Here are some key matchups to watch in Week 14 games:
Dallas RT Marc Colombo vs. Pittsburgh LB LaMarr Woodley
The Cowboys-Steelers rivalry might be the best non-divisional rivalry in the NFL. These teams have met 26 times in the regular season and three more times in the Super Bowl. Dallas played Pittsburgh in its first-ever regular-season game in 1960. And after going winless that season, the Cowboys won their first regular-season game in franchise history against the Steelers in 1961, scoring 10 points in the final 56 seconds to win. Pittsburgh has won two of the three Super Bowl meetings, but the games were close enough that Dallas has actually outscored Pittsburgh, 75-73, in those games.
Offensive tackles typically have a harder time on the road because of crowd noise, and Pittsburgh may be the only NFL city in which the Cowboys won't have a large contingent of fans in the stands. Plus, without question, there is not another team that Steelers fans dislike more than the Cowboys -- consequently, Heinz Field will be louder than it usually is. This is Dallas' first game in Pittsburgh since 1997.
Colombo is tall (6-foot-8) and very strong. He is very consistent in his play. His feet are okay but not great. When he came into the NFL in 2002 as a first-round pick of the Bears, Chicago tried him at left tackle, but he wasn't great there. He's been much better in Dallas on the right side. He has quickness and is technically sound. He'll get beat inside, but he's a good run blocker and will pull when needed, as he did against the Redskins a few weeks ago.
Woodley is a second-year player, an end in college who has excelled at left outside linebacker with Pittsburgh. He has big thighs and arms, and is very physical. He hustles to the ball. He can flash some inside moves, coming hard on stunts. He is a very good pass rusher and a very good pursuit player. Woodley plays in all nickel and dime situations and does a very good job in coverage.
It's supposed to be cold in Pittsburgh Sunday -- 30 degrees and possibly some snow -- and it's not a very good field. New grass was put down last week and there was a college game played on it. Pittsburgh is No. 1 overall on defense and tops against both the run and the pass, allowing an average of 238 yards per game. Dallas averages 356 yards per game on offense.
Tampa Bay MLB Barrett Ruud vs. Carolina RB DeAngelo Williams
This will be an outstanding Monday night matchup between two playoff-bound teams, with the winner having the inside track at the NFC South title. Tampa Bay won the first meeting, 27-3. Both teams have a positive turnover ratio this season, and both are extremely well-coached. Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden is more of an offensive-minded coach, while Carolina's John Fox is more of a defensive-minded coach.
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Ruud is a fourth-year player, in his second year as a full-time starter. He plays every down, makes all the defensive calls, and is a very aggressive competitor with the ability to play in space. Ruud led the Bucs with 169 tackles in 2007 and has 95 tackles through 12 games this season -- that's almost double the team's second-leading tackler, veteran LB Derrick Brooks. He also has two interceptions and three sacks. Ruud is a very underrated player. He's also part of a great family tradition when it comes to Nebraska football, dating back to 1918, when his grandfather played there. His father, Tom, was a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1975 -- after playing in 1974 under Nebraska defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Williams is a first-round pick playing in his third season for the Panthers. At 5-foot-9, 225 pounds, he is a compact running back with outstanding speed and quickness to go along with the strength needed to be a good runner. Williams has run for 955 yards playing about 75 percent of the time (sharing carries with rookie Jonathan Stewart), and he's also a good receiver. In college, at the University of Memphis, Williams had more 100-yard rushing games than any player in Div. I-A history.
Miami LB Joey Porter vs. Buffalo LT Jason Peters
This will be the first regular-season NFL game played in Canada, taking place at the Rogers Center, an indoor facility in Toronto. Earlier this year in Miami, the Dolphins defense forced four second-half turnovers to secure a 25-16 win. Going into that game, the Bills had a 5-1 record; they are 1-5 since then. Assuming the retractable roof remains closed for this game, that should be a plus for Miami, as warm-weather teams do not traditionally fare well this time of year in cold-weather, outdoors stadiums.
In his 10th NFL season, Porter is having a career year with the Dolphns -- he already has a career-high 14.5 sacks, including two in the first meeting against the Bills. Porter can rush from the outside linebacker position in Miami's 3-4 defense or he can drop into space. He is very good in coverage -- he has 12 career interceptions. Porter is very athletic with a quick first step. Note: He wears no. 55 because he was a big fan of Junior Seau growing up in California.
Peters plays left tackle and is the Bills' best offensive lineman. He was selected for last year's Pro Bowl, but an injury prevented him from playing. Peters moves his feet and slides very well. He is all about adjusting his line splits, but he can be beat with a strong inside move. This should be a very good matchup between two good players.
Another matchup to watch in this game:Dolphins WR Ted Ginn Jr., who had 175 receiving yards in the first game, vs. Bills CB Terrence McGee, who will follow him all over the field. McGee was the player torched by Ginn in the last meeting, but he was coming off a knee injury at the time and probably wasn't up to speed.
Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson vs. Detroit LB Ernie Sims
Why are we highlighting winless Detroit in our key matchups? Actually, there are a few reasons:
» After 13 weeks, Detroit is the only team we haven't featured at least once in our weekly matchups, and we believe in fairness.
» Lastly, this could be a trap game for Minnesota. They are coming off a big Sunday night win over the Bears, and they play Arizona next week.
Peterson, of course, is the main reason the Vikings are in first place in the NFC North. He leads the NFL with 1,311 yards rushing and averages 4.9 yards per carry. Since entering the NFL in 2007, he is averaging 102 rushing yards per game.
Sims is the playmaker for Detroit's defense, their fastest player on that side of the ball and a very explosive tackler along the lines of the Colts' Bob Sanders and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu. He leads the Lions with 80 tackles. Minnesota needs to know where Sims is lined up before each snap. He makes plays sideline to sideline against both the run and pass. He doesn't play the ball, but he can create turnovers with his tackling.
Another matchup to watch in this game:Vikings CB Antoine Winfield, who is having a Pro Bowl season, vs. Lions WR Calvin Johnson, who is averaging 18 yards per catch. One other note: Detroit PK Jason Hanson has converted all seven field-goal attempts from 50 yards or more this season, and he is tied for the NFL record with 40 career field goals of 50-plus yards.
Two more to keep an eye on ...
»Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson vs. Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. It's the pupil vs. the teacher. In this case, the pupil (Spagnuolo) is 3-0 vs. the teacher since leaving Philadelphia. When these teams played in New York last season, the teams combined for 402 total yards, so it's clear these defenses rise to the occasion. The Eagles really need to win this game to have any shot at a playoff berth.
» Washington at Baltimore -- the Beltway Bowl. Redskins RB Clinton Portis vs. Ravens LB Ray Lewis in the run game, and Redskins LT Chris Samuel vs. Ravcen LB Terrell Suggs in the passing game. The Redskins need a win to have a playoff shot. A Baltimore win helps their playoff chances (but they still have to play home vs. Pittsburgh and at Dallas the next two weeks).