Giants, Coughlin have plenty riding on final stretch

The New York Giants' action-packed 38-35 game losing streak the team will carry into a crucial final quarter of this 2011 season.

So when Big Blue staggers into Jerry Jones' ode to extravagance and over- indulgence come to life for Sunday's high-stakes showdown with the arch-rival Dallas Cowboys, more than simply the inside track to NFC East supremacy will be on the line. In many ways, this game could serve as a referendum on the future of a franchise that's gone from giant-killers to giant flizzers in the span of four years.

The Giants' last three seasons have seen a similar and painful pattern develop: soaring first-half starts followed by monumental stumbles down the stretch and a bitter and unfulfilled ending. A 2008 campaign buoyed by the promise of back- to-back championship visions turned distastefully sour after an 11-1 beginning was backed up by four losses in five games and an early playoff exit. A 5-0 record out of the chute the subsequent year wound up being an 8-8 fiasco when a once-fearsome defense was reduced to a pathetic pushover. And a 10-win campaign in 2010 wasn't quite good enough to earn a postseason invite because of crippling December defeats to eventual division title-holder Philadelphia and the ultimately Super Bowl-winning Packers in consecutive weeks.

New York's latest downturn has left it with a 6-6 record and at a clear crossroads heading into this week's pivotal clash with a Dallas team that's been no stranger to converting enthusiastic outlooks of its own into miserable misfortune with late-season collapses in recent years. With the two NFC East contenders going toe-to-toe twice in the final four weeks, the Giants still hold their destiny in their own hands. Lose this Sunday, however, and a third straight playoff absence becomes far more than just a innocuous threat.

"I think our goals are still in hand," said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin on Monday. "Everything that we wanted to achieve at the very beginning of the season, having played 12 weeks, they're still there. This is obviously a big game in the division, in Dallas, for first place in the division."

Coughlin's fate could very well be hanging in the balance as well. He was able to survive the 2009 and 2010 fades due to a commendable track record and the traditionally less-reactionary mindset of the Giants' old-guard ownership. Still, the one-year contract extension through 2012 the veteran sideline general was handed in July was a telling indicator that this is more-or-less a "prove it" season, so it's reasonable to think he may not be able to escape unscathed if the Giants come up short once again.

After all, this is New York we're talking about here, and even the one Super Bowl title and four playoff appearances in a six-year span that Coughlin's produced holds only so much collateral in a city that isn't renowned for its patience.

Then again, New Yorkers certainly love their nostalgia as well, and last week's inspired effort against the still-unbeaten Packers conjured up fond flashbacks of when Coughlin's 2007 edition battled a seemingly-invincible New England squad to the wire in a confidence-building defeat by the same 38-35 score in that year's regular season finale. Of course, those two teams would meet five weeks later in Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants stoned the NFL's Goliaths of that era in one of the most notable upsets in league history.

For Coughlin's sake, here's to hoping for long memories.

While Giants-Cowboys is the obvious headliner on the upcoming slate, there are couple of matchups on Sunday's undercard with significant ramifications for another division race that's suddenly become very intriguing. The resurrected Denver Broncos will be aiming for a sixth straight victory with comeback kid Tim Tebow under center as well as possible sole ownership of first place in the AFC West that no one could have seen coming just a few weeks back. While Denver hosts a limping Chicago team that will be without both onetime Broncos franchise face Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, the division co-leading Oakland Raiders face the daunting assignment of traveling to Lambeau Field to take on the 12-0 Packers.

Enjoy the games, as we're finally getting close to crunch time.


There's still quite a logjam in the AFC with four weeks left to go, as four teams continue to fight it out for the conference's coveted No. 1 overall seed and the New York Jets, Tennessee and Oakland all tied with the Bengals for the final Wild Card spot. Not much figures to be settled following Sunday's outcomes. The picture's slightly less cloudy in the NFC, where both the Packers and 49ers have already clinched their divisions and only the Cowboys have a lead of less than two games in the two other brackets. The Wild Card battles remain contentious, however, with both the Bears and Falcons failing to gain separation from either struggling Detroit or the Giants after each experienced tough losses in Week 13.

AFC: 1) New England (9-3); 2) Houston (9-3); 3) Baltimore (9-3); 4) Denver (7-5); 5) Pittsburgh (9-3); 6) Cincinnati (7-5)

NFC: 1) Green Bay (12-0); 2) San Francisco (10-2); 3) New Orleans (9-3); 4) Dallas (7-5); 5) Chicago (7-5); 6) Atlanta (7-5)


The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found at: poll.htm


Find Fantasy Editor Steve Schwarz's latest analysis at: fantasy/index.aspx


1. Seattle (vs. St. Louis) -- The Ravens and Steelers may be safer and more obvious choices, but those that are still alive in survivor pools at this late stage have probably already used those two. The likely available Seahawks are playing well right now and easily handled the decimated Rams in St. Louis just three weeks ago, making them an attractive pick.

2. Baltimore (vs. Indianapolis) -- Colts still haven't won a game and aren't about to in Baltimore, where the Ravens have routinely battered their opponents and aren't about to slip up with the Steelers right on their tails in the AFC North.

3. Pittsburgh (vs. Cleveland) -- Woeful Browns have scored 14 points or less in seven of their 11 games and take on one of the league's premier defenses on the road on a short week. Good luck.


Feeling better about the chances of a strong finish to the regular season after a decent display last week. Was able to correctly peg 11 of 16 winners while going 9-7 against the spread in the most recent column, bringing my overall season mark to 121-73 (.624) when predicting games straight up and a still- shaky 88-97-7 (.477) with the line involved. Another challenging week awaits, however.

Cleveland (4-8) at Pittsburgh (9-3), Thursday, 8:20 (Pittsburgh -14)

Storylines: AFC North co-leading Steelers shoot for fourth straight victory and eighth win in nine games and can clinch playoff berth by beating the Browns and having several teams presently at 7-5 lose this weekend...Pittsburgh has taken 14 of past 15 matchups between divisional foes, with Cleveland's lone triumph over that stretch a 13-6 home decision on a Thursday night in 2009...Browns also haven't won at Heinz Field since 2003 and are 3-18 against AFC North members since 2008, which includes losses to Cincinnati (23-20) and Baltimore (24-10) the last two weeks...Steelers improved to 5-1 at home this season with 35-7 trouncing of Bengals last Sunday, in which team's top-ranked defense limited Cincinnati to 232 total yards...Running backs Peyton Hillis (hip) and Montario Hardesty (calf) both expected to play for Cleveland, but safety T.J. Ward (foot) ruled out...Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley doubtful after aggravating existing hamstring injury against Bengals, while wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (foot) out and guard Ramon Foster (ankle) probable...Steelers yielding league-low 273.8 yards per game and rank second in pass defense (176.8 ypg) and fourth in points allowed (16.3 ppg)...Browns averaging just 14.6 points per game (28th overall) and are 30th in total offense (290.7 ypg) and rushing yards (93.7 ypg)...Cleveland defense first against the pass (173.6 ypg) but 31st versus the run (151.3 ypg) and surrendered season-high 290 yards on the ground to Ravens last week.

Fast Fact: Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is one of only six head coaches since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to win at least nine games in each of his first five seasons, joining George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Bill Cowher, Chuck Knox and Mike Sherman.

Prediction: Ben Roethlisberger should be able to take it easy on his sore thumb, as Steelers can ride their running game and tremendous defense to a methodical win. Steelers 20, Browns 10.


Atlanta (7-5) at Carolina (4-8), Sunday, 1:00 (Atlanta -2.5)

Storylines: Falcons try to atone for 17-10 loss at Houston last Sunday that dropped team two games behind first-place New Orleans in NFC South standings, while improving Panthers aim for third straight win and halted eight-game skid against divisional foes with 38-19 road decision over fading Tampa Bay in Week 13...Atlanta owns three consecutive victories in series, including 31-17 verdict at the Georgia Dome on Oct. 16 behind season-high 139-yard, two- touchdown effort from running back Michael Turner and defense's three interceptions of Carolina rookie sensation Cam Newton...Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes to miss second straight game while recovering from recent knee scope, while nickel back Kelvin Hayden (toe) doubtful and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (quadriceps) questionable...Panthers placed rookie defensive tackles Sione Fua (hamstring) and Terrell McClain (knee) on injured reserve Tuesday while signing defensive lineman Ogemdi Nwagbuo, and guard Travelle Wharton (back), linebacker Omar Gaither (knee) and return specialist Kealoha Pilares (quadriceps) all questionable for Sunday's tilt...Newton ran for three touchdowns in win over Buccaneers and leads NFL with 13 rushing scores, most ever by a quarterback in league history...Carolina fifth overall in rushing offense (137.6 ypg) and produced 139 yards on the ground against Atlanta's third-ranked run defense (90.0 ypg) in Week 6 meeting...Panthers defense just 27th against the run and allowed 166 rushing yards in October loss to Falcons, but held Tampa's LeGarrette Blount to 19 yards on 11 carries last week.

Fast Fact: Newton joined legendary running back Eric Dickerson as the only players in NFL history to run for a touchdown in nine of his first 12 career games with last week's performance.

Prediction: Turner should have another productive day against Carolina's leaky run defense, and that typically translates into an Atlanta victory. Falcons 27, Panthers 20.


Houston (9-3) at Cincinnati (7-5), Sunday, 1:00 (Cincinnati -3)

Storylines: Resilient Texans bring franchise-record six-game winning streak into Paul Brown Stadium and can clinch first-ever AFC South title and playoff berth with victory over Bengals and loss by Tennessee to New Orleans...Rookie T.J. Yates to make second straight start at quarterback for Houston, but All- Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson likely out after straining left hamstring in last Sunday's 17-10 triumph over Atlanta...Texans also placed punter Brett Hartmann (torn ACL) on injured reserve Tuesday while re-signing 43-year-old Matt Turk to fill spot, and club also inked 41-year-old quarterback Jeff Garcia this week...Cincinnati one of four teams tied for final AFC Wild Card spot, but has lost three of last four outings following surprising 6-2 start and coming off 35-7 dismantling by AFC North co-leader Pittsburgh in Week 13...Matchup of two of league's better defenses, with Texans second overall in both points (15.8 ppg) and total yards allowed (274.7 ypg) while ranking third against the pass (183.4 ypg) and Bengals sixth in total defense (306.7 ypg) and run defense (96.3 ypg)...Cornerback Nate Clements and defensive end Carlos Dunlap both questionable for Cincinnati with hamstring injuries, however, and offensive tackle Andre Smith (ankle) uncertain to play as well...Houston also tied for second in sacks (35), with outside linebacker Connor Barwin having notched 6 1/2 over past four weeks...Texans third in NFL in rushing offense (152.6 ypg) and piled up 162 yards on the ground against Falcons last Sunday, with top back Arian Foster leading way with 111 yards on 31 carries...Foster tops league in yards per scrimmage per game (142.6) and has rushing touchdown in six straight contests...Bengals 3-0 against AFC South foes in 2011.

Fast Fact: In Cincinnati's three wins over AFC South teams this season, rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has a 6-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completed 65.3 percent (68-of-104) of his pass attempts.

Prediction: Texans proved last week their strong ground game and terrific defense can compensate for Yates' inexperience, and they'll utilize those strengths to their advantage once again. Texans 14, Bengals 13.


Indianapolis (0-12) at Baltimore (9-3), Sunday, 1:00 (Baltimore -16.5)

Storylines: AFC North co-leading Ravens put undefeated 2011 home record on line against winless Colts team seeking to avoid second 0-13 start in franchise history (1986)...Baltimore 6-0 at M&T Bank Stadium this season and has emerged victorious in 16 of last 17 tests at venue dating back to last year, and team extended overall win streak to three games with 24-10 road ousting of Cleveland last Sunday...Ravens have dropped eight straight to Indianapolis (including playoffs), however, and last bested Colts during 2001 season...Dan Orlovsky to make second straight start at quarterback for Indianapolis and threw for career-high 353 yards and two touchdowns on 30-of-37 passing in club's 31-24 loss at New England in Week 13...Baltimore standout linebacker Ray Lewis expected to miss fourth consecutive week with toe injury, while Colts tight end Dallas Clark (fibula) a possibility to return from three-game absence...Middle linebacker Pat Angerer (knee) doubtful for Indianapolis, however, and Colts placed cornerbacks Jerraud Powers (elbow) and Terrence Johnson (forearm) and defensive tackle Drake Nevis (back) on injured reserve this week while claiming linebackers Zac Diles (from Bucs) and Kevin Bentley (from Jaguars) off waivers...Ravens racked up season-best 290 rushing yards against Browns, with feature back Ray Rice gaining career-best 204 on 29 carries, and face battered Colts defense ranked 30th against the run (144.2)...Baltimore defense second overall versus the run (88.8 ypg) and third in both points (16.0 ppg) and total yards allowed (287.3 ypg), and has limited last two opponents to 233 yards or less...Indianapolis 29th in scoring (14.5 ppg) and 28th in total offense (293.1 ypg), but compiled season-high 437 yards against Patriots last week.

Fast Fact: Orlovsky fell to 0-8 as a starting quarterback for his career following last week's loss, the same record as displaced teammate Curtis Painter.

Prediction: Overmatched Colts won't have an answer for Ravens' rediscovered rushing attack, nor will Orlovsky come close to duplicating last week's numbers against a much tougher Baltimore defense. Ravens roll. Ravens 37, Colts 10.


Kansas City (5-7) at N.Y. Jets (7-5), Sunday, 1:00 (N.Y. Jets -9)

Storylines: Key December battle between 2010 AFC playoff participants, with Jets currently locked in four-way tie for conference's final Wild Card berth and up-and-down Chiefs two games back of Denver and Oakland in AFC West race...New York posted second straight win with 34-19 road decision over mistake-prone Washington last Sunday, while Kansas City halted four-game skid with hard-earned 10-3 victory at injury-plagued Chicago in Week 13...Jets 5-1 at MetLife Stadium this season and have won eight of last 10 home tilts dating back to last year...Tyler Palko to make fourth consecutive start at quarterback for Chiefs, but recently-acquired backup Kyle Orton questionable with dislocated right finger...Kansas City pass rusher Tamba Hali probable despite breaking hand in Chicago win, while safety Kendrick Lewis (knee) also on track to play...Defensive lineman Mike Devito (knee) and kick returner Joe McKnight (elbow) both questionable for New York...Chiefs 30th in NFL in scoring (13.6 ppg) and have mustered 10 or less points in five consecutive games, and club also ranks 30th in passing yards (179.2 ppg)...Jets had just 266 total yards against Redskins last week, but running back Shonn Greene rushed for 88 yards and scored career-best three touchdowns...Kansas City 28th in NFL in sacks (20) but had season-high seven against Bears, including three from rookie outside linebacker Justin Houston...Chiefs running back Thomas Jones spent three seasons with Jets from 2007-09 and faces former team for first time since joining Kansas City.

Fast Fact: Chiefs have scored just two touchdowns over their last five games and reached the end zone only once in a span of 58 offensive possessions.

Prediction: Chiefs have done a commendable job battling through all their injuries and erratic Jets can be hard to figure, but it's hard to trust an offense that simply can't score in a tough road spot. Jets 17, Chiefs 3.


Minnesota (2-10) at Detroit (7-5), Sunday, 1:00 (Detroit -8)

Storylines: Clash of struggling NFC North squads, with Lions having dropped two straight and five of last seven tests after sizzling 5-0 start and decimated Vikings on four-game slide after 35-32 last-second home defeat to Denver this past Sunday...Detroit vying for first season sweep of Minnesota since 1997 and has lost 16 of last 19 meetings between rivals, but delivered 26-23 overtime triumph over Vikings in Minneapolis on Sept. 25 after rallying from 20-0 halftime deficit...Lions All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to finish serving two-game suspension for on-field misconduct this week, while Minnesota star running back Adrian Peterson could sit out third straight game with high ankle sprain...Detroit running back Kevin Smith's status also uncertain after aggravating sprained ankle in team's 31-17 setback at New Orleans last week, while safety Louis Delmas (doubtful) and rookie defensive tackle Nick Fairley (foot) questionable...Cornerback Chris Houston (knee) slated to return for Lions, however, after missing New Orleans game...Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder probable despite sustaining hip pointer in last week's loss, but defensive end Brian Robison (concussion) a question mark...Ponder had career bests of 381 passing yards and three touchdown throws against Broncos, while Detroit counterpart Matthew Stafford amassed 404 yards through the air in team's last loss and put 378 yards in Week 3 meeting with Vikes...Lions wideout Calvin Johnson second in NFL in receiving yards (1092) and touchdown catches (12) and had 108 yards and two scores against Minnesota in September, while tight end Brandon Pettigrew posted personal highs of 11 grabs and 112 receiving yards in that game...Vikings defensive end Jared Allen second in league with 14 1/2 sacks and took down Stafford three times in Week 3.

Fast Fact: Lions are 7-0 when Stafford records a passer rating of over 100 during his career, while Vikings have allowed the opposing quarterback to surpass that number in each of their last seven games.

Prediction: Lions' injuries and lack of discipline will allow Vikings to hang around, but depleted Minnesota defense won't come up with enough stops against an opponent that's got some firepower. Lions 27, Vikings 20.


New England (9-3) at Washington (4-8), Sunday, 1:00 (New England -8)

Storylines: AFC East-leading Patriots go for fifth straight victory and ninth consecutive win in December, and can clinch third division title in a row by beating Redskins and having New York Jets lose to Kansas City on Sunday...Reeling Washington suffered seventh loss in eight weeks and fell to 0-3 against AFC East this season with 34-19 home setback to Jets last Sunday...New England has won 24 of last 26 matchups with NFC foes...Redskins tight end Fred Davis and offensive tackle Trent Williams both handed four-game suspensions for violating NFL's substance abuse policy on Tuesday, while safety LaRon Landry could miss second straight contest due to nagging Achilles' injury...Linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee) doubtful for Patriots, while status of center Dan Connolly (groin), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle) and safety Pat Chung (foot) all unknown...New England second in NFL in total offense (423.8 ypg) and passing yards (316.6 ypg) and has scored at least 31 points in four straight contests, while second-year standout Rob Gronkowski had two touchdown catches against Colts to tie league single-season record for that category by a tight end (13)...Pats wideout Wes Welker tops NFL in receptions (93) and receiving yards (1,253) and amassed 110 yards on 11 grabs last week...Washington rookie running back Roy Helu recorded second consecutive outing of 100 rushing yards in loss to Jets...New England defensive end Andre Carter leads team with nine sacks and spent five seasons with Redskins (2006-10) before joining Pats over the summer.

Fast Fact: Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan owns a 9-3 career record in head- to-head matchups with Patriots counterpart Bill Belichick, including a 27-13 victory over New England in the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoffs while then at the helm of the Denver Broncos.

Prediction: Patriots will have their foot on the gas after letting up late against the Colts, and mistake-prone Redskins will aid the cause. Patriots 30, Redskins 20.


New Orleans (9-3) at Tennessee (7-5), Sunday, 1:00 (New Orleans -3.5)

Storylines: Important interconference encounter in which high-powered Saints search for season-high fifth consecutive victory and AFC contending Titans try for second three-game win streak of 2011...New Orleans opened up two-game advantage on second-place Atlanta in NFC South following 31-17 verdict over visiting Detroit last weekend, with crafty quarterback Drew Brees throwing for 342 yards and three touchdowns to lead way, and can clinch division crown by beating Tennessee and a Falcons loss on Sunday...Titans earned critical 23-17 road decision over reeling Buffalo in Week 13 to move into four-way tie for AFC's sixth overall seed...Running back Chris Johnson compiled 153 rushing yards and two touchdowns for Tennessee and has NFL-best 486 yards on the ground over last four weeks...Brees leads league in passing yards (4,031) and extended NFL-record streak of games with at least 20 completions to 32 against Lions, while Saints first overall in total offense (448.7 ppg) and second in scoring (32.8 ppg)...New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham second among individuals in catches (75) and fifth in receiving yards (1,046), while wide receiver Robert Meachem had season-best 119 yards and a touchdown last week...Saints rookie running back Mark Ingram could miss contest with toe injury...Titans top receiver Nate Washington expected to play despite hurting ankle against Buffalo, while cornerback Jason McCourty (concussion) questionable and rookie Colin McCarthy in line to make fourth straight start at middle linebacker for injured regular Barrett Ruud (groin)...Tennessee just 28th in rushing offense (96.8 ypg), but have run for 389 yards over last two triumphs...Titans 4-2 at home thus far in 2011, while New Orleans 3-3 in road games.

Fast Fact: Johnson recorded his ninth career rushing touchdown of 45 yards or more with a 48-yard burst last week, tied with Hall of Famer Ollie Matson and Paul Lowe for the fourth-most in NFL history. Barry Sanders (18), Jim Brown (13) and O.J. Simpson (10) stand atop the list.

Prediction: Saints aren't the same team away from the Superdome or on grass, and may have a tougher time slowing down Johnson than the Titans will at containing Brees. Upset special. Titans 24, Saints 23.


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

Storylines: Michael Vick set to start at quarterback for disappointing Eagles team that's lost two straight and four of its last five games after missing three straight weeks with fractured ribs...Resurgent Dolphins 4-1 over past five contests and registered third consecutive home victory with 34-14 drubbing of AFC West co-leading Oakland last Sunday, with team rushing for season-best 209 yards in triumph...Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (hamstring) also ready to return from three-game absence for Philadelphia, which comes off 31-14 Week 13 defeat at Seattle in which club committed four turnovers to bring league- leading giveaway total to 29, but cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha (concussion/knee) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (ankle) both questionable...Guard Vernon Carey (ankle) uncertain to play for Miami...Eagles second in NFL in rushing offense (157.1 ypg) and running back LeSean McCoy leads NFC in rushing yards (1,134), while Dolphins fifth in run defense (93.2 ypg) and have held last four opponents to 85 yards or less on the ground...Miami running back Reggie Bush had 100 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries against Raiders and takes on Philadelphia defense that gave up 174 yards to Seahawks last time out...Dolphins own plus-four turnover margin over last five games, while Eagles tied for last in NFL with minus-13 ratio for season...Miami fourth in league in red-zone defense (37.8 percent touchdown rate), while Philadelphia surrendering league-high 70.6 percent of touchdowns within that area.

Fast Fact: In four home starts this season, Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore has completed 64.5 percent of his attempts (69-of-107) with five touchdowns and one interception for a 95.9 passer rating while helping Miami to a 3-1 record.

Prediction: Dolphins have played loose and fundamentally sound for five straight weeks, something turmoil-laden Eagles haven't done this entire season. Dolphins 20, Eagles 13.


Tampa Bay (4-8) at Jacksonville (3-9), Sunday, 1:00 (Tampa Bay -1)

Storylines: Matchup of badly slumping Florida teams, with Buccaneers carrying six-game losing streak extended with 38-19 home defeat to Carolina last Sunday and punchless Jaguars on three-game skid following 38-14 Monday night loss to San Diego in interim head coach Mel Tucker's debut...Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman may miss second straight week with bruised throwing shoulder, with Josh Johnson to draw start if he can't go, while cornerback Aqib Talib (hamstring) unlikely to suit up and defensive end Michael Bennett (groin) questionable...Safety Dwight Lowery (shoulder) probable for Jacksonville despite hurting shoulder against Chargers, but defensive ends Matt Roth (concussion) and Aaron Kampman (hamstring) uncertain to play and team placed pass rusher John Chick (knee) on injured reserve Tuesday...Jaguars claimed wide receiver Taylor Price off waivers from New England prior to Monday's loss...Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew leads NFL in rushing yards (1,137) and had 188 yards from scrimmage (97 rushing, 91 receiving) last week, and faces Buccaneers 29th-ranked run defense (141.7 ypg) that's permitted 163 yards or more on the ground in five of last six games...Jaguars last in NFL in total offense (254.7 ypg) and passing yards (135.1 ypg) and 31st in scoring (12.7 ppg), however...Jacksonville fifth overall in total defense (304.2 ypg) and fourth against the pass (192.6 ypg), but allowed 433 yards (294 passing) against San Diego.

Fast Fact: Tampa Bay is 1-3 all-time against Jacksonville, with its lone win in the series a 17-16 home decision during the Jaguars' inaugural NFL season in 1995.

Prediction: Neither side has much going for it right now, but Jaguars do have a difference-making running back and a defense that's been generally solid. Jaguars 20, Buccaneers 17.


Chicago (7-5) at Denver (7-5), Sunday, 4:05 (Denver -3.5)

Storylines: Interconference meeting of contenders both hot and cold, with soaring Broncos riding five-game winning streak to move into first-place tie in AFC West and injury-plagued Bears having dropped two straight with starting quarterback and former Denver triggerman Jay Cutler sidelined with broken thumb...Broncos moved to 6-1 with Tim Tebow as team's starting signal-caller with 35-32 road ousting of NFC North member Minnesota last Sunday, with former Heisman Trophy recipient throwing for season-high 202 yards and two touchdowns and orchestrating fourth comeback in fourth quarter this season...Caleb Hanie to make third straight start under center in place of Cutler for reeling Chicago and managed just 133 yards on 11-of-24 passing while tossing three interceptions in 10-3 home setback to previously-struggling Kansas City in Week 13...Bears leading rusher Matt Forte suffered sprained MCL in loss and to miss two-to-four weeks, while safety Major Wright (shoulder) likely to sit out as well...Denver rookie linebacker Von Miller probable after missing last week with thumb injury and has team-best 10 1/2 sacks, while Chicago allowed seven sacks to Chiefs while mustering season-low 181 total yards and 11 first downs...Broncos lead NFL in rushing offense (158.9 ypg) and averaging 199.7 yards per game on the ground in Tebow's seven starts, while Bears ninth in run defense (99.8 ypg) and have held five of last seven foes to 80 rushing yards or less...Tebow owns 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio for season, while Hanie has thrown three picks in each of his two starts.

Fast Fact: Tebow has now engineered five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, joining Scott Brunner and Marc Wilson for the most by a quarterback through his first 10 NFL starts since the 1970 merger.

Prediction: Don't count the Bears out just yet, as they're fully capable of winning this one if Hanie can get over his turnover problems. Still, it's hard to ignore or explain Tebow's uncanny ability to pull out close games. Broncos 16, Bears 13.


San Francisco (10-2) at Arizona (5-7), Sunday, 4:05 (San Francisco -3.5)

Storylines: Formidable 49ers clinched first NFC West title and playoff appearance since 2002 with 26-0 rout of hapless St. Louis last week and aim for 10th victory in 11-game stretch, while improving Cardinals are 4-1 over last five tests, with only loss over that span a 23-7 setback at San Francisco in Week 11...Niners have topped Arizona five straight times, including 27-6 decision at University of Phoenix Stadium last season, and shoot for fourth season sweep of division rival in five years...Cardinals managed just 229 total yards and had five turnovers in earlier meeting with San Francisco while playing without starting quarterback Kevin Kolb, who returned from four-game absence (toe) to throw for 247 yards and game-winning touchdown in team's 19-13 overtime upset of NFC East leader Dallas last Sunday...49ers All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis doubtful for Sunday's tilt after injuring hamstring against Rams, while wide receiver Braylon Edwards (knee/shoulder) expected to miss second straight game...Safety Kerry Rhodes likely to remain sidelined for Cardinals with broken foot suffered in October...San Francisco defense yielding league-low 13.4 points and 71.8 rushing yards per game and yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season, and unit has held four of last six opponents to 11 points or less...49ers wideout Michael Crabtree had season-best 120 receiving yards on six catches in last month's win over Cards, while Arizona's Andre Roberts finished with career-high 111 yards on six grabs against Cowboys.

Fast Fact: 49ers' defense has had 308 straight rushing attempts against it without giving up a touchdown, the longest streak in the NFL since Oakland did not yield a rushing score in 328 consecutive tries in 1996.

Prediction: Cardinals have been better lately but still aren't in the same class as a San Francisco team that won't have a letdown with a potential playoff bye still in sight. 49ers 19, Cardinals 13.


Buffalo (5-7) at San Diego (5-7), Sunday, 4:15 (San Diego -7)

Storylines: Bout between teams that have both lost six of last seven games since starting out 4-1, with embattled Chargers finally stopping string of six straight losses with 38-14 road victory over Jacksonville on Monday...Bills dealt fifth consecutive defeat via 23-17 home setback to Tennessee last Sunday and have dropped last five road games following Week 1 win at Kansas City...San Diego two games back of co-leaders Denver and Oakland in AFC West race and boast stellar 21-2 record in December since 2006...Tight end Scott Chandler (ankle), cornerback Aaron Williams (knee) and kicker Rian Lindell (shoulder) all out for Buffalo, while safety George Wilson questionable due to lingering neck stinger...Chargers placed defensive end Luis Castillo (broken leg) on injured reserve Wednesday...San Diego running back Ryan Mathews posted second straight 100-yard outing with 13-carry, 112-yard outburst against Jaguars and takes on Buffalo defense that permitted 187 rushing yards to Titans last week...Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has thrown league-high 17 interceptions, but coming off turnover-free 22-of-28, 294-yard, three-touchdown performance on Monday...San Diego wide receiver Malcom Floyd compiled 108 yards and a touchdown on four catches in that game after returning from four-week absence caused by hip injury...Bills running back C.J. Spiller had career-high 83 rushing yards on 14 attempts in Tennessee loss.

Fast Fact: Bills are 0-4 at Qualcomm Stadium since posting a 28-27 victory there on Dec. 6, 1981.

Prediction: Chargers have been way too inconsistent to expect a blowout, but are still more than talented enough to handle a Buffalo team that's been wrecked by injuries. Chargers 31, Bills 27.


Oakland (7-5) at Green Bay (12-0), Sunday, 4:15 (Green Bay -11.5)

Storylines: NFC North champion and still-unbeaten Packers put franchise-record 18-game win streak (including postseason) dating back to last December on line against Oakland team that had string of three straight triumphs halted with 34-14 loss at Miami last Sunday, which sent Raiders into first-place tie with red-hot Denver in AFC West...Green Bay bidding to join 1998 Broncos as only defending Super Bowl winner to start following season 13-0, and had closest outcome of current run in hard-fought 38-35 road verdict over New York Giants in Week 13, with club staving off upset bid behind 369-yard, four-touchdown effort from star quarterback Aaron Rodgers...Oakland running back Darren McFadden to miss sixth consecutive game with nagging foot sprain, while wide receivers Denarius Moore (ankle) and Jacoby Ford (foot) may remain sidelined as well...Cornerback and ex-Raider Charles Woodson probable for Packers after sustaining concussion against Giants, but leading rusher James Starks (ankle) questionable and offensive tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) likely still out...Linebackers Desmond Bishop (calf) and A.J. Hawk (calf) and guard Josh Sitton (knee) all uncertain to play for Green Bay after missing last week's win...Green Bay averaging league-best 35 points per game and ranks third in passing yards (308.8 ypg) and fourth in total offense (405.3 ypg), with Rodgers leading all quarterbacks in passer rating (125.3), touchdown throws (37) and completion percentage (70.6) while becoming first player in NFL history to record 110-plus rating in season's first 12 games...Oakland fifth overall in pass efficiency defense but 28th against the run (141.4), and group surrendered 209 rushing yards to Dolphins a week ago... Raiders fourth in league in rushing offense (140.6), but have run for just 119 yards combined over last two games.

Fast Fact: Packers are averaging 39 points in their five home games this season and surpassed the 40-point mark in three of those wins.

Prediction: Raiders will put forth their best effort and are good enough to throw a scare into the Packers, but the streak won't end this week. Packers 35, Raiders 27.


N.Y. Giants (6-6) at Dallas (7-5), Sunday, 8:20 (Dallas -3.5)

Storylines: First of two critical late-season showdowns between NFC East's top two teams, with Cowboys holding one-game edge over sputtering Giants at the moment...New York has lost four straight following 6-2 start but comes in off good effort in 38-35 home defeat to unbeaten Green Bay last Sunday, with quarterback Eli Manning throwing for 347 yards and three touchdowns in near upset...Dallas had four-game win streak snapped with 19-13 overtime setback at non-contending Arizona in Week 13, but has prevailed in four consecutive home outings and 5-1 at Cowboys Stadium this season...Dallas wide receiver Miles Austin (hamstring) set to return from four-game sit-out, while fellow wideout Laurent Robinson (shoulder) and fullback Tony Fiammetta (infection) also probable...Giants expected to be without defensive end Osi Umenyiora (ankle) and safety Kenny Phillips (knee), while wide receiver Mario Manningham (knee) and center David Baas (head) questionable and team placed reserve offensive lineman Stacy Andrews (pulmonary embolism) on injured reserve Wednesday...New York has won three of last four meetings with Cowboys, including 41-35 triumph in Dallas last season and 33-31 decision at Cowboys Stadium in 2009...Giants wideout Victor Cruz fourth in NFL in receiving yards (1,076) and registered third straight 100-yard effort in loss to Packers...Dallas third overall in sacks (35) and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware leads all individuals in that category...New York fourth in league in passing offense (296.1 ypg), but last in rushing yards (83.8 ypg) and 29th in total defense (387.3 ypg).

Fast Fact: Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett played four seasons as a reserve quarterback with the Giants from 2000-03, appearing in two games during New York's 2000 NFC championship campaign.

Prediction: Desperate Giants will come out swinging with their backs to the wall, but Cowboys getting healthy and may have too many weapons for a New York defense that's far from at full strength. Cowboys 30, Giants 24.


St. Louis (2-10) at Seattle (5-7), Monday, 8:30 (Seattle -4.5)

Storylines: Seahawks to make first Monday night appearance since 2007 and vie for 12th win in last 13 meetings with fellow NFC West member Rams, who enter contest with significant injury concerns at quarterback...Starter Sam Bradford likely to miss second straight game with ankle sprain, while veteran backup A.J. Feeley questionable after fracturing right thumb in team's 26-0 loss at San Francisco last Sunday, meaning recent practice-squad promotee Tom Brandstater could have to make first NFL start...Rams, who have dropped three straight and are 0-4 in division play this season, also claimed journeyman signal-caller Kellen Clemens off waivers from Houston on Wednesday while placing guard Jacob Bell (knee) on injured reserve...St. Louis last in NFL in scoring (12.7 ppg) and 31st in total offense (284.0 ypg), and produced just 42 rushing yards and 185 overall in 24-7 home setback to Seattle on Nov. 20...Rams have also lost six consecutive times at Century Link Field and last won in Seattle in 2006...Seahawks improved to 3-1 in last four tilts with 31-14 home rout of Philadelphia in Week 13, with running back Marshawn Lynch amassing 148 yards and two touchdowns against Eagles...Lynch has scored in eight straight games and has eclipsed century mark in four of last five appearances, but was held to 88 yards on 27 carries in earlier matchup with St. Louis defense ranked last against the run (157.8 ypg)...Seattle placed offensive tackle Russell Okung on injured reserve after sustaining possible pectorals tear against Eagles, team's third starting lineman lost for season...Rams had season-low 157 total yards and 31 rushing in shutout loss to 49ers.

Fast Fact: Seahawks have won four straight Monday night games and registered shutouts in three of those victories, the most recent a 24-0 blanking of San Francisco at CenturyLink Field on Nov. 12, 2007.

Prediction: Injury-riddled Rams won't have much of a shot even if Bradford does manage to play. If it's Brandstater under center, their chances are practically nil. Seahawks 24, Rams 3.