Here are some of the key matchups to watch in Week 14 action:
Cowboys DE Greg Ellis vs. Lions RT Damien Woody
This is an interesting game, because Dallas historically plays in Sunday games following a Thursday game -- but they are just 4-8 at Detroit. Another tidbit of historic irony: the Lions have won a total of one playoff game since 1958, and that was a 1991 win over Dallas. On the heels of their current four-game losing streak, this might as well be a playoff game for Detroit.
|Rob Tringali / Getty Images|
|Greg Ellis looks to improve his sack total against a porous Detroit line.|
Last week, we wrote about the matchup between Dallas DE DeMarcus Ware and Packer LT Chad Clifton. Ware dominated the game and was a big reason for the Cowboys' win. With the Lions focused on stopping Ware, that leaves Woody -- or George Foster, if he gets the nod -- alone to deal with Ellis, who is probably licking his chops over the matchup. Ellis has earned a $250,000 bonus this season by reaching 10 sacks -- and that number increases with each additional sack. Detroit, meanwhile, has allowed more sacks (50) than any team in the NFL.
Raiders RB Justin Fargas vs. Packers LB Nick Barnett
The Raiders average 135 rushing yards per game and 150 passing yards per game, which shows you how much they emphasize the ground attack. Fargas has a great blend of speed and power, and will run right through arm tackles. He's really emerged this season, running for 285 yards in the last two games and averaging 4.8 yards per carry. (Note: Fargas is an unrestricted free agent next year. He's making $800,000 this season, and I imagine he'll get a signing bonus this spring that equals the money he's made in the last five years combined.) Barnett, Green Bay's starting middle linebacker, leads the team with 96 tackles. He's an every-down player who combines athleticism, speed and excellent tackling ability. He makes plays all over the field, working well against the run with defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins.
While the focus will be on Packers QB Brett Favre on the other side of the ball, I would suggest keeping an eye on RB Ryan Grant. The Raiders have a solid pass defense but rank 31st against the run. Look for the Packers to spread their receivers wide and then give Grant a chance to have a big day.
Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson vs. Titans DT Albert Haynesworth
Tomlinson had a big game last week and seems to be hitting his stride. That's not a surprise, as he averages more than 100 yards per game in December for his career. The San Diego offense starts and ends with Tomlinson's versatility and competitiveness -- he accounts for 41 percent of the Chargers' offense -- so it really doesn't affect the game plan whether or not Haynesworth plays for Tennessee. But it matters to the Titans, of course. Haynesworth missed three games and team lost all three -- allowing 97 points in the process. Before the injury, he was playing like a young Reggie White. Haynesworth came back last week and the Titans ended their losing streak. No coincidence.
Meanwhile, another key to Tomlinson's success will be left tackle Marcus McNail's ability to handle DE Kyle Vanden Bosch. McNeil did a very good job last week on Jared Allen, and now faces a good pass rusher in Vanden Bosch.
Vikings RB Adrian Peterson vs. 49ers LB Patrick Willis
Most likely, this is a matchu between the offensive and defensive rookies of the year. Peterson leads the NFL in rushing with 1,197 yards. He's second in rushing TDs with 10 and has the longest TD run this year (73 yards). The Vikings leads the NFL in rushing and rushing TDs. In winning their last three games, Minnesota has averaged 37 points per game. Willis, meanwhile, leads the NFL with 128 tackles. He is a tackling machine who makes plays sideline to sideline. If the 49ers are to slow down Peterson, Willis needs another 17-tackle game like he had last week. Peterson's combination of speed and power is amazing.
This could be a fun game to watch, and it's going to be a chess match between Vikings head coach Brad Childress and 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. In a matchup between players like Peterson and Willis who both have such great size and strength, it will be interesting to see what the coaches can do to help their star players. One note: Historically, big-play running backs don't fare as well on grass as they do on turf, but one of Peterson's 200-yard games this year came on the grass at Soldier Field.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady
LeBeau one of the best at devising game plans to confuse a good quarterback -- like last week, when his defense held Carson Palmer to a 38-percent completion rate (17 of 44). And it's not as if LeBeau isn't familiar with the Patriots. When he was the head coach of a poor Bengals squad in 2001, he managed to knock of the Patriots -- which was one of only four New England losses on the way to a Super Bowl title. Brady has been unbelievable all season and one aspect of his game that has really improved is his ability to read defenses and know where to go with the football. For the third consecutive week, Brady faces a defense that will throw a kitchen sink's worth of blitzes at him, and it hurts a little that he has less time to prepare after the Monday night game.
A specific matchup to watch on the field will be Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison against Patriots left tackle Matt Light. Harrison is a hard player to block -- he comes in low and gets underneath guys. He has 8.5 sacks on the season and could give Light a tough time.