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Week 17: NFL Game Previews

The SportsXchange

SPOTLIGHT GAME

St. Louis Rams (7-7-1) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5)

Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX, Chris Myers, Tim Ryan, Jamie Maggio

Last Meeting: The Rams won, 19-13, at home on Sept. 30 with rookie PK Greg Zuerlein converting all four field-goal attempts.

Streaking: The Seahawks have outscored their past three opponents 150-30, and the Rams have been outscored a combined 199-76 in losing their past seven games at Seattle -- where the Seahawks are undefeated this season.

Pedal to the mettle: The Rams aren't going to win a field-goal fest a la the first meeting. Head coach Jeff Fisher called this game, "probably the biggest challenge for us (this season)," and that challenge begins on offense. The Rams have scored seven touchdowns in eight red-zone possession over their past three games. They can attack on the ground between the tackles, where Seattle has been the most vulnerable, to set up play-action for QB Sam Bradford. The Seahawks haven't been shy about leaving their corners in man coverage despite having to turn to inexperienced Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell deep down the depth chart.

Different kind of animal: Seahawks QB Russell Wilson faces a defensive line that can apply pressure across the board, but he has shown tremendous poise along with the ability to exploit the smallest gaps to make plays on the move. St. Louis will also have to adjust to the read-option, an improving element of the Seahawks offense that wasn't a factor in the first meeting. RBs Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin will still set the table, and Wilson must be accurate with his passes against aggressive CBs Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins. Seattle will be watching San Francisco's score against Arizona and could rest starters if winning the division is clearly out of reach.

Need to know: Jenkins has tied an NFL rookie record with three INT returns for touchdowns. ... Wilson has thrown 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions at home this season.

Baltimore Ravens (10-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots

Gameplan: Both teams know they'll be playing again next week - potentially against each other back in Baltimore - so they'll walk the fine line of attempting to maintain some momentum while staying healthy and reeling in some of the playbook. The Bengals are allowing an average of just 12.1 points over their past seven games, providing a good litmus test for a Ravens offense that broke out of its funk last week. Baltimore wants to keep the tempo high to get QB Joe Flacco in a rhythm while also not neglecting RB Ray Rice. Cincinnati's offense floundered when Pittsburgh blitzed heavily last week and dared QB Andy Dalton to throw deep. The Bengals do want to get WR Andrew Hawkins the ball in a likely matchup against new Ravens nickel back Chykie Brown.

Need to know: Baltimore is the only team to reach the playoffs each of the past five years. ... The Bengals will make consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in 30 years.

Cleveland Browns (5-10) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS, Spero Dedes, Steve Beuerlein

Gameplan: The Browns squeaked by the Steelers at Cleveland on Nov. 25, a game in which Ben Roethlisberger (ribs, shoulder) sat out and Pittsburgh had eight turnovers. Without TE Heath Miller (knee), the Steelers are more likely to pound the ball to set up play-action tosses. The Browns are aggressive in outside man coverage and have hard-hitting safeties to set the tone when receivers cross the middle of the field. The look of the Browns' offense was still TBD at midweek with QBs Brandon Weeden (shoulder) and Colt McCoy (shoulder) and RB Trent Richardson (ankle) idle to start the practice week. Whoever starts, keeping the ball and controlling the clock are musts. The Browns are plus-11 in takeaways in five wins, minus-4 in 10 losses this season.

Need to know: Weeden's five wins are the most by a rookie in Browns history. ... Steelers WR Mike Wallace averages 20.8 yards per catch vs. the Browns (16-333).

Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13) at Tennessee Titans (5-10)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS, Don Criqui, Randy Cross

Gameplan: One of the Jaguars' two victories this season came over Tennessee on Nov. 25. QB Chad Henne eyes another big game facing a secondary too often whiffing in man-to-man coverage. Henne's challenge is steep without WR Cecil Shorts, but rookie Justin Blackmon has emerged as the team's No. 1 target and RB Montell Owens had 119 yards from scrimmage last week to balance the offense. Titans RB Chris Johnson averages 88 rushing yards per game in his career against the Jaguars, but his yardage of late has come primarily on big plays. The lack of consistent positive yards has hurt QB Jake Locker, whose accuracy has been hit or miss in large part because his offensive line has been a turnstile.

Need to know: Only Eric Dickerson (27) had more 125-yard rushing games than Johnson (24) through five seasons. ... The Jaguars did not have a player named to the Pro Bowl for the third time in franchise history (1995, 2008).

Houston Texans (12-3) at Indianapolis Colts (10-5)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf

Gameplan: The recent decline of the Texans' defense hasn't deflated the pass-rush rampage of LDE J.J. Watt, an MVP candidate two sacks away from Michael Strahan's single-season record (22.5). Watt had three sacks of Andrew Luck in the first meeting and quicker throws on faster-developing play design are in order in the first half to keep Watt at arm's length. The Texans are very careful with the ball - plus-14 this season, compared to minus-14 for the Colts - and perhaps to a fault of late. Opening up the offense to allow QB Matt Schaub to aggressively work the middle of the field against the Colts' undersized linebackers and safeties could set the stage for another huge game from RB Arian Foster (165 yards vs. Indy on Dec. 16).

Need to know: Foster averages 164 yards rushing in four career meetings. ... The Colts are 10-0 all-time at home against Houston.

Carolina Panthers (6-9) at New Orleans Saints (7-8)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX, Ron Pitts, Mike Martz, Krista Voda

Gameplan: The Panthers are playing with confidence, but depth is a weakness easily exploited by a Saints offense comfortable playing at a chaotic pace. QB Drew Brees has 39 TD passes, but his resurgence of late corresponded with a greater commitment to RB Mark Ingram and a co-op in the backfield. Carolina couldn't corral Darren Sproles or Jimmy Graham in its Week 2 win over the Saints but likely must stick with a zone look to keep Captain Munnerlyn and newly converted FS Charles Godfrey out of man coverage. The Panthers ran roughshod through the Saints in the Sept. 16 meeting, a 35-27 Panthers' victory. QB Cam Newton had 71 rushing yards in that game and has led three straight wins by largely avoiding turnovers.

Need to know: Newton is the only player in NFL history to record 30 passing touchdowns (40) and 20 rushing touchdowns (22) in his first two seasons. ... Since '11, Sproles has 153 catches and 13 TD receptions, tops among NFL running backs.

Chicago Bears (9-6) at Detroit Lions (4-11)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa

Gameplan: Lions QB Matthew Stafford threw for 443 yards last week - the most in NFL history without throwing a touchdown pass. That effort epitomized what's wrong with Detroit - the Lions can race the ball down the field, but then stall either from a turnover or due to a poor red-zone attack that lacks a formidable ground game or complementary threat when WR Calvin Johnson is double- or triple-teamed. Few defenses are better at creating turnovers or clamping down near the goal line than the Bears. Look for Chicago to continue to be conservative on offense, waiting to pounce on a Detroit mistake to work short fields. The Bears' offensive line is still overmatched and RB Matt Forte is dealing with an injured ankle, although he expects to play.

Need to know: Chicago has eight INT returns for touchdowns, one shy of San Diego's all-time record set in 1961. ... Stafford needs 305 passing yards to become the first player ever to throw for 5,000 yards in consecutive seasons.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-9) at Atlanta Falcons (13-2)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale

Gameplan: The Falcons are 7-0 at home and want to bury the reeling Bucs as quickly as possible so they can get key starters out of the game with home-field advantage already wrapped up. Atlanta would also like to show more consistency in its ground game, but the Falcons use plenty of screens to get the ball into the hands of their running backs and wide receivers. While Tampa Bay leads the league in run defense, part of that is due to the Bucs giving up a whopping NFL-high 303 passing yards per game. They have the horsepower to keep pace in a shootout, but QB Josh Freeman has been regressing with eight interceptions in his past two games - equaling his total through the first 13 games. Rookie RB Doug Martin has found inconsistent running lanes to exploit, and Freeman will be hard-pressed to avoid more mistakes with Atlanta doing an excellent job of disguising coverages to confuse quarterbacks - particularly in the red zone.

Need to know: Martin has set the Bucs' rookie record with 1,766 yards from scrimmage. ... Ryan has already set the single-season franchise record with 4,481 passing yards.

N.Y. Jets (6-9) at Buffalo Bills (5-10)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Marv Albert, Rich Gannon

Gameplan: Both teams limp into their finale with offenses plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. Bills head coach Chan Gailey said his available personnel is so limited that he may need to use an extra offensive linemen to fill two-tight end sets. The Jets rank 27th in defending the run, but can let their safeties attack the line of scrimmage with Buffalo lacking speedy vertical threats. Recent opponents have routinely locked up the Bills' one-effective screen game. Meanwhile, the Jets turn back to Mark Sanchez with Greg McElroy suffering a concussion in last week's 11-sack pounding. RB Shonn Greene is facing the league's worst run defense (146.7 yards per game) and should be able to keep Sanchez out of the long passing downs that have contributed heavily to his 17 interceptions.

Need to know: Sanchez has a 52.8 passer rating in the red zone. ... Spiller is the first Bills back since Thurman Thomas in 1992 with 10-plus games with 100 yards rushing and receiving in a season.

Philadelphia Eagles (4-11) at New York Giants (8-7)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin

Gameplan: The Giants have been outscored a combined 67-14 the past two weeks, and the common theme has been third-down breakdowns; they haven't been able to get off the field defensively and they haven't been able to sustain drives. The concern defensively is the return of Eagles QB Michael Vick, who brings an additional dynamic in the ground game. If the Giants can't stop the run, their pass rush has a difficult time making an impact and the shaky coverage in the secondary is exposed. Offensively, the lack of consistency in up front is leading to far too many third-and-longs. And with WR Hakeem Nicks clearly nowhere near full strength, defenses have zeroed in on Victor Cruz and big plays have tapered off precipitously. Philadelphia has been riddled by turnovers all season, and Giants coach Tom Coughlin said his focus is seeing a well-executed field-position game.

Need to know: The Eagles have a minus-23 turnover margin. ... Giants QB Eli Manning needs 260 passing yards to reach 4,000 for the fourth consecutive season.

Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) at Denver Broncos (12-3)

Sunday, 4:25 ET, CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

Gameplan: The Broncos will be scoreboard watching, keeping tabs on the Texans and Patriots to see if/when their playoff seeding looks solidified and they can call off the dogs. Until then, coach John Fox must play to win, although Denver will likely rely heavily on its ground game and force the Chiefs' offense to produce. Kansas City still has a defense capable of keeping games close and the Chiefs' ground game came out of the shadows last week. But they need better play out of QB Brady Quinn, who struggled in the red zone and with his accuracy overall against Indianapolis. K.C.'s beleaguered offensive line has its hands full containing pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.

Need to know: Quinn has a 40.2 passer rating in the red zone this season. ... Fox has 99 career victories.

Arizona Cardinals (5-10) at San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1)

Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX, Gus Johnson, Charles Davis, Kristina Pink

Gameplan: Brian Hoyer will be the Cardinals' fourth different starting quarterback of the season, just a few weeks after signing with the team. Arizona's offense has been crippled by poor offensive line play and very little from the ground game. Hoyer will need to rely on screens and quick routes to get the ball out of his hands quickly. The coaching staff's No. 1 goal is to limit the turnovers that have taken the Cardinals out of games far too quickly. Arizona's defense is capable of keeping the game within reach, especially with the 49ers dealing with some key offensive injuries. Look for San Francisco to run the ball heavily from the outset, looking to impose its physical will and rebuild momentum heading into the playoffs.

Need to know: The Cardinals haven't thrown a touchdown pass in 26 quarters, dating back to Week 9. ... 49ers OLB Aldon Smith needs 3.5 sacks to break Michael Strahan's single-season NFL record of 22.5. Arizona has allowed an average of 2.5 sacks per game.

Miami Dolphins (7-8) at New England Patriots (11-4)

Sunday, 4:25 ET, CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms

Gameplan: The Patriots will be watching the scoreboard closely to see what Houston did in the early games and how Denver is faring. If a first-round bye is clearly out of the equation, starters could be rested with a game on the horizon next week. At the same time, New England is coming off a pair of slow starts and struggled to put Miami away in the first meeting. Run defense is the Dolphins' calling card, but Patriots QB Tom Brady should be able to work the underneath passing game and keep the chains moving. Last week's outing against Buffalo aside, the Dolphins struggle to create turnovers and that will keep the pressure on QB Ryan Tannehill. The rookie is playing well, but he lacks consistent vertical threats and will struggle if RB Reggie Bush isn't an early factor.

Need to know: Bush is averaging 119.5 scrimmage yards in eight December games with Miami. ... Patriots WR Wes Welker has set an NFL record with 18 career games with at least 10 catches.

Oakland Raiders (4-11) at San Diego Chargers (6-9)

Sunday, 4:25 ET, CBS, Bill Macatee, Steve Tasker

Gameplan: It's not a "competitive advantage" that will affect the playoff race, but Raiders head coach Dennis Allen held off on naming a starter between QBs Matt Leinart and Terrelle Pryor until seeing both practice throughout the week. Pryor has the bigger upside and brings more mobility to the offense, but the coaching staff also isn't sure how ready he is to lead an NFL offense. San Diego has scuffled most of the season, but racked up 11 sacks last week and can wreak havoc in the backfield. The Chargers have continued to play hard for embattled head coach Norv Turner. That includes QB Philip Rivers, who has cut down on his turnovers over the past month and will attack the league's 21st-ranked secondary hampered by a pass rush that has only 23 sacks.

Need to know: The Raiders averaged 155.9 rushing yards per game in 2011, but are averaging only 87.0 this season. ... Rivers is 25-5 (.833) in his career in December.

Green Bay Packers (11-4) at Minnesota Vikings (9-6)

Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver

Gameplan: There are two clear missions for Minnesota - finish Adrian Peterson's drive to 2,000 rushing yards and beyond, and get a victory to reach the postseason. Top CB Antoine Winfield (hand) will play with a heavily padded wrap and the Packers' receivers overwhelm this secondary historically. The Vikings want to feed Peterson not only to play keep-away from QB Aaron Rodgers, but so as to not overburden QB Christian Ponder. He doesn't have a receiver he trusts to win one-on-one outside. If Peterson, who rushed for 212 yards and an 82-yard touchdown at Green Bay Week 13, matches that number the Packers can't like their chances. Rodgers is the equalizer in the sense that he has five strong receivers, including TE Jermichael Finley, he believes can win on any given play.

Need to know: Ponder had a passer rating of 41.9 in the Dec. 2 loss at Green Bay; he posted rating of 59.2 and 52.3 in the series last season. ... In his past five games against the Vikings, Rodgers is 5-0 with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions (122.6 rating).

Dallas Cowboys (8-7) at Washington Redskins (9-6)

Sunday, 8:20 ET, NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya

Gameplan: If ROLB DeMarcus Ware (shoulder) can't stay on the field at an estimated 80 percent, containing Robert Griffin's scrambling ability goes from tricky to treacherous for a Dallas defense held together by duct tape. Washington's first-quarter focus is bringing the zone-running game to life; the Cowboys' cornerbacks and linebackers were drawn inside in the first meeting, leaving wide windows for Griffin to attack downfield. The Cowboys didn't have RB DeMarco Murray in the Thanksgiving shootout. He adds a weapon to the offense as a receiver that helps bail QB Tony Romo out when WR Dez Bryant doesn't uncover immediately. His matchup with veteran CB DeAngelo Hall heavily favors the Cowboys; Bryant has 46 receptions for 808 yards and 10 touchdowns in his past seven games.

Need to know: The Redskins are plus-14 in turnover margin; the Cowboys are minus-10.

--By Derek Harper & Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange
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