NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 16 Double Coverage

Justin Tuck and Matthew StaffordGetty ImagesJustin Tuck, left, and the Giants will be trying to end the playoff hopes of Matthew Stafford's Lions.
It is a battle of disappointments on Sunday at Ford Field: the New York Giants, who have been disappointing all season, against the Detroit Lions, who have been one of the more surprising teams over the second half of the season -- in a bad way.

The Giants have no playoff hopes. The Lions need to win their final two games and then hope for help (i.e., losses) from Green Bay and Chicago.

Taking you through Sunday’s matchup are ESPN.com NFL reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Dan Graziano (Giants).

Rothstein: The Giants have struggled all season, and Eli Manning has been at the forefront of that. What has changed there?

Graziano: It's basically just a complete bottoming-out on all fronts, starting with the protection. A line that wasn't great to begin with is down two starters and has been playing a rookie at right tackle all season. The blocking help the line used to get from running backs and tight ends disappeared when the Giants let Ahmad Bradshaw and Martellus Bennett leave in the offseason. Hakeem Nicks has had a terrible year at receiver, playing like he is more worried about staying healthy in advance of free agency than trying his best to win. There has been no run game at all for long stretches. And Manning has failed to elevate above his miserable circumstances, missing too many throws and too often looking as though it has all been too much for him. It's been a total whitewash of a season for the Giants' offense. They are the only team in the league that has been shut out even once this season, and they've been shut out twice.

What is the deal out there in Detroit? To my eyes, the Lions should have put this division away by now with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler having been out for so long. What is the main reason they seem to have squandered such a great opportunity?

Rothstein: I don't know whether there are enough words to describe all that has gone on, although the simplest way to put it would be consistent end-game meltdowns, either from turnovers, coaching decisions or a defense that suddenly faltered.

A lot of it has to do with Matthew Stafford, who has had accuracy issues in the second half of the season. Really, there have been issues everywhere but the lines, from turnovers to coverage breakdowns on defense.

This is a team that should be safely in the playoffs right now instead of needing to win out and get help.

That obviously leads to job-security questions for Jim Schwartz. Although that doesn't seem to be the case for Tom Coughlin, has this season given any indication as to how much longer he plans to be on the sideline?

Graziano: No, Coughlin is really a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy. He's completely believable when he insists he's focused on only this week's game and doesn't want to address anything beyond this season. People close to Coughlin insist he won't quit as long as he feels he can still do the job, and there is no indication he feels otherwise. He has as much passion and energy as anyone else in the building (and right now, more than most!). I don't think Giants ownership would fire him, and I'd be stunned if he got into the offseason and decided he was done. As one person close to him told me, "He has no hobbies. There's nothing for him to retire TO." At 67 years old, he understands why the questions get asked, but he doesn't view himself as near the end of a career, I don't think. As of now, he plans to be part of the solution here, and it would be a major upset if he wasn't back in 2014.

One of Coughlin's biggest immediate problems is keeping his quarterback from getting killed. How is that Detroit pass rush looking these days?

Rothstein: Eli, meet Ndamukong. He will be the guy tossing you to the ground today. In all seriousness, though, the Lions' pass rush has been interesting. The Lions have been great at applying pressure (other than against Pittsburgh) but don't have the actual numbers to show for it, which can be confusing.

What teams have done is bottle the middle on Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and have either a tight end or running back help on either Willie Young or Ziggy Ansah on the ends.

So to answer your question, it has been OK, but not the consistently dominant force some were expecting.

That leads into my last question. The Lions' run defense, headed by that front, has been one of the best in the league this season. Have the Giants figured any way to solve their run woes?

Graziano: Andre Brown was hot for a while when he came back from his injury, and the offensive line was starting to block better for the run. But the past two weeks have seen a step backward, and the way the line is configured now, with starting left guard Kevin Boothe playing center and backups rotating in and out at left guard, has left it very vulnerable and one-dimensional. The Giants were able to take advantage of some good matchups with Brown running well, but against tougher fronts like the one they saw against Seattle last week, they struggle. I imagine they will struggle against the Lions' front in the run game as well.

Two straight disappointing games for Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Do you expect Megatron to blow up this week and victimize the Giants' secondary?

Rothstein: Kind of. As cornerback Rashean Mathis told me this week, if the Lions don’t find their urgency now, they’ll never find it this season. So I’d imagine you would see Johnson -- who is Detroit's best player -- at the forefront of that if the Lions have any shot over the next two weeks. Plus, those two drops he had against Baltimore will gnaw at him all week long. I expect he’ll have a big game.

Stafford, on the other hand, I’m not as sure about because he seems genuinely rattled this second half of the season. Detroit needs to find what was working for him at the start of the season and bring that back, otherwise its season is over.

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Andre Ellington and Richard Sherman AP PhotoAndre Ellington's Cardinals are after a playoff spot; Richard Sherman's Seahawks want the top seed.

Playoff standing is on the line for both the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

The Seahawks (12-2) would clinch the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they get their 15th consecutive home victory. The Cardinals (9-5) see this as a must-win game to keep their postseason hopes alive.

ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount look at how these two division rivals match up:

Blount: Josh, the Cardinals didn’t look good in a 34-22 loss to Seattle in October, but since that time, the team has gone on an amazing roll, winning six of seven. Do you see that October game as having been a bit of a wake-up call for Arizona and motivation to turn things around?

Weinfuss: I think it was a breaking point of sorts. They were a deflated group after going to San Francisco and losing a tough game there, and then four days later, they had to play Seattle, which had put a nice beating on them the last time they played. After that game, the Cardinals had nine days to rest and absorb everything that just happened during the first seven weeks. The result was a clear understanding of the offense, and it’s showed with how well the offense has been playing.

Terry, have teams figured out how to slow down Russell Wilson’s running game like they have with Colin Kaepernick? If so, how has Seattle rewritten the script? If not, why is it so hard to stop?

Blount: That’s a fair question. Teams are trying to keep Wilson in the pocket, using an outside linebacker and/or defensive end to stay home and spy any Wilson attempt to run outside. The 49ers did a great job of that in their 19-17 victory over the Seahawks two weeks ago. But when a defense takes one thing away from Wilson, he burns it somewhere else. One of the things that makes him so successful is his ability to find the weak spot in any defense. Having said that, he did rush for 50 yards Sunday against the Giants.

No doubt the Cardinals remember what happened at Seattle last season in the Seahawks' 58-0 victory. Josh, how different is this Arizona team from that one a season ago?

Weinfuss: It’s like night and day. Everything about them is different, with the exception of the defense, which is still a good unit. Last season in Seattle was Arizona’s worst defensive showing and, as if they timed it perfectly, the Cardinals got this season’s anomaly out of the way last Sunday in Tennessee. Everything about this team is clicking at a better rate than it was in October. The defense is playing faster than it was then, but the secondary will still be finding its rhythm after a new rotation was implemented to replace Tyrann Mathieu. There’s no question that the offense is 180 degrees from where it was last season in Seattle, namely because of the quarterback. By this point last season, Arizona had started three different quarterbacks. This season, that position is thriving under Carson Palmer.

Terry, what’s the latest with Percy Harvin? Will his return help this team, which has been on an incredible roll this season, or will it disrupt the chemistry? Should he come back?

Blount: The entire Harvin saga has become a bit clandestine at this point, and I honestly think the whole situation is more of an annoyance than anything else. Look, Harvin is a once-in-a-generation talent, and his explosiveness could benefit the Seahawks in the playoffs, but you bring up an excellent point. If he does return now, is it more of a disruption than an asset? He certainly could help the team on kickoff returns, but I believe the Seattle receiving corps is the most underrated in the league. This team is 12-2 without Harvin. Waiting until 2014 to unleash him might not be a bad idea.

Josh, no team in the league has a tougher final two games than the Cardinals, with Seattle and San Francisco. Most people would say the odds are against Arizona to win them and make the playoffs, but what is your sense of the confidence level among the players about these last two games?

Weinfuss: Bruce Arians has his men believing they can go to the playoffs, but at the same time, I think they understand it’s a difficult task. A lot has to happen -- namely a combination of San Francisco having to lose one or both of its final two games with the Carolina Panthers doing essentially the same -- but I won’t bore you with all those details. They’ve been treating every game like a playoff game for about a month and a half now, so mentally, they understand what’s at stake, but they’re also realists.

Terry, has Pete Carroll put any thought into resting his starters against Arizona, or since home-field advantage is still in play, will they be on full tilt?

Blount: It’s absolutely all-out for this one, Josh. The Seahawks say over and over that the goal is to go 1-0 each week and each game is a championship opportunity. It might be a cliché, but it’s real this time. Seattle wants to get this over with, clinch home-field advantage and be able to use next week’s season finale against St. Louis as a glorified practice session.

Tom Brady  and Joe Flacco AP PhotoSunday's matchup between the Patriots and Ravens has playoff implications for both teams.
Whenever the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens meet, there is always something at stake. Sunday's clash at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, a rematch of the past two AFC Championship Games, is no different.

The Patriots (10-4), winners of three of their past four games, can clinch their fifth straight AFC East title with a win or a tie. The Ravens (8-6) can move one step closer to earning their sixth straight playoff berth with a victory, or they could watch their postseason hopes take a severe hit with a loss.

New England is the NFL's best team in December, winning 17 of its past 19 games in that month. The Ravens, however, are one of the best teams at home, posting a 39-8 record (.830) at M&T Bank Stadium since 2008.

ESPN.com NFL reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Jamison Hensley (Ravens) break down the showdown between these AFC powers:

Jamison Hensley: Mike, everyone knows the impact the loss of Rob Gronkowski has had on the Patriots' red zone offense. How will Tom Brady and the Patriots turn it around inside the 20-yard line?

Mike Reiss: Jamison, they were 1-for-4 in the red zone against the Dolphins, and now they go up against one of the NFL's best red zone defenses. That's not a great formula. One way to look at it is that if rookie receiver Josh Boyce holds on to one makeable catch in the end zone on third down in the first quarter, and the Patriots cap off the comeback like they had in prior weeks with Danny Amendola making a tough catch in the end zone on the final drive, we wouldn't even be talking about this. Instead, we'd be talking about their late-game magic. Then again, if tight end Michael Hoomanawanui didn't make a remarkable one-handed grab in the end zone for a 13-yard score, they might have been 0-for-4. So it's just a reminder that the margin for error is thin, which is also what the red zone is all about.

As for the Ravens, how are they doing it? To go from possibly out of the playoffs to a chance to win the AFC North with two wins to close out the season? Give us a feel for how this has happened.

Hensley: The Ravens have been riding a strong defense, kicker Justin Tucker and Joe Flacco's late-game heroics to get back into the playoff race. To be honest, I had written off the Ravens after they lost at Cleveland in the beginning of November. But this team has fought back to win four straight and are playing with more confidence than at any point this season. There has been a lot of criticism that Flacco hasn't lived up to his $120.6 million contract. While he'll never put up the elite quarterback numbers, he finds ways to win. His four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season is second only to Brady. And Flacco has led a game-winning drive the past two games. He is banged up right now after taking a hit to his knee in Detroit on "Monday Night Football."

This could lead the Ravens to run the ball more with Ray Rice. He has struggled all season but has shown some signs of being more productive over the past two games. The Ravens might want to try to attack the NFL's 31st-ranked run defense as well. What's been the biggest problem for the Patriots in stopping the run this year?

Reiss: A strong run defense is usually a staple of a Bill Belichick-coached team, but this year is different. A significant factor has been season-ending injuries to starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29, Achilles) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6, knee) and every-down linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13, pectoral muscle). That's a direct hit at the heart of a run defense, right up the middle, sort of like a baseball team losing its top pitcher, catcher and shortstop. Since that point, they've had to scheme around things; this staff has been coaching its tails off and the players have been doing their best while sometimes being asked to do things outside of their comfort zone. The other part of it is situational. For example, against Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Nov. 24, they played a sub defense the entire game and Denver was content to run against it and put up big numbers. That was a case where the Patriots gave up something (run defense) to gain something (better pass defense), which is what they've had to do this year because of the key losses.

Let's get back to Tucker a little bit, because I think it's a fascinating story. Patriots fans obviously remember Billy Cundiff from the AFC Championship in the 2011 season. Tell us more about Tucker and what he's done to become such an integral part of the team in replacing Cundiff the last two years. His postgame interview on "Monday Night Football" was one of the classics.

Hensley: Tucker has been the Ravens' Most Valuable Player. When you're saying a kicker is the MVP, you're usually not talking about a team contending for the playoffs. And the Ravens wouldn't have the hottest kicker in the NFL right now if not for that memorable -- or is that forgettable? -- miss by Cundiff in the AFC Championship Game. That led the Ravens to have an open competition at training camp the following year. Tucker clearly won the battle and hasn't tailed off since. What separates Tucker from other young kickers is his ability to convert in the clutch. He has six game-winning kicks in 30 career games. His confidence borders on being cocky, and he isn't afraid to show off swagger. Not too many kickers dance after making field goals. But that confidence has been big for the Ravens. Before that 61-yarder on "Monday Night Football," he went up to coach John Harbaugh and said: "I got this."

Speaking of confidence, what's the state of mind for these Patriots compared to past Pats teams at this time of the year? The Patriots are still fighting for a top seed, but there seems to be a lot of doubt nationally because of the close calls with Houston and Cleveland in addition to the loss at Miami.

Reiss: This Patriots team isn't short on confidence, but as Brady said, it's a club that doesn't have a lot of margin for error. They can beat anyone in the NFL, but also lose to any team in the NFL. To sum it up, this is a resilient team that has been hit hard by injuries to key players, and they fight and claw for 60 minutes, so if a team is going to beat them it's going to have to be a knockout. With two weeks remaining in the season, the Patriots are still in play for a first-round bye but also could face a Week 17 scenario where they need to win to even qualify for the playoffs. That's reflective of how this season has unfolded for them -- a lot of close calls that could have gone either way.

With the amount of turnover on defense, how have the Ravens been able to sustain on that side of the ball?

Hensley: The defense has been very good this season, ranking in the top 10 in yards allowed (ninth), points given up (seventh), third downs (third) and red zone (fourth). Without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this is a different defense but not an inexperienced one. Daryl Smith has played better than Lewis did last season, making an impact against the pass as well as the run. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil has been an upgrade over Paul Kruger. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has gone from a first-round disappointment to the team's best defensive back. If this defense wants to be great, it has to find a way to finish better. Over the past three games, the Ravens have allowed four touchdowns in the final three minutes. That challenge is heightened when going against Brady, one of the NFL's best comeback kings.

Double Coverage: Dolphins at Bills

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
10:00
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Thad Lewis and Mike WallaceUSA TODAY SportsThad Lewis and the Bills will look to thwart the playoff hopes of Mike Wallace's Dolphins.


It was Dec. 22, 1990, when the Buffalo Bills defeated the Miami Dolphins in a cold rain at Ralph Wilson Stadium (or Rich Stadium, as it was called then) to lock up their third consecutive AFC East title.

On Dec. 22, 2013, the Bills (5-9) will again host the Dolphins (8-6) in a cold rain, but this time around it's Miami that has playoff aspirations. With a win Sunday, the Dolphins will simply need to win next week to secure a postseason berth.

That game 23 years ago -- which capped off a perfect home record for Buffalo -- was seen by a crowd of 80,325. That won't be the case Sunday. The Bills could have as many as 16,000 empty seats for their home finale, which has been blacked out on local television.

ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Dolphins reporter James Walker discuss the matchup:

Mike Rodak: James, the Dolphins are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, having won their last three games. What has gone right for them lately, and how important is Sunday's game in their quest to make the playoffs?

James Walker: This game is vital for Miami. Truthfully, the playoffs started for the Dolphins on Dec. 1. They were a 5-6 team still alive for the postseason, but few viewed them as a serious threat. Three consecutive wins later, Miami controls its own destiny and just needs to beat Buffalo and the New York Jets in back-to-back weeks. It's certainly doable if the Dolphins maintain focus -- and that has been the biggest key.

The stink, to some degree, has worn off from the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying scandal. Miami has been able to focus mostly on football since NFL investigator Ted Wells left its training facility a few weeks ago. I credit quarterback Ryan Tannehill's play down the stretch as a key reason. He saved his best football for the end of the season, with passer ratings of 94.2, 95.5 and 120.6 during the three-game winning streak.

However, Tannehill struggled in the first game against the Bills. He had three turnovers off two interceptions and one lost fumble. How does Buffalo plan to defend Tannehill and Miami's offense a second time around?

Rodak: They will bring a whole lot of pressure. We saw the effect that the Bills' pass rush had in October, when Mario Williams' strip-sack of Tannehill set the table for Dan Carpenter's game-winning field goal. The Dolphins' offensive line came into that game shaky, and it doesn't appear that has changed. Miami has allowed 51 sacks, the most in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Bills have 49 sacks, the most in the NFL.

It's been more than just Williams. Three other Bills -- defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus and defensive end Jerry Hughes -- have set career highs for sacks. Hughes, in particular, has come on strong in the second half of the season. The pressure on Tannehill will be coming from all angles Sunday.

James, the last time these teams met, Cameron Wake was working his way back from an injury and Dion Jordan was off to a slower start than expected. Have they picked it up since? Are the Dolphins happy with what they're getting from their pass rush?

Walker: The pass rush has been solid over the past month. The Dolphins have gotten contributions from various players, including Wake, Olivier Vernon and Jordan. Miami got only one sack last week against the Patriots. But Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly and the quarterback pressures were satisfactory, according to Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.

A lot of people have asked about Jordan. It's clear he will just have a reduced role this year, and that won't change. Jordan makes an impact in his limited reps, but he will need to wait until next season, or for an injury, to get a bigger role.

Mike, it looks like backup quarterback Thad Lewis has a shot to ruin the Dolphins' season. The Miami native beat the Dolphins in Week 7. What can we expect from Lewis this week?

Rodak: I think he could again pose a challenge for Miami. While EJ Manuel's QBR (42.3) is significantly better than Lewis' (19.1), Lewis has completed a higher percentage of his passes and has a better passer rating. When Lewis played for three games in October, we saw a quarterback with a strong arm who wasn't afraid to take deep shots. Those could be harder to convert if it's raining Sunday, but the Dolphins' banged-up secondary needs to be aware of that. On the other hand, Lewis has shown to be prone to fumbles. He fumbled six times in three games. He'll also need to get better protection than he did in his first stint as the starter, when he was sacked 13 times.

James, weather could be a factor Sunday. Cold rain is expected, or even a wintry mix, with temperatures in the mid-30s. If this slows down Tannehill and the Dolphins' passing game, can their running game carry the load?

Walker: Miami's running game has been strangely inconsistent. The Dolphins are ranked 24th in rushing. But I usually don't get the sense Miami can't run the ball. I just think the Dolphins aren't dedicated to the run. There are games such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and, to some degree, New England in which the Dolphins proved they can run effectively and efficiently. But in many weeks, Miami gets discouraged too easily and loses balance on offense.

Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas are not dynamic tailbacks. But Miami has enough receiving threats where it just needs a running back to pick up five yards when his number is called. Miami's offense can be physical when needed, and this will be one of those games if inclement weather plays a factor.

Finally, Mike, what is considered a successful season for Buffalo? There are still two games left. Has this year's team met your expectations?

Rodak: Bills CEO Russ Brandon was on the radio this week and called it a disappointing season since the Bills didn't make the playoffs. I would agree. I think that, even as a rebuilding team, the bar needs to be set high. Recent history has shown that it's hardly impossible to turn it around quickly; the Colts went from 2-14 to 11-5 after drafting Andrew Luck, for example.

The Bills have impressive speed on offense and talent on defense. It just didn't come together for them this season. That's not to say I was expecting the Bills to make the playoffs -- I predicted a 6-10 record in the preseason -- but I'm not sure that I see progress from the time the season started until now.

Eddie Lacy and Jason WorildsGetty ImagesJason Worilds and the Steelers will have to stop Eddie Lacy -- one of the league's best running backs this season.
The last time the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers met, the Lombardi trophy was on the line.

In Green Bay, the memories of Super Bowl XLV are alive and well.

In Pittsburgh, all Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he remembers from that game is one thing: "We lost," he said this week.

The stakes are much different heading into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. The Steelers (6-8) are in the midst of disappointing season, while the Packers (7-6-1) are fighting for their playoff lives.

Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Steelers reporter Scott Brown discuss the rematch:

Rob Demovsky: Let's start with this question. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he doesn't regret passing on Eddie Lacy in favor of drafting running back Le'Veon Bell. Right now, Lacy looks like the better pick, but it's still too early in their careers to say anything definitive. How has Bell fit into the Steelers offense and what's the biggest reason he's only averaging 3.3 yards per carry?

Scott Brown: Bell has become a big part of the offense and he has added another dimension to it with his pass-catching abilities. He is fourth on the team in receiving, and the Steelers don't just throw screen passes or checkdowns to Bell but also use him as a receiver. Bell is still finding his way as a runner and I'd say his low rushing average is a combination of playing behind a line that is better at pass blocking as well as the adjustment he is making to the speed of the game at this level. Bell has shown flashes, such as when he hurdles a cornerback or plants a defensive end with a stiff-arm, two things he did Sunday night against the Bengals.

Rob, are you surprised at all at the success Lacy has had so early in his career and what has his emergence meant to the Packers offense?

Demovsky: The only thing that has surprised me about Lacy has been his durability. As everyone around the Steelers knows, there were major questions about his injury history coming out of Alabama. Then, early on his conditioning looked a little off -- although it was not as bad as that unflattering picture of him that was circulating during training camp. Then, he sustained a concussion and missed a game and as half. But ever since he has returned from that, there haven't been any major issues. He's managed to play through a sprained ankle the past two weeks. Whenever they get quarterback Aaron Rodgers back, they'll be tough to stop because defenses will have to respect both the run and the pass. That's something Rodgers hasn't really had since he's been the starter.

I've heard a lot of people say they think the Steelers got old in a hurry, especially on defense. Even Roethlisberger looks like an old 31. What do you see in that regard and how much, if at all, has that impacted what's happened to the Steelers this season?

Brown: Age has certainly been a factor in the decline of the defense this season, but I think it's a bit of a misconception that the Steelers' problems stem from them getting old in a hurry. There is still age on the defense, most notably in the secondary, but the Steelers have quietly gotten younger on that side of the ball -- and will continue to do so after the season. What made the Steelers consistently good before this current stretch is they always seemed to have younger players ready to step in for starters who had passed their prime. Perhaps the best example of this is James Harrison and the kind of player he turned into after the Steelers released Joey Porter following the 2006 season.

The Steelers are actually pretty young on offense and while Roethlisberger is 31, he has played every snap this season. I think the offense will step to the forefront in the coming seasons while the Steelers retool the defense and Bell and the offensive line get better.

Rob, Matt Flynn had trouble sticking with a team before he returned to Green Bay. Is it too strong to say that he saved the season -- or at least prevented the Packers from dropping out of playoff contention after Rodgers went down with the broken collarbone?

Demovsky: I'm not sure if Flynn saved their season as much as the Detroit Lions' ineptitude saved their season. Same with the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. It's not exactly like Flynn lit up a couple of defensive juggernauts. That said, it's obvious Flynn has a comfort level with the Packers offense that he did not have in Seattle or Oakland. How else can you explain why he has performed reasonably well here and so poorly in those places?

This is obviously the first meeting between these two teams since Super Bowl XLV. Roethlisberger said this week on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field that the only thing he remembers about that game is that his team lost. Given that the Steelers don't have the playoffs to play for this season, does avenging that Super Bowl loss give the Steelers any extra motivation this week?

Brown: They can say that it doesn't, but I'm sure they would love a little payback for that loss even if a win by the Steelers on Sunday would come on a considerably smaller stage. I have been impressed with how the Steelers have remained focused even though they only have a sliver of hope of sneaking into the playoffs -- and that's if they manage to win their final two games. The Steelers, in fact, could already be eliminated from postseason contention before kickoff Sunday depending on what happens in the 1 p.m. ET games.

If their showing against the Bengals is a guide, the Packers will get the Steelers' best effort no matter what transpires in the early games. The Steelers seemingly had nothing to play for last Sunday night and they jumped all over the Bengals and cruised to a 30-20 win. It was their most impressive win of the season as much for the circumstances under which it came as for the opponent.

Rob, the Steelers offense has really been on the rise since offensive coordinator Todd Haley removed the reins from the no-huddle attack. Given some of the difficulties Green Bay has had on defense do you think it will need to score a lot of points to beat the Steelers?

Demovsky: The Packers defense gave up 332 yards in the first half alone last Sunday against the Cowboys. They couldn't stop the run -- they haven't really done so since early in the season -- and they seem to have costly coverage breakdowns. When their defense has been at its best is when it has created turnovers. Those two fourth-quarter interceptions of Tony Romo sure made up for a lot of defensive mistakes. The same thing happened when they pitched a shutout in the second half against the Falcons the previous week. If Roethlisberger & Co. take care of the ball, then I expect the Steelers will force the Packers to match them in a shootout type of game.

Matt Ryan and Patrick WillisUSA TODAY SportsPatrick Willis and the 49ers' pass rush could make Monday night miserable for Atlanta's Matt Ryan.
The NFL schedule-makers tried to get this right.

They planned for the final game played at Candlestick Park to be special. They set a 2012 NFC Championship Game rematch between the 49ers and the Falcons. However, the Falcons have not held up their end of the bargain. They are 4-10 as they try getting revenge against the 49ers for their road win in the title game in January.

The 49ers have done their part, as they are 10-4 and can clinch a playoff berth with either an Arizona loss at Seattle or by beating the Falcons. The 49ers are focused on sending out Candlestick the right way.

Coach Jim Harbaugh said this week the 49ers are the group that “doesn’t want to screw up" the Candlestick finale.

ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson discuss the game:

McClure: Bill, the 49ers and Vernon Davis had their way in the passing game against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. And the Falcons have had trouble covering tight ends again this season. Do you think Davis will expose their poor coverage once again?

Williamson: The 49ers' passing game is really coming together. The return of Michael Crabtree has sparked it. Crabtree has played the past three games and he is getting better each week. It opens up possibilities for Davis and Anquan Boldin. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Davis have a nice chemistry. Davis is a mismatch for nearly every defense and he's particularly good against defenses that struggle against the tight end. He had eight catches for 180 yards against Arizona in October. Vaughn, do you see any way the Falcons can slow down the 49ers’ receiving weapons?

McClure: Not really. The Falcons started three rookies in the secondary last Sunday against the Redskins and gave up pass plays of 62 and 53 yards, the latter for a touchdown. All three rookies -– cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and free safety Zeke Motta –- made some mistakes in coverage. But Trufant has held his own most of the season after coming in as the team’s first-round draft pick, so he’s going to compete, but Alford still has some ground to make up. Motta might not even play with regular starter Thomas DeCoud possibly returning from a concussion. However the Falcons line up, they have to play with better eye discipline and technique. Not to mention the pass rush has to make an effort to put pressure on the elusive Kaepernick or else he’ll carve up the Falcons and let loose to Davis, Boldin, and Crabtree.

The Falcons were supposed to be challenged heavily by the read-option this season with matchups against Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Kaepernick. Wilson didn’t use it much and RGIII didn’t play. So, will Kaepernick and the 49ers utilize the strategy on Monday night, or has it just not been as effective this season?

Williamson: They haven’t used it much this season. It’s been used occasionally. But I will tell you this: Kaepernick has been running with a lot of confidence in the past few games. I think it is because the passing game has opened up and it has affected the entire offense positively. Vaughn, do you get the sense the Falcons have a lack of confidence facing Kaepernick and this offense because of the loss in the NFC title game?

McClure: The Falcons can’t be too confident about much of anything, at 4-10. From a defensive standpoint, six starters who faced Kaepernick last season either are no longer with the team or have been benched. And if DeCoud doesn’t return this week from a concussion, there’s a possibility that five rookies will start against the 49ers offense come Monday night. It will be quite a lesson for those players, to face a true dual-threat quarterback. The Falcons haven’t looked too confident the past two weeks defending against a pair of backup quarterbacks, Matt Flynn and Kirk Cousins.

A lot has been made of Aldon Smith's off-field issues this season. In fact, Falcons receiver Roddy White actually stepped out and said Smith was a "good dude" who just made a mistake. How has Smith responded after his time away from the team, and is he back to his normal self on the field yet?

Williamson: Yes, Smith is back to his dominating self. He has been back for six games and he was eased into the defense after missing five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse. Smith has been particularly good for the past four games, and he’s been dominant the past two games. He is his normal self as a pass-rusher and he is continuing to grow as a complete player. He is a major cog in a defense that is playing at a high level. Vaughn, do you see any way the Falcons can slow Smith and crew Monday night?

McClure: No. Not at all. This offensive line has been like a sieve all season long. Don’t be fooled by the Falcons being ranked eighth in sacks given up per pass attempt. They’ve allowed Matt Ryan to be sacked or hit way too many times despite Ryan making a conscious effort to get the ball out quicker this season. Right now, the Falcons are relying on second-year left tackle Lamar Holmes to protect Ryan’s blind side, and Holmes is coming off being abused by Brian Orakpo of the Redskins. Plus, the Falcons have to be aware of Ahmad Brooks along with Smith. I covered a game last season during which the 49ers totally dominated the Chicago Bears with a swarming pass rush, led by Smith. I can envision the same thing happening to the Falcons.

Matt McGloin and Ryan MathewsAP PhotoCan Matt McGloin and the Raiders bounce Ryan Mathews and San Diego from playoff contention?
One team hopes to hold on to its flickering playoff hopes while the other team’s head coach could be fighting to keep his job.

That’s what's at stake when AFC West rivals San Diego and Oakland face off at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.

At 7-7, the Chargers have to win out, along with the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins losing their last two games, to have any chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

And with his team losing six of its past seven games, Oakland coach Dennis Allen's job could be in jeopardy the final two weeks of the season.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez take a closer look the matchup:

Williams: Paul, with the Raiders mired in a late-season funk, is Allen in jeopardy of losing his job?

Gutierrez: In a word, yes. Especially if the Raiders turn in two more performances like the display they had against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, turning the ball over seven times and allowing a franchise record 56 points. Look, owner Mark Davis has said he knew this was year two of the Raiders’ “deconstruction” phase, and he knows this roster is thin. But he’s also said he wants to see progress, and getting markedly worse every week is far from progress.

Yet the Raiders need continuity, something they’ve sorely missed the past decade. And Allen has not had an NFL playoff-caliber roster at his disposal. That could change with some $60 million in cap room next season. Still, will established free-agent stars want to come to Oakland to play for Allen? Then there’s this: Allen still has two years remaining on his contract, so it’s hard to imagine Davis eating those last two years and paying someone else to come in -- unless that someone else is Jon Gruden or Stanford’s David Shaw. Can’t see it, though. At least, not at the moment. What I can see is Allen having to sweat it out if guys check out -- which has not happened … yet -- and the Raiders get blown out by the Chargers and Denver Broncos. If that were to happen, all bets are off.

Philip Rivers has enjoyed a renaissance of a season at quarterback for the Chargers. He’s always been one of the league’s most dangerous quarterbacks, but has he now taken that next step to “elite” level?

Williams: Patience and focusing on the fundamentals during the offseason resulted in Rivers being more poised in the pocket and decisive in his reads this year. Rivers belongs in the conversation as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL based on his performance this season. Not only has he been one of the best signal-callers statistically, residing among the league leaders in completion percentage (69.9 percent), touchdowns (28) and passer rating (106.9), but Rivers also has done a good job of leading the offense. When the Chargers have needed a play to extend a drive or get into the end zone, Rivers usually has been the one pulling the trigger. He's 32 years old, so the Chargers believe he has a few more years of elite-level play left.

Terrelle Pryor showed flashes earlier this season, and Matt McGloin has played OK of late. Do the Raiders move forward with either of these players as the starting quarterback in 2014, or do they draft a quarterback early?

Gutierrez: It’s obvious this coaching staff is far from enamored with Pryor and that McGloin better fits the offense it wants to run, but I’m not sure even the Raiders are convinced their QB of the future is on the roster now. If there was a certifiable franchise QB in the draft, I would say the Raiders go after him. But even Teddy Bridgewater has too many red flags at the moment, no? Our guru Todd McShay has the Raiders selecting Central Florida’s Blake Bortles with the No. 3 pick in his NFL Mock Draft 1.0. I think Fresno State’s Derek Carr fits this regime’s profile better, though.

Still, with so many other holes and the lack of an Andrew Luck or two in the draft, it might behoove the Raiders to build around the QB position and get a pass-rusher or another offensive lineman and sign a veteran free-agent quarterback, someone such as Josh McCown (remember him?), Matt Cassel or (gulp) Matt Flynn. I kid ... kinda.

Keenan Allen raised a ruckus when he rocked a Raiders cap this summer after the Chargers used a third-round draft pick on him. But he’s answered his critics with his play. How has he elevated his game so much -- a front-runner for offensive rookie of the year -- that so many other teams missed on him?

Williams: First, season-ending injuries to Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd gave Allen the opportunity to show what he can do sooner than expected. Once he got on the field, Allen quickly earned the trust of Rivers by consistently making big plays. The moment has never been too big for Allen. At 6 feet 2, 205 pounds, Allen is cat-quick, which allows him to easily beat press coverage and create separation down the field. Allen also is terrific at battling for contested balls. Mix in his ultracompetitiveness and run-after-catch ability and you have an up-and-coming receiver in the NFL.

Rashad Jennings has 679 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games played, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Darren McFadden is going through another injury-plagued season and is in the final year of his deal. Have the Raiders finally found their every-down back in Jennings?

Gutierrez: They’ve certainly found a durable running back, even if he did miss one game with a concussion. Still, Jennings is not the most explosive of backs -- even with his 80-yard touchdown run at Houston -- but for a rebuilding team, that might be enough. The Raiders still need a “dash” of a runner to go with Jennings’ “smash,” and even then they have to re-sign Jennings, who also will be a free agent. Jennings’ yards after contact per attempt (2.24) is tied for the NFL lead, he has yet to fumble this season and his 4.6 yards per carry average is second in the AFC West among backs with at least 149 carries. He is solid and dependable, something McFadden has not been since the first six games of the 2011 season.

The late Al Davis thought the Los Angeles market belonged to the Raiders, and many still see them moving to L.A. in the near future. But the Chargers also seem to think the Southland -- the entire Southland, mind you -- is their turf. What’s the latest on the Chargers’ stadium situation in San Diego? (The Rams are my dark horse, by the way, for moving back to La-La Land.)

Williams: The Los Angeles market is subject to local TV blackouts when Qualcomm Stadium does not sell out, so that tells us to a certain extent what the NFL thinks about the L.A. market and San Diego. For now, I think Chargers president and CEO Dean Spanos and the rest of the organization are in wait-and-see mode until a new mayor is elected in February. Gaining political support locally will be critical for any push for a new stadium deal, so the Chargers have to figure out who their dance partner will be first. The franchise suffered a setback earlier this year when a local commission voted to expand the city’s convention center, rejecting the Chargers’ proposal to build a stadium and expand the convention center near the city’s downtown waterfront. Rumblings have the Chargers resuscitating a proposal to build a new stadium near the current location of Qualcomm Stadium.

 

Double Coverage: Cowboys at Redskins

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
9:30
AM ET

The Washington Redskins' season can't end soon enough, with the future of the organization to be decided shortly thereafter. The Dallas Cowboys might have their own decisions to make around that time, depending on how the next two games unfold.

It's not exactly a throwback to the old Redskins-Cowboys rivalry storylines. Or even what it was like a year ago in the regular-season finale when the NFC East title was on the line. Dallas still has a shot at the playoffs, but, as usual, the Cowboys are a .500 team that can never seem to get it together late in the season.

But they look like a model of consistency next to the dysfunctional Redskins, who have lost six straight, have numerous stories citing anonymous sources and benched their franchise quarterback a week ago (ostensibly for health reasons).

ESPN.com Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and Redskins reporter John Keim break down the game.

John Keim: Is Jason Garrett finally on the hot seat? If not, why aren't the Cowboys ever more than mediocre under him?

Todd Archer: Jerry Jones has said Garrett is safe, but I just have a hard time believing that would be the case if they miss the playoffs for the third straight season with him as the coach. But I don't know that Garrett would be paying for only his sins. He'd be paying for Jones' sins, too. Garrett has had some missteps as the coach, but Jones is the one responsible for the players, and, frankly, there have not been enough players for years here. The drafting has been poor. The free-agent decisions have been mixed. That's on Jones. And Jones was the one who hired Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator and made sure Garrett gave up the play calling this year. But as we know, Jones will not fire the general manager, so Garrett would be the one to pay with his job.

Meanwhile, Mike Shanahan sure seems to be acting like a coach looking to get out. I know he's saying he wants to stay. Is there any possibility he could be back in 2014?

Keim: There's a possibility, but it still feels far-fetched. There's so much nonsense going on here these days that, regardless of who's at fault, it's hard to justify continuing this regime. But owner Dan Snyder might not want to pay him $7 million -- in addition to the money he'd have to pay the coaching staff. That's a lot of cash. Still, it appears the only way that Shanahan could return is if he brings in new coordinators. Of course that means his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, would have found a job elsewhere. But if you're Snyder, why would you think it would be any different if Shanahan gets a chance to hire another staff? This is the one he thought would work. And I'm not blaming the staff, but, rather, do you trust the guy in charge to somehow hire one that is much better? How many proven guys would want to work here knowing it could be a one-year deal? Also, there would have to be a major repair job between the coach and quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the players support Shanahan and I've heard that Snyder still likes him. So, crazy as it sounds, there's a chance.

How did the players respond to the Green Bay loss -- after the game and later this week?

Archer: They are saying the right things. They say they believe, but there does feel as if there is some desperation this week. Same with frustration. I don't know how they could not be frustrated with the way they lost to the Packers. It was there for them to win, and they let it get away. But to be clear, the coaches let it go just as much as the players. I'll say this for Garrett, he has been able to keep this team on track. He does not stray from message, and, as a result, the players stay in the moment. This is a huge game for a lot of the core players who have been here. If the Cowboys can't win this one or can't make the playoffs, there could (some would say should) be big changes. They know what's on the line.

Because Griffin is a Texas native, a lot of folks here want to know what's going on with him. How has he handled the “benching,” and is there a worry he might not get teammates back on his side?

Keim: No, I don't think that he can't get teammates back. I know many are tired of the drama surrounding Griffin, but I don't think they're tired of him. All he needs to do to maintain his teammates' confidence in him is work hard, lie low and win. Griffin has handled the benching well. He was into the game against Atlanta; he has worked hard in practice; he said all the right things the day he was benched. He's definitely upset about what happened, but it hasn't caused him to feel sorry for himself.

Staying on quarterbacks, how would you rate Tony Romo this season, and is he fairly or unfairly criticized?

Archer: Romo's been solid. I know that will drive some people crazy who only look at his fourth-quarter interceptions against the Packers or his decision late against Denver. I'd make the argument the Cowboys would not be sniffing a playoff spot the past three years if not for Romo. But the season has not been all candy and ice cream for him. His completion percentage is still pretty good (64 percent), but he has missed some easy throws or made his receivers have to work too hard. He's not moving as well as he did in earlier years. Maybe that has something to do with the offseason back surgery. Maybe it's because he's 33. But Romo has largely been able to stay away from the bad plays. With 29 touchdown passes and nine picks, he has done that, but everybody will remember the Green Bay game.

The Redskins gave away a lot to get Griffin. Now they're playing Kirk Cousins. Is it a deal where they're trying to drive trade value for a guy late in a season to help them in April?

Keim: They say that's a potential benefit if Cousins does well, but they'd never say publicly that was the real reason. Also, the coaches really like Cousins, so I'm not convinced they're in a rush to trade him. If, for some reason, the staff returns, the Redskins could hang on to both quarterbacks to give them another year to see how Griffin responds to a full offseason. What if, at the end of next season, Griffin is no different than he is now? Or, if he improves the way you hope, then you can peddle Cousins. I also can't imagine anyone offering the Redskins a first-round pick (which is what they think he might fetch). A second-rounder? Perhaps, depending on how the final two games unfold.

The Redskins faced a bad defense at Atlanta. Now they get another one. Is the Dallas defense bad because of injuries or other factors? Where are the Cowboys most vulnerable?

Archer: Well, they haven't been good even when they were relatively healthy. The injuries haven't helped, but they had injuries last year with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and weren't this bad. The four best players remaining -- Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher -- have struggled the past couple of games, if not longer. That can't happen. Their best defensive players against Green Bay were George Selvie, Barry Church and Sterling Moore. That just can't happen. The scheme is fine. Other teams have succeeded with it. But Monte Kiffin has not changed enough to combat the injuries. He has not played to the strengths of the guys who are left. At least, he hasn't done it enough. The Cowboys just don't have any answers. They are as bad against the run as the pass, and now they can't get any takeaways.

Any differences with how the offense runs with Cousins and Griffin?

Keim: Cousins runs plays mostly from under center compared with Griffin, who lined up in the pistol formation. They're obviously different in terms of style. The Redskins have not run the zone-read with Cousins (although I do believe he can run it; he's as fast as Philadelphia's Nick Foles, who runs the zone-read on occasion). The real difference is that Cousins is more comfortable in the pocket and has better footwork right now than Griffin, caused in large part by the lack of work the latter received in the offseason while rehabbing his knee. Cousins will run a lot of bootlegs, although Washington also ran those with Griffin. Cousins has been more decisive, but part of that is because he knows he can't run from pressure like Griffin.

Do you think Dallas will ever be a strong contender again under Jerry Jones?

Archer: That's the big question. I'll say yes only because things are cyclical in the NFL. Jones has plenty of great qualities as an owner. He wants to win. He will do everything he can to win. He is willing to do what it takes. But Jones the general manager often gets in the way. The Cowboys seem to change philosophies from year to year. One year they like this kind of player only to move on to a new player the next year. Jones said something this week on his radio show about how he does not worry about fan apathy because of the “show” the fans got in Sunday's game against Green Bay. He seemed oblivious that his team lost. He was happy it was a good show. How can he think that way? But Jones won't change. He will be the ultimate decision-maker. I think they will be a strong contender again, but it could take some time.

Obviously, the season has been a washout for the Redskins. How much joy would they take in killing the Cowboys' season?

Keim: After six straight losses, I think they'd feel good beating anyone right now, but, yeah, beating a team in the playoff hunt would make them feel better. And if it's Dallas? All the better, although I don't sense any real hatred toward them. But for the fans, if they can watch Dallas' playoff hopes take a dive because of the Redskins, that would cause them to temporarily forget the craziness of the past couple of weeks. But the word "joy" is not the one I'd use to describe much of anything around here. There are a number of Redskins who will be playing their final home game, including likely retiring linebacker London Fletcher, so that will provide a little motivation, as well.

Jennings/DaltonGetty ImagesCan Greg Jennings and the Vikings help spoil the playoff hopes of Andy Dalton and the Bengals?
The Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals are two teams headed in completely opposite directions.

For the Vikings, the 2013 season has been a difficult one, defined mostly by a quarterbacking carousel and the lack of wins because of it. As for the Bengals, the year has been a mostly good one. With home wins over the Packers and Patriots, and road victories against the Lions and Chargers, the Bengals have looked for much of the year like a team poised for a longer postseason run than the past two years. Cincinnati's 2011 and 2012 seasons ended with first-round playoff losses.

If the 9-5 Bengals are even going to get to this postseason this year, though, they first have to bounce back from a Sunday night loss at Pittsburgh and beat the four-win Vikings. Such a win isn't a guarantee. Minnesota has embraced the role of postseason spoiler, rolling NFC East-leading Philadelphia last weekend.

To break down the contest, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey teamed up for this edition of Double Coverage. As this week's visitor, we'll start with Ben:

Ben Goessling: Andy Dalton was one of the Vikings' options at QB when they drafted Christian Ponder in 2011. The Vikings seem to have given up on Ponder, and while Dalton has been better, it's hard to tell whether he's going to be the answer in Cincinnati long-term. How do the Bengals feel about his progress?

Coley Harvey: It certainly appears that for now the Bengals feel comfortable with Dalton moving forward. Despite calls at times this season from some groups of angry fans, the Bengals have remained firm in their support of him. No matter how poorly Dalton played, they weren't shopping for another quarterback, and they weren't trying to give backup Josh Johnson any shared playing time. In short, they were committed to seeing Dalton through the year. And why not? Although he has had some struggles this season, Dalton has still shown that he can handle the duties of being a starting quarterback. He was the AFC's offensive player of the month for October, and had three consecutive 300-yard passing games during one stretch. If Dalton can't get the Bengals past the first round of the playoffs, it will be interesting to see whether the sides discuss a contract extension, with the 2014 season his last on his current contract.

To your broader point, Ben, that 2011 quarterback class certainly hasn't been all that amazing.

Speaking of progressing quarterbacks, it seems like Matt Cassel has given the Vikings some semblance of offensive success in games he's appeared in this season. Why didn't Minnesota stick with him sooner?

Goessling: That's been the big question all season here, and on Sunday, coach Leslie Frazier finally gave those of us in the media a hint of what we'd expected all along. He said the Vikings always liked Cassel, but had to go through the "process" a little bit, and unfortunately weren't able to win games in the meantime. The "process" I believe he's referring to is the act of evaluating Christian Ponder to a point where the Vikings could be absolutely sure he wasn't the answer at the position. When Josh Freeman got inserted into the mix -- and both Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings planned to play Freeman soon -- that complicated things even more. The biggest thing Cassel had working against him was his age (31), and the Vikings didn't necessarily see him as the long-term guy. The question will be whether the quarterback tryouts wind up costing Frazier his job, but now that Cassel's starting, maybe Frazier will be able to make a case to keep his job by showing he can win when he has a competent quarterback.

The Vikings have struggled all year with small, shifty running backs. How do you expect Giovani Bernard to fare against them Sunday?

Harvey: If the Vikings have struggled with those types of backs, then they could be in serious trouble Sunday, Ben. Bernard has been the five-tool player the Bengals thought they were drafting earlier this year and more. Not only can he hit the edge hard on pitches and outside runs, but he has enough power in his smaller body to hit the middle of a defensive line hard and keep going. His most important trait, though, may be what he's able to do as a receiver. You'll see the Bengals use him fairly regularly in the screen game. If the blocking sets up right on those plays, he won't just go for 5 or 6 additional yards. He typically will break off another 10, 15, 20 or more yards after the catch. Once the rookie gets in space, it's like he hits a fourth and fifth gear.

Having said all of that, I do believe he and the more between-the-tackles running BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be keys to the game. If they get going, the Bengals have a chance to showcase the balanced offense that has been coming on of late.

Minnesota has obviously had one of the NFL's best rushing attacks the past seven seasons because of Adrian Peterson. Matt Asiata did a great job of getting to the end zone last week. What kind of challenge do you think he poses the Bengals if he ends up playing in place of Peterson?

Goessling: Not much of one, based on what we saw last week. Asiata averaged less than 2 yards a carry, and while he runs hard between the tackles, he doesn't offer much else; he doesn't break tackles the way Toby Gerhart can, and Peterson's gifts are obviously on a different level from either of those guys. I think Peterson will play, though; he wanted it known last week that he could have gone, and Frazier said after the game that he expected Peterson would be back. The guy prides himself on his pain tolerance, and as hard as he pushed to play last week, I'd be really surprised if he's not in there Sunday.

Assuming he plays, how tough a matchup is this for Peterson? The Bengals have been one of the NFL's best teams against the run this year. What's made them so effective there?

Harvey: It won't be an easy one for Peterson. This Bengals' defense prides itself on playing physically, emotionally and flowing quickly to the football, particularly when it's on the ground. If this were a normal week, I might contend that as good as Cincinnati's run defense has been that Peterson might still end up surprising them and have a big day. This isn't a normal week, though. The Bengals are coming off a loss that had many questioning their heart and attitude, and they also happen to be playing this game at home. There's something about Paul Brown Stadium this season. Opponents have struggled, and the Bengals have fed off the crowd's energy. Cincinnati is 6-0 at home this season, and the defense is a big reason. If linebacker James Harrison (concussion) doesn't play, that could take away a key piece of the Bengals' run defense.

Cincinnati lost punter Kevin Huber to a season-ending injury last week and is bringing along his replacement, Shawn Powell, this week. He'll be kicking to Minnesota's Marcus Sherels. How dynamic is Sherels, Ben? His numbers seem so-so for most of the season, but he does have a return for touchdown.

Goessling: I think you summed it up nicely there, Coley. Sherels did have the punt return touchdown, but his numbers otherwise have been just OK. The thing the Vikings like about him is that he doesn't make mistakes. He fumbled a punt earlier this year, but he's typically very sure-handed and makes good decisions about when to call for a fair catch. He doesn't get them in trouble by taking unnecessary chances, and special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer is a big fan of his partly because of his decision-making skills. But watch out, though. The Vikings are trying to find ways to get Cordarrelle Patterson the ball now that teams have stopped kicking to him, and Frazier mentioned they could give him a look on punt returns. If that happens, the Vikings will have a completely different kind of threat back there on punts.

Drew Brees and Cam NewtonAP PhotoDrew Brees' Saints won the first meeting handily, but Cam Newton's Panthers won't be intimidated.

Round 2 of the NFC South heavyweight battle between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints takes place Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The Saints won Round 1 by knockout, 31-13 two weeks ago at the Superdome in New Orleans. They made the NFL's second-ranked defense look less than average and totally shut down the Panthers in the red zone, where they had been so effective.

Will this be a repeat? Or will the Saints' road woes continue?

The division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs are on the line between these 10-4 teams, assuming the winner follows up with a win in the regular-season finale. ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Saints reporter Mike Triplett are here to break it down.

Newton: So, Mike, as I recall, you said in the press box after the first meeting between these teams that New Orleans should be able to sweep the series. After Sunday's loss to the Rams, a loss that strengthened the argument that the Saints don't play well on the road, has your opinion changed?

Triplett: Well, David, that game was so long ago that there's no way I can be held to anything I said at the time. Seriously, though, it is tough to make any definitive statements about the Saints right now. They clearly looked like the superior team against the Panthers two weeks ago, but it's impossible to ignore how poorly they've played away from home. And now you have to imagine that their confidence will be shaken when they hit the road again -- even if they don't express that publicly.

I do think the Saints have the higher ceiling among these two teams. And if they both play up to their potential, that means the Saints can win. But when you throw in all the demons they'll be facing (the road, potentially bad weather, a team that can run the ball and force turnovers), it becomes a toss-up.

I'll throw the same question back at you. After the Panthers' Jekyll-and-Hyde display the past two weeks, which team shows up on Sunday?

Newton: Hmm. So long ago? Interesting bail, Mike. Not sure I'd call it Jekyll and Hyde either, because the Panthers have lost once in their past 10 games. I'd say the Saints are more Jekyll and Hyde with their home-versus-road issues.

But you're right, Carolina was horribly outclassed in the first meeting. The thing about that is a lot of teams have been outclassed in New Orleans. That's why I don't think it was a devastating loss. And the Panthers were able to bounce back, even if it was against the Jets. Where the loss could work in their favor is they know where they have to adjust. They began to adjust in the second half, when they held New Orleans to 10 points. There's no sense of panic or fear they can't turn things around this time. I sense they are relishing the opportunity to prove themselves.

I see the Saints have released their kicker and replaced their left tackle with a rookie. Not really the stuff you expect from a Super Bowl contender at this time of the year. What do you read into that?

Triplett: It was definitely a unique shake-up at this time of year -- especially the switch at left tackle. And I think both moves are pretty telling of where Sean Payton's mind is at during this playoff push. He was pretty candid after the St. Louis loss, admitting that he still doesn't fully know the makeup of this current team, and that he can't just count on getting the same results as in past years. And all season long, he has been hyper-focused on making sure he's leaving no stone unturned in improving in all areas. Drew Brees has made that point a few times when discussing what's different with Payton after his suspension.

I think Payton believes this team has championship potential -- but also sees how close the Saints are to letting a good opportunity slip past them.

How about on-the-field adjustments? What are the one or two areas where you see the Panthers being able to clean up mistakes that doomed them in the first meeting?

Newton: The biggest cleanup has to be with the secondary. They weren't physical against the Saints' receivers, letting them get into their routes too easily and run free. There also was a bit of miscommunication, particularly in the second quarter, when Brees had the Panthers on their heels with three touchdown passes. The Panthers rectified things a bit in the second half with a few timely blitzes -- more than normal for them -- to force Brees to move in the pocket and get out of his rhythm. I suspect you'll see a bit of that as well this time. But mainly I see them challenging the front four for more pressure, particularly at left tackle, whether it's Charles Brown or somebody else.

I'm still perplexed by the wide differential in New Orleans' scoring at home versus the road (32.9 versus 18.4) and the turnover ratio going from plus-5 at home to minus-5 on the road. I've heard the coach-speak explanation. Now I want to hear the Mike-speak.

Triplett: Wish I were smart enough to figure it out. I think the main difference is that they become a "superhuman" team at home, as former linebacker Scott Shanle explained it earlier this year. On the road, they're simply human. They've actually had the best regular-season road record in the NFL dating back to 2009 (24-15). This didn't really turn into an epidemic until this year. But I've got to think it's messing with their confidence now, too, in addition to the crowd noise and the weather conditions they sometimes have to deal with.

This game will be even more of a test than most road games. The Saints have definitely been affected by cold weather and wind and rain over the years, which makes sense since their strength is the passing game. The worse the weather conditions on Sunday, the more it has to favor a Panthers team that can run the ball so effectively.

Earlier this year, I thought the Saints were looking more prepared than ever to win a game like this, thanks to the patient offense we saw in wins at Chicago, against San Francisco and at Atlanta, plus the most physical defensive front they've had in the Payton era. Lately, I'm less certain.

Double Coverage: Colts at Chiefs

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
10:00
AM ET
Hilton/CharlesGetty ImagesT.Y. Hilton, left, and Jamaal Charles will be called on to provide offensive punch on Sunday.
Two playoff-bound teams meet at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Indianapolis Colts.

The 9-5 Colts have clinched the AFC South but are eyeing improved playoff seeding. The 11-3 Chiefs are tied for first place in the AFC West with the Denver Broncos but have secured at least a wild-card playoff berth. If the season ended today, the Chiefs and Colts would meet in a first-round playoff game in Indianapolis.

ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Colts reporter Mike Wells discuss the game:

Teicher: Colts QB Andrew Luck appears to be having a better season than last year. How has he progressed? In what specific ways is he a better player than he was as a rookie?

Wells: The biggest difference with Luck this year is that he has improved his accuracy. That may be hard to believe since the Colts have been without future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne for the past seven games. Luck's completion percentage has suffered some since Wayne went down on Oct. 20 because you never know which receiver is going to step up on a game-to-game basis. But ask anybody in the organization and they'll gladly take Luck's 58.7 percent completion percentage over the 54.1 percent he completed as a rookie. He's also making smarter decisions with the ball. He's more willing to take a sack rather than force a throw downfield. That's why he's thrown only nine interceptions compared to 18 as a rookie.

Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles had a game for the ages Sunday with five touchdowns. Everybody is talking about Broncos QB Peyton Manning as the front-runner for MVP, but do you think Charles deserves serious consideration?

Teicher: I do, but I think I’m in the minority. Unlike Manning, Charles has very little offensive help. Quarterback Alex Smith is having a nice season, but otherwise a huge share of Kansas City’s production is coming from Charles. He leads the league in touchdowns and is the one offensive player who has produced on any kind of consistent basis for an 11-3 team. I can’t imagine where the Chiefs would be without him, but I’m certain they wouldn’t be headed for the postseason. If Charles doesn’t win the MVP award, it won’t diminish his accomplishments, at least not in my mind.

The Chiefs allow a lot of big pass plays. With Wayne out, who are the big-play receivers -- or do the Colts have one besides T.Y. Hilton?

Wells: Take a quarter out of your pocket and toss it in the air. That’s the point it’s reached when talking about the Colts’ receivers. It looked like Hilton was going to be Luck’s big-play receiver when he had games of 121 and 130 yards immediately after Wayne went down. But then teams found a way to neutralize his speed by providing help over top. The Colts are doing things by committee at receiver these days. I expect offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton to repeat what he did in the first half against Houston on Sunday. The Colts will probably put Luck in the shotgun with some empty-backfield sets and let him spread the ball around to his receivers and tight ends. You may even see running back Trent Richardson line up on the outside some. It’s a whatever-it-takes approach in Indianapolis these days.

The Chiefs are averaging 44 points a game in their last four games. Is it because they actually have a good offense or is it because of the teams they’ve played?

Teicher: It’s probably some of both. The Chiefs have three touchdowns on defense/special teams over the last two weeks, and against the Raiders a flood of turnovers repeatedly gave the Chiefs favorable field position for some short scoring drives. But it’s also wrong to deny the progress they’ve made offensively. It starts with the line, which has improved tremendously since early in the season. Smith is playing much better, as well. He’s completing a higher percentage of his passes and is doing a better job getting the ball downfield. The Chiefs weren’t scoring like this earlier in the season against some horrible defensive teams. They scored 17 points on offense in an October win over Oakland and 49 on offense against the Raiders last week.

The Colts have clinched the AFC South but can still improve their playoff seeding. Will they go all-out to win this game, or might they back off a little and rest some key players?

Wells: The Colts aren’t a good enough team to be able to take things lightly and then all of a sudden flip a switch once the playoffs start. They’ve got too many issues that need to get fixed before the playoffs. They’re still trying to establish a consistent running game and produce steady play at receiver, as I alluded to earlier, and the defense has a tendency to give up big plays, as does Kansas City’s defense. The Colts' goal is to have some momentum heading into the playoffs. Besides, they’ve also got their sights on trying to move up from the No. 4 seed. They need to win their final two games against the Chiefs and Jacksonville, and get some help from Baltimore in its last two games against New England and Cincinnati.

There’s a chance the Colts and Chiefs could meet in the first weekend of the playoffs in Indianapolis. Do you think Chiefs coach Andy Reid will hold back some things because of that?

Teicher: The Chiefs will be all-in this week and they should be. They’re tied with the Broncos for first place in their division, and while Denver has the tiebreaker, the Chiefs have too much to gain by winning the division to back off now. If the Chiefs win both of their remaining games and Denver loses one of its two, the Chiefs would be the top seed in the AFC playoffs, get a first-round bye, and then play any of their playoff games at Arrowhead. Their fate if they are a wild card is no first-round bye and the playoffs on the road. The choice seems simple to me.

 
Peyton Manning and Johnathan JosephUSA Today Sports, Icon SMIComing off an unexpected loss, will Peyton Manning's Broncos overlook Johnathan Joseph's Texans?

Quarterbacks tend to pull for each other. They know what it's like to shoulder so much of a team's fate, they understand the pressure better than outsiders could.

"I do think it’s a unique fraternity," Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Matt’s an excellent quarterback. I think he’ll be fine."

This weekend Manning and his Broncos will visit the Houston Texans for a rematch of a game played last year under very different circumstances.

Fittingly, after a season of quarterback turmoil, the Texans are returning to the man they started with at the position. Because of an injury to Case Keenum, Matt Schaub will start Sunday at Reliant Stadium. The last time Schaub started, he entered the game to boos so hearty that the Texans had to go to a silent count on some of their plays.

On the opposite sideline will be one of the best to ever play the position. Manning has played against the Texans 19 times and lost only three times. ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.

Ganguli: Manning is very familiar with the Texans. Has his (soon-to-be) record-setting season been as impressive to watch up close as the stats suggest?

Legwold: No question the numbers have been staggering, even by Manning’s standards. But the intersection of Manning as a 37-year-old quarterback who was willing to sort of remake himself with a team ready to offer him the place to do that has lifted his play even more. The Broncos have constructed a playbook that is a mix of what they had on hand and what Manning has always done. They've added a warp-speed no-huddle portion and given him targets all over the formation, and Manning has played with the discipline of a veteran quarterback who understands what needs to be done. His coaches have said he forced just one pass in the team’s first eight games and his accuracy has been elite for much of the season. He isn't a power thrower now, and a windy day in the postseason could derail some of what the Broncos like to do, but he is an accomplished pitcher who knows his opponents and can hit all the spots.

Gary Kubiak is still well-liked around the Broncos’ complex, with many people who worked with him still in the building. What has been the reaction of players to his dismissal?

Ganguli: Kubiak was well-liked in the Texans' building, too, especially with, but not limited to, the players. After his dismissal, you heard a lot about how well he treated people, regardless of their role on the team. He’s always been known as a players’ coach, and that’s part of what has made Houston an attractive destination for free agents. Several players exchanged text messages with him after it happened. Some took public responsibility for it. They didn't like seeing him lose his job, but the firing wasn't a tremendous surprise given how the season had gone. The players’ reaction to Kubiak's health scare after suffering a "mini-stroke" on Nov. 3 said a lot about what he meant to them.

You covered another head coach's health scare this season. How did the Broncos weather John Fox’s absence?

Legwold: There have been seasons over the past decade or so when neither the locker room nor the coaching staff would have been as equipped as this year's group was to deal with something like Fox’s four-week absence following open-heart surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio stepped in as interim coach, and players often spoke of his composure and leadership during that time. Manning, Wesley Woodyard, Champ Bailey and others helped keep everyone in the locker room pointed in the right direction, while Adam Gase and rest of the offensive staff kept things humming on that side of the ball. The team went 3-1 in that stretch, with two wins over Kansas City and one against San Diego. The loss was an overtime defeat at New England, when the Broncos let a 24-point halftime lead get away. Through it all, the Broncos showed themselves to be a stable organization, able to overcome the most serious of issues.

An awful lot of folks believed when the season began that the Texans would be in the hunt for the Super Bowl title. What are some of the major issues that have prevented that from happening?

Ganguli: How much time do you have? It starts with the quarterback. The Texans don’t have the luxury the Broncos have of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Their situation at the position has been tenuous all season. Schaub’s costly turnovers early on put the Texans in a precarious position. He didn't play as poorly as some indicate until Week 5 against San Francisco. He just looked uncomfortable and out of sorts from start to finish, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six on the first pass of the game. Schaub’s foot and ankle injuries the following week opened the door for Kubiak to make a switch to Keenum, who spent last season on the Texans’ practice squad. Keenum did well before opponents deciphered him, and since then he has struggled. I’m not ready to say he’ll never be a passable quarterback in the NFL, but his play over the past eight games has been a big factor in the losses. To be clear, quarterback is not the only factor in the Texans’ 12-game losing streak, but it’s been a big one. Further, the handling of the quarterback situation played a part in Kubiak’s firing. He benched Keenum for Schaub against Oakland and Jacksonville. That kind of uncertainty didn’t help matters.

That’s one question I get asked a lot. Another is this: Who will the Texans’ next head coach be? I covered Del Rio for his final season and a half as the Jaguars' coach. From what you've seen in Denver, do you think he gets another shot at being a head coach?

Legwold: I spoke with executives from around the league in recent weeks, and it seems Del Rio helped his cause with the way he conducted himself and led the Broncos during Fox’s absence. If the Broncos can snap out of their current defensive funk and go deep in the playoffs, it would help his cause even more. (He interviewed with USC during the bye week, the day before Fox suffered the dizziness and light-headedness on a golf course that led to his open-heart surgery.) Del Rio would need an owner/team president to look past the offense-first mentality everyone seems to be looking for these days, and he would have to present a clear, concise picture of what he would do on offense. But if the Broncos make the Super Bowl, or even win it, and the defense makes some plays along the way, Del Rio should be on some short lists.

How has Wade Phillips handled the interim job? He’s seen Manning plenty over the years, how do you think he’ll have the Texans go at the Broncos’ offense?

Ganguli: It wasn't a particularly good situation to come into, as tends to happen with interim jobs. The results have been similar to Kubiak's tenure, though Phillips has been more proactive in trying to curb the Texans' penalties. He's had Big 12 officials at practice several times, and puts players in timeouts if they commit a penalty. Not a lot has changed for the better, and the injury situation has gotten worse. The Texans now have their first- and second-string running backs on injured reserve, as well as their starting tight end, starting middle linebacker and starting strong safety. Phillips' defenses have always been very aggressive -- they blitz a lot. The play calling is being done by defensive-backs coach Vance Joseph now, but that doesn't change a lot. Manning's statistics against the Texans are better against a four-man rush than against blitzes.

Double Coverage: Browns at Jets

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
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Dawan Landry and Jason CampbellUSA TODAY SportsDawan Landry's Jets and Jason Campbell's Browns are a combined 1-9 since the teams' Week 10 bye.
The New York Jets (6-8) play their final home game Sunday, facing the Cleveland Browns (4-10) in what could be Rex Ryan's MetLife Stadium farewell.

No, this isn't the sexiest game on the Week 16 schedule. In fact, the two teams are a combined 1-9 since Week 10, both crashing back to reality after promising starts. They've struggled for different reasons. The Browns, losers of five straight, can throw the ball but can't run. The Jets can run but can't throw. A half-empty stadium should see quite a matchup.

ESPN.com Jets team reporter Rich Cimini and Browns reporter Pat McManamon break it all down.

Cimini: The Browns are a lot like the Jets in that they've bottomed out after the bye week. What has gone wrong?

McManamon: Short answer: different quarterbacks, no run game, one true playmaker and a defense that is adept at blowing late leads. Add in that the Browns were grossly overrated at 4-5 and it probably shouldn't be surprising this has happened.

The Browns have started three different quarterbacks. They traded Trent Richardson, and their leading rusher has less than 400 yards. The defense might be the most disappointing part of the equation, because in the offseason, the Browns made a lot of noise and spent a lot of money improving it. The numbers show things are working, but the crunch-time performance shows there is a long way to go.

Bottom line -- the Browns aren't that good. If Bill Parcells is right, and you are your record, then the Browns are a 4-10 team with only a hope of winning six.

This is the third season in a row the Jets will not make the playoffs. Has Ryan's time run its course, or are players still hearing his message?

Cimini: This three-year drought is the franchise's longest since the dark ages of the mid-1990s, when they went six seasons without a postseason appearance. Ah, memories. Frankly, I think Ryan has done a good job this season, considering the paucity of talent on offense. They played hard last week against the Carolina Panthers -- it was a three-point game before they collapsed in the fourth quarter -- so it's not like they've tuned him out.

This is a rebuilding season and, although management never called it that, owner Woody Johnson asked the fans before the season to be patient. The team has overachieved, but the problem for Ryan is that first-year general manager John Idzik might want to hire his own guy, presumably an offensive mind to help rebuild their offense.

At least the Browns can score points, Pat. I know the Chicago Bears did a good job of containing Josh Gordon, but his eyes will light up when he sees the Jets' secondary. I'm guessing the Browns are glad they didn't trade him, right?

McManamon: Sort of like they're glad Paul Brown took the job way back when. In truth, Rich, the Browns never really planned to trade Gordon unless they got an offer that knocked their proverbial socks off. That didn't stop them from answering the phone, which they did, which started the "trade talks" rumors. But the Browns' starting point for Gordon was always a first-round pick, and no team was willing to do that given he's one mistake from a one-year suspension. The Browns are thrilled he's with the team, but they also hold their breath about what could happen.

As for the Jets' secondary, of course he's eager to face it. On paper, he should have a huge game, but the same was true last Sunday against Chicago's secondary, and for whatever reason, the Browns didn't get him the ball enough, especially early. In the first half, he was targeted one time. That number has to increase this weekend.

Rich, there was some talk at last year's draft that the Browns should take Geno Smith with their first-round pick. Has Smith shown enough to justify the selection as the Jets' future quarterback?

Cimini: Absolutely not. The Jets will end this season in the same position they did last season -- not knowing their starting quarterback. Smith has the physical tools, but he has been wildly inconsistent. I could throw out a bunch of negative stats, but I'll just say this: He has had only two turnover-free games.

Like a lot of rookie quarterbacks, he'll lock on to his No. 1 read, drawing safeties into the play. He has to do a better job of finding his checkdown options and reading blitzes, a huge problem. The kid can sling it and he's durable, but he hasn't done enough for the decision-makers to say, "He's our guy." They will draft another quarterback and make it an open competition or acquire a proven veteran to take the No. 1 job. Mark Sanchez figures to be a goner.

So, Pat, it's hard to find a lot of positives in a 4-10 record, but have you seen enough to believe coach Rob Chudzinski can be "the guy"?

McManamon: I've seen enough to believe he deserves a fairer chance. No coach that has three different starting quarterbacks and four different starting running backs can win a lot. That Chudzinski had the team at 4-5 at the bye is pretty amazing. That he lost five in a row since the bye is disappointing but shouldn't be surprising.

Chudzinski has brought an aggressive attitude to the Browns, and he has handled himself well. There have been mistakes -- taking a timeout when the clock was stopped before New England's game-winning touchdown was an egregious mistake that considerably hurt the Browns' chances to win -- but also some good moments. He has handled the quarterbacks properly, shown patience with players who needed it and helped bring along Jordan Cameron and Gordon. Chudzinski looks like he could and should be the answer, but he sure deserves a fuller deck than the one he was given this season.

Old friend of the Browns Kellen Winslow spent this season in New York. Has he made any major contributions?

Cimini: Well, he made a few headlines but not for his work on the field. He got off to a decent start -- the team's leading receiver through five games -- but he was slapped with a four-game PED suspension. (He blamed it on an allergy medication, which caused some eyes to roll.) Since his return, his role has diminished. He plays only 20 to 25 snaps a game, prompting him to publicly wonder about his lack of playing time. I don't think the Jets' Thought Police appreciated the comments, so now all he does is speak in clichés.

He also didn't win any friends when he recently predicted via Twitter a Patriots-Broncos championship game -- even though the Jets were still alive. Get the picture? Winslow can still catch, but his surgically repaired knee is shot and he can't stay on the field for long stretches.

 

The Philadelphia Eagles have found themselves in the middle of the NFC North race as much as the NFC East race over the past month. Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears is their third game in a row against an opponent from the North.

Two weeks ago, the Eagles and Bears helped each other out. Chicago defeated the Dallas Cowboys, pushing the Eagles into first place in the East. The Eagles beat the Detroit Lions, opening the door for the Bears in the North.

They won’t be helping each other this week. ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss some of the issues facing both teams.

Sheridan: Like the Eagles, the Bears survived this season when a backup quarterback took over and played unexpectedly well. Unlike the Eagles, who stayed with Nick Foles, Chicago went back to Jay Cutler and sent Josh McCown to the sideline. So, Michael, how is that scenario playing out in the locker room, on the field and among the fans?

Wright: The reaction is quite a bit different between the fans and the players, obviously. In the immediate aftermath of Cutler’s ankle injury on Nov. 10 against Detroit, Bears coach Marc Trestman told the team and the media that Cutler would be the starter again as soon as he was medically cleared to play. The coach never wavered on that declaration, and that was apparent even among the players during McCown’s incredible four-game run. In answering questions about McCown during that stretch, Trestman and the players seemed to temper the compliments regarding the backup, making it a point to state that Cutler was still the starter once he would be able to return to action. So within the locker room, the message was always that Cutler would return, but among the fan base, as McCown flourished, the call to make him the permanent starter grew louder regardless of what Trestman and the players said on the record. Cutler certainly helped himself by bouncing back from a bad start at Cleveland to throw for three touchdowns in a win, but there’s certainly a segment of the Chicago fan base still calling for McCown to be the man under center.

Phil, Chicago’s defense simply can’t stop the run, so LeSean McCoy is poised to have a pretty big game if the Eagles decide to feature him. What was the deal with McCoy running the ball just eight times against the Vikings?

Sheridan: That was one of the head-scratching strategies Chip Kelly deployed Sunday. It was like stepping into a time machine and watching an Andy Reid-coached game. Kelly’s explanation was simple enough: The Vikings were missing four cornerbacks and the Eagles thought they could exploit the inexperienced backups. Then, he said, the Eagles fell behind and had to throw, but McCoy had run for 217 yards the week before, mostly in the second half as the Eagles staged a comeback win. Ultimately, there is no explanation or excuse for eliminating a weapon as dangerous as McCoy from your offense. That’s supposed to be the defense’s job.

The Eagles did a better job against Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson in recent weeks than against the Vikings’ deeper, less star-studded receiving corps. How much more dangerous are the Bears now that Alshon Jeffery has emerged alongside Brandon Marshall? Is Jeffery even better at this point?

Wright: In the past, teams focused most of their game plan on shutting down Marshall. That involved double-teams and shading coverage over to his side. Teams are now finding they can’t do that anymore because if you double Marshall, you put Jeffery in one-on-one matchups that he’s going to win the majority of the time. The Bears say teams are now starting to mix it up against those receivers, which makes it important for Cutler to be able to quickly recognize the coverage and distribute the ball accordingly. I wouldn’t say Jeffery is the better receiver overall at this point, but I will say that he tracks the ball in the air better than anybody else on Chicago’s roster, which has allowed him to make some unbelievable grabs in contested situations. I’d say one player to watch is No. 3 receiver Earl Bennett. With all the focus on Marshall and Jeffery, the Bears have made it a point in recent weeks to involve Bennett more in the offense. Remember, Bennett played college football with Cutler at Vanderbilt, so there’s chemistry. Bennett has hauled in a touchdown in each of the past two games.

How will Philadelphia’s secondary look on Sunday? I know the Eagles are banged up, causing something of a musical-chairs effect in the secondary. At this point, do you know which guys the Eagles will have available to face Marshall, Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett?

Sheridan: We don’t know yet, Michael. The larger problem is that, even when everyone is healthy, the Eagles' secondary isn’t equipped to handle a receiving corps as deep and talented as the Bears’ is. The Eagles have the 31st-ranked pass defense for a reason. During their five-game winning streak, they were able to give yards but minimize points allowed by forcing turnovers and playing well in the red zone. That formula fell apart in Minnesota. As for the injuries, the biggest loss would be nickel corner Brandon Boykin, who leads the team in interceptions and is a very good cover guy. It looks like rookie safety Earl Wolff will be back after missing four games with a knee injury, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be after missing that much time. If the Bears go three or four wide, the Eagles will be hard-pressed to match up with all those weapons. Their best hope would be to pressure Cutler, but they have struggled against guys who get the ball out as quickly as he does.

There’s a chance linebacker Lance Briggs returns Sunday night. What impact would that have on Chicago’s defense? Can the Bears clamp down on the Eagles or is this thing destined to be a shootout like their win over Dallas two weeks back?

Wright: I see this one being a shootout. I think Briggs will have an impact on the defense in terms of making sure the calls get in quickly and the defense is lined up correctly. Briggs should also be an upgrade over rookie Khaseem Greene, who has filled in on the weak side over the past seven games. But Briggs has been on the shelf for a month and a half, and there’s no way he’s in football shape yet. So you have to wonder how much he will actually be able to contribute from a physical standpoint. If Briggs plays like the Briggs we all know, then Chicago will have a much better shot at controlling Philadelphia’s rushing attack, but I’m not sure he’ll return as that guy. So let’s count on a shootout. The team with the defense that gets that one or two key stops down the stretch will be the team that comes out on top.

Early in the season, Philadelphia’s frenetic pace seemed to be the next new thing, the revolution. Now that the Eagles have basically an entire season under their belts, how have teams adjusted to their pace on offense? Is it still as big an advantage as it seemed to be early in the season?

Sheridan: It has been an effective tactic at times. The up-tempo approach is one of the reasons Foles replaced Michael Vick as the No. 1 quarterback. Vick is obviously a bigger threat in the read-option, but Foles is more comfortable with the pace Kelly likes. Hard to blame Vick, who had a career’s worth of offensive football to unlearn. But the pace can hurt the Eagles, too. When they have a couple of three-and-outs in a row, as they did against the Vikings, their defense is back on the field way too quickly. And when a team moves the ball as well as the Vikings did, the defense wears down. It was useless by the fourth quarter. The Eagles defense has been on the field for more plays than any team in the NFL. That is partly a side effect of Kelly’s up-tempo offense.

Mike Glennon and Kellen ClemensGetty ImagesMike Glennon's Bucs and Kellen Clemens' Rams have remained competitive down the stretch.
The St. Louis Rams will wear their throwback uniforms Sunday when they take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The old school blue and yellow is intended to spark memories of the famous NFC Championship Game the two sides played after the 1999 season.

It's also going to serve as a reminder of how far both teams have to go to get back to a place where they're competing for Super Bowls. The Rams are 6-8 and Tampa Bay is 4-10, leaving both squads on the outside looking in for the postseason.

Despite the knowledge they'll be home in January, both teams have remained competitive which should make for an interesting matchup when they renew acquaintances at the Edward Jones Dome.

ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss Sunday's game.

Wagoner: After a rough start, it seems the Bucs have somewhat righted the ship here (pun unmercifully intended) toward the end of the season. How have they been able to do that, and do you think Greg Schiano has made a case to keep his job?

Yasinskas: The amazing thing is, despite the 0-8 start, the Bucs never stopped playing hard. That's led to wins in four of their last six games. That's happened mostly because the defense has played very well and the offense has played just well enough. Still, it remains to be seen if Schiano has done enough to keep his job after this season. My personal opinion is the ownership likes him and likes how he's cleaned up the locker room, but I think he needs to win these final two games to have any chance of staying.

The Rams obviously aren't going to the playoffs either. What's left for them to play for?

Wagoner: Nothing particularly tangible is out there save for a chance to finish .500 for the first time since 2006 and only the third time since 2004. In St. Louis, that does represent progress given the last decade has been such a disaster in terms of wins and losses. Since Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead arrived, they've quietly targeted 2014 as the breakout season for this young team. Any progress they can make toward that is a good thing. It would serve them well to engender confidence among the fan base that the 2013 team is better at the end of the year than the 2012 team was.

You mentioned the work of the defense in keeping the Bucs competitive this year. It seems linebacker Lavonte David is quietly having a huge year and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is also enjoying a second straight big season. You see those guys every day. Are they receiving proper credit for the job they've done or is it lost in the mix of a losing season?

Yasinskas: McCoy went to the Pro Bowl last year, so he's not a complete unknown. He should go to the Pro Bowl again this season. He already has eight sacks and is shooting for double digits. David isn't nearly as well known outside of Tampa Bay, where fans already are comparing him to Derrick Brooks. David is having a phenomenal season. He has six sacks and five interceptions. That makes him just the seventh player in NFL history to have at least five sacks and at least five interceptions in the same season. There even has been talk of David as a defensive player of the year candidate. I think his play makes that a legitimate possibility. But Tampa Bay's losing record probably will work against him.

Speaking of defensive player of the year candidates on non-playoff teams, St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn deserves to be in the conversation. Do you think he's earned a chance?

Wagoner: With two games to go, I think a legitimate argument can be made that he should not only be in the mix but also win the award. He's become the dominant and disruptive pass-rusher everyone expected him to be and he's drastically improved as a run defender, which allows him to stay on the field for all three downs. And he's not just doing it against bad teams. He is second in the league in sacks, first in forced fumbles and has countless quarterback pressures and hits. He's done a lot of that damage without the benefit of a lead and ample pass rush opportunities to boot. He's also two sacks from tying Kevin Carter for the most in a season in the history of the St. Louis version of the Rams.

I'm curious about the guy Quinn and Co. will be chasing Sunday. It looked like the Bucs had quite a quarterback conundrum on their hands earlier this year, but the switch to Mike Glennon has calmed things quite a bit. What does Glennon bring to the table and do you believe he's done enough to cement himself as the guy moving forward?

Yasinskas: Glennon has been a pleasant surprise after the Josh Freeman mess early in the season. Glennon brings a big arm and is naturally poised. He's been slowed a bit recently as he ran into some good defenses (Carolina and San Francisco), but the Bucs still think his trajectory is pointing up. As for whether Glennon is the quarterback for the long term, a lot depends on what happens with Schiano. If there's a new coach, he might elect to bring in his own quarterback. But Glennon is Schiano's quarterback. Schiano tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit Glennon to Rutgers and has been infatuated with him ever since.

Speaking of rookies who are having a big impact, tell us what running back Zac Stacy has brought to the St. Louis offense.

Wagoner: Simply put, Stacy's emergence in the run game has been the key to the Rams' turning it around after one of the worst rushing starts to a season in franchise history. He's not going to wow anyone with his speed or flashy moves in the open field. But he's physical, intelligent and extremely patient. When the Rams have success on offense, it's a direct result of the run game working, usually with Stacy as the centerpiece. He opens things up for backup quarterback Kellen Clemens in the pass game and helps keep defenses off-balance. He's been a revelation as a fifth-round draft choice.

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