Injuries, QB decision will have a huge impact on playoff races

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Steelers RB Willie Parker could benefit from the absence of Titans run-stuffing DT Albert Haynesworth this weekend.

The balance of several games with playoff implications this weekend could have shifted because of untimely injuries that forced lineup tweaking or put a head coach in the unenviable position of making -- or not making -- a quarterback change this late in the season.

Two of those games feature the top teams from the NFC (Panthers vs. Giants) and from the AFC (Titans vs. Steelers), who already have qualified for the playoffs but are fighting for the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage.

Titans' dual defensive downer

Carucci's rankings
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Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, chased and battered for most of this season, finally could have some time to pass this week because Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (knee) and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (groin) have been ruled out until the playoffs.

The Titans (12-2) have managed without a 100 percent Vanden Bosch for much of the season. But the loss of Haynesworth, arguably the best defensive lineman in football, can't be understated.

Haynesworth is a stout run stuffer and pass rusher, and without him on the field, The Steelers (11-3) might be able to kickstart their dormant running game and allow Roethlisberger to manage the passing game without worrying about taking numerous hard hits. Besides that, Haynesworth is the glue to the Titans' defense. When Haynesworth went down with a leg injury last season, Tennessee went 0-3.

Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is among the league's best and certainly will have a plan that allows other players to make plays, but a loss at home Sunday would shift the road to the Super Bowl through Pittsburgh.

Wind and Fire are contained elements without Earth

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Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw played Nov. 23 at Arizona and Dec. 14 at Dallas without fellow running back Brandon Jacobs.
Giants' "Wind" and "Fire" without "Earth"
Player Derrick Ward Ahmad Bradshaw
Carries 34 7
Yards 133 17
Avg. per carry 3.9 2.4
Touchdowns 1 0

The NFC East champion Giants' three-pronged ground game has gone quiet -- and the team has lost two straight games -- as bruising tailback Brandon "Earth" Jacobs nurses a sore left knee that puts his status for Sunday's game against the NFC South-leading Panthers in question. Running backs Derrick "Wind" Ward and Ahmad "Fire" Bradshaw are adequate, but they look a lot better after Jacobs has battered defenses for awhile.

Jacobs clearly is the truck that drives New York's offense. Without him -- and suspended wide receiver Plaxico Burress -- the Giants' hopes of securing homefield advantage throughout the playoffs could be transferred to the Panthers, who enter with the same 11-3 record, courtesy of a three-game winning streak spurred by running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

Giants offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie is nursing a lower back injury, and his playing status also is unknown. The possibilities of a softened line and a backfield minus its workhorse aren't ideal scenarios when facing one of the NFL's hottest teams.

With New York's playoff berth secured and its run to last season's Super Bowl championship taking place exclusively away from the Meadowlands, homefield advantage in the playoffs might not seem like a big deal. However, losing three straight, with the NFC North-leading Vikings on deck for the season finale, could foster the wrong kind of momentum.

Quarterback audible?

While the bigger question with the Vikings (9-5) could be about the loss of standout defensive tackle Pat Williams (fractured shoulder), head coach Brad Childress also must decide who will start at quarterback against the Falcons (9-5).

Tarvaris Jackson, who was benched in favor of Gus Frerotte early in the season, is coming off a four-touchdown passing performance against the NFC West champion Cardinals and has led Minnesota to two straight victories, the first over the Lions. However, with the Bears just one game back in the division and the Vikings yet to secure a playoff berth, Jackson's lack of experience might negate his hot hand.

Tarvaris Jackson, QB
Minnesota Vikings

Last two games
Pass completions: 19
Pass attempts: 27
Yards: 268
Touchdowns: 5
Interceptions: 0

Then again, Frerotte, who led the Vikings to an 8-3 record after replacing Jackson, is still nursing a lower back injury. That isn't ideal for a mobility-challenged quarterback who already has been sacked a career-high 29 times this season and would have to face Falcons defensive end John Abraham, who has 15.5 sacks and perhaps the best closing speed of any defensive end in the NFL.

Minnesota's success will be predicated on its running game, with Adrian Peterson, but should it fall behind and have to pass, the experienced versus hot quarterback choice could make things interesting. Childress's decision this week also could become more of a headache in the regular-season finale against the Giants should the quarterback he names not work out against the Falcons and the Vikings find themselves in a must-win situation.

Bucs' defense springs a leak

Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin couldn't have picked a better time to inform the team that he's leaving to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee.

Kiffin's defense has been gashed for 474 rushing yards in its past two games, both against NFC South rivals (Falcons, Panthers). Defensive tackle Jovan Haye (knee) has missed part or all of those losses, and defensive tackle Chris Hovan also is nursing a knee injury that kept him out of the defeat at Atlanta. Big-hitting strong safety Jermaine Phillips is done for the season with a broken arm, and outside linebacker Derrick Brooks (ribs) also is banged up.

Kiffin will stick around through the end of the season, which could end in December if the Bucs don't stop LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers, who, at 6-8, are still in contention for the AFC West title. Though the Chargers' offense centers around their passing game, expect them to try to sample the Panthers' and Falcons' path to success between the tackles.

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Not having Hovan or Haye at full strength has allowed Tampa Bay's opponents to get blockers on stud middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. Without Phillips to backstop things, the Bucs are more susceptible than ever. Kiffin can't stack the box with an extra safety because Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers could light up things in a hurry.

Kiffin, a master schemer, might have to be at his best with a unit that's wounded at some vital spots.

Broncos on their last legs

The Broncos (8-6) typically have a running back go over 1,000 yards by virtue of playing in a fool-proof offensive system. This season, their leading rusher is Peyton Hillis (343 yards), who's on injured reserve, as is second-leading rusher Michael Pittman (320 yards). Denver has four running backs on IR, yet the team still averages 113.6 rushing yards per game -- 16th in the NFL -- and is one victory away from clinching the AFC West title.

Selvin Young, who has 237 yards on 54 carries, will start this week against the visiting Bills, who have only allowed Steven Jackson (Rams) and BenJarvis Green-Ellis (Patriots) to surpass 100 rushing yards in a game this season.

The Broncos' ability to survive so many hits at such a key position is admirable. It also goes to show how good Jay Cutler and wide receivers Eddie Royal and Brandon Marshall have been because they haven't seen an abundance of eight-man fronts.



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