Week 7: NFL Game Previews

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange


Baltimore Ravens (5-1) at Houston Texans (5-1)
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
Last meeting: Baltimore went 2-0 against Houston last season. The Ravens won 29-14 in the regular season meeting on Oct. 16, and 20-13 in the divisional playoffs Jan. 15. The Ravens generated four takeaways to hold on after building a 17-3 lead in the first quarter.
Streaking: The Ravens are 5-0 all-time against the Texans.
Where it hurts: Reinforcements are coming for the Ravens in the form of OLB Terrell Suggs. But he's not playing this week, nor will CB Lardarius Webb and ILB Ray Lewis, who suffered injuries in Week 6. Baltimore's run defense has been abysmal, to the tune of a franchise-worst 441 yards allowed on the ground the past two games. Texans RB Arian Foster is second in the NFL in rushing, but at 3.8 yards per carry he's working harder than any of the backs who entered Week 7 among the top 15 rushers. Head coach Gary Kubiak is a stubborn play-caller in the sense that he'll hand it to Foster until a defense consistently stops him. When the run game works, QB Matt Schaub excels on bootlegs and waggles, where he'll have half of the field open to him and likely isolate against aggressive second-year LCB Jimmy Smith, who jumps into a starting role with Webb out for the season.
Flying J's: J.J. Watt has 9.5 sacks, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said there isn't a matchup he doesn't like for Watt. The Ravens will give rookie RT Kelechi Osemele a hand and using backup OT Bryant McKinnie isn't out of the question. The Ravens, though, have better matchups in three-wide receiver sets that bring Jacoby Jones on the field as a downfield option. CB Johnathan Joseph has been whipped two straight games -- against Jeremy Kerley of the Jets and Jordy Nelson of the Packers -- and his groin injury makes him an easy target if the Ravens can give Joe Flacco time to find openings before the Texans' varied defensive pressure makes him pull the ball down. RB Ray Rice averaged 3.0 yards per carry in two meetings last season; as a receiver, he's a matchup problem for Houston.
Need to know: Foster is second in the NFL with 561 yards rushing and has averaged 134.1 yards from scrimmage the last two seasons. Rice is second, averaging 120 yards.

Green Bay Packers (3-3) at St. Louis Rams (3-3)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Sam Rosen, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin
Gameplan: Rams QB Sam Bradford should be able to move the ball between the 20s against a defense that could be down as many as four starters. But to keep pace for four quarters St. Louis must be more efficient in the red zone, where it ranks 29th in the NFL with touchdowns on just 35.71 percent of its trips. The Rams have a formidable defensive front four, but the Packers have done a better job of protection QB Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay went heavy on the no-huddle offense in routing the Texans last week. Expect more of the same to counter the aggressive speed rush the Rams bring to the table, especially with St. Louis allowing a total of 64 rushing yards the past two games.
Need to know: Rodgers' 115.9 career passer rating indoors is the highest in NFL history. ... The Rams are 3-0 at home this season.

Tennessee Titans (2-4) at Buffalo Bills (3-3)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Marv Albert, Rich Gannon
Gameplan: Jake Locker (shoulder) won't be back, but the offense suffers fewer valleys with veteran Matt Hasselbeck at the helm. The experience advantage, and confidence to check out of troublesome early down play calls, was clear in the Titans' win over the Steelers. Giving up almost 10 points per game in the first quarter has helped limit RB Chris Johnson's effectiveness and the offense isn't built for shootouts, as the 11 total turnovers attest. However, Johnson averaged 141.5 rushing yards in his last two games against Buffalo. The Bills should be able to move the sticks consistently -- the Titans don't scare many quarterbacks and Buffalo has a 5.1-yard rushing average to control the ball using RBs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Like the Titans, Buffalo's pass rush has been more miss than hits but DE Mario Williams has 5.5 career sacks against the Titans.
Need to know: Titans rookie WR Kendall Wright has 33 receptions - 10 more than anyone else on the roster. ... Spiller is averaging 7.6 yards per carry this season.

Cleveland Browns (1-5) at Indianapolis Colts (2-3)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots
Bodog.net line:
Gameplan: Colts WR Reggie Wayne leads the NFL with an average of 118.6 receiving yards per game. Beyond that, Indianapolis has no strong hunch where the offensive punch will come from on a weekly basis. Against the hefty interior of the Browns, the Colts won't make a major dent on the ground. The Browns assign CB Joe Haden to Wayne, and will invite QB Andrew Luck to settle for short throws in front of their hard-hitting second-level defenders. The Colts are 29th against the run. They've been ripped apart by teams committed to the run, and the Browns set the tempo with rookie RB Trent Richardson (ribs) but trust QB Brandon Weeden to take shots downfield. The Browns can also flip the field with the No. 2 return teams in the NFL (29.5-yard kickoff return average, 17.1 yards on punt returns).
Need to know: Browns coach Pat Shurmur got his first career win at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2011. ... Weeden's 1,519 passing yards is second-most in NFL history through six games of a career (Cam Newton, 1,847 in 2011).

Dallas Cowboys (2-3) at Carolina Panthers (1-4)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
Gameplan: The Panthers' offense has become too reliant on QB Cam Newton running the option or hitting deep strikes to WR Steve Smith. Coming off its bye week, Carolina needs to be more committed to the ground game with RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Controlling the clock will also help a defense that has struggled with poor tackling and assignment breakdowns. The Cowboys turn to RB Felix Jones with DeMarco Murray sidelined. The ability to run on first and second down is critical, with most of QB Tony Romo's mistakes coming when under pressure and trying to force the issue. This is a game the Cowboys really need WR Dez Bryant to step up and dominate his matchup with struggling rookie CB Josh Norman.
Need to know: Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware has four sacks and three forced fumbles in his past three games. ... In 21 games under coach Ron Rivera, the Panthers have lost eight times after going into halftime with the lead.

New Orleans Saints (1-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale
Gameplan: The Saints' self-scouting during their bye week focused on their fledgling ground game and poor tackling on defense. The lack of offensive balance won't be as big a factor Sunday. Interim coach Aaron Kromer identified improved route-running as a reason the passing game began to take off in the two games before the bye, and Tampa Bay enters with the league's 31st-ranked pass defense while allowing just 75 yards per game on the ground. A big factor could be the strength of TE Jimmy Graham's gimpy ankle by game time. Bucs QB Josh Freeman has shown the ability to move the ball vertically, but Tampa Bay needs to stay balanced behind RBs Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount to help control the clock and protect that shaky secondary.
Need to know: QB Drew Brees four games with 300-plus passing yards and four games with three-plus touchdown passes this season. ... Freeman has five touchdown passes and no interceptions in the past three meetings.

Washington Redskins (3-3) at N.Y. Giants (4-2)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Thom Brennaman, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
Gameplan: Giants coach Tom Coughlin is preaching discipline to his defensive linemen. Redskins QB Robert Griffin III is dangerous on option plays, but is just as lethal when he tucks and runs on busted plays. It's critical for the Giants' veteran front to diagnose plays quickly and maintain leverage when the Redskins employ their zone-reach scheme. The Redskins rank four in the NFL scoring touchdowns on 65 percent of their red-zone trips, and capitalizing on drives is a must with their defense facing a tall order. Washington's secondary has been gashed week in and week out, while the Giants are protecting QB Eli Manning extremely well while new receivers continue to come out of the woodwork. With RB Ahmad Bradshaw rushing for a combined 316 yards the past two weeks, the improved balance makes the challenge that much harder for Washington's safeties.
Need to know: Griffin leads the NFL with a 70.2 completion percentage through six weeks. ... Manning's 25-5 (.833) record in October is the best in the NFL in the Super Bowl era.

Arizona Cardinals (4-2) at Minnesota Vikings (4-2)
Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Chris Myers, Tim Ryan, Jamie Maggio
Gameplan: The Cardinals are at a crisis point offensively. They're down to their third- and fourth-string running backs, and while William Powell is coming off a solid game against Buffalo, the Vikings enter the game allowing 3.7 yards per carry. That translates to constant long passing downs for QB John Skelton - back in the lineup with Kevin Kolb injured - behind an offensive line that can't protect the edges without providing double-team and chip-blocking support. Vikings QB Christian Ponder threw 52 passes last week, but look for Minnesota to be far more conservative in a lower-scoring game, emphasizing the run and taking advantage of field position.
Need to know: Powell had 23 carries in two seasons at Kansas State. He had 13 last Sunday. ... The Vikings are 3-0 at home, where they are averaging 26.7 points.

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4) at Oakland Raiders (1-4)
Sunday, 4:25 ET, CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
Gameplan: Entering the season, RB Darren McFadden was slated to be Mr. All-Everything for the Raiders as a running and receiving workhorse. Thus far, he has struggled in the zone-blocking scheme to the tune of 3.2 yards per carry. Improving the ground game has been a focus, although QB Carson Palmer is moving the ball vertically more effectively with WR Denarius Moore fully healthy. Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey wants QB Blaine Gabbert to trust his protection more and let routes develop. The Raiders have only four sacks while allowing 274.6 passing yards per game, so that extra split second should be there. With both teams ranked in the bottom six in red-zone efficiency, cashing in on drives could prove the difference.
Need to know: RB Maurice Jones-Drew has accounted for 41 percent of the Jaguars' offense this season. ... Moore is averaging 18.1 yards on 50 career receptions.

New York Jets (3-3) at New England Patriots (3-3)
Sunday, 4:25 ET, CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
Gameplan: The Jets' 30th-ranked offense has significant limitations. They won't win a shootout and the lack of cohesion brought on with lineup changes shows through in their third-down failures. The Jets also won't win without trying to attack the weaknesses the Seahawks exposed in taking down the Patriots last week; namely the deep middle of the secondary and single-safety formations. QB Mark Sanchez has TE Dustin Keller, who played last week after a four-game injury absence, as a needed threat down the seam. The Patriots' frenetic tempo will test Jets Ss Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry. QB Tom Brady will settle for quick-hitters to TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez if Jets coach Rex Ryan uses base defense; Brady will hand off to Stevan Ridley against nickel formations. Bet on the nickel, meaning Landry better be ready to stick Gronkowski in coverage and wrap Ridley on the edges.
Need to know: The Jets have averaged 35 points in their three wins, 9.0 in three losses. ... The Patriots are plus-10 in turnover margin.

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-3)
Sunday, 8:20 ET, NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Gameplan: The Bengals' inability to salt away a game due to a shaky running game requires QB Andy Dalton to put the ball up when Cincinnati would benefit from a powerful running game to keep the clock and chains moving. A 216-154 pass-to-run imbalance should change when facing a team whose scheme, while softened by injury, is predicated upon getting to the quarterback. The Steelers might prefer to keep the ball in the air with injuries aplenty at running back and the Bengals' defense unable to match up with Pittsburgh's outside receivers. Cincinnati has been excellent on third downs -- it allows only a 33.8 percent conversion rate -- but in recent seasons against the Steelers had repeated breakdowns in the red zone.
Need to know: The Steelers are on pace to match their 21-year low sack total of 35 last season. ... Dalton has thrown three interceptions returned for touchdowns in 2012.

Detroit Lions (2-3) at Chicago Bears (4-1)
Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
Gameplan: The Lions are taking too long to adjust to what defenses throw at them, averaging 7.4 points in the first half this season. The Bears have owned the recent series by taking the ball away. They forced six turnovers in the 2011 game at Soldier Field. It's essential for the Lions to limit mistakes and rattle QB Jay Cutler. To squeeze Cutler, the first order of business is tightening the run defense, which was impressive in containing Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy at Philadelphia last week. The return of FS Louis Delmas, who missed the first four games of the season with a knee injury, boosts the pass defense. He'll shade Brandon Marshall with Alshon Jeffery injured. WR Devin Hester, who has 19 career return TDs, had an 82-yard punt return in the last meeting with Detroit.
Need to know: Bears CB Charles Tillman and LB Lance Briggs are the first teammates ever with interception returns for a touchdown in consecutive games. ... Lions coach Jim Schwartz is 1-5 against Chicago, winning on Monday Night Football in 2011.

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

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