NFL Nation: Final Word 2010 Week 15

Final Word: NFC South

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
4:22
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesReceiver Steve Smith may not want to stick around for the ongoing rebuilding process in Carolina.
Another farewell? There has been all sorts of talk about John Fox coaching his last home game for the Panthers. But there also seems to be a lot of speculation from Carolina fans that this could be the last time wide receiver Steve Smith plays for the Panthers in Bank of America Stadium. It’s a legitimate question about one of the best players in franchise history. Smith remains under contract with the team through 2012. But it is fair to wonder whether Smith might want out or whether a new coach might want to start fresh with young receivers. Does Smith want out? I think it’s important to note that a guy who rarely hides his feelings has never even hinted about wanting out. However, I wouldn’t blame Smith if he did ask out. He’s a guy who has an outside shot at the Hall of Fame if he can put up some big numbers for a few more years. Common sense says it’s going to take the Panthers some time to build, and Smith doesn't have time for that. He’s also a highly competitive guy, and I seriously doubt he enjoys losing. If he goes and asks management to trade him, I think he’d get his wish pretty much out of respect. But unless or until he actually says he wants out, I don’t think everyone should assume Smith wants to leave Carolina.

The Domeless Saints. I’m looking at Sunday’s weather forecast for Baltimore and it doesn’t look as bad as it did a few days ago when snow was mentioned as a possibility. The latest forecast says there is only a 10-percent chance of precipitation and the temperature might be a little above freezing. This might be a good warm-up game for the Saints because they could have to go on the road to someplace like New York, Philadelphia or Chicago in the playoffs. They have that perception of being a “dome team." Might be a good time to start shedding that perception.

Turn down “The Burner." It sounds like there is a decent chance Atlanta running back Jason Snelling could return to play against Seattle after sitting out the last couple of games. If he does, that’s really good news for the Falcons. They’ve been riding starter Michael Turner very hard the last few weeks, and he has produced in outstanding fashion. The Falcons aren’t going to do anything to dramatically cut Turner’s carries because he’s such an important part of the offense. But they’d love nothing more than to give a few of those carries to Snelling, who is a quality backup. At the moment, Turner has 275 carries. He’s been getting around 25 carries a game recently. If you project it out at that rate, Turner’s on pace for 350 carries for the regular season. That number is a little higher than the Falcons would like, especially when you consider that more carries will be coming in the playoffs. I’m thinking the Falcons would like to chop Turner’s pace down to a point where he ends the regular season with somewhere around 330 carries.

Mix and match. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who seem to have been scrambling to compensate for injuries every week in recent memory, will have to do it again. This time, the big question is how they will replace rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. There is no singular answer to that. The Bucs haven’t laid out their entire plan, but coach Raheem Morris has said the team will take a committee approach at defensive tackle. Defensive end Michael Bennett could slide over there and backups Al Woods and Frank Okam could get some time in what figures to be a heavy rotation. There even have been hints that nose tackle Roy Miller could slide over to McCoy’s old spot at times.

Suh Flu outbreak. I’m sort of glad I’m getting on a plane to Baltimore on Saturday because there could be an epidemic hitting Tampa Bay on Sunday. It’s called Suh Flu, and symptoms are offensive linemen breaking out in a cold sweat at the prospect of having to block Detroit’s rookie sensation Ndamukong Suh. He’s lived up to all the hype that came with being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. The Bucs are expected to start rookie guards Ted Larsen and Derek Hardman. They certainly will get some attempts at help from center Jeremy Zuttah, but I’m not sure that will be enough to stop this outbreak.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
4:20
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Taking aim at Cassel. Matt Cassel appears likely to start for Kansas City against St. Louis in a game with playoff implications for both teams. Cassel has 13 touchdowns and three interceptions on the road this season. The Rams have generally fared well at home against "name" quarterbacks, including MVP candidate Philip Rivers (77.4 rating in the Chargers' 27-20 defeat at St. Louis). Visiting quarterbacks have six touchdowns, six interceptions and a 76.0 rating against the Rams. The Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan (101.8) and the Arizona Cardinals' Derek Anderson (85.1) were the only ones with ratings of 80 or higher.

[+] EnlargeRams quarterback Sam Bradford
AP Photo/Tom GannamRams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford has struggled at times in the fourth quarter. He has thrown two touchdowns and seven interceptions in the final period.
Bradford's fourth-quarter push. Cassel has seven touchdowns and no interceptions in fourth quarters this season. The Rams' Sam Bradford, though impressive during a fourth-quarter push against San Francisco, needs to finish stronger more consistently. He has two touchdowns and seven picks in fourth quarters, same as Carolina's Matt Moore. A little better luck would help Bradford. The intercepted shovel pass he threw near the goal line while leading a rally against the Falcons comes to mind. Still, Bradford's fourth-quarter rating ranks 38th among the 47 quarterbacks with at least 15 attempts.

Playoff picture not yet in focus. The Rams and Seattle Seahawks, both 6-7, will earn playoff spots if they win their final three games. They play one another in Week 17, making it impossible for both to finish 9-7. Arizona could win the division at 7-9 if the Rams and Seahawks tied one another to finish 6-9-1 apiece. San Francisco could win the division at 7-9 if the Rams and Seahawks lost their next two (the 49ers visit St. Louis in Week 16). The 49ers would be 5-1 in the division under that scenario.

Seattle's defense on the run. The matchup with Michael Turner and the Falcons' running game appears problematic for Seattle. The Falcons have finished with more than 30 rushing attempts six times this season, including four times on the road (topped by a 50-carry game at New Orleans). They are averaging 152.3 yards rushing per game against the NFC West this season (221 vs. Arizona, 98 vs. San Francisco and 138 vs. St. Louis). Turner has seven 100-yard rushing games overall. The Seahawks have allowed 155 yards rushing per game over their last seven games.

Returning to Carolina. The Arizona Cardinals have set a franchise record with nine return touchdowns. The Carolina Panthers have allowed five return touchdowns this season. Only Cincinnati (eight), San Diego (six) and Minnesota (six) have allowed more. The Cardinals' Adrian Wilson might be due for one. He has watched teammate and fellow safety Kerry Rhodes score two return touchdowns this season. If Wilson is going to get one, where better than in his native North Carolina?

Final Word: NFC North

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
4:06
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Shut down: Thanks in large part to the emergence of cornerback Tramon Williams, the Green Bay Packers have played some of the NFL's best pass defense this season. They'll face their stiffest test yet Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, where New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will take the field as the presumptive league MVP. But if you're a Packers fan, you can take solace that your team has been the league's best at limiting passes to and down the sideline -- one of Brady's favorite places to throw. The Packers have allowed an NFL-low 46.4 completion percentage and two touchdown passes outside the numbers on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This season, Brady has completed 64.5 percent of those passes for 16 touchdowns and two interceptions. That's not to say the Packers will shut him down, but at least they are equipped to squeeze the field against him.

[+] EnlargeMatt Flynn
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonThe Packers are almost certain to start the inexperienced Matt Flynn at quarterback against the Patriots.
Step up: Let's face it -- the Packers are going to need a whale of a game from backup quarterback Matt Flynn, who seems certain to start in place of Aaron Rodgers (concussion), to win Sunday. I suppose it's possible the Packers could discover their running game here in Week 15, but the chances of winning a slowed-down, low-possession game against the Patriots' offense aren't high. The Packers' offense is built through the passing game, and Flynn needs to produce and ensure that every scoring opportunity is capitalized upon. It's worth noting this statistic from ESPN Stats & Information: Flynn has thrown three red zone passes in his career. Two have been intercepted. Rodgers? He has thrown one interception in 218 red zone attempts dating to his promotion to the starting job in 2008.

Base set: The Minnesota Vikings are expected to start rookie quarterback Joe Webb on Monday night against the Chicago Bears, although veteran newcomer Patrick Ramsey could also play. A raw passer, Webb has legitimate running skills. The Vikings almost assuredly want to de-emphasize the pass, but tailback Adrian Peterson was limited this week in practice by ankle and knee injuries. When Webb does drop back, the Bears are well-equipped to force him into rookie mistakes. The Bears' success in sending four or fewer pass-rushers this season -- they rank third in the NFL in yards per attempt and interceptions in those situations -- means they should be able to sit back in coverage and make plays on Webb's passes. That will also help them limit his scrambles. It could be a long night for the Vikings in that regard.

Quick change: Monday night's game will mark the 10th relocated home game in the past 37 years in the NFL. The home teams are 3-6 in those games and have lost the past four, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The last home team that won a relocated home game was the 1994 Seattle Seahawks, who defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers at nearby Husky Stadium while the Kingdome was undergoing roof repairs. I think we can say this much about TCF Bank Stadium: It will be a modest, at best, home-field advantage for the Vikings. First, they haven't played an outdoor game in Minnesota in 29 years. Second, it's been three years since they've won a December/January outdoor game, and that contest was in San Francisco. Their last December/January outdoor victory in a cold-weather site was a January 2005 playoff victory at Lambeau Field. But not since December 1999 have the Vikings won a regular-season game outdoors in December or January, a 34-17 victory over the New York Giants.

Getting pressure: The Detroit Lions' defensive line demonstrated that it can overpower an opposing offensive line in last week's victory over the Packers. The Lions have 36 sacks this season -- tied for sixth-most in the NFL, but they'll have their hands full Sunday with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. This season, Freeman has been sacked 20 times -- the ninth-fewest among qualified quarterbacks -- and ranks third among NFL quarterbacks with 301 rushing yards. That matchup will be key as the Lions try to snap their NFL-record 26-game losing streak on the road.

Final Word: NFC East

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
4:06
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15

The Giants feel really good about their game plan for Michael Vick. A lot of teams fear Vick, but the Giants seem to relish the opportunity to play against him. Vick didn't account for a passing touchdown the last time they played, and the Giants battered him and caused him to fumble twice, losing one. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell learned from that experience and he's added some new wrinkles to his approach. Look for safety Deon Grant to play a large role in Fewell's blitz packages. The Giants have the ability to generate pressure without the blitz, but Fewell will bring a safety or a cornerback at times. The Giants have been excellent against the run (see Adrian Peterson), so I think LeSean McCoy will have most of his success in the passing game. He has 70 receptions and the Eagles love the screen game.

[+] EnlargeWashington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb (5) and quarterback Rex Grossman
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireRedskins quarterback Donovan McNabb (left) has been benched in favor of Rex Grossman for Sunday's game against the Cowboys.
Will the Cowboys be able to slow down Rex Grossman? The stunning news came down Friday morning that a healthy Donovan McNabb would once again be benched. The Cowboys have prepared for McNabb, but I don't think the prospect of facing Grossman is all that intimidating. At this point, it almost seems like the Shanahans get a kick out of shaking things up. I believe that Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has always been more comfortable with Grossman than McNabb. There have been reports that Kyle wanted to make this move about 13 weeks ago. Now his father will finally give him the chance. So much for that lucrative contract extension for McNabb. At this rate, it's hard to imagine his starting for the Redskins again. And while the Eagles respect McNabb too much to laugh about this, they certainly have to feel good about their decision. I sat down and watched a few plays from that loss to the Bucs. McNabb did have some awful throws that short-hopped receivers. He can normally play through those bad stretches, but the Shanahans are tired of waiting for him.

Eli Manning has to find someone he trusts on third down. Manning has been really bad on third down this season, and a lot of that has to do with Steve Smith's being out with injuries. Since Smith's now been placed on injured reserve, Manning has to figure something out. Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham will need to concentrate more than ever because Manning can't afford any more deflections. (He's making enough mistakes on his own). This would be a good time for Derek Hagan to become a reliable third-down receiver. He's shown signs of being that player, but he's no Steve Smith. To me, Smith and the Eagles' Jason Avant are two of the best third-down receivers in the league.

Brian Orakpo loves playing against the Cowboys. The Washington Redskins' outside linebacker and former University of Texas star grew up in Houston hating the Cowboys. He's the player who drew the infamous holding penalty on the Cowboys' Alex Barron in the season opener. As former NFL scout Bryan Broaddus points out on ESPNDallas.com, Orakpo does a really nice job of not allowing much of a hitting surface to offensive tackles. The Skins had the good sense to move Orakpo to the left side to face Barron last time. There's a good chance they'll do the same thing against right tackle Marc Colombo. Orakpo draws a lot of holding calls, and the Redskins basically count those as sacks. He causes offensive tackles to panic, and that's about the highest compliment you can pay a pass-rusher.

The Giants will try to exploit Eagles rookie middle linebacker Jamar Chaney. With Stewart Bradley out for the rest of the regular season with a dislocated elbow, Chaney becomes the starter. He's a talented player, but you know that Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride will try to work him over. I think Vick will try to find tight end Brent Celek down the seam early in this game. He's an incredibly tough matchup for a linebacker -- especially one who doesn't have much experience. You'll be able to tell early in this game how Chaney's going to play. It's a matchup the Giants will be looking at all afternoon. And if the Eagles' linebackers don't stay in their lanes against Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, they'll be in for a long day.

Final Word: AFC East

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
4:03
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

[+] EnlargeSantonio Holmes
Al Bello/Getty ImagesReceiver Santonio Holmes will be facing his former team, the Steelers, for the first time as a New York Jet.
Santonio Holmes can wipe out his droptastic game with a successful homecoming. Holmes committed one of the worst gaffes of the season when he wasted a perfectly thrown Mark Sanchez pass in the left corner of the end zone against the Dolphins last week. Holmes can erase that memory and help the Jets move on from two weeks of turmoil with a big game Sunday against his old team. The Steelers traded the Super Bowl MVP for a fifth-round draft pick because they were tired of dealing with him at a time when Ben Roethlisberger was embarrassing the organization, too. Holmes had been suspended four games for violating the NFL's drug policy. But he still felt betrayed to be dumped. "It's been on my mind for quite some time, and I just never let it play a factor until now," Holmes said. "Now is the time to get a chance to play against these guys. I spent four years there. It's definitely time to show these guys 'Why let me go?' "

Brains are working overtime to find a formula to beat the Patriots. In this week's "Hot Read" feature, ESPN.com senior writer Greg Garber explores how the seemingly invincible Patriots can be beaten. The formula looks simple:

  • Harass or confuse Tom Brady into making mistakes.
  • Win the turnover battle.
  • Run the ball effectively to limit Patriots possessions.
  • Score enough points against a middling defense.

"That's the magic formula," ESPN analyst and former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi told Garber with a laugh. "Easier said than done." ESPN Insider contributor KC Joyner also tried to crack the Patriots' offensive code with some suggestions for the Packers on Sunday. He advises them to get Wes Welker into traffic, put cover corner Tramon Williams on Deion Branch and defend rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez like a receiver.

Don't worry about Cameron Wake not being higher in the Pro Bowl voting. I've noticed some resentment from South Florida regarding Wake's lack of Pro Bowl votes among outside linebackers. He entered the week fifth behind James Harrison, Terrell Suggs, LaMarr Woodley and Shaun Phillips. Fret not, Dolfans. Wake not only will make the roster, but he will generate attention for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Wake leads the league with 14 sacks and should add to his total Sunday against the Bills. There's no denying his impact.

Thanks to Sal Alosi's bad trip, Brian Schottenheimer has avoided the spotlight this week. The controversy Alosi kicked up with his trip of Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll eclipsed the aggravation Jets fans have developed with Schottenheimer. Jets head coach Rex Ryan was subjected to chants to fire Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator after losing back-to-back games without a touchdown. Not only has Sanchez crumbled, but the run game also has disappeared. Schottenheimer owned up Thursday at a news conference. "Overall I'm in charge of the offense," Schottenheimer said. "I take a lot of pride in that. I take a lot of pride in my job. I take a lot of pride in our unit, and we're not playing very well. It's my job to put the players in position to make plays. It's my job along with the staff to get them to do the fundamentals right."

If Ryan Fitzpatrick can remain upright Sunday, then the Bills will have a chance. The Bills' offensive line is in rough shape and is about to face one of the NFL's stingiest teams. The Dolphins rank fifth in total defense, seventh in run defense and sixth in pass defense. Fitzpatrick has shown he can make good decisions. Despite the Bills' record and the fact they're often playing from behind, Fitzpatrick has thrown 21 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. But he won't have receiver Lee Evans to loosen up coverages, and will face a pass rush that registered six sacks against of the Jets, who own one of the NFL's better offensive lines. Wake will be matched up against Mansfield Wrotto, a third-year pro who was out of work until October.

Final Word: AFC West

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Chiefs are keeping their hands on the ball: One of the reasons Kansas City has exceeded expectations this season -- at 8-5 it leads the AFC West with three games to go -- is its superior ball security. Kansas City has given up only nine turnovers. It is tied with New England for the fewest in the NFL heading into the Chiefs’ critical game in St. Louis. The Chiefs have 18 takeaways.

[+] EnlargeJosh McDaniels
AP Photo/ Jack DempseyA 45-point loss to the Raiders earlier this season was the beginning of the end for Josh McDaniels.
Revisiting the beginning of the end of the McDaniels era: The cries for Josh McDaniels’ firing began in October when the Oakland Raiders ripped apart the Broncos at home in a 59-14 laugher. McDaniels was booed off the field and he apologized for the loss after the game. But the damage was done. All of McDaniels’ previous misdeeds were magnified by the loss to the Raiders. You just can’t get beat by 45 points at home by your rivals and survive. So, it’s no surprise the rematch in Oakland will be played without McDaniels. He was fired last week and replaced by interim coach Eric Studesville.

Will the road team win again? The road team in the Oakland-Denver series has won the past five games dating back to the season opener in 2008. Other than Oakland’s one-point win at Denver last season, the games have not been close. They’ve all been at least 20-point wins for the road team. Will the road mastery continue in this series Sunday in Oakland? You never know, but the Raiders have something to play for and Denver is in disarray. It would be a shocker.

Coach of the year battle: When the Chiefs visit the Rams on Sunday, both teams will be playing for something. The Chiefs have a half-game lead in the AFC West and the 6-7 Rams are tied for first place in the NFC West. A lot of credit to goes to the two coaches, Todd Haley of the Chiefs and Steve Spagnuolo of the Rams. The two second-year coaches have made great progress and both probably will receive coach of the year votes.

Chiefs bring heat from way back: The Chiefs lead the NFL in corner and safety blitzes. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of only 51.9 when the Chiefs blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Chiefs have pressured the quarterback with defensive backs on 38 pass attempts this season. Opposing quarterbacks have completed only 14 passes in those situations and Kansas City has six sacks. The Chiefs haven’t overused blitzes from the defensive backfield and perhaps that’s why they have been effective. Opponents don’t always expect it. Against a rookie quarterback like Rams’ Sam Bradford, the Chiefs may want to unleash the pressure from secondary to take advantage of Bradford’s inexperience.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
4:00
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesThe Ravens have struggled to protect quarterback Joe Flacco the past three games.
Failing to protect Flacco: Something has gone terribly wrong with the Baltimore Ravens' pass protection. Once pretty solid, Baltimore's offensive line has allowed quarterback Joe Flacco to be sacked 13 times in the past three games. Baltimore allowed four or more sacks only once in the first 10 games. But Flacco has been sacked at least four times in three consecutive weeks against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans. Lack of communication and poor recognition of blitzes are the primary reasons the Ravens are struggling up front. The New Orleans Saints have a blitz-happy defense and could cause a lot of problems for Baltimore's passing game.

Finishing strong: Despite a lot of criticism for blowing a 21-point lead in the second half against Houston, the Ravens have made no apologies for winning ugly. But one thing that is a concern is Baltimore's inability to finish teams late. The Ravens (9-4) have held fourth-quarter leads in all four losses this season. Also, in the past two weeks, Baltimore has been outscored 25-0 in the fourth quarter. An interception return for a touchdown by Josh Wilson saved the Ravens against the Texans last week in overtime. But they could make a big statement by playing four complete quarters Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champs.

The replacements: The Pittsburgh Steelers are banged up heading into their game against the New York Jets. Therefore, backups need to play well. Reserve tight end Matt Spaeth could start for Heath Miller (concussion) for the second straight game, and safeties Will Allen and Ryan Mundy are expected to fill in for the injured Troy Polamalu (lower leg). Spaeth struggled last week with one catch for four yards against the Cincinnati Bengals. He also had a dropped pass. Allen and Mundy have primarily played on special teams, but might have to fill in for Polamalu the next two games, because Pittsburgh has a short week and will play Dec. 23 against the Carolina Panthers.

Full circle: The Bengals will have an interesting revenge game this week against the Cleveland Browns. At 2-11, Cincinnati's NFL-high 10-game losing streak started Oct. 3 against Cleveland, and the Bengals have a chance to end it against the same opponent. It has been more than two months since Cincinnati last experienced a win, and frustration is at an all-time high. Bengals receiver Terrell Owens recently criticized ownership and the coaching staff for the team's losing ways, and injuries continue to mount. A win against an in-state and division rival would be a good remedy for Cincinnati's various issues for at least a week.

Bigger plays: If the Browns are to beat the Bengals, a key area Cleveland must improve is getting more big plays from its offense. The Browns are averaging 9.5 points in their past two games, and have only two offensive plays of 30 yards or more in that span. Both were receptions by receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, for 37 and 34 yards, respectively. Defenses do not fear Cleveland's passing game and have stacked the box to try to stop tailback Peyton Hillis, who has 1,070 yards rushing. With a quarterback change to rookie Colt McCoy, the Browns hope to have better success throwing downfield.

Final Word: AFC South

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
3:58
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Will the Jags be ready to handle the pressure? The Jacksonville-Indianapolis matchup is a super high-stakes game -- win and the Jaguars clinch the division. Only 14 players on Jacksonville’s roster were around in 2007 when the team went two rounds into the playoffs as a wild card. The rest haven’t faced this sort of pressure before. Will a young team thrive in such a situation and show the kind of resolve that has gotten it here?

Can the Titans force a turnover? You’d think a tipped ball that a defender could catch would arrive eventually. But the Titans have gone three games without a takeaway and haven’t won the turnover battle since Halloween. Where are the plays from young guys they were counting on such as Stephen Tulloch and Gerald McRath? They need to do more than tackle.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesMatt Schaub can't dwell on the pick-six that ended the Ravens-Texans game.
Which Matt Schaub shows up at LP Field? Will it be the one who finished Monday night with a game-losing interception against Baltimore in overtime or the one who was phenomenal in rallying his team with two late touchdown drives of 99 and 95 yards? The Titans are not rushing the passer like they did earlier in the season, and given time I expect Schaub to find room to operate. I also expect TE Owen Daniels to be more reliable for Schaub in his second game back from a long injury layoff.

Do the Colts get a boost from a couple of key returnees? After injury layoffs, it seems like Austin Collie will be back in action on offense and Kelvin Hayden should rejoin the defense. They can both be difference-makers and help settle down things on their sides of the ball. Collie’s a dependable security blanket for Peyton Manning and Hayden had been playing better before a neck injury put him on the sideline.

Will Kerry Collins make some downfield connections? The Texans have been horrible on pass defense and now their best pass-rusher, Mario Williams, is out of the picture. The group gained confidence by shutting out Tennessee on Nov. 28 when rookie Rusty Smith was at the helm. Collins should fare better, particularly if the offensive line can protect him and allow room for him to step into throws. WRs Nate Washington and Justin Gage need to show why they will get on the field ahead of Randy Moss.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFL SCOREBOARD

Sunday, 2/2
WEEKLY LEADERS