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Big NFC matchup in the Dome highlights Week 12 storylines

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Three games on Thursday set the stage for the conference races to get into the playoffs. The Patriots and Saints won, which leaves little wiggle room for the teams fighting to get into the wild-card race. Things are starting to get magnified, and one untimely turnover can do major damage to playoff hopes.

In other words, the pressure is starting to build. Here are my 10 storylines for the Week 12 games:

1. Big test at Ryan's house

It's well documented that Matt Ryan is awesome at home. In fact, his 18-1 record makes him look almost invincible. Ryan completes 64.3 percent of his passes and has connected on 28 touchdown passes inside the Georgia Dome while being sacked just 19 times (once a home game). What a challenge for the Packers and Clay Matthews.

On the other side of the ball, Aaron Rogers is red hot with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two games. I sat down with Rodgers and Ryan this summer, and both said they like five-receiver sets and five-man blocking schemes. Both rising stars would rather control the blitz than block it.

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2. Validation Sunday

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can go from a nice story to a real playoff contender if they can win on the road against the Baltimore Ravens, who are undefeated and average 30 points at home. Tampa struggles with run defense, which means a big day could be in store for Ray Rice.

What intrigues me most of all in this game is when Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman breaks contain and looks to throw deep. He will be facing the best safety in the game, Ed Reed, who has four interceptions in limited play. You know Reed has done his homework on Freeman and his ability to win games late with his improvisation.

3. So you think you have the defense for Vick?

The Bears welcome the Eagles to the Windy City, and Chicago actually believes its Tampa 2 defense has the speed and pass rush to contain quarterback Michael Vick and the rest of the speedy Eagles. In the past few weeks, Vick has demonstrated tremendous growth as a pocket passer. His offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg, told me that Vick didn't miss a read in his big Week 10 win over Washington and that he took what the defense gave him in last week's win over the Giants. This will be a terrific chess match, and the Bears, like every other team, have no way to really prepare for an offense with so much speed.

4. Somebody be a road warrior

Four teams, with a combined road record of 0-17, will see what they can do away from home. The Rams and 49ers still believe they can win their division, but neither has solved the issue of away games. The Vikings fired their head coach this week, and now we find out if Leslie Frazier can break Minnesota into the win column for the first time in 10 road games at Washington. For the Panthers, who travel to Cleveland, they're just trying to not wind up with the first pick in the NFL draft.

5. Doesn't get any better

Vince Young is done for the year, and some would believe for good in Tennessee. Rule one in the football personnel business is to replace talent with talent. Young is 30-18 as a starter, and there's no one on the roster to deliver similar results.

The Titans are still very much in the playoff hunt, but having Rusty Smith under center for a division game in Houston is bad timing. Tennessee is on a three-game losing streak and has a 2-5 conference record, and a volatile Randy Moss is waiting for someone to throw him a pass.

6. Garrett effect in Minnesota?

The Cowboys fired Wade Phillips and promptly won two games and battled the Saints to the wire on Thanksgiving. The Vikings' ownership hopes Frazier can do the same thing for Minnesota.

Frazier immediately announced that Brett Favre would remain the quarterback because he "gives them the best chance to win." Keep a close eye on a Vikings team that appeared to give up last week. The veteran players know the best thing for their future is to keep Frazier as the coach. If they let him down and ownership goes outside the organization, there will be lots of pink slips to go around the locker room next year. I expect a Garrett effect.

7. Different Manning, same story?

Eli Manning has the same challenge his brother Peyton has faced all season long: He has to go out and win games with backup receivers. Steve Smith, his go-to guy in the slot, is still injured, and Hakeem Nicks, his best playmaker, also is sidelined. Peyton has done a brilliant job of training young replacements, and now its Eli's turn, or the Giants will fade from the playoff picture.

For your information, 116 of Eli's 231 completions to date have gone to players now on the sideline.

8. No wonder they're losing

Eight teams play this weekend with either questions or injury issues at the quarterback position. We could see a number of quarterbacks benched during games, as well as injured quarterbacks unable to finish games. Tennessee, Carolina, Oakland, San Francisco, Arizona, Cleveland, Miami, and even Minnesota could be in QB trouble. Is it any wonder these eight teams have only 28 wins among them?

Pro Bowl voting

The Pro Bowl ballots are open, so vote for your favorite players to earn a spot in the Jan. 30, 2011, event in Honolulu's Aloha Stadium.

9. Division games have meaning

It's kind of a quiet weekend when it comes to division games, but losers usually are in bad shape late in the season. That is certainly the case for the loser of the San Francisco-Arizona game, as well as the Tennessee-Houston tilt. The NFC West might be won with an 8-8 record, which should keep the Niners-Cardinals winner alive. If Houston wins and the Colts lose to the Chargers, the Texans still have a pulse with an early-season win over the Colts and a season finale with Jacksonville.

10. You want pass happy? You'll get it

Between Phillip Rivers and Peyton Manning, there could easily be 90 passes in the Chargers-Colts game. With a little luck, we could tip the scales at 100.

The Chargers are 3-1 against the Colts with Rivers at the helm. Manning has been sacked five times and has thrown five interceptions in the last three weeks, but he has little choice but to keep throwing. He already calls 45 pass plays a game, but now he faces the team with the most sacks (32).

Vincent Jackson finally is back on the field -- and just in the nick of time, with all the injuries to the Chargers' receivers. The Colts have dealt with receiver injuries all year.

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