NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 15 Double Coverage

Andy Dalton, Troy PolamaluGetty ImagesAndy Dalton and the Bengals continue their AFC North title push versus Troy Polamalu's Steelers.
If the script in the AFC North hasn’t been flipped, it has at least undergone a major modification. The Cincinnati Bengals are on their way to a second straight AFC North title -- they shared it last season with the Ravens -- while the Pittsburgh Steelers are all but assured of missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in almost 15 years.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had made it clear he is playing to win the final three games, and not using them as a time to evaluate some of the team’s younger players. The Bengals, meanwhile, will try to solidfy their hold on first place in the division and improve their playoff position starting Sunday night at Heinz Field.

ESPN.com NFL reporters Coley Harvey (Bengals) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take a closer look at the second meeting this season between the AFC North rivals.

Brown: Coley, James Harrison took some criticism for not accepting a pay cut to stay with the Steelers and eventually signing with the Bengals. It sure looks like he made the right call given the teams' respective standing. I'm going to go big picture on you with my first question. Has the balance of power in the AFC North shifted, or do the Bengals need to make some noise in the playoffs before we can say that they have arrived?

Harvey: I believe the Bengals do have to make some noise in the postseason before we can crown them kings of the division and say they have arrived. After all, they have been to the postseason the past two seasons and have not advanced out of the first round. Eventually, they have to win a game or two in January to have "arrival" status. Having said all of that, though, they certainly are making strides. That we’re talking about Cincinnati and the postseason even after all the hype that came in the preseason is a good sign. At 9-4, and with a young quarterback who has shown flashes of goodness, an oftentimes impenetrable defense, and a rookie playmaker in running back Giovani Bernard who has been the delight of fantasy owners, the Bengals certainly do have promise for taking this division by storm in the future.

The Week 2 win against the Steelers was one game that helped bolster the Bengals' confidence early in the season. It’s safe to say, though, that the team Pittsburgh has fielded since then has changed. For starters, running back Le'Veon Bell didn’t play in that game. What has he meant to the Steelers the past nine games?

Brown: I have been really impressed with Bell, who has transformed the moribund ground game the Bengals saw in Week 2. Bell is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry, but he has shown serious flashes as a runner while also helping in the passing game as a receiver and blocker whom quarterback Ben Roethlisberger trusts to pick up blitzing linebackers. I’d imagine, watching from afar, that Bell is in a similar position to fellow rookie Bernard. He is a young player who already has established himself as an NFL back, and will only get better with experience.

The one thing Bell has yet to do is record a 100-yard rushing game, and I’m guessing this isn’t the week Steelers fans and fantasy football owners should expect Bell to go over 100. It seems the Bengals have been playing well on defense despite the loss of defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall. Coley, my next question is how much is Harrison playing, and how are the Bengals using him?

Harvey: Oh, Harrison has been playing. And -- surprise to no one -- he has been playing well. Of course, I know you ask because just after the first meeting, there were very real concerns that he wasn’t being adapted into the Bengals' defensive system. After all, Harrison played only 14 snaps against his old team in Week 2, and played even fewer (five) the next week against the Green Bay Packers.

A big reason for his lack of snaps had to do with the opponents. In Week 2 the Steelers were trying to sling it, because they lacked a run game and had a battered offensive line. The Packers had a slew of playmakers at receiver and tight end, too, who needed to be covered by more athletic linebackers and safeties. Since then, Harrison has been an invaluable run-stopper, and he has even made a few key plays in passing situations. He had a big sack on Buffalo’s Thad Lewis on a goal-line stand in Week 6. He also had a fumble recovery and an interception against Cleveland last month that helped turn the momentum in what ended as a blowout win.

Sticking with Harrison, what do you think the reaction from the Heinz Field faithful will be when he takes the field Sunday? I heard former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, now with Miami, was booed last week ...

Brown: I’d be shocked if Harrison gets the same kind of reception as Wallace did last Sunday. There might be a smattering of boos, but I think Harrison will largely be cheered by Steelers fans, as he should. We’re talking about a self-made player who was cut three times by the Steelers before finally sticking with the team.

Harrison gradually transformed himself from undrafted afterthought to one of the most feared players in the NFL. He was the soul of the 2008 team that won the Super Bowl, the best defensive player on the NFL’s best defense that season. And who will ever forget his 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl? It is on a short list of greatest plays in Super Bowl history, and it is also part of a body of work that should have Steelers fans giving Harrison his due Sunday night. Those who boo him are simply ignorant.

Coley, I don’t have any doubt the Steelers will play hard Sunday night, even if their odds of making the playoffs are longer than the Ohio River. But I’m not sure it will be enough given the problems they have with their defense, which has been uncharacteristically vulnerable to big plays. Do you see receiver A.J. Green having a big game, and which Andy Dalton will we see at Heinz Field?

Harvey: I agree with you on Harrison. When it comes to Green, I’m honestly torn as to which version of him we might end up seeing. Three of the four times he and Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor have been matched up, Taylor has arguably been the winner. Green caught one pass -- on just two targets, mind you -- in his first game against Pittsburgh in 2011. It was a 36-yard touchdown. In the past two Bengals-Steelers games, including the Week 2 meeting this season, Green combined for seven catches for just 49 yards. He has been targeted 19 times in those two games. Taylor has simply had his number. It's similar to the way cornerback Joe Haden has mostly owned Green whenever the Browns and Bengals play. So I'd say don't expect a big night for Green, but to look for other playmakers, including running backs Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, to have big games.

As for Dalton, prime-time games on national TV mostly haven’t gone his way. Games against the Steelers haven’t, either. Somehow, though, he was able to settle in during the Monday night game in Week 2, and led the Bengals to a key victory. With a few offensive line tweaks and Dalton's confidence seeming to rise, there are reasons to believe we’ll see "Good Andy" show up Sunday night.

Scott, final question. How difficult do you imagine it has been for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to adjust to this rough season?

Brown: Put it this way, Coley: When he was asked this week if he had ever experienced a losing season in football on any level, he couldn’t recall any. So those are anything but hollow words when Roethlisberger says he is going to fight until the end, even with the Steelers seemingly out of playoff contention.

I have to think this has been as bittersweet a season as Roethlisberger has experienced in the NFL. There has to be some personal satisfaction in how he has played behind an offensive line that is continually scrambled by injuries, and the fact that he has played every snap this season. But with the player who won two Super Bowls before his 28th birthday and is what coach Mike Tomlin has called a “sick competitor,” the bottom line easily trumps all. The Steelers have simply not done enough to win consistently this season, and as well as Roethlisberger has played, that reality is something he will take personally.


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Frank Gore, Bobby RaineyGetty ImagesThe 49ers' Frank Gore had a breakout game last weekend, but so too did the Bucs' Bobby Rainey.

Aside from the fact that each comes from territory near water, there aren't a lot of similarities between the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The 49ers are well on their way to another playoff appearance and coming off their biggest win of the season. The Buccaneers have been better over the past month, but their playoff hopes were buried by an 0-8 start.

ESPN.com 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.

Yasinskas: The 49ers are coming off a huge win against Seattle. How much confidence does that give them, and is there any chance for a letdown against the Bucs?

Williamson: The 49ers have a ton of confidence moving forward and they fully expect to play Seattle again in January. That is one of the reasons I don’t expect a letdown.

Let's face it, this is a prime week for a letdown. The 49ers are coming off their biggest win of the season and they have to take a long flight to face a team with a losing record. But Jim Harbaugh and his staff do a great job of hyping up the opponent. When they played then-winless Jacksonville, the staff talked about the Jaguars like they were the 1985 Bears. The 49ers have stayed focused all year. And with the possibility of clinching a playoff berth Sunday, I don't expect that to change.

Pat, do you think the Buccaneers can challenge the 49ers?

Yasinskas: I'm not saying the Bucs will win, but I think it will be a competitive game. They have won four of their last five games and are a much different team than they were earlier in the season. I don't think the Bucs want to get in an offensive shootout with the 49ers. But I think the Tampa Bay defense is playing well enough to keep the game close. The other thing to keep an eye on is home-field advantage. This is the final home game of the season for the Bucs, who have won three in a row at Raymond James Stadium, and coach Greg Schiano has made a big deal of wanting to finish with four straight wins at home. But I'm not sure they have enough offense to get it done against that 49ers defense.

Just how good has the San Francisco defense been?

Williamson: It is the strength of the team, and it has been outstanding. Over the past six games the 49ers have allowed an average of 13 points. This is a deep, athletic, fast unit that plays with anger and has a knack for the ball. There are few weaknesses. I look forward to seeing how rookie quarterback Mike Glennon deals with this aggressive defense.

How has Glennon done against the better defenses the Buccaneers have faced, and do you think he is up to this task?

Yasinskas: This game is a huge challenge for Glennon. He had been playing very efficiently, but the past two weeks he has struggled against the good defenses of Carolina and Buffalo. San Francisco might be even better than those two. The Bucs need to be able to run the ball effectively to keep the pressure off Glennon. That's easier said than done. With the Bucs using the run so heavily, opposing defenses have been loading the box. I expect the 49ers to do the same and challenge Glennon and the passing game to beat them.

San Francisco's ground game had struggled for three weeks before Frank Gore got it going against Seattle. The Bucs are good at slowing the run. Have the 49ers done enough to fix their running game?

Williamson: The 49ers had 137 yards rushing before contact against Seattle. There were several reasons behind San Francisco's mini-slump on the ground, but the Seattle performance showed they are back. The 49ers do a nice job of sticking with the run throughout the game. Sooner or later -- as Gore showed Sunday -- it pays off.

Do you see Tampa Bay shutting down the 49ers' ground game enough for the Bucs pull off an upset?

Yasinskas: Schiano places a huge emphasis on stopping the run. In theory, the rest of his defense flows from there. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David are having Pro Bowl seasons, and the rest of the front seven is pretty good. I'm sure safety Dashon Goldson, a former 49er, has given a good scouting report on his old team, which should help some. But I don't see the Bucs pulling off the upset.


[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Sunday's results.]

For the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions, the playoffs are beginning well before the actual postseason starts. In reality for both teams, they begin Monday night.

Both the Ravens and Lions are fighting for playoff berths and are hanging on to those spots by head-to-head tiebreakers -- in the Lions' case for the NFC North title and for the Ravens, the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

The Ravens need to win to keep pace with Miami, which beat New England on Sunday, for a wild-card berth. The Lions need a win to keep pace with Chicago, which won Sunday at Cleveland.

ESPN.com Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Baltimore Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley break down what might happen Monday and who might leave "Monday Night Football" still with a playoff berth in their hands.

Rothstein: Up until Sunday, Detroit's run defense had been very, very good. Add to that Ray Rice appears to be struggling this season. What's going on with Rice and does the Lions' stout run defense mean more of Monday night's game is on the shoulders of Joe Flacco?

Hensley: Rice's best two games over the past eight weeks have come against NFC North teams, but a lot of backs have had success against the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings this year. The Ravens would love Rice to duplicate what LeSean McCoy (217 yards rushing) did against the Lions, but I'm pretty sure there's not going to be any snow in Ford Field. Getting the run game on track has been the biggest challenge for the Ravens, who are averaging a league-worst 3.0 yards per carry.

Baltimore hasn't abandoned the ground attack. The Ravens, though, haven't shown much confidence in it either. They have put the ball in the hands of their $120.6 million quarterback to win games. Flacco has thrown over 30 passes in nine of the past 10 games. The problem with that strategy has been the increase in turnovers. Flacco has thrown a career-worst 17 interceptions, including three Sunday. Only two quarterbacks -- Geno Smith and Eli Manning -- have thrown more.

Speaking of turnovers, why have the Lions had so much trouble holding onto the ball this year?

Rothstein: It's a combination of factors, starting with Matthew Stafford. In some ways -- and yes, weather is an excuse here -- Sunday's "fumbleathon" against Philadelphia can be attributed to the weather because so many of those miscues happened when visibility was nil and in blizzard-like conditions. But Stafford has thrown a lot of interceptions in the second half of the season and some of those are just poor reads with which he should be doing better. Others are the fault of his receivers, who lead the league in drops with 41, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Reggie Bush has had some fumbling issues, too, and that has been a major problem for the Lions' top free-agent acquisition. It really comes down to Bush improving his ball security and Stafford making smarter decisions.

You mention the Jimmy Smith-Calvin Johnson matchup in the video. Every team has kind of schemed differently for Johnson this season. What do you think the Ravens will do?

Hensley: The Ravens don't have their cornerbacks shadow the same receivers, but they will want Smith on Johnson as much as possible because he's their most physical defender. Smith is going to have to play better against Johnson than he did in the 2012 preseason. In the game, Smith was beaten by Johnson on a leaping, 18-yard touchdown. He later held Johnson when the receiver went past him on the next drive.

But Smith is playing with more confidence and more aggressiveness in his first full season starting. He has allowed only 22 catches over his past 10 games. That is an impressive total when you consider he has covered the likes of Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown during that time.

The Ravens have some speedy receivers as well with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Of course, Flacco will need time to get the ball to them. How difficult will it be for the Ravens to slow down the Lions' pass rush?

Rothstein: Depends which pass rush shows up. If it is the one that played in the last Green Bay game (seven sacks), then Flacco's success will be predicated on whether he can make the first read correctly. If the pass rush is less successful, then Flacco could have a big day. Much of it will depend on how many people Baltimore keeps home besides the five offensive linemen.

If Baltimore decides to try to block Ndamukong Suh one-on-one, it'll be a long night. The pass rush's success also will depend on rookie end Ziggy Ansah. If Ansah is healthy enough to play, he becomes a huge difference-maker for the Lions as teams have really struggled to deal with Suh on the inside and Ansah outside. If Ansah can't play -- he injured his shoulder against Philadelphia -- then that's a big bonus for the Ravens.

The Ravens were a Super Bowl team last year. Now, they appear to be very much in the middle of the pack. Did Ray Lewis and Anquan Boldin make that big of a difference?

Hensley: I would argue that the Ravens have missed a healthy Dennis Pitta (out 12 games with dislocated hip) and Jacoby Jones (injured knee in season opener) more than Boldin and Lewis. You can throw in there that the Ravens have missed the same production from Ray Rice as well. Offensively, the Ravens haven't had as much of a void with Boldin as previously thought. Torrey Smith has assumed the No. 1 receiver job, and rookie Marlon Brown has been a weapon in the red zone with six touchdowns. And defensively, there hasn't been much talk of the loss of Lewis because Daryl Smith has played so well in the middle. The Ravens defense is statistically much better than last year's group.

So, why has there been so much of a drop-off this year? The offensive line and Rice have been major disappointments. There have been too few running lanes and too many sacks allowed. The lack of a running game and the inability of Rice to make plays in the open field have hamstrung this offense. The other problem has been coming up short in close games. Last year, the Ravens had the NFL's most wins in games decided by three points or fewer. This year, Baltimore has the second-most losses (four) in such games. The Ravens have begun to find a way to win those close games recently, which is why they're back in the playoff race.

The Ravens have historically come through in these December games, which is why they've made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. Do the Lions feel added pressure in times like these because they've made the playoffs only once since the 1999 season?

Rothstein: I don’t think they do, but there is a lot at stake for Detroit over these last three games. Besides the Lions' second playoff appearance in three seasons, this is a chance at Detroit’s first division title since 1993 and if the Lions don’t make the playoffs, there probably will be at least a conversation about Jim Schwartz’s future in Detroit.

So there are, without question, a lot of things weighing on the Lions. But for them it has been all about the mistakes they have been making and what they need to correct. Whether they do that over the last three games will essentially decide their fate.

Larry Fitzgerald and Bernard PollardGetty Images, AP PhotoBernard Pollard and the Titans will try to hamper the playoff hopes of Larry Fitzgerald and Arizona.
In 2011, the Tennessee Titans had a new coach and a new feel. Mike Munchak’s team missed the playoffs by a game.

Things seemed new and fresh. Since then, however, the Titans are 11-18.

The Arizona Cardinals come to Nashville in a position not unlike those Titans from two years ago. Arizona’s on the playoff fringe, playing well and looking for its ninth win this season.

ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss the two teams in advance of Sunday's game.

Paul Kuharsky: Bruce Arians did masterful work filling in for Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis last season. He has a legitimate case for a second consecutive coach-of-the-year award. What have been the main ingredients in his first-year success with the Cards?

Josh Weinfuss: There have been a few contributing factors as to why Arians has had success this season, but it starts with him changing the culture of the entire organization. He's not a micromanager around the building and he's open with the players, and they love it. Like past regimes, he doesn't sugarcoat his feelings or his perceptions of a player. He'll tell them how it is, and they've responded well to the criticism. One obvious difference is the quarterback situation, and Arians handled it differently here than in the past, naming Carson Palmer the starter early and sticking with him. That gave players a chance to spend all of minicamp and the offseason knowing that Palmer was in charge, and they were able to get to know him and his rhythm. Even though it took about seven months for them to pick up the offense, it would've been longer had there been any wavering with the QB decision. Lastly, Arians is simply a great offensive coach and his ability to adapt his scheme to the personnel is showing.

How much credence is there to Munchak being on the hot seat and what kind of impact has this prospect had on the team?

Kuharsky: Oh, he’s on the hot seat. How can he not be when his team is in the worst division in the league and is 0-4 against that division (1-9 if we look at 2012 and 2013)? Players remain behind Munchak and I think they respect him immensely based on his Hall of Fame playing career. There is a certain chemistry that comes out of playing for a guy who has played at the highest level. But the standard is winning, and Munchak’s team has regularly lost to winning teams and to AFC South teams. An offseason revamp was supposed to brand the Titans as a team with a dominant offensive line and run game, and things haven’t panned out along those lines at all. The $10 million back, Chris Johnson, is averaging 3.8 yards a carry, and the offensive line hasn’t jelled.

How has the offensive line in Arizona come along, and how much has running back Rashard Mendenhall (3.1 yards a carry) yielded to rookie Andre Ellington (5.8)?

Weinfuss: It sounds cliché, but the proverbial light switch was flipped in Week 8 against Atlanta. Since then, the Cardinals' linemen been corralling pass rushes, creating holes for the running backs and, maybe most important, keeping Palmer upright. The tackles were still struggling with fast and powerful edge rushers, but left tackle Bradley Sowell did a good job of slowing St. Louis' Robert Quinn last Sunday. As for the guys for whom the line is blocking, Mendenhall and Ellington have two very distinct roles on this team. Mendenhall is the workhorse, the every-down back who will pound in between the tackles until he breaks free. He suffered from a turf-toe injury for most of the season but has been healthy for a few weeks. Ellington, on the other hand, has been more of the outside back. He has an extra gear Mendenhall doesn't, where he can hit the corner and take off. And Arians likes to use Ellington out wide more. So the two are quite different and each has accepted his role.

Is it just the Titans offensive line to blame for Johnson's decline in yards per carry or is there something else in play? Backs like that can only last so long in this league. In Year 6, how much longer do you think he has?

Kuharsky: It’s definitely not just the line. That group’s been slow to jell. Right tackle David Stewart is banged up and doesn’t move well. Rookie right guard Chance Warmack is too inconsistent. Rookie center Brian Schwenke started late because of a camp injury and now has a bad ankle. Left tackle Andy Levitre, the big free-agent prize, has admitted he needs an offseason to get right and get to playing up to his standard. I give the line a third of the blame, Johnson a third and the play calling a third. Johnson is just too tentative and doesn’t make anybody miss. And offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains can’t get CJ or Shonn Greene into a rhythm when one of them starts to get something going. They don’t seem to know how to solve a 3-4 defense, so advantage Cardinals there.

Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby is having a big year and could be in the Defensive Player of the Year mix. How does defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ scheme set him up for success?

Weinfuss: Bowles made a tweak up front and it has had a ripple effect throughout the defense, helping Dansby flourish. Bowles stayed with a 3-4 scheme but changed the defensive line's responsibilities up front from a multi-gap system to single-gap. It freed up the down linemen to pin their ears back and attack, which has flushed quarterbacks out of the pocket more quickly and made runners bounce outside. That, in turn, has helped Dansby get in front of more passes and allows him to roam sideline to sideline. He leads the league with 100 solo tackles and, with the help of a new diet, is playing at the level of a linebacker five years younger.

Tight ends have raked the Cardinals' defense for most of the season, one of the few weak spots in an otherwise-talented unit. How do the Titans use Delanie Walker, and can they exploit Arizona's undersized secondary?

Kuharsky: I would think they like the matchup. Walker is a tough, physical tight end who can run. He’s particularly effective when he gets angry. He’s coming off a game missed due to a concussion, so he could be at some risk if he takes a big shot. But I would expect Kendall Wright gets the most targets and Walker is second. Maybe the Cards have some insight into Walker from seeing him twice a year when he was with the 49ers. The Titans surely hope that doesn’t matter at all.

 

Double Coverage: Bills at Jaguars

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
10:00
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Johnson/HenneUSA TODAY SportsStevie Johnson's Bills and Chad Henne's Jaguars are both 4-9, but the teams appear headed in opposite directions.
It has been a different second half for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills.

Both teams are 4-9 but they’re on opposite wavelengths. The Jaguars have won four of their past five games and are currently riding a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2010. The Bills have lost four of their past five and are coming off an abysmal performance in Tampa Bay.

Jaguars coach Gus Bradley is talking about making sure his players treat prosperity the same way they treated the adversity they faced in the first half of the season. Bills coach Doug Marrone is talking about scaling back the offense to help rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.

The teams meet Sunday at EverBank Field. ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco break down the matchup:

DiRocco: Manuel is pretty familiar to fans in Jacksonville from his time at Florida State. He has had an up-and-down season, but what have you seen from him that leads you to believe the Bills made the correct choice in deciding to build the franchise around him?

Rodak: I think the jury is still out on whether the Bills made the correct choice in Manuel. In Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers, Manuel posted a 3.8 QBR, which ranks 415 out of 426 single-game performances in the NFL this season. It's dangerous to give too much weight to what's most recent, but in this case, Sunday had to be alarming for the Bills. Manuel has the leadership and character traits that any NFL team wants in its quarterback, but his on-field performance has left a lot to be desired. These last three games will be critically important to determining which direction Manuel is heading.

The Jaguars have gone on a surprising run lately, winning four of their past five games. Have they been doing anything different than early in the season? Or are things just simply starting to come together for Gus Bradley and his players?

DiRocco: Schematically, no, other than just paring down the defensive game plan a bit and focusing more on the coverages and blitzes they do well. But three things stand out: better run defense, a better turnover ratio and better success in the red zone. In the first eight games -- all losses by double digits -- the Jaguars were allowing 161.8 yards per game rushing, were minus-7 in turnover ratio, and scored TDs on only 25 percent of red-zone possessions. The numbers in the past five games: 70.8 yards per game allowed, plus-5, and 66.7 percent. The offensive line has been much more consistent, quarterback Chad Henne is making few mistakes, and the defensive line has held up at the point of attack much better.

Kiko Alonso is one of the candidates for defensive rookie of the year and is second in the NFL in tackles. Obviously a second-round pick is expected to produce, but has the kind of impact he has made on the defense been a surprise?

Rodak: I think so. When I spoke to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine last month about Alonso, he indicated that the Bills inserted him into the starting lineup in the spring, but it was a wait-and-see deal. If it didn’t work out, they were going to turn somewhere else, but Alonso has certainly fit well within this defense. He has drawn a lot of praise from coaches and veterans on this team for his work ethic and ability to pick up the scheme quickly. However, I do think that Alonso’s play has tailed off slightly over the past several weeks after he had a hot start this season. He had four interceptions, one sack, and one forced fumble in the first month of the season. Since then, he has had one sack, no interceptions and no forced fumbles. Is that overly concerning for the Bills, though? Most likely not. I think Alonso will be a fixture in this defense for the foreseeable future.

What’s the latest on Maurice Jones-Drew? I remember hearing some trade talk around him a few months ago, but once the deadline passed, he hasn’t been on the radar as much. Does he have a future in Jacksonville?

DiRocco: He does if he’s willing to be realistic about a contract. No team is going to pay big money for a 29-year-old running back that has battled injuries the past two seasons, which is what he’ll find out if he decides to test the free-agent market when his contract expires after this season. The Jaguars are interested in re-signing him and likely will offer him an incentive-filled two-year contract worth $6-10 million. Jones-Drew, who would like to finish his career in Jacksonville, is making $4.95 million this season so that would be a pay cut. If he’s OK with that, then I’d be surprised if he’s not around.

What do you think of the job Doug Marrone has done in his first season? And what do you think of his long-term future in Buffalo?

Rodak: I think it has been a trying season for Marrone. It's not that there were high hopes for the team in his first season -- nobody realistically expected them to make the playoffs -- but I don't think everything fell into place as well as he would have liked. His hire of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator has generally paid off well, but ultimately what's going to define Marrone's tenure in Buffalo will be the quarterback position. Coaches don't often get more than one chance to get it right at quarterback, so if Manuel doesn't work out in Buffalo, it may not work out for Marrone, either. That's just today's NFL. It's a brutal league.

What about for the Jaguars? Their roster was about as bare bones as it gets this past offseason -- in much worse shape than the Bills' entering this season -- and they've managed to put on a nice little run here. What's the next step that general manager David Caldwell needs to take?

DiRocco: His No. 1 priority is to find a franchise quarterback. At the beginning of the season I would have told you the Jaguars would draft Teddy Bridgewater with the No. 1 overall selection, but since it now appears the Jaguars will be picking in the Nos. 5-7 range it seems unlikely Bridgewater will be around. Caldwell is going to have to figure out whether there’s somebody else he likes just as much or if he’s going to be willing to gamble that he can get a good QB a little later in the draft, whether it’s A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray or somebody else.

Double Coverage: Saints at Rams

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
10:00
AM ET
Drew Brees and Zac StacyGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints are piling up numbers, but Zac Stacy and the Rams may give them trouble.

While the New Orleans Saints come to the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday with plenty to play for, the St. Louis Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention.

The scenario of the Rams playing out the string and the Saints pushing for prime seeding the NFC is one we've seen before. But, for whatever reason, the Rams have beaten or played the Saints tough in recent meetings. In addition, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of success against New Orleans.

In this week’s edition of Double Coverage, ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Saints reporter Mike Triplett discuss the Rams’ relative success against the Saints, and much more.

Wagoner: The Rams are out of the mix for the postseason and again playing a much better New Orleans team at home. In 2011, the Rams stunned everyone by knocking off the Saints in a somewhat similar situation. It seems New Orleans has struggled to find traction on the road this year. Anything in particular you can point to for those problems?

Triplett: Well, first of all, the Saints hate that question. But it keeps coming up this year because they have struggled quite a bit on the road -- they're 3-3, and two of their wins were surprisingly low-scoring. The Saints actually have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-14). But part of the reason they catch so much heat for looking so human on the road is because they play so super-human at home (as former linebacker Scott Shanle said recently).

There’s no one real consistent theme for their road struggles. Sometimes it has been weather conditions or footing – neither of which will be an issue on Sunday. And sometimes, of course, they just come out flat. But I don’t expect that from the Saints this week since they know how much is on the line with the playoffs looming.

Nick, with no playoff hopes to inspire the Rams, do you see them treating this game with the same intensity? I know they’re coming off a two losses on the road. Have you seen any signs that they can bounce back and cause trouble for the Saints?

Wagoner: Speaking of questions teams hate, Fisher doesn't appreciate anything that looks at the big picture or beyond the next game. For all the problems this team has, effort and buy-in aren't on the list. The Rams have nothing tangible to play for this season, but this is the youngest team in the league and there are plenty at Rams Park who have long insisted that the target year for a breakout is 2014. To get there, they need to continue to make strides over the final three weeks, so I would expect them to put up more of a fight to close out the season.

As it pertains to the Saints specifically, the Rams have a habit this season of playing good teams pretty tough, save for San Francisco. They've beaten Arizona, Indianapolis and Chicago, and they gave Seattle all it could handle at home. There's no guarantee they can carry that over to Sunday, but after two bad performances the past two weeks, I expect a more representative performance against New Orleans.

One storyline that intrigues me here is the presence of Rob Ryan. The Saints went from a former Rams head coach at defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) in 2012 to one who looked like he was about to become the Rams' coordinator this year. How has Ryan been able to turn around that defense in one year, and what are the biggest differences?

Triplett: Yeah, the Saints definitely owe the Rams an apology for that one – or a thank-you note. Ryan has made a huge impact. His two most important qualities are probably his attitude and his creativity. Players immediately responded to his enthusiasm and his energy level. They say Ryan makes the game fun, something players have said about him throughout his career. Just as important, he has shown enough flexibility to mold his defense around the players he’s working with (which became a necessity when they suffered a handful of key summer injuries).

I've been especially impressed by the way Ryan has featured young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. And he’ll throw a ton of different looks at teams from week to week and series to series. I’m shocked that this is the first time Ryan’s had a winning season as a defensive coordinator. He obviously found the right fit for himself in New Orleans.

Tell me about the Rams' defense. Any chance they can hang with the Saints’ potent offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and the running backs who catch passes out of the backfield?

Wagoner: The Rams' defense has been especially hard to figure. They expected to be a top-10 group but haven't been able to do it for a few reasons. The pass rush has games where it absolutely dominates and takes over. Robert Quinn has emerged as one of the game's best and Chris Long is still dangerous. When the pass rush is humming, it makes life miserable for opponents. That's the Rams' best hope for slowing down the Saints.

But the Rams don't match up all that well with New Orleans on the back end. The secondary has struggled mightily, especially at safety. Graham is a matchup nightmare for all teams, and he could really expose the Rams’ issues at safety. The Rams drafted linebacker Alec Ogletree to help neutralize guys like Graham, and he could get the call on Sunday. He's a former safety playing linebacker and has at times flashed elite cover skills for a linebacker. But I think he's flattened out a bit in that area in recent weeks while his run-stopping skills have improved. The secondary is going to require major upgrades in the offseason, and given the Saints' weapons, anything short of a dominant pass rush will make for a long day for the Rams.

While we're talking about the Saints' offense, it seems like it's as good as ever, with Drew Brees putting together another monster season. You see that group every day and every week in games. Are there weaknesses that can be exploited, and how have teams found success in slowing them down?

Triplett: Every once in a while, the Saints’ passing offense does get slowed down. The best way to succeed against them is to get physical and disruptive in coverage – bumping and chipping guys at the line, pushing the envelope within the 5 yards of contact and trying to stay tight on them down the field. It worked for New England (in heavy man coverage) and Seattle (more zone coverage). But it’s easier said than done. The Panthers tried to play physical this past week, but they didn't have the manpower to stop Graham and receiver Marques Colston. The Saints usually burn defenses with their “pick your poison” offense since they are so deep and versatile.

Interesting that you brought up Ogletree. I liked him as a possible pick for the Saints in April. Instead, they drafted another disruptive athlete – Vaccaro – who has made a nice impact in a versatile role. One of the main reasons the Saints drafted Vaccaro was because they liked his ability to cover slot receivers like Tavon Austin. I saw Austin’s breakout performance a couple weeks ago. Any chance he can be that X factor on Sunday?

Wagoner: Well, Austin suffered an ankle injury against Arizona last week and Fisher has called him day-to-day. If Austin plays, it’s possible his ankle could slow him down a bit. Considering his game relies so much on speed and elusiveness, an ankle injury could affect him more than it might other players. If he’s OK, he certainly could be an X factor. Without Sam Bradford at quarterback, the Rams really struggle to put together long drives. They need big plays to keep up in most games, and Austin is the one guy capable of consistently providing them. If they don’t have him, it’s going to make an already difficult task even tougher.

Double Coverage: Jets at Panthers

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
10:00
AM ET
Chris IvoryGetty ImagesChris Ivory and the Jets know it will be tough to move the ball against Luke Kuechly's Panthers.
The Carolina Panthers and New York Jets meet Sunday in a game with playoff implications, something few probably would have predicted before the season.

The Panthers (9-4) are currently the fifth seed in the NFC and had won eight straight games before their 31-13 loss at New Orleans. They still have an outside chance at winning the NFC South if they win out and the Saints lose two of three, including a rematch in Charlotte on Dec. 22.

The Jets (6-7) are in a more tenuous situation. They are a game behind Baltimore (7-6) for the sixth seed in the AFC and probably need to win out to have a legitimate playoff shot, with Miami at 7-6 and the Chargers 6-7.

A lot is at stake. ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Jets reporter Rich Cimini are here to break this one down.

Newton: Rich, the Jets have impressive wins over New England and New Orleans. They also have some bad losses to teams they probably expected to beat. Why have they been so Jekyll-and-Hyde?

Cimini: Good question, Dave. I think Rex Ryan wishes he knew the answer to that. The Jets are your basic mediocre football team -- 2-4 against teams with winning records, 4-3 against the others. To their credit, they played exceptionally well in upsetting the Patriots and Saints. I know this sounds crazy, but in retrospect those wins have turned out to be somewhat of a curse. It raised the expectation level, inside and outside the organization, putting pressure on the team. Clearly, they haven't handled it well.

This is a young team (five starting rookies) prone to wild swings. They're feeling better about themselves after beating the Raiders, snapping a three-game losing streak. Their offense played its best game in two months, which is to say it actually found the end zone. But I have a feeling the Jets about to get hit with a sobering dose of reality -- which happened to the Panthers in New Orleans. What's the mood around the team and how do you think it will respond?

Newton: The mood is surprisingly upbeat for a team that was just embarrassed on prime-time television. Check out my post on defensive end Greg Hardy talking Monday about his Sunday night introduction as "Kraken, Hogwarts" and you'll see he has already moved on. That's what I saw from the entire locker room. One of the strengths of this team has been its ability to put the last game in the rearview mirror quickly, regardless of whether it's a win or a loss.

I'm not suggesting a blowout in this one, but my guess is the Jets will respond similar to the way the Saints did to their 34-7 loss to Seattle. The Panthers understand what's at stake and are completely focused on the Jets. Several have mentioned how well New York has played defensively, but from what I've seen, it has given up a lot of yards the past few games. What's going on there?

Cimini: I read the "Kraken, Hogwarts" item; Hardy sounds like a trip. Anyway, on the Jets' defense, you're right: They've given up a lot of yards the past two weeks -- 836. That's the highest back-to-back total in the Rex Ryan era. Why? A few reasons, including fatigue. Because of the offensive struggles, the defense has spent a lot of time on the field and it could be taking a toll. Also, the secondary has been a major disappointment. It has allowed 44 pass plays of 20 or more yards. To compensate, Ryan is playing more two-high-safety looks than usual, leaving seven in the box. That has left the Jets vulnerable against the run.

They brought in Ed Reed to help prevent the long ball, but he hasn't made a huge impact. The cornerback play, once a strength, has dropped off considerably. Antonio Cromartie, coming off a Pro Bowl season, is playing with a bum hip and getting torched regularly. Rookie Dee Milliner has experienced his share of growing pains. The Jets had trouble with Matt McGloin and Ryan Tannehill, so I have to think Cam Newton will have a big day. Will he?

Newton: I'm not a soothsayer, but if he does, the Jets are in trouble. When Newton has a big day, the Panthers usually do, too. But what has been key this season is Newton hasn't always had to have a big day for Carolina to succeed. Newton has learned to rely on others around him to make plays, not feeling like he has to carry the load. It's a big reason the Panthers are 9-4. The Saints did a good job of keeping him in check, but they were playing with a big lead after the second quarter. The defensive linemen didn't have to respect the run as much and were able to focus on Newton. When the offense has been somewhat balanced, Newton has been dangerous.

Speaking of quarterbacks, Geno Smith seems to be all over the place, but the coaches have stuck with him. Why?

Cimini: "All over the place" is being kind, Dave. He went through a two-month stretch of historically bad quarterback play. So why is he still the guy? New general manager John Idzik drafted Smith in the second round and he wants to get a complete evaluation, determining if he can be their quarterback of the future. Basically, it's a sink-or-swim situation -- and Idzik is willing to suffer in the short term if it helps him make a long-term decision.

Smith wasn't ready to start the season, but he got the job by default when Mark Sanchez wrecked his shoulder in the preseason. With no big-time playmakers around him, Smith is in a difficult situation, but he has handled it as well as could be expected. The backups are Matt Simms (no NFL starts) and veteran David Garrard, who has been in mothballs for three years. So there you have it -- the worst quarterback situation in the NFL. And it won't get better Sunday because the Panthers are outstanding on defense. What makes them so good?

Newton: Your bluntness on the "worst quarterback situation in the NFL" makes me chuckle. Good one. And the Panthers are good at making quarterbacks look bad -- Drew Brees aside. Outside of the Saints, they have been consistent at applying pressure with the front four and then mixing up the coverages with seven players. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have played at a Pro Bowl level, and the front four are stingy at stopping the run, as Carolina's No. 1 ranking against the rush will attest. The addition of rookie tackle Star Lotulelei, a disruptive force in the middle, has been huge.

The Saints were so effective in part because Brees has a quick release and in part because, for the first time in a long time, the Panthers weren't sound fundamentally. I suspect the Saints had a lot to do with creating that. But as badly as they seemed to play against New Orleans, they gave up only 69 yards rushing and 373 yards of total offense. I suspect the New York defense would take that now if they were told that's all Carolina would have on Sunday. Since, from the tone of some of your answers, you anticipate this to be a mismatch, what do you consider the X factor for the Jets to win?

Cimini: Hmm, can I get back to you on that? Just kidding. I actually think this will be an interesting game because the teams are similar -- defensive-minded teams that rely on the running game. The difference is the Panthers do it better than the Jets. As for the X factor, it's running back Chris Ivory. If the Jets can somehow establish a ground game, it would take a lot of pressure off Smith, who could be overwhelmed if he's in too many third-and-long situations. Ivory has been one of the few sparks on offense, and he knows the Panthers from his NFC South days with the Saints. So he's my X factor, but the Jets might need "Y" and "Z" factors to help them Sunday.

Newton: If the Jets can establish the ground game with Ivory, something no Panthers opponent really has done with any back since Buffalo in Week 2, it could be interesting. Regardless, it's a big game for both teams to keep their playoff hopes going.

Jamaal Charles and Rod StreaterGetty ImagesJamaal Charles, left, and the Chiefs hope to avoid an upset against Rod Streater and the Raiders.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The last time the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs met, Terrelle Pryor was under center for the Raiders and his legs did the running quarterback little good as he was sacked nine times in a 24-7 Chiefs victory at Arrowhead Stadium on Oct. 13, a game in which Oakland held a 7-0 lead in the second quarter and trailed by only a 14-7 count late in the fourth quarter. Matt McGloin, who is more of a pocket passer, is now the Raiders quarterback, and he has received a baptism by fire in going 1-3 for Oakland (4-9).

The Chiefs (10-3), meanwhile, ended a three-game losing streak last week by thumping Washington 45-10 and have their eyes set on a playoff berth, which they can clinch by beating the Raiders and/or getting some help elsewhere.

Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez break down the upcoming matchup at the O.co Coliseum.

Gutierrez: Hey Adam, the Raiders are looking desperately at every angle to win a football game and end a three-game losing streak. Though they hung with the Chiefs in Kansas City for more than a half earlier this season, many are wondering if the Chiefs could sit a few starters this weekend, especially since that playoff spot will have been clinched before kickoff in Oakland if the Miami Dolphins lose earlier in the day against the New England Patriots. Do you envision that possibly happening, or is Game 14 too soon for coach Andy Reid and Co. to start thinking that way?

Teicher: Reid hasn’t tipped his hand on this, but it’s difficult to picture him backing off this early, or at least until they no longer can win the AFC West championship. And no matter what happens, the Chiefs can’t be eliminated from winning the division title before Sunday’s kickoff. As it looks, the Chiefs will have plenty of time over the final two games to provide rest to some of their key players. If this is any clue, the Chiefs had a 38-10 lead late in the third quarter last week against Washington, but all of their key players, including running back Jamaal Charles and quarterback Alex Smith, were still in the lineup. So I would expect that on Sunday, the Chiefs will do what they feel they have to do to win this game.

McGloin will start against the Chiefs for the first time. Give us a little scouting report with the things he has and hasn’t done well, and what he might be capable of that could give an aggressive defense like Kansas City’s some trouble.

Gutierrez: McGloin is the anti-Pryor -- that is, he is the prototypical pocket passer who is most comfortable running a West Coast offense, even if he is a little on the short end at 6-foot in his cleats. His biggest backers compare the undrafted rookie to a poor man’s Drew Brees. Pretty heady stuff. Still, what the Raiders lose in athleticism in going from Pryor to McGloin they gain in pocket presence. McGloin learns from his mistakes quickly, and his coaches say he rarely, if ever, makes the same mistake twice. He has made a few, though: a jump ball in the end zone to the 5-9 Jacoby Ford that was picked off on Thanksgiving in Dallas, trying to force a pass deep in his own territory that was picked off by the New York Jets’ Ed Reed. Where he might be able to give the Chiefs’ aggressive defense fits is his ability to stay in the pocket until the last possible moment, take the hit and still get the ball off, as he did for a 27-yard go-ahead touchdown pass against the Tennessee Titans.

Against Pryor, the Chiefs had nine sacks. But they had only two total in their previous five games before getting Washington’s quarterbacks six times this past weekend. Was it merely a matter of flipping the switch for the Chiefs' pass rush?

Teicher: It was a combination of things, really. The main thing is that they got a big lead early and were able to get after Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins without having to truly honor Washington’s running game. They were able to make the Redskins one-dimensional that way. Another factor is that the Redskins are a mess. I think a lot of teams are capable of making their pass protection look bad. Also, I think the Chiefs were due. While their pass rush isn’t as good as it looked in the last game against the Raiders or in many of the other early season games, it is too good to go long stretches without getting a sack. Opposing quarterbacks had changed their game to get rid of the ball quickly against the Chiefs. Washington’s quarterbacks didn’t use that strategy much.

The Chiefs allow some big pass plays every week because of the aggressive style they play. Denarius Moore was Oakland's deep threat the last time these teams met. Is he healthy enough to play this week and, whether he is or not, do the Raiders have any other big-play receivers who can give the Chiefs something to worry about?

Gutierrez: Moore has not played since Nov. 17, but he did practice Wednesday for the first time since injuring a shoulder in Houston. And, perhaps coincidentally, that was the last time the Raiders won a game. When healthy, he is definitely their most electric playmaker, but Oakland might have found something in a couple of undrafted guys -- Andre Holmes, who lit up the Dallas Cowboys for seven catches and 136 yards on Thanksgiving, and Rod Streater, who is 213 yards away from becoming the first Raiders receiver to turn in a 1,000-yard season since Randy Moss in 2005. They are both much larger targets than Moore, but not as fast or explosive.

Despite finishing with the league’s worst record last season at 2-14, the Chiefs still had six Pro Bowlers, so the talent was obviously there. And with the 9-0 start this season, it seems obvious the biggest change was in coaching. But at the risk of offending Smith, is it really that simplistic?

Teicher: With the exception of general manager, coaching staff and quarterback, the Chiefs aren’t much different in key spots than they were last season, when they finished 2-14. So most of the credit for their turnaround has to go to GM John Dorsey, Reid and Smith. Dorsey's best offseason moves came through free agency, when the Chiefs added productive role players like tight end Anthony Fasano, defensive end Mike DeVito and cornerback Sean Smith. Reid has done a nice job with the X's and O's, but perhaps his best move was to turn around a rotten, losing culture and get everyone within the organization to fall in behind him. Alex Smith has picked up his game of late. He’s going down the field more with the ball, and the passing game has perked up. He has been solid enough not to ruin a good thing for the Chiefs. Smith has committed just six turnovers this season. Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn combined to turn it over 27 times last season.

The Chiefs had one of their worst offensive games of the season against Oakland the last time. Since then, the Raiders have been allowing a lot of yards and a lot of points. Is there an easy explanation for what has happened to their defense?

Gutierrez: An easy explanation? Sure, the defense is simply worn down ... and a lack of depth behind the starting 11 has made the drop off all the more stunning. Especially in the past three games. Against the Tennessee Titans, the Raiders' defense allowed an 80-yard drive in six minutes that culminated with a 10-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal with 10 seconds remaining to give the Titans a 23-19 victory. On Thanksgiving Day, the Raiders blew a 21-7 first-half lead in Dallas, and last week against the Jets, they “peed down" their legs, per the loquacious Charles Woodson, in forcing only two punts all day, the last after the game was decided. Then there is this: Over those past three games, the Raiders have allowed those opponents to convert an NFL-worst 54.6 percent of their third downs. If Dennis Allen’s seat is warm, it’s because the defense -- his purported forte -- has been so bad of late.

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LeSean McCoy, Matt CasselAP PhotoLeSean McCoy and the explosive Eagles offense visit Matt Cassel and the struggling Vikings.
The Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles couldn't be in much different places than they were a year ago.

In 2012, the Vikings made a seven-game improvement, winning their final four games and riding Adrian Peterson's 2,097-yard season to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. The Eagles, meanwhile, lost nine of their final 10 games, finished 4-12 and fired longtime coach Andy Reid. This season, it's Philadelphia that's racing toward the playoffs, with a new quarterback (Nick Foles), one of the most exciting offenses in football and an 8-5 record. The Vikings haven't been able to settle on a quarterback, have blown five leads in the last minute of games and might be preparing to part with coach Leslie Frazier after starting the season 3-8-1.

To get you ready for the game, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss the matchup and the rapidly changing directions of both teams:

Ben Goessling: Phil, it's been surprising to see how much better the Eagles' offense has worked under Nick Foles than Michael Vick, considering how well Chip Kelly's system seemed to suit Vick. What is Foles doing to make it work so well, and just how bad of a matchup is this for the Vikings' defense?

Phil Sheridan: At the moment, I'd have to say the Eagles' offense is a tough matchup for any defense. Their past two opponents, Arizona and Detroit, came in as well-regarded defenses. The Eagles scored 24 points on the Cardinals by early in the third quarter and then exploded for 34 second-half points in the snow Sunday against the Lions. The Eagles are able to run or pass at a high level right now, which makes them just plain tough to defend.

As for Foles and Vick, it does seem counterintuitive that a running threat wasn't as effective as the relatively slow-moving Foles in Kelly's offense. But Foles is good at several key facets of what Kelly wants done. He's become adept at keeping the tempo up in the no-huddle. He's been accurate in the passing game. And he's made good decisions when Kelly's play call presents him with an option.

Kelly gave a hearty endorsement of Toby Gerhart, whom he faced while he was at Oregon and Gerhart played at Stanford. Kelly said he thought Gerhart could be an impact player who just happens to be stuck behind one of the great backs of all time. What's the deal? Can Gerhart replace Peterson and keep the Vikings' offense going?

Goessling: It depends on his health. He's dealing with a hamstring issue of his own, so if Peterson does indeed miss the game because of his sprained foot, Gerhart might not be able to handle the same kind of workload as Peterson. He's only got two games of 20-plus carries in the NFL, but then again, as Kelly said, he's certainly built to take a pounding. He's a stout, physical back who runs well between the tackles and does a solid job picking up blitzes. Plus, he's not exactly afraid to embrace the idea that he's auditioning for other teams before he hits free agency in March. He certainly isn't going to be a featured back in Minnesota behind Peterson, and while I'm sure the Vikings would like to keep him, he might find better opportunities elsewhere.

What's the key to solving the Eagles' defense? The Vikings probably won't be at full strength this week, given their running back situation and the fact they've been shuffling through quarterbacks all year. What do they need to do to move the ball and avoid the turnovers the Eagles have been creating lately?

Sheridan: It is still possible to move the ball on the Eagles. They give up a lot of yardage and are vulnerable to runs after the catch in the short- and intermediate-passing game. I was fascinated to see if they could handle Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush on Sunday. But the weather limited Johnson and Bush didn't play at all, so that riddle remains unsolved. Teams have been able to move the ball but have bogged down or turned it over in the red zone. If the Vikings can find ways to score from inside the 20, they can stay in the game.

One key for opponents is not falling behind. Green Bay, Washington and Arizona did, and that allowed the Eagles' defense to concede rushing yards and go hard after quarterbacks. That has led to turnovers as much as anything.

Not so long ago, it was intimidating for opposing offenses to come into the Metrodome and deal with Jared Allen coming off the edge with all that crowd noise behind him. Is Allen still that kind of force, and has the atmosphere changed with the team struggling this season?

Goessling: Allen hasn't been the same guy this season. He'll still play hard, and he's as relentless in his pursuit of a quarterback outside the pocket as anybody you'll find in the league, but he just looks like he's lost a step. He isn't as quick around the edge as he used to be, and he's gotten lost when he's been double-teamed. The guy who has brought more of the Vikings' pass rush this season is right end Brian Robison, who got a contract extension from the team during the season. He's not quite as quick off the edge as Allen was in his prime, but he might be a better edge rusher now, and he's good at knowing when to disengage from his blocker, step back and deflect a pass.

The Metrodome has lost a little of its edge in recent weeks with the Vikings struggling, but I wouldn't sleep on the fans there: If the game is close Sunday, they'll still get loud. They've only got two more games to crank up the volume in that old Teflon-coated warehouse before it's torn down, so I'd expect the noise level to be there, if partly for nostalgic reasons.

From afar, it would seem like the Eagles have every reason to be confident heading into the final stretch of the season. How far do you think they're capable of going in the playoffs?

Sheridan: That's a heck of a question, because the whole idea of the playoffs seemed so remote just a few weeks ago. Gradually, as the Eagles got within striking distance of the Cowboys in the NFC East, it seemed like a good first season for Kelly if the Eagles could get a taste of the postseason.

Now? After five wins in a row, they are in sole possession of first place in the division. Foles and LeSean McCoy are putting up epic numbers. The defense hasn't allowed more than 21 points in nine games. That sounds to me like a team that can win a home playoff game. Can they go to Seattle or New Orleans and win? That seems like a stretch, but the Eagles keep raising their own ceiling.

Leslie Frazier's first NFL coaching job was here in Philadelphia as an assistant on Andy Reid's staff. He seems to be in a tough spot there, with the kind of quarterback issues that undermine even good coaches. Is the feeling that Frazier is to blame for this season, and what kind of job security does he have?

Goessling: I certainly wouldn't put it all on Frazier -- the quarterback situation has been a mess, and the Vikings have also paid dearly for GM Rick Spielman's decision to cut Antoine Winfield and go almost completely with young defensive backs. That's had as much to do with the Vikings' defensive issues as anything else, and when you've got problems at quarterback and in the secondary, you're going to have a really hard time in today's NFL. Players are still playing hard for Frazier, but the Vikings have blown five leads in the last minute, and coaching issues seem to have contributed to at least a couple of those breakdowns. What's more, Frazier didn't get a contract extension after the Vikings' surprise playoff berth last year, so to come back, he'd either have to coach into the final year of his deal or get an extension. Neither one of those seem as likely as him paying the price for the Vikings' many issues this year.

Double Coverage: Texans at Colts

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
12:00
PM ET
J.J. Watt and Andrew LuckGetty ImagesJ.J. Watt's Texans aren't playoff-bound like Andrew Luck's Colts, but Sunday's hosts haven't had it easy.
INDIANAPOLIS -- This was supposed to be a game that had AFC South division title implications between a Super Bowl contender and a playoff team, one that could have even been flexed on the schedule.

At least that's the way it was envisioned when the season started.

Instead, it'll be a battle of two teams dealing with a number of issues when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts haven't beaten a team with a winning record since Oct. 20 and haven't had consistency on offense, defense or special teams in weeks. The Texans ... well, they've been a disaster this season. They are on an 11-game losing streak, benched their starting quarterback and fired their head coach.

ESPN.com's Colts reporter Mike Wells and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli weigh in on the two struggling teams.

Wells: Tania, obviously the big news -- really the only news -- to come out of Houston in the past week was the firing of coach Gary Kubiak. Wade Phillips takes over as the interim coach. Teams tend to rally around interim coaches or just shut them out. What do you think the Texans will do with Phillips?

Ganguli: I don't think they'll shut him out, but wanting to succeed for the coach was never a problem in Houston. They wanted to win the last Colts game for their head coach, who left at halftime in an ambulance. They wanted to win the following week in Arizona for their coach, who watched from home as he recovered from his transient ischemic attack. It's not a matter of wanting the win -- the process has gotten lost. Two weeks ago, the Texans made so much progress in fixing their issues and then last week they went to Jacksonville and completely lost their discipline, committing a franchise-record 14 penalties for 177 yards.

The Colts are now back on top of the AFC South. What was the mood like for the team upon clinching the division and a playoff spot?

Wells: It was a bittersweet feeling for them because they needed help from their good buddy Peyton Manning in Denver to win their first division title in three years. The Colts wanted to go into Cincinnati and win it by themselves so that they would be able to avoid getting it in the side or backdoor. That obviously didn't happen. But a division title is a division title no matter how you get it. That's how the Colts should look at it, especially since they were 2-14 just two years ago and many people thought the Texans wouldn't have a problem winning the division for the third straight season.

I'll be the first to say I picked the Texans to win the division this season. I'm sure there are probably a lot of reasons why they've been a major bust. But does one reason stand out more than others?

Ganguli: If I had to choose one, I would say the quarterback situation has been the biggest reason. It was completely out of the blue. A lot of people disagree with me on this, but I don't think Matt Schaub played poorly most of the time, it's just that pick-6's are such dramatic momentum swingers. Really, though, it's been a combination of a lot of things. If you look at their stats, you'd expect the team to have a much better record. After Schaub, they went through Case Keenum's learning process, which is ongoing. Kicker Randy Bullock had a rough start, which impacted the team's record. He has improved lately, but by then the Texans developed other problems, like the loss of four important players to injury: inside linebacker Brian Cushing, safety Danieal Manning, running back Arian Foster and tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels has a chance of returning this week. And of course, I mentioned the meltdown of discipline that led to what happened last Thursday in Jacksonville. That was a problem early in the season, but unusual for the Texans lately. They had four penalties in the previous two games combined.

I expected the Colts to be better than they are, too. Do you think this team has taken a step forward or backward from last season?

Wells: I thought the Colts had more talent this season but they wouldn't be able to duplicate their 11-5 record from last year. I was right about their record but wrong about their talent. Season-ending injuries forced the Colts to take a step back in the talent department. They're known for using the phrase "Next Man Up" when dealing with injuries. There really isn't a Next Man Up when it comes to replacing future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne, guard Donald Thomas and tight end Dwayne Allen. The Colts thought acquiring running back Trent Richardson would soften the blow of losing Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard. That hasn't been the case. Richardson's struggles since coming to Indianapolis have been well documented. So injuries and players not living up to expectations are the main reasons why the Colts have taken a step back

We talked about the benching of Schaub prior to the first meeting between the two teams in early November. Receiver Andre Johnson made Keenum look pretty good in the first half of that game. Has Keenum shown enough to prove he's worthy of being the team's quarterback for years to come?

Ganguli: He's had good moments and bad ones. I think the bad moments are fixable, but whether he'll be able to fix them remains to be seen. The end of this season is an audition for him just as much as it is for Phillips. He has to show he's learning how to read defenses and make better decisions. There are times when Keenum hangs on to the ball too long because his internal clock isn't quite where it needs to be yet. He is learning that sometimes it's better to take the checkdown. He's learning that turning his back on the field when a rush comes at him reduces his options. If he stops growing where he is now, he'll have a career as a serviceable backup. If he continues to improve, he has the chance to be a starter.

To wrap up, let's talk about the quarterback up there, which I know we have before. How would you assess the season Andrew Luck has had?

Wells: Two words: A struggle. But it's not Luck's fault. The offensive line has been inconsistent all season. The running game has been more poor than good. The biggest reason behind it, though, is because of the loss of Wayne. Wayne was Luck's security blanket and nobody has stepped up to help him out. Luck is good, but you can't forget that he's only in his second season and is still learning. Rookie Da'Rick Rogers had a breakout game against Cincinnati (107 yards) last weekend and believes he can be Luck's third-down go-to guy.

Tom Brady and Daniel ThomasGetty ImagesWill Tom Brady lead another comeback or will Daniel Thomas' Dolphins defend their home field?

The biggest game in the AFC East this season takes place Sunday in Miami, where the New England Patriots (10-3) will travel to face the Dolphins (7-6).

The Patriots are trying to secure one of the top two seeds in the conference and a first-round bye. New England also can clinch its fifth consecutive division title.

Miami, on the other hand, is one of four teams fighting for the AFC's final wild-card spot. The Dolphins have little margin for error and need another victory.

Who will prevail in this AFC East showdown? ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in.

James Walker: Mike, this is our second go-around this year. But a lot has changed since New England's 27-17 victory in Week 8. The Dolphins have gone through an immense bullying and harassment controversy involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and the Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the year with a knee injury.

Still, both teams have positioned themselves well down the stretch. The Dolphins are looking at this game to make a potential statement. They know a lot of outsiders nationally will see them as a serious playoff contender with a win over the Patriots. Miami spent the entire offseason trying to close the gap, and this is a good time for the Dolphins to prove they made progress.

Mike, the Patriots played without Gronkowski before. But New England doesn't have the proven weapons of previous years. How will the Patriots adjust?

Mike Reiss: Coaches and players have said the same thing -- there is no one player who can replace Gronkowski. He is too special and too unique of a talent. One thing that stood out since Gronkowski's return Oct. 20 was the diversity of personnel groupings the Patriots were calling on with success. Against the Steelers on Nov. 3, they scored six of their seven touchdowns out of different groupings. That is unlikely to be the case going forward, as they'll have to rely more on their receivers and running backs, while asking backup tight ends Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams to do their part.

I'm thinking big-picture here, James. From afar, it seemed like the Incognito-Martin incident could have brought the Dolphins down. So how have they been able to overcome it?

Walker: The Dolphins showed two key characteristics: character and resilience. Miami could have packed it in, especially after losing to the then-winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on "Monday Night Football." But since then, Miami has won three of four, and I think a lot of credit goes to Joe Philbin. The second-year head coach has never wavered through tough times. He remained the same person to his players and never pushed the panic button. That even-keeled mindset permeated the Dolphins' locker room and kept them focused.

Mike, how do you explain New England's penchant for second-half comebacks? Miami got a taste of that in October and is trying to avoid the same result this week.

Reiss: Much like Philbin, whose personal resilience was evident to those who followed his coaching career as he made his way up the ranks in the New England region, this Patriots team has something special about it. It is probably their most admirable quality -- if you're going to beat them, it is going to have to be a knockout. They fight you and keep scrapping for the full 60 minutes. What we saw last Sunday against the Browns was the equivalent of the boxing referee standing over them and giving them a 10 count as they were down on the mat: 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 ... 9.5 ... and at the last moment they spring back up and record the improbable victory. It's a dangerous way to live. It's also maddening at times for the team's fans to watch them play so poorly early in games. But they have good leadership, good depth and, as usual, they're in the playoff hunt.

The Patriots' defense has been vulnerable in recent weeks. What do you see from the Dolphins' offense that might allow them to exploit that defense and record the win?

Walker: Well, the Dolphins are running as well as they have all season. Miami gained a season-high 181 rushing yards in last week's win over the Steelers. The ground game hasn't become an area of strength until recently. Miami should have some success running against New England's 31st-ranked run defense. The Dolphins' passing game also is more efficient. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing solid down the stretch and spreading the ball around. Miami is on pace to have three players -- tight end Charles Clay and receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline -- get 70 or more catches this year. That has made it hard on opponents to key on one player. Clay, in particular, has come on strong as of late. He has developed into not only a good threat in the middle of the field, but also in the red zone. Clay leads Miami with seven total touchdowns (six receiving, one rushing).

Finally, Mike, the Patriots have had their struggles on the road this year. All three losses, to the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Carolina Panthers, have been away from Gillette Stadium. Which Patriots team do you expect to show up in Miami on Sunday?

Reiss: The Patriots were still in all three of those games, with a chance to win each right up until the end, so that's where I would start. We should probably expect a close game. Slow starts have been an issue for the Patriots and many wonder when that will finally catch up to them, and I could see Miami being a team that capitalizes on that. These are two of the NFL's least-penalized teams, Miami is fighting to keep its playoff hopes alive, and the Patriots are depleted and recalibrating after the loss of Gronkowski. Turnovers will be the difference-maker if the Patriots are to win it.

Campbell/ForteUSA TODAY SportsJason Campbell has been steady for the Browns at quarterback, while Matt Forte's versatility poses a challenge for opposing defenses.
The Chicago Bears won a very important game over Dallas on Monday night that kept the team in the playoff hunt.

Chicago's offense under first-year coach Marc Trestman had a huge game, especially Josh McCown at quarterback. Trestman used to coach in Cleveland, and he once coached Cleveland hero Bernie Kosar at the University of Miami. He has been winning with McCown playing for Jay Cutler.

While the Bears fight for a playoff spot, the Browns fight to simply win a game. They've lost four in a row and eight of nine, including gut-wrenching losses the past two weeks to Jacksonville and New England. Cleveland is quarterbacked by Jason Campbell, the Bears' backup last season.

Bears writer Michael Wright of ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com Browns writer Pat McManamon look ahead to Sunday's game.

McManamon: Mike, the Bears are fourth in the league in passing offense under Trestman. He came from Canada with the reputation as an offensive wizard and produced 45 points in a frigid December game. What does he do in the passing game and in the offense to get these results and this success?

Wright: Pat, probably the most important thing Trestman and the offensive coaching staff have done is taught the importance of understanding the actual concepts of the offense as opposed to simply telling players where to go on any given play. The players know exactly what the offense wants to accomplish on a given play, and each player knows how they individually help the club to make the play work by carrying out their particular responsibilities. For instance, Brandon Marshall may not be the primary receiver on a certain play. But he'll know exactly why he needs to run a route at a particular depth to free up the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver underneath. As you know, every player knows what they're supposed to do on a particular play, but Trestman makes sure they know why, and that's played a significant role in the offense's success. And it's taught at every level, from the line to the running backs out to the receivers. That, to me, leads to a certain synergy that's paramount in offensive football.

Pat, I know the loss to New England was disappointing considering the Browns blew a 26-14 lead and the fact there were a couple of controversial calls down the stretch. But is there any feeling at all of encouragement about what the team might be able to do in the coming weeks after the way it played against the Patriots?

McManamon: Any positive in a storm, Mike, and the Browns will take it. They point to the heart the team showed in bouncing back from a bad loss to Jacksonville, and to the fact that they did not quit after that loss. They also point to Campbell, who has had three incredible games and two very average ones. The one in New England was one of the incredibles. Finally, they point to Josh Gordon, who has done so many good things the past month.

These are all building blocks -- and good building blocks. But the problem with the Browns is they've given their fans nothing but building blocks since 1999, and since 2007 they have won 27 games -- total. Fans are sick of building, tearing down and rebuilding. They show loyalty and faith every time there is a restart. They're ready to really win and not just come close. Anything that happens in the final three games won't matter a whole lot.

Let's turn to quarterback, Mike. Campbell has been shockingly good in Cleveland. Did the Bears ever see this guy in Chicago? On Chicago's side, has McCown taken the job from Cutler permanently?

Wright: They saw it, Pat. The problem is the Bears couldn't afford to keep Campbell. When the Bears brought him in, they paid him a $2 million signing bonus and a base salary of $1.4 million, and his cap number was $3.754 million. So when the Bears started making decisions in the offseason about some of the free-agent additions they needed to make, Campbell was more of a luxury than a priority. The Bears spent big to bring in left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett, and after losing linebackers Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach in free agency, they needed to add two more starters at linebacker. Remember, the Bears also placed the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton, which resulted in a cap hit of $8.45 million. McCown, at $840,000, was simply a cheaper option than Campbell.

Speaking of McCown, he's the first Bears quarterback to produce three consecutive 300-yard passing games. But he hasn't taken the starting job from Cutler. Trestman has made that very clear, and even McCown says that right now, he's simply playing his role until Cutler returns. So right now, the team has been on record on numerous occasions saying Cutler is the guy as soon as he's medically cleared to play.

Out here in Chicago, Campbell made his only start during a slaughter at San Francisco in which I'm not sure Cutler would have made a difference. How would you measure his play out there in Cleveland?

McManamon: Surprisingly good. Perhaps shockingly good. Campbell had a good game against Kansas City, a very good game against Baltimore and an excellent game against New England -- along with so-so outings against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh when he was dealing a painful and unspecified rib injury. Campbell returned from a concussion to a lot of uncertainty. But he stepped in against New England and threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, he brought a sense of calm to the Browns' offense that was badly needed.

It's a bit of a mystery where this Jason Campbell has come from. He is not the same guy he was in his one start in Chicago, and he is far better even than when he was starting in Oakland. He still has limitations -- a strong pass rush should give him problems -- but to call him anything but a positive in Cleveland would not be fair to him.

Mike, Chicago's one weakness might seem to be its 2-4 road record. Can the Bears win on the road, and with a game following this one in Philadelphia, don't they pretty much have to win in Cleveland if they hope to make the playoffs? Even if it means playing on the road following a Monday night game?

Wright: It's been more than a month since the Bears have won on the road (Nov. 4 at Green Bay), and they absolutely have to win Sunday to have any realistic shot of making the postseason. Because of their putrid 4-6 conference record, the Bears would lose out in any tiebreakers for an NFC wildcard. So Chicago needs to win the division to make it to the postseason. But right now, Chicago is a half-game behind the Detroit Lions, who swept the Bears this season. So they've got to win out, basically, and hope the Lions slip. If the Bears do manage to win at Cleveland, the road gets tougher at Philadelphia in a game that has been flexed to a night matchup. A win at Philadelphia would mark the team's first consecutive wins since September. But remember, Chicago still has to host the Green Bay Packers in the season finale Dec. 29. And by then, the Bears could be facing a Packers team with a healthy Aaron Rodgers back in the fold.

Pat, Josh Gordon has gone off over the past four games. What's he doing to opponents that makes him so difficult to handle, and how much of a focal point has he become to what the Browns are doing offensively now?

McManamon: First of all, a little perspective on Chicago not winning a road game since Nov. 4. The Browns have won one game since Oct. 3, home and away.

As for Gordon, he's just an amazing physical presence, with size and sprinter's speed that lets him get away from defenders. He also has amazing strength, and has learned how to avoid jams and run routes. It is rare on a play that he is not open. Teams have refused to double-cover him, and they've paid. Bill Belichick had a week to prepare, gave the job of covering Gordon to Aqib Talib, and Gordon had the best game by any receiver against New England this season. The Browns lack a run game, and Gordon can't catch every ball. But he clearly has grown into option No. 1 on almost every pass play.

Bruce Irvin, Hakeem NicksAP PhotoBruce Irvin and the Seahawks are beatable on the road. Can Hakeem Nicks and the Giants win?

The 11-2 Seattle Seahawks have had their playoff spot wrapped up for a couple of weeks already and have their eyes on the top seed in the NFC. The 5-8 New York Giants were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday and openly admit that they're playing for pride from this point forward. These two teams meet Sunday at MetLife Stadium -- a place the Seahawks hope to return to in early February for the Super Bowl.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Giants reporter Dan Graziano break down the matchup between the league's best team and one of its most disappointing teams.

Graziano: Terry, let's start with Seattle's exciting young quarterback. The Giants this year have seen Terrelle Pryor, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, who are the only quarterbacks with more rushing yards than Russell Wilson has. From your standpoint, what sets Wilson apart from those other mobile quarterbacks?

Blount: Dan, there are so many intangibles about him that defy description. Some obvious ones are his character, his attention to every detail in his preparation and his underrated skills as a passer. But more than anything else, Wilson has the unusual ability to perform at his best when things appear to be at their worst. I've never seen him rattled, and he rarely makes a careless mistake. He has led the team to nine game-winning drives in his short career, and he almost did it again Sunday at San Francisco. As for his mobility, one thing that clearly sets him apart is his ability to make accurate throws downfield while he's running in either direction.

Speaking of quarterbacks, Eli Manning got off to a really rough start this season. What happened, and where is he now compared with seasons past when he was playing at a Pro Bowl level?

Graziano: Manning's biggest problem at the start of the season was his protection. The offensive line, never great to begin with, was hit with injuries to key starters and never got the kind of blocking help it received in past years from supplemental positions like running back and tight end. Manning has already taken more sacks (33) than he has ever taken in a full season, and there are three games to go. He also had no running game whatsoever for the first half of the season until Andre Brown got healthy. And top wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has had an awful season in the final year of his contract. Manning obviously could play better, and he'd admit he has missed his share of throws. But I think he's a quarterback who really needs to be comfortable with his surroundings, and this year that hasn't been possible for him.

The Seahawks are so dominant at home, but while they've been good on the road they are clearly not as good. We know about the home crowd and the advantage it gives them, but are there on-field things they don't do as well on the road?

Blount: One noticeable difference in the past three road games is that Wilson hasn't run much because defenses are trying to keep him in the pocket. Wilson had one carry for 2 yards last week at San Francisco, and only 38 yards on seven carries in the past three road games combined. They won two of those three games, however. Still, after Wilson ran for 102 yards at Indianapolis in Week 5 (ironically, one of Seattle's two road losses) teams have focused on not allowing him to beat them with his feet. He's running well at home (he rushed for 47 yards against New Orleans two weeks ago) but not so much on the road.

If the Giants pull off the upset Sunday, they'd send a message that despite a disappointing season, they still have the ability to get it done against the best of the best. Do you get the sense that they'll have a little added fire against a team that many people believe is Super Bowl-bound?

Graziano: I do. A few of the Giants have already talked about that in the wake of the loss Sunday that eliminated them from postseason contention. There's a lot of talk around East Rutherford about "playing for pride," and that's not hollow with this group. They held together after the 0-6 start and have been professional in their play and their preparation since. This isn't a team that has or will quit on its season. It's just a team that's not very good. I don't think they have the personnel to hang with the Seahawks on Sunday, but if they lose it won't be for a lack of effort.

They do have a tendency to seek and drum up external motivation, and Seattle's excellent record will provide some of that. Tom Coughlin said Monday that they looked forward to measuring themselves against a team like this. The only dissenter so far is wide receiver Victor Cruz, who said he'd be "even more disappointed" if the Giants won this game, since it would tell him they had the capability to play with top teams all year and just didn't.

San Francisco had a strong game on the ground Sunday, and the Giants' run game has been considerably better in the second half. Is it possible to run on the Seahawks, or was that a one-game fluke by Frank Gore?

Blount: Some Seattle fans might say it was a one-play fluke, the 51-yard run by Gore on the final drive that set up the game-wining field goal. Take that off the table and the Seahawks did OK against the 49ers' rushing game. However, one stat is a little scary. Of San Francisco's 163 yards on the ground, 137 were before contact, including Gore's big run. The Seahawks have been up and down on this all season. They held Adrian Peterson to 65 yards and allowed only 30 yards rushing at Arizona, but also had back-to-back games in which they allowed 200 yards rushing. Now they have to get it done without linebacker K.J. Wright, who had 80 tackles this season. He's out with a broken foot. It's hard to predict, but the Seahawks are so focused on the pass rush that they can get burned sometimes on the ground.

The Giants have struggled to stop the run, and Marshawn Lynch is one of the best backs in the league. I'm guessing the Seahawks are going to give him the ball early and often, especially if the weather is bad. Will the Giants load the box to try to stop Lynch?

Graziano: Actually, stopping the run is one of the few things the Giants have done well. They've held down some top backs, such as Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Alfred Morris and Eddie Lacy. Until the Chargers got 144 yards on 40 carries against them Sunday, this had been a fairly consistent strength. So they'll be keyed on Lynch for sure.

Before the Packers game a few weeks ago, I asked Justin Tuck if Lacy reminded him of anyone. He said, "a bigger Marshawn Lynch," and then complained that they had to deal with Lynch again a few weeks later. They stacked the box against Lacy that day, but they weren't scared of Scott Tolzien's ability to beat them downfield even if they used single coverage on his receivers. Wilson is likely to make them think twice about committing as much to the run as they did that day, and they'll likely rely on the guys in their strong defensive-tackle rotation to get off of blocks better than they did in San Diego.

Phillip Rivers, Peyton ManningGetty ImagesExpect a high-scoring AFC West fight when Philip Rivers' Chargers take on Peyton Manning's Broncos.
For the second time in six weeks, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos will square off, with each team working through its postseason checklist.

The Broncos (11-2) want the division title and the AFC's top seed. Due to a loss to New England last month, they will likely have to win out to get both, unless the Patriots stumble down the stretch. The Chargers (6-7) know the time is now if they are going to snag an AFC wild-card spot, so much so that Jarret Johnson called Thursday night's game "a playoff scenario for us."

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Thursday night's game.

Legwold: Eric, former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels once called the Chargers the "measuring stick" of the division, but the Broncos are 4-1 against San Diego since John Fox replaced McDaniels and 3-0 since Peyton Manning became Denver's quarterback. How is former Broncos coach Mike McCoy framing this one, especially with the Chargers clinging to at least some postseason hopes?

Williams: McCoy has done a good job of making sure his players are staying in the now and not looking too far ahead. But with their postseason aspirations on life support, San Diego players view the trip to Denver as a playoff game. Defensively, the Chargers are frustrated with how sloppily they played against Manning in Week 10, giving up several big plays in the passing game. San Diego's secondary has played much better in the past two games, allowing just two touchdown passes. So the Chargers are looking to redeem themselves on Thursday.

Wes Welker will miss Thursday's contest due to lingering concussion symptoms. How will Denver replace his production?

Legwold: Even in the Broncos' ultrabalanced attack in the passing game, Welker will certainly be missed given he's second on the team in targets (111), receptions (73) and touchdown catches (10). But how the Broncos deal with that should look familiar to McCoy because the Broncos figure to field a lineup similar to the one McCoy called plays for here last season. The Broncos will move to a two-tight end look with Jacob Tamme working out of the slot. Tamme caught 52 passes last season, with the majority of those receptions coming when he was lined up as a slot receiver. It was a job he did well enough that Manning called him one of the most important players in the offense last season. Manning has confidence in Tamme -- they played together in Indianapolis -- and Manning threw to Tamme this past weekend in many of the situations where Manning usually throws to Welker.

The Chargers' secondary had a quality day against the Giants this past Sunday. How do you think they'll line up against the Broncos?

Williams: Cornerback Derek Cox was replaced by eight-year veteran Richard Marshall in the starting lineup two weeks ago, bringing stability to the back end defensively. San Diego has given up 20 passing touchdowns this season, but just two touchdown passes in the past two games. The Chargers had just four interceptions through the first nine games, but have hauled in five picks in the past four. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said his defensive teammates just made too many silly mistakes against the Broncos earlier this season, and that they need to make Manning work for Denver's touchdowns by playing sound fundamental defense with multiple looks up front.

How has Broncos coach John Fox made the transition back to the sideline after heart surgery?

Legwold: Fox had surgery to repair a condition that was diagnosed during his time with the New York Giants in the late '90s, so he knew the surgery was coming at some point. He has also lived with the difficulties a faulty aortic valve brought on. He says he now feels better than he has in 20 years. Doctors cleared him to return to work the Monday before the Titans game and he worked through the week without any difficulties. He coached from the sideline during the game this past Sunday and was on the field last week even though the team practiced outside in below-zero temperatures for three days.

Manning is five touchdowns away from tying the NFL single-season record, but Philip Rivers has two three-touchdown days over the past three games. Do the Chargers feel like they left some points on the field the last time these two teams met?

Williams: Yes, that's certainly the case. Rivers mentioned this week during his conversation with reporters here in San Diego that even though the Chargers had the ball for more than 38 minutes the last time these two teams played, the Chargers scored only 20 points. Rivers understands that can't happen again on the road at Denver. The Chargers seem to have a better plan for how they will attack teams when they get into the red zone. Running back Ryan Mathews has emerged as more of a focal point of the offense when they get near the end zone. Mathews has scored four touchdowns in San Diego's past seven games.

While Denver's offense purrs, the defense continues to sputter. What has Fox done to change his fortunes on that side of the ball?

Legwold: The Broncos have surrendered at least 17 points in every game this season and four times they have trailed by at least 11 points in games they eventually went on to win. They have certainly missed cornerback Champ Bailey, who has played in just three games this season, and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, one of their best run defenders up front who is now on injured reserve. Fox juggled things some this past weekend when he essentially benched linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a team captain, in the base 4-3 look, playing veteran Paris Lenon there instead. Fox also switched out Duke Ihenacho at safety, putting in Omar Bolden instead. Woodyard will still play the specialty packages, but the Broncos have juggled things in the base. Von Miller has had a dominant half against the Patriots and a dominant half against the Titans, but the Broncos are still waiting to see the impact player he can be for an entire game. The last time they played the Chargers, they were in the nickel most of time -- 42 snaps in all to go with 11 in the dime. They are far more consistent in those looks and have struggled more against teams that make them play out of their base defense.

Double Coverage: Packers-Cowboys

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
10:00
AM ET

IRVING, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys are two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, but with three games to play in the 2013 season both are on the outside of the playoff chase and in need of a win.

The Packers have fallen on hard times without Aaron Rodgers but won last week against the Atlanta Falcons. The Cowboys are coming off a humiliating loss to the Chicago Bears and have a short week to get ready.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer debate the matchup in this week's Double Coverage.

Archer: I'll skip the "What's Aaron Rodgers status?" and ask about Ted Thompson's approach to the backup quarterback. The Cowboys pay Kyle Orton a lot of money to hopefully never throw a pass. Is there any regret form the Packers that they did not have a better backup quarterback situation behind Rodgers, considering their struggles without him?

[Editor's note: Rodgers was officially ruled out for Sunday's game on Friday.]

Demovsky: Thompson admitted at the end of training camp that he probably should have signed Vince Young much earlier than he did, although after watching Young for about a month, I'm not sure he would have been any better had the Packers signed back in the spring. Where they probably erred was in not drafting a quarterback. They overestimated what they had in Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman, and neither one developed enough. When Ron Wolf was the GM, he made it a regular practice to draft a quarterback in the middle-to -late rounds. Not all of them worked out, but guys like Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks all came up through the Packers' system.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Tony Romo is "playing probably as good as he has in his career." Do you agree with that assessment?

Archer: I'd agree with that, sure. It's hard to argue against his numbers. He has 3,244 yards passing with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's taking care of the ball. He had one really careless throw and it cost the Cowboys big-time in their loss to the Denver Broncos. Romo gets most of the blame for the December/January woes this team has had, but in his last 16 games he has 34 touchdowns and seven picks. It's hard to play better than that. But you know what? He has to. This defense is so bad that Romo has to be nearly perfect. There can be no poor drives. If they don't get points they at least need to chew up time because there's not an offense the Cowboys can slow down right now.

When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV at AT&T Stadium they were able to overcome so many injuries, especially on defense as we talked about. The difference this year is Rodgers missing time, but is there anything more to it than that?

Demovsky: They did end up with 15 players in injured reserve in their Super Bowl season, and then during that game itself they lost Charles Woodson to a broken collarbone. But you know what? This defense played fine early this season and even during the stretch Clay Matthews missed because of his broken thumb. Capers said last week that losing Rodgers had nothing to do with the Packers' defensive slide, but I'm not buying it. The Packers' defense got four turnovers in the Thanksgiving game at Detroit and still got walloped 40-10 because the offense couldn't do a darn thing with them. To be sure, there are issues on defense. Their failure to address needs at safety has hurt them up the middle, where their inside linebackers also haven't played well enough.

It sounds like Monte Kiffin is already taking heat, but how much of it is personnel? When I saw Packers castoff Jarius Wynn playing Monday night against the Bears, to me that was a red flag that there are talent issues, perhaps some of them caused by injuries.

Archer: There are talent issues and there are depth issues. Blame the owner and GM who constructed this team. Blame the coaches -- Kiffin and Rod Marinelli -- for saying the line was a position of strength. The Cowboys thought they had pieces to fit Kiffin's scheme at the start of the year. DeMarcus Ware has not been DeMarcus Ware in part because of injuries, but he acknowledged he has to play better. Bruce Carter was supposed to be the ideal weak-side linebacker and he just has not made any plays. The corners are more man corners and Kiffin has tried to play more man but all of them -- Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick -- have had issues. Sean Lee has been hurt and could miss Sunday's game with a neck injury. He's been good but the defense has been lit up with him on the field, too. It's just a mess. Until Jerry Jones realizes he needs better players, not necessarily better schemes, it will be a mess.

Let's stick with the defensive coordinators. From the outside looking in, it appears Capers is catching a lot of grief too. Are the Packers committed to the 3-4 regardless or could they pull a Dallas and move to a 4-3 in the future?

Demovsky: When the cornerstone of the defense is Matthews, an outside linebacker, I would think they'd have to stick with the 3-4 even if they part ways with Capers, which I'm not sure will happen anyway. Mike McCarthy has continually praised Capers and the defensive staff. It's probably more about personnel. They need a few more playmakers to help out Matthews. They haven't gotten enough production from their defensive front. I'd look for an overhaul in personnel more than a coaching change.

Knowing the temperature in the Cowboys locker room like you do, how do you think they will react to getting steamrolled Monday night? Is this a group that will fight? Or will they pack it in?

Archer: This is where I have to give Jason Garrett credit. This team has fought. Maybe they didn't fight all that much in the losses to New Orleans and Chicago, but they have not packed it in. You saw the last time the Cowboys packed it in in 2010 at Lambeau Field when Wade Phillips was the coach. The Cowboys lost 45-7 and were completely disinterested. Phillips was fired the next day and Garrett took over. There is some gumption to this team. They do work hard. They do the right things. I'll say it again: Most of it is a talent issue. I'd expect the Cowboys to come out with the effort Sunday because they're still very much in the playoff chase. But do they believe they can really make a run? I don't know about that.

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