NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 17 Double Coverage

Double Coverage: Rams at Seahawks

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
11:25
AM ET
Zac Stacy and Marshawn LynchGetty ImagesThe Rams are trying to play the role of spoiler, while the Seahawks are looking to lock up the top seed in the NFC.
This is it, one game left and everything on the line for the Seattle Seahawks' regular-season goals of the NFC West title and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The Seahawks, 12-3, can reach those goals, no matter what any other team does this weekend, if they defeat the St. Louis Rams on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

Some questions will be answered in this game. Are the Seahawks the team that dominated the New Orleans Saints on a Monday night to go 11-1, or are they the team that has lost two of its past three games and struggled on offense?

And the Rams, 7-8, are a team that did a great job of shutting down the Seattle offense earlier this year in a Monday night game at St. Louis, which the Seahawks pulled out 14-9 with a goal-line stand at the end.

ESPN.com's Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down how this game shapes up:

Blount: Everything is on the line this weekend for the Seahawks, Nick, but I know the Rams would love to end the season with a .500 record and knock the Seahawks out of the top spot in the playoffs. CenturyLink will be rocking, to say the least. What will it take for the Rams to win this one?

Wagoner: I don't think the Rams have to stray too far from what they did in the first meeting, a blueprint they've followed in every win they've had since Week 5. That means pound the running game, stop the run, rush the passer and win the turnover battle. That sounds like a lot of steps and many of them won't be easy, especially against the Seahawks, but that's been the formula and nothing is going to change this week.

The Rams gave Seattle all it wanted in that first meeting on a Monday night following that plan and I expect them to do the same on Sunday.

Terry, in the first meeting the Rams kept it close with a dominant pass rush. Obviously, the Seahawks were missing some key pieces in that game but Robert Quinn & Co. have only gotten better. How has Seattle's offensive line come together and has it done enough to make you think it can have more success protecting Russell Wilson this time around?

Blount: They couldn't be much worse than they were that night, Nick, giving up seven sacks. The Seahawks were playing without both starting tackles that night: Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and right tackle Breno Giacomini. Both will start Sunday, although Okung still has a problem with his toe injury. But even a limited Okung is better than anyone else Seattle could play at left tackle. Also, rookie offensive linemen Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey have a lot more game experience now and are better prepared to play at a high level. So the answer is, yes, they will be better, but the offensive line remains the weakest area on the team.

Nick, the Rams certainly have played better than most people expected with Kellen Clemens at quarterback. What have they done well that has surprised you?

Wagoner: I have been mildly surprised by how much success they have had running the ball with Clemens at quarterback, especially given that teams are still loading up to stop the run with eight or nine men in the box. What's more, the Rams have had that success running it with a rotation of offensive linemen because of injuries.

Really, though, Clemens himself has surprised me the most. I expected him to be able to manage games and, in a best-case scenario, I figured he'd complete about 50-55 percent of his passes and not turn the ball over. He's been better than that, especially the past two weeks. He isn't afraid to push the ball down the field, but really hasn't made many bad decisions when doing that and he's completing plenty of passes that aren't just checkdowns. I knew he'd be a great leader and influence on his young teammates. I just didn't expect him to be as solid as he's been in the more tangible areas. Clemens struggled in that first meeting but I expect better from him this time since he's now got some games under his belt.

Terry, one thing that jumped out from the Monday night game was the relative ease with which the Rams and Zac Stacy ran the ball. I see the Seahawks' overall run defense has remained in the middle of the pack since. Obviously the dominant pass defense makes the whole thing go, but is the run defense a concern heading toward this game and the postseason?

Blount: As concerns go, this one would be a few rungs down the list. Part of the problem came when middle linebacker Bobby Wagner was out with a high-ankle sprain, then returned too soon and didn't play well for a couple of weeks. Wagner is back playing lights out now, which has helped plug some holes in the run defense, and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane has clogged up the middle. But it's still possible at times to get some yards against Seattle on the ground because the Seahawks put so much emphasis on rushing the passer and often spread the front line out almost to the numbers.

Nick, do you sense the Rams have a bit of a chip on the shoulder about the loss in St. Louis, when the Seahawks escaped with a 14-9 victory that took a goal-line stand at the end?

Wagoner: I think there's a little bit of that but what I sense more is a chip on their shoulder based on their inability to get wins in the NFC West this season. Last year, they were 4-1-1 in the division. This year, they're 1-4 entering this game. Worse, they're assured of finishing last in the division. That's not a good place to be because Seattle and San Francisco don't appear ready to go anywhere and Arizona is clearly a force, as well.

That first meeting is a game the Rams probably should have won and they know that, but I think they like any opportunity they get to beat Seattle. Add the chance to wreck their home-field party plans and the chance to get to .500 for the first time since 2006 and this should be a very motivated team.

One more thing, the Rams have a pretty impressive resume of victories this year, with wins against Arizona, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Chicago. Beating Seattle would be the icing on the cake as they build toward 2014.

Terry, the Rams under coach Jeff Fisher have played Pete Carroll's Seahawks three times, with the largest margin of victory being Seattle's seven-point win in the 2012 season finale. The Rams view Seattle as a tough, division rival. Have they earned similar respect from the Seahawks entering an important game from the Seattle side?

Blount: Absolutely Nick. The Seahawks honestly believe any NFC West opponent is tougher than anyone else they play because the games are more physical than other games. Carroll has the utmost respect for Fisher and his ability to devise defensive schemes to counter what Seattle tries to do on offense. And receiver Golden Tate, of waving bye-bye infamy earlier this year in St. Louis, said both teams love to talk trash to each other and try to out-man the other guy in one-on-one matchups. But Tate said that's a sign of respect for how much the Rams have improved.

Double Coverage: Eagles-Cowboys

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
11:00
AM ET
Kyle Orton and Nick FolesAP Photo, Getty ImagesDallas QB Kyle Orton, left, and the Eagles' Nick Foles didn't open the season as starters, but are expected to be leading their teams Sunday night with the NFC East title and a playoff berth at stake.
IRVING, Texas -- The NFC East title is at stake Sunday at AT&T Stadium when the Dallas Cowboys play the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowboys have been in this spot for the past three seasons, but for the first time the are likely to be without quarterback Tony Romo, who sources tell ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen is not expected to play. The Eagles were not expected to be in this situation in Chip Kelly’s first season.

ESPN.com NFL reporters Todd Archer and Phil Sheridan dissect the matchup in this week’s Double Coverage.

Archer: Nick Foles was awful when these teams met earlier in the season. Where has that guy gone?

Phil Sheridan: This is the great mystery of the Eagles’ season. Theories abound. Foles had been on the Eagles’ injury report the week before that with a groin injury. Was it the groin? He left the game with a concussion. Had he suffered it earlier and been affected by that? He didn’t play well in a bowl game at Arizona. Did he shrivel up in big games? Did Jerry Jones have his family tied up in a dungeon?

It was just such an outlier of a performance from anything else he’s done this season, it seemed like there had to be some explanation. Best guess: He had a bad day. A really bad day. And he moved on from it and hasn’t let it happen again. In his next game, he threw seven touchdown passes in Oakland. He’s been outstanding since.

We’ve heard a lot about how involved Romo has been in running the offense. How much would that change with Kyle Orton in there? And is there any way he’s ready to play at all?

Archer: Honestly, I don’t believe it changes all that much. The scheme will be the same. What they will miss is Romo’s ability to make things up as things break down. That is not Orton’s game. The offensive line has played much better down the stretch, especially running the ball. The pass protection has been good enough, but needs to be better because Orton simply doesn’t move like Romo. But Orton has the arm strength to push the ball down the field, and his receivers like him even if they have not had much work with him. I’ll go back to 2010 when the Cowboys lost Romo to a collarbone injury and Jon Kitna took over. In the six games Kitna started and finished with Garrett as interim head coach, the Cowboys averaged more than 30 points a game. They need to have Orton trust the system the way Kitna trusted the system.

How much credit does Chip Kelly deserve for getting the Eagles to this point? Certainly things didn't look stable when the Cowboys visited in October.

Sheridan: Kelly deserves tons of credit. The Eagles were a smoking husk by the end of the Andy Reid era, as evidenced by their 4-12 record last season. Change was necessary, and Kelly is about as big a change as you can get. The players bought into it immediately, and they really seem to enjoy playing for him. He got a great effort from them Sunday night against the Bears, just hours after the Cowboys won and the Eagles knew they couldn’t clinch the division.

I think two things happened to account for the rough patch the Eagles hit in October. The Giants had found some ways to disrupt the Eagles’ run-blocking scheme, and the Cowboys deployed a similar approach. Also, the quarterbacks were both terrible and injured, in that order, in back-to-back losses to the Cowboys and Giants. Kelly adjusted the run blocking, Foles came back, and the Eagles are 6-1 since.

Let me ask the flip side of the Foles question: The Cowboys didn't have DeMarcus Ware in that first game. They dominated Foles and held LeSean McCoy to 55 rushing yards. What happened to those guys?

Archer: Injuries have happened. The Cowboys have lost Sean Lee to hamstring and neck injuries, and he’s not likely to play Sunday because of the neck. Morris Claiborne has missed six of the past seven games with a hamstring injury. He might play Sunday, but he’s not been effective when he has played. Ware has not been anywhere close to form because of a variety of injuries and just poor play. Jason Hatcher has slumped after a solid start. Brandon Carr has slumped, too. Bruce Carter has not played well. Are you sensing a trend? To me there is a huge crisis of confidence with this defense from a player and coach standpoint. I don’t know if the players trust the coaches, and I don’t know if the coaches can dial up changes to stop anybody. But they can hang their hat on that first game as they enter this one, so we won’t have to bring up Kelly’s collegiate success vs. Monte Kiffin as much.

LeSean McCoy for MVP? It sure seems like he's perfect for what Kelly wants to do.

Sheridan: Bears coach Marc Trestman nailed it after McCoy went for 133 rushing yards Sunday night: “I don’t think it would matter what offensive system he plays in. Chip has done a tremendous job putting his offense in, no doubt about it, but he is just a great back.”

One of the perennial gripes about Andy Reid was that he called running plays about as often as he turned down a second helping. That was true when he had Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook and McCoy. But McCoy was effective in Reid’s offense. It’s just that Kelly loves to run the ball, and his play designs reliably get McCoy into the secondary with one man to beat. And McCoy can beat almost anybody one-on-one.

MVP? Guessing the Sportsman of the Year Peyton Manning already has his name engraved on the trophy, but McCoy certainly belongs in the conversation.

What is the sense you get of the Cowboys' mindset? Do they see the blowout in Chicago, the collapse against Green Bay and the struggle at Washington as three bad games in a row? Or does pulling out the win Sunday give them a feeling they're back on the right track? And are they right?

Archer: If you asked me this after the Redskins game, I would say they are riding high. It was the kind of win that can carry a team emotionally. But with the Romo news, I think that deflates them some. This team has shown a resiliency. They bounced back after tough losses to Denver, Detroit and Green Bay. I’ll give Garrett credit for that. He has a mentally tough team. He just doesn’t have a terribly talented team. Romo creates so much for this offense that they will need others to raise their games. It’s possible. They still have Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten and Miles Austin on offense. That’s not a shabby group by any stretch. And Orton is smart enough to know what he isn’t. I think with the Romo news coming early in the week, it will allow them to prepare knowing he probably can’t play.

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Colin Kaepernick and Karlos DansbyGetty Images, AP PhotoColin Kaepernick and the 49ers will face Karlos Dansy and an improved Arizona defense in a game with playoff implications.
It doesn't get much bigger than this.

The Arizona Cardinals need to take care of business with a win over the San Francisco 49ers and need the New Orleans Saints to lose in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. While San Francisco has already clinched a playoff spot, it needs to win and needs the Seattle Seahawks to lose in order to clinch the NFC West title.

A lot is on the line, so don't expect anyone to lie down in this one.

ESPN.com's Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson discussed Sunday's big game in Glendale.

Weinfuss: It seems like the 49ers are finally hitting a groove this season. How has this team changed from the first half of the season, and are they peaking at the right time? If so, how far can it take them?

Williamson: This team has been pretty solid all year long. They've won 10 of their last 12 games and they've won five straight. The 49ers did stumble early when they started 1-2, but for the most part have been among the best teams in the NFL.

Josh, do you think the Cardinals are better equipped to beat the 49ers than they were in October when San Francisco won 32-20 at Candlestick Park?

Weinfuss: I do and mainly because they have a better understanding of the offense, and the defense has improved since Week 6. This offense finally gets the nuances of the scheme, which has allowed quarterback Carson Palmer to mix up short and long passes with a running game that's changed how the Cardinals are playing. The offensive line is giving Palmer more time and it's paying off.

With Michael Crabtree back, what does he add to this Niners' offense?

Williamson: He changes everything. Crabtree has been back for the past four games and his impact was immediate. And he may not even be 100 percent healed after tearing his Achilles in May. Still, Crabtree and quarterback Colin Kaepernick have a great chemistry. It also makes fellow receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis more dangerous because teams have to worry about Crabtree.

Josh, speaking of Davis, he had a monster game against the Cardinals in October with eight catches for 180 yards. Do you think the Cardinals can contain him Sunday?

Weinfuss: Contain might be the best word here. They're not going to flat-out stop him. But as the Cardinals' defense has shown in recent weeks, it's been able to contain tight ends, limiting players like Jared Cook, Zach Ertz and Delanie Walker to about 50 yards per game against Arizona. The defense has grown and become better than it was in the first half of the season, as was proved Sunday against Seattle.

What needs to happen for this 49ers team to make another run back to the Super Bowl? Are they built for that type of January again?

Williamson: I think so, yes. Many people think this is a deeper team, particularly on defense, than the 2012 NFC champions. The key for the 49ers is winning at Seattle in the postseason. For the 49ers to get to the Super Bowl, they will very likely have to go through CenturyLink Field.

Josh, speaking of winning at Seattle, do you think that win Sunday will push the Cardinals against the 49ers or could they suffer a letdown?

Weinfuss: That's a great question, but the one thing about Arizona this season is that it's stayed steady no matter how good or how bad the Cards are playing, which is a direct reflection of coach Bruce Arians. The Cards know what's at stake, and to them, beating Seattle was just another hurdle to clear. In reality, they didn't need to beat Seattle to make the playoffs, but it was better that they did. Arizona has known San Francisco is the game it needs to win in order to really give itself the best shot at making the postseason.

Edwin Baker and Jason WorildsAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesCan Edwin Baker and the Browns bury the slim playoff hopes of Jason Worilds and the Steelers?
The Browns and Steelers finish the regular season Sunday at Heinz Field and renew what had once been one of the most contentious rivalries in the NFL.

The rivalry took a hiatus after Art Modell moved the Browns franchise to Baltimore, and the luster hasn’t returned to it since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999. The Steelers have lost to the Browns just five times since 1999, and Cleveland hasn’t won in Pittsburgh since 2003.

The Browns will try to snap a nine-game losing streak Sunday at Heinz Field and extinguish what remains of the Steelers’ playoff hopes. NFL Nation reporters Pat McManamon (Browns) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.

Scott Brown: Pat, what type of effort and performance do you expect to see out of the Browns on Sunday?

Pat McManamon: Well Scott, you’ve seen how these late-season games between these teams have gone. This should not be any different than the past four -- which were ugly. It also should be pretty similar to what we saw against the Jets. The Browns were lifeless, lackluster and gave every impression they have their cars packed and ready to get out of town -- if not physically, then mentally.

A team that loses constantly and starts losing at the end of the season has a hard time pulling it together. All are true of the Browns. The coaches are trying, but the players ... well ... this could be like a lot of season finales against the Steelers: ugly.

Do folks in Pittsburgh marvel at the Browns' annual struggles? It’s like the winter [solstice]. It comes every year.

Brown: I think older fans who remember the Browns teams before they were uprooted are actually a little bit wistful about what Cleveland’s struggles have meant for this rivalry. It has become too one-sided for the Browns to even be in the conversation of the Steelers’ chief rival, and that is sad given the proximity of the two working-class cities, the Browns’ history and how passionate their fans are despite the franchise’s struggles since the NFL returned to Cleveland.

I wonder if younger fans here look at the Browns the way they did the Pirates when the latter endured two decades of losing. They don’t see the tradition, the great fan support. They see a franchise that can’t get out of its own way and is not one to be taken seriously. All of that could change if the Browns continue to build on what appears to be a solid nucleus and add the obvious missing piece sooner rather than later.

Speaking of which, how close are the Browns to winning and is it simply a matter of getting the right quarterback to pull everything together?

McManamon: A few weeks ago it would have been convenient to say the Browns were a quarterback away. That was the simple solution. It also was the wrong solution. A quarterback is needed, yes, but so is a lot more. And once the Browns let center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward leave via free agency -- there has been no effort to sign them -- there will be two more self-created holes to fill.

The Browns need a quarterback, a running back, a fullback, a second and third receiver, two or three offensive linemen, a second corner, a safety and perhaps another inside linebacker. Or two. If that doesn’t sound like a two- or three-year rebuilding project, it’s hard to say what does.

The Steelers need a ton of help to reach the playoffs. Do you think it’s possible?

Brown: It’s possible, but still very unlikely. First things first, the Steelers have to take care of their own business and beat the Browns. I do think they will win, but it is anything but a guarantee. The Steelers have had some bad losses this season, and anyone who thinks the Browns can’t add another one to their total needs only to be referred to games against the Vikings, Raiders and Dolphins.

If the Steelers won any one of those three games they wouldn’t have needed nearly as much help as they do to get into the playoffs. As it stands, the Steelers need to beat the Browns and also for the Jets, Bengals and Chiefs to win. It sounds like the Chiefs are going to rest some of their key starters, so even if the three things that need to happen in the 1 p.m. ET games come through, the Steelers might not get the cooperation they need from Kansas City in San Diego. I will say this: The Steelers would love to take their chances on the Chiefs in the late-afternoon game, but I’m not sure they get wins from both the Jets and the Bengals.

Pat, given the futility that has plagued the Browns’ organization, do you think it ever reaches a point where a significant numbers of fans will desert the team because they are so fed up with losing?

McManamon: What’s amazing is it hasn’t happened yet, Scott. The Browns treat their fans like sheep, and the sheep just keep coming back. Six years in a row of 11-loss seasons add up to six years in a row of frustration. Empty promise has built on empty promise. A good portion of the fan base does seem turned off, but just as many are (again) excited about having a high draft pick. It’s mind-boggling. The Browns smack their fans in the face over and over and over, yet they keep coming back to be smacked again. Call them loyal, call them lemmings. They just keep coming back.

What’s the future for Pittsburgh? The Steelers seem to be in a period of transition. Can they do it on the fly and still continue the winning tradition?

Brown: I’m a lot more optimistic for the Steelers’ future than I was a couple of months ago. The offense has really come together, and I think it has a chance to carry the team while the Steelers retool their defense. The Steelers have a lot of youth on offense, starting with rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, and the line is relatively young too. If it could ever stay healthy, it could develop into a strength, and the Steelers may take a left tackle with one of their top picks in the 2014 draft.

The biggest reason I don’t think the Steelers are facing a rebuilding period: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still in his prime and has played at a very high level this season. If the Steelers’ record was better, we’d be talking about this probably being Roethlisberger’s best season, and he said earlier this week that he feels his best football is still ahead of him.

Pat, if I’m convinced of anything in the NFL it is this: If you have a quarterback, you have a chance. Look at the respective paths the Browns and Steelers have taken since the former passed on Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft to take tight end Kellen Winslow. It is a case study in how important quarterbacks are in the NFL.

Double Coverage: Redskins at Giants

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
10:00
AM ET
Eli Manning and London Fletcher AP Photo, Getty ImagesThe Giants' Eli Manning, left, and Washington's London Fletcher hope their teams end on a high note.
For die-hards only, the 6-9 New York Giants will play host to the 3-12 Washington Redskins in a 1 p.m. ET game Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The game will do each team the favor of completing its season. ESPN.com reporters Dan Graziano (Giants) and John Keim (Redskins) break down the matchup.

Graziano: The extent to which things have imploded in Washington since we were there a month ago is awe-inspiring. How do you think all of the controversy is affecting the mood in the locker room and the performance on the field, if at all?

Keim: It's probably the most frustrated locker room I've covered just because of the preseason expectations, followed by the colossal failure and mixed with the stories of the day. For a lot of the young players, it has taken a big toll, especially if this is their first taste of major NFL disappointment. Most have never experienced anything like this, with the rumors and job-security stories, and the losing. It's also their job, so they know that, if the head coach who brought them here is fired, their NFL lives might change. The older players, especially those who have been around Washington a little while, have experienced craziness here in the past. But even for them, this is a tough one.

On the field? Hard to say. I've seen a couple of players give less-than-stellar efforts, but for the most part they've played hard (with one horrible game, a loss to Kansas City). Sadly for them, they continue to lose for the same reason they have all season: They're bad. It's not as if this is a comatose locker room all the time, however. It's a pretty loose bunch, just like last season. I think, in the past couple of weeks, the countdown to the end of the season began, and some can't wait to get away.

Why have the Giants escaped this sort of drama?

Graziano: Well, the Giants seem to work hard to avoid it. Although I get the sense that Mike Shanahan likes drama in his life for some reason and Dan Snyder sort of attracts this type of nonsense, Tom Coughlin and John Mara pride themselves on cutting it all out and focusing on the week and the game at hand like a laser beam.

Where the Redskins turn over coaches like crazy, Coughlin is in his 10th year. It also helps that this is the Giants' first losing season since Coughlin's first year, in 2004, so they don't have the "same old, same old" feeling I imagine the fans and a lot of the players probably have in Washington. But the short answer is leadership. The Giants lean on established leaders at the coach and quarterback positions, and obviously there is a lot of instability in those spots right now in Washington.

Speaking of quarterback, how has Kirk Cousins looked to you in the two games since he took over as the starter for Robert Griffin III?

Keim: Cousins looked pretty good against Atlanta and rather ordinary against Dallas. He does not yet look like a player who will fetch a high draft pick, but he also does not look overwhelmed being a starter. He has been sacked only once in his two starts, compared with Griffin's 24 in his past five starts. Part of the reason stems from Cousins' ability to get rid of the ball faster and make more decisive throws.

Cousins has done a decent job in the pocket, but he's prone to interceptions, with three in two games. He has thrown eight in his career, averaging one every 19.25 throws. Lately, they have just come off bad throws -- his past three were behind the target; as a rookie, there were some bad decisions. Cousins led Washington on a late touchdown drive against Atlanta, although he missed on the two-point conversion throw. He managed just 23 yards in the fourth quarter against Dallas. So, it has been mixed for him.

How are the Giants able to function with all the injuries they have at running back and along the line, let alone win?

Graziano: I honestly have no idea how they won that game Sunday in Detroit. They couldn't do a thing on offense in the second half while down to third-stringers and fourth-stringers at guard, but they hung around and got that Will Hill interception return for a touchdown to tie it and send it into overtime, then Eli Manning managed to make enough big throws to get them in field goal range.

You've got to credit the Giants for not quitting on a lost season. They're practicing what Coughlin preaches about focusing on the game at hand and playing for pride, and you can see it in the effort. They're outmanned most weeks, and they looked it against San Diego and Seattle. But they haven't shut it down.

The pass-protection problems are real, though, and they're not going away. They're still playing backups at guard, and left tackle Will Beatty is having a rough season. Brian Orakpo toyed with Beatty a couple of weeks ago, and Beatty promised he'd be better this time. How is Orakpo physically, and do you think the Skins will be able to get their pass-rushers after Eli again?

Keim: Orakpo will be day-to-day with a strained groin that forced him to leave last week's loss to Dallas early in the fourth quarter. He says he wants to play, but he also said it was bothering him pretty bad. Plus, he's a free agent after the season. Players always say that is not an issue, but you don't want to make an injury worse while playing for a 3-12 team and about to hit the open market for the first time in your career.

Then again, after the first game against Beatty, Orakpo could look at this as a good chance to increase his sack totals. He beat Beatty inside a couple of times, even when the tackle had help outside -- how do you get beat inside in that situation? But if Orakpo doesn't play, considering what New York has at the guard spots, I'd expect some A-gap blitzes and more stunts up the middle. Any pressure, too, will be dependent on the coverage. Quarterbacks have picked apart the Washington zone coverage all season, and they haven't always forced quarterbacks to hold the ball, giving the rush more of a chance.

The Giants' defense ranks 12th in the NFL in total yards allowed but 20th in scoring. How would you rate its performance this season? And what are one or two key questions for this group entering the offseason?

Graziano: The disparity you cite has something to do with the four touchdowns (and a safety) the Giants have allowed on offense, and the four they have allowed on special teams -- not to mention the degree to which their league-leading 41 turnovers have routinely shortened the field and made things easier for opposing offenses. I think the defense has been more or less all right this season. The Giants don't cover very well, and they still don't pressure the quarterback enough, but they have played smart and tackled well and have been able to limit the damage done by big plays. They have consistently played hard, even when undermanned and not necessarily playing well. And when you stack them next to the offense, they look like Pro Bowlers.

Always good to catch up with you, John. See you Sunday.

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Peyton Manning and Nick Roach Getty Images, Icon SMIPeyton Manning has won six in a row against Nick Roach's Raiders dating back to his time in Indy.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The Denver Broncos are playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs and a chance for quarterback Peyton Manning to add to his historic, record-setting season. The Oakland Raiders are playing out the string on an 11th consecutive year without a winning season and, perhaps, the coaching life of Dennis Allen.

Opposites attract? It depends upon your perspective … and allegiance.

ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez break down Sunday’s regular-season finale at the O.co Coliseum.

Gutierrez: Manning has obviously already set the single-season touchdown record (51) and will most likely set the mark for most passing yards in a season this weekend. If and when he does that, do you think coach John Fox pulls him from the game to save him for the playoffs, or is Manning too much of a competitor to sit?

Legwold: Paul, Fox has already spent plenty of time this week telling his players all that matters is Sunday’s game, that there’s plenty of time to worry about the postseason in the postseason. His fuel has been a lackluster effort in a Thursday night loss to the Chargers two weeks ago when many with the team felt that the players were more concerned with the upcoming break that weekend than handling the business at hand. The Broncos caught a break later that weekend when the Patriots lost, so Denver still has the inside track for home-field advantage in the postseason. They need the win Sunday to guarantee it. And with the Patriots-Bills game kicking off at the same time, it’s likely that the scoreboard will dictate who sits and when, including Manning. They would like Manning to have the record, but all involved, including Manning, want home-field advantage. They want opponents to have to come in and face their no-huddle at altitude. So if they get things in hand, they will pull some players out. If it’s a close game and the Patriots are winning, or in a tight game, they’ll likely play it straight with the starters.

What do you think Dennis Allen’s future is and will this game have any bearing on that?

Gutierrez: That’s the million-dollar question, Jeff. Put it this way: Owner Mark Davis is taking a wait-and-see approach to this weekend. Obviously, he’s not thrilled with the prospect of the Raiders losing six straight and eight of nine to end the season and go 4-12 for a second consecutive year. But the understanding two years ago when Davis hired general manager Reggie McKenzie and McKenzie, in turn, hired Allen, was that this was a three- to four-year project, hence Allen getting a four-year contract. Of course, Davis has said he’s patient, but he wants to see progress, not regression. It’s hard to say the Raiders have progressed this season because while they have played hard for Allen, they have not necessarily played smart. Unless Davis already has someone else lined up, it’s hard to imagine him pulling the plug on Allen, especially if it goes against the wishes of McKenzie, who is intrinsically linked to the coach since hiring him and calling him “my guy” in January 2011.

On the surface, it seems that the Broncos losing Von Miller to a knee injury would be a crippling blow to their Super Bowl hopes. But they were 6-0 during his suspension. What’s the vibe on the Broncos’ championship designs sans Miller?

Legwold: The defense has spent much of the season listening to the idea that they are the brown socks to what is otherwise a spectacular black tuxedo. They are a bit tired of the premise and seem intent on showing people otherwise. But until they do so in a meaningful game, they’re going to continue to hear it. Even with Miller in the lineup they had not always played the way defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has said they should. They have speed, they have athleticism, but they also have a lot of specialists of sorts -- guys who do one or two things very well. It has meant the Broncos are always sending players into the game in waves, and at times all those personnel groupings have meant some coverage busts or assignment errors. But they have played better of late, and against the Texans they posted season lows for points and yards allowed. Overall, they’ll likely have to take some more risks in the pass rush without Miller, so they need their secondary to be up to that challenge in man-coverage situations. And they need Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips to lift their games. Those two players, more than most, have to make a difference as the Broncos head into the postseason without Miller.

The Raiders will have Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. Is this any kind of audition for him over the long term, and will the Raiders be in the market for a quarterback come free agency or the draft?

Gutierrez: Well, if you take any stock in what Pryor’s agent, Jerome Stanley, said earlier this week, Allen is playing Pryor in hopes of him failing. The theory being that Allen would then look justified in benching his client in favor of undrafted rookie Matt McGloin earlier in the season, after Pryor went down with a sprained MCL in his right knee. Pryor distanced himself from such talk and Allen called the claim “the stupidest thing I’ve ever frickin' heard.”

The official reason Allen gave for giving Pryor the start in the season finale? He’s healthy now, they got enough of an evaluation on McGloin -- who started the previous six games -- and Pryor gives the Raiders the best shot to win against the Broncos. In fact, Allen said he thought McGloin showed enough to be a part of the Raiders’ future. Of course, that’s with Allen as coach. He said no such thing about Pryor. So in a way, you could call this an audition of sorts. But even if the Raiders are not quite sure whether their quarterback of the future is on the roster at the moment, it’s obvious that McGloin’s skill set better fits the type of offense Allen wants to run. I expect the Raiders to be players in the market this offseason for a veteran free-agent quarterback to bridge the gap next year … unless they draft a quarterback they expect to be a franchise savior.

My 8-year-old son and my 5-year-old daughter love the song so, of course, they desperately want to know "What Does the [Coach] Fox Say"? Me, I want to know what he says regarding his midseason health scare and whether it’s changed his approach to coaching?

Legwold: Oh, what does the Fox say indeed. Well, he says “next man up" and “it’s a bigger, stronger, faster league" a lot. Because his condition -- a faulty aortic valve -- was something he was born with, it was also something he had dealt with and knew about for the past 20 years or so. He had open-heart surgery and took a four-game leave of absence. He returned in the days leading up to the Broncos’ Dec. 8 game against the Tennessee Titans. He says he feels better than ever now that he’s had the valve replaced, that he has more energy now than he’s had in a long time. So it hasn’t affected his schedule in that regard. But he has told the team’s medical staff and his family that he’s “going to be smart about it," that if he feels poorly, he will take action even if that means leaving for the day. This week the medical staff sent Fox home Monday because he had flu-like symptoms, and as Fox said “they didn’t want me infecting everyone," but he said he’s had no issues with his heart in his return and has worked his former schedule, including coaching from the sidelines.

Pro football can be a tough business when the playoffs are no longer a carrot for their efforts. How do you think the Raiders will perform in this one? Will they take more risks? Play with some emotion?

Gutierrez: As noted earlier, the Raiders have not quit on the season, as many players did a year ago. They just have not played very smart, as evidenced by their season-high 12 penalties (on 15 flags thrown at them) at the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. I think they’ll show up; I just think they hit the wall the Sunday before Thanksgiving, when Oakland’s defense allowed the Tennessee Titans to drive 80 yards in six minutes for a game-winning TD. I asked Charles Woodson what there was, exactly, to play for and he smiled sadly, tilted his head and said it was about having fun, trying to get one last W and putting something positive on tape … I assume for future potential employers. Yes, Woodson is one of 17 pending free agents. With Allen’s future potentially on the line, I expect Oakland to empty its playbook, especially with Pryor at quarterback. The question, then, is whether the Raiders leave themselves open on defense by blitzing Manning with aplomb.

Philip Rivers, Alex SmithAP Photo San Diego's Philip Rivers is seeking a season sweep over Alex Smith and the playoff-bound Chiefs.
The Kansas City Chiefs already punched their ticket into the postseason, while the San Diego Chargers cling to a sliver of hope that they can sneak into the playoffs.

The two AFC West rivals meet at Qualcomm Stadium in the final regular-season game with different things at stake.

For the 11-4 Chiefs, staying healthy will be the key task. They are locked into the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs and will likely use the game as a tuneup for the postseason, resting key players and giving younger guys some playing time.

The goal for the 8-7 Chargers is a chance to play another week. They need a win over Kansas City and losses by Baltimore and Miami to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams take a closer look the matchup:

Teicher: Eric, the Chargers have really improved on defense since playing against the Chiefs last month, allowing an average of 16 points over the four games. Where have the Chargers made the improvements that have made the difference?

Williams: The Chargers finally are healthy on that side of the ball. Outside linebackers Jarret Johnson (hand) and Melvin Ingram (knee) played together for the first time this season against the New York Giants three weeks ago. And defensive coordinator John Pagano replaced a struggling Derek Cox at cornerback with eight-year veteran Richard Marshall a week earlier against Cincinnati. The infusion of more talented veteran players created more cohesion and better communication, resulting in more consistent defensive play. San Diego also is doing a better job of creating turnovers. The Chargers have forced eight turnovers in the past four games, leading to 30 points on offense. San Diego created just nine turnovers in the first 11 games. Lastly, the Chargers are getting off of the field on third down, with a 31 percent third-down efficiency rate (13-of-42) over the past four games.

After a 9-0 start, the Chiefs have lost four of their past six games by an average margin of nine points a contest. What are the reasons for Kansas City’s recent slide?

Teicher: They’ve been playing better opponents, mainly. Of those four losses, three have come against teams already in the playoffs (Denver twice and Indianapolis). The other is against a team that could get into the postseason (Chargers). Those opponents all have Pro Bowl-quality quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Kansas City’s two wins in this stretch have come against struggling teams with struggling quarterbacks (Washington and Oakland). The Chiefs look worn out defensively. They were relentless in getting after the opposing quarterback over the first half of the season, but their pass rush has largely disappeared other than a big game against Washington. They also have tackled poorly over the past few games. The Chiefs had been scoring points in bunches, muting the effect of their defensive collapse. But even that ended last Sunday when they scored just seven points against the Colts.

The Chargers can still make the playoffs but could be eliminated before kickoff on Sunday. How would they handle the Chiefs game if indeed either the Ravens or Dolphins win?

Williams: Both head coach Mike McCoy and quarterback Philip Rivers emphasized the importance of finishing 9-7 versus 8-8. Rivers called it playing with character, while McCoy has emphasized the one-game-at-a-time approach all season. For McCoy, finishing above .500 in his first year as part of the rebuilding effort with general manager Tom Telesco would be viewed as a success. The players and coaches will have the games on in the locker room as they prepare for the Chiefs, so San Diego should know where it stands before game time. But the Chargers maintain whether they have a chance to make the playoffs or not will not have an impact on their approach to the game.

Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles is having an MVP-type season. Along with his 1,287 rushing yards, Charles has career highs in total touchdowns (19), receptions (70) and receiving yards (693). How have Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson effectively gotten Charles involved in the passing game?

Teicher: They’re playing to his strength, which is his ability to play in the open field. The Chiefs have done a nice job of using personnel groupings and formations to get Charles matched up on a linebacker. The Chiefs, of course, go to Charles every time when that happens. It took some time before they got the timing down, but the Chiefs also are using Charles more effectively of late with screen passes. He scored three touchdowns in a recent game against the Oakland Raiders on screen passes, and a fourth when the Chiefs got him matched up against a linebacker.

Whether or not the Chargers make the playoffs this year, do you see them as contenders in the AFC West next season? What are some of the necessary steps they must take to get there?

Williams: Good question. With Rivers, the Chargers have a quarterback in place to compete for an AFC West title. But San Diego needs to improve the talent on both sides of the ball. Specifically on offense, the Chargers could use an explosive receiver who can stretch the field on the perimeter, and competition at both guard spots. On defense, San Diego must add a cornerback, pass-rusher and run-stuffer inside. The Chargers also could use a kick returner/punt returner. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, one thing McCoy accomplished in his first season is establishing an identity and consistent blueprint for winning each week, which the organization can build on in 2014.

The Chiefs are locked in as the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs, but they could travel to New England, Cincinnati or Indianapolis depending on what happens on Sunday. What team is the best matchup for the Chiefs, and will they rest players with nothing on the line this weekend?

Teicher: As far as resting some key players on Sunday, that looks likely, at least to an extent. Most likely the Chiefs will start the game with most or all of their key players in the lineup and then at some point, send some of them to the bench. Quarterback Alex Smith and Charles are among the players you shouldn’t expect to see much of. As far as the best wild-card matchup for the Chiefs, I think it’s the Colts, believe it or not. Indianapolis dominated the Chiefs 23-7 at Arrowhead Stadium last week, but I still believe the Chiefs have a better chance of winning at Indianapolis than either New England or Cincinnati. The Chiefs were minus-4 in turnovers against the Colts and allowed a couple of big plays, one on a busted coverage and the other when they missed three tackles.

Double Coverage: Bills at Patriots

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
10:00
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C.J. Spiller and Tom BradyGetty ImagesTom Brady, right, and the Patriots hope to secure a postseason bye with a win vs. C.J. Spiller's Bills.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills will end the regular season the way they started it, by facing each other.

The Patriots needed a late drive to beat the Bills 23-21 in the opener, but the teams went in mostly opposite directions over the next 15 weeks.

Unfortunately for the Bills, the script is a familiar one. They haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 1999, the longest active drought, so now the focus turns to next season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots enter another finale with playoff positioning in mind after having clinched the AFC East title for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons. The Patriots could actually thank the Bills for that, because Buffalo’s 19-0 victory against Miami last Sunday handed the division crown to New England.

Here to preview the matchup are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Mike Reiss (Patriots).

Reiss: Mike, this seems pretty obvious, but coach Doug Marrone is finishing his first season, and a win against the Patriots could go a long way toward the foundation he’s attempting to establish. What signs, if any, have you seen from Marrone that the Bills are on the right track?

Rodak: Mike, I think the past two games have said something about this team. After their 27-6 loss to Tampa on Dec. 8, the season was essentially over for Buffalo. They could have packed it in and waited until next season to make improvement. Instead, they have strung together their first back-to-back wins of the season. Does that matter in the long run? Probably not, but Marrone often talks about establishing a sense of accountability and resiliency in his team, and there have been some signs of that over the past two weeks.

Mike, the Patriots have shown plenty of resiliency this season too. Is this the best coaching job you've seen from Bill Belichick?

Reiss: Belichick and his staff have been coaching their tails off, no doubt about that. I have always rated 2008 at the top of the mountain, because when you lose Tom Brady on the 15th offensive play of a season and still manage to go 11-5, that’s pretty remarkable from this viewpoint. I think we’ve seen in recent years what often happens when a superstar quarterback is lost for the season -- the 2011 Colts with Peyton Manning as one example, which cost team president Bill Polian his job. We also see how the Packers are struggling this season without Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots have been hit hard by injuries this season too and also have quite a few young players who have been asked to take on significant roles. So it’s been impressive.

As for young players being asked to carry the load for the Bills, the big question from here is if EJ Manuel is a franchise quarterback to build around. What is your opinion on Manuel in that regard?

Rodak: That is a tough call, and it's going to be the biggest question Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley will need to address this offseason. From a leadership standpoint, Manuel has a presence and a poise that any successful quarterback needs. But it hasn't translated to consistency on the field. Since returning from his second knee injury, Manuel has thrown six interceptions and shown wild swings in accuracy as a passer. The Bills seem content with pressing forward with Manuel and allowing him to develop with live action each Sunday. That is the approach most teams take with young quarterbacks; it doesn't always work out. In most cases, deciding when to make a change is difficult. However Manuel's career unfolds, the Bills would be smart to have a Plan B, even as soon as next season. With J.P. Losman, that Plan B was Kelly Holcomb. With Trent Edwards, it was Ryan Fitzpatrick. Ultimately, neither of those veteran backups put the Bills in the right spot to win, which is why I think the organization must aim higher when hedging their bets with Manuel. Drafting another quarterback in the first round isn't an option that should be immediately dismissed.

This week, Marrone mentioned how the Patriots have several rookies playing roles on both sides of the ball. Watching undrafted defensive tackle Joe Vellano back in spring camps, I never would have thought he would be contributing as much as he has this season. But can the Patriots rely on Vellano and their other younger players in the playoffs? It doesn't seem that long ago when safety Patrick Chung, then in his second season, botched a fake punt that cost the Patriots in a divisional playoff loss to the Jets.

Reiss: Mike, I’d be shocked if the Bills take another quarterback in the first round. If they do in 2014, Buffalo wings on me from Duff’s for the next five years every time the Patriots come to western New York.

As for the Patriots, the rookies playing the largest roles are now [receiver] Aaron Dobson, [defensive tackle] Chris Jones, [cornerback] Logan Ryan and [punter] Ryan Allen. The others are sprinkled in from more of a complementary standpoint or as a short-term fill-in (e.g., Josh Kline at left guard vs. Baltimore). Vellano, for one, has seen his snaps decrease in recent weeks in favor of second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. Anytime a team has rookies and youngsters playing front-line roles, it comes with some added risk. But I’d say this about the Patriots this season: As young as they are in certain spots, no moment seems too big for most of the players on the roster.

Defensively, the Bills look strong up front. What do you see from them on that side of the ball?

Rodak: They certainly are, Mike. At this point, it's safe to call it the best defensive line in the league. The Bills have benefited from career seasons from both Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, who are both serious candidates for the Pro Bowl. Same with Mario Williams, who is enjoying his best season since signing his monster deal with Buffalo. But there have also been some under-the-radar contributors. Whaley's offseason swap of linebacker Kelvin Sheppard for defensive end Jerry Hughes has paid dividends. You can add Hughes to the list of players having career seasons under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. In the secondary, that theme continues with Leodis McKelvin, who had four shaky years before finding his groove this season. The Bills have also gotten big things from their smallest player -- 5-foot-7 slot cornerback Nickell Robey, who went undrafted in the spring but has played like an early-round pick. There have been bad moments for the defense, but in general, they came mostly earlier in the season. Right now, it looks like a unit on the rise.

Mike, one area where the Bills have been vulnerable at points this season has been their run defense. They rank 20th in the NFL, allowing 4.2 yards per rush. Is the Patriots' running game capable of exploiting that weakness? And perhaps more importantly, will the Patriots need their ground attack to advance in the playoffs?

Reiss: They are certainly capable of doing it, and last Sunday’s win against the Ravens is the evidence. The Patriots entered the game with a mindset of being physical, and they won the battle of the line of scrimmage, churning out 142 yards on the ground against a sturdy Ravens front that struggled against some zone runs. The Patriots ran it 34 times and had 28 dropbacks in the game. I don’t think they necessarily have to have that type of split in the playoffs to win, but like most offenses, this attack is at its best when it's most balanced. Ball security was a big issue the first few months of the season, mostly with running backs Stevan Ridley, and to a lesser degree with LeGarrette Blount (fumble in Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals), but that has subsided. One of the big keys with the running game last Sunday is it helped the Patriots in the red zone, where they are still recalibrating after losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 8.

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Double Coverage: Jets at Dolphins

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
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Ivory-Tannehill Getty ImagesThere's a lot on the line for both RB Chris Ivory's and QB Ryan Tannehill's teams in Week 17.
One team is fighting for the playoffs. The other team is fighting for its coach's job. So something has to give Sunday when the Miami Dolphins (8-7) host the New York Jets (7-8).

The Dolphins are still alive for the final wild card in the AFC, despite laying an egg last week in a 19-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Miami must beat the Jets and get help from other teams.

Meanwhile, the Jets are out of the playoff chase but are still fighting for fifth-year head coach Rex Ryan. The Jets will have their third straight non-winning season under Ryan but can finish the year with two straight victories.

Who will prevail? ESPN.com Dolphins reporter James Walker and Jets reporter Rich Cimini weigh in.

Walker: Rich, we are back for the second meeting between the Jets and Dolphins in December. The last time, Miami essentially put New York's playoff chances to bed with a 23-3 victory on Dec. 1. But since then, a lot has happened. The Dolphins won two of three and still have a chance for the playoffs. Meanwhile, there is speculation this could be Ryan's final game as head coach.

Do you think this is it for Ryan? And will a win or loss matter to Jets owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik?

Cimini: It's hard to imagine a decision of this magnitude coming down to one game. My hunch is Ryan will be fired, which is too bad because he has done a terrific job with this team. Remember, the Jets began the season ranked 32nd in ESPN.com's Power Rankings, and many figured they'd be a laughingstock.

No matter what happens, Ryan earned a lot of respect around the league by squeezing seven wins, maybe eight, out of this roster. Unfortunately for him, he's working for a new GM. John Idzik had no say in Ryan's status for 2013, so this will be his first chance to hire his own guy. The Jets have missed the playoffs for three straight years, so I can certainly understand why a new GM would want to go in a different direction, but change for the sake of change doesn't always mean more wins. I think he earned another shot.

James, what happened in Buffalo? That was a stunning meltdown for a team with so much at stake?

Walker: The Dolphins finally laid an egg, and it came at the worst possible time. That's really the best way to explain it. Miami has been in every game but one entering last week. So it was a matter of time before the Dolphins had a no-show performance. Miami simply was outplayed on both sides of the ball and there was nothing it could really take from the game to build on for next week. The Dolphins must quickly put that performance behind them and move on. The effort and intensity certainly must improve.

Rich, the last time the Dolphins saw Geno Smith, he was benched in the second half. How far has the Jets' rookie quarterback come since Dec. 1?

Cimini: Smith's performance against the Dolphins was the low point for him -- a season-low 8.3 passer rating. I mean, who gets an 8.3 nowadays? Despite a public groundswell to bench him in favor of the unproven Matt Simms, the Jets stuck with Smith. Maybe the benching was a wake-up call because he's playing better, evidenced by his 83.0 average passer rating over the past three games. In last Sunday's win against the Cleveland Browns, he played turnover-free football (only the third time) and completed 9-for-12 on third down. The big difference is that he's using his mobility to his advantage. He has rushed for 142 yards in the past three games, and he leads the team with five rushing touchdowns. If he feels the pocket collapsing, he'll take off. If he can finish with a strong outing against the team that nearly cost him his job, it would signify real improvement.

James, in the previous meeting, the Dolphins dominated Smith. Is the Miami defense still playing that well?

Walker: Miami's defense started to turn the corner in the Jets game. That was probably the best Miami's defense played this year. Since then, the Dolphins have been back to being inconsistent. Miami allowed 28 points to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but only 20 to the New England Patriots. The 19 points allowed to the Bills had a lot to do with the fact Miami's offense had numerous three-and-outs and couldn't get anything going. The Dolphins' defense was worn down and things snowballed. Perhaps the biggest worry is Miami's run defense allowed 203 yards to Buffalo. The Dolphins haven't stopped the run consistently all year, and I'm sure that will be a heavy part of New York's game plan on offense.

Rich, Miami had a lot of trouble last week against Mike Pettine's defense in Buffalo. What can a similar Jets defensive scheme do better in the second meeting?

Cimini: I don't think they can be worse than the first game, so let's start there. The Jets played as if they were in a trance, allowing a season-high 453 total yards on Dec. 1. This time, they should be better equipped to handle Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie (hip) is healthier, and rookie Dee Milliner, coming off his best game, is playing with confidence.

The key for the Jets is generating pressure. Even though their scheme is similar to that of the Bills, the Jets don't have as many pure pass-rushers, and they're not blitzing as much as they did last season. Of course, the Dolphins' pass protection is highly suspect, so maybe Muhammad Wilkerson & Co. can crank it up one final time. The Jets would like nothing better than to shatter the Dolphins' playoff dreams.

What are the implications of this game? I mean, if they miss the playoffs by losing to the hated Jets, will heads roll in Miami?

Walker: It's not that simple. Dolphins fans have been riding the keep- or fire-everyone roller coaster this season. But ownership has not. All indications are that Joe Philbin is safe regardless of whether the Dolphins make the playoffs. He is 15-16 in two seasons and, barring unexpected circumstances, will get an important third year in 2014.

Making the playoffs is bigger for the job security of general manager Jeff Ireland, who has been in Miami longer and spent more than $100 million in guaranteed contracts last offseason to build a playoff team. Winning this game and getting into the postseason for the first time since 2008 could be just what Ireland needs to get another year.

However, the great unknown is what details will come out during the NFL's investigation of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal. If things are ugly, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross promised there would be repercussions. But the Dolphins internally appear confident they will come out of this situation without too much damage. That is all to be determined after the season.


[UPDATE: The predictions at the end of this post have changed with the Thursday news that quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be starting Sunday.]

It’s fitting that the NFL’s oldest rivalry decides the NFC North title on Sunday with the Green Bay Packers visiting the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field for the 188th meeting between the teams.

The biggest storyline going into the game is the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the starting lineup for the Packers. Rodgers was named the starter on Thursday.

Rodgers has been sidelined since breaking his collarbone in a loss to the Bears on Nov. 4, missing seven consecutive games. Green Bay went 2-4-1 during that stretch but still has a chance to secure its third straight division title

Chicago or Green Bay has captured the NFC North in nine of the 11 seasons in the division’s history. The winner receives the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs and will host a game against the fifth seed once the postseason starts, while the loser’s season comes to a close.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright break down the matchup.

Demovsky: Why do you think Marc Trestman stuck with Jay Cutler instead of going back to Josh McCown? Is that an indication that Cutler is in their future plans or do the Bears simply think he gives them the best chance to win this game?

Wright: First off, Trestman stayed true to his word, which in my mind goes a long way toward the first-year head coach gaining trust and credibility in the locker room and with Cutler. In the immediate aftermath of Cutler’s injury on Nov. 10 against the Detroit Lions, Trestman and general manager Phil Emery made it clear that the quarterback would regain his starting job as soon as he was medically cleared to play. Even while McCown was performing well in Cutler’s absence, Trestman and Emery stuck to what they had previously said. On numerous occasions, Emery has said he believes Cutler is a franchise-level quarterback, and that thought within the organization hasn't changed, which means he’s definitely in the plans for the future, provided the sides can make a deal at the conclusion of the season.

Rob, how will Rodgers' return to the lineup affect the Packers?

Demovsky: It has to be an emotional lift to get your Super Bowl-winning MVP quarterback back on the field for the first time in nearly two months. But that doesn't mean there might not be issues. Who knows how rusty Rodgers will be? This is by far the longest in-season layoff he's had since he became a starter in 2008. He's going to have some mental hurdles to get overcome, too. How will he react the first time he takes a big hit? Medically speaking, the Packers wouldn't be putting him out there if they didn't feel like his collarbone wasn't overly susceptible to another injury, but perhaps in his mind, there could still be some doubts.

One way the Packers can take some pressure off Rodgers in his return will be to give the ball to Eddie Lacy, who has rushed for 1,112 yards in his rookie season. Lacy could have a big game against the Bears' 32nd-ranked rushing defense. Mike, how is it that the Bears’ run defense has fallen off so badly?

Wright: Rob, it hasn't fallen off, man. It was already horrid, and became progressively worse as the season went along and injuries mounted. By my count, the Bears have lined up with 13 different combinations of starters on the defensive line alone, and that’s not even taking into account what’s gone on at linebacker, considering Lance Briggs has missed time, and they lost starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams in Week 4. So with all of the turnover in the front seven alone, it’s difficult for the group to gain any level of cohesiveness. The truth is the Bears need to significantly upgrade the talent in the front seven this offseason.

The Bears basically gave the Packers new life with Sunday’s debacle at Philadelphia. Injuries obviously are an issue, but what’s the atmosphere out there now with the Packers knowing they've got a shot? Green Bay was pretty banged up back in 2010 when it came to Chicago during the NFC Championship Game and ousted the Bears on the way to the Super Bowl.

Demovsky: When the Packers players left Lambeau Field on Sunday after losing to the Steelers, many of them seemed resigned to the fact that their season might be over, so it will be interesting to see how they react now that they have new life. That’s almost hard to fathom given everything they've gone through this season with their quarterbacks. That said, they are pretty banged up at this point. The biggest issue, besides quarterback, is Clay Matthews’ broken thumb. That’s a major blow to this inconsistent defense.

The Packers and Bears have played some meaningful games over the years. How does this one compare? Even though the winner goes to the playoffs, is there any luster off of it given the fact that neither team looks like a strong Super Bowl contender?

Wright: I see absolutely no luster. The Bears started the season 3-0, and since then have stacked back-to-back wins only once (Dec. 9 and Dec. 15), while the Packers just aren't the same team if Rodgers isn't in the fold. The fact that I see this as being a dud of a game means it’s going to be a good one; just watch. Injuries on both teams have destroyed what would have been probably an epic matchup. Just think if both teams were fully healthy. The winner will represent the NFC North in the postseason, and it’s a shame that it won’t be a true representation of the division. I see an early playoff exit for the winner of this game.

Luke Kuechly and Tony GonzalezGetty ImagesLuke Kuechly and the Panthers will try to spoil the final game for the Falcons' Tony Gonzalez.

There should be plenty of electricity inside the Georgia Dome when the Atlanta Falcons close their season against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. It will mark the final time Tony Gonzalez suits up in his No. 88 jersey, the final time the 17-year veteran walks out of the locker room with his teammates, set to do battle.

The Falcons (4-11) are sure to do everything possible to make sure Gonzalez's last NFL game is a memorable one, including a likely tribute of some sort. Could ruining the Panthers' NFC South title chances be a part of the Falcons' festivities?

ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Panthers reporter David Newton break down the matchup.

McClure: David, I'm sure the Panthers (11-4) are aware that this is Gonzalez's last NFL game. Earlier in the season, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman exchanged jerseys with him, knowing that it would be the final time he’d see Gonzalez on the field. Which player from Carolina would be most likely to follow Sherman's lead with such a swap?

Newton: I'm going with wide receiver Steve Smith. He has swapped items with a few players already this season and at this stage of his career. Besides, Smith won't need his own jersey; he's doubtful to play because of a sprained knee.

I suspect the Panthers will be more worried about covering Gonzalez than being nostalgic. He lit them up in the first half of the teams' first meeting before they adjusted coverage to shut him down. It's amazing that at 37 years old he's still a player teams have to plan for. Look for him to get a heavy dose of linebacker Luke Kuechly again.

A year ago, a Carolina team with nothing to play for beat Atlanta soundly in Charlotte late in the season, perhaps dulling some of the Falcons' momentum going into the playoffs. Are the Falcons hungry to play the spoiler, or just play out the string?

McClure: I think they're just trying to finish up the season unscathed and build toward next year. Coach Mike Smith has started nearly a full-fledged youth movement. In a Week 15 win over the Washington Redskins, nine players in the starting lineup were either rookies or second-year players. Smith contends that the Falcons aren't worried about draft positioning and are more concerned with winning games. At the same time, I'm sure they don't want to fall out of the top five in the draft order; they stand at No. 6 right now. Whatever the case, Smith's job is secure going into next season.

I know there had been some talk before about Ron Rivera's status, but he has no doubt silenced his critics, correct?

Newton: Rivera has pretty much slammed the door on his critics. If he doesn't get an extension out of this, it will be a shame. I've been really impressed with the way he remained the same during this hot streak to close the season as he was during a 1-3 start. That consistency, that unwillingness to waver from what he believed was the right way to build this team, is why the Panthers are in the position they're in.

He is indeed a players' coach. He doesn't ask anybody to do anything on the field that he wouldn't have done himself as a player. The biggest change since the season began is in his philosophy on fourth down. He has gone for it so many times that he's earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron." But most of that is more calculated than you'd think, and it has a lot to do with believing in what his players can do.

You mentioned Smith being solid in Atlanta, but there obviously needs to be some changes in personnel to shore up that defense during the offseason, right?

McClure: Correct. The first changes I anticipate are among the coaching staff, likely first on the defensive side. Once those coaching changes are made, the Falcons can identify where they are going with their schemes and identify which players make the best fit. Obviously, they need help along the offensive and defensive lines, and having a high draft pick helps the cause. I wouldn't be surprised to see them go after a linebacker in free agency and maybe try to add an elusive running back to the mix. Safety also is an area that needs to be addressed. And if the Falcons aren't fully confident in rookie Levine Toilolo as Gonzalez's replacement, they need to target another tight end.

I think the Panthers showed this year that they can compete with anyone, but what will it take to get them to the next level in terms of consistently being among the NFC's top teams?

Newton: They may be there now, but there are a few pieces that must be addressed after the offseason. Steve Smith isn't getting any younger, and No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell is unsigned. The secondary, despite its rank, could use a shutdown corner. And a decision on re-signing left tackle Jordan Gross must be made.

Otherwise, you have a strong nucleus in 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton at quarterback; Kuechly, the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year, at linebacker; and 2013 candidate Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle. General manager Dave Gettleman has done a good job of clearing cap room to re-sign key players and add needed pieces. I'd say it's more a matter of fine-tuning at this point.

Stafford/HendersonGetty ImagesMatthew Stafford's Lions are playing for pride, Erin Henderson's Vikings to send off the Metrodome.

When the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions squared off in Week 1, both teams had legitimate designs on playoff spots in what was expected to be one of the toughest divisions in football.

Now, they’re the only two teams with no shot of winning one of the most mediocre divisions in football, and headed into their Week 17 rematch, both the Vikings and Lions could be playing their final games with their current coaches. The Vikings have reportedly been doing their homework on potential replacements for Leslie Frazier, while Jim Schwartz could also be on his way out in Detroit after the team followed a 6-3 start with five losses in its next six games. The final game at Mall of America Field (aka the Metrodome) could also be the last before each team embarks on some major changes.

To get you ready for the game and for what might be next for both teams, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discussed the matchup and the future of these NFC North foes.

Goessling: Michael, I’d wish you a relaxing offseason, but I think we’re probably both a ways from that starting, in light of what’s going on with these two teams. Frazier has been unable to get consistent quarterback play or reliable defense, particularly against the pass and at the end of games, but as usual, what’s happening with the Lions seems more combustible than that. After another late-season meltdown, do you think there’s any chance Schwartz survives as coach?

Rothstein: I guess there's always a chance, but I have an extremely difficult time seeing it after the Lions lost five of six games entering Sunday and played themselves out of a divisional title. That plus the mistakes Detroit has made, from turnovers to penalties to fourth-quarter collapses, and things don't seem to be getting any better.

But this is the Ford family, and it has shown more patience than almost any other owner in any sport, so there's always that chance it just rides things out with Schwartz. Still, it would send a pretty bad message after four seasons out of the playoffs in five seasons under Schwartz.

Flipping that question back to you -- what do you think Minnesota does with Frazier? The players really seem to like him, so do you think that plays into what we'll see Sunday?

Goessling: I have a hard time seeing Frazier survive, as much as the players like him. Adrian Peterson said on Sunday he planned to go to the Wilf family after the season and let the owners know he wanted Frazier to stay on as coach. He’s also said he wants to play the rest of his career for Frazier. Those are pretty strong statements from a guy whom the Vikings probably want to keep happy more than anyone else on their roster. But they also wouldn’t give Frazier a contract extension after he went 10-6 last season, and with everything that’s looked disjointed at times this year -- five blown leads in the last minute of games, the reluctance to use Cordarrelle Patterson early in the season and, of course, the mess at quarterback -- I can’t see the Wilfs standing pat. GM Rick Spielman is responsible for a fair share of this, possibly more than Frazier, but heading into a new stadium, the Vikings are looking for a jolt. They’re more likely to get that with a new coach than a new GM.

Shifting to Sunday’s game, the Lions came back to beat the Vikings in September because of how well they used Reggie Bush, but he hasn’t looked like the same guy in a number of games since then. Is that mostly attributable to the calf injury he’s had, or is there something else going on?

Rothstein: It's tough to tell with Bush. I think he is, in some ways, hampered by the calf injury and all of the earlier injuries he's suffered this season. There are also the issues of his fumbles, which have been a problem all season, and his dropped passes. Bush is still an electrifying player, but his ineffectiveness at times has been due to how Detroit chooses to use him. He sliced up the Vikings with screen plays and short passes out of the backfield, and Detroit hasn't done as much with him in that area lately. The Lions also have a lot of confidence in Joique Bell, a gifted runner who plays hard.

Sticking with the game, and really this might be more of a finality point as well, how does Jared Allen view Sunday? Is this it for him in Minnesota, and how much of a problem can he cause for a somewhat-struggling Lions offense?

Goessling: I do think this is it for Allen in Minnesota. He’ll be a free agent after the season, he’s carrying a cap figure of more than $17 million this year and he’s talked in recent weeks about how he’d rather retire than be a situational pass-rusher. He might be overestimating his value, and he could be singing a different tune when he does get out into the free-agent market in March, but I don’t think he’ll be back with the Vikings. They gave an extension to Brian Robison during the season, and they could also bring back Everson Griffen, who’s inconsistent (and a bit unpredictable) but immensely talented.

Allen has talked about how he’s still creating opportunities but just hasn’t been able to finish a few sacks. But when did you ever hear him say that in the past? It seems he’s lost a bit of his ability to get around the edge in time, and a handful of his sacks have come because he’s so relentless. The Bengals did a fantastic job of getting the ball out quick on Sunday, and Allen was shut out. If the Lions can do what they did in September, it’s possible to keep Allen pretty quiet.

Last one from me: What kind of an effort do you expect from the Lions on Sunday? It seems a bit like they’ve packed it in after all the losses, and with nothing on the line now, I can’t imagine they’re going to suddenly be able to reignite themselves. Will the shot at an 8-8 record and the chance to save Schwartz a little face be enough, or will the Vikings close down the Metrodome against an uninspired opponent?

Rothstein: That's one of the biggest questions of this week, and it is a question I really don't know the answer to. I think it depends how much they have left. Calvin Johnson is banged-up. Matthew Stafford has struggled in the second half of the season. DeAndre Levy was hobbling out of the locker room Sunday. There are a lot of guys hurting at this point, a lot of key guys for the Lions going forward.

It might be the most unanswerable question with this team right now. All season, even during the losing stretch, there was the possibility of the playoffs and a division title to cling to. Now there's just pride. It'll be an interesting thing to see.

So I'll finish up with this for you. Since this is the last game in the Metrodome -- and my first -- is there any particular memory that stands out about the place to you?

Goessling: Boy, it’s hard to pick just one. I’ve been watching all kinds of games -- NFL, MLB, college football, college basketball and high school football -- since I was a kid, and I’ll have a piece on my blog on Friday with some of those memories. But I’ll share one quick story. It was from one of my first college football games when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. It was the fall of 2001 against Purdue, and there were too many bizarre things that happened in the game to recount here, but it wound up in overtime, and after Purdue scored, the Gophers lost the game on a finish that could’ve happened only in the Metrodome.

Here’s what happened: Travis Cole threw a touchdown pass to Antoine Henderson that would’ve tied the game. Henderson was clearly inbounds, but the pass was ruled incomplete. Why? Well, the Gophers used to paint their end zones gold but left a strip of green turf between the gold paint and the sideline to make it easier to convert the field for Vikings games. Henderson’s foot was inbounds but outside the gold paint, so the official lost track of the sideline and called him out of bounds. That’s kind of the Metrodome in a nutshell -- built to be serviceable for any number of different sports, but not really ideal for anything. Still, at a cost of $55 million in 1982, it’s certainly paid for itself several times over.

Vincent Jackson and Cameron JordanGetty ImagesVincent Jackson and the Bucs would love to keep Cameron Jordan's Saints out of the playoffs.

Technically, Sunday’s regular-season finale between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is meaningful for only one team.

The Saints (10-5) haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, and they still have an outside shot at the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Coach Sean Payton and players have said they plan to treat this like a playoff game. And they certainly need to get some momentum back after back-to-back losses at St. Louis and Carolina have threatened to derail their playoff hopes.

However, the Buccaneers (4-11) would love to end their season on a high note by playing spoiler against their NFC South rivals inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Bucs have a history of doing that, with December wins at New Orleans in 2009 and 2010.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup.

Triplett: Tell me what kind of effort you expect from the Bucs in this one. Are they still passionate about winning this late in the season? Fired up about the chance to possibly keep New Orleans out of the playoffs? Fighting for coach Greg Schiano's job?

Yasinskas: Mike, the one thing the Bucs haven't done this season is quit. Even during the 0-8 start, the effort was still there. I don't know that the players are playing to try to save Schiano's job as much as they are simply playing for pride. I have no doubt they'll show up on Sunday. The Bucs aren't big fans of the Saints, and they'd love to play the role of spoiler. That said, I don't know that the Bucs can hang with the Saints in the Superdome.

Do you think the Saints will be playing with anger because they're in this position?

Triplett: It's hard to guess what kind of emotions will be most prevalent. There could be anger. There could be determination, knowing they can't afford another loss. Or there could be a deflated feeling, since they never expected to be in this position. One way or another, though, they'll have to figure out a way to channel those emotions. As receiver Lance Moore said, if the Saints can't bring their best effort to this game, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs. And it obviously helps that they'll be back in the Superdome, where they're 7-0 this season -- often dominating opponents.

How do you think Mike Glennon will handle that dome atmosphere? Has he reached that stage yet where people like to say he's "not a rookie anymore"?

Yasinskas: About a month ago, people were starting to say Glennon didn't look like a rookie. But that's changed in recent weeks. He has had some rookie moments in the past four games and his numbers have dipped. I don't think Glennon is regressing. I think he just ran into some good defenses and struggled against them, and he has received no help from the running game. The deck would seem to be stacked against him coming into the Superdome against a New Orleans team with a lot on the line.

Mike, tell me about the New Orleans defense. Before you joined us and I was still covering the whole NFC South, I visited Saints camp this summer and had very real doubts that they had the right personnel to run Rob Ryan's defense. As it turns out, this is a very good defense. Why has Ryan's defense worked so well?

Triplett: How could you not have seen this coming?! Obviously, you're right -- the Saints' defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season, especially considering all the injuries you witnessed in summer camps. The success is due to a combination of Ryan's coaching and talent emerging. End Cameron Jordan is having a bona fide Pro Bowl season as a power rusher. Cornerback Keenan Lewis is a true No. 1 corner who was a great pickup in free agency. Outside linebacker Junior Galette, end Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro are young players who have emerged (though Vaccaro is now out for the season).

But Ryan deserves a ton of the credit. He's creative and adaptable, switching from a true 3-4 defense to build around his best players. And he mixes things up from week to week and even snap to snap. Players love that, because they're all involved in certain packages. And they love his personality and attitude, saying he has made the game "fun."

Tell me about the evolution of the Bucs' defense. I thought they lived up to the hype when I saw them give the Saints all they could handle in Week 2 (with both legal and illegal hits). How are they playing heading into this game?

Yasinskas: The defense is the least of Tampa Bay's problems. An anemic offense is what held Tampa Bay back all season. Overall, the defense has played very well.

After finishing last in the NFL against the pass last year, the Bucs went out and got cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson, and they have made the secondary respectable. But I think the two best players on this defense are in the front seven. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are having huge seasons. These guys have what it takes to be Pro Bowl regulars, and this defense should only keep getting better. Still, facing the Saints in the dome is a tough task for any defense.

The thing I've always admired about Drew Brees and Sean Payton is how much they spread the ball around. How have the receivers beyond Marques Colston and Moore panned out this season?

Triplett: The Saints' receivers have actually been more up and down this year than at any other time in the Payton-Brees era. At times, Colston and rookie Kenny Stills have had some big moments, and Stills looks like a great find who has actually supplanted Moore as the Saints' No. 2 receiver. And the Saints still have good depth with Moore and Robert Meachem. But they rely most on tight end Jimmy Graham and backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the passing game.

Some defenses have done a good job of getting physical with the Saints' receivers and Graham downfield (including Carolina last week) -- which is the best way to slow down New Orleans' offense. But all bets are off inside the dome. Almost all of those quiet receiving days came on the road.

Double Coverage: Jaguars at Colts

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
10:00
AM ET
Henne-LuckGetty ImagesAndrew Luck and the Colts will look to take momentum into the playoffs with a win over Chad Henne and the Jaguars.
It’ll be a battle of teams headed in opposite directions at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday.

The Indianapolis Colts want to have momentum heading into the playoffs. They also need the victory to have a shot at moving up from the No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Jacksonville Jaguars are simply playing out the season before vacation starts following the game.

The Colts easily beat the Jaguars 37-3 in Week 4.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco discuss the rematch:

Wells: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew has been a fixture in the organization for eight years. Will Sunday be the last time he wears a Jaguars uniform?

DiRocco: My gut feeling is that he’ll be back, but it’s certainly not a slam dunk. Jones-Drew said after Sunday’s loss to Tennessee that he wants to be back in Jacksonville, but he has a price and contract length in mind. So does general manager David Caldwell, so I expect this to be a deal that’s going to take some negotiating to get done. Jones-Drew may still want to test the free-agent market to see what kind of money is out there, but he’ll probably find that there isn’t a lot of demand for a 29-year-old running back who has battled injuries the past two seasons. It really would be best for both sides to have Jones-Drew finish his career in Jacksonville. Jones-Drew wouldn’t have to prove himself all over again and he would help bridge the gap between the past five terrible seasons and the new regime.

Since we’re talking about running backs, was the Trent Richardson trade the worst move of the NFL season? What does it mean going forward for both the Colts and Richardson?

Wells: The trade obviously hasn’t worked out the way the Colts envisioned -- Richardson isn't even starting -- but the front office is nowhere near ready to ball up a white towel and throw it in on the second-year running back. They still believe he’s a huge part of the team’s future. The Colts believe a full offseason of organized team activities and training camp will help Richardson’s development. Richardson has shown some flashes -- he ran for 51 yards on seven carries in the fourth quarter against Houston on Dec. 15 -- but the Colts don’t want flashes. They want consistency out of him, and believe that will come.

I know I asked you about Sunday possibly being Jones-Drew’s final game with the Jaguars, but what about the coaching situation down there? Do you think you’ll be covering a coaching search in the offseason?

DiRocco: It may look to outsiders that Gus Bradley should be on the hot seat after a 4-11 season that included an 0-8 start, but he’s just as secure in his job as Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Pete Carroll are theirs. Owner Shad Khan knew this was going to be a rough season because he, Caldwell and Bradley agreed to essentially blow things up and start over. The Jaguars’ roster is the least talented in the league, and it’s also one of the youngest. Caldwell is committed to building through the draft (the Jags have 10 picks in the 2014 draft) and Bradley is on board with that. The first priority is finding a quarterback, which likely will be done in May. Now, if the Jaguars are still only able to manage single-digit victories three seasons from now, Bradley would be in trouble.

Did Chuck Pagano use QB Andrew Luck correctly this season? Even with the Reggie Wayne injury, shouldn’t Luck have been throwing it all over the place?

Wells: The Colts put a heavy emphasis on being a power-running team this season. Any thought of that happening basically ended when Ahmad Bradshaw was lost for the season with a neck injury after the Week 3 game against the San Francisco 49ers. The Colts became a team that simply wanted to be able to run the football, and they weren’t going to let anybody stop them from trying to do it. They’ve gained at least 104 yards in 10 games this season, with the idea of helping ease the burden on Luck’s shoulders. Luck’s passing yards are down from his rookie season, but he has had a better overall second year. His completion percentage is up and his interceptions are down. It didn’t seem that would happen after Wayne was lost for the season and there wasn’t much continuity with the rest of the receiving group outside of T.Y. Hilton. Have you ever heard of Da'Rick Rogers? But Luck’s faith and trust with his receivers has improved each week because he has put in the time with them in practice.

The quarterback situation in Jacksonville is still a mess. Will the Jags look to upgrade the position in the offseason or will Blaine Gabbert get another shot?

DiRocco: I mentioned it briefly above, but finding a franchise quarterback is the No. 1 priority and I believe the Jaguars will select one with their first-round pick. ESPN Insider Todd McShay’s first mock draftInsider had them selecting Johnny Manziel, which would certainly make them relevant nationally and bring some excitement to the franchise. Teddy Bridgewater is still an option, too, depending on how the draft plays out. The Jaguars also could opt to go defense in the first round and take a QB in the second. Regardless of their approach, I’d be stunned if the team doesn’t draft a quarterback. Gabbert’s days in Jacksonville are done.

Denver isn’t a lock to win the AFC, by any means. How do you break down the Colts’ chances in the playoffs?

Wells: Health, continued improvement from the receivers, the defense forcing turnovers and having a running game are the biggest keys for the Colts in the playoffs. I believe it’s a two-team race between Denver and New England in the AFC, but both teams have their flaws and are beatable. The Colts are in a situation where they could finish anywhere from the No. 2 seed to the No. 4 seed. They’ve been able to overcome the loss of Wayne to be in the position to possibly match their win total of 11 games from last season, but I think it’s in the playoffs -- possibly in the second round if they get there -- that the Colts will miss Wayne’s talent and experience.

 
Joe Flacco and Andy DaltonGetty ImagesJoe Flacco and Andy Dalton will need to come up big if they hope to emerge victorious on Sunday.
Thanks to the Baltimore Ravens' loss to the Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals' win over the Vikings on Sunday, much of the drama has been snatched away from this weekend's regular-season finale between the Ravens and Bengals.

Cincinnati has already locked up a playoff spot and the AFC North crown. The winner-take-all scenario for Sunday's season finale no longer exists. If the Ravens are going to join the Bengals in the postseason, and perhaps back at Paul Brown Stadium for the wild-card round, a win this week will be crucial. There still is a lot riding on this must-win game for them.

In the season's first meeting between these teams, it took a last-second Hail Mary touchdown to take the game to overtime. In the extra period, a Justin Tucker field goal allowed the Ravens to walk off with the division victory at home.

As we get you set for this latest AFC North matchup, we turn to ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey for more.

Harvey: Jamison, what do you think the mindset of the Ravens is after their worst loss under coach John Harbaugh?

Hensley: The Ravens are moving on as quickly as possible, and they have to do that in order to have a chance at beating the Bengals in Cincinnati. Baltimore has struggled enough on the road this season (going 2-5) that it can't have lingering memories of getting beaten up by the Patriots. The Ravens understand they lost their shot at winning the AFC North and controlling their playoff fate. But if they can clinch a playoff berth (and it will take some help), the Ravens control their destiny again. The Ravens' history is they don't dwell on getting blown out. The Ravens are 9-0 in games following a loss by double digits.

The Bengals have an impressive trend going as well with at least 40 points in four straight home games. What's been the key to Cincinnati's success at home?

Harvey: That was the most-asked question in the locker room following Sunday's 42-14 win over the Vikings, and the Bengals could only attribute it to one thing: their fans. Initially, part of you doesn't want to believe that's possible. After all, there were a number of empty seats Sunday. But when you actually stop and think about it, the players may be right. When the Bengals' defense is on the field on third down, "The Jungle" as they call it, seems to come to life. Full or not, the stadium gets fairly loud, and it seems like opposing offenses have had all sorts of confusion during the most important parts of the games they've played in Cincinnati. The Bengals have a league-best 22.5 percent third-down conversion rate at home. They also rank second in the league in scoring at home, posting an average 34.4 points per game at Paul Brown Stadium. Only the Broncos are better inside their home venue.

Quarterback Andy Dalton has been key in helping them run up the score that often. So having said that, how do you think the Ravens plan to defend Dalton?

Hensley: In the earlier meeting with the Bengals, Baltimore held Dalton to a 52.2 passer rating, the second worst of his career. The Ravens were relentless with their pressure, recording five sacks and hitting Dalton nine times. But the Baltimore defense has been in a pass-rush rut lately. The Ravens have produced four sacks in their past four games. There has been a lack of pressure off the edges. Terrell Suggs ended a six-game drought by getting to Tom Brady on Sunday. Elvis Dumervil, who has been dealing with an ankle injury, has one sack in his past five games. And the Ravens' best interior rusher, Art Jones, suffered a concussion on Sunday and it's unknown whether he'll play against the Bengals.

Speaking of concussions, what's the latest on linebacker Vontaze Burfict? Has he been the defense's MVP this season?

Harvey: Quickly to your point about pressuring Dalton, that will most certainly have to be the Ravens' game plan against him. He hasn't faced a pass rush quite as challenging as Baltimore's since that game, and that's one reason he's been so successful recently. Pro Football Focus said he was pressured only eight times on his 41 dropbacks against the Vikings.

Back to Burfict. As we're filing this, there isn't much of an update on Burfict other than the fact that he has spent part of the week under concussion protocol. It's not clear when he picked up the possible concussion, but one of his last plays Sunday came when he delivered an accidental helmet-to-helmet blow on Matt Cassel as the quarterback was sliding at the end of a scramble. We'll see how he keeps progressing throughout the week, but I'd bet on Burfict playing. He hasn't missed a game this season, and clearly hates being off the field. Still, with much of the Bengals' postseason desires already wrapped up, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't play all game even if he is healthy enough to.

Speaking of injuries, how has Joe Flacco's knee injury affected his play recently?

Hensley: Flacco has had his worst season in the NFL, so I'm not saying he struggled solely because of a sprained left knee. But the injury obviously has affected his mobility and ability to step into throws. Flacco didn't complete his second pass Sunday until the second quarter. Now he has to go to Cincinnati, where he has had his problems in the past. Flacco is 2-3 at Paul Brown Stadium with a 66.8 passer rating. He has completed 57.5 percent of his passes there with four touchdowns and six interceptions. The key for Flacco is limiting his mistakes. He's thrown a career-worst 19 interceptions, seven more than in any of his previous five seasons. With the Ravens' current playoff situation, there is little margin of error for Flacco and the Ravens.

This is the Bengals' first AFC North title since 2009, and the first for Dalton and A.J. Green. How is a young team like the Bengals handing this success?

Harvey: Honestly, they're handling it quite well. Aside from their traditional post-win "Who Dey" chant, you didn't hear any other celebrating coming from the locker room following Sunday's win. By the time reporters were allowed in, word began trickling among the team that the Dolphins had just lost, giving them an official berth to the postseason. When players were asked about the meaning of clinching a playoff spot, they were a little excited, but mostly reserved. There was unfinished business, they felt.

For as young as the Bengals are, with their exhaustive list of second-, third- and fourth-year contributing players, it's still a group that has seen enough postseason disappointment to know that the journey isn't yet complete. The past two seasons, the Bengals have made it to the wild-card round and were immediately bounced out. They don't want that to happen again this year.

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