Green Bay at Minnesota

(Monday, 9 p.m., WJLA-7, WMAR-2)

A game that was expected by many to determine the NFC Central title is now critical to both teams' playoff hopes. In their last meeting, on Sept. 26, the Packers' Brett Favre threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to WR Corey Bradford with 12 seconds left to complete a 23-20 comeback victory, but things are much different now in Green Bay. Since then, concerns have swung from Favre's injured right thumb to the defense and now, to coaching. In the aftermath of a last-second, 33-31 home loss to Carolina last week, S LeRoy Butler openly criticized defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas's conservative schemes, and Favre, among others, has questioned Coach Ray Rhodes's decision-making. Favre is still Favre, and WR Antonio Freeman (902 yards receiving) is headed for his third straight 1,000-yard season, so a turnaround may hinge largely on a disappointing defense. Green Bay has only 25 sacks this season and gave up 373 yards passing last week when Carolina abandoned its rushing game, attempting only 13 running plays. All is not well for the Vikings, either, as turnovers proved costly in a last-second loss to Kansas City. Worse, WR Cris Carter, enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, will not play because of a sprained ankle. An offensive shootout is likely: Not only have the last nine games between the two teams averaged 51.4 total points, but Minnesota's defense allows 356.3 yards per game, 30th in the NFL, while Green Bay's 328.5 yards allowed per game ranks 21st.


New York Giants at St. Louis (1 p.m.)

The Giants take their recent hot streak to St. Louis, where the Rams can clinch home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs with a win. Though the Giants' playoff hopes would get a boost with three wins in their last three games, today's game is the least crucial of those remaining. Wins in their upcoming games against Minnesota and at Dallas would give New York tiebreaker advantages over both teams. The Giants, 9-0 in December under Coach Jim Fassel, are averaging 28 points over their past three games after averaging 17 in their first 10, a streak largely attributable to the improvement of QB Kerry Collins. Since assuming the starting role three games ago, Collins has thrown for 879 yards and five touchdowns and seems to have sparked the team. Amani Toomer, with 887 yards receiving, and Ike Hilliard, with 846, can become the first pair of Giants wide receivers ever to have 1,000-yard seasons. The Giants still rely on defense, however, ranking third in the NFC with 288.2 yards allowed per game, and a league-best 3.1 yards allowed per rushing attempt. Not only would a win seal home-field advantage for the Rams and their first 12-win season since 1978, it would give them their first victory over a team with a winning record this season. History bodes well for the Rams, who are 22-9 all-time against the Giants. St. Louis has had a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers in the same game for two straight weeks for the first time in franchise history. DE Kevin Carter leads the NFL with 14 sacks for the conference's second-best defense (268.6 yards allowed per game).


A look at this week's best subplots

Broncos DT Trevor Pryce

Has a career-high 11 sacks, second in the AFC. With 47 tackles, he leads all of Denver's defensive linemen.


Seahawks RB Ricky Watters

Held to 29 yards rushing on 17 carries in season's first meeting with Denver, and has lost three fumbles in Seattle's past two games, both losses.

Cowboys at home

At 6-0, with remaining home dates today (vs. Jets) and Jan. 2 (vs. Giants), they have a shot at first perfect home record since 1981.


Cowboys on the road

Record of 1-6, having blown leads in every game. It is Dallas's worst road record since 1989, when the Cowboys went 1-15 overall.

Titans DE Jevon Kearse

Has 11 sacks, one short of the NFL rookie record held by Leslie O'Neal and Simeon Rice.


Falcons' offensive line

Has allowed 47 sacks and may be without starting center Robbie Tobeck (hip injury).

Patriots CB Tebucky Jones

Second-year player will start in place of injured Pro Bowler Ty Law today even though he was a running back for three seasons at Syracuse University and has played cornerback in just one game, also in college.


Eagles' passing offense

The NFL's worst air attack (123.4 yards per game) guided by still-green QB Donovan McNabb isn't a bad place for Jones to start.

Bye-Bye, Bears?

The Bears have the NFL's fourth-ranked passing attack, thanks to perhaps the most underrated receiving corps in the league. But that group may not be around for a repeat performance next season. WR Curtis Conway, the NFC's leading receiver before he missed five games with a sprained ankle suffered on Oct. 10 and third in franchise history with 328 receptions, and WR Bobby Engram, with 62 catches for 678 yards this year, are free agents at the end of the season. Marcus Robinson is having a breakout season, with 60 receptions and 1,053 yards, but he is a restricted free agent at season's end. Complicating matters for the Bears is the fact that Engram, Conway and Robinson are among the best wide receiver prospects in a shallow free agent pool and are sure to draw interest. Today against Detroit, the Bears have a chance to play spoiler, and their receiving trio has a chance to give team management further inducement to keep them all -- or give Bears fans a glimpse at what might have been. The Lions visit Soldier Field with a hampered secondary. Starting right cornerback Terry Fair is out with a broken knuckle, backup J.B. Brown is doubtful with a groin pull and left cornerback Bryant Westbrook, who has been ineffective or injured most of the season, has been benched in favor of Robert Bailey, who began the season as the nickel back.

King of the Bucs

Buccaneers QB Shaun King, 2-0 with a 90.6 quarterback rating in his first two career starts, has been given the starter's job for the rest of the season, including the playoffs, by Coach Tony Dungy. Tampa Bay has ridden a franchise-record six-game winning streak to first place in its division, the first time the Buccaneers have been there since starting the 1997 season 5-1 and the first time they've been there in December since 1981. Tampa Bay can clinch a playoff berth and the franchise's first unbeaten season against the AFC with a win today against Oakland.