The Packers are still well represented on The Sports Network's picks for the 2012 Pro Bowl, and figure to be even more prevalent when the actual honorees for the league's annual all-star game are announced next week. Nine Green Bay players were leading their respective positions when the most recent fan voting totals were revealed, which may offer an accurate indication on how the residents of the NFL's smallest market have been spending their free time.
Five Packers made the cut on the TSN list, which almost certainly won't resemble anything in the neighborhood of the actual choices that will be disclosed this coming Tuesday, nor will it look anything close to the actual roster compositions for the Jan. 29 glorified scrimmage following the mass exodus of players that customarily takes place prior to the contest. That's one fewer than the Philadelphia Eagles, a team long on talent but a bit short on results, placed on this writer's NFC squad, and one more than the 2-12 Minnesota Vikings had.
The Baltimore Ravens led all clubs with seven selections, with the Eagles pacing the NFC with six citations. Five teams were shut out on this ballot, with the hard-luck Indianapolis Colts unsurprisingly part of that group. Miami, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Tennessee also failed to produce a single member.
So without any further needless buildup, here's a glimpse of who I view as the best candidates for this year's Pro Bowl:
Quarterbacks (3 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Tom Brady, New England; Matt Schaub, Houston; Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh...NFC - Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay; Drew Brees, New Orleans; Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants Apologies to: Philip Rivers, San Diego; Tony Romo, Dallas
Analysis: Sorry folks, but Tim Tebow doesn't belong among this hierarchy, nor should any quarterback who's completed half his passes in a season. Rodgers and Brees, the two front-runners for this year's MVP, are certainly no-brainers, however, while Manning's big passing numbers and fourth-quarter heroics rate him a slight edge over the hard-charging Romo and keeps the tradition of football's first family of signal-callers sending a member to Honolulu intact. With Peyton Manning not in the equation, Brady's the clear-cut leader of the AFC pack, while Schaub deserves a mention for a very solid performance prior to his season-ending foot injury.
Running Backs (3 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Arian Foster, Houston; Ray Rice, Baltimore; Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville...NFC - Matt Forte, Chicago; LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia; Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Apologies to: Fred Jackson, Buffalo; Frank Gore, San Francisco
Analysis: Forte has been the NFC's best all-purpose back this season, with the dynamic McCoy topping the conference in rushing yards and the entire NFL with 20 total touchdowns. Though Peterson missed three games with an ankle injury, he's been more productive on a per-touch basis than potential choices such as Gore, Atlanta's Michael Turner and St. Louis' Steven Jackson. Fred Jackson would have made a very strong case for inclusion if he didn't break his leg last month, but it's hard to argue with the terrific trio above.
Fullback (1 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Vonta Leach, Baltimore...NFC - Jed Collins, New Orleans
Analysis: Leach is hands down the best lead blocker in the game and well deserving of a second straight Pro Bowl nod. Atlanta's Ovie Mughelli had held that distinction in the NFC, but he's been hurt most of the year. That opens up a place for the unheralded Collins, an overlooked part of the Saints' frightenly-good offense who can both block and catch.
Wide Receiver (4 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Wes Welker, New England; Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh; A.J. Green, Cincinnati; Vincent Jackson, San Diego...NFC - Calvin Johnson, Detroit; Steve Smith, Carolina; Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona; Marques Colston, New Orleans Apologies to: Roddy White, Atlanta; Greg Jennings, Green Bay; Hakeem Nicks, N.Y. Giants
Analysis: Welker and Johnson are obvious picks as the top two in receiving yards, while the rejuvenated Smith, Wallace and Jackson have all been exceptional in stretching the field with their big-play abilities. Green's enjoyed a sensational rookie campaign for the much-improved Bengals and should be on this list for years to come, while the graceful Fitzgerald has put up Pro Bowl-worthy numbers for a team that's had instability at the quarterback position. The final NFC spot was tough, but Colston's consistent production rated himself just ahead over deserving contenders such as Nicks, Jennings and his Green Bay teammate, Jordy Nelson. White, the Giants' Victor Cruz and Miami's Brandon Marshall were downgraded somewhat by all being among the NFL's leaders in drops.
Tight Ends (2 per team)
Analysis: All hail the NFL's new breed of tight end, and score one for the old guard as well. Gronkowski, the league's leader with 15 touchdown catches, and the incredibly-athletic Graham have emerged as superstars in their second seasons, and fellow sophomore Hernandez has been quite the weapon as well in the Patriots' multi-faceted passing attack. The ageless Gonzalez is on pace for 85 catches in his 15th season and has been the Falcons' most reliable receiver, though it's a toss-up between him and the equally-steady Witten for that last spot.
Tackles (3 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Eugene Monroe, Jacksonville; Joe Thomas, Cleveland; Eric Winston, Houston...NFC - Jason Peters, Philadelphia; Trent Williams, Washington; Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay Apologies to: Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati; Donald Penn, Tampa Bay; Tyson Clabo, Atlanta; Tyron Smith, Dallas
Analysis: There hasn't been a better left tackle in football than Peters this year, while the exceptionally-sound Thomas has maintained his place among the league's elite blind-side protectors with another quality campaign. Monroe has quietly developed into the top-notch left tackle the Jaguars thought the former top 10 overall pick would be, giving him the nod over Whitworth and Miami's usual mainstay Jake Long, who's had a bit of a down year. Williams was playing very well before being suspended for failing a drug test, which could open the door for someone like Penn or Carolina's Jordan Gross, both of whom made the Pro Bowl last year. New Orleans' Jermon Bushrod should also be in the mix. I believe one of the three choices on each side should be a right tackle, since it's really a different position than the left side. Winston, a favorite of FOX analyst and Sirius NFL radio correspondent Tim Ryan, is a lynchpin on the Texans' high-caliber line, while Bulaga has been a rock as well for Green Bay's excellent front wall.
Guards (3 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Marshal Yanda, Baltimore; Brian Waters, New England; Andy Levitre, Buffalo...NFC - Carl Nicks, New Orleans, Evan Mathis, Philadelphia; Josh Sitton, Green Bay Apologies to: Jahri Evans, New Orleans
Analysis: The scrappy Yanda has come into his own after kicking back inside after spending last season at right tackle, while offseason pickup Waters has outperformed decorated Patriots teammate Logan Mankins and should be in line for a sixth career citation. Levitre's been a bright spot in another dark season in Buffalo and gets points for his versatility, having also started games at left tackle and center. Nicks may be the best pass-blocking guard in the league and went to Honolulu a year ago, while the sound Sitton should have gone last season and likely won't be overlooked a second time around. Mathis didn't get near as much attention as the Eagles' other high-profile free-agent additions, but the ex-Bengal has been masterful on a line that's developed into a strength over the course of the year.
Centers (2 per team)
Analysis: Mangold is regarded as the league's premier center and continued to live up to his lofty reputation in 2011, though Myers has had just as good a season as the anchor of Houston's second-ranked rushing offense. Wells has been the glue that's held together a Green Bay offensive line that's had to undergo some reshuffling due to injuries, and the eighth-year pro is finally due for some well-earned recognition. The Vikings just gave Sullivan a five-year extension that made him one of the NFL's highest-paid centers, and his play has warranted both a salary raise and an all-star honor.
Defensive Ends (3 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Andre Carter, New England; Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland; Elvis Dumervil, Denver...NFC - Jared Allen, Minnesota; Jason Pierre- Paul, N.Y. Giants; Jason Babin, Philadelphia Apologies to: Julius Peppers, Chicago; Trent Cole, Philadelphia; John Abraham, Atlanta; Chris Long, St. Louis
Analysis: The NFC is absolutely loaded at this position, but it's hard to go wrong with the threesome above. Allen and breakthrough star Pierre-Paul have each been one-man wrecking crews all throughout the season, while the relentless Babin has racked up 18 sacks to edge past Allen for the league lead in that category. The pickings are slimmer in the AFC, but the 32-year-old Carter was having a tremendous bounce-back season in his New England debut before sustaining a year-ending quadriceps injury last week. The rookie Sheard has recorded 7 1/2 sacks and five forced fumbles toiling in anonymity in Cleveland, while Dumervil's pass-rushing skills have played a big part in the Broncos' defensive resurgence.
Defensive Tackles (3 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Richard Seymour, Oakland; Geno Atkins, Cincinnati; Haloti Ngata, Baltimore...NFC - Justin Smith, San Francisco; Cullen Jenkins, Philadelphia; Kevin Williams, Minnesota Apologies to: Marcell Dareus, Buffalo; Tommy Kelly, Oakland; Ndamukong Suh, Detroit
Analysis: Smith alternates between a 3-4 end and the interior, but did make the Pro Bowl listed as a tackle last year. Either way, the high-motor pillar of the 49ers' league-best run defense should be an absolute lock for the NFC roster. Atkins tops all inside linemen with eight sacks and has held up against the run as well, while the five-time All-Pro Seymour has remained a disruptive force in his 11th professional season and the massive Ngata is as vital to Baltimore's run-stopping prowess as Smith is to San Francisco's. The ex-Packer Jenkins has proven his worth as a penetrating pass rusher in his first year in Philadelphia, but the final spot is a difficult call. Though he's still performed at a high level, the controversial Suh hasn't been quite as dominant as his stellar rookie campaign of 2010 and missed time with a well-publicized suspension. The veteran Williams has just as many sacks (3) as his NFC North cohort and is a better run stopper.
Inside Linebackers (2 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Ray Lewis, Baltimore; Brian Cushing, Houston...NFC - Patrick Willis; San Francisco; Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Apologies to: D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland; Brian Urlacher, Chicago; NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco
Analysis: Lewis is another who continues to defy age, and the four games the emotional 36-year-old missed with a toe injury shouldn't keep him from garnering a 13th career Pro Bowl nod based on his performance as the leader of the Ravens' fierce defense. Cushing's contributions to Houston's remarkable defensive turnaround make the rangy third-year pro a must-list as well, while the ultra-active Willis reinforced his status as the NFC's top inside linebacker with his outstanding all-around play. Tulloch, a thumper who's displayed strong coverage skills as Detroit's middle linebacker, will give perennial All-Pro Urlacher a battle for the conference's second slot, while it can be argued that the youngster Bowman's had as a good a season as Willis lined up opposite his teammate.
Outside Linebackers (3 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Von Miller, Denver; Terrell Suggs, Baltimore; Tamba Hali, Kansas City...NFC - DeMarcus Ware, Dallas; Clay Matthews, Green Bay; Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Apologies to: James Harrison, Pittsburgh; Darryl Smith, Jacksonville; Aldon Smith, San Francisco
Analysis: With 13 sacks and a league-best six forced fumbles, Suggs is making a legitimate case to be this year's Defensive Player of the Year, while the impressive Miller's a shoo-in to be tabbed as the top rookie with his immediate impact as both a devastating pass rusher and run supporter. Ware and Hali are two other upper-echelon sack artists that have earned repeat trips to Hawaii, as has the energetic Matthews despite a declining sack total from a year ago that's primarily due to constant double teams. Harrison and fellow Pittsburgh bookend LaMarr Woodley just miss out because of injuries that have forced each to sit out a number of games, and it's hard to warrant opening a spot for Aldon Smith because the terrific rookie hasn't been an every-down player. Weatherspoon has, and as a more well-rounded defender, the 2010 first-round pick may be more justified of a place.
Cornerbacks (3 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Darrelle Revis, N.Y. Jets; Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh; Lardarius Webb, Baltimore...NFC - Brent Grimes, Atlanta; Carlos Rogers, San Francisco; Chris Gamble, Carolina Apologies to: Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee; Kyle Arrington, New England; Asante Samuel, Philadelphia; Charles Woodson, Green Bay
Analysis: What, no Woodson you say? Yes, the veteran playmaker is tied for the league lead with seven interceptions (as is Arrington), but honestly hasn't been as dominant in coverage as players like Grimes and Gamble, both of whom have allowed under 43 percent of passes thrown their way to be completed. Rogers has done his part in the 49ers' rise by solidifying the team's pass defense after coming over via free agency, while Webb has been a revelation in his first full season as a starter. Revis remains the standard-bearer at the position and makes for an easy selection, and it's about time the rock-solid Taylor gets some due after years of being obscured by other stars on the Pittsburgh defense.
Safeties (3 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Eric Weddle, San Diego; Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh; Jim Leonhard, N.Y. Jets...NFC - Adrian Wilson, Arizona; Kam Chancellor, Seattle; Kenny Phillips, N.Y. Giants Apologies to: Ed Reed, Baltimore
Analysis: Weddle has proven to be well worth the big contract he received over the summer by tying for the NFL lead in interceptions and making plays all over the field, and the value Polamalu brings to the Steelers can't be measured by the reigning Defensive Player of the Year's somewhat modest 2011 stats. Leonhard's importance to the Jets was illustrated by the field day Philadelphia tight end Brent Celek had last week against a secondary that was without its stabilizing safety, and his season-ending knee injury will likely allow the still-worthy Reed to add another accolade to his long list of credentials. The field isn't as strong in the NFC, though noted enforcer Wilson and rising star Chancellor are two players that have stood out.
Punters (1 per team)
Analysis: There really isn't any separation between Colquitt, the AFC's leader in net punting, and six-time representative Lechler, who's averaging over 50 yards per kick. Though Seattle's Jon Ryan is having a very strong season, Lee still ranks as the class of the NFC crop with a 50.4-yard gross average and league-best net of 44.1 yards.
Kickers (1 per team)
Analysis: Tough to leave off Akers, who's on the verge of breaking the NFL single-season record of 40 field goals, but Gould has been near-automatic even in spending half his games at treacherous Soldier Field. The Chicago kicker is 12-of-15 on field goal tries of 40 yards or beyond, including a stunning 6-of-6 from 50 and out, while Akers is 10-of-15 on attempts of 40 or more. Janikowski also has six makes from 50 yards or greater and has misfired just three times (24-of-27) all season.
Return Specialists (1 per team)
Analysis: Peterson has returned four punts for touchdowns as a rookie yet still takes a back seat to the ever-dangerous Hester, who has three return scores and remains the best in the business, if not all-time. Brown gets the AFC nod over the Jets' Joe McKnight and Kansas City's Javier Arenas due to his dual effectiveness, ranking third in the conference in kickoffs and fifth in punts.
Special-Teamers (1 per team)
Sports Network picks: AFC - Jeromy Miles, Cincinnati...NFC - Colt Anderson, Philadelphia
Analysis: Anderson was the star of a Philadelphia special-teams group that's been one of the league's stingiest coverage units, but the reserve safety tore his ACL earlier this month. Chicago's Corey Graham and St. Louis' Dominique Curry could be potential replacements. The Bengals have also ranked among the NFL's better groups in kickoff and punt coverage, and Miles was the team's nominee on this year's ballot.
AFC: 1) New England (11-3); 2) Baltimore (10-4); 3) Houston (10-4); 4) Denver (8-6); 5) Pittsburgh (10-4); 6) N.Y. Jets (8-6)
Last week's losses by the Ravens, Texans and Steelers has given New England a clear path to the conference's No. 1 overall seed, with only home games against also-rans Miami and Buffalo standing in the Patriots' way. Baltimore still owns the inside track to the other first-round bye by virtue of its season sweep of Pittsburgh and an earlier victory over Houston, while the situation is far more fluid for the final Wild Card berth. The Jets currently have a slight edge on 8-6 Cincinnati based on common opponents, with Tennessee, Oakland and resurgent San Diego all looming a game back.
NFC: 1) Green Bay (13-1); 2) San Francisco (11-3); 3) New Orleans (11-3); 4) Dallas (8-6); 5) Atlanta (9-5); 6) Detroit (9-5)
The Packers are still in the driver's seat in regards to the NFC's top seed despite their shocking loss to Kansas City, with the defending champs needing to win only one of their two remaining games to clinch. The 49ers are ahead of the Saints for the all-important No. 2 spot due to a superior conference record, while the Falcons' win over the Lions in Week 7 breaks the tie there. Both teams are two games clear of the rest of the pack in the Wild Card standings, meaning just one more victory for each the rest of the way seals an invite. Cowboys can clinch the East by beating still-alive Philadelphia on Saturday coupled by a New York Giants loss to the rival Jets. If the Eagles prevail, however, that race gets awfully interesting heading into the finale.
2012 DRAFT ORDER
Don't fret just yet, Colts fans. Indianapolis is still in good position to claim the No. 1 overall pick in next April's draft and presumably make Stanford's Andrew Luck the quarterback of the (perhaps very near) future even after last week's breakthrough win. One more loss would all but lock Indy into the top slot.
1) Indianapolis (1-13); 2) Minnesota (2-12); 3) St. Louis (2-12); 4) Jacksonville (4-10); 5) Cleveland (4-10); 6) Tampa Bay (4-10); 7) Washington (5-9); 8) Carolina (5-9); 9) Miami (5-9); 10) Buffalo (5-9)
NFL POWER POLL
The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found at:
Find Fantasy Editor Steve Schwarz's latest analysis at:
SUICIDE POOL PIX
1. Green Bay (vs. Chicago) -- New Chicago starting quarterback Josh McCown couldn't possibly be any worse than Caleb Hanie was during his disastrous audition, but Bears still don't stand much of a chance against an angry Packers squad coming off a loss.
2. Baltimore (vs. Cleveland) -- Ravens allowing just 15 points per game in going 7-0 at home this season, and non-threatening Browns have scored less than 17 points in all but two of their 14 outings.
3. New England (vs. Miami) -- Though Dolphins defense is much improved from the wayward group that gave up 622 total yards to the Patriots in the season opener, going into Foxborough and pulling off a win still seems like a stretch.
A Sunday chock full of upsets led to some wacky results in my Week 15 predictions, as I finished a brutal 7-9 in my straight-up selections but was able to come away with a more respectable 9-6-1 showing versus the spread. The overall numbers are certainly nothing to brag about, as I'm now 139-87 (.615) in head-to-head picks to go along with a below-par 105-111-8 (.487) record with the line in play.
Houston (10-4) at Indianapolis (1-13), Thursday, 8:20 (Houston -6.5)
Storylines: AFC South champion Texans aim for initial road victory over division-rival Colts in club history as well as first ever sweep of season series, having routed Indianapolis by 34-7 count in Week 1...Houston 0-9 all- time in Indianapolis, including 30-17 defeat at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2010...Colts finally ended 13-game losing skid to begin year with 27-13 home triumph over Tennessee last Sunday, while Texans had franchise-record seven- game win streak halted with 28-13 upset loss to visiting Carolina in Week 15...Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson to miss third straight game with hamstring strain, while guard Mike Brisiel (fractured fibula) also ruled out and tight end Owen Daniels (knee) tentatively expected to play...Tight end Dallas Clark (neck) and linebacker Phillip Wheeler (foot) both doubtful for Indianapolis...Dan Orlovsky to make fourth consecutive start at quarterback for Colts and spent previous two seasons as backup for Texans...Houston defense second in total yards allowed (277.9 ypg) and against the pass (181.1 ypg) while yielding third-fewest points (16.9 ppg) in NFL, but will be without coordinator Wade Phillips for second week in a row due to medical reasons...Linebackers coach Reggie Herring to run unit for Thursday's tilt...Texans second overall in rushing offense (151.8 ypg), with reserve running back Ben Tate amassing career-best 116 yards and a touchdown in team's earlier meeting with Indianapolis...Colts rushed for season-high 205 yards against Titans last week, with top back Donald Brown accumulating personal-best 161 yards and a score on just 16 carries.
Fast Fact: Texans have had a turnover in the red zone in each of rookie quarterback T.J. Yates' three starts and have five giveaways in that area this season, tied with Pittsburgh and Minnesota for the most in the NFL.
Prediction: Colts defense has been better over the past few weeks and could cause some problems for Houston team that's been struggling to put up points as of late, but Texans rebound behind strengths of running the football and stopping the opposition. Texans 17, Colts 13.
Arizona (7-7) at Cincinnati (8-6), Saturday, 1:00 (Cincinnati -4)
Storylines: Interconference clash of teams going in opposite directions, with surging Cardinals having won four straight and six of last seven games after sluggish 1-6 start and slumping Bengals losers of four of six following 6-2 beginning...Cincinnati tied with New York Jets for final Wild Card spot in AFC after 20-13 victory at lowly St. Louis this past Sunday, while Arizona extended current streak with hard-fought 20-17 home overtime triumph over Cleveland in Week 15...Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb probable after missing last week's game with concussion, but John Skelton believed to draw start and owns 4-1 record in that role in 2011...Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green on track to play despite sustaining separated shoulder against Rams, in which rookie recorded fourth 100-yard game of season with 115 yards on six catches...Arizona placed veteran linebacker Joey Porter (knee surgery) on injured reserve Wednesday...Cardinals running back Beanie Wells six yards shy of first career 1,000-yard season, while Cincinnati counterpart Cedric Benson needs 41 yards to reach mark for third straight year...Arizona allowing 17.1 points per game in seven wins this season, all of which have come by seven points or less, and team is 3-0 in overtime games...Cardinals 2-5 on road in 2011 and have lost 12 of last 14 overall tests as the visitor.
Fast Fact: Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and Bengals sideline boss Marvin Lewis both worked together on the staff of the Baltimore Ravens from 1997-98, with Lewis then that team's defensive coordinator and Whisenhunt serving as tight ends coach.
Prediction: Cardinals have been playing well and are fully capable of coming out with a win if Bengals are sloppy, but Cincinnati's reliable defense makes the difference in a tight one. Bengals 23, Cardinals 21.
Cleveland (4-10) at Baltimore (10-4), Saturday, 1:00 (Baltimore -13)
Storylines: Playoff-bound Ravens can clinch AFC North title since 2006 with win on Saturday coupled with Pittsburgh loss at St. Louis, and would earn first- round bye by beating Browns and defeats by both Steelers and Houston this week...Seneca Wallace likely to make second consecutive start at quarterback for Cleveland in place of Colt McCoy (concussion), and threw for 226 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions in team's 20-17 overtime setback at Arizona last Sunday...Baltimore coming off 34-14 loss at San Diego in Week 15, which ended club's four-game win streak, while last-place Browns have dropped four in a row and seven of last eight bouts...Ravens registered seventh straight victory over Cleveland with 24-10 road decision on Dec. 4, with Browns' last triumph in series coming at M&T Bank Stadium in 2007...Baltimore rushed for season-best 290 yards on Cleveland's 31st-ranked run defense (145.4 ypg) in that contest, with standout back Ray Rice gaining career-high 204 yards on 29 attempts...Safety T.J. Ward (foot) doubtful for Cleveland, while cornerback Joe Haden (thigh) and wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (foot) both questionable and team placed tight end Alex Smith (shoulder) on injured reserve Tuesday...Kicker Billy Cundiff to miss for Ravens with strained calf, with veteran Shayne Graham signed on Wednesday to handle duties, and cornerback Lardarius Webb (toe) questionable...Baltimore bidding for 8-0 season record at home for first time in franchise history and has won 17 of last 18 contests as the host.
Fast Fact: Ravens allowed three rushing touchdowns in a game last week for the first time since a 27-26 win at Tennessee on Nov. 12, 2006.
Prediction: Browns' defense won't make this a walk in the park, but Ravens rarely lose at home and really need this game. Ravens 20, Browns 9.
Denver (8-6) at Buffalo (5-9), Saturday, 1:00 (Denver -3)
Storylines: AFC West front-running Broncos can capture first division crown and playoff berth since 2005 with victory on Saturday combined with Oakland loss at Kansas City...Stumbling Bills suffered seventh straight defeat after 5-2 start with 30-23 home setback to Miami last Sunday...Denver 7-2 with sophomore sensation Tim Tebow as team's starting quarterback, but handed 41-23 home loss by AFC East champ New England in Week 15...Broncos lead NFL in rushing offense (163.1 ypg) and ran for 252 yards against Patriots, while Buffalo ranked 29th in rush defense (139.5 ypg) and permitted season-worst 254 yards on the ground to Dolphins...Denver running back and former Bill Willis McGahee (hamstring) probable for game, but status of safety Brian Dawkins (neck) undetermined after missing last week's loss...Wide receiver Stevie Johnson (groin) expected to play for Bills, but tight end Scott Chandler (ankle) questionable and team placed backup Lee Smith (knee) on injured reserve Tuesday...Matchup of top two defensive rookie draft choices in 2011 draft, with Broncos rookie standout linebacker Von Miller picked second overall and Buffalo tackle Marcell Dareus taken one spot later...Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas leads all NFL players with 338 receiving yards in December...Broncos 5-0 on road with Tebow as starter, while Bills have dropped last three home tilts and haven't won at Ralph Wilson Stadium since Week 5.
Fast Fact: Bills have committed 21 turnovers and produced a minus-11 giveaway- to-takeaway ratio over their last nine games. Buffalo had just five miscues and amassed a plus-11 turnover margin during its 4-1 start to the season.
Prediction: Broncos have proven to be tough to beat when their ground game is humming, which shouldn't be a problem against a ravaged Buffalo defense that can't stop anybody. Broncos 24, Bills 17.
Jacksonville (4-10) at Tennessee (7-7), Saturday, 1:00 (Tennessee -7.5)
Storylines: Titans try to remain alive in AFC playoff race and shake off stunning 27-13 defeat at previously-winless Indianapolis last week, team's second straight defeat...Jaguars posted 16-14 home victory over Tennessee in season opener and shoot for first season sweep of series since 2005, but have lost four of last five outings and coming off 41-14 shellacking by Atlanta on Dec. 15...Titans have taken last three matchups between teams at LP Field, including 30-3 rout last season, with Jacksonville's last win in Nashville in 2007...Jaguars also just 1-6 on road in 2011...Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in line to start despite calf injury suffered in Week 14 loss to New Orleans, while running back Chris Johnson (ankle) also probable...Jacksonville wide receiver Mike Thomas expected to return after missing Atlanta game with concussion, but safety Dwight Lowery (shoulder) questionable and team signed veteran defensive back C.C. Brown on Wednesday...Jaguars last in NFL in total offense (256.3 ypg) and passing yards (137.2 ypg), but running back Maurice Jones-Drew tops league in rushing yards (1,334) and club compiled 163 yards on the ground against Titans in Week 1...Tennessee 31st overall in rushing offense (91.9 ypg) and ran for just 43 yards in earlier matchup with Jags.
Fast Fact: Jaguars have allowed a touchdown on the opening drive in each of their last three games and eight times over the course of this season. Jacksonville is 1-7 in those contests, with the lone positive result a 41-14 victory over Tampa Bay on Dec. 11.
Prediction: Titans won't be great, and won't have to be to get past a Jacksonville team that's been awful in nearly all phases as of late. Titans 21, Jaguars 14.
Miami (5-9) at New England (11-3), Saturday, 1:00 (New England -10)
Storylines: AFC East champion Patriots own conference's best record and can secure opening-round playoff bye with win over Dolphins along with Houston loss at Indianapolis on Thursday, or with victory this week teamed with defeats by both Baltimore and Pittsburgh...New England riding season-high six-game win streak extended with 41-23 road decision Denver last Sunday and have eclipsed 30 points in each of those triumphs...Miami posted fifth win in seven tries since 0-7 start with 30-23 besting of reeling Buffalo during Week 15 in interim head coach Todd Bowles' debut...Pats have prevailed in last three bouts between teams, including 38-7 shellacking at Gillette Stadium in 2010 regular-season finale, and totaled team-record 622 total yards in 38-24 verdict over Dolphins in 2011 opener behind career-high 517-yard, four-touchdown effort from quarterback Tom Brady...New England last in NFL in both total defense (414.7 ypg) and against the pass (296.7 ypg) and lost sack leader Andre Carter for remainder of season with leg injury suffered against Broncos...Wide receiver Deion Branch (groin) questionable for Patriots, while offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle) doubtful and safety Patrick Chung may return from six-game absence caused by sprained foot...Miami sent linebacker Koa Misi (shoulder) to IR on Wednesday, while tight end Anthony Fasano (head) uncertain to play...Wide receiver Brandon Marshall (knee) and offensive tackle Jake Long (back) both probable for Dolphins, however...Miami running back Reggie Bush rushed for career-high 203 yards against Bills last week and has eclipsed century mark in three straight games, and faces New England defense gashed for 252 yards on the ground by Denver...Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker leads league in receptions (104) and receiving yards (1,380) and had 160 yards and two touchdowns on eight grabs in Week 1 win over Dolphins.
Fast Fact: Marshall is the first Dolphins wideout to post consecutive seasons of 1,000 receiving yards since Irving Fryar in 1993-94 and only the fourth player to accomplish the feat in franchise history, joining Fryar, Mark Duper (1983-84) and Mark Clayton (1988-89).
Prediction: Dolphins won't give up over 600 yards this time around, though the end result shouldn't differ much from when these teams squared off in September. Patriots 30, Dolphins 13.
Minnesota (2-11) at Washington (5-9), Saturday, 1:00 (Washington -6.5)
Storylines: Redskins seeking back-to-back victories for first time since season's first two weeks after 23-10 road upset over New York Giants last Sunday, while hapless Vikings try to avoid first in-season seven-game losing streak since 1961...Minnesota one defeat away from matching franchise record for losses in a season set in 1984 after 42-20 setback to New Orleans in Week 15...Guard Steve Hutchinson and cornerback Asher Allen both question marks for Vikings after sustaining concussions last week, as is Washington cornerback Josh Wilson for same reason...Offensive tackle Jammal Brown (groin) also questionable for Redskins, but rookie running back Roy Helu (toe) probable...Washington on five-game home losing skid and also dropped 17-13 decision to Minnesota at FedEx Field last season in then-Vikings interim head coach Leslie Frazier's first game in charge...Minnesota 30th in NFL in pass defense (260.4 ypg) and have allowed league-high 31 touchdowns through the air, with the Saints' Drew Brees amassing 412 yards and five scores on unit a week ago...Vikings also haven't had an interception in any of the last nine games to tie longest drought by a team since 1970 merger...Minnesota third overall with 40 sacks, however, with end Jared Allen second among individuals with 17 1/2.
Fast Fact: Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman owns a 3-1 record in four career starts against Washington, but has completed just 52.1 percent (63-of-121) of his passes for 717 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions in those games.
Prediction: A fitting game for the holiday weekend, as these have been two of the most giving teams in the league. Redskins 20, Vikings 16.
N.Y. Giants (7-7) at N.Y. Jets (8-6), Saturday, 1:00 (N.Y. Jets -2.5)
Storylines: Intriguing showdown between local rivals with plenty at stake, with Jets presently tied with Cincinnati for AFC's final Wild Card spot and spiraling Giants one game back of first-place Dallas in NFC East...Giants would be eliminated from playoff consideration with loss on Saturday combined with Cowboys win over Philadelphia...Both teams coming off costly defeats in Week 15, with Jets having three-game win streak snapped with 45-19 throttling by Eagles and Giants handed fifth setback in past six tests with 23-10 home loss to Washington...Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress played for Giants from 2005-08 and faces former club for first time since being let go following 2008 prison sentence on illegal weapons charges...Giants center David Baas expected to return from three-game absence due to neck injury, but defensive end Osi Umenyiora (ankle) likely to remain sidelined and tight end Jake Ballard (knee) also doubtful...Backup tight end Travis Beckum (chest) questionable for Giants as well...Jets kick returner Joe McKnight considered game-time decision with ailing shoulder...Jets 6-1 at MetLife Stadium this season...Jets running back Shonn Greene averaging 92 rushing yards and 4.8 yards per carry over last four weeks...Giants third in NFL in passing offense (299.0 ypg) but last in rushing yards (86.1 ypg)...Giants quarterback Eli Manning owns 14 fourth-quarter touchdown passes in 2011, tied for most in a single season.
Fast Fact: Giants are 60-37 in Manning's 117 career starts in which he throws a touchdown pass and 7-13 when he fails to do so.
Prediction: Jets seize the opportunity to beat their chests by taking advantage of their fellow tenant's defensive woes and one-dimensionality on the offensive side. Jets 28, Giants 24.
Oakland (7-7) at Kansas City (6-8), Saturday, 1:00 (Kansas City -2)
Storylines: Important matchup between AFC West inhabitants, with struggling Raiders one game behind first-place Denver in division standings and cellar- dwelling Chiefs still alive in race...Kansas City fresh off stunning 19-14 home upset of previously-unbeaten Green Bay last Sunday in interim head coach Romeo Crennel's debut and first start for quarterback Kyle Orton as member of team...Oakland dealt third straight defeat with tough 28-27 setback to visiting Detroit in Week 15...Chiefs forced six Raiders turnovers in scoring 28-0 shutout at Oakland Coliseum on Oct. 23 and aim for first season sweep of series since 2006...Raiders have won in four straight stops at Arrowhead Stadium, however, including 31-10 rout in 2010 regular-season finale behind 137-yard rushing effort from running back Michael Bush...Oakland running back Darren McFadden to miss eighth consecutive contest with lingering foot sprain, while wide receiver Jacoby Ford (foot) and safety Michael Huff (hamstring) both doubtful...Kansas City 31st in NFL in scoring (13.7 ppg) and 27th in total offense (304.1 ypg), but had season-best 438 total yards against Packers and Orton threw for 299 yards...Chiefs defense allowing 270.0 yards over last three games and has 14 sacks over that stretch, with outside linebacker Tamba Hali generating three in Green Bay win...Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer had season-best 367 passing yards against Lions, but was intercepted three times in earlier meeting with Kansas City.
Fast Fact: Chiefs are now 2-0 all-time in their first game under an interim head coach that took over in-season. The first victory also took place against the Packers, a 20-10 decision on Nov. 6, 1977 after Tom Bettis took over for a displaced Paul Wiggin.
Prediction: Inspired Chiefs are determined to make a case for Crennel staying on permanently, and their usually-sluggish offense will look pretty good with Orton at the controls and an opponent that's showing signs of falling apart. Chiefs 23, Raiders 14.
St. Louis (2-12) at Pittsburgh (10-4), Saturday, 1:00 (Pittsburgh -14.5)
Storylines: Steelers attempt to bounce back from 20-3 loss at San Francisco on Monday but will likely do so without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, presumed to be held out in favor for veteran Charlie Batch for Saturday's tilt to recover from ankle sprain sustained in Week 14 win over Cleveland...Kellen Clemens on track to draw second consecutive start under center for Rams with regular Sam Bradford (ankle) and backup A.J. Feeley (broken thumb) still dealing with injuries, while rookie receiver Austin Pettis also out after receiving four-game suspension Wednesday for violating NFL's performance- enhancing drug policy...Linebacker James Harrison to be back for Pittsburgh, which had won four straight prior to Monday's defeat, after serving one-game ban for illegal hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy on Dec. 8...Running back Mewelde Moore (knee) out for Steelers, however, while center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (foot) both questionable...St. Louis on five-game losing streak after 20-13 ousting by visiting Cincinnati last Sunday, in which Clemens threw for 229 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions, and tied for worst record in NFC...Pittsburgh 6-1 at Heinz Field this season and has won nine of last 10 home dates (including playoffs) dating back to last year, while Rams 1-6 on road in 2011 and have dropped eight of last nine as guest...St. Louis last in NFL in scoring (11.9 ppg) and 30th in total offense (285.3 ypg), while Steelers lead league in total defense (276.9 ypg) and allowing 15.6 points per game (2nd overall).
Fast Fact: Clemens completed just 14-of-31 passes for 162 yards with one touchdown and one interception in his only previous career start against Pittsburgh, but helped the New York Jets to a 19-16 overtime win over the Steelers in that game, which took place on Nov. 18, 2007.
Prediction: Steelers can still play it safe and handle a depleted St. Louis squad that's had all kinds of trouble reaching the end zone. Steelers 20, Rams 6.
Tampa Bay (4-10) at Carolina (5-9), Saturday, 1:00 (Carolina -7.5)
Storylines: Second meeting between NFC South members in four weeks, with Panthers posting 38-19 victory over Buccaneers in Tampa on Dec. 4...Improving Carolina registered third win in four games with 28-13 road upset of AFC South champ Houston last Sunday, while sagging Bucs riding eight-game losing streak -- franchise's longest skid since 1987 -- following 31-15 home setback to Dallas in Week 15...Tampa Bay trying to avoid dropping nine in a row in same season since 1985...Panthers have come out on top in four of last six bouts with Bucs, but handed 20-7 loss by Tampa in Charlotte last season...Carolina quarterback Cam Newton 18 yards shy of breaking Peyton Manning's record for season passing yards by a rookie (3,739)...Tampa Bay 31st in scoring defense (28.6 ypg) and allowing average of 32 points over current winless drought...Buccaneers placed cornerback Aqib Talib (hamstring) on injured reserve and signed veteran defensive tackle Jovan Haye on Monday...Tampa linebacker Geno Hayes (knee) and defensive tackle Brian Price (ankle) questionable for Saturday's test and wide receiver Arrelious Benn (concussion) and defensive end Michael Bennett (toe) both probable...Safety Charles Godfrey (shoulder) doubtful for Panthers and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (leg) iffy, but defensive end Charles Johnson (back) expected to go...Carolina fifth overall in rushing offense (141.0 ypg) and had 163 yards on the ground in most recent matchup with Buccaneers defense ranked 30th versus the run (141.1 ypg).
Fast Fact: Panthers reserve fullback Richie Brockel, who scored his first career touchdown on a trick play in last week's win, was a member of the United States National Team that won the gold medal in the International Federation of American Football Senior World Championship this past July.
Prediction: Bucs have been poor on the road and haven't shown up in weeks, and there's little reason to believe they'll rise up at this point. Panthers 35, Buccaneers 17.
San Diego (7-7) at Detroit (9-5), Saturday, 4:05 (Detroit -2.5)
Storylines: Long-suffering Lions can clinch first playoff appearance since 1999 with victory over suddenly-hot Chargers, winners of three straight and who closed within one game of first-place Denver in AFC West after impressive 34-14 triumph over postseason participant Baltimore last Sunday...Detroit recorded second consecutive win after rallying for 28-27 decision at Oakland in Week 15, with club capping comeback from 13-point fourth-quarter deficit on touchdown pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford to wideout Calvin Johnson with 39 seconds left...San Diego sports astounding 23-2 record in December under quarterback Philip Rivers since 2006...Lions safety Louis Delmas ruled out after undergoing recent knee surgery, but nickel back Aaron Berry (shoulder) and defensive end Lawrence Jackson (thigh) slated to return after missing last week and cornerback Chris Houston (knee) also probable...Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson expected to play despite nagging groin strain and defensive end Jacques Cesaire (ankle) also probable, but outside linebacker Travis LaBoy (knee) doubtful...Rivers owns 7-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 75 percent completion percentage over current win streak...Detroit wideout Calvin Johnson second in NFL in receiving yards (1,335) and touchdown catches (14) and burned Raiders for career-best 214 yards and two scores on nine catches last week...Chargers produced seven sacks in victory over Ravens, with linebacker Antwan Barnes totaling personal-best four.
Fast Fact: Chargers have scored an NFL-best 55 points (seven touchdowns, two field goals) on their opening possession of the second half thus far in 2011.
Prediction: Lions will have to wait a little longer to pop the champagne, as the Chargers have gotten their act together and could give Detroit fits with all their offensive weapons. Chargers 27, Lions 24.
Philadelphia (6-8) at Dallas (8-6), Saturday, 4:15 (Dallas -1)
Storylines: Key late-season encounter between NFC East rivals, with first-place Cowboys one game ahead of New York Giants in standings and still-alive Eagles two back...Dallas can wrap up division with win on Saturday and a Giants loss to the New York Jets, while Philadelphia eliminated with either defeat to Cowboys or a Giants victory...Inconsistent Eagles have won last two tests and kept postseason chances intact with 45-19 dismantling of Jets this past Sunday, while Dallas stopped two-game skid with 31-15 Week 15 triumph at floundering Tampa Bay...Cowboys running back Felix Jones uncertain to play with hamstring injury, with recently-signed veteran Sammy Morris to get start if he can't go, while star outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (shoulder) questionable...Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (hamstring), cornerback Asante Samuel (hamstring) and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (groin) all probable for Eagles...Philadelphia 3-1 against NFC East foes this season and dealt Dallas 34-7 loss at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 8 behind career-high 185-yard, two-touchdown rushing effort from running back LeSean McCoy...Eagles also came through with 30-27 win at Cowboys Stadium last year and searching for first season sweep of Dallas since 2006...McCoy has NFL-best and franchise-record 20 touchdowns this season and stands second in league in rushing yards (1,274)...Philadelphia tight end Brent Celek had career-best 156 receiving yards on five catches against Jets and owns 45 receptions over last nine games...Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw for three scores in ousting of Buccaneers and has 18 touchdown passes against just two interceptions over past seven outings.
Fast Fact: Eagles have outscored their opponents by a 123-36 margin in the first half and a 49-14 count in the opening quarter over their six wins this season. In the team's eight losses, Philadelphia has been outscored 49-17 in the first period.
Prediction: Eagles will be awfully dangerous if they perform like they did the previous two weeks, but more consistent Cowboys seem more likely to be the team that doesn't come up with the critical mistake. Cowboys 31, Eagles 24.
San Francisco (11-3) at Seattle (7-7), Saturday, 4:15 (San Francisco -2)
Storylines: Surging Seahawks enter week two games behind Atlanta and Detroit in NFC Wild Card race and recorded third straight victory and fifth win in six games with 38-14 road dismantling of fading Chicago last Sunday...NFC West champion 49ers coming off rousing 20-3 home triumph over postseason-bound Pittsburgh on Monday and can earn bye in upcoming conference playoffs by besting Seattle and New Orleans losing to Atlanta on Monday...San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis likely to sit out third straight contest with hamstring injury, while wide receiver/return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) doubtful...Ginn had both kickoff and punt return touchdowns in Niners' 33-17 verdict over visiting Seahawks in season opener, and team vying for first home- and-home sweep in series since 2006...San Francisco has lost at CenturyLink Field in each of past two years, however, including 31-6 rout last season...Seattle placed wide receiver Mike Williams on injured reserve Tuesday after fracturing ankle in Chicago game...Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has five 100-yard rushing efforts in last seven tests and has scored a touchdown in 10 consecutive games, but faces 49ers' league-leading run defense (71.5 ypg) that's yet to yield a touchdown on the ground this season and possesses 36-game streak of not allowing an individual 100-yard rusher...Seattle defense has forced NFL-best 18 turnovers over six-game tear, while San Francisco has fewest giveaways (10) in the league this year...49ers kicker David Akers two field goals shy of tying NFL single-season record of 40.
Fast Fact: A pair of Seattle rookies, wide receiver Doug Baldwin and cornerback Richard Sherman, both played collegiately at Stanford under now-49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Prediction: Not many have taken notice of how well the Seahawks are playing right now. A win this week over a San Francisco team that's had scoring issues might turn a few more heads. Seahawks 16, 49ers 13.
Chicago (7-7) at Green Bay (13-1), Sunday, 8:20 (Green Bay -13)
Storylines: Christmas Day clash between longtime NFC North foes, with division champion Packers able to clinch conference's No. 1 playoff seed with victory or if San Francisco loses at Seattle on Saturday...Green Bay had franchise-record 19-game win streak snapped with surprising 19-14 defeat at Kansas City last Sunday, while injury-riddled Bears now two games back in NFC Wild Card standings after losing four straight times without quarterback Jay Cutler (broken thumb)...Journeyman Josh McCown to make first NFL start under center since 2007 for Chicago in place of demoted Cutler fill-in Caleb Hanie, while leading rusher Matt Forte to miss third straight week with knee sprain...Fellow running back Marion Barber (calf) and defensive tackle Henry Melton (shin) both questionable for Bears, while team placed wide receiver Johnny Knox (back surgery) and rookie safety Chris Conte (foot) on injured reserve Monday...Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings to sit out second consecutive game with sprained knee and offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) also ruled out, but running back James Starks (ankle) on track to return from two-game absence...Offensive tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) doubtful for Green Bay and defensive end Ryan Pickett (concussion) questionable, while club put rookie offensive lineman Derek Sherrod (broken leg) on IR Tuesday...Packers have won five of last six meetings with Bears, including 21-14 decision in Chicago in 2010 NFC Championship and 27-17 road verdict on Sept. 25, and have bested Bears at Lambeau Field in each of last three seasons.
Fast Fact: The Bears and Packers have met one time previously on Christmas Day during their storied rivalry, a 24-17 Chicago win at Lambeau Field in 2005. The two are one of only three franchises, along with Dallas, to play on the holiday over the past six seasons.
Prediction: Switching to McCown is too late and way too little for the Bears, especially with the Packers not in much of a giving mood after last week's failure. Packers 27, Bears 10.
Atlanta (9-5) at New Orleans (11-3), Monday, 8:30 (New Orleans -6.5)
Storylines: Critical Week 16 showdown between top two teams in NFC South, with first-place Saints able to wrap up division with a victory and Falcons clinching playoff spot by winning as well...Clubs played in overtime thriller in Atlanta back in Week 10, with New Orleans earned 26-23 decision in game highlighted by unsuccessful decision by Falcons head coach Mike Smith to run play on fourth down in his team's territory during extra session...Saints have come out on top in five of last six bouts in series, all of which have been decided by eight or less points, but Falcons posted 27-24 overtime verdict at Superdome in 2010...Red-hot Saints riding six-game winning streak extended with 42-20 triumph at Minnesota last Sunday, in which quarterback Drew Brees threw for 412 yards and five touchdowns on 32-of-40 passing...Brees leads NFL with 4,780 passing yards and needs 304 more to match Hall of Famer Dan Marino's single-season league record of 5,084 set in 1984...Atlanta 4-1 over last five tests and posted second straight victory with 41-14 throttling of doormat Jacksonville on Dec. 15, with quarterback Matt Ryan tossing three touchdown passes and wideout Roddy White amassing 135 receiving yards and two scores on 10 catches...Falcons cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee scope) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) both set to play after missing last four games, but linebacker Stephen Nicholas (knee) questionable...New Orleans rookie running Mark Ingram uncertain to be active due to turf toe injury that's kept him out last two weeks...Atlanta wideout Harry Douglas had career highs of eight catches and 133 receiving yards in last month's loss to Saints...New Orleans second in NFL in scoring (32.6 ppg) and averaging 39.8 points in going 6-0 at Superdome this season.
Fast Fact: Brees became the first quarterback in NFL history to complete 80 percent of his passes and throw for over 400 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in a game with last week's performance.
Prediction: Saints have been awesome at home and once again get their share of yards and points, but these two always seem to play one another to the wire. Saints 31, Falcons 27.