NFC Contender Game Scouts

We have the scoop on all of the key games that will help decide the jumbled NFC playoff race. The big game for the Packers' purposes will be played at Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers (8-6) host the Seahawks (6-8).

New York Jets (10-4) at Chicago Bears (10-4)

Kickoff: Sunday, noon


Keys to the game: Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz has said he prefers teams blitz — it invites single-coverage and leads to big gains. That perspective could make for an interesting cat-and-mouse game with Jets coach Rex Ryan after his team was mostly successful in containing Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger last week. Jets QB Mark Sanchez is a game-time decision because of a shoulder injury. He won't make a living on check-downs against this Cover 2 scheme, but there are openings to get the ball to RB LaDainian Tomlinson and TE Dustin Keller if he's willing to roll the dice and needle the ball over LBs Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Each defense thrives on takeaways.

Fast facts: Sanchez has a passer rating of 67.1 in the second half of games this season. ... Bears QB Jay Cutler's teams are 20-0 when he has a passer rating of at least 100.

Inside the Bears

After Brett Favre's miraculous healing last week, when he went from "out," to "questionable," to starting in less time than it takes to send an inappropriate text message, the Bears aren't putting much stock in Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez's shoulder injury.

Sanchez was limited in Thursday afternoon's practice with a slight cartilage tear in his right shoulder, and Jets coach Rex Ryan said 40-year-old backup Mark Brunell could start Sunday. But the Bears aren't buying it.

"Not at all," cornerback Tim Jennings said. "After what Favre pulled last week, I don't even believe in anything like a bum shoulder anymore. They've got drugs for those to kind of not make you feel anything, and he still (could) throw 50-60 yards like Brett Favre did last week. That shoulder issue with Sanchez isn't going to fool anybody around here."

It's debatable how much Favre helped the Vikings last week before defensive end Corey Wootton moved him another step closer to retirement with a body-slam sack that resulted in a concussion.

The Jets consider Sanchez their future at quarterback, but he's fighting his way through a slump, and the shoulder injury can't help. Ryan recently admitted he considered the possibility of benching Sanchez.

In his past four games, including two losses, the 24-year-old Sanchez has completed just 69 of 134 passes (51.5 percent) for an average of just 165 yards per game, with just one touchdown to go with five interceptions and 10 sacks. His passer rating of 74.6 is the lowest among AFC quarterbacks with enough attempts to qualify. He's thrown 16 touchdown passes and been picked off 12 times and sacked 27 times, which is still 17 less than the Bears' Jay Cutler.

"As a quarterback, he doesn't necessarily have to be the major game-changer, he just has to manage games," said Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, who notched his second sack of the season Monday night. "They have a great defense, and they have a great running game. When you have those elements, you don't have to do a whole lot as a quarterback."

The Jets clearly prefer to travel on the ground, where they're No. 6 in the NFL, while just 20th in passing yards and 28th in average gain per pass play.

"He tries to take care of the football as much as he can," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said of Sanchez. "They're a running football team. They try to be physical and pound the ball and get in some good third-and-short situations. They roll him out, and he's an athletic guy and has a good arm. We've got to try to put pressure on him as we've done with everybody."

Briggs was tentatively asked if, given Sanchez's situation, the Bears might ... uh... try to ... you know?

"Tackle his shoulder," Briggs blurted. "No, we don't do stuff like that. I don't do stuff like that personally. Which shoulder is it?

"I really don't think anyone was trying to hurt Brett Favre when he got hurt. Things just happen."

Sanchez insists that he will play Sunday, and he's the quarterback who gives the Jets the best chance to win.

"I sense a really competitive spirit," Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "When it has to happen, he'll find a way to stay alive, make a play, make a throw, and he seems to have a real command of the offense and real good leadership."

Seattle Seahawks (6-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6)

Kickoff: Sunday, 3:15 p.m.


Keys to the game: The Seahawks are sticking with QB Matt Hasselbeck, who has eight turnovers the past two weeks. Protecting the ball is priority No. 1, and attacking the Bucs' run defense (6.6 yards per carry the past two weeks) would certainly help. Tampa Bay's own ground game should be effective against the undersized Seahawks front seven. Seattle is also thin in the secondary, so QB Josh Freeman should be able to exploit man coverage downfield if he can work off play-action.

Fast facts: RB Marshawn Lynch is averaging 3.4 yards per carry in 10 games with Seattle. ... Freeman has only thrown one interception in his last 142 attempts.

Inside the Buccaneers

Cornerback Ronde Barber, 35, is only a few weeks from finishing his 14th season and doesn't have a contract for next season.

Barber has admitted this could be his last year, but if coach Raheem Morris has his way, the five-time Pro Bowler will be back.

"He has a lot of juice left," Morris said. "I told him, and he doesn't want to believe me, he's playing at a high level at corner, but if he couldn't play it, he's probably got six more years playing inside, just doing that.

"There's no doubt in my mind. Business aside, I'd keep playing if I were him."

Barber still is very productive. He's made 181 consecutive starts, the most ever by a cornerback and the longest among active NFL defensive players. He's second on the club with 93 tackles and has three interceptions, a sack, forced fumble and club-best 13 passes defended.

Morris says Barber is doing more than ever in the Bucs defense and is a wildcard he can use at linebacker, cornerback or safety. He's also had a big impact on players like Aqib Talib, E.J. Biggers, Myron Lewis, Sean Jones and Cody Grimm.

You get the feeling that Morris isn't ready to see Barber retire.

"I hope not, let's just put it that way," Morris said. "It's hard to go to work without Ronde. That guy is special. He's Derrick Brooks-like, he's Warren Sapp-like, he's John Lynch-like. They've got special character. They build your team. They mold your team. They become your team. They become those ghosts in your hallways at some point, but hopefully we don't have to make him a ghost right now."

Minnesota Vikings (5-9) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-4)

Kickoff: 7:20 p.m.


Keys to the game: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson should return from his knee and ankle issues. Rookie QB Joe Webb or newly-signed Patrick Ramsey aren't equipped to keep pace with the Eagles, so Minnesota must sustain drives and grind down the clock with Brett Favre (concussion) likely out. Eagles QB Michael Vick has six turnovers in his past five games, and big plays on defense are Minnesota's best shot of keeping the game within reach.

Fast facts: The Vikings have lost their past six games at Philadelphia, where they last won in 1985. ... Eagles CB Dimitri Patterson was beaten for three touchdown passes last week.

Inside the Eagles

The Eagles, who already have given up a franchise-record 30 touchdown passes, will go from one rookie in their secondary to another Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings.

Kurt Coleman will make his second start of the season at free safety, replacing Nate Allen, who is out for the year with a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. Allen was a second-round pick in the April draft. Coleman was a seventh-rounder, the 244th player taken.

But Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has a lot of confidence in Coleman. He played the better part of three quarters last week against the Giants and played well. He forced a critical third-down incompletion late in the game with a blitz.

"With Kurt, we're talking about a very instinctive football player," McDermott said. "I know a lot of people focus on the seventh-round draft pick thing, but that's not what we focus on.

"I mean, he's a good football player and he's made plays for this defense this year. So it's just a process where he needs to continue to get experience. And there's going to be bumps in the road, not only for him but for some of those other young guys. And there have been bumps in the road. But they stay aggressive, they take the right approach and have the right attitude, and in the end that will pay off for us."

The Eagles have defended the run very well most of the season, holding opponents to 3.8 yards per carry over the last 10 games. But their pass defense has struggled. In the last four games alone, they've given up 12 touchdown passes.

Asked Thursday whether the problem has been his young, inexperienced secondary or an inconsistent pass rush, McDermott said, "Well, there's a lot that goes into it and you mentioned two of the factors, there, a young defense, a young secondary, and then pass rush, you can always have more pass rush.

"But I'll just say this, with those points have come turnovers (the Eagles have a league-high 23 interceptions). And it's hard to have both. Is that what we're shooting for? Absolutely, we are. But with those turnovers we give the ball back to our offense and we've been a factor and one of the reasons why we're 10-4.

"Now, am I happy about those points? Absolutely not. Some of those points are coming in the red zone, in addition to the big plays, so we have to get that corrected and we're working hard at that. So that's a big goal of ours coming down the stretch here."

New Orleans Saints (10-4) at Atlanta Falcons (12-2)

Kickoff: Monday, 7:30 p.m.


Keys to the game: The Saints' ground game fell flat last week, but QB Drew Brees has his full complement of weapons healthy and has been red-hot the second half of the season. Falcons CB Brent Grimes is playing very well, but the pass defense is still giving up 226.8 yards per game and doesn't match up well across the board. Brees will move the ball, but most important is not settling for field goals because the Falcons should dominate time of possession. The Falcons averaged a modest 4.0 yards per carry in the first meeting, but stuck with the ground game and churned out 202 yards. With New Orleans giving up another 208 rushing yards in Baltimore last week, the Saints know they must stop the run first. If not, the pass rush will be a nonfactor and Ryan can manage the game while setting up shots against man coverage to WRs Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.

Fast facts: The Saints' 27 rushing yards last week was the fewest in five seasons under coach Sean Payton. ... Ryan has a 100.2 passer rating with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions at home. ... Ryan is 19-1 as a starter at home, and has won his past 15 at the Georgia Dome.

Inside the Saints

With only two regular-season games to play, the Saints know exactly what they have to do to earn the No. 1 seed or No. 5 seed for the upcoming playoffs.

Compared to other years, the playoff scenarios are a simple thing for the Saints to figure out this season. Win these final two games at Atlanta and at home against Tampa Bay and they might have an outside shot at winning the top seed for the second straight season.

But it's not likely to happen, even if the Saints beat the Falcons in their Monday Night Football showdown in the Georgia Dome. If the Saints win Monday night, they would have to beat the Bucs the next week and hope for the Carolina Panthers to upset the Falcons in the season finale.

So the Saints (10-4) are only worried about what they can control.

"I think with two games left, it's a lot easier for everyone to understand," coach Sean Payton said Thursday. "Our goal and focus is on this game.

"That approach is the only approach as a coach and player you can take," he added. "That has served us well. Clearly and this is the case every year, as the season winds down, the picture becomes clearer and clearer."

The Saints can actually clinch a playoff spot without playing Sunday. If Tampa Bay loses to Seattle, the Saints would be in the playoffs regardless of what happens in their final two games.

But they still want to win Monday night, considering they still have that outside shot at the NFC South title.

"Really, it's just about this game and finding a way to win this game," said quarterback Drew Brees. "We want to win because we want to win, but obviously, what it does for us from a playoff perspective — we lock in a playoff spot."

Inside the Falcons

Tight end Tony Gonzalez admits to thinking about retiring after this season, but is still uncertain about his future plans.

He's under contract for next season, but wide receiver Roddy White is worried that Gonzalez will certainly retire if the team wins the Super Bowl.

"I would be lying if I didn't tell you that I didn't think about it," Gonzalez said on Thursday. "I'd be a fool if I didn't think about it; just trying to be prepared a little bit. But you think about it and then you detach from it."

Gonzalez, who turns 35 in February, doesn't appear to be slowing down. Last week, he became the first player in league history to catch 60 or more passes in 12 straight seasons.

He has 62 catches for 591 yards and five touchdowns this season.

"Right now, I feel great though," Gonzalez said. "I can tell you if it came down to coming back next year, I could do it easily from a physical standpoint."

Gonzalez has helped the Falcons become the most successful team in the league on fourth downs. The Falcons have converted 11 of 13 fourth-down attempts (84.9 percent), which leads the NFL.

"We have a plan in place for if we have one yard to gain, three yards to gain, five yards to gain or six yards to gain," coach Mike Smith said. "I try to keep the coaches abreast in terms of if we have a situation where we're going to go for it on fourth down."

Smith remembers how he was criticized for not going for a fourth-and-1 at Pittsburgh's 5-yard line with 3:28 to play in the season opener. Matt Bryant kicked a 23-yard field goal to tie the game 9-9.

The Falcons lost 15-9 in overtime on a 50-yard run by Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall.

The league's shaky labor situation is a concern for Gonzalez. If there is a lockout, Gonzalez is not sure where that would lead him.

He's also not a proponent of the proposed 18-game schedule, which is a part of the labor negotiations.

"I can do it for one year," Gonzalez said. "But it makes no sense from a fan's point of view or from a player's point of view. If they do it, obviously it's just for money. There are other ways to gain that money."

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