NFL Nation: audibles 13
The Dolphins need to chalk up a victory to keep pace with the rest of the tightly bound AFC East.
They impressively rattled off four straight victories before losing at home last Sunday to the Patriots. That one defeat has the Dolphins tied for last place in the division with the Bills and two games out of first place with only five to play.
After going 1-15 last year, the Dolphins could lose all of their remaining games and still consider 2008 a significant improvement, but they've played so well that not making the playoffs will be a major disappointment in the organization.
A loss to the Rams would be a colossal blow not only to the Dolphins' playoff hopes, but also to their psyches.
The Rams are that bad. They rank among the worst five NFL teams in every major statistical category except for passing defense, where they're 21st.
Miami should be able to do whatever it wants offensively, although the team lost top receiver Greg Camarillo to a season-ending knee injury. Undrafted rookie Davone Bess and veteran Ernest Wilford should have greater opportunities to get involved.
Miami could feast on St. Louis' careless offense. Miami is tied for third with a plus-8 turnover ratio. St. Louis is tied for 28th with a minus-7 ratio, thanks to 14 interceptions and eight fumbles.
Teams that travel three hours eastward have failed to win a game this year, but the 49ers have been a dangerous opponent in recent weeks, and the Bills can't consider themselves back on track after a single victory -- regardless of how decisive -- in five games.
The Bills are coming off a 54-31 romp over the Kansas City Chiefs. The 54 part looks spectacular. The 31 part should make Bills fans wince.
Cornerback Jabari Greer will miss his second straight game with a knee injury. Strong safety and captain Donte Whitner is doubtful. Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Schobel isn't returning from his foot injury either. Linebacker Keith Ellison is questionable, further depleting a position that has needed safety Bryan Scott to convert.
All eyes will be on Bills quarterback Trent Edwards to see if he can build off last week's sharp performance. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more.
Fans hope that's a sign Edwards has his game back together after four straight games in which he looked utterly lost.
How legit is Matt Cassel? We'll have a better idea when we see how he performs against the Steelers' unforgiving defense.
Cassel has thrown for at least 400 yards his past two games versus the Jets and Dolphins. Those aren't pushovers, but the Steelers rank No. 1 across the board in total defense, run defense and pass defense.
How Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels choose to attack will be fascinating to see, but don't expect fireworks. The Steelers allow only 2.9 yards per rushing attempt and 168.8 passing yards a game. Opponents are scoring under 15 points against them.
It's uncertain how the Patriots will use their backfield because there's no recent information to draw from. Cassel has been throwing like he's in the Arena Football League. The Patriots might be so inclined again, but who will take handoffs if they decide to run?
Sammy Morris has been playing, but has carried only 13 times the past two weeks. Rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis has only nine carries, although he did score a garbage-time touchdown against the Dolphins.
Another back to consider, LaMont Jordan, has been practicing this week and could play for the first time since Week 5.
The Patriots match up favorably on defense. The Steelers have been wobbly. They rank 26th in total offense, 24th in run offense and 18th in pass offense. The Steelers also are 28th in sacks per pass play.
Sure, it's a showdown between two division leaders. But the teams aren't remotely similar in how they're perceived heading into Week 13.
They have won six of their past seven games and five in a row, including back-to-back victories over the Patriots and the previously undefeated Titans. The Jets haven't lost a game in regulation time since Sept. 22.
The Broncos, meanwhile, are coming off a demoralizing loss at home to the deplorable Raiders.
Yes, the Raiders also beat the Jets, but that game was played in Oakland and went into sudden death. The Broncos were trounced by 21 points at home. The Broncos also lost to the Chiefs and despite a winning record have been outscored on the season.
Sunday likely will come down to Denver quarterback Jay Cutler against the New York secondary. The Jets' impenetrable run defense ranks first in the NFL and stonewalled Titans duo Chris Johnson and LenDale White.
But the Jets can be had through the air when teams don't throw near cornerback Darrelle Revis. Cutler ranks third in yardage, but only 16th in passer rating because he has thrown a dozen interceptions.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The Baltimore Ravens will try to avoid a trap game on the road Sunday against the struggling Cincinnati Bengals. Baltimore beat the Bengals 17-10 in the season opener for both teams, which jump-started the Ravens and sent Cincinnati into a season-long spiral.
Baltimore currently holds the No. 6 seed in the AFC and cannot afford to drop winnable games like this one down the stretch.
Sunday also marks the highly anticipated return of Ravens veteran tackle Willie Anderson, who spent 12 years of his career in Cincinnati before being cut earlier this season. Anderson has been one of the better and most recognizable players for the Bengals during all their struggles for more than a decade.
Former starting quarterback Derek Anderson is back in the saddle when the Cleveland Browns host the Indianapolis Colts. This comes after Brady Quinn shut it down for the season after breaking his right index finger.
Essentially, this serves as a five-game audition for Anderson, who could be traded in the offseason or could have a shot to remain the starter in Cleveland based on his performance.
But Cleveland is experiencing complete turmoil right now as everyone -- from the players to the head coach to front-office executives -- appears to be fighting for his job.
The Browns are one of the worst NFL teams at home this year at 1-5 and the Colts hope to take advantage. Another trend going against Cleveland is that the Manning brothers -- Peyton and Eli -- are 5-1 against the AFC North this year.
The New England Patriots have had the Pittsburgh Steelers' number over the years. The Steelers hope to benefit from the absence of Tom Brady when these two teams meet in one of the best matchups of the weekend.
But Matt Cassel has been no pushover. In his first opportunity to play in the NFL, he's filled in well for Brady and is improving every week. He has thrown for over 400 yards the last two games, and he'll try to make it three-straight against Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense.
The Steelers have to be concerned about stopping the red-hot Randy Moss, who has 151 yards and four touchdowns in his last two games. Reggie Wayne of the Indianapolis Colts is the only receiver to gain over 100 yards in a game against Pittsburgh this year.
Pittsburgh had 10 days off to prepare for this game, which could be key. The Steelers are getting healthy and currently own a one-game lead over the Ravens in the AFC North.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
This week, Rogers won't be facing crafty Indianapolis veteran center Jeff Saturday, who's out with a calf injury. It's rookie sub Jamey Richard instead. It rates as the key matchup of the day. Peyton Manning will be getting rid of the ball in a hurry, like he usually does, and the Colts will look to run to the edges with their stretch play. But Rogers can still disrupt things by collapsing the middle.
During a four-game winning streak, Manning has been precise, completing 65.4 percent of his passes for 1,069 yards with nine touchdowns, one interception, three sacks and a 100.9 passer rating.
The Browns have done a pretty good job protecting their quarterbacks, yielding only 12 sacks. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis may not get to Derek Anderson, but they can apply the kind of heat that forces him into making questionable throws. It looks like Bob Sanders (knee) will be missing from the secondary again.
Who heads into the final four games of the season in last place of the AFC South?
It sure feels as if the Jaguars have more quit in them than the Texans do. And Houston probably has more to prove and more motivation in the franchise's first "Monday Night Football" game.
Back on Sept. 28, the Jags beat the Texans in Jacksonville, 30-27, in overtime. David Garrard threw for 236 yards and a touchdown and ran for 41 yards and another score. The Texans didn't sack him in that game, and more pressure will help their cause. Mario Williams has eight sacks this season but none in the last three games. Williams usually hops around and will get work against both of the Jaguars' tackles, Khalif Barnes and Tony Pashos.
The first quarter could tell the story for Jacksonville. According to ESPN Research, the Jaguars were 9-1 last season in games in which they held an opponent to no first-quarter points. This season, they are 3-5 when allowing at least seven points in the first quarter.
The Packers' suddenly porous pass defense overshadowed a bit of a clunker from quarterback Aaron Rodgers last week in New Orleans; Rodgers threw three interceptions and was sacked twice in the second half of a 51-29 loss. And while it's difficult to pin the Packers' record on the transition to Rodgers, you can certainly make an argument that they'll have a tough time defeating Carolina without a strong game from him.
Rodgers' numbers have split remarkably between the Packers' wins and losses. Consider this dichotomy, brought to you courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
Carolina's pass defense is ranked No. 8 overall based on yardage allowed, but the figures above suggest passing yards haven't been as important as interceptions and sacks in determining wins and losses. The Panthers have nine interceptions this season, tied for No. 19 in the NFL, and are tied for No. 15 with 28 sacks.
All of which suggests the Packers stand a better chance Sunday if Rodgers limits his interceptions and sacks. That's the kind of deep analysis you've grown to expect from the Black and Blue blog.
Continuing with our theme of quarterbacks, the Bears have come to expect mistake-free play from quarterback Kyle Orton -- the type of performance that can make the difference in a road game with huge playoff implications. Orton, in fact, has thrown 185 consecutive passes without an interception, dating back to Sept. 28.
Orton has thrown four interceptions this season, but they have come during just two games. That means he's had eight starts this season without an interception, a mark that ranks second in the NFL behind Washington's Jason Campbell.
There will be plenty of variables in play Sunday night, including whether the Bears' defense can do a better job after giving up 41 points to the Vikings in the teams' first meeting. We're also on alert for a (game-breaking) Devin Hester sighting.
But Orton's cool efficiency is what gives the Bears their best chance to win this game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
In Charlotte, a town that's capable of overreacting, there's a sense of doom among fans after the Carolina Panthers lost a single game.
The Panthers went down to Atlanta, got thumped and fell to 8-3. That still doesn't sound like a bad spot to be in, but there might be some justification for all that gloom. Even in the two games before that, victories against Detroit and Oakland, the Panthers didn't look particularly impressive. Quarterback Jake Delhomme has struggled of late and a defense that seemed dominant early in the season has been ordinary recently.
A lot of folks are worried about Tampa Bay or Atlanta taking the NFC South title because Carolina has the toughest remaining schedule. This week's trip to Green Bay may sound grim because visits to Lambeau Field always are tough.
But maybe there's some good news among all the clouds for Carolina fans. The Packers might be struggling even more than the Panthers.
Consider these numbers: In Week 12, the Packers and Panthers combined to allow 96 points, 808 total yards, 42 first downs and 13 touchdowns.
The bright side? If you've got to go into Lambeau Field, this might be the right time to do it.
In NFC South circles, the quarterback talk has been all about New Orleans' Drew Brees and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. Understandable since Brees is on pace to set the single-season record for passing yards and Ryan is having the best season of any rookie since Dan Marino.
But, very quietly, Jeff Garcia has been one of the NFL's best quarterbacks for the last six weeks. After being benched early in the season, Garcia and coach Jon Gruden seem to have patched up their differences and Garcia's again playing like the Pro Bowl quarterback he was a year ago.
Garcia is 5-1 in his last six starts and ranks third in the league in passer rating in that span. At 38, he's also starting to show signs of the mobility that helped him prosper earlier in his career.
With Brees coming to town and Tampa Bay's running back situation a bit shaky with Earnest Graham lost for the year, the Bucs are going to need Garcia to be even better than he's been in the last six games.
Atlanta Falcons (7-4) at San Diego Chargers (4-7), 4:05 p.m. ET
There's been a lot of talk about how this game is a showdown between Michael Turner and LaDainian Tomlinson. That's understandable because Turner spent four seasons as Tomlinson's backup before signing with the Falcons this year. Turner has better numbers than Tomlinson, and he also is a guy with plenty of pride and there probably is a part of him that would like to show the Chargers how good he is.
But the fact is, the Chargers and the rest of the league already know Turner is a top-notch back. Turner and Tomlinson were -- and still are -- friends, so this isn't truly a grudge match. Turner and the Falcons are beyond that.
They're a team in the thick of a playoff race and they need a victory far more than Turner needs to prove anything. But let's just say Turner goes out there and hangs 150 yards on a struggling San Diego defense.
There might be a little sense of vindication involved.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The 49ers can make it 0-for-15 among teams traveling west to east across a 3-hour time difference this season. Seattle (0-4), Oakland (0-3), San Diego (0-3), Arizona (0-3) and San Francisco (0-1) have combined for an 0-14 record in games starting at 10 a.m. PT.
The Cardinals' defeat to the Eagles on Thursday night didn't qualify because Arizona is on Mountain time and does not adjust for daylight savings.
The early start isn't the 49ers' only enemy at Ralph Wilson Stadium. San Francisco's defense has allowed nine passing touchdowns over its last four games despite holding the Rams to one during a 35-16 victory in Week 11. The Bills aren't a great passing team, but they are coming of a 54-point showing at Kansas City.
Bulger has taken too many hits to trust his protection and run the offense with confidence. Jackson figures to be rusty if he returns, and his durability is in question. Pace is still a good player when healthy, but an offensive tackle can do only so much.
And it's not as though the Rams' defense has shown signs of picking up the slack. This game qualifies as a must-win for the Dolphins as they make a playoff push. Their ground game should punish the Rams' poor-tackling defense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Has the San Diego Chargers' defense improved in the last three weeks under new coordinator Ron Rivera?
Yes, for sure. The unit is giving up fewer points than it did under former defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who was fired after eight games. Rivera's defense is much more aggressive, and it seems tighter than it was before the switch.
But there is one major, scary similarity between the San Diego defense prior to and after the coaching change. The Chargers cannot stop offenses when it counts.
In the three games under Rivera as defensive coordinator, the opponent cruised down the field in the final minute and scored. San Diego lost in those instances to Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. The only reason the Chargers survived against Kansas City in Rivera's first game was that the Chiefs missed a two-point conversion.
The Chargers are going to have to learn to make stops when they need to. I could easily see the situation arising again against the Falcons. Atlanta has a very strong offense and it can move the ball quickly.
If the Chargers are going to stay in the AFC West race, they will have to come up with big stops for the first time in Rivera's tenure. Things are better in San Diego on defense, but it is not to the point where it needs to be. If the Chargers don't fix that problem this week, the Falcons will beat them and the Chargers' season will be in dire straits at 4-8.
Will Brett Favre have another career moment against the Denver Broncos?
The Broncos thought they'd seen the last of Favre, who burned them last year in his final season with Green Bay. Now, Denver has to deal with him again as it tries to hold onto its lead in the AFC West with a 6-5 record.
Last October, on "Monday Night Football" in Denver, Favre stunned Denver with an 82-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings on the first play of overtime to beat the Broncos, 19-13. Favre said after the game that the Packers noticed something they could take advantage of and they decided to try it on the first play of overtime. Jennings cruised by Denver cornerback Dre' Bly and Favre had virtually no pressure on him. Favre easily made the play, and it was one of Favre's signature plays of 2007.
The stinging loss was with Denver all season. The one solace Denver had was that it was likely the last time it would ever have to deal with Favre. Wishful thinking.
Now Denver has to deal with Favre again, and he's playing as well as he has all season. Moreover, the Jets are arguably the hottest team in the NFL right now. Not a perfect scenario for Denver to deal with on the heels of an embarrassing loss at home to Oakland.
After they stunned the Broncos in Denver on Sunday, several Raiders players said in the winning locker room that they think they are still in the AFC West race. Was this postgame giddiness warranted?
Well, in the AFC West anything is possible. The 3-8 Raiders trail division leading Denver (6-5) by three games with five games remaining. San Diego, 4-7, is also in the way. Is it possible?
Sure, but until the Raiders, who have not won back-to-back games in three years, show they can string together a few victories in a row, it is not warranted. If the Raiders beat Kansas City, which has lost 19 of its past 20 games and surrendered a franchise-high 54 points against Buffalo on Sunday, and Denver loses to the Jets and then the Raiders beat the Chargers in San Diego next Thursday, then the Raiders can start believing. They'd be 5-7 and Denver would be 6-6 going into its game against Kansas City.
The Raiders would still be a long shot if these three things happen. But at least they'd be in the division conversation. Until that happens, they are not.
Huge game for the Redskins after watching the Cowboys improve to 8-4 Thursday. The Giants are the best team in football, though, and coach Tom Coughlin doesn't allow for letdowns. The Giants got that loss out of the way against Cleveland and haven't looked back.
The Redskins are a completely different team than the one that opened the season in the Meadowlands. The Giants feasted on Jim Zorn's West Coast offense and did a nice job of taking running back Clinton Portis out of the game. Jason Campbell has been up and down since that game, but he's certainly capable of burning you if given enough time in the pocket.
Expect Zorn to commit to the running game from the start. Everything in this offense feeds off Portis' success on the ground. The Giants are the sixth-best rushing defense in the league heading into Sunday. They'll have to survive what should be a huge emotional wave from the Redskins early. The late Sean Taylor will be inducted into the Ring of Fame before the game. Zorn wants his players to absorb the special moment and then re-focus on playing.
Both teams have some key injuries. For the Giants, Plaxico Burress and Brandon Jacobs are still banged up. And you should keep an eye on Fred Robbins' shoulder injury. He's a big part of that elite defensive line. The Redskins might have to go without middle linebacker London Fletcher and defensive end Andre Carter, who both have foot injuries. Linebacker Marcus Washington has already been ruled out.
Carter actually went through some drills in Thursday's practice, but Fletcher didn't do anything. It would be a big surprise, though, if Fletcher sits out. He's one of the most durable players in the league and he's played through pain before. Plus, he's the emotional leader for this defense.
I think this is the type of game that could hinge on a big play on special teams. Rock Cartwright does a really nice job in all phases of special teams for the Redskins. But Domenik Hixon is the Giants player who can absolutely take over a game.