Matchups to Watch  


Rice-Morrison matchup could be critical as Ravens seek playoff spot


Here's a look at all the key matchups to watch in Week 17:

1 p.m. ET, CBSIndianapolis at Buffalo
Indianapolis LB Clint Session vs. Buffalo RB Fred Jackson
The Bills lead this series, 34-30, but the Colts have won the last six. Indianapolis saw its streak of 23 consecutive wins end last week, along with its chance to go undefeated. The question is: Will the Colts play any marquee players this week?

Session, a third-year player, is the team's leading tackler. He has size limitations, but plays hard on every down. He has playmaking ability and plays with a passion.

Jackson played in NFL Europe and the Arena League before entering the NFL in 2006, and is the Bills' leading rusher this season. He has the quickness needed for the position, and is a good receiver and pass protector. Jackson, who played at Div. III Coe College, grew up in a house where the new Cowboy Stadium now stands -- in fact, the house was torn down to make room.

1 p.m. ET, FOXNew Orleans at Carolina
New Orleans LB Jonathan Vilma vs. Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart
Carolina leads the series, 16-13. New Orleans won the Week 9 meeting, 30-20, with Drew Brees passing for 330 yards. Carolina is a big running team, and coming off wins over Minnesota and the Giants. New Orleans has lost two straight after a 13-0 start. Last week's loss to Tampa Bay was the first time in history that a team with 13 wins lost to a team with two or fewer wins.

Vilma is the team's leading tackler and defensive leader. He saved the Saints with a fourth down stop and an interception vs. Atlanta, or they would be losers of three in a row. The Saints are not the takeaway machine they were earlier in the season, but Vilma competes 100 percent on every play. He's a good tackler, and plays all over the field. He needs to come up big here to stop the Panthers' running attack.

Stewart is a second-year player coming off a team-record game with 206 yards rushing against the Giants. He is a very strong runner, who has excellent size (235 pounds) and ran under 4.5 at his pro day. He's a good receiver and pass protector. He is a short-step runner.

Jacksonville LB Justin Durant vs. Cleveland RB Jerome Harrison
Jacksonville leads the series 8-3, and is 5-0 at Cleveland. Two weeks ago, the Jaguars controlled their own destiny for a wild-card spot, but two straight losses mean they need a win and a lot of help to make the playoffs.

Durant is a third-year player and Jacksonville's leading tackler, despite missing two games this season. He has very good speed for his position, and is able to make plays in space. He's a good tackler, and an outstanding competitor, who makes a lot of hustle plays.

Harrison is a fourth-year player, who was seldom used in his first three years, but has run for 434 yards in the past two games -- including a club-record 286 vs. Kansas City. Harrison has a very strong upper body to go with oustanding quickness. He's not real fast but has good hands.

1 p.m. ET, CBSNew England at Houston
New England QB Tom Brady vs. Houston QB Matt Schaub
The Patriots lead this short series 2-0. While New England has clinched the AFC East title, Houston at 8-7 has a slight chance to make the playoffs with a win and some help. It will be interesting to see what Bill Belichick does to minimize the effect of Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson. New England as a team is not playing as well on the road as it has in previous years.

Brady is coming off a stellar game against Jacksonville in which he completed 23 of 26 passes for four touchdowns. In two previous games vs. Houston, he has four TD passes and two interceptions. He is one of the best at throwing deep passes, and does a great job of reacting to backside pressure. He has outstanding accuracy.

Schaub is coming off a very good game on the road at Miami. He has passed for 4,467 yards and 27 TDs this season, with a 99.1 passer rating. Starting for Atlanta in 2005 against New England, he passed for three TDs with a 112 rating. Schaub is very smart, and makes excellent decisions. He has outstanding poise, makes all the throws and is always looking down field.

1 p.m. ET, CBSPittsburgh at Miami
Pittsburgh LB James Harrison vs. Miami OT Jake Long
Pittsburgh has won 10 of 19 games in this series, but the Dolphins have scored more points. These are two teams with a slim chance of making the playoffs. Both have gone from heavy running to passing teams this season.

Harrison has not played as well in 2009 as he did in 2008 when he was the top defensive player in the NFL, but he has still been very effective. He's second on the team with 10 sacks -- but has none in the last month. A leverage player, who plays well in space, Harrison knows how to hit the gaps. He never stops running, and loves to chase plays down the line of scrimmage.

Long was the first player selected in the 2008 draft and has played well. He is a huge player with outstanding strength and very long arms. He has very good hand placement, and good mobility for his size. The Dolphins run some unbalanced lines and he will move to the right side on occasion.

1 p.m. ET, FOXN.Y. Giants at Minnesota
N.Y. Giants QB Eli Manning vs. Minnesota QB Brett Favre
Minnesota has won 12 of 20 regular-season games in this series. While the Giants were eliminated from playoff contention last week, the NFC North-champion Vikings lost in overtime to Chicago -- thus dropping to the No. 3 seed. They need a win here and an Eagles loss to get the No. 2 spot (and a playoff bye) back. I believe the Giants, after last week's embarrassing fiasco, will come to Minnesota ready to play hard.

Manning's sixth season has been his best statistically. He has 27 TD passes, a 94.2 passer rating and is on pace for 4,000 yards. He has seven TDs in his last three games. I have watched him come to understand defenses a lot better. He has ideal size for the position, is able to avoid the rush with good athletic moves and is accurate. He lacks the benefit of a good running game the Giants have had in previous years. Left tackle David Diehl needs to stop pass-rusher Jared Allen.

Favre has cooled off some but is still playing at a high level, as seen Monday night when he rallied his team back from 16 down in Chicago. He still has great arm strength. He knows what to do against great defenses and he does it. At age 40, he is on pace for career highs in completion percentage, passer rating, yards per attempt and fewest interceptions.

San Francisco RB Frank Gore vs. St. Louis LB James Laurinaitis
The Rams lead this series, 60-57-1. But the Rams have just one win this season, and are now playing with a rookie quarterback from Div. III (Keith Null) after injuries to two veterans. St. Louis has scored just 169 points all season.

Gore is the 49ers' leading rusher, averaging 5 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns, including an 80-yard TD run. He has also become the first back in franchise history with 1,000 yards rushing in four straight seasons. The speedy Gore has had many injuries, including this season, where he's missed three games.

Laurinaitis is still playing defense as if his team were undefeated and fighting for the Super Bowl. He never gives up, makes tackles all over the field and is a great competitor who can play in space. He has 41 more tackles than the Rams' second-leading tackler.

1 p.m. ET, FOXAtlanta at Tampa Bay
Atlanta QB Matt Ryan vs. Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman
Tampa Bay leads the series 18-14. Atlanta is 8-7 -- and a win here would give the Falcons back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. Both teams feature good young players.

Ryan is in his second year. He missed two full games and most of a third with a toe injury. He has passed for 20 touchdowns, already better than last year. He can make all of the throws needed to be a successful NFL quarterback. He's very smart with a great understanding of the game. He's somewhat of a mini-Peyton Manning with his dedication and intelligence. But he plays better at home than on the road.

Freeman was a first-round pick this year and is the franchise's future. He has started eight games as a rookie and won his last two starts on the road. Freeman has above-average arm strength and the necessary athletic ability needed to make plays at quarterback. He needs even more playing time, because he left college early and didn't have a lot of experience. But if you are a Bucs fan, you have a lot to be excited about for the future with this player.

1 p.m. ET, FOXChicago at Detroit
Chicago TE Greg Olsen vs. Detroit LB DeAndre Levy
The Bears lead this series, 90-64-5. The last five years have been sweeps -- three for Chicago, two for Detroit. Coaches will spend lots of time watching tape from this game to see who continues to play hard with nothing at stake. Certainly the Bears showed they are still playing hard when they upset Minnesota on Monday night.

Olsen has become the type of tight end that lines up at different positions to create matchup problems. He is outstanding at running fade routes and has very good athletic skills.

Levy is a rookie who has started nine games. He led the Lions in tackles last week against San Francisco. Levy has good athletic ability and speed for the position, with exceptional recognition. He can play in space, and is a good effort player. He should be a solid linebacker for years to come.

4:15 p.m. ET, FOXPhiladelphia at Dallas
Philadelphia QB Donovan McNabb vs. Dallas QB Tony Romo
Dallas leads this fierce NFC East rivalry, 54-43. But since 2000, with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, the Eagles have won 13 of 19, including the 44-6 rout last year that knocked Dallas out of a wild-card spot. These two quarterbacks might be the most critiqued and criticized of any in the NFL. This season, they are very close statistically. With the winner of this game taking the NFC East and the loser relegated to wild-card status, there's a chance these teams can meet again next week in the first round of the playoffs.

This is McNabb's 11th season and he is playing this year without a top running game and with young receivers. But he's played great, and he showed people last week vs. Denver that he can still make plays with his feet when he scrambled for 27 yards in the fourth quarter on a third-and-25 play to change the field-position battle late.

Despite being an undrafted free agent, Romo -- who grew up less than 100 miles from McNabb's hometown of Chicago -- has so much expected of him in Dallas. Like McNabb, Romo was a very good high school basketball player. This will be Romo's 55th NFL start. He is very athletic with good arm strength and accuracy. He has thrown just one interception in his last five games. On the season, he has passed for 4,172 yards, with 24 TD passes, eight interceptions, and a 97 passer rating.

4:15 p.m. ET, CBSBaltimore at Oakland
Baltimore RB Ray Rice vs. Oakland LB Kirk Morrison
The Ravens lead this series, 4-1. If they win, it will be a short cross-country trip home knowing that they are in the playoffs. If they lose, the trip home from the Bay Area will seem like days.

Rice is a second-year player, who is leading the team in rushing yards and receptions. He has become a major matchup problem. Rice is small in stature but very strong, and he does not go down easily. He has very good quickness, and is an outstanding athlete who will pass protect, and can break off a long play at any time.

Morrison is a fifth-year player, who missed the first game of his rookie season and has started every game since then. He leads the Raiders in tackles -- as he has done for the past three years. He's a very competitive player with the ability to make plays in space. If the Raiders are to pull an upset here, Morrison will have to be a big part of it.

4:05 p.m. ET, FOXTennessee at Seattle
Tennessee RB Chris Johnson vs. Seattle LB David Hawthorne
Seattle leads this series, 9-4, and has lost only one of those at home. Both teams are out of the playoffs. Seattle has allowed an average of 25 points per game.

Johnson, in his second year, has 1,872 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He also leads the team with 47 receptions. Johnson has world-class track speed and the patience to find the running lanes. I would think the Titans will do everything possible to get him over 2,000 yards and possibly get him the NFL rushing record.

Hawthorne is a second-year player starting after injuries sidelined Lofa Tatupu. He has started 10 games and is the Seahawks' leading tackler. He also has four sacks and three interceptions. He is an undersized player with a large heart. He moves well, is an excellent tackler and a very tough competitor. He will do everything possible to prevent Johnson from breaking the rushing record.

4:15 p.m. ET, CBSKansas City at Denver
Kansas City RB Jamaal Charles vs. Denver LB D.J. Williams
This is the 100th meeting, including one playoff game, between these two original AFL rivals, and Denver has won 54 of the previous 99. The Broncos started this season 6-0, were thought to be a cinch to make the playoffs, and now find themselves needing some help to get in.

Charles is the Chiefs' leading rusher with 861 yards and a 5.2-yard per carry average. He has very good vision as a runner and despite his size will run inside. He is very fast with good cutback ability. If he manages to rush for 139 yards to reach 1,000, he would be the third University of Texas back to do so this season, joining Cedric Benson and Ricky Williams.

Williams is Denver's leading tackler. He lined up at both inside and outside linebacker in the past, and he is playing well this season in the new 3-4 scheme that was brought in this year by defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. He has good speed and athletic ability.

4:15 p.m. ET, FOXWashington at San Diego
Washington LB London Fletcher vs. San Diego head coach Norv Turner
The Redskins lead the series 6-2, with the Chargers winning the last two. San Diego has clinched a No. 2 seed in the AFC, which means they have a bye and at least one home playoff game. The Chargers tied a record with 18 consecutive wins in a calendar month. Of course, that's the month of December, and this game will be played in January.

Fletcher is an undrafted free agent, who has played and started every game for 12 years. In fact, he has missed only one play in those 12 years. According to Stats Inc., he is the leading tackler in this decade. He plays hard every play.

As for the Chargers playing hard, that is up to Turner, since there is nothing to play for here. After a 2-3 start, fans wanted Turner fired. But he is a great manager of people and an ever better play-caller.

4:15 p.m. ET, FOXGreen Bay at Arizona
Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers vs. Arizona QB Kurt Warner
The Packers have a 42-22-4 edge in a series that dates back to 1921. Between 1937-46, the Packers won 15 consecutive games in the series -- one of which, for some unknown reason, was played in Buffalo before a crowd of 10,600. This is another one of those Week 17 matchups that could also lead to a rematch in the first week of the playoffs. Both of these teams have drafted well and have several promising young players.

Rodgers is in his fifth year in the NFL, but just his second as a starter -- and he's having a career year, with 4,199 yards passing, 29 TDs and a 102 passer rating. However, he has been sacked 50 times. He has outstanding arm strength, good accuracy, very good understanding of the game and good leadership qualities. He is the first NFL player to throw for 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons as a starter. Thus, he is joining his former teammate, Brett Favre, in the Pro Bowl.

Warner, the former Rams great, threw his 100th TD pass for the Cardinals last week -- joining Fran Tarkenton as the only players in NFL history to throw 100 TD passes for two different teams. He is still playing at a high level, with lots of zip on his ball and great timing on his deep passes. He has 26 TD passes this season, and needs 278 yards to reach 4,000.

Cincinnati RB Cedric Benson vs. N.Y. Jets LB David Harris
The Jets lead this series, 13-7, and have won six of the last seven games against the Bengals. The last Bengals win in New York took place in 1981. Cincinnati is already in the playoffs, and the Jets will be too if they can win here. These teams could easily end up playing again in the first round of the playoffs.

Benson, after being cut by the Bears and unable to find a new team for weeks, was signed by Cincinnati last year out of necessity. Now, he is the team's leading rusher. He is running hard and doing a much better job as a pass protector and a receiver than he had in his previous four NFL seasons.

Harris is a third-year player who is performing at a Pro Bowl level. He has 36 more tackles than the second-leading tackler on the Jets' top-rated defense. He also has 5.5 sacks and is very active and aggressive. He has very good instincts and is an outstanding tackler, taking good angles.



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