AFCN Week 13 game previews

Week 13 in the AFCN sees the Cincinnati Bengals (5-6) in Baltimore to play the Ravens (7-4), the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-1) play the Jaguars (6-5) in Jacksonville, and the New England Patriots (10-1) travel to Cleveland to play the Browns (3-8).

Complete Game Listing:

Arizona Cardinals (4-7) at Detroit Lions (4-7)
Atlanta Falcons (9-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7)
Buffalo Bills (5-6) at Miami Dolphins (2-9)
Carolina Panthers (4-7) at New Orleans Saints (4-7)
Cincinnati Bengals (5-6) at Baltimore Ravens (7-4)
Houston Texans (5-6) at New York Jets (8-3)
Minnesota Vikings (7-4) at Chicago Bears (4-7)
New England Patriots (10-1) at Cleveland Browns (3-8)
San Francisco 49ers (1-10) at St. Louis Rams (5-6)
Tennessee Titans (4-7) at Indianapolis Colts (8-3)
Denver Broncos (7-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-3)
Kansas City Chiefs (3-8) at Oakland Raiders (4-7)
Green Bay Packers (7-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-1)
New York Giants (5-6) at Washington Redskins (3-8)
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5)

Dallas Cowboys (4-7) at Seattle Seahawks (6-5)

Cincinnati Bengals (5-6) at Baltimore Ravens (7-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/05/04
TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Solomon Wilcots; DirecTV, 714
SERIES: 18th meeting -- Baltimore Ravens lead series 12-5 over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens lead 7-1 in Baltimore and have won seven in a row there over the Bengals. The last six have been at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Bengals have been shutout three times and lost by a combined score of 175-64.
2004 RANKINGS: Bengals: offense 23rd (16th rush, 20th pass); defense 23rd (30th rush, 16th pass). Ravens: offense 31st (14th rush, 31st pass); defense 4th (11th rush, 4th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Ravens have averaged 195.7 rushing yards in their past three games against the Bengals, but they enter the game averaging 3.3 yards per carry over their past six games and minus injured RB Jamal Lewis. RB Chester Taylor is a capable backup and the Ravens will still attack the Bengals' soft run defense. If TE Todd Heap is able to return, Baltimore QB Kyle Boller will have a key weapon over the middle. The Bengals' offense has been receiving excellent production from RB Rudi Johnson. The Ravens' run defense has struggled a bit recently, but Johnson won't repeat his 202-yard performance of last weekend. However, he needs to break 100 yards to keep QB Carson Palmer from being forced to throw into the teeth of Baltimore's secondary and give him a chance to take a few deep shots to WR Chad Johnson.

FAST FACTS: Bengals: Are 6-12 under coach Marvin Lewis in games played in months other than November. ... Rudi Johnson is on pace for 1,526 rushing yards, which break Corey Dillon's (1,435 in 2000) single-season team record. Ravens: Have won 11 of the past 13 meetings and seven in a row in Baltimore. ... Are 34-8 since 1999 when they score at least 21 points.

PREDICTION: Ravens 20-17

-- RB Rudi Johnson's 202-yard rushing performance Sunday against the Browns earned him the FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Week.
-- WR Jeremiah Cockheran was signed to the practice squad. He played college ball at Hawaii and was signed by the Bengals on April 27. But he failed the team physical and was released May 7, before the start of minicamp. He is 6-feet, 191 pounds and fills the eighth and final spot on the practice squad.
-- SS Rogers Beckett (neck) was downgraded to doubtful and did not practice Thursday.
-- FS Madieu Williams could move to strong safety if Beckett can't play. Kim Herring would then play free safety.
-- WR Chad Johnson had eight receptions and 99 yards against Baltimore in September and has kept unusually quiet this week leading up to the rematch.

--OT Orlando Brown was downgraded to doubtful with a knee injury and won't play. He is expected to be replaced by Ethan Brooks for the next couple of games.
--TE Todd Heap is expected to play in his first game since spraining his ankle in Week 2. He likely will be limited to 15 to 20 snaps.
--CB Chris McAlister said he will start Sunday against Cincinnati and won't be limited. Last Sunday, he was limited to third downs Sunday because of a neck stinger.
--CB Deion Sanders ran off to the side Thursday but won't play against Cincinnati. He will be replaced by Corey Fuller.
--RB Jamal Lewis could miss two more games because of a sprained ankle. He left the locker room Thursday with a protective boot.

The Bengals are concerned with Ravens safety Ed Reed heading into the game Sunday at Baltimore.
Reed intercepted quarterback Carson Palmer twice in the first game, a 23-9 Ravens victory in September. The Bengals, playing a vulnerable Baltimore team without tailback Jamal Lewis, can't turn the ball over.
"I think it's more their front seven," Palmer said of the pressure created by Baltimore linemen and linebackers. "It lets their secondary (Reed) really roam around and take chances."
The Ravens sacked Palmer four times, forcing one lost fumble. Reed returned his two interceptions 90 yards, and his first return, of 40 yards, set up a Baltimore touchdown. Reed has a 48.3-yard return average on his six interceptions and needs just 60 more return yards to break the record of 349 yards by San Diego's Charlie McNeil in 1961.
"He is just a real smart football player," Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said of Reed. "He reads the quarterback well. He has great instincts. He sometimes puts himself in a position where he shouldn't be but that's just because he thinks something is going to happen there."
The secret of Reed's success is intense preparation.
"He goes by what he sees on film," said Bengals safety Anthony Mitchell, a former Raven who played with Reed in 2002. "If he sees anything you did on tape, he'll get a jump on you."

A struggling Ravens run defense isn't panicking against the Bengals.
Cincinnati has an emerging running game behind Rudi Johnson, who ran for 202 yards and two touchdowns Sunday against Cleveland.
Meanwhile, the Ravens may have fallen to 11th overall against the run (giving up 107.7 yards per game). But there are few concerns about the Ravens' ability to stop the run because of another statistic.
"We're No. 2 in yards per carry," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "To me, we have to minimize the opportunities. That is the statistical measure that gives us reality."
So there will not be an extra safety devoted to stopping the run this week when the Ravens play host to the Cincinnati Bengals and running back Rudi Johnson, who gained a career-high 202 yards on the ground in a win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
"All I would be doing is chasing a ghost," Nolan said. "We'd be robbing Peter to pay Paul, and we'll be talking about pass coverage all next week."
In fact, the only measure devoted to improving the rush defense will be an indirect one. Three running backs have gained more than 100 yards on the Ravens this season - the most recent coming from New England's Corey Dillon last Sunday - one more than the team gave up all last year, but the key to that lies in number of opportunities.
Dillon (123 yards), Kansas City's Priest Holmes (125 yards) and the New York Jets' Curtis Martin (119) needed a combined 91 attempts to top that mark (none had fewer than 28 carries), and the average gain per attempt was 4.3 yards.
Overall, the Ravens are giving up just 3.5 yards per rush attempt, tied for second in the league with the Buffalo Bills and trailing only the Washington Redskins (3.1).
The difference for the Ravens comes on third downs, where the team was second in the league in forcing punts last year but has fallen to 11th this season.
"I'm concerned about getting off the field more than I am the integrity of what we are doing," Nolan said. "Because our guys do a good job. They also have a tremendous amount of confidence in what we do, but with that many opportunities, do the math and it all adds up."
The Patriots converted six of 17 (35 percent) third-down situations, two of which came on the decisive touchdown drive that put New England up 17-3. The focus this week will be on lowering that number, which in turn, should help the overall run defense.
And of course, if the Ravens offense can muster more than eight first downs and 124 total yards, numbers it put up against the Patriots, that might be the biggest help.
"The truth of the matter is, we're (on the field) a lot," Nolan said.
Still, the Ravens cannot dismiss the amount of overall yardage teams have gained on the ground this year. The team was sixth in rush defense last year and fourth and first in the playoff years of 2001 and 2000, respectively.
Since 1999, only 11 running backs have gained 100 yards against the Ravens, who managed to win five of those games.
Asked if it is strange to see three running backs topple that mark through 11 games, defensive end Tony Weaver said, "A little bit, yeah, because it's so out of character. At the same time, we have to watch why they and Corey Dillon ran for 100 yards. That's all you can do."

New England Patriots (10-1) at Cleveland Browns (3-8)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/05/04
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Randy Cross; DirecTV, 712
SERIES: 19th meeting. Browns lead series 11-7, but the Patriots have won the last two and four of the last five. The two clubs met five times between 1991-1995 when Bill Belichick was coaching the Browns and Cleveland was 3-2 in those games. New England is 3-1 since the Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999. The series dates back to 1971 and Cleveland won nine of the first 11 meetings.
2004 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 9th (12th rush, 11th pass); defense 9th (8th rush, 13th pass). Browns: offense 25th (20th rush, 21st pass); defense 21st (26th rush, 14th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: If rookie QB Luke McCown starts, it won't be by the Browns' choice. Getting your first NFL start against a Patriots defense that has allowed an average of 9.3 points the past three games isn't ideal, but Jeff Garcia and Kelly Holcomb likely won't be available. So the burden falls on RB Williams Green - and Lee Suggs if healthy - to find holes behind an offensive line in shambles and keep McCown out of long passing situations in which the Patriots can come after him. The Browns are hoping to get a spark under interim coach Terry Robiskie, and it needs to start with a defense that allowed 58 points last Sunday. The Patriots will go to RB Corey Dillon early and often against the Browns, who are playing without MLB Andra Davis and don't tackle well in general. If Dillon gets rolling, QB Tom Brady will then take shots against Cleveland's secondary that is likely to be without CB Daylon McCutcheon.

FAST FACTS: Patriots: Dillon needs three rushing touchdowns to tie his career high of 10 set in 2000 and '02. ... In winning the Super Bowl two of the previous three years, the Patriots did not lose a game after Thanksgiving. Browns: Opponents to date have an NFL-best 74-47 (.612) record. ... Robiskie was 1-2 as Washington's interim coach in 2000.

PREDICTION: Patriots 30-16

--WR David Givens broke out over the final month of last season and into the postseason, but his production has carried over in this, a contract year, for the restricted free agent to be. He leads New England with 49 receptions for 755 yards, both career highs. He and Deion Branch have become a formidable tandem to defend. "We're starting to take the roles as the starting receivers on the team," Givens said. "I'm happy about that, but winning is what ultimately matters. Troy Brown, David Patten and Bethel Johnson can all make plays. Deion and I have worked our tails off the last couple of years and have improved as receivers."
Givens certainly stepped up into the No. 1 role when Branch went down in Week two and missed the next seven games. "That's my job, he said. "I feel like once you make it to the league and start to make plays, my expectation level keeps increasing. If I catch five balls one week, I expect to catch six the next."
So how did he feel when he caught only one for 3 yards in Branch's Monday night return to action against the Chiefs back on Nov. 22?
"No one is going to be exactly happy with those stats, but I'm happy we won the game," Givens said. "There's not much more to be said than that."
--LB Tedy Bruschi has 2.5 sacks this season, but two of those have ended in defensive touchdowns for the Patriots. He sacked Drew Bledsoe back on Oct. 3 and forced a fumble that Richard Seymour returned 65 yards for a touchdown and then his strip sack of Kyle Boller last week ended in a Jarvis Green fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown.
--CB Randall Gay figured to be a long shot to make the roster during training camp as a rookie free agent out of LSU, but he has not only stepped in to start the last four games, but he is now second on the team with two interceptions after picking off Boller last week. He trails Eugene Wilson by one for the team lead and is tied with linebacker Tedy Bruschi. He has more than both Ty Law and Tyrone Poole - the regular starters - who have one each.
--PK Adam Vinatieri was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November. In four November games, Vinatieri 14-for-14 on field goal attempts, compiled 51 points and threw a touchdown pass to Troy Brown on a fake field goal. He also had a tackle in kick coverage against the Chiefs. Browns kicker Phil Dawson, who spent 1998 on the Patriots' practice squad learning under Vinatieri, commented on his affinity for the Patriots' clutch kicker, especially since he can appreciate the rough conditions in which Vinatieri is often asked to kick.
"The conditions he is faced with are as hard as anywhere in the league," Dawson said. "I am in a similar boat here in Cleveland. The thing I learned from Adam is that you are going to have to be flexible in your technique. Early in the year you can be pretty aggressive in your momentum to the ball, your steps to the ball, but when that field starts getting torn up and you start playing in the snow and the rain and all the bad footing, Adam, I don't know that I have ever seen the guy slip. He knows how to change his technique up so that he can get a good plant foot on the ball because that is every bit as important as actually kicking the ball. Look at last week. They played the Ravens and I guess it was raining pretty badly up there and he had a great day. Not many people can handle the conditions the way he can."
--NT Vince Wilfork, the Patriots' 2004 first-round pick, continues to progress despite a steep learning curve trying to learn to play in a two-gap system in which he has played both nose and end.
"It has been steady from day one," coach Bill Belichick said. "He has been out there every day. He works hard. The techniques that he is playing now are ones that he has had a lot of reps at and has had a lot of snaps doing. I think Pepper (Johnson) and Romeo Crennel have done a good job coaching him and making him understand the different finer points of the techniques. It has been consistent.
"There are a lot of different things for a defensive lineman to deal with at this level -- a lot of different blocking schemes, a lot of different blocking techniques, a lot of different pass protection schemes and techniques. It is a big load, but Vince isn't an error repeater. Usually once he gets it he gets it. He has also been playing a little bit of end and nose, as well as some situational third down stuff. When you add all of that up together it is a lot of variables."

--WR Andre Davis was placed on injured reserve with a sprained right toe. He has played only one game since Oct. 17.
--RB Lee Suggs is slow healing from his sprained toe. He missed the game against the Bengals last week and could not practice Wednesday or Thursday.
--OL Damian Cook will make his second straight start at right guard. The position has been unstable since Kelvin Garmon was injured Nov. 7.
--MLB Mason Unck could see some playing time Sunday. Barry Gardner has been named the starter to replace Andra Davis, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a torn left MCL.
--QB Nate Hybl, signed to the practice squad Wednesday, is expected to be elevated to the active roster because of the injuries to Kelly Holcomb (ribs) and Jeff Garcia (shoulder).

If it's possible for a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback of a 10-1 team be flying under the radar and quietly having a strong season, Patriots signal caller Tom Brady is that man. The reason for that, though, might just be that 2004 seems to be the year of the quarterback.
Brady is on pace to throw for a career-high 3,800 yards despite a pace that would have him throw only 490 passes as compared to the 527 he threw last year and the 601 he threw in 2002. His 7.76 yards per attempt is almost a full yard higher than any other season in his career and he is on pace to finish with 26 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Through 11 games, he has a career-best 91.3 passer rating and has improved his overall record as a starter to 44-13, which balloons to 5-13 if his 6-0 postseason record is factored in.
But despite those numbers, Brady has only the 11th-best passer rating in the NFL. Guys like Peyton Manning, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Brees and Donovan McNabb seem to be stealing all the headlines because of their amazing seasons. And the fact of the matter is that Brady is not having the type of statistical season that those players are having and he has rarely had to lead a fourth quarter or overtime comeback as he did seven times last year. New England has only been tied or behind entering the fourth quarter twice so far this season, one ended in a win at Buffalo and the other a loss at Pittsburgh.
"I think Peyton is having a great year," Brady said. "A guy like Daunte Culpepper, it seems like he is having a great year. Trent Green, Brett Favre - I think there are a lot of good quarterbacks. I don't know why so many are so productive. Some years it's a defensive style. A couple of years ago, the most touchdown passes in the league was 28 and this year Peyton has 41 with five games left. Some quarterbacks are having really nice years."
Coach Bill Belichick claims he doesn't pay attention to statistics all that much, but rather wins and losses.
"I wasn't aware of (that so many quarterbacks were playing better than their normal season)," Belichick said. "I really don't have a big reaction to it. In Tom's case, I'm not concerned about his stats, but our wins. Obviously his performance, and to a degree those numbers, will have a bearing on it. But the most important thing is how he manages the team and is able to lead on game days.
"He does an outstanding job of adjusting to game situations, be it the weather, the field conditions, the score, the specific situation that comes about in a particular game and he handles that extremely well, whatever they are."
Brady certainly has been at his best over the years when the pressure is greatest, which is why he owns a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies, but this year, as he has changed his game to include more control at the line of scrimmage and more downfield passing, he has continued to produce and win.
It will be interesting to see if Brady is playing in his second Pro Bowl in a couple of months. Manning is a lock and Brees has to go as well. That will leave Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Green and Jake Plummer battling for that last spot.

Jeff Garcia is still bothered by a sprained shoulder and three ribs on Kelly Holcomb's left side are cracked, which means rookie quarterback Luke McCown is likely to start Sunday against New England.
Asked whether the odds are stacked against a rookie making his first start against the Patriots, 10-1, McCown answered plainly.
"I think the odds are stacked against anybody playing the Patriots," he said. "Those guys are really good. You have to be on your toes every snap. The way they run that defense is mind-boggling.
"You have to be confident in what you're doing as an offense. It's more about knowing what we're going to do than knowing what they're going to do against us."
There is still an outside chance Garcia or Holcomb could play, but the odds of either recovering by Sunday are slim. Holcomb did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. Garcia took some snaps Thursday and did some limited throwing. Coach Terry Robiskie said he wanted Garcia to keep the passes short so he wouldn't strain the injured shoulder, but Garcia cut loose with a couple deep throws, Robiskie said.
McCown's only regular season pass was an incomplete Hail Mary at the end of the Dallas game the second week of the season. Statistically he was the Browns' best quarterback in preseason; he completed 24 of 42 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns. He threw one interception and had a quarterback rating of 105.5. His 34-yard touchdown pass to Richard Alston on a scrambling rollout to the right with no time left on the clock gave the Browns a 21-19 victory over the Chiefs in the third preseason game. He threw a touchdown pass to Darnell Sanders with 3:40 left in the game to cut the Chiefs' 12-point lead to 19-14.
McCown's style resembles Garcia's more than it resembles Holcomb's. He won't bail from the pocket as quickly as Garcia does, but if the Patriots pass rush gets hot he is fast enough to run from trouble. The Patriots have 34 sacks. The Browns have given up 27 sacks.

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/05/04
TV: ESPN, Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, Suzy Kolber
SERIES: 16th meeting. Jacksonville leads the series 8-7 including a 6-2 record in Jacksonville. The Steelers, though, have won the past two games, including a 25-23 victory in Jacksonville in 2002. This will be the first meeting between coach Bill Cowher and Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio.
2004 RANKINGS: Steelers: offense 21st (2nd rush, 28th pass); defense 1st (1st rush, 3rd pass). Jaguars: offense 13th (15th rush, 17th pass); defense 13th (10th rush, 19th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: Rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger has won his first nine starts, but he has been sacked 15 times in the past four games. If WR Plaxico Burress, Roethlisberger's main threat to stretch the field, misses his second consecutive game with a hamstring injury, the Jaguars will be free to stack the box with eight and nine men. One problem for Jacksonville is its weak pass rush that will make taking advantage of Roethlisberger's slow release more difficult. Offensively, the Jaguars want RB Fred Taylor to get more carries. But the Steelers have allowed only 209 rushing yards in the five games since NT Chris Hoke took over for injured Casey Hampton. The Steelers will also clamp down on WR Jimmy Smith, so rookie Reggie Williams or Troy Edwards will have to make some plays.

FAST FACTS: Steelers: The defense's 36 sacks is one more than it had all of last season. ... Their nine-game winning streak is two shy of the franchise record set in 1975. Jaguars: Six of the past eight opposing quarterbacks have posted a passer rating of 93.0 or higher. ... QB Byron Leftwich is 4-0 in home starts after Nov. 1.

PREDICTION: Steelers 17-13

-- RB Willie Parker likely will get his second chance to play on third downs for injured Verron Haynes. Parker has done well running the ball in those situations but he has dropped both passes thrown to him.
-- RB Jerome Bettis did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday but likely will play Sunday in Jacksonville. He's listed as probable with a knee injury.
-- PR Antwaan Randle El has come close to breaking punts for scores the past two games and predicted he will get one soon. His average has more than doubled the past few games to 8.8 yards for the season.
-- K Jeff Reed, who made all three of his field goals last week, nevertheless is tied for the most misses in the AFC with five (15 of 20).
-- Since NT Chris Hoke replaced injured Pro Bowler Casey Hampton, the Steelers have allowed an average of only 42 yards rushing per game over the past four games.

--DT Marcus Stroud, who's probable with a knee injury, missed his second straight day of practice Thursday, but he's expected to play.
--CB Juran Bolden, who's questionable with a groin injury, returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice. He'll be a game-time decision.
--S Deon Grant was added to the injury list Thursday with a knee injury. He's probable and practiced and will likely play.
--OT Ephraim Salaam was added to the injury list Thursday with an ankle injury. He's probable and practiced and will likely play, although he could be spelled by Bob Whitfield.
--QB Byron Leftwich said he's getting more comfortable playing with a brace on the knee he sprained. He'll make his second start against Pittsburgh after missing two games.

Duce Staley's a go but it doesn't look good that wide receiver Plaxico Burress will play when Pittsburgh meets the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Sunday night.
Staley practiced for the second straight day Thursday and said he's ready to go and will start at halfback after missing the past four games with a hamstring injury. Burress tried to practice but did not do much and unless he improves significantly, coach Bill Cowher likely will hold him out for his second straight game.
The absence of the 6-foot-5 Burress has been cited as one big reason rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 11 times in the past two games. Defenses are bringing the safety up both to stop Pittsburgh's running game and to come after Roethlisberger with more blitzes, and it's working.
Roethlisberger has not thrown a pass longer than 27 yards in the past three games; he completed nine passes of 30 yards or more before that, five beyond 40.
With Burress out, Antwaan Randle El will get his second straight start at split end, opposite flanker Hines Ward.
"I've been trying not to play outside of this offense," Roethlisberger said. "My role is not to try to be a superstar out there, just lead this offense, hand the ball off and complete some balls when I need to. The big thing is we just keep winning and that's all I care about."

Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud is one of those throwback players who plays hurt.
Stroud missed practice Wednesday and Thursday because of his sore knee, but the Jaguars have no doubt he'll be starting Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's not ideal (Stroud not practicing)," coach Jack Del Rio said. "But you have to do what you can to get your best players to the games on Sunday as prepared as possible."
The Jaguars know Stroud can only take so much wear and tear on the knee so they're holding him out of practice so he can play, but it gets pretty sore as the game goes on. He played 60 of 65 plays in Minnesota despite the injury.
But he hasn't been as effective playing on one leg. He had just one tackle against Minnesota, but he's their best defensive player and he's willing to play hurt.
Stroud's doing it even though his contract talks with the Jaguars on an extension are going nowhere. Stroud wants to be the highest paid defensive tackle in the league, but he still has another year left on his current deal and the Jaguars aren't in any hurry to redo it.
The Jaguars also announced the addition of two players, safety Deon Grant (knee) and offensive tackle Ephraim Salaam (ankle), to the injury report. Both are probable and both practiced.
Since cornerback Juran Bolden (groin), who's questionable, returned to practice Thursday, the only player sidelined besides Stroud is Jermaine Lewis, who's out this week with a concussion.


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