GAME OF THE WEEK
New England Patriots (10-3) at Denver Broncos (8-5)
Kickoff: Sunday, 4:15 ET, CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
Last meeting: The Broncos won, 20-17, in overtime at home in 2009 with PK Matt Prater kicking the game-winning 41-yard field goal.
Streaking: The Broncos have a six-game winning streak.
Pressure watcher: Denver's defense has been overshadowed by Tim Tebow, but the unit has allowed just 30-of-110 (27.2 percent) third down conversions during Tebow's eight starts while racking up 25 sacks and 12 takeaways. Patriots QB Tom Brady has some of the league's best third-down weapon in WR Wes Welker and TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. There will be a chess match of matchups and Brady deciphering where the pressure is coming from.
The Hoody vs. Tebow Time: Typically, Bill Belichick devising a scheme to face an inexperienced quarterback who struggles mightily with his accuracy would be a recipe for domination. But Belichick's deck of cards is severely limited with two offensive players regularly contributing to the beleaguered secondary. And Tebow might need to exploit a few assignment breakdowns over the top. Belichick preaches tackling and reading keys, two things that could severely hamper Denver's ground game. Tebow has been at his best late in games with an up-tempo attack after play-action has been established.
Need to know: Brady is 1-5 in his career at Denver. ... This year's Broncos and the 2009 Colts are the only teams in NFL history to win four straight games in which they trailed in the fourth quarter.
Dallas Cowboys (7-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9)
Kickoff: Saturday, 8:00 ET, NFL Network, Brad Nessler, Mike Mayock, Alex Flanagan
Game plan: The offensive line must keep the pocket clean for QB Josh Freeman, who isn't fully healthy, to keep Tampa Bay within striking distance. The Cowboys secondary has holes that are easily exposed when blockers keep OLB DeMarcus Ware out of the backfield. The Cowboys lost the focal point of their offense, rookie RB DeMarco Murray, last week. RB Felix Jones and newly signed Sammy Morris are more than capable, especially against the Bucs, who are allowing 139.7 rushing yards per game. QB Tony Romo should continue to work inside-out, taking underneath passes to WR Laurent Robinson and TE Jason Witten, before winding up for shots to WRs Miles Austin and Dez Bryant.
Need to know: Dallas has either won or failed to go ahead in the final minute on fourth-quarter field goals in four straight games. ... Bucs DE Michael Bennett and Cowboys TE Marcellus Bennett are brothers.
Miami Dolphins (4-9) at Buffalo Bills (5-8)
Kickoff: Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots
Game plan: Injuries have both teams limping to the finish line. The Dolphins, under the direction of interim coach Todd Bowles, might be forced to play conservative and rely on their defense if LT Jake Long (back) and QB Matt Moore (concussion) sit. Even the Bills' modest pass rush might have success putting heat on backup J.P. Losman, who was sacked five times in 15 dropbacks last week. The Dolphins' defense destroyed the Bills' front five in the Nov. 20 meeting, intercepting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick twice as Buffalo spun its wheels without RB Fred Jackson. That's an ongoing theme the Bills can attempt to solve by isolating WRs Steve Johnson and Brad Smith against single coverage when the Dolphins use a nickel package.
Need to know: Miami's opponents are 15-of-89 (16 percent) when on third-down conversions of seven-plus yards. ... Fitzpatrick has six multiple interception games in 2011.
Carolina Panthers (4-9) at Houston Texans (10-3)
Kickoff: Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Ron Pitts, Jim Mora, Drea Avent
Game plan: The Texans' front seven is abundantly athletic, making its down-to-down chess match with Panthers QB Cam Newton, who has 28 total touchdowns, anticipated viewing. Newton must be right when reading pre-snap keys to determine from what direction the Texans will bring pressure. The Texans haven't been guarded with play selection for QB T.J. Yates. The promising rookie, backed by the NFL's top-ranked defense and the only duo of running backs in the league with 800-plus yards apiece, has leaned on TEs Joel Dreesen and Owen Daniels as security blankets. The Texans' play-action game should thrive with Carolina's revolving door at defensive tackle and linebacker weakening the run defense significantly.
Need to know: The Panthers have allowed an average of 12.5 points in the fourth quarter of their six road games this season. ... Texans opponents have a cumulative passer rating of 62.6 with 17 interceptions.
Tennessee Titans (7-6) at Indianapolis Colts (0-13)
Kickoff: Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
Game plan: The Colts have all but thrown in the towel in the running game while playing from behind early and often, exposing QB Dan Orlovsky to pressure from all angles. Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray played soft outside coverage in the first meeting, but he'll bring a number of looks at Orlovsky, trusting rookie MLB Colin McCarthy to fill lanes when the Colts hand off. The Titans are plus-five in turnover margin and are leaning heavily on RB Chris Johnson. Rookie QB Jake Locker nearly rallied the Titans to a win over the Saints last week and his mobility will be a factor if Matt Hasselbeck (calf) doesn't play.
Need to know: The Titans last swept the season series in 2002. ... The Colts have one first-quarter touchdown all season.
Green Bay Packers (13-0) at Kansas City Chiefs (5-8)
Kickoff: Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
Game plan: The Packers won't fret with WR Greg Jennings out of the lineup, but it might implore teams to play more man coverage. QB Aaron Rodgers will get the ball in the hands of RBs James Starks and Ryan Grant to cool the pass-rushing jets of OLBs Tamba Hali (nine sacks) and rookie Justin Houston. Though he was catchless last week, the Chiefs have no answer for TE Jermichael Finley in coverage. QB Kyle Orton (finger) will start for the Chiefs if healthy over rookie Ricky Stanzi. Both are accurate on short, intermediate throws but can expect to face an ever-changing mix of personnel designed to keep them guessing and confine the Chiefs' pedestrian running backs.
Need to know: The Packers are plus-20 in turnover margin. ... The Chiefs last rushing touchdown came on Halloween vs. San Diego.
New Orleans Saints (10-3) at Minnesota Vikings (2-11)
Kickoff: Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale
Game plan: Drew Brees is masterful shifting his backs and tight ends to exploit coverage, and also to aid in pass protection. If the Saints seal off RDE Jared Allen (17.5 sacks), Brees should have all day to stand in the pocket to dissect a disaster-prone secondary. Given New Orleans' speed and size in multi-receiver packages, the Vikings can't use a safety to slow down the Saints' deep stable of running backs. Minnesota might get RB Adrian Peterson back from an ankle injury, which would aid rookie QB Christian Ponder, who has made too many costly mistakes under pressure.
Need to know: Brees has 20-plus completions in an NFL-record 33 consecutive games and a touchdown pass in 40 in a row. ... Ponder has 13 turnovers in seven starts.
Washington Redskins (4-9) at New York Giants (7-6)
Kickoff: Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
Game plan: The Redskins controlled the line of scrimmage in the opener, a 28-14 win in Washington, and the Giants' jumbled offensive line is cause for concern. QB Eli Manning hasn't flinched yet, using coverage-lifting routes to speedster Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to make up for marginal production from his running backs. The Redskins' big change since Week 1 -- the emergence of RB Roy Helu, who has three straight 100-yard games. Helu can catch out of the backfield and keeps linebackers tight to the line of scrimmage, opening windows for WR Jabar Gaffney on crossing routes and Santana Moss and Donte Stallworth over the top.
Need to know: The Redskins are 3-12 in the last 15 road meetings. ... Manning has 14 fourth-quarter touchdowns, tying an NFL single-season record.
Cincinnati Bengals (6-5) at St. Louis Rams (2-11)
Kickoff: Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
Game plan: Rams QB Sam Bradford (ankle) went 10-of-29 passing last week and struggled to step into his throws, but options are limited with A.J. Feeley (thumb) unlikely to be available. They want to lean on the running game, but without the fear of vertical passing from the Rams, Cincinnati's cling-wrap run defense won't let RB Steven Jackson get loose. If QB Andy Dalton takes care of the ball, the Bengals have to like their chances. St. Louis has a depleted secondary with no readymade cover men to keep the ball out of rookie WR A.J. Green's hands.
Need to know: The Rams are 15-62 since the start of the 2007 season. ... The Bengals are on pace for 44 sacks, but are 0-3 when they have five in a game.
Seattle Seahawks (6-7) at Chicago Bears (7-6)
Kickoff: Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Chris Myers, Tim Ryan, Jaime Maggio
Game plan: RB Marshawn Lynch has rushed for 100-plus yards in five of the past six games despite a constantly changing offensive line that is down three starters. The Bears are 10th in the league in run defense and if they can shut Lynch down early, QB Tarvaris Jackson has been inconsistent and lacks the receivers to stretch the defense with Sidney Rice injured. Bears RB Marion Barber will be eager to atone for last week's game-costing blunders. QB Caleb Hanie won't face an elite pass rush but Seattle's young cornerbacks are aggressive.
Need to know: Seattle has at least nine penalties in eight games this season. ... Chicago is 2-of-26 converting third downs the past two games.
Detroit Lions (8-5) at Oakland Raiders (7-6)
Kickoff: Sunday, 4:05 ET, FOX, Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin
Game plan: Both teams have been their own worst enemies with Oakland leading the league at 130 penalties and Detroit fourth at 105, and both teams turn the ball over frequently. The Lions are hopeful RB Kevin Smith (ankle) can return to provide a threat against a Raiders defense allowing 5.2 yards per carry and prevent Oakland from employing a deep cover on both sides. The Raiders likewise need a strong effort out of RB Michael Bush, who has been rendered ineffective in consecutive blowout losses. If Oakland falls behind, QB Carson Palmer is a pocket passer who has made poor throws on the move and he'll be a prime target for the Lions' pass rush, which gets Ndamukong Suh back.
Need to know: Detroit and Oakland lead the NFL with 27 personal foul penalties. ... Palmer leads the league with a 5.9 percent rate of passes intercepted.
Cleveland Browns (3-10) at Arizona Cardinals (6-7)
Kickoff: Sunday, 4:15 ET, CBS, Bill Macatee, Steve Tasker
Game plan: The Browns' Colt McCoy and the Cardinals' Kevin Kolb are both going through the concussion protocol this week. That could lead to Seneca Wallace making his first start of the season for Cleveland and John Skelton his fifth for Arizona. The Cardinals lead the league with nine touchdowns of 50-plus yards and the offense is often big-play-or-bust with Skelton at the helm. With Cleveland allowing 150.9 rushing yards per game, RB Beanie Wells should be a big factor as well. The Browns need RBs Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty to be effective early with a lack of downfield options to stretch the defense.
Need to know: Browns P Brad Maynard has 24 punts downed inside the 20 with no touchbacks. ... Cardinals DE Calais Campbell has blocked three kicks this season.
N.Y. Jets (8-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-8)
Kickoff: Sunday, 4:15 ET, CBS, Marv Albert, Rich Gannon
Game plan: Eagles QB Michael Vick is expected to start, but his ribs are still sore and he missed practice midweek. Vick has accounted for 15 of Philadelphia's league-high 31 turnovers, and he has struggled with defenses regularly tipping passes. The Jets' run defense has been attackable this season, but the Eagles' line needs to do a better job after RB LeSean McCoy managed just 38 yards on 27 carries last week. Meanwhile, Jets RB Shonn Green is coming off a 129-yard effort. He must be effective to keep QB Mark Sanchez out of third-and-long situations when Philadelphia's good pass rush can tee off.
Need to know: Jets WR Jeremy Kerley regains the punt return chores with S Jim Leonhard out for the season. ... The Eagles have eight turnovers in the red zone this season.
Baltimore Ravens (10-3) at San Diego Chargers (6-7)
Kickoff: Sunday, 8:20 ET, NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Game plan: Ravens coach John Harbaugh has been pleased with the play of his offensive line as the season wears on, and Baltimore will attempt to wear down a San Diego defense that allows 128.9 yards per game on the ground. RB Ray Rice will get plenty of early touches on the ground and through the air to set up play-action, and San Diego lacks a difference-maker in the pass rush. The Chargers do have an excellent vertical passing game, but will QB Philip Rivers have the time to throw over the top? He has been sacked 30 times behind a beat-up offensive line and Baltimore has a league-high 45 sacks. If RB Ryan Mathews isn't involved early, Rivers will be throwing under tremendous heat.
Need to know: Rice leads the NFL with 1,622 yards from scrimmage. ... After setting a single-season career high with 17 interceptions through just 10 games, Rivers has not thrown one the past three weeks.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) at San Francisco 49ers (10-3)
Kickoff: Monday, 8:30 ET, ESPN, Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, John Sutcliffe
Game plan: As QB Ben Roethlisberger continues to deal with a high ankle sprain, the Steelers will prepare Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon. No matter who is under center, Pittsburgh will attempt to get something going early against a 49ers run defense allowing a league-low 3.2 yards per carry. It will be difficult since RB Rashard Mendenhall is most effective between the tackles - playing into the teeth of San Francisco's defense, so at some point the Steelers will need to spread the field and work the secondary. Opposing defense have been attacking 49ers QB Alex Smith, although Pittsburgh could be minus OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. San Francisco needs to get more production from rookie RB Kendall Hunter if it's going to keep ailing Frank Gore fresh for the playoffs.
Need to know: Pittsburgh is 25-5 against the NFC since 2003. ... Hunter has 65 yards on 28 carries the past four games (2.3-yard average).
— By Derek Harper & Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange