NFL Nation: audibles NFC 14

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

St. Louis Rams (2-10) at Arizona Cardinals (7-5), 4:15 p.m. ET
The bar keeps getting lower in Arizona's continuing efforts to claim its first division title since 1975, when the Cardinals called St. Louis home and the Rams played in Los Angeles.

The Cardinals have given up 85 points in defeats to the Giants and Eagles over the last two weeks. The Rams have scored 63 points during their current six-game losing streak. But the defense allowed only 12 points to the Dolphins in Week 13, and having Steven Jackson back in the lineup gives the Rams at least an outside chance.

While Arizona simply needs a 49ers defeat to win the NFC West crown, anything short of a victory over the Rams might send them down the road to 8-8.

We've spent the week dissecting the Cardinals' problems running the ball. Let's not forget about Anquan Boldin. He dropped two passes and lost a fumble against the Eagles in what might have been the worst game of his career. Expect much better from him Sunday.

New York Jets (8-4) at San Francisco 49ers (4-8), 4:05 ET
The Jets haven't exactly played their best on the West Coast this season, but the 49ers' season-long issues at safety could make them vulnerable against Brett Favre.

This would be a good week for the 49ers' safeties to record their first interception of the season. Favre's occasional carelessness gives them a chance, but the overall matchup favors the Jets.

Both teams feature young and talented tight ends. The Jets' Dustin Keller has more receptions as a rookie (40) than the 49ers' Vernon Davis has managed in two of his three seasons. Watch to see how much time Davis spends in pass protection.

N. England Patriots (7-5) at Seattle Seahawks (2-10), 4:05 ET
Deion Branch's first game against his former team lacks sizzle. The injury-plagued Seattle receiver has 13 receptions this season, his third since the Seahawks acquired him from the Patriots for a first-round draft choice.

Branch has been mostly a non-factor for Seattle since the trade two years ago. He's been a non-factor in New England since the Patriots signed Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

Safety Brandon Meriweather, the player New England selected with the choice from Seattle, leads the Patriots with four interceptions.

Update: New information on the Seattle injury front.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Chicago Bears (6-6) vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8), 1 p.m. ET

The Jaguars seem to have given up on the season, which is a good start for a Bears team that probably needs to win its final four games to make the playoffs. Jacksonville has a hard time when it can't run the ball, and if you break down the statistics, the Bears' run defense has been strong against everyone this season except Minnesota and Green Bay.

The Bears have given up an average of 5.3 yards per rush and seven rushing touchdowns in three games against the Vikings and Packers. Against all other opponents, however, they are allowing 2.6 yards per rush and have given up a total of six rushing touchdowns.

The Bears have lost to injury one of their better run-stoppers in nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek, but Anthony Adams and Marcus Harrison should be able to hold their own against the Jaguars' offensive line.

Green Bay Packers (5-7) vs. Houston Texans (5-7), 1 p.m. ET

The Packers put out a dispatch for citizen snowshovelers this week to help clean out Lambeau Field, where the wintry conditions are normally a key advantage for the home team.

But Green Bay will face more of a challenge than you might think Sunday. Although the Texans are 1-5 on the road this season, their one victory came two weeks ago at Cleveland and they have developed a strong running threat at a time when the Packers' run defense is surrendering a substantial point total.

Texans tailback Steve Slaton has rushed for 359 yards and three touchdowns in the past three games. The Packers, meanwhile, have allowed eight rushing touchdowns in their past two games.

Green Bay should have the upper hand Sunday, but the Texans have the capacity to expose their vulnerabilities.

Minnesota Vikings (7-5) at Detroit Lions (0-12), 1 p.m. E.T.

The trendy storyline this week has been that the Vikings, with or without the Williams Wall, represent the Lions' best chance to avoid a winless season. The Lions' other games are at Indianapolis and Green Bay, sandwiched around a Dec. 21 home game against New Orleans.

The Vikings needed a last-minute field goal to defeat the Lions Oct. 12 at the Metrodome, and few have forgotten that the last 0-12 Lions team defeated Minnesota in 2001 for its first victory of the season.

But the Lions' play has dropped off considerably since that October loss, and at this point the Vikings provide a significant mismatch on paper thanks to tailback Adrian Peterson and receiver Bernard Berrian.

The Vikings rank second in the NFL with 16 rushes of at least 20 yards, while the Lions have given up an NFL-high 19 runs of at least that distance. Detroit's defense hasn't been much better against explosive passes, having given up 16 of 30 or more yards. The Vikings have 14 such completions. Stranger things have happened, but it doesn't look good for the Lions on paper.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

I was going to start this by saying this is the biggest regular-season weekend in NFC South history. But I think that goes without saying.

To one degree or another, all four teams will be putting their season on the line. Tampa Bay and Carolina will play Monday night for first place in the division and, perhaps, the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Atlanta travels to New Orleans on Sunday and the Falcons are only one win behind the Panthers and Buccaneers. Even the 6-6 Saints remain in it. New Orleans must win four straight to have a shot at the playoffs. Lose to the Falcons and the Saints are done.

Atlanta Falcons (8-4) at New Orleans Saints (6-6), 1 p.m. ET

The moral victory that was the early part of the Falcons' season is over. It was a nice story to see those cute little Falcons, who are so young and were so bad last year, go out and win a few games. But the story's gone way beyond that now.

The Falcons have eight wins and they are pretty much guaranteed a ninth with a season-ending game against St. Louis. You do the math, but 10-6 usually is good enough to get you into the playoffs. The Falcons basically have to win one of their next three games to get into the tournament.

But it's not about getting into the playoffs anymore; the Falcons have a chance to exceed that. They're close on the heels of the Panthers and Buccaneers and one of those teams is going to lose Monday night.

Win against the Saints and the Falcons keep their worst-to-first hopes alive in the NFC South. And they've got Tampa Bay coming to the Georgia Dome next week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3) at Carolina Panthers (9-3), 8:30 p.m. ET Monday

We've already established this as the biggest weekend in NFC South history. Let's go one step beyond that and declare this the biggest game in NFC South history. Two teams with 9-3 records and some pretty good history meeting on a national stage on a chilly Monday night.

If this one lives up to the hype, they won't be able to call the NFC South the "NASCAR Division'' any longer because the phrase "best division in the league'' might get in the way.

There's been a lot of talk about the possibility of the NFC South sending three teams to the playoffs. That would be nice. But the winner of this game is going to have an open door to the division title and probably the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

That'll get you a week off and a home game and put you a step or two ahead of the teams that go in as wild cards.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Philadelphia Eagles (6-5-1) at New York Giants (11-1), 1 p.m. ET

  

The last meeting produced a 36-31 win for the Giants, but the score was misleading. The Giants made a couple of big mistakes to allow the Eagles back into the game. Everyone's waiting to see what type of effect the Plaxico Burress incident and his subsequent suspension will have on the team. But the Giants have been overcoming adversity for the better part of two seasons now. It will take more than Burress' absence to derail their playoff hopes.

Now if something happens to middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, then we need to revisit this issue. But I'd surprised if Pierce is suspended before the end of the season. If anything he'll be disciplined heading into next season. I think Eli Manning will feast on an Eagles defense that has been banged up. Asante Samuel may return from an injury, but I'm not sure how effective he'll be. Against the Redskins, Manning was brilliant through the air in the first half. In the second half, the Giants banged away in the running game.

Both Derrick Ward and Brandon Jacobs are among the league leaders in runs of 10 yards or more. And Clinton Portis has shown that you can run against the Eagles. It's by the grace of the NFC West that the Eagles have even a glimmer of hope in the wild-card race. But a signature win over the Giants would breathe life back into the Eagles, and it would also turn up the heat on the Giants in the aftermath of the Burress situation.

Washington Redskins (7-5) at Baltimore Ravens (8-4), 8:15 p.m. ET

  

This is a huge game for both teams, but it's pretty much a must-win for the Redskins. Jason Campbell has come under a lot of fire -- some of it deserved, some not -- in the wake of a 23-7 loss to the Giants. It's not Campbell's fault that receivers can't get open downfield, but he's made his share of mistakes in the Redskins' recent slide.

Campbell takes too many sacks, and the Ravens will be after him from the opening snap. It's important for the Redskins to re-establish what was one of the best running games in the league in the first half of the season.

On defense, the Redskins will try to confuse rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. Washington needs to force at least two turnovers to win this game. Flacco's shown the ability to drive the ball in poor weather, but the Redskins will try to make him hold it for too long. London Fletcher has been banged up, but he put up a courageous effort last week against the Giants. The Redskins need Fletcher, Andre Carter and Jason Taylor to make plays in this game. They need to watch out for Flacco, who's not afraid to take off and run. I like the Redskins in this game -- but then, I usually do.

Dallas Cowboys (8-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3), 4:15 p.m. ET

  

The Cowboys' offense has finally hit its stride again, but the Steelers have the No. 1 defense in the league. Left tackle Flozell Adams, who has trouble hearing the snap, will have to go against James Harrison. If Adams can get his hands on a player, he can control him. But Harrison has the speed to go around him.

It will be interesting to see how the Steelers play Terrell Owens. The Seahawks and 49ers have both tried to play him one-on-one at times -- and have been burned. Troy Polamalu is one of the best safeties in the game, but he can't cover Jason Witten. Tony Romo uses Witten as a comfort blanket. I could see the tight end having an eight- or nine-catch game.

Wade Phillips doesn't seem concerned about the fact that it could be 25 degrees and muddy at Heinz Field on Sunday. I don't think he's prepared this team mentally for what it might face. And that's a shame, because he coached in Buffalo, where the weather was awful at times. As usual, the Steelers were out practicing in the mud in preparation for Sunday. I think the conditions could be a huge advantage for the Steelers. This team has flourished in cold-weather games, going 15-5 in December over the past five seasons.

As most of you know, the Cowboys have been awful in December. But a win over the Steelers would give them a lot of momentum heading into the final three games. Oh, and I looked it up. Romo has been a much better fourth-quarter passer than Ben Roethlisberger. This one's going to be close, so that could come into play.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider