Everything you need to know as kickoff approaches...
Key game-time decisions
All players questionable unless noted
NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday that the star wide receiver is expected to play, per a source informed of the injury. Fitzgerald practiced Friday after being limited in Thursday's session. Palmer has played the last two weeks with the same concerns. It would be a shock if he didn't start.
Solder and Thompkins have been ruled out, but Dobson has been cleared to play, per the Boston Herald.
Flacco expects to play with a knee brace. Rice was limited Thursday and Friday.
Megatron returned to practice Friday. He's missed practice just about every week. Levy did not practice at all this week.
Peterson said he's "ready to roll," and Rapoport reported Sunday that A.P. will play. Gerhart should be good to go. Asiata was limited in practices Friday. Even if healthy, it's likely he wouldn't play given Peterson and Gerhart's relative health.
Rapoport reported Sunday that Jones-Drew will work out before the game and that the team is optimistic that the star running back will play, per a team source.
Briggs has been medically cleared after being out with a shoulder injury. His availability Sunday night will depend on how he feels prior to kickoff.
Haden returned to practice Friday on a limited basis.
The Cowboys' No. 2 receiver was limited in practice Friday.
Houston returned to practice this week on a limited basis, and it sounds like he's ready to return to the field. Albert similarly was limited all week.
The rookie receiver didn't practice all week after missing last week's game. Not a good sign.
Thomas was limited in practice Friday after missing the previous two sessions.
Once again, Royal is back on the DNP-all-week train.
Three Matchups To Watch
The Saints road woes are evident. Brees has thrown less than half as many touchdown passes on the road (11) than he has at home (23) this season. He also has thrown more than twice as many road interceptions (7) than he has at home (3).
While Newton is on pace for just 3,485 yards this season (a career low), his completion percentage (62.3) and passer rating (89.6) would be career highs. He has been a much better manager of the game during the Panthers' playoff run.
McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, is well positioned for a huge game against the Bears. The Eagles average 152.9 rushing yards per game (NFL's No. 1 rushing offense), while the Bears give up 152.4 yards per game on the ground (NFL's No. 32 rushing defense).
I've been called out for my bimonthly praise of Matt Forte. However, it's warranted. When Forte isn't mentioned as a top-three NFL running back, it's a traveshamockery. Thanks to Marc Trestman, he is on pace to set or tie career highs in rush yards (1,371 yards), receptions (75) and receiving yards (597).
Sherman's play has thrust him into the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. He will get plenty of opportunities to improve that résumé against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals' offense, which likes to air out the ball.
Peterson will need to carry the load for a secondary that lost a boatload when Tyrann Mathieu went down for the season. P.P. hasn't thrown up the out-of-this-world numbers this season, but he will be needed to perform against Russell Wilson to keep the Cardinals' playoff hopes alive.
It's shaping up to be a wet Sunday of football. Not the snow we saw a couple weeks ago, but rain could be a factor in many important matchups.
Did you know?
» The combination of Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer and punter Spencer Lanning (who threw a TD pass in his only attempt) has the Browns currently ranked ninth in the NFL in passing offense (261.3 passing yards per game). The last time the Browns' passing offense ranked in the top 10 for a season was 1991, when they were also ranked ninth (206.5 passing yards per game). Bernie Kosar threw all but nine of the Browns' 503 pass attempts that season.
» The Bengals have scored 40-plus points in three straight home games for the first time in franchise history. In the last 25 years, only the Rams, (led by Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk) in four straight games to open the 2000 season, have a longer streak of 40-plus-point games at home.
Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 51 times, the most in the NFL (eight more than the next man on the list, Geno Smith). The Bills lead the NFL with 49 sacks. Tannehill has played well as the Dolphins make a playoff push, but he might be under siege Sunday.
EJ Manuel is the future of the Bills, but Thad Lewis actually gives Buffalo a better chance to win this week. Lewis has looked comfortable in Doug Marrone's offense and performed well when healthy and given a chance. He'll face one of the best cornerback duos in Brent Grimes and Nolan Carroll, but he's already beaten Miami once this season.
Rob Ryan's defense hasn't recorded an interception in four straight games and has only one interception in its last seven. The Saints have gone three straight games without a takeaway. The Saints need to force Newton into a turnover or two if their offense continues its road struggles.
Matt Cassel's play has opened up the Vikings' offense and made Christian Ponder a virtual afterthought. Assuming they get their balanced attack back with Adrian Peterson, the Vikings might knock off back-to-back playoff contenders. That wouldn't be a bad thing for Leslie Frazier to put on that resume he'll almost certainly need in two weeks.
The Bengals have been an enigma this season, but they have performed well at home as of late. Andy Dalton should be able to pick apart a limp Vikings secondary. Cincinnati knows it needs this win to stave off the charging Ravens for the AFC North title.
The surreal season for the Texans continues. Houston has allowed only one 300-yard passer this season (Tom Brady, 371 passing yards, Week 13). This week, they face Peyton Manning, who has thrown for 300-plus pass yards in 11 of 14 games this season.
The Texans' defense allows a TD on 69.8 percent of opponents' trips into the red zone (worst in the NFL). They face a Broncos team that's best in the NFL at converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns -- 78.3 percent.
Many Titans players and coaches are playing for their jobs. Chris Johnson could lead the offseason exodus from Tennessee. The running back is coming off of two consecutive games with under 50 yards rushing.
The Jags, on the other hand, are a young team still forming an identity with coach Gus Bradley. An example of the young potential is running back Jordan Todman. The second-year back put up 109 yards rushing to go with 44 yards receiving last week as the starter. With two good games to end the season, he could convince management it doesn't need to pay Maurice Jones-Drew.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Worst-to-Playoffs Bowl. Only eight teams since 1967 have gone from No. 1 overall selection to making the playoffs the following season. We have two of them on the field Sunday.
There are multiple similarities between these two teams: They don't turn over the ball (tied for fewest giveaways in the NFL this season with 14) and are among the best in fourth-quarter scoring defense. Whichever team can create a turnover, especially late in the game, will have the advantage.
Andrew Luck is the star quarterback in this game (as he is in most matchups), but Alex Smith's play has improved in the second half of the season. Since Week 8, Smith has 16 TDs to just 2 INTs. He has multiple touchdown passes in five straight games, which is both a career-long number and the longest active streak in NFL.
Josh Gordon leads the league in receiving yards (1,467), receiving yards per game (122.3) and yards per reception (19.8). He could become the first player since Torry Holt in 2000 to finish the season first in receiving yards and yards per reception. And he missed two games, people!
It's not a figment of your imagination. Antonio Cromartie is allowing the most yards per reception in the NFL this season at 23.1. If the Jets don't make Jason Campbell check down the ball -- which he gladly will if the Jets invite it -- Gordon could accost the Jets' defense repeatedly on deep plays.
Lavonte David leads the Buccaneers with 125 tackles (fourth in NFL) and is the only player in the NFL with 115-plus tackles, 5-plus sacks and at least one interception. You can book multiple collisions with Rams running back Zac Stacy.
Mike Glennon needs to finish strong to potentially save Greg Schiano's job (reiteration: potentially). He'll have to show improved pocket presence Sunday facing Robert Quinn and a speedy Rams pass rush.
The footnote to every Dallas Cowboys fan's lamentation: The Cowboys' offense has the second-fewest rush attempts per game this season, with 21.1. DeMarco Murray has the second-highest yards per rush among all running backs in the NFL this season, at 5.5 yards per rush. However, he ranks 17th in rushes per game, with 14.8.
Kirk Cousins played well last week, hitting on some pretty deep passes. He'll face another weak defense. Who else loves playing the Cowboys' D? Alfred Morris. The running back has 73 rushes, 394 yards and 5 TDs (131.3 yards per game) in three career games versus Dallas.
Since it's Bash Matthew Stafford Week in the NFL, let's pile on, shall we? At 29.5, Stafford has the worst fourth-quarter passer rating in the NFL over the last five weeks (the Lions are 1-4 in those games). His fourth-quarter completion percentage (31.9) and interception total (4) are also worst in the NFL.
While Stafford has struggled in the short term with 10 interceptions in the past five games, Eli Manning has made a season-long art of throwing the ball to the opposing team. Manning has five games this season with three-plus interceptions. No other player has more than two games this season with 3-plus INTs. The Giants are 0-5 in those games. If the trends hold for both of these quarterbacks, we could see 10,000 interceptions Sunday at Ford Field.
Strengths will collide Sunday in Seattle. The Seahawks run the ball on 52.7 percent of their plays (second-highest percentage in NFL). Arizona has the NFL's best rush defense season (83.2 yards per game allowed). The Seahawks rush offense is second in the NFL, at 141.0 yards per game.
Carson Palmer, along with Philip Rivers, should be regarded as one of the most improved players this season. Still, he has a propensity to turn over the ball (17 INTs). He needs to protect the ball against the Legion of Boom to keep the Cardinals' dwindling playoff hopes alive.
Tom Brady was frustrated when the Patriots couldn't punch the ball into the end zone last week. If stats hold true, he might not be much happier this week. Without Rob Gronkowski on the field, the Patriots are 31st in the NFL in red-zone touchdown efficiency this season. The Ravens are fourth-best in the NFL in red-zone defense this season (42.9 percent).
Joe Flacco will wear a brace on his injured knee this week. He's not a mobile quarterback, so it shouldn't hinder him too much. However, he was hesitant to step into his throws after the injury Monday. It will be interesting to see if he lets the injury bother him. The Patriots pass rush is ghost-like, so, if Flacco's offensive line gives him protection early, he might not miss a beat.
Matt Flynn will try to work his magic again this week. The Steelers' defense isn't what it was three years ago (or even last year), but it still represents the best defense Flynn will have faced since getting run over on Thanksgiving. The Packers will again try to ride Eddie Lacy.
Quietly, Ben Roethlisberger has had one of his best seasons. He's poised to crack the 4,000-yard passing mark for just the third time in his career. He has been mainly responsible for the fact that the Steelers even have six wins. This week, Big Ben gets a Packers defense that has been abused at times this season.
We can't say enough about Ryan Mathews' play in 2013. It has almost gone under the radar because Philip Rivers is undergoing a renaissance and Keenan Allen has been a wonder. But Mathews has been the rock in the offense for much of the season and deserves attention.
All the early-season hope for the Raiders has been swallowed up in the Black Hole. They beat the Chargers at home in the nascent stages of the season with Terrelle Pryor. We will see what Matt McGloin can bring against a Chargers defense with many holes.
This should be a great offensive showcase between two rookie NFL coaches with brilliant offensive minds. Just don't expect the defenses to get in the way.