NFL Nation: audibles AFC 11

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Denver Broncos (5-4) at Atlanta Falcons (6-3), 1 p.m. ET

 

It was late last season and the Denver Broncos brought in kicker Matt Prater for the stretch run. Yes, a kicker.

Jason Elam was there, as he had been since 1993. Asked why Prater was brought in, the Broncos' brass bristled. No, it had nothing to do with Elam, who would be a free agent after the season, management said. Prater had a strong leg and the team was just looking at him as an option for kickoffs. Still, Elam was confused. The move made him wonder if his Denver days were about to end.

Elam, a career-long Bronco, said he could never imagine himself in another uniform. He is the most "clutch" kicker in team history. He had been a member of the Broncos' two Super Bowl-winning teams. He decided four of Denver's seven victories in 2007 with last-second kicks. He's even married to a former Broncos cheerleader.

Then in March, Denver didn't pay him what he asked for and he signed with his home-state Atlanta Falcons. The Broncos, who now employ Prater as their field-goal kicker, will visit Elam and the Falcons on Sunday.

While Elam's departure seemed unfathomable last season, it has worked out for both parties. Prater has a huge leg and has been excellent on field goals and on kickoffs. Elam has been his reliable self for the surprising Falcons.

Could Sunday's game come down to a game-winning field-goal attempt by either Elam or Prater? That would be some good theater.

New Orleans Saints (4-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (1-8), 1 p.m. ET

  

It may have been lost in the Chiefs' three devastating losses in a row, but Tony Gonzalez is playing at an All-Pro clip.

The future Hall of Famer is playing like a 27-year-old. It seems Gonzalez's nontrade at the deadline has inspired him. He wanted to be dealt to a contender last month. When potential deals fell apart, Gonzalez admitted he wasn't happy, but he promised he would give the team his all for the rest of the season.

Gonzalez wasn't kidding. Since the trade deadline, Gonzalez has made 29 of his 50 catches. He's playing with a purpose and Chiefs fans have another reason to salute him.

Oakland Raiders (2-7) at Miami Dolphins (5-4), 1 p.m. ET

  

Tony Sparano should prove to the Oakland Raiders what a difference a new coach can make, even in just one season.

The Raiders will, in all likelihood, try to get it right again after the season, hiring a new coach for the fifth time in seven years. From Bill Callahan to Tom Cable, the Raiders have struggled mightily.

As the Raiders travel to Miami to face the resurgent Dolphins, who were 1-15 last season, they can look at Sparano and see hope for next year and another new Oakland head coach.

San Diego Chargers (4-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3), 4:15 p.m. ET

  

Like Gonzalez in Kansas City, the Chargers' tight end is getting his groove back.

Antonio Gates is coming off his two best games of 2008. Gates has 14 catches for 162 yards and two touchdown catches in the past two games. He has 38 catches this season.

Gates appears to be nearly 100 percent healthy after struggling to return from surgery on his left big toe. Gates didn't play in the preseason, and he said the toe injury hampered his play earlier in the year. At one point early on, Gates admitted that he didn't think he'd be able to help the Chargers this season.

But in the past two games, Gates has been playing at a high level. If the Chargers win the AFC West title, their All-Pro tight end probably will be a major reason why.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Baltimore Ravens (6-3) at New York Giants (8-1), 1 p.m.

Two of the NFL's hottest teams will square off when the Ravens travel to play the Giants.

Baltimore and New York have combined to win eight straight, so expect a high-quality game involving two clubs playing their best football of the season. Something also has to give when the NFL's top rushing offense (New York) meets the league's No. 1 run defense (Baltimore).

Surprisingly, three of New York's toughest games this year have come against the AFC North. The Cleveland Browns handed New York its only defeat last month, the Bengals forced overtime before losing 26-23, and the Giants' 21-14 win over the Steelers came down to the final quarter.

The Ravens, who are averaging 33.5 points in the past four games, are hoping to provide New York with another huge challenge. Baltimore is 1-3 this year against teams currently holding winning records and a win over the defending Super Bowl champs would go a long way to garnering more respect nationally.

Philadelphia Eagles (5-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-8), 1 p.m.

The Cincinnati Bengals had two weeks to prepare for this game, and they hope the extra time will help them pull off another upset Sunday at home against the Philadelphia Eagles. Cincinnati is coming off its first win of the season over the Jacksonville Jaguars two weeks ago.


Cincinnati has been deprived of the long ball since starting quarterback Carson Palmer was sidelined by an elbow injury. Current starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's longest completion this year has been for 22 yards, despite having weapons such as receivers Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

The Eagles are probably better than their 5-4 record indicates. Playing in the NFC East is tough, with four teams jockeying for playoff position. Cincinnati also knows how hard it is to win against the NFC East. The Bengals are 0-2 this year, despite competitive games on the road against the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.

A win Sunday would be the team's first two-game winning streak since Dec. 23-30 of last year.

San Diego Chargers (4-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3), 4:15 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are trying to avoid their third straight home loss with Sunday's game against the always-dangerous San Diego Chargers.

Surprisingly, Pittsburgh has lost its way at Heinz Field, dropping two home games in three weeks to the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts. A big reason for their struggles has been the inconsistent play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has eight interceptions in his last three games.

The turnovers have put Pittsburgh's top-rated defense in bad spots and allowed teams to score more than 20 points in two of the past three games. Both were losses.

Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson looks to be getting over his slow start and will be a key player against Pittsburgh's top-rated defense. The Steelers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, and Tomlinson has hit the century mark eight times in his last 22 games.

Cleveland Browns (3-6) at Buffalo Bills (5-4), 8:30 p.m. Monday

Two of the coldest teams in the AFC face off on "Monday Night Football" when the Buffalo Bills host the Cleveland Browns.

These teams have combined for five straight losses, but it appears that Cleveland could have the toughest time bouncing back. The Browns became just the fifth team to blow second-half leads of at least 13 points in back-to-back games in losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos.

There has been talk inside and outside the locker room of players quitting during their most recent 34-30 loss to Denver after giving up 21 fourth-quarter points. Now Cleveland has little to play for as the back-to-back losses have all but eliminated the Browns from postseason contention.

Someone who does have a lot on the line is second-year quarterback Brady Quinn. He threw for 239 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start against Denver and is solidifying his spot as Cleveland's quarterback of the present and future.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans (3-6) at Indianapolis Colts (5-4), 1 p.m. ET

The Texans ran the ball effectively in the first matchup, getting 156 yards out of Steve Slaton, Ahman Green and Sage Rosenfels. Slaton should be fresh after the odd, middle-of-the-season break he got last week. But Indianapolis has improved quite a bit against the run since their first meeting in early October, yielding an average of 90 yards a game since then. Safety Bob Sanders missed the first game but will be part of the run-stuffing efforts this time.

Houston will need to find some running room, because if the Colts manage to put the game on Rosenfels' shoulders, he may not be equipped to handle it. He blew a 17-point lead late in the last game with three turnovers and is fresh off a four-interception game against Baltimore.

Despite injuries that have thinned them out at cornerback, the Colts have been getting good work out of safeties Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt as extra defensive backs. If Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can apply some heat, Rosenfels could be rushed into making turnovers.

Tight end Owen Daniels has been an excellent complement to receiver Andre Johnson as a pass-catcher for Houston. Daniels actually has 10 more catches than the always-dangerous Dallas Clark. For the Texans to hang in this game, Daniels will need to make a big contribution.

Houston's defense needs to minimize big plays, but history suggests it will struggle to do so. Peyton Manning has 31 touchdowns and only five interceptions in his career against Houston.

Teams With Best Winning Percentage vs. One Team*
TeamsW-LPct.
Colts vs. Falcons13-1.929
Colts vs. Texans12-1.923
Titans vs. Texans11-2.846
Steelers vs. Jets15-3.833
49ers vs. Bucs15-3.833
Browns vs. Falcons10-2.833
* Minimum 10 games
Source: ESPN Stats & Information

Tennessee Titans (9-0) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-5), 4:15 p.m. ET

Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio, coaches out of USC who aren't big fans of one another, stoked the fires this week. Del Rio talked about how his team is looking for pebbles since it is facing Goliath and said kickoff time was moved so that the country could watch Tennessee get to 10-0. Fisher countered that the Titans amounted to underdogs on the road.

I doubt the Titans will have the pass-rush success they had in the opener, when they took David Garrard down seven times. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has admitted he tried to do too much, and with three subs playing on the offensive line, Garrard didn't have time to take the shots downfield that his coach was calling for. Still, look for the Jaguars to try to beat Cortland Finnegan and Nick Harper with some double moves.

Even without a huge sack total, the Titans can still force the Jags to put the game on
Garrard's shoulders and make him string together long, methodical drives in which he can't make many mistakes. Jacksonville ran well against the horrible Lions, and the Titans have given up more than they'd like on the ground lately. Still, any confidence gained last week can be crushed in a hurry by Tennessee.

Albert Haynesworth said that keeping Garrard from large rushing gains is a key. In two of his last three games, the quarterback has contributed a significant chunk to the run totals.

Speaking of Haynesworth, how will guard Uche Nwaneri hold up working as the primary blocker of the big and agile defensive tackle? Center Brad Meester has regained some strength since returning from a biceps injury, but Cleveland's big tackle, Shaun Rogers, had a monster game against the Jags' interior guys just three weeks ago.

The weekly undefeated update: The Titans are just the 14th team since the 1970 merger to start 9-0 or better. Nine of the previous 13 teams reached the Super Bowl and six clubs came away with a championship. The Titans have won 12 straight regular-season games dating back to last season, a franchise record.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Oakland Raiders (2-7) at Miami Dolphins (5-4), 1 p.m. ET

One of the NFL's worst clubs -- and perhaps the most dysfunctional -- will make the arduous cross-country trip to play a team that has won three straight.

The Dolphins should make it four in a row and remain within a game of the first-place New York Jets. A victory also would tie the Dolphins with the 6-4 New England Patriots.

West Coast teams are 0-12 this year when playing in the Eastern time zone.

Miami hasn't won six of their first 10 games since 2003. Considering the Dolphins are coming off a 1-15 season, new coach Tony Sparano is a serious coach-of-the-year candidate, although the Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith has to be the front-runner.

The Dolphins are tied for eighth in the league in total offense, and Chad Pennington has them seventh in passing offense at an efficient 244.4 yards a game.

The Raiders are 25th in total defense, but they're most forgiving against the run, ranking 29th with an incredibly generous 158.1-yard average per game against them.

Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown like that number.

Cleveland Browns (3-6) at Buffalo Bills (5-4), 8:30 p.m. ET Monday

If the desperate Bills can't beat the Browns at home, their season might as well be over.

The Bills have lost three straight in the AFC East, guaranteeing them no better than a .500 divisional record, and that sounds ambitious with the Jets, Patriots and Dolphins playing so well lately and evolving on offense.

The Bills, meanwhile, have been regressing on offense and getting injured on defense. A loss on Monday would give the Bills four in a row and five losses out of six games after their hot 4-0 start.

Cleveland is an attractive opponent for the occasion. The Browns have lost three of their past four games and have surrendered 71 points in their past two games -- both at home.

Bills offensive coordinator Turk Schonert should be able to figure out ways for quarterback Trent Edwards and running back Marshawn Lynch to thrive on Monday night. Edwards is playing poorly, and Lynch hasn't been getting carries befitting a workhorse.

Strong safety and captain Donte Whitner might return from his separated shoulder after missing just one week, and that could provide a spark. But the Bills were losing with Whitner in the lineup, too.

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