National Football League
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  • Friday, December 19, 2014
    Seahawks sign Avril to 4-year, $28.5M extension
    By The Sports Xchange

    The Seattle Seahawks signed defensive end Cliff Avril on Friday to a four-year contract extension worth $28.5 million with $16 million guaranteed.

    • Avril, who was set to become a free agent at the end of the season, joined the Seahawks in 2013. The 28-year-old pass rusher has totaled 40 tackles, 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles over 29 games with Seattle. He has 20 tackles, 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this season, and leads the team in quarterback hits with 17.

      "Cliff has been instrumental in what we've been building on the defensive side of the ball and we are excited that he'll be with us for another four years," general manager John Schneider said in a statement. "He has been relentless in his approach to the game and his passion for winning is contagious. This is another great day for the Seahawks and the 12s."

      Avril signed with Seattle as an unrestricted free agent on March 13, 2013, after originally being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the third round in the 2008 draft. He landed in Seattle after turning down a three-year, $30 million offer from the Lions. He is in the second year of a two-year contract worth as much as $15.1 million.

      Avril has started 76 of 102 career games played and recorded 203 tackles 52 sacks, 22 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries, 17 passes defensed and one interception which he returned for a touchdown.

      In the postseason, Avril has started two of four games played with seven tackles, two sacks, including 1.5 during Seattle's 2013 Super Bowl run, three passes defensed and two forced fumbles.

      Avril confirmed the deal on Twitter:

      "We have something special here in Seattle and I'm happy that I'll be a part of it for a few more years."

      Avril's new deal comes just one day after the Seahawks signed linebacker K.J. Wright to a four-year, $27 million contract extension.

  • Friday, December 19, 2014
    Vikings LB Barr done for season
    By The Sports Xchange

    Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr will have season-ending knee surgery, coach Mike Zimmer told reporters Friday.

    • Barr, who was the ninth pick in the draft this year, missed the last two games with the injury, which Zimmer called a "slight meniscus tear."

      Zimmer called the procedure "very minor."

      Barr finished his rookie season with four sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles.

      "He played great," Zimmer said. "Played great. And he's a great football player. Good kid. Studies hard, does everything right. He's very conscientious, hard working. ... He's already excited about getting back, getting this fixed and getting going."

      The Vikings (6-8) play at Miami this week and finish at home vs. the Chicago Bears.

  • Friday, December 19, 2014
    49ers promote DT Purcell
    By The Sports Xchange

    Short a defensive lineman after releasing Ray McDonald earlier this week, the San Francisco 49ers on Friday promoted nose tackle Mike Purcell from the practice squad.

    • Purcell, an undrafted player out of Wyoming in 2013, had spent the two last seasons on the practice squad.

      McDonald was released Wednesday after he was identified as a suspect in a sexual assault case.

  • Friday, December 19, 2014
    Bills' Spiller activated, probable to return
    By The Sports Xchange

    The Buffalo Bills activated running back C.J. Spiller from the injured reserve/designated for return list on Friday.

    • Spiller is listed as probable and expected to play against the Raiders in Oakland on Sunday.

      The 27-year-old Spiller has missed the last seven games with a broken clavicle. He was a limited participant in each practice this week.

      Spiller has been on the injured reserve/designated to return list since breaking his collarbone Oct. 19 against the Minnesota Vikings.

      Spiller has rushed for 287 yards on 69 carries and caught 14 passes for 109 yards and one touchdown for the Bills (8-6), who are one game out of the final wild-card spot.

      Tight end Chris Gragg (knee) is listed as questionable after limited participation in practice.

      Listed as probable are: safety Duke Williams (concussion), running back Anthony Dixon (chest), kicker Dan Carpenter (groin), safety, Da'Norris Searcy (hamstring), wide receiver Marcus Thigpen (foot), cornerback Stephon Gilmore (shoulder) and defensive end DE Jarius Wynn (knee).

  • Friday, December 19, 2014
    Panthers list Newton as probable
    By The Sports Xchange

    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is listed as probable and expected to start Sunday against the Cleveland Browns -- only 12 days after a rollover car accident.

    • Newton missed last week's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after he suffered two fractures to the transverse process in his back. The two-time Pro Bowler returned to practice Wednesday. Backup quarterback Derek Anderson started against the Bucs.

      Coach Ron Rivera wouldn't name a starting quarterback for Sunday.

      "We'll have a good feel tomorrow," Rivera said Friday.

      However, Rivera added, "We feel very confident.''

      The Panthers need to win in order to keep alive their slim hopes of winning the NFC South despite a 5-8-1 record.

      "It adds another dimension," Rivera said of Newton's probable return. "What Cam does is bring that extra dimension and ability to run.''

      The Panthers listed seven players on their final injury report for Week 16, with four of them questionable. Those four are linebacker A.J. Klein (ankle), guard Amini Silatolu (knee), running back DeAngelo Williams (hand) and cornerback Carrington Byndom (hamstring).

      Newton, safety Roman Harper (thigh) and linebacker Thomas Davis (knee) are listed as probable.

  • Friday, December 19, 2014
    Jets S Miles has shin surgery
    By The Sports Xchange

    New York Jets safety Rontez Miles sustained a shin injury during practice Thursday and later underwent surgery.

    • Miles was promoted from the practice squad to the Jets' 53-man roster Tuesday, and was slated to make his season debut Sunday against the New England Patriots.

      Miles was spotted in the locker room Thursday with a wrap around his shin. He appeared in one game last season.

  • Friday, December 19, 2014
    Belichick credits DT Branch for beefing up 'D'
    By The Sports Xchange

    Quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski are in the MVP conversation, but the New England Patriots have many overlooked assets that could push them to the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

    • Coach Bill Belichick identified tackle Alan Branch as one of the difference-makers on his defense. Yes, that Alan Branch, a player who was not even on the roster until he signed Oct. 29.

      He has become one of the top front seven performers for the Patriots, who visit the New York Jets on Sunday knowing that if they win out, they'll stay home for the playoffs.

      "Alan has done a good job," said Belichick, who said Branch and Sealver Siliga have stablized the run defense. "He's had some versatility. He's got length, but he's also got size. He's very athletic, (he) runs five flat or whatever. He has good quickness and can move. So, he has the versatility to play some different spots and do some different things along the defensive front."

      Edge rusher Chandler Jones is also back to boost a defense that was a sieve against the Jets on third downs in the first meeting, going 9 of 16, and rushed for 211 yards.

      "Yeah ... killed us," Belichick said Friday.

      The Patriots will rotate defensive linemen through in Sunday's game and show three-, four- and five-man fronts. Branch, 29, is 6-6, 315, and moves with suddenness.

      "He's a tough matchup on a lot of guys because of his length and because of his power. He's learned quickly," Belichick said. "I think technique-wise there are some things that we do that are probably a little different than some of the things that he's done. But he learns quickly. He's smart; he has a lot of experience. I'm glad we have him."

      New England is a top-1o defense going by points allowed, point differential, run defense and red-zone defense, but in the bottom half of the league on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 40 percent to first downs.

      Siliga spent 11 weeks on short-term injured reserve after suffering a foot injury on Sept. 21.

      "Branch is a big guy, Siliga is a big guy," Belichick said. "Chandler's more of an edge guy, but when you put them all together, it looks a little different than it did a few weeks ago."

  • Friday, December 19, 2014
    Jaguars-Titans: What we learned
    By The Sports Xchange

    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They called it the futility game. Two teams tied with the worst record in the NFL.

    • On this night, the Jacksonville Jaguars were just a shade better than Tennessee, using a 62-yard fourth-quarter run by Jordan Todman to open up an 11-point lead, en route to a 21-13 win over the visiting Titans at EverBank.

      While Jacksonville won the game, Tennessee could become the big winner. If the Titans lose their final game of the season at Indianapolis on Dec. 28, the Titans would be in line for the No. 1 overall draft choice in next year's college draft.

      While Tennessee's losing streak increased to nine consecutive games, the Jaguars won for the second time in their last four games. It was a win that coach Gus Bradley especially liked because of the short week of preparation.

      "It makes it tough when you have a short week, especially how physical the game was last week," Bradley said. "We had a lot of guys that we were testing at 5:00 tonight to see if they could go. Our whole objective this whole week was it's going to be a short week but to play fast tonight, and everything we had that mindset with our team."

      Tennessee turned the ball over on downs early in the fourth quarter when a fourth-down pass to wide receiver Kris Durham came up a yard short of a first down at the Jaguars' 38-yard line.

      On the first play following the change of possession, Todman broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, put a move on safety Michael Griffin, stiff-armed strong safety George Wilson and sprinted to the end zone. He followed with a leap into the arms of Jacksonville fans.

      "I heard the call (for him to carry the ball), and it was my first carry of the day so I was excited," Todman said. "I saw there was an opportunity to cut it back and make a guy miss and then it was off to the races. It was a great feeling. Everything happened to fall in place.

      Tennessee cut three points off the deficit on another Ryan Succop field goal, this one from 23 yards out with just over six minutes left in the game.

      The Titans got the ball one final time with just under a minute to play. They marched down to the Jaguars' 36-yard line, but quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was sacked by Sen'Derrick Marks on the last play of the game to give the Jaguars their third win of the year.

      Tennessee took the game's opening possession and marched 84 yards in 12 plays. Whitehurst was perfect in the drive, connecting on all six pass attempts for 71 yards. The score came on an 8-yard toss to Jacksonville native and running back Leon Washington.

      It was the first Titans score on an opening drive in their last 18 games. Jacksonville came into the game as one of just two teams that had not allowed a touchdown on its opponents opening drive.

      Tennessee increased its lead to 10-0 late in the second quarter when Succop converted on a 50-yard field-goal attempt with 3:46 remaining in the half.

      The Jaguars finally got their offense going following Succop's field goal. Quarterback Blake Bortles directed an 11-play, 80-yard scoring march, connecting with Marcedes Lewis from 4 yards out for the score. Bortles came up with the key play of the game, gaining nine yards on a third-and-9 to give the Jaguars a first down at the 13. Following an incomplete pass, Bortles connected with Lewis for the score, shaving the Titans halftime lead to 10-7.

      What the Jaguars said:

      "We've been in every game it seems like. They were a little rough, but we're close and I think the tenacity in this team, the fight we play with, I think everybody recognizes that across the league. Our record isn't showing it, but we're close and it was nice to come in tonight, national TV, Thursday night game, last home game for our fans, and to get a win." -- Running back Toby Gerhart.

      What the Titans said:

      "It was a disappointing loss for us. There are a few things you worry about on a short week, especially on the road with how you start and it couldn't have started much better for us. Defensively we did a nice job on them until the last drive of the first half." -- Coach Ken Whisenhunt.

      What we learned about the Jaguars:

      1. The Jaguars don't need gaudy, big numbers from quarterback Blake Bortles to win. Bortles had his lowest passing output of the season with 115 yards on 13-of-26 passing. But with a running game that included a committee of three players (including Bortles) all of whom gained at least 50 yards, the Jaguars totaled 177 yards on the ground, their second highest total of the season. Only the 185 yards on the ground against Cleveland (the team's first win of the year) topped Thursday's effort against Tennessee.

      "It's nice to put up that amount of rush yards," said Toby Gerhart who gained 53 yards on 14 carries before leaving in the fourth quarter with bruised ribs. "Credit the O-line, they were making some holes for us and I was a little jealous of (Jordan Todman's 62-yard touchdown run). That's the play I wanted but he house-called it. It was awesome for our team. We really grinded it out on them tonight."

      2. The Jaguars will need to shore up their pass-blocking before next season, whether it's the offensive linemen, the tight ends, the backs or simply Bortles not getting rid of the ball sooner. Jacksonville allowed another four sacks of Bortles to run their season total to 66, eclipsing the franchise record of 63 set in 2001. They've given up at least four sacks in six consecutive games.

      "We knew we were shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit (with the sacks)," left tackle Luke Joeckel said. "We didn't press or anything. We just kept going out there and trying to make plays. Things got going and the momentum was rolling."

      --DT Sen'Derrick Marks waited until the last play of the game against the Titans to collect on a sizeable bonus. Marks had 7.5 sacks heading into the game, a half-sack shy of reaching eight sacks which would result in a $600,000 bonus. He waited until the final play of the game when he grabbed Titans quarterback Charlie Whitehurst around the ankles for a 9-yard loss. Marks said there wasn't any pressure to get the final lucrative sack. "There wasn't any pressure, there were jokes about it," Marx said. "I'm taking the whole team out tonight, wherever we want to go. We're going to have fun, but they already put that on ne before I even said it, so we'll go out and have some fun with it."

      --DT Roy Miller did not suit up because of his ailing knee. He will have season-ending surgery on it in a couple of weeks. Miller really wanted to be on the field this week. He had just signed a four-year contract extension for approximately $16 million. That now locks down the Jaguars' two defensive tackles, as Sen'Derrick Marks also inked a new four-year deal several weeks ago.

      --DE Red Bryant said the Jaguars are now within one win of achieving a goal that head coach Gus Bradley threw at them last week. "Coach Bradley wanted us to have the mindset of being 9-5 and if we win both (final games), we get to the playoffs. He's just trying to get this team to continue to raise its expectations."

      What we learned about the Titans:

      1. Signing Leon Washington as a free agent during the 2013 season was a good move by the Titans. Washington was brought aboard primarily for kick return duties but he's proven to be much more valuable than just a returner. The 32-year-old Jacksonville native who played at Florida State had a solid all-around game for the Titans against the Jaguars. Midway through the second quarter Washington had more yards in total offense than did the Jaguars (53-16). He had a 25-yard catch on a third-and-4 situation to keep alive a Titans drive. He scored the first touchdown of the game on an 8-yard catch in which he bulled his way into the end zone.

      2. The Titans are one step closer to landing either Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota or Florida State's Jameis Winston assuming the latter comes out early as expected. That's a good thing because Charlie Whitehurst is simply not the answer to the Titans' offensive woes. He has served his purpose with the Titans and that is to fill the role of the backup quarterback. He's bounced around the league during his nine years as a pro but Thursday's game against Jacksonville was just his fourth start. Zach Mettenberger was drafted in the sixth round by the Titans but he doesn't appear to be the answer either.

      --NG Sammie Hill was a thorn in the Jaguars' passing attack. He was credited with one sack, one quarterback hit and one pass deflection. He also drew extra blocking help from the Jaguars offensive line in order to keep him away from quarterback Blake Bortles. Hill was despondent following the Titans' ninth consecutive loss this season. He credited Jacksonville's late first-half drive that resulted in a touchdown with 31 seconds left before intermission as maybe the key series of the game. "We should have stopped them on that last drive," Hill said. "That score kind of changed momentum in their favor. It's hard to beat them with the great defense that they have."

      --QB Charlie Whitehurst, who was 24-of-35 passing for 287 yards and one touchdown, said there will be no quitting on the Titans when they begin preparations for the season-ended against Indianapolis on Dec. 28. The Titans have lost nine games in a row and could close out the season on a 10-game losing streak. That, Whitehurst said, is unacceptable. "You are always what your record is, but we don't believe we're a 2-13 team. I think we have a lot of character in the locker room for sure and we know we can win these games. Nobody is giving up. You can see how hard we fight until the very end and that locker room expects to win next week."

      --RB Leon Washington turned in a solid game, leading the Titans in pass receptions with seven for 62 yards and the one score. He also had four punt returns for 27 yards, a kickoff return for 12 and ran the ball four times for 11 yards.

  • Friday, December 19, 2014
    Jaguars hand Titans ninth straight loss
    By The Sports Xchange

    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They called it the futility game. Two teams tied with the worst record in the NFL. On this night, the Jacksonville Jaguars were just a shade better than Tennessee, using a 62-yard fourth-quarter run by Jordan Todman to open up an 11-point lead, en route to a 21-13 win over the visiting Titans at EverBank.

    • While Jacksonville won the game, Tennessee could become the big winner. If the Titans lose their final game of the season at Indianapolis on Dec. 28, the Titans would be in line for the No. 1 overall draft choice in next year's college draft.

      While Tennessee's losing streak increased to nine consecutive games, the Jaguars won for the second time in their last four games. It was a win that coach Gus Bradley especially liked because of the short week of preparation.

      "It makes it tough when you have a short week, especially how physical the game was last week," Bradley said. "We had a lot of guys that we were testing at 5:00 tonight to see if they could go. Our whole objective this whole week was it's going to be a short week but to play fast tonight, and everything we had that mindset with our team."

      Tennessee turned the ball over on downs early in the fourth quarter when a fourth-down pass to Kris Durham came up a yard short of a first down at the Jaguars' 38-yard line.

      On the first play following the change of possession, Todman broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, put a move on safety Michael Griffin, stiff-armed strong safety George Wilson and sprinted to the end zone. He followed with a leap into the arms of Jacksonville fans.

      "I heard the call (for him to carry the ball), and it was my first carry of the day so I was excited," Todman said. "I saw there was an opportunity to cut it back and make a guy miss and then it was off to the races. It was a great feeling. Everything happened to fall in place.

      Tennessee cut three points off the deficit on another Ryan Succop field goal, this one from 23 yards out with just over six minutes left in the game.

      The Titans got the ball one final time with just under a minute to play. They marched down to the Jaguars' 36-yard line, but quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was sacked by Sen'Derrick Marks on the last play of the game to give the Jaguars their third win of the year.

      "Tonight it was more about mistakes that we made than anything else," Tennessee coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Because when we did it right as you can see by most of the first half, we played pretty good."

      Tennessee took the game's opening possession and marched 84 yards in 12 plays. Whitehurst was perfect in the drive, connecting on all six pass attempts for 71 yards. The score came on an 8-yard toss to Jacksonville native Leon Washington.

      It was the first Titans score on an opening drive in their last 18 games. Jacksonville came into the game as one of just two teams that had not allowed a touchdown on its opponents opening drive.

      Washington played his high school ball in Jacksonville and then went on to nearby Florida State. He turned in a solid game, leading the Titans in pass receptions with seven for 62 yards and the one score. He also had four punt returns for 27 yards, a kickoff return for 12 and ran the ball four times for 11 yards.

      Still, he expressed disappointment in the final outcome.

      "It's all about winning in the National Football League," he said. "We didn't win the game so we've got to figure out a way as to how do we get over the hump.

      "The first half we came out and did a good job, the second half, not so good."

      Tennessee increased its lead to 10-0 late in the second quarter when Succop converted on a 50-yard field-goal attempt with 3:46 remaining in the half.

      The Jaguars finally got their offense going following Succop's field goal. Quarterback Blake Bortles directed an 11-play, 80-yard scoring march, connecting with Marcedes Lewis from 4 yards out for the score. Bortles came up with the key play of the game, gaining nine yards on a third-and-9 to give the Jaguars a first down at the 13. Following an incomplete pass, Bortles connected with Lewis for the score, shaving the Titans halftime lead to 10-7.

      NOTES: Jaguars receivers wore black T-shirts during their warmups two hours before the game that read: "I can't breathe." ... Jaguars DT Sen'Derrick Marks earned a $600,000 bonus by recording eight sacks this season. He had 7.5 entering Thursday's game and got QB Charlie Whitehurst on the final play of the game. ... Titans tight ends coach Mike Mularkey was the last Jaguars head coach (2012) before current head coach Gus Bradley was hired prior to the 2013 season. ... The Jaguars were a 3-point favorite coming into the game, the first time in their last 42 games that they weren’t the underdog. The Jaguars avoided tying an NFL record for futility in that department as the St. Louis Rams set the league mark with 43 consecutive games as underdogs (2007-10).

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Ground game getting to where Bengals want it
    By The Sports Xchange

    CINCINNATI -- Fourteen weeks into the season the Cincinnati Bengals running game is finally starting to look the way Hue Jackson had imagined it would when he was hired as offensive coordinator Jan. 9.

    • "Sometimes it takes a little time," Jackson said. "It's been a long process, but I think we're getting there. Do I think we're there yet? No. You guys will know when we're there because everybody will feel it and see it. I saw a glimpse of it a week ago, and we've just got to keep at it."

      The Bengals rushed 45 times for 244 yards in the 30-0 rout at Cleveland on Sunday. That was four days after Jackson said he was not only promoting Jeremy Hill ahead of second-year back Giovani Bernard as the starter, but installing the rookie as his feature back and scrapping the shared-load approach.

      "We weren't running the ball the way I think we should, and the way I think we can," Jackson said. "I expect to be one of the most dominant running teams in football. I said that when I took this job, and I hadn't made good on that promise.

      "Sometimes you have to go back and look in the mirror and remember what you said to yourself and go back and do it," he continued. "In order to do that, you have to make some decisions and we made them and I think we're heading in that direction.

      "And by no means is that slighting any other guy -- not even to Gio or to any of the linemen. I just think at some point in time to get where I think we need to be at this time of year there were some decisions that needed to be made and we made them."

      With the 244 yards against the Browns, the Bengals jumped from rushing for 121.5 yards per game and ranking 10th in the league to averaging 130.3, which ranks sixth.

      In addition to the change at running back, Jackson made a midgame switch at right tackle when he sent Eric Winston in for Clint Boling, who slid back to his regular spot at left guard. Boling had played parts of the last two games at tackle after starter Andre Smith suffered a season-ending triceps injury at Houston.

      "I remember at some point there in the third quarter I told Paul (Alexander, offensive line coach), 'Put him in, let's go,'" Jackson said. "That's what you do. Sometimes you get a feel for things, whether it's been Jeremy, whether it's been Winston, whatever it is you have to have that feel."

      They may need more than a feel Monday night against a Denver defense that ranks second in the league against the rush, allowing 71.6 yards per game.

      "They are outstanding," Jackson said. "They have two of the best defensive ends in football. I shouldn't call Von Miller an end because he plays outside linebacker. DeMarcus Ware is as fine a football player as there is in pro football. Terrance Knighton is Man Mountain Dean. This guy is huge. (Derek) Wolfe, the kid from UC (University of Cincinnati), is playing good for them.

      "They are a good defensive football team," Jackson continued. "They are as good as we play. At the end of the day, it's a great challenge. That's what this time of year is going to be about. It's not going to be anybody we can roll the ball out there and play and they aren't going to give us a game. We are going to have to go earn our way, we'll have to go play as good as we can play to have a chance to win the game."

      The Bengals will clinch a playoff berth with a win and could be in position to win the division if Baltimore (at Houston) and Pittsburgh (vs. Kansas City) lose Sunday.

      Denver has already wrapped up the AFC West, but the Broncos are still playing for a first-round bye and possibly home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they can win one more than New England does during the final two weeks.

      --This is the 28th regular-season meeting between the Bengals and Broncos. The Broncos lead the series 19-8, including 7-6 in games played in Cincinnati. The Bengals' .296 winning percentage against Denver is their third worst against any opponent (.250 vs. Miami and San Francisco). One of the most memorable games in series history was 10 years ago. After a 12-year absence from Monday Night Football, the Bengals returned to the big show with a 23-10 victory against Denver in Marvin Lewis' second season as head coach. It also was Carson Palmer's second win as a starting quarterback.

      --Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is having arguably the best season of his nine-year career, but he said he doesn't expect to see his name pop up when the Pro Bowl rosters are announced Tuesday.

      "I don't know how many tackles haven't given up a sack all season, but I doubt it's many," Whitworth said. "I don't worry about that. It's fine."

      According to ProFootballFocus.com, Whitworth leads all tackles with a 98.5 grade in pass-blocking efficiency. He has allowed nine pressures on 463 pass-block snaps, and in eight of the 14 games he has allowed zero pressures.

      "It's not a contest for me to get to the Pro Bowl," Whitworth said. "My job is to get my team to the playoffs and win a playoff game. I know if this thing was done off of film and tape I'd be in it."

      Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware, whom Whitworth will be going against Monday night, said Whitworth is worthy.

      "He's one of the top tackles in the league," Ware said. "It doesn't matter if he makes a wrong step or if he does it the right way, he's not going to let you get to the quarterback. When you think about the top tackles, they'll say another name. They usually don't say him. But he's one of those guys who needs to be put in the echelon with the top tackles in the league."

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    NFL roundup: Bears bench Cutler; Clausen to start
    By The Sports Xchange

    Jay Cutler's future with the Chicago Bears is not determined beyond this week, coach Marc Trestman claimed Thursday while announcing Jimmy Clausen would make his first start since 2010.

    • Trestman stressed Thursday that his decision to bench the team's highly paid quarterback, whose seven-year contract includes a cash value of an NFL-high $22.5 million this season, in favor of Clausen for Sunday's game with the Detroit Lions was merely an attempt to find a way to win the next football game.

      "I think we need a lift at quarterback," Trestman said. "I think we need a spark."

      The move took Cutler by surprise. "Shocked, I think, at first," he said. "And then disappointed. I didn't see it coming. but I think anytime you lose a lot of games and you don't play as well as you'd hoped, there's a chance that that could happen."

      ---Quarterback Philip Rivers will start Saturday for the San Diego Chargers despite a back injury that might be more severe than the team has indicated.

      ESPN cited a source Thursday in reporting that Rivers is "battling a back injury that is bigger than people realize." He did not practice Wednesday and is on the injury report with back and chest injuries, but he was back at practice on Thursday and appeared to throw passes without a problem.

      Running back Ryan Mathews (ankle) did not practice Thursday, but defensive end Corey Liuget and tight end Lardarius Green returned.

      ---Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning went through team stetching exercises but left Thursday's practice to receive treatment on his strained thigh.

      According to the Denver Post, Manning did not suffer further injury to the thigh and is expected to practice Friday.

      Manning left last Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers late in the first half with a thigh issue but was able to return for the third quarter. He also battled flu-like symptoms during the game.

      ---Tight end Dominique Jones was signed to the Denver Broncos' active roster and offensive tackle DeMarcus Love to the practice squad.

      Jones played against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday after spending 13 weeks on the practice squad. He has played in 13 career games, including three starts, with the Colts (2012-13), Chiefs (2013) and Broncos (2014).

      Love is a fourth-year player drafted in the sixth round of the 2011 draft by the Vikings. He has played for the Vikings (2011-13) and Jaguars (2013) and served on the practice squad with the Giants and Saints this season.

      ---There is nothing wrong with Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray's left hand, if you judge by his grip Thursday on the team's man of the year trophy. Coach Jason Garrett said Thursday morning that Murray could play Sunday, six days after surgery to stabilize a broken left hand.

      Garrett said the experience of the medical staff in constructed a padded glove for Emmitt Smith gives the team confidence.

      Murray said after Thursday's practice that he plans to play on Sunday but that the decision was left up to him.

      ---Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took more reps in practice with the first-team offense on Thursday and could be on track to start Sunday against the Cleveland Browns after sitting out last week with injuries suffered in an auto accident.

      Carolina coach Ron Rivera has yet to name a starter for Sunday's game because he wants to wait and see how Newton responds but that he probably will get the nod.

      Despite a 5-8-1 record, the Panthers remain in the hunt for the NFC South Division title.

      ---The Seattle Seahawks signed linebacker K.J. Wright to a four-year contract extension.

      A fourth-round pick in 2011, Wright has started 54 of 58 career games and has recorded 333 tackles, 6.5 sacks, an interception, 14 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Wright, who has started at outside and middle linebacker, has already tied a career high with 96 tackles this season.

      New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman was back at practice Thursday but his status for Sunday's game is uncertain.

      The Patriots play at the New York Jets on Sunday with a chance to move closer to the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Edelman, who was been on the injury report for several weeks with a thigh injury, is following NFL concussion protocol. He was limited Wednesday and Thursday in practice.

      Edelman leads the Patriots with 92 receptions. He has four touchdowns and 972 receiving yards. He had four catches for 44 yards in the Oct. 16 meeting with the Jets.

      ---Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson plans to return Sunday for their game against the Baltimore Ravens after sitting out last week because of a concussion.

      Johnson was injured on a hit to the head by Jacksonville linebacker Telvin Smith during a Dec. 7 against the Jaguars. The 33-year-old Johnson said he has completed the NFL's concussion protocol and cleared to return.

      In 13 games this season, he has 69 receptions for 737 yards and two touchdowns.

      ---With reports circulating that Michigan has extended Jim Harbaugh a six-year, $48 million offer to become their head coach, he refused to answer questions about the job opening on Thursday.

      Meering with reporters, the 49ers coach offered a standard response regarding the Michigan vacancy. "As you know, I only talk about the job that I have," said Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback. "We've been together a long time. Always been my policy."

      Michigan is looking to replace Brady Hoke, who was fired Dec. 2 after four seasons.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Harbaugh steers clear of Michigan question
    By The Sports Xchange

    With reports circulating that Michigan has extended Jim Harbaugh a six-year, $48 million offer to become their head coach, he refused to answer questions about the job opening on Thursday.

    • Meering with reporters, the 49ers coach offered a standard response regarding the Michigan vacancy.

      "As you know, I only talk about the job that I have," Harbaugh said. "We've been together a long time. Always been my policy."

      The deal would make Harbaugh the highest-paid coach in college football. According to USA Today salary data, Alabama's Nick Saban makes approximately $7.16 million per year.

      Michigan is looking to replace Brady Hoke, who was fired Dec. 2 after four seasons.

      Harbaugh has been mentioned repeatedly as a potential candidate at Michigan, where he played quarterback in the 1980s. Before going to the 49ers, Harbaugh was a successful college head coach at Stanford and San Diego.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Brady touts Gronkowski's growth, professionalism
    By The Sports Xchange

    FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been one of the best players on the team and one of the best tight ends in the game since almost the first time he stepped on the field in New England as a second-round pick in 2010.

    • This season he ranks second on the Patriots with 76 catches, while leading the team with 1,093 yards and 11 touchdown receptions. It's his second 1,000-yard season and fourth campaign with at least 10 touchdowns.

      According to the man who throws him the football and takes advantage of the 6-foot-6 playmaker's unique skills, Gronk has come a long way.

      "He's grown up a lot over the last five years," quarterback Tom Brady said. "It's been a lot of fun to see it. His football IQ and understanding of what it takes to be a professional and consistently and dependably be that type of player for our offense that he's become has been fun to see. He's got the size advantage, the speed advantage, and he's really becoming so aware out there of different coverages and things they're trying to do to stop him. Now, after this time, he and I are really getting on the same page with a lot of things that are adjustments to adjustments to adjustments and that type of thing.

      "It's just been great playing with him. He's a huge part of our offense, really gets us going. He's a threat on third down, he's a threat in the red (zone) area, he's a threat on big plays any time in the game. He's a great player."

      It's a case of a relatively small draft-draft risk for the Patriots that has played enormous dividends. Gronkowski played two seasons at the University of Arizona but missed the third due to a back injury that left his status among NFL scouts mixed.

      "I'd say you pretty much nailed it. That's what it is," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said about weighting the risk-reward factor. "There wasn't a ton to go on. It was limited.

      "Certainly his college production in the passing game was limited. But you know, we brought Rob up here, we spent some time with him, talked to some people at Arizona that I think gave us good information about Rob in terms of what it was like to be with him on a day-to-day basis. If you meet Rob for 10 or 15 minutes, you might get an impression that may or may not be what it's like to have him in your office, in a classroom and on the field for six, seven hours a day. It might be a little bit different potentially. Obviously there was a medical concern that we had to clear that hurdle, but our medical people did that. That's pretty much it."

      Gronkowski has dealt with injuries that have robbed him of 14 games over the past two seasons, but is on pace to play in 16 regular-season games for the third time in five NFL seasons.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Cowboys RB Murray likely to start Sunday
    By The Sports Xchange

    There is nothing wrong with Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray's left hand, if you judge by his grip Thursday on the team's man of the year trophy.

    • Head coach Jason Garrett said Thursday morning that Murray could play Sunday, six days after surgery to stabilize a broken left hand.

      "We'll see how DeMarco's situation unfolds," Garrett said, admitting most indications are the NFL's leading rusher will play against the 10-4 Indianapolis Colts.

      Murray said he'll ultimately make the decision to play or sit Sunday. He participated in team drills Thursday on a limited basis and said the hand was fine.

      "I'm a very competitive person and I want to help this team out as much I can, so whatever that portrays me doing Sunday, then we'll see," Murray said. "But I've had two good days, and we'll see how it goes."

      Garrett said the experience of the medical staff in constructed a padded glove for Emmitt Smith gives the team confidence. He also is "comfortable" giving more work to Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar. Murray's primary backups have combined for just 60 carries this season, compared to 314 for Murray.

      "Those guys have done a really good job as the season has gone along," Garrett said. "We believe in this guys and have a lot of confidence in those guys."

      Murray's well-timed career year is not happenstance, the coach said, and all of the credit can't be given to a dominant offensive line that features three first-round draft picks.

      "He's always had pretty good instincts and vision," Garrett said of Murray. "The more they understand what we're doing, the more they understand defenses ... that's an important thing for that position. You have to understand what the blocking scheme is and what it should look like."

      Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wants to see Murray in the lineup but agreed that the final decision is not his to make.

      "Even though we're at home, we shouldn't leave anything back at the house," Jones said. "We've got to put it all out there. If he can help us win, then that's the smart decision as far as strategy is concerned. As it turns out, this isn't about strategy; this is about him. But I do think that his attitude about it is inspiring for everybody."

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Clausen in, Cutler out for spark-seeking Bears
    By The Sports Xchange

    LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler's future with the Chicago Bears is not determined beyond this week, coach Marc Trestman claimed Thursday while announcing Jimmy Clausen would make his first start since 2010.

    • Trestman stressed Thursday that his decision to bench the team's highly paid quarterback, whose seven-year contract includes a cash value of an NFL-high $22.5 million this season, in favor of Clausen for Sunday's game with the Detroit Lions was merely an attempt to find a way to win the next football game.

      "I think we need a lift at quarterback," Trestman said. "I think we need a spark."

      Despite great speculation that this is the Bears coach's attempt to show his system can work if implemented properly through Clausen -- a sort of last ditch effort to save his own job -- Trestman pushed the move into the category of something simple and result-oriented.

      A report by Chicago radio station WSCR-AM citing an unidentified source said Bears ownership had decided Monday that Trestman must go, but there has been no official announcement of this.

      However, the explanation for Trestman's move appears deeper than he suggests when it's considered that in early December he said Cutler would play "as long as he is healthy."

      "I did say that at the time and i've changed my mind," Trestman said. "I definitely said that at the time. I felt like it was 'as long as Jay was healthy this week,' but I've changed my mind. I think this is in the best interest of the team."

      Cutler had a season-low 55.8 passer rating in Monday night's 31-15 loss to New Orleans as the Bears fell behind early in a game for the third straight week.

      "I mean, it's very evident we're not playing as well at the quarterback position," Trestman said.

      When it was suggested to Trestman that he has ulterior motives, particularly a job-saving maneauver, he tried to stamp out this thought.

      "I'm not looking to try to do anything but help our football team win a game," he said.

      The move took Cutler by surprise.

      "Shocked, I think, at first," he said. "And then disappointed. I didn't see it coming. but I think anytime you lose a lot of games and you don't play as well as you'd hoped, there's a chance that that could happen."

      Whether the Bears would be willing to take a huge salary cap hit and loss of cash for ownership remains to be seen. On Cutler's end, the contract hasn't necessarily weighed on him as he has failed in his second year within this offensive system.

      "Whether they pay me or don't pay me, I don't like being in this situation," Cutler said. "I don't like having to sit up here and answer these questions about me not being able to play on Sunday.

      "I'd rather get paid less and be able to play on Sunday and play at a high level, if that was possible. But it's not right now. The security of the contract is nice, but I would trade that for reversing our record and playing better football."

      Trestman insisted this doesn't necessariliy mean it's the end of the line in Chicago for Cutler, even if he will be 32 years old next season and hasn't lived up to expectations.

      "That doesn't mean that Jay's growth as a quarterback can't continue and he can't get to where we think he could be," Trestman said. "Because every quarterback is on their own journey and some people go through these times.

      "There's clearly evidence historically that some players are 30 years old, 31 years old and haven't reached their potential and when they conclude their year they have. And right now Jay is not at a good point. He's not playing as well as he could play. I said that starts with me. That's an accountability issue with all of us as a team and he has not done that and we have not done that and that's why we made the decision for this moment."

      Neither Trestman nor offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer would give examples of quarterbacks who resurrected their careers after flopping at Cutler's age, although they insist there have been some.

      Cutler would like to think the move will benefit him.

      "I think it's going to serve me going forward," he said. "Hopefully, it's here. If not, it will somewhere else.

      "It's definitely been different, it's (a benching) been something I haven't experienced, like I said earlier. It's hard to say right now it's valuable because I don't really enjoy the situation we're in right now, but I think later on, whenever you look back on it, it's going to serve me well."

      Cutler will back up Clausen, who is going against the league's No. 1 defense in his first start since going 1-9 as a rookie starter for Carolina in 2010.

      "That was four years ago, so it's obviously a little different," Clausen said. "I've gained more knowledge since 2010, the last game I started, just being around different guys, different coaches, just being around the game, seeing it from a different perspective on the sidelines.

      "I think that's going to help me on Sunday."

      If it does, it's possible Trestman could be the beneficiary -- provided Bears management hasn't already made a final decision on replacing him.

      NOTES: K Robbie Gould missed Thursday's practice with the quad injury that has kept him out of consecutive games.

      --WR Alshon Jeffery missed Thursday's practice but it was non-injury related and he is expected to play Sunday against Detroit.

      --CB Tim Jennings missed Thursday's practice and is day to day with an ankle injury. Al Louis-Jean is his replacement.

      --DE Jeremiah Ratliff did not practice Thursday due to knee soreness and is day to day. He had missed consecutive games with the injury, but played against New Orleans Monday.

      --DT Will Sutton missed Thursday's practice due to illness and is day to day.

      --S Chris Conte practiced Thursday on a limited basis. His status for Sunday's game with Detroit is uncertain.

      --LB Shea McClellin went through a complete practice Thursday after an ankle injury was a concern.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Newton on target to start Sunday for Panthers
    By The Sports Xchange

    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took more reps in practice with the first-team offense on Thursday and could be on track to start Sunday against the Cleveland Browns after sitting out last week with injuries suffered in an auto accident.

    • The two-time Pro Bowler returned to practice on Wednesday -- one week after a rollover crash near Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte left him with two fractured transverse processes in his back -- and split reps with backup Derek Anderson.

      Carolina coach Ron Rivera has yet to name a starter for Sunday's game because he wants to wait and see how the back responds, but he said Newton probably will get the nod.

      "I would say he is on target," Rivera said. "He had a good day and took the reps he was supposed to."

      Reports from practice on Thursday indicated that Newton threw a 65-yard pass and looked good. He said he hasn't experienced any pain during practice.

      "If I can play, we all know I want to play," Newton said. "But that the end of the day I won't jeopardize what we have the opportunity to do just because of my selfishness to say, 'Oooh. I'm a tough man.'"

      Newton sat out the Panthers' 19-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday while recovering from the two-car crash.

      Despite a 5-8-1 record, the Panthers remain in the hunt for the NFC South Division title.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Seahawks sign LB Wright to 4-yr extension
    By The Sports Xchange

    The Seattle Seahawks signed linebacker K.J. Wright to a four-year contract extension.

    • A fourth-round pick in 2011, Wright has started 54 of 58 career games and has recorded 333 tackles, 6.5 sacks, an interception, 14 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

      "In the offseason, we identified K.J. as one of our core players moving forward and aimed to keep him as a part of the Seahawks family for a long time," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said in a statement. "The timing of this signing gives us the ability to keep as many of our core players together as we possibly can. Since Day One, K.J. has been a true professional in his daily approach and we are excited for K.J., his family and the 12s to keep him in the organization."

      Wright, who has started at outside and middle linebacker, has already tied a career high with 96 tackles this season.

      "K.J. is the epitome of a team guy," said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. "We are excited to reward a player of his caliber for all the hard work he has put in over the years to become an important piece of our defense."

      Wright's extension is the first of several contract situations the Seahawks will need to address. Top reserve middle linebacker Malcolm Smith is a pending free agent this offseason, while middle linebacker Bobby Wagner will be eligible for an extension on his rookie deal. The Seahawks will also have the option to put a one-year extension tag on weak-side starter Bruce Irvin's rookie contract.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Texans WR Johnson expects to play Sunday
    By The Sports Xchange

    Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson plans to return Sunday for their game against the Baltimore Ravens after sitting out last week because of a concussion.

    • Johnson was injured on a hit to the head by Jacksonville linebacker Telvin Smith during a Dec. 7 against the Jaguars.

      The 33-year-old Johnson said he has completed the NFL's concussion protocol and cleared to return.

      In 13 games this season, Johnson has 69 receptions for 737 yards and two touchdowns.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Rivers' back injury 'bigger than people realize'
    By The Sports Xchange

    Quarterback Philip Rivers will start Saturday for the San Diego Chargers despite a back injury that might be more severe than the team has indicated.

    • ESPN cited a source Thursday in reporting that Rivers is "battling a back injury that is bigger than people realize."

      Rivers did not practice Wednesday and is on the injury report with back and chest injuries, but he was back at practice on Thursday and reports indicated that he appeared to throw passes without a problem.

      Rivers said he plans to play Saturday at San Francisco in what could be the final meaningful game of the season for the Chargers after consecutive home losses.

      "We still got a lot of fight in us," wide receiver Eddie Royal stressed.

      The best way for the Chargers to reach the postseason is to win this week and end the season with a road victory at Kansas City. If that happens, and Baltimore or Pittsburgh or Cincinnati falters, the Chargers could have a January pulse.

      "We're still not in a great position," first-year offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "We just got to take care of business and try to go 1-0 this week."

      Among the reasons the Chargers are scrambling -- their offense is in shatters. Running back Ryan Mathews (ankle) did not play last week and might miss another game and Rivers is clearly not himself. Matthews did not practice again Thursday.

      "It's not about blame," said Reich, a former NFL quarterback. "It's about accountability. We have to stick together, but each person, individually, has to find a way to do better.

      "I've been on teams that went to Super Bowls and ones that were 2-14," Reich said. "And it's crazy how thin the line is between those two."

      Meanwhile, defensive end Corey Liuget and tight end Lardarius Green were back at practice on Thursday.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    NFL coaching changes not always the answer
    By The Sports Xchange

    Here we go again, about to embark on that annual exercise in which NFL team owners perform the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when what they really ought to do is look in the mirror.

    • Does anyone really think the problems of the Washington Redskins (eight coaches since 2000) revolve around the coach, Jay Gruden?

      Or how about Oakland blaming interim coach Tony Sparano after already firing Dennis Allen? The Raiders have not had a winning record since 2002, while going through eight coaches?

      Or should the reborn Cleveland Browns, who are on their eighth coach since coming back into the NFL in 1999, blame first-year coach Mike Pettine?

      Listen up, owners. Do you want to win?

      You ought to follow the template of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have had three coaches since 1969. All three brought Lombardi trophies to the Steel City.

      Unfortunately for coaches, there is only one Rooney family in the NFL. With that in mind, here are the half-dozen hottest coaching seats as we approach the end of the season:

      1. Chicago. The Bears are arguably further away from the rest of their division than any other team in the league. Green Bay is solid as long as Aaron Rodgers plays. Detroit finally seems to have a level-headed coach to handle its talented roster. And Minnesota is clearly on the upswing under Mike Zimmer.

      The Bears, however, are choked by Jay Cutler's contract and internal turmoil. They are not known as a team eager to eat a coach's contract, but Marc Trestman's strength is offense, and the Bears are more than 40 yards a game behind last year -- and, unless they win their final two games, headed for their worst record in a decade.

      2. San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh is history; the only question is how the end will be orchestrated. Harbaugh is a tough employe, but a terrific coach, and he is not the biggest problem, despite a mistake at quarterback -- Alex Smith, a low-risk, smart guy who rarely makes the dumb play, was the perfect quarterback for the team Harbaugh was building around a great defense, but Harbaugh chose to dump Smith after rebuilding him.

      The bigger problem with the 49ers is management. There's no one who can tell CEO Jed York he made a mistake by getting into a hissing match with his coach. York's uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, always had Carmen Policy to whisper in his ear and tone down DeBartolo's worst instincts. York has no one like that.

      3. Miami. We know owner Stephen Ross wanted Harbaugh the last time around. We know Joe Philbin is about to finish his third straight season without a playoff appearance. Philbin appeared to have found a keeper at quarterback in Ryan Tannehill but in the last three games, the Dolphins have just one touchdown drive longer than 39 yards. Is Ross about to go back to square one? Yeah, he might.

      4. Washington. Jay Gruden is apparently not as fond of his quarterback, Robert Griffin III, as Dan Snyder, the owner. This is Gruden's first year on the job. Snyder's history includes a couple of multi Super Bowl winners (Joe Gibbs, Mike Shanahan) and one of only six coaches to win 200 games (Marty Schottenheimer). What's the constant here? The owner.

      5. N.Y. Jets. This is Rex Ryan's sixth season as the Jets' coach. It's also his worst year. He works under a general manager who did not hire him and who has his own job security issues. The issue for the Jets is do they start over with a new GM/coach tandem or do they allow Idzik, who has not distinguished himself, to salvage his job by firing Ryan.

      6. Oakland. No one will get rich betting on what this franchise will do. GM Reggie McKenzie took over a team in salary cap hell, seems to have fixed that, and acquired some decent young talent including QB Derek Carr. It's not clear that Tony Sparano is the coach to turn this situation around, but this is still the least desirable coaching job in the league. What's the Oakland constant? One Davis after another.

      Two other teams worth keeping an eye on: Atlanta and the New York Giants. Falcons owner Arthur Blank does not have a quick-trigger history but the Falcons regression -- 9-22 starting with the NFC championship game following the 2012 season -- does not bode well for coach Mike Smith, especially with a new stadium on the horizon. And, while Tom Coughlin's two Super Bowl victories earn him a lot of love from the Maras, this is three straight years out of the playoffs.

      Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than three decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Manning leaves Broncos' practice for treatment
    By The Sports Xchange

    Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning went through team stetching exercises but left Thursday's practice to receive treatment on his strained thigh, the Denver Post reported.

    • According to the Post, Manning did not suffer further injury to the thigh and is expected to practice Friday.

      Manning left last Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers late in the first half with a thigh issue but was able to return for the third quarter. He also battled flu-like symptoms during the game.

      The Broncos are preparing for a Monday night game against the Bengals in Cincinnati.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Broncos add TE Jones to roster
    By The Sports Xchange

    Tight end Dominique Jones was signed to the Denver Broncos' active roster.

    • Offensive tackle DeMarcus Love was signed to the practice squad.

      Jones played against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday after spending 13 weeks on the practice squad. He has played in 13 career games, including three starts, with the Colts (2012-13), Chiefs (2013) and Broncos (2014).

      Love is a fourth-year player drafted in the sixth round of the 2011 draft by the Vikings. He has played for the Vikings (2011-13) and Jaguars (2013) and served on the practice squad with the Giants and Saints this season.

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    NFL Week 16: What to watch in every game
    By The Sports Xchange

    Philadelphia Eagles (9-5) at Washington Redskins (3-11)

    • Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, at FedExField, Landover, Md. - TV: NFL Network

      *TV announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Stacy Dales

      *Keys to the game: When the teams met back in Week 3, the Redskins did an excellent job of bottling up Eagles RB LeSean McCoy, who managed just 22 yards on 19 carries. He has since worked through an early-season funk, and Philadelphia wants to get him untracked to ease the burden on QB Mark Sanchez. Sanchez has been waffling with his accuracy, including several high passes last week, and turnovers are the Eagles' biggest threat.

      The Redskins turn back to QB Robert Griffin III, who coach Jay Gruden has alternately said has an opportunity to take control of the offense while also saying Washington must get a lead and not force RGIII to win the game from the pocket. He did get out and make some plays with his feet last week, but the Eagles sport a fast defense that won't get beat often on the edges. RB Alfred Morris tends to be more effective with the dual-threat QB occupying some of the defense's attention, and must be a factor out of the gate because the Redskins' pass protection has been horrid of late.

      *Matchup to watch - Eagles CB Bradley Fletcher vs. Redskins WR DeSean Jackson: Eagles coach Chip Kelly said Fletcher will remain in the starting lineup despite getting beat for three touchdowns by Cowboys WR Dez Bryant last week. Jackson lacks Bryant's size, but he did catch five passes for 117 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown, in the first meeting. However, he has not established great chemistry with RGIII, and had just 15 yards while catching three of eight targets last week.

      *Player spotlight - Eagles WR Jordan Matthews: The rookie caught eight passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting, and his size out of the slot presents a matchup issue for the Redskins.

      *Fast facts: According to FOX Sports last week, the Redskins are only the second team in the past 50 seasons to allow at least five sacks in six straight games. The Eagles lead the league in sacks per pass attempt.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      The Eagles are in a must-win situation for their playoff lives. The Redskins have become increasingly less competitive as their six-game losing streak has gone on, and in-fighting continues to drag down morale.

      *Our pick: Eagles 30-20

      San Diego Chargers at San Francisco 49ers

      Saturday, 8:25 p.m. ET, at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. - TV: CBS

      *TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Jenny Dell

      *Keys to the game: It's a battle of attrition for two teams limping to the finish line with a slew of injuries. The Chargers lost WR Keenan Allen to a broken collarbone, and RB Ryan Mathews is expected to miss the game with a sprained ankle.

      That leaves QB Philip Rivers exposed to a defense that can still dominate in the trenches. He has struggled with his accuracy of late and his receivers are not consistently gaining separation. But the 49ers also took a hit with standout rookie LB Chris Borland shut down for the season and DE Ray McDonald released midweek.

      As sporadic as the offense has been, San Diego coach Mike McCoy has been pleased with the overall play on the other side of the ball. The Chargers gave up three completions of 30-plus yards to Peyton Manning last week but otherwise held up well, and the run defense allowed just 2.8 yards per carry. The 49ers may be without RBs Frank Gore (concussion) and Carlos Hyde (ankle), leaving journeyman Alfonso Smith running with the first team.

      Embattled QB Colin Kaepernick clearly misses the Pistol formation, as he is uncomfortable throwing consistently from the pocket and isn't getting outside as often to utilize his dual threat abilities.

      *Matchup to watch - 49ers offensive line vs. Chargers OLB Melvin Ingram: Clearly the Chargers' most dynamic pass rusher, Ingram will seek mismatches against an offensive line that allowed six sacks and 11 quarterback hits last week. Some of those fall on Kaepernick, who too often lacks decisiveness in the pocket.

      *Player spotlight - 49ers LB Nick Moody: Called for a controversial roughing penalty last week, the second-year player is in line for increased snaps with Borland out.

      *Fast facts: Chargers TE Antonio Gates needs 145 receiving yards to become the fourth tight end in NFL history to reach 10,000 for his career. ... Kaepernick has a 58.1 passer rating with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the fourth quarter of games within seven points this season.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      The 49ers are 3-3 at home and playing a meaningless game for the first time under coach Jim Harbaugh. How they respond will be indicative of how far the situation has unraveled. The 49ers still have superior talent at most spots, and our bet is Harbaugh rallies his troops.

      *Our pick: 49ers 23-19

      Atlanta Falcons (6-8) at New Orleans Saints (6-8)

      Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans - TV: FOX

      *TV announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver

      *Keys to the game: This is the site that sparked a new purpose from Atlanta owner Arthur Blank to become a tougher, more accountable team in response to Matt Ryan being de-cleated by S Kenny Vaccaro last season with no reaction from Falcons teammates. That toughness campaign is measured in pass-fail terms Sunday in a stadium that has been a house of horrors for the Falcons, who are 1-5 under coach Mike Smith at the Superdome.

      Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has two game plans - one with Julio Jones and one without - and Atlanta's win-loss quotient rides on the team's best offensive player returning from a hip injury. The Falcons rushed for 123 yards on 25 carries and running back Jacquizz Rodgers added a 17-yard touchdown down in the opener. The Falcons have been committed to the run down the stretch. They were averaging 27 carries over six games before they had to abandon the run against Pittsburgh last week after falling behind 20-7.

      Neither defense does much of anything well, and the game figures to rest in the hands of both quarterbacks. Saints QB Drew Brees is no longer unbeatable at home, but rising consistency from his running backs has helped him before more efficient in the second half of the season.

      *Matchup to watch - Falcons CB Robert McClain vs. Saints WR Marques Colston: McClain had an interception in the Week 1 meeting. But noted Falcons killer Colston had five catches for 110 yards and owns a TD catch in four straight home games against Atlanta.

      *Player spotlight - Saints RB Mark Ingram: With 60 yards and two touchdowns Week 1, Ingram set the pace for his first career 1,000-yard season in a contract year. He needs 131 yards to reach 1,000.

      *Fast facts: Brees is 7-1 at home against the Falcons. ... Jones has averaged 224 receiving yards in his past two games before sitting out against Pittsburgh.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      History tells us the game will be tight, an exhibition in precision passing with defenses playing the part of extras. The team that avoids turnovers is still standing come Sunday night, and Atlanta has a plus-11 edge over the Saints in that category.

      *Our pick: Falcons 31-27

      Baltimore Ravens (9-5) at Houston Texans (7-7)

      Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at NRG Stadium, Houston - TV: CBS

      *TV announcers: Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein, Brad Johnson

      *Keys to the game: The Ravens' primary concern is making sure Texans MVP candidate J.J. Watt doesn't single-handedly keep Houston in the game. The Texans rank 26th defending the pass, but QB Joe Flacco will likely retain the approach from last week's victory against Jacksonville and manage an efficient offense and put the onus on a depleted opponent.

      The Texans are down to their fourth-string option at quarterback, which is likely to be Case Keenum over Thaddeus Lewis. Keenum, signed off St. Louis' practice squad Monday, went 0-8 as Houston's starter last season and lacks the ideal arm strength to exploit Baltimore's depleted secondary. Instead, he'll need strong support from the ground game in order to buy time to work off play-action. If not, he'll be at the mercy of a Ravens defense that has 14 sacks over the past two games.

      With the Texans likely to struggle to move the ball, Flacco will dare the defense to commit eight defenders to the box against RB Justin Forsett and then hope his receivers show better hands than they did against the Jaguars.

      *Matchup to watch - Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak vs. Texans defense: Houston's former coach returns to NRG Stadium in his first season as Baltimore's OC. Last year, the Ravens were 25th in points, 29th in yards and 30th in yards rushing. Under Kubiak, they are eighth in scoring (26.9 points), 10th in offense (372 yards) and fifth in rushing (132.6).

      *Player spotlight - Ravens TE Owen Daniels: Like Kubiak, Daniels spent the past eight seasons with the Texans. He enters Sunday second on the Ravens with 45 receptions.

      *Fast facts: Forsett rushed for 374 yards and a touchdown while with the Texans in 2012. ... Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins needs 150 receiving yards to break Andre Johnson's (2,118) franchise record for yards through a player's first two NFL seasons.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      The Ravens are 30th in pass defense and placed another DB on injured reserve this week. Unfortunately, with a soft-armed QB signed off the Rams' practice squad Monday, the Texans are ill-equipped to hit Baltimore where it is most vulnerable.

      *Our pick: Ravens 26-16

      Cleveland Browns (7-7) at Carolina Panthers (5-8-1)

      Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte - TV: CBS

      *TV announcers: Tom McCarthy, Adam Archuleta

      *Keys to the game: Balance might be a pipedream for the Browns, who average 3.6 yards per carry. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan understands the struggles of his line and rookie running backs, but not pushing the ball to Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell all but seals rookie QB Johnny Manziel's fate on the road. He'll use Manziel as a ballcarrier out of the Pistol formation, which is new to Manziel, and ideally keep his pass attempts under 25.

      The Panthers are sharpening their teeth to get after Manziel, but also the Browns run defense. Cleveland is being scorched for 137.6 yards per game on the ground, including 244 yards last week to the Bengals. With QB Cam Newton (back) moving gingerly, the Panthers can turn to plowhorse FB Mike Tolbert and RB Jonathan Stewart.

      *Matchup to watch - Browns WR Josh Gordon vs. Panthers CB Josh Norman: Gordon hasn't scored yet this season while Norman kept Buccaneers rookie Mike Evans to two receptions last week. Norman was furious after he gave up an eight-yard touchdown to Evans in the first quarter, but he contained the rookie the rest of the way.

      *Player spotlight - Browns CB Buster Skrine: Skrine has the speed to stay with Panthers rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin, who has 67 catches for 952 yards and nine touchdowns. Skrine, who has shown improvement this season, would love to make sure Benjamin doesn't reach 1,000 yards on his watch and might get the chance with Joe Haden (shoulder) iffy.

      *Fast facts: Newton needs 188 yards for his fourth consecutive 3,000-yard passing season. ... The Browns have converted only 30.2 percent of third-down attempts this season.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      Holes at cornerback and a sputtering rushing attack put Manziel in the crosshairs, more than the rookie can overcome on the road as the Panthers grind out a close one and inch closer to the playoffs.

      *Our pick: Panthers 23-15

      Detroit Lions (10-4) at Chicago Bears (5-9)

      Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Soldier Field, Chicago - TV: FOX

      *TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews

      *Keys to the game: Before dismissing a bounce from the Bears is possible with a replacement-level quarterback, consider journeyman Josh McCown thrived in coach Marc Trestman's system with a 109 passer rating and 13 touchdowns to just one interception last season. RB Matt Forte has averaged nearly 110 yards from scrimmage in his career against the Lions and will need that type of production for Jimmy Clausen to remain upright.

      Even with their snarling defense in tow, the Lions are not taking a win for granted at Chicago, where they last won back-to-back games in 1973 (six in a row). Of course, with Clausen in and the Bears allowing at least 31 points each of the past three games, the Lions won't be facing one of the many great Chicago teams that beat them over the past four decades.

      Blitzing the center of the line can be a trick that will force Lions QB Matt Stafford into a few silly turnovers or to run into sacks off the edge. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker might need to show more creativity to slow down Stafford, who ripped through the one-on-one coverage against WR Calvin Johnson in the Thanksgiving game.

      Joique Bell is getting starter's reps at running back, and the Bears' ever-shuffling corps of linebackers is a trouble spot Detroit can exploit.

      *Matchup to watch - RG Kyle Long vs. DT Ndamukong Suh: Long has done a respectable job with Suh in three career meetings, but Suh still caused havoc and made it possible for teammates to get in Jay Cutler's face. Long has to use Suh's quickness against him with leverage. It's a difficult matchup for Long, who doesn't have the mauler's body type and can be beaten by Suh's tremendous lower body strength in a bull rush.

      *Player spotlight - Lions WR Calvin Johnson: Most of his damage was done against rookie CB Kyle Fuller. Tim Jennings, who is only 5-9, might be in line this time after Johnson caught 11 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the last meeting.

      *Fast facts: The Lions have lost 16 straight outdoor games when temperature at kickoff was 40 degrees or colder. Their last win was in 2000. ... The Bears have been outscored 173-68 in the second quarter this season.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      The expanding morass in the Chicago will not claim the Lions, who should dominate on both sides of the ball, punch their playoff ticket and set up a winner-take-all Week 17 clash with the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North title.

      *Our pick: Lions 38-13

      Green Bay Packers (10-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-12)

      Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa - TV: FOX

      *TV announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale

      *Keys to the game: Can the Packers handle the heat? Aaron Rodgers' only two previous starts against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium resulted in losses. Just because the Bucs are a team ready to call it a season in less than two weeks doesn't mean Rodgers is assured of reversing history. He is coming off of a career-worst outing, at least statistically, in Green Bay's upset loss at the Buffalo Bills last Sunday and is likely to respond in a big way.

      Green Bay figures to take advantage of a depleted Tampa Bay defense, which lost DT Gerald McCoy to a season-ending knee injury. Running the football efficiently will be a must. Rodgers has also had bouts of inconsistency against Lovie Smith-led defenses.

      Green Bay's defense will get reacquainted with another former Chicago Bear, QB Josh McCown, who beat Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field last season. McCown is nimble and when he has the time he needs to target the alluring 6-5 duo of veteran Vincent Jackson and flourishing rookie Mike Evans, who can make defenses forget McCown has a weak running game.

      *Matchup to watch - Packers offensive line vs. Bucs defensive front: Losing McCoy, who leads the Bucs with 8.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits in 13 games, should mean Rodgers has all the time in the world to survey the field. The talk in Tampa Bay this week is the Bucs are zeroing in on forcing Rodgers to beat them through the air. "Try to make Aaron Rodgers throw the ball 40 or 50 times," DT Akeem Spence said. "And just try to beat us with his arm, which he can do, but at the same time, that's when the front hast to take over."

      *Player spotlight - Packers WR Jordy Nelson: Nelson leads the Packers with 83 catches for 1,320 yards. He had a big drop last week vs. Buffalo and multiple Packers have discussed it publicly this week.

      *Fast facts: Nelson, WR Randall Cobb and RB Eddie Lacy are the first Packers trio with 10-plus TDs in a season. ... The Bucs have committed 31 turnovers this season. Only the Eagles have more.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      A loss by the Bucs keeps the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft in play, and while the Tampa-2 defense can be effective slowing down Rodgers, the Packers are superior on both sides of the ball and are motivated to answer after last week's loss.

      *Our pick: Packers 35-16

      Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5)

      Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh - TV: CBS

      *TV announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Evan Washburn

      *Keys to the game: The Chiefs cruised by Oakland last week minus a dominant ground game thanks in large part to improved protection for QB Alex Smith. He was sacked once, hit once and averaged 9.9 yards per attempt (he's averaging 7.1 for the season).

      Playing ball control on the road in cold conditions plays to the Chiefs' strengths, but coach Andy Reid may also open up the passing game if the protection is holding up. Pittsburgh gives up an average of 252.9 passing yards per game and the secondary is the Steelers' potential Achilles heel.

      The Chiefs will also receive a litmus test for their defense, which is ranked fifth in points allowed (18.1 per game) and eighth in total defense. However, Kansas City has played only three teams ranked in the top 10 in offense - Denver twice and New England - and allowed an average of 334 yards. So the Steelers' well-balanced offense averaging 424.9 yards per game will provide a measuring stick.

      Pittsburgh RB Le'Veon Bell has topped 2,000 total yards. The Steelers will test the middle of the Cheifs' 28th-ranked run defense early to set up play-action and improved protection for QB Ben Roethlisberger to stretch the field vertically.

      *Matchup to watch - Chiefs OLB Justin Houston vs. Steelers RT Marcus Gilbert: Gilbert is expected to return after missing three games to an ankle injury. Houston is tied for the NFL lead with 17 sacks.

      *Player spotlight - Chiefs ILB James-Michael Johnson: If Josh Mauga (oblique strain) can't go, Johnson will get the start next to Joe Mays in a critical position defending against Bell in both the run and passing games.

      *Fast facts: The Chiefs have allowed two rushing touchdowns, which would tie the NFL record set by the 1934 Detroit Lions, 1944 New York Giants, 1968 Dallas Cowboys and 1971 Minnesota Vikings, all of whom played a 14-game season. ... The Steelers can win their first division title since 2010 by winning their final two games. They finish against Cincinnati next week.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      It's ball control vs. high octane. The Steelers appear to have shed their Jekyll & Hyde ways, finding more balance in their explosive offense, and a Chiefs team still without a touchdown by a wideout isn't built to fully exploit Pittsburgh's weak secondary.

      *Our pick: Steelers 27-23

      Minnesota Vikings (6-8) at Miami Dolphins (7-7)

      Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla. - TV: FOX

      *TV announcers: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa

      *Keys to the game: Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner showed his growing confidence in rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater last week by catching Detroit off-guard with a heavy dose of five-wide, shotgun sets. Bridgewater threw picks on consecutive passes but otherwise continued to show strong development.

      The key against Miami will be continued help from RB Matt Asiata in at least plodding forward for positive yardage on the ground. While the Dolphins are 22nd in defending the run, they have the league's fourth-rated pass defense on the strength of a pass rush that can do serious damage against Minnesota's often-spotty protection in front of Bridgewater.

      The Dolphins struggled to establish the ground game during last week's blowout loss to the Patriots and QB Ryan Tannehill wasn't sharp as a result. He operates best in the quick passing game and won't stretch the field deep often - although he has shown the ability to challenge the seam. Expect consistent touches for RB Lamar Miller out of the gate as the Dolphins attempt to create some rhythm and establish a few early drives.

      *Matchup to watch - Vikings LT Matt Kalil/LG Vlad Ducasse vs. Dolphins DE Olivier Vernon/DT Jared Odrick: The left side of Minnesota's line has been a problem area all season. Considering the Dolphins' pass rush threats on the other side, the Vikings can't afford to give Kalil and Ducasse much in the way of extra support.

      *Player spotlight - Vikings DE Brian Robison: The eighth-year veteran doesn't receive as much attention as Everson Griffen on the other side, but he's a savvy veteran with a distinct edge in his matchup against RT Dallas Thomas.

      *Fast facts: LB Chad Greenway holds a three-tackle lead as he attempts to lead the Vikings in tackles for a franchise-record seventh time.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      Both teams have shown signs of growth this season that belie their middling records. The Dolphins have endured a rough stretch against a tough schedule, and help embattled coach Joe Philbin's cause with Tannehill rebounding from an erratic outing and the defense keeping Bridgewater unsettled in the pocket.

      *Our pick: Dolphins 19-16

      New England Patriots (11-3) at New York Jets (3-11)

      Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. - TV: CBS

      *TV announcers: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots, Otis Livingston

      *Keys to the game: Fighting to the wire for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, the Patriots fully expect a dogfight from the Jets. New York rolled up 218 rushing yards in a narrow 27-25 loss at Gillette Stadium in Week 7, led by 107 physical yards by RB Chris Ivory. New England has allowed 100 yards just twice in the ensuing seven games as the run defense has vaulted from No. 25 in the league to No. 10.

      But the Jets aren't going to be competitive by letting QB Geno Smith drop back and test Darrelle Revis & Co. They enter with the league's second-ranked rushing attack, which is all the more impressive considering the constant eight-man fronts the Jets face. Patriots coach Bill Belichick called it "a very extensive and diverse running game" that will come at New England in volumes.

      The Patriots will counter with their pass-first attack as it will be difficult to control the game against the Jets' fourth-ranked run defense. Pressure on QB Tom Brady has been an issue in recent weeks, so protection will dictate how well he is able to dissect New York's overmatched secondary.

      *Matchup to watch - Patriots DT Vince Wilfork vs. Jets C Nick Mangold/RG Willie Colon: Wilfork is the key in tying up the interior, forcing Ivory and Chris Johnson to search for daylight while ILBs Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins make plays close to the line of scrimmage.

      *Player spotlight - Jets S Calvin Pryor: The rookie will figure into coverage against TE Rob Gronkowski. Pryor, known for his physical play, must be solid in his assignments and in his open-field tackling to limit the Patriots' trademark yards after the catch.

      *Fast facts: The Patriots have not allowed a second-half touchdown in four consecutive games. ... The Jets have 150-plus rushing yards in five of their past eight games.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      The Patriots will spread the field early and attempt to hammer the Jets' secondary in the quick passing game and yards after the catch. If New York's ground game can control the clock and keep the game within reach, it's another surprisingly tough out for the Patriots vs. their downtrodden rivals.

      *Our pick: Patriots 23-19

      New York Giants (5-9) at St. Louis Rams (6-8)

      Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis - TV: FOX

      *TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, David Diehl, Laura Okmin

      *Keys to the game: Giants QB Eli Manning won't have the luxury of sitting in the pocket and picking his targets like he did in dissecting the Redskins' porous secondary last week. The Rams are young, fast and will collapse the pocket in a blink. Rookie RB Andre Williams has infrequently shown a quick burst, but the Giant need a solid contribution on the ground to keep Manning from reverting to his turnover-prone ways when forced to make quick decisions in the face of a strong pass rush in long passing situations. When Manning does have time, there will be a fascinating duel downfield between Giants star rookie WR Odell Beckham, Jr. and Rams CBs Janoris Jenkins and E.J. Gaines.

      The Rams' offense is typically only as good as the field position the defense provides. Routinely forced to drive the length of the field against Arizona, QB Shaun Hill struggled to move the chains. However, the Giants lack the same type of dynamic front seven and rookie RB Tre Mason should have more success in setting up manageable third downs. The Giants continue to be beset by injuries in their linebacking corps, so the Rams should be able to chew up some yards by attacking the second level.

      *Matchup to watch - Giants LT Will Beatty vs. Rams DE Robert Quinn: More aptly, this is the mismatch to watch. Quinn has 10.5 sacks over his past nine games and has the ability to single-handedly blow up the Giants' offense. Beatty will get plenty of help, which means Manning loses a tight end or running back option in many passing situations.

      *Player spotlight - Giants LG Rodger Saffold: The converted tackle is playing inside next to rookie Greg Robinson, and the interior of the Rams' line struggled with pressure from Cardinals DL Frostee Rucker in Week 15.

      *Fast facts: Beckham's 61 catches are the most in NFL history by a rookie in a seven-game span. ... Rams DT Aaron Donald leads NFL rookies with 8.0 sacks.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      The Rams have not allowed a touchdown in three consecutive games and have more than enough defense to control field position, build a bit of a lead and then pressure Manning into mistakes. Biggest question is whether it snowballs.

      *Our pick: Rams 23-16

      Buffalo Bills (8-6) at Oakland Raiders (2-12)

      Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at o.Co Coliseum, Oakland, Calif. - TV: CBS

      *TV announcers: Brian Anderson, Chris Simms

      *Keys to the game: The Raiders gave up 216 yards on their six plays of 20-plus yards allowed last week against the Chiefs, and the conservative Bills will loosen the reins on QB Kyle Orton in hopes of striking a big gain or two. That puts an arrow over the head of CB DJ Hayden, who might have whiplash after last week's rough outing at Kansas City. He'll defend WR Sammy Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick last spring, who has suffered his own bouts of inconsistency.

      The Bills still prefer to squeeze the ball on offense, spinning through running backs to keep the chains moving and letting their defense do the dirty work.

      Buffalo leads the league in sacks and three players on the line have at least nine sacks. That's a tough menu to read for rookie QB Derek Carr, but he has done well to get the ball out quickly, taking just 20 sacks in 529 drop-backs.

      *Matchup to watch - Raiders OLB Khalil Mack vs. Bills LT Cordy Glenn: The massive Glenn draws University of Buffalo product Khalil Mack, who continues to stand out on a bad defense. Mack can pressure inside and out, and Glenn might need help to keep him at bay.

      *Player spotlight - Bills RB C.J. Spiller -- Spiller has missed the last seven-plus games with a broken collarbone, but he may be back in the lineup against Oakland on a limited basis. The Bills could use his big-play speed.

      *Fast facts: Orton needs three TD passes to reach 100 for his career. ... Oakland is minus-16 in turnover margin.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      The Bills fell behind 21-3 - but rallied to win - in their last meeting with the Raiders. The Raiders won't go quietly trying to make a positive statement on behalf of 2-8 interim coach Tony Sparano, but Oakland is turned back by a rugged defense on top of its game.

      *Our pick: Bills 26-16

      Indianapolis Colts (10-4) at Dallas Cowboys (10-4)

      Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at AT&T Stadium, Arlington - TV: FOX

      *TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson

      *Keys to the game: The Cowboys might not have to win without RB DeMarco Murray (hand), but Dallas is capable of it. QB Tony Romo, second in the NFL with a 110.4 passer rating, is near full strength for the first time in nearly two months and WR Dez Bryant is coming off of his first career three-TD game.

      The Colts can adjust their game plan if Murray sits, viewing his possible replacements as limited inside runners. The bigger concern is containing Romo, who throws with accuracy on the move.

      Indianapolis has been able to win its last four games, but has tempted fate in recent weeks with early turnovers and slower starts - a hurdle for much of the 2013 season. QB Andrew Luck floats away from pressure on about one of every three pass attempts behind an offensive line that would be a glaring trouble spot for a less acute, mobile quarterback.

      Luck leads the NFL in passing yards and TD passes (38) and will find ways to create big plays. Dallas' pass defense is ranked 23rd in the league, allowing 249.6 yards per game.

      *Matchup to watch - Bryant vs. Colts CB Vontae Davis: Three weeks ago, this would've been must-see TV. Bryant has been on a roll of late and has 13 TDs. His size and ability to catch in a crowd match Davis' strengths. However, Davis is fighting a sore groin and might need to rotate through to have his legs in the second half.

      *Player spotlight - Colts PK Adam Vinatieri: These could be the Pro Bowl kickers on display. Dallas' Dan Bailey is excellent, but Vinatieri is the only placekicker in the NFL not to miss a kick this season. He has made all 28 of his field-goal attempts and all 46 of his PATs.

      *Fast facts: Luck and Russell Wilson are the only quarterbacks in NFL history with 10-plus wins in each of their first three seasons. ... Cowboys backup RBs Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar have combined for 60 carries in 13 games.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      All signs point to a shootout in a game Dallas must win to keep control of its playoff fate and the NFC East. Luck is unflappable, but the Cowboys get the nod if Murray takes the field.

      *Our pick: Cowboys 30-28

      Seattle Seahawks (10-4) at Arizona Cardinals (11-3)

      Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz. - TV: NBC

      *TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya

      *Keys to the game: The Seahawks would love to replicate the Week 12 meeting in Seattle, when they held nearly an 11-minute edge in time of possession, methodically chewed away at a stellar defense and forced a backup quarterback to beat a defense on an historic roll.

      It's up to the Cardinals to flip the script with third-string QB Ryan Lindley at the helm. He's very familiar with the offense, but also has seven career interceptions against no touchdown passes. That's a daunting prospect against a defense that has allowed a combined 27 points over its past four games - the second fewest in franchise history (20, 1984). Coach Bruce Arians has never shied away from a gamble, but the Cardinals have to at least attempt to establish the ground game after San Francisco had some success penetrating between the tackles last week.

      The Seahawks managed 124 rushing yards in the first meeting, but their leading rusher was QB Russell Wilson with 73 yards. No surprise there, but Seattle's ability to run the ball will come down to assignment recognition by the Cardinals. If Arizona keeps tabs on Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks receivers can be negated - the wideouts accounted for five catches for 83 yards in the first meeting. Protection is a huge issue for Seattle and if Arizona can back Wilson into third-and-longs, the turnovers that are critical might be there for the taking.

      *Matchup to watch - Seahawks LT Alvin Bailey vs. Cardinals DT Frostee Rucker: Rucker was highly disruptive against St. Louis in Week 15 and will also work against LG James Carpenter. Bailey is starting in place of Russell Okung (lung) and while he performed admirably in relief last week, Seattle can't offer him much protection with rookie RT Justin Britt outmatched against Calais Campbell on the other side.

      *Player spotlight - Cardinals FS Tyrann Mathieu: After missing two games with a broken left thumb, Mathieu vows to play Sunday. He might be one-handed in any interception opportunities, but the versatile playmaker gives Wilson another dynamic defender to be cognizant of.

      *Fast facts: The Seahawks' best four-game point total allowed during its Super Bowl run last season was 43. ... Lindley's four completions last week were his first in a regular-season game since 2012.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      All the ingredients are in place for a field position slugfest for what likely will anoint the winner of the NFC West and potentially home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. The Cardinals will wage a fierce fight, but Lindley is a massive underdog against the league's top defense.

      *Our pick: Seahawks 16-15

      Denver Broncos (11-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1)

      Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati - TV: ESPN

      *TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

      *Keys to the game: Rookie RB Jeremy Hill created a positive shift in the Bengals' offense, bringing consistent punch behind a strong offensive line and daring defenses not to make stopping him a priority. As teams take notice, WR A.J. Green has averaged 115.6 yards per game in the last five weeks.

      Takeaways dealt Denver's knockout punch last week in San Diego, as a pair of interceptions finished off the Chargers and boosted the Broncos' total to nine during their current four-game winning streak. With bookend pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller both over 10 sacks this season, the goal is to force QB Andy Dalton to panic.

      The Bengals are protecting the ball well, but in their four losses and a tie against Carolina, they have 11 giveaways, an average of 2.2 per game).

      Denver is getting great results from its own shift to a power-running emphasis with 37 rushing attempts on average the past four weeks. With wintry weather in the forecast, the Broncos would be thrilled to add Ronnie Hillman (foot) back to the backfield mix and call on QB Peyton Manning to play it safe with short crossers and sideline throws.

      *Matchup to watch - Hill vs. Broncos LB Brandon Marshall: One of the reasons why the Broncos' run defense has lingered among the league's leaders all season -- it's second in the league and leads the AFC in yards per rush (3.41) and per game (71.6) allowed -- is because Marshall emerged as a reliable tackler who prevented runs from reaching the second level. Hill averages 5.0 yards per carry and has run for at least 148 yards in three of his last seven games, averaging 97.4 yards in that span.

      *Player spotlight - Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr.: Aqib Talib has the household name in the Denver secondary, but Harris' man coverage skills that netted him a long-term deal with the Broncos are the reason he'll likely get the call to chase Green.

      *Fast facts: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 1-5 against the Broncos. ... The Bengals are 13-2-1 in their past 16 home games. ... Manning is 8-0 all-time vs. Cincinnati.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      Similar approaches should ensure a tight game unless the primetime yips inexplicably cripple Dalton again. In a game both teams consider a must-have, Manning pushes the Broncos to a win against a defense worn down by the Broncos' rushing attack.

      *Our pick: Broncos 24-20

      --Derek Harper & Jeff Reynolds

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Week 16 Preview: Chargers at 49ers
    By The Sports Xchange

    San Diego Chargers at San Francisco 49ers

    • Saturday, 8:25 p.m. ET, at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. - TV: CBS

      *TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Jenny Dell

      *Keys to the game: It's a battle of attrition for two teams limping to the finish line with a slew of injuries. The Chargers lost WR Keenan Allen to a broken collarbone, and RB Ryan Mathews is expected to miss the game with a sprained ankle.

      That leaves ailing QB Philip Rivers (back) exposed to a defense that can still dominate in the trenches. He has struggled with his accuracy of late and his receivers are not consistently gaining separation. But the 49ers also took a hit with standout rookie LB Chris Borland shut down for the season and DE Ray McDonald released midweek.

      As sporadic as the offense has been, San Diego coach Mike McCoy has been pleased with the overall play on the other side of the ball. The Chargers gave up three completions of 30-plus yards to Peyton Manning last week but otherwise held up well, and the run defense allowed just 2.8 yards per carry. The 49ers may be without RBs Frank Gore (concussion) and Carlos Hyde (ankle), leaving journeyman Alfonso Smith running with the first team.

      Embattled QB Colin Kaepernick clearly misses the Pistol formation, as he is uncomfortable throwing consistently from the pocket and isn't getting outside as often to utilize his dual threat abilities.

      *Matchup to watch – 49ers offensive line vs. Chargers OLB Melvin Ingram: Clearly the Chargers' most dynamic pass rusher, Ingram will seek mismatches against an offensive line that allowed six sacks and 11 quarterback hits last week. Some of those fall on Kaepernick, who too often lacks decisiveness in the pocket.

      *Player spotlight – 49ers LB Nick Moody: Called for a controversial roughing penalty last week, the second-year player is in line for increased snaps with Borland out.

      *Fast facts: Chargers TE Antonio Gates needs 145 receiving yards to become the fourth tight end in NFL history to reach 10,000 for his career. ... Kaepernick has a 58.1 passer rating with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the fourth quarter of games within seven points this season.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      The 49ers are 3-3 at home and playing a meaningless game for the first time under coach Jim Harbaugh. How they respond will be indicative of how far the situation has unraveled. The 49ers still have superior talent at most spots, and our bet is Harbaugh rallies his troops.

      *Our pick: 49ers 23-19

  • Thursday, December 18, 2014
    Week 16 Preview: Broncos at Bengals
    By The Sports Xchange

    Denver Broncos (11-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1)

    • Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati - TV: ESPN

      *TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

      *Keys to the game: Rookie RB Jeremy Hill created a positive shift in the Bengals' offense, bringing consistent punch behind a strong offensive line and daring defenses not to make stopping him a priority. As teams take notice, WR A.J. Green has averaged 115.6 yards per game in the last five weeks.

      Takeaways dealt Denver's knockout punch last week in San Diego, as a pair of interceptions finished off the Chargers and boosted the Broncos' total to nine during their current four-game winning streak. With bookend pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller both over 10 sacks this season, the goal is to force QB Andy Dalton to panic.

      The Bengals are protecting the ball well, but in their four losses and a tie against Carolina, they have 11 giveaways, an average of 2.2 per game).

      Denver is getting great results from its own shift to a power-running emphasis with 37 rushing attempts on average the past four weeks. With wintry weather in the forecast, the Broncos would be thrilled to add Ronnie Hillman (foot) back to the backfield mix and call on QB Peyton Manning to play it safe with short crossers and sideline throws.

      *Matchup to watch - Hill vs. Broncos LB Brandon Marshall: One of the reasons why the Broncos' run defense has lingered among the league's leaders all season -- it's second in the league and leads the AFC in yards per rush (3.41) and per game (71.6) allowed -- is because Marshall emerged as a reliable tackler who prevented runs from reaching the second level. Hill averages 5.0 yards per carry and has run for at least 148 yards in three of his last seven games, averaging 97.4 yards in that span.

      *Player spotlight - Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr.: Aqib Talib has the household name in the Denver secondary, but Harris' man coverage skills that netted him a long-term deal with the Broncos are the reason he'll likely get the call to chase Green.

      *Fast facts: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 1-5 against the Broncos. ... The Bengals are 13-2-1 in their past 16 home games. ... Manning is 8-0 all-time vs. Cincinnati.

      WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

      Similar approaches should ensure a tight game unless the primetime yips inexplicably cripple Dalton again. In a game both teams consider a must-have, Manning pushes the Broncos to a win against a defense worn down by the Broncos' rushing attack.

      *Our pick: Broncos 24-20