NFL Nation: audibles 17

Posted by's Paul Kuharsky

Tennessee Titans (13-2) at Indianapolis Colts (11-4), 1 p.m. ET

For much of the year there was speculation that this game would be a mirror image of last season's finale. In 2007, the Titans needed to win to get in and the game meant nothing to the Colts, who didn't play their key people long, if at all.

Indy avoided that role reversal by clinching the top wild-card berth on Dec. 18.

So now the game means nothing for either team.

The Colts are a week away from a playoff opener and will rest up. The Titans have a week off coming up and would like to maintain some rhythm, but aren't going to risk much. Tennessee probably wants to win more, because it would mean the first 14-win season in franchise history.

But look deep on the depth charts to find the guys who will determine the outcome. We're talking Jim Sorgi, Pierre Garcon and Najeh Davenport of the Colts against Vince Young, Chris Henry and Paul Williams.

Kudos to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his efforts to ensure the schedule offers better games at the end of the season and fewer meaningless contests involving playoff teams. This one had potential for a while, but unfortunately qualifies as a miss.

The biggest win for either side? No one gets hurt.

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) at Baltimore Ravens (10-5), 4:15 ET

The Jaguars have played better the past two weeks, which has many feeling they could be poised to be a spoiler for the Ravens -- who need a win to get the final AFC playoff berth.

Here's why Baltimore can be confident: While the Ravens have lost all five games they've played against playoff teams, they're undefeated against teams who aren't playing in January. And the Jaguars were eliminated weeks ago.

Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew has a knee injury but practiced Friday and is probable. He's topped 100 yards only twice this season, and the Ravens haven't allowed a back to go over 100 in 34 consecutive games. He's more likely to hurt the Ravens as a receiver - he's got 61 receptions for 555 yards.

With Matt Jones suspended, the Jaguars have turned to Dennis Northcutt as a target and in two games with the bigger role, he has 13 catches for 228 yards with two touchdowns.

Chicago Bears (9-6) at Houston Texans (7-8), 1 p.m. ET

It was a big development for this game Friday when the Bears placed safety Mike Brown on injured reserve. Replacement Craig Steltz won't be as helpful for Chicago as it tries to slow down the Matt Schaub-to-Andre Johnson connection.

Johnson's numbers at Reliant Stadium are spectacular: a 134.4 yard average with five games over 100 yards. But don't sleep on Kevin Walter - if the receiver who plays opposite Johnson catches a touchdown pass, he'll break Johnson's franchise record of eight.

The Texans have heard a lot about how they've been good at winning games that don't mean anything. They could score some respect, claim progress and get a big gift basket from the Vikings if they step it up here and do well as a spoiler against the Bears.

Steve Slaton went against fellow rookie running back Chris Johnson twice in matchups with the Titans. Now he's in another matchup against a successful rookie back in the Bears' Matt Forte, who's the lone rookie in the league to lead his team in rushing (1,188 yards), receptions (60) and touchdowns (12).

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's Bill Williamson

Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (3-11-1), 1 p.m. ET

It's the end of an era for the Chiefs. Considering they are 2-13, it may be best the era is ending.

It was announced earlier this month that the 20-year relationship between general manager Carl Peterson and the Chiefs will end at the conclusion of the season.

The Chiefs will hire a new general manger, probably in the coming weeks. The new general manager will have a major say in whether current Chiefs coach Herm Edwards stays or not. Usually, new general managers bring in new coaches, so Edwards could very well be preparing for his final game in Kansas City.

This could be the final game for some key Chiefs players as well. Controversial running back Larry Johnson probably is on his way out. Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez wanted to be traded to a contender in October. He said earlier this month he isn't sure if he wants to return to the Chiefs. If Gonzalez doesn't like the direction the team is going, he could leave as well.

On the surface, the Chiefs are just playing out the string, but this game could long be remembered as the final game for several key members of the organization.

Oakland Raiders (4-11) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6), 1 p.m. ET

It's very fitting the Raiders are ending the worst six-season stretch in the history of the NFL in Tampa Bay.

In the 2003 Super Bowl, Tampa Bay and coach Jon Gruden -- in his first season in Tampa after coming from Oakland -- destroyed the Raiders.

It has only gotten worse over time. Since that game, the Raiders are an NFL-worst 23-72. Oakland became the first team in NFL history to have six straight seasons of at least 11 losses.

Denver Broncos (8-7) vs. San Diego Chargers (7-8), 8:15 p.m. ET

The pressure is on the Denver Broncos.

It is the Broncos who are a loss away from humiliation and a miserable offseason. For the past several weeks, it was the San Diego Chargers who appeared to be headed for a long, turmoil-filled postseason.

That's no longer the case.

After they won three straight games and Denver lost two straight games, the Chargers control their path. If the Chargers beat the visiting Broncos on Sunday night, they will win the AFC West championship.

That was unlikely three weeks ago when Denver had a three-game lead. Chargers coach Norv Turner's job security dominated talk in San Diego and the team was considered one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL this decade.

Now, it's Denver on the hot seat. The Broncos and coach Mike Shanahan are feeling the heat. If Denver, a heavy underdog, loses, it will become the second team in NFL history to blow a three-game lead.

If Denver loses, no one will remember that the Broncos weren't expected to win this division anyway. No one will remember the slew of rookies who made strides this season. No one will remember the injuries. All they will remember is the Denver collapse.

The Chargers and their slow start will be off the hook. The Chargers will be in the playoffs and Denver will make the kind of history no team ever wants to make.

Yes, all the pressure is on Denver.

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's James Walker

Cleveland Browns (4-11) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4), 1 p.m.

In Week 16 against Tennessee, Pittsburgh lost for the first time in six weeks, but the Steelers already had clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC. With their eyes on the second season, the Steelers enter this game hoping to avoid injuries to key players before the playoffs.

Cleveland, meanwhile, hopes to defeat its biggest rival for the first time in 11 meetings. A win also would end a five-game losing streak for the Browns in which they have failed to score an offensive touchdown. Trying to break this streak will be new Browns quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who is Cleveland's fourth starting quarterback this year.

At the beginning of the season, many expected this to be a big game with playoff implications, but Cleveland imploded in yet another double-digit losing season. Expect changes to be made throughout the organization after this game.

Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-11-1), 1 p.m.

The suddenly hot Cincinnati Bengals will play host to the struggling Kansas City Chiefs in a battle of cellar dwellers in their respective divisions.

Cincinnati is coming off impressive wins over the Washington Redskins and Cleveland for its first two-game winning streak of the season. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis deserves credit for having his team playing hard down the stretch.

Although Lewis couldn't care less, the flip side is the Bengals are falling down the NFL draft board with their recent winning streak. Cincinnati held the No. 2 overall pick two weeks ago but now holds the No. 4 pick. With another victory Sunday, the Bengals have the potential to drop as low as seventh, depending on the outcome of other games.

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) at Baltimore Ravens (10-5), 4:15 p.m.

Baltimore is coming off its biggest win of the season, on the road against the Dallas Cowboys, and needs a win Sunday to secure the final wild-card slot in the AFC. If the Ravens lose, a spot for an AFC East team could open.

If the Ravens are going to win Sunday, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco must improve his play at home. Despite his stellar play on the road, Flacco has thrown for one touchdown and three interceptions in his past two games at M&T Bank Stadium.

Defensively, Baltimore holds a league-best 34-game streak of holding rushers under 100 yards. That will be key against Jacksonville, which is at its best when running the football.

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's Tim Graham

New England Patriots (10-5) vs. Buffalo Bills (7-8), 1 p.m. ET

The AFC's first playoff domino will fall in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Whatever the Patriots do in Week 17's most important early game will affect the Dolphins-Jets and Jaguars-Ravens games at 4:15 p.m.

New England is playing better than any AFC East club yet still could miss the playoffs -- even if the Patriots record their 11th victory.

Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel is scalding hot. The first-year starter is guiding the NFL's fourth-ranked offense. He has thrown eight touchdowns and one interception in his past three games.

The most significant aspect for the Bills is that the result could impact head coach Dick Jauron's future.

Beyond that, Sunday is one final opportunity to avoid a fourth straight losing season. The Bills have known for a couple of weeks they're not going to the playoffs for the ninth year in a row.

Miami Dolphins (10-5) vs. New York Jets (9-6), 4:15 p.m. ET

At least in this space, let's ignore the drama and the sexy story lines. Instead, here is a breakdown of the matchups for a game that will decide the AFC East.

The best way for the Jets to win is by handing off to Pro Bowlers Thomas Jones and Leon Washington as much as possible. Jets quarterback Brett Favre has thrown one touchdown and six interceptions in his past four games.

In that same span, Miami's 25th-ranked pass defense has allowed only two passing touchdowns. Then again, Marc Bulger, J.P. Losman, Shaun Hill and Tyler Thigpen aren't exactly Favre. Or maybe they are -- this year, anyway.

Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington has thrown nine touchdowns and two interceptions in his past five games. The Jets have the 29th-ranked pass defense, while their hallmark run defense has slipped to No. 7.

In the red zone, Miami ranks seventh on offense and ninth on defense. New York ranks 18th and 13th, respectively.

The Jets hold a substantial edge on special teams. Washington is as dangerous as they come on kick returns. The Dolphins allow an average of 24.7 yards a return and give up the third-worst starting position on kickoffs.

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's Mike Sando

Seattle Seahawks (4-11) at Arizona Cardinals (8-7), 4: 15 p.m. ET

One strong performance can change the way the Cardinals feel about themselves and their chances in the playoffs.

That is important for a team still trying to build a winning culture.

The Cardinals' 8-8 record last season marked progress and a good start for coach Ken Whisenhunt. Winning the division this season stands as another step forward, but the step means more if the Cardinals finish with a winning record for only the second time since the 1984 season.

The Seahawks have to like their chances. They've found ways to finish games in recent weeks. Their defense is coming off its finest effort of the season.

One concern for Seattle might be whether the team peaked emotionally in Mike Holmgren's final home game as Seahawks coach.

Washington Redskins (9-7) at San Francisco 49ers (6-9), 4:15 p.m. ET

The 49ers are reportedly on the verge of naming Mike Singletary their coach beyond this season.

How might a listless performance in a blowout defeat alter their plans? It's a question the 49ers probably won't have to consider. Singletary has made them smarter and more purposeful since taking over for Mike Nolan, and the Redskins have scored more than 13 points just once in their last seven games.

A close, low-scoring game seems likely. If that is the case, keep a close eye on the 49ers' game management in the fourth quarter. That's one area where the 49ers need to improve.

St. Louis Rams (2-13) at Atlanta Falcons (10-5), 1 p.m. ET

The Falcons can improve their playoff positioning with a victory, bad news for a fragile Rams team.

Atlanta's strong running game has the potential to wear down and demoralize an opponent.

The Falcons have held three of their last four opponents to 20 points or fewer. The Rams have scored more than 20 points in game only once all season.

It adds up to another likely Rams defeat in what could be Jim Haslett's last stand as head coach.

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's Kevin Seifert

Chicago Bears (9-6) at Houston Texans (7-8), 1 p.m. ET

Let's get this out of the way from the start: No team in NFL history has won three consecutive overtime games. So after overtime victories against New Orleans and Green Bay, the Bears will be pushing their luck if they head into sudden death Sunday at Reliant Stadium.

The Bears have won three consecutive games, the longest streak in the NFC. But they shouldn't expect an easy game in Houston. The Texans' connection between quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson poses significant matchup problems for the Bears, who have lost safety Mike Brown for the season and might have to start rookie Craig Steltz at the position.

The Bears' offense has performed well in spurts over the past few weeks, especially when it has used tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen. But it is not equipped to match the Texans in a score-fest. The Bears' defense must keep this game manageable, especially early.

Detroit Lions (0-15) at Green Bay Packers (5-10), 1 p.m. ET

Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy swears the only time he has mentioned 0-15 -- or 0-16, for that matter -- was during a team meeting to discuss media topics for the week. It goes without saying the Packers want to steer clear of history Sunday at Lambeau Field.

So if history is any indication, the Packers will win Sunday and Detroit will finish the season 0-16. The Lions haven't won in Wisconsin since 1991, and there's no reason to believe they'll start now. Their last game, a 42-7 loss to New Orleans, suggests they have all but packed it in for the season. Green Bay, despite losses in its last five games, should have its way with the Lions' defense all afternoon.

About the only thing Detroit can hope for is to stay within reach for most of the game and hope the Packers find another way to lose a close game in the fourth quarter. But it'll take a fluke, the kind of luck Detroit hasn't seen all season.

Minnesota Vikings (9-6) vs. New York Giants (12-3), 1 p.m. ET

Here's a little-remembered fact: In two career games against him, Minnesota safety Darren Sharper has intercepted New York quarterback Eli Manning four times and returned two for touchdowns. Amid all the talk about the Giants resting their starters, it seemed as if the Vikings would be better off with Manning playing the entire game.

"I have enjoyed playing against him," Sharper said. "But I've had my good times against him. I know he'll come and try to go against that and have good times against me. We'll see how much he plays."

That's one of many subplots the Vikings find themselves facing on the final weekend of the regular season. A victory, or a Chicago loss, gives them the division title. But the way things have been going lately, the Vikings are hardly expecting any luck to come their way. Which means you won't see much of Manning 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.

Posted by's Pat Yasinskas

Oakland Raiders (4-11) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6), 1 p.m. ET

Only a few short weeks ago, the Bucs controlled their playoff destiny. Well, they mismanaged that about as badly as possible. With three consecutive losses, they need a win against Oakland and a lot of help.

The Bucs have five scenarios that would put them in the playoffs:

1) Tampa Bay win plus a Dallas loss or tie.

2) Tampa Bay tie plus Dallas loss plus Minnesota loss or tie.

3) Tampa Bay tie plus Dallas loss plus Chicago loss or tie.

4) Tampa Bay tie plus Dallas tie plus Minnesota tie plus Chicago win or tie.

5) Tampa Bay tie plus Dallas tie plus Chicago tie plus Minnesota win or tie

If that sounds like a lot to ask for, that's because it is. Even a win against a bad Oakland team is far from guaranteed. Tampa Bay is banged up, especially on defense. Even if the Bucs somehow sneak into the playoffs, they don't look like the kind of team that can stay there very long.

St. Louis Rams (2-13) at Atlanta Falcons (10-5), 1 p.m. ET

In perhaps the division's biggest story of the year, the Falcons enter the final regular-season game with a chance to win the NFC South. They need a victory and a Carolina loss to New Orleans.

That scenario also would give Atlanta the No. 2 seed in the NFC and forever put to rest the ghosts of Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick. Even if the Falcons go into the playoffs as a wild-card team, they're still dangerous.

They're relatively healthy and they have momentum on their side. All the Falcons can do is take care of business against St. Louis and keep a close eye on the scoreboard to see what's happening in New Orleans.

Carolina Panthers (11-4) at New Orleans Saints (8-7), 1 p.m. ET

The Panthers had a chance to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but they lost that to the Giants in a brutal overtime game. Carolina probably remains among the NFC's elite, but the Panthers have to be more than a little concerned about the aftereffects of the loss in New York.

The Panthers are banged up, particularly at defensive tackle. A win would give them the No. 2 seed and, more importantly, a much-needed week off. A loss would put them in as a wild-card team -- there's a huge difference between those two slots.

The Saints still have a shot at a winning record, and Drew Brees is within 402 yards of Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season. That gives the Saints some motivation as they try to wrap up a disappointing season.

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's Matt Mosley

Dallas Cowboys (9-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (8-6-1), 4:15 p.m. ET

The Eagles will find out before kickoff whether they're playing for a playoff spot or pride. A lot of people think the prospect of keeping the Cowboys out of the the playoffs would be enough to motivate the Eagles, but going from playoff hopeful to spoiler in a matter of minutes can be devastating to a team. I watched it happen to the Cowboys three seasons ago and they went out and went through the motions in a loss to the Rams.

Eagles coach Andy Reid has to make a commitment to the running game like he did against the Giants a couple of weeks ago. It's a crime for Brian Westbrook to only get 16 touches -- as he did in last Sunday's loss to the Redskins. Even if the Cowboys stop the running game early in the game, Reid needs to stay with it. Quarterback Donovan McNabb could be playing in his last game as an Eagle. It will be interesting to see how the fans responed to him. His wide receivers failed him against the Redskins. He needs to get in a good rhythm early and get the ball to Westbrook on screens and dump passes. Give Correll Buckhalter some touches as well. He's a nice player whom the Eagles don't properly utilize.

The Cowboys will use a lot of press coverage in an effort to force McNabb to hold the ball an extra second or two. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, a defensive MVP candidate, will be a lot to handle for aging left tackle Tra Thomas. Ware has a legitimate chance to tie or break Michael Strahan's season sack record against the Eagles. Right tackle Jon Runyan has shown a lot of determination playing through injuries, but he could struggle with the combination of Anthony Spencer and Greg Ellis. If the Cowboys can get a couple of shots on McNabb early, they could set the tone.

This is a huge opportunity for the Cowboys. They're fortunate to be in a position to clinch a playoff spot after being so erratic throughout the season. It's still a dangerous team, but Tony Romo has to do a much better job of protecting the football. He can't throw balls up for grabs because Terrell Owens and Roy Williams haven't been making catches in traffic. Asante Samuel will make the Cowboys pay if Romo gets too careless. Lito Sheppard has always been a Cowboys killer, but he's not playing much right now. The Eagles have been solid against the run, but rookie Tashard Choice has been a pleasant surprise for the Cowboys. Jason Garrett needs to keep feeding him the ball. We need to pay close attention to whether there's any hangover from those two long touchdown runs the Ravens had.

Washington Redskins (8-7) at San Francisco 49ers (6-9), 4:15 p.m. ET

Now that Vinny Cerrato has finally come out in support of Jim Zorn, the Redskins can focus on finishing with a winning record. They've lost their starting left and right tackles and that will make life tough against the 49ers' linebackers. Mike Singletary's about to have the interim tag taken off his name, but a win here would validate him even more. This is a great opportunity for Jason Campbell to finish on a high note after a roller-coaster season. He needs to take advantage of Chris Cooley early in the game. And he should continue to take off running when he needs to. I think he gains a lot of confidence when he's able to run for a couple of first downs.

Cerrato should face a lot of scrutiny for his three second-round picks that haven't made much of an impact. Maybe Devin Thomas will actually make a play or two against the 49ers. Clinton Portis is still banged up (hand), but Ladell Betts should be able to have some success against the 49ers. Portis hasn't had a 100-yard game since Week 12 against Seattle. And he was an MVP candidate at one point.

The Redskins need to win this game on defense. They were superb against the Eagles last week and Jason Taylor was finally able to get to the quarterback. London Fletcher is one of the best players in the league not playing in the Pro Bowl. He'll be keying on Frank Gore the entire game. Gore's been banged up, but he's still a threat on the ground and through the air. No matter the outcome, the Redskins should be disappointed about this season. But a two-game winning streak would make things a bit more palatable.

New York Giants (12-3) at Minnesota Vikings (9-6), 1 p.m. ET

The Vikings have more to play for than the Giants, but don't expect Tom Coughlin to roll over. There's a good chance he rests Brandon Jacobs for most or all of this game, but he'll still play to win. The Vikings won't have Pat Williams in the middle of their defense and that's a big loss. These teams have a lot
in common. Both are solid against the run and both run the ball really well. DeAngelo Williams found some cutback lanes against the Giants in last Sunday night's game and ran for 108 yards and four touchdowns. Justin Tuck

was banged up and had the flu in that game. We'll have to see if Coughlin wants to push him Sunday.

The Vikings will put the ball on the carpet, and the Giants do a nice job stripping the ball. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will sell out at the line of scrimmage to stop the run and make Tarvaris Jackson beat him. Corey Webster has tremendous ball skills, but Aaron Ross is still recovering from a concussion. I think Coughlin's really torn about how to approach this game. The extra rest would be great for some of his players, but he doesn't want them to be rusty in the divisional playoff game. I think he'll do everything it takes to win for a half and then reassess the situation. It wouldn't surprise me if Eli Manning gets a little rest in the second half. The only thing holding him back is the fact that he needs more work with Domenik Hixon, who had a strong performance against the Panthers. Hixon needs to gain confidence heading into the playoffs, and playing with David Carr wouldn't be the same thing. Hixon's also a little banged up and could use some rest.

I'd love to see more of Mario Manningham in this game. He could be a downfield threat, but it will be tough for Coughlin to throw him out there in a playoff game if Manningham hasn't proven himself in regular-season games. Look for Antonio Pierce to make a ton of tackles. He has to try to keep Adrian Peterson from getting to the second level. The Giants have to do a much better job of maintaining their gaps than they've done over the past three weeks.

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.




Sunday, 2/2