasselbeck and must make do without MVP RB Shaun Alexander and behind an offensive line that continues to struggle. Expect plenty of short passes to the running backs and TE Jerramy Stevens, who needs to be effective quickly in his second game back from injury to provide Wallace a safety valve. Wallace has mobility and a strong arm, but the Chiefs will attempt to rattle him early and the West Coast offense goes flat when it doesn't have timing. Kansas City's primary offensive goal has to be to protect the ball and not do Seattle any favors. RB Larry Johnson will carry a heavy load because while the Seahawks are ranked in the middle of the pack defensively, they do rush the passer well and have the ability to create a slew of turnovers through pressure. When QB Damon Huard does have time to work downfield, however, the Chiefs' receivers should be able to gain separation -- the Seahawks are giving up so many big pass plays that SS Michael Boulware was benched for Jordan Babineaux.
FAST FACTS: Seahawks: Do not have a quarterback on the roster with an NFL start in the preseason or regular season. ... Wallace will make his first NFL start in the same stadium in which he made his first collegiate start for Iowa State. Chiefs: Johnson is already fifth in franchise history with 35 rushing touchdowns. ... Have a 16-game home winning streak when having a positive turnover margin.
--WR Bobby Engram (thyroid condition) dressed for practice Thursday and did some drill work off to the side. He remained questionable on the injury report. The team has good depth at the position, so there is no pressure to rush Engram onto the field. Seattle is generally conservative with injuries.
--LG Floyd Womack returned to practice Thursday and worked with the scout team, his first action since suffering a sprained knee against Arizona in the second game of the season. Womack struggled early in the season, but the team will consider putting him back in the lineup because replacement Chris Spencer hasn't improved substantially. Womack worked at right tackle with the scout team Thursday.
--RB Shaun Alexander (broken foot) is doing some treadmill work this week. He won't practice, most likely, but the team is confident Alexander will be back for the Nov. 6 game against Oakland.
--DT Marcus Tubbs missed practice again Thursday. He remains questionable on the injury report. The team expects him to play Sunday. Tubbs is resting a sore knee.
--LB D.D. Lewis missed practice again Thursday. He remains questionable on the injury report with a turf-toe injury that could linger throughout the season.
--RT Sean Locklear missed practice again Thursday. The team downgraded him to questionable on the injury report. Tom Ashworth and Ray Willis split reps at right tackle in practice.
--RT Tom Ashworth is getting some work at right tackle this week because starter Sean Locklear is questionable with an ankle injury. Ray Willis is also getting work at the position.
--RT Ray Willis is getting some work at right tackle this week because starter Sean Locklear is questionable with an ankle injury. Tom Ashworth is also getting work at the position.
--LB Derrick Johnson returned to practice Thursday after tweaking an ankle in practice Wednesday.
--QB Trent Green continued his comeback from the severe concussion that has sidelined since Week 1, but his return to practice this week has produced only light throwing in individual drills and some seven-on-seven work. He is not expected to play against Seattle this week, and he likely will miss next week's game in St. Louis, his hometown, as well.
--LB Rich Scanlon, a key special teams player, has returned to practice on a limited basis after missing the previous three games with a knee injury, but he's questionable at best for this week's game against Seattle.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Seahawks have allowed 21 sacks in six games, three fewer than they allowed all of last season. Now they might have to play without their starting right tackle.
Sean Locklear, who emerged last season as a steady starter, was downgraded to questionable on the injury report Thursday. An ankle injury caused him to miss practice for a second consecutive day. Locklear already was playing with a tender knee.
Veteran Tom Ashworth and second-year pro Ray Willis split time at right tackle in practice Thursday.
Ashworth has started in a Super Bowl for New England, so he has experience, but his first season in Seattle has been a bit of a struggle. He has given up sacks whenever he has gotten onto the field, first in the exhibition season and again when Seattle needed him briefly in the season opener.
Ashworth was working at left tackle in the opener. He might be more comfortable on the right side. The team previously tried him at guard, although that experiment was short-lived.
Willis, meanwhile, has flashed potential in training camp and minicamps. He's a massive man at 6-foot-6 and close to 330 pounds. He has a mean streak that coaches like, but he has not been overly impressive in exhibition games, and his lack of experience would be a liability were he to play Sunday.
Locklear has started games after missing practices in the past. He missed practice before the team's game at Chicago earlier in the season, only to start and perform reasonably well. He has given up 1.5 sacks in six starts this season.
Coach Mike Holmgren has already threatened to shake up the lineup this week. Rookie Rob Sims is splitting practice time at left guard, where Chris Spencer has struggled to find his bearings. Spencer has plenty of talent, but he is a natural center playing out of position. Sims is a natural guard with outstanding strength.
The Chiefs suddenly have an apparent glut of tackles. Now, if any of them could effectively replace Willie Roaf.
Concerned about depth at the position after the unexpected retirement of Roaf and a nagging back injury to Kyle Turley, Roaf's replacement at left tackle, the Chiefs brought two veteran tackles to the team this week.
John Welbourn is a familiar face, at least. He was Kansas City's starting right tackle for most of the past two seasons before running afoul of the NFL's substance-abuse policy for a second consecutive year. He initially retired, then asked for reinstatement and served a six-game suspension before being eligible to return this week. He currently does not count against the Chiefs' 53-man roster and has a two-week window in which he is exempt from roster restrictions.
The Chiefs are working Welbourn initially at left tackle in hopes that he can back up or possibly replace Jordan Black, who has been playing the position while Turley continues to deal with the back problems that sidelined him for two seasons.
The Chiefs also brought in Chris Terry, who was a starter for Carolina and Seattle for 3 1/2 seasons before a series of off-field problems curtailed his career.
Terry hasn't played since he was released by Seattle in the spring of 2005. A second-round draft pick by Carolina in 1999, Terry was released in November 2002 after a misdemeanor domestic assault issue and a subsequent missed court date. He started 23 of the 25 games he played for the Seahawks but served a four-game suspension in 2003 for violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. He missed the last seven games in 2004 with a shoulder injury.
For right now, at least, the Chiefs will continue with Black at left tackle and Kevin Sampson at right until either Welbourn or Terry shows he is ready to replace the young starters.
"Chris is way behind," coach Herm Edwards said. "He hasn't played a lot. He's a pretty good player and was pretty good in practice today. Now, he doesn't know our offense, but then again he does. The terminology is a little bit different than it was in Seattle, but it's the same plays.
"Can there be a change? Maybe. But right now we're sticking with the two guys we have, and they're doing a solid job for us. We'll continue to practice them."
San Francisco 49ers (2-4) at Chicago Bears (6-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Pat Summerall, Brian Baldinger
SERIES: 60th meeting. The 49ers lead series 30-28-1, but the Bears have won the past two meetings in the past two seasons.
2006 RANKINGS: 49ers: offense 17th (9th rush, 18th pass); defense 28th (21st rush, 30th pass). Bears: offense 14th (24th rush, 10th pass); defense 2nd (3rd rush, 4th pass)
PREDICTION: Bears 27-14
KEYS TO THE GAME: It's not difficult to pinpoint the big difference between the teams -- while the 49ers are allowing 242.3 passing yards per game, the Bears are giving up just 243.2 in total yardage. The 49ers are giving up far too many big plays and now must contend with Bears QB Rex Grossman, who is second in the NFL at 12.71 yards per completion. However, Chicago's running game has continued to muddle along and coach Lovie Smith hinted RB Cedric Benson will be worked into the mix early. The good news for the 49ers is they expect to have their starting offensive line on the field together for the first time since the sixth play of the season. LG Larry Allen returns and must help control the line of scrimmage for the running game. RB Frank Gore needs to gain positive yardage on first and second down to avoid exposing QB Alex Smith to the Bears' fierce pass rush on long passing downs. The Bears to have a concern with SS Todd Johnson starting in place of injured Mike Brown.
FAST FACTS: 49ers: Smith's eight touchdown passes ties the team's total for all of 2005. ... WR Arnaz Battle has caught at least two passes in nine consecutive games. Bears: Have allowed 59 points, their fewest through six games since allowing 34 in 1934. ... Have allowed fewer than 10 points in nine consecutive home games.
--LB Derek Smith's helmet has been equipped with a visor to help compensate for a problem with his left eye. Smith has experienced difficulty changing his sightlines up and down in his eye, he said. A small portion of the visor over his eye has a prism, which enables him to have a larger vertical field of vision. Smith leads the 49ers with 53 tackles this season.
--FS Mike Adams, who ranks second on the team with 38 tackles, is expected to begin splitting time with Keith Lewis, regarded as the biggest hitter on the team.
--CB Walt Harris is expected to return to the starting lineup against the Bears, the team that drafted him No. 13 overall in the 1996 draft. Harris leads the 49ers with three interceptions, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
--OT Adam Snyder is expected to see some time at one or, perhaps, both tackle positions Sunday against the Bears. Snyder has started five games this season and performed well at left guard and left tackle. With the everybody healthy on the offensive line, Snyder is being pushed back to the bench, but he might challenge RT Kwame Harris for the starting job.
--WR Antonio Bryant leads the 49ers with 415 receiving yards. He had a good game last season against the Bears while playing for the Browns. Bryant caught TD passes of 33 and 28 yards during a 38-second span late in the fourth quarter of the Browns' 20-10 victory. Bryant beat Bears CB Charles Tillman for both scores. QB Trent Dilfer threw those passes to Bryant. Dilfer is the 49ers' backup QB this season.
--DE Adewale Ogunleye, who missed the past two games, practiced Wednesday and Thursday but remains questionable with a hamstring injury. He has not been cleared yet to play Sunday.
--DT Tommie Harris, who had five sacks in the first four games, hasn't had any sacks in the two games that DE Adewale Ogunleye has missed.
--DE Mark Anderson, the fifth-round rookie who replaced Adewale Ogunleye in the starting lineup last week, has three sacks in the two games that the veteran has been gone. Anderson has five sacks in the past three games and 6 1/2 overall, third in the NFL.
--QB Rex Grossman's yards per pass attempt have fallen in each of the past three weeks, from 7.48 to 6.74 to 3.89. He was over 10.0 in each of the first two games.
--LB Darrell McClover was signed to fill the roster spot of SS Mike Brown, who was placed on injured reserve following foot surgery.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
When the 49ers come to the line of scrimmage Sunday against the Bears, one of the first players on the other side that center Eric Heitmann will identify is middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
San Francisco coach Mike Nolan said the 49ers will try to block Urlacher with an offensive lineman on most plays, but there will be times when it is the responsibility of fullback Moran Norris.
"Being a fullback, you got to kind of have that swagger to block," Norris said. "You got to have that thought in your head. You can't have any doubts."
Urlacher is an exceptionally gifted defender who was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season. He had 25 tackles and a forced fumble leading to a touchdown return in the Bears' game Oct. 16 against the Cardinals. As strong and powerful as he is, Urlacher's best attribute is avoiding blocks, Nolan said.
"When I say this, I'm certainly not being critical of a player," Nolan said. "When it comes to blockers, he's a minimum-contact guy. The objective is to get the ball carrier. It's not to run through anybody to get there. There are times when he has to do that. But some of the best players go straight to the ball carrier."
Norris, two inches shorter and eight pounds lighter than Urlacher, has taken over the starting duties for Chris Hetherington, who started the first two games.
"He's done a good job and that's kept him in the lineup," Nolan said of Norris. "He's continued to do a nice job. I expect him to continue, and each week he's been called upon to do a lot of that seek-and-destroy blocking."
The 49ers average 117.8 yards rushing a game, and running back Frank Gore ranks seventh in the league with 520 yards on 112 carries. The 49ers' run game will be a key to Sunday's game against the Bears.
"His ability to block, especially singled up on linebackers, has helped in the run game," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said of Norris.
It's not as if the Bears defense has been struggling the past two games without left end Adewale Ogunleye, who has been nursing a strained hamstring.
The Bears are No. 2 in the NFL in yards and points allowed. The defense limited the Bills to a season-low 145 total yards in Week 5, then scored two touchdowns to help defeat the Cardinals in Week 6. But, the prospect of getting the team's sack leader from last season back on the field against the 49ers on Sunday has his linemates enthused.
"Wale's missed two games, and I haven't had a sack in two games," said tackle Tommie Harris, who had five sacks in the first four games when opposing offenses also had to worry about Ogunleye. "It helps a lot having him out there. Teams can't key on all of us. I told him, if he just wears his uniform and goes out there and acts like he's going to (play), that would help me so much. I'm just looking forward to being able to line up next to him."
That might not happen for another week. The Bears want to be confident that the 2003 Pro Bowl pick, who led the AFC with 15 sacks that year as a Dolphin, won't suffer a recurrence. Ogunleye had 10 sacks last season but just 1 1/2 so far this year. He practiced the past two days and appears to be close to 100 percent, but maybe not close enough.
"You want to see him practice that way over a period of time, not just a couple (days)," coach Lovie Smith said. "You want to see how sore he'll be at the end of the week after he's gotten in a little bit of work. Then we talk to the trainers and the doctors and also to Wale and go from there. He knows his body as well as anyone. That's normally how we make the decisions on who will dress."
Rookie Mark Anderson has taken advantage of the increased playing time made available by Ogunleye's absence to vault into a tie for third in the NFL with 6 1/2 sacks. The fifth-round pick from Alabama has five sacks in the past three games. Ogunleye's return gives the Bears a third threat from the edge, along with right end Alex Brown, who has three sacks. Ogunleye has 39 1/2 sacks over the previous four seasons, ninth best in the NFL.
"It should help quite a bit, and hopefully he will be able to go," Smith said. "Wale is one of our best football players. He's one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. He's one of our veterans and gives us a lot of leadership."
Even though the Bears have held nine consecutive regular-season visitors to Soldier Field to fewer than 10 points and permitted just three touchdowns over that time, coaches have spent a great deal of time the past two weeks pointing out flaws in film review. It's an effective ploy to prevent players from believing all the glowing praise they've read and heard about themselves in recent weeks.
"Coaches kind of brought us down to earth," Ogunleye said. "We watched a lot of our bad plays, mistakes we made. There are a lot of mistakes that we made, especially on defense. So, even if we wanted to sit back and rest on our laurels, we couldn't. The coaches wouldn't let us do it. We continue to watch plays where we make big mistakes, from Brian (Urlacher) down to Nathan Vasher. Everyone's made mistakes."
With Ogunleye back in the lineup, the Bears hope to limit their errors and increase their pressure on 49ers quarterback Alex Smith.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4) at New York Giants (4-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Tim Ryan
SERIES: 16th meeting. Giants lead the all-time series 9-6 but the Bucs have won three of the last four games between these teams.
2006 RANKINGS: Bucs: offense 29th (27th rush, 27th pass); defense 27th (30th rush, 15th pass). Giants: offense 2nd (2nd rush, 7th pass); defense 21st (15th rush, 23rd pass)
PREDICTION: Giants 24-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: With a short week following a big Monday night win at Dallas and facing a three-game home stretch, the Giants' chief concern has to be avoiding a letdown. The Bucs have produced just 23 offensive points the past two games and are starting a rookie quarterback in Bruce Gradkowski, but the Giants are also battling several injuries along their defensive line and lost OLB LaVar Arrington for the season. Regardless, until Gradkowski starts connecting on some of his deep shots to WR Joey Galloway, defenses will continue to stack the box with eight men in an effort to stuff RB Carnell Williams and the Bucs will struggle to move the ball. Tampa Bay's defense essentially won the game for the team last weekend, but it still is showing its age and will have a difficult time slowing the Giants' balanced attack. The Bucs are allowing 152.3 rushing yards per game and now must deal with the league's leading rushing in RB Tiki Barber. Tampa Bay's only real chance is to create turnovers and hope Gradkowski can capitalize on short fields.
FAST FACTS: Bucs: LB Derrick Brooks will tie Paul Gruber's franchise record by playing in his 183rd game with the team. ... Have outscored the Giants 72-41 in winning three of the past four meetings. Giants: Barber is averaging 4.67 yards for his career, third-best all-time among players with at least 2,000 carries (Jim Brown, 5.22; Barry Sanders, 4.99) ... Have outscored their opponents 122-46 in the second half.
--DT Ellis Wyms missed a second consecutive day of practice Thursday with an ankle sprain and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Giants. Wyms had one sack in his first start of the season, taking over for Anthony McFarland, who was traded to the Colts.
--TE Anthony Becht (foot) returned to practice Thursday but still is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Giants. Becht has played the past two games with the injury.
--CB Juran Bolden (hip) returned to practice Thursday and will start against the Giants in place of Brian Kelly, who was placed on injured reserve this week with a toe injury.
--WR/PR Mark Jones (hamstring) returned to practice Thursday and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Giants. If Jones doesn't play, the Bucs will use Ike Hilliard and Phillip Buchanon as punt returners.
--LB Shelton Quarles (knee) returned to practice Thursday and is expected to play Sunday against the Giants. However, backup Barrett Ruud could see plenty of action.
--DE Simeon Rice (shoulder) returned to practice Thursday and is expected to start against the Giants. Rice has just one sack this season.
--WR Maurice Stovall (back) returned to practice and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game.
--DT Fred Robbins will be the first replacement at defensive end if Mathias Kiwanuka or Michael Strahan have to come out. Robbins, second on the team with 3.5 sacks, leads in QB hits with five, two passes defensed and, surprisingly, two interceptions.
--RB Tiki Barber hasn't scored a touchdown yet, although he leads the NFL in rushing yardage with 647 and has caught 26 passes for 222 yards. On the other hand, his twin brother, Ronde, a cornerback for Tampa Bay, has two TDs, both coming last week on interception returns of Donovan McNabb passes.
--WR Sinorice Moss, the Giants' second-round draft pick, has caught exactly one pass for 4 yards in the second game of the season and otherwise has been on the team's game inactive list each week with a strained quad. "They are difficult to heal quickly," said coach Tom Coughlin, who didn't speculate on Moss' timetable for seeing any action.
--QB Eli Manning is given the lion's share of credit for the team's success in the red zone this season. There have been 18 opportunities with 17 resultant scores (10 touchdowns, seven field goals) and coach Tom Coughlin says it's Manning's doing. "He has shown so much improvement since last year ... heck, it's week to week ... that the team just has more confidence in him and he can make those split-second decisions," Coughlin said.
--WR Plaxico Burress, asked how he would react if he had a brother playing cornerback and the two were headed for an encounter (which the Barbers may well experience on Sunday), said: "I'd destroy him. This is football, not family."
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Poor tackling has been demise of the Buccaneers defense this season.
If linebacker Derrick Brooks, who has a franchise-record 1,836 career stops, can miss a tackle of the Eagles' Brian Westbrook to nearly cost the Bucs a game, the feeling is there will be more escorts to the end zone.
After Sunday's game, while the locker room exploded with emotion following Matt Bryant's 62-yard field goal that gave the Bucs a 23-21 win, Brooks was reflective.
"He was thinking, 'Oh, thank God Matt Bryant bailed me out,'" linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "Because when you're a great player like Jerome Bettis is and Derrick is, you put a lot on your shoulders. There was a bunch of other people that missed tackles on that play. There were two previous drives where they went right down the field and scored and got it to that point.
"But a guy like Derrick Brooks, he looks at it and says, '(bleep), I missed the tackle. I lost the game.' So I think he was ... I'm not an English major ... but he was maybe vindicated with Matt Bryant making that kick.
"And the first thing when we saw each other in the locker room, he was furious with himself. He was like, 'I can't believe it! I've made that tackle 1,000 times on a damn check-down in Cover Two.'"
Disbelief also describes what the Bucs feel when they look at the defensive rankings. After allowing the Eagles offense to rip them apart for 506 yards, Tampa Bay is 27th overall in total defense and 30th against the run, allowing 152.3 yards per game.
"If I was to put one thing on it, I'd say it was our tackling as a whole has been poor," Barry said. "If you have to list one thing, you look at one thing and say why is that? It's got to be the tackling. Missed tackles, bad tackles where you might get the guy down but he falls forward for 2 or 3 or 4 yards. Why is that? I don't know. But I can assure that we as a coaching staff are preaching it, we're talking about it. We're drilling it. It's being brought to their attention."
With five starters 30 or older, the collective age of the Bucs defense is also going to be singled out as a reason for its slippage.
Brooks, 33, insists he has seen no drop-off in his game in 12th season.
"I've not heard that at all, and if that's what people are saying, they have a right to their opinion," Brooks said. "But my play has been at a level it's always been at this point during the season.
"I was disappointed I missed a tackle, but I wasn't going to go home and kick my dog or slit my wrist. No more upset than the week before when I missed a tackle or a play I thought I should've made. That's the personal critique of yourself. Even more important than that is we find a way to win."
Linebacker Ryan Nece, who was not on the field during Westbrook's touchdown, went to dinner with linebacker Barrett Ruud following the game and said the talk was about the missed tackles. Eventually Nece said you have to take a fatalistic view of the play and remember why Bryant had a chance to be the hero.
"For (Brooks) to miss that, it was almost like it had to happen," Nece said. "For Bryant to kick a 62-yard field goal, that had to happen. And that's kind of a weird way to look at it. Because he doesn't miss that play. That almost was meant to be for him."
Tackling has been an issue almost since the first game this season, but it moved to the front burner when the Saints' Deuce McAllister knifed through Bucs defenders on runs of 57 and 24 yards. Already this season, the Bucs have given up 31 runs of 10 yards or more.
Seven of those long runs came last week against the Eagles, although Brooks insists the Bucs didn't miss too many tackles except on Westbrook's long catch and run.
"We tackled pretty good outside of one play," Brooks said. "And that's what we're going to watch, critique ourselves one last time and get better."
Yes, it's going to be Mathias Kiwanuka. The rookie will start at right defensive end for the Giants on Sunday when they play the Buccaneers, which means he'll draw left offensive tackle Anthony Davis, who is 6-foot-4, 325 pounds.
Kiwanuka, the Giants' first-round draft pick (last in the round at 32nd overall) has played well if infrequently, and his sudden ascension to the starting lineup, while far from permanent, indicates that he has pleased head coach Tom Coughlin and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis enough to inspire trust.
The normal starter, Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora, suffered a strained left hip flexor Monday night in Dallas, and his status, according to Coughlin, is week-to-week. His replacement, Justin Tuck, suffered a foot injury and may or may not be ready Sunday.
Coughlin is picking the "may not" half of that equation.
So that will pair the 23-year-old Kiwanuka, 6-5 and 265 from Boston College, with the Giants' other Pro Bowl end, Michael Strahan, 34.
"I don't like the way this happened," Kiwanuka said. "You don't want to get somebody's job because of an injury. But that's how things are, and I think I'm ready to fill in."
Kiwanuka has a tackle in each of the five games in which he has appeared, along with three quarterback hits. "He has been impressive when he has had the opportunity," Coughlin said. "His experience is not as high as you would like it to be, but rookies start all the time."
This is not the only problem for the Giants defense. Strong-side linebacker LaVar Arrington suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon Monday night and is gone for the season. This will result in veteran Carlos Emmons, who was moved to the weak side but who hasn't played for the past three weeks (strained pectoral) to move back to the strong side, while his weak-side replacement, Brandon Short, stays in place. Short has played exceptionally well and might have won the job anyway.
"I'm not replacing LaVar," Emmons said. "I'm replacing myself. It was my job anyway."
St. Louis Rams (4-2) at San Diego Chargers (4-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 ET
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
SERIES: 9th meeting. Rams lead, 5-3, and they have won the only two games played in the series since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995. Both games were in St. Louis. There have been just two games in the series played in San Diego in 1975 and 1994. The Rams won the 1975 game in overtime.
2006 RANKINGS: Rams: offense 8th (22nd rush, 4th pass); defense 24th (23rd rush, 22nd pass). Chargers: offense 4th (3rd rush, 13th pass); defense 1st (5th rush, 2nd pass)
PREDICTION: Chargers 24-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: Many experts are pointing to this game as a litmus test for the Rams, but the Chargers have an identical record and an opponents' combined record for 13-24 compared to St. Louis' 15-23. With San Diego failing to rush for 100 yards in either of its past two games, expect the Chargers to lean more on RB LaDainian Tomlinson and attack an undersized Rams defense allowing an average of 121 rushing yards. One of St. Louis' goals over its bye week was preventing big plays, and the Rams are excited to have CB Fakhir Brown back in the lineup. Another focus was tightening up the pass protection. QB Marc Bulger has been sacked 19 times through four games and the offensive line will have to deal with its first true 3-4 opponent this season. The Chargers are without injured OLB Shaun Phillips, who leads the team in sacks, but have plenty of other athletes who can rush the passer from various spot. Bulger has thrown just one interception and if he can make the right reads he can burn San Diego's mediocre secondary.
FAST FACTS: Rams: Are 6-2 in games immediately following a bye since 1998. ... RB Steven Jackson has three consecutive 100-yard rushing games against AFC teams. Chargers: Tomlinson has 7,834 yards in 85 games. Only seven players have reached 8,000 in fewer than 90. ... QB Philip Rivers is second in the AFC with a 116.0 fourth-quarter passer rating.
--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa will play Sunday despite breaking a small bone in his hand during Wednesday's practice. The hand injury is on the same arm as the dislocated elbow Tinoisamoa has been playing with for several weeks. A small cast will be put on his hand. He practiced Thursday, although the hand was sore.
--CB Fakhir Brown experienced some soreness in an injured ankle that has kept him out for the past two games, but he will play Sunday against San Diego. Brown was held out of a few plays Thursday in practice to make sure the injury isn't aggravated.
--FB Paul Smith has practiced this week without an issue or problems with an eye that had surgery Oct.10.
--FB Madison Hedgecock has continued to practice without incident, wearing a cast on his right hand to protect a broken hand. Hedgecock is expected to play Sunday against San Diego.
--RG Mike Goff had surgery Monday on his left middle finger. He was able to practice Thursday and will start Sunday.
--LT Marcus McNeill likely will not have a cumbersome bandage on his right hand this week. He broke a bone in the hand against the 49ers on Oct. 15 and played with a heavy bandage on it last Sunday.
--S Bhawoh Jue (knee) practiced Thursday and could be active Sunday.
--LB Shaun Phillips remains down with a strained calf. Although he was thought to be out two to four weeks, he said he has a shot of playing next week against the Browns.
--LB Shawne Merriman continues to practice as he awaits his appear hearing regarding a positive steroid test.
--DE Igor Olshansky is down at least one more week as he recovers from minor knee surgery. Jacques Cesaire will start in his place, with Derreck Robinson coming in on passing downs.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
When the Rams play at San Diego on Sunday, two teams ranked among the best in the NFL at protecting the ball will be facing each other.
The Rams and Chargers are tied for the second-fewest turnovers in the league with five. Only the Colts have fewer with four, and just eight other teams have fewer than 10. The Rams, with 16 takeaways (fourth in the NFL) are first with a turnover ratio of plus-11. The Chargers are plus-6, which is tied for third best in the league.
While quarterback Marc Bulger has received a lot of attention for throwing just one interception this season -- his streak of 248 passes without one was snapped Oct. 15 against Seattle -- overlooked has been the fact that running back Steven Jackson hasn't fumbled all season. The Rams as a team have fumbled six times, losing four. Jackson has 133 rushing attempts and 25 receptions for a total touch count of 158. That is tied for third in the NFL among running backs. His rushing attempts are tied for fourth, and two ahead of him have played an additional game.
Under former coach Mike Martz, turnovers were plentiful, but new coach Scott Linehan has consistently stressed the importance of ball security.
Said Bulger, "Scott made that an issue in the spring. That was one of our points of emphasis -- taking care of the ball -- and he hammered on us every day. We're going to take care of the football. And it's easier to check the ball down and not worry about punting it, with the coaches behind you, and the defense that you know can get turnovers for you."
Bulger is also pleased with the continued improvement of the offense after some early struggles.
"It was frustrating at first," he admitted. "It took, what, one or two weeks into the regular season? But I think in the big scheme of things, that's not a long time, which is nice. Some teams and some offenses take a year or two. We're still early in the season, but I think we've adopted this as our new system, and everyone's getting more comfortable with it and embracing it."
It's a two-game stretch that could make or break the Chargers' season.
It all starts Sunday, when the Chargers entertain the Rams with that loss to Missouri's other team still rattling around their heads.
After the Rams, the Chargers will welcome the Browns. In both games, the Chargers will be the prohibitive favorites, and they should be.
But what makes the pair even more critical is what lies ahead. Not only could the Chargers be without the services of Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman (positive drug test) after the Browns game, but their schedule gets considerably tougher.
Three of the next four are on the road, including dates at Cincinnati and Denver, plus a cross-country trip to Buffalo.
"This is a big game," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Every game is big, but they are coming off a bye week and we are coming off a tough division loss. We are at home and both teams are playing for a lot. So it's a big game for us."
A sweep over the next two weeks, and the Chargers are no worse than a game behind the Broncos in the AFC West.
"That adds to the importance," Rivers said about Sunday's game. "(Winning) two at home gets us to 6-2 at the halfway mark. Not to look ahead, because we got to be 5-2 first, but that would put us in a good position at the halfway point."
It's been a rocky opening two months for the Chargers, what with losing linebacker Steve Foley to an officer-involved shooting, safety Terrence Kiel being arrested on five felony drug charges and Merriman failing a test, which showed steroids in his body.
But the Chargers sit at 4-2 and just a breath away from the AFC West lead. And it's imperative they win the next two games if they want to stay there.
Indianapolis Colts (6-0) at Denver Broncos (5-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 16th meeting. The Colts lead the series 11-4 over the Denver Broncos. The Colts also have a pair of blowout wins in the playoffs. Three seasons ago Denver lost 41-10 at Indianapolis in an AFC Wild Card game, then two seasons ago the Colts beat the broncos 49-24 in an AFC Wild Card game.
2006 RANKINGS: Colts: offense 3rd (16th rush, 2nd pass); defense 18th (31st rush, 3rd pass). Broncos: offense 23rd (4th rush, 30th pass); defense 4th (7th rush, 8th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 23-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: Something has to give. The Colts are averaging 28.5 points per game while the Broncos have the league's top-ranking scoring defense at 7.3 points per game and have surrendered just two touchdowns all season. Denver must find a way to contain QB Peyton Manning early and keep the game close because the Colts have outscored their opponents 101-57 in the second half this season. That also means a solid effort from an offense that has yet to show any consistency. It doesn't get any easier for the Broncos, who lost LT Matt Lepsis for the season and are likely to move RG Cooper Carlisle to the left side to deal with Colts DE Dwight Freeney. To avoid putting the reshaped line under too much pressure, Denver has to run the ball effectively early on. And that shouldn't be a monumental task with Indianapolis second-worst in the NFL allowing 158.0 rushing yards per game and dead last at 5.2 yards per carry.
FAST FACTS: Colts: Are the ninth team in league history to start consecutive seasons 6-0. The 1929-31 Green Bay Packers are the only team to start consecutive seasons 7-0. ... INVESCO Field is one of only three stadiums Manning has played in without throwing a touchdown pass. Broncos: Have won an NFL-best 13 consecutive home games. ... WR Rod Smith needs one reception to pass Steve Largent (819) for 12-most all-time.
--S Mike Doss, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the fourth quarter of last week's win over Washington, is out and will be sidelined for the remainder of the season.
--WR Brandon Stokley is recovering from a sprained left knee that he injured against Tennessee on Oct. 8. He has not practiced for the past two weeks and will be sidelined against the Broncos.
--LB Keith O'Neil incurred a sprained left ankle in the Washington game and has not practiced all week. He will not play this week against Denver.
--DT Montae Reagor is still hospitalized after undergoing surgery Wednesday to repair a broken orbital socket near his left eye. He was injured Sunday when his SUV was hit and flipped as he was driving from the Colts' offices to the RCA Dome prior to the game against Washington.
--DT Anthony "Booger" McFarland is expected to get his second consecutive start this week. McFarland was acquired from Tampa Bay in a trade last week. He made his first start for the Colts against Washington due to DT Montae Reagor's traffic accident.
--FB Kyle Johnson has practiced all week and should play against Indianapolis. Johnson missed last week's game with a sprained ankle.
--OT Erik Pears is one of the possible replacements for injured Matt Lepsis at left tackle. Pears is a tall, athletic lineman in the mold of the blockers the Broncos have preferred in their scheme. Pears is inexperienced, however, so if he is used at left tackle, the Broncos probably will have to help him.
--RB Tatum Bell is a key to this week's game against Indianapolis. He has a good matchup against a vulnerable run defense. The Broncos are looking for some big plays out of Bell, who hasn't produced as many this year as he did last year. Last year Bell had 10 20-yard runs and three 50-yard runs as a reserve, compared with three 20-yard runs and no 50-yard runs this year.
--WR Rod Smith has nine consecutive 70-catch seasons. He still has a shot at his 10th after a slow start. Smith needs to catch 48 passes in Denver's final 10 games to get 70 this season.
--LB Al Wilson is on the injury report with a thumb injury, but that shouldn't bother him. The Broncos might be without injured DT Gerard Warren, so Wilson will be a focal point in the middle of the defense this week.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Colts safety Bob Sanders sat out Thursday's afternoon practice but remains hopeful of being able to start against Sunday at Denver.
Sanders has missed the past four games as he recovered from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He was able to do some running Monday and took part in his first full practice Wednesday.
Although he experienced some soreness in his knee prior to the Thursday's workout, he thinks he will be able to play against the Broncos.
"I got a little work (Wednesday) and it was good to be back. It felt real good. I started off kind of slow, but as the day went on, I think I did pretty good," he said.
"(The knee is) kinda sore. We thought that it would be like that. Took (Thursday) off and just relaxed, give it another day to heal up a little bit more. But I think it will be fine for this weekend."
Broncos defensive tackle Gerard Warren said he doesn't know yet if he'll play Sunday against Indianapolis. He will have to manage the pain in his sprained right big toe, which he injured last week.
Warren said he won't take a painkilling shot, however.
"I don't take painkillers," Warren said. "You could take one, but I never take painkillers."
Warren said he is worried about having the injured area numb, and the injury getting worse during the game and not realizing it.
"You know how much pain you can take," Warren said. "With a painkiller, you can tear a tendon off the bone and be out for the whole season."
Warren didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday, but the team expects he will practice Friday. The Broncos will get a better idea if he'll be able to play after Friday's practice.
Warren is Denver's best defensive lineman, so losing him would be a big blow against Indianapolis. Demetrin Veal would start and Kenny Peterson would be active for the first time to provide depth if Warren can't play.
New York Jets (4-3) at Cleveland Browns (1-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Solomon Wilcots
SERIES: 19th meeting. Browns lead series, 11-7. This will be the Jets' second visit to Cleveland since the franchise rejoined the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. The Jets won 10-7 in Cleveland in 2004 behind then-backup QB Quincy Carter, subbing for an injured Chad Pennington.
2006 RANKINGS: Jets: offense 19th (13th rush, 23rd pass); defense 30th (28th rush, 26th pass). Browns: offense 32nd (31st rush, 26th pass); defense 22nd (29th rush, 10th pass)
PREDICTION: Browns 24-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: Jets coach Eric Mangini and Browns coach Romeo Crennel were both defensive assistants under New England coach Bill Belichick, but Mangini is experiencing far more success at this point than his close friend. Crennel let offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon go this week, with Jeff Davidson taking over the play-calling. Davidson would be wise to stick with a heavy dose of the ground game -- the Jets allow 142.2 rushing yards per game and the Browns have to find a way to protect QB Charlie Frye better. RB Reuben Droughns has the ability to wear a defense down and the longer the Browns' offense is on the field the more it protects the defense as well. Cleveland lost CB Gary Baxter for the season and the Jets will attempt to exploit the secondary with three-receiver sets featuring WRs Laveranues Coles, Jerricho Cotchery and Justin McCareins. With rookie RB Leon Washington providing a strong ground presence in recent games, QB Chad Pennington should have success working off play-action.
FAST FACTS: Jets: Have matched 2005 win total. ... Coles' 42 receptions are the most by a Jet through seven games since Al Toon's 43 in 1986. Browns: Crennel was the Jets' defensive line coach from 1997-99. ... Are averaging 14.6 yards per game after finishing last in the NFL at 14.5 last season.
--SS Kerry Rhodes hasn't had a sack the past four games after producing three strip sacks in a two-game span against New England and Buffalo.
--WR/PR Tim Dwight (thigh) practiced on a limited basis Thursday. This has become the norm for Dwight, who is expected to be available Sunday.
--WR Laveranues Coles (calf) is listed as questionable and did not practice fully Thursday. Like WR/PR Tim Dwight, that has become the norm for the physically tough Coles.
--RB Cedric Houston (knee) practiced on a limited basis Thursday and is listed as questionable. He hasn't played since suffering a knee injury against Indianapolis on Oct. 1.
--RT Anthony Clement practiced Thursday but was added to the injury list as probable with a back injury.
--DE Shaun Ellis practiced Thursday but was added to the injury list as probable with a back injury.
--RB Curtis Martin (knee) won't return to practice until at least after the Cleveland game, coach Eric Mangini said this week, reiterating his stance of a week ago.
--OT Ryan Tucker has been absent from the team due to an undiagnosed illness that is being treated on an outpatient basis. Tucker's illness makes it highly unlikely he will play Sunday against the Jets.
--OT Kelly Butler probably will get his first start Sunday against the Jets in place of Ryan Tucker. Butler started 16 games a year ago in Detroit but was waived at the end of camp before being claimed by the Browns.
--WR Dennis Northcutt's ribs remain sore, and his status for Sunday is in doubt. Northcutt's presence as the third receiver and as a punt returner clearly helps the offense.
--RB Reuben Droughns may benefit more than anyone from the switch to Jeff Davidson as the team's offensive coordinator. Presumably an offensive line coach would listen to linemen, all of whom said the Browns never committed to the run this season.
--QB Charlie Frye missed a play last Sunday after taking a blow to the head, but he has shown no signs of problems this week. Frye answered questions clearly and was not listed on the injury report.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Jets finally got their running game in gear against Detroit on Sunday, but they will face a big obstacle this week. Literally.
Like the Jets, Cleveland runs a 3-4 defense. Not surprising, since head coach Romeo Crennel tutored under Bill Belichick in New England just like Eric Mangini. But the difference between the teams is that the Browns have a legitimate nose tackle, 6-foot-5, 365-pound Ted Washington.
"It's hard to miss Ted," left guard Pete Kendall said. "You know when he's out there and you pretty much know what he's going to do. The challenge is pretty much trying to execute against him."
However, the 16th-year veteran isn't quite the force he used to be. He has 21 tackles through six games but hasn't bolstered the Browns rush defense in his first season in Cleveland.
Cleveland is 29th in the league in rushing defense, allowing 144.2 yards per game. The Browns also are allowing 4.6 yards per carry. Even the Jets' much-maligned rush defense allows less, giving up 4.5 yards an attempt.
Still, the Jets are wary of Washington.
"Ted is very good at what he does," Kendall said, "and that's controlling the A gaps and occupying the center. There's no real secret, because it's not really a finesse game."
And Washington will get the chance to use some of his experience against a rookie center, although Nick Mangold hasn't really played like one.
"The highest compliment anyone can give (Mangold)," Kendall said, "is that he's come in and played like he's been here before. That's the most impressive thing for a guy who hasn't been here, to play like he's has."
"This is going to be another huge challenge," Mangold said. "He's a dominating guy. It's going to be a long 60 minutes.
"I could use a little help. It's going to come down to looking at my technique and making sure it's correct. I listen to guys like Pete (Kendall) and Trey (Teague). I use their ideas and see if they come into play during the game."
Mangold is an Ohio native and an Ohio State product, so he at least has some idea of what the atmosphere will be like, having once attended a game in Cleveland.
"It was a couple of years ago," he recalled. "Somehow we had a Sunday off and got tickets. We didn't get to sit in the 'Dawg Pound,' but we got to see it from the stands, and it was pretty crazy."
Mangold's challenge Sunday will be to keep it a little more sane.
Offensive linemen were the happiest group following the "resignation" of Browns offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon and the promotion of Jeff Davidson.
In one sense, it's logical the line would be happy since Davidson was their position coach. But linemen were the prime group to express frustration at the Carthon regime, which had the Browns last in total offense this season.
"A lot of confusion," guard Joe Andruzzi said. "A lot of young guys not on the same page."
Guard Cosey Coleman said Carthon's direct, confrontational style "was not a recipe for success."
Davidson will not revamp the entire offense, but players expect more logical play-calling, and they expect plays to be called properly. Apparently under Carthon, plays were sent in with the wrong protection and with the wrong alignment.
"(Davidson) has a good understanding of what type of offense we want to run, how to get things flowing, how to get it right for the right guys," Andruzzi said.
"He knows football," Coleman said. "When he talks, when he explains things and breaks down things, you feel as though he knows what he's talking about.
"It gives you more insight and confidence to go out and do what is asked of you because you are more confident it will work."
Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4) at Oakland Raiders (1-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon
SERIES: 17th meeting, series that began in 1970 is tied 11-11 overall, including 8-8 in the regular season and 3-3 in the post-season. The Steelers won the last meeting in 2004 in Pittsburgh, 24-21, and have won five of the past six games between the teams, back to 1994. Their post-season meetings in the 1970s were epics; they met either in the playoffs (two) or the AFC championship game (three) five straight times from 1972 through 1976, including the famous Immaculate Reception game in 1972 in Three Rivers Stadium.
2006 RANKINGS: Steelers: offense 9th (15th rush, 9th pass); defense 12th (9th rush, 19th pass). Raiders: offense 31st (10th rush, 31st pass); defense 5th (26th rush, 1st pass)
PREDICTION: Steelers 27-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Raiders won their first game of the season last week despite turning the ball over five times. That combination won't work against Pittsburgh, which has its back against the wall in the AFC and should come out motivated. The Steelers will focus on stopping the Raiders' ground game early on and then abusing Oakland's vulnerable offensive line. The Raiders must keep the game close and stick with the run, even if RB LaMont Jordan's stiff back causes him problems and Justin Fargas sees significant action. Pittsburgh expects QB Ben Roethlisberger to play following last Sunday's concussion, and he'll face a quickly improving Oakland defense. Look for the Steelers to come out running behind RB Willie Parker and only attack the Raiders' secondary if the ground game stalls. Oakland did an excellent job of containing Cardinals WR Anquan Bolin last weekend and will attempt to recreate that success against Steelers WR Hines Ward.
FAST FACTS: Steelers: Ward's 15 career 100-yard receiving games are the third-most in franchise history. ... Coach Bill Cowher is 5-1 against Oakland. Raiders: Are allowing just 140.5 passing yards per game. ... Have allowed only 10 touchdowns in 25 opponents' trips inside the 20-yard line.
--LB Joey Porter, who has not played in the past two games, was upgraded on Thursday to probable after going through his second full practice. He had a hamstring injury.
--LB Clark Haggans will try to practice Friday, but if he cannot, Arnold Harrison would replace him at left outside linebacker Sunday. Haggans has an ankle injury.
--WR Cedrick Wilson (groin) is still listed as questionable, but he went through a full practice Thursday.
--NT Casey Hampton said Thursday that he will play Sunday. However, he has not practiced, and coach Bill Cowher said Hampton was being optimistic and that the player remains questionable.
--RG Chris Kemoeatu, a second-year player, is pushing veteran Kendall Simmons for the starting job. Coach Bill Cowher said he may move Kemoeatu up based on merit.
--RB LaMont Jordan missed practice for the second consecutive day with a sore back and is listed as questionable.
--DT Warren Sapp was added to the injury report Thursday with a hip/back injury. He did not practice and is listed as questionable.
--DT Anttaj Hawthorne would join Tommy Kelly and Terdell Sands as the third tackle in the Raiders rotation if Warren Sapp cannot play.
--WR Randy Moss has been the favorite target of Oakland quarterbacks, with 54 passes headed his way out of 162. With 24 receptions, there have been more incompletions headed his way than completions.
--RB Zack Crockett, who averaged a touchdown every 7.3 carries from 1999-2003 as the Raiders' short-yardage back, does not have a touchdown in his last 53 attempts dating back to Oct. 23, 2005.
--CB Fabian Washington makes the 16th start of his career Sunday against Pittsburgh and is still awaiting his first interception.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Ben Roethlisberger went through a full practice Thursday, and barring any setbacks, he will start Sunday in Oakland.
Roethlisberger has been cleared by doctors to return to the field after he suffered a concussion in the third quarter of the Steelers' 41-38 overtime loss in Atlanta last Sunday. He watched the rest of the game from the sideline.
"He felt better than he did yesterday," coach Bill Cowher said Thursday. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow, but to be quite honest with you, a final decision probably won't be made until Sunday morning. We'll have to see how he feels obviously going across the country on the trip and once we get out there. But I'm very encouraged by how he feels today."
Roethlisberger had his final ImPACT test Wednesday after practice and he again passed it. The 20-minute test measures brain process, memory, speed and motor skills.
"It's the symptoms you're constantly looking for," Cowher said. "That's something we'll monitor on a day-to-day basis up to game time."
Roethlisberger appeared to have hit his stride the past two games. He completed 32 of 41 passes for 476 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 154.62 the past two games. In the three games before that, his passer rating was 44.1 and he threw no TD passes and seven interceptions.
Jerry Porter is back with the Raiders but may be no closer to the field.
Porter, suspended for four weeks by coach Art Shell for conduct detrimental to the team, had his suspension reduced to two weeks in a settlement reached between the NFL management council and the NFL Player's Association.
After missing Wednesday's practice while traveling from Florida, Porter practiced Thursday. He was in good spirits in the locker room but declined comment when approached by reporters.
Shell kept details of his talk with Porter to a minimum. Porter, Oakland's leading receiver over the past two years with 140 receptions, was inactive for the first four games of the season after arguing with the coaching staff over his decision to train at home and then requesting a trade.
"We spoke this morning," Shell said. "Look, we are here to work. He is here to work. I am here to work. We move on and try to get prepared for the rest of the season."
Shell said Porter took some reps with the scout team and "some with the regular group."
Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who said he has spoken to Porter during the suspension, was skeptical that Porter would suit up but hoped that would change.
"I think he wanted to contribute from Day One," Sapp said. "He said he was going to work out and be prepared if the call was made to come out and help us win ballgames. He's ready to go if given the opportunity."
Porter lost $117,647 in wages but would have lost twice that if the Raiders had their way. The reduction in Porter's suspension was settled by the management council and the NFLPA by virtue of a relatively recent addition to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The Raiders were powerless to keep Porter from returning unless they released him -- a move that would cost the club $6.45 million in salary acceleration under the 2007 salary cap.
Dallas Cowboys (3-3) at Carolina Panthers (4-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer
SERIES: 9th meeting. Dallas leads series 5-3. Dallas has won five of the last six meetings. Dallas and Carolina met in a 1996 Divisional Playoff Game and a 2003 Wild Card Game, with the Panthers claiming victories in both.
2006 RANKINGS: Cowboys: offense 5th (5th rush, 11th pass); defense 8th (4th rush, 16th pass). Panthers: offense 20th (25th rush, 16th pass); defense 17th (20th rush, 17th pass)
PREDICTION: Panthers 23-21
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cowboys QB Tony Romo showed promise and inexperience when he took over for benched Drew Bledsoe on Monday night. For Dallas to get more of the former and less of the latter in Romo's first NFL start, the Cowboys must get a strong game from RB Julius Jones. One of the reasons coach Bill Parcells has turned to Romo is his mobility, which could come in handy behind a shaky offensive line that has to contend with DE Julius Peppers. If Romo can buy some extra time with his feet, there might be a few big plays to be had. Allowing big plays has been the Cowboys' nemesis defensively. Ss Pat Watkins and Roy Williams have struggled to provide help over the top, which is a scary proposition against Panthers WR Steve Smith. While Carolina has the big-play threat, it also has had far too many drives stall with the league's worst third-down offense converting just 23.5 percent. The Cowboys' front seven is very stout and the Panthers could find it difficult to move the ball on the ground.
FAST FACTS: Cowboys: WR Terrell Owens has moved past Andre Rison for 21st place all-time with 744 career receptions. ... Begin a three-game road stretch. Panthers: Are 8-3 in their past 11 games decided by eight points or less. ... Smith is averaging 103.1 receiving yards per game since the start of the 2005 season.
--QB Drew Bledsoe might have started his last game in the NFL. This is almost certainly his last year. Bledsoe, benched in favor of Tony Romo, is signed through next season when he will count $7 million against the salary cap. That includes a $1 million roster bonus due in March. Look for the Cowboys to make a decision on Bledsoe's future shortly after the season. Bledsoe certainly will not want to return as a backup.
--QB Tony Romo is the ninth starting quarterback for the Cowboys since Troy Aikman retired in 2000, joining Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Drew Henson, Anthony Wright, Clint Stoerner, Ryan Leaf and Drew Bledsoe.
--FS Keith Davis has been cleared to play after missing Monday's game with a sprained ankle. Davis could find himself replacing mistake-prone rookie Pat Watkins in the starting lineup.
--FS Pat Watkins might lose his starting job after continued poor play in the passing game. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said Watkins has given up five big plays this season, and he is looking at using Marcus Coleman or Keith Davis at free safety against the Panthers.
--DE Jason Hatcher remains sidelined with a sprained ankle. He has not practiced all week and won't play against the Panthers.
--SLB Thomas Davis practiced for the second consecutive day on Thursday and is expected to start Sunday night against the Cowboys. The Panthers can use all of the playmakers they can get on defense against the Cowboys. Davis missed last week's game with bruised ribs.
--C Justin Hartwig could see his first start since Week 1 this week against the Cowboys. Coach John Fox said he'll make a game-time decision between Hartwig and Geoff Hangartner, who has started the past five games at center. The conventional thinking is, now that Hartwig is healthy and the team's winning streak is over, the Panthers will go back to Hartwig, in whom they invested $17 million in the offseason.
--RB DeAngelo Williams (ankle) is questionable for Sunday's game and did not practice Thursday.
--WR Steve Smith was limited to one catch last year against the Cowboys and was kicked out of the game for grabbing an official around the waist.
--CB Ken Lucas should have a shot at some interceptions with the Cowboys starting Tony Romo at quarterback. But Lucas will have his hands full with either Terrell Owens or Terry Glenn. Lucas left last week's game with a hip injury but has practiced all this week.
--CB Richard Marshall will return to the No. 3 cornerback spot with Ken Lucas expected to play this week.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Quarterback Tony Romo is ready and excited to make his first start since his senior year at Eastern Illinois.
However, playing against the Panthers and defensive end Julius Peppers is quite a bit different than playing Western Illinois in the Division I-AA playoffs.
Although Cowboys coach Bill Parcells believes Romo is ready for the challenge and remains hopeful that the young QB can spearhead a turnaround for a team that was going nowhere with Drew Bledsoe at the helm, Parcells admits the unknown factor surrounding Romo's pedigree and experience gives the Cowboys no guarantee.
"Nervous?" Parcells said. "I don't think that would be the right word. I am anxious to see what is going to happen. That would be an honest assessment."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is also trying his best to look at the positives of the move. He said Romo brings mobility and a quicker release to the position and hopes the move is just what the team needs to make something of its season with 10 games remaining.
But he's also realistic about the state of the Cowboys that brought about the quarterback change after six games.
When Jones built the Cowboys in the offseason and predicted that they had what it takes to make this a special season, he did so with idea of having a veteran quarterback at the helm.
That the Cowboys have had to make a change is a setback in his mind. It means things have not gone as expected, which is a disappointment.
As a result, he has had to ratchet down his expectations for the season.
He remains hopeful. But he is also realistic.
"I have to be a realist," Jones said. "But I'm not in any way thinking with the amount of games that we have left with the team we have with the plusses that Tony could bring to us, I'm not in any way dismissing the possibilities of this year.
"But I want you to know it would have been a lot harder thing for me to accept ... if this would have meant we were junking this season and just putting the team together for the future."
Panthers rookie running back DeAngelo Williams was held out of Thursday's practice, casting even more doubt on his availability for Sunday night's game against the Cowboys.
It was unlikely Williams would play this week anyway.
Williams, who sat out the last two games, participated in a small portion of Wednesday's practice, but team doctors decided to keep him out Thursday to allow him to rest his sprained ankle.
Although he remained questionable Thursday on the team's injury report, don't expect to see Williams play this week. He's only practiced once in the past three weeks, and the Panthers have a bye next week, so the team probably won't risk him getting injured when he could be back to full speed after the week off.
Meanwhile, DeShaun Foster will carry the load again this week for the Panthers.
Foster is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry this season and has scored only one touchdown. He's struggled in short-yardage situations, one of the reasons the Panthers haven't done well converting third downs this year.
After running for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games against New Orleans and Cleveland, Foster has stumbled the past two weeks, held to 58 yards on 26 carries by the Ravens and 59 yards on 14 carries last week against the Bengals.
New England Patriots (5-1) at Minnesota Vikings (4-2)
KICKOFF: Monday, 8:30 ET
TV: ESPN, Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann, Tony Kornheiser, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya
SERIES: The Patriots and Vikings have only faced each other nine times, with New England holding the edge in the all-time series, 5-4. Most of the contests have been close. Only twice in this series has a game been decided by more than eight points, and two of the games have gone into overtime. The last time the two teams met, the Patriots scored on their first three possessions to take a quick 21-0 lead. Despite giving up 417 yards of total offense to the Vikings, New England hung on to prevail 24-17.
2006 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 15th (6th rush, 22nd pass); defense 10th (6th rush, 20th pass). Vikings: offense 12th (10th rush, 15th pass); defense 7th (1st rush, 18th pass)
PREDICTION: Patriots 20-14
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots enter the game averaging 131.5 rushing yards per game, but they are the only team among the top 11 in the league averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Vikings have the top-ranked run defense for the first time since 1994. New England can't run it down the throat of DT Pat Williams & Co., so QB Tom Brady will need to continue to spread the ball around -- and he has appeared more comfortable with his revamped receiving corps each week. The Vikings' Tampa-2 defense is designed to prevent big pass plays, so Brady will have to be patient engineering sustained drives. Minnesota finally started to show some confidence offensively last Sunday in Seattle, with RB Chester Taylor getting in sync behind the mammoth left side of the line led by LT Bryant McKinnie and LG Steve Hutchinson. But the Patriots are also very solid against the run and QB Brad Johnson has to make some plays downfield to open up running lanes for Taylor.
FAST FACTS: Patriots: Have outscored their opponents 156-64 during their five-game road winning streak. ... Rookie RB Laurence Maroney ranks second in University of Minnesota history with 3,933 rushing yards. Vikings: Are 23-22 on Monday nights. ... Have a four-game home winning streak on Monday nights.
--DL Richard Seymour (elbow) was present in the locker room Thursday, answering questions from reporters. He said he underwent an MRI test and felt fortunate to have avoided a more serious injury. Seymour is listed as questionable for Monday night's game.
--DL Ty Warren -- who is tied for the team lead with 44 tackles -- is questionable for Monday night with a shoulder injury.
--CB Ellis Hobbs is still recovering from surgery he had on a broken wrist. Although he started last week at Buffalo and recorded three solos tackles, Hobbs is questionable for the Monday night game with the Vikings, as is S Eugene Wilson (hamstring).
--RB Kevin Faulk and OG Stephen Neal returned after missing the media-access portion of Wednesday's workout. Faulk (ankle) and Neal (shoulder) are both questionable for Monday.
--C/G Russ Hochstein and CB Antwain Spann were the lone players not present for the media-access portion of Thursday's practice. Hochstein (knee) is questionable, while Spann (shoulder) is listed as probable.
--TE Daniel Graham has missed the past two games with an ankle injury and is questionable for Monday night.
--RG Artis Hicks was added to the Vikings' injury report as questionable on Thursday because of a neck injury. He missed part of practice.
--RT Marcus Johnson was added to the injury report as questionable because of an ankle problem that caused him to sit out a part of practice.
--DE Kenechi Udeze was added to the injury report as questionable because of an ankle injury suffered Sunday at Seattle. He sat out a portion of Thursday's practice.
--DT Pat Williams was added to the injury report as questionable because of a foot injury that forced him to miss a portion of practice.
--C Matt Birk has been named the Vikings' recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award. The honor is given annually to a player on each NFL team who exemplifies sportsmanship and courage. Birk missed all of last season because of injury but has returned to start every game this year.
--DT Kevin Williams has had a sack in three consecutive games and trails the NFL leaders among defensive tackles this season by only one.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Patriots travel to Minnesota this weekend to play on "Monday Night Football." New England hasn't played the NFC North in the regular season since 2002. With the Vikings playing under first-year coach Brad Childress, this is an entirely different Minnesota team than the one that last visited Gillette Stadium. The Vikings are 4-2 and coming off a 31-13 win against the defending NFC champion Seahawks.
"It's a big game against a good team," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "They're coming off a win that a lot of teams in the NFL haven't been able to do -- go into Seattle and win. They're riding high right now. They've got a lot of momentum going their way. They've got great players."
One of the great players on the Vikings is running back Chester Taylor, whose 590 rushing yards currently rank second in the NFL. He spent his first four NFL seasons backing up Jamal Lewis in Baltimore before signing with the Vikings as a free agent this offseason. Entering this year, Taylor had only started eight games, but he's now the driving force behind the Minnesota ground game.
"They've got a running back that hasn't committed a turnover yet," Bruschi said. "I don't think he's fumbled. Obviously, when you've got a running back that's running as well as he does, that doesn't cough the ball up, that's going to be good news for you offensively."
One of the reasons that Taylor is having so much success is the fact that he has the luxury of running behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. The left side boasts two Pro Bowlers: tackle Bryant McKinnie and guard Steve Hutchinson. Each is arguably the best player at his position in the NFL, and New England coach Bill Belichick actually called this unit the best offensive line the Patriots have faced all year.
"Taylor's up there in terms of the top runners in the NFL, and I'm sure he would give credit to the offensive line first and foremost also," Bruschi said. "I think they do deserve credit because they've got guys like Hutchinson, McKinnie and (Matt) Birk -- players that have been around a while and you watch them on film and they really are great players. They really look to stay on blocks. They do a good job at the second level, on linebackers and defensive backs. I think that's a tribute to their athletic ability. They're able to stay with more athletic guys down the field."
Taylor and the Vikings running game going up against the stout Patriots rush defense will be the main battle in this game. Winning the battle in the trenches likely will go a long way toward winning the game. Minnesota could have an advantage if Patriots All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour is unable to go with an injured elbow. Without Seymour -- who would go up against McKinnie and Hutchinson -- the Patriots could have a tough time stopping Taylor. Replacements Jarvis Green and Mike Wright are good players, but neither is the caliber of Seymour. The Patriots need their best defensive player on the field this week or it could be a big night for Taylor and the Vikings offense.
Vikings receiver Marcus Robinson spent Thursday in Chicago getting a second opinion on the lower back injury he sustained in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game at Seattle.
Robinson is listed as questionable on the Vikings' injury report for Monday night's game against New England and almost certainly won't play. The question is how many games will Robinson miss.
Although it's not believed to be a related injury, Robinson underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back in 2000 and again in 2001.
Last Sunday's game marked the first time the Vikings have had five receivers active for a game. They likely would go back to having four in uniform on Monday night. That list would include Troy Williamson, Travis Taylor, Billy McMullen and Bethel Johnson.
Williamson, Taylor and Johnson joined Robinson on the team's injury report. Williamson and Taylor both suffered concussions in the first quarter at Seattle, and Johnson is listed as having a hamstring injury.
Johnson, however, said he was fine Thursday, and Taylor is probable. Williamson was downgraded from probable to questionable Thursday but said he would be ready to go.
Williamson was knocked out when he was hit by Seattle safety Ken Hamlin and did not return. One play after Williamson was injured, Taylor was drilled by cornerback Kelly Herndon. Taylor, though, continued to play.
Coach Brad Childress did not seem concerned about his receivers when asked Thursday.
"I am confident in everybody we put out there," he said. "It doesn't make any difference. There is an attitude that guys are going to get nicked and they are going to go down. We don't like it, but the next person steps up and fills the bill. We'll make decisions on who those people are at the end of the week."
If Taylor or Williamson is slowed, Johnson could see a bigger role in his second game in the Vikings' West Coast offense. He did not catch a pass in Seattle. McMullen, meanwhile, hasn't seen extensive action but does have six catches.
Complete NFL Game Shapshots