NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 14 Double Coverage

Hartline/WorildsGetty ImagesBrian Hartline, left, and Miami face Jason Worilds and Pittsburgh in a game with playoff implications.
The postseason has started early for several teams around the NFL. The Miami Dolphins (6-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7) are two of those clubs, and they will meet Sunday at Heinz Field in what could amount to a playoff eliminator.

Miami and Pittsburgh are fighting for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, which is currently held by the Baltimore Ravens (6-6). The winner of Sunday’s game will remain firmly in the playoff hunt, while the loser falls behind the pack.

ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Steelers reporter Scott Brown weigh in on who will prevail in this important game.

Walker: Scott, I think much of this game will be determined by the matchup between Miami’s ninth-ranked pass defense against Pittsburgh’s eight-ranked passing offense. This is a strength vs. strength clash. The Dolphins are very wary of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle knows Roethlisberger well from his days with the Cincinnati Bengals and has a healthy respect for “Big Ben.” He’s unlike any quarterback Miami has faced this season because of his ability to extend plays to throw deep, not necessarily to run for extra yards. There is a lot of pressure on Miami’s cornerbacks and safeties to maintain their coverage longer than usual to prevent big gains on broken plays.

Speaking of which, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown is Pittsburgh’s best playmaker, and leads the NFL in receptions. What makes him so dangerous?

Brown: It’s funny that Brown still doesn’t get his due as a No. 1 wide receiver, even from some media types in Pittsburgh, despite the phenomenal numbers he has put up this season. Brown might not have the size associated with No. 1 receivers, and he does not have blazing speed, but he has excellent quickness, is a superb route runner, and Roethlisberger has said he’s never seen a receiver who is able to adjust to a ball while it’s in the air the way Brown regularly does. Above all, Brown works at it. I mean really works at it. He is maniacal about training, and it’s not uncommon for Brown to hit the gym for a workout after spending all day at Steelers’ headquarters.

James, you have been immersed in one the biggest stories of the season, and I’m sure Steelers’ fans would appreciate your take on how the Dolphins have dealt with the turmoil and distractions caused by the Jonathan Martin bullying allegations. Have the Dolphins settled into any semblance of normalcy, or is their a new normal in Miami?

Walker: Things have been as close to normal this week as it's been since Martin left the team Oct. 28. There was a huge dark cloud hanging over the Dolphins, and things intensified and became very uptight the week NFL lead investigator Ted Wells visited the team. I expect things to be relatively calm for a couple more weeks until Wells completes the report and releases his findings. After that, all bets are off. There will be no winners in this complex situation. I don't expect Richie Incognito or Martin to return to Miami. So the Dolphins have already taken a hit. More heads could roll if others are found culpable.

Scott, one Dolphin who is excited about this matchup is former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. What type of reception do you think he will receive, and how will Pittsburgh's secondary defend Wallace?

Brown: I think Wallace will hear his share of boos. I think he is perceived, fair or not, by a lot of Steelers fans as selfish and a player who did not produce enough last season or help the team chemistry because of his contract situation. I’m real interested to see how the Steelers try to defend Wallace. His speed is going to be a problem for a defensive backfield that has lost a collective step given the age of its starting safeties, not to mention top cornerback Ike Taylor.

Taylor usually draws the assignment of shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, but I’m not sure the Steelers will do that with Wallace, since coach Mike Tomlin has a lot of respect for Brian Hartline as well. Whoever draws Wallace will get help from a safety, but he could have a big game at Heinz Field. The Steelers have given up seven passing plays of at least 50 yards this season, and I’m sure Wallace would love nothing more than to add to his former team’s total.

James, what are the early reviews on Wallace? It doesn’t seem like the Dolphins are getting the return from the investment they made in him, though I know it’s early.

Walker: It’s still a work in progress, Scott. Wallace hasn’t put up the production many in Miami expected, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Starting with Wallace, the drops are on him. Wallace had too many drops early in the season, although he’s gotten better in the second half of the year. But other factors such as scheme and quarterback Ryan Tannehill's inability to throw a consistent deep ball has made it tough for Wallace to make the same plays he made in Pittsburgh. Tannehill doesn’t have Roethlisberger’s arm strength or ability to extend plays. Wallace thrived off broken plays that Roethlisberger created. Tannehill doesn’t have near the same elusiveness and ability to out-throw the coverage. Wallace is getting open, but many of Tannehill’s deep balls have been underthrown, which allows defenders to recover. There are some things involved that Wallace cannot control. But he does have momentum coming into this game. Wallace has totaled 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games. I expect him to be amped for Sunday.

Finally, Scott, what do you think of Pittsburgh’s playoff chances, and how it relates to this game?

Brown: In spite of the latest wave of injuries to hit the offensive line, I actually think the Steelers have a chance to win their final four games and make the playoffs -- if they get the help they are going to need with the Ravens. My outlook probably changes if Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback in the Steelers’ Dec. 22 game at Green Bay. But if the Packers drop out of playoff contention, does Rodgers play against the Steelers? That is a big if as of right now.

Green Bay is the only remaining road game for the Steelers, so the schedule sets up favorably, especially given Rodgers’ uncertain status. Roethlisberger is really locked in right now, and I think he is capable of carrying the Steelers and masking a lot of problems assuming an offensive line that is held together by duct tape can do a reasonable job of protecting him.

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USA TODAY SportsTony Romo and Alshon Jeffery will aim to keep their respective teams in the NFC playoff hunt on Monday night.
The month of December, along with the Dallas Cowboys, has defined "collapse" the past two seasons.

But Dallas finds itself in an advantageous position at 7-5 with the NFC East title in its sights. And on Monday night, the Cowboys will face a 6-6 Chicago Bears team with rapidly fleeting postseason aspirations.

ESPN.com Chicago Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer break down the matchup.

Michael C. Wright: What’s the real deal with this whole Jeremiah (I know you guys call him Jay) Ratliff situation? Based on Jerry Jones’ remarks from his radio show, there seems to be a little underlying tension there, and Ratliff has been really reluctant to go too far into detail about went wrong out there.

Todd Archer: There’s some inside the organization who feel they were duped by Ratliff when he said that he could not play football this year because of his health. There’s a lot of "he said, he said" stuff going on. When he underwent surgery last year for the sports hernia, the Cowboys did not place him on injured reserve hoping he could return for a playoff run that ultimately never happened. After he was cut, his agent, Mark Slough, said the injury was far more severe than a sports hernia and he would need a year to recover. It seems like a dubious claim because the Cowboys never put him on IR last December, restructured his contract in the offseason in a way that made cutting him more costly, did not draft a defensive lineman or go after anybody in free agency. If the team felt Ratliff needed 12 months to recover, would it have done any of those things? I know Jerry Jones isn’t considered the best general manager, but even he would have done some things differently. Ratliff was always something of a loner here. He always felt trouble lurked around every corner. He was not very trusting of anybody. But the Cowboys and Jerry could have avoided this deal by just cutting him after he got in the owner’s face in the locker room after a game. At that point they could have claimed “conduct detrimental to the team,” and gotten some money back. Now they’re really kind of stuck.

Since you asked about Jeremiah Ratliff, let me repay the favor. What are the Bears' expectations for Ratliff? Seems like a lot of former Cowboys have not had much success up there after leaving here.

Wright: Boy, you’re absolutely correct about the former Cowboys coming to Chicago (I’ll point out however, that Martellus Bennett has been a good addition). But Ratliff’s situation here could turn out to be different. The Bears went into the situation the right way: with no expectations. In fact, when the club first signed Ratliff, the move was such a low-risk acquisition (no picks given up, low salary) the Bears were prepared for the possibility the defensive tackle would have been unable to play this season. The Bears had already lost defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins for the year, and they’ve had to learn to utilize the little depth they have and switch players to other positions just to survive the majority of this season. So when they signed Ratliff, they weren’t looking for him to come in and be a savior. They also made it a point to exercise extreme patience with Ratliff in his recovery. Ratliff played just 23 snaps last week in his Bears debut, and the only expectation the team has for him moving forward is to be able to handle a slightly increased workload. Ratliff went from being someone the Cowboys depended heavily on to just a guy in Chicago.

The Cowboys haven’t run the ball especially well, and the Bears can’t stop the run. Something has to give here. What does Dallas need to do to get the run game popping against Chicago’s porous run D?

Archer: The running game has been better here the last couple of games. Not great by any stretch but better. Losing Lance Dunbar hurts because he brought a change of pace from DeMarco Murray. But this is Murray’s running game. He is the workhorse and will get even more work now. The Cowboys run better out of three-wide receiver sets when teams go to their nickel defense. They need to spread the Bears out. The Cowboys don’t have an overpowering-type line or scheme. It’s more built on zone schemes and finding creases. Dunbar was good at finding creases. Murray takes a little more time to hit them. The commitment to the run from coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan sometimes wanes, especially on the road if things don’t go well early. With the cold weather and I’m guessing windy conditions, then Murray will have to be a huge factor.

Josh McCown has done a nice job, but what have the Bears missed in not having Jay Cutler and what's the sense you get on Cutler being a long-term answer?

Wright: The Bears miss two things without Cutler in the lineup: that cannon of an arm, and his gunslinger mentality. McCown has been productive and efficient, and has moved Chicago’s offense well. But you can see in games there are throws McCown doesn’t make as well as Cutler, throws he won’t even try. I think that’s part of the reason that although the Bears are averaging more yards with McCown at quarterback than Cutler, the club is also averaging fewer points. McCown simply doesn’t take chances, which has translated into a high quarterback rating (103.6). Cutler, meanwhile, is a lot like Tony Romo in that he’ll gamble on occasion, and a part of that is he’s confident in his arm. But Cutler also possesses uncanny chemistry with his receivers to where he can go off script on occasion and still make big plays.

Now I’m still not sure about whether the team views Cutler as the long-term answer. After eight years in the NFL, you are what you are. That’s not to say Cutler isn’t a good quarterback. He is. But the financial resources the Bears would have to sink into him to keep him around, in my mind, don’t match up with the production. Cutler owns an 84.4 career passer rating, and he’s thrown 149 touchdowns to 108 interceptions. I’m not sure that’s worth $16 million-plus per year. General manager Phil Emery doesn’t seem to be inclined to use the franchise tag on Cutler. So it’ll be interesting to see whether the sides can come to a long-term agreement that’s acceptable to both parties.

With Dallas eyeing a potential division title, Romo seems to be catching a lot of flak about his record during games in December. How much of it is on Romo, and how much does the rest of the team have to do with the quarterback’s struggles during the month of December?

Archer: Some of it is on Romo, but more of it is on the rest of the team. Would you be surprised if I told you Romo has 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 15 December/January regular-season games since 2009? Or that he has seven 300-yard games? Or 10 games with a passer rating of better than 100? He has two four-touchdown games -- with no picks -- and the Cowboys have lost them both. Ultimately, however, the record falls on the quarterback. Overall he is 11-15 in December and 7-8 since 2009. He has put the Cowboys in position to compete for the playoffs the past two seasons and lost in Week 17 both times. Without Romo the Cowboys are not sniffing playoff contention. I can’t say he has to play better because 28 TDs and seven picks are pretty ridiculous, but he has to play better. The defense is something of a mess, even with Sean Lee returning and guys getting healthy. The run game is still hit or miss. If the Cowboys do make it to the playoffs, it will be because of Romo and the passing game.

I can see what kind of a difference Rod Marinelli has made here. How much have the Bears missed their former defensive coordinator?

Wright: Tons. On the same day Marc Trestman was first introduced as the new head coach, all the assistants from the old staff were holed up in their offices at Halas Hall awaiting their fates as Trestman spoke to the media. The new head coach knew it was imperative to bring back Marinelli, which is why he tried to convince him to come back as soon as the news conference was over. But out of loyalty to former coach and close friend Lovie Smith, Marinelli declined the offer. The Bears have struggled ever since. Obviously, the team’s rash of injuries is the most significant factor in the defense’s slide. But Marinelli was revered among Chicago’s players. They’d run through a wall for him. Marinelli is an excellent motivator and nobody knows Chicago’s scheme better. His attention to detail, and the ability to relay the importance of those small details to the players, is what the Bears miss. Marinelli liked to break down players and make them focus on every single nuance from a technical standpoint. Marinelli was also a master of simplifying the most complicated aspects of a scheme or game plan for players. In fact, I think second-year defensive end Shea McClellin would be blossoming right now the way Corey Wootton is had Marinelli stayed.

Alfred Morris, Eric BerryGetty ImagesWashington's Alfred Morris, left, and KC's Eric Berry lead teams trying to end losing streaks.
Fortunes have turned this season for the Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs. The Redskins, who won the NFC East championship last season, are 3-9. After winning just two games last season, the Chiefs are 9-3 and can clinch a playoff spot Sunday if they beat the Redskins and either the Baltimore Ravens or the Miami Dolphins lose. But the Chiefs have lost three straight, and their chances for winning the AFC West are virtually gone after being swept in their two games against the Denver Broncos.

ESPN.com's Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Redskins reporter John Keim discuss Sunday's game:

Teicher: This is a complicated question, but what’s happened this season with Robert Griffin III? Still bothered by the knee? Feeling the effects of missing offseason practice?

Keim: Yeah, it’s complicated because there are a lot of issues that have added up to him having an inconsistent sophomore season. The knee played a factor early in that he wasn’t going to run a lot and wanted to be more of a dropback passer (partly because he was fooled by last season’s success). The knee brace restricts him a little, but he just hasn’t regained his explosiveness. He’s still fast, but that first-step burst isn’t the same, and that hurts on some of the read-option or escaping trouble. Defenses are playing them different -- teams with good fronts can sit back and take away their play-action. They’ve seen coverages they didn’t see a lot of last season, and a greater variety of stunts and blitzes (knowing Griffin might not hurt them as badly). Missing the offseason really hurt Griffin’s ability to develop as a passer, and that has been a big issue. There are games when he looks solid, like against the Giants, but he also has had a couple of games that are as bad as any since he entered the NFL. Because he came from a much less complex passing system at Baylor, he needs a full offseason of work.

Adam, who would have thought Alex Smith would be the quarterback with the better team in this game? What sort of difference has he made for the Chiefs?

Teicher: His stats haven’t been great until the past couple of games, but he’s actually had a pretty good season. He’s been burned to some extent by dropped passes or his statistics would actually look a lot better. Through the nine-game winning streak to start the season, Smith played well enough not to mess up a good thing. He wasn’t committing turnovers, and, although he wasn’t making many big plays in the passing game, he was bailing the Chiefs out of some tough situations, whether scrambling or on the option or on a called play. Lately, they have needed more points and big plays, and he has delivered.

Kansas City has given up some yards via the running game this season. Give us a little scouting report on how Washington uses Alfred Morris and Roy Helu, and what there is to choose from between those guys. Also, do most of RG III’s rushing yards come on the option, called runs or scrambles?

Keim: The Redskins love to use a lot of stretch-zone and outside zone runs with Morris and Helu. Both can run inside. They will use some boot action off the stretch-zone, as well. Morris does a much better job than Helu of setting up defenders by pressing the hole and cutting. He gets linebackers to overflow, then cuts back. Morris is more patient than Helu, who hits holes as fast as he can run, and that often means he doesn’t set up defenders and therefore doesn’t create lanes for himself. He’s a bigger threat in the open field as a receiver. Helu is used more as a third-down back, but he is capable of running and does have the speed to break a long run. But, again, just not patient enough, and therefore gets a lot of 2-yard runs. As for Griffin, he’s averaging 5.46 yards per carry off zone-read runs (compared with 8.0 last season). His longer runs have come off scrambles -- but that also depends on whether a team plays a lot of man coverage. He’s just not as explosive off the zone-read runs, but teams have adjusted to it -- they are more disciplined against it, and safeties are more aggressive coming up to defend.

Looking at the Chiefs’ defense, how would you assess them at this point after such a dominant start?

Teicher: Not very good. The Chiefs have allowed more than 400 yards in each of their past four games. They are going to give up some yards, given the style they play (pressure on the quarterback, cornerbacks frequently in one-on-one coverage). Kansas City gave up some yards and big plays early in the season. But now, the Chiefs are not getting to the quarterback often, are rarely forcing him into mistakes, and are not getting the turnovers and favorable field position that made them so successful early in the season. That is why I think Washington could move the ball and score some points against Kansas City. The Chiefs played against a series of journeymen, backups or inexperienced players at quarterback over several weeks and feasted against those guys. The past three weeks, though, they have faced Peyton Manning twice and Philip Rivers and haven't fared very well. Given Griffin's dual-threat abilities and Washington's running game, Kansas City has some things to worry about.

The Redskins have given up a ton of points. The run defense looks as if it has been decent, but Washington has been horrible against the pass. Pinpoint the problems areas in that regard for the Redskins.

Keim: The Redskins have not generated enough pressure from their four-man rushes, although there are times when they get what they would consider good rushes but it’s not making enough of an impact. I don’t sense that quarterbacks are uncomfortable in the pocket. Sometimes it is because the coverage behind them is too soft, especially when they play zone. Washington has a lot of holes in its zone coverages, and quarterbacks can quickly find them. Makes it tough to then pressure. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall has been solid and made some big plays; he’s much better now in tight man coverage. But the safeties as a group have struggled, sometimes because of injury, and other times because of performance. The Redskins have to upgrade here. Brandon Meriweather is OK, but he’s one bad hit from a longer suspension. They have had to mix and match a lot at safety to try to make it work. But it’s not just here; the inside linebackers have not had a strong season. Cornerback Josh Wilson plays the run well out of the slot but can be picked on. He’s up and down. Rookie cornerback David Amerson can make big plays but also can surrender them (although some of that has subsided). It is an inconsistent group, and it is why defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is under fire. It is not all his fault, as there are times the calls aren’t his, but that is life in the NFL.

How big a difference has coach Andy Reid made --- and are the Chiefs a legitimate contender?

Teicher: He has made a huge difference. He has given direction to an organization that before had a lot of guys pulling in a lot of different directions. Reid came through the door for the first time with an impressive résumé, and players -- tired of the losing and the way things had been -- were more than willing to listen. He has been able to get a lot of guys to put aside personal goals for the greater good. But I don't see the Chiefs as being legitimate contenders, not this season. Even during their nine-game winning streak, there were some red flags everyone knew were going to be problems down the road. The two games against the Broncos, particularly last week's, showed a wide gap between the Chiefs and one of the league's premier teams.

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C.J. Spiller and Adrian Clayborn USA Today Sports; AP PhotoC.J. Spiller's Bills and Adrian Clayborn's Bucs are playing for pride -- with draft positioning at stake.
Aside from 2014 draft position, Sunday's game between the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers doesn't have a lot of obvious meaning.

At the moment, the Bucs (3-9) would hold the No. 5 overall pick in next year's draft, while the Bills (4-8) would hold the No. 9 pick. But Sunday's result could shake that order up.

ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine the matchup.

Yasinskas: Mike, this game features two rookie quarterbacks. Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon and Buffalo's EJ Manuel. Glennon is coming off his worst game of the season against Carolina. But, other than that, he has been fairly efficient. What's your assessment of how Manuel has played so far?

Rodak: Manuel has been up and down, both before his knee injury and after it. The 16th overall pick of the 2013 draft missed four games in the middle of the season after he took a shot to the side of his knee against the Browns in Week 5. The Bills' brass has liked to say that Manuel was on the right track before the injury, but the reality is that he had a completion rate below 50 percent in Weeks 3 and 4 and had three turnovers in that Week 4 win over the Baltimore Ravens. When Manuel came back in Week 10, he had perhaps his worst game of the season, in Pittsburgh. Those have been the low points.

On the other end of the spectrum, Manuel led the Bills on a game-winning drive over the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 and posted a passer rating of 121.9 against the Jets in Week 11. Those have been the high points. But on average, he has been a below-average NFL quarterback to this point, posting a 45.5 QBR for the season.

Pat, the Bucs looked like a disaster about two months ago. Now they have won three of their past four games. What has changed for them?

Yasinskas: The Bucs were in utter disarray at the start of the season. But, aside from Sunday's loss to Carolina, they've played much better over the past month or so. Part of it has to do with Glennon's steady improvement. He has shown signs he can be more than just a game manager. The other thing that has stood out has been how this team has stuck together. Despite some speculative reports to the contrary, coach Greg Schiano never lost the locker room. His players still believe in his system and have been playing hard for him. Finally, the defense, which has a lot of individual talent, has started to click and that coincided with the turnaround.

Speaking of defense, the Bills lead the league with 43 sacks, but they're allowing 25.6 points a game, which ranks 24th. What has gone wrong with this defense?

Rodak: Earlier in the season, much of the problem was with the secondary. The Bills battled through some injuries -- safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Stephon Gilmore both missed time -- and they got torched by some teams early. But they've been healthy back there for a while now, and the results have been better.

The problem recently has been with the run defense. The Bills rank 24th in the NFL, allowing 121.5 rushing yards per game, and allow 4.18 yards per carry. Some of that has to do with time of possession. The Bills' offense ranks 31st in the NFL, which has put some stress on the defense. More alarmingly for Buffalo, the run defense has gotten worse as the season has gone on. The Bills allowed 5.83 yards per carry to the Jets and 5.03 yards to the Falcons, including two long touchdown runs. There's a lot of talent on this defense, but the consistency isn't there.

Pat, there was a lot of talk this offseason about the moves the Buccaneers made in their secondary. They drafted Johnthan Banks in the second round, traded for Darrelle Revis and signed Dashon Goldson. How have those moves paid off?

Yasinskas: The Bucs went overboard making moves in the secondary because they had the league's worst pass defense in 2012. There has been a noticeable improvement this year. But it hasn't been all roses. Banks has looked good at times, but also has had some rookie moments. Goldson missed two games due to injury and was suspended for another game for an illegal hit. Revis has been solid, although the Bucs brought him along slowly early in the year because he was coming off knee surgery. Overall, this is a decent secondary, but it has yet to approach its true potential.

Mike, what's your read on C.J. Spiller? He seems to be having an up-and-down season to this point. How much has his ankle injury been a factor?

Rodak: He has been a tough one to pin down. This much is for certain: He hasn't lived up to the expectations many on the outside had for him entering this season, and his ankle is a big factor in that. But even after coach Doug Marrone removed Spiller from the injury report about a month ago, things still weren't right. He had disappointing games in Weeks 10 and 11, rushing a combined 21 times for 29 yards. But then, out of the blue, he broke open a 77-yard run Sunday, the longest of his career. He followed that with a 36-yard touchdown run and finished with one of the best games of his career, tallying 149 yards.

Going forward, I'm not really sure what to expect with Spiller. This could be his identity within this offense: a home run hitter who is prone to more strikeouts than the norm.

Pat, speaking of running backs, Bobby Rainey seems to have cooled off since his huge game against Atlanta a few weeks ago. What has happened to the Bucs' running game?

Yasinskas: Rainey rushed for 163 yards against the Falcons, but has averaged just 49 yards in the two games since then. What's happening is that opposing defenses are loading the box to stop the running game. They're daring Glennon to beat them and he hasn't really done that. Until Glennon starts having more luck with the downfield passing game, defenses are going to continue to focus on bottling up the running game.


The hottest team in the NFL, the Carolina Panthers, will ride an eight-game winning streak into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night to take on the New Orleans Saints in a battle for NFC South supremacy.

Both teams are 9-3, and this will be the first of two games between the division rivals in the next three weeks. The division winner almost certainly will be the NFC's No. 2 seed.

The Saints lost their shot at the No. 1 seed Monday night when they got destroyed by the Seattle Seahawks 34-7. That doesn't bode well for New Orleans because the Panthers are a very similar team to Seattle (stifling defense, strong run game, dual-threat quarterback).

But that loss was on the road. And the Saints are a totally different monster at home, especially in these prime-time games. The Saints have won 12 straight night games at home, including the playoffs, by an average of nearly 20 points per game.

One way or another, somebody's hot streak will have to cool off Sunday night. ESPN.com's Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Panthers reporter David Newton break down the matchup.

Triplett: David, I don't even know where to begin with these Panthers. It seems like every unit is playing great. I guess the most important question is whether you think Carolina's defense will continue to be so dominant against the Saints' offense inside the Superdome.

The Saints have especially had trouble when defensive backs can get physical with their receivers and Jimmy Graham in coverage. What are the Panthers doing so well on defense, and how do you see them attacking the Saints?

Newton: As former Panthers tackle and current Arizona defensive line coach Brentson Buckner told me a few weeks ago, the Carolina defense is "built to travel." Don't forget this group went to San Francisco and held the 49ers to nine points and 151 total yards. The Panthers likely get sacks leader Charles Johnson (knee) back at defensive end and Chase Blackburn (foot) back at linebacker, so they should be even more stout than they've been the past few weeks.

I suspect they'll do much the same as Seattle did, pressuring Drew Brees as much as they can with the front four and letting linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly try to shut down Darren Sproles and Graham. The only weakness this group really has shown is a tendency to occasionally let a receiver get deep, but otherwise, everything you've heard and read is true. The defense is tough to run on and stingy in the red zone.

Speaking of defense, the Saints must have a hangover from what Russell Wilson and the Seahawks did Monday night. They have another mobile quarterback coming in Cam Newton, who has led the team in rushing three straight games. Are we looking at a repeat?

Triplett: I have no doubt that Newton will cause problems. He has been a thorn in the Saints' side at times. But I think the Saints will make Newton even more of a priority than they made Wilson (against Seattle, the Saints were focused first on stopping running back Marshawn Lynch -- one of the few things they did well).

I'm not sure exactly what to expect in this matchup. The Saints' defense has been hit or miss against similar-style teams (bad against the Seahawks and Jets, good against the 49ers and Bills). However, I trust that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will have a good plan in place after learning from the mistakes made at Seattle. The Saints' defense has mostly been a strength all season. Monday's loss was a rare flop -- especially when it came to all of the pass-coverage breakdowns.

Tell me more about Cam Newton. I've always seen the talent, obviously. Has he been better than ever during this win streak?

Newton: I feel like a broken record on this one, but it has been a matter of maturing and learning to take what the defense gives him instead of forcing things and being a one-man show. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula has been great for Newton. Shula is dedicated to having a more traditional running game, even though at times the past few weeks he has had to rely on Newton as his lead rusher because teams have stacked up to stop the backs. But the commitment to the run has helped keep Newton in manageable third-down distances. He has responded with one of the best third-down quarterback ratings in the league. To me, that as much as anything shows how he has grown.

With success has come confidence, and Newton has some of that swagger back you saw when he was in college. When he makes a bad play, he doesn't pout. He moves on and usually makes up for it. He's really developing into a complete quarterback.

As long as we're talking about complete quarterbacks, Brees -- the Seattle game aside -- has been impressive, particularly at home. Has the return of Sean Payton made a big difference?

Triplett: Payton's return plays a big part, but I think it also helps quite a bit that the Saints have such a vastly improved defense. Brees doesn't feel as if he has to do everything by himself -- which was the case more than ever last year, especially since the Saints were trailing in a lot of games.

Payton and Brees are terrific at exploiting and attacking mismatches and finding the open man. However, this season, I feel like they've also been as smart and patient as ever before -- willing to win the low-scoring, clock-control games when needed. Up until Monday night, Brees was having one of his best and most efficient seasons. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him bounce back quickly.

But enough about the star players. Tell me about one or two guys who haven't gotten enough attention for the Panthers' turnaround this year -- and who might step up and make an impact in this game. (For the Saints, I'd say the entire defensive line qualifies, with third-year end Cameron Jordan heading toward his first Pro Bowl and second-year end Akiem Hicks maybe reaching that same level in a year or two).

Newton: Good question. The Panthers are full of unsung heroes, from running back Mike Tolbert and rookie linebacker A.J. Klein to safety Mike Mitchell and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.

I know you said no stars, but I'll have to go with rookie tackle Star Lotulelei. He has really taken this defense to another level with his ability to cause havoc in the middle. When you look at Carolina's success at stopping the run, in many ways it begins with him. He often demands double-teams that free up players who already are stars -- such as linebackers Kuechly and Davis, ends Greg Hardy and Johnson. And truthfully, Lotulelei will be a star -- if he isn't already. He should be getting serious consideration for defensive rookie of the year. If he has a big game Sunday night, it will cause Brees and the New Orleans offense a big headache.

Triplett: Great line. And interesting to note that the Panthers took Lotulelei with the 14th pick in the draft -- one spot before the Saints took safety Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro hasn't made quite that level of impact, but he has been a big-time asset for them as an every-down player and a versatile weapon who plays all over the field. He'll be one of many guys charged with keeping Newton contained Sunday night.

 
Tavon Austin and Michael FloydAP PhotosPromising WRs Tavon Austin and Michael Floyd will look to affect Sunday's NFC West matchup.
Here we are again.

For Arizona, the second round of NFC West contests begins this week against St. Louis, while the Rams have already started. For both teams Sunday is a must-win, but for two drastically different reasons.

A victory for the Cardinals would break an eight-game NFC West losing streak, but more importantly keep alive any chance at making the playoffs. The Rams need a win to potentially avoid finishing last in the division.

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner sat down to discuss the upcoming matchup.

Weinfuss: How different are the Rams with Kellen Clemens at the helm? How has the offense adjusted?

Wagoner: The offense has been much more run-heavy with Clemens at quarterback, but it was already headed that way long before he took over for Sam Bradford. Clemens has been exactly as advertised. That means his teammates love how hard he plays and his willingness to give himself up to gain a few extra yards. He's an excellent leader. On the flip side, he's not very accurate and has lived up to that with a completion percentage mostly at or below his career numbers. In an ideal world for the Rams, Clemens doesn't have to do much in terms of throwing the ball. They've had their most success against teams like Indianapolis and Chicago when the running game is rolling and they can work off play-action. Clemens completed just 19 passes in those two victories but made the most of them. That has to be the formula for the Rams to win with Clemens under center.

It seems a lot has changed for the Cardinals since that first meeting in the opener. What do you see as the biggest difference for them since that time that's allowed them to compete every week?

Weinfuss: Those actually are two different answers. The biggest difference has been this offense and how comfortable the Cardinals seem to finally be in it. It’s cliché, but the light bulb really did go off. And since it happened in Week 8 against Atlanta, the offense has been moving the ball like it couldn’t during the first seven weeks. The wide receivers aren’t confused anymore, the running game has emerged thanks to the offensive line getting better -- with the exception of Sunday against the Eagles. Bruce Arians’ scheme can be confusing and it took the Cards a while to sort through. However, what’s kept them in games is their defense. The defensive line has been a brick wall up front, but it’s the play of the linebackers that has balanced the entire unit. With Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington running free and covering ground sideline to sideline, it frees up the line to do its thing and the secondary to keep pressing.

Staying on defense, Robert Quinn torched the Cardinals in Week 1. Has the defensive end improved since and what can he do against a new, inexperienced left tackle?

Wagoner: The short answers: Yes and a lot. The scary thing about Quinn is that he is still scratching the surface of his immense potential. As a pass-rusher he's already elite, but the biggest thing he's added to his game is the ability to stop the run. He's become a better-than-average run-stopper, which keeps him on the field all three downs and allows him to rush the passer in unconventional passing downs. The entire St. Louis defensive line is rushing the passer quite well right now, and so long as the Rams face a quarterback who isn't all that mobile, its members have a chance to have big weeks every time out. I don't think I'm telling Arizona anything it doesn't already know, but the Cardinals would be well served to expend extra resources on blocking Quinn this time out.

Which brings me to the obvious follow-up question: What kind of shape is the Arizona offensive line in right now and has the unit reached a point where it can prevent the Rams' pass rush from taking over one of these meetings?

Weinfuss: Realistically, no, the Cardinals' offensive line hasn't reached that point. For the most part, the line has been stable compared to last season, when it turned over almost as many times as it allowed a sack. This year, the only big change was the trade of Levi Brown after Week 4, and since then the starting lineup hasn’t changed. But that cohesiveness doesn’t mean it’s able to stop the Rams' pass rush. I might have thought differently had the Rams come to town last week, but after watching the regression against the Eagles, the chances of Arizona slowing Quinn aren’t very high.

Speaking of stopping someone, when did you see Tavon Austin start to really get it as a rookie and how high is his ceiling?

Wagoner: Well, his obvious breakthrough game was the three-touchdown performance against Indianapolis. He had another big play the following week against Chicago. But there have been many factors that contributed to what took him a while to get going, and expecting him to make big plays every week is still asking too much. He's produced about what I expected from him this season. As you know, rookie receivers take time to adjust. Much like you're seeing with Michael Floyd right now, Austin still has plenty of growing to do. As for his ceiling, he's got the ability to be a guy who eventually makes game-changing plays on a week-to-week basis. His speed and elusiveness are unmatched by most players around the league. The upside is off the charts, but he'll have to become a better route-runner, cut down on drops and have an offense that consistently knows how to use him.

This week it's the Cardinals' job to stop him. That defense is obviously playing well right now. What weaknesses do you see from Arizona defensively and where are the few teams having success offensively against them finding it?

Weinfuss: There’s really one true weakness and that’s tight ends. It started in Week 1 against the Rams, when Jared Cook torched them for 141 yards and two touchdowns, and it hasn’t stopped since. The common belief around the Cardinals was that when Washington returned from a four-game suspension, he’d be the answer to stopping tight ends. But even that wasn’t the case. Arizona’s safeties are too small to combat some of the bigger, basketball player-type tight ends around the league. The Cards did hold Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez to just 26 yards, but that was because Arizona’s defense made Gonzalez the focus of the game plan. Offenses are generally figuring out that by lining up a tight end out wide, he’s usually covered by a defensive back. But against Philadelphia, the Cardinals sent Washington in coverage, and while he let up a couple of passes, he was able to hold his own.

Eric Decker, Jason McCourty AP Photo Jason McCourty, right, and the Titans' secondary face a formidable challenge in defending Eric Decker and the Broncos' passing attack.
It seemed a little out of place, but as the Denver Broncos were about to get to work on the Tennessee Titans this week, quarterback Peyton Manning said he was going to prepare for an "unfamiliar opponent."

Granted, Manning hasn't faced a Titans team with Mike Munchak as its head coach, but he has faced Tennessee 19 times previously in his career (including a playoff game in the 1999 season), all with the Indianapolis Colts. So, while this is the Titans' first look at Manning in a Broncos uniform, the quarterback is a familiar face as Denver tries to keep its grip on home-field advantage in the postseason.

Here, ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Legwold: Paul, you've been around the team since it arrived in Tennessee and, before we get to the on-field matchup, how would you say the team has dealt with franchise founder Bud Adams' death earlier this season? Who is making the decisions now and who will make them in the coming offseason, both on and off the field?

Kuharsky: It was a big loss, of course, for Munchak and general manager Ruston Webster and team employees who worked for Adams for a long time. Most of the players hardly knew him, as he was not around much in his final couple of years, when his health began to fail. So there is a lot of uncertainty now. Three branches of Adams' family share control of the franchise, and Bud's son-in-law, Tommy Smith, is the team president and CEO. He's apparently been paying close attention to things in anticipation of taking over. But we know very little about how he will operate going forward. That means there is some tension, because not every team employee knows if he's secure. That starts with the struggling head coach, Munchak.

Leadership in Denver appeared to remain strong as Jack Del Rio stepped in for John Fox. How much of a boost will Fox's return give the team?

Legwold: Del Rio, the team's defensive coordinator, earned praise from everyone in the organization, including Fox and the players, for how things were handled in the head coach's absence following open-heart surgery. His return has given the team an emotional boost, because after a month away, Fox came back feeling better than he had in some time and enthusiastic to see where this season can go. It should help the Broncos avoid a late-season stumble as they try to get home-field advantage for the playoffs again. Tactically speaking, not much will change. Coordinator Adam Gase is still calling the plays on offense -- Del Rio has said that, other than being a sounding board from time to time, he left the offense solely in Gase's hands during Fox's absence. Del Rio will continue to call the defense on game day as he has all season. Overall, though, it's likely Fox's return will keep the Broncos from hitting an emotional lull over the final month of the regular season.

On the field, the Titans have seen Manning plenty over the years. How do you think Tennessee will approach things on defense and does it see some differences in the Broncos' offense compared to what it saw from the Manning-led Colts?

Kuharsky: Well, it's a relief the Titans don't see Edgerrin James, I am sure. And while Denver's pass-catchers are a remarkable bunch, I'm not sure there is a Marvin Harrison in it yet. They know blitzing Manning can be fruitless no matter what matchups they like against offensive linemen. They'll try to be unpredictable and force him to throw to a certain spot a few times. But plenty of teams have that idea and fail with it. Under Gregg Williams' influence, the Titans have used an ever-shifting front, and we know that's a popular way to play against Manning in an attempt to minimize his ability to make pre-snap reads. The front is pretty good, especially Jurrell Casey, though there is no dominant edge rusher. The secondary has been quite good. It's the linebackers, particularly in pass coverage, who seem vulnerable to me, and I don't know what the Titans will do there to prevent abuse. Bernard Pollard's been a leader whose play has matched his talk, but the Titans have kept him out of tough coverage situations and I wonder whether Manning will find ways to try to go at him.

The Titans are rooting for freezing temperatures even though they've been awful themselves in their past two frigid games. I know some all-time great quarterbacks have excelled in the cold even if they haven't loved it. How much of an issue is it for Manning at this stage of his career?

Legwold: That is the elephant in the room with the Broncos given their playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens last January. Manning threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns in that game, even though the temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees. But folks seem to remember a wobbly incompletion here and there to go with an interception to close out the Broncos' final possession. Until Manning simply cranks it up on a cold day and the Broncos get a key victory, people are going to ask him about it. He had spots in the overtime loss to New England two weeks ago -- in frigid, windy conditions -- in which he threw as well as he ever has, particularly on a sideline pass to Demaryius Thomas and a touchdown throw to tight end Jacob Tamme. It's not so much his arm that has been an issue post-surgery, it's his grip when he throws. Overall, though, the Broncos push the pace more on offense at home. Manning has terrorized defenses that have played a lot of man coverages against the Broncos' offense, including his five-touchdown game last weekend in Kansas City. The Broncos like that matchup in any weather.

Denver has some injuries on defense that have affected how it plays, especially with the run defense. Where does Chris Johnson fit in the Titans' offense these days?

Kuharsky: He's really had one big game all season. Even when he seems to get going, the Titans can't find a rhythm or a way to stick with him. This was supposed to be a run-reliant, run-dominant team. It isn't. With Ryan Fitzpatrick now the quarterback, the Titans like to put him in an empty set and let him do his thing. It's been good at times, but it doesn't do much to enhance the chances of the running game. Johnson doesn't get yards after contact. So if he doesn't find a big hole, he's not going to do a lot of damage. Watch out on a screen or little flip pass -- that's where Johnson has been more threatening.

Denver's defense has dealt with quite a few injuries and Von Miller's suspension. How's his health and how is that group playing together?

Legwold: The Broncos have yet to play the 11 starters on defense in any game this season they expected to have coming out of training camp. They never will now that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson has been moved to injured reserve. Vickerson was a big part of the plan on early downs -- and the Chiefs tested the middle of the defense plenty this past Sunday, so the Broncos are working through some adjustments there. Champ Bailey (left foot) has played in just three games this season -- just one from start to finish -- and safety Rahim Moore is on injured reserve/designated to return. (The Broncos hope Moore will be back for the postseason.) Toss in Derek Wolfe and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie not being in the lineup against the Chiefs and the Broncos are not nearly as consistent as they were last season, when they were a top-five defense. Miller has had moments of top-shelf play since his return, but hasn't been a consistent force like he was last season.

Manning-Rivers Getty ImagesWith their respective teams at 5-7, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers face a must-win game on Sunday.
Win or stay home for the postseason.

That’s what is at stake for the San Diego Chargers and the New York Giants as they face off at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.

Both teams are 5-7. Winners of five of their past six games after an 0-6 start, the Giants will be eliminated from playoff contention this week if they lose to the Chargers, Dallas defeats Chicago and San Francisco beats Seattle.

The Chargers, losers of four of their past five games, would mathematically remain alive for a postseason berth even with a loss. But with a handful of teams competing for the last AFC wild-card spot, any realistic hope of San Diego making a playoff run likely would be extinguished with a loss to the Giants.

“The team we are playing has been in this situation before and we have, too,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. “There will be two teams with a great deal of effort and preparation, and we’ll let it all out on Sunday.”

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Giants reporter Dan Graziano break down the matchup:

Williams: Dan, the Giants have won five of their past six to climb within shouting distance of NFC East division race. What are the reasons for the team’s turnaround?

Graziano: They stopped turning the ball over as much, which the law of averages basically said they had to. The Giants committed 23 turnovers in their first six games and lost all six of them. They also forced only seven turnovers in those six games, which was another part of their problem. But in their past six games, of which they have won five, the Giants have committed only eight turnovers and have forced 13. Still not great, but when you factor in the reduced level of competition, it explains a lot. After the 0-6 start, they won four straight games in which the opposing quarterbacks were Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor and Scott Tolzien. The streak ended with a loss to Tony Romo, and they gutted out a comeback victory Sunday night against a battered-looking Robert Griffin III. They still have reached 28 points only once this year (the 31 they scored while playing catch-up in the season opener in Dallas), so the offense isn’t where it needs to be. But it is protecting the ball better, and the improvements on defense have made the difference.

What’s the biggest reason for Philip Rivers’ resurgence this season? Is it as simple as a change in coaches, and if so, what specifically about Mike McCoy has clicked with Rivers?

Williams: McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have done a nice job of creating a scheme based on what Rivers does well -- making quick decisions and precise throws in an up-tempo passing game. The result has been a career-high 70 percent completion percentage for Rivers, 23 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. The playmakers around Rivers also are playing well. Tight end Antonio Gates is healthy. The Chargers have a good one-two combo at running back in Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews. And San Diego has some emerging young talent in receiver Keenan Allen and tight end Ladarius Green. However, during a rough stretch in which San Diego has lost four of its past five games, the offense has struggled to consistently score in the red zone.

Justin Tuck had just 2.5 sacks before his four-sack performance against Washington. Jason Pierre-Paul has just two sacks this year, and the Giants are No. 30 in the NFL with 23 sacks. What’s going on with New York’s talented defensive line?

Graziano: I think Tuck’s had a pretty strong season, even before Sunday. He’s graded out consistently well against the run, where the Giants were strong even when they were losing every week. The sacks may have been a matter of time. But overall, they haven’t pressured quarterbacks well enough. They seem to gear up to stop the run, and the strength of their defensive line is in the middle. But Pierre-Paul spent the first half of the season recovering from offseason back surgery and now has a shoulder injury that kept him out of Sunday’s game and likely will keep him out of this week’s as well. Rookie Damontre Moore hasn’t progressed yet to the point of reliability, and the Giants lack the depth they’ve had at defensive end in years past.

The Giants’ passing game has struggled all year to get going, largely because it hasn’t been able to protect Eli Manning. The Chargers have allowed the fifth-most passing yards in the league. What about their defense might the Giants be able to take advantage of?

Williams: San Diego safety Eric Weddle said that the Giants have one of the most talented receiver groups in the NFL, so the Chargers face a stiff challenge on Sunday. Besides Weddle, San Diego has a young group in the secondary playing together for the first time this year. Because of that, breakdowns in communication have been an issue, leading to explosive plays. The Chargers also are inconsistent in making tackles in the open field, so receivers like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks could shake loose for big gains. Finally, with edge rushers Dwight Freeney, Larry English and Melvin Ingram out with injuries, San Diego has struggled in generating a consistent pass rush, further exposing an inexperienced back end of the defense.

Manning has been sacked a career-high 31 times, and for the first time since his rookie season has more interceptions than TDs. What are the reasons for his dip in play, and does it mean anything to face the team he spurned in the draft a decade ago?

Graziano: Manning bears a decent measure of responsibility for the issues the Giants have had in the passing game this year, but I think the problems start with the protection and expand to other areas beyond his control. The line has struggled all year in pass protection, and the Giants really miss the blocking help they got from running back Ahmad Bradshaw and tight end Martellus Bennett last season. Those guys were two of the best blockers in the league at their positions, and their abilities in that area likely covered up some issues with the offensive line. Add in a slew of injuries -- they’re without starting RG Chris Snee and have lost two starting centers, David Baas and Jim Cordle, to IR as well -- and you have a situation in which the Giants’ passing game can’t really take the chances it used to take. It also hasn’t helped that Nicks has played so poorly and tight end Brandon Myers has been unreliable. Even when he gets time, Manning’s receiving options aren’t what they used to be. As for playing in San Diego, Manning this week brushed off questions about why he didn’t want to play there, complimented the city and its nice weather (which, by the way, I am told will NOT be greeting us this weekend!) and said he expected the fans to remind him of draft day 2004 in some way before and during the game. But as he does with most things, he downplayed that and said it was just a game the Giants have to win.

Manning hasn’t played there since Week 3 of the 2005 season, when Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson blew out the Giants in his 11th career start. Do you think the fans still care? Can Eli expect a chilly reception?

Williams: Yes and yes. In a season filled with looming blackouts, questionable decision-making by a first-year head coach and expiring postseason hopes, Manning’s return provides a rallying cry all Chargers fans can agree on. Expect Manning to hear some boos for spurning San Diego for the Big Apple in the 2004 draft, even though it’s been almost a decade. The man who replaced him in the trade, Philip Rivers, is a beloved figure in San Diego who has had an exceptional career. But Manning has won two Super Bowls with the Giants, while the Chargers have a 3-5 postseason record with zero Super Bowl appearances during Rivers’ tenure.

Roddy White and Sam ShieldsAP PhotoCan Sam Shields and the Packers snap their slump against Roddy White and Atlanta on Sunday?
Last season, the Atlanta Falcons were one quarter away from reaching the Super Bowl, and the Green Bay Packers reached the divisional round of the playoffs.

Eleven months later, the teams have a combined record of 8-15-1.

That’s why the NFL moved the game, which was originally scheduled for prime time on Sunday, to a 1 p.m. ET start.

ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure break down the matchup:

Rob Demovsky: Vaughn, it’s hard to believe the Falcons are in playing-out-the-string mode with all of the talent they have on offense. Obviously, injuries have been an issue, especially losing a talented receiver like Julio Jones. But unlike the Packers, they didn’t lose their quarterback. How come Matt Ryan hasn’t been able to be a difference-maker?

Vaughn McClure: Well, it’s been hard for Matt Ryan to be himself, playing under duress most of the season. The Falcons have ranked in the top 10 in sacks allowed per pass attempt, but that’s only because Ryan has taken shorter drops and delivered the ball quicker. He has still been sacked a career-high 30 times and has been hit countless other times. In the past two games alone -- against the Saints and Bills -- Ryan was sacked 11 times. True, being without Jones hasn’t helped Ryan’s cause. But also, Roddy White hasn’t been at full strength all season. Without Harry Douglas or Tony Gonzalez, Ryan would really be in trouble.

Speaking of quarterbacks, can you explain the different scenarios for the Packers at the position come Sunday, based on Aaron Rodgers’ injury status?

Demovsky: Well, it sure looks like Rodgers will be out for at least another week. This was the game he was really targeting to come back for, thinking he could lead them to the playoffs if he got back for the last four games. But his collarbone did not check out well enough Tuesday to be cleared. Even though he plans to practice this week, it doesn’t look good for him to play. I was a little surprised that coach Mike McCarthy appears to be going with Matt Flynn again. Flynn was completely ineffective in the Thanksgiving debacle at Detroit, and quite frankly, his arm strength does not look good. He didn’t have a lot of zip on the ball indoors against the Lions, and it sure won’t get any easier to throw in the cold, wintry conditions at Lambeau Field. I wondered if he might go back to Scott Tolzien, who looked good in a couple of his appearances but threw too many interceptions.

You mentioned pass protection -- the Packers had issues of their own against the Lions. Flynn was sacked seven times, but on at least a couple of those, he held onto the ball too long. What has been the Falcons’ biggest problem in pass protection?

McClure: The biggest problem has been the offensive line, simply. The guys up front haven’t held up their end of the bargain. They’ve been physically dominated at times, particularly in the loss to the Seahawks. The Falcons lost left tackle Sam Baker to season-ending knee surgery, and Baker wasn’t the same player he was last season before being placed on injured reserve. Left tackle Lamar Holmes, the guy trusted to protect Ryan’s blind side, admitted being out of shape at the beginning of the season and is still experiencing growing pains. Center Peter Konz, right guard Garrett Reynolds, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and Holmes have all been benched at point during the season. Such turnover hasn’t helped the group develop any cohesion. And now, it has to face a capable Packers defense.

I know Clay Matthews was injured this season, but is he back to the dominant player he was when I covered the NFC North?

Demovsky: He’s starting to look like the player you remember, Vaughn. In his first game back from his broken thumb, he wasn’t a factor,because he had to wear that giant club cast. But the next week against the Giants, he was able to play with a much smaller cast. Ever since then, he’s been a playmaker again. In the past three games, he has three sacks and a forced fumble. The problem is he’s not getting a ton of help. And even when they make big plays like they did against the Lions last week, when they forced four turnovers, the offense can’t take advantage of them. Even with Matthews back on the field, the defense has been in a free fall over the past month.

About the only thing the Packers have been able to count on has been their running game, and even that has been a little up and down. But rookie Eddie Lacy looks like a force with 806 yards rushing in basically 10 games. I’m sure the Falcons will load up the box to stop him like most teams have tried to do since Rodgers got hurt. Do you think they can stop him?

McClure: No. Not at all. They struggled to contain speedy backs like Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller (149 rushing yards) just like they’ve struggled against powerful backs like Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (145 yards). Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan counted 28 missed tackles for his defense over the past two games, which is unacceptable, particularly when they occur in the second level and lead to explosive plays. Although rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow has been a tackling machine, he can’t do it alone. Like the offensive line, the defense has been dominated physically at times. Lacy’s bruising style is the last thing the Falcons want to see. The Falcons are tied for 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game.

Double Coverage: Colts at Bengals

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
10:00
AM ET
Maualuga-BrownAP PhotoRey Maualuga and the Cincinnati Bengals know the Indianapolis Colts will try to establish the running game with Donald Brown.
After holding off the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers last weekend, respectively, the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals come into this Sunday's showdown with one another knowing the stakes have been raised.

Whichever division leader emerges victorious from Paul Brown Stadium will have the No. 3 playoff seeding, and most likely will retain it, barring a complete collapse across the final three weeks of the season. The only other reason they wouldn't retain the No. 3 seed? Because they would have the No. 2 seed. Currently, the New England Patriots have that.

Cincinnati could claim that this weekend with a win and a Patriots loss. The Bengals have a tiebreaker over New England after beating the Patriots in October.

Like Sunday's game, that one was in Cincinnati. The Bengals are 5-0 at home, providing an added layer of difficulty for the Colts. Why have the Bengals been so good there? How can the Colts prevent losing their No. 3 seed? ESPN NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Colts reporter Mike Wells have the answers to those questions and more.

Coley Harvey: Mike, there are so many different places I could go with this first question, but I really want to ask about the Colts’ rushing game. Bengals fans certainly were intrigued when the Trent Richardson trade deal went down earlier this season because they knew their team still had to face him this year, even if he was no longer playing for the division-rival Browns. He’s had a rough go of it in Indy, prompting Donald Brown’s start this past Sunday. Does Indianapolis believe Brown really is the back who will lead it through the postseason?

Mike Wells: The Colts hope the demotion will turn out to be a good thing for Richardson. I know that sounds crazy considering the Colts gave up a first-round pick to acquire Richardson. Not starting should ease some of the pressure on Richardson because he’s had a problem of overthinking since he joined the team. Brown may be the starter now, but coach Chuck Pagano will go with the hot hand during the game. So all it takes is a few big runs by Richardson and he’ll be back in the mix. The trade so far is completely in Cleveland’s favor, but this setback doesn’t mean the Colts are throwing in the towel on Richardson. They really can’t afford to when you think about all they gave up to acquire him. The Bengals have excelled at playing at home. What makes them a dangerous team there?

Harvey: That’s a good question. I’d say the weather has made them dangerous. The crowd has made them pretty dangerous, too. The reason I say the weather has made them dangerous is because twice this season, coach Marvin Lewis has been accurate in his prediction of what the weather would do. Back in early October, he smartly told his players to expect a sudden rain shower late in a game against the Patriots. A fourth-quarter monsoon came right when New England got the football for the last time and attempted a comeback drive. Tom Brady couldn’t complete a pass. The rains were too hard. Eventually, Adam Jones intercepted Brady with 16 seconds remaining, clinching a big early-season Cincinnati win. Against the Browns three weeks ago, Lewis also told his players not to worry about the possibility of a delay that some weathermen had predicted. He was right. The game went along mostly smoothly, and about an hour after play, a line of strong storms moved through the area.

In addition to the advantage “meteorologist” Marvin gives them, the Bengals have had a great lift from their fans. Every game has been a sellout, and has had some moment in it that sent the crowd into a frenzy that’s barely been seen since the team moved from the old Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals are confident they’ll keep getting that energy the rest of the season.

Andrew Luck has played in some meaningful games already in his young career. Most notably this season, he gutted out a win during Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis. Because of what’s at stake in Sunday’s game, how much confidence do you think Luck’s big-game play gives the Colts, Mike?

Wells: Luck will have to carry the Colts if they expect to go into Cincy and get the victory. The former No. 1 overall pick doesn’t have much to work with on offense now that veteran receiver Reggie Wayne is out for the season with the torn ACL. Opponents have found a way to slow T.Y. Hilton down lately by sending help over the top. Tight end Coby Fleener is doing what he can to help Luck out. I’m not even going to talk about receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. The running game can’t gain any traction and the offensive line has struggled this season. That leaves Luck having to improvise and do what he can to make things work. That won’t be an easy task since the Bengals have the sixth-best defense in the league. The Bengals probably like their chances at being able to sack Luck. He’s been sacked 29 times this season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, there seemed to be different stories floating around earlier this season that questioned whether Andy Dalton could win big games. Do you think he has the ability to take the Bengals to the next level?

Harvey: In all honesty, it’s tough to say, Mike. Dalton has been so inconsistent this season that it’s tough to actually believe he’ll be able to put this team on his back and be as successful as Luck has proven to be. That said, it looks like the Bengals learned something about Dalton and the rest of their offense in San Diego this past weekend. They discovered that with a little help from a solid running game, their passing game can actually produce big, explosive plays.

For a four-game stretch in October, Dalton looked like he would be able to make the Bengals an unbeatable force come the postseason. But since then, he hasn’t been as efficient and he hasn’t had the same type of prolific passing numbers. After throwing for more than 300 yards in four straight games in October, Dalton has hit the 200-yard mark just once since. Two games ago, against Cleveland, he didn’t even reach 100. If the Bengals are going to make noise in the playoffs, it’s probably not going to be because of Dalton. It most likely will be because of their defense.

Speaking of defenses, tell us about the Colts’ defense. What has contributed to its struggles this year, particularly against the run?

Wells: The Colts have struggled to stop the run all season -- 28th in the league -- and things may get worse for them. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois is out two to four weeks with a partial tear of his plantar fascia. Fili Moala will start in his place. Stopping the run is just one problem for Indianapolis. The secondary has also had a difficult time stopping teams from passing on them. It all started when cornerback Greg Toler went down five games ago with a groin injury. But the defense stepped up by forcing four turnovers, including three interceptions, against Tennessee on Sunday. And there’s a chance Toler will be back in the lineup this weekend. The rest of the secondary feeds off of Toler’s energy. It’s a perfect time for Toler to return because the Colts can use his help to try to slow down receiver A.J. Green, who is averaging 91.9 yards a game receiving.

Like Pagano, Marvin Lewis is a defensive coach. What makes the Bengals' defense so successful?

Harvey: It starts with the combination of Lewis' background and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The pair of defensive gurus have established quite the formidable two-headed monster for the Bengals, coming up with a slew of adjustments and lineup tweaks that has made the unit one of the best in the league, even when it maybe shouldn't be. Injuries have ravaged the Bengals' defense, most notably at defensive tackle (Geno Atkins) and cornerback (Leon Hall). The fact Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict has come on and had an unbelievably strong sophomore season has helped, too. The former undrafted free agent leads the NFL in tackles and played last week on a bad ankle. Because of his near-reckless style of play and the fact Zimmer's scheme has produced results, the Bengals believe in their system and that has made them successful.

Wilson and KaepernickUSA TODAY SportsQBs Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick meet for the second time this season on Sunday night.
SAN FRANCISCO -- It is not going to be the most important game of the season, as many thought when the schedule was released in April.

The Seattle Seahawks, coming off an absolute beat down of New Orleans on Monday night, are 11-1 and the San Francisco 49ers are 8-4 heading into their meeting on Sunday, which will be the second-to-last game at Candlestick Park. The Seahawks will clinch the NFC West with a win. The 49ers need a win more because they're holding onto the sixth and final NFC playoff spot by a game.

There is plenty at stake and there is plenty of animosity. Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson hash it all out.

Blount: Bill, almost everyone expected this to be the game that would possibly decide the NFC West title. It still can, but not the way people imagined. The Seahawks can clinch the division crown at San Francisco on Sunday with a victory. Why aren’t the 49ers the team everyone thought they would be, and can they still be the team they were a year ago at this time?

Williamson: Terry, I think the 49ers are fine. They are 8-4 and they have won seven games by double digits, which is tied with Denver for the league high. This is an elite team. Still, there are two issues at play. The 49ers are 2-4 against teams with winning records. They were blown out by the Seahawks and the Colts early in the season and then they lost back-to-back games to Carolina and New Orleans by a total of four points last month. If the 49ers have anything to prove, it’s that they can beat a quality team. Another reason why this race hasn't been close is the Seahawks are playing out of their minds. They simply ran away from a good team. Terry, do you think the Seahawks can stay up for this game after the huge win? Or could this be a letdown game?

Blount: I really thought this was going to be a big letdown game for the Seahawks and a chance for them to come in flat, but now they have the opportunity to clinch the title in the most unlikely of places for them. The Seahawks would love to walk away from this one and be able to tell the 49ers that they clinched the division crown "in your house." So I think they'll be pretty focused, but the short week of preparation and coming off an emotional Monday night game could take a toll.

Bill, the Seahawks had a convincing 29-3 victory over the 49ers at CenturyLink Field in the second game of the season, but Seattle has lost four consecutive games at Candlestick Park by a combined score of 109-54. Is this a game where the 49ers feel they have something to prove?

Williamson: Oh, certainly. Players were talking about this game in the locker room Sunday after beating the Rams. I think that was a first for this season. The 49ers want to win this game because I think they want to prove to themselves as much as anyone else that they can end the Seahawks’ mini-dominance over the 49ers. The 49ers want to protect their territory in this game. What struck me is players talked about not overthinking this game and not getting caught up in the moment. It’s a sign they learned from some previous mistakes. I’m looking forward to seeing it play out. Terry, do you get the sense the Seahawks respect the 49ers as much as they did going into Week 2?

Blount: Honestly, my sense is most of the Seahawks just really don't like the 49ers, and it's no secret that Richard Sherman can't stand Jim Harbaugh, along with the fact that Harbaugh and Pete Carroll won't be sending each other Christmas cards. Certainly, the Seahawks realize San Francisco has a lot of very talented players who can beat you in many ways. Publicly, they will say they respect the 49ers. Privately, they can't stand them and respect just doesn't enter the picture.

Bill, Colin Kaepernick was the toast of the NFL a year ago as a young quarterback with limitless talent. He’s had some rough moments this year, but also has had flashes of brilliance. What's different for him this season and is he as good as he was a year ago?

Williamson: I think it is a combination of things, including the fact that he is still learning and the offense is still evolving. I think the key was that he lacked all his weapons. It was startling how much better the passing game was Sunday in Michael Crabtree's debut. He had just two catches, but it opened up the entire game against St. Louis. Terry, do you think the 49ers can have success against this top-notch Seattle secondary that they didn't have in the past two meetings?

Blount: Certainly, having Crabtree back makes the 49ers a more formidable receiving corps than the game in September. And the Seahawks are down a man from that game with Walter Thurmond's suspension. Some people probably have forgotten that Brandon Browner didn't play that night because he had a hamstring injury. But the job backups Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane did against the Saints, as good a passing team as you'll find, showed how much depth Seattle has in the secondary. I think Vernon Davis is the key for San Francisco, and I can't see Anquan Boldin being shut down this time the way he was in Seattle.

Rice/PetersonGetty ImagesRay Rice and the Ravens have struggled running the ball while Adrian Peterson leads the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens are looking to continue their push for a sixth consecutive playoff berth Sunday when they play the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium.

The Ravens (6-6) have won two straight to take control of the last playoff spot in the AFC and are coming off an emotional victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. What Baltimore can't afford is a letdown against the last-place Vikings (3-8-1).

The Vikings are quietly playing their best football of a disappointing season, rallying from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday. And while the Ravens are playing for their playoff lives, coach Leslie Frazier and the Vikings players are equally desperate because their jobs could be on the line in the final month of the regular season.

This is how ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley see the fifth meeting between these teams unfolding:

Jamison Hensley: The Vikings have only lost once in their past four games. What's been the biggest difference with the Vikings recently?

Ben Goessling: The biggest constant in the two wins (and the tie against Green Bay) has been their quarterback play; it still hasn't been great, and probably won't be at any point this year, but Christian Ponder (or Matt Cassel last week) has been able to keep the offense moving without turning the ball over as frequently as the Vikings' QBs were earlier this season. In their three wins and one tie, the Vikings have a combined four turnovers. With Adrian Peterson coming off his two best games of the season, the rest of the offense doesn't have to be great. It merely has to hang on to the ball, keep drives moving and let Peterson do his work.

What's been the problem with the Ravens' running game? Ray Rice was never the most efficient back, in terms of yards per carry, but it's been stunning to see how limited he's been. What's going on there?

Jamison Hensley: The Ravens' running game has been the biggest weakness on offense all season. Ray Rice doesn't have the same burst, and the offensive line isn't creating any space for him. Rice, who is averaging 2.9 yards per carry, can't shoulder all the blame. Backup Bernard Pierce is gaining 2.8 yards per carry. The Ravens haven't totally abandoned the running game, they're just not relying on it. Rice has only carried the ball more than 20 times once in the past seven games. Baltimore could test the Vikings' run defense, which ranks 23rd, just like it did against the Bears last month. But this has been a pass-heavy offense for most of the year.

It's a totally different story with the Vikings. Peterson is leading the NFL with 1,208 yards rushing, which is 235 more than the Ravens have totaled as a team. How does he continue to be effective when defenses are always focused on stopping him?

Goessling: That's the remarkable thing about him -- he does all this when everybody knows he's getting the ball. And right now, he's doing it with a strained groin that has robbed him of some of his breakaway speed. He had 211 yards on Sunday, but probably could have pushed toward 250 if he'd been able to extend a couple of runs the way he normally does. Peterson is the best in the business at a lot of things, but chief among them might be his ability to find cutback lanes and isolate himself on one defender. Once he does that, your odds of bringing him down aren't very good; if he doesn't have his top speed, he'll just run you over.

It seems like the Ravens' defense is finally hitting its stride with all of its new pieces after a rough start to the season. What has led to that, and do you think the Vikings will be able to run effectively on the Ravens with Peterson?

Hensley: The Ravens knew their defense was going to be a work-in-progress, especially in the first half of the season. Baltimore had to replace six players who started on defense in the Super Bowl. As expected, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have provided pressure off the edge. The surprising part has been the play in the middle of the defense with defensive lineman Art Jones, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and safety James Ihedigbo. The run defense ranks No. 6 in the NFL, although I wouldn't describe the Ravens as dominant in this area. The Ravens can't expect to shut down Peterson. The key is containing him and keeping him under 120 yards.

While the focus is undoubtedly on Peterson, the other storyline is the Vikings' starting quarterback position, which has been in flux all season and remains up in the air for Sunday. Is there a drop-off if Matt Cassel has to replace Christian Ponder against the Ravens?

Goessling: I really don't think so; the Vikings' passing game, in some ways, has functioned better with Cassel than it has with anyone else all season. He's still the only Vikings quarterback to throw for more than 240 yards in a game, and he just looks more assertive commanding the offense than Ponder does. Greg Jennings has his only three touchdown catches from Cassel, and part of that, I think, is that Cassel gets the ball out quickly and finds Jennings in stride better than Ponder can. Jennings needs a quarterback who will give him room to run after the catch, and Cassel has done that effectively. If he starts, there's no reason he can't be as productive or more productive than Ponder.

After winning a Super Bowl and getting his big contract, Joe Flacco doesn't look the part of an elite quarterback right now. Can he turn it around against a Minnesota pass defense that's been pretty inept all year?

Hensley: Flacco has been slowly turning around his season lately, and he could be on the verge of a big game against the Vikings. One of the reasons why the Ravens have won their past two games is Flacco's ability to stretch the field again. Baltimore's offensive line has been giving Flacco a safer pocket, which has allowed him time to find the likes of Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones deep downfield. Flacco has to like what he saw on tape from last Sunday's game, when Josh McCown threw for 355 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota.

Josh Gordon and Aqib TalibUSA TODAY SportsJosh Gordon is one player Aqib Talib and the New England defense need to keep an eye on.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The last time the New England Patriots faced the Cleveland Browns, it wasn’t pretty. The Browns posted a resounding 34-14 win.

Eric Mangini was the Browns’ coach at the time, Mike Holmgren was the president and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was a still-learning-the-ropes rookie whose miscue in attempting to field a kickoff contributed to a forgettable on-the-road disaster for New England.

The year was 2010, and that game turned out to be a high point for Mangini before he ultimately was fired at the end of the season. The Browns later hired Pat Shurmur as coach, but he was let go after two seasons, in part because of a change in ownership and front-office structure.

The new Browns regime, led by CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi, has since talked about building a sustainable team with the long haul in mind. One model it'd be happy to emulate is that of the Patriots, who just clinched their 13th straight winning season, three shy of the post-NFL-merger record set by the Cowboys and 49ers.

Here to break down the matchup are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Pat McManamon (Browns):

Reiss: Pat, let’s open it up with a big-picture look at the Browns. Lombardi worked under Bill Belichick with the Browns in the early-to-mid 1990s, and that connection has been well documented. I often enjoyed reading and listening to Lombardi’s media-based analysis, and now he’s back in the team-building business. How would you describe his first year on the job and how the Browns are positioning themselves for sustainability?

McManamon: Well, Mike, the short term is pretty gruesome. Last weekend’s loss to Jacksonville was as bad as any since 1999, and the team is an emotional mess. Cleveland actually believed it could and would take a step forward this season, but in all likelihood the Browns are headed for their sixth season in a row with four or five wins. How’s that for consistency and sustainability? The only thing the Browns confirmed this season is they’d rather not have Brandon Weeden at quarterback next season. Other than that, they’re as muddled today as they were when training camp started. The drafted players have not helped, there is no run game, there is no second receiver and the defense let Chad Henne go 80 yards for a game-winning drive on Sunday. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln ...

Mike, as you say, the Patriots are a model of sustainability. Part of that reason is they hit on Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. How much of their sustained success is due to Brady and how much is due to other factors? And can you say what those factors are that the Browns might be lacking?

Reiss: Brady is a huge factor in what the Patriots have accomplished, as his excellence helps mask other deficiencies. At the same time, it was no fluke that in the one year he tore his ACL on the 15th offensive play of the season (2008), the Patriots finished with an 11-5 record. That accomplishment continues to look better as the years go by, especially when looking at a team like the 2013 Packers and how they are struggling without injured starter Aaron Rodgers in recent weeks.

Belichick has built a strong program from top to bottom, and one of the key parts of it is depth. Many teams talk about building a roster that is strong from 1 to 61 (53-man roster plus eight-man practice squad), but it takes discipline to follow through on it. Some unpopular decisions have to be made at times for clubs that take that approach. This year is a good example, as the Patriots have lost some big-time players on defense (Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo) to season-ending injuries, but it hasn’t sunk their season. This is an exceptionally well-coached team, and the players, for the most part, buy in to the team concept.

So, no doubt, it’s huge to have someone like Brady to build around. And that’s a position that I’d expect, from this faraway view, the Browns to target in 2014. That said, quarterback Brian Hoyer was the backup in New England from 2009 to 2011, and it looked like he created a spark for the Browns before tearing his ACL. What do you think his future looks like in Cleveland?

McManamon: He did create a spark, and at this moment he probably heads into 2014 as the Browns' starter. Hoyer is recovering and rehabbing aggressively from his surgery, to the point that no limp or sign of the injury is visible when he walks. Hoyer played with smarts and savvy, and played well. But the problem is that he played only two games, which is hardly a fair sample size. So Hoyer should expect competition, whether it’s another veteran free agent, whether it’s Jason Campbell returning or whether it’s a drafted player. Hoyer will be back, but he’ll have to prove himself again.

Mike, Josh Gordon is the Browns' lone bright spot. His 498 receiving yards over the past two games is an NFL record. He’s also the first to have more than 200 yards in a season. Am I correct in assuming that Aqib Talib will cover him, and what do you think Belichick will do to disrupt Gordon’s route running? The guy is so big and strong that it’s extremely hard to rough him up at the line the way Belichick likes to do.

Reiss: One thing Belichick often says is that if a defense decides it’s going to take away something from an offense, it usually can. It’s just a matter of how many resources the defense wants to devote to do so because it will weaken itself in other areas. Several times this season, we’ve seen Talib match up against the opponent’s top receiver, and outside of one game, Nov. 18 at Carolina against Steve Smith, he has been excellent. So it makes sense to think that would be a matchup the Patriots consider, in addition to devoting safety help to Gordon’s side of the field, if they feel that strongly about Gordon’s big-play ability. It doesn’t look like the Browns have many other top weapons that could make that type of plan hurt.

Pat, if we go back to our early-season predictions, which show that the term “expert” should be taken lightly in my case, I picked the Browns as a surprise playoff team in part because I thought their defense would carry them. Call it my mistake by the Lake. Even as they are building with 2014 in mind, which seemed to be the plan from the get-go, I thought they’d be further along this year. So why the struggles?

McManamon: Pretty simple -- they were overrated. The Browns have some decent players, and one guy pushing to be great (Joe Haden), but they don’t have a great player yet. Combine that with learning a new system and an offense that has turned the ball over 11 times the past three games, and struggles will follow. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton has backed up his claims about his guys with numbers, but at some point the old adage “stats are for losers” comes into play. No defense that gives up an 80-yard touchdown drive to the 32nd-ranked offense can call itself great, or even good.

Mike, on paper, this is a huge mismatch. Do you see any way Brady or Belichick kicks this away and lets the Browns steal this game?

Reiss: I don’t, Pat, but let’s toss out a scenario that could give the Browns their best chance. They would have to possess the ball, playing keep-away from Brady, and somehow come up with a “bonus” score on either defense or special teams. The Patriots’ defense has looked vulnerable the past two games, so it’s not like this is an invincible unit that can’t be exploited in certain areas. But given the quarterback questions the Browns have entering this one, and their general struggles overall, it’s just hard for me to see how they can escape Gillette Stadium -- traditionally one of the toughest places to win at this time of year -- with a victory unless Belichick decided to give his pal Lombardi an early holiday gift to take some of the pressure off him.

McGloin-LandryGetty ImagesRaiders QB Matt McGloin will test his mettle against Dawan Landry and the Jets' defense.
The New York Jets and Oakland Raiders are a lot alike. They're rebuilding teams, slumping and struggling for answers at the quarterback position -- and yet they remain mathematically alive in the AFC wild-card race. Go figure.

The old AFL rivals meet Sunday at MetLife Stadium. The Jets (5-7) have dropped three straight; the Raiders (4-8) have lost four of their past five, plus 12 straight in the Eastern time zone, dating to 2009. Jets team reporter Rich Cimini and Raiders team reporter Paul Gutierrez break down the matchup.

Cimini: Paul, let's start at quarterback. Terrelle Pryor got hurt, creating an opportunity for Matt McGloin. I bet casual NFL fans didn't know anything about him until recently, but he's actually put up decent numbers. He's Ken Stabler compared to Geno Smith. Tell me about McGloin and his game.

Gutierrez: Matt McGloin is your prototypical undersized, undrafted, chip-on-the-shoulder signal-caller who was invited to Napa, Calif., merely as a fourth arm, a "camp arm" who, through attrition, outlasted a fourth-round draft pick in Tyler Wilson, a purported big-money franchise quarterback in Matt Flynn and a new-jack, zone-read specialist in Terrelle Pryor for whom the term "moxie" was apparently invented. Whew ... hope that makes sense. Truly, though, McGloin is your standard pocket passer who is not afraid to step up in the pocket to make a throw and take a hit.

It's the skill set that Dennis Allen obviously prefers, and with a steady offensive line and sound running game, it's what works in this staff's offense under coordinator Greg Olson. Because what the offense loses with Pryor and his legs (remember that 93-yard TD run he had against the Steelers?), it gains in field vision. Many think it's actually a wash, though. Pryor, now that his sprained right knee, which he actually reaggravated on the MetLife Stadium turf against the Giants on Nov. 10, is healed, might give the Raiders a better shot against the Jets' defense. Allen has even said he wants to see Pryor on the field.

Let's stick with quarterbacks: Is Geno Smith the future in Gotham, or was his being named the starter -- again -- that vaunted kiss of death? And what about Mark Sanchez's prospects next year? Seems like the Jets have set themselves up for a QB controversy for the foreseeable future, with little to gain.

Cimini: It's "Groundhog Day," Paul. The Jets went through the same uncertainty a year ago. The names have changed, but it's the same story: The Jets don't have a definitive answer at quarterback. Smith was rushed into this job when Sanchez got hurt in the preseason, and after showing some early promise, he crashed back to reality. Smith has the physical tools, but he's overwhelmed. The game is too big for him, and he needs to spend some time on the bench to gather himself, but that hasn't happened because the Jets don't have a proven backup. Matt Simms is the Jets' version of McGloin, and David Garrard (remember him?) has been stuck in mothballs for three years.

So, basically, they're going to ride it out with Smith to see if he's the future. I think they already know the answer to that question; Smith is putting up some historically bad numbers. Sanchez, recovering from shoulder surgery, will be playing elsewhere next year. Hey, maybe he'll be in Oakland.

We're talking about two bad offenses here, but at least the Raiders saw some flashes from Andre Holmes. Is he for real and do they have playmakers to exploit the Jets' suspect secondary?

Gutierrez: I see what you did there with the Sanchize-to-Oaktown ploy. And, yeah, maybe a change of scenery back to his native West Coast would do him good. Well played, sir. Well played. As far as Andre Holmes goes, though, he might actually personify these Raiders -- that is, he's an undrafted player who washed out in two other spots and was thus undervalued (think of the Raiders' O.co Coliseum roomie, Billy Beane's Moneyball Athletics). Holmes looked legit against the Cowboys, his most recent team, in catching seven passes for 136 yards after coming into the game with five catches for 76 yards ... in his career. He's a big target at 6-foot-4 and not a burner from the days of Al Davis yore. But we're talking an extremely small sample size.

The Raiders' "playmakers" are guys who really have been either (A) phased out or (B) injured or (C) both. Paging Pryor, running back Darren McFadden and receivers Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore. McFadden, though, might actually get a lot of run in the Meadowlands (they still call it that, right?). At least they don't have to deal with Revis Island (I joke, I joke).

Still, the Jets' defense as a whole can be good and the Raiders are going to have to account for rookie defensive end Sheldon Richardson. Has he hit the "rookie wall" yet, or is that merely something for other rookies to worry about?

Cimini: Oakland's Holmes is doing better than the Jets' Holmes (Santonio), but that's a story for another day. As for Richardson, his pass-rushing production has dipped a bit, but he remains a good, every-down player. He plays the run very well, which has surprised many because that was supposedly the knock on him when he came out of college.

If I were Dennis Allen, I'd be more concerned about Muhammad Wilkerson, who has a team-high 10 sacks and deserves to be in the conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. At 315 pounds, Wilkerson is mostly an interior player, but he moves around. He lines up over the center, the guard ... anywhere. He's by far the best player on defense, probably the best player on the team. He's the key to the best run defense in the league.

Speaking of defense, I'm curious to see how the Raiders attack Smith. Most teams just load the box, overplay the run and dare Smith to beat them with his arm. Clearly, the Jets' receivers don't scare anyone. How do you see the Raiders playing this game?

Gutierrez: I see the Raiders sticking to their M.O. of blitzing with aplomb, racking up sacks early, building a quick lead and then trying desperately to finish out a game strong. That's been their formula (the jumping-out-to-a-lead part, not the blowing-leads bit) and I would imagine they would continue that line of thinking, but keeping someone to spy Smith, someone like a wily old vet in Charles Woodson, while being mindful of slant passes. That absolutely killed them against Tennessee.

The key for the Raiders on defense is to not get so worn down by halftime. It bit them in the season opener at Indianapolis, at home against Washington and Tennessee, and on the road against the Giants and Dallas. At least the Raiders will be coming off a long break, having last played on Thanksgiving, so a short week won't be readily available as an excuse this time, as it was against the Cowboys.

Fairley/FolesGetty ImagesNick Fairley and the Lions' defense will have their hands full slowing down Eagles QB Nick Foles.
The Philadelphia Eagles have exceeded expectations so far in coach Chip Kelly's first season. The Detroit Lions have arguably fallen a little short of expectations in coach Jim Schwartz's fifth season.

When the two 7-5 teams meet in Philadelphia, it won't matter how they got there. The Eagles and Lions are both in position to win their division titles, and a win Sunday will be a major step toward achieving that goal.

The game will feature two potent but very different offenses. Nick Foles may not be the bona fide franchise quarterback that Matthew Stafford is, but he is the hottest quarterback in the league over the past five weeks. The Eagles' defense may lack stars like Ndamukong Suh, but it is playing better every week as a group. Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush will provide its toughest test since the Denver disaster back in September.

ESPN.com reporters Michael Rothstein, who covers the Lions, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, took a look at some key issues in a game with major playoff implications.

Sheridan: The NFC North race has been deeply affected by quarterback injuries, with Chicago's Jay Cutler and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers out of the picture lately. Despite a healthy and productive Stafford, the Lions haven't been able to separate from the rest. What are some key reasons for that?

Rothstein: It starts with turnovers and inconsistency. The Lions' defensive line, the same group that dominated on Thanksgiving, largely disappeared in some earlier games. Turnovers are a major issue, too. The Lions have three or more turnovers in four of their past five games. Against Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, that was a key factor in those losses. Detroit is a very talented team that continues to feel like a group still finding out exactly how it wants to play. But it does start with those turnovers. A couple of the Lions' players even told me after Thursday's game -- by far the Lions' best performance this season -- that turnovers were still a major issue. And Detroit committed four of them and still scored 40 points. If they do that Sunday, the Lions will be leaving with a loss.

Speaking of turnovers, Foles appears allergic to mistakes, especially turnovers, this season. Is it all fitting in with Chip Kelly's system? Maturation? Magic? Something different? What has turned him into this quarterback this season?

Sheridan: There is almost certainly an element of magic involved. By that I mean that Foles has had a bit of luck on his side. He threw two would-be interceptions to Patrick Peterson Sunday, for instance. DeSean Jackson batted one away and a penalty negated the other. But there is no doubt that Foles has played extremely well and with remarkable poise and confidence. He has fully embraced and absorbed Kelly's offense, which includes sound pass protection and a great running game -- two of every quarterback's best friends. Foles has been accurate and unafraid to trust his receivers to make plays on the ball. If you make good decisions and sharp throws in a well-designed offense, it turns out pretty much like what we've seen from Foles the past two months.

The Eagles felt pretty good about running their offense effectively against good Tampa Bay and Arizona defenses. The Lions seem like a new challenge with that front of theirs. Was the Thanksgiving game a sign the Lions have gotten it going on defense or are they just as likely to disappear in the face of Kelly's uptempo, unorthodox offense?

Rothstein: It's tough to say because the Lions haven't really seen this type of offense before, although I'm guessing the three younger guys on the line -- tackle Nick Fairley and ends Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor -- are somewhat familiar from their recent college days. Getting pressure with the front four -- and, at least last week, well-timed blitzes from linebackers and safeties -- is still going to be the key for any Detroit defensive success. And doing it for one week doesn't make it a guarantee that it'll continue. Even though he doesn't have huge stats, Suh has been a consistent force up front and if he and Fairley can get going early, it opens things up for Ansah on the outside.

The pressure key, though, is more important for Detroit's cornerbacks. The Lions have been very inconsistent there this season, but they were able to take the first read away from Green Bay's Matt Flynn a lot. By doing that, it gave the defensive line an extra second to get to Flynn so it all worked together. But it has been a matter of consistency, which the Lions have not had there this season.

Since we were talking about the Detroit defensive line, the Lions have been extremely good against the run. They haven't allowed a rushing touchdown in two months and have gone six straight games holding teams under 70 yards rushing total. Some of this is the proliferation of passing in the NFL, but considering LeSean McCoy's numbers this season, how much do the Eagles try running before sticking with Foles and his arm?

Sheridan: One of the most striking differences between Kelly and Andy Reid, a guy I covered for 14 years and respect a lot, is that Kelly is very committed to the run. He sticks with it almost no matter what, with the belief that it will eventually wear a defense down. Reid would abandon the run game after two or three unsuccessful plays. Early in the season, McCoy was on pace to break the NFL record for rushing attempts in a season. He is now on pace for 100 fewer carries than that, about 310. That's because Foles' success in the passing game has allowed Kelly to be more balanced. A few teams -- the Giants and Cowboys, especially -- were able to shut the Eagles' running game down. Arizona did a good job of it in the second half. But Kelly hasn't completely abandoned it in any of those games. If that changes Sunday, it will mean he really thinks the Lions' defense is invulnerable to it.

The Eagles were moderately successful keeping Larry Fitzgerald from going off last week. Johnson is another matter. Has anyone been really effective in stopping Megatron and, if so, how did they go about it? Does it take an elite corner or an elite scheme? A drone strike?

Rothstein: The team that has been most successful in limiting Johnson this season has been ... the Detroit Lions. There have been times during games this season when the Lions have seemed to go away from the best receiver in football, most notably in the second half against Pittsburgh, when he had no catches. Darrelle Revis has been pretty good on Johnson as well, but for the most part, it takes a really good scheme to keep the ball out of his hands. Unless you have a corner like Revis, usually some sort of bracketing of Johnson can be effective. But the Lions are OK with that happening because it opens up the field for Bush and Nate Burleson. That was a big reason the Lions got Bush -- just for that.

This kind of leads into my last question. Philadelphia's pass defense has been both poor and porous this season. Do they have any sort of manpower to match up with Johnson -- and to a lesser extent Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, Kris Durham and Bush -- or could this be another game like he had against the Cowboys or Bengals?

Sheridan: Before getting to the answer (spoiler alert: It's no, the Eagles can't match up with Johnson), let me clarify a bit. It's true that the numbers show the Eagles to be terrible as far as yards allowed. They really have given up vast chunks of yardage. But they are keeping teams out of the end zone, and that is giving the offense breathing room to function.

While insisting the Eagles' defense is better than its stats, I have to say this matchup could be the one that breaks some of those trends. Stafford is better than Carson Palmer and Johnson is better than anyone, so this may be the week the yards translate into more points. The Eagles' strength right now is their front seven, and if they can get pressure on Stafford and force him into some of the mistakes he is prone to making, that will go a long way toward covering up the mismatches on the back end.

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