NFL Nation: audibles 15

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

New York Giants (11-2) at Dallas Cowboys (8-5), 8:15 p.m. ET

  

Could someone remind me what the Giants' controversy was all about? With the drama at Valley Ranch, it's hard to remember. When I talked to Giants defensive end Justin Tuck about the Cowboys' story, he had a long laugh. Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens has now come out and said he's not jealous of the Tony Romo-Jason Witten relationship, as was reported by ESPN's Ed Werder. But since we actually have a game occurring Sunday, let's talk about it a little bit.

The Cowboys like some of their matchups against the Giants' receivers. You'll see a lot more man-to-man coverage now that Plaxico Burress isn't playing. Terence Newman will probably cover Domenik Hixon. And look for rookie Orlando Scandrick to end up on Steve Smith quite a bit.

Now we know that running back Brandon Jacobs has been ruled out of Sunday's game and he'll be replaced by Derrick Ward. The Cowboys will still crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the run, but Jacobs is a big loss. It's looking like Marion Barber will try to play now that he's been called out by owner Jerry Jones.

Back to the current controversy at Valley Ranch, coach Wade Phillips ordered his players not to talk about the "secret meeting" that took place between three receivers andJason Garrett on Monday. He wants them focused on Sunday's game, which seems like a good idea.

The Giants were embarrassed by their performance against the Eagles. They were beaten up at the line of scrimmage. The defensive line isn't producing sacks right now, but defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has decided to go back to some of the blitz packages that were working earlier in the season.

Cleveland Browns (4-9) at Philadelphia Eagles (7-5-1), 8:30 p.m. ET Monday

  

It didn't seem possible after the Ravens game three weeks ago, but now the Eagles are back in the playoff race. Quarterback Donovan McNabb is in a much better rhythm, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that Andy Reid is showing some commitment to the running game. This team will go as far as Brian Westbrook can take it. When he's healthy, he's a top-five player in this league. He's still banged up, but he'll be able to play against the Browns.

For whatever reason, the Eagles seem to play their best football late in the season. And the defense isn't getting enough credit for the way it played against the Giants. The defensive line won the battle up front and stopped the best running game in football.

The Eagles aren't getting a ton of sacks, but they're throwing off the rhythm of opposing quarterbacks. They're about to encounter a quarterback, Ken Dorsey, who's pretty limited. The Eagles will play a lot of press coverage in order to give their defensive ends and linebackers more time to get to Dorsey. The Browns are out of the playoff race and Romeo Crennel will probably get fired at the end of the season. But their biggest win of the season came on "Monday Night Football" against the Giants. The Eagles have struggled against inferior teams (see the Bengals), so it's important to take control of the game immediately.

Washington Redskins (7-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-11), 1 p.m. ET

  

Most of the attention has been on the Clinton Portis-Jim Zorn dispute this week, but the Redskins have to win a football game. There's been a lot of frustration because of the losing and all the injuries. This football team built its reputation around its running game in the first half of the season. After the loss to the Steelers dropped them to 6-3, the Redskins started seeing everyone stack the line of scrimmage with eight or nine players.

Receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El can't get any separation right now, and quarterback Jason Campbell's confidence is not high. This was a team that has lost its identity. And the frustrating thing for Redskins fans is that their team had a relatively easy schedule in the second half.

Could Washington run the table and sneak into the playoffs? Stranger things have happened. But Todd Collins led that charge last season. This offense doesn't feel like it's about to take off, although the Bengals would be a good place to start.

To his credit, linebacker London Fletcher has continued to play unbelievably well despite the fact that he's injured. Zorn needs
to head off this controversy before he loses all the gains he made early in the season. Nothing helps a coach's credibility as much as winning. And the Redskins have to start Sunday.

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Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Tennessee Titans (12-1) at Houston Texans (6-7), 1 p.m. ET

The Titans beat the Texans at LP Field in Week 3, 31-12. Andre Johnson had a bad day with two key drops and he failed to take an aggressive route to a catchable touchdown pass. If he makes those plays, the Texans would have been in that game.

A matchup to concentrate on will be Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan against Johnson. In a preseason column I wrote on Finnegan's breakout potential, Johnson said the corner is "a little irritating."

Houston is a much different, more confident team now, with an offense in rhythm and a defense that has decided to play more aggressively even if it means taking some additional risks.

Turnovers have been an issue all season for the Texans. They won last week in Green Bay despite four giveaways. I do not expect them to beat the Titans if they hand the ball over. But if they are able to minimize mistakes, the Texans could threaten the team atop their division.

If the Titans win and Pittsburgh loses in Baltimore, Tennessee will sew up the AFC's No. 1 seed and be in position to potentially host two playoff games.

Tennessee's dominance of Houston ranks among the tightest strangleholds in the league.

Teams With Best Win Percentage Against One Team
TeamsW-LWin pct.Next meeting
Colts vs. Falcons13-1.929

2011

Colts vs.Texans13-1.9292009
Titans vs. Texans11-2.846Dec. 14, 2008
Steelers vs. Jets15-3.8332009
49ers vs. Bucs15-3.8332009
Browns vs. Falcons10-2.8332009
Note: Minimum of 10 games.

Detroit Lions (0-13) at Indianapolis Colts (9-4), 1 p.m. ET

I've been asked if this could be a trap game for the Colts. I'm not a trap-game guy, but even if this was one I believe it would mean Indianapolis would win 27-10 instead of 40-6.

I expect Peyton Manning and the offense to be efficient and eliminate any hope the Lions have of a major upset by early in the second quarter. Detroit has actually had the lead in eight of its games. If it gets one here it will be small and short-lived.

Priority one defensively is slowing receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a touchdown in seven of his last nine games.

The Colts have won six games in a row and now rank with the 49ers of 1989-95 as the only teams to win at least six in a row in five consecutive seasons. That's a lot of numbers, I know, but take a second to wrap your head around another ridiculous example of the Colts' sustained success.

Green Bay Packers (5-8) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9), 1 p.m. ET

Jacksonville is 1-5 this season at home, but sold enough tickets
to avoid a blackout. However they are getting that done, it's impressive.

Green Bay doesn't rush the passer particularly well, which could be good news for David Garrard or it could change against the Jaguars. Garrard has been sacked three or more times in four consecutive games. Watch Green Bay defensive end Aaron Kampman against Jaguars right tackle Tony Pashos.

Jacksonville will get a look at some players who haven't ranked at the top of the depth chart, as receiver Matt Jones (suspended), running back Fred Taylor (injured reserve) and fullback Greg Jones (IR) are now gone from a team that was already having all sorts of production and chemistry problems.

The Jaguars have lost six of their last seven, including four in a row, their longest single-season losing streak since they lost the first four games of the 2003 season. They haven't lost five in a row since 2001.

Even with all that's working against it, Jacksonville has cause for hope that it can win a close one: Of the Packers' eight losses this season, half are by three points or fewer.

Green Bay is playing poorly, too, having lost three in a row and five of the last six.

Click here to access the NFL Pick Center, a service for ESPN Insiders where fans can view two different simulation models for every NFL game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-4) at Atlanta Falcons (8-5), 1 p.m. ET

  

Tampa Bay coordinator Monte Kiffin told his defense that it didn't suddenly become bad in Monday night's loss to Carolina. But it sure looked that way.

The Bucs, who have been known for their defense since the Tony Dungy days, got run over by Carolina. Poor tackling played a role, but that can be fixed. What might not be able to be fixed is that the Panthers showed you can get into a slugfest with the Bucs and win.

Tampa Bay's defensive line, particularly the interior, was getting blown off the ball by Carolina. You can bet that Atlanta coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey spotted all that on film and are ready to turn Michael Turner loose on the Tampa Bay defense.

Kiffin is reportedly leaving to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee and a lot of Tampa Bay's defensive players are getting older (Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Kevin Carter and Chris Hovan). With quarterback Jeff Garcia banged up, the Bucs need one more big game from this defense.

If that doesn't happen, the Bucs' playoff hopes could be in real trouble. And Atlanta's playoff hopes could be growing.

Denver Broncos (8-5) at Carolina Panthers (10-3), 4:15 p.m. ET

  

There was a playoff atmosphere in Charlotte for Monday night's huge victory against Tampa Bay, which brought on a lot of talk about the Panthers having a shot at the No. 1 seed.

That's all true and Carolina's got a big game coming up next week in New York against the Giants. But the Panthers haven't clinched anything yet and they have to take care of business in their final home game (they have a chance to go 8-0 in Bank of America Stadium).

That's why this matchup is scary. Denver's been inconsistent all year. But the Broncos have the ability to throw the ball all over the field and can score points in bunches. Carolina's pass defense hasn't been exactly stellar the last month.

Veteran cornerback Ken Lucas was burned several times Monday night and there's a growing concern he might be slowing down. Rookie free safety Charles Godfrey has shown he still is capable of rookie mistakes.

The Panthers are in great shape pretty much everywhere else. They've got to get the secondary fixed and win this game. Then, it will be time to truly start the talk about the No. 1 seed.

Click here to access the NFL Pick Center, a service for ESPN Insiders where fans can view two different simulation models for every NFL game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Detroit Lions (0-13) at Indianapolis Colts (9-4), 1 p.m. ET

The Lions have lost 20 of their past 21 games dating back to last season. Indianapolis is one of the NFL's hottest teams after winning six consecutive games. Not a good combination, huh?

We're moving into some historic airspace with these Lions. A defeat in Indianapolis would make Detroit only the third team to lose its first 14 games in a season since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. (In case you're wondering, no one has started a season 0-15.)

Do the Lions have any chance of escaping infamy this Sunday? It wouldn't appear so, but give Detroit credit for refusing to submit. Rather than take a flyer on young quarterback Drew Stanton, the Lions have dusted off longtime backup Dan Orlovsky -- who is still recovering from a fractured hand -- because he might give them a marginally better chance to compete.

But unless Orlovsky can play safety and intercept a few Peyton Manning passes, his return is not likely to do the trick.

Green Bay Packers (5-8) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9), 1 p.m. ET


The Packers have lost eight of 11 games after a 2-0 start, but it's not as though they're getting blown out week after week. Half of their losses, in fact, are by three points or less.

If nothing else, that small disparity should give the Packers hope for finishing out their season strong -- that, and a schedule that includes a road game this weekend against a team that has lost five of six at home. The Jaguars' only home victory came Sept. 28 against Houston.

More important, the Packers' beleaguered defense will hardly have to contend with a top-flight offense. Jaguars tailback Fred Taylor went on injured reserve last week, and quarterback David Garrard has been out of sorts all season. Even considering their recent lot, the Packers should feel confident as they walk into Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.

Minnesota Vikings (8-5) at Arizona Cardinals (8-5), 4:05 p.m. ET

The Vikings spent about $45 million in guarantees to improve their pass defense last winter for games just like these. Defensive end Jared Allen ($31 million) and safety Madieu Williams ($13 million) have brought measurable improvement, but will it be enough to stop MVP candidate Kurt Warner?

Warner has brutalized the Vikings in three career starts against them, completing 67 of 86 passes for 881 yards and five touchdowns with one interception for a 123.9 passer rating. His quick release figures to negate much of Minnesota's improved pass rush, and the receiving duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin guarantees there will be at least one mismatch on the field at all times.

With quarterback Gus Frerotte (back) yielding to Tarvaris Jackson, the Vikings have no choice but to slow down the game and hope their running attack can eat up huge chunks of clock. They'll need to do it just to maintain their one-game lead over hard-charging Chicago in the NFC North.

Click here to access the NFL Pick Center, a service for ESPN Insiders where fans can view two different simulation models for every NFL game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Minnesota Vikings (8-5) at Arizona Cardinals (8-5), 4:05 p.m. ET

Kurt Warner has five touchdown passes, one interception and a 3-0 record in three career starts against the Vikings.

For all the talk about Arizona needing to establish a ground game, Warner continues to carry the offense. Arizona almost certainly isn't going to run the ball effectively against the Vikings' usually stout run defense.

MVP honors might be his to lose after the Saints' Drew Brees failed to put up impressive numbers while fading from the playoff picture during a Thursday night defeat. Warner needs 313 yards passing to move past Brees for the NFL lead after 13 games.

And with a division title already in hand, Warner could be on his way -- unless the Vikings' Adrian Peterson upstages him, always a possibility.

Seattle Seahawks (2-11) at St. Louis Rams (2-11), 1 p.m. ET

The loser moves up in the 2009 draft order, no consolation for a couple of coaches with uncertain futures.

While Seattle's Mike Holmgren plans to coach again in 2010, the Rams' Jim Haslett needs a late push to make his case for coming back next season. The Seahawks haven't won since Oct. 26. The Rams haven't won since Oct. 19. Together, the teams have lost 13 games in a row.

The Seahawks have looked better recently, particularly with a healthy Seneca Wallace leading the offense in Week 14. Neither team is good enough to trust as a favorite, however.

San Francisco 49ers (5-8) at Miami Dolphins (8-5), 1 p.m. ET

The 49ers' chances took a hit when Frank Gore suffered a sprained ankle against the 49ers. His expected absence could put more pressure on Shaun Hill, not necessarily a bad thing as the 49ers continue to evaluate their quarterback situation.

If Hill leads the 49ers to victory without support from Gore, ownership might have a hard time replacing interim coach Mike Singletary and possibly Hill. But after winning their last two games despite suffering nine fumbles, losing only two, it's fair to wonder if this is when the breaks even out.

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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Buffalo Bills (6-7) vs. New York Jets (8-5), 1 p.m. ET

For the Week 12 edition of AFC East Audibles, I spoke with ESPN analyst Floyd Reese to preview a marquee matchup between the surging Jets and undefeated Tennessee Titans. Reese correctly predicted the Jets would handle them.

"If the Jets could ever play the way they played against the Titans, they could run the table," Reese said Friday afternoon. "The defense stopped the run. They put pressure on the quarterback. They created turnovers. Brett Favre managed the game. And they ran the ball very well.

"The Jets are just so fickle right now."

After winning in Nashville, rather than run away with the division as many predicted, the Jets have lost two straight and slipped into a three-way tie for first place. They control their destiny, but so do the Dolphins. The Patriots won't go away, either.

To ratchet the pressure, their 8-5 records don't portend well for wild-card berths. The AFC East champ probably will be the only team that makes the playoffs.

Thankfully for Jets fans, the listing Bills are next.

The Bills haven't generated a touchdown in 22 offensive possessions. Their defense or special teams hasn't scored either, and their kicker has gotten into a habit of clanking an upright.

"Sometimes you can accidentally score," Reese said with a laugh.

The Bills' best hope is by throwing on the Jets, who rank 31st against the pass. But usual backup quarterback J.P. Losman will start in place of the injured Trent Edwards. Losman has been exasperatingly bad.

If the Jets can't beat the Bills, then some folks in Florham Park, N.J., should start updating their resumes.

San Francisco 49ers (5-8) vs. Miami Dolphins (8-5), 1 p.m. ET

For all their problems this year, the 49ers are working on a decent season. They've won three of their past four games, including two straight against AFC East opponents, holding the Bills and Jets to a combined 17 points.

Miami is wary that San Francisco isn't the laughingstock it was in October.

The Dolphins stumbled earlier in the year against the Houston Texans, then a winless team they should've beaten. The Dolphins also struggled at home to beat the cross-country traveling Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders. There are lessons to be applied with the 49ers coming to Dolphin Stadium.

"We've been down this road a little bit before, and I hope my players learned from this," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "We sat there and we talked about Houston, and we said Houston's not a zero-win team at the time .... Then we played Oakland and we said 'This team is better than [its record].'

"In this situation, you're playing against a team that they can really identify, 'Hey, this is a pretty good football team.' This team very easily could be in the same spot right now that we're in."

New England Patriots (8-5) vs. Oakland Raiders (3-10) 4:15 p.m. ET

The Patriots are tattered, but if they can hold their roster together a few more weeks they might be able to pull off a postseason berth. Whereas the Jets and Dolphins control their destinies, the defending AFC champs must hope for help.

Problem is, the Patriots have won consecutive games only twice all year and not since October. They haven't won three in a row yet and, including last week, need to finish with four straight victories to give themselves the best opportunity to advance.

"The only thing we can do anything about is the Oakland game," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "So we are just going to put all of our energy and effort into this game and try to be as competitive as we can on Sunday against the Raiders.

"We will worry about next week next week, and whatever is in the past is in the past. That's already in the books. So whatever it is, it is. We just have to try to control what we can do this week, and that's all we are thinking about."

That sounds simple, but it isn't. The Patriots will have to deal with the loss of another defensive leader. Tedy Bruschi is out with a knee injury, forcing them to use Junior Seau more than they'd like. Quarterback Matt Cassel is coping with the death of his father this week.

Click here to access the NFL Pick Center, a service for ESPN Insiders where fans can view two different simulation models for every NFL game.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Washington Redskins (7-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-11-1), 1 p.m. ET

  

The Bengals look to show some fight for the first time in three weeks when they host the also-struggling Washington Redskins.

Cincinnati would cement its worst season in franchise history if it fails to win one of these final three games. Lately, the Bengals have displayed no reason to think they will turn it around after being outscored 69-6 the past two weeks. The team also is last in total offense (233.9 yards per game) and last in points per game (11.8).

Washington has lost four of its last five games but still will be the favorites in this matchup. The good news for the Bengals is they have an easier schedule moving forward against the Cleveland Browns (4-9) and Kansas City Chiefs (2-11) the final two weeks of the season.

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) at Baltimore Ravens (9-4), 4:15 p.m. ET

  

The biggest game of the year in the AFC North will commence Sunday when the Steelers travel to play the Ravens.

There are heavy playoff implications for both teams. Pittsburgh can clinch the division and the No. 2 seed in the conference with a win, while Baltimore can forge a tie for the division lead and possibly clinch a postseason berth with help from other teams.

This is a rematch of September's slugfest that Pittsburgh won 23-20 in overtime. But there are two strong trends going against Pittsburgh in this particular game. First, these two rivals sparingly sweep one another during the course of a season. The Steelers won the first meeting in September. Second, Pittsburgh is winless in its last five attempts at M&T Bank Stadium.

The loser of this game could find themselves in trouble. The Ravens and Steelers have brutal road games next week against the Dallas Cowboys (8-5) and Tennessee Titans (12-1), respectively, that could lead to a two-game losing streak during the stretch run.

Cleveland Browns (4-9) at Philadelphia Eagles (7-5-1), 8:30 p.m. ET Monday

  

The Browns mercifully play their fifth and final prime-time game of the 2008 season on "Monday Night Football" when they travel to play the Philadelphia Eagles. It will be the Browns' (4-9) third Monday game of the season.

Cleveland was expected to be a team on the rise when the NFL and its television partners decided to give the Browns five prime-time games after a 10-6 run in 2007. But it's been mostly a train-wreck season for the Browns where everything has gone wrong and they've lost 9 of 13 games.

Former third-string quarterback Ken Dorsey will get his second start of the season. He threw for 150 yards and an interception in last week's 28-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Don't expect a much better performance against the blitz-happy Eagles, who desperately need this win to stay alive in the playoff race. Philadelphia is still battling for a wild-card spot in the NFC with three games to play.

Click here to access the NFL Pick Center, a service for ESPN Insiders where fans can view two different simulation models for every NFL game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

San Diego Chargers (5-8) at Kansas City Chiefs (2-11), 1 p.m. ET

  

If the Chargers believe they are going to get an easy victory in Kansas City, they should think again.

The Chiefs may be 2-11, but they are not just playing out their schedule. Working the Chiefs' locker room after their 24-17 loss at Denver last weekend, it was very clear the Chiefs still have a lot of fight remaining in them.

They aren't giving up. The Chiefs want to finish strong and make this brutal season worth something.

Herman Edwards could be coaching for his job. Quarterback Tyler Thigpen is definitely playing for his position as a starter. All of the Chiefs' youngsters are playing for the future.

Kansas City has been very competitive in the past seven weeks, yet it has won just one game during that stretch, blowing late leads in four games.

"We have to start winning," Chiefs' tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "We have to stop blowing games. We have to finish strong."

The Chargers should know Kansas City means business. The Chiefs blew a halftime lead in San Diego last month and they nearly beat the Chargers in the final minute. The Chargers need to beat Kansas City to keep their faint playoff hopes alive.

Denver Broncos (8-5) at Carolina Panthers (10-3), 4:15 p.m. ET

  

After the Broncos selected offensive tackle Ryan Clady at No. 12 in last April's draft, the Panthers snatched up running back Jonathan Stewart with the next pick.

While Denver could surely use Stewart these days after losing six tailbacks to injury this season, the team wouldn't give up Clady. He has been terrific, allowing just half a sack all season.

In 13 starts, Clady has been as good as any tackle in the NFL.

He will get a big test Sunday in the form of Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, who has 12.5 sacks this season. However, Clady has played against other NFL sack-masters and he's fared beautifully. Clady shut down both NFL sack leader Joey Porter, who has 16.5 sacks, and Atlanta's John Abraham, who has 12.5 sacks.

While Denver could use a runner these days, they absolutely need Clady, who is keeping standout quarterback Jay Cutler upright heading into this game. If the Broncos win, they can clinch the AFC West title.

New England Patriots (8-5) at Oakland Raiders (3-10), 4:15 p.m. ET

  

We just have a feeling about Randy Moss.

It's just a feeling. But we expect Moss to torch the Raiders.

Moss is a prideful player and he turns it on when it counts. It will count for him Sunday in his first return to Oakland since the Raiders traded him in 2007 to the Patriots.

Moss had two mostly disappointing seasons in Oakland after the Raiders acquired him in a pricey trade with Minnesota in 2005. The Raiders cut their losses and dispatched Moss, who was being disruptive in his final days in Oakland.

In New England, Moss was reborn. He was rejuvenated by being on a quality team, setting a record for receiving touchdowns last season. Moss was a disappointment in Oakland but we get the feeling he'll show Raiders fans what he can do on Sunday.

Click here to access the NFL Pick Center, a service for ESPN Insiders where fans can view two different simulation models for every NFL game.

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