AFCN Game Match-ups - Week 14

Week 14 in the NFL sees the Baltimore Ravens on the road in Denver, the Cleveland Browns in Cincinnati to meet the Bengals and in Pittsburgh, the Steelers host the Chicago Bears.

Complete Game Listing:

Sunday
Chicago Bears (9-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)
Cleveland Browns (4-8) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-3)
Houston Texans (1-11) at Tennessee Titans (3-9)
Indianapolis Colts (12-0) at Jacksonville Jaguars (9-3)
New England Patriots (7-5) at Buffalo Bills (4-8)
Oakland Raiders (4-8) at New York Jets (2-10)
St. Louis Rams (5-7) at Minnesota Vikings (7-5)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-4) at Carolina Panthers (9-3)
New York Giants (8-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)
San Francisco 49ers (2-10) at Seattle Seahawks (10-2)
Washington Redskins (6-6) at Arizona Cardinals (4-8)
Baltimore Ravens (4-8) at Denver Broncos (9-3)
Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) at Dallas Cowboys (7-5)
Miami Dolphins (5-7) at San Diego Chargers (8-4)
Detroit Lions (4-8) at Green Bay Packers (2-10)

Monday
New Orleans Saints (3-9) at Atlanta Falcons (7-5)

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Chicago Bears (9-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)
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GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/11/05
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
SERIES: 27th meeting. The Bears have dominated the series, 19-6-1, but this is the first meeting in seven years, and the Steelers have won the past two games, 17-12 at home in 1998 and 37-34 at Soldier Field in 1995. The Bears won the first 13 meetings, from 1934-49.
2005 RANKINGS: Bears: offense 28th (5th rush, 32nd pass); defense 1st (7th rush, 2nd pass). Steelers: offense 20th (10th rush, 23rd pass); defense 10th (4th rush, 21st pass)

PREDICTION: Steelers 16-9

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bears might be one of the first teams in history riding an eight-game losing streak while inching closer to a quarterback change. Rex Grossman will be Kyle Orton's backup this week, and if the rookie continues to struggle, Grossman could enter the game. The Bears hope to make it a moot point by controlling the game on the ground offensively, but it won't be easy against a Steelers defense leading the league by allowing just 3.3 yards per carry. The Bears' defense is just behind at 3.4. Pittsburgh's running game has struggled in recent games primarily due to shaky offensive line play. Steelers RB Willie Parker keeps his starting job for at least one more game, but won't have injured LT Marvel Smith to run behind. But the big concern for Pittsburgh has to be QB Ben Roethlisberger's injured right thumb. If he can't be effective pushing the ball downfield, the Bears will sit on the run and bring the Steelers' offense to a grinding halt.

FAST FACTS: Bears: Seek first nine-game winning streak since 1988-89. ... Have not allowed more than 10 points in their past four games. Steelers: RB Willie Parker needs to average 53 yards over the final four games to become the first Steeler to rush for 1,000 yards since Jerome Bettis in 2001. ... WR Hines Ward has caught at least one pass in a franchise record 115 consecutive games.

PERSONNEL NEWS:
Bears:
--WLB Lance Briggs had 16 tackles last week, the same number as Brian Urlacher, as the less-publicized Briggs maintained his two-tackle lead on the perennial Pro Bowler 136-134.
--RG Terrence Metcalf missed practice for a second straight day and remained questionable with a shoulder injury.
--G Roberto Garza would replace Terrence Metcalf if he cannot start on Sunday. Garza started four games in place of LG Ruben Brown earlier in the season and there was no discernible drop-off in the performance of the offensive line.
--SLB Hunter Hillenmeyer returned to practice Thursday with a protective cast over his fractured right thumb and the heel of his hand. He did everything at practice and intends to play Sunday in his 41st straight game.
--CB Nate Vasher has seven interceptions, tied for first in the NFC and three short of the Bears' franchise record.

Steelers:
--RB Jerome Bettis is likely to dress for the final four games, which likely will be the final four of his 13-season career. Bettis has 186 yards on 67 carries this season and is fifth on the NFL's career rushing list.
--FB Dan Kreider not only has blocked for Jerome Bettis but he also blocked for Bears CB Jerry Azumah when they played at New Hampshire and Azumah ran for a Division I-AA career-best 6,193 yards.
--WR Hines Ward has three 100-yard games, more than he's had in a season since his career high of four in 2002.
--P Chris Gardocki likely is in his final season with the Steelers. His 33.6 net punting average ranks last in the league.
--DE Aaron Smith, more than anyone in the Steelers front seven, is having a Pro Bowl season. His 15 quarterback pressures lead the team.


INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Bears:
At least publicly, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo says he's convinced his team can win in the playoffs with rookie Kyle Orton at quarterback.
"We can win in the playoffs just the way we've been winning," said Angelo, who has held a roster spot all season for Rex Grossman, the original starter, who is back on the practice field and is No. 2 on the depth chart after rehabbing the ankle he fracture on Aug. 12. "We've played good teams, like Carolina, and we went down and played a good Tampa team, so we've had some tough games on the road, and we've come out with wins."
Angelo said that with the exception of the Colts, there are no great teams in the NFL this season, which gives the 9-3 Bears a fighting chance in almost any game, even in the postseason.
"What you see are a lot of good teams," Angelo said. "Not great teams, but good teams. I saw Baltimore win (Super Bowl XXXV) with Trent Dilfer at quarterback with a good running game. It's been done. You've seen teams get to the Super Bowl, you've seen teams win the Super Bowl without a juggernaut offense, but they played well within the framework of who they were, and that's what we're doing.
"We feel very good about our team going forward, but we have to get into the playoffs. We're not there yet. We have to finish it, and once we get in, I feel as good about our chances as I do anyone's."
Angelo said he's seen first-hand how a team can succeed without exceptional play at quarterback.
"When I was with Tampa, we got to the NFC championship game with (quarterback) Shaun King, who was a rookie," Angelo said. "It's not like I haven't seen this before personally, so I have confidence in what we're doing."

Steelers:
Ben Roethlisberger continues to complain about his injured right thumb although many others in the organization privately say it does not affect his play much.
"It's pretty bad, it's painful," Roethlisberger said. "It affects pretty much every pass because I can't put as much pressure on the thumb. It makes the ball wobble a little bit more, not quite a tight spiral. If we have a windy day, we're going to have to find a way to get a tighter spiral."
Roethlisberger will wear a protective brace under a glove the rest of the season. He wore the brace Sunday against the Bengals and produced career highs with 29 completions, 41 attempts, 386 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Coach Bill Cowher has been terse with the media whenever he's asked about Roethlisberger's thumb. This week, asked if he's concerned about it, he snapped one word, "No."
He also will not divulge what is wrong with the thumb.
"He's playing," Cowher said. "So really, what difference does it make?"
Twice he's refused to say whether he thought the injury bothered his quarterback or not.
"I can't speak for him. He played the whole game the other day."
Cedrick Wilson caught a 41-yard pass against Cincinnati on Sunday that was underthrown, and Roethlisberger told him he would have thrown it longer "if I was healthy."
"I threw it as far as I could, and it only went about 40 yards," Roethlisberger said. "It just affects you when you throw."
The Steelers don't want him to throw much against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, not with rookie Trai Essex again playing for injured Pro Bowl left tackle Marvel Smith.
Roethlisberger was knocked down early in the second quarter last Sunday as he threw a pass Sunday. He braced his fall with his right hand, then fluttered a pass on the next play that was intercepted.
"That was something we talked about when I talked to the hand doctor," Roethlisberger said. "He said whatever you do, don't fall. If you're going to fall, fall on your shoulder, go all the way down, don't put your hand down.
"That's kind of hard to tell someone to do, so I did, I put my hand down, it made it pretty painful and obviously the next play was an interception. I just have to be careful not to injure it."
He said it's possible he might have to have surgery on his thumb after the season.
"Well, we don't know yet. We're going to have to wait and see. That stuff's a little bit away, but if it doesn't get any better, then we might have to."
Roethlisberger is the No. 3 passer in the NFL with a 101.5 rating.


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Cleveland Browns (4-8) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-3)
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GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/11/05
SURFACE: Grass
TV: CBS, Bill Macatee, Rich Gannon
SERIES: 65th meeting. The Browns lead the series 33-31. The Browns have held their own against the Bengals in the expansion era. Since losing four of five games from 1999 through the first of two games in 2001, the Browns have beaten the Bengals five of eight times.
2005 RANKINGS: Browns: offense 22nd (19th rush, 19th pass); defense 16th (27th rush, 10th pass). Bengals: offense 1st (12th rush, 4th pass); defense 28th (24th rush, 24th pass)

PREDICTION: Bengals 27-16

KEYS TO THE GAME: Rookie QB Charlie Frye makes his second consecutive start for the Browns, but this time will be without injured WR Braylon Edwards, who had already emerged as one of the team's few offensive playmakers. The quandary for the Browns is the Bengals will stack the box against RB Reuben Droughns and then blitz Frye often, but if Cleveland max protects the passer then it has fewer options running downfield. It's a dangerous matchup for Frye, who faces a defense leading the league with 26 interceptions. And Cleveland has a very small margin for error considering how well Cincinnati's offense is playing. RB Rudi Johnson rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown in the season opener, and while the Browns have been slowly improving defensively they will struggle to contain the Bengals' balance. If QB Carson Palmer is able to set up the play-action pass, the Browns' corners will have trouble sticking with WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

FAST FACTS: Browns: Droughns is on pace for a franchise-record 321 rushing attempts (Jim Brown, 305 in 1961). Bengals: Can clinch the AFC North title with a victory and a Pittsburgh loss Sunday. ... QB Carson Palmer seeks to become the first player in NFL history to record 12 games with a passer rating of at least 100.0 in one season.

PERSONNEL NEWS:
Browns:
--RB Lee Suggs has not had a carry since preseason, but if Reuben Droughns (knee) can't play, Suggs may get the bulk of the carries. The biggest game of Suggs' career came two years ago when he ran for 186 yards at the end of his rookie season.
--WR Dennis Northcutt returns to the starting lineup with Braylon Edwards out for the season with a knee injury. Northcutt has had a very disappointing season, with 26 catches.
--NT Ethan Kelley started two of the past three games in place of Jason Fisk, but Kelley is now finished for the season with torn knee cartilage. Kelley figures in the team's future at the spot, though.
--OG Joe Andruzzi is listed as questionable and has missed the past three games. Andruzzi appears no closer to playing Sunday than he has the past three weeks.

Bengals:
--DT Bryan Robinson (foot) was downgraded Thursday to out for the game Sunday at Pittsburgh.
--DT Shaun Smith is expected to make his third consecutive start in place of Bryan Robinson, whom Smith considers a mentor. Robinson has a foot injury.
--LB Brian Simmons (hip) is probable. He did not practice Thursday.
--DE Justin Smith (elbow) is probable. He did practice Thursday.
--WR Tab Perry (knee) is probable but did not practice Thursday.
--RB Rudi Johnson (knee) is probable but did return to practice Thursday.
--DL Carl Powell (neck) returned to practice Thursday and remained probable.
--LB/DE David Pollack saw his most extensive playing time Sunday at Pittsburgh. He finished with two tackles and one sack, upping his total to 2.5, second on the team to Justin Smith's 4.5.
Pollack estimated that he played 30 plays and appears to be rounding into shape after suffering a knee injury in the Oct. 23 Pittsburgh game. He also had a 20-day contract holdout and missed training camp. He played primarily in the third-down defense at Pittsburgh. He has 24 total tackles.
"I go in the situations I'm put in. We have so many good players on defense. I know most of my stuff now," he said. "I was having a lot of fun. Anytime you play, you have fun. At 9-3, shoot, how can you not."

INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Browns:
Reuben Droughns missed Wednesday's practice and was limited Thursday by a strained knee.
Droughns hurt the knee during the game in which he ended the Browns' 20-year drought without a 1,000-yard rusher.
But in the third period of Sunday's loss to Jacksonville, mammoth defensive tackle Marcus Stroud fell on Droughns' knee.
"My leg got stuck up under his body, so you can imagine what that felt like," Droughns said.
Droughns said he would play Sunday, but it remains to be seen how effective he can be after a limited week of practice.

Bengals:
Cincinnati's tight ends had their best collective game Sunday at Pittsburgh.
Reggie Kelly had three receptions and a touchdown, and Tony Stewart added one catch. More important, the tight ends -- especially Kelly and Matt Schobel -- lined up as H-backs in the backfield. Kelly saw extensive work as the H-back in the no-huddle offense, which the Bengals ran without a fullback but with three wide receivers.
"I was just glad they had the confidence in me to throw me the ball," Kelly said of his touchdown, his first since September 2003.
Sometimes maligned for their lack of receptions, the tight ends are nonetheless appreciated by their teammates -- especially quarterback Carson Palmer -- for the unsung role they play.
"They are extremely important," Palmer said. "We run a lot of stuff with them blocking. They don't catch a ton of balls, but they help get guys open by stretching defenses and blocking downfield."
Collectively, Kelly (11), Schobel (11) and Stewart (two) have 24 receptions for 191 yards and two touchdowns.
"A lot of times we don't get much of the credit," Schobel said. "But just winning, the most success we've had as a team, if you don't take satisfaction out of that, then you're in the wrong game"

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Baltimore Ravens (4-8) at Denver Broncos (9-3)
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GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/11/05
SURFACE: Grass
TV: CBS, Don Criqui, Steve Beuerlein
SERIES: Sixth meeting. The Ravens won the past four meetings, outscoring Denver 80-42. The Ravens beat the Broncos in the last meeting, routing them 26-6 in 2003. With the Ravens up by three points in the fourth quarter, linebacker Ray Lewis made a key interception in Ravens territory. The 20-point win over Denver was the largest for the Ravens in a one-sided series.
2005 RANKINGS: Ravens: offense 26th (22nd rush, 25th pass); defense 7th (13th rush, 7th pass). Broncos: offense 5th (2nd rush, 20th pass); defense 23rd (3rd rush, 29th pass)

PREDICTION: Broncos 26-17

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Ravens will need a few big plays on both sides of the ball in order to put a scare into the Broncos. Denver's defensive strength is against the run, meaning Baltimore will have to rely on erratic QB Kyle Boller to connect on a few shots downfield to help open the running lanes. The Broncos give 240.8 passing yards per game, but CBs Champ Bailey and Darrent Williams both have the ability to chance the course of a game with their play-making ability. So does Ravens S Ed Reed, who is Baltimore's defensive leader with MLB Ray Lewis out for the remainder of the season. The Ravens will stuff the box with eight defenders in an attempt to contain the run and force the game onto the arm of Broncos QB Jake Plummer. Plummer has thrown three interceptions over the past two games, but if RBs Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne are able to create short-yardage situations, Plummer won't be put in the position to make mistakes.

FAST FACTS: Ravens: Have lost their first six road games by an average of 13 points. They have a nine-game road losing streak overall. ... Coach Brian Billick is 4-0 against Denver coach Mike Shanahan. Broncos: Plummer is 17-3 at INVESCO Field. ... Bailey has an interception in four consecutive games.

PERSONNEL NEWS:
Ravens:
--LB Ray Lewis was placed on injured reserve Thursday, one day after having surgery on his hamstring. He will need two to three months to recover.
--QB Brian St. Pierre was signed to the active roster from the practice squad, filling Ray Lewis' roster spot. St. Pierre will be the Ravens' No. 3 quarterback.
--DE Tony Weaver will miss Sunday's game with a back injury, but coach Brian Billick said he expects Weaver to return this season.
--LB Zac Woodfin was signed to the Ravens' practice squad. A rookie out of Alabama-Birmingham, he had played with the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints.
--OT Orlando Brown will not play Sunday after being downgraded to doubtful with a back injury. He will be replaced by Tony Pashos.
--G Keydrick Vincent did not practice Thursday after working out with the team Wednesday. He is questionable with a thigh injury.
--G Edwin Mulitalo practiced Thursday after missing the team's Wednesday workout. He is questionable with a knee injury.

Broncos:
--DE Courtney Brown returned to practice on Thursday. He is nursing a sore knee. Coach Mike Shanahan said he looked good in practice, and it appears Brown will be available for Sunday's game.
--CB Antwaun Rogers was signed to the Broncos' practice squad. Rogers is a rookie who played at Purdue.
--LB Keith Burns has practiced all week and should be ready to play against Baltimore this week. Burns missed last week's game against Kansas City with a knee injury.
--OT Cornell Green should be ready to return from a separated shoulder. The Broncos have an interesting decision to make if he is healthy. RT George Foster, with whom Green was rotating, is coming off his best game of the season, so the Broncos might not resume the rotation.
--LB Ian Gold has been a big asset to the Broncos in the run game this season. Gold is undersized for an outside linebacker, but he is tough and can run down just about any back in the league. He showed off his quickness when he stuffed Chiefs WR Dante Hall on a reverse last week.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Ravens:
Ed Reed played his first game in eight weeks last Sunday. But some are wondering when the Ravens safety will truly return.
Reed has yet to make an interception this season after enjoying a huge 2004 campaign, when he was named the NFL's defensive player of the year.
With the Ravens having no shot at the playoffs or a winning season, Reed has been forced to change his goals.
The last four games for Reed are about gaining wins and more information about himself.
"I wish I would have had more film," Reed said. "The film that I can get from this season on until the next is used so I can correct and get better for the years to come on how they're attacking me, where they're throwing the ball and things like that. That's what I've been noticing throughout the year; it's just a step off right now."
Reed returned to the lineup in Sunday's 16-15 win over the Houston Texans, stabilizing a secondary that was without two starters (safety Will Demps and cornerback Chris McAlister). Reed had missed the previous six games with a high ankle sprain, an injury that destroyed his bid to repeat as NFL Defensive Player of the Year and also might keep him out of the Pro Bowl.
This year would seemingly be a disappointing way to follow a season in which he led the league with nine interceptions, became the franchise's all-time leader in interceptions (21) and broke an NFL single-season record with 358 return yards off interceptions.
But Reed seemed more concerned with what will be than what could have been.
"The thing about being who we are as human beings, we're a victim of our own success," Reed said.
Early this season, teams stayed away from attacking the middle of the field, but Reed might get a dose of action Sunday against the Denver Broncos, especially since he is still shaking off the rust from his extended absence. Reed had four tackles against the Texans.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be being out for that long," said Reed, who is now teaming with Deion Sanders at safety. "I felt the rustiness in some of the things, but it wasn't to the point where I was like, 'Oh my goodness. Everything is too fast for me.' It was pretty much normal."
--The Ravens placed linebacker Ray Lewis on injured reserve and signed third-string quarterback Brian St. Pierre from the practice squad. According to coach Brian Billick, initial reports indicate Lewis will need two to three months to recover from hamstring surgery, which would make him available for offseason workouts. "It looks very promising in that regard," Billick said.
--Defensive end Tony Weaver, who is doubtful with a back injury, might play again this season. Billick said earlier this week that there was a possibility Weaver might be placed on injured reserve. "It sounds like it maybe is not as serious and there is a reasonable chance he could be back," Billick said.

Broncos:
Denver Broncos safety John Lynch wasn't fined by the NFL for his hit on Chiefs receiver Eddie Kennison.
Lynch, who was penalized 15 yards Sunday for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Kennison, has been fined by the NFL four times since 2001 for improper use of his helmet. A league spokesman said the NFL wasn't admitting a blown call during the game, but only that the hit didn't deserve a fine.
"It's good news," Lynch said. "I'm obviously pleased with the league's assessment of the play."
Lynch was upset when the league fined him $75,000 last year for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark. Lynch flew to New York to appeal the fine in the offseason, but was unsuccessful.
"I think I'm due," Lynch said. "It gives me some faith in the process, that
they're actually looking at things and the specifics of each situation."
On Monday, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan showed the media a freeze frame of the television replay of the hit, showing Lynch hit Kennison with his shoulder and not his helmet.
"It doesn't surprise me," Shanahan said about Lynch not getting fined.


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