As season winds down, playoff races heat up

Tennessee safety Chris Hope said he couldn't imagine a more ideal scenario in which to face his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The AFC North champion Steelers come to Nashville Sunday as one of the NFL's hottest teams trying to unseat the AFC South champion Titans for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The preview to the possible AFC championship matchup is just one of many games this weekend in which a matchup, injury-depleted position or trend could decide how the postseason will be shaped.

"When teams were having their lumps early in the season, we were the only team still undefeated and it looked like things would work out nice and fine for us," said Hope, who was just selected to his first Pro Bowl. "Then teams started separating themselves. We started looking at the Colts and their schedule and knew they would be coming to the playoffs red hot. The Steelers have been playing playoff football for the past month-and-a-half.

"Even the Jets, when they beat us, we said to ourselves, 'It could become a race now.'"

Gentleman, start your engines.

Big D in Dallas

On Saturday, the Cowboys host the last game to be played in Texas Stadium and Dallas will be trying to ensure that the structure isn't the only thing that implodes.

The Cowboys (9-5) and the Baltimore Ravens (9-5) are playing for their playoff lives in a game that features two of the most aggressive defenses in the league (on NFL Network, Saturday at 8 p.m. ET).

Three of Dallas' five losses have come to teams with defenses ranked in the top five (New York Giants, Washington and Pittsburgh). Baltimore, and its second-ranked defense, hopes to add itself to that group of victors by stifling running backs Marion Barber and emerging rookie Tashard Choice and forcing Tony Romo to throw into its opportunistic secondary while under duress.

The Cowboys' offensive line will be among the best the Ravens have faced. That might not mean much to an insatiably hungry defense that has allowed just 33 points in its last four games. The Ravens also made easy work out of Philadelphia and Washington, two of Dallas' NFC East opponents, who boast somewhat similar talent at quarterback (well, Philadelphia), running back and, in the Redskins' case, tight end.

Dallas has been nearly as impressive on defense, allowing just 37 points in its past three games and ranking sixth overall. Dallas has the front to give rookie Joe Flacco major problems -- especially with nose tackle Jay Ratliff flushing quarterbacks toward outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

Baltimore has the personnel to matchup with the Cowboys' offensive weapons, especially tight end Jason Witten. Flacco has been steady in the face of some tough defenses. He will be tested, though. In the two games in which quarterbacks made their first career starts against Dallas (San Francisco and Cleveland), the Cowboys generated five sacks and two victories.

Stuffing the run without their run stuffers key for Titans

The Steelers-Titans showdown could mean more to Tennessee (12-2) for three reasons: 1) It could clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs; 2) the Titans don't want to play a potential rematch of this game in Pittsburgh, likely in bad weather; and 3) they have shown some slippage, losing two of their last four, and they want to correct their problems before heading into the postseason.

A huge concern for Tennessee is that defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch are out with injuries. That doesn't mean the Titans won't be able to get pressure on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- nearly every team has.

However, Pittsburgh (11-3) could get some semblance of a running game going and if it can control the clock, it is likely to win for the seventh time this season on the road. In Tennessee's two losses, to the Jets and Texans, the Titans had the ball just more than 43 of 120 minutes.

"What Pittsburgh does well is replace their starters when guys get injured," said Hope, who played for the Steelers from 2002-2005. "They don't miss a beat. Here's our chance to answer the question: Are we ready to take that next step? I'm confident in my guys here in Nashville. It's no secret that the team that plays the best defense has the best chance to win."

Tennessee's defense allowed its first 100-yard rusher (Steve Slaton) last week in a loss to Houston. The Titans lost the two games in which they allowed a single rusher to gain more than 80 yards. That stat probably will hold true in the game against Pittsburgh, which could be played in the rain.

Cards headed north, flying south

Since winning the woeful NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals (8-6) have looked like a team on cruise control -- rolling backwards. Arizona has lost three of four games, getting drilled in the process. Its only victory was over divisional doormat St. Louis, a team it swept.

The Cards head to New England, where they will endure snow, cold weather, that whole West-to-East obstacle and a hot team that has to win to position itself to win the AFC East and a playoff berth. Oh, and Arizona may sit Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

The Patriots have won three of four and have found different means on offense to get things done. They could be able to run the ball as Arizona's run defense has slipped of late. The Patriots will be better equipped to throw in inclement weather than the Cardinals, whose players bemoaned having to play in the cold before losing at Philadelphia Thanksgiving night.

The weather could be absolutely dreadful, which could mean problems for a Cardinals team that ranks last in the league in rushing and throws a league-high 40 times a game. There were concerns weeks ago that Arizona wasn't built for the playoffs because it doesn't run the ball well, which tends to be crucial when playing in inclement weather.

This could be a telling barometer of how long the Cards' rare postseason appearance lasts.

Running for their playoff lives

The NFL's top two rushers, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Atlanta's Michael Turner -- both Pro Bowlers -- try to pound their teams into the postseason. With a victory, the Vikings (9-5) will clinch the NFC North and severely damage the playoff hopes of the Falcons (9-5). If the Falcons win, their wild-card hopes remain alive, although they need some help.

The Vikings have the NFL's top run defense, allowing 71.2 yards a game. However, nose tackle Pat Williams, arguably the top run-stuffer in the NFL, is out with a broken shoulder. Minnesota is still stout but losing one half of the Williams tandem is a blow.

Early in the season, some of the top defenses in the league were able to hold Turner in check. Not anymore, thanks to quarterback Matt Ryan's ability to make teams pay. In recent wins over Carolina and Tampa Bay, Turner combined for 269 rushing yards. Those wins came at home, though.

Four of the Falcons' five losses have come on the road. In three of those losses, opposing running backs surpassed 100 rushing yards against the 22nd-ranked run defense in the NFL. Peterson has rushed for more than 100 yards in his last three games and seems to be peaking.

The Falcons are susceptible off tackle and opposing running backs tend to get to the third level of the defense before being brought down. Safeties Lawyer Milloy and Erik Coleman are Atlanta's top tacklers. That's not ideal, especially because Peterson might be the best running back in the league at breaking and evading tackles once he gets beyond the line of scrimmage.

Battle for NFC's best

The weekend concludes with a Goliath clash in the Meadowlands between Carolina and the Giants. The winner secures home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which is huge. The Panthers (11-3) have not lost at home. The Giants, losers of two straight, fell to Philadelphia in New Jersey two weeks ago.

Carolina is surging, winning three straight on the strength of its running game and the incredible play of wide receiver Steve Smith (four straight games over 100 yards). The Giants are trying to survive. The season-ending gunshot wound to wide receiver Plaxico Burress and the lack of effectiveness and consistent availability of tailback Brandon Jacobs has leveled the Giants' offense.

Jacobs, who did not play in last weekend's loss to Dallas, is expected to return against a Panthers defense that could be without burly defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu (ankle). That could open a huge door for New York. In Carolina's three losses, opposing running backs Peterson (77 yards), Tampa Bay's Warrick Dunn (115) and Turner (117), were able to balance a passing game and wear down the Panthers late -- the exact role Jacobs plays for the Giants.

Conversely, the Giants have been tagged on the ground the last two games.

The difference-makers could be either Carolina's Smith or New York defensive end Justin Tuck.

In the Panthers' three losses, quarterback Jake Delhomme was sacked eight times and threw three interceptions (all vs. Tampa Bay). Six of those sacks came from players surging off the edge, which means Tuck or fellow end Mathias Kiwanuka could be huge factors.

The Giants have only allowed Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Cleveland's Braylon Edwards to get off, so it would seem that Smith could be held in check. However, in the past four games, Smith has 30 catches for 555 yards and two touchdowns against three teams still in the playoff hunt (Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Denver), and Green Bay, which had two defensive backs (Charles Woodson, Nick Collins) named to the Pro Bowl.

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