Here are some of the key matchups to keep an eye on this week:
Cowboys DEs DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis vs. Panthers QB Matt Moore
With the uncertainty of Tony Romo's thumb (he'll start, but how much will the injury affect his play?), Dallas needs a big defensive effort to ensure a win. The Cowboys are very good versus the run, which may discourage Carolina from running and put the burden on undrafted free agent quarterback Matt Moore to both control the ball and put points on the board. Interestingly, Moore and the Cowboys are familiar with each other: the rookie from Oregon State originally signed with Dallas and was with them most of the summer; he was waived after the final preseason game.
|Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images|
|Carolina QB Matt Moore has a shot to gain revenge against Dallas for cutting him in the preseason.|
Greg Ellis and DeMarcus Ware have 22.5 sacks between them. They need a few more here, or at least force Moore into hurried throws. The Cowboys will in all probability have to rely on a third strong safety in Keith Davis, since Roy Williams is suspended and Patrick Watkins is hurt, so Dallas can't afford to give Moore too much time to throw.
Packers RB Ryan Grant vs. Bears LB Brian Urlacher
These two teams have met 173 ties since 1921, and the 174th meeting is a big one for the Packers: Green Bay needs to win out and hope Dallas loses one in order to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It will be cold in Chicago on Sunday -- a projected high of 31 and a low of 19 -- with flurries and wind.
Grant has been a revelation for the Packers since being acquired in the preseason. He's averaging 4.6 yards per carry and has solidified a once-dormant Packers ground attack. Urlacher, meanwhile, had his best game of the season last week and has something to prove after not getting elected to the Pro Bowl. Chicago's defense ranks 29th overall, 25th against the run. The Packers have won 16 of their last 18 games dating back to last year, and QB Brett Favre has beaten the Bears 22 times as a starter.
Eagles CB Lito Sheppard vs. Saints QB Drew Brees
If the Saints are going to have a chance to make the playoffs, then Brees needs a big game against a pass defense that has allowed just 16 TD passes all season. Philadelphia held Tony Romo to zero TDs and a 22 rating in last week's upset of the Cowboys, and Sheppard did a nice job last week against Terrell Owens. Now he faces Marques Colston, who has 7 TD receptions in his last eight games.
This could be a fun game, not unlike last year's matchup in the playoffs which was won by the Saints, 27-24.
Dolphins DE Jason Taylor vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady
For what it's worth, it should be noted that Miami is the only team ever to shut out a Brady-led Patriots team -- and that was just last season, when the Dolphins beat the Patriots, 21-0, on Dec. 10. Brady was sacked four times in that game. As far as individuals go, no player has sacked Brady more times than Taylor, who has 8.5 career sacks against the two-time Super Bowl MVP. In the first Dolphins-Pats game this season, Taylor even had an interception -- although Brady still threw for a career-high 6 TD passes, five in the first half. Even with the numbers Miami surrendered in that gamer, the Dolphins still rank fourth in the NFL in pass defense.
Brady has 4,235 yards this season and his 45 TD passes are five short of breaking Peyton Manning's single-season record. Randy Moss has 19 TD catches, three short of Jerry Rice's mark. The weather is expected to be a balmy 49 degrees in New England this Sunday, and I would think that the Patriots would love nothing more than to have Brady and Moss break these individual records here in the regular-season home finale.
Redskins QB Todd Collins vs. Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson
These teams have outstanding running backs in Clinton Portis and Adrian Peterson, respectively -- both are in the top 6 in rushing. Both teams also are very good at stopping the run. And both teams need a win to keep in the playoff hunt. With that said, the difference could come down to a 36-year-old quarterback making his second start in 10 years against a 24-year-old quarterback who has been in the league for less than two full seasons. To Jackson's credit, he has started 12 games over two years and has won six consecutive starts this season.
Both teams might be without a key defensive player. Linebacker Rocky McIntosh is out for Washington, and Minnoesta might be without Antoine Winfield, who is one of the best tackling cornerbacks in the NFL.