NFC Contenders Game Scouts

We have the scoop on all of the big games that will impact the Packers' pursuit of a playoff berth. Leading off: the big NFC East game between the Eagles and Giants.

Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) at New York Giants (9-4)

Kickoff: Sunday, noon.

Keys to the game: The Giants' offense will again be fed through the tandem of RBs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. With WR Steve Smith (knee) out for the season, Manning's third-down security blanket is missing. Hakeem Nicks leads the team in catches and touchdowns, and he's expecting to see a lot of CB Asante Samuel -- if Samuel is given the green light after missing three games (knee). Manning should have opportunities underneath to Bradshaw and TE Kevin Boss with rookie seventh-round pick MLB Jamar Chaney making his first career start.

The Eagles dropped the Giants with big plays in Week 11, and the electric trio of QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson can tax any defense. The Giants were overaggressive in using a "zero" blitz that left the Eagles' receivers man-up and widened passing windows for Vick to hit Jackson and WR Jeremy Maclin, who lit up the Giants for nine catches and 120 yards. The Eagles allowed Vick to be hit several times in the first meeting. Beyond improving pass protection, the Eagles must find a solution to their red-zone issues. They were 1-of-5 against the Giants on Nov. 21.

Fast facts: The Eagles have won 12 of their past 13 December games and five straight overall against the Giants. ... The last meeting with both teams five games over .500 was 1961. ... The Eagles are 9-1 on the road in December games since 2006.

Inside the Eagles

The Eagles remain hopeful that wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who hasn't practiced this week because of an injured foot, will be able to play in Sunday's important NFC East battle against the New York Giants.

But even if he does, he probably won't be returning punts. Jackson injured his foot returning a punt in last week's win over Dallas. He didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday. If he plays Sunday, the Eagles likely will have Jorrick Calvin handle both his regular kickoff return duties as well as Jackson's punt return chores.

"(Trainer) Rick Burkholder will have a lot to say about that," special teams coordinator Bobby April said. "How much he can hold up, where he's at. I think it will be between coach (Andy Reid) and the trainers on the wear and tear that he can sustain in the game."

Calvin has returned 11 punts this season. He's averaging 10.5 yards per return with a long of 44 yards. He has muffed a couple of punts.

Calvin picked up a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in Sunday's game when he hit the Cowboys' Alan Ball after the two had words on a kickoff return.

Inside the Giants

Before their first meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles, quarterback Eli Manning was asked what it would take to beat their division rivals.

"We have to play perfectly," he said in the days leading up to that game. "No mistakes."

Unfortunately for New York, that wasn't the case as they turned the ball over five times, wasting an otherwise stellar defensive effort that for the most part kept the Eagles from cashing in big on the offense's miscues, at least until the fourth quarter when Philadelphia overcame a 17-16 deficit to win 27-17.

This week, with both teams at 9-4 and with the winner of this game being the team who will have all the advantages in terms of the NFC East race, the Giants are hoping to deliver a higher quality performance against what has traditionally been one of their toughest opponents each year.

"We didn't have much success running or throwing and our defense was able to rise up and hold them to one out of five in the red zone," noted head coach Tom Coughlin. "The turnovers were ridiculous, to be honest with you."

The good news is that the Giants say they have learned from those mistakes and that they're confident that there won't be a repeat performance.

"You definitely learn from that game what things work and when will they try to make adjustments and what works for them," said Manning, responsible for four of the Giants' turnovers (three interceptions and one lost fumble) in the first meeting.

"We did some good things and moved the ball well at times; we just have to get better at third-down conversions," he added. "There are definitely some things we can take from that and know we had a chance to win that game but we didn't do it. We have to find a way to win the fourth quarter."

The philosophy sounds simple, but talking about it and doing it are two different things.

"There are a lot of clear objectives here, one of which is that offensively we've got to get going, we've got to do our job, we've got to hold the ball, we've got to move the ball, we've got to be able to run the ball against a very good defense," Coughlin said.


Detroit Lions (3-10) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5)

Kickoff: Sunday, noon.

TV: FOX.

Keys to the game: The Lions are giving QB Shaun Hill (broken index finger) a chance to prove he can play by late in the week. Whether it's Hill or Drew Stanton, look for the Bucs to bring a safety forward to help their 27th-ranked run defense and dare Detroit to beat them deep through the air. The Lions don't want to make the same dare with their secondary thinned by injury. They need an excellent game from the front seven in containing RB LeGarrette Blount so the safeties can keep an eye over the top on rookie WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn.

Fast facts: The Lions have an NFL-record 26-game losing streak on the road. ... Bucs QB Josh Freeman is 10-1 when he has a passer rating of at least 80.

Inside the Buccaneers

The Bucs will have a tough time replacing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is out for the season with a torn left biceps.

Last week, after McCoy was injured on the third play of the game, Redskins running back Ryan Torain rushed 24 times for 172 yards.

The Bucs made an adjustment at halftime, putting defensive end Michael Bennett at the three technique. Bennett's quickness was effective against the Redskins' zone-blocking scheme, but it won't work against the Lions.

The Bucs' plan is to utilize Frank Okam, who was signed from their practice squad Nov. 28, at the under tackle position. When Okam tires, they will move nose tackle Roy Miller over to the three technique and use Al Woods at nose tackle.

Bennett could be used in certain blitz situations during passing downs.

"It's not about whether he can handle it or not, he's going to play end for us," coach Raheem Morris said. "When I put him in there, he'll be that change-up guy, he'll be that third-down spark. He'll go in there and do some different things for us on second down and some different things for us on first down, some movement. I'm not going to make him go in there and make him change his game or redefine it and make him our hard core double-team guy. I've got guys who can do that stuff."

Miller played some three technique at Texas and was a teammate of Okam's, who at 350 pounds is a space-eating run stopper.

That will come in handy this week against the Lions, who are coming off a season-high 190-yards rushing in a 7-3 win over Green Bay.

"He's just a great teammate," Morris said of Miller. "Although I think he's a magnificent nose tackle, he can certainly play the three technique for us. He'll do anything asked of his team."


New Orleans Saints (10-3) at Baltimore Ravens (9-4)

Kickoff: Sunday, noon.

TV: FOX.

Keys to the game: The Saints have scored at least 30 points in five consecutive games. The Ravens should provide the stiffest defensive test New Orleans has faced the second half of the season, but Baltimore must cut down on sacks and penalties on offense to keep pace. The Ravens have allowed 13 sacks the past three weeks as they've been vulnerable to overload blitz packages - just the type Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams specializes in. Look for the Saints to run a high-paced offense and keep the Ravens on their heels after struggling in the second half against Houston on Monday night.

Fast facts: Saints QB Drew Brees needs 145 passing yards to join the Colts' Peyton Manning (1999-2004, 2006-10) as the only players in NFL history with at least five consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons. ... Ravens LT Michael Oher has committed seven false start penalties this season.

Inside the Saints

After doing well in the last game that they played in frigid weather, the Saints hope that trend continues in Sunday's game with the Baltimore Ravens in M&T Bank Stadium.

The Saints survived a 32-degree temperature and wind chill of 23 to take a 34-30 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 5 and Sunday they hope to do the same with a forecast for a high temperature in the mid-30s at Baltimore.

Saints coach Sean Payton scoffed earlier in the week at a reporter's notion that he "fretted" playing games in Cincinnati and Baltimore in December when the NFL schedule was released in April.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, when we had this discussion last week, I don't recall making a big deal of the weather," Payton said. "I know it was a big issue for you a week ago, but I don't remember fretting it. Let's not say that I fret the schedule when it came out, because that's what you said last week. That's absolutely false."

In addition to beating the Bengals, the Saints battled near-freezing temperatures last December to defeat the Washington Redskins in FedEx Field. They lost the regular-season finale at Carolina when the temperature was 30 degrees, but played mostly with backups that day because they had already clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs.

"I think we're a team that can handle whether we are playing inside or outside," Payton said. "I think we have a team that is battle-tested and has been able to handle the elements."

Payton said he doesn't worry about cold-weather games, but looks at something else when the schedule is released.

"When the schedule comes out, you look at it: You look at the time, the primetime games, and the travel after a primetime game," he said. "Those are the first things you look at, then you look at where we play late in the year on the road. Certainly, you don't fret it.

"You prepare for it and you get ready for it. You practice outside and you do those things that get you ready to play whether you are inside or outside."


Atlanta Falcons (11-2) at Seattle Seahawks (6-7)

Kickoff: Sunday, 3:05 p.m.

TV: FOX.

Keys to the game: The Seahawks tend to start slow and will be very susceptible to Atlanta's power ground game. So look for the Falcons to grind out a few early drives with plenty of RB Michael Turner, try to take the crowd out of the game and then aggressively attack Seattle's offensive line. Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck is coming off a four-interception game, but should get WRs Mike Williams (ankle) and Ben Obomanu (hand) back. The passing game must lead the charge against a Falcons defense allowing 233.2 passing yards per game.

Fast facts: Falcons QB Matt Ryan has thrown at least one touchdown pass in a career-high 12 consecutive games. ... The Seahawks' seven losses have come by an average of 21.4 points.

Inside the Falcons

Former Falcons safety Lawyer Milloy would love nothing more than to derail, or at least temporarily sidetrack, Atlanta's march to the playoffs.

Back in 2008, after the Falcons were eliminated from the wildcard playoffs by Kurt Warner and Arizona, Milloy said he wanted to return to the team.

In part because he was a liability in pass coverage and because the team didn't like his heavy-handed leadership approach, they elected not to offer him a new contract.

In Seattle, Milloy got to reunite with former Falcons coach Jim Mora and then with his former New England coach Pete Carroll this season.

At 35, he's starting for the Seahawks and is respected by Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

Milloy started 48 of 49 games for the Falcons from 2006 to 2008. The Falcons expect Milloy to have the Seahawks' young defense riled up and ready to hit.

"I know what he brings to the table on game days," Mularkey said. "He's very intense and he's still a big hitter. Nothing has changed about the guy."

Milloy is a four-time Pro Bowler and was first-team All-Pro in 1999.

"We definitely know Lawyer," wide receiver Michael Jenkins said. "He's going to be down in the box to stop the run."

The Falcons can clinch a playoff berth with a victory over Milloy and the Seahawks.

Then, the last two regular-season games will be for the NFC South title and playoff seeding. If they win out, the Falcons would secure the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

"It's all about making sure that we stay focused and we keep that goal in mind," tight end Tony Gonzalez said.

Last week, the Falcons needed some bizarre trifecta that almost worked out thanks to Detroit's upset of Green Bay and Dallas' near upset of Philadelphia.

The Falcons can also clinch a playoff berth with a loss or tie by the New York Giants, Chicago or Green Bay.

The Giants (9-4) host the Philadelphia Eagles (9-4).

Green Bay (8-5) plays at New England (11-2) Sunday night.

Chicago (9-4) is scheduled to play at Minnesota (5-8) on Monday night.

"To reach our ultimate goal, the older guys talk about making sure that we keep things in the right perspective and don't listen to what everybody is saying because we could get caught up in that," rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "If we go out there taking it one week at a time, we'll be in the right place and everybody will have to come through Atlanta."


Chicago Bears (9-4) at Minnesota Vikings (5-8)

Kickoff: Monday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

Keys to the game: Bears QB Jay Cutler led a 27-13 victory over the Vikings at home in Week 10 by throwing for 237 yards and three touchdowns. The passing attack could be more unstable with the game moved outdoors to TCF Bank Stadium due to the collapse of the Metrodome's roof. And considering the Vikings' offensive issues, the Bears would be wise to lean as heavily as possible on their ground game and avoid turnovers due to their poor pass protection. The Vikings' Adrian Peterson must also be prepared for a big workload with rookie Joe Webb or veteran Patrick Ramsey, signed Wednesday, possibly starting with Brett Favre (shoulder) and Tarvaris Jackson (turf toe) nursing injuries. Webb also is battling a tender hamstring.

Fast facts: The Bears have won six straight games that came immediately after losses of 20 or more points. ... Ramsey's last start came in Week 1 in 2005 in a 9-7 victory over Chicago for the Redskins.

Inside the Bears

Despite concerns of Bears players regarding the quality of the playing surface, Monday night's game vs. the Vikings will be played at the University of Minnesota's outdoor TCF Bank Stadium.

The stadium, which opened just over a year ago, is equipped with Field Turf but does not feature any type of heating system underneath, and it has been covered in snow and ice since last week's storm that dumped 17 inches of snow in the area. That storm caused the cave-in of the inflatable roof at the Vikings' Metrodome and necessitated the change of venue.

"We just played in six inches of snow Sunday," Bears safety Chris Harris said of last Sunday's game at Soldier Field. "So guys don't have a problem with playing outdoors, don't have a problem with the weather, with the wind, with the snow, with any of it. But the issue is safety. Minnesota is not equipped for playing outdoor games. A stadium that's been under snow for a month in those temperatures -- it's been minus-degree weather up there, the field will be icy -- it doesn't make for a safe environment."

Linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who was signed to the Bears' practice squad on Tuesday, was a two-year starter for the Minnesota Gophers and was on campus as recently as Sunday.

"It's just amazing (we're) playing there," Lawrence said. "It was just dumped with a whole bunch of snow when we had that big blizzard. I didn't think it was possible but now everybody's texting me and hitting me up like, 'Hey everybody's out here, we're cleaning the field up,'

"My girlfriend told me everyone's there shoveling, all her roommates, and they're all like, 'The game's going to be here, everybody come and shovel snow.' I think they're going to have a lot of kids out there. But they said it's supposed to snow there again so, while they're shoveling more's coming down."

Thursday's forecast in Minneapolis included a 20 percent chance of snow showers and the forecast for the remainder of the week was similar with the chance of snow increasing to 40 percent on Monday, when the high temperature was expected to be 19 degrees and the low 9.

"We've been in contact with the NFL (players' association)," said Bears kicker Robbie Gould, the team's player rep. "The biggest concern that the players have is we want to make sure that we're playing on a surface that is not going to create more risk than there already is in the game. Obviously playing on a frozen field will create a little bit more risk for players.

"The NFL, the NFLPA and the Bears and Vikings as organizations will make an educated and a responsible decision as to making sure that players don't get put in a potential for advanced risk."

Bears head groundskeeper Ken Mrock and head equipment manager Tony Medlin were in Minneapolis, assessing the situation, as were officials from the NFL and the Vikings.

Despite the concerns, Gould refuted rumors of a Bears protest regarding the outdoor site.

"There's no protest," Gould said. "There will be no protest. As long as the environment is safe and the conditions for the field are safe, then obviously the show must go on."

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who last week called the playing surface at Soldier Field "the worst in the league," said the team's most serious concern is with the hardness of the field.

"In the locker room, that's kind of the buzz," Cutler said. "That's the concern with the guys. We don't really care where we play but just that that field isn't heated. They can heat it up all they want (before the game) but then we're going to be out there for three hours in zero-degree weather. It's definitely going to be a hard surface."

Lawrence, the former Gopher linebacker, said he didn't notice that the field was any harder later in the college season, it's never been used this late in the year.

"It was never THIS cold because we end our season like three weeks ago," Lawrence said. "Now we're talking about negative-degree weather, so I wouldn't even know how the field would respond. But when I was there it was pretty soft because it's a fresh field, it's a really nice field."

Harris has his doubts, but according to him, the players don't have any say in the matter if the NFL decides the field is playable.

"You don't have a choice," Harris said. "They tell you what to do in the NFL. Honestly, you don't really have a voice. It's pretty much a dictatorship. That's the way it goes. It's sad, but that's the way it goes. We don't have a voice as far as what we feel is safe. It's unfortunate."



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