My weekly look at key matchups and storylines to watch in one game at each time slot. (All times Eastern).Sunday 4:15 p.m.Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
The word out of Green Bay is the Packers had a players-only meeting this week to try to get their once promising season back on track. I've been in a number of similar meetings; some work, some don't. Those gatherings may help guys to focus during the week and be more diligent in their preparation, but it still come down to having to play well on Sunday.
It's no secret the Packers need to stop giving up so many sacks, which won't be easy against a Cowboys front with full-fledged stars in Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware, both of whom spent a great deal of time swarming Donovan McNabb last Sunday night. Hopefully the Packers will call more quick passes, encourage Aaron Rodgers to throw it away if nothing is there, and call for more seven- and eight-man protections. But they haven't done nearly enough of any of those three things the past couple of weeks, so there is no reason to think they would start now.
Sunday 1 p.m.Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
The Bengals come into this one on a roll, but sweeping the season series with the Steelers, after Cincy did exactly that to the Ravens, will not be easy. This game should be all about which team can render the other one-dimensional and then force turnovers.
The Steelers have run the ball well in recent weeks, highlighted by Rashard Mendenhall churning out 155 yards against the Broncos behind a much maligned offensive line. The Bengals have no chance if they can't slow down the suddenly steam-rolling Steelers run game. It will be hard enough for the Bengals to contain Ben Roethlisberger and his wealth of receiving weapons, even if the Steelers can't get the ground game going.
Cincinnati's offensive line has received a lot of credit recently, but going against the Pittsburgh front at Heinz Field will be their toughest test to date. The key is to run downhill against the Steelers. Teams that try to run outside fail because Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison, the Steelers outside linebackers, do such a fantastic job of setting the edge by pushing tight ends and offensive tackles into the backfield. This forces the running back to cut back, and by that time the rest of the defense arrives.
Sunday 8:20 p.m.New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts
My guess is Bill Belichick and his coaching staff have studied enough tape to realize the key to the Colts offense is tight end Dallas Clark. I use tight end loosely because the guy is basically an oversized slot receiver. Everything Peyton Manning does seems to come as a result of having the built-in security blanket in Clark, who is pretty much always open. He caught 14 balls and easily could have had over 20 last week against a Texans unit that primarily tried man coverage with rookie outside linebacker Brian Cushing on Clark. Bad move.
Look for the Patriots to put a safety on Clark at a minimum and probably even give that player some additional help over the top. The Pats will also give Reggie Wayne special attention. That means the Colts will have to win this one on offense by either running the ball, which is highly unlikely given their ineptitude in that department, or getting stellar contributions from young wideouts Austin Collie and Pierre Garçon.
Monday 8:30 p.m.Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns
Brady Quinn is back in the saddle again against an ornery Ravens squad that has somehow lost four of their past five and is desperate for a win to stay in the playoff hunt. For Quinn it will be all about trying to minimize mistakes and get the ball out of his hands quickly. The Browns only shot is to win the turnover battle by a significant margin.
The bigger story in this game may be the fan reaction as the civil unrest in Cleveland worsens. The Browns faithful don't care for Eric Mangini and are feeling both helpless and hopeless about their beloved football team. That could make for an ugly atmosphere on Monday night if the Ravens decide to use the Browns game as their springboard towards a playoff march.
I believe the majority of Browns fans gave Mangini a chance and had no illusions about what this season was going to be like. But this bad? Rebuilding is an arduous task, but fans expect to see improvement, competitiveness and heart from week to week. None of these qualities are seen on the field due to Mangini's coaching philosophy. Plus he is the only "new" coach with previous head coaching experience. So how can you justify he shouldn't be on the proverbial "hot seat"?--Martin, San Diego
I understand why a lot of Browns fans want to get rid of Mangini but if Randy Lerner is going to respect his own hiring process and make the decision to go with a head coach, he should at least give that coach a legitimate opportunity to implement his program. I doubt that will happen in Mangini's case, but the fact is his team still has as many wins as the new regimes in St. Louis, Kansas City and Detroit.
Ross, good column. More people/NFL franchises should heed your words on this. There's a reason the Steelers are one of the model franchises of the NFL, and a big part of it is stability and continuity in the coaching ranks.--Matt Burk, Pittsburgh
Totally agree. One of my biggest frustrations with the NFL is ownership's willingness to go through seemingly annual changes in which they make a change at general manager, head coach or quarterback to appease the media and fan base. I call it the circle of failure.
Ross, I am a sophomore in high school and just finished up my first junior varsity season, which lasts 10 games. My body feels drained after it and that doesn't even compare to the 20-game schedule the pros play. What are some of the toughest things about playing football professionally for so many weeks and months without a break?--David Shannon, Charlotte
I think the toughest thing is to maintain your discipline in terms of weekly preparation during the work week when you are physically run-down and hurting late in the season. Either that or practicing and competing in games with the type of injuries that would prevent most people from showing up for their desk job.
How often do NFL teams design short passes with the premise of using the umpire as a pick?--Nathan McCarron, Lewiston, Maine
Seemingly more and more every year, which is why the NFL is beginning to investigate things they can do to help the umpires. They have considered everything from helmets and body armor to moving the umpire behind the offensive formation, which most umpires will tell you makes it much more difficult for them to do their job.
On a silent count, do the guards and tackles watch the ball or watch the qb to see him raise his leg?--joshjacobson via Twitter
Neither. The guards and the tackles watch the head of the center and over time, through a lot of practice, become comfortable with timing the snap of the ball a full count after the center lifts his head. That still doesn't make it easy. That's one reason home-field advantage can be huge, especially if the home crowd is exceptionally loud.
In the Cardinals case, what makes a team undefeated on the road and so helpless at home?--benzel15 via Twitter
I have no idea. Some teams in recent years seem to play better on the road, but there is no tangible explanation. Especially an Arizona team that has won several east coast games this year after struggling mightily to do that in 2008.