Game of the Week You WIll See
Detroit at Minnesota (1 p.m., WTTG-5)
It hasn't happened as expected, but the Vikings can win the NFC Central title they were predicted to win if they defeat the Lions today and the Buccaneers lose at Chicago. The stumbling Lions, meanwhile, need a victory to host a first-round playoff game. After stunning the league by starting 6-2 -- including a 25-23 victory over the Vikings -- without RB Barry Sanders, who retired, and WR Herman Moore, who was injured, the Lions have gone 2-5. Last week, in a 17-7 loss to the Broncos, they rushed for just 32 yards, allowing the Broncos' pass rush to tee off on QB Charlie Batch. Batch remains hampered by a broken thumb on his throwing hand that kept him out of six games, but he is expected to start today. Coach Bobby Ross, trying to jump-start the offense, has made changes at running back and wide receiver. RB Ron Rivers likely will make his first start since suffering a fractured ankle in October, and Moore will return to the starting lineup in place of Germane Crowell. Pro Bowl DE Robert Porcher has 14 sacks, a franchise record. The Vikings started the season by stunning the league as well, by going 2-4. QB Jeff George has done well since becoming the starter, and lately the offense is showing signs of the balance and explosiveness it had last season. RB Robert Smith rushed for 146 yards in last week's 34-17 win over the Giants and is 82 yards shy of his third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign. WR Randy Moss has six 100-yard games, matching the club's single-season record, and WR Cris Carter needs three catches for his fourth 90-catch season. The defense, however, is ranked 27th in the league.
Game of the Week You WON'T SEE
New York Giants at Dallas (4 p.m.)
Baltimore-area fans will be able to see the game on WBFF-45. It will help decide the NFC's final playoff berth. If the Cowboys win, they are in. The Giants need to win and they need the Packers to lose to the Cardinals in Green Bay. The Giants have lost their past two games and five of their past seven. The Cowboys have lost three of their last four, all to teams that will miss the playoffs. New York will need to match the effort it had in the teams' first meeting of the season, which it won, 13-10, largely by holding RB Emmitt Smith to 26 yards rushing on 22 carries. Last week against the Vikings, though, New York surrendered 174 yards rushing. QB Kerry Collins has been solid, and WR Amani Toomer needs two receptions and 62 yards receiving to break single-season club records in both categories. But the Giants' leading rusher, Joe Montgomery, has just 312 yards and 3.0 yards per carry. Pro Bowl-bound LB Jessie Armstead is second among NFC linebackers with nine sacks. The Cowboys' shocking 31-24 loss to New Orleans on Christmas Eve prompted CB-KR Deion Sanders to question his future with the team and owner Jerry Jones to address several of his veterans on the importance of making the playoffs. Dallas ranks second in the NFC in total defense (297.3 yards per game), but injuries and errors have hurt the Cowboys, who have been penalized more times for more yards than any other team in the NFL -- 129 for 1,140 yards.
A look at some of this season's best breakthroughs
QB Steve Beuerlein, Panthers
The 13-year veteran is going to his first Pro Bowl, having thrown for 4,114 yards and 31 TDs this season.
LB London Fletcher, Rams
Undrafted second-year player from John Carroll University is the most surprising player on the league's most surprising defense, tallying 87 tackles.
RB Olandis Gary, Broncos
The Riverdale Baptist graduate and 1999 fourth-round draft pick from Georgia was inactive for the season's first four games, but now leads the NFL in yards per game (101.9 in 11 games, with seven TDs). Last week, he became the first rookie with back-to-back 180-yard rushing games since Eric Dickerson in 1983.
WR Qadry Ismail, Ravens
Has caught 63 passes for 1,055 yards and six TDs after two straight seasons without a reception.
WR Marcus Robinson, Bears
1998 NFL Europe offensive MVP barely made Bears roster this season, but now holds the single-season club record with 1,316 yards receiving.
QB Kurt Warner, Rams
The last word on pleasant surprises. For the record, the former Iowa Barnstormer has thrown for 4,212 yards, 39 TDs (tied for the third-best single-season total in NFL history), 11 INTs and 111.7 QB rating (close to the single-season record of 112.8, by the 49ers' Steve Young in 1994).
Playoff Party Crashers
The Buccaneers can win their first division title since 1981 and set a franchise record for victories with a victory today at Chicago, but they must do it in cold weather against a scrappy Bears team. The Buccaneers are 0-17 in games played when the temperature at kickoff is below 40 degrees, and six of those losses were at Soldier Field. Today's forecast for Chicago calls for a high of 34 with a low of 23. ... Since the Jets' playoff hopes went awry with a 1-6 start, they have beaten the Dolphins twice, and the Cowboys, Patriots and Bills once each. Now, after jeopardizing the Dolphins' playoff hopes, the Jets can give Miami new life. If the Jets beat the Seahawks in New York or the Raiders beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, Miami would make the playoffs. The Jets probably are Miami's best hope; the Chiefs have won 18 of their past 20 games against the Raiders, including a 37-34 victory in Oakland on Nov. 28.
If the Titans beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh today, it will be the first time in NFL history that four teams have finished the same season with 13 or more wins. . . . Rams RB Marshall Faulk, with 2,323 yards from scrimmage this season (1,302 yards rushing, 1,021 yards receiving), needs 36 yards from scrimmage to break Barry Sanders's single-season NFL record set in 1997. . . . Colts QB Peyton Manning is 28 passing yards short of giving Indianapolis a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,500-yard rusher (Edgerrin James) and a 1,500-yard receiver (Marvin Harrison) in the same season. The 1995 Lions, with QB Scott Mitchell, Sanders and WR Herman Moore, are the only team in NFL history to have done that.