NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 10 Double Coverage

Double Coverage: Bengals at Ravens

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
12:00
PM ET
Giovani Bernard and Joe FlaccoAP PhotoWith a win Sunday, Giovani Bernard and the Bengals would put Joe Flacco's Ravens in a deep hole in the division.
There will be a territorial battle Sunday at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium between the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals and the two-time defending division champion Baltimore Ravens.

It's desperation time for the Ravens (3-5), who have fallen into third place in the AFC North and 2½ games behind Cincinnati. But despite losing three straight games, the Ravens aren't ready to concede the division and have two games left with the Bengals.

Cincinnati (6-3) also has something to prove. The Bengals are coming off a deflating overtime loss in Miami, where injuries continued to pile up. Cincinnati lost its best defensive player in defensive tackle Geno Atkins (season-ending knee injury) and watched one its most explosive offensive players in running back Giovani Bernard (ribs) get banged up.

Here is how Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley see this game unfolding:

Hensley: The Ravens have been a team that has been banged up for most of the season, from wide receivers to offensive linemen to linebackers. But they look relatively healthy compared to the Bengals right now. How much of an impact will these injuries have on Cincinnati in Baltimore?

Harvey: They should have some type of impact, Jamison -- particularly losing Atkins. Without the Pro Bowl lineman in the mix, opposing teams will be much more comfortable matching their offensive linemen man-for-man with the Bengals' D-line. Much of the year, Atkins has been drawing double-teams, freeing up teammates to make plays in pass-rush and run-stop situations. Without their imposing man in the middle, the Bengals will turn to second-year tackle Brandon Thompson to pick up the slack.

As far as Bernard is concerned, I would be surprised if he didn’t play Sunday. Even though he was banged up last Thursday, the Bengals sound optimistic about his return to action this week. With a defense that is now down five key contributors (cornerback Leon Hall, defensive back Taylor Mays, defensive end Robert Geathers and linebacker Rey Maualuga), Cincinnati’s offense can ill afford for one of its best offensive playmakers to be slowed or unable to play at all.

More than anything, the Bengals will miss Atkins’ pass-rush presence from the line’s interior. The Ravens had some issues protecting Joe Flacco at Cleveland last weekend. What fixes do you think they make this week to ensure he doesn’t get sacked five times against a tamer Bengals defensive front?

*Hensley: Protecting Joe Flacco has been an issue all season. He has been sacked 25 times, and only six quarterbacks have been sacked more. The issue lately has been picking up the blitz, and I wonder whether the Bengals will send five or more rushers with Atkins not penetrating the middle. Running back Ray Rice has been solid at picking up blitzes throughout his career, but he has whiffed more this season in blocking free runners.

Flacco can help himself out by getting rid of the ball quicker. He has been running for his life at times this season, but he can avoid some sacks by throwing to his hot read. This is where Flacco has missed tight end Dennis Pitta, one of his favorite targets when the pocket collapsed. Pitta, who is on the injured reserve designated for return list with a hip injury, will be missed Sunday. In his past two games against the Bengals, Pitta caught 11 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Pressure hasn't been a deciding factor in the rivalry with the Bengals. In his past five full games against Cincinnati, Flacco has been sacked 10 times.

Speaking of quarterbacks, how would you evaluate Andy Dalton this year? Is he the quarterback who threw 11 touchdowns in three wins in October? Or is he more like the quarterback who threw three interceptions in the Bengals' last game on Oct. 31?

Harvey: That's the million-dollar question among Bengals fans this season. Who is the real Andy Dalton? Right now, it’s tough to say. If I had to evaluate his season, though, I would say Dalton is more like the player we saw most of October than the one who made an appearance at Miami last Thursday. I mean, even though he had a QBR of 13.5 in the 22-20 overtime loss to the Dolphins, he still threw for 338 yards. Against Miami, he also wasn’t helped much by his receivers, who dropped five passes.

Dalton isn’t the only AFC North player who has struggled with consistency this year. It looks like Rice hasn’t gotten off to a strong start at all this season. I know he’s been banged up a little, but what’s the story with his lackluster showing?

Hensley: Rice is having easily his worst season since becoming the featured back in 2009. He is on pace to gain fewer than 600 yards rushing. Five quarterbacks have rushed for more yards than Rice this season. In the past, Rice has fared well against Cincinnati. He's averaged 105.4 yards from scrimmage against the Bengals, scoring nine touchdowns in 10 games. But this hasn't been the same Rice. He insists that he's healthy after suffering a hip injury in Week 2, but I have my doubts because of his lack of burst.

The inability to run the ball has made the Ravens one-dimensional. Flacco has thrown 310 passes this season, which is ninth most in the NFL. With the Bengals having a top-10 run defense, the Ravens may have to go into pass-heavy mode again. How has the Bengals' secondary held up this season?

Harvey: Considering they’ve lost Hall for the year with an Achilles injury, it’s amazing that the Bengals have still fielded a competitive secondary the past few weeks. While run defense is Cincinnati’s defensive calling card, the defense has been able to disrupt passers in recent games. Just two weeks ago, the Bengals’ cornerbacks had two interceptions off Jets rookie QB Geno Smith, both pick-sixes.

What explains the Cincinnati secondary’s ability to hang with opposing offenses despite losing Hall and Mays? It’s the fact that the Bengals have veterans in Chris Crocker, Terence Newman and Adam Jones who have been able to keep the unit afloat.

Double Coverage: Bills at Steelers

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
11:00
AM ET
Roethlisberger/ManuelUSA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger, left, and EJ Manuel are trying to guide their teams through difficult seasons.
Two teams that have combined for five wins and don’t appear to be going anywhere this season meet Sunday at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be angry after getting routed Sunday in New England, but the Buffalo Bills might be equally desperate after losing four of their past five games.

It looks like EJ Manuel will return for the Bills, but rookie quarterbacks have not fared well against Dick LeBeau defenses. But no rookie quarterback has faced the Steelers defense when it has been this vulnerable under LeBeau.

ESPN.com reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take an in-depth look at the first meeting between the teams since the Steelers won a 19-16 overtime game at Buffalo in 2010.

Brown: Mike, is this team Pittsburgh North? There are a lot of Steelers connections there with general manager Doug Whaley and a handful of the players. The two I’m interested in hearing about are the starting guards -- Doug Legursky and Kraig Urbik. How have the two played, and how has the offensive line played overall?

Rodak: Scott, I think Whaley would like it to be Pittsburgh North, eventually. The Steelers are one of the most successful franchises, and Whaley comes from that background. Defensively, there are similarities between Mike Pettine's blitz-heavy scheme and much of the zone blitzing that LeBeau uses. And offensively, Manuel is a big, mobile quarterback with some speedy receivers, much like Ben Roethlisberger and his pass-catchers in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, though, I think the Bills want to forge their own identity, and the Steelers connections don't run much deeper than Whaley and a few others.

As far as Urbik and Legursky, they haven't been Pro Bowlers by any stretch. Returning from a knee injury last month, Legursky helped stabilize a left guard position that has been reeling since losing Andy Levitre in free agency last offseason. But as a whole, the offensive line has allowed more sacks -- the seventh most in the NFL, to be precise -- than it would prefer.

Looking at the Steelers' big picture, what has gone wrong this season? From an outside perspective, an aging defense appears to be part of it, but that can't tell the whole story. What are the biggest problem areas?

Brown: Age is only part of the equation when looking at the Steelers’ struggles. The other half is that the Steelers were so good for so long at developing younger players to step in for veteran stalwarts who retired or signed elsewhere. That hasn’t happened in recent years, in part because the quality of Steelers’ drafts has slipped.

The drop-off in talent hasn’t been as severe as it would seem for a team that has lost 11 of its past 15 games, which leads me to perhaps the Steelers’ biggest problem on the field: This team is simply allergic to momentum. The Steelers, when they were winning regularly, played so well off one another as far as the different units. This season, more often than not, the offense has not been able to bail out the defense and vice versa.

I’m curious what has held back the Bills, aside from the instability and inexperience at quarterback. This team seems to have its share of talent, so why aren’t the Bills winning more?

Rodak: The quarterback situation is a big part of it, like you said. No matter who's been out there -- Manuel, Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel -- they haven't been able to make enough plays to win in the NFL. It's really been the defense that has picked up the slack in two of the Bills' three wins this season. Against the Baltimore Ravens, it intercepted Joe Flacco five times, and just when it looked like the Miami Dolphins were going to win a few weeks ago, Mario Williams came up with a game-changing strip-sack. So when dissecting why the Bills are 3-6, their quarterback play is the overriding factor.

Otherwise, I think the story is similar to Pittsburgh's. The defense has played well at times, but when it hasn't played well, the offense hasn't been up to snuff. And when the offense has started cranking -- and that's been rare -- the defense has dropped off. Doug Marrone referenced Wednesday the need for the defense to generate more turnovers -- it hasn't forced one in more than two games -- which has caused the Bills' turnover differential for the season to turn negative this week.

What has been the problem offensively for the Steelers? I've always counted Roethlisberger among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league, and at least on paper, there is some serious talent between Le'Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown. Is the offensive line really that bad to drag everyone down?

Brown: The offense played without Bell and Miller for the first two games, and it showed as the Steelers managed just two touchdowns in those contests. Bell has stabilized the running game, and Miller’s return has been huge considering his value in the running and passing game.

The offense’s struggles stem most from the ongoing shuffling along the offensive line. The unit, for whatever reason, is consistently decimated by injuries, and this season is no different. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener. The Steelers even lost a lineman (Levi Brown) to a season-ending injury in pregame warm-ups. Those kinds of things have happened to the Steelers’ offensive line, it seems, every season since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.

The line has played better in recent weeks, and I thought it did fairly well in New England even with the crowd noise forcing the Steelers to use a silent snap count. It faces another challenge this week as the Bills have the kind of defensive line that can really give the Steelers fits.

Williams has been a beast, and the Steelers will probably have to give left tackle Kelvin Beachum some help with Williams. Mike, what about the two interior lineman, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus? They seem like they can be plenty disruptive.

Rodak: They certainly can be, Scott. Each has four sacks this season, which puts both on pace for career highs. It seems like each week, when we talk to opposing head coaches, they start off by mentioning Dareus, Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. They're the strength of the team. Kyle Williams in particular has shown a knack for being disruptive in the backfield at the right time, while Dareus has improved from what some felt were subpar seasons since being drafted third overall in 2011. The Steelers' offensive line will need to hold its ground and allow Roethlisberger to take shots at the weaker points of the defense.

What do the Steelers need to do to turn this season around? Does any hope remain that they will make the playoffs?

Brown: Believe it or not, the players still believe they have a shot at the playoffs given how mediocre the AFC has been aside from a few teams. But they are also realistic that their focus has to stay squarely on what is in front of them.

The biggest thing the Steelers need to do to turn around their season is get back to what has worked for them for so long. That starts with stopping the run. As much as some Steelers fans want to lay blame for the defense’s failings on LeBeau -- and the fact that he is 76 -- the reality is this: LeBeau didn’t suddenly forget how to coach. However, his defense doesn’t work if the Steelers can’t stop the run and force teams into obvious passing situations.

Offensively, the Steelers have been at their best this season when they have established balance. If they want to take better care of Roethlisberger, who is taking another beating this season, they need to limit his passing attempts. The best way to do that is establish the ground game and run Bell early and often. Sounds easy enough, no?

 
Eli Manning and Charles WoodsonGetty ImagesEli Manning's Giants aim to maintain their momentum when Charles Woodson and the Raiders visit.
It will be a battle of teams looking to climb out of the cellar of their respective divisions as the 2-6 New York Giants host the 3-5 Oakland Raiders at 1 p.m. ET Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The Giants have won two games in a row after an 0-6 start and are coming off their bye week. The Raiders just suffered their most embarrassing loss of the season, 49-20 at home to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Which last-place team will get the win Sunday at the site of Super Bowl XLVIII? ESPN.com Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez and Giants reporter Dan Graziano break it down for you.

Dan Graziano: Paul, I was a little surprised by how poorly the Raiders played Sunday. I knew they were a sub-.500 team, but I didn't think they were a terrible one. What was up with that defensive effort against Nick Foles and the Eagles?

Paul Gutierrez: Dan, you're not the only one who was surprised by what the Raiders in general, and the defense in particular, put on the field against the Eagles. Everyone from coach Dennis Allen to veteran safety Charles Woodson wondered out loud if the defense got caught reading its clips from the week before. After all, the Raiders' D was playing lights out and was the team's strength, entering the game with the No. 10-ranked defense, despite 10 new starters.

Like boxing, styles make fights, and the Eagles' high-octane offense worked to near-perfection and dropped Oakland early and often. The Raiders were a step behind all game long, especially top draft pick D.J. Hayden, who was given the Elvis "Toast" Patterson treatment (I'm sure that name will elicit varied responses from Giants fans) by Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson and gave up three completions to the two for a combined 139 yards and two touchdowns. In short, it was a complete meltdown by the entire defense, which had been feeling itself a little too much.

The Giants, though, seem to be heading in the opposite direction after that ghastly start. Do you get the sense they have righted the ship, or is it fool's gold after beating the hapless Vikings and then-hopeless Eagles?

Graziano: It's unquestionably fool's gold. They beat the Vikings when Minnesota foolishly and inexplicably started an unprepared Josh Freeman at quarterback and beat the Eagles when they started a clearly injured Michael Vick and had to replace him with unprepared Matt Barkley. And it's not as though they looked especially good in either win. Eli Manning hit clumsy Minnesota defenders in the hands three times in that Monday night game and somehow still didn't get intercepted, and the Giants didn't score a touchdown in that 15-7 victory over the Eagles. They are a bad team with major problems at almost every position, and the fact that they've won two in a row after starting 0-6 doesn't make that go away.

That said, it's possible they'll get a gimpy Terrelle Pryor this week, right? (And maybe an Aaron Rodgers backup next week.) Pryor left against the Eagles with a knee injury. Do you expect that he'll play, and assuming he does, what kind of special problems does he present for a Giants defense that has been getting fat on the likes of Freeman and Barkley?

Gutierrez: Pryor said after the game that his knee was fine, that treatment and ice and the like were all "precautionary," that his knee was not "wobbly" or anything like that. The Raiders were going to take him out of the game for those last two series of a blowout anyway. While Pryor did not speak at the facility Monday, he was walking around the locker room and was not wearing a brace. He should be ready to go.

Then again, if there is even the slightest hitch in his giddyup, that could spell trouble since his running game is his strength. The problems he presents defenses are not unique for a team like the Giants, who already face the read-option from Washington's Robert Griffin III (when healthy). But Pryor's combination of size and speed is what makes him unique, or did you miss his 93-yard touchdown run against the Pittsburgh Steelers in which he looked like he was coasting but actually was pulling away from defenders? Earlier in the year, the Raiders' coaches wanted him to run more to take advantage of his strength. Now, Allen said Pryor has to trust the process more, from the protection to his reads. This should be interesting to see how Pryor soaks it all in.

Then again, it will be interesting to see how the Giants' defense responds to Pryor. The Steelers and Eagles had some success in keeping him under wraps by putting a spy on him, challenging him to beat them with his arm. Would the Giants employ such a tactic and who would that spy be, or would they rather play him straight up?

Graziano: It's a good question, though they don't seem interested in giving away the answer just yet. In the past year, they have played guys like Vick and RG III without a spy and have paid the price. Vick ran for 79 yards against them in the first half in Week 5 before pulling his hamstring.

If they do change it up and decide to spy Pryor, the most likely candidate would be linebacker Jacquian Williams, who has good sideline-to-sideline speed. They tend to like to use him to cover tough tight ends, but it's possible that the Raiders' receiving options will allow them to get everyone covered with their nickel-safety or nickel-corner package with Week 8 NFC Defensive Player of the Week Terrell Thomas covering the slot. That might free up Williams to spy Pryor, which I think would be a good idea. But the Giants can get stubborn at times, and it's possible they'll decide to play him straight up. I would like his chances of picking up yards on the ground on the outside if they did.

Manning hasn't thrown an interception in his past two games, but he still leads the league with those 15 he threw in the first six weeks. The Giants have been vulnerable to A-gap pressure due to the fact that they're using backups at center and right guard, and as a result, Manning has been uncomfortable in the pocket all season. The lack of a run game has hurt his play-action passing game too. Are the Raiders going to be able to pressure him better than they did Foles? Or will Eli have an easy day?

Gutierrez: Using the past-is-prologue approach and sprinkling in the notion that hindsight is always 20/20, the Raiders simply have to put pressure on Manning. Allen acknowledged the Raiders did not bring enough pressure to disrupt Foles, and when they did, he simply rolled out and found a target downfield. The Raiders seemed to have learned their lesson, but we'll see. Against the Eagles, they went away from being their normal, blitz-happy selves by rushing just three at times and sitting back in coverage. Foles ate them up. And Foles is no Manning. (You can't spell "elite" without "Eli," right?)

I would expect defensive coordinator Jason Tarver to dial up the blitzes again and send anyone at any time -- unless the Giants start running a no-huddle, hurry-up offense to rattle the Raiders. Keep an eye on right defensive end Lamarr Houston, who leads the Raiders with four sacks but was slowed by a right hamstring issue against the Eagles. In fact, 11.5 of Oakland's 23 sacks have come from their front four.

The Raiders -- Hayden in particular -- had problems in coverage against the Eagles. Whom would the Giants deploy to take advantage of Hayden, who usually plays on the outside in nickel packages? Might the Giants put the physically imposing Hakeem Nicks out there?

Graziano: Yeah, Nicks plays on the outside with Victor Cruz in the slot and Rueben Randle on the other side when they go three-wide. But Nicks hasn't been himself. He's still capable of outfighting defenders for the ball and could be a tough matchup for Hayden, but he doesn't seem able to separate anymore and has had uncharacteristic issues with drops. He won't admit it, but he's playing like a guy in his walk year whose long-term future is on his mind. It's been one of many problems the Giants didn't anticipate, and if he has a big game against the Raiders, it'll be his first. He still doesn't have a touchdown this season.

Anyway, nice chatting with you, Paul. Travel safely, and I look forward to seeing you at the game Sunday.


Since Peyton Manning's arrival, the Denver Broncos own the AFC West, posting a 7-0 record against division foes.

Coming off a bye week, the 7-1 Broncos should be well-rested when they travel to San Diego to take on the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday. At 4-4, the Chargers look to stay in the AFC playoff hunt with a win, one of five AFC West contests left on their schedule.

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano faces the daunting task of trying to slow down a Denver offense that is No. 1 in the league in scoring (42.9 PPG), third-down efficiency (50.5 percent) and red zone efficiency (78.4 percent).

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold break down the matchup:

Williams: With coach John Fox out indefinitely after having heart surgery over the weekend, the Broncos have named Jack Del Rio as interim head coach. Jeff, how have players reacted to the situation? And how will this change the team's game-day management, including who calls the plays defensively and decisions like whether or not to go for it on fourth down?

Legwold: The defensive players like Del Rio's no-nonsense, show-me approach, and that's the message they've given the rest of the locker room. Del Rio has a clear set of expectations for the defensive guys and hasn't wavered from it, and if guys do what they're supposed to do, they play regardless of their contract or draft standing. Players like that and respond to it. Denver is his second stop with Fox, so he will stick to the plan and not much will change in the players' day-to-day lives in terms of football. On game day, Del Rio will still make the calls on defense, but since he can't simply turn away and go talk to the defensive players when the offense is on the field as he had been doing, he will lean on linebackers coach Richard Smith to do a little more on the sideline as well as the other position coaches. But Del Rio, with nine seasons as the Jacksonville Jaguars coach on his résumé, will run the show on game day when it comes to timeouts, replay challenges and other in-game decisions.

Looking at the coaches, how much of what Mike McCoy has implemented in his first season with the Chargers came from his time with Fox, including McCoy's three seasons with Fox and Josh McDaniels?

Williams: I would say McCoy gleaned some of his core coaching philosophies from Fox. McCoy worked with Fox in Denver and Carolina for nine seasons. McCoy is a straight shooter who focuses on accountability, bringing the best out of his players and attention to detail. But he's also tried to create a family-type atmosphere and empower the players to emerge into leadership roles. Certainly, McCoy also picked up a few things while working with a creative offensive thinker like McDaniels, bringing some of those concepts and schemes with him to San Diego. Through the midpoint of his first season, players seem to have bought into McCoy's philosophy.

Manning is once again putting up eye-popping numbers in his second season in Denver. It's hard to believe Manning could get better, but how much more comfortable is he with the offense with another year under his belt?

Legwold: Manning is all about planning and preparation. When people ask him if he's got better timing with his receivers, he'll usually answer that it takes years to build real chemistry. But there is no question his improved comfort level with his surroundings in Denver can be seen in his play. After eight games, his 29 passing touchdowns are more than any other team has scored to that point. They've had some injuries up front and he's taken a little more punishment than they would like over the past three games, but they can challenge all parts of the field in the passing game. And when they move as fast as they can in the no-huddle, Manning has been at his best. He's difficult to fool, and defenses have struggled all season to find the right balance of coverage or pressure against him.

McCoy has always been good at adapting what he wants to do on offense to the quarterback he has behind center. He did that in catering offenses for Tim Tebow and Manning in back-to-back seasons. How much has he helped Philip Rivers?

Williams: Rivers is a new man. He finished with double-digit interceptions for three years in a row heading into the 2013 season. But he's displayed better decision-making this season in McCoy’s and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt’s new scheme. Even though Rivers has seven interceptions through eight games, he leads the league in completion percentage (72.2), showing a willingness to take the checkdown. The Chargers implemented more of a rhythm passing game, focusing on Rivers getting the ball out quick and letting his receivers do the work. And he's also been given more freedom to call plays at the line of scrimmage. As you mention, McCoy at his best is tailoring an offense to perfectly match the skill set of his quarterback, and that certainly is the case with Rivers this season.

Defensively, Denver is giving up 299 passing yards and allowing 27.3 points a contest. But the Broncos have a respectable 37.5 third-down defense percentage. Is this defense good enough for Denver to make a deep playoff run?

Legwold: That is the question the Broncos have to answer if they are really to be in the Super Bowl hunt. They have a historic offense that can score from anywhere, any time. They have quality special teams, front to back, from the kicking game to coverage units, and have blocked two punts already this season. Defensively, Von Miller missed six games with a suspension and hasn't played at his 2012 level since his return, and Champ Bailey has played in just two games because of a foot injury. That's a lot of impact on the sideline. In their absence, the Broncos didn't always consistently pressure opposing passers and teams have thrown it plenty trying to play catch-up with the Broncos' offense. But if they are really going to be in the Super Bowl mix, their defense will have to be more than it has been over much of the season's first half. It showed some teeth in a win over the Redskins just before the bye, holding Washington to 266 total yards.

Shaun Phillips, with 6.5 sacks over the season's first half, helped the Broncos cover for Miller's absence early on. Did the Chargers believe he could reach that level when they didn't re-sign him?

Williams: That's a fair question because San Diego certainly could use that production from Phillips. The Chargers had younger players like Melvin Ingram and Larry English ready to emerge, along with signing savvy veteran Jarret Johnson to a four-year deal in free agency leading up to the 2012 season. So Phillips likely would have had a limited role in San Diego. However, Ingram suffered an ACL tear in his left knee in May. The Chargers promptly signed Dwight Freeney to replace him, but the team's best pass-rusher suffered a torn quad against Dallas on Sept. 29, leaving San Diego's cupboard pretty bare at edge rusher. Johnson and defensive end Corey Liuget lead the team in sacks with just three each.

Miller has just one sack and seven tackles in two games since returning from a suspension. Is he still shaking the rust off? How important is Miller playing at an elite level to the improvement of Denver's defense?

Legwold: Opinions vary a bit around the league about how Miller has played in his two games back. Many personnel executives, citing what Miller has called an intentional 10- to 15-pound weight gain during his suspension, see a lack of the explosiveness and flexibility that made him special in his first two seasons. Their thought is he should lose the weight and play lighter. A few others are willing to wait and see, offering it might just be rust. But even some of Miller's current, and former, teammates have said the same thing, that he's had moments when he's looked himself but overall has not been nearly as explosive as he was down in and down out in 2012. The Broncos have even taken him off the field for a selection of snaps over the past two games, including in the base defense and a few pass-rush situations. It hasn't been many snaps, but it is an indication he's not yet at the level they want him to be, or they wouldn't be using other players in a smattering of down-and-distance situations.

With the Chargers' injuries along the offensive line, how have they tried to protect Rivers, and has Rivers adjusted his game because of those issues up front?

Williams: Veteran center Nick Hardwick really has been the key to the stability up front. Hardwick is the only offensive lineman who has started every game this season. He helps Rivers with the pass protections and blitz pickups. San Diego has played five starting offensive line combinations in eight games this season, including five players at left tackle. But offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris has done a nice job of creating some versatility within his group by having players learn multiple positions. Even with the injuries, San Diego's offensive line continues to play at a high level, allowing just 12 sacks through eight games. Rivers taking shorter drops and getting the ball out quickly also has helped keep the sacks down.

The development of Denver tight end Julius Thomas, a former basketball player at Portland State, and the emergence of former first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno has been fun to watch from afar. Thomas is second on the team in touchdown receptions with eight, while Moreno has 743 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns. How have these two earned the trust of Manning?

Legwold: Former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley, a close friend of Manning's and a longtime teammate, said it best. Stokley always said the easiest way to earn Manning's trust is “to be in right spot, where he expects you to be, every single time. If you do that, you'll get the ball. If you don't, you won't be in there." Thomas, who is often overwhelmed when asked to block, is a difficult matchup for defenders and has worked plenty with Manning in terms of route running and understanding what Manning sees against certain looks on defense. Thomas has good hands and will fight for the ball in traffic, so Manning will throw to him even if Thomas doesn't have a lot of room to make a play. Moreno is a testament to hard work and getting up off the deck. He was a game-day inactive for eight games last season after an early-season fumble, and his roster spot was shaky when training camp opened this summer. But he never complained or blamed anybody else. He just worked. He is the most reliable of the team's backs in pass protection, is a quality receiver and has run hard when he's had the opportunity. He will likely see the ball more in the second half of the season.

In terms of the running game, do the Chargers still see Ryan Mathews as a lead back, or is the fact they didn't give Mathews the ball in a first-and-goal situation last weekend an indication they don't?

Williams: McCoy praised Mathews' effort and ability to gain tough yards. He's the leading rusher on the team with 480 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games for the first time since 2011. Mathews has played in every game and fumbled only once this season.

But the fact that Mathews does not have a goal-line carry this season, including last Sunday when the Chargers failed to score three times from a yard out at Washington, cannot be overlooked. McCoy has trust issues when it comes to giving the ball to Mathews near the goal line. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers are 2-of-11 (18 percent) on plays from a yard out this season, the worst in the league. Giving the ball to Mathews in those situations could help rectify that issue.

Colin Kaepernick and Cam NewtonGetty Images, AP PhotoQuarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, left, and Cam Newton highlight a matchup of NFC playoff contenders.
SAN FRANCISCO -- A few weeks ago, this didn’t appear to be a premier game.

But the Carolina Panthers kept on winning. Now, before the San Francisco 49ers have to tangle with potential playoff opponents New Orleans and Seattle in the coming weeks, looms another major NFC test in the form of the Panthers on Sunday at Candlestick Park.

This will be matchup featuring two of the hottest teams in the league. The 49ers have won five straight, the Panthers four straight. ESPN.com 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and Panthers reporter David Newton take a look at the intriguing matchup:

Newton: These teams appear similar, built around a strong running game, a versatile quarterback and strong defense. Where do you believe the 49ers have the biggest advantage?

Williamson: They totally believe in what they do. This is a confident team in all phases of the game. San Francisco is deep and focused, and it rarely misfires as a team. The 49ers stick to their plan and have confidence it will eventually wear opponents down. That is particularly true concerning the ground game on both sides of the ball. The 49ers know they are better than most opponents, and they just go out and try to prove it. I think they will try to stuff the Panthers early and get in their heads. David, the Panthers are certainly clicking themselves. Do you think they are up to this task?

Newton: Because their five wins came against teams with a combined 8-33 record, the critics are wary. So, the Panthers are relishing the opportunity to prove that their winning streak isn't a fluke, that they deserve to be mentioned as a serious contender. The only team they have faced with a record currently above .500 is Seattle, which beat Carolina 12-7 in the season opener. The Panthers believe they should have won that game, too. Like San Francisco, this group is very confident. The Panthers have an attitude and hunger that, with a decent amount of talent, make them dangerous. They won't be intimidated by San Francisco's résumé, particularly Carolina's defense, which is playing as well as any in the league. Just ask the Seahawks, who struggled to score 12 on Carolina, then scored 29 against the 49ers in Week 2. This is a playoff-caliber defense that should keep the Panthers in most games. Their biggest challenge will be stopping Colin Kaepernick. He appears to have picked up where he left off last season. How has he improved?

Williamson: He’s a perfect fit for this coaching staff. What coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman excel at is taking what opposing defenses give them. They will run inside or outside, will use Kaepernick on the ground or through the air and can exploit defenses using receiver Anquan Boldin or tight end Vernon Davis, depending on what is given to them. Kaepernick plays along perfectly. He is patient and doesn’t care about his own stats. He happily executes the game plan. David, do you think Panthers have a chance of frustrating Kaepernick by closing all those gaps?

Newton: That's the game plan, whether it's a running quarterback such as Kaepernick or a pocket passer. The goal is to stuff the run and make a team one-dimensional, and they've done that well enough to rank second in the league against the run. But running quarterbacks are a concern. Seattle's Russell Wilson didn't put up huge numbers in the opener, but he kept the chains moving and completed a high percentage of throws (76 percent, 25 of 33). Buffalo's EJ Manuel did the same thing. Carolina had a combined three sacks in those games. The Panthers have averaged more than three a game since. What will the 49ers do to counter the play of Cam Newton?

Williamson: The 49ers respect Newton. They have been talking about how physical Newton is and how they must respect his game. Again, the defense in San Francisco starts with stopping the run. Then, the 49ers tee off on the passing game. This has been a very stingy defense, but Newton is on a roll and will be the best quarterback this San Francisco defense has seen since Andrew Luck beat it at home in Week 3. David, do you see Newton succeeding in this game?

Newton: Most of Newton's success this season has come against defenses ranked in the lower half of the league. Most of it has come because he has gotten comfortable taking what the other team gives him, mostly short stuff, so he's been completing a high percentage of passes the past month. San Francisco has one of the best pass defenses in the league, so I look for Newton to use his legs more early to get into a rhythm, and I look for the Panthers to try to run to take the pressure off Newton. His confidence is at an all-time high, but the 49ers have a defense that can change that quickly.

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Mike Glennon and Ryan TannehillGetty ImagesMike Glennon, left, and Ryan Tannehill have a lot to prove in the season's second half.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Although their records are uninspiring, the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been all over the news this season -- for all the wrong reasons.

The recent incident involving Miami offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito has dominated the headlines. Earlier in the season, the Bucs were in the news as the rift between coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman erupted, and Tampa Bay continues to draw attention after three players were diagnosed with MRSA infections.

But, on Monday night, the Dolphins and Bucs finally will be in the football spotlight as they play in a nationally televised game. ESPN.com Dolphins reporter James Walker and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.

Pat Yasinskas: James, the Martin-Incognito situation has been one of the biggest stories of the season. How much of a distraction has it been for the other Miami players?

James Walker: The Dolphins are trying to put a decent spin on things this week. However, you can tell it’s weighing on them. Players are genuinely upset that it came down to this. They felt Martin could have handled this differently, and in a way that was better for the team, himself and Incognito. I would think most people outside of Miami’s locker room would find issues with that line of thinking. But it’s really within the NFL culture to think week-to-week and how to win games immediately. This has been an interesting case study on NFL locker rooms and how it relates real societal issues.

Pat, the Buccaneers have had their own share of drama this season. How is Tampa Bay handling its various issues at 0-8?

Yasinskas: James, things finally seem to have settled down a little bit the past week or two. But, for the longest time, it seemed as if the Bucs had a fresh controversy every day. The Freeman saga was nothing short of a soap opera, and the MRSA is a very serious issue. Cornerback Darrelle Revis has admitted the Bucs have been affected by the distractions. Throw in the fact that the Bucs are 0-8 and have lost several games they should have won, and it appears as if there’s a situation that could blow up at any time. But the one thing the Bucs have going for them is that they still are playing hard.

All right, let’s move to some on-the-field stuff. How are the Dolphins going to adjust their offensive line?

Walker: Here is the interesting thing about Miami's offensive line: It wasn't good with Martin and Incognito. Ryan Tannehill is the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL at the midpoint of the season, and, until two weeks ago, the running game was hit-or-miss. So, yes, on the surface, the Dolphins lost two starters on the offensive line. However, the bar set by the old group wasn't very high. Tyson Clabo will start for Martin at right tackle and Nate Garner at left guard. They're capable of holding up the same standard, but it remains to be seen whether they can do better.

Speaking of better, how much has the quarterback play improved with Mike Glennon? Can he become the long-term solution?

Yasinskas: Glennon has shown gradual improvement in each game. He’s been poised and has shown more mobility than most people thought he had. He has gone three straight games without an interception, which is a major accomplishment for a guy who has only five career starts. Schiano is very high on Glennon, and that admiration goes back to when Schiano tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit the quarterback to Rutgers. If Schiano sticks around, I think he views Glennon as his long-term answer at quarterback. But, with the way the Bucs are losing games, there is no guarantee Schiano will be back next season. A new coach might not be as high on Glennon as Schiano.

Speaking of long-term answers, has Tannehill shown enough to convince the Dolphins he can develop into a top-line starter?

Walker: I like what Tannehill brings to the table. However, this season has been challenging to evaluate because of all the troubles on the offensive line. Tannehill has a few holes in his game, such as poor pocket presence, suspect ball security and an average deep ball. Maybe some of those can be corrected with experience. This is a big eight-game stretch for Tannehill and his long-term future in Miami. That important period starts Monday night.

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Andre Johnson and Calais CampbellGetty ImagesAndre Johnson and the Texans visit Calais Campbell's Cardinals without head coach Gary Kubiak.



TEMPE, Ariz. -- Emotions will be at a peak for the Houston Texans when they make a midseason trip to the desert Sunday. They will be without head coach Gary Kubiak, who will be at home recovering from a mini-stroke, but Houston brings the league's top-ranked defense to Arizona in hopes of ending a six-game losing streak.

Awaiting the Texans will be a team with confidence. The Cardinals come off the bye week healthy and rested, having played only one game in 24 days when kickoff arrives. That'll either be a blessing or their demise, as the rust may have set in.

ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss Sunday's matchup.

Weinfuss: What kind of impact will Kubiak's health issue have on the Texans this week and on Sunday?

Ganguli: It was a chaotic, confusing and scary halftime for the Texans when Kubiak collapsed as he left the field Sunday. Kubiak is well liked by his coaches and players, so they'll miss him, but knowing he will make a full recovery will help the team emotionally. On the football side, the biggest change will be on offense. He's handing off offensive play-calling duties to coordinator Rick Dennison, who called the second half from the press box against the Colts. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips takes over as the overall decision-maker. They've tried to let their head coach rest, but they can't keep him from thinking about the team. He calls to check in a fair amount.

Can you give me one player who has been a pleasant surprise and another who has been an unpleasant one for the Cardinals this year?

Weinfuss: It might seem obvious but Tyrann Mathieu has been a pleasant surprise to a lot of people. He not only has earned playing time by making game-changing plays, but he recently has become a starter. I think the Cardinals expected Mathieu to be good eventually, but the fact that he has come on so quickly has been a pleasant surprise for everyone. As for the flip side, tight end Rob Housler has been an unpleasant surprise. After finishing strong last season, Housler's progress was hampered by a severely sprained ankle during training camp. It caused him to miss the first two weeks of the season and he hasn't returned to last season's form.

Does Case Keenum have what it takes to right the ship for the rest of the season?

Ganguli: Keenum is still learning a lot about being a quarterback. Phillips noted Wednesday that it's important for the team to not try to do too much with a young quarterback. He's learning how to read defenses and learning what chances to take and not take. I was always of the minority opinion that the quarterback situation was only part of the problem for the Texans rather than the whole problem. They're still having issues on special teams and defense that they had with Schaub.

It has been a frustrating season for Andre Johnson but he has been part of a lot of bad teams and doesn't complain. Larry Fitzgerald is another elite receiver who has seen some lean years, though he does have a Super Bowl berth while Johnson doesn't. Has Fitzgerald ever shown frustration with his team's situation, or is he also a guy who keeps that to himself?

Weinfuss: Larry Fitzgerald isn't the type of person to air his dirty laundry no matter how bad it gets, such as last season when he caught passes from four quarterbacks. There's no doubt he has been frustrated, especially during the past few seasons when his production has decreased. But Fitzgerald has kept his opinions to himself and I don't see him venting in the locker room. Fitzgerald has been the prototypical team player. He doesn't bash anyone and keeps talking about trying to improve and getting back to the playoffs, even making a run to the Super Bowl again.

Speaking of the playoffs, what do the Texans have to do during the final eight games to make a run to the postseason?

Ganguli: They have to be able to finish and put together a complete game. They've got to stop committing costly penalties. The most recent example was a hold on the return after the Colts' final punt lost them critical yards on a drive that ended with a failed 55-yard field-goal attempt. And speaking of that, kicker Randy Bullock has to improve. Being 2-6 means the margin for error is tiny. The Texans have shown the ability to dominate good teams in spurts (they had double-digit leads over the Seahawks and the Colts and played the 9-0 Chiefs close). But spurts won't get them there.

How do you explain the discrepancy between the Cardinals' road and home records?

Weinfuss: Like a lot of teams, the Cardinals are simply more comfortable at home. Their routines are set, they know what's coming, they know their surroundings. And University of Phoenix Stadium is also a tough place to play because of the noise levels, which the Cards have become accustomed to. Some might scoff at the notion of a true home-field advantage, but the Cardinals have one. As for why they can't win on the road, if I had that answer, I'd be making a lot more money.

Nick Foles and A.J. HawkGetty ImagesNick Foles and A.J. Hawk meet Sunday in Green Bay in a game that's turned in the Eagles' favor.
If you expected the Philadelphia Eagles to have the edge at quarterback for their Week 10 meeting against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, go to the head of the class.

The teams play Sunday, a week after their quarterbacks made headline news. The Pack's Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Monday night's loss to the Chicago Bears, a day after the Eagles' Nick Foles tied the NFL record with seven touchdown passes against the Oakland Raiders.

A game that looked to be safely in the Packers' column is suddenly wide open. NFC North aficionado and all-around NFL expert Kevin Seifert breaks down the game with ESPN.com Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan.

Phil Sheridan: I'll start with the obvious one: Can the Packers win without Rodgers? Did they take his durability for granted in not having a better backup in place?

Kevin Seifert: On a local level, the backup quarterback has been an annual source of controversy for the Packers throughout Rodgers' career as a starter. Nationally, most people didn't find out about it until Monday night.

Seneca Wallace is the backup only because he was available when they realized none of the players they took to training camp was up to the job. He is 6-15 in his career as a starter, and his career seemed over in August 2012 when the Cleveland Browns released him.

The Packers' entire scheme is built around Rodgers doing things that only Rodgers can do. Think of what happened when the Indianapolis Colts played without Peyton Manning in 2011. The Packers will need to make fundamental changes to their offense -- and expect substantial elevation in other areas of their team -- to make it through this wilderness.

I have to imagine the Eagles can't believe their luck to be facing Wallace instead of Rodgers, huh?

Sheridan: They are saying all the right things about wanting to face the best and never wanting to see anyone get hurt, but they aren't oblivious. This game looked like a double-digit loss the day the schedule came out, and it still looked like an easy Packers home win until Rodgers' collarbone broke Monday night. So it not only becomes a winnable game for the Eagles, it comes when a win, combined with a Dallas loss (the Boys are in New Orleans), would move them even with the Cowboys at 5-5.

And it's not like the Eagles owe anybody an apology when it comes to luck. They haven't had a quarterback start and finish two games in a row since September, and they've been down to Matt Barkley twice.

They may not have a starter as good as Rodgers, but their backup isn't half bad. Foles threw for seven touchdowns Sunday against an Oakland defense that didn't blitz or, at times, even cover receivers. Given Dom Capers' background, how would you expect him to respond to a challenge like this?

Seifert: Capers is known for major scheme changes from week to week, depending on matchups. But as usual, the Packers are dealing with injuries that will limit his options. They are down four linebackers at the moment, although the Packers are hopeful that Clay Matthews can return soon -- if not Sunday -- and play with a club to protect his broken thumb.

In short, I'm not sure how many options Capers will have. He does have a group of talented cornerbacks -- Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. Capers will have to hope that they can stick with the Eagles' group of perennial All-Pros and future Hall of Famers better than the Raiders did.

Are the Eagles' receivers really that good?

Sheridan: If they are, they have managed to keep that greatness a secret until Sunday in Oakland. DeSean Jackson is a dynamic player, no question about that, but he has been taken out of games in the past when cornerbacks get physical with him. The Raiders did not, and Jackson went off.

As for Riley Cooper and Jason Avant, they have not made up for the loss of Jeremy Maclin to a torn ACL during training camp. Cooper had great numbers Sunday -- five catches, three touchdowns, 139 yards -- but he has been neutralized more often than not during the season.

Tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz had big numbers at Oakland too. So either the Eagles offense really turned a corner or the Raiders just didn't have anyone playing corner. Maybe a bit of both.

The Packers have added a more robust running game to their offense this season. Now that Rodgers is hurt, can Eddie Lacy & Co. carry the team until the quarterback is back? Is that even possible in this pass-happy league?

Seifert: I tend to doubt it. Up until Monday night's game against the Bears, much of the Packers' success in the run game came against light boxes (six men or fewer) designed to focus first on the pass, according to the charting we get from ESPN Stats & Information. The Bears brought a safety into the box Monday night and the Packers still rushed for 199 yards, but we should note that the Bears have the NFL's fourth-worst rush defense this year.

And even when you run successfully, it usually takes longer to score and thus your total points can drive down. The Packers were averaging 30 points per game before scoring 20 Monday night against the Bears.

How do you think the Eagles will approach it? Eight men in the box? Nine? How about 11?

Sheridan: This sets up a bit like the Tampa Bay game, I guess. Mike Glennon was making his second start, and the Bucs' passing game was not expected to be a big threat. The Eagles focused on shutting down Doug Martin, and they did, holding him to 67 yards on 16 carries. It helps, of course, to get a lead and force the opponent to throw the ball more.

All season, the Eagles' focus has been to stop the run while limiting big pass plays downfield. That made them vulnerable to intermediate passing and runs after the catch. Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson, for instance, had nine catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns while the Eagles were focused on Martin.

That has to be the Packers' blueprint for success. If Wallace can get the ball out quickly and catch Jordy Nelson and Andrew Quarless in stride, the Packers can move the ball. The Eagles are better at tackling and covering underneath than they were, but there's opportunity there.

Griffin/PetersonUSA TODAY SportsThe running of Adrian Peterson, left, and Robert Griffin III could decide Thursday's game.
The last time the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins met, it was an electrifying affair between two soon-to-be playoff teams on a picturesque autumn day in Maryland, with Robert Griffin III halting the Vikings' comeback attempt on a back-breaking, jaw-dropping 76-yard touchdown run that gave the Redskins a 38-26 win last October.

The circumstances couldn't be more different for Thursday's matchup in the dingy Metrodome. The Vikings are 1-7, with their quarterback situation in chaos and their defense coming off its third last-minute collapse of the season. The Redskins, meanwhile, are in the process of recovering their identity, with Griffin still on the mend from a torn ACL and regaining his comfort with the team's read-option scheme. Washington's defense has been one of only three in the league worse than Minnesota's, undoing some of the work of an offense than can still score at will.

To get you ready for the first game of Week 10, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Redskins reporter John Keim got together to discuss the matchup and what's next for two teams in the middle of tumultuous seasons:

Ben Goessling: John, when we saw these two teams face off last October, the Vikings had no answer for Griffin, and if the Redskins' offense is at full speed on Thursday night, I'm not sure things will work out much better for Minnesota this time. Missed tackles have been one of their biggest problems this season, particularly with their back seven, and they know all too well how dangerous RG III can be when he gets into the open field.

It seems like the Redskins’ offense is getting back to what it was before Griffin got hurt. Does he look comfortable running the read-option again, or is it still a work in progress?

John Keim: Griffin started to look more comfortable running it a couple games ago. He’s still not as explosive as he was, but he’s also still faster than most quarterbacks. It’s more his willingness to keep the ball and be a threat, something he wasn’t in the first part of the season. They need him to be a threat running the ball because of how much it opens up the offense; they are just not capable of sitting back and hurting teams throwing the ball without some form of deception. That’s because of where Griffin is as a passer. Teams definitely have defended the option a little differently this season, whether more disciplined against it or in terms of focus. The emphasis for almost every team has been on stopping Alfred Morris, mainly because teams didn’t fear Griffin going wide or they thought he wouldn’t run. The read-option success also is determined by the style of the defense; Denver, for example, made it tough to run. The work-in-progress part, too, comes in the passing game. The Redskins loved throwing over the middle after a zone-read fake, but teams started taking that away. So they had to go to more out-breaking routes, which take longer to develop. Also, Griffin is more accurate between the hashes.

I know players have questioned the Vikings' defensive play calls. And I know the offense hasn’t helped them. But what are the other reasons this defense has struggled?

Goessling: In some ways, the Vikings probably shouldn't have been as decent on defense as they were last season. They were only 14th in the league and 30th against the pass, but they survived because their front four got enough pressure on the quarterback to mask growing pains in the secondary. And they had cornerback Antoine Winfield playing some of his best football at age 35, while helping their young defensive backs get into position. This season, they haven't gotten to the quarterback consistently -- though they did it until defensive coordinator Alan Williams called off the dogs in the final minutes of the Dallas game -- and they've been burned by teams that can throw screen passes and get rid of the ball quickly. The Vikings' linebackers and defensive backs have missed quite a few tackles. Not having Winfield has hurt them there. So has not having safety Harrison Smith, who's out with turf toe. But it's been surprising to see linebacker Chad Greenway come up empty as much as he has. He might be covering for other linebackers, and he might have lost a step at age 30, but he's been targeted regularly in pass coverage and has done better work as a blitzer than he has in open-field situations.

Speaking of pass defense, what do you make of the Redskins'? They’ve been shredded in four games, and in the other four, they’ve allowed less than 220 yards. Is that because of the quarterbacks they’ve faced, or are they just that inconsistent?

Keim: Both. They have faced five of the top seven rated passers and six of the top 11. The result is a pass defense that, if the quarterback has time, will get picked apart. They’ve done well for stretches -- holding Denver to 14 points through three quarters, for example. Tony Romo did not have a good game against them. They’re not getting good pressure consistently, but part of the problem is the quarterbacks they’ve faced excel at reading a defense and unloading the ball quickly. Their safety play has been erratic to say the least. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall has been terrific in the past four or five games. Rookie corner David Amerson will make plays, but also gives them up; he’s very aggressive and will get beat on double moves. He can be set up. The linebackers are inconsistent in coverage. So they have issues, but a lot does stem from the quarterbacks and passing attacks they’ve faced.

That might not be a problem this week, though. Christian Ponder was a first-round pick in 2011. Why does he still struggle so much?

Goessling: It's been the same set of issues with Ponder for most of his three seasons with the Vikings, which is probably the most frustrating thing about him. We hear plenty about how smart Ponder is, how good he is at digesting a game plan and diagnosing a defense, but when he gets on the field, it's like he's unable to translate that into action. He seems like he thinks too much and doesn't trust himself to throw into tight windows, so he either holds the ball too long or takes off if his first read is covered. He's got good feet, and can extend drives when he runs, but he hasn't learned how to move in the pocket or how to extend plays instead of giving up on his receivers. Nobody expected him to turn into Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, but there are plenty of situations where Ponder could be more effective if he just played with a little more gumption.

The Redskins have been blown out every time they’ve been on the road this season. What has been their biggest problem away from Dan Snyder’s quaint little stadium in Maryland, and do you expect those problems to carry over into Thursday’s game?

Keim: That’s a good question. They’ve played well for stretches on the road. At Dallas, their kick and punt coverage failed them. They hit a point where it looked like they had taken over the game, only to lose all the momentum and then fall by 15 points. At Denver they were up 21-7 in the third and playing outstanding, only to fall apart in the fourth quarter and lose by 24. They were never in the game at Green Bay. Ever. Part of it, perhaps, stems from not having the same level of confidence as last season. So when something goes wrong it snowballs a lot faster. It also reflects the inconsistencies of each unit. There is always a breakdown on offense, defense or special teams that leads to momentum-changing plays. Against Denver, the defense was great for three quarters but the offense responded with weak drives and then turnovers. Against Dallas it was a punt return for a score and then a 90-yard kickoff return. They get punched in the mouth and don’t respond, something they fought back against a year ago.

Why do you think the Vikings have gone from a playoff team in 2012 to a one-win team in 2013?

Goessling: It would be convenient to put it all on the Vikings' three-man weave at the quarterback position, but the issues go much deeper than that. The team gambled on a young secondary developing, and it hasn't worked. The offensive line hasn't been anywhere near as good as it was last season, and -- it's hard to believe we've gone this long without mentioning it -- they couldn't count on Adrian Peterson to run for 2,097 yards again. He's fourth in the league with 711, but he hasn't been able to take over games like he did last season. With Peterson having merely a good season by his standards, the Vikings don't have much margin for error. That's why they're 1-7, and that's why I think we're both in agreement they'll be 1-8 after Thursday night.

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Calvin Johnson and Charles TillmanGetty ImagesCalvin Johnson's Lions and Charles Tillman's Bears meet in a divisional duel Sunday.


Coming off an upset victory over the Green Bay Packers on "Monday Night Football," the Chicago Bears face a short turnaround Sunday when they host the Detroit Lions, who are coming off a bye week with extra time to prepare.

Jay Cutler tossed three interceptions the last time these teams met, and the Lions scored on six consecutive possessions to seize a 30-10 lead in the second quarter en route to a 40-32 win. With sole possession of first place in the NFC North on the line, obviously the Bears hope for a different result this time around. But the Lions are hungry as they hold a share of the division lead for the first time in more than 10 years.

ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down the matchup.

Michael C. Wright: It's been more than 10 years since the Lions were at the top of the division standings after the first half of the season. How is Detroit handling the success?

Michael Rothstein: They seem to be handling it fine thus far, but that could be because a lot of these guys haven't been around for a lot of the losing seasons. Plus, a lot of the guys who have been around in the past were on Detroit's playoff team in 2011. So they have seen some Lions success and not the consistent failure of the early to mid-2000s. There is also a confidence level about this team, something you saw two weeks ago in the final seven minutes against Dallas, which seems to be different than in prior years. This team believes it can win close games, and that in itself is a big difference.

Wright: The Lions incorporate tons of speed on offense, but what happens when they're on a slower track such as what they might encounter with the conditions at Soldier Field? Is there anything the Lions would try to do to counteract what might be a sloppy field?

Rothstein: It's slower for everyone, though, right? In all seriousness, I don't know how much they would do differently. Perhaps Detroit will use Joique Bell a little bit more out of the backfield instead of Reggie Bush, but that could be due to Bush potentially playing more in the slot Sunday depending on Nate Burleson's health. Detroit's offense won't change much. It'll still rely heavily on Matthew Stafford's ability to find open receivers, Calvin Johnson's ability to make big plays and Bush's capability to make plays in small spaces.

Wright: Nate Burleson recently returned to practice. But what's his status for Sunday? If he's available, what does he bring to the offense?

Rothstein: His status is completely questionable and likely will be until Friday. Burleson wants to play. He's been focused a lot on this week as a potential return date and he is practicing. But Detroit is going to be cautious with its No. 2 receiver because it doesn't want him to reinjure the arm by coming back too fast and taking a bad hit. Burleson's big thing now isn't conditioning -- he says he's in pretty good football form -- but learning how to fall and not use his arm to brace said falls. He could play Sunday, but Detroit is going to need him for the stretch run.

The Jay Cutler situation is obviously pretty fluid. How, if at all, does the Bears' offense change if he does not play?

Wright: It doesn't change much at all. In fact, the only difference in the offense would come down to a matter of personal preferences for McCown. The coaching staff includes the quarterbacks when putting together a game plan, and it always asks them which plays they think they could be more successful with. Obviously McCown and Cutler are different people with different preferences. So that would be the only change, schematically. In terms of overall play, McCown's arm isn't as strong as Cutler's. So he incorporates more anticipation in his game than the starter. McCown is decisive with the ball, makes smart decisions and won't take unnecessary risks, which is a little different than Cutler, who sometimes gambles and forces throws into coverage in part because of his confidence in his arm.

Rothstein: The last time Detroit saw Chicago, Lance Briggs was in the middle. How much has his absence shifted the defense from the last time the Lions saw the Bears?

Wright: Well, they've played only one game since Briggs fractured his shoulder Oct. 20 at Washington, and the defense on Monday night suffered through many of the same struggles they've gone through all season with the veteran in the lineup. The Bears now have two rookies in the starting lineup at middle linebacker in Jonathan Bostic (middle) and Khaseem Greene, who has taken over on the weak side for Briggs. Against the Packers the club struggled with gap fits against Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 150 yards. The pass rush improved a great deal, and the team finished with five sacks. But stopping the run has been a challenge. Surprisingly, the Bears are 3-1 this season when they allow a running back to gain 100 yards or more with the only loss under those circumstances coming to the Lions.

Rothstein: This has probably been somewhat forgotten, but Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. called the Bears the "same bunch of thugs" earlier this season. Has that been mentioned at all? Does it matter?

Wright: It was mentioned by cornerback Tim Jennings in the aftermath of the last matchup, but it hasn't been since.

Asked about Ford's comments, Jennings said: "So he wants to call us thugs. We can take that as a compliment, I guess. We like to think we're playing nasty. But we play within the rules, you know? I don't know whether he's just meaning we're dirty or we're just a nasty defense. We weren't too nasty when we played them. So I don't know what he's trying to get out of it."

It's quite obvious these teams don't like one another, and surely the Bears want to atone for the 40-32 beatdown the Lions put on them in the first matchup. But my sense is with a short week of preparation, the Bears are focused and want to downplay any type of bulletin board material.

Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan USA TODAY SportsSeattle's Russell Wilson, left, and Atlanta's Matt Ryan have their teams on different paths.
The last meeting between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks was memorable.

In last season's divisional playoff matchup, the Falcons jumped out to a 20-point lead only to see rookie quarterback Russell Wilson rally the Seahawks to a 28-27 edge late in the game. Atlanta's Matt Ryan engineered a last-minute drive that ended with Matt Bryant's game-winning, 49-yard field goal and a trip to the NFC Championship Game.

The teams are headed in opposite directions now, as the 8-1 Seahawks keep soaring and the 2-6 Falcons continue to descend.

How will things unfold Sunday in Atlanta? It's not looking good for the home team. The Seahawks nearly lost to the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, so they are sure to come to the Georgia Dome refocused.

ESPN.com's Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down the matchup between Atlanta and Seattle:

McClure: I talked to ex-Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher before the season, and he said the Seahawks were, by far, the best team in the league based on having faced them last year. He also picked them to win the Super Bowl. Do you think the Seahawks are the favorites, or did the game against Tampa Bay show they are vulnerable?

Blount: Vaughn, they've shown a lot of vulnerability this season, long before the game last week. They won several times when, statistically speaking, they should have lost. But the bottom line is they find a way to win. They are an incredibly confident bunch that believes in each other. And the Seahawks should get better down the stretch when both starting offensive tackles return and receiver Percy Harvin finally gets on the field. Seattle still is capable of reaching the Super Bowl, but a couple of things must improve -- pass protection and run defense -- down the stretch if the Seahawks are going to live up to expectations. They are living on the edge right now, maybe too much so.

The mood around the Falcons must be pretty depressing these days. I've always found the hardest teams to cover were the ones that everyone expected to be good and entered a season with high expectations but ended up having a horrible year. So what's it like around there, inside the team headquarters and around the city?

McClure: The fans, of course, are irate about the direction of the team and are calling for coach Mike Smith to be fired. More surprising to me, this being my first season around the team, is how much criticism has been directed toward Matt Ryan. Both Smith and Ryan have handled the negativity well. The closest I've seen Smith come to showing his frustration with the season was after last Sunday's loss to Carolina, when his face was bright red and he had a distraught look on his face. But team owner Arthur Blank came over and gave Smith a reassuring embrace.

Ryan has kept a positive outlook throughout, although his performance has been far below expectations. The vibe Ryan gives off -- remaining upbeat -- rubs off on the players around him. I'll be curious to see how some of the veteran players handle the second half of the season, particularly if the losses keep piling up. Speaking of Ryan, he has thrown seven interceptions over the past two games -- and he hasn't faced a secondary as strong as Seattle's. How well are both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas playing?

Blount: Until the Tampa Bay game, I felt Thomas was the best defensive player in the league. He missed a few tackles against the Bucs, but he also had a controversial interference call go against him. Tampa didn't throw much at Sherman, a wise decision. I think Ryan is a bit of a victim of not having his starting receivers out there, but if he or anyone he throws to makes a mistake, this secondary will make them pay.

Vaughn, it looks like Tony Gonzalez, one of the all-time great tight ends, is going to end his career on a losing team. It's a bit of a surprise the Falcons didn't move him before the deadline. I know he is an extremely popular player with the Atlanta fans. Was that a factor in the decision? What happened there?

McClure: The Falcons were adamant about having no intention of moving Gonzalez. Once that was made clear around the league, no teams even bothered to inquire before the deadline. That being said, even Gonzalez understood the reason behind the media- and fan-driven speculation. He knew returning to Kansas City sounded like an enticing option, considering the Chiefs are undefeated, and it would have allowed Gonzalez probably his best chance to win a Super Bowl ring before he retires at season's end. But Gonzalez told me he only would have been open to listening to a trade if the Falcons felt it would be best for them. Obviously, they didn't.

I expect Gonzalez to go out a champion no matter how the team finishes, just because he represents everything that's right about the NFL. More players should strive to be like him. It looks like the Seahawks have a model citizen themselves in Russell Wilson. How is his development going in his second season?

Blount: It's hard to judge just how good Wilson could be, because he has been under siege most of the time with poor pass protection from the patchwork offensive line. Wilson has been under duress on 40 percent of his passes, the most in the league. But he has this innate ability to perform at his best when things seem to be at their worst. He has led the Seahawks to victories in three games they trailed in the fourth quarter. Two of those games were won in overtime. He actually seems to thrive on pressure circumstances. I've covered many great athletes, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone better than Wilson at making the big play in the most difficult moments.

The last time these teams faced each other was an exciting playoff game. Obviously, a lot has changed since then, but can the Falcons surprise the Seahawks on Sunday?

McClure: I just don't see it happening. The loss of top receiver Julio Jones to season-ending foot surgery instantly made the Falcons' offense far less potent. The offensive line isn't as strong as it was last season. Although the Falcons believed they upgraded with Steven Jackson over Michael Turner at running back, an early-season hamstring injury has kept Jackson from hitting stride. And the defense hasn't gotten much better than the one that surrendered 491 yards to the Seahawks in last season's playoffs. To win Sunday, Ryan has to be flawless and Jackson needs to rush for 100-plus yards.

 
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There might not be a more compelling game on this week’s NFL schedule than the Sunday night showdown between the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (6-2) and the NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys (5-4) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Both teams are jockeying for position in the NFC playoff race. They both offer offensive fireworks, led by the Saints’ Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham and the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. They’ve both got something to prove: The Saints will be focused on rebounding from their ugliest performance of the season in a 26-20 loss at the New York Jets; the Cowboys are looking to beat a team with a winning record this season.

There’s even a revenge factor. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after last season. And he's never been shy about expressing his displeasure with that decision.

ESPN.com’s Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer break down the matchup.

Triplett: Rob Ryan has been such a huge addition for the Saints. Players love playing for him. He’s putting them in good positions to succeed, and his versatile schemes have worked great for the most part. What wasn’t working for him in Dallas?

Archer: Injuries played a big part in his demise here. He was down six starters at the end of the season and DeMarcus Ware was playing with one arm. He had them competitive. But, honestly, Ryan played a big part in it, too. He tried to junk it up with so many different looks and schemes and packages that the players couldn’t just go play. They had to think. Maybe he felt like he had to junk it up because so many guys were hurt, but he left them unsound a lot of times. He was also way too emotional. He lacked poise when the defense needed it most. I think he was too worried about becoming a head coach. Maybe it has changed down there, or maybe Sean Payton has more control of him.

Is there any reason to think that what happened against the Jets could be the start of something for the Saints?

Triplett: The Saints have had a few nagging issues that all seemed to creep up at once in that Jets loss. Their pass protection has been inconsistent. Their run game has been nonexistent at times. The run defense has been up and down. But I think it was rare for the Saints to have all of those things come up and bite them at once at New York, and they were a little out of their element in some chilly weather against a physical team. Playing at home against the Cowboys seems like a matchup that suits them better. They’re more than happy to engage in a shootout.

What’s the biggest threat the Cowboys pose? I assume Romo and Bryant are involved?

Archer: Since they just don’t want to run the ball, after just eight carries last week (the ninth was a Romo scramble), I’ll go with Romo-to-Bryant, but the Romo-to-Jason Witten combination is pretty good. The Cowboys can throw the ball well even without a running game. They might be happy to get into a shootout as well. The last time the offense was good was a month ago, in their 51-48 shootout loss to Denver. Romo knows Brees is going to score points, so he’ll have to match it. Remember, the last time the Cowboys were at the Superdome they ended New Orleans’ run at perfection by being aggressive early. I can see them trying to do that again.

The Cowboys have allowed four 400-yard passers this season, and I’m penciling in Brees as the fifth. Calvin Johnson went for 329 receiving yards against the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago. What will Graham do?

Triplett: You could have been talking about the Saints when you said they “can throw the ball well even without a running game.” The Saints might try to establish the run a little bit since Sean Payton said that one of his biggest regrets in the Jets loss was that he was too unbalanced. But the Saints are always willing to exploit a shaky pass defense.

Some teams have been defending Graham with top cornerbacks (which worked for the Patriots but not for the Jets). But the Saints have clobbered teams whenever they leave Graham in single coverage. Meanwhile, if defenses sell out to stop Graham, Brees will happily throw to any open man. Two weeks ago, he completed passes to 10 different receivers. And it looks like Darren Sproles and Marques Colston may both be back from injuries Sunday.

Why has Dallas’ pass defense been so bad?

Archer: Mostly, it’s taken time for the players to get a grasp of Monte Kiffin’s scheme and it’s taken time for the new defensive coordinator to know how to best use his players. They have man corners in Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne, but they have played a lot of zone and been exposed. There have been just too many creases. The pass rush has not helped, either. They went into the season thinking Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Ware would be their rocks. Spencer played in one game. Ratliff didn’t play in any before getting cut. Ware has missed the last three but is set to return this week. Hatcher is having a career year with seven sacks. When they have played average quarterbacks they have held up. When they have played elite quarterbacks they have given up 400 yards. For the fantasy-football owners out there, go with Brees Sunday.

You get this every week, but play calling is a big topic here. How have things been different with Payton calling the shots again?

Triplett: You’re right to mention play calling in that question. Most people ask about Payton’s leadership, which is obviously a huge deal; he instills a lot of confidence in this team and seems to press all the right motivational buttons. But his greatest strength is his offensive brain. He’s so good at using a ton of different formations to find and exploit mismatches, usually with Graham and Sproles. The offense hasn’t quite hit its peak like it did in 2011, but it has been excellent at times.

You mentioned Ware coming back. Will he be close to 100 percent? Folks around here won’t soon forget how well he played in 2009, when the Saints didn’t expect him to come back from injury so soon. He singlehandedly spoiled their undefeated season.

Archer: I think so, but he has had a couple of nagging things this season (a stinger and strained back). Missing three weeks might have Ware as fresh as he has ever felt entering Week 10 of a season. They’ll need him to be the Ware of that night in 2009 to succeed. He looked great in training camp, overpowering Tyron Smith in practice all the time, but he hasn’t been as explosive when he has played. What he’ll do is make the other guys around him better because he’ll command so much attention.

Ware is making the move back to defensive end from outside linebacker. How has the Saints' defense transitioned from the 4-3 to Ryan’s 3-4?

Triplett: The transition has been outstanding, in large part because Ryan has adapted his 3-4 to fit the Saints’ personnel (after a ton of injuries this summer, including one to former Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler). As a result, the Saints have actually spent most of the season in nickel and dime defenses with a four-man front. Ryan likes to use three safeties at once in versatile roles, disguising what they do and sending them on occasional blitzes.

End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette are having breakout seasons as edge rushers. And veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis has been a great pick-up in free agency, too. He’s a bigger, long-armed guy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shadow Bryant on Sunday night.

We've hit on Romo, Bryant, Witten and Ware. Any under-the-radar Cowboys who might have a big impact on this game?

Archer: I’ll go with Cole Beasley. He might get stopped by stadium security before the game because he just doesn’t look like an NFL receiver at 5 feet 8 and 180 pounds, but Romo loves the kid. He’s a real threat in the slot. He’s super quick, has a great feel for getting open underneath and knows how not to take a hit. He had six catches last week against Minnesota. The Cowboys’ third-down offense has been pretty bad, but Beasley can take some pressure off Witten and Bryant in the slot.

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Chris Johnson and Cecil ShortsAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesChris Johnson is coming off his best game of the season, and Cecil Shorts' role has just gotten bigger.
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The Tennessee Titans fielded a lot of questions this week about taking the Jacksonville Jaguars lightly. The questions seemed silly given that the 2011 Titans lost their opener to the Jaguars (who finished 5-11) as well as a late-season game to the 0-13 Colts, and the 2012 Titans lost to Jaguars (who finished 2-14).

For the Titans to maximize the meaning of their Nov. 14 home game against the AFC South-leading Colts, they first need to beat the Jaguars on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars have to believe they'll have a chance against the Titans given that two of their past seven wins came against Tennessee.

ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco chat about the matchup.

Paul Kuharsky: I know Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell a bit and believe they can lead the Jaguars to a good place. It’s got to be eating them up to have so little talent and no positive results halfway through the season.

Michael DiRocco: Last week Bradley admitted that he didn't anticipate the season being as rough as it has been, but the Jaguars did face a brutal first-half schedule that included games against Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. That being said, Bradley and Caldwell were expecting the team to at least be competitive. That the Jaguars haven't been is a clear indication that they have more work ahead of them than they may have originally thought. They're going to have to spend more money in free agency this offseason than they wanted because there aren't enough draft picks to shore up the offensive line, defensive line and linebacker spots in addition to finding another receiver and a franchise quarterback.

Speaking of franchise quarterbacks, it seems as though Jake Locker has really progressed in his development and appears to be the guy around whom the Titans can build. Do you agree?

Kuharsky: Yes. He’s not going to be Andrew Luck, but he’s not Christian Ponder or Blaine Gabbert either. Locker can be a winning NFL quarterback. He showed steady growth through the first four games, then got hurt. He has not been as good since he returned, but I would think they expect he can get back on track against the Jaguars. He’s got an arm, his speed is remarkable and he generally makes good decisions. And the margin for error is getting better. The win in St. Louis was the first Locker start the team has won when he has thrown an interception.

Is there anything that leads you to think Chad Henne can bust through with a big game in Nashville with Justin Blackmon on the shelf again?

DiRocco: Losing Blackmon is a big blow because he was the offense’s best playmaker, but the Jaguars do have a solid No. 2 receiver in Cecil Shorts (team-high 46 catches). One of the offense’s surprises has been the development of Mike Brown, a former college quarterback who has become a reliable No. 3 receiver. He missed four games with a back injury but has caught 12 passes for 212 yards in the three games since his return. Henne has played well but is really struggling in the red zone, where the Jaguars have scored just five touchdowns in 20 trips. He has made questionable decisions and some bad throws inside the 20. He may very well end up with 250-plus yards Sunday, but the majority could be garbage yards, coming after the game has been decided. He has compiled a lot of his yards that way this season.

Paul, Bernard Pollard seems to have made the biggest impact of all the free-agent signings on defense. The Titans’ pass defense ranks in the top 10 in the NFL. Is Pollard the key?

Kuharsky: He has been a solid player, one who influences the run and pass defense. But he’s not playing much deep coverage. That’s not his strong suit, and they’ve done very well getting him in position to do what he does best.

He has backed up his talk in a big way, disproving this preseason skeptic. He is the No. 1 attitude guy on a team that was sorely lacking in that department. The front is varied and there is plenty of blitzing, all of which is helping the secondary. Another veteran safety addition, George Wilson, has done some good work covering tight ends in nickel and dime packages. And as Gregg Williams has requested more man-to-man, Alterraun Verner has emerged as a top-flight corner.

What hope do the Jaguars have of slowing a run game that found a good rhythm last week in St. Louis if the offensive line plays well and Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene do what they are supposed to?

DiRocco: Honestly, not much. Although middle linebacker Paul Posluszny is playing very well, the Jaguars’ run defense ranks last in the NFL. The big problem is that the defensive line has been handled pretty easily, with the exception of tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, a former Titans player. He has had a solid season, and is by far the team’s best defensive lineman. However, the rest of the group has been pretty underwhelming. Tyson Alualu has been moved to end and is a two-down player; he’s making very little impact. Tackles Roy Miller and Brandon Deaderick aren’t holding ground or getting off blocks well, either.

Paul, you mentioned Chris Johnson. He has been a workhorse back and has had five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Is he slowing down a bit?

Kuharsky: Not in terms of losing speed, I don’t think. But up until last week, the run game had been ineffective, and he was a major reason why. The blocking with a new interior line has been slow to come around, and the play calling has been suspect at times. Greene is a short-yardage specialist who missed a lot of time after suffering a knee injury in the season opener. He’s back now and should make a difference.

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Double Coverage: Rams at Colts

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
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Zac Stacy and Antoine Bethea AP Photo/L.G. PattersonZac Stacy and the Rams have run well of late. That will be vital against Antoine Bethea and the Colts.
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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford were supposed to be the key players when their teams meet at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Luck will be on the field taking snaps, but Bradford is stuck being a spectator after tearing his ACL earlier this season.

The Rams have been hit hard by the loss of Bradford: They have lost three in a row and don't appear close to turning things around. Meanwhile, Luck is an MVP candidate despite not putting up off-the-charts statistics. He’s simply overcome the loss of five key offensive players to lead the Colts to first place in the AFC South.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner break down the matchup.

Wells: Nick, I’m sure most fans thought St. Louis would make progress off its seven wins last season. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. How much has Bradford’s season-ending injury affected the Rams? Or do you think they were going to struggle even with him leading the way?

Wagoner: It's been a strange season in which it's really hard to predict what you're going to get from the Rams from week to week. There's no question the team was better with Bradford at quarterback. If he'd been healthy the last two weeks (and making the big assumption that everything else stayed the same), the Rams likely would be sitting at 5-4 right now. The Rams already had a really small margin for error, and it got even smaller when Bradford went down. They have had way too many self-inflicted mistakes to overcome, and they have a knack for not being able to get out of their own way.

We can talk about Luck in a minute, but I wanted to get to a big-picture Colts issue first. The Rams and Colts both began 2012 in something of a rebuilding mode. The Colts were able to do it really quickly, whereas the Rams are still sifting through the process. Aside from Luck, what do you think has been the biggest key to the Colts' turnaround?

Wells: The defense. It took the unit a season to get used to the 3-4 scheme employed by coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. They also acquired players comfortable in the system. Linebacker Robert Mathis is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 11.5 sacks. The unit itself isn’t highly ranked – 22nd overall – but it seems to find a way to make plays at the right time. It deserves just as much credit as Luck for the victory over Denver on Oct. 20. The defense must continue to make plays to help out the offense, which is without receiver Reggie Wayne for the rest of the season.

I have to say, Nick, there are not a lot of recognizable names on the Rams' roster. Is there any reason to believe they can go into Lucas Oil Stadium and upset the Colts?

Wagoner: Honestly, I don't see how the Rams can win this one. Credit to the Rams, they've really shown some fight the past two weeks without Bradford. But they were unable to pull off a couple of winnable games because they keep making mistakes they can't surmount. The Rams' best hope in this one is to continue to run the ball well -- which, considering the Colts have the 27th-ranked rush defense, seems possible -- and to get some turnovers on defense.

One area that continues to plague the Rams is defending the run. Tennessee's woeful rushing attack got healthy on the Rams last week. I wonder if the Colts and Trent Richardson can do the same. It seems the return on investment hasn't been there for Indy on the Richardson deal. What's been the struggle, and do you think the Colts can get him and their running game going?

Wells: It seems that every week the talk is about Richardson getting closer to having a big game. But everybody is still waiting. First it was a matter of Richardson getting comfortable with the system the first few weeks after he was acquired from Cleveland. Then offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton came out last week and said he has to do a better job of finding ways to get Richardson out in space. The Colts’ running game was put into some perspective when they ran the ball only four times in the second half last weekend against Houston -- and three of those runs came on their final offensive series when they were killing some clock. Titans running back Chris Johnson had his best game of the season – 150 yards – against the Rams last week. Maybe Richardson will do the same. Finally.

The Colts are pretty familiar with Jeff Fisher from his days with their AFC South rival Titans. Is there any danger of the Rams' coach losing his job at the end of the season?

Wagoner: Short of some wild scandal breaking out, I'd say the chances of that happening are pretty much zero. He's in only his second season, and the Rams knew they had a long road to climb to get back to being a contender. They exceeded expectations in his first season, and that may have sped up the way people view the rebuilding project. But the Rams have always viewed 2014 as the year they hoped to really take a major step forward. This season will likely go down as a disappointment, but if Bradford returns healthy and the Rams have a good offseason, they'll believe they can be back in the mix. The biggest disappointment this season has been the lack of progress by many of the team's young players. That's not to say nobody has made that move; it's just not as many as the Rams would have liked, at least not yet. That said, I do think it's possible Fisher could take a look at some of the guys on his staff. He's a loyal guy and many of his assistants have been with him for a while, but that doesn't mean everyone is exempt.

I do want to ask about Luck, but I wanted to take a different approach than the old "Why is Andrew Luck so awesome?" question you probably get every week. Each of these teams has a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback, but they have very different salaries. How much of a difference has it made for the Colts that they not only got a franchise-changing quarterback but one they don't have to pay like an NFL megastar for a while?

Wells: I’m going to take it beyond the fact that the Colts don’t have to pay Luck megastar money for a while. The Colts will likely have their choice of free agents to choose from because many will want to play with Luck. As one player recently told me, “You want a chance to win a couple of rings? Come to Indianapolis because 12 is going to be here for a long time and he’s going to win this organization some Super Bowls.” The best part from an organizational standpoint is that Luck is in just his second season and his desire to win and get better on a daily basis is something a lot of players in this league wish they had.

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