GAME OF THE WEEK
N.Y. Giants (7-7) at N.Y. Jets (8-6)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
Last meeting: The Giants won, 35-24, Oct. 7, 2007, thanks in part to an Eli Manning-to-Plaxico Burress 53-yard touchdown pass. Jets QB Chad Pennington threw three interceptions.
Streaking: Five straight opponents have converted at least 50 percent of their third downs against the Giants, the first time that has happened since the 1970 merger according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Pound for pound: The battle in the trenches will be fierce with the Giants looking to pound the ball behind the physical interior of their offensive line and FB Henry Hynoski while the Jets stack the box. The Giants are beat up at tight end, which could lead to more tackle-eligible sets to provide protection for QB Eli Manning. That also puts more pressure on the wideouts to win their matchups - and stop hurting Manning with dropped passes.
Secondary mission: While the Jets aren't built to come from behind and are preparing for a strong pass rush, the decimated secondary is also the Giants' clear weakness. If RB Shonn Greene is able to generate some early yards on the ground and set up play-action, QB Mark Sanchez will have open receivers. Where the game could change is his decision making under heat on obvious passing downs.
Need to know: Manning's 14 fourth-quarter touchdown passes has tied the NFL single-season record. ... This is technically a road game for the Giants, while the Jets are 6-1 at MetLife Stadium this season.
Cleveland Browns (4-10) at Baltimore Ravens (10-4)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Spero Dedes, Rich Gannon
Game plan: The Ravens are just plus-one in turnover margin and have a habit of letting inferior opponents hang around. They've won seven in a row against Cleveland, but QB Joe Flacco's ability to hang in the pocket and let deep routes uncover might be the prerequisite to a blowout victory. RB Ray Rice ran for a career-high 204 yards in the Dec. 4 meeting and the Browns struggled to contain him on the edges. QB Seneca Wallace will make his second straight start for the Browns and RB Peyton Hillis has resumed his workhorse roll, but Cleveland lacks the deep threats to back SS Ed Reed away from the line of scrimmage.
Need to know: Baltimore is undefeated against the AFC North and 7-0 at home in 2011. ... Browns DE Jabaal Sheard has 7.5 sacks, third among rookies.
Denver Broncos (8-6) at Buffalo Bills (5-9)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
Game plan: The Bills have been a doormat against the run (139.5 yards per game), and Denver's top-ranked ground game expects RB Willis McGahee (hamstring) back after the offense stalled when he left last week's game. Buffalo is undersized up front and poor tackling limits the secondary. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick can keep the Bills in a high-scoring game if his offensive line picks up the Broncos' heavy diet of blitzes, but he leads the NFL in interceptions and needs C.J. Spiller to offset the passing game with another complete effort. Spiller had a career-best 167 yards (91 rushing) from scrimmage last week.
Need to know: McGahee needs 210 yards to become the first NFL back to rush for 1,200 yards in a season with three different teams (Bills, Ravens). ... The Bills have 26 turnovers and 26 takeaways.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) at Carolina Panthers (5-9)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Sam Rosen, Chad Pennington
Game plan: The Panthers manhandled Tampa Bay on Dec. 4, putting up an easy 38 points, including three Cam Newton rushing touchdowns. The Bucs are a frail outfit, having lost eight straight with rumors bubbling of coach Raheem Morris' looming ouster. More important, Tampa Bay is allowing 141.1 rushing yards per game and the secondary is minus injured CB Aqib Talib. Bucs QB Josh Freeman missed the 38-19 loss. His inability to push the ball downfield has defenses jamming receivers, with Freeman put in a predicament to either take chances putting the ball up for grabs or throwing it away.
Need to know: Bucs RB LeGarrette Blount has just 114 rushing yards the past three week (38 per game). ... Newton has an NFL-rookie record 30 total touchdowns.
Arizona Cardinals (7-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin
Game plan: Cardinals RB Beanie Wells and WR Larry Fitzgerald are steady standouts in an evolving offense hindered by quarterback issues, while the defense is making timely plays to win close games despite a minus-11 turnover ratio. They'll need to force a few bad decisions from rookie QB Andy Dalton, who is thriving in the red zone. The Cardinals' secondary faces a bad matchup in WR A.J. Green, who runs routes like a veteran and has the acrobatic body control to bail Dalton out when he's off target. Special teams could play a big role. Cardinals PR Patrick Peterson has four 80-plus yard touchdown returns, while Brandon Tate is on pace to shatter the Bengals' record for punt return yards in a season.
Need to know: Wells needs six rushing yards to become the first Cardinals back with 1,000 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns in a season. ... Dalton has 18 touchdown passes. Only three rookies have had 20 in a season.
Miami Dolphins (5-9) at New England Patriots (11-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
Game plan: The Patriots will insert pass-rushing specialist DE Mark Anderson at right end with Andre Carter (leg) out for the season and Dolphins LT Jake Long (back) ailing. Without pressure on QB Matt Moore, the Patriots' secondary will be under heavy fire. The Patriots used more 3-4 looks at Denver and might combat Dolphins RB Reggie Bush with the same to fill inside running lanes. Even without a running game, the Patriots' no-huddle offense has exhausted defenses, including the Dolphins in a 38-24 win in September. New England's pass-catching tight ends give Miami fits. Rob Gronkowski has 188 yards in his last two games vs. Miami and Aaron Hernandez had 103 yards in the opener.
Need to know: The Patriots have won 10 straight December games and QB Tom Brady has 10 straight regular-season home wins vs. AFC East opponents. ... Bush is averaging 5.8 yards per carry on the road.
St. Louis Rams (2-12) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale
Game plan: The Steelers will rest QB Ben Roethlisberger (ankle), start 37-year-old Charlie Batch in his place and attempt to pound away at the Rams' 32nd-ranked run defense with RB Rashard Mendenhall. The Rams are expected to turn to QB Kellen Clemens again, and St. Louis' 26.9-percent third-down rate invites the Steelers' pass rush to live in the backfield. The Rams will ride RB Steven Jackson as far as possible. With a takeaway or two — Pittsburgh has a minus-11 turnover ratio — St. Louis can make it interesting. Batch doesn't move with ease at age 37, but he has plenty of deep speed at wideout against an injury-marred secondary.
Need to know: Batch has attempted 53 passes with three touchdowns and three interceptions since 2007. ... The Rams have scored 13 or fewer points in 11 of 14 games this season.
Minnesota Vikings (2-12) at Washington Redskins (5-9)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Chris Myers, Tim Ryan, Jaime Maggio
Game plan: The Vikings don't have enough around QB Christian Ponder to overwhelm a defense without a big game from RB Adrian Peterson. Peterson lacks his top-end speed and explosion as he recovers from his ankle sprain, while Ponder's accuracy has been an issue with a right hip injury. The Vikings haven't picked off a pass in the last nine games, and need DE Jared Allen to get after Rex Grossman and keep him out of rhythm. Grossman has 18 picks in the last 10 games but the offense is anchored by RB Roy Helu — he has 605 yards from scrimmage in the last four games.
Need to know: Redskins P Sav Rocca has had 26 of 59 punts downed inside the 20. ... Ponder has been sacked 26 times in his last seven games.
Oakland Raiders (7-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (6-8)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots
Game plan: That the Chiefs' defense played inspired for Romeo Crennel in his first game as interim coach last week wasn't a surprise. But Crennel and coordinator Bill Muir have made tweaks to the offense — installing QB Kyle Orton, who manages the short passing game well, letting RB Thomas Jones lead the ground game and getting the tight ends more involved. The defense picked off Oakland six times in the first meeting. Raiders QB Carson Palmer is more comfortable in the offense now, but still makes some poor decisions under pressure. If RB Michael Bush can help set up play-action, there will be entertaining one-on-one matchups on the outside with the Chiefs' corners.
Need to know: The Chiefs are 31-13 against the Raiders since 1990, but Oakland has won four straight games at Arrowhead Stadium. ... Chiefs C Casey Wiegmann has played in 11,036 consecutive snaps over 173 games.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10) at Tennessee Titans (7-7)
Kickoff: Saturday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Bill Macatee, Steve Tasker
Game plan: The Jaguars' ability to compete will lie with their offensive and defensive lines. Rookie QB Blaine Gabbert too often shrinks in the face of pressure - and his receivers too seldom get open anyway. So RB Maurice Jones-Drew will once again be asked to carry the load on the ground and as an outlet receiver. Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck (calf) is expected to start, although RB Chris Johnson (ankle) is questionable. Hasselbeck will take aim at Jacksonville's depleted secondary, but would be helped significantly if Johnson is available to draw attention from the safeties.
Need to know: Jones-Drew needs two rushing touchdowns to break Fred Taylor's (62) franchise record. ... Johnson is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry at home.
San Diego Chargers (7-7) at Detroit Lions (9-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, 4:05 ET, CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
Game plan: The Chargers have miraculously found ways to protect QB Philip Rivers behind a patchwork offensive line. San Diego survived another strong defense against Baltimore last week and Rivers worked the vertical passing game. With RB Ryan Mathews running well, if the Lions aren't able to apply heat on Rivers their thin secondary will be severely exposed. That will once again place the onus on QB Matthew Stafford to keep Detroit within shouting distance. If RB Kevin Smith isn't effective early, look for Stafford to work underneath to TE Brandon Pettigrew to set up shots to WR Calvin Johnson.
Need to know: The Lions clinch their first playoff berth in 12 years with a win. ... The Chargers are 20-2 in December and January under coach Norv Turner.
Philadelphia Eagles (6-8) at Dallas Cowboys (8-6)
Kickoff: Saturday, 4:15 ET, FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
Game plan: The Eagles leaned heavily on RB LeSean McCoy in rolling over the Cowboys 34-7 at home in Week 8. McCoy had a career-high 185 rushing yards while QB Michael Vick didn't turn the ball over. The chess match for Eagles coach Andy Reid is filtering in new looks against a familiar opponent and taking what the Dallas defense gives him without getting away from McCoy. The Cowboys need to take advantage of Philadelphia's run defense and avoid their strong pass rush, but recently-signed Sammy Morris will have to shoulder the load if Felix Jones (hamstring) is limited or can't go.
Need to know: McCoy's 20 touchdowns lead the NFL and set a single-season franchise record. ... Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware has seven sacks in the past two meetings.
San Francisco 49ers (11-3) at Seattle Seahawks (7-7)
Kickoff: Saturday, 4:15 ET, FOX, Ron Pitts, Charles Davis, Drea Avent
Game plan: For all the ill will between the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh and the Seahawks' Pete Carroll, the coaches have similar philosophies in that they have instilled very physical approaches on both sides of the ball. While San Francisco has a run-based offense, look for QB Alex Smith to test Seattle's tall cornerbacks on double-moves - if the offensive line holds up well for a second straight game. The Seahawks have battled through injuries to continue to pound away at opposing defenses, but wearing the 49ers down won't be easy. QB Tarvaris Jackson is also now dealing with a short deck at wide receiver — literally, as injuries have left him with a much smaller receiving corps.
Need to know: The 49ers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 36 straight games. ... Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch has a touchdown in a franchise-record 10 consecutive games.
Chicago Bears (7-7) at Green Bay Packers (13-1)
Kickoff: Sunday, 8:20 ET, NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Game plan: The Bears turn to QB Josh McCown in search of better decision-making. Without a strong ground game, McCown will be tasked with navigating his way through the Packers' secondary that gives up yards in chunks but also leads the effort in Green Bay's 27 interceptions. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers shredded Chicago's Cover-Two in a 27-17 win at Chicago in Week 3. He misses WR Greg Jennings, but TE Jermichael Finley (three touchdowns in the first meeting) presents matchup problems that should lead to plenty of room for the wideouts to work downfield.
Need to know: Bears DE Julius Peppers has 99 career sacks. ... Rodgers is the fifth player in NFL history to throw for 40-plus touchdowns in a season.
Atlanta Falcons (9-5) at New Orleans Saints (11-3)
Kickoff: Monday, 8:30 ET, ESPN, Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, Suzy Kolber
Game plan: While both teams boast explosive playmakers in the passing game, this rivalry is typically decided in the trenches. The Saints have a big offensive line that has allowed just 23 sacks and the ground game (125.4 yards per game) is an underrated component to New Orleans avoiding the Falcons' smaller and quicker pass rushers on log passing downs. If QB Drew Brees has time, he'll pick apart Atlanta's overmatched secondary. The Falcons also want to establish RB Michael Turner and take the teeth out of the slew of pressure packages New Orleans likes to throw at offensive lines. With WR Julio Jones healthy for the rematch, Atlanta aims to improve on its 5-of-13 third-down conversion rate in the first meeting.
Need to know: Arguably the most underrated rivalry in the NFL, the past six meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less — the past four by a field goal, including two in overtime. ... The Saints are averaging 35.3 points indoors this season.
— By Derek Harper & Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange
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