AFC Wild Card contenders - game previews

Ravens Insider takes a detailed look at the games this week involving Jacksonville, Buffalo and Denver, three teams who can affect the Baltimore Ravens' playoff aspirations.

Denver Broncos (8-6) at Tennessee Titans (4-10)
KICKOFF: Saturday, 8:30 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/25/04
TV: ESPN, Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, Suzy Kolber
SERIES: 33rd meeting. The Broncos lead the series, 20-11-1, and have won two of the three playoff games. Denver hasn't played the Tennessee franchise since it was the Houston Oilers. The last meeting between the teams was in 1995.
2004 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 5th (6th rush, 8th pass); defense 7th (9th rush, 10th pass). Titans: offense 8th (11th rush, 9th pass); defense 21st (16th rush, 21st pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Yes, QB Jake Plummer has struggled for the past month. But the Broncos' problems in the secondary are just as concerning with the Titans QB Billy Volek having thrown for a combined 918 yards the past two games. CB Champ Bailey continues to struggle with allowing big plays and the Broncos' depth has been hurt by injuries. Fortunately for Denver, it might only have to stop Tennessee a handful of times to win. The Titans have allowed an average of 29.5 points during their four-game losing streak and their secondary has been ravaged by injuries. The key for the Broncos, as usual, will be avoiding turnovers - not only from Plummer but from RBs Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell who have struggled with fumbles in recent games.
FAST FACTS: Broncos: Plummer's 84.9 passer rating is the best in franchise history among quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts. ... Have allowed 48 fourth quarter points, the second fewest in the NFL. Titans: Volek is only the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 400 yards in consecutive games. Volek's 2,305 passing yards in his first seven career starts is an NFL record.
PREDICTION: Broncos 31-23
--DE Trevor Pryce has a chance to play on Saturday. He practiced all week, and has practiced for three weeks now. Pryce had back surgery on Sept. 22 and hasn't played in a game since Week 1.
--FB Kyle Johnson most likely won't play on Saturday. He has a sprained ankle and hasn't practiced all week. Tight ends Patrick Hape and Dwayne Carswell will have to line up more often than normal as fullbacks.
--TE Jeb Putzier is Denver's only tight end who has been a legitimate threat in the passing game lately. Putzier only has seven catches in Denver's past four games, but Dwayne Carswell and Patrick Hape have only three catches for 15 yards in that time, and all three catches were by Carswell.
--S Kenoy Kennedy didn't make the Pro Bowl, but teammates thought he deserved it. Kennedy had his best all-around season as a pro this year. He has been known as a big hitter, but has been a sure tackler and good in coverage all season.
--CB Roc Alexander played well as Denver's nickel cornerback against Kansas City. But the Chiefs didn't test him that much, something the Titans might do more of on Saturday. Alexander, who was undrafted, has been a major surprise for the Broncos this season.

--QB Steve McNair (bruised sternum) will not play Saturday against Denver.
--QB Billy Volek might wind up throwing quite a bit against Denver, but the Titans will make much more of an effort to establish the run game this week than they did against Kansas City and Oakland, since those two teams are so bad in pass defense.
--RB Chris Brown (turf toe) will not play against Denver.
--RB Antowain Smith will start against Denver Saturday on what's expected to be an especially cold night in Nashville. He has great experience in bad weather games having played Buffalo and New England and the Titans will work hard to get the run game going.
--C Justin Hartwig is unlikely to start because he still had limited feeling in the surgically repaired ring finger on his right hand. Look for him to back up all three interior positions with rookie Eugene Amano starting at center for the second week in a row.
--WR Derrick Mason is still bothered by a bad ankle but will play. He's expected to draw the Broncos top cornerback, Champ Bailey.
--WR Drew Bennett will get the most attention he's even drawn after catching eight touchdown passes in the last three weeks.
--TE Erron Kinney (ankle) is still having trouble getting around. He'll dress unlikely to play, and if he does he'll stay close to the line of scrimmage. Shad Meier and Ben Troupe will get more looks in the passing game than usual.

Broncos: The Denver Broncos aren't exactly excited about playing on Christmas night. Denver will be one of two teams playing on the road on Saturday. The players will be away from their families from Friday afternoon when the team flies to Tennessee to early Sunday morning when they return. The Broncos will have a team Christmas dinner on Friday. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said it was the first time he can remember playing a game on Christmas. "I don't think we should be playing," Bailey said. "But if I was home and not playing football, I'd want to see a game. I guess we're the ones doing the entertaining this year. "TV pays us a lot of money to do this, so we have to do it."

Most of the players have said they're not happy about playing on Christmas, but it is part of their job. "You don't get a chance to really celebrate the holidays when you are playing in the NFL," quarterback Jake Plummer said. "It might fall on a day where you get half the day off, but that's just part of the business. "The one thing is everyone is going to get a chance to see you play."

Titans: Some Titans say Denver running back Reuben Droughns reminds them of Corey Dillon, a back they used to see regularly with Cincinnati. "He's a bigger back and once he's up the field he can take it the distance," linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "He's looking to run defenders over a la Corey Dillon." Droughns had six games in a seven game span this season where he topped 100 yards, with a breakout game against Carolina on Oct. 10. He shredded the Panthers for 193 yards on 30 carries. The Broncos have consistently rated as one of the league's best running teams under Mike Shanahan, with a long list of backs faring well in the system. Titans coach Jeff Fisher said at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, Droughns is a different brand of back than former Broncos Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis. "He's real heavy," Fisher said. "TD was not as heavy, he was fast and explosive, and Portis was real quick. Droughns is a powerful runner, one plant and he's real and south."

Houston Texans (6-8) at Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6)
GAMEDATE: 12/26/04 SURFACE: Grass TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Solomon Wilcots; DirecTV, 7
SERIES: The Texans lead the all-time series, 3-2, including a 20-6 victory on Oct. 31 at Reliant Stadium. In their last visit to Jacksonville, Fla., the Texans suffered their only shutout in franchise history 27-0.
2004 RANKINGS: Texans: offense 17th (20th rush, 14th pass); defense 27th (15th rush, 28th pass). Jaguars: offense 13th (14th rush, 17th pass); defense 12th (8th rush, 19th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Jaguars QB Byron Leftwich has thrown just one interception in his last 126 pass attempts, and will need to continue his good decision making against the Texans, who have 19 interceptions. Leftwich struggled in the first meeting as the Jaguars were held to just 39 rushing yards, leaving the offense in too many long passing situations. RB Fred Taylor is coming off a 165-yard game, but is also recovering from a bruised knee. While the Texans are getting a strong second half from RB Domanick Davis, QB David Carr has been very inconsistent while struggling against Cover-2 defenses designed to take away the big pass play. The Jaguars secondary is vulnerable to giving up plenty of yardage, the key will be the Texans' ability to produce points once they get into Jaguars territory - which has been an Achilles heel all season.
FAST FACTS: Texans: After finishing 4-12 in 2002 and 5-11 in 2003, they are guaranteed to improve their record for the third consecutive season. ... Have not allowed a touchdown in the past seven quarters. Jaguars: Taylor has 247 rushing yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry in two home games against Houston. ... Leftwich has a 95.2 passer rating on third downs.
PREDICTION: Jaguars 23-14

PERSONNEL NEWS: Texans: --SS Jason Simmons was held out of practice Thursday with foot swelling, coach Dom Capers said. Simmons is expected to play Sunday against the Jaguars. If he isn't available, Marlon McCree would likely get the start. --With RG Zach Wiegert out for the final two games of the season, coach Dom Capers said the Texans are "exploring several options." Among them are Milford Brown, Todd Washington and Fred Weary. --WR Andre Johnson will have plenty of company for his first trip to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Along with family and a few friends, Johnson promised to take the entire Texans receiving corps if he were selected. "That was the deal we made," Johnson said. "My mom really wanted to go. She's never been to Hawaii. She's really been bugging me about it. Now we can make some plans."
--Third-string RB Tony Hollings practiced for a second straight day Thursday and is expected to be available Sunday against the Jaguars, mostly on special teams. Hollings has been inactive five of the last six games with a hamstring injury. --The Texans signed OL Brandon Evans to the active roster on Wednesday. Jaguars:
--RB Fred Taylor missed practice for the second straight day Thursday and is questionable with a sprained knee. The Jaguars hope he'll be able to play.
--CB Juran Bolden (quad) missed practice for the second straight day Thursday. He's questionable but will probably be downgraded to questionable.
--DT Marcus Stroud (knee) missed practice for the second straight day. He is probable and will probably play because he's been nursing a sore knee for weeks.
--CB Kiwaukee Thomas (knee) was added to the injury report Thursday. He is probable and while he didn't practice Thursday, he's likely to play.
--S Deke Cooper (groin) missed practice for the second straight day Thursday. But he's probable and is likely to play.

INSIDE THE CAMPS: Texans: While doing a television interview about 35 minutes after absorbing the biggest news of his young career, Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson still had trouble with the words freely rolling off his tongue. "This is Andre Johnson, Pro Bowl receiver of the Houston Texans..." Johnson said embarrassingly into the camera for an NFL Network promo. It might take some getting used to, but the Texans' second-year receiver has proven that he was worth the No. 3 overall pick in the 2003 draft. Johnson became only the third Texans player selected to the Pro Bowl - and the first on an offense that ranked among the league's worst the past two seasons. "I really didn't think I would make it," Johnson said. "Hopefully I can go over there many more times. They say the best in the league get to go to the Pro Bowl. Maybe I was just one of the best this year. Hopefully I can be consistent every year."

The normally quiet and shy Johnson made a brief speech to his teammates after practice Wednesday. He was later presented with Hawaiian-style lei in the Texans' red, white and blue colors. In 14 games this season, Johnson is fourth in the AFC with 1,083 receiving yards and already has set a team record with 73 receptions.

In his first two seasons, Johnson has 139 receptions and 2,059 yards, more than any of the league's top-5 all-time receivers at the same point early in their careers. "I just wanted to come out and show everyone that I could play in this league," said Johnson, who thanked his teammates and coaching staff during his brief speech. Johnson joins Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison, Cincinnati's Chad Johnson and Pittsburgh's Hines Ward as the wide receivers to make the AFC roster. Johnson is the Texans' first Pro Bowl representative since cornerback Aaron Glenn and defensive end Gary Walker were selected in 2002, the team's inaugural season.

The Texans (6-8) were not expecting heavy representation at the Feb. 13 all-star game in Honolulu, but several people in the organization thought rookie cornerback Dunta Robinson merited serious Pro Bowl consideration. Robinson is third in the NFL with six interceptions, yet Baltimore's Chris McAllister and Denver's Champ Bailey - both with three fewer sacks - and Cincinnati's Tory James (seven interceptions) will represent the AFC. Over the past six games, Robinson leads all NFL cornerbacks in tackles (41), solo tackles (38) and sacks (three). "Not too many people know about me," Robinson said. "I've got a lot more years of football left. I know I'll make it eventually. It's a popularity contest," Robinson said. "A lot of guys that have made it some of these years their stats have not been as good as other guys. They make it off what they've done in past years. I just have to become popular if I want to make it."

Jaguars: The NFL doesn't have a "red flag" category for injuries, but it certainly raised one for the Jaguars when running back Fred Taylor missed practice Thursday for the second consecutive day with a sprained knee.. Coach Jack Del Rio, though, remains confident he'll be able to play even though he's officially listed as questionable. "We've had some red flags for a while," he said. "Marcus Stroud has been battling with a knee for several weeks. We've got a pretty good plan on how we can get our best players to the game as prepared as possible." It's a bit more difficult, though, for a running back to be in top form on a sore knee than a defensive tackle.

Taylor hasn't been in the locker room during the media period the last two days, but said he'll be available Friday for comment. Taylor only carried three times in the first Houston game when he suffered a hip pointer and the Jaguars ran a total of just 12 times. By contrast, they ran 36 times last week in Green Bay and Taylor ran 22 times for 165 yards. Taylor figures to play but it remains to be seen how effective he is on the sprained knee.

Buffalo Bills (8-6) at San Francisco 49ers (2-12)
GAMEDATE: 12/26/04 SURFACE: Grass TV: CBS, Don Criqui, Steve Tasker; DirecTV, 7
SERIES: Ninth meeting, series is tied 4-4. The teams last met in 2001 when the 49ers came away with a 35-0 victory at 3ComPark in early December. The Bills would go on to finish 3-13 in coach Gregg Williams' rookie season. It was one of Buffalo's worst losses in franchise history, with San Francisco holding a 409 to 191 edge in yardage, a whopping 230-29 on the ground. The last Buffalo victory at San Francisco was a wild 34-31 affair on Sept. 13, 1992, when Jim Kelly and Steve Young put on an aerial circus. Each threw for more than 400 yards in the only game in NFL history without a punt.
2004 RANKINGS: Bills: offense 26th (18th rush, 26th pass); defense 3rd (4th rush, 3rd pass). 49ers: offense 24th (30th rush, 20th pass); defense 16th (13th rush, 18th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bills are expected to be without RB Willis McGahee and are holding out hope Travis Henry will be healthy enough to carry the load in his place. McGahee has been the motor behind the offense's resurgence, but they can get by without him as long as they protect the ball and don't do the 49ers any favors. San Francisco will struggle to score against the league's third-best defense. The Bills are equally strong against the run and pass, and will have a big advantage over the 49ers' porous offensive line. That's a big reason why RB Kevan Barlow will regain his starting job over 205- pound Maurice Hicks, who has trouble holding up in blitz protection. QB Ken Dorsey has shown improved skills, but he gets precious little time to throw the ball and is prone to interceptions when under pressure.
FAST FACTS: Bills: WR Lee Evans has tied Elbert Dubenion's team rookie record of seven touchdown receptions set in 1960. ... Offense has scored at least 30 points in a team-record five consecutive games. 49ers: TE Eric Johnson has broken Brent Jones' single-season team records for tight ends with 77 receptions for 780 yards. ... Are 14-5 (.737) at home against the AFC in the past 10 seasons.
PREDICTION: Bills 19-13
PERSONNEL NEWS: Bills: --LS Jon Dorenbos was placed on IR this week with a knee injury suffered while covering a kick against Cleveland. Dorenbos, a former college linebacker, wasn't afraid to get involved in the action after hiking the ball and he's not likely to change his style after being injured. Providing how veteran Bradford Banta, signed last week to take his place on the roster, performs the rest of this year, Dorenbos may have to fight for his job back in training camp next year.
--QB Drew Bledsoe's current rating of 76.9 is a lot better than a year ago, when he finished at 73.0, his worst mark since 1995. One concern, however, is Bledsoe's continued downward spiral in the area of accuracy. His completion percentage of 56.4 is worse that last year's 58.2 heading into Sunday's game at San Francisco.
--RB Willis McGahee, who has a bruised and hyper-extended right knee, will likely be a game-time decision for Sunday's game in San Francisco. McGahee sounded like he wants to give it a try. "I know I've got to contribute," he said when asked if it was important that he play for the Bills, who need to keep winning to make the playoffs.
--RB Travis Henry, who has missed three games, suffered torn ligaments in his left ankle against Seattle. Henry made the revelation on Wednesday; previously, he's been unavailable for comment and the Bills have been vague about his injury. "I tore some ligaments in my ankle, a couple ligaments. It isn't my leg," said Henry, who was first diagnosed with a fractured lower leg. Henry ruled himself out for Sunday's game at San Francisco but he does hope to be ready should the Bills (8-6) make the playoffs. "I'm ready to get back out there on the field, it's been a while," Henry said. "I've got a couple of more weeks. We've got a pretty good chance of making the playoffs, and we'll see how it goes."
--FB Daimon Shelton, who was out of football last season and was signed as a free agent, has made a nice comeback with the Bills. The former Chicago Bear has helped RB Willis McGahee close in on 1,000 yards and he's also caught 15 passes for 106 yards. Shelton was mentioned as a Pro Bowl candidate for the Bills. "That's huge in itself, just to be mentioned in same sentence as the Pro Bowl," he said.

49ers: --QB Tim Rattay is scheduled to undergo surgery on his forearm on Wednesday. Rattay will not play again this season because of a foot injury, but he also battled a forearm strain since the beginning of training camp. Rattay was limited to just nine games this season.
--LG Eric Heitmann was limited in practice Thursday with a left ankle sprain. Heitmann has been one of the bright spots on the team's offensive line. He is the only player on the team who has not missed a snap from scrimmage this season.
--WR/PR Arnaz Battle tried to do some running at practice Thursday but was not able to go full speed. It does not appear as if he'll be able to play Sunday against the Bills. Battle is the team's best special-teams performer and was selected as a third alternate for the NFC Pro Bowl team.
--RB Maurice Hicks will be used as Kevan Barlow's backup on Sunday against the Bills. Hicks will also be used as the team's primary kickoff returner. He has averaged 22.1 yards on his 21 kickoff returns this season.
--RG Kyle Kosier will make his sixth start of the season at right guard. He started nine games earlier this season at left tackle. Kosier could also be used at left guard if Eric Heitmann continues to be bothered by a left ankle injury.
--QB Ken Dorsey will be up against the league's No. 3 defense when the 49ers face the Bills on Sunday. Dorsey will start his sixth game. He has completed 53.5 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and eight interceptions. Dorsey's passer rating is 59.7, which ranks lower than any of the 33 qualifying quarterbacks.
--DE John Engelberger leads the team with five sacks. The lowest sack total to lead the 49ers in a non-strike season is 6.5, which Andre Carter recorded in 2001. The sack became an official statistic in 1971.

INSIDE THE CAMPS: Bills: The Bills were pleased about placing three players on the AFC's Pro Bowl squad but as is often the case in all-star game voting, there was more displeasure voiced for those who didn't make it. Linebacker Takeo Spikes, defensive tackle Sam Adams and kick return specialist Terrence McGee were selected to play in the Pro Bowl Feb. 13 in Honolulu. But coach Mike Mularkey said he felt linebacker London Fletcher, fullback Daimon Shelton and punter Brian Moorman should've been voted onto the squad as well. Fans, players and coaches vote for the Pro Bowl. "I addressed this before the results came out at the team meeting," Mularkey said. "There's a number of guys on our team who I felt should have been recognized. Brian certainly was one based on his performance and the conditions he has to punt in, and not strictly at home. He's been the most consistent punter I've been around. London Fletcher, Daimon Shelton ... I watch a lot of tape so obviously I'm prejudiced but I also compare and I find it hard to believe they're not in it. But that happens every single year and will continue to happen with the way things work ... so I'm disappointed for them."

While the Bills have a good beef concerning Moorman, Fletcher and Shelton, the players selected ahead of them are impossible to knock and other teams can make similar cases for their people. Moorman is fourth in the AFC in punting with a 43.2 average, a 38.4 net, with 15 punts dropped inside the 20. The AFC's Pro Bowl selection is Oakland's Shane Lechler, who leads the NFL with a 47.6 average, 37.6 net and 19 balls inside the 20. But San Diego's Mike Scifres has had a strong season, too, averaging 42.9 yards but leading the conference with a 38.4 net with 27 punts inside the 20. "I'd have to be fortunate to make it because my numbers aren't quite where other guy's numbers are around the league," said Moorman, who has been a Pro Bowl alternate in the past. "I'm pleased with how the season has gone, considering the weather we've had. ... Obviously, I'd love to have the bid. I'd love to go. That's everybody's ultimate individual goal. But we've got greater things going as a team. If we make the playoffs, that would definitely put a band-aid over the fact of not making the Pro Bowl."

Fletcher, who has solid numbers at middle linebacker with 125 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, was passed over for seven- time pick Ray Lewis (133 tackles) of Baltimore and James Farrior (82 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) of Pittsburgh. Farrior plays on the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense and the Steelers are 13-1. Shelton, who was out of football for a year and signed with Buffalo as a free agent, has been a solid lead blocker for Willis McGahee. Kansas City's Tony Richardson, however, has helped power the NFL's No. 1-ranked offense, opening holes for Priest Holmes and Derrick Blaylock who have combined for nearly 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns.

49ers: While the 49ers dismantled their offense in the offseason, they made it a priority to keep their defense together. The 49ers might have brought back most of their defensive players from 2003, but you wouldn't know it by looking at their depth chart today. The 49ers have placed five defensive starters on injured reserve and a sixth, linebacker Jamie Winborn, will miss the final two games of the season with a broken right shoulder blade.

The 49ers play the Bills on Sunday at Monster Park, and they'll have a defense on the field that includes such starters as Andrew Williams at defensive end, Saleem Rasheed at linebacker, and cornerbacks Dwaine Carpenter and rookie Shawntae Spencer. "It sure hasn't helped us," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said of the team's injuries on defense. "And if you really look at it, a lot of them haven't been playing for a long time. You take a look at those five players (on injured reserve) and you ask, when have they played?"

Defensive end Andre Carter underwent surgery on Wednesday after missing his seventh game of the season last Saturday against the Redskins with a back condition. Linebacker Julian Peterson played in just five games before sustaining a season-ending torn left Achilles' tendon. Cornerback Mike Rumph played in two games before breaking his right forearm. Defensive end Brandon Whiting tore his ACL in his fifth game, and cornerback Ahmed Plummer made it through six games before seeing his season come to an end because of a bulging disc in his neck.  

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