Atlanta Falcons (5-2) at Detroit Lions (1-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Brian Baldinger, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 32nd meeting. Atlanta trails 9-22, but the Falcons left Ford Field last Thanksgiving with a 20-point victory that brought an end to the Detroit career of Steve Mariucci, a mentor of Mora and Knapp during their days together in San Francisco. Vick passed for a career-high 332 yards against the Lions in 2002. That Detroit team, however, bears no resemblance, for better or worse, to his bunch. The Lions' fickle team president, Matt Millen, has fired two head coaches and parted company with an interim boss since he convinced the Ford family to hire Rod Marinelli 10 months ago.
*2006 RANKINGS: Falcons: offense 6th (1st rush, 31st pass); defense 18th (9th rush, 27th pass). Lions: offense 13th (30th rush, 5th pass); defense 25th (16th rush, 29th pass)
PREDICTION: Falcons 27-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons lead the league with an average of 210.9 rushing yards per game, 25 percent more than the second-best team. Despite Falcons QB Michael Vick throwing seven touchdowns in his past two games, the Lions' main priority clearly remains to stop Vick and RB Warrick Dunn on the ground. Unfortunately, Detroit's respectable run defense will be severely short-handed without suspended DT Shaun Rogers and injured DT Dan Cody. The Lions' best defense might be their own running game, which offensive coordinator Mike Martz has complemented by incorporating RB Kevin Jones significantly as a receiver in the short passing game. The Lions have to be able to keep the ball, let their defense rest and not lose the turnover battle (QB Jon Kitna has nine interceptions already). If Atlanta gets a lead, it will turn the Lions one-dimensional and run away and hide.
FAST FACTS: Falcons: TE Alge Crumpler needs two touchdown receptions to break his career high of six set in 2004. ... WR Ashley Lelie's 32 receptions of at least 25 yards since 2004 is tied with Washington WR Santana Moss for most in the league. Lions: WR Mike Furrey has 37 receptions in seven games after entering the season with a combined 21 in his three-year career. ... Kitna's 63.3 completion percentage is on pace to break the franchise record for quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts.
--RG Kynan Forney returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday to rest his sore right shoulder. If he participates again Friday, Forney likely will start at Detroit. Remember, however, that he missed the win at Cincinnati last week after skipping Wednesday and Friday and participating Thursday. If he can't play, P.J. Alexander would make his second consecutive start.
--MLB Ed Hartwell remains questionable on the injury report after missing his second consecutive day. Pain continues to bother Hartwell, who underwent arthroscopic procedures on both knees in late August. He returned to start the past two games, his first since Week 5 of last season. If he sits out Friday, there's a good chance that WLB Keith Brooking will shift back inside and Demorrio Williams will make his sixth start of the season on the weak side.
--RDE John Abraham will miss the sixth game of his first season with the Falcons because of groin and abdominal injuries, but coach Jim Mora has been pleased to see how SLBs Michael Boley and Ike Reese have matched up in pass-rushing situations from a three-technique alongside Abraham's replacements, either Chauncey Davis, Paul Carrington or Josh Mallard.
--FB Fred McCrary returned to practice Thursday, which gives a boost to the kick coverage and return units. A sore knee kept McCrary from participating Wednesday.
--NT Grady Jackson (knee) was back on the field Thursday after coach Jim Mora gave him a day off. Listed at 345 pounds, Jackson looks much closer to 370, if not more, so he appreciates any rest he can provide his weary leg joints.
--DE James Hall missed Thursday's practice so that he could fly to Alabama to have his injured shoulder examined. Hall, Detroit's best pass rusher, is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against Atlanta. The Lions are already definitely without starting DTs Shaun Cody (toe) and Shaun Rogers (drug suspension) for the Falcons game.
--DT Tyoka Jackson will switch to defensive end if James Hall misses Sunday's game. Lions coach Rod Marinelli said that he would rather have Cory Redding stay at tackle because of Atlanta's blocking scheme.
--LB Teddy Lehman is still on track to play for the first time in over a year this weekend against the Falcons. Lehman, who has been out since last October with an ankle injury, took part in all three of the week's full-speed practices, and coach Rod Marinelli expects him to be part of the rotation at middle linebacker.
--WR Roy Williams appeared to be in some discomfort during Thursday's practice, but both coach Rod Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz said that Detroit's star wideout is fine.
--S Kenoy Kennedy is expected to start at strong safety Sunday after missing five games with a foot injury.
--WR Kevin Kasper might see action less than a week after joining the Lions on Tuesday. Kasper, who hasn't caught a pass since 2003, would play special teams and could get on the field in four-receiver sets.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Chad Johnson's bald head failed to convince Roy Williams that Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall is an elite player.
Williams, whom Detroit drafted one pick ahead of Hall two years ago, hardly made flattering remarks when asked this week about his opponent.
"He's a zone corner," Williams said. "He's not a man-to-man, shutdown corner that everybody expects him to be. He's a good player, a heck of a talent. I would have him on my team any day, but everybody pumps him up, and in my opinion (Green Bay's) Al Harris is the best corner in the league.
"Al Harris can talk to me because he's a man-to-man player. A lot of guys in the league need help over the top, but they're still talking."
Hall, who never met an argument he wouldn't take, felt no need to remind his audience that Johnson had shaved off his peroxide-blonde Mohawk after Atlanta left Cincinnati with a 29-27 victory last week.
Regarding Williams, Hall scoffed.
"I'm a Pro Bowler -- he's not," Hall said. "I'm considered one of the best at what I do -- he's not. So, all that other stuff, we'll see on Sunday. I went over there last year and had a pretty good game against those guys, so I'm not too worried about any of those guys as far as them saying that I'm not a good corner and I need help over the top."
Hall beat Williams decisively when the Falcons left Ford Field with a 20-point win last Thanksgiving. On the opening drive, Hall was covering Williams on a deep route down the right sideline when he saw that Joey Harrington had put the ball up for grabs.
Similar to the interception he made seven weeks ago against Tampa Bay, when Hall ran past Joey Galloway and intercepted Chris Simms in the Atlanta end zone, the former Virginia Tech standout beat Williams to the ball with an over-the-shoulder basket catch.
The only difference in the plays was that Hall ran back the pick against the Buccaneers 57 yards; he returned the interception against Detroit 34.
Williams did catch a touchdown pass for the Lions' only score, but it came on a fourth-quarter ball that deflected off Hall and stayed in the air long enough for Keion Carpenter to tip it toward the Detroit wideout.
Jon Kitna has heard his Lions teammates talk about how the team's record doesn't reflect its ability.
He's not buying it.
"What kind of grade would I give this team coming out of the bye? That's easy," he said Thursday. "Our grade is 1-6. Are there positives? Of course there are, but the only thing that matters at the end of the day is whether you won the game or not. We've played seven games, and we've only won one."
Detroit has had a chance to win in the fourth quarter of five of the six losses but hasn't been able to make plays down the stretch. The Lions have been outscored 64-30 in the fourth quarter this season.
The Lions haven't exactly been gangbusters at the start of games, either, with a 54-30 margin against them in the first quarter. Despite their ugly record, they have outscored opponents 72-71 in the middle two quarters.
"Obviously, we have to find a way to make plays in the fourth quarter so that we can finish off games," Kitna said. "But we also have to start putting more pressure on teams at the beginning of games. There have been a couple games that we could have put away early, and we didn't. That's come back to hurt us."
Lions offensive guru Mike Martz thinks that the early and late struggles will get easier as time goes on.
"To win in this league, you have to start fast and you have to finish fast," Martz said. "I think that having continuity of personnel will help with that. We're getting better -- it just has to all work itself out."
Cincinnati Bengals (4-3) at Baltimore Ravens (5-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
SURFACE: Sportexe Momentun
TV: CBS, Dick Enberg, Randy Cross
SERIES: 21st meeting. The Ravens lead the series 12-8 between division rivals. The Bengals have won the last three in a row, their first three-game win streak of the series. The Bengals have won two in a row in Baltimore.
*2006 RANKINGS: Bengals: offense 18th (24th rush, 12th pass); defense 21st (25th rush, 17th pass). Ravens: offense 26th (20th rush, 24th pass); defense 3rd (1st rush, 16th pass)
PREDICTION: Bengals 23-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: There will be an intriguing chess match between a Ravens defense that likes to blitz frequently and a Bengals offense that isn't shy about trying to hit on big pass plays. Cincinnati is starting a rookie in LT Andrew Whitworth and Baltimore will certainly try to exploit him, but the Ravens' lone defensive weakness this season has been a propensity to allow big plays. Bengals RB Rudi Johnson has been outspoken that he wants the ball more, but the temptation will be to allow QB Carson Palmer to attack a secondary with rookies in SS Dawan Landry and nickelback Ronnie Prude, who could often be matched against big-play WR Chris Henry. Offensively, the Ravens were successful in coach Brian Billick's first game calling the plays, but expect a bit more of a straight-forward approach based on RB Jamal Lewis pounding away at Cincinnati's 25th-ranked run defense.
FAST FACTS: Bengals: Johnson has topped 1,450 rushing yards each of the past two seasons, but is on pace for just 1,194 in 2006. ... WR Chad Johnson (415) needs three receptions to move into second place in franchise history. Ravens: TE Todd Heap has scored a touchdown in five of the past six games. ... LB Adalius Thomas has 25 sacks in his past 39 games.
--WR Chris Henry returned last Sunday after a three-week discipline-related break and had five receptions for 81 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown. The Bengals will need big games from their receivers, offensive line and quarterback against Baltimore's defense.
--DT Sam Adams (knee) practiced Thursday and is probable for the game Sunday.
--LB Rashad Jeanty (foot) remained probable and practiced for the second day in a row, increasing the likelihood that he will play Sunday for the first time in more than a month. His return would help the depth at the depleted linebacker position.
--LB Brian Simmons (neck) remained questionable Thursday but did not practice.
--CB Johnathan Joseph was added to the injury report Thursday as probable with an ankle injury and did not practice.
--S Kevin Kaesviharn (knee) returned to practice and is probable.
--DT John Thornton (wrist) returned to practice and is probable.
--TE Todd Heap was added to the injury report as questionable with a thigh injury. He is still expected to start. It's an injury that has hampered him the past few games, but he still has remained effective in the red zone.
--TE Daniel Wilcox shouldn't receive more snaps despite Todd Heap being questionable with a thigh injury. Heap is expected to start and play the full game.
--PR/KR B.J. Sams was added to the injury report as questionable with shoulder and thigh injuries. He could be a game-time decision. He likely would be replaced by Cory Ross.
--PR/KR Cory Ross could play in the first game of his career because B.J. Sams is questionable with shoulder and thigh injuries. Ross is an undrafted rookie from Nebraska.
--CB Corey Ivy practiced for the second time since tearing his kidney a month ago. Coach Brian Billick said it might take a few weeks before he can prove that he's in shape.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
One of the biggest differences between the Marvin Lewis era and the pre-Lewis years is the Bengals' ability to play well in their division.
Last season, in winning their first division title since 1990, the Bengals went 5-1 against the AFC North. Counting the last two division games of 2004 and the first two of 2006, Cincinnati has won nine of 10 against the North.
And if the Bengals can win Sunday at Baltimore, they would improve to 5-3 overall and into a tie with the Ravens. But the Bengals would hold key tiebreakers: they'd hold a 1-0 edge in head-to-head competition and a 3-0 mark in the division.
Last year, the Bengals and Steelers both finished 11-5 and split their two games. The Bengals won the title because of their 5-1 division record, compared to 4-2 for Pittsburgh.
"We still have the opportunity to be in control of our division with a win," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said in looking ahead to Baltimore.
The Bengals have two more games remaining against Baltimore and one at Cleveland, before wrapping up the division schedule and the regular season with a New Year's Eve night game at home against Pittsburgh. Entering Week 9, six of the Bengals' remaining nine games are against first-place teams, including the two with Baltimore. The composite .609 remaining strength of schedule (38-25) is third toughest in the NFL.
Under Lewis, the Bengals have a 12-8 record against the division. In the previous three seasons (2000-02), the Bengals were 6-20 in their division; 2002 was the first season of realignment for the four-team AFC North. In 2000 and 2001, the Bengals were part of the six-team AFC Central: Baltimore, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Tennessee.
When defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was drafted in the first round, he was criticized by some draft experts for being lazy.
Six months later, he is a vital cog in one of the best run defenses in the NFL.
"Some people said that I didn't have a motor or that I was lazy and stuff, and I feel like I've answered those questions," the 6-foot-4, 340-pound rookie said. "I think people underestimated me."
Ngata is understated and calm off the field, but his improved play is beginning to speak volumes.
He has 20 tackles -- a decent number, considering that Ngata's first priority is to engage the opponent's offensive linemen and keep them from blocking seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis.
Ngata also is one of nine Ravens to record an interception (on which he made a memorable 60-yard rumble in the season opener against the Buccaneers) and has knocked down two passes at the line of scrimmage.
"He's progressing very, very well," coach Brian Billick said. "You love the way he constantly -- each week -- is trying to get better, and you see that improvement every week."
Ngata's development began slowly. He was a one-day holdout for training camp while his agent and the team reached a five-year, $11.9 million deal. Then he missed practice time after spraining his left knee in a scrimmage against the Redskins on Aug. 5.
Last month, Billick said Ngata needed to do a better job of shedding blocks to disrupt plays in the backfield. Defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said one point of emphasis has been to stress to Ngata the option of using his hands to shrug off a blocker.
"He's a very, very strong individual. We want him to get his hands on the blocker and throw them instead of them handling him," Brooks said, adding that Ngata at first tried to use his athleticism and speed to elude blockers. "In college, he was able to do some things because the talent level wasn't quite the same. ... Here ... guys are just as big and strong as he is."
While Ngata is the only starter in the defensive front seven without a sack, he has tried to refine his technique and also has sought advice from fellow tackle Kelly Gregg.
"The linemen hold a little more, and you've really got to be forceful with your hands," Gregg said. "He's getting more comfortable each day. For a rookie, he's done great. He's coming along great, and he's going to be a heck of a player. He's learning more and getting down there. He's going to be a good one."
Ngata's best outing occurred on the Monday night stage when he led the defensive line with five tackles in the Ravens' 13-3 loss to the Broncos on Oct. 23.
Ngata said he thought that Denver called some running plays specifically aimed at testing him -- a strategy that did not insult him.
"I would do the same thing if a rookie D-tackle was in there and knowing that Kelly Gregg is really good," Ngata said. "I would try to run at the weakest link, and that's most likely me with not being in the league with the experience or anything. But they found out that it wasn't as easy as they thought it was."
Dallas Cowboys (4-3) at Washington Redskins (2-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
SERIES: 92nd meeting. Cowboys lead 55-34-2, including a win earlier this season.
*2006 RANKINGS: Cowboys: offense 5th (5th rush, 10th pass); defense 4th (4th rush, 12th pass). Redskins: offense 14th (7th rush, 21st pass); defense 26th (15th rush, 30th pass)
PREDICTION: Cowboys 24-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: With WR Santana Moss likely to miss the game with a strained hamstring, it becomes even more critical for the Redskins to get a big effort out of RB Clinton Portis. Dallas knows the ground game sets up Washington's spread offense, so the Cowboys will load up against Portis if the Redskins are minus Moss, who leads the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. Dallas will focus on its own running game as well in an effort to avoid putting too much pressure on QB Tony Romo in his second career start. The Redskins' defense has struggled, but it has been far stronger against the run (3.8 yards per carry) and the secondary should have CBs Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers together for the first time this season.
FAST FACTS: Cowboys: Coach Bill Parcells is 14-8 against Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. ... Have won 15 of the past 18 meetings. ... WR Terrell Owens' teams are 55-22 (.714) when he has at least one touchdown catch. Redskins: QB Mark Brunell has completed 64.1 percent of his pass attempts -- his career best for a season was 63.4 in 1996. ... Brunell has a 99.0 passer rating in seven career games against Dallas.
--TE Jason Witten says his numbers have been down this year because he has stayed in to block more than usual. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells isn't buying it. He says Witten just hasn't played as well as he'd like. But of course, Parcells says he really like Witten and his expectations for him are very high.
--QB Tony Romo doesn't have to look over his shoulder when he makes a mistake as Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said he's sticking with new quarterback no matter what -- save him "giving up 12 runs in the first then you have to go get him."
--RB Skyler Green is expected to return kickoffs against the Redskins in place of the injured Tyson Thompson.
--FB Oliver Hoyte has been added to the injury report with a bruised arm. He practiced Thursday and should play against the Redskins on Sunday. Still, the Cowboys are concerned enough that they signed FB Lousaka Polite to the roster and released RB Keylon Kincaide.
--WR Santana Moss didn't practice yet again because of a strained left hamstring that he injured in the Oct. 22 loss at Indianapolis. Moss is iffy, at best, for Sunday.
--WR David Patten took limited work for a second consecutive day Thursday after straining a hamstring Monday. Patten missed the past three games with a thigh injury. He's still expected to be ready for Dallas especially because WR Santana Moss is unlikely to play.
--MLB Lemar Marshall practiced for a second consecutive day after missing the Colts loss and the subsequent practices with a sprained left ankle. He's expected to start against Dallas.
--RB Clinton Portis practiced for a second consecutive day after missing the previous three practices with a sprained left ankle. He's expected to start against Dallas.
--QB Mark Brunell practice for a second consecutive day after missing the previous three practices with pulled ribcage muscles. He's expected to start against Dallas.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Cowboys coach Bill Parcells admitted having some anxiety about replacing the veteran Drew Bledsoe with the unproven Tony Romo last week.
But there's no looking back now.
"The time to worry is when you place the bet," Parcells said. "The bet is down now. The wheel is spinning. I didn't say I wish I didn't bet that. I can't do that. You have to play the game. The game is going. You find, 'Well, what number is coming up?' That's the way it is."
Parcells is confident that Romo can handle the job because he feels the quarterback has guts, which is what initially impressed him about Romo years ago.
"He's taking his swings," Parcells said. "You know what I mean. He is going to take his cuts. He is not standing there with his bat on his shoulder. I like that.
"Now, they haven't laid him out yet. They haven't bloodied his nose. But that is coming some day.
"I hope it's not soon. But that is coming. Then you'll know something else."
Romo's emergence has given the Cowboys renewed hope that they can make the playoffs and possibly live up to their preseason goal of making a Super Bowl run in what could be Parcells' final season as coach.
The key for Dallas is playing consistently and stringing a few wins together. Although the Cowboys expect a tough game against Washington (2-5), the Redskins are struggling. And with the hapless Cardinals (1-6) up next, the Cowboys have a chance to get on a roll.
While Parcells understands that Romo is the wild card in the Cowboys' revival, he is not worried about Romo because he says Romo gets it.
"This kid's not living in a closet," Parcells said. "He knows what kind of opportunity this is for him, and so I think he's going to do everything he can to be ready to go. Now, is it going to be less than perfect? Yeah. But it's less than perfect with all of them. So the first key mistake he makes ... everybody is going to say, 'Oh, did you lose confidence?' You can't look at it like that. The wheel's spinning."
During only three of Joe Gibbs' first 14 seasons in Washington were the Redskins outscored after halftime. On average, Washington won the post-halftime battle 177-150. In ending a five-year playoff drought in 2005, Washington had three come-from-behind wins and outscored opponents 176-152 in the second half. This year, the Redskins have blown three halftime leads -- as many as they did all of last year -- and have been outscored 86-46.
"We have to play a whole game," offensive tackle Jon Jansen said. "The concentration goes from penalties to lining up right to running the play right to finishing a ballgame. That's all part of concentration."
Offensively, the Redskins average 172.4 yards and 12.6 points in the first half but only 153.3 yards and 7.4 points in the second half. They also have 19 "big plays" -- runs of 10-plus yards or passes of 20-plus yards -- in the second half, six fewer than in the first half.
The defense hasn't similarly slumped after halftime, allowing nearly the same yardage (176.1 in the first half, 174.0 in the second) and points (85 to 86). However, Washington's opponents have made 29 of their 46 big plays in the second half, while the defense has forced 13 three-and-outs in the first half but only five in the second half.
"We have a lot of guys that are trying to do too much, and if we just do our own jobs, that will take care of a lot of things," defensive end Phillip Daniels said.
The Redskins blew home halftime leads to Minnesota in Week 1, when a 13-9 advantage turned into a 19-16 defeat, and to Tennessee in Week 6, when a 14-13 lead became a 25-22 loss. But their last second half was the worst. Washington was surprising Indianapolis 14-13 at halftime. But here are the first three drives of the second half for each team: Redskins -- punt, punt, missed field goal; Colts -- touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. Ballgame. The Colts won 36-22 to drop the Redskins to 2-5.
Green Bay Packers (3-4) at Buffalo Bills (2-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, Terry Donahue
SERIES: 10th meeting. The Bills lead the series 6-3 and have won all four games played in Buffalo. The teams' last meeting was in 2002, a 10-0 Packers victory in Green Bay. Defensive end Vonnie Holliday, now with Miami, set a franchise record with five sacks and also forced three fumbles by quarterback Drew Bledsoe, now with Dallas. The Packers haven't shut out an opponent since that game. The teams last met in Buffalo in 2000, a 27-18 Bills win.
*2006 RANKINGS: Packers: offense 9th (11th rush, 8th pass); defense 30th (9th rush, 32nd pass). Bills: offense 29th (23rd rush, 28th pass); defense 15th (18th rush, 14th pass)
PREDICTION: Packers 27-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Packers are beat up at the skill positions, with lead blocker FB Brandon Miree and backup RB Vernand Morency, who was seeing significant carries, unlikely to play. But with Green Bay's starting receivers nicked up as well, coach Mike McCarthy said he intends to continue to lean on the resurgent ground game. A lack of success in the running game is a big reason why the Bills made changes to three spots along the offensive line during their bye week. Buffalo needs more consistent production from RB Willis McGahee to help protect QB J.P. Losman, who has already been sacked 21 times. The real concern is rookie RT Terrance Pennington in his first start matched up against Packers DE Aaron Kampman, who is tied for the league lead with 8.5 sacks.
FAST FACTS: Packers: QB Brett Favre seeks fourth consecutive game without an interception for just the second time in his career. ... Green's 51 rushing touchdowns are second most in team history. ... WR Donald Driver has a reception in 71 consecutive games, second behind Sterling Sharpe (103) in franchise history. Bills: PK Rian Lindell has a franchise-best 81.63 field-goal accuracy percentage. ... McGahee needs 61 rushing yards to become franchise's seventh player to reach 3,000.
--WR Greg Jennings participated in a full practice Thursday for the first time since he suffered a sprained right ankle Oct. 22 at Miami. The rookie starter appears ready to play Sunday at Buffalo, though he remains questionable on the injury report.
--CB Charles Woodson didn't practice for the second consecutive day and is doubtful to play against the Bills. Second-year DB Patrick Dendy is the top candidate to replace Woodson in the starting lineup, with rookie Will Blackmon assuming Dendy's nickel spot.
--FB Brandon Miree has been all but ruled out for Sunday because of a hyperextended elbow. He hasn't practiced this week and is doubtful on the injury report. William Henderson would make the start.
--RB Ahman Green returned to practice after missing a day to rest a sore knee. Green, who is probable on the injury report, should be good to go at the outset Sunday.
--DT Scott Paxson was signed to the practice squad Thursday, replacing LB Tim Goodwell, who was released. The 6-foot-4, 296-pound Paxson was previously signed as an undrafted rookie by Pittsburgh out of Penn State.
--WR Roscoe Parrish, Buffalo's leader in TD catches and punt returns, is fully recovered from a hamstring tweak that slowed him against New England last time out. Parrish is averaging 16.8 yards per catch, a team high.
--QB J.P. Losman has been sacked 21 times, fourth most in the NFL, or once every 9.4 pass attempts. His line on Sunday against Green Bay will have new faces at three positions.
--KR Terrence McGee, who ranks eighth in the NFL with a 25.5-yard average after leading the league last season, faces a stiff test Sunday against Green Bay. The Packers rank first in kick coverage with a 19.3 average. The opponents' average drive start at the 23.6-yard line is fourth.
--OG Tutan Reyes continues to nurse a shoulder problem. If he can't go Sunday against Green Bay, rookie Aaron Merz would back up Mike Gandy at left guard.
--K Rian Lindell has converted 201 consecutive extra points to start his career. The only other kickers in NFL history to start out perfect on more PATs were Tommy Davis (234 from 1959-65) and Todd Peterson (219 from 1994-2001).
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Having the time to throw the football is one thing, but being on a team that wins sure helps with fitting the ball into the right spots.
That's Brett Favre's theory on why he's been stuck on only five interceptions through seven games this season -- a far cry from the career-high and league-leading 29 he had last season.
"When you fall behind to a certain point, where you know you have to take some chances, it's a little bit tougher to play within the system," Favre said Wednesday. "When we're in the game, leading or with each play there's a chance we can win this game, I feel like I play the game differently. I don't want to say I play the game cautious, but maybe a little reluctant to take certain chances."
Favre enters Sunday's game at Buffalo in the midst of one of the longest mistake-free stretches in his 15 years as the team's quarterback. He's thrown 106 consecutive passes without an interception, spanning more than the last three games.
His last interception came toward the end of the third quarter in the Packers' 31-9 loss at Philadelphia on Oct. 2. Smacking of the myriad picks in the second half of a 4-12 season last year, Favre mindlessly threw a deep pass down the middle into zone coverage for an easy interception by the Eagles' Michael Lewis.
Since then, the Packers have been competitive in three straight games, winning the last two, and have a chance to even their record at 4-4 at the midway point.
"When you talk about interceptions from a quarterback standpoint, the two things he can control are decisions and ball accuracy," first-year head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think his decision-making has been good, and his ball accuracy has been solid."
McCarthy, who was Favre's quarterbacks coach in 1999 before they were reunited this year, emphasized this week that he wasn't going to tolerate a bevy of bad throws by Favre. McCarthy said it didn't take Favre long to get comfortable and play within his means in the coach's version of the West Coast offense after the quarterback assimilated the new terminology in the offseason. McCarthy acknowledged that he relented before the season and didn't tinker too much with the system that had been in place, so as to maximize Favre's strengths.
"Marty Schottenheimer used to say it all the time, 'In times of crisis, think of players, not of plays,'" said McCarthy, who coached under Schottenheimer with Kansas City. "If you're going to put the ball in that guy's hand, why not give him something he's done over and over again. I think that's what we've done from a starting point in our offense."
Favre is on pace to finish the season with 11 interceptions, which would better his previous career low of 13 in both 1995 and '96, when he won the first two of his unprecedented three league MVP awards.
Favre had interception-less streaks of 163 and 148 passes earlier in his career -- the former ranks second in franchise history behind Bart Starr's 294.
The Bills, who host the Packers on Sunday, know their opponent is susceptible to giving up big plays, especially through the air. But knowing it and taking advantage of it are two different things.
"They put in different packages and they're very active up front and at linebacker," wide receiver Lee Evans said. "At times, they give you a hole and you can make a big play. But if you don't take advantage of them (it doesn't mean a whole lot). When they gamble and take chances, you have to make them pay."
Buffalo's 29th-ranked offense and 28th-ranked passing attack haven't made anybody pay enough during the team's three-game losing streak. Buffalo's top two receivers, Evans and Peerless Price, have long receptions of just 27 and 25 yards, respectively, and they have just one touchdown catch each.
But maybe this is the week they each break out.
The Packers' 30th-ranked defense has yielded dozens of explosive plays this season. The team defines an "explosive" play as any run of 12 yards or longer and any pass that is 16 yards or longer.
In back-to-back games against Detroit and Philadelphia earlier this season, Green Bay allowed a total of 24 such plays. Things improved dramatically last week in a victory over Arizona, when the Packers allowed just two explosive plays and gave up a season-low 218 yards overall.
Diminutive slot receiver Roscoe Parrish (TD catches of 44 and 51 yards) has been Buffalo's most dangerous threat, and running back Willis McGahee has the club's longest reception at 56 yards on a shovel pass.
The Packers have two of the NFL's more physical corners in Al Harris and Charles Woodson, but Woodson is doubtful for the game with a knee injury. That could put Patrick Dendy into action, or rookie Jarrett Bush.
Evans expects to be shadowed by Harris or Woodson, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. If the same corner sticks on a receiver, "It can be easier to set him up," Evans said. "It's going to be a cat-and-mouse thing. See how he wants to play and make adjustments accordingly."
Houston Texans (2-5) at New York Giants (5-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon
SERIES: 2nd meeting. The Texans lead the series 1-0. The Texans and Giants meet for the first time in four years. Houston won the previous meeting 16-14 at Reliant Stadium on Nov. 24, 2002. Houston's defense picked off Kerry Collins twice in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
*2006 RANKINGS: Texans: offense 22nd (27th rush, 17th pass); defense 28th (26th rush, 25th pass). Giants: offense 4th (4th rush, 11th pass); defense 14th (12th rush, 19th pass)
PREDICTION: Giants 30-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB David Carr gets the start for the Texans after being benched in the second half last Sunday, with Gary Kubiak sending a clear message that he won't stand for turnovers. But the bigger onus falls on rookie RB Wali Lundy, who has produced career highs in rushing yards each of the past two games. Houston must sustain drives and avoid turnovers to have any chance against a far superior opponent. The Giants relied heavily on their running game in very windy conditions last weekend, but with conditions expected to be calmer QB Eli Manning can attempt to exploit the Texans' vulnerable secondary. Houston has stepped up its defensive effort in recent games, but the unit needs to create more turnovers. The key for the Texans will be stopping the run with their front seven so the safeties can focus on pass support.
FAST FACTS: Texans: Carr has an NFL-high six fourth-quarter touchdown passes. ... Rookie TE Owen Daniels' five touchdown receptions is just one shy of the single-season franchise record of six. Giants: P Jeff Feagles will move into sixth place all-time with his 296th game played. ... Manning can tie a career best with a touchdown pass in his 12th consecutive game. ... RB Tiki Barber holds the NFL record by leading the team in rushing for 71 consecutive games.
--CB Dexter Wynn is expected to return punts against the Giants this weekend. The Texans would like him to develop into their return specialist on punts and kickoffs.
--LB Kailee Wong missed practice because of a hamstring injury. He will be a game-time decision.
--LT Ephraim Salaam (ankle) has not practiced this week but is expected to start Sunday.
--WR David Anderson will become the backup punt returner.
--WR Edell Shepherd is expected to return kicks this weekend.
--WR Plaxico Burress left practice early on Wednesday with back spasms and was immediately placed on the "probable" list for Sunday, but all indications are that he'll be fine.
--DE Osi Umenyiora (strained left hip flexor) missed last week's game against Tampa Bay and remains questionable this week, but it appears he'll be able to play and send rookie first-round pick Mathias Kiwanuka back to the bench.
--RB Tiki Barber leads the NFL with 714 yards rushing and a 4.6-yards-per-carry average. Reserve Brandon Jacobs has added 258 yards on 51 carries (5.1 per try), and they have pushed the Giants to fourth overall in the NFL in rushing.
--G Rich Seubert, who comes into the game four or five times a week as the "eligible receiver" without a receiver's number, says he will never catch a pass. "I'm a blocker, that's all I am," he says. "It's like having another tackle or a tight end. My only job is to hit somebody and, if it's a really good hit, to knock him down."
--The Giants have scored 21 touchdowns this season, getting zero from their usual scoring leader, Barber. He has never gone this long in his 10-year career without a TD either rushing or receiving. "We have Brandon Jacobs," he smiled. "That's his job in close." Jacobs is 6-foot4 and 265 pounds, and he's the team's short-yardage and goal-line back.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Texans will carry the NFL's longest road losing streak to New Jersey for a game against the Giants this weekend. The Texans haven't won a road game since 2004, giving them a stretch of 11 consecutive losses away from home.
That streak pales in comparison to the NFL record of 24 set by the Lions from 2001-03. But it's still a trend the Texans are eager to turn around.
"There's no better feeling in the National Football League than going on the road in somebody's stadium, playing well and getting out of there with a win," coach Gary Kubiak said. "This team's really got a hurdle in front of them, and that is playing on the road. We have to get over it. We've got to figure out a way to do that."
There are currently eight teams in the NFL still searching for their first road victory of 2006. The Texans are the only one of those eight that went 0-8 on the road last season.
The Texans will have five more chances to snap the streak this year. After they play the Giants, they still must play Jacksonville, the Jets, Oakland and New England on the road. The Raiders are the only one of those opponents with a losing record.
"I think a lot of it is just emotion," defensive end Antwan Peek said. "The fans do a good job here for us, so it's exciting to come out and play for them. But it's hard to get that same emotional lift when you're playing somewhere else. As a team, we have to find that way to get that same type of emotion with each other and not just use the fans all the time."
The Texans' statistics don't vary much between their home games and away games. Turnovers have increased on the road this year though. Ten of the team's 14 turnovers have come during away games.
Penalties have also hurt the Texans. They have committed just 15 at home for 109 yards and 25 on the road for 174 yards.
"Me personally, I don't care if we're playing outside in the parking lot," said fullback Jameel Cook, who's in his first year with the Texans. "You have to have the mentality that you want to win, and you're going to do what it takes to win. I don't want to harp on the past, but when we lose, we turn the ball over."
Quarterback David Carr's numbers hardly vary from home and away. Last season, he fumbled the ball three times on the road and at home. Seven of his 11 interceptions in 2005 were thrown at Reliant Stadium.
Carr's first two fumbles away from home this season came against the Titans last week. He has one fumble at home.
"Obviously, in the NFL it's tougher to play on the road, but we've made it really tough," Carr said. "And we just make too many mistakes, like turning the football over. You can't do those types of things. You can't do them at home, but especially you can't do them on the road because then the crowd really gets into it."
The Giants are beginning to look like a team that expects to win, and according to coach Tom Coughlin, that's a key ingredient to further winning.
"You have to make each game the most important one of the season," he said, explaining -- in often sharp tones -- why he would not take questions on the game Nov. 12 against the Bears, which in a real and valid sense might be the NFC championship moment of truth.
"You never talk about a game that isn't next up on the schedule," he said. "I don't know how any of you can disregard this team from Houston. They have been playing very well, gained nearly 800 yards (776) in their last two games, and if we aren't careful, they can win this."
How much of that is coachly caution? Probably most of it. But the lesson implied is to sharpen and refine those winning instincts.
Walking into the locker room shortly after his outburst, it was as if his voice were emanating from most of the players.
"Chicago? Why are we talking about Chicago?" yelped running back Brandon Jacobs. "We have to play Houston, and that's a strong team."
Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce was equally adamant. "If we start talking about a team we aren't playing this week, we won't be doing our job," he said. "Our full focus must be on the game that's next. It's the most important game of the season."
One wonders what happened to that concentration and dedication in the "most important game of the season" on Sept. 24 in Seattle, when the Seahawks were allowed to take an incredible 42-3 lead before meaningless points tightened the final score to 42-30.
"We knew what we did that day," running back Tiki Barber said. "It was Coach Coughlin who got us back on track. He did it very simply. He said the next day in the locker room: 'Tell me when you're tired of playing this way.' We all realized we were tired of it and that if we were going to be as good as we knew we could be, we'd have to change things."
The Giants haven't lost since then, and they currently ride a four-game winning streak. After Houston? Who knows? No one is allowed to talk about that.
Kansas City Chiefs (4-3) at St. Louis Rams (4-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Don Criqui, Steve Beuerlein
SERIES: Ninth meeting. The series is tied 4-4, though Kansas City has won the last three including two blowout wins. A 54-34 Chiefs win in 2000 marked the most points ever scored at Arrowhead Stadium.
*2006 RANKINGS: Chiefs: offense 15th (13th rush, 16th pass); defense 9th (17th rush, 7th pass). Rams: offense 4th (21st rush, 4th pass); defense 27th (27th rush, 21st pass)
PREDICTION: Rams 27-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Chiefs are averaging just 9.7 points on the road, and can't afford to fall behind in what promises to be a very loud road environment. QB Damon Huard has proven to have a firm grasp of the offense, but Kansas City's offensive success still begins with RB Larry Johnson producing on the ground to set up Huard to pick apart secondaries off play-action. Johnson is coming off a 39-carry game and figures to get another heavy workload with the Rams allowing 4.8 yards per carry and 134.9 rushing yards per game. If St. Louis' defense can get off the field, the offense should be able to move the ball consistently as long as the play-calling remains balanced. The Rams get into trouble when they fall behind because they don't protect QB Marc Bulger well, but St. Louis is averaging 29.0 points at home and should keep the game within reach.
FAST FACTS: Chiefs: Johnson is on pace for 393 carries and 455 touches this season. The NFL record is 496 by Tampa Bay's James Wilder in 1984. ... Are an NFL-best 20-5 (.833) in interconference play since 1995. Rams: Bulger has not thrown a first-half interception this season and has just one overall. ... Are 16-1 (.941) at home against the AFC since 1998.
--QB Damon Huard says he's feeling few of the effects of the groin strain that made him questionable last week until the hours before he engineered a victory over Seattle. He is not listed on the Chiefs' injury report.
--T Kevin Sampson did only limited work Thursday on a sore foot that kept him out of Wednesday's practice. Sampson is questionable for the Rams game, though he believes he'll be able to go.
--T John Welbourn on Thursday pronounced himself close to being ready to play after missing the first seven weeks (six games) of the season with his second suspension in as many years for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Welbourn is in his second week back with the club and is working out under a commissioner's exemption in which he does not count against the 53-man roster. The Chiefs have an empty roster spot open that they could use for Welbourn should starting RT Kevin Sampson not be able to play against St. Louis. It's more likely, however, that Welbourn won't be activated until next week.
--T Kyle Turley, who has not played since Week 2 while nursing a back injury, is not on this week's injury report and could be ready to play right tackle should starter Kevin Sampson not be able to play on a sore foot.
--CB Benny Sapp, who has missed the past four games with a knee injury, did some light work in practice Thursday but remains questionable and unlikely to play against Seattle.
--CB Travis Fisher injured his ankle late in Thursday's practice and was to have it X-rayed to assess the damage. He was added to the injury report as probable, and while not wanting to talk after practice, Fisher did say, "I'm fine."
--TE Aaron Walker, who left practice Wednesday because of the stomach flu, was back on the field Thursday.
--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa did more in practice Thursday than he did the day before, working with a cast to protect a broken bone in his left hand. Coach Scott Linehan said, "We'll see (Friday) how much we would play him, and if there are any situations that we might limit him. It's a good start, because now he's out there and he's got the cast on, got the pads on. I think he's getting a little more comfortable with it."
--RB Tony Fisher will be the primary kickoff returner for the second consecutive week as the team tries to maintain some consistency in the personnel. Said coach Scott Linehan, "I think we want to try and stay with something here as we try to just improve the entire team. We've worked very hard at some of the technical things we need to improve on as a return unit. Hopefully, that will help us improve in that area."
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Trent Green still hasn't been cleared to return to full practice, but the question of "what happens when" continues to come up almost daily around Arrowhead Stadium.
The play of backup Damon Huard, who ranks third among all NFL quarterbacks in passer rating (100.4), continues at such a high level that talk show hosts can't stop themselves from wondering what happens when Green is ready to return from the severe concussion that sidelined him in Week 1.
The subject came up again Thursday at Huard's regularly scheduled media session, and it produced the same discussion Huard always has on the subject.
"I'm the backup for the Chiefs. Trent Green is the starter and I'm filling in for him as long as he's out," Huard said again. "I said this on Sunday -- the fact that we're talking about it is a good thing because it means we're winning games. That's great. But the reality is that Trent Green is the starting quarterback here, and that is what it is.
"I'm just going to do my role, which this week is to be the starter against the Rams. I don't know what will happen next week, but whatever happens, I'll play my role, which is to help the Chiefs win games."
Green is out again this week for a seventh consecutive game. He participates in practice on a limited basis, but does little more than individual drills and some 7-on-7. He has not been cleared to return for a full practice regimen.
Huard is 4-2 as a replacement starter.
He is as hot as any quarterback in the NFL, having achieved a passer rating of at least 109 for five consecutive games. He is currently second in passer rating (101.3) among all NFL quarterbacks.
But low-key Rams quarterback Marc Bulger takes it in stride. He knows how hard it is to be consistent from week to week in the NFL.
Asked if this might be the most productive stretch of games he's had in his career, Bulger thought and said, "A couple of years ago I had a pretty good stretch. Sometimes you have a really good stretch and then something bad happens to you, a tipped ball and things like that. I think the circumstances are right for good stats right now, but that doesn't matter unless we win."
Since a rocky beginning in which his completion percentage was 53.0 and 55.0 in the first two games of the season, Bulger's lowest has been 62.0, bringing his season completion percentage up to 62.5.
He's becoming comfortable in coach Scott Linehan's offense.
"I feel good now throwing it," he said. "Obviously, there is still a way to go with the offense, but like I said, the record is the only thing that matters. We've been getting better on offense, which is a plus. We haven't been having the roller coaster like you don't want to have when there's a new system, and I think we're heading in the right direction."
Linehan likes what he sees.
"He's playing very solid and very sound," Linehan said. "He's doing what we ask. He's worked very hard from the beginning of the year until now to establish that. As you know, it's not easy to make a transition. There were some growing pains and there still are, but he's much more comfortable with what we're doing. As you can tell, he's much more decisive. He has no real anxiety about where to go, and it takes a while to get comfortable with that.
"It's just helped to have time on the job with some new things and new coaches. It has helped to accelerate that because the people he's throwing to are all the same. Those things have come around, and he's just done a good job of being consistent and patient and doing what we ask."
Asked to compare Bulger's accuracy to that of other quarterbacks he's coached, Linehan said, "It's hard to compare. They're all different. I've been fortunate to be around some real talented guys. His accuracy is ... it's a rare combination of accuracy and timing. He's accurate, but he throws before players make cuts. There's not a lot of guys that trust that. I attribute that to his time with the receivers here. There were some pretty good ingrained things before we ever got here as far as that goes. That's something that's hard to establish for years, especially when you have young receivers, and a completely new system that has no carryover from something you've done before.
"I would think ... you went out there in the field and just said, 'You go run a 10-yard out,' and 'Marc, you take a three-step drop and throw it,' he'd put it right on the money because he really does have a unique ability to put it on the money every time."
Miami Dolphins (1-6) at Chicago Bears (7-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
SERIES: 10th meeting. The Dolphins hold a 6-3 all-time series lead, winning their last meeting, 27-9, in Dec. 2002 when Ricky Williams rushed for 216 yards and two touchdowns.
*2006 RANKINGS: Dolphins: offense 16th (27th rush, 6th pass); defense 5th (13th rush, 4th pass). Bears: offense 12th (19th rush, 9th pass); defense 1st (5th rush, 2nd pass)
PREDICTION: Bears 23-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: Winging it all over the field hasn't worked for the Dolphins, with QB Joey Harrington throwing seven interceptions while throwing 146 passes over the past three games. Chicago's pass defense is too strong and the Bears have blown too many opponents out in the first half for Miami to keep relying so heavily on the passing game. The Dolphins must stick with RB Ronnie Brown, even if the ground game isn't reeling off big chunks of yardage. The Bears have been particularly explosive at home, with QB Rex Grossman posting a passer rating of 100.5 or better in all four games at Soldier Field this season. Still, the Dolphins' best hope is to stuff RB Thomas Jones and hope to pressure Grossman into mistakes under pressure even though Miami's secondary has been burned consistently all season.
FAST FACTS: Dolphins: Brown has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in five career games against the NFC. ... TE Randy McMichael needs five receptions to break Bruce Hardy's franchise record of 256 for tight ends. Bears: DE Mark Anderson leads all rookies and is fourth in the NFL with 7.5 sacks.
--QB Daunte Culpepper continues to rehabilitate his surgically repaired knee while not participating in football drills.
--LB Channing Crowder (foot) practiced without limitations for the first time since sustaining the injury during the Packers game.
--CB Travis Daniels (knee) practiced on a limited basis and is "improving every day," according to coach Nick Saban. However, Andre' Goodman continues to work with the first team, while Daniels seems headed for some snaps in the nickel defense Sunday.
--LG Jeno James, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery nine days ago, is practicing without limitations and seems ready to play Sunday.
--FB Kyle Eckel was shifted from the military/reserve list to the exempt/commissioner's permission list after completing his active duty with the Navy. Eckel will compete with Darian Barnes for the fullback job, but he isn't expected to be activated until he regains football condition.
--QB Rex Grossman is No. 38 in the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating at 26.4 and has completed just 13 of 32 passes.
--RB Cedric Benson still doesn't have a run as long as 20 yards on 55 attempts this season and is averaging 3.2 yards per carry.
--TE Desmond Clark leads all NFC tight ends with 391 receiving yards and is tied for second with 26 receptions.
--PR Devin Hester leads the NFL with a 14.6-yard punt-return average and two touchdowns.
--DE Mark Anderson is tied for fourth in the NFL with 7.5 sacks, 2.5 more than the next-best rookie, Denver's Elvin Dumervil.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
For the first time since Dolphins coach Nick Saban shelved Daunte Culpepper after the fourth game of the season, he raised the possibility that the still-healing quarterback may not play again this season.
"I don't have a date, but I do think that is something you may consider at some point and time, but we haven't," Saban said. "I don't want to shut that door until we feel like it's going to take the season to get it back."
Culpepper, who was ineffective while starting the first four games, has been unable to participate in football-related drills recently because the new rehabilitation program has caused soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. Saban made Culpepper the emergency quarterback against the Packers, and it's becoming more plausible that Joey Harrington and Cleo Lemon will finish the season at Nos. 1 and 2.
Culpepper has refused interviews this week, saying that he'd rather not talk until he returns to the playing field.
"He and I both agree that when he's healthy and he's 100 percent, we want him to play," Saban said. "The only issue that we have is, when is that going to be? Nobody knows for sure because it is a process that is going to occur over time.
"I don't think any medical person can predict when can he go move and do the things that he needs to do to play like Daunte Culpepper plays, so that he can go back out there on the field and contribute. We're just going to keep evaluating that on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis."
It certainly wouldn't be prudent to rush Culpepper back if the 1-6 Dolphins continue to lose. Culpepper, of course, would love to return in time to play the Vikings on Nov. 19, but it seems unlikely that he'll be able to avenge Minnesota for giving up on him and dealing him to the Dolphins for a second-round draft pick.
At this point, it's the 4-3 Vikings who seemingly got the better of the deal.
Brendon Ayanbadejo's trade from the Dolphins to the Bears last Aug. 28 came at a lousy time, but it's worked out to perfection.
"I played in a (preseason) game, and they called me the next day," Ayanbadejo said. "I had a 4-day-old daughter at home, and they said, 'You're traded to Chicago. You've got to be there in the morning.' I was like, 'What? Are you serious?' I knew something was going to happen, but I didn't expect it so soon."
"But it's been the greatest thing that's happened in my football career since getting a scholarship to go to (UCLA). I'm a happy guy right now. I'm glad I'm definitely not there."
The Dolphins have fallen on hard times, and they bring a 1-6 record into Soldier Field on Sunday when they face the 7-0 Bears. The 6-foot-1, 228-pound Ayanbadejo continues to prosper as a special teams tackling machine. He's looking forward to padding his stats against the team that traded him (for backup tight end John Owens). But it's not about revenge for the four-year NFL veteran who also paid his dues with two years in the Canadian Football League and a season in NFL Europe.
"I understood it was a business thing," he said. "The hardest thing for me is that my daughter was just born and now to have to leave ... my girlfriend couldn't even walk. She just had a C-section, so she was still bedridden, and I had to move to Chicago the next day. That was kind of tough, but it was a blessing in disguise."
The undersized backup linebacker was already a big-time special-teamer who became a leader on the Bears' coverage teams almost immediately. He led last year's Bears with 28 special teams tackles and was a first alternate to the Pro Bowl. This season he's playing even better, and he punctuated an exceptional season with six special teams tackles last week against the 49ers.
"He's having a Pro Bowl season right now," Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "He's excellent at what he does; great tackler, he's a student of the game. He studies tape. He's always prepared. And he plays so hard that it's just hard to match up with him."
Ayanbadejo has some of the essential attributes of elite suicide-tamers: great speed, strength, desire, toughness, persistence and, maybe most important, a certain abnormal mind-set.
"It's a controlled psycho," Toub said. "He needs to see what's going on. He needs to make the proper reads and continue to play fast and then cut it loose when he needs to."
Toub's crews (kicking, punting, coverage and returns) are full of players like Ayanbadejo, which is why, through the first eight weeks of the season, the Bears have the best special teams in the NFL, according to a complex rating system. The system ranks each team in 22 categories, including, among others, return yards, turnovers, points and blocked kicks.
No. 3 running back Adrian Peterson leads the team with 14 special teams tackles, one more than Ayanbadejo. Backup cornerback Dante Wesley has been the first man downfield on coverage a team-best 30 times
"That is the unique thing about us," Ayanbadejo said. "We think Adrian Peterson could probably start for a lot of teams, and he's our third-string tailback. We think he could go a lot of places and contribute on offense, and he's one of our best special teams player. (Backup linebacker) Leon Joe (fifth with eight special teams tackles) could probably play on any team across the NFL. I think I could play on any team. (Six-foot-6, 270-pound backup defensive lineman) Israel Idonije could probably start on a lot of teams. Buffalo really wanted Izzy bad (and it gave him a four-year, $7.5 million offer sheet that the Bears matched).
"So our special teams unit is stacked with a bunch of studs that could be playing defense on other teams. But here with the Bears, we're role players. We're special teams players because we've got better guys in front of us on defense. We've just got a lot of athletes and a lot of good players."
And a lot of special players.
New Orleans Saints (5-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
SERIES: 30th meeting. The Saints lead the series, 18-11, and are 5-4 against the Bucs since the two teams became NFC South foes in 2002. In their first matchup this season, on Oct. 8 in the Superdome, Reggie Bush ran back a punt 65 yards for the game-winning score with just more than four minutes to play in the Saints' 24-21 victory.
*2006 RANKINGS: Saints: offense 7th (22nd rush, 3rd pass); defense 13th (21st rush, 9th pass). Bucs: offense 30th (29th rush, 26th pass); defense 22nd (30th rush, 11th pass)
PREDICTION: Saints 27-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Saints needed a Reggie Bush punt return for a touchdown to avoid an upset in the first meeting, in large part because Bucs RB Carnell Williams rushed for a season-high 112 yards to help Tampa Bay control the clock. But despite a rookie quarterback in Bruce Gradkowski and a young offensive line, coach Jon Gruden still isn't sold on the theory that the Bucs have to be a run-heavy team. However, Tampa Bay gets in trouble when the offense is consistently producing three-and-outs because the defense has struggled to stop the run all season and eventually wears down. That includes giving up 143 rushing yards to New Orleans on Oct. 8. The Saints fell way behind against Baltimore last weekend and turned one-dimensional, so expect New Orleans to come out looking to re-establish its ground game.
FAST FACTS: Saints: WR Marques Colston needs just 108 receiving yards to break TE Cam Cleeland's rookie team record of 684 set in 1998. ... RB Deuce McAllister has averaged 100.1 rushing yards in seven starts against Tampa Bay. ... McAllister needs one touchdown to tie Dalton Hilliard (39) for most in franchise history. Bucs: Gradkowski's 69.1 passer rating leads all rookies. ... Are 8-0 when Williams gets at least 21 carries.
--RB Reggie Bush, who has a sprained left ankle, returned to practice Thursday and participated in team drills. He remains questionable, however, for Sunday's game with Tampa Bay.
--LT Jammal Brown did not practice again Thursday because of a sprained left ankle. He is questionable for the Bucs game.
--LT Zach Strief, a seventh-round draft choice, will make his NFL debut and likely will start if Jammal Brown can't play against the Bucs. Strief is questionable after having surgery to reset a dislocated right ring finger on Oct. 25.
--WR Joe Horn is listed as questionable for Sunday's matchup with the Bucs because of a slight groin strain. Saints coach Sean Payton said Horn should be fine for the game.
--TE Ernie Conwell will miss his second consecutive game Sunday. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on Oct. 18 to repair a torn meniscus in his knee and was ruled out of the game on Wednesday.
--TE Mark Campbell will get the start again Sunday with Ernie Conwell sidelined. Campbell started last week's game against Baltimore and caught four passes for 42 yards.
--RCB Fred Thomas is questionable with a hamstring injury, but he has not missed any practice and should be ready to play on Sunday.
--WR/KR Michael Lewis continues to practice despite a tender hamstring and is listed as probable for Sunday.
--RT Jon Stinchcomb has a toe injury, but he is probable for the game with the Bucs.
--DE Simeon Rice (shoulder) did not practice Thursday. He did participate in individual sprints following practice.
--DT Ellis Wyms (ankle) did not practice Thursday and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Saints.
--LB Shelton Quarles (knee) returned to practice Thursday but is listed as questionable.
--CB Juran Bolden (hip) returned to practice Thursday and is expected to play Sunday.
--QB Luke McCown (torn ACL) took some reps under center with the scout squad and is expected to be activated from the physically unable to perform list.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Saints know how important it is to put last Sunday's 35-22 loss to the Ravens behind them, considering they're getting ready to embark on a four-game stretch in which they'll play three times on the road.
The rugged stretch includes key games at NFC South rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta and one at the Super Bowl champion Steelers -- not to mention a home game with the Bengals.
With five wins in their first six games, the Saints proved that they were capable of taking some rather huge steps toward a possible playoff berth. But they were brought back to reality with their setback against the Ravens.
Yet, the Saints know forgetting that loss and looking forward to the rest of the season -- and playing with some consistency -- is the key to what awaits them in late December.
Quarterback Drew Brees saw what he wanted to see when the Saints practiced Wednesday for the first time since the Ravens debacle. He said the team was focused on Sunday's game with the Bucs.
"Everybody's a little salty after that loss," he observed.
Consistency of play over a long season is one of the things, in addition to fewer penalties and turnovers, that first-year coach Sean Payton was looking for when the season started. That means forgetting how and why they lost and turning the page quickly, which they didn't always do in the past.
"It's one of those things that we can't let get away from us," left guard Jamar Nesbit said. "Maybe in the past, we would have started hanging our heads, pointing fingers and blaming each other.
"(A loss) didn't affect us the way it does now. These guys have put in a lot of work, and they take this seriously. You could look in their faces and see how much it hurts."
One of those was strong-side linebacker Scott Fujita, who was eagerly looking ahead after being disappointed by the team's performance last week.
"Now," Fujita said, "we're going to find out what we're all about."
Rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski is starting to experience some growing pains. The Buccaneers offense is hurting, having not scored an offensive touchdown in two games.
"It's tough in the football game when you get different looks and you have to react fast," Gradkowski said. "A couple times, I'm able to take a timeout, but also I don't have 10 timeouts in the game."
Since his splashy NFL debut at New Orleans a month ago, when he passed for 225 yards and two touchdowns, Gradkowski has faced an increased array of exotic blitzes. The result has been three consecutive games in which his completion percentage has dropped. Gradkowski has been hurried, hit and harassed into missing more open receivers than he is accustomed to.
"They've given us some new things, some things he hasn't seen before, and I think that's the growing pains," quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett said. "Every scenario is new for him. Everything is different. He hasn't done anything before. Soon, it will begin to shift and he'll see something he recognizes."
That could happen as early as this Sunday when Gradkowski finally faces a team for the second time when the Saints visit Raymond James Stadium.
"I think now there's a little bit of recall," Hackett said. "This look means this, this look means that. As opposed to, 'Gee, that's a nice look.' It means nothing.
"Now it's, 'Oh, there's (Mike McKenzie), No. (34) on the right.' Now it's more than he just has long hair."
Since his first start, Gradkowski's accuracy has been fleeting. He completed 64.5 percent of his passes against the Saints, 56.8 percent against the Bengals, 50 percent against the Eagles and just 41.7 percent last week at windy Giants Stadium.
That's a big departure for Gradkowski, who set an NCAA record by completing more than 70 percent of his passes for two seasons at Toledo.
"It's tough. I'm not used to this," Gradkowski said. "In college, you can kind of get out of the pocket and run for more yards and not throw as many balls away. It's crazy when I get a chance to see what my stats are, it's like, 'Oh my gosh!' But the emphasis is on not turning the ball over. But there's a lot of plays to be made out there. I can throw better balls and I can hit the receivers better, and I just think that's a comfort level and moving on. But that's definitely something I'd like to improve on."
Coach Jon Gruden says the Bucs need to play better around Gradkowski. In last week's 17-3 loss to the Giants, receivers Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton dropped passes. The former dropped one at the Giants 10-yard line, while the latter lost control of a pass in the end zone.
According to Gruden, it's inevitable that as opponents learn more about Gradkowski, they will attack his weaknesses and prey on his inexperience.
"I'm sure as they do, at the same time, he's doing some good things," Gruden said. "We've got to step up our play around him. When you stand in there and you're getting blitzed and you make a couple good throws, we've got to make those plays. He's doing some good things. I'm sure people have a pretty good idea of who he is, what he's about. I think they also see a guy with a lot of potential, a lot of upside and he's dangerous. We've just got to collectively coach better, play better around him, and I'm confident he can continue to have some success around here."
Tennessee Titans (2-5) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Solomon Wilcots
SERIES: 24th meeting. Titans lead the series 13-10 but the Jaguars won the last two, including a 40-13 win at Alltel Stadium to close out the 2005 season.
*2006 RANKINGS: Titans: offense 28th (12th rush, 29th pass); defense 32nd (31st rush, 17th pass). Jaguars: offense 21st (6th rush, 25th pass); defense 7th (11th rush, 10th pass)
PREDICTION: Jaguars 23-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: Time of possession and field possession figure to play a key role will both teams expected to lean heavily on their ground games. As rookie QB Vince Young develops, the Titans are attempting to ease the pressure on the passing game by getting significant carries to RBs Travis Henry and LenDale White. The Jaguars are minus three key defensive starters, but must be disciplined with Young having scored a rushing touchdown in four consecutive games. Meanwhile, Jaguars RB Fred Taylor appears invigorated with rookie Maurice Jones-Drew spelling him throughout the game. Taylor has 11 carries for 10 or more yards in the past three games, helping to make up for a struggling passing game. QB David Garrard gets his second consecutive start for the Jaguars, and the Titans' secondary could struggle without CB Pacman Jones, who was suspended one game by the team.
FAST FACTS: Titans: All eight of WR Bobby Wade's receptions have resulted in first downs. ... S Chris Hope has a takeaway in first consecutive games. Jaguars: Taylor leads AFC players with at least 100 carries with an average of 4.5 yards per carry. ... Have allowed only one of seven opponents to score on their opening possession.
--QB Vince Young is content throwing only 15 passes in a game if that's enough for the Titans to win. It was last week against Houston, but odds are the Titans will need more from him Sunday in Jacksonville.
--RB Travis Henry figures to be featured prominently Sunday in Jacksonville, with LenDale White also getting some carries.
--RB LenDale White will work as the Titans' No. 2 back in Jacksonville and should get in the seven- to 10-carry range depending on how Travis Henry fares.
--WR Drew Bennett can be very good at not lifting his hands until the last second so as to not tip a defensive back off that the ball is coming. But too often on balls he decides he won't be able to reach, he doesn't make what appears to be a full effort to try to sell out to get it.
--WR Bobby Wade (shoulder) did not practice again Thursday. If he's out, and with Pacman Jones suspended, the Titans will have all new return men, likely Courtney Roby on kickoffs and either Brandon Jones or Cortland Finnegan on punts.
--LB David Thornton (shoulder) practiced some on Thursday but was limited. If he can't play in Jacksonville, look for the Titans to shift Peter Sirmon outside and insert rookie Stephen Tulloch in the middle.
--QB Byron Leftwich was told by coach Jack Del Rio he won't start Sunday against Tennessee. Leftwich has been slowed by an ankle injury, but it's unclear if the move is performance- or injury-related.
--QB David Garrard took all the snaps Thursday and apparently will start against Tennessee, although he wasn't officially told he'll be the starter.
--DE Brent Hawkins was downgraded to doubtful and apparently won't play against Tennessee because of a groin injury.
--RB Fred Taylor returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice with a thigh injury. He will play Sunday against the Titans.
--RB Maurice Drew returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice with a thigh injury. He will play Sunday against the Titans.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Andre Woolfolk has fallen far, far off the Titans' radar.
But his best attributes -- a professional, responsible and accountable demeanor -- are all in strict contrast to Pacman Jones, the player he will replace in the lineup Sunday at Jacksonville.
Jones is suspended for disciplinary reasons, so the Titans turn to Woolfolk, a 2003 first-round pick who never really panned out and has been playing almost exclusively on special teams.
"It is always bittersweet to come on the field like this," Woolfolk said. "I'm going to make the most of it, but not think any much more of it."
Woolfolk played solidly for a stretch as the team's nickel back early on in his career, then started 11 games, including the first seven last season. When a hamstring injury caused him to miss three games, he was replaced by Reynaldo Hill, who has had the job ever since.
"I think I'm more mentally stable this year," Woolfolk said. "Stuff doesn't seem to bother me as much as last year. I'm pumped up. I know the situation. At the same time I'm just trying to make sure (the coaches) know I can play good."
Woolfolk replaced Jones for one play at Indianapolis on Oct. 8 when Jones was shaken up. He was beaten by Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison for a touchdown.
"It's a challenge, but it's no different than any other backup that's expected to step up in a starter role," coach Jeff Fisher said. "Andre's a pro, as I've said all week. He wants to play, likes to play and has confidence in his ability. He'll put a good week's work in and have himself ready to play."
The Jaguars quarterback situation took another strange twist Thursday.
Just one day after Byron Leftwich was listed as probable on the injury report and appeared to be ready to return to action, Leftwich was told by Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio he won't start Sunday against Tennessee.
That clears the way for David Garrard, who took all the snaps in practice Thursday, to make his second consecutive start Sunday against the Titans, although he wasn't told he was starting.
Leftwich was downgraded to questionable on the injury report Thursday, although it's uncertain if his ankle suffered a setback or whether the Jaguars were following protocol because the league expects players listed as probable to play.
Leftwich said his sore ankle isn't 100 percent, but he feels he is ready to play. Even Garrard said he thought Leftwich would start when he was listed as probable on Wednesday.
Leftwich said, "I'd be lying to you if I said I thought I couldn't start. I feel as though I could go out there and play well. I feel as though I'm healthy to go. It's not my call."
Del Rio, who doesn't usually meet with reporters on Thursday, didn't give either player any information on whether the move was injury-related or a benching, and the team didn't even announce Garrard will start.
Garrard said, "Nobody is being definitive on anything -- if it's health, if it's performance. Whatever. I can't give you any explanation of why this is all occurring until somebody with greater power than me can tell you. That's my quote for the year."
Garrard said he was only given "subtle hints" before the start of practice that he was going to take all the snaps.
When he was asked if he wasn't puzzling that he didn't get more information, he said, "I am puzzled. Everything happens for a reason. We're professionals. We need to adjust."
Leftwich said Del Rio called him into his office just before practice to tell him he wasn't starting, but he said they didn't have time to discuss the matter.
When Leftwich was asked whether the move was made for health reasons, he said, "I don't know. I have no idea."
When he was asked how he was looking at it, he said, "How can I put this the right way? To be honest with you, I don't know how to look at it. I really don't know. I know I can go out there and be myself."
Last week when it first appeared Leftwich wouldn't play, he appeared visibly dejected. But Leftwich wanted to stress Thursday he was being a team player, and he answered questions as long as reporters asked them.
"I believe it's not about me and how I feel and what I feel. I've always been a team guy," he said. "I can only do what I'm asked to do. I'm not going to be a stubborn guy. I love the 53 guys I'm playing with."
When Leftwich was told Del Rio wasn't giving out any information to reporters, he said, "That's not my fault. I can't answer questions for him."
This saga started two weeks ago when Leftwich woke up with a sore ankle and couldn't practice the Friday before the Houston game. Del Rio still played him, but Leftwich was ineffective and the Jaguars lost 27-7.
Del Rio said the day of the game he considered benching Leftwich in the third quarter because he felt the ankle was bothering Leftwich. He said the next day he didn't feel the ankle was a problem, but changed his mind after more videotape review and said the ankle was a problem. Del Rio also said his assistant coaches should have told him to pull Leftwich. He then told Leftwich he wasn't starting the following game.
Del Rio's reluctance to discuss the matter has fueled speculation in the national media that he's lost confidence in Leftwich or is annoyed at him for not suggesting he sit out the Houston game.
When Del Rio was asked Monday if he's changed his stance that Leftwich is the starter when healthy, he would only say, "No."
Last year, Garrard went 4-1 when Leftwich was out with a broken ankle in the last five regular-season games, but Del Rio still started Leftwich in the 28-3 playoff loss in New England.
The situation seems different this year, and neither quarterback seems sure what will happen if Garrard plays well Sunday.
"This is my first time in being in a situation like this. I can't tell you of any past history," Garrard said.
Leftwich said, "I'm a great interpreter, and I don't know what to interpret right now. I don't really know what to say at this point."
Minnesota Vikings (4-3) at San Francisco 49ers (2-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Tim Ryan, Chris Myers
SERIES: 42nd meeting. The 49ers lead the series 21-19-1, including 12-7-1 in San Francisco. This will be the Vikings' first trip to San Francisco since the 1997 season, when they played the 49ers in the regular season and again in the playoffs. San Francisco won both games. The Vikings won the past two meetings in 1999 and 2003.
*2006 RANKINGS: Vikings: offense 17th (18th rush, 14th pass); defense 12th (2nd rush, 26th pass). 49ers: offense 20th (10th rush, 22nd pass); defense 31st (22nd rush, 31st pass)
PREDICTION: Vikings 27-14
Sunday, 4:05 ET, FOX
KEYS TO THE GAME: The NFL is a copycat league, but the 49ers don't have the offensive personnel to spread the field and take advantage of the Vikings' secondary the way New England did on Monday night. With a porous defense and an offensive line that doesn't pass block particularly well, San Francisco must run the ball well behind RB Frank Gore, but it's a tough proposition against the league's No. 2 run defense. Offensively, the Vikings just have to avoid the turnovers that doomed them against the Patriots. QB Brad Johnson was benched in the second half Monday, but gets the start this Sunday and simply can't do the 49ers any favors. Expect a heavy dose of RB Chester Taylor to set up a controlled passing game off play-action.
FAST FACTS: Vikings: Have outscored opponents 59-16 in the fourth quarter and overtime. ... Taylor is on pace for 336 carries, which would break Robert Smith franchise record (295 in 2000). 49ers: Gore's 631 rushing yards has already surpassed his team-high 608 as a rookie last season. ... Have scored more than 20 points in every game in winning six of past seven meetings at home.
--WR Marcus Robinson (lower back) did not practice again Thursday and remains listed as questionable on the injury report. It appears a longshot he will play Sunday at San Francisco.
--NT Pat Williams (knee) is questionable and missed at least a portion of practice Thursday. He is expected to play Sunday.
--DT Kevin Williams (high ankle sprain) is questionable and missed at least a portion of practice Thursday. Williams has said he will play Sunday.
--C Matt Birk (hyperextended knee) is questionable and missed at least a portion of practice Thursday. He isn't expected to miss Sunday's game.
--LB Ben Leber (illness) is probable and missed at least a portion of practice. He was in the locker room during the post-practice media access period, something that did not occur Wednesday.
--RG Artis Hicks (neck) is probable and missed at least a portion of practice Thursday.
--RT Marcus Johnson (ankle) is probable and missed at least a portion of practice Thursday.
--S Darren Sharper (knee) is probable and missed at least a portion of practice Thursday.
--RB/KR Maurice Hicks is listed as questionable after sitting out two practices due to a concussion. If Hicks is unable to return kickoffs, rookies Michael Robinson and Brandon Williams will both likely see time in his place.
--S Chad Williams is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Vikings with a quadriceps contusion that he sustained during practice Wednesday.
--RB Frank Gore has touched the ball just 29 times combined in the past two games after averaging 24.2 touches in the 49ers' first five games. The 49ers have had to change gears because they got behind in their games against the Chargers and Bears.
--OL Adam Snyder is expected to work into the lineup more this week in place of starting RT Kwame Harris, and he is expected to assume the starting job for the Nov. 12 game against the Lions.
--TE Vernon Davis did some limited work on the practice field this week but will not play Sunday against the Vikings. It will be the fifth game he's missed since sustaining a broken right leg Sept. 24 against the Eagles. There is a chance he could return to action Nov. 12 at the Lions.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Vikings likely won't have starting middle linebacker Napoleon Harris for Sunday's game at San Francisco.
Harris dislocated his left wrist in a 31-7 loss to New England on Monday night and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. He also has not been in the locker room during the media access period.
The Vikings are doing their best to keep a lid on injury information and have listed Harris as questionable (50-50 chance of playing). But that designation means little.
Receiver Marcus Robinson, who missed Monday's game because of a lower back injury, was listed as questionable all of last week and might not even play again Sunday.
With Harris out, the Vikings have given snaps to backup Dontarrious Thomas in the middle and have shifted strong-side linebacker Ben Leber over to that spot at times. In those instances, Thomas moves to the strong side.
"I'm preparing myself like I'm going to start," Thomas said. "But I do that every week."
The Vikings also re-signed third-year linebacker Rod Davis this week to give them added depth in the middle. Davis has received limited snaps but was signed mainly because of his ability to play on special teams.
The ability of the Vikings' linebackers to move around comes as no surprise considering the emphasis first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin puts on flexibility. Thomas, for instance, had never played strong-side linebacker before this season, but in Week 4 he started in place of the injured Leber.
"We've preached position flexibility from day one, and it's for reasons like this," Tomlin said. "This is the National Football League. You've got a 53-man roster. Guys get injured. It's the nature of the business. The more flexibility you have in terms of guys playing multiple positions, the better chances you have to put your best 11 on the field, so to speak. That's been our approach. We've got some guys working there, and that picture will continue to clear itself up as the week goes on."
Linebacker Derek Smith leads the 49ers with 60 tackles through the first seven games of the season, but coach Mike Nolan says a bothersome eye condition has prevented Smith from playing as well as he did last year.
Smith, a 10-year professional, has been bothered all season by a muscle strain in his left eye that limits the movement of his eyeball up and to the left. The condition has caused much discomfort, including bouts of dizziness.
Smith decided against undergoing surgery because it would have brought an end to his season. He would have to rest for one to two months, anyway, before undergoing season-ending surgery. The condition would likely require four months' rest -- not playing football -- to get better on its own.
Smith has struggled in most aspects of his game, as he tries to press on despite the eye condition. But his difficulties with his eyesight are undoubtedly to blame for his struggles on the field, Nolan said.
"I would have to say it has something to do with it," Nolan said. "The eyes are the most important thing to playing every sport -- they really are -- and his vision has been bothered.
"Every player, the better their peripheral vision, the better they are able to play. A racecar driver can't just see straight down the track, you have to see those guys coming up behind you and around you. Football is very much the same way with all the different angles. Vision is important."
Smith had a career-high 106 solo tackles last season, as he led the 49ers in total tackles (160) for the fifth time in his five seasons with the club. The 49ers re-signed him to a three-year, $14 million contract.
Nolan said Smith's vision has been a topic of discussion within the organization. He said he is pressing the issue but "there's not much we can do." The condition may not get worse, but it's also unlikely to get better until Smith stops playing football for a few months.
"I'm concerned about his well-being," Nolan said. "I'm concerned about him, not only on the field but off the field."
Cleveland Browns (2-5) at San Diego Chargers (5-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Gus Johnson, Steve Tasker
SERIES: 21st meeting. The Chargers lead the series 12-7. The Browns and Chargers played to a 16-16 tie in 1973. San Diego has won five of the last six games played between the two teams.
*2006 RANKINGS: Browns: offense 31st (31st rush, 27th pass); defense 17th (28th rush, 5th pass). Chargers: offense 3rd (2nd rush, 15th pass); defense 2nd (6th rush, 6th pass)
PREDICTION: Chargers 23-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Chargers finally got RB LaDainian Tomlinson untracked on the ground last weekend and figure to feature the run heavily again against a Browns defense allowing 136.1 rushing yards per game. San Diego simply wants to avoid turnovers because its defense should dominate the game even without suspended OLB Shawne Merriman. The issue for Cleveland will be in running the ball well enough to set up shots against San Diego's weaker secondary. Chargers DT Jamal Williams has a 50-pound advantage on Browns C Hank Fraley and should be able to clog up the middle, meaning Browns RB Reuben Droughns will have a difficult time running between the tackles. With or without help from the ground game, Browns QB Charlie Frye must avoid turnovers because Cleveland has to do just about everything right to keep the game close into the fourth quarter.
FAST FACTS: Browns: Have won eight of their past 10 game when scoring at least 20 points. ... Defense is second in NFL allowing just 5.42 net yards per pass play. Chargers: Will wear throwback uniforms in honor of Alumni Weekend. ... Have won seven consecutive November games. ... Seek first 4-0 home record since 2001.
--WR Dennis Northcutt returned to practice for the first time since hurting his ribs Oct. 8. Northcutt has a good chance to return to the field and play the role as the third receiver.
--CB Daven Holly spent the better part of two days in the hospital having an illness investigated. The Browns would not reveal the nature of the illness, but it appears doubtful that Holly will play Sunday.
--C Hank Fraley will have his hands full with San Diego DT Jamal Williams. Williams should be able to handle Fraley and plug the middle of the line, slowing Reuben Droughns' running.
--OT Ryan Tucker remains on an excused absence from the team. It appears Kelly Butler will step in for the second week in a row. Butler acquitted himself fairly well in his first start against the Jets, but faces a much tougher challenge against the Chargers defense.
--QB Charlie Frye may see his attempts drop as the Browns turn to a more ball-control style of offense. The switch to Jeff Davidson as offensive coordinator has bolstered the running game, which could affect Frye's attempts.
--LB Willie McGinest has been slowed by calf and ankle injuries and may not face the Chargers. The last thing the Browns need is a hobbling linebacker as they try to stop RB LaDainian Tomlinson.
--OLB Shaun Phillips (calf) was hoping to test his injury in practice Thursday, but he didn't, and it looks as if he'll miss his second consecutive game. Marques Harris would replace him.
--DE Igor Olshansky practiced for the first time since injuring his knee Oct. 15 in San Francisco. But he had to shut it down before the workout was completed, and it looks as if he is down again Sunday. Jacques Cesaire would replace him.
--S Clinton Hart (hip) didn't work out Thursday, and he's somewhat surprised at his inability to practice. He could be down Sunday.
--S Bhawoh Jue (knee) was able to practice Thursday. His presence would lessen the impact of S Clinton Hart (hip) potentially missing Sunday's game.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson could be in for a big game Sunday. In three career games against the Browns, he has rushed for 100 yards in each contest, including going for 200 in one outing. He averages nearly 6 yards per carry and 137 yards per game. The Browns run defense is ranked 28th, giving up 136 rushing yards per game.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Kellen Winslow sounds eager about having a big game Sunday in San Diego. For Winslow, it's personal.
He will be returning to the town where he grew up and where his Hall of Fame father played professionally.
And he will face Antonio Gates, one of the other top tight ends in the league.
"I look at it like it's a heavyweight match," Winslow said. "It's me vs. Gates."
One he takes personally.
"I'm trying to be the best," he said. "I said I was the best. I am the best. And I'm going to prove it on Sunday."
Winslow leads all NFL tight ends with 40 catches, but he watched from the sidelines the past two years while Gates caught 81 and 89 passes for 964 and 1,101 yards.
Winslow does not back down. In training camp he said he would never be 100 percent after hurting his knee in a motorcycle accident, but 90 percent of him is better than every tight end in the league.
"That's not being arrogant," he said. "I am. I know what I can do. They know what I can do. The defensive coordinator knows what I can do."
First things first: Carlos Polk is not Shawne Merriman. Not even close.
But Polk will have to sub for Merriman for the next four weeks, holding down his outside linebacker spot while Merriman serves his suspension for a positive drug test.
"He's been waiting for this moment for his whole life," veteran linebacker Randall Godfrey said. "I hate that it is this late in his career, but it's good for him."
This is Polk's sixth season, but Sunday will mark his first NFL start. He has made his mark with the Chargers as a special teams dynamo, when he can stay healthy.
In offseason workouts in 2005, he tore his Achilles tendon and landed on injured reserve. The year before that he suffered a shoulder injury that restricted him to one game.
Now all eyes are on him as he fills in for one of the NFL's top defensive players on one of the NFL's top defensive units.
"He's a good football player," coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "I think he will do fine. He understands what he is doing. He is a savvy veteran."
Polk was the team's co-special teams player of the year in 2003. And he'll still be asked to contribute on special teams Sunday, despite his newfound status as a starter.
"I'm just going to try and do my job and not try to do too much," Polk said. "Just do my job and I'm sure everything else will work out like it is supposed to."
Polk's strength is his run-stopping ability, so much of his afternoon will be restricted to early downs. He figures to be spelled by Stephen Cooper and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila in passing situations.
Denver Broncos (5-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 19th meeting. The Denver Broncos lead the all-time series against the Pittsburgh Steelers 11-6-1. However, the Steelers got a huge postseason win last season. Pittsburgh came to Invesco Field at Mile High for the AFC Championship Game and won 34-17 to advance to the Super Bowl.
*2006 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 19th (3rd rush, 30th pass); defense 10th (7th rush, 15th pass). Steelers: offense 10th (16th rush, 7th pass); defense 6th (8th rush, 8th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 20-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: Quite simply, the Steelers need a better performance from QB Ben Roethlisberger coming off a four-interception outing. Pittsburgh is a run-first team, but the Broncos have the ability to limit the ground game and force the Steelers to move the ball through the air. When Roethlisberger looks downfield, expect him to attack Broncos CB Darrent Williams, who confidence could be rattled after getting abused by Colts WR Reggie Williams last weekend. The Broncos aren't sure how much they'll get out of ailing RB Tatum Bell, but rookie Mike Bell was very impressive in extended duty against the Colts. Denver needs to establish the running game to help an offensive line still overcoming the loss of LT Matt Lepsis and to keep QB Jake Plummer out of harm's way against the Steelers' various blitz packages.
FAST FACTS: Broncos: Coach Mike Shanahan needs win to tie Hank Stram for 17th all-time with 136 victories. ... Tatum Bell has topped 100 rushing yards in all three road games this season. Steelers: Are 129-30 (.811) under coach Bill Cowher when out-rushing an opponent. ... Roethlisberger is 12-3 (.800) at home as a starter.
--DT Gerard Warren practiced again Thursday. He is probable and should be ready to play Sunday against Pittsburgh. Warren missed last week's game with a sprained right big toe.
--CB Champ Bailey was named the AFC's defensive player of the month for October. Bailey probably will get consideration for defensive player of the year honors. He has three interceptions.
--FB Cecil Sapp had a pair of long runs against Indianapolis last week. Sapp, who was replacing injured Kyle Johnson, gives the Broncos some additional options because of his ability to run the ball.
--G Ben Hamilton has had a solid, quiet season. The Broncos are running the ball well and doing a good job protecting Jake Plummer. Plummer has been sacked 10 times in seven games.
--WR Rod Smith is averaging 9.7 yards per catch, by far the lowest pace of his career. Smith hasn't been as big of a part of Denver's offense since the acquisition of Javon Walker. Walker has more than twice as many yards as Smith this year.
--RB John Kuhn, signed from the practice squad this week, will dress and serve as the backup to Najeh Davenport on third downs and as the backup fullback to Dan Kreider.
--NT Casey Hampton practiced Wednesday and Thursday and will start Sunday. He was upgraded to probable from questionable with a hamstring injury that kept him out last week.
--LB Clark Haggans practiced Wednesday and Thursday and will start Sunday. He's listed as questionable with an ankle injury.
--WR/PR Willie Reid, injured three games ago against Kansas City, has not healed as fast as hoped. He has a mid-foot sprain and was declared out early this week. Last week, he was listed as doubtful.
--C Chukky Okobi will make his first start since 2002. He played the second half of last week's game after Jeff Hartings went down with a MCL sprain.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Broncos aren't planning on making defensive changes.
A week after losing to Indianapolis, a game in which the Broncos didn't blitz and Peyton Manning took advantage of it when Denver didn't get any pressure, the Broncos defended their defensive approach.
After all, Denver allowed only two touchdowns in its first six games. The Broncos felt no need to change.
"Just because something doesn't work one week doesn't mean you have to throw it away," defensive end Kenard Lang said.
The Broncos dramatically changed their defense after losing the AFC Championship Game to Pittsburgh, the team Denver plays this week. The Broncos blitzed a lot last year, but they revamped the defense and have played a basic scheme this year without much blitzing at all.
Many players said the scheme wasn't the problem against the Colts. They didn't get a lot of pressure with the front four, but blitzing Manning usually doesn't work either.
"We got to play harder," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "That's what we needed to do different. We needed to play harder and more sound on defense. Maybe we will add more pressure if we play him again. Who knows? We'll wait for that time. Now we have to worry about Pittsburgh."
Only four teams since 1970 have gone 2-5 or worse and bounced back to make the playoffs.
The Steelers want to be the fifth. One word that won't cross their lips these days, however, is "playoffs." They have one goal and only one goal.
"The thing is to beat the Denver Broncos," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "That's all that matters to us, taking one game at a time. Throw out who's in the lead or whatnot, the main thing for us is to beat the Denver Broncos."
Pittsburgh already trails 5-2 Baltimore by three games in the AFC North.
"We feel we're a good team with a bad record," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We still think we can turn it around and play good football."
Their 2-5 start ties for the second-worst record after seven games by a defending Super Bowl champion. The 1987 New York Giants started 1-6 during a strike season.
The other Super Bowl teams that started 2-5 were the '81 Raiders (7-9 finish), the '82 49ers (3-6 in a strike-shortened season), and the '99 Broncos (6-10).
The Steelers were 7-5 last season and had to win their final four games merely to make it as the sixth and final seed in the AFC. They need to win their next five games just to get to that point this season.
"It's a big challenge ahead of us," coach Bill Cowher said. "But the focus right now is to win this football game and get out of the funk we're in."
The four teams that started 2-5 or worse and made the playoffs since 1970 were the '70 Bengals (1-6 to 8-6), the '90 Saints (2-5 to 8-8), the '95 Lions (2-5 to 10-6) and the '02 Jets (2-5 to 9-7). All lost their first playoff game.
Indianapolis Colts (7-0) at New England Patriots (6-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer
SERIES: 69th meeting. The Patriots lead the all-time series 43-25. The Colts finally got the Foxborough monkey off their backs last year with a 40-21 beat down of the Patriots. It's the first time the Colts won in New England since 1995. Even with that victory, this series has been all Patriots of late. Peyton Manning is 1-7 in Foxborough and 3-10 all-time against the Patriots. New England is 24-11 at home against its former AFC East rivals. The Patriots won seven consecutive games from 1996-99 and are 17-6 against Indianapolis since 1993.
*2006 RANKINGS: Colts: offense 2nd (17th rush, 1st pass); defense 20th (32nd rush, 3rd pass). Patriots: offense 11th (8th rush, 13th pass); defense 11th (3rd rush, 23rd pass)
PREDICTION: Patriots 31-28
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Colts' porous run defense was beaten down for 227 yards in Denver last Sunday, and Indianapolis still managed to win. But eventually the Colts will get burned if they keep playing with fire. New England has a bruising combination in RBs Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney who have the ability to wear the defense down and keep Peyton Manning & Co. off the field. The Colts must find a way to slow the ground game so DE Dwight Freeney can become a factor again as a pass rusher. Few have been able to frustrate Manning like Patriots coach Bill Belichick, but the Colts' signal-caller did torch New England for 321 yards and three touchdowns last season. Then again, the Patriots were without FS Rodney Harrison and DE Richard Seymour that day. Still, the Colts will put points on the board, and the difference could come down to whether the Patriots are responding by scoring touchdowns or settling for field goals.
FAST FACTS: Since Patriots QB Tom Brady's first career start on Sept. 30, 2001, Brady (64) and Manning (59) have the most wins among NFL quarterbacks. Colts: Seek to become second team to start consecutive seasons 8-0 (Green Bay, 1929-31). Patriots: Brady is 6-1 against Indianapolis. ... Are 12-1 when Dillon has at least 90 yards rushing.
--S Bob Sanders practiced Thursday and is expected to take part in Friday's workout as well. Sanders has missed the past five games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last month. If he can handle Friday's practice, there is a good chance he will be able to play this week.
--CB Nick Harper returned to practice Thursday. Harper had sat out Wednesday's session due to a knee burner. He is expected to play Sunday against New England.
--OT Ryan Diem sat out Thursday's practice. Diem has been nursing an upper arm injury. He is expected to return to practice later this week.
--WR Brandon Stokley isn't expected to be available for the Colts against New England. Stokley, who did not practice Thursday, is recovering from a sprained left knee. There is no timetable for his return.
--LB Keith O'Neil did not practice Thursday and is not expected to play this week. O'Neil suffered a sprained left ankle in last week's win over Denver.
--WR Reche Caldwell, who caught seven passes for 84 yards against the Vikings, is questionable for this week's game due to a knee injury.
--WR Jabar Gaffney made his first catch as a Patriot in Minnesota. However, the receiver is listed as questionable for Sunday's game due to a hand injury.
--Rookie WR Chad Jackson (hamstring) is listed as questionable for this week's game.
--CB Ellis Hobbs has played in the past two games after wrist surgery. However, Hobbs is still listed as questionable for Sunday night.
--After being inactive against the Vikings, G Stephen Neal (shoulder) and OL Russ Hochstein (knee) are both questionable for this week's game.
--DE Richard Seymour (elbow) and DE Ty Warren (shoulder) played last week in Minnesota, but both players are questionable for the Colts game this Sunday.
--The Patriots listed 19 players as questionable on their injury report Thursday, while the Colts had 17. Obviously both teams are playing a game with each other, only proving that the injury report in the NFL is a mockery.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Peyton Manning says that last year's 40-21 win by Indianapolis over New England was good at the time, but that it doesn't mean a whole lot heading into Sunday night's nationally televised game at Foxborough.
"It doesn't matter to them what happened last year," Manning said. "It doesn't carry a lot of weight for us."
"But sure, last year at the time, it was a good win and kept our winning streak alive. Anytime you can beat a good football team on the road, it gives you confidence. But you have to keep doing it week after week, year after year."
The Colts have certainly had their troubles on the road against New England. Last year's win snapped a nine-game road losing streak to the Patriots.
"Every time we lost, it was unfortunate and unfair that the fingers got pointed at him: 'Why can't Peyton beat the Patriots?'" tight end Dallas Clark said. "That's not fair to him. He shouldn't ever (have) had to deal with that, but he does."
Added Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy: "You want to try to win everywhere. We had been pretty good on the road and hadn't been good there. The fact we won last year probably helped from that standpoint."
For his sake, Manning is taking this year's trip to New England as a new experience.
"What's happened in years past is really kind of irrelevant," Manning said. "It's what's going on right now during this season and the players that are playing and who plays better this Sunday.
"A guy like (rookie running back) Joe Addai on our team, he doesn't care what's happened in this series in years past. Why should that affect him in any way?"
For Patriots fans, it just doesn't look right to see one of the franchise's all-time great players wearing a Colts uniform. It's bad enough that kicker Adam Vinatieri left New England, but it's even worse that he signed with the hated Colts. Vinatieri's much anticipated return to Foxborough comes this Sunday night, and Patriots fans will be able to welcome him in the best way they see fit. In other words, he shouldn't expect to be showered with kisses.
As a Patriot, Vinatieri kicked two last-second, game-winning field goals to secure Super Bowl victories, but he'll always be remembered for the two field goals he made in a driving snow storm to beat the Raiders in the 2001 divisional playoffs. That win was the birth of the Patriots dynasty.
Bill Belichick was asked how he'd feel if the game came down to a Vinatieri field goal. In true Belichick fashion, he evaded the question about his former player and focused on the game itself.
"Whatever we need to do to win the game, that's what we're going to prepare to do," he said. "I can't tell you what the situation is going to be at the end of the game. I have no idea. We'll prepare for all of them."
While Belichick wasn't interested in discussing Vinatieri, one of the kicker's old teammates admitted the less the Patriots see of their former kicker on Sunday night, the better.
"We want to keep Adam off the field and not put him into those situations to be successful, because the guy is definitely clutch," defensive end Richard Seymour said.
In a conference call with the New England media on Wednesday, Vinatieri was asked if he has considered the possibility of hitting a game-winning kick to beat his old team on Sunday.
"I've thought about that," Vinatieri said. "It'd be fun if it was that way. Obviously, for selfish purposes, I want the Colts to win now. If it's by one point, three points or if we're lucky enough to be up by a couple touchdowns, it doesn't matter if I'm on the sideline cheering or if I'm part of it at the end."
Vinatieri missed three games earlier this season with a groin injury, but he's made all 14 of his field-goal attempts this year, including a 37-yarder in the final seconds to beat the Broncos last week. The Colts' new weapon said he's been looking forward to this game for a while.
"It's one of those weeks that you see on the schedule and you look forward to the opportunity to get back out there," Vinatieri said. "It should be a fun game. It'll be important and special for me."
Vinatieri went on to speak fondly of his 10 years with the Patriots, saying he hoped to get a chance to speak with a number of Pats players and coaches, including his former snapper Lonie Paxton and holder Josh Miller. However, he pointed out that this is a big game for both teams and not just about him returning to his old stomping grounds.
"We don't even have to discuss how big of a game this is," Vinatieri said. "Both teams know how big of a game this is. It's not a playoff game. It's not any of that stuff. Let's not read into it more than what it is. It's a game between two divisional leaders, and so, obviously, the hype is going to be there. The excitement is going to be there. The team that gets the win -- it's definitely going to push them ahead of the other in the standings for a while."
Oakland Raiders (2-5) at Seattle Seahawks (4-3)
KICKOFF: Monday, 8:30 ET
TV: ESPN, Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann, Tony Kornheiser, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya
SERIES: 50th meeting. Raiders lead series 27-22. Raiders won last game in 2002 season opener 31-17 as Charlie Garner rushed for 127 yards and Rich Gannon threw two touchdown passes. In last game in Seattle, Shawn Alexander rushed for 266 yards at Husky Stadium, including an 88-yard run, as the Seahawks won 34-27.
*2006 RANKINGS: Raiders: offense 32nd (15th rush, 32nd pass); defense 8th (24th rush, 1st pass). Seahawks: offense 23rd (26th rush, 19th pass); defense 23rd (14th rush, 28th pass)
PREDICTION: Seahawks 20-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: With the Seahawks still without QB Matt Hasselbeck and RB Shaun Alexander and the Raiders still -- well, inept offensively, the team that capitalizes most on its scoring opportunities should win. Raiders QB Andrew Walter is the AFC's lowest-rated passer at 49.0 and has nine interceptions to just three touchdown passes. For Oakland to move the ball, it needs the power running game to set up the play-action pass and attack a Seattle secondary that has struggled all season with big pass plays. Ironically, pass defense is the Raiders' greatest strength and Oakland has vaulted to the top of the league allowing just 159.1 passing yards per game. Seattle's running game has been near non-existent with the offensive line struggling, so backup QB Seneca Wallace will likely be asked to routinely work against that stout pass defense while the Seahawks utilize a lot of three- and four-receiver sets.
FAST FACTS: Raiders: Walter is on pace to throw 338 passes for 2,114 yards, which would be the second-lowest total in franchise history among those with at least 300 passes (Cotton Davidson, 1,977 in 1962). ... WR Randy Moss has been the target on 32.8 percent of the team's pass plays (58 of 177). Seahawks: WR Darrell Jackson is averaging 16.3 yards per catch -- his career-best was 16.7 in 2003. ... WR Deion Branch's teams are 15-2 when he has at touchdown reception.
TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann, Tony Kornheiser, Suzy Kolber, Michele
--LG Barry Sims missed practice for the second consecutive day with an abdominal strain that has the Raiders concerned it could be a long-term condition.
--C/G Corey Hulsey took the reps at left guard Thursday, with former starter Paul McQuistan getting some reps also.
--RB Justin Fargas missed practice with hip and shoulder injuries but is expected to be able to face Seattle.
--RG Kevin Boothe, a sixth-round draft pick who emerged as the starter in Week 3, has been penalty-free as a rookie.
--CB Tyrone Poole missed practice with an ankle injury but is listed as probable. Stanford Routt would play as a nickel back if Poole cannot play.
--RT Tom Ashworth continues working with the starters this week because RT Sean Locklear is missing time with an ankle injury. Locklear was downgraded to questionable Thursday. Ashworth played well against the Chiefs last week.
--RT Sean Locklear was downgraded to questionable with an ankle injury Thursday. Tom Ashworth continues to work with the starters.
--DT Rocky Bernard was added to the injury report as probable Thursday. He practiced despite a toe injury.
--WR Darrell Jackson missed practice again Thursday. He remained probable with a sore left foot.
--C Chris Spencer was added to the injury report as questionable Thursday. He injured his left knee toward the end of practice Wednesday.
--LB D.D. Lewis remained doubtful with a toe injury. He missed practice again Thursday.
--DT Marcus Tubbs remained doubtful with a knee injury. He missed practice again Thursday.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Oakland's offensive struggles enable punter Shane Lechler to indulge in a guilty pleasure.
"I've been able to turn quite a few balls loose this year, which is what I like to do," Lechler said.
Ideally, Lechler would be operating on a high-powered offense, shooting for corners and punting just past midfield.
But with the NFL's most anemic offense, Lechler, the team's best golfer, can grip it and rip it like John Daily.
He is averaging 49.5 yards per punt, second in the NFL to Mat McBriar of Dallas. He is flirting with a 50-yard average, a standard he may never reach but will always strive to attain.
"I haven't done that in a few years," Lechler said.
In 2003, Lechler was averaging 49.9 yards through eight weeks but slumped and ended up averaging 46.9, his single-season average. Lechler's 46.1 career average is the best in NFL history.
Lechler was a key figure in Oakland's 20-13 win over Pittsburgh with a 48.1 average and a season-best 43.1 net.
That included three punts down inside the 20-yard line. Lechler nearly had another one, as a 53-yard boomer barely trickled into the end zone.
"I am just hitting the ball good, knock on wood," Lechler said. "I haven't had a bad game yet. I've hit some big punts."
Lechler has not had a game where he averaged less than 45 yards per punt, and he has a personal streak of 10 consecutive games in which he has outkicked his opponent. It's a competition Lechler takes personally. He had a streak of 13 games in 2001 and into 2002, and a 15-game streak from 2003-04.
"He's the best punter in the league, bar none," coach Art Shell said. "Reminds me a lot of Ray Guy, with his ability to boom the ball out of there and get the hang time."
Injuries continue to mount for the defending NFC champion Seahawks.
Starting defensive tackle Rocky Bernard and former starting left guard Chris Spencer joined the injury report Thursday, while the team downgraded starting right tackle Sean Locklear to questionable.
Bernard practiced despite a toe injury. Spencer was hurt toward the end of practice Wednesday. He did not practice Thursday.
Locklear has not practiced since suffering an ankle injury two weeks ago. He missed the team's game against Kansas City while serving a one-game suspension for violating terms of the NFL's personal-conduct policy. Locklear had been expected back this week.
The Seahawks are already without starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and starting running back Shaun Alexander. Receiver Bobby Engram, a key contributor and former starter, is practicing only sparingly while dealing with a thyroid problem.
Linebacker D.D. Lewis (toe) and defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs (knee) also remain sidelined. The Seahawks miss Tubbs because he is one of their most disruptive interior linemen. He also has the size to hold up against power running games.
The Seahawks also have missed strong safety Mike Green, a former starter in Chicago who probably would be starting now. The Seahawks benched starting strong safety Michael Boulware last week. Green is out for the season after suffering a career-threatening foot injury.
The team's problems at running back also have been exacerbated by the absence of fullback Leonard Weaver, who went on injured reserve before the season. Weaver was a punishing runner whose style probably would help now that Alexander is unavailable.
Up front, the Seahawks are working Floyd Womack back into the lineup at left guard. He has missed the past six weeks with a sprained knee. Womack was named to start ahead of Spencer, a decision that pretty much became moot when Spencer suffered his knee injury toward the end of practice Wednesday.
Game Scout: Every Game, Broken Down