|Al Bello / Getty Images|
|Brandon Jacobs and Bradie James are familiar foes who will meet again in a crucial Sunday night game.|
With so many critical games on the docket in the final three weeks of the season, let's start off this week by crediting the NFL's schedule-makers. When it comes to "matchups to watch," they've come up with plenty down the stretch.
As for the key individual matchups to watch in Week 15, here are a few:
Minnesota CB Cedric Griffin vs. Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald
The last time these teams met in Arizona was Dec. 28, 2003, and it was memorable. The last-place Cardinals scored a touchdown on the last play of the game to knock the Vikings out of playoffs and allow Green Bay to sneak in. Nate Poole, who caught the winning pass for Arizona, was honored with a special day in Green Bay!
Five years later, things have changed for the Cardinals, Arizona has clinched the NFC West and will have a home playoff game for the first time since 1947, while Minnesota is again battling for a playoff spot. The Vikings control their own destiny to win the NFC North, but if Chicago beats New Orleans on Thursday night, then this really becomes a must-win game for Minnesota.
The Cardinals lead the NFC in scoring with an average of 28.6 points per game. Minnesota ranks 20th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 217 yards per game. The one thing to remember about the Vikings' pass defense is that they are always tested because it's so hard to run against them.
Griffin starts at left corner. He has outstanding size (6-foot, 200 pounds), with good instincts to read and react. He knows how to use his arms and strength to slow down receivers, and he has very quick hands. Because of Griffin's lack of great speed, he must win the battle at the line of scrimmage. He has problems with spin-and-go and stutter-and-go routes. Griffin will throw his body around aggressively and make plays.
Fitzgerald is from the Twin Cities, where his dad is a veteran sportswriter. Prior to his college days, Fitzgerald spent time as a ballboy for the Vikings and learned the nuances of the receiver position from Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalist Cris Carter. In his fifth NFL season, he is now the youngest receiver in NFL history to reach the 400 receptions plateau, and he currently is tied for the NFL lead with 83 catches this season. He is tall and strong, with strong hands, and he carries his uniform well. He is an outstanding person to boot.
Another matchup to watch in this game: Vikings CB Antoine Winfield versus Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin. Winfield is playing at a Pro Bowl level. And while Fitzgerald is the youngest player to 400 receptions, Boldin is the fastest -- having reached that mark in 67 games.
N.Y. Giants RB Brandon Jacobs vs. Dallas LB Bradie James
Dallas needs to win to keep its playoff hopes in good standing, while the Giants need to win to get closer to attaining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. One thig is for sure: this game will have a huge Sunday night TV audience. After losing both regular-season games to the Cowboys last season, the Giants defeated them in the playoffs on their way to winning Super Bowl XLII, and then they won again earlier this season. Overall, these teams have met 92 times.
Jacobs is a big back (6-foot-3, 263 pounds) with speed and power. He actually scored 16 touchdowns in his first two seasons when he was the short-yardage back. In his first season as the starter last year, he rushed for 1,009 yards. He has good quickness and the ability to make tacklers miss. Jacobs ran for 117 yards and a TD earlier this season against Cowboys. He has very good balance and is hard to knock off his feet.
James is having a Pro Bowl season for Dallas and is the key to stopping the opponent's running game. He leads the team with 92 tackles, to go along with five sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He has the size (6-2, 247), strength and instincts. James had 21 tackles in the two regular-season games vs. the Giants in 2007.
Another matchup to watch in this game: Giants WR Steve Smith, who leads the team with 47 catches and seems to be the go-to guy on third down, vs. Cowboys CB Terence Newman, who is under added pressure with the news that Adam "pacman" Jones is out.
Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco
Both of these quarterbacks face quite a challenge in this battle for AFC North supremacy. The game pits the league's two top-ranked defenses -- Pittsburgh allows 242 yards and 14 points per game; Baltimore allows 253 yards and 15 points per game. Earlier this season, Pittsburgh won at home against the Ravens on a 46-yard field goal in overtime. Both teams have outstanding defensive coordinators -- and both have good offensive coordinators, too. There will be a lot of sore bodies after this game, as both teams are very physical and thrive on getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers.
Roethlisberger must be aware of pressure from the backside. Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan loves to blitz, especially from the backside, and Terrell Suggs leads the Ravens with 6.5 sacks. To win this game, Roethlisberger has to come up big in the passing game and use his feet to make a couple of big plays, as he did against Dallas last week.
Flacco seems to get better each week, although he got off to a slow start last week against Washington. In his last eight games, the rookie has completed 59 percent of his passes for 12 TDs and three interceptions, with a 95.6 rating. Flacoo is tall (6-5), strong (230) and fast (4.85), with a very strong arm and big hands -- which is important when you play outdoors in bad weather. Flacco is very smart. He is only the second quarterback from a Championship Subdivision school to be drafted in the first round (the first was Steve McNair in 1995).
Another matchup to watch in this game: Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron vs. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. You can bet you will see some sort of gadget play you don't expect from Cameron. LeBeau, meanwhile, will have some new wrinkles that Baltimore hasn't seen before. It would be great to be a fly on the wall watching either of these guys making halftime adjustments.
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin vs. Atlanta RB Michael Turner
This is a game of great importance to both teams. Tampa Bay would be the fifth seed if the season ended today, while Atlanta would be one spot out of the playoffs as the seventh seed. But a Falcons win this week would put both teams at 9-5. NFC East teams will have a great deal of interest in this game as they all compete for those wild-card spots.
The Bucs run defense was embarrassed Monday night when it allowed 299 rushing yards to Carolina. Tampa Bay is now ranked 18th in the NFL against the run, while Atlanta is second in rushing offense with 147 yards per game. Turner, who was signed by Atlanta as an unrestricted free agent, has 14 TDs this season after scoring just one touchdown a year ago. He is a big back (250 pounds) who runs with power and speed. He has the ability to make long runs -- four of his career TD runs have been for 66 yards or more.
Kiffin is considered one of the top defensive coordinators in the NFL. You can be sure he will have a surprise for the Falcons' offense. When these teams met earlier in the season, his defense had four turnovers and five sacks, limiting rookie QB Matt Ryan to one completion in his first nine attempts.
More matchups to watch
San Diego QB Philip Rivers vs. Kansas City CB Brandon Flowers. Rivers is the top-rated passer in the NFL, while Flowers is an impressive rookie. San Diego's run offense is 26th and the Chiefs' rank 31st in run defense. This is an old AFL matchup where high scoring has been the norm.
Denver's passng game vs. Carolina's running game. Denver has the No. 1 passing offense (which is good, since they've run out of healthy running backs). Quarterback Jay Cutler has 23 TD passes, which is only four behind John Elway's team record, set in 1997. Carolina wants to run and shorten the game, as they did Monday night in the win over Tampa Bay. DeAngelo Wiliams has six TDs in his last two games.