The 2007 season is winding down. Teams that have clinched a playoff spot wrestle with the concept of resting starters versus staying sharp. A number of teams can play the spoiler role, and as one middle linebacker told me this week, "If we can't go, I'm going to make sure you can't either." Some teams still have to fight their way into the top six spots while others don't have a lock-solid hold on the playoff slot they are in right now. There are still at least 10 interesting storylines for this week's games:
1. One for the thumb
The Cowboys are barely holding onto the top spot in the NFC. Last week's loss to the Eagles has created a must-win situation if they want the NFC playoffs to run through Dallas. Tony Romo injured the thumb on his throwing hand against the Eagles, but practiced late during the week despite some pain as he follows through in his throws. All eyes will be on pregame warmups to see what kind of velocity he has on the ball. The Panthers have a decent run defense, which could shift more pressure to the Cowboys' passing attack. Rest assured the Panthers will make some coverage adjustments and blitz calls based on what Romo can do in this game.
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|We know Lovie Smith will be motivated to beat the Packers this weekend. How will Green Bay respond?|
2. The "Lovie speech" factor
I asked a member of the Packers if he was ready for the Bears. After all, Chicago is 4-1 in the last five meetings between the two teams. His first response was, "We all remember the speech Lovie Smith gave when he became the Bears head coach, that his first priority was to beat the Packers." The Bear fans can almost forgive the whole season if their beloved team can defeat the Packers. Go to a Bears-Packers game just once and you will understand what I mean. Brett Favre is having a career year and there are many people who now believe the Packers are the best team in the NFC, but Favre has thrown two touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his last five game against Chicago. Then again, the Bears have never faced running back Ryan Grant, and that famous speech is on the minds of every Packer.
3. The Tuna is watching
All of a sudden, Bill Parcells is back in the AFC East and his new team faces a team he took to the Super Bowl. As one Dolphins player said to me this week, "It's going to be weird knowing the Tuna is watching us play and is going to run off every guy who doesn't play all out." Miami can't beat the Patriots when you consider Tom Brady has thrown 18 touchdowns to just one interception against AFC East teams this year. As Junior Seau said to me this week, "We will not take any team, especially the Dolphins, lightly." Remember this: Miami has beaten the Patriots in the rematch game in each of the last three years, and now the Tuna will be standing there watching with his arms folded. That means at least the effort will be there.
4. My favorite story of the year
My favorite NFL story of the year has to be the Cleveland Browns. From the day I got to camp in August when I sat down with Derek Anderson, Braylon Edwards and Joe Thomas, the energy was there. Head coach Romeo Crennel was under more pressure than any coach in the league, Brady Quinn wasn't signed and many people felt the coach would be fired at the bye. Not true! This weekend the Browns can clinch a playoff spot with a win. Anderson is four touchdown passes away from tying the Browns' single-season record held by Brian Sipe and Edwards is one touchdown shy of the receiving mark. Keep your eye on running back Jamal Lewis -- nicknamed "8 in the box" by Winslow and Edwards. He had 216 yards against the Bengals the last time they played.
5. One that got away
How many times have I said the NFL is a quarterback-driven league? A haunting reminder of rule No. 1 hits home when Jeff Garcia and his division-champion Tampa Bay Bucs take the field in San Francisco. Since Garcia left the Bay area, the Niners have had six different starting quarterbacks. Only Alex Smith has won more than two games under center. Where would San Francisco be if Garcia was still their quarterback? It's the same reason the Eagles have to stick with McNabb and the Browns can never let Anderson go.
6. On the road again
Most teams consider a home-field advantage to be ... an advantage. The Giants, on the other hand, seem to prefer the road. They have won six straight away from Giants Stadium. New York is in a must-win situation to keep their playoff hopes alive and they are coming off an awful home loss last week. Well, after three previous losses this season, the Giants hit the road the following week and won all three times. Eli Manning played decently in those wins, but it was the defense that turned it up a notch. In the three road wins following a loss, New York allowed an average of just 14 points. Tom Coughlin and his team have been in this situation before and now they need a fourth such win because next week the Patriots come to town.
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|Can Sage Rosenfels play his way into a QB controversy in Houston?|
7. What about Sage?
Quietly, Sage Rosenfels is making a statement about his candidacy for the starting quarterback spot in Houston next season. In his three starts this season, he is 3-0, completing 65.1 percent of his passes for five touchdowns to just two picks. For the season, he has thrown three more touchdowns than Matt Schaub in 103 fewer attempts. If Rosenfels wins out and keeps playing like this, there could be an interesting story developing in Texas.
8. Beware the spoilers
Football is an emotional game when played well. For the teams out of the playoff hunt, some of the emotion is gone. But for some teams, the disappointment turns into anger rather than despair and when an angry team meets a playoff contender, the word "spoiler" comes into play. This weekend, the Eagles, Bills, Bengals, and Jets have the best chance to be spoilers. The Rams had their chance Thursday night and just couldn't finish what they started. There's no doubt in my mind at least one of these teams is going to play an angry game and wreck someone's playoff hopes.
9. This game could be uglyâ¦ and dangerous
The Chiefs play the Lions in what has to be considered a bad football game. Keep in mind that back around Week 6 these two teams were the talk of the league. But everything fell apart. Between the two, they have lost their last 13 games. Also, the quarterbacks for these teams have been sacked 100 times and have thrown 38 interceptions. The quarterbacks are at risk of injury if the protection breaks down, and if they throw another interception just get out of the way of a would be headhunter looking to "block" you.
10. One step back, two steps forward
Tarvaris Jackson was on a roll in the first four games of the Vikings' current five-game winning streak. He stumbled and regressed in the fifth win, trying to do too much. It happens all the time to young players. The good ones self-correct. It will be interesting to see if he gets back on track this week against the Redskins and leads his team to a playoff spot. In my conversations with his teammates and coaches, I am convinced he returns to the form he demonstrated earlier and has a winning performance this week.