NFC Contender Game Scouts

We have the scoop on all of the big games that will have an impact on the Packers' playoff chase. The big game will be played Sunday afternoon, when AFC kingpin New England travels to Chicago to meet the NFC North-leading Bears.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) at Washington Redskins (5-7)

When: Sunday, noon.

Keys to the game: The Bucs have had success pounding rookie RB LeGarrette Blount between the tackles, while the Redskins' tackling of late has been atrocious. Tampa Bay has at least 150 rushing yards in four of its last six games while Washington's front seven has been abused and, in the three games missed by SS LaRon Landry (Achilles), has allowed an average of 161.7 rushing yards. The Redskins' offensive woes are attributed to pass protection (11 sacks allowed in past three) and turnovers, including six last week. RB Ryan Torain (hamstring) is expected to return after missing three games.

Fast facts : Bucs WR Mike Williams leads all rookies with seven touchdown catches. ... The Redskins are 2-8 in December or later since 2008.

Inside the Buccaneers

The Bucs are going to miss injured cornerback Aqib Talib, who is out for the season with a hip injury. Talib was second in the league with six interceptions and routinely shut down the opponent's No. 1 receiver.

With Talib out, the responsibility falls on second-year pro E.J. Biggers. A seventh-round pick from Western Michigan, Biggers will face Super Bowl quarterbacks like the Redskins' Donovan McNabb, the Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck and the Saints' Drew Brees in three of the next four weeks.

Yes, he knows he's a marked man.

"If I was a quarterback, I would go at (me)," Biggers said. "I told everybody that when I was at nickel. I wouldn't go after those two guys. I would come at me, too.

"We have two of the best corners in the league, and losing a guy like (Talib) it's a lot out there. I watch him and Ronde every day and I'm just trying to be the next best thing coming up. Those guys teach me all the techniques I need to know. Aqib is a great, great, great corner. I watch everything he does. I just have to step up now. That's the nature of the beast. When somebody goes down, the next guy has to step up."

The Bucs coaching staff is very confident in Biggers, who started the first game when Talib was serving a one-game suspension and has been the nickel cornerback.

"I have all the confidence in the world in E.J. He's played good for us on third down all year long and now he's going to get more snaps," defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said.

With Biggers forced to start, the Bucs will play rookie Myron Lewis in nickel passing situations. Lewis yielded the game-winning touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins.

"He went out there and had a couple plays and then he had a couple that he missed," coach Raheem Morris said of Lewis. "He'd like a couple of those back, but that comes with time and experience.

"When you put those DBs out there, you've got to put them out there and just play confident. I don't ever want those guys playing scared or playing tentative. That's when you get in trouble. That's usually what happens when you put a guy out there the first time in a full-time capacity."

New York Giants (8-4) at Minnesota Vikings (5-7)

When: Sunday, noon.

TV: FOX.

Keys to the game: Just over 11 months ago, the Vikings scored 44 straight against the Giants in a 44-7 win. That offense is unlikely to make an appearance -- will Brett Favre (shoulder)? RB Adrian Peterson will be the focal point whoever the quarterback is. The Giants' defensive line runs deep with pass rushers, including DEs Osi Umenyiora (four sacks in past two vs. Vikings) and Jason Pierre-Paul (four sacks in past two games). The Vikings have size up front to slow Giants RB Brandon Jacobs, but quick and shifty Ahmad Bradshaw presents a greater challenge. New York banks on that ground game, especially if QB Eli Manning's receiving corps remains depleted.

Fast facts : Manning needs 18 passing yards to reach 3,000 for the sixth consecutive season. ... Favre has a 113.4 rating in his past six games against the Giants.

Inside the Giants

Quarterback Eli Manning, who will be making his 100th consecutive career start on Sunday against Minnesota, said he has been very fortunate to be able to endure the physical challenges that come with playing the game.

"That's good stuff," Manning said of his streak, which while paling in comparison to Vikings quarterback Brett Favre's streak of 298 (if Favre starts on Sunday), makes Manning the sixth quarterback in NFL history to start 100 straight games. "It's easy to get hurt in this game, and I think part of it is a little luck and how you take care of your body on some things, and trying to avoid the big hits."

However, there is another number that Manning is looking at that's related to this week's game, and that is the big goose egg that's attached to his name when it comes to the number of games he's won against the Vikings.

Manning's career numbers against Minnesota have been forgettable for sure. He has appeared in five games, four as a starter. He has completed 72 of 139 passes (51.8 percent) for 824 yards with only two touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has also been sacked nine times for a loss of 75 yards and has registered a passer rating of 47.8 in games played against Minnesota.

Although the Vikings' defense has changed over the years -- most notably safety Darren Sharper, who has four of the nine interceptions that Manning posted against Minnesota -- that doesn't mean that the Giants' leader on offense is breathing any easier as he gets ready to face the Vikings for the sixth time in his career.

"Their front four is about as good as there is in the NFL," Manning said when asked what makes the Vikings still so dangerous. "They're able to stop the run, able to get a good pass rush without bringing too many blitzes."

Despite the dangers that the Vikings' defense poses, Manning believes that the Giants have a good plan to get that defensive front four under control, one that will give the offense a chance to avoid long-yardage situations that can be particularly deadly for an opponent given the noise levels for which the Mall of America Field is known.

"It's going to be loud, and they are going to be jumping the cadence," Manning said of the Vikings' defensive front four. "Guys have to be ready to block because you can't do stuff in third and long all day."

Atlanta Falcons (10-2) at Carolina Panthers (1-11)

When: Sunday, noon.

TV: FOX.

Fast facts : Clausen has been sacked 15 times in his past five games. ... Turner is second in the NFL with 35 rushing touchdowns since 2008.

Inside the Falcons

The Falcons expect the Panthers to rely on their running game in order to help out rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who's 0-6 as a starter.

The Falcons' run defense had been playing well until letting Tampa Bay's LeGarrette Blount rush for more than 100 yards last week. They had gone nine games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.

"We won't make any excuses," said linebacker Curtis Lofton, who leads the team with 114 tackles. "It's just overall attitude and missed tackles. We can't have the missed tackles. I have to come out and have a better game."

Carolina will feature running backs Jonathan Stewart and Michael Goodson, who average 3.9 and 4.1 yards per carry, respectively.

"He's really good," Lofton said of Goodson. "I played against him in college a couple of times. He's just really grown as a pro. He's very fast and agile. It's going to take a good effort to bring him down."

While the Falcons must tighten up the front of their defense against the run, the back of the defense is tightening up against the pass.

Left cornerback Brent Grimes' talent and perseverance shows up in that he's lasted through three head coaches. If he continues to play like he did last week against Tampa Bay, it appears that his career is about to take traction.

He had two spectacular plays on passes. One was overturned by review and the other interception, which sealed the 28-24 victory, was upheld.

"That guy is playing amazing football right now," wide receiver Roddy White said.

Grimes also finished with six passes defensed against Tampa Bay.

"That's kind of unheard of," White said. "That's blanketing people out there. He's growing every week. He's getting better. The more football he plays, the better he's getting."

Grimes led the Falcons in interceptions with six last season. He's tied for the team lead with four this season.

He attributes his steady improvement to learning how to study film under assistant coaches Emmitt Thomas, Alvin Reynolds and new secondary coach Tim Lewis.

"I'm happy, but I'm still trying to get better," Grimes said. "I'm trying to improve every day and every practice. You just have to keep working. It's a steady grind."

St. Louis Rams (6-6) at New Orleans Saints (9-3)

When: Sunday, 3:05 p.m.

TV: FOX.

Keys to the game: The Rams have to generate a few big defensive plays to keep pace, and the Saints have committed 22 turnovers. But New Orleans has also averaged 33 points over its past four games with QB Drew Brees' supporting cast healthier. And with RB Chris Ivory providing a physical presence, the Rams' cornerbacks will be under intense heat off play-action. So, too, will rookie QB Sam Bradford. The Saints will focus on RB Steven Jackson and then bring pressure on Bradford, who has displayed the ability to make a quick read and accurate pass under duress.

Fast facts : The Rams seek to win three road games in consecutive weeks for the first time since 1977. ... Brees has 20 completions of 20-plus yards in six home games this season.

Inside the Saints

As they head deeper into the final month of the season, the Saints seem to be hitting their stride at just the right time -- especially offensively.

After struggling early, the Saints have come on in the last seven games on offense which has resulted in them scoring 30 points or more and putting up 400 yards or more in the last four outings. They scored more than 30 points just once and reached 400 total yards one time in their first eight games.

The result has been a season-high five-game winning streak and six victories in their last seven outings after a disappointing 3-2 start.

With Drew Brees getting the ball downfield more often than they did in the first portion of the season, the Saints have taken off in their bid to get back to the playoffs and have a chance at reaching the Super Bowl again.

There's no doubt that the offense's recent success is directly related to the team's ability to convert "shot" plays. In the first eight games, they had just four pass plays of 40 yards or longer; in the last four games, the number has gone up to six.

In addition, they've had two running plays of 50 yards or longer. But even that can be attributed to the ability to throw the ball down the field, coach Sean Payton said.

"It's something in each plan where we want to aggressively get the ball down the field," he said. "Sometimes you get a receiver that's open or the look that's good, and other times you end up checking it down and looking for an underneath throw.

"That part of it has been more effective, and conversely, we're running the ball a little better in this last quarter of the season," he added. "If you're able to do that, you're able to get some of the looks you would prefer in regards to your down-the-field shots."

New England Patriots (10-2) at Chicago Bears (9-3)

When: Sunday, 3:15 p.m.

TV: CBS.

Keys to the game: A lot will depend on how much pressure Chicago can apply on Patriots QB Tom Brady with its front four. He was excellent in deciphering the Jets' blitz packages Monday night, but he's also intimately familiar with that defense and the Bears possess a true elite pass rusher in DE Julius Peppers. The Bears will focus on keeping receivers in front of them out of the Cover-2, and the key will be how many yards the Patriots' possession receivers rip off after the catch. The Bears have allowed 45 sacks this season, which is a primary reason why offensive coordinator Mike Martz has become far more balanced in his play-calling. But if the Patriots are playing pinball on the scoreboard, don't look for Martz to stay conservative for long. New England has a modest 21 sacks on the season and plenty of youth in CBs Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty.

Fast facts : The Patriots clinch a playoff spot with a victory. ... The Bears have a five-game winning streak. ... New England has won 20 of its past 21 regular-season games against the NFC. ... The Patriots won the last meeting, 17-13, at home in 2006 with CB Asante Samuel intercepting three passes.

Inside the Bears

The chess match between Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Patriots defensive guru Bill Belichick is the game within the game that could determine the outcome in Sunday's clash.

Their most memorable matchup came in Super Bowl XXXVI, when Belichick's Patriots edged Martz's Rams 20-17, even though the losers outgained the winners 427-267, including 365 passing yards by Martz's triggerman, Kurt Warner.

"We moved the ball exceptionally well," Martz recalled. "(But) we turned the ball over three times. We had a protection error, we had a wide receiver slip and fall on a slant, and we fumbled right before the half. They got 17 points off those three turnovers. They were a great team, obviously. I'm not taking anything away from that. It was more about turning the ball over like we did that gave them those great opportunities that affected the outcome more than anything else."

The gamesmanship for the latest rematch began early in the week, with both coaches singing the praises of his opponent.

"He will study everything that you've done," Martz said. "He'll take it apart piece by piece. He'll identify what your strengths are and he'll try to eliminate your strengths. He will make you adjust. There is no question about it."

The Patriots have compiled an AFC-best 10-2 record this season despite a turnover in personnel that has several previously untested young players plugged into key roles. The defense has struggled, especially against the pass, but there have been signs of improvement.

Martz's offense also struggled early but has shown consistent improvement as players get a better grasp on Martz's scheme.

"It seems like they've gotten more comfortable with coach Martz's offense and the execution of it as the season's gone along," Belichick said. "And they've been very productive running the ball in recent weeks, (converting) third downs, red zone and all the situational things."

If Martz is forced to make adjustments based on what Belichick's defense tries to take away, he's capable of adapting according to the Patriots' coach who is only the second in NFL history to lead a team to 10 straight winning seasons.

"We always have trouble against Mike," Belichick said. "He does a great job with the formations, the personnel groupings; and his passing concepts are very difficult to defend. If you stop one, then that opens up something else. They complement each other well."

One of the factors Martz has cited in the overall improvement of the offense is improved discipline and a more precise attention to detail, which is of paramount importance in his scheme.

According to Martz, Belichick has an advantage there. In 11 years as the head coach in New England he has built a rigid system that demands discipline.

"This is something that we try to do on offense," Martz said. "He's been there for so long that there is an aura of discipline that he demands out of those guys. That's what we're trying to get to. I say 'limit mistakes, get better every week.'" They're that way now every week because it's ingrained in them.

"When they bring somebody in, they have to buy into that. You never see them out of position. They adjust extremely well. That's the best compliment you can give the guy, I think, they're just very, very tuned in to what they're doing. They just don't make errors."

Over the past four games, Martz's offense has averaged 322 total yards per game, which still pales in comparison to the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf. But it's a noticeable improvement over the previous five games, when growing pains and inconsistencies limited the Bears to an average of just 254 yards per game. The offense has benefited from its ability to utilize several different players in key roles from week to week.

"He's a hard guy to defend," Belichick said. "His schemes are always very creative, and they give you a lot of things to worry about. Their plays complement each other so, if you're stopping one thing, you're probably not going to be able to stop the play that he has that goes with it. You never feel safe when you're playing Mike's offense; they're one play away from a big, explosive play."

Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) at Dallas Cowboys (4-8)

When: Sunday, 7:20 p.m.

TV: NBC.

Fast facts : Vick has a 105.7 passer rating and 467 rushing yards. Only the 49ers' Steve Young (107.0, 537 in 1992) has finished a season with a passer rating above 100 and at least 500 rushing yards.

Inside the Eagles

Cornerback Asante Samuel, who has missed the last two games with an MCL sprain in his left knee, didn't practice Thursday after being a limited practice participant on Wednesday. But the Eagles remain hopeful that Samuel will be able to play in Sunday night's important NFC East road game against the Dallas Cowboys.

With Samuel out the last two weeks, the Eagles gave up six touchdown passes and allowed 10.2 yards per attempt.

"(Not having Samuel) is huge," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "He's a very good player, a very good player. A Pro Bowl corner.

"What he also gives you though, is that leadership, that veteran leadership, that experience. When things get out of kilter as they do in the ups and downs of a game, having a veteran player at that corner certainly helps to nail things down. We look forward to having him back."

The Eagles practiced inside Thursday. So that was the main reason McDermott held Samuel out of practice, though he still seems to be favoring his injured leg.

On the other side of the ball, how will the Cowboys handle Michael Vick?

Cowboys third-string quarterback Stephen McGee earned scout team player of the week for his portrayal of Peyton Manning in advance of last week's 38-35 overtime victory against the Indianapolis Colts.

Now McGee is charged with doing his best Vick impersonation in getting the Cowboys ready for Sunday's game against the Eagles, showing his versatility and skill set.

"Those of you who know his history, he ran a lot of option in college so I think he's very natural doing that," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Having said that, it's probably the difference between -- I'll make a baseball reference - (Tim) Wakefield and Nolan Ryan. That guy out there in Philadelphia is awfully athletic. He's awfully quick, he's awfully fast. Stephen is trying his best."



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