The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders get a bye week with the team facing the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis on Thursday night.
KICKOFF: Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn. TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will not coach Thursday night against Dallas after a third eye surgery in 30 days to repair a detached retina in his right eye.
Special teams coach Mike Priefer will serve as head coach as the Vikings host the Dallas Cowboys. General manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings will reassess the coaching role Friday. Zimmer had a torn retina in his right eye repaired following an Oct. 31 game at Chicago.
This will be the NFL’s first 2016 game in December and historians will note that the Cowboys have only two winning Decembers over the last 14 years — 3-2 in 2012 and 4-0 in 2014. Since the 1995 Super Bowl season, the Cowboys are 34-47 in December. But that was all before Dallas had running back Ezekiel Elliott, the rookie phenom who dominates games and leads the league with 1,199 yards rushing. This keeps fellow rookie QB Dak Prescott in comfortable down-and-distance situations behind the best offensive line in football.
The Cowboys enter this game riding a franchise-best 10-game winning streak with a chance to clinch a playoff berth. If the Cowboys beat the Vikings and if the Washington Redskins (6-4-1) lose or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5) lose or tie, Dallas is in the playoffs.
Conversely, the Vikings, who began the season 5-0 behind replacement quarterback Sam Bradford, have lost five of their last six games to fall out of realistic playoff contention. Their future Hall of fame running back, Adrian Peterson, is still on IR (knee surgery), although he ran on the side during practice Tuesday; the offensive line is down to its third and fourth tackles, and No. 1 center Joe Berger is out (concussion) so second-year, undrafted hopeful Nick Easton debuts as a starter. It will be Minnesota’s sixth OL combination in 12 games.
On the positive side, leading WR Stefon Diggs (67 catches for 747 yards), who sat out last week with a knee injury, returned to limited practice Tuesday, was listed as questionable Wednesday but is expected to give it a go Thursday..
The Vikings’ defense is 14th in the league against the run (yielding 100.2 yards a game); but, if it can slow down Elliott, the offense may have a chance to keep pace with the Cowboys. The Dallas defense is inexperienced at defensive back and does not have a takeaway in four games, with only 10 all season. The Cowboys rank 28th in sacks (20) and 30th in pass defense (280.4 ypg).
And there is this: Bradford won his last meeting with the Cowboys. Of course, that was with the Philadelphia Eagles last November, when the Cowboys were on the way to a 4-12 finish. Bradford completed 25 of 36 passes for 295 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in a 33-27 win.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Vikings KR Cordelle Patterson vs. the Cowboys’ special teams. The Vikings don’t have much offense, so they count on big plays from special teams. Patterson leads the NFL with a kick-return average of 31.3 yards and has a return of 100-plus yards for a score. Marcus Sherels is one of two returners who have brought back punts for scores. The Cowboys must tackle, but kicker Dan Bailey and punter Chris Jones must be wary of their placement of the ball.
–Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph vs. Cowboys LBs Damien Wilson and Sean Lee. Rudolph isn’t the receiving threat that Washington TE Jordan Reed is, but he is becoming a bigger part of the offense and a more comfortable target for QB Sam Bradford. The Cowboys will mix coverages on Rudolph if he begins to hurt them, but they should start out with a lot of Cover-2 with linebackers and safeties responsible for the seams. Lee leads the Cowboys with 124 tackles, including 20 against the Redskins last week. Rudolph will be challenged to shake Lee’s quickness and sound tackling on the shorter passes the Vikings have been throwing regularly.
WEDNESDAY INJURY REPORT
–OUT: CB Morris Claiborne (groin), LB Justin Durant (hamstring), T Chaz Green (back), S J.J. Wilcox (thigh)
–QUESTIONABLE : S Barry Church (forearm), DE Jack Crawford (foot), DE David Irving (illness), DE Demarcus Lawrence (back), LB Sean Lee (illness), DT Terrell McClain (thigh), T Tyron Smith (back, hip)
–OUT: C Joe Berger (concussion), DT Sharrif Floyd (knee), CB Marcus Sherels (rib).
–DOUBTFUL: CB Mackensie Alexander (groin)
–QUESTIONABLE: WR Stefon Diggs (knee), CB Terence Newman (neck).
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Vikings NT Linval Joseph. For the Vikings to have any chance of competing with the Cowboys, they must stop running back Ezekiel Elliott and Dallas’ dominant offensive line. To do that, Joseph has to play like he did last season before a turf toe injury sidetracked what was shaping up to be an All-Pro type of season. If Joseph doesn’t set the tone in the middle of the defense against standout center Travis Frederick, the entire defense could crumble behind him. Elliott would run free and quarterback Dak Prescott could take advantage of favorable down and distances. Joseph, a former Giant, has played the Cowboys six times, and his four sacks against the Cowboys are the most against a single opponent. He also has 17 tackles, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble against Dallas.
FAST FACTS: Cowboys QB Dak Prescott leads NFL rookies in passing yards (2,835), TDs (18) and rating (108.6). … Dallas WR Dez Bryant has 49 TD catches since 2012, most in the NFL. … Dallas TE Jason Witten ranks second all-time among TEs with 1,072 receptions and 11,768 yards. … Dallas DE DeMarcus Lawrence has seven sacks in the past seven road games. LB Sean Lee is second in the NFL with 105 tackles. … Vikings QB Sam Bradford has thrown for 1,261 yards, seven TDs and no interceptions in five games at home. … Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph’s five TD catches are tied for the lead among NFC tight ends. … Minnesota S Harrison Smith seeks a 12th consecutive game with six tackles, and his 390 tackles since 2012 are second among NFC safeties.
PREDICTION: This could be a trap game for the Cowboys, wedged between a pair of NFC East battles — last Thursday’s 31-26 shootout over Washington and a Dec. 11 visit to the surging New York Giants. While that might set the stage for a dramatic prime-time show, the Vikings’ offense (294.9 ypg) has not shown the ability to keep up with Dallas (407.6 ypg).
OUR PICK: Cowboys, 32-24.
Kansas City Chiefs (8-3) at Atlanta Falcons (7-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Georgia Dome. TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Jamie Erdahl.
SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting. The Chiefs lead the series, 5-3. They last met in 2012 in Kansas City, where the Falcons won 40-24. The last Chiefs victory over the Falcons was in 2004, when they scored eight rushing touchdowns in a 56-10 triumph at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City is 2-2 in Atlanta. K.C.’s last winning performance in the ATL was 1994, when quarterback Joe Montana led a 30-10 victory. The Chiefs also won on the road the first time these teams played, in 1972 at Fulton County Stadium. Kansas City earned a 17-14 victory in that season’s final game.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Although the weird bank shot field goal in OT made the Chiefs’ win look like a fluke last Sunday night, their winning streak should eliminate doubts as to this team’s validity as a playoff contender.
Consider this: The Chiefs have won 18 of their last 21 regular-season games.
Not bad for a second-place team in the AFC West, a game behind the Oakland Raiders. Well not quite a game because the Chiefs beat the Raiders in Oakland and will play them next Thursday night at Arrowhead. So coach Andy Reid must avoid Sunday’s visit to Atlanta becoming a trap game between two prime-time AFC West wars.
“It’s that time of the season you can see the light at the end of the tunnel; and, if you’re in position to strike, I don’t think you can afford to take games off,” Reid said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s NFC, AFC; all the games are important. So, to maintain our focus, our intensity, our health and all those things are important this time of the year.”
The Chiefs are counting on a big performance by their defense, which featured OLB Justin Houston devouring the Broncos last week, and hope for additional help from the return of hyperactive LB Dee Ford (hamstring).
The Falcons feature QB Matt Ryan and one of the most prolific groups in the league, among the best in yards gained (third), points (first) and offensive touchdowns (second).
By contrast, the Chiefs offense is, well, merely efficient. It is not among the stats leaders, ranked No. 27 in yards with only 20 touchdowns. The Chiefs make the top half of the league numbers in only two areas: interception percentage (four in 402 attempts) and on fourth-down conversions (77.8 percent).
But of note from the win in Denver, WR Tyreek Hill was named the AFC’s offensive player of the week for his timely prolifics. Hill scored on a 3-yard run and a 3-yard pass. He had just 10 touches on offense that produced 55 yards. But he added an 86-yard kickoff return touchdown and became the first rookie since Gale Sayers in 1965 to score as a runner, receiver and returner in the same game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Chiefs OLB Justin Houston vs. Falcons RT Ryan Schraeder. Houston set the tone for last Sunday’s game in Denver before the first quarter was even over. Playing in only his second game since finishing a lengthy rehab from knee surgery, Houston was unstoppable early, picking up three sacks. Only a slight shoulder injury slowed him down in the second half, but he showed great stamina for his situation, playing 75 of 84 defensive snaps. Schraeder is considered one of the better right tackles in the NFL. The Falcons like what he has done over five seasons and last week signed the former undrafted college free agent to a five-year contract extension. He will need to play at his best to handle Houston.
–Chiefs OTs Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz vs. Falcons OLB/DE Vic Beasley. Against Denver last Sunday, the Chiefs gave up six sacks on QB Alex Smith in 50 passing plays, or once every eight times he dropped back to pass. Fisher and Schwartz allowed multiple sacks against a Broncos defense that leads the NFL with 35. The Falcons’ defense has 24 sacks, but it lost Adrian Clayborn (knee injury), second on the team with 4.5 sacks. The Falcons still have Beasley (9.5 sacks). The eighth player selected in the 2015 NFL Draft has 13.5 sacks in 27 games. At 6-3 and 246 pounds, he is a lighter version of Kansas City’s Justin Houston (258 pounds) coming off the edge. If Fisher and Schwartz can’t step up, Beasley will make Smith’s life miserable.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Chiefs FS Eric Berry. The road trip to Atlanta will have special meaning for the Chiefs’ defensive leader. Berry grew up in the southwest suburbs of the city and still lives there. It was at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University Hospital that he received treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma in early 2015. He survived the cancer and treatment and continues to be the man that everyone in the K.C. locker room looks up to each day. He was especially vocal and energetic in the victory over Denver. “I thought he really came in with a strong purpose,” coach Andy Reid said. “He’s been our leader all the way through — and he clearly had something in mind there that he was going to bring to the table, and he did that.”
FAST FACTS: Chiefs QB Alex Smith has seven TDs and a 92.3 rating in his past six games against NFC teams. … Chiefs TE Travis Kelce shoots for a third consecutive game with 100 yards receiving. He ranks third among NFL TEs with 57 catches and 675 yards. … Chiefs LB Justin Houston had 10 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble last week. Since 2012, he ranks third in the NFL with 53.5 sacks. … Falcons QB Matt Ryan ranks third in NFL passing yards (3,516) and rating (114.3). … Falcons WR Julio Jones leads the NFL with 1,140 yards receiving. … In the past three games vs. AFC teams, LB Vic Beasley has collected 6.5 sacks and forced three fumbles. He ranks second in the NFC with 9.5 sacks.
PREDICTION: Two torrid teams should put on a heated battle as each is fighting to stay in the thick of playoff chases in different conferences. Atlanta is probably favored by most, but the Chiefs keep finding ways to beat the best in the league.
OUR PICK: Chiefs, 32-28.
Miami Dolphins (7-4) at Baltimore Ravens (6-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, M&T Bank Stadium. TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Chris Fischer.
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Miami leads the series, 6-5. Miami won the last meeting, 15-13, last season when DE Derrick Shelby returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown. This is the fourth consecutive season these teams have met, with all the games being in Miami, and the Ravens lead, 2-1. This is the third consecutive season they have met in December — they’ve split the previous two.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Miami must be physical, above all, against Baltimore. The actual formula for winning has varied lately during the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak — sometimes it’s been the running game, sometimes special teams, sometimes defense, sometimes the passing game.
But the Ravens are always a physical team with an aggressive pass rush. Baltimore has sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill 13 times in three games, including six times in 2013 and six times in 2014.
The Dolphins have been physical during their winning streak, led by the running game, so that shouldn’t be a problem. After that, the Dolphins must run the ball effectively, stay ahead in the turnover margin, make timely plays in the passing game and stay effective in third-down defense.
The Dolphins have one of the league’s top running attacks, but the Ravens provide a huge challenge. Few teams have been able to run against Baltimore and Miami hopes to fare better with a potentially healthier offensive line. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for three touchdowns last week against San Francisco, so Baltimore will be prepared for him to take some shots downfield. The Ravens have an advantage with both of their top pass rushers, linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, back in the lineup.
Baltimore’s offense continues to sputter, and the team has mainly relied on kicker Justin Tucker to provide points. The defense has been stellar, so Baltimore might try to play conservatively against Miami to avoid costly mistakes. This means more opportunities for running backs Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon. Quarterback Joe Flacco could primarily use checkdowns to pick up yards, especially against a Miami secondary that has played well. Baltimore has not showed enough explosiveness to put teams away.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Miami DT Ndamukong Suh vs. Baltimore RG Marshal Yanda. These two All-Pros matched up last year and Suh seemed to get the victory. It’ll be an interesting battle once again because Suh is so disruptive. If Yanda can limit Suh’s effectiveness, Baltimore could have a great day up front. Miami is heavily reliant on Suh.
–Miami RB Jay Ajayi vs. Baltimore’s run defense. If Ajayi (847 yards, 5.3 per carry) gets going, it could be a long day for the Ravens. But Baltimore is No. 1 in the league in run defense at 74.9 yards per game. This will be a huge matchup, although Miami has shown it can win with Ajayi having a small role; he has rushed for 201 yards in the last three games. Still, this is Miami’s easiest path to victory; and, if the Ravens can limit the running game while playing a seven-man front, it’ll be tougher for Miami to get its passing game going.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Dolphins MLB Kiko Alonso. Alonso has become a top playmaker, perhaps alongside DT Ndamukong Suh and DE Cam Wake. Alonso has been making plays all over the field, with 91 tackles, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. He was in on the game-saving tackle last week against San Francisco and has been constantly around the ball all season. Alonso hasn’t specialized in making tackles behind the line of scrimmage, but he has been arguably their top defensive player.
FAST FACTS: Miami QB Ryan Tannehill has nine passing TDs and just one interception in the past six games. He threw for 285 yards and three TDs last week. … Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi has 730 rushing yards (121.7 per game) and five TDs in his past six games. He is second among NFL rushers at 5.26 yards per carry. … Miami DE Cameron Wake has 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in the past six games. … Ravens QB Joe Flacco is 4-0 vs. Miami, with 1,036 passing yards, five TDs and two interceptions. … Baltimore rookie RB Kenneth Dixon has 200 scrimmage yards in the past three games. … Ravens LB Terrell Suggs had two sacks and two forced fumbles last week and has three sacks and three forced fumbles in the past three games. In his past six games vs. Miami, he has 8.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss and an interception for a touchdown.
PREDICTION: The Ravens’ only loss in November was at Dallas, and they figure to put the clamps on the Dolphins, who have squeaked out six straight wins.
OUR PICK: Ravens, 23-17.
San Francisco 49ers (1-10) at Chicago Bears (2-9)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Soldier Field. TV: CBS, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin.
SERIES HISTORY: 62nd regular-season meeting. Series is tied, 30-30-1. Consistent with the dead-even history of the series, the 49ers and Bears have split the last two meetings, each winning on the other team’s field. The 49ers prevailed 26-20 in overtime last season (Dec. 6) at Chicago, following a 28-20 Bears win at San Francisco the year before (Sept. 14). The 49ers have dominated postseason matchups, going 3-0, including wins in the NFC Championship Game in 1989 and 1995.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Just as he did in his NFL debut, 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick will challenge the Bears’ defense. Kaepernick made his first career start against the Bears in 2012. He threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns in a 32-7 win. Kaepernick enters this week’s game second in the NFL among quarterbacks in rushing yards (373), trailing only Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor (439).
The Bears’ pass rush must be controlled off the edges and push in from the center to keep Kaepernick within the pocket. He is no pocket passer — never has been — and forcing him to stay there and throw is an interception waiting to happen. Meanwhile, the Bears’ secondary has to play zones and mix them as much as possible. Playing man-to-man allows Kaepernick to gain an easy five yards running while defenders have their backs to him.
The Bears’ defense will be without both inside linebackers, Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan. John Timu and rookie Nick Kwiatkoski will step in.
Bears QB Matt Barkley is hoping to show 49ers coach Chip Kelly that he made the right draft pick in 2013. Kelly selected Barkley, a controversial pick at the time because he traded up to get the former USC quarterback in Round 4.
Bears coach John Fox found Barkley’s first start acceptable last week, even with the two early interceptions.
“There (were) a couple plays there that we could have executed better; but, for the most part, I think he was really good on the sideline, really good with the coaches and his teammates,” Fox said. “He never blinked. He even handled even some negative things early on.”
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–49ers QB Colin Kaepernick vs. Bears OLBs Leonard Floyd and Willie Young. The Bears like to keep Floyd and Young on the field at all times because of their versatility of dropping into coverage, rushing the quarterback and stopping the run. All three aspects of their game will be tested by Kaepernick, who turned back the clock with his best combination rushing/passing performance of the season last week.
–Bears RB Jordan Howard vs. 49ers ILB Nick Bellore. OK, Howard is unlikely to be NFC Rookie of the Year as long as Dak Prescott stays healthy. But maybe the All-Rookie first team alongside Ezekiel Elliott? A visit by the league’s worst defense against the run allows for a potential springboard for Howard, who has amassed a lot of yards (766) but just two rushing touchdowns this season. He easily could at least double the latter figure this week.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Bears LB Nick Kwiatkoski. Forced into the starting lineup after Jerrell Freeman’s suspension, he has had so-so results. A touchdown catch by Delanie Walker occurred in his area of the zone. The Bears struggled at times defending the run when he was on the field, but also had big stands with him in there. He will be tested by the scrambling of Colin Kaepernick. Last year the Bears lost at Soldier Field against the 49ers in overtime because they let Blaine Gabbert scramble straight up the middle 44 yards for a touchdown. Kaepernick is a better runner than Gabbert.
FAST FACTS: Since 2012, 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick ranks third among NFL QBs with 2,207 rushing yards. … 49ers RB Carlos Hyde gained 95 yards from scrimmage last week and scored. … Bears QB Matt Barkley passed for a career-high 316 yards and three TDs last week. … Chicago rookie RB Jordan Howard has rushed for 382 yards in the past four games and ranks second among NFL rookies with 766 yards rushing. … Bears LB Leonard Floyd is third among NFL rookies with five sacks.
PREDICTION: Here are two teams playing out bad seasons and one of them will win this one to drop lower in the draft. An injured Bears defense may have trouble corralling Colin Kaepernick, who has been a surprise fantasy star the last few weeks.
OUR PICK: 49ers, 35-21.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-7-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Paul Brown Stadium. TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman,Charles Davis, Peter Schrager.
SERIES HISTORY: 13th meeting. Cincinnati leads the series, 8-3-1. Cincinnati’s .708 winning percentage against the Eagles is its second-highest for any opponent. The Bengals are 3-0-1 against Philadelphia as the home team.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Philadelphia (5-6) has dropped six of its last eight games since a strong start and is desperate for a victory to remain a viable contender in the NFC wild-card race. The Eagles are just 1-5 on the road — the lone victory on Sept. 19 against the Chicago Bears.
The Eagles also are having issues finding the end zone. Philadelphia averaged 14 points while losing to the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers in the past two games and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz is experiencing growing pains.
Doug Pederson wants a balanced offensive attack, but circumstances haven’t allowed that lately. In their first six games, the Eagles had a 45.4 run-play percentage. In their last five: 37.2. Against a Bengals defense that hasn’t been particularly good against the run this season (ranked 28th), the Eagles hope to run the ball about 30 times and take some pressure off rookie quarterback Carson Wentz.
Cincinnati (3-7-1) is well aware that its streak of five consecutive playoff appearances will come to an end. The Bengals all but assured that with three consecutive losses.
The Bengals are averaging 15.3 points during their skid, and will likely be without star receiver A.J. Green for basically the third consecutive game. Green injured a hamstring on the opening series against the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 20 and missed last Sunday’s 19-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
The Bengals need to protect Andy Dalton, who has been sacked 32 times. Defensive ends Brandon Graham (team-high five sacks) and Connor Barwin (four sacks) will attempt to pressure Dalton, who had several passes batted down in last Sunday’s 19-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Eagles DE Brandon Graham vs. Bengals RTs Cedrick Ogbuehi and Eric Winston. Graham leads the Eagles in sacks and hurries. Ogbuehi, the Bengals’ 2015 first-round pick, has been playing so poorly they’re now rotating him with veteran Eric Winston.
–Eagles RT Allen Barbre vs. Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap. Barbre is making just his third start at RT in seven seasons. Dunlap had 13 1/2 sacks last season and has a team-high 6 1/2 this season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Eagles RB Wendell Smallwood. With Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles both recovering from injuries, the fifth-round rookie figures to get a lot of work Sunday against the Bengals. He’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has 14 rushing first downs, eight double-digit-yard runs and just three negative runs on 66 carries.
FAST FACTS: Eagles TE Zach Ertz has 23 receptions since Week 9, tied for the most for NFL tight ends. … Eagles DE Brandon Graham had a career-high 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the last meeting. He has four sacks in the past four games vs. the AFC. … Eagles LB Jordan Hicks has two interceptions in his past three road games. He has four INTs since 2015, tied for third among NFL linebackers. … Bengals QB Andy Dalton ranks third in the AFC with 3,043 passing yards. He and Peyton Manning are the only QBs in NFL history with 3,000 passing yards in their first six seasons. … Bengals TE Tyler Eifert has 303 receiving yards and two TDs in his past four games. He has 15 TD catches since 2015, second among NFL tight ends. … Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap has 1.5 sacks in the past two games and has 6.5 this season. He is the only player in the NFL with five sacks and 10 passes defensed.
PREDICTION: Both teams are scuffling along, so we’ll call this a low-scoring affair and give the home team without the rookie QB the edge.
OUR PICK: Bengals, 16-13.
Houston Texans (6-5) at Green Bay Packers (5-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Lambeau Field. TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson.
SERIES HISTORY: Fourth regular-season meeting. Packers lead series, 2-1. The interconference opponents are playing for only the second time in Green Bay. The Texans’ lone win in the series came at Lambeau Field, a 24-21 comeback victory in 2008 decided by Kris Brown’s 40-yard field goal as time expired. That game also was played in December. The Packers rolled to a 42-24 victory at Houston in the teams’ last meeting in 2012, highlighted by Aaron Rodgers’ career-high six touchdown passes (three to Jordy Nelson).
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Packers feel they are just getting started on getting a big late-season roll after ending their four-game losing streak with a 14-point victory at the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night.
Though Green Bay should benefit from staying at home on the short week, the matchup with the Houston Texans isn’t ideal. The Texans are an uncommon opponent that the Packers last played in 2012. And, Houston is tied for the lead in the AFC South, a division that has caused fits for Green Bay this season.
Green Bay’s recent malaise included a demoralizing five-point loss to the Indianapolis Colts when the Packers last played at home, followed by a further embarrassing 22-point setback at the Tennessee Titans.
While the Texans are smarting from back-to-back losses to the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, the Packers may go into Sunday’s game with their star duo of quarterback Aaron Rodgers (hamstring) and linebacker Clay Matthews (shoulder) still nicked up from injuries sustained Monday.
Rodgers’ season-best streak of three games with 300 or more passing yards will be challenged by Houston’s exceptional pass defense, which ranks fifth in the NFL with an average of just 209.2 yards per game.
Green Bay’s defense, which played OK against the Eagles after a run of bad performances during the losing streak, must contend with the Texans’ top-five rushing attack led by Lamar Miller. Even though the Packers still have health issues at key spots at linebacker and in the secondary, the Texans are woeful throwing the football, never mind the big-play presence of DeAndre Hopkins at receiver. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers should make liberal use of his pass rush, as he did with success against Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, to force the Texans’ Brock Osweiler into some mistakes.
Osweiler, whose 72.2 passer rating is worst among full-time quarterbacks this season, has thrown a league-high-tying 13 interceptions with just 12 touchdowns. The Chargers picked him off three times in their win at Houston on Sunday.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Packers defensive line vs. Texans RB Lamar Miller. Green Bay still ranks among the stingiest in the NFL against the rush, ranking seventh with an average of 90.2 yards allowed. However, when the Packers have been challenged by a prolific rushing attack, the defense has invariably been gashed. That happened against Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys (191 yards), DeMarco Murray and the Tennessee Titans (154 yards) and Robert Kelley and the Washington Redskins (151 yards). Next up, Lamar Miller and the Houston Texans. Miller has been a renaissance man in his first season with the Texans, piling up 881 yards on the ground to rank fifth in the league. Miller has three 100-yard games, powering a Texans offense that is the league’s fifth-best rushing team with an average of 121 yards per game.
–Packers punt-return unit vs. Texans punt-coverage unit. Almost a full two calendar years have passed since Green Bay returned a punt for a touchdown. The last such occurrence was by Micah Hyde against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 28, 2014. Though the Packers rank 10th in the NFL this season with a punt-return average of 9.9 yards, they continue to seek a spark from someone, anyone. Four players have at least one return. Veteran wide receiver Randall Cobb, who previously flourished on punt returns (one touchdown each in 2011 and ’12), has been handling the duties in recent weeks. Yet, Cobb has averaged only five yards in his two runbacks, the latter of which resulted in a muff in Monday night’s game at Philadelphia. There’s hope, however, the Packers could spring a big return because opponents are averaging 11.7 punt-return yards against the Texans, who also have allowed a touchdown. Houston punter Shane Lechler is among the league’s best with an average of 48.4 yards per punt, but his net average plummets to 39.6.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Packers WR Jordy Nelson. With so much attention given to Davante Adams, it’s easy to forget about Nelson. All the ninth-year pro has done after missing the 2015 season because of a knee injury is lead the Packers with 61 receptions and nine touchdowns. That’s three more catches and one more touchdown than the stellar numbers compiled by Adams. Nelson has a touchdown catch in four of the last five games.
FAST FACTS: Houston QB Brock Osweiler is 3-1 vs. the NFC North. … Since 2014, Houston WR DeAndre Hopkins ranks seventh in the NFL with 3,341 receiving yards. He has a receiving TD in two of the past three games vs. the NFC North. … Texans LB Benardrick McKinney had 12 tackles and a sack last week. He is the only player in the NFL with at least 100 tackles (101) and four sacks (4). … Packers QB Aaron Rodgers completed 76.9 percent of his passes for 313 yards and two TDs last week. It was his third straight 300-yard game. In two career games vs. Houston, he has 633 passing yards, eight TDs and an interception. … Packers WR Davante Adams caught five passes for 113 yards and two TDs in Week 12. He has five TD catches in the past five home games.
PREDICTION: Rodgers is hot and should outduel Osweiler at Lambeau as the Packers try to get back in the NFC playoff race.
OUR PICK: Packers, 27-17.
Denver Broncos (7-4) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, EverBank Field. TV: CBS, Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots.
SERIES HISTORY: 10th regular-season meeting. Jaguars lead the series, 5-4. Jacksonville has won three of the last four meetings and five of seven. Included in that stretch, the Jaguars are 3-1 at EverBank Field. The teams have played twice in the last eight years. The last home win by the Jaguars was 24-17 in 2010. All three of the Jaguars’ home wins have been by a touchdown or less.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Three days after perhaps the best performance of his 10-game career, Broncos QB Trevor Siemian wore a walking boot, sitting out Wednesday’s practice while he rests and recuperates from a sprained left foot that has him categorized as “day-to-day” by coach Gary Kubiak.
“It’s just a little sore,” said Siemian, but it was sore enough to prevent him from practicing Wednesday, leaving the first-team work to rookie Paxton Lynch, who started in Week 5 after Siemian injured his shoulder.
Siemian was injured during the first possession of overtime in the Broncos’ 30-27 loss to the Chiefs. He stayed in the game and directed the Broncos to the Kansas City 44 on their next series, from which point Brandon McManus missed a 62-yard field-goal attempt that gave the Chiefs the football in Denver territory, opening the door to their win.
The foot swelled on Siemian overnight. Siemian could play without practicing, coach Gary Kubiak said.
When Lynch started in Week 5, he looked tentative at times under a furious Atlanta rush. He didn’t look comfortable until the fourth quarter, when the Falcons led 23-6 and played soft zone coverages that conceded underneath routes.
The defending Super Bowl champions would not be in the playoffs if the season ended now. But there isn’t an air of desperation around the Broncos just yet. This is the first time they have been out of a playoff position so late in the season since 2011, when Tim Tebow was in the midst of leading a series of comebacks that allowed the Broncos to eke out an AFC West title with a modest 8-8 record.
“We can’t afford to lose this game, period,” said outside linebacker Shane Ray. “We couldn’t afford to lose last week’s game and we did, so I just think the mentality from here on out is (that) we still control our destiny.”
Technically, the Broncos do not. There is a scenario — however remote — in which the Broncos could go 12-4 but finish out of the wild-card spots via tiebreaker.
Meanwhile, Jaguars QB Blake Bortles, who played with an injured shoulder against Buffalo last week, was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice. However, missing practice were WR Allen Hurns (hamstring), TE Julius Thomas (back) and RBs Chris Ivory (hamstring) and T.J. Yeldon (ankle), the team’s top two rushers.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Broncos OLB Von Miller vs. Jaguars RT Jermey Parnell. Miller could be in for a great game going against Parnell. Miller is having his best NFL season and leads the NFL in sacks (12.5) and total QB pressures following a three-sack, 10-pressure, 10-tackle game against Kansas City last Sunday. He is approaching his career best of 18.5 sacks (2012) and has 72.5 sacks in his six-year career. Parnell struggled with speed rushers this season, often letting ends or linebackers get by him for sacks. How well he handles Miller in this game could spell how successful the Jaguars do offensively.
–Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders vs. Jaguars CBs Jalen Ramsey and Prince Amukamara. Thomas and Sanders are two of the league’s best, both ranking in the top 10 for receptions and yards. The two seventh-year players are each heading for another 1,000-yard season in receiving. Thomas has done so four straight years while Sanders has topped that mark in the last two seasons. The Jaguars will counter with Ramsey and Amukamara, both having solid seasons. They are the leaders of a secondary that has allowed just over 204 passing yards a game, the third-lowest figure in the NFL. The Jags have permitted just 15 touchdowns through the air, just over one per game. Look for Jacksonville to play a lot of nickel defense, which allows Aaron Colvin to help out in coverage.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Broncos TE A.J. Derby. Although he has just six receptions in three games as a Bronco, all have come on third downs and four have gone for first downs. Another set up Trevor Siemian for a successful fourth-and-1 sneak. A former college quarterback, Derby read defenses to find vacant spots in short-to-intermediate coverage, and he has clearly supplanted 2015 draft pick Jeff Heuerman as the No. 2 tight end behind starter Virgil Green.
FAST FACTS: Broncos QB Trevor Siemian has 909 yards passing and seven TDs in the past three games. … Broncos rookie RB DeVontae Booker has 189 yards from scrimmage in the last two games. … Denver LB Von Miller tied career highs with 10 tackles and three sacks last week and has 17.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and an interception in the last 13 games. He leads the NFL with 12.5 sacks. … Jags QB Blake Bortles shoots for a sixth consecutive game with at least two TD passes. … Jags rookie DE Yannick Nngakoue seeks a sack in a third consecutive game. He leads the NFL rookies with six sacks and is one of only two NFL players (Khalil Mack) with at least six sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception.
PREDICTION: The Broncos are a little beat up after one of the wildest games in recent NFL history (OT loss to Chiefs Sunday night), but the Jaguars may be even more impacted by injuries — and they were in trouble with a healthy roster.
OUR PICK: Broncos, 35-12.
Los Angeles Rams (4-7) at New England Patriots (9-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium. TV: FOX, Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver.
SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead the series, 7-5. The teams last played in 2012 in London, with the Patriots walloping the Rams 45-7.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Rams have to get back to their strength, and that is relying on a punishing defense to keep games close to protect an offense that hasn’t been able to consistently score points. That’s easier said than done, especially against a high-scoring team such as the Patriots. The Rams hung in for one half against the Saints last week but were eventually overwhelmed by Drew Brees in the second half. The Rams need to put together a full 60-minute, mistake free game just to keep this game close.
The Patriots should have a chance to remain relatively balanced against the Rams. That could include chances to run for LeGarrette Blount as well as Dion Lewis out of passing sets. But the ability to run and throw will hinge on the line giving a banged-up Tom Brady and his skill players time to work.
The group faces the elite interior challenge of Aaron Donald, the edge presence of Robert Quinn and a group of speedy linebackers. The Patriots’ game plan is likely also going to be very much affected by the team’s health, most notably of TEs Rob Gronkowski (back) and Martellus Bennett (ankle). Brady likely will continue to look to throw to rookie Malcolm Mitchell, mainstay Julian Edelman and budding big-play threat Chris Hogan.
The Patriots’ run defense bounced back last week to hold the Jets and Matt Forte in check and will look to continue to be stout against second-year Rams RB Todd Gurley, who has had a terrible sophomore campaign. Gurley has carried the ball 200 times — including six games with 19 or more attempts — so clearly the Rams will continue to stay balanced despite his dismal 3.2-yard average.
Assuming that the Patriots’ front, which could be without veteran DT Alan Branch, can keep Gurley from doing much, it will help the pass defense focus on making life tough on rookie QB Jared Goff. A week after sending more than four rushers just twice against New York, New England will continue its conservative, bend-but-don’t-break style to try to force Goff into the long drives that are dubious for a first-year player.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount vs. Rams MLB Alec Ogletree. Ogletree transitioned to the middle for his fourth season after spending the first three at weakside linebacker and leads Los Angeles in tackles with 125, including 96 solo stops. Blount leads the Patriots with 869 rushing yards on 212 carries.
–Rams WR Kenny Britt vs. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. Butler is having a solid season as the best coverage player in New England’s back end. But he is coming off his toughest day — picked on by Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall and Quincy Enunwa. Britt is having a very good season as the Rams’ top target, leading L.A. with 54 catches and four touchdown receptions. Whether Butler matches up with Britt or not, New England’s No. 1 cornerback will need to bounce back from a tough day for a pass defense that’s still trying to settle in at this late point in the season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Rams DT Aaron Donald. The Rams’ only hope against Tom Brady is to make him uncomfortable, and that means putting heat on him in the pass rush. Donald is a force in the interior, and his ability to collapse the pocket and create rushing opportunities for his linemates could make the game difficult for Brady.
FAST FACTS: Rams WR/PR Tavon Austin had a TD catch in Week 12. Since 2013, Austin is the only NFL player with at least five rushing TDs (he has seven), 10 receiving TDs (12) and a punt-return score (three). … Rams WR Kenny Britt has 297 receiving yards and three TDs in the past three road games. … Rams DT Aaron Donald recorded a sack and forced fumble last week. Since 2014, he leads NFL defensive tackles with 26 sacks. … Patriots QB Tom Brady has 200 career wins, tied with Peyton Manning for most all-time. In seven games this season, he has 2,201 passing yards, with 18 TDs and one interception. He has six passing TDs in the past two games vs. the Rams. … Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount has seven rushing TDs in his past five home games and leads the NFL with 12 rushing TDs. … Patriots WR Julian Edelman has 23 catches for 259 yards in his past three games. … Patriots DE Chris Long spent eight seasons with Rams (2008-15).
PREDICTION: Bill Belichick vs. a rookie QB? What a mismatch.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 31-16.
Detroit Lions (7-4) at New Orleans Saints (5-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Superdome. TV: FOX, Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale.
SERIES HISTORY: 24th regular-season meeting. Series is tied, 11-11-1. After winning three in a row in the series, the Saints have fallen to the Lions each of the past two seasons. In 2014, Detroit won 24-23 with two touchdowns in the final 3:38. Then, last December, the Lions extinguished the Saints’ flickering playoff hopes with a 35-27 victory at the Superdome. The Saints’ most famous win in the series came in their second meeting on Nov. 8, 1970, when Tom Dempsey booted a then-NFL record 63-yard field goal on the final play for a 19-17 victory at old Tulane Stadium. The Saints also claimed the only postseason matchup between the two franchises, prevailing 45-28 in a 2011 wild-card game at the Superdome.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Lions had the worst rushing offense in the NFL last year, but they piled up 150 yards on the ground in a December win over the Saints. This year, they aren’t running the ball much better — they rank 30th — but they will need another productive day to help a defense that will be stressed by Drew Brees. Brees is the most accurate quarterback in the NFL, and the Lions are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete a whopping 74 percent of their passes.
They’ll need to put up points, control the clock — or both — if they’re going to win for the seventh time in eight games.
Since the Lions rank around the middle of the NFL pack against the run and the pass, the run-pass balance the Saints have been getting in their most recent games should come in handy Sunday. Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower have provided another option for Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, so they don’t have to rely only on Brees.
The Lions rank 16th against the run, allowing 102.5 yards per game, so the Saints, who are up to ninth at 114.6 and are averaging 145.2 in the last six outings, will certainly go that route early in the game.
Defensively, the Saints will key on a Lions offense that has had trouble running the ball, ranking 30th at 80.8 yards per game. The Saints have been salty lately against the run and now rank 12th at 99.1 yards a game after ranking near the bottom of the league earlier in the season. They gave up 149.3 yards per game in their first three, but just 80.3 yards in their past eight outings.
That means the Saints will be challenged by Matthew Stafford, who is completing 66.8 percent of his passes, with 19 TDs and only five interceptions. Keeping him from getting hot with tight coverage in the back end, along with applying enough pressure, will be key.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Saints WR Michael Thomas vs. Lions CB Quandre Diggs. Diggs has had an underwhelming season as the Lions’ nickel cornerback after playing well upon winning the job in the second half of last year. The Lions have used three safeties in their nickel package at times to cover up for some of Diggs’ shortcomings, but Diggs should see plenty of action this week. Thomas, a rookie second-round pick, leads the Saints with 65 catches for 789 yards and plays plenty of snaps out of the slot despite being 6 feet 3.
–Lions TE Eric Ebron vs. Saints S Vonn Bell. Ebron had just one target and no catches in last week’s win over the Minnesota Vikings; but, with 451 yards receiving, he has been one of the Lions’ most productive pass catchers this year. The Vikings kept close tabs on Ebron, sometimes double-teaming him and using their speedy linebackers to make him a nonfactor. Bell has one pass breakup in each of the last three games, and the rookie rarely comes off the field for New Orleans.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Lions LB Josh Bynes. The Lions lost a handful of linebackers to injury early this year, including Bynes, Jon Bostic and DeAndre Levy. While Bostic remains on injured reserve following a broken foot and Levy still hasn’t returned from a Week 1 knee injury, the Lions cut Bynes in the preseason with intentions of re-signing him once he was healthy. They did, and Bynes has given the defense a huge lift. He has been a fixture in the Lions’ base defense and nickel package, and he has come up with a number of key stops in the four weeks since he returned — including a key fourth-and-1 stop on Matt Asiata in an early November win over the Minnesota Vikings.
FAST FACTS: Lions QB Matthew Stafford completed 22 of 25 for 254 yards and three TDs in the last meeting. He has 1,949 passing yards, 15 TD passes and four interceptions in his past seven road games. … Detroit RB Theo Riddick is tied for the NFL lead among RBs with four receiving scores. In the past two seasons, he leads NFL backs with 128 receptions. … Saints QB Drew Brees passed for 310 yards and four touchdowns, also rushing for one, last week. He leads the NFL with 3,587 pass yards and 30 TD passes — his ninth season with 30 TD passes, tied for most all-time. He has thrown a TD pass in an NFL-record 60 consecutive home games. … Saints RB Tim Hightower has 100 scrimmage yards in four of the past five games. … Saints rookie WR Michael Thomas leads NFL rookies with 65 receptions, 789 yards and seven TD catches.
PREDICTION: The Lions haven’t played a game decided by more than a touchdown all season, but they also have played few offenses as explosive as the Saints’ crew and have had trouble winning the close ones on the road.
OUR PICK: Saints, 30-27
Buffalo Bills (6-5) at Oakland Raiders (9-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Oakland Coliseum. TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn.
SERIES HISTORY: 38th regular-season meeting. The Raiders lead the series, 20-17. The Raiders won the last game in Oakland, 26-24, improving to 3-12, and knocked the Bills from the playoff race. Derek Carr completed 17 of 34 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns. The Bills have not won in Oakland since 1966, when their quarterback was Jack Kemp and the Raiders’ quarterback was Tom Flores.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The most talked-about pinky finger in Raiders history was protected by a glove during practice Wednesday. It appears Derek Carr will wear a glove on his right hand against the Bills, just as he did for most of the second half of a 35-32 comeback win over the Carolina Panthers last week. Carr wore the glove during practice Wednesday, and coach Jack Del Rio even wore one in solidarity.
Carr and the Raiders are looking for a sixth consecutive win.
While the pinky injury adds yet another chapter to an outstanding year in which Carr is being mentioned as an MVP candidate, the Raiders’ attention Sunday should be on defense because the Bills lead the NFL with 157.4 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per attempt. The Raiders’ rushing defense ranks dead last at 182.5 yards per game.
If the Bills can block Raiders LB Khalil Mack, QB Tyrod Taylor should take a few shots deep to talented WR Sammy Watkins, especially if Oakland CB DJ Hayden (hamstring) is limited or sidelined. He sat out practice Wednesday.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Raiders WR Amari Cooper vs. Bills CB Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore, in his contract year, has had an up-and-down season, but he has been on the upswing lately. In the last two games, against the Bengals and Jaguars, Gilmore has been almost unbeatable. It helped that A.J. Green got hurt for the Bengals and last week, when Ronald Darby went out, Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles stayed away from Gilmore’s side and went after Corey White. Still, Gilmore has been very good, and Cooper will provide a big test.
–Raiders OLB Khalil Mack vs. Bills RT Jordan Mills. Mack is coming off a monster game in Oakland’s victory over Carolina; after a slow start, he has now compiled nine sacks. Mack is a terror, and the Raiders will do all they can to make sure he is matched up across from Mills, the weak link on the Bills’ line. Mack may go against LT Cordy Glenn, but look for him to be on Mills’ side much more often, and the Bills will have to give Mills help with either TE Charles Clay or FB Jerome Felton.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Raiders RB Jalen Richard. An undrafted free agent from Southern Mississippi, Richard won a spot with the Raiders on a tryout basis during training camp. Richard is the Raiders’ second-leading rusher with 304 yards and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He is averaging 9.6 yards per punt return and 24.6 yards per kickoff return. He offers an explosive change of pace compared to starter Latavius Murray.
FAST FACTS: Raiders coach Jack Del Rio and Buffalo’s Rex Ryan worked on the same staff from 1999 to 2001 with the Baltimore Ravens, winning a Super Bowl championship following the 2000 season. … The Bills’ Tyrod Taylor leads NFL quarterbacks with 439 rushing yards. Since 2015, he is the only QB with 5,000 passing yards (5,136) and 1,000 rushing yards (1,007). … Buffalo RB LeSean McCoy had 134 scrimmage yards (103 rushing) last week. Since 2010, he leads the NFL with 7,869 rushing yards. … Buffalo CB Stephon Gilmore is tied for fourth in the NFL with four interceptions. … Raiders QB Derek Carr aims for a third consecutive game with a 100 passer rating. … Oakland WR Michael Crabtree led the team with eight catches for 110 yards last week. … Since 2015, Raiders WR Amari Cooper is one of eight NFL players with 130 catches with more than 14 yards per catch (14.4). … Raiders LB Khalil Mack is one of two players since 2000 to record an interception for a TD, a sack, a forced fumble and a recovery in a game. He has nine sacks, 10 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two recoveries and a pick-six in the past eight games.
PREDICTION: This is a game in which Bills coach Rex Ryan will try his ground-and-pound running attack against the Raiders’ generous defense. The key will be not only to score but to keep the ball away from Raiders QB Derek Carr, whose fourth-quarter comebacks have become a weekly sideshow.
OUR PICK: Raiders, 28-24.
Washington Redskins (6-4-1) at Arizona Cardinals (4-6-1)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, University of Phoenix Stadium. TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Chris Spielman, Kristina Pink.
SERIES HISTORY: The 122nd regular-season meeting. Washington leads the series, 74-45-2. Washington has won eight of the last nine meetings. Arizona won the last game 30-20 on Oct. 12, 2014, in Glendale and Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins threw three interceptions.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals seem suited to at least slowing Washington’s passing attack. After all, they rank second in the league in fewest passing yards allowed and have generally held tight ends in check. But that didn’t help them against Atlanta, the NFL’s top-ranked offense, in a 38-19 loss last week. Undisciplined play has proven costly for Arizona, which takes unnecessary penalties and frustrates its coaching staff.
Washington does need more from its rushing attack this week. Robert Kelley finally had a down game against Dallas after three strong weeks. But the offense should be able to put points up against the Cardinals. Even if tight end Jordan Reed doesn’t play, Vernon Davis could make up for that loss — as he did in two games Reed missed in October with a concussion.
The Cardinals know they have to get pressure on Kirk Cousins, not let him escape the pocket and make throws on the run or get outside and pick up yardage on his own. Arizona has been hit and miss when corralling similar quarterbacks this season. The secondary will need to play tighter press coverage against the Redskins’ trio of deep threats, which will require cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Marcus Cooper to win one-on-one matchups.
Offensively, look for the Cardinals to stick with the running game behind the legs of David Johnson more than they have in recent weeks, as Johnson’s ability to break games wide open is clearly evident. Johnson’s success will depend on the Cardinals’ defense, but coach Bruce Arians may have realized that he’s gone away from the running game far too early in some losses. As much as Arians would love to get speedy receivers John Brown and J.J. Nelson more involved in the passing game, each of those two have proven unreliable lately, so expect a healthy dose of throws from Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
Washington’s safeties and linebackers have been exposed in coverage in recent weeks against Green Bay and Dallas. The Redskins also aren’t particularly adept at stopping the run (25th in rushing yards allowed per game).
One area Washington can take advantage is Arizona’s patchwork offensive line. Palmer has been pummeled over the past two weeks and has been sacked 32 times this season. The Redskins’ pass rush — especially linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Trent Murphy — have to find a way to get pressure on Palmer and take advantage of a porous line.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Redskins WR DeSean Jackson vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson. A key to neutralizing Jackson is to be physical with him at the line, and Peterson certainly can do that. In recent weeks, he has been frustrated because referees have been hitting him with penalties. One risk: Peterson hurt his left knee vs. Atlanta last week. He didn’t practice Wednesday. Jackson is nursing a left shoulder injury but played well against Dallas last Thursday, scoring on a 67-yard catch. He is one of the game’s preeminent deep threats.
–Cardinals RB David Johnson vs. Redskins LB Su’a Cravens. Cravens’ versatility is key here because he can run with Johnson. Unfortunately, he’s also facing a player who is equal in size (225 pounds), can move like a wide receiver and has great hands. Arizona uses Johnson in the slot often. He caught a touchdown pass on a slant against Minnesota and almost had another last weekend against Atlanta.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Cardinals LT D.J. Humphries. He will make his second straight start at left tackle after playing the previous 11 games as the right tackle. It was clear that John Wetzel wasn’t ready to handle left tackle, and Humphries looked like an obvious upgrade at the position in his first start last week against Atlanta. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said, “He looked very natural at it. … I think he’s going to continue to get better.”
FAST FACTS: Redskins QB Kirk Cousins has completed 72.4 percent of his passes for 1,086 yards (362 per game), eight TDs and no interceptions in his past three games. He has eclipsed 400 yards in his past two road games and ranks second in the NFL with 3,540 yards. … Redskins RB Robert Kelley ranks third among NFC rookies with 461 rushing yards and four TDs. … In his past five games, Redskins WR Jamison Crowder has 31 receptions for 442 yards and three scores. He is averaging eight receptions and 101 yards in his past three road games. … Cardinals QB Carson Palmer passed for 250 yards and two TDs in the last meeting. He has thrown for 300 yards in two straight games. … Arizona RB David Johnson leads the NFL with 1,534 scrimmage yards (921 rushing) and 13 TDs (10 rushing). He has at least 100 scrimmage yards in all 11 games. … Arizona LB Chandler Jones has six sacks and two forced fumbles in six home games.
PREDICTION: The Redskins have been losing a lot of close games on the road recently, and they are going against the league’s best dual-threat running back and a defense that has been good at home.
OUR PICK: Cardinals, 23-21.
New York Giants (8-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Heinz Field. TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews.
SERIES HISTORY: 77th regular-season meeting. Giants lead series, 44-29-3. The Steelers won the previous meeting, 24-20, in 2012. This is only the third game in the series in Pittsburgh since 1991. Four of the past five meetings have taken place in New York. The Giants won the previous game at Heinz Field, 21-14, in 2008.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Steelers must find a way to limit Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. The Giants are 4-1 when Beckham scores — he has seven touchdowns during the team’s six-game winning streak, including two in a 27-13 victory over the Browns last week. Beckham is QB Eli Manning’s favorite target, and the Steelers need to force throws elsewhere. Sterling Shepherd has been an effective No. 2 receiver for the Giants, but he has only one 100-yard receiving game this season.
The Steelers’ versatile RB Le’Veon Bell has rushed for 100 yards three times this season and the Steelers are 3-0 in those games. They are 1-4 when Bell has been held below 100 yards. That is why the Steelers leaned on Bell in recent weeks. In the past two games against the Browns and Colts, Bell carried 51 times for 266 yards.
Of course, the Colts and Browns are among the worst rush defenses in the NFL. Rushing for 100 against the Giants will be more of a challenge — they are fifth in the NFL against the rush, allowing only 89 yards per game.
Balance is the key for the Giants’ offense. Last week against the Browns, New York was as balanced as a team will ever be, splitting its 54 offensive plays 50/50 between the run and the pass. But they didn’t get production out of that balance, rushing for 104 yards and passing for 194.
Giants QB Eli Manning needs time to get into a rhythm with his receivers.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Giants CB Janoris Jenkins. Brown has been held under 100 yards in three of his last four games, but he has five touchdowns, including three against the Colts on Thanksgiving night. Brown, whose 998 receiving yards are third-most in the league, likely will see a lot of Jenkins, the Giants’ best cornerback and a guy who week after week has found a way to minimize the damage done by the opposing team’s top receiver.
–Giants LG Adam Gettis vs. Steelers LB Lawrence Timmons. Gettis held up well last week in his first start as a Giant; but this week, assuming he remains the starter, he’s going to face a tougher test in Timmons, the Steelers’ team leader in tackles. Timmons is not only proficient against the run, he is a shifty pass rusher who has six quarterback hits to go along with 1.5 sacks. Timmons has been playing some of his best ball over the last month.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Steelers LT Alejandro Villanueva. The Giants have a pair of pass rushers who can wreak havoc in Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, and Villanueva will have his hands full trying to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright. Pierre-Paul had three sacks, a forced fumble and a 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown last week against the Browns. The Steelers likely will try to help Villanueva; but, when he is left on an island against Pierre-Paul, he must prevent JPP from making big plays.
FAST FACTS: Giants QB Eli Manning has 1,174 yards (293.5 per game) with 13 pass TDs and four interceptions in his past four games vs. AFC teams. … Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. caught 41 passes for 834 yards and nine TDs. Since entering the NFL in 2014, he is tied for the NFL lead with 33 TD catches. … Giants SS Landon Collins leads NFL safeties with 87 tackles and five interceptions and is tied for first with three sacks. … Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has thrown six TD passes in the past three games. He completed 70 percent for 221 yards and three TDs last week. … Steelers WR Antonio Brown had three TD catches last week and has five in the last four games. He leads the NFL with 82 catches and is tied for the league lead with 10 TD receptions. … Pittsburgh LB James Harrison has four sacks in the past four games and is the franchise leader with 78.5 sacks.
PREDICTION: The Giants have been hot and the Steelers have struggled, but we are looking for an upset in noisy Heinz Stadium with Big Ben and Antonio Brown winning a shootout against Eli Manning and OBJ. Look for Le’Veon Bell to be the difference.
OUR PICK: Steelers, 34-28.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5) at San Diego Chargers (5-6)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Qualcomm Stadium. TV: FOX, Rosen, David Diehl, Holly Sonders.
SERIES HISTORY: 11th meeting. The Chargers lead the series, 8-2. The Chargers have won two of the last three matchups, with the loss coming the last time they played in 2012 at Tampa Bay.
KEYS TO THE GAME: These are two teams other teams don’t want to play right now. So they play each other to see who is hot and who is not.
The Chargers need to get back to riding RB Melvin Gordon — against the Bucs would seem to be the right opportunity. While there are holes in the Bucs’ pass defense, it is coming off a sensational game in which it shut down Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Instead of QB Philip Rivers trying to force the ball into tight coverages, the Chargers should stick to a running game for a change — taking the load off Rivers and keeping Bucs QB Jameis Winston off the field.
The Bucs have been winning with defense and creating turnovers. Offensively, they have moved the football, but points have been hard to come by the past two games.
Tampa Bay scored 19 at Kansas City but just one touchdown. Against Seattle, the Bucs drove for touchdowns on their first two possessions but were shut out the rest of the game. A missed field goal, a fumble and an interception all snuffed out scoring chances.
Winston, with better protection, has been great on third down and much more willing to take the checkdowns. But the Bucs are going to find ways to get WR Mike Evansopen. Evans leads the NFL with 133 targets.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Chargers QB Philip Rivers vs. Bucs S Keith Tandy. Rivers has 23 touchdowns this season and still likes to throw it deep. The Bucs will likely be without S Chris Conte. That means Tandy most likely will get the start.
–Bucs LT Donovan Smith vs. Chargers DE Joey Bosa. Smith has struggled this season and the Bucs are using tight ends, backs and receivers to chip pass rushers. Bosa has come on since his holdout and has 4.5 sacks.