With one week remaining in what has been a thoroughly entertaining NFL regular season, several intriguing storylines could determine which teams will be playing in January.
- Can the Packers win the NFC North with the return of one of the best in the business?
- Does Dallas stand a chance with Kyle Orton under center?
- Which running back is a few plays away from a career landmark?
That and much more in this week's edition of "What to Watch For."
There couldn’t be a better time for one of the best players in the league to return to action than Sunday against the very team that knocked him out of the lineup.
After much anticipation and a few weeks of disappointment, former league MVP Aaron Rodgers is finally back after recovering from a broken collarbone seven weeks earlier against the Chicago Bears.
On Sunday, the Packers and Bears will go head-to-head in their most important game of the season. The setting for this pending bloodfest is predicted to be below freezing by kickoff at Soldier Field. There’s no telling how the conditions might affect Rodgers’ healing collarbone.
Another concern in this season-defining contest will be the possible rust Rodgers may have to shake off. This game is a win-or-go-home scenario for both teams, which leaves little room for A-Rod to find his way back into real-time action. After all, we saw how rust played a factor in Jay Cutler's return a few weeks earlier.
This puts even greater emphasis on the need for a reliable running option. Rookie sensation Eddie Lacy is fully capable of providing that ground attack when healthy. The last time these two teams met, Lacy had a career-high 150 yards rushing. Green Bay may be thinking too optimistically if it's expecting a repeat performance from him, though.
Lacy is currently battling a sprained ankle he suffered in the Pittsburgh game but is cleared and ready to play. However, his condition may limit his role as a featured back in this game, which could force the Packers to an air-raid strategy.
Should that happen, watch out for the health and effectiveness of No. 12. Head coach Mike McCarthy seems to have no restraints about cutting his star QB loose on Sunday, according to the Journal Sentinel's Tyler Dunne.
In any case, we can all agree that Rodgers gives the Packers a decided advantage over Matt Flynn under center.
Jason Garrett may need to pray for his job come Sunday.
In the biggest game of the Cowboys' season, Tony Romo will be a spectator.
For those out there who have hated watching Romo in clutch moments, consider this game your wish come true. Experienced veteran Kyle Orton will be under center to determine Dallas’ playoff hopes in a win-or-go-home scenario against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Yes, this is the same Kyle Orton who was benched in favor of Tim Tebow back in Denver.
However, Orton may not be the deciding factor. The defense in Big D is atrocious—ranked dead last in total yards—and will be going up against one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL.
Orton shouldn’t be discounted just yet, though. This is a quarterback who’s demonstrated the ability to put up some big numbers in Denver under Josh McDaniels. In 13 games during the 2010 season, Orton threw for 3,653 yards, 20 touchdowns and only nine interceptions with a receiving corps few had much respect for.
Now Orton is armed with weapons he’s only dreamed about.
It would be fun to watch the 31-year-old show up in a big way. But even if he does, it will be a tough task to outscore Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy and the high-powered Eagles.
At 30 years of age, Frank Gore is on the verge of a historic career milestone. It's one which can only be attained through consistency, durability and prolonged effectiveness.
Gore is in his ninth season with the San Francisco 49ers after being drafted in the third round and is now 47 yards shy of the highly coveted 10,000-yard rushing plateau.
Back in 2005, I happened to be in the same draft class as this underappreciated running back, and I remember bumping into him at the rookie symposium down in Palm Beach, Fla.
My first thought was that this guy was surprisingly short (5'9", 217 lbs, in fact) and didn’t seem to possess the physical stature of a running back who can withstand nearly a decade of wear and tear.
His unimpressive 4.58-second 40-yard dash time didn’t send scouts clamoring over him. In fact, Gore entered the league with the stigma of being injury-prone after multiple knee surgeries during his time at “The U.”
Surprisingly, Gore shook the injury bug that plagued his collegiate days and managed to string together a highly productive NFL career, surpassing the 1,000-yard rushing mark seven times while averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
The team Gore will be looking to hit the mark against is Arizona, which happens to own the best rush defense in the NFL. The Cardinals' 84.5 yards-per-game allowed is tops in the league, and their 3.7 yards per carry is ranked second overall.
The Cardinals need to win and have the Buccaneers beat the Saints in New Orleans to make the playoffs, so Gore will have to earn every one of those 47 yards on Sunday.
For the Cardinals, winning is essential if they hope to sneak into the postseason. The 49ers have already clinched an extra game beyond the regular season but need a win to keep their division title hopes alive.
This should be one of those games where players from both sidelines will be looking at developing scores from around the league.
For the game itself, Michael Crabtree has returned for the 49ers in a big way. He’s currently averaging 64 receiving yards per game in four contests, and he's coming off a five-catch, 102-yard outing versus the Falcons on Monday Night Football.
To put that in perspective, his game marked only the second time all season that a 49ers wideout eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark. Anquan Boldin was the other to do that back in the opening week.
However, cornerback Patrick Peterson just so happens to be the most physically gifted cornerback since Deion Sanders. Yes, that’s right. In fact, just in terms of physical attributes, Peterson is much bigger and stronger than Deion ever was. Deion is just a few steps faster and was unparalleled in terms of pure blanket-cover abilities.
This is the man who will likely be assigned to Crabtree most of the game.
The 49ers receiver is not quite 100 percent yet and has appeared noticeably slower in his return. Peterson is one of the fastest men in football, so he should have no difficulty keeping pace. But Crabtree’s value is not so much in his speed but rather in his route-running prowess. He has a rare knack for shaking loose the defender before the throw.
The last time Crabtree faced the Cardinals, he torched them for a career-high 172 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Who wins this matchup will be key.
The Baltimore Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champs and trying to find their way back into the race again.
The question is, do they deserve to be?
To put it lightly, their offense has barely had a pulse. Even during their four-game winning streak, before losing to the Patriots last week, it's been the defense that has carried the team.
Joe Flacco is having his worst season by far, while Ray Rice is only averaging 3.1 yards per carry. Injuries to the offensive line have been a detriment all year, and many have pointed there for the blame.
The truth is there’s plenty of blame to go around. Baltimore’s offense is ranked 29th in the league in yards and 26th in points scored.
It’s not a good thing when your place-kicker is named the MVP by team reporters, according to NFL.com's Dan Hanzus.
Sunday’s matchup against the Bengals serves as a do-or-die affair for the Ravens. In addition to winning, they need help. Though five scenarios exist, if the Chargers or Dolphins lose or tie versus the Chiefs or Jets, respectively, that would be enough.
History has shown that Joe Flacco seems to elevate his game during playoff time, but in order for him to make this offense relevant in the playoffs, it would require a transformation that may be too far out of reach.
In addition to everything already at stake, offensive tackle Michael Oher could be playing his final game as a Raven on Sunday. He is in the final year of his contract and has played shaky for the last two seasons.
It’s been one heck of a season for Philip Rivers so far, and now it comes down to Week 17 to determine whether or not the Chargers can keep the magic alive. They need to win and have the Ravens and Dolphins lose.
Rivers deserves an enormous amount of credit for what he’s been able to accomplish. He ranks near the top of every major passing category and has been incredible at improving his greatest flaw over the last two seasons. In the final two years of the Norv Turner era, Rivers threw 35 interceptions. This year he has thrown only 10 picks.
Postseason action has not been Rivers' strength over the years. In his seven postseason games, he’s thrown eight touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. During that time, his career completion percentage drops from 64.4 percent to 58.5.
If Sunday’s game against the Chiefs has a playoff atmosphere, it should be interesting to watch how Rivers responds against a very capable defense.
His favorite target all year has been rookie Keenan Allen out of Cal, who was drafted in the third round. These two have built a nice chemistry together and look to have a promising future.
It’s crazy to think this tandem almost never was had Allen quit early on in the season.
The Chiefs defense has not been the same since injuries to its bookends, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Houston has missed the last four games with a subluxed elbow but should be able to play, while Hali is dealing with a swollen knee that has him listed as out for Sunday’s game.
Both players were selected to the Pro Bowl this year and have been the lifeblood of this defense. Their absence has at least shown us that much.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and writes for Bleacher Report.
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