St. Louis Rams (4-4) at Seattle Seahawks (6-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: FOX, Curt Menefee, JC Pearson, Chris Myers
SERIES: 15th regular-season meeting. Rams lead the series 9-5, and also have won one playoff game between the teams. That came last season, when the Rams beat the Seahawks twice in Seattle. Since 2002, when the teams have been in the same division, the season series has split twice, with the Rams sweeping the series in 2004.
*2005 RANKINGS: Rams: offense 2nd (19th rush, 3rd pass); defense 30th (25th rush, 26th pass). Seahawks: offense 1st (3rd rush, 12th pass); defense 14th (12th rush, 16th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Rams' running game likely will determine if the Rams can pull the upset and stay in the NFC West race. RB Steven Jackson has averaged 22.5 carries and 138 rushing yards in two games under interim coach Joe Vitt as the team has an equal run-pass ratio of 60-60. Jackson's physical style was a problem in the first meeting as he averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and the Seahawks will be without veteran OLB Jamie Sharper. Seattle's goal is to get its top-ranked offense rolling early and take Jackson out of the game. The Seahawks gained 433 yards of total offense in their Week 5 victory in St. Louis, and their ability to strike big with the run or pass is problematic for the Rams' vulnerable defense. But if St. Louis keeps it close, Jackson, who averages 5.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, could take the home crowd out of the game.
FAST FACTS: Rams: Jackson has five runs of at least 20 yards this season. ... Bulger has won four of his past five starts against Seattle. Seahawks: Have 27 sacks through eight games after recording just 36 all of last season. ... Seek third 7-2 start in franchise history. ... Are 17-3 in past 20 regular-season home games.
--TE Jeff Robinson was officially off the roster Thursday, after he filed a letter with the league and was placed on the reserve/retired list. Robinson was disappointed with his role in the offense.
--TE Darius Williams, an undrafted free agent with the Giants during training camp who was released Sept. 4, was signed Thursday. Williams, 6-6, 270, is considered a good blocker who has to work on his receiving.
--LG Tom Nutten missed practice Thursday after waking up with a stinger in his neck and was being evaluated. If Nutten can't play Sunday, rookie Claude Terrell would be his replacement.
--QB Marc Bulger looked sharp Thursday and threw the deep ball well. "He had good zip, and read coverages well," interim coach Joe Vitt said.
--WR Torry Holt ran better Thursday than he did Wednesday, according to interim coach Joe Vitt, who is pleased with Holt's progress.
--WR Isaac Bruce is getting closer to playing, and ran better in practice Thursday than he did Wednesday. Bruce hasn't played since Sept. 25 because of a toe injury.
--SS Michael Boulware (hamstring) returned to practice. He remains questionable.
--LB D.D. Lewis missed practice Thursday with a sore knee. He remains questionable but Seattle expects him to play Sunday.
--S John Howell missed practice Thursday with a sore neck. The team put him on the injury report as probable.
--DT Marcus Tubbs missed practice Thursday with a calf injury. He remained questionable.
--LT Wayne Hunter missed practice Thursday with a hamstring injury. He remained questionable.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
While most of the talk around the Rams this week concerns the return of key players on offense, there has also been a huge lift for the defense.
Defensive end Leonard Little, who missed two games after the murder of his brother Oct. 17, returned to St. Louis from Tennessee during the bye week and has been back on the practice field this week. "It's been great to see him back," linebacker Trev Faulk said. "It's been kind of quiet next to me, because our lockers are right next to each other. So, it's definitely been different, because we're always going at each other about something.
"He got a chance to get away and spend a lot of time with his family and go through the whole grieving and mourning process. I'm sure it's not something that you just wake up one morning and are OK with. It will still be a gradual process, but it's good for him to be back with us."
Little leads the team with four sacks, and practiced with enthusiasm. Asked how important it is to have Little back, interim coach Joe Vitt said, "What do you think? The guy's a playmaker. He presents problems for anybody's pass protection. They have to account for him every time. He's great in pursuing the run. So it's huge."
Said safety Mike Furrey, about having Little back, "I think emotionally it will be great. I think having him back and knowing he's back there to help us on the pass rush and help get back the depth at the defensive line is going to be great for us. We're glad to have him back. It was unfortunate what happened to him, and we're supporting him, but from a standpoint of him being back, we're very happy to have him back."
While away, during his difficult time, Little lost some weight, but most has been put back.
"He's just down a few pounds," defensive line coach Bill Kollar said. "We thought initially that he had dropped more (weight) than he did. He's really only down a few pounds; not too bad at all."
Score a victory for the Seahawks' players after management reversed the release of WR Jerheme Urban on Thursday. The team then placed Urban on injured reserve, thereby reinstating his salary. The moves were made after players became angry about how the team handled Urban's situation.
Urban is a popular player in the Seattle locker room. He beat the odds by making the team as an undrafted free agent in 2003. He beat the odds again by earning playing time in recent seasons.
Urban made critical catches during a 13-10 victory over Dallas last month. He added a 46-yard catch Sunday in Arizona. Urban reinjured his left foot against the Cardinals, however, and the Seahawks released him Tuesday by invoking an injury waiver.
Urban missed the end of last season with a stress fracture in the same foot. He signed the waiver so that Seattle would not be liable should Urban re-injure the same foot. The latest injury did involve the same bone in the same foot. The team then released Urban, apparently because the organization feared setting a bad precedent by tearing up the injury waiver.
But when players revolted, management reversed course.
"I think it was good for all parties involved," fullback Mack Strong said. Urban will now be paid about $70,000, which represents the "split" value of his $305,000 contract. He could miss several months after undergoing surgery to repair the foot.
Arizona Cardinals (2-6) at Detroit Lions (3-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, Tim Ryan
SERIES: 57th meeting in a series that dates to 1930. The Lions hold a 30-21-5 edge over the Cardinals, but the Cardinals have won five of seven and had been victorious in five in a row -- by 3, 2, 4, 7 and 3 points -- before dropping the 2003 opener at Ford Field. One memorable battle from the Cardinals' perspective was Dec. 8, 2002, when Bill Gramatica kicked two field goals in the closing 5:30 of the fourth quarter and then won the game 23-20 with a 42-yarder in overtime. But last season, Detroit won 26-12 as rookie running back Kevin Jones rushed for 196 yards and Jason Hanson booted four field goals at Ford Field on Dec. 5.
*2005 RANKINGS: Cardinals: offense 15th (31st rush, 4th pass); defense 19th (22nd rush, 15th pass). Lions: offense 28th (26th rush, 25th pass); defense 10th (16th rush, 10th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Which team can best establish its running game? Both have been feeble in large part due to poor offensive line play. The Lions hope to get run-stopping DT Shaun Rogers back, which will only make life more difficult for Cardinals RB Marcel Shipp. Detroit is without CB Dre Bly, but if Arizona QB Kurt Warner is stuck in consistent long passing situations, the Lions still have plenty of playmakers in their secondary who can turn the game around. The Cardinals have serious depth issues along their defensive line, which the Lions will attempt to exploit with RB Kevin Jones. And even though Detroit's offensive line has struggled in run and pass blocking, Arizona's pass rushing threat took a serious hit when DE Bertrand Berry was injured last Sunday.
FAST FACTS: Cardinals: WR Larry Fitzgerald needs seven receptions to pass his rookie total of 58. ... Are 2-0 when they win the turnover margin and 0-6 when they lose it. Lions: Coach Steve Mariucci is 6-0 against Cardinals coach Dennis Green. ... WR Scottie Vines has tied or led the team in receptions the past three games.
--RB Marcel Shipp has gone 26 games without scoring, a streak that dates to 2003. He's touched the ball from scrimmage 421 times in that span. It's not all Shipp's fault. The offensive line hasn't played well, and he's rarely had room to run.
--K Neil Rackers has made 26 straight field goals, a team record, this year, so it's no wonder the team was eager to re-sign him. Rackers signed a four-year contract extension Monday that will pay him an additional $6.75 million. He received $2.25 million in guaranteed money and he'll make a salary of $1.8 million in 2006.
--QB Kurt Warner will start his second straight game, and his fifth overall for the Cardinals, Sunday in Detroit. Warner was intercepted three times last week in his first start after missing four games with a torn groin. He made some decent throws, too, but he'll be hindered by injuries at receiver.
--DE Bertrand Berry will miss at least five weeks, and likely the rest of the season, after suffering a torn pectoral muscle last week. He won't need surgery and he hopes to make a quick recovery. The team isn't putting him on injured reserve, just in case Berry is a fast healer.
--DE Antonio Smith, a fifth-round draft pick in 2004, probably will start his first NFL game Sunday, replacing Berry. It's a huge drop-off in talent, and veteran K-Ral Truluck, signed this week, is likely to play in passing situations.
--DT Shaun Rogers, who missed two weeks of practice and two games with a knee injury, is likely to start Sunday in the Lions' game against Arizona. Although he still has some discomfort in the knee, Rogers worked in virtually all phases of the defense this week.
--WR Roy Williams took 40-50 percent of the reps in practice as the Lions wound down preparations for their game Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. Williams missed three full games and got only three plays in the loss at Minnesota, but it appears he will play Sunday. It is uncertain if he will be able to go the distance.
--WR Charles Rogers had a better week of practice and is expected to play for the first time since sitting out a four-game drug suspension. Rogers wasn't even on the travel squad after a poor week of work last week but with his stepped up preparations and the Lions injury problems at wide receiver, he might start at split end.
--QB Joey Harrington got most of the reps with the Lions first offense Wednesday and Thursday, and is expected to get the starting assignment Sunday against Arizona. Harrington struggled early in the season, lost the starting job to Jeff Garcia but will get his second consecutive start because of injuries to Garcia.
--WR Mike Williams is not likely to play in the Lions' game Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals because of a mid-foot sprain on his right foot. Williams suffered the injury last Sunday at Minnesota and finished the game but has had the foot in a boot this week, unable to practice.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The health of the team suffered another blow in Thursday's practice when receiver Bryant Johnson suffered a sprained shoulder while trying to catch a pass.
Johnson was elevated to the No. 2 receiver slot last week because of Anquan Boldin's bruised knee. Johnson is listed as questionable for Sunday's game in Detroit, and if he can't play, the Cardinals are in big trouble.
Not that Johnson has proven himself worth of being a first-round pick, which he was in 2003. But without him, the team has one experienced receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, who is only in his second year.
Moving up to take Johnson's spot would be Reggie Newhouse, who was signed last week after being cut at the end of training camp, or LeRon McCoy, a seventh-round pick this year.
Most likely it would be Newhouse, who is much more polished than McCoy. Newhouse doesn't have great speed, but he won't make many mistakes and he has decent hands. McCoy is the fastest player on the team but he drops too many passes.
It's also possible that Johnson could play Sunday. Boldin is out at least another week. He'll have an MRI Monday to see how the injury has healed. If doctors are satisfied, he could play the following week in St. Louis.
There is no question this week about the Lions' starting quarterback: Joey Harrington will get the job Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals in the game at Ford Field. The only question is whether erstwhile starter Jeff Garcia will be healthy enough to fill the backup role or whether he'll be wearing a ball cap as the No. 3 quarterback.
The quarterback position has been the subject of turmoil and controversy since the Lions got off to a stumbling start, with Harrington starting the first five games, Garcia recovering from a broken leg and sprained ankle to start the next two games, and Harrington returning to the starting job for the eighth game when Garcia was sidelined by additional injuries to his leg.
Harrington is 2-4 as the starter, Garcia is 1-1. And the Lions are still struggling to make a run at the Chicago Bears in the NFC North before it's entirely too late.
If there is any encouraging sign for the Lions as the go into the second half of the season, it is the fact that several of their injured top-line players - and one suspended player - are ready to return to action.
Among those expected back this week are Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, wide receiver Roy Williams and wide receiver Charles Rogers, who missed four games on a drug suspension and a fifth game because coaches felt he wasn't adequately prepared after his first week back in practice. In addition, Pro Bowl cornerback Dre' Bly began practicing this week with a cast on his right wrist and might be ready to play against Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day.
Meanwhile, Harrington will try to keep the Lions in the race with a win against Arizona. He struggled in the first half of the season, completing only 54.5 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 57.5.
Rookie Dan Orlovsky, a fifth-round draft pick from Connecticut, will be the backup if Garcia isn't able to play, but Garcia wasn't eliminating himself from contention Thursday.
"It's feeling better each day," he said. "I can feel improvement, especially over the way I felt last week. I'm doing a lot more this week than I did last week, so I think if I can continue in that sort of position, I'll be ready to be the No. 2 guy on Sunday."
San Francisco 49ers (2-6) at Chicago Bears (5-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Bill Maas
SERIES: 59th meeting. The 49ers lead 30-27-1, with the Bears winning two of the last three meetings. Last year, the Bears defeated the 49ers 23-13 at Soldier Field.
*2005 RANKINGS: 49ers: offense 32nd (24th rush, 31st pass); defense 32nd (14th rush, 32nd pass). Bears: offense 27th (6th rush, 29th pass); defense 3rd (7th rush, 7th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: With QB Cody Pickett making just his second career start and playing behind a woeful offensive line, the 49ers cannot afford to fall in a big early hole. They have been outscored 125-34 on the road this season and don't have the offensive firepower to come from behind against one of the league's top defenses. San Francisco must win the turnover battle to keep the game competitive, and will attempt bring pressure from all angles at Bears rookie QB Kyle Orton, who is coming off a two-interception game. The Bears are leery of San Francisco's pass rush, and the 49ers' defense isn't as poor as its statistics might indicate. But in order to put Orton in difficult passing situations, the 49ers must first contain the Bears' strong ground game. Chicago would love to build a lead and limit how much it needs to rely on RB Thomas Jones, who is still dealing with bruised ribs.
FAST FACTS: 49ers: Have thrown for a combined 234 yards in four games (58.5 average) since QB Tim Rattay was benched and later traded. ... DT Bryant Young needs two sacks for team's first 10-sack season since Andre Carter had 12.5 in 2002. Bears: Have a league-high seven interception returns for touchdowns since the start of the 2004 season. ... WR Muhsin Muhammad has nine touchdowns and four 100-yard receiving games in his past nine games against San Francisco.
--CB Ahmed Plummer did not practice Thursday and will not start Sunday's game against the Bears. In fact, it appears as if he has lost his job to second-year player Bruce Thornton. Plummer might have to start playing special teams if he does not regain his starting job.
--WR Brandon Lloyd was removed from the injury report on Thursday. Wednesday, he was listed as questionable because of a stomachache. He returned to practice on Thursday.
--RB Kevan Barlow, who missed Wednesday's practice with a left quadriceps bruise, returned to practice and is no longer on the injury report.
--WR Rasheed Marshall returned to practice with a thigh bruise, but is still listed as questionable. The team has not decided whether Marshall or Otis Amey will return punts on Sunday against the Bears.
--LG Ruben Brown was upgraded from questionable to probable and should start Sunday after missing four games with a partially torn chest muscle.
--RB Thomas Jones missed a second straight day of practice, raising speculation that he might be rested Sunday. He remains questionable with bruised ribs.
--DE Adewale Ogunleye (hamstring) returned to practice on Thursday and was removed from the injury report.
--C Olin Kreutz (shoulder) returned to practice and was removed from the injury report.
--DT Tank Johnson was added to the injury report as probable with a stiff back, but he is expected back on Friday.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Center Jeremy Newberry, the 49ers' only offensive player with a Pro Bowl on his resume, probably will not play in Sunday's game against the Bears. Newberry has been hobbled by a chronic problem with his right knee. Newberry has no cartilage in his knee, causing a painful bone-on-bone grind. He has required painkilling injections to play in games.
But the last three weeks the pain had gotten so significant that Newberry has had the option of sitting out a game in order to heal. "It's getting to the point where I need some time to rest," Newberry said.
If Newberry takes a week to rest, it will give an opportunity to some of the 49ers' younger players to get on the field. Second-round draft pick David Baas and third-round pick Adam Snyder have yet to see significant playing time as rookies.
If Newberry sits, guard Eric Heitmann could see time at center, too. Baas could see time at center, and Snyder would also rotate in at guard. "I think they're all getting better," Newberry said of the young offensive linemen. "I think Eric would be fine at center. In one-on-one drills and pass protection, they're definitely making strides. They need to play. They need to get out and see more game time. That's the best way to become a better player."
The 49ers' offensive line has been one of the club's many problem areas. Left tackle Jonas Jennings is out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn right labrum. Anthony Clement will start his sixth consecutive game at left tackle. The 49ers have also started to give Snyder work at left tackle, where he played one series last week against the Giants in place of Clement.
The depth of the Bears' offensive line that has paved the way for the No. 6 rushing attack in the NFL will be tested again this week. For the fifth straight week, the line will be without one of its starters because right tackle Fred Miller is out for at least two weeks with a fractured jaw. Miller, a 10-year veteran, suffered the injury in a fall at home late Monday night and had surgery Tuesday. He will be replaced by sixth-year player John St. Clair, who filled in for left tackle John Tait four weeks ago in a 28-3 victory over the Vikings.
"John played well earlier when he replaced Tait," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "So we feel good about that." Offensive coordinator Ron Turner knows what St. Clair's biggest problem will be Sunday at Soldier Field against the 2-6 San Francisco 49ers.
"Bryant Young," Turner said of the 49ers' 12-year veteran defensive left end, who is second in the NFL with eight sacks. "He's a tremendous player, and he's playing at a really high level, so that's going to be the biggest thing."
The Bears didn't sign St. Clair until Sept. 14, three days after the season started and a week after the Dolphins released him. St. Clair started 14 games for Miami last season and said he's ready to handle the challenge of Young.
"I've been starting in this league for a while," the 6-foot-6, 318-pound former third-round draft choice said. "I know I can play. Everything is working well now that I know the system here."
Right tackle won't be the only offensive line position with a personnel change on Sunday. Left guard Ruben Brown, who started the first four games before suffering a partially torn chest muscle, is expected to reclaim that spot from Roberto Garza, who more held his own the past four games, all Bears victories.
The coaches are confident that the veteran group, which includes eight-year veteran center Olin Kreutz and fourth-year right guard Terrence Metcalf, can handle a little shuffling of the deck.
"The guys really have an experienced group," offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. "They come to work every day, and they do a good job. Olin coordinates them well. We see a lot of different things that people are playing, (but) with the experience and the unit playing together, they're able to figure some things out."
That ability to adapt on the fly is what has impressed rookie quarterback Kyle Orton the most this season. "If you look at our games, the first couple series, we might not be moving the ball, might not be running the ball as well as we usually do," Orton said. "They're just feeling out the defense, how they're going to attack them, and the adjustments that they make on the sideline, it's pretty unbelievable the way they can do that."
St. Clair said the key to success as a backup is to prepare even more diligently than the starters.
"It's difficult," he said, "but that's when practice plays in, studying all week. When you're not getting the reps with the first team, you've got to really study hard, harder than you would being on the first team because once you get in the game, you've got to perform at the top level."
The Bears suffered no dropoff when Garza stepped in for Brown, and they're confident St. Clair will perform at the same level.
"John's played for us," Hiestand said. "He's a hard-working guy, and he'll be ready to go. He's a pro, and he prepares every week to play, and now he's got an opportunity to play. When you have quality, experienced guys who have been through it before, it makes a big difference."