Colts' tough season brings more difficult decisions ahead

Dan Orlovsky has seen this situation before.

The newest Indianapolis Colts quarterback given the impossible assignment of filling the shoes (and brain) of Peyton Manning started seven games during the Detroit Lions' infamous 2008 season that produced the first 0-16 team in NFL history.

He very well could be part of the second.

The Colts cleared perhaps their largest hurdle to sealing a place in league infamy with last Sunday's 27-19 loss to a Carolina Panthers team that came into Lucas Oil Stadium having failed to win a road game in nearly two full years. With hopeless away tests at AFC heavyweights New England and Baltimore next up, Indianapolis will be assured of entering its final three-week stretch at 0-13, and even more manageable home dates with Tennessee and injury-plagued Houston as well as the finale at rebuilding Jacksonville cannot be considered good bets for a breakthrough when realizing just how unbelievably inept the once- perennial playoff participants have become.

For years, a matchup between the Colts and Patriots had both fans and television networks salivating like a starving wolf in a hen house. Now it's one of the most glaring mismatches in recent memory, with Indianapolis heading to the house that Tom Brady built as the first 20-point underdog since 2007, and the most obvious indicator yet as to how precipitously the franchise has fallen in the aftermath of Manning's career-threatening neck surgery.

Orlovsky will make his first start in a Colts uniform in that game after hot- seated head coach Jim Caldwell's patience finally ran out on the bumbling Curtis Painter, but the real question in the Hoosier State is whether Manning will ever make another one for the team he lifted to such glorious heights over his legendary 13-year tenure.

While the four-time MVP's advancing age and slow recovery from surgery are both potential threats to his future, the biggest stumbling block may be the albatross of a contract that Manning is carrying. He's due a whopping $28 million roster bonus prior to the start of the 2012 league year in March on top of a $7.4 million season salary, which puts the Colts in an awfully puzzling predicament when assessing their long-term plans.

The increasing likelihood of prized quarterback prospect Andrew Luck landing in the Colts' lap only compounds the matter. Let's face it, Indy has taken all the drama out of the race to secure the No. 1 overall pick in next April's draft by owning a two-game lead on the Vikings and Rams with just five to play, and there's no chance it passes on the Stanford standout with the need for a true heir apparent to Manning so transparent.

Colts president Bill Polian has suggested a scenario in which Luck could sit behind Manning for a year or two and further learn his trade from one of the NFL's all-time wizards at the position, and it's a workable course of action provided Manning is receptive to a mentor's role and Luck's camp opts not to pull a power play designed to steer the young phenom to another city where he could start immediately.

But it is a feasible one?

While the fixed rookie salary structure created by the new collective bargaining agreement makes such an arrangement more achievable from a salary standpoint, would squeezing another year or so out of Manning at the expense of stalling Luck's progress really be in the Colts' best interests? Even if their soon-to-be 36-year-old triggerman receives a clean bill of health and can return to somewhere in the neighborhood of the stratospheric level of performance that's been customary over the course of his certain Hall of Fame career, there's still no guarantee that an Indianapolis team littered with gaping holes all throughout the roster and may have to part with wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon (both unrestricted free agents in 2012) can step right back into a legitimate contender's role as if this season never happened.

On the other hand, neither Polian nor owner Jim Irsay would ever be able to live down the prospect of a healthy Manning directing another team to a Super Bowl run, even if Luck -- who's considerably more polished than current rookie sensations Andy Dalton and Cam Newton at a corresponding stage of his career -- turns into an instant success.

It's quite a dilemma for the Colts, who will be forced to deal with a backlash of some sort unless Manning's body makes the decision easy by betraying him in the coming months and causing the charismatic veteran to get a jump-start on an inevitable post-football career in the television industry.

Sure, the Green Bay Packers' pursuit of perfection makes for a nice storyline to follow as this season continues to unfold. But what's about to transpire in Indianapolis in the weeks that follow the city's hosting of Super Bowl XLVI offers may actually wind up offering far more intrigue and suspense.


Still a lot to be decided over the next five weeks, especially in a jumbled AFC that has four teams all in a position to claim the top overall seed, though it will be interesting to see how Houston's unfortunate quarterback quandary plays out. In the NFC, both Green Bay and San Francisco can lock up their respective divisions this week and have clear paths to an opening-round bye, but the Wild Card spots remain very fluid with Detroit and the Giants also within striking distance.

Here how things stand at the moment:

AFC: 1) Houston (8-3); 2) New England (8-3); 3) Baltimore (8-3); 4) Oakland (7-4); 5) Pittsburgh (8-3); 6) Cincinnati (7-4)

NFC: 1) Green Bay (11-0); 2) San Francisco (9-2); 3) New Orleans (8-3); 4) Dallas (7-4); 5) Chicago (7-4); 6) Atlanta (7-4)


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1. New England (vs. Indianapolis) -- Is a further explanation really necessary?

2. San Francisco (vs. St. Louis) -- Lowly Rams are the NFL's second-lowest scoring team, while the 49ers allow the fewest points in the league and are at home. Enough said.

3. New Orleans (vs. Detroit) -- Sputtering Lions have all kinds of injury issues right now, and Saints showed how awesome they can be in the Superdome with Monday's pasting of the Giants.


While my predictions involving point spreads continue to be rather dubious, I did go a respectable 11-5 in straight-up selections last week to boost my overall record to 110-68 (.618) for the season. Still lurking under the dreaded .500 mark when factoring in the line, however, having compiled just a 79-90-7 (.469) ledger over the first 12 weeks after coming up with a 7-8-1 record over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Philadelphia (4-7) at Seattle (4-7), Thursday, 8:20 (Philadelphia -2.5)

Storylines: Midweek matchup between 2010 division winners that both have considerable ground to make up in this year's NFC playoff race...Vince Young to make third straight start at quarterback in place of injured Michael Vick (ribs) for disappointing Eagles, who suffered third loss in four games with 38-20 home setback to AFC East leader New England last Sunday despite career- best 400 passing yards from Young...Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (hamstring) also ruled out for Philadelphia, but running back LeSean McCoy (toe) and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (knee) both believed to be okay to play...Seahawks placed wide receiver Sidney Rice on injured reserve Wednesday after sustaining concussion in team's 23-17 loss to visiting Washington in Week 12, which halted two-game win streak for defending NFC West champs...Eagles second in NFL in rushing yards (159.4 ypg) and third in total offense (420.1 ypg), while McCoy leads all individuals with 1,050 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns this season...Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch has league-best 443 rushing yards over last four weeks and has scored a touchdown in seven consecutive contests...Seahawks defense allowing 3.52 yards per rush attempt, fourth-best mark in NFL...Philadelphia an NFC-best 35-14 in December under head coach Andy Reid and has won in three straight stops in Seattle, most recently in 2008.

Fast Fact: Five current Eagles (wide receiver Steve Smith, defensive tackle Mike Patterson, offensive tackle Winston Justice and practice squad-members Stanley Havili and Ronald Johnson) all played under Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll at USC, and both Smith and Justice were on the Carroll-coached Trojans' squad that lost to Young's Texas Longhorns in the memorable 2006 Rose Bowl Game that decided that year's BCS national champion.

Prediction: Eagles show some jet lag from a long trip on a short week early on, but recover in time to outscore a Seattle squad that isn't overly threatening. Eagles 20, Seahawks 14.


Atlanta (7-4) at Houston (8-3), Sunday, 1:00 (Atlanta -2.5)

Storylines: AFC South-leading Texans riding first five-game winning streak in franchise history following 20-13 victory at Jacksonville last Sunday and own two-game lead in division standings, but forced to start rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback after Matt Leinart, subbing for injured regular Matt Schaub (foot), suffered fractured collarbone against Jaguars...Houston signed veteran signal- caller Jake Delhomme on Tuesday to serve in backup role...Falcons one game behind rival New Orleans for NFC South's top spot and posted fifth win in last six outings with 24-14 decision over lowly Minnesota in Week 12...Cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) both doubtful for Atlanta, while linebacker Stephen Nicholas (quadriceps) questionable...Texans third in NFL in rushing offense (151.7 ypg), but face Falcons defense ranked second overall against the run (83.5 ypg) and yielding just 57 yards per game on the ground over pats four tests...Houston tops league in total defense (268.4 ypg) and stands second in both points (16.3 ypg) and passing yards allowed (175.8 ypg)...Texans also second overall in sacks (35) and had seven in win over Jacksonville, with linebacker Connor Barwin notching team-record four takedowns...Atlanta wideout Roddy White has 17 catches and 267 receiving yards in club's wins over past two weeks...Falcons corner Dunta Robinson was first- round pick of Texans in 2004 and spent first six NFL seasons with Houston (2004-09).

Fast Fact: Atlanta's last victory in Houston was a 31-27 decision over the Oilers at the Astrodome on Nov. 29, 1981. The Falcons are 0-3 in games played in the city since that win, including a loss to the Texans in 2003.

Prediction: Texans are too good defensively to roll over at home even with an unproven rookie quarterback, but Yates' inexperience will still show against an Atlanta stop unit that's pretty good in its own right. Falcons 17, Texans 13.


Carolina (3-8) at Tampa Bay (4-7), Sunday, 1:00 (Tampa Bay -3)

Storylines: Clash between NFC South's bottom two teams, with fading Buccaneers seeking to end five-game skid extended with 23-17 loss at Tennessee last Sunday...Last-place Panthers stopped three-game slide with 27-19 decision over still-winless Indianapolis in Week 12, which also ended string of 12 straight road defeats for club...Carolina has prevailed in six of last eight visits to Raymond James Stadium, but dealt 31-16 loss there last season as part of Tampa Bay home-and-home sweep...Panthers fifth in NFL in total offense (398.7 ypg) and amassed season-best 201 rushing yards on Colts, and face Bucs defense ranked just 30th versus run (139.7 ypg) and could be without starting linemen Michael Bennett (groin) and Brian Price (ankle)...Tampa running back LeGarrette Blount recorded second straight 100-yard rushing effort with 103 against Titans and takes on Carolina defense rated 28th against the run (137.5 ypg)...Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton scored 10th rushing touchdown of season in last week's win and is just two shy of matching NFL single-year record by a signal- caller for that category...Carolina wideout Steve Smith currently second overall in receiving yards (1,060) and averaging 18 yards per catch...Bucs 29th in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage (41.4 pct.), while Panthers have permitted NFC-high 24 touchdowns within that area.

Fast Fact: Newton became only the fourth rookie quarterback to reach 3,000 passing yards in a season during last week's win, joining Peyton Manning (1998), Matt Ryan (2008) and Sam Bradford (2010).

Prediction: Bucs are desperate for a victory and will return to their "youngry" ways to pull one out against an evenly-matched opponent. Buccaneers 23, Panthers 20.


Cincinnati (7-4) at Pittsburgh (8-3), Sunday, 1:00 (Pittsburgh -7)

Storylines: Important battle between playoff hopefuls from AFC North, with surprising Bengals trailing both Steelers and Baltimore for first place in division...Pittsburgh handed Bengals a 24-17 loss in Cincinnati on Nov. 13 and have won three straight and eight of last 10 matchups between longtime rivals...Steelers aim for third straight overall victory and seventh triumph in eight games after 13-9 edging of Kansas City last Sunday, and expected to have both safety Troy Polamalu (concussion) and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) in lineup for Sunday's tilt...Defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap (hamstring) and Pat Sims (ankle) both questionable for Bengals, who ended two- game slide with 23-20 home win over Cleveland in Week 12...Cincinnati 4-2 on road this season and rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown 11 touchdown passes in those games...Dalton had two interceptions and completed just 15- of-30 attempts against stout Pittsburgh defense in Week 10 loss, however...Steelers second in NFL in total defense (277.5 ypg), third against the pass (181.3 ypg) and fourth in points allowed (17.1 ypg), while Bengals fifth overall in both total defense (307.7 ypg) and run defense (92.7 ypg)...Pittsburgh wideout Antonio Brown averaging 92 receiving yards over past three games and had team-best 86 yards on five catches in team's earlier win against Cincinnati.

Fast Fact: Steelers are 31-1 in their last 32 regular-season games in which they've held the opposition to 252 total yards or less after limiting the Chiefs to that number this past week.

Prediction: Pittsburgh's offense looks a bit out of sync right now with Ben Roethlisberger dealing with a broken thumb, but reigning AFC champs still manage to rise to the occasion in a critical December game. Steelers 24, Bengals 20.


Denver (6-5) at Minnesota (2-9), Sunday, 1:00 (Minnesota -1)

Storylines: Interconference encounter between teams going in opposite directions, with resurgent Broncos shooting for fifth consecutive win and battered Vikings trying to avoid fourth straight loss...Denver 5-1 since Tim Tebow became team's starting quarterback in mid-October and remained one game behind first-place Oakland in AFC West with key 16-13 road ousting of slumping San Diego last Sunday...Vikings coming off 24-14 setback at contending Atlanta in Week 12 and expected to be without star running back Adrian Peterson for second straight game due to ankle sprain...Minnesota also placed wide receiver Michael Jenkins (knee), safeties Husain Abdullah (concussion) and Tyrell Johnson (hamstring) and long snapper Cullen Loeffler (back) on injured reserve Tuesday, while signing safety Jarrad Page and snapper Matt Katula...Broncos rookie linebacker Von Miller questionable after injuring thumb in San Diego win and tied for third in NFL in sacks (10.5), while Vikings end Jared Allen second in that category (13.5)...Denver leads league in rushing (159.7 ypg) and has amassed 195 yards or more on the ground in four of last five games, while defense has allowed 36 points over team's three most recent wins...Tebow did not have a turnover in 122 offensive touches over four November bouts and responsible for six touchdowns (four passing, two rushing) during that stretch...Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, who had team-best eighth touchdown catch, last week, is a Minnesota native and attended University of Minnesota.

Fast Fact: Tebow finished with 67 rushing yards on 22 attempts in last week's win, the most carries by a quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Chicago's Bobby Douglass had the previous record of 19, set at Green Bay on Nov. 4, 1973.

Prediction: Broncos have beaten better teams on the road than a tattered Minnesota group that's been leveled by injuries, including one to their best offensive player. It's Tebow time once again. Broncos 20, Vikings 17.


Indianapolis (0-11) at New England (8-3), Sunday, 1:00 (New England -20.5)

Storylines: Hapless Colts on worst losing streak since 0-13 start to 1986 campaign and will start Dan Orlovsky in place of struggling Curtis Painter at quarterback in hopes of obtaining elusive first win of 2011...AFC East front- running Patriots maintained two-game advantage on rival New York Jets in division standings with 38-20 road blitzing of Philadelphia last Sunday, team's third consecutive victory, and have won 21 of last 22 regular-season outings at Gillette Stadium...New England recorded 31-28 home decision over Indianapolis last season despite 396 passing yards and four touchdowns from still-injured Peyton Manning...Patriots averaging 30.1 points per game (3rd overall) and second in the NFL in both total offense (429.5 ypg) and passing yards (319.1 ypg), while Colts allowing league-worst 29.7 points per game and fired defensive coordinator Larry Coyer on Tuesday...Indianapolis also 29th in total defense (389.4 ypg) and 31st against the run (150.6 ypg), and permitted 201 rushing yards in 27-19 loss to Carolina last week...New England last in both total defense (409.8 ypg) and pass defense (307.5 ypg) and gave up 353 net yards through the air against Eagles in Week 12...Colts 31st in total yards (280.6 ypg) and 30th in scoring (13.6 ppg), however, and have been held to single-digit points in three of past five tests...Patriots wideout Wes Welker tops NFL in receptions (82) and receiving yards (1,143) and had 115 yards on eight catches in last week's triumph, while tight end Rob Gronkowski second in touchdown grabs (11) and has six scores over last four weeks...Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark expected to miss third straight game with leg injury.

Fast Fact: Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne had season-best 122 yards on five catches in last week's defeat, and team is now 1-5 in the last six games in which he's eclipsed the century mark.

Prediction: Don't be scared off by the three-touchdown spread. It's not nearly enough. Patriots 35, Colts 7.


Kansas City (4-7) at Chicago (7-4), Sunday, 1:00 (Chicago -7)

Storylines: Showdown between teams recently struck by serious injuries at quarterback, with onetime Bear Kyle Orton a possibility to make first start with Chiefs since being claimed off waivers from Denver last week and Caleb Hanie to fill in for ailing Jay Cutler (broken thumb) for second straight Sunday...Hanie threw for 254 yards and two scores but was intercepted three times in Chicago's 25-20 loss at Oakland in Week 12, which halted team's five- game win streak...Kansas City dealt fourth consecutive loss and second in a row with journeyman Tyler Palko replacing Matt Cassel (broken hand) under center in 13-9 setback to Pittsburgh last Sunday, with Palko tossing three picks for second straight game...Chiefs 29th in scoring (13.9 ypg) and have mustered just 25 points over current four-game skid, with offense not having produced a touchdown in nine straight quarters and last 27 possessions...Bears running back Matt Forte leads NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,475), but has 65 rushing yards or less in each of last three weeks...Chicago wideout Johnny Knox tops league in yards per reception (22.2) and amassed career-best 145 yards on just four catches against Raiders...Bears eighth overall in run defense (98.6 ypg) and have allowed only 67.8 rushing yards per game since Week 6.

Fast Fact: Orton was a fourth-round draft choice of the Bears in 2005 and compiled a 21-12 record as a starter over four seasons with the club before coming over in the 2009 trade with Denver that sent Cutler to Chicago.

Prediction: The crafty Todd Haley devises a game plan that will keep the Chiefs competitive, but Hanie will look like a wily old pro compared to whomever Kansas City sends out at quarterback. Bears 24, Chiefs 19.


N.Y. Jets (6-5) at Washington (4-7), Sunday, 1:00 (N.Y. Jets -3)

Storylines: Pairing of teams that each stopped losing streaks last time out, with Jets ending two-game slide with hard-fought 28-24 home win over Buffalo this past Sunday and Redskins halting string of six straight defeats with 23-17 triumph at Seattle in Week 12...New York one game behind Cincinnati for final AFC Wild Card spot at the moment and expected to have running back LaDanian Tomlinson and rookie receiver Jeremy Kerley back from two-game absences caused by knee injuries, but defensive lineman Mike Devito (knee) doubtful...Defensive end Stephen Bowen (knee) and fullback Darrel Young (concussion) both unlikely to play for Washington...Both quarterbacks coming off strong showings last week, with Jets' Mark Sanchez throwing for career-best four touchdowns and Redskins' Rex Grossman accumulating season-high 314 yards and two scores on 26-of-35 passing...Rookie running back Roy Helu added personal-best 108 rushing yards for Washington in Seattle game, but team ranks just 31st running the ball (86.4 ypg)...Redskins tied for last in NFL with 25 giveaways and minus-11 turnover margin and have committed at least two miscues in 10 consecutive games...New York just 1-4 on road this season, but has won four of six games as the visitor in December under head coach Rex Ryan.

Fast Fact: Sanchez's four touchdown passes against the Bills were the most by a Jets quarterback since Brett Favre tossed six in a 56-35 win over Arizona on Sept. 28, 2008.

Prediction: All of the Jets' losses on the road have come to quality opponents, of which the error-prone Redskins don't qualify. Jets 21, Redskins 17.


Oakland (7-4) at Miami (3-8), Sunday, 1:00 (Miami -3)

Storylines: Rolling Raiders head to Sun Life Stadium having won three straight contests and maintained one-game lead on Denver for first place in AFC West with 25-20 decision over Chicago last Sunday, while Dolphins had three-game surge that followed 0-8 start stopped with 20-19 last-second loss at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day...Oakland running back Darren McFadden set to sit out fifth consecutive game with foot sprain, but fill-in Michael Bush has averaged 107.8 rushing yards in his absence for NFL's fourth-ranked ground attack (149.2 ypg)...Wide receiver Jacoby Ford (foot) also presumed to remain sidelined for Raiders, but rookie wideout Denarius Moore on track to return from foot injury that kept him out versus Bears...Guard Vernon Carey (ankle) questionable for Miami but kicker Dan Carpenter (groin) probable, with team waiving counterpart Shayne Graham as well as defensive end Igor Olshansky on Wednesday...Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore owns AFC-best 112.7 passer rating and 7-to-1 touchdown- to-interception ratio over past four weeks...Oakland punter Shane Lechler tops league with 51.5 gross average and had career-long 80-yard boot in last Sunday's win...Raiders 4-1 on road this season and have won three straight as visitor, but have dropped eight of last nine non-playoff tilts with Miami that includes 33-17 loss at the Coliseum last season...Dolphins wideout Davone Bess had 116 receiving yards on six catches in last year's meeting between teams.

Fast Fact: Raiders lead the NFL with 19 rushes of over 20 yards this season, but have allowed a league-high 18 runs of that amount or greater through the first 11 games.

Prediction: Raiders are in a good groove right now, but a cross-country trip against a more rested Miami team that's been playing with some vigor now that it's out of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes could be a difficult spot. Dolphins 27, Raiders 23.


Tennessee (6-5) at Buffalo (5-6), Sunday, 1:00 (Buffalo -1.5)

Storylines: Collapsing Bills return home from winless three-game road stretch and suffered fourth straight loss overall with 28-24 defeat to fellow AFC East member New York Jets last Sunday, while Titans posted second win in three weeks with 23-17 home verdict over Tampa Bay to maintain one-game deficit behind Cincinnati in conference Wild Card race...Kicker Rian Lindell and offensive tackle Demetrius Bell doubtful for injury-riddled Buffalo with shoulder ailments, while safety George Wilson (neck) questionable and team placed defensive lineman Torell Troup (back) on injured reserve Wednesday...Tennessee middle linebacker Barrett Ruud expected to remain sidelined with groin strain, with rookie Colin McCarthy slated to again start in his place, but offensive tackle David Stewart (calf) and tight end Jared Cook (head) both probable...Titans just 30th in NFL in rushing offense (88.6 ypg), but Pro Bowl back Chris Johnson broke out for 190 yards on 23 carries against Buccaneers...Bills ninth overall in rushing (122.0 ypg) but have ran for only 127 yards combined in last two losses, in which team has played mostly without injured back Fred Jackson (broken leg)...Buffalo compiled plus-11 turnover ratio during 4-1 start to season, but is minus-seven in dropping five of six games since...Tennessee wide receiver Nate Washington tied for league lead with 22 third-down catches, while teammate Damian Willis has scoring catch in three of past four weeks...Bills sport 4-1 home record in 2011.

Fast Fact: Tennessee's Bud Adams and Buffalo's Ralph Wilson are the only two of the AFL's original eight franchise owners when the league was established in 1960 that are still heading their respective teams.

Prediction: Titans can be tough to deal with when Johnson gets going, and that doesn't seem to be too great an issue against Buffalo's submissive run defense. Titans 21, Bills 17.


Baltimore (8-3) at Cleveland (4-7), Sunday, 4:05 (Baltimore -7)

Storylines: AFC North co-leading Ravens aim for third straight victory and seventh in a row over the division-rival Browns, which includes wins in Cleveland in each of the past three seasons, but are just 2-3 on the road in 2011...Baltimore comes in off intense 16-6 home triumph over NFC West front- runner San Francisco on Thanksgiving night in highly-anticipated clash between sibling head coaches John and Jim Harbaugh, with team's vaunted defense limiting 49ers to 170 total yards and tying franchise record with nine sacks, including three by Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs...Cleveland handed fourth loss in five weeks with 23-20 ousting by Cincinnati last Sunday, in which club squandered 10-point second half lead...Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis uncertain to return from two-game absence due to sprained toe, but nickel back Chris Carr (back) and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (hamstring) both probable...Browns running back Peyton Hillis (hamstring) set to make second straight appearance, but backfield mate Montario Hardesty (calf) questionable and team placed linebacker Scott Fujita (broken hand) and defensive end Emmanuel Stephens (chest) on injured reserve Tuesday...Cleveland also waived longtime long snapper Ryan Pontbriand during week while signing Christian Yount to fill spot...Baltimore third in NFL in total defense (292.3 ypg), rushing defense (91.5 ypg) and points allowed (16.5 ppg), while Browns yielding league-low 174.7 passing yards per game and sixth in total defense (313.4 ypg)...Cleveland offense just 28th in total yards (295.9 ypg) and 29th in rushing (96.8 ypg) and have reached 20-point mark only twice this season...Browns 3-17 against AFC North foes since 2008, including 0-2 mark this year.

Fast Fact: Ravens have averaged 152.6 rushing yards per game in December and January over John Harbaugh's first three seasons, the third-highest total in the NFL over that time period.

Prediction: Ravens have a troubling tendency to play down to their competition, but their rugged defense should enable them to take care of business. Ravens 16, Browns 13.


Dallas (7-4) at Arizona (4-7), Sunday, 4:15 (Dallas -4.5)

Storylines: Surging Cowboys in search of first five-game win streak since 2007 and claimed one-game edge on slumping New York Giants for top spot in NFC East after 20-19 victory over Miami on Thanksgiving, with rookie kicker Dan Bailey booting go-ahead field goal as time expired...Cardinals improved to 3-1 under replacement quarterback John Skelton with 23-20 edging of St. Louis last Sunday, but usual starter Kevin Kolb expected to return after missing last four weeks with sprained toe...Dallas wide receiver Miles Austin a likely game-time decision with hamstring injury that's kept him out three straight contests, while fullback Tony Fiammetta (illness) and backup quarterback Jon Kitna (back) doubtful and cornerback Mike Jenkins (hamstring) probable...Cardinals running back Beanie Wells set club record with 228 rushing yards against Rams in Week 12, while rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson tied NFL single-season record with fourth punt return touchdown in win...Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware leads NFL with 14 sacks and faces Arizona offensive line that has surrendered 36 sacks this year, tied for second-most in league...Dallas quarterback Tony Romo had string of 128 consecutive passes without an interception end after throwing two picks in Miami game...Cardinals rookie linebacker Sam Acho had two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles in triumph over Rams...Cowboys just 2-3 on road thus far in 2011.

Fast Fact: Wells rushed for 118 yards in the first half of last week's victory, the most by an Arizona player over the opening two quarters since Marcel Shipp gained 122 yards against Oakland on Nov. 24, 2002.

Prediction: Cowboys have been in a lot of close games this season, and can't be caught looking ahead to next week's big battle with the Giants with the Cardinals having displayed improvement over the course of the year. Cowboys 23, Cardinals 20.


Green Bay (11-0) at N.Y. Giants (6-5), Sunday, 4:15 (Green Bay -7)

Storylines: Sagging Giants try to rebound from 49-24 shellacking by New Orleans on Monday, team's third straight loss, against dominant Packers team attempting to extend franchise-best winning streak to 18 consecutive games (including postseason) dating back to last year...Green Bay's tear began with 45-17 rout of New York at Lambeau Field this past December behind 404-yard, four-touchdown performance by star quarterback Aaron Rodgers...Packers can secure playoff berth with victory and would clinch NFC North title by defeating Giants and Detroit losing on Sunday...Rodgers recorded 13th straight game with passer rating above 110 with 307-yard, two-score effort in 27-15 Thanksgiving Day triumph at rival Detroit and leads NFL in that category (127.7) as well as touchdown passes (33) and completion percentage (71.8) at controls of league's highest-scoring offense (34.7 ppg)...Green Bay also third overall in passing yards (304.1 ypg) and fourth in total offense (401.3 ypg)...New York surrendered 577 total yards (205 rushing, 372 passing) to Saints along with four scoring strikes to quarterback Drew Brees, and defense to be without pass rusher Osi Umenyiora (ankle) and possibly linebacker Michael Boley (hamstring)...Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw could miss fifth straight week with lingering foot injury, while wide receiver Mario Manningham (knee) also questionable...Packers leading rusher James Starks probable despite exiting Detroit game with sore ankle, but offensive tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) to remain sidelined and inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk both doubtful with calf strains...New York wideout Victor Cruz tied for fourth in NFL in receiving yards (957) and had career-best nine catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns against New Orleans.

Fast Fact: The 577 total yards the Giants allowed to the Saints on Monday were the franchise's most in a single game since surrendering 682 in a 56-7 loss to Chicago on Nov. 14, 1943.

Prediction: Packers' injuries on defense are a bit of a concern, but Giants are even more banged up and clearly have some major problems that the reigning world champs can exploit like they did when these teams last squared off. Packers 33, Giants 24.


St. Louis (2-9) at San Francisco (9-2), Sunday, 4:15 (San Francisco -13.5)

Storylines: 49ers can wrap up first NFC West title and playoff appearance since 2002 with victory over lowly Rams or by losses by both Seattle and Arizona this weekend, and vie to bounce back from 16-6 defeat at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night that halted team's eight-game win streak...St. Louis secured fifth straight losing season and eighth consecutive campaign with non-winning record after 23-20 home setback to Arizona last Sunday...Defensive tackle Justin Bannan (shoulder) doubtful for Rams and safety Darian Stewart (concussion) questionable, but wide receiver Danario Alexander (hamstring) slated to return from five-game absence...Wideout Braylon Edwards (shoulder) and guard Adam Snyder (hamstring) both expected to sit out for San Francisco...Niners yielding league-lows of 14.6 points and 75.5 rushing yards per game and have yet to give up a touchdown on the ground this season...Teams also owns 33-game streak of not allowing an individual 100-yard rusher, longest active run in NFL...St. Louis 31st overall in scoring (12.7 ppg) and 29th in total offense (295.5 ypg), and unit has recorded only 11 touchdowns through 11 games...Rams have also permitted league-worst 39 sacks, while San Francisco gave up nine sacks in Baltimore loss while mustering season-low 170 total yards...49ers running back Frank Gore sixth overall in rushing yards (909), but averaging just 2.9 yards per carry over last three games...St. Louis last in the NFL in run defense (159.0 ypg), however, and permitted 228 yards to Arizona's Beanie Wells in Week 12.

Fast Fact: 49ers are the first NFL team since the 1928 Providence Steam Roller to not allow a rushing touchdown over the first 11 games of a season.

Prediction: 49ers still left with a bad taste from their Turkey Day loss to the Ravens and will take out their frustrations on a wayward St. Louis squad that can't score or stop the run. 49ers 20, Rams 6.


Detroit (7-4) at New Orleans (8-3), Sunday, 8:20 (New Orleans -9)

Storylines: Primetime showdown between NFC playoff hopefuls that should have a significant impact on the conference postseason landscape, as Saints currently own one-game edge on Atlanta for first place in NFC South and Lions tied with the Falcons and Chicago for two available Wild Card spots...New Orleans enters matchup off three straight victories, most recently an impressive 49-24 dismantling of the New York Giants that improved team's season record to 5-0 at the Superdome...Detroit sports 4-1 road mark but comes in having dropped four of six following 5-0 start and expected to be without several key regulars, with standout defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh likely to begin serving appealed two-game suspension for stomping Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich- Smith in team's 27-15 loss to Packers on Thanksgiving Day...Running back Kevin Smith also doubtful for Lions after spraining ankle against Green Bay, and safety Louis Delmas and nickel back Brandon McDonald both presumed to miss contest with knee injuries...Cornerback Chris Houston (knee) questionable for Detroit, while club placed primary running back Jahvid Best (concussion) and punter Ryan Donahue (quadriceps) on injured reserve during week...Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee) hopeful to return from three-game absence, while cornerback Jabari Greer (knee) also questionable...New Orleans leads NFL in total offense (449.6 ypg) and passing yards (324.2) and rolled up season- best 577 total yards (205 rushing, 372 passing) against Giants on Monday, with quarterback Drew Brees leading outburst with 363-yard, four-touchdown effort...Lions signal-caller Matthew Stafford tossed three interceptions in loss to Packers and has nine picks over last three outings after throwing just four over first eight games...Saints second overall in scoring (32.9 ppg) and averaging 41.6 points at Superdome this year, while Detroit averaging 33 points allowed in past three tilts...Lions wideout Calvin Johnson tops league with 12 touchdown catches and third in receiving yards (1,023).

Fast Fact: Lions offensive tackle Jeff Backus has started 171 consecutive games, tied with Hall of Fame cornerback and current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for the longest streak in franchise history.

Prediction: Lions will resemble their sad-sack teams from the recent past in their Sunday Night Football debut, as their depleted defense will have a hard time slowing down the Saints' prolific scoring machine. Saints 38, Lions 27.


San Diego (4-7) at Jacksonville (3-8), Monday, 8:30 (San Diego -2.5)

Storylines: Debut for Jaguars interim head coach Mel Tucker, elevated from defensive coordinator post following Tuesday shakeup in which longtime sideline boss Jack Del Rio was fired and owner Wayne Weaver announced team would be sold to Illinois businessman Shahid Kahn...Fading Chargers carry six-game losing streak into EverBank Field, club's longest in-season skid since 2001, and dealt 16-13 home defeat by resurgent Denver last Sunday...Jacksonville has dropped three of last four tests and handed 20-13 loss to AFC South leader Houston at EverBank Field in Week 12...San Diego placed offensive tackle Marcus McNeill (neck) on injured reserve and claimed lineman Jared Gaither off waivers from Kansas City Wednesday, but wide receiver Malcom Floyd (hip) and guards Louis Vasquez (ankle) and Tyronne Green (hand) slated to return after missing last week's loss...Jaguars waived wide receiver Jason Hill and put safety Courtney Greene (knee) on IR Wednesday, while signing cornerback Morgan Trent...Chargers 30th in NFL with minus-10 turnover margin, with quarterback Philip Rivers leading league with 17 interceptions...Jacksonville fourth overall in both total defense (292.5 ypg) and pass defense (183.4 ypg) and held Texans to 215 total yards and nine first downs last Sunday...Jaguars last in league in scoring (12.5 ppg), total offense (250.0 ypg) and passing yards (131.3 ypg), however...Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew second in NFL in rushing yards (1,040), while San Diego counterpart Ryan Matthews ran for career-high 137 yards against Broncos...Jacksonville posted 12-7 home upset win over AFC North leader Baltimore on Monday Night Football on Oct. 24, while Chargers had 23-20 overtime setback at Kansas City the following Monday...San Diego owns 20-2 record in December games since 2006.

Fast Fact: Del Rio was the only head coach in NFL history to never win a division title during a tenure of nine or more seasons.

Prediction: Though it may be too little and too late, win-starved Chargers lay the groundwork for another strong December push by taking care of a Jacksonville team that's in disarray from a whirlwind week. Chargers 20, Jaguars 13.