NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 13 Double Coverage

Double Coverage: Rams at 49ers

November, 29, 2013
Clemens-KaepernickGetty ImagesKellen Clemens and Colin Kaepernick both know limiting mistakes will be key on Sunday.
The San Francisco 49ers had their way with the St. Louis Rams in Week 4, winning 35-11 on the road.

However, the 49ers aren’t looking back at that game as much as they are recalling their 2012 series with St. Louis. The Rams beat the 49ers in St. Louis and the two teams tied in San Francisco last season. St. Louis Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson discuss what to expect in this meeting.

Wagoner: After destroying the Rams the first time out, the Niners seemed to get on a roll but have had some struggles, too. By this point in the season, do you have a good feel for who this team is?

Williamson: I really don’t see the 49ers as just a difficult-to-read team. They are a strong team. I know a lot was made of their recent two-game skid. But the 49ers lost to Carolina and New Orleans by a total of four points. The 49ers literally were one play away from winning both of those games. Yes, the 49ers are 7-4 and they are not perfect, but this is still an upper-level team. Nick, do you get the sense the Rams are confident going into this game?

Wagoner: They have plenty of reasons to be after blowout wins against legitimate, albeit injured, playoff contenders in Indianapolis and Chicago. The Rams' first meeting with the Niners was something of a wake-up call for them and they have mostly been trending in a positive direction since despite some close losses along the way. They have discovered an offensive identity and the defense has been playing better. Although the Niners blew them out in the first meeting, the Rams also have fond memories of how they competed with them last year. I would expect them to go in believing fully they can win this game.

Receiver Michael Crabtree appears to be heading toward a return. Do you expect to see him on Sunday? How much has his absence hurt the team?

Williamson: He is now active. Of course, the big question is if he will play Sunday. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has indicated Crabtree will play. I truly don’t expect him to play much. He is still working his way back from a torn Achilles he suffered in May. He is not 100 percent. He should improve steadily, but it may be a mistake to think Crabtree will be ready to make a huge impact Sunday. But there is no doubt the 49ers miss him and need him back. Nick, do you think the Rams are preparing for a big dose of Crabtree?

Wagoner: I think the Rams' primary concern as it pertains to Crabtree right now is making sure they have the healthy and productive bodies they need in the secondary. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson is dealing with a concussion and they recently placed Cortland Finnegan on injured reserve with an eye injury. The Rams have struggled with elite receivers this year so if Crabtree didn't play much, that would be a good thing for them, especially given the success Anquan Boldin had in the first meeting. The Rams are also working with rookie safety T.J. McDonald to knock the rust off after he returned from a broken leg suffered in the first game between the teams. The Rams have lots of questions in the secondary right now so every little bit helps.

Falling in line with that, how do you evaluate Colin Kaepernick's second season as a starter? Are the issues he's had common growing pains or are they things that will be difficult for him to improve as he moves forward?

Williamson: There’s no doubt Kaepernick has struggled some this season. But I think a lot of it has been a lack of receiving weapons. Kaepernick will be fine once he gets a full complement of receivers. He can make every throw and he plays well within the 49ers’ system. The coaches are pleased and see limitless potential. But he does have to improve in reading defenses and working on his progressions. But, overall, he’s far from a liability. Nick, the Rams’ defense has been good; do you think it can cause Kaepernick into making enough mistakes for St. Louis to stay in this game?

Wagoner: Well, that's precisely what they are going to have to do to stay in the game. The defense has played much better in recent weeks, I believe in no small part as a response to the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford, but also a more aggressive approach to defense in general. The defensive line is the strength of this team and it has been on fire here lately. Robert Quinn might be the best defensive player in the league and Chris Long is playing well opposite him. The key, though, will be for the good version of the Rams' unpredictable run defense to show up. They have been up and down but when they are good and they force opponents into third-and-long, the defensive line feasts. To me, it all starts there, then they can do their thing against Kaepernick.

Larry Fitzgerald and LeSean McCoyGetty ImagesLarry Fitzgerald and LeSean McCoy will look to keep their teams streaking on Sunday.
Bruce Arians and Chip Kelly come at their news jobs from very different places.

Kelly was the hot college head coach of the moment, hired by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to replace the institution that was Andy Reid. Arians was a college head coach, too, at Temple back in the 1980s. He got his job with the Arizona Cardinals, though, based upon years as an often-overlooked NFL assistant.

And now here they are. Arians’ Cardinals are 7-4 with a four-game winning streak, while Kelly’s Eagles are 6-5 after a three-game winning streak. Their teams meet at Lincoln Financial Field Sunday in a game with major NFC playoff implications. reporters Josh Weinfuss, who covers the Cardinals, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, take a closer look at the matchup.

Phil Sheridan: Bruce Arians is best known in Philadelphia as one of the rare coaches to survive a stint at Temple University. Nationally, he’s known for winning the Coach of the Year Award after filling in for Chuck Pagano last year in Indianapolis. How has he conducted business and how much of this four-game winning streak results from that?

Josh Weinfuss: I think all of it. Arians is the ultimate players coach and from everything I’ve heard about him from former players and current Cardinals who were with him in other places, he hasn’t changed a bit. He’ll tell the players like it is and if they can’t handle it, they have to figure out a way to deal with it. He’s not big on the sugarcoating, and the players appreciate it. As a head coach, he’s taken a little bit from each of the coaches he worked for and put it into play in Arizona. He’s learned how to delegate and put together a staff that complements him very well. On top of it all, he’s an offensive genius who stayed patient with this team while they learned his scheme, and it’s paying off.

On the topic of schemes, is Kelly’s high-octane offense here to stay or will he need to adapt as the season progresses?

Sheridan: Probably a little of both. Kelly already has adjusted to some degree. The foundation of his approach seems to be figuring out how a defense is designed to stop his offense and then exploiting whatever weaknesses and mismatches created by that design. When teams played man coverage and pressed to eliminate his bubble screens, Kelly shrugged and started throwing deep. When the Giants and Cowboys found a weakness in his run-blocking scheme, Kelly adjusted and got LeSean McCoy back on track. Kelly seems to enjoy the cat-and-mouse game with opposing coaches. That said, the foundations of what he does -- creating mismatches and exploiting weaknesses -- are as old as football. He just has some intriguing ways of getting there.

While we’re on that side of the ball, how has Todd Bowles been able to win the hearts and minds of a defense that thrived under former coordinator Ray Horton? And how important is having Karlos Dansby back in the fold?

Weinfuss: Bowles made one minor change up front and he’s been the glimmer in the defensive line’s eyes ever since. He went from a multi-gap system to a one-gap scheme, which has taken out the thinking from football. Now, the Cardinals front line can just rear back and go, and the changes are obvious. Darnell Dockett is having his best season in a while, Calais Campbell has emerged as one of the toughest defensive ends in the league and nose tackle Dan Williams has plugged the holes in the middle, forcing plays out to the edges -- and right into the hands of guys like John Abraham, Matt Shaughnessy, Daryl Washington and, of course, Dansby. He’s playing at the lowest weight of his career and he’s been able to fly around, going from sideline to sideline with relative ease for a guy who’s been in this league for 10 years. While everything for the Cardinals’ defense starts up front, each level has been benefiting from the line’s presence.

Let’s stay on defense. The Eagles have the worst pass defense in the league. How can they muster enough plays to slow the Cardinals' recently high-flying passing game under Carson Palmer?

Sheridan: Josh, that could be the question that determines the outcome of this game. The only answer I have is that, somehow, that’s just what the Eagles' defense has been doing in the seven games since Peyton Manning hung 52 points on them. They give up a lot of yards, but they haven’t given up more than 21 points in a game since then. They’ve been good in the red zone and have started generating pressure and, in turn, turnovers. Palmer provides a very good measuring stick. The Eagles have thrived against the Mike Glennons and Scott Tolziens of the world, although in fairness they played well against Eli Manning and Tony Romo, too. But Palmer and that Larry Fitzgerald fellow definitely represent the kind of test the Eagles must pass before being considered a good defense.

Speaking of Palmer, the NFC Offensive Player of the Week, there seems to be a Kurt Warner vibe at work here -- veteran guy getting one more shot to prove he still has it. Warner did -- does Palmer? What’s the ceiling on the offense with him at the helm?

Weinfuss: All the evidence from the past four games points to yes -- Palmer does have a Warner-esque resurgence in him, but that’s only because the Cardinals’ offense is finally working. If it was still struggling, we’d be talking about Palmer being replaced either now or after the season. Crazy how that works. Palmer is the perfect quarterback for a Bruce Arians scheme. He has a big arm and can make throws on a dime. And those two things will carry this offense as far as it can until Palmer makes bad decisions. Even though the bad decisions have been cut down during the Cards’ four-game winning streak, it would be na´ve of anybody to think they’re totally done with. Arizona is just getting lucky. Twice against the Colts, Palmer had probable interceptions dropped, and against Jacksonville two weeks ago, a well-timed timeout by Arians saved Palmer from a potentially costly interception. If Palmer can take chances without making ill-advised throws, the ceiling is quite high, especially with the depth at receiver, tight end and running back.

A lot of University of Arizona fans out this way are loving the fact that Nick Foles is starting and playing well. Is he Mr. Right for the Eagles in Kelly’s offense or Mr. Right Now?

Sheridan: That’s the question that will haunt the Eagles through the offseason. Foles has had some of the luck you described Palmer having. That seven-touchdown game against Oakland was partly the product of some of the worst defensive football I’ve ever seen (and I watched Nnamdi Asomugha jog through two years here). But Foles is smart, he’s accurate and you can see him gaining confidence and comfort with every game. Clearly, he is not the quarterback Chip Kelly would order from the factory. But as he continues having success and winning games, you have to wonder how far Kelly is willing to tailor his offense to Foles for the long haul. It’s the decision that will define the Kelly era, at least for the next few years. My gut says Foles is a good NFL quarterback, but Kelly will make a move to find his guy at the earliest possible convenience. If Foles keeps this up, though, my gut might be proven wrong.
Vontaze Burfict and Philip RiversAP PhotoVontaze Burfict and the Benglas travel to face Philip Rivers' Chargers in a game with AFC playoff implications.

The Cincinnati Bengals travel to San Diego on the team's longest road trip this season to face a Chargers team that's re-energized after a big win on the road against AFC West rival Kansas City.

The Bengals lead the AFC North at 7-4, but will have to hold off hard-charging division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh down the stretch for the division title.

Cincinnati should be well-rested coming out of a bye week. But the Bengals have struggled under coach Marvin Lewis in those situations, posting a 3-6-1 record during his tenure after bye weeks.

At 5-6, San Diego needs a win to stay in the hunt for the final AFC wild-card berth. The Chargers finish with four of their final five games at Qualcomm Stadium. Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey break down the matchup:

Williams: Coley, what's going on with Andy Dalton? In the past three games, he's thrown eight picks versus just five touchdowns. He's been sacked 10 times during that stretch, posting a nose-pinching passer rating of 55.7. The Bengals are 1-2 in their past three games. Can Cincinnati make a deep playoff run with this guy?

Harvey: Very good question, Eric. If you pose that question to fans, you'll get a resounding ... well, maybe you don't want to hear their answers. While Dalton has his supporters, the naysayers have all the clout right now and with good reason. His November numbers, particularly when compared to his red-hot October that saw the Bengals win four games before Halloween, have folks here somewhat discouraged when they think about Dalton being behind center when the postseason begins. Dalton has run into a tough combination of awful late-season weather and a slew of blitz-happy teams. Five weeks ago, in arguably his best game of the season, Dalton aired it out for 323 yards and five touchdowns. Receiver and Southern California native Marvin Jones was his favorite target. He faced a Jets defense that primarily rushed with its stout defensive line. Since then, the Dolphins, Ravens and Browns have brought pressure from multiple angles. Combined with windy conditions in the latter two games, Dalton just hasn't played like he did a few weeks earlier.

Bengals fans definitely were watching the conclusion of Sunday's Chargers-Chiefs game, and many came away with one question following Philip Rivers' impressive comeback drive: Who is this guy? It seems that after a comparatively down season last year, Rivers is enjoying a true renaissance. What explains his play this year? I see his sacks are down. Does improved offensive line play have anything to do with it?

Williams: It's really been a combination of things. First, coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt tailored the offense to accentuate the strengths of Rivers' skill set -- accuracy on short-to-medium throws and decision-making. Rivers makes more calls at the line of scrimmage this season, and he's getting the ball out quickly. The result has been a career-high 70.8 completion percentage. As you mentioned, the offensive line has done a much better job of protecting Rivers, allowing just 20 sacks this season (No. 4 in the NFL). Tight end Antonio Gates is healthy and back to playing at a Pro Bowl level. And running back Danny Woodhead, along with receivers Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal, is good at creating explosive plays with his legs after the catch.

The progress of middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict has been interesting to watch from afar. Teams passed on the Arizona State product because of perceived attitude and work ethic issues. But Marvin Lewis took a chance on him as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2011. And Burfict appears to have thrived under Lewis' mentorship. What type of impact has Burfict had on the performance of Cincinnati's defense?

Harvey: My instinct is to say that Burfict is the Cincinnati defense. With a league-leading 118 tackles and on pace for more than 170, Burfict has been the pacesetter in the heart of one of the NFL's best units. He's the true definition of an enforcer and has become a modified James Harrison. He's just as intimidating as Harrison, the Cincinnati strongside linebacker who was signed in the offseason. He's becoming just as feared, too. Asked earlier this week about the league's most feared players, some Bengals wanted to add Burfict to that list. Still, I can't in good conscience say he is the defense because the Bengals have been forced into making a slew of key adjustments throughout the course of the season. Without Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, veterans Leon Hall and Robert Geathers, and the versatile Taylor Mays, the Bengals have still maintained their ranking among the league's top 10 defenses.

San Diego has some impressive wins this season. Obviously one of them came last week against the Chiefs, and another against the Colts last month. The Chargers have had some head-scratching losses, too. Dropping games to the Texans and Redskins probably isn't helping their playoff chances. What do you think explains the inconsistency?

Williams: McCoy is in the process of creating an identity for this team, which has led to some questionable decision-making at times in close games. The most obvious example is San Diego's failure to make what would have been a winning score from a yard out against Washington. After failing to get in on three chances, the Chargers settled for a field goal and lost in overtime. McCoy didn't hand the ball to every-down back Ryan Mathews once during that play sequence. The Chargers have struggled to close out games in McCoy's first year. In four of the team's six losses, San Diego has had the ball on the final drive with a chance to tie or win the game in regulation. The Chargers are playing a lot of young guys on both sides of the ball, which leads to inconsistent play.

How have the Bengals made up for the absence of the team's best defensive player in Atkins, who suffered a season-ending ACL knee injury?

Harvey: In order to absorb the loss of Atkins, the Bengals have moved backup tackle Brandon Thompson into the All-Pro's spot. A second-year lineman out of Clemson, Thompson had already been playing well before he was called upon to fill in for Atkins, but he's been even better since moving into the starting lineup, plugging holes and springing linebackers like Burfict and Vincent Rey for big tackles and sacks. Along with moving Thompson into a bigger role, the Bengals have plugged in some defensive ends such as Wallace Gilberry and rookie Margus Hunt into Atkins' position.

This week, though, the Bengals appear to have a little good news on the injury front. Defensive tackle Devon Still is expected to return from a dislocated elbow that he suffered against Detroit.

The Bengals can get production from a host of playmakers in their multiple-threat offense. The Chargers seem to have a similar combination of receivers and running backs and, of course, Gates. What does San Diego's offensive identity appear to be? Is it safe to consider it a team set on spreading the ball and points around?

Williams: I think that's fair. The Chargers run an up-tempo offense predicated on quick throws and getting the ball into the hands of playmakers like Allen, Royal and Woodhead. Like any NFL offense, San Diego wants to find matchups it can win each week, so the player who ends up with the most catches changes from week to week. While San Diego is a pass-first offense, McCoy also wants to create balance, which means using a power running game to complement what the Chargers do in the pass game. This season, San Diego has done that well with Mathews rushing for 731 yards in 11 games, averaging 4.4 yards a carry. Mathews' effectiveness has helped San Diego keep opposing defenses honest.

Double Coverage: Giants at Redskins

November, 29, 2013
Brian Orakpo, Andre BrownGetty ImagesSlowing down Andre Brown is going to be key for Brian Orakpo and the Washington defense.
The Washington Redskins anticipated a battle with the New York Giants with NFC East ramifications. Instead, they, and the nation, get another prime-time game that could serve as a reminder of how far they've fallen in one year.

The Redskins remain alive for a playoff spot mathematically, though they could be eliminated with a loss Sunday. The Giants have more hope, though even they're two games behind in the NFC East. Rather, this game for both becomes a must win in order to prove that yes, indeed, they're heading in the right direction. At least the Giants have won four of their last five.

The Redskins have dropped two straight and haven't played a complete game all season. Questions surrounding them will move to 2014 and what might happen – at coach and elsewhere. It's not a good time for either franchise. Giants reporter Dan Graziano and Redskins reporter John Keim break down the matchup.

John Keim: Dan, why the change in Eli Manning's game? And I guess I mean that two ways: Why so many turnovers early and why has he turned it around?

Dan Graziano: The turnovers early were the result of a little bit of everything. The pass protection was a major problem, as it continues to be, and I think that made Eli uncomfortable and led to some bad decisions on his part. The Giants had no run game to speak of for the first five weeks of the season. The struggles of Hakeem Nicks have contributed as well, I think, to a general feeling of discomfort for a quarterback who likes to feel sure of his surroundings. I think the "turnaround," such as it is, is the result of scaling things down and really trying to emphasize avoiding mistakes. As a result, the turnovers have lessened (as the law of averages kind of said they had to), but the Giants' passing game obviously isn't what it used to be. They threw for 154 yards Sunday against a Cowboys pass defense that was allowing 313 a game coming in. They've only scored 28 points in a game once all year. The problems on offense are far from solved.

Speaking of problems, who broke the Redskins? I watched that fiasco Monday. I leave for three months and this is what happens? What's wrong with Robert Griffin III?

Keim: It's amazing how many players say they've had a tough time without you writing about them. The adjustment has been tougher than anyone realized. As for Griffin, it's a few things. One, he really is adjusting to being more of a dropback passer; he was not ready to be one after just one season and no legitimate offseason. Defenses have played him differently, taking away a lot of the explosive plays they got in play-action last season. You see him hesitating on some throws, not trusting what he sees. He takes a while to go through progressions and that sometimes causes his mechanics to get messed up – his eyes are looking one way; his feet are pointing the other. Too often he's unable to step into throws because of pressure. He's not as explosive as last season, though he's still mobile enough to be a threat. Oh, and he's learning to deal with adversity on and off the field. I know players keep calling him a good leader, but I think he still has things to learn. On the field, he'll still have games where he plays well, but he's also had a couple games lately that would qualify as his worst in the NFL.

The question is, will the Giants get to him? Their pass rush seems a little improved lately. Why is that?

Graziano: Well, before Sunday I'd have said it was because they'd played four straight games against Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor and Scott Tolzien. But then they sacked Tony Romo four times and that got my attention. They've been very good on the interior of the defensive line all year, especially against running backs, but DTs Linval Joseph and Cullen Jenkins have stepped up as pass-rushers in recent weeks as well. The DEs are still not getting home. Justin Tuck has played the run well but hasn't gotten to the quarterback consistently. Jason Pierre-Paul has two sacks in his last 18 games and played fewer than half of the defensive snaps Sunday due to a shoulder injury that's apparently going to limit him all year. So if the Redskins can get the interior defensive linemen blocked, they may be able to keep RG III cleaner than they could Monday. (Not that that would be tough to improve on!) The Giants have been able to get more sacks in recent games, but a lot of them have come from defensive backs and DTs. The feared four-man rush is a thing of the past.

What about the Redskins on defense? Still looks as though they have issues in the secondary, but will Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan be able to make Eli move his feet?

Keim: Orakpo has been playing well the past couple games, probably more so against the run than in the pass game. Kerrigan has been rather quiet lately and, by his own admission, tends to get too conservative with his rushes. He worked on a counter move to the inside this summer, but I haven't seen a lot of it during the season. They were able to put some pressure on Colin Kaepernick, but he was often able to get away from pressure. The Redskins' rush just isn't collapsing the pocket enough to make quarterbacks uncomfortable, though they usually fare well against Eli as a defense. The problem for Washington has been that when the outside linebackers pinch the pocket, the interior does not collapse it, or rushers get out of their lanes and that leads to areas a quarterback can step into. I wouldn't be surprised if they're aggressive coming through the middle this week with the Giants losing Jim Cordle. But this is not a talented defense, so even if there's pressure the Redskins don't always make the plays in the backfield. And even if the secondary covers well, the front doesn't get there. Sort of a problem.

Last one, what is Tom Coughlin's future in New York and do you think the Giants are capable of a strong finish or do too many problems still exist?

Graziano: Coughlin's not going anywhere. If anything, he deserves credit for holding the team together after the 0-6 start. He's the guy Giants ownership wants to coach the team and help solve the problem next year. They have some rebuilding to do here, but I'd be shocked if Coughlin isn't a part of it. As for how they'll finish, the schedule makes it tough for optimism. Between the Redskin games, they have trips to San Diego and Detroit and a home game against the Seahawks. They won't fold the tents, but it's tough to see how they end up better than 6-10.

How's Shanahan holding up? One year left on the deal: Do you think he comes back?

Keim: I'm not sold on that yet because I've been around long enough to see how things go at Redskins Park. They are not playing like a well-coached team right now and that needs to change or anything is possible. Shanahan appears to be holding up OK, like a guy who expects to be back for a fifth year (or is trying to convince himself that he will). I think the key will be whether or not Dan Snyder says he can return but without an extension. Could Shanahan accept that – especially when knowing that it will make it difficult to lure players and even coaches, assuming they make a change or two there (as I would expect).

Double Coverage: Jaguars at Browns

November, 29, 2013
Henne/GordonGetty ImagesChad Henne and Josh Gordon lead two struggling franchises still looking for an identity.

Cynics would call Sunday's game a battle for draft pick position. Cynics might be right.

The Jacksonville Jaguars started 0-8 before winning two of their past three, and the Cleveland Browns have lost five of their last six. Combined, the two teams have six wins and a boatload of problems. Both wonder who will be the long-term answer at quarterback, and both struggle to score points.

For the Jaguars, a win represents another positive step -- which any win is at this point in the season. Jacksonville would love to establish something good heading into 2014, and three wins in four games qualifies as good. The pressure would not seem to be on the Jaguars, because nobody expects them to win, and if they do it's a good thing.

The situation is far different for the Browns, though. Cleveland fans will turn downright nasty if the Browns lose to the Jaguars. Any goodwill built earlier this season would disappear in a cloak of hostility. The Browns are at home, but they absolutely need to win a game like this. It's one thing to lose to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh; it's quite another to lose to Jacksonville. Jaguars reporter Mike DiRocco and Browns reporter Pat McManamon discussed the game.

Pat McManamon: Mike, the Browns and their fans checked this game off as a gimme when the season started. They never dreamed they could lose to the Jags. But now Jacksonville has won two of three games while the Browns have lost six of seven. Are the Jaguars playing that much better that they feel they can win a cold-weather game this weekend?

DiRocco: I'm sure the Titans and Texans felt that way, too, but they also fell to the Jaguars at home. The Jags are playing significantly better run defense than earlier in the season and did a fantastic job against Andre Johnson on Sunday, holding the Texans receiver to just two catches for 36 yards. They also ran the ball better than they have all season against the Texans (season-high 118 yards). But the biggest improvement the team has made is eliminating many of the stupid mistakes that had been regular occurrences in the first half -- things like defensive penalties on third downs and offensive penalties that negate big plays.They're still making those mistakes, but they're occurring less frequently. As for winning in Cleveland, the Jaguars are pretty confident. Both of their victories this season have been on the road, against the Titans, who are suddenly a playoff contender, and the Texans, who despite a 2-9 record have a top-10 defense and a pretty talented roster.

Pat, Trent Richardson hasn't exactly lit it up since the trade to Indianapolis. Did the Browns know something that the rest of us didn't? The Browns have to feel like they won that one, right?

McManamon: Sort of. They like it because they got a first-round pick, but they really have done little to solve a run game that is completely inept. The Browns average 81 yards per game rushing, but they've not topped 100 yards as a team in five of the last seven games, and the two they did they gained 102 yards in one game and had a long end-around run in the other. Trent Richardson hasn't been close to good for the Colts, but as a rookie for the Browns he had 950 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Browns would be thrilled to have those numbers now.

Mike, the Browns love to pressure the lesser quarterbacks with a variety of Steeler-like blitzes and rushes. Can the Jaguars hold up under that pressure?

DiRocco: The offensive line, especially the interior, has struggled in pass protection all season. It hasn't helped that the top two offensive tackles are gone: Eugene Monroe was traded to Baltimore earlier in the season and Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, is on injured reserve with a broken ankle. Houston battered Chad Henne pretty good last week, sacking him four times and hitting him nine other times. Henne hung in there, though, and that's what he's going to have to do for the rest of the season because teams are going to attack the middle of the line.

Speaking of quarterbacks, where do the Browns stand with their quarterback situation? Is anyone on their roster the long-term solution or will they be looking quarterback in the first round, too.

McManamon: The only possible long-term solution is recovering from a torn ACL. That would be Brian Hoyer, who played very well when he played. Problem is he only played two games, which is far short of a fair indicator of what he can do in the long term. It's highly likely the Browns draft a quarterback at some point, but the goal may well be to let Hoyer have the first chance in 2014 and bring along a young player. That seems wise, at least. But the constant change and flux with this team will not slow down in the next two years. If anything, it will increase -- unless Hoyer proves to be the second coming of Tom Brady.

Mike, the Browns have had two winning seasons since 1999 and have won 27 games since 2008. The Jaguars haven't done a whole lot better. Which team do you think is closer to actually becoming relevant in the NFL?

DiRocco: The Browns have several good, young players around which to build: Joe Haden, Josh Gordon, Jordan Cameron and Barkevious Mingo, for example. But like the Jaguars, they've got a first-year coach trying to redirect the franchise and, other than the young guys mentioned before, the roster needs an overhaul. Both teams are also searching for a franchise quarterback. Not trying to weasel out of a direct answer, but the team that finds its quarterback first will become relevant first. If it is indeed Brian Hoyer, than the Browns are ahead of the Jaguars because he already has experience in the offense and is being tutored by Norv Turner, one of the better offensive minds in the game. The Jaguars would be a step behind, even if the QB they draft -- whether it's Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or someone else -- turns out to have the kind of impact that Russell Wilson had with the Seahawks.

What kind of a season is Joe Haden having? Is he being overlooked because of Cleveland's lack of success?

McManamon: It's not hidden in Cleveland, and it shouldn't be hidden nationally. Haden is that good. And his stature should not be that tarnished by the touchdown pass Antonio Brown had on him a week ago. Haden has matured, he's playing smarter and he's dedicating himself more to being a professional. Barring a run of Brown-like touchdown receptions on him, he should spend several Januarys in Hawaii.

McCown-PetersonGetty ImagesJosh McCown has a successful history against Minnesota, but Adrian Peterson is gaining traction.

The last time the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings met, the Bears' touchdown with 16 seconds left gave them a 31-30 victory that put Chicago at the top of the NFC North and sent Minnesota home, just two weeks into the season, with grave concerns about its ability to put a team away.

Eleven weeks later, the two teams are still more or less in the same spot. The Bears are tied for the NFC North lead with the Detroit Lions, and could take the outright lead this week if they beat the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers knock off the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. The Vikings, meanwhile, blew their fourth last-minute lead of the season on Sunday, when the Packers forced overtime in a game that eventually ended in a tie.

With the Bears playing for first place -- and the Vikings trying to recover some dignity -- on Sunday at Mall of America Field, Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright got together to preview the game:

Ben Goessling: The Vikings might have some bad memories from Week 2, but they also have bad memories of Josh McCown. Ten years ago, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, McCown threw a last-second touchdown pass that kept the Vikings out of the playoffs on the final play of the 2003 season. What’s he doing so well in his latest stint as a starting quarterback?

Michael C. Wright: McCown says it’s a combination of factors such as where he is in life right now (he’s 34), the lessons he has learned from being in the league so long playing behind guys such as Jon Kitna and Kurt Warner, and the fact he has been with the Bears since they implemented this new offense. When McCown first signed with the Bears in 2011 and was forced to play, he came in basically cold. Now, McCown has just as good of a handle on the offense as starter Jay Cutler because he had some input with Bears coach Marc Trestman when the system was being installed. McCown obviously doesn’t possess the cannon of an arm that Cutler has, but he makes up for that with a quick release and strong anticipation skills. McCown really has excelled at not getting outside of himself, and allowing his weapons -- Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett -- to do the majority of the work. But McCown is also being careful with the ball and not taking chances by throwing into coverage as Cutler might.

After watching film from Chicago’s loss to the Rams when they gave up 109 yards to Benny Cunningham and allowed an average of 8.9 yards per carry, do you think Adrian Peterson is more or less licking his chops thinking about what he might be able to do?

Goessling: He certainly should be. Peterson had a season-high 146 yards on 32 carries (also a season-high) on Sunday in Green Bay, and though he's dealing with a groin injury, he looked like he was running harder against the Packers than he was able to the week before against Seattle. The other guy the Bears might need to keep an eye on is Toby Gerhart, who ran eight times for 91 yards against the Packers and provided a nice change of pace when the Vikings gave Peterson a break. They could look to use Gerhart a little more this week; he's a good downhill runner who's obviously not as shifty as Peterson, but who can do some damage to a tired defense. The Vikings ran the ball more effectively last week than they had all season, and Peterson has had plenty of big days against the Bears before.

As the season has played out, it looks like the Bears have had a similar problem to the Vikings' on their defensive line, which isn’t getting the same kind of pressure it used to. Why have the Bears had so much trouble getting to the quarterback?

Wright: The No. 1 reason is simply injuries. The Bears have used nine different combination of starters in the front four alone having lost defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins for the season, in addition to playing without defensive tackle Stephen Paea and defensive end Shea McClellin for stretches. With so many newcomers such as David Bass and Landon Cohen, the Bears lack experience up front and, most importantly, they haven’t played with a set lineup long enough to develop any level of chemistry. Julius Peppers is the only member of Chicago’s defensive line to start in the same spot for every game, and he has been largely ineffective, although he came alive in the team’s win over the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 17 and notched multiple sacks (2) for the first time since December of last season.

How’s Leslie Frazier’s job security looking, and will it have an effect on how this team plays down the stretch?

Goessling: The Vikings are still playing hard for Frazier, and players say they believe he's the right man to lead them. You need look no further than how they battled the Packers last Sunday to see that. But will it save his job? I'm not so sure. The Vikings picked up Frazier's 2014 option, but didn't give him a contract extension after he took the Vikings to the playoffs last season, so if he were to come back they'd either have to let him coach into the last year of his deal or give him a new contract after a disappointing season. Either one of those moves would be a gamble on the Vikings' part, so if Frazier stays, it will be because he has proved to ownership that he's still the man to lead the Vikings forward. And if he does stay, I have a hard time seeing his offensive and defensive coordinators -- Bill Musgrave and Alan Williams -- joining him for another season in Minnesota. Somebody's going to have to pay for this season, I'm guessing.

Cordarrelle Patterson first made his mark for the Vikings in Week 2 against the Bears, and now he’s seeing a bigger role in their offense. As much trouble as the Bears had with Tavon Austin last week, could Patterson be in line for a big day on Sunday?

Wright: Patterson and Austin are much different players, and from this vantage point, Patterson doesn’t appear to be as elusive out in space as Austin. Austin ripped the Bears for a 65-yard touchdown run early on last Sunday. But for the most part, the Bears held him in check, limiting him to two catches and one 24-yard kickoff return. Patterson’s best chance to hurt the Bears would probably be on special teams where he already stung them in Week 2 for a 105-yard kickoff return for a TD. But on offense, Patterson probably won’t be as impactful because Chicago’s cornerbacks -- even backup Zack Bowman -- should be able to hold their own against him fairly well. Remember, Tim Jennings is a Pro Bowl player and Bowman is experienced and matches up well with Patterson in terms of size.

What’s going on with Minnesota’s red zone offense? The Vikings’ numbers in that area haven’t looked very good over the past two games.

Goessling: They certainly haven't been very good there, and they could have won last Sunday if they'd scored more than two TDs in five red-zone trips. This is where I think not having tight end Kyle Rudolph hurts the most; he'd become a reliable red zone threat for Christian Ponder last year and this year before fracturing his foot. The other problem is, with less space to work, Ponder has to be more decisive and do a better job of getting the ball out quickly. Those aren't his strong suits, though I should note he made a sharp throw to the back of the end zone in overtime on Sunday that could've won the game if Patterson had been able to hang onto it after Davon House got just a piece of it. When the Vikings are inside the 10, they've always got Adrian Peterson to rely on, but when they need to throw the ball, they're definitely missing Rudolph.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Texans

November, 29, 2013
Andre Johnson and Chandler JonesUSA Today SportsAndre Johnson, left, and the Texans hope to surprise Chandler Jones and the Patriots.
HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans faced the New England Patriots during the regular season, Houston was 11-1 and the hottest team in the league. To celebrate their youthful camaraderie, they ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school teams wear, and the jackets happened to come in right before the Patriots game.

That game marked a turning point for the Texans.

The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.

The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.

It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.

Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.

I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?

Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?

Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.

I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.

Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.

Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?

Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.

One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.


For a Monday night game in early December, this is as good as it gets. The 10-1 Seattle Seahawks play host to the 9-2 New Orleans Saints in a game that could decide home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.

The last time these teams faced each other was in a playoff game following the 2010 season, which Seattle won 41-36. Drew Brees passed for 404 yards and two touchdowns for the Saints, and Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards, including the legendary 67-yard "Beast Quake" touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the Seahawks.

If this game is anything like that one, it will be one heck of a show.

The Seahawks will have to try to stop Brees with a reworked secondary after a week in which two Seattle cornerbacks (Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner) ran afoul of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Thurmond was replacing Browner as a starter due to Browner’s groin injury.

The whole suspensions issue put a damper on a big week. Now everyone will see whether the Seahawks can overcome it or whether Brees will make them pay. Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Saints reporter Mike Triplett look at the key issues entering the game:

Blount: Mike, this is a great matchup between the veteran Brees and a young quarterback who idolized him in Russell Wilson. Wilson always saw Brees as someone he could emulate, a player who, like him, wasn't tall but had a great arm and great leadership qualities. As someone who sees Brees every week, how do you compare them?

Triplett: I don’t know that much about Wilson, but I certainly see why he would choose Brees to emulate. It’s remarkable how Brees, at just 6-foot, has been able to not only succeed in the NFL but truly dominate. It would take me too long to rattle off all the reasons why Brees is so successful. For one thing, he’s as competitive and driven as any athlete I've ever been around. That shows in his work ethic both in the offseason and during the season. He also sees the field (through passing lanes since he can’t peek over the top) and anticipates things about as well as any quarterback who has ever played the game. He's not as mobile as Wilson, but he's elusive in the pocket and avoids sacks. I'd say both guys are proof that those intangible qualities count for a lot in the NFL, even if you don't have prototypical size.

I haven't seen the Seahawks' offense light up scoreboards in the few games on national TV this season, especially early in games. Can Wilson keep pace if the Saints are able to put points on the board?

Blount: Most of the time, he hasn't needed to because the defense has played so well. However, after watching him now for two seasons and seeing his growth, I believe Wilson is capable of doing whatever he needs to do to win football games. He has proven it over and over. Three times this season he has led the team to a fourth-quarter comeback, and he’s done it seven times in his brief NFL career. Wilson never is going to be the type of guy, like Brees, who puts up huge passing numbers. That’s not what they want him to do in an offense that wants to run the football with Lynch. But Wilson has demonstrated he can adjust the game plan to fit the needs of the moment. Frankly, he is one of the best I've ever seen at finding a way to win.

The Seahawks have a lot of weapons on offense, and now have added Percy Harvin to the mix. Obviously, Rob Ryan has a done a good job in getting New Orleans' defense back on track. How do you see him approaching this game against Seattle’s power running game with Lynch and a mobile quarterback in Wilson?

Triplett: I know this: Ryan will definitely have a plan. He is one of the league’s most innovative game-planners. Former player Scott Fujita described him as a “mad scientist.” We saw that quality more than ever two weeks ago when the Saints played the San Francisco 49ers. Ryan unveiled two new packages for that game, including a five-linebacker formation to corral the 49ers’ run game and the threat of the read-option. We may see the same thing this week, or maybe a new wrinkle since he likes to be unpredictable. I know the Saints’ defensive players will be amped to prove they’re just as good as the more-hyped Seahawks defense. Ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and cornerback Keenan Lewis are having breakout years, in particular.

Seattle’s defense has obviously been outstanding this year as well. How do you think they’ll hold up against the Saints’ versatile offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and running back/receiver threats Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, among others?

Blount: The first thing to watch is how the backups in the secondary handle going against a wily veteran like Brees. No doubt he’s going to test Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. And Graham is a major concern. The Seahawks have struggled at times this season against tight ends. In this case, they might have cornerback Richard Sherman shadow Graham as much as possible. And this is a big test for strong safety Kam Chancellor. The key for the Seahawks is the defensive line, much improved over last year, getting to Brees and taking some of the pressure off the depleted secondary.

Mike, if you had to name one area in which the Saints must outplay the Seahawks in order to win the game, what would you pick?

Triplett: Easy one: turnovers. I know you could say that about every team in every game. But it’s especially huge in this matchup. For one, the Seahawks lead the NFL with 26 takeaways. I imagine that’s why they’re second in the NFL in points scored (27.8 per game) even though they don’t have a prolific offense. The Saints need to set the pace in this game and try to force Seattle to keep up with their offense. They can’t afford to give away any freebies or short fields. And based on what we’ve seen from the Saints this season, I think they can do that. Their run game started slowly but has improved. And they showed a patient offensive approach in a Week 5 victory at Chicago and in their last two wins against San Francisco and Atlanta. The Saints have turned the ball over just 13 times, and they lead the league in average time of possession.

Terry, how do you think the Seahawks will handle this game if they don’t set the tone? To be honest, I expected a bit of a sophomore slump from Wilson and the Seahawks, since we see it so often in the NFL. Why have they been able to avoid that? And do you think there’s any risk of the pressure affecting them in a game of this magnitude?

Blount: None whatsoever, Mike. In fact, Wilson thrives on games like this. He is at his best when things seem their worst, along with playing at a high level in the most difficult situations and the high-pressure games. That character trait is what makes Wilson such an exceptional athlete. He never gets rattled. Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said Wilson has the one trait all great quarterbacks need: “A short memory.”

Double Coverage: Titans at Colts

November, 29, 2013
Fitzpatrick/Jean FrancoisGetty ImagesRyan Fitzpatrick, left, and the Titans can tighten the AFC South race vs. Ricky Jean Francois' Colts.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts want to remove the bad taste in their mouths from their 29-point loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The Tennessee Titans want to make the AFC South race intriguing.

Something will have to give when the teams meet Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts can basically lock up their first division title since 2010 with a victory, because they would have a three-game lead on the Titans with four remaining. A win by the Titans would cut Indianapolis' lead to one game. Colts reporter Mike Wells and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky break down the matchup.

Wells: The Titans made things in the division a little more interesting when they came from behind to beat Oakland last weekend. But they will be without a key player this weekend. How much will losing safety Michael Griffin impact the Titans' defense this weekend?

Kuharsky: They are OK without him, as George Wilson is a capable veteran safety who will start in his spot. Wilson played for an injured Griffin in St. Louis, which was a bad game for Tennessee, but not because of that switch. Wilson has covered tight ends in a heavy nickel set and the dime package for much of the season, and the Titans have been better against tight ends after having huge problems in 2012. The Titans didn’t use Wilson against Coby Fleener two weeks ago. Wilson played only one defensive snap in that game, and the Titans let their base defenders deal with Fleener. They didn’t fare well, as he caught eight passes for a game-high 107 yards. Using Wilson as they have against other teams is not an option now, since he’s in line to start.

Let’s stay in the secondary. Has Vontae Davis been consistent? And how is his health now?

Wells: Inconsistent is a better word to describe Davis. He looked like he was on his way to earning a nice offseason payday earlier this season. But he hasn’t been the same since Greg Toler, who starts opposite of him at cornerback, went down with a groin injury four games ago. It’s like Davis feeds off of Toler’s presence on the field. Houston's Andre Johnson, St. Louis' Tavon Austin, and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald all took turns getting the best of Davis at times in three of the past four weeks. Davis' groin injury isn’t severe, so he should be in the lineup this weekend. There is a chance that Toler could be back, too.

Running back Chris Johnson had a monster first half in the previous meeting against the Colts. But the Titans stopped handing the ball to him in the second half. Do you think the same thing will happen this weekend if Johnson has another strong first half?

Kuharsky: Well, the Colts came out and scored, collected Devon Wylie's kickoff fumble, and scored again, erasing the Titans' lead. I’m thinking Leon Washington, who was just signed to replace Wylie, will be more reliable, and the Titans won’t go so long without having the ball on offense. With Ryan Fitzpatrick finding a rhythm at quarterback, they are more likely to throw some short passes that function as runs. The Titans will certainly want to run it. But they don’t sustain it very well when they do manage to get it going some.

The Titans jumped out to that lead last time after the Colts were coming off getting blown out by 29. Now they draw the Colts after the Colts were blown out by Arizona. The Colts usually bounce back well, but I sense that the faith of those close to the team is waning. Is the team starting to doubt itself?

Wells: Faith better not start waning after owner Jim Irsay was, well, Jim Irsay and voiced his frustration Tuesday on Twitter about the team’s performance the past few weeks. The Colts have yet to lose back-to-back games with Andrew Luck as quarterback, but this was a different Colts’ team inside the locker room after the Arizona game. They normally talk among each other win or lose after the game. There was very little of that this time. Players showered and dressed rather quickly and headed toward the bus. The Colts are very vulnerable right now. The Titans have an excellent opportunity to come to Lucas Oil Stadium and win the game. All the pressure in the division race would shift to the Colts if that happens.

You mentioned that Fitzpatrick is finding his rhythm. Do you think this could lead to a quarterback controversy next season with him and Jake Locker?

Kuharsky: Well, we aren’t sure yet that the same coaching staff or regime will be in place. Presuming it is, and presuming Locker recovers fully and on schedule from his Lisfranc surgery, he’ll begin next year at the front of the line. The question isn’t so much about the possibility that Fitzpatrick surpasses him -- he’s very much a backup -- it’s about whether the Titans are compelled to deem Locker injury-prone and draft an alternative/possible replacement. Based on what they have seen so far, they can't execute a very expensive option in May for the 2015 season, so they also have to be looking ahead.

The Colts have had some serious injuries, too. Reggie Wayne was a terrible guy to lose. Would tight end Dwayne Allen rank a close second?

Wells: Don’t get me wrong, not having Allen is a significant blow to the Colts, but I’d say losing guard Donald Thomas is second on the list. The offensive line was abysmal last season, and the Colts went out and spent money to upgrade it during the offseason, with Thomas and tackle Gosdar Cherilus being the main pieces. The Colts went from starting Thomas, a veteran, to starting rookie Hugh Thornton. That’s a drastic drop-off, especially since Thornton shifted to left guard on the fly because he played right guard in college. The entire offensive line has been inconsistent with its run and pass protection this season.


Double Coverage: Broncos at Chiefs

November, 29, 2013
Von Miller and Alex Smith USA Today SportsFirst place in the AFC West is on the line when Von Miller's Broncos meet Alex Smith' Chiefs Sunday.
Much has changed since the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos first squared off two weeks ago. The Chiefs, 27-17 losers to the Broncos on Nov. 17, have dropped another game since and have seen their defense collapse. Their two best pass-rushers, outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, are injured. Houston is unlikely to play and Hali's status also remains up in the air.

The Broncos, meanwhile, also collapsed last week, blowing a 24-point halftime lead and losing in overtime to the Patriots in New England. Both teams are 9-2, so first place in the AFC West is on the line.

Here, Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Teicher: Jeff, given how some things have changed since the teams played a couple of weeks ago, would you expect Peyton Manning and the Broncos to change how they attack the Chiefs this time around?

Legwold: Adam, I wouldn't. They have stayed in their three-wide set through concerns about Manning's health, their pass protection and blitzing defenses. And they ran all but 10 plays out of the three-wide set against the Chiefs two weeks ago. They did try to run more against Kansas City than they had in previous games, particularly with Manning in the shotgun; they had 22 rushing attempts the last time they faced K.C. with Manning in the shotgun. They'll likely do the same, but will test the edges of the Chiefs' formation to see if the injuries have affected things there. They rushed for 280 yards against the Patriots this past Sunday, a total that was hidden in the loss, but if they can move the ball in the run game, the offense is that much more difficult to deal with.

With those injury concerns on defense for the Chiefs, would they have to take more chances to come after Manning?

Teicher: I would think so. They certainly came after Philip Rivers with a lot of different things in last Sunday's game. They just weren't effective. Rivers was very candid about things after the game, saying the Chargers emphasized having their backs help in pass protection against Houston and Hali before the injuries but they got away from that after Houston and Hali left the game. I would expect the Chiefs to change things up quite a bit against Manning this time: blitz some, play some coverage, maybe even mix in some zone. They haven't played much zone coverage all season but they may have no choice on Sunday. Their cornerbacks were horrible in coverage and the safeties often took bad angles to the receivers. The Chiefs allowed 228 yards after the catch.

Big game for Von Miller in New England the other night. I'm guessing it was his most productive of the season. He certainly didn't get much done against the Chiefs the last time. Was it a case of him taking advantage of favorable matchups against the Patriots or is it just a matter of getting that readjustment period out of the way?

Legwold: Likely a little of both. He was a terror in the first half as he forced a fumble to go with two sacks and a 60-yard fumble return for a score. He was the best player on the field in those opening minutes when the Broncos opened up a 17-0 lead that grew to 24-0 at halftime. He beat Patriots left tackle Nate Solder with both power and speed in those opening segments. But the Patriots picked up the pace on offense a bit in the second half, spreading things out more with some empty sets and forcing the Broncos to rush with fewer people at times. Miller had some quality rushes in the second half as he forced Brady to deliver the ball early on a smattering of occasions, but he did not sack Brady after the initial flourish and the Broncos didn't have a sack in the second half of regulation or overtime. Miller looked better -- consistently quicker, more explosive -- but he has yet to put together a full game like the Broncos want to see. In fact until the New England game Jack Del Rio had graded Miller's play as "OK." The Broncos need something consistently more than OK coming down the stretch.

After so many good things that happened during the 9-0 start, how have the Chiefs dealt with back-to-back losses?

Teicher: We're about to find out. I think the Chiefs are still stunned after losing their two top pass-rushers and a double-digit lead against the Chargers. They were certainly stunned after the game over how poorly their defense played. If there was something positive to come out of the Chargers game, it was that their offense was able to keep up. They scored five offensive touchdowns, topping their previous season high of three, and drove down the field for the go-ahead TD with about a minute and a half left. So they should have some confidence if Sunday's score climbs beyond a certain point. But between the injuries to Houston and Hali, an already sluggish pass rush, horrendous play in the secondary and the quality of the upcoming opponent, the Chiefs suddenly have a lot to sort through on defense.

Likewise, how confident will the Broncos be after coughing up a 24-point halftime lead in New England?

Legwold: Del Rio came right out of the gate Monday, just hours after the team had landed at 5 a.m. or so Denver time, in full keep-your-composure mode, essentially saying his message to the players was to avoid the "we're the greatest" chatter they've heard after wins as well as avoiding the "we're the worst" feeling after a loss like Sunday's. They took some solace in Manning putting together a big-time drive late in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 31-31. After that they slugged it out in overtime until a special-teams gaffe gave the Patriots the field position they needed for the win. There may have been more of a hangover if they had an opponent other than the Chiefs on the schedule this week. The potential to position themselves for the division title against the Chiefs got their attention quickly. They need a big game from Manning, however. He sets the tone for this group and Sunday night was a struggle for the passing games at times in the bitter cold.

The Chiefs challenged the Broncos' wide receivers plenty in man coverage two weeks ago. Given how the past two games have gone, would you expect them to do that again?

Teicher: That's how the Chiefs have defended all season and how they are built, so it's difficult to picture them going in a drastically different direction on Sunday. Just two weeks ago, the Chiefs thought they had the perfect big, physical cornerbacks in Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper to match up with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and the right slot cover guy in Brandon Flowers to match up with Wes Welker. Maybe what they saw two weeks ago in Denver or last week against the Chargers was enough to change their minds about how to best handle Manning and his receivers. But I doubt it. They might mix some things a little more than last time but I seriously doubt we'll see a wholesale change.

Lavonte David and Steve SmithUSA Today SportsLavonte David and the Bucs stand between Steve Smith's Panthers and an eighth straight win.
The Carolina Panthers have won seven straight games to set up a big NFC South showdown with New Orleans in two weeks, but they're not looking past Sunday's division game against Tampa Bay.

The Buccaneers (3-8) are also on a hot streak with three straight victories. Their only loss since a 31-13 setback to Carolina (8-3) on Oct. 24 was a 27-24 overtime thriller against the Seattle Seahawks, who at 10-1 have the best record in the NFC.

How will they do this time around? Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the rematch.

Newton: So Pat, the Bucs finally seem like they're playing at the level many expected them to before the season. What has been the difference?

Yasinskas: David, there have been a lot of different factors in the Bucs' surge. But I'd say the best thing to point to is the Bucs have been finishing games. That's something they weren't doing well at all early in the season. Beyond that, this team finally, firmly bought into coach Greg Schiano's system. You can see Schiano's philosophy -- play aggressive defense, run the ball well on offense and take some shots down the field in the passing game -- shining through. It took a lot longer than anyone would have liked, but the Bucs are clicking now and it might save Schiano's job.

Speaking of clicking, Carolina's on fire. What's been going right for the Panthers?

Newton: Much the same, Pat. They're finishing games, and the play of quarterback Cam Newton is a big reason. He led them to three straight fourth-quarter comebacks and two straight last-minute comebacks. The fourth-quarter comebacks are one more than he had in his first 40 starts combined. He's consistently making big plays when he has to, like the fourth-and-10 pass to Steve Smith from his own 20 with 2:33 remaining against Miami. Those things didn't happen in the past. But you could see it even in the first game against Tampa, which on the surface looked like a blowout. Remember, it was only 14-6 midway through the third quarter. It's all about confidence and players believing in one another. Speaking of quarterbacks, Mike Glennon was just getting his feet wet the first time these teams met. How has he improved?

Yasinskas: David, Glennon has improved every week since he's been the starter, and he's been a pleasant surprise. He may not be spectacular, but he's been solid. That's what Schiano wants out of a quarterback. Glennon doesn't need to be spectacular, but Schiano wants him to play mistake-free football and hit on a few deep passes. He's thrown only one interception in his past six games and he's getting better on the deep ball. Glennon hasn't shown he's elite yet, but he has shown he's a decent NFL quarterback. In Schiano's scheme, that might be enough.

As long as we're talking about quarterbacks and schemes, let's talk about Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Back when I was covering the whole division, I said Shula had gotten a bad rap in his previous stops in the NFL and at the University of Alabama. I thought Shula could be a big success with the talent he has to work with. Do you see that coming true?

Newton: Very perceptive, and you're right. Shula's philosophy is deemed conservative by many, but it's highly successful with the right personnel. How ironic, the former Alabama quarterback needed a former Auburn quarterback (Newton) to get much deserved notoriety. What I like about Shula's offense is the rhythm and balance. He's not afraid to pound DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert into the line for gains of two, three and four yards to keep the clock running and set up short third-down plays. He's also willing to turn a player like Newton loose enough to take advantage of his athletic abilities. I attribute much of Newton's sudden maturity to Shula's guidance and play calling. He's helped Newton learn it's not a one-man show, that it takes all the pieces working together to be successful.

Since we're on Carolina's offense, Pat, what will Tampa do differently this time to stop a unit that rushed for 129 yards and a quarterback who ran for 50 the first time they met?

Yasinskas: David, one of the biggest problems Tampa Bay's defense has had this year is losing contain against mobile quarterbacks. They have to do a better job of that if they're going to have any chance at slowing down Newton. That means the defensive ends and linebackers will have to prevent Newton from getting outside. This defense is good against traditional running games so, Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Tolbert aren't a huge concern. That's not the case with Newton. The Bucs also have to be concerned about Newton as a passer, and the best way to solve that is to put pressure on him. Tampa Bay has done a good job of pressuring quarterbacks lately. I know Carolina had some problems on the offensive line early in the season. Have the Panthers solved that?

Newton: They have for the most part, Pat. Jordan Gross is playing as well as any tackle in the league. So is center Ryan Kalil. But the running game -- outside of Newton -- has struggled of late as teams have stacked the box to stop it. Newton has led the team in rushing the past two games, and that's not what the coaches want even though the results have been good. Williams, who was third in the league in rushing early in the season, hasn't had more than 46 yards in six consecutive games. He's had only 45 combined the past two games. Overall, the Panthers are averaging more than 100 yards rushing between Williams, Tolbert, Stewart and Newton, but without Newton they wouldn't be close. So the Bucs may have to pick their poison. It should be interesting to watch.

Double Coverage: Dolphins at Jets

November, 29, 2013
Mike Wallace and Muhammad WilkersonAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesMike Wallace's Dolphins and Muhammad Wilkerson's Jets are battling to stay in the AFC playoff race.
The final wild card in the AFC is up for grabs as the Miami Dolphins (5-6) travel to face the New York Jets (5-6) in what is essentially a playoff eliminator. The winner will get to .500 and have an inside track in the crowded wild-card race. The loser will take a major step back with four games remaining.

Which AFC East team will win this crucial game? ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini weigh in.

James Walker: The Dolphins and Jets will square off twice in December and it looks like both games will be meaningful. I think the common link between these teams has been general inconsistency. The Dolphins started 3-0 in September but are 2-6 since. Their season has been hanging by a thread for quite some time with uneven play on the field and controversy off it, thanks to the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal. Sunday is the kind of game that could make or break the rest of Miami's season.

Rich, the Jets have been just as inconsistent, losing three of their past four games. How vulnerable are they?

Rich Cimini: Pretty vulnerable, James. When you can't score, you're vulnerable in my book. The offense has produced only one touchdown in its last 31 possessions with Geno Smith at quarterback -- yet he remains the starter. I really believe the Jets have reached a crossroads. A win over the Dolphins could springboard them into the final quarter of the season. If they lose their third straight, it could break them. Frustration is building in the locker room. They're at the tipping point.

The Dolphins aren't lighting up scoreboards, either. What's the deal with their offense?

Walker: The Dolphins can't run, can't pass, can't block and can't score touchdowns with any consistency. At times you see flashes in one or two areas. For example, quarterback Ryan Tannehill finally hit a couple of deep balls to receiver Mike Wallace last week, which hasn't been the case all season. If those two can make some big plays each week, the Dolphins have a chance to score more points. But the offensive line has been an issue all year, and it's not helping that they lost two starters in Incognito and Martin. The line has allowed 44 sacks and the running game is 26th in the NFL. The red-zone offense also has been horrendous. The Dolphins haven't scored more than 27 points in a game all season. That's why they are in close games nearly every week.

Rich, Rex Ryan's stock has been all over the place this year. He was projected to be a lame duck in the preseason. Then, a solid start improved his job security. Where does Ryan currently stand?

Cimini: Personally, I think Ryan is doing a good job, considering the circumstances -- turnover-prone rookie at quarterback, second-rate talent at the skill positions and seven new starters on defense. New general manager John Idzik has been complimentary of Ryan in the few interviews he has given, but no one really knows what he's thinking. If the Jets finish with at least seven wins, I think Ryan will be back. He ended the past two seasons on three-game losing streaks, so he obviously has a problem finishing.

I'll shoot the coach question back at you: Is Joe Philbin toast?

Walker: That's a tough question, Rich. There are so many factors involved, such as the future of general manager Jeff Ireland and the NFL's ongoing investigation of Martin's accusations. If Philbin and his coaching staff had any knowledge of the Martin situation -- and that's a big question -- it could lead to his demise. There is more to it than X's and O's. This would be a scandal that happened on Philbin's watch, and the NFL's findings will weigh heavily with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.

But strictly on the field, most coaches get three years to implement their programs. A strong finish by Philbin makes a case for him to stay. Ireland is almost certain to be let go if the Dolphins do not make the playoffs. That could lead to the new general manager wanting to pick his own coach or going the Jets' route, where the holdover coach gets one more year to prove himself.

Finally, Rich, why is this Jets team so much better at home? It cannot be only due to the home crowd.

Cimini: You're right, James, it's more than the home crowd. I can't figure it out. It's weird because in the first two seasons under Ryan, they were a mediocre home team and very good on the road. Now they've flipped the script. You can't say they've feasted on an easy home schedule because they beat the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots. Go figure. I will say this: They benefited from a couple of fortuitous calls at home, including the rare "push" penalty by the Patriots while attempting to block a Jets field goal attempt. Most of all, their defensive line has dominated at home -- 21 sacks in five games, holding opponents to an average of 78 yards on the ground. The old saying "defense travels" doesn't really apply to the Jets.

Double Coverage: Falcons at Bills

November, 29, 2013
Douglas-ByrdGetty ImagesHarry Douglas and the Falcons will look to dash the slim playoff hopes of Jairus Byrd and the Bills.
You might say that they're "livin' on a prayer."

At 4-7, the Buffalo Bills will likely need to win all of their remaining games if they want a shot at the playoffs. Coming off their bye week -- and refuted reports that Jon Bon Jovi hopes to one day own the team -- the Bills begin their final five-game stretch Sunday when they make their annual trip to Toronto.

This is the sixth consecutive season the Bills will play a regular-season game at the Rogers Centre. They've won just once -- a 23-0 shutout of the Washington Redskins in 2011 -- something that CEO Russ Brandon said Wednesday must change.

"We're trying to make it a home-field advantage by playing better," Brandon told WGR 550 in Buffalo. "We have not played well up there."

Meanwhile, the 2-9 Atlanta Falcons became the first NFL team eliminated from the playoffs last weekend and are in the mix for the top selection in April's draft. Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure discuss the matchup:

Mike Rodak: Vaughn, I'm not going to lie: I thought the Falcons would be a whole lot better than they have been this season. What's gone wrong? I know there have been significant injuries, but that can't be the whole story, right?

Vaughn McClure: I think injuries are a big part of the story, yes. You can't overstate how much losing an explosive receiver such as Julio Jones means to a high-powered offense. And the loss of defensive end Kroy Biermann after Week 2 had a major impact, too, considering the Falcons' inability to generate consistent pressure up front. Not to mention nagging injuries suffered by both star receiver Roddy White and running back Steven Jackson. Head coach Mike Smith refuses to use injuries as an excuse, but there's no doubt this team would have been much better with healthy players. The offensive line's inability to consistently protect quarterback Matt Ryan or open holes in the running game, as well as the defense's tendency to give up explosive plays, also contributed to the Falcons’ demise.

The Falcons could use a player such as Mario Williams. He seems to be back to his old, dominant self. Is that correct, Mike?

Rodak: For the most part. Williams came on particularly strong in the middle of the season, notching 6.5 sacks in Week 4 through Week 8. A lot of the credit for the Bills' 23-21 win in Miami in Week 7 can go to Williams, who strip-sacked Ryan Tannehill in the fourth quarter to set up a game-winning field goal. On the season, Williams has 11 sacks, which is tied for third in the NFL. However, Williams hasn't recorded a sack since Week 8. It's debatable whether that's a cause for concern, but from a purely statistical standpoint, the Bills will need Williams to keep up the pace down the stretch.

Overall, the Bills' pass rush has been consistently good all season. Their 37 sacks are tied for the most in the NFL, the result of pressure from Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and Marcell Dareus, and not just Mario Williams. Buffalo will have a legitimate shot at breaking the previous team record of 49 sacks in a season, set in 1995.

Vaughn, a pair of rookies seems to be making an impact on the Falcons' defense. Cornerback Desmond Trufant, a first-round pick, and linebacker Paul Worrilow, an undrafted rookie, are names that jump out at me on the stat sheet. How have they played?

McClure: Good observation on both Trufant and Worrilow, Mike. I think Trufant has displayed great ball skills for most of the season. Even last week against the Saints, he had a tough start against Marques Colston, injured his thigh in a collision with teammate William Moore, then rebounded to make some outstanding plays on the ball in the second half. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith told me he had much respect for Trufant's game, which is saying a lot coming from Smith.

As for Worrilow, he was undrafted coming out of Delaware but quickly made a name for himself. The guy had back-to-back, 19-tackle performances against Carolina and Seattle, then followed up with 25 total against Tampa Bay and New Orleans. The future looks bright for the defense, with those two players coming of age.

Speaking of rookies, has quarterback EJ Manuel's knee recovered enough for him to beat the Falcons with his legs come Sunday?

Rodak: I think Manuel has put his knee injury in the rearview mirror. He said last week during the Bills' bye week that his knee "feels fine," which is welcome news as the Bills look to keep their rookie passer healthy. To that end, though, I don't think we'll see too much of Manuel as a runner anytime soon. The Bills want him to go down and protect himself as much as possible, and he has done more of that in his two games since returning. So instead of Manuel beating the Falcons with his legs, I think the bigger threat to Atlanta's defense is the big play. The Bills have done much of their scoring this season on big plays, so the Falcons' secondary should be on high alert against speedsters Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham.

Vaughn, now that the Falcons are out of the playoffs, what do they need to do to get back into the contention next season? What positions might this team look to improve through the draft and free agency?

McClure: There's no question the Falcons have to upgrade along both the offensive and defensive lines. It wouldn't be a surprise to me if they ended up selecting South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney if they get one of the top three picks. The need for quarterbacks among some of the other lower-tier NFL teams might allow Clowney to fall to the Falcons, provided they don't secure the No. 1 overall selection.

It might be hard to address the offensive line via free agency, but the Falcons had better try. I covered the Chicago Bears last season and saw how much of a difference it made for them to add former Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod this season. I think the Falcons also need to look to add depth at the safety position, and they might want to find other options at tight end with Tony Gonzalez set to retire.

Regardless, whether it's the draft or free agency, I expect the Falcons to be somewhat active. They were too close to the Super Bowl last season and want to be back in position in 2014.


Double Coverage: Raiders at Cowboys

November, 27, 2013
Romo-RoachAP PhotoTony Romo's Cowboys host Nick Roach and the Raiders in a Thanksgiving Day duel.
IRVING, Texas -- For the second time in five years, the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders meet on Thanksgiving at AT&T Stadium.

The Cowboys won the 2009 matchup 24-7 with Tony Romo throwing for 309 yards and two touchdowns and Miles Austin catching seven passes for 145 yards. Since that game Austin has had more yards in a game just twice.'s Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer bring you this week's holiday version of Double Coverage.

Todd Archer: The Cowboys are bad in most areas defensively, but they have given up 200 yards rushing in three games this season. The Raiders' strength, from afar, seems to be their running game. What makes it so good and how has it differed with Terrelle Pryor out?

Paul Gutierrez: Hey, Todd, it's not just Pryor being out, but also Darren McFadden, who has missed three straight games and four overall with a strained right hamstring. He said Monday night he hopes to play after practicing (limited) for the first time since Nov. 1. The run game, though, has not missed a beat with underrated Rashad Jennings picking up the slack. In the past four games, he has run for 413 yards while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. In fact, the running game has been so surprisingly solid without McFadden and Pryor that the play-action pass game has picked up with undrafted rookie Matt McGloin under center.

Speaking of passing games ... no doubt Tony Romo can rack up stats, but has he decided to assume more of a leadership role yet as the QB of America's Team, or is that just not in his makeup?

Archer: He has developed over the years as a leader, but there's no question that this has been "his" team the past three seasons. He is the veteran. He is the guy the Cowboys look to. The guys on this team now don't know of the Romo who burst on the scene in 2006 or had to deal with the Terrell Owens stuff. He's the guy who led the lockout practices and has been the big voice in the room. This year he has been given the added responsibility of being more involved in the game plan. The Cowboys' past two wins have come on last-minute drives led by Romo to beat Minnesota and the New York Giants. I don't think there's anybody questioning his leadership anymore. And if they did, well, the $106 million extension Jerry Jones gave him in the offseason should be more than enough proof to those guys that this is Romo's team.

Let's stick with the quarterback theme. Before the Cowboys lucked into Romo, they ran through a ton of guys after Troy Aikman's departure. Is there any reason to believe McGloin or Pryor can be a solution or do the Raiders need to go after one of these guys in next April's draft?

Gutierrez: Well, the way I put it earlier in the season, before Pryor hit his purported ceiling and sprained his right knee, robbing him of his greatest strength (running) while accentuating his biggest weakness (passing), if Pryor was not the Raiders' Mr. Right, he was their Mr. Right Now. McGloin is a pure quarterback, a pocket passer whom Dennis Allen prefers for what he wants to accomplish offensively. It's hard to give Allen and GM Reggie McKenzie much credit for their evaluation of QBs, though, what with their misses on Matt Flynn and Tyler Wilson, not caring much for Pryor early on and then, similar to the Cowboys with Romo, stumbling upon McGloin. But it's hard to see them going all in with the undrafted rookie from Penn State, too. At least hard at the moment. Unless McGloin continues to improve and wins a few games, it would behoove the Raiders to draft another QB if they see one as a can't-miss prospect. I know, I know, they really wanted USC's Matt Barkley but Philadelphia traded in front of them so they traded back and selected Wilson. Oops. There is no doubt, though, that this Raiders regime prefers McGloin as a prototypical QB over the more electric Pryor.

No matter who is under center for Oakland, though, the Raiders' QB is going to have to keep an eye on DeMarcus Ware. Is he rounding back into shape as a dominant pass-rusher, or is he more decoy as he rehabs from his quad strain?

Archer: I think he's still feeling his way through it. The fact that he made it through the Giants game healthy was a plus. He has been dinged up in just about every game with stinger and back strains earlier in the season before the quadriceps injury. We'll see how he fares on a short week, but the defense is a lot better with even the threat of Ware on the field. Jason Hatcher had two sacks against the Giants at least in part because of the attention Ware received. Ware has talked about wanting to make up for lost time. He has five sacks so far, his fewest this late in a season since his rookie year in 2005. Thursday would be a good time to look like the DeMarcus Ware of old.

This game is a homecoming of sorts for guys like Mike Jenkins, Andre Gurode, Kevin Burnett and Tony Sparano, but it's a real homecoming for Dennis Allen. How is he perceived in Oakland and will McKenzie be more patient with him than, say, Al Davis would have been?

Gutierrez: The jury, so to speak, is still out on Allen in the streets of Silver and Blackdom. Of course, when the Raiders win a game, he's the man. When he loses, the fans turn on him and start pining for Jon Gruden ... again. But isn't that the nature of the beast? Even Allen himself said this was a results-oriented business. Of course, he was referring to the quarterback position at the time, but it still applies. Make no mistake about it, Allen is McKenzie's "guy" and he's going to roll with him and have patience with him. The plan coming in was to give Allen at least three years to right this ship and really, the only thing that could damage Allen's chances of lasting another year would be if the team quit on him, like it did last November before playing hard again at the end. Then again, it might not be McKenzie's choice. Owner Mark Davis is a more patient owner than his father and wants McKenzie to handle all football-related decisions. But a year after stating he was fine with just about anything but regression, Davis wants progress. Stagnancy won't cut it, either. So, stay tuned.

Sticking with the coaching theme, is Jason Garrett in Jerry World for the long haul, or was Jerry Jones' support merely the dreaded vote of confidence?

Archer: Jerry has publicly backed Garrett, but he's also been a guy who's said, "Just because I say something, doesn't mean it's true." I do know this: He wants Garrett to be the guy. He desperately wants it to work. I really believe that. He believes in Garrett's approach and how he builds a team. Garrett will provide some blow-back to Jerry but not as much as, say, a Bill Parcells. Garrett knows what makes Jerry work and knows how to work around it to a degree or push Jerry in a certain direction. Honestly, Cowboys fans should want the Garrett deal to work out because it might be the best combination to mitigate the bad parts of Jerry and keep the good parts of Jerry.

Ben Roethlisberger/FlaccoGetty ImagesBen Roethlisberger, left, and Joe Flacco are trying to keep their teams in the playoff hunt.
BALTIMORE -- A few weeks ago, it looked like the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers would only be playing for bragging rights on Thanksgiving night. Not so anymore.

There are major playoff implications in the 39th meeting between the AFC North rivals who respect -- but certainly don't like -- each other. The winner of Thursday night's Ravens-Steelers game closes to within 1.5 games of the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals and becomes the front-runner for the final playoff spot in a log-jammed AFC wild-card race.

The Steelers (5-6) have rebounded from an 0-for-September start and won three straight, becoming the hottest team in the division. The Ravens (5-6) have won two of their past three and are looking to avoid being swept by Pittsburgh for the first time since 2008.

This is how Steelers team reporter Scott Brown and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley see this physical showdown unfolding:

Jamison Hensley: Ben Roethlisberger has been on a tear in the Steelers' three-game winning streak with seven touchdowns and one interception. What began to click for Roethlisberger this month?

Scott Brown: The Steelers have really put the game in Roethlisberger's hands the past couple of weeks with their use of the no-huddle offense, and I think it is safe to say that approach agrees with them. It's no secret how much Roethlisberger likes running the no-huddle offense, and I'm not sure why it took the Steelers this long to really take the reins off that attack.

Maybe there were concerns about using it extensively with a rookie running back and an offensive line that always seems to have moving parts because of injuries. Maybe Mike Tomlin is wary of exposing the offense too much and making it easier for opponents to devise ways to stop it. I will be very interested in seeing how much they use it against the Ravens in a loud stadium after a short week of practice.

While Roethlisberger is No. 8 in the NFL in passer rating (92.2), the Ravens' Joe Flacco is 29th (76.8). What has been his biggest problem this season?

Hensley: Well, it's been interceptions, interceptions and ... did I happen to mention interceptions? Flacco has never been picked off more than 12 times in the regular season. This season, he has thrown 14, and it's not even December. Only four quarterbacks have been intercepted more than Flacco this season. And honestly, the increased turnovers shouldn't come as a surprise in a year when he hasn't had his top two targets (Anquan Boldin was traded and Dennis Pitta is on injured reserve-designated for return).

What Flacco has going for him Thursday night is he always plays better at home, and he comes up big late in games against the Steelers. He has two game-winning drives in Pittsburgh, and he tied the Steelers with a late drive last month. In his past six games against Pittsburgh, Flacco has thrown seven touchdowns and one interception.

But a big reason for Flacco's increased turnovers this season is the increased pressure getting to him. What is the state of the Steelers' pass rush?

Brown: The pass rush has gotten better, but it's still not where it was when James Harrison was in peak form and LaMarr Woodley was able to actually stay on the field instead of dealing with nagging injuries. Woodley has missed the past two games with a calf issue, but his absence has allowed Jason Worilds to really emerge.

Worilds is finally showing why the Steelers drafted him in the second round in 2010, passing on local product Sean Lee, among others. Worilds has been extremely disruptive the past two games coming off the left edge, and he is playing so well, I'm wondering if he is the Steelers' best long-term option at left outside linebacker.

The Ravens' pass rush has been a strength of the team. Baltimore is tied for the NFL lead with 37 sacks. Will the Ravens be able to get to Roethlisberger?

Hensley: History says yes. The Ravens have recorded at least two sacks in 19 straight games, dating back to the 2012 season. It ties the Philadelphia Eagles (2003-2004) for the NFL's longest such streak since 1990. Most of the attention is on the pressure the Ravens bring from the edges with Elvis Dumervil (9.5 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (nine sacks). But defensive tackle Arthur Jones (four sacks) and blitzing inside linebacker Daryl Smith (3.5 sacks) collapse the middle of the pocket.

That being said, sacks aren't the primary goal with Roethlisberger. The Ravens want to contain him in the pocket as much as possible. They know how dangerous he is when he escapes and finds an open receiver downfield.

Roethlisberger isn't the only concern for the Ravens' defense. One reason why the Ravens lost in Pittsburgh was their inability to stop rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for a season-high 93 yards that day. Is he one of the X factors for the rematch?

Brown: I actually forgot Bell came that close to a 100-yard rushing game the last time the Steelers and Ravens played. Bell is having a strange season in that the rookie is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, yet he has completely stabilized the running game and given it hope for the future. He looks like an NFL back, and his skills allow him to pick up yards in the passing game when running lanes are clogged. He can also grind out the tough yards, and he has shown enough flashes as a runner that I think it's only a matter of time before he becomes a really good back.

Mike Tomlin talked about the success Ray Rice has had in recent weeks, and since he takes lavishing praise on the opponent to another level, I figured you would provide more of a straight answer. Is Rice hitting his stride or is he still struggling and looking like a back who might have lost his burst?

Hensley: It's easy to sum up the past two weeks for Rice. When he played against the NFL's worst run defense (Chicago Bears), he ran for 131 yards. When he went against the best run defense (New York Jets), he was held to 30 yards. Rice has certainly been a more determined runner the past couple of weeks. He just hasn't been the same playmaker this season.

But this isn't the same Steelers run defense from previous seasons, either. Pittsburgh ranks 23rd in the league in stopping the run. Six running backs have gained at least 70 yards against the Steelers this season. Could Rice be the next one to do this?