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Vikings looking to put the squeeze on Bears QBs

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Vikings looking to put the squeeze on Bears QBs

The lasting image from the Bears' trip to San Francisco was 49ers defensive end Aldon Smith running amok.

And now Chicago's battered offensive line gets to face Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and the Vikings on Sunday at Soldier Field.

No, Minnesota (6-4) is not in San Francisco's class for creating mayhem with a physically imposing defense. But the way the Bears (7-3) are blocking - make that NOT blocking - for their quarterbacks, just about any team will be a major challenge, whether it's Jay Cutler back from a concussion, or backup Jason Campbell on the field.

``You're going to play a great team on their home field, a place that we've struggled at,'' Greenway said. ``But this is a new year, a new team. And I think we're going to have a focus going in there that we're going to give ourselves a chance.

``It's going to take our best effort. It's going to take our best game of the year to win out there this week.''

To get that win, the Vikings figure to emphasize their ace, Adrian Peterson, and the running game, while fitting in throws to Percy Harvin, who also is having a strong season. They must be careful not to fall victim to Chicago's ball-hawking defense, which did little against the 49ers, but otherwise has been brilliant. The Bears have seven interception returns for TDs and have forced 30 turnovers, the most in the league.

The Vikings don't get many takeaways, but they can get after quarterbacks. Allen has 13 sacks in eight games against the Bears, including 3 1/2 in last year's season finale.

Whichever defense sets the tone figures to swing things in its team's direction.

On Thanksgiving Day, Houston beat Detroit 34-31 in overtime to improve to 10-1, Washington held off Dallas 38-31, and New England routed the New York Jets 49-19.

Also Sunday, it's San Francisco at New Orleans; Green Bay at the New York Giants; Atlanta at Tampa Bay; Baltimore at San Diego; Pittsburgh at Cleveland; Denver at Kansas City; Seattle at Miami; Buffalo at Indianapolis; Oakland at Cincinnati; Tennessee at Jacksonville; and St. Louis at Arizona.

The Monday night game has Carolina at Philadelphia.

San Francisco (7-2-1) at New Orleans (5-5)

As intriguing as any game on the schedule for many reasons.

The 49ers could get back quarterback Alex Smith from a concussion, but with the way Colin Kaepernick performed in a rout of the Bears on Monday night, it's uncertain who will get the call from coach Jim Harbaugh.

Regardless, it's the San Francisco defense that could decide things. If the 49ers can put pressure on Drew Brees and the increasingly dynamic Saints offense - Aldon Smith leads the NFL with 15 sacks - they could control matters. But New Orleans has won three straight and five of six, and Brees could become the third player with 30 TD passes in five seasons.

Green Bay (7-3) at New York Giants (6-4)

The last time they met, New York eliminated a 16-1 Packers team from the playoffs. At Lambeau Field.

The Giants will need to rekindle the overwhelming pass rush that was decisive in that game, plus get Eli Manning back on track. He's struggled the last two weeks, both losses, and hasn't played particularly well in a month. A better running game also would help him.

Green Bay, though, has five straight victories and is tied with Chicago atop the NFC North. In his past seven games, Aaron Rodgers has 24 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 117 QB rating. There's a chance he could get back top receiver Greg Jennings from a torn abdominal muscle, too.

Atlanta (9-1) at Tampa Bay (6-4)

Atlanta lost for the first time two weeks ago, then needed to rally to beat Arizona. The Falcons have won six of the past seven meetings with the Bucs, but those were different Tampa teams. This one is as potent on offense as, well, Atlanta.

Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin already has rushed for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns.

``Their rookie running back has had some really explosive games,'' Smith said. ``It will be a challenge for us.''

But covering Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez will be a huge challenge for the Bucs.

Baltimore (8-2) at San Diego (4-6)

The Ravens will have star safety Ed Reed as they seek their fourth successive victory and eighth in nine games. His one-game suspension for illegal hits was overturned on appeal and instead he was fined $50,000.

Reed and the Baltimore defense haven't played close to the level of previous standards, but did have a strong performance in taking charge of the AFC North last week at Pittsburgh.

San Diego, loser of five of its last six, leads the NFL in throwing interceptions (14) as Philip Rivers struggles without much supporting talent compared to previous years.

Pittsburgh (6-4) at Cleveland (2-8)

Plax is back in Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the addition of wideout Plaxico Burress, who was without a team all season, doesn't offset the slew of injuries on offense. Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder, ribs), Antonio Brown (ankle), Jerricho Cotchery (ribs) and Byron Leftwich (ribs) have been sidelined, but Brown could return in Cleveland.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they have a trio of hefty running backs who have come through in Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman.

The Browns blew a 13-0 lead in Dallas last Sunday, another sign of their inexperience. They do play hard for coach Pat Shurmur, who is trying to save his job.

Denver (7-3) at Kansas City (1-9)

The Broncos have won five straight and have their sights on running the table, perhaps grabbing home-field advantage for a portion of the AFC playoffs, if not for the whole thing. Peyton Manning needs one victory, something he's likely to get against the collapsing Chiefs who have dropped seven in a row, to have the second most by a starter in league history. He would move ahead of his current boss, John Elway.

Manning is directing a precise offense, but Denver lost leading rusher Willis McGahee to a right knee injury. The Broncos' defense is getting superb play from Von Miller, who had three sacks last week for 13 this year.

KC leads the NFL in turnovers with 31 and has a minus-21 differential. Denver's minus-3 pales in comparison.

Seattle (6-4) at Miami (4-6)

One game after beating his former player at Southern Cal, Jets QB Mark Sanchez, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll goes against one of his Heisman Trophy winners, Reggie Bush. Well, Bush did win the Heisman, but gave it back after he was found guilty of NCAA violations.

Seattle's defense gets better and more physical each week, something Bush figures to learn Sunday. Bush has totaled 41 yards rushing over the past two games, part of a three-game skid, and even was benched in that span.

Buffalo (4-6) at Indianapolis (6-4)

Were the Colts exposed at New England last Sunday in their 59-24 defeat, or was it simply a case of Indy not being able to play with the big boys yet?

``Once you sit down and watch the film, the critiquing and the criticism, and once that happens, you sort of flush it and realize it's on to the next one,'' Andrew Luck said. ``If this was the last one of the season and you're done, it would sting a lot more.''

Luck has five 300-yard passing games to set an NFL mark by a rookie. His 2,965 yards passing are the most by an NFL rookie through 10 games.

Buffalo's defense awakened in a 19-14 victory against Miami, but still ranks 27th overall.

Oakland (3-7) at Cincinnati (5-5)

With two consecutive victories, the Bengals have revitalized their season. A schedule that includes San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia after the Raiders has them salivating about their chances of making the postseason. Receiver A. J. Green has TD catches in nine straight games.

Oakland, loser of three in a row, has former Bengals QB Carson Palmer, the first overall draft pick in 2003 who still holds Cincinnati marks for career completion percentage (62.9) and passer rating (86.9). It will be Palmer's first time facing the Bengals since he forced a trade to Oakland last year for a first-round and second-round pick.

Carolina (2-8) at Philadelphia (3-7), Monday night

No, the NFL can't flex games to the prime-time broadcast on Mondays, so viewers are stuck with two of the league's biggest flops.

Carolina thought it would build off Cam Newton's sensational rookie season, but instead of sizzling it has fizzled.

No worse than the Eagles, though. Expected to be championship contenders, they have fallen apart, with sloppy play everywhere, particularly on the offensive line, in the secondary and at quarterback, where rookie Nick Foles could again get the nod ahead of Michael Vick, who is recovering from a concussion.

Tennessee (4-6) at Jacksonville (1-9)

Jacksonville had powerful Houston in trouble last Sunday, but couldn't put away the game. The 37 points for the Jaguars in that loss brought their season total to a measly 164. They will go with Chad Henne at quarterback with second-year starter Blaine Gabbert on injured reserve.

It looks like the Titans have fixed some of their defensive woes, and they come off a bye that followed a 37-3 romp in Miami, their best performance all season. Before that came their worst, a 51-20 thrashing at the hands of the Bears.

St. Louis (3-6-1) at Arizona (4-6)

Arizona was 4-0 when it journeyed to St. Louis and was beaten 17-3. Things have been downright ugly since for the Cardinals, who can't score, can't decide on a quarterback, and struggle against the run. A defense expected to excel has disappointed.

The Rams are maddeningly inconsistent, following a tie at mighty San Francisco - a game they should have won - with a flop against the Jets. Look for a steady diet of runs by Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson.

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Ravens' Steve Smith answers backhanded compliment like the legend he is

Ravens' Steve Smith answers backhanded compliment like the legend he is

Custom cleats are taking over the NFL, and this Sunday, players will have a chance to wear them during the games. The league will allow players to customize cleats with designs that represent causes they care about. 

Ravens receiver Steve Smith has been outspoken about putting an end to domestic violence, so he plans to use his cleats as a platform for that message this weekend. 

The shiny gold shoes drew a lot of praise on Twitter, but one user decided to weigh in with a backhanded compliment. And as you'd expect, it was a mistake. 

For the uninitiated, there is a reason Smith warns people in his Twitter bio, "If you come @ me, it definitely won't end in your favor." Just ask Anthony Brown and Jalen Ramsey

MORE RAVENS: Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens

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Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens this Sunday

Five factors to predict Dolphins at Ravens this Sunday

What: Dolphins (7-4) at Ravens (6-5)

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

Ravens injuries:

OUT – TE Crockett Gillmore (thigh), G Alex Lewis (ankle), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (thigh).

DOUBTFUL – RB Buck Allen (non-football issue).

QUESTIONABLE – WR Kamar Aiken (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle).

Dolphins injuries:

OUT – C Maurkice Pouncey (hip).

DOUBTFUL – CB Xavien Howard (knee).

QUESTIONABLE – OT Branden Albert (wrist), LB Kiko Alonso (hamstring), G Jermon Bushrod (calf), RB Kenyen Drake (knee); LB Jelani Jenkins (knee/hand); DT Earl Mitchell (back); WR DeVante Parker (back); G/T Laremy Tunsil (shoulder).

Five questions you should ask:

1. Are the Dolphins ready to win a big road game in December?

Despite their six-game winning streak, the Dolphins are just 2-3 away from home. Now you’re asking them to win at M&T Bank Stadium, where the Dolphins are 0-2 all-time? We’ll see. The Dolphins will gain credibility as an AFC playoff threat if they win this game.

2. Can the Ravens put together a complete offensive performance?

Quarterback Joe Flacco wasn’t satisfied with the Ravens’ 19-14 win over the Bengals in Week 12. Actually, he hasn’t been satisfied with the offense all season.

“When you have a team 16-3, you would like to choke them out and get it over with,” Flacco said.

He knows the Ravens have to play better offensively to go on a December run. And part of that improvement starts with Flacco.

3. Can the Ravens’ offensive line handle Cameron Wake (8½ sacks) and Ndamukong Suh (five sacks)?

The Dolphins’ defensive line has the ability to make Flacco’s day miserable. The Ravens’ offensive line will need one of its better performances.

4. Which team’s running game will be most effective?

This could be the key to victory, because both teams want to run and utilize play-action passing. Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (847 yards, 5.3 yards per carry) is a load, but the Ravens have the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. Ravens rookie running back Kenneth Dixon is coming off his best game (13 carries, 49 yards), and looks ready to share more carries with Terrance West (600 yards).

5. Can the Ravens get enough pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill?

Tannehill has nine touchdown passes and just one interception during the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak. The Dolphins like to get Tannehill outside the pocket and take advantage of his ability to throw accurately on the move. Tannehill’s game has grown under new head coach Adam Gase. If the Ravens don’t throw Tannehill off his rhythm, he will make plays.

Prediction: Expect a typical close Ravens game, but I see them squeezing out a critical victory, on the strength of Justin Tucker’s leg.

Ravens 20, Dolphins 17 

MORE RAVENS: How Ravens could still win AFC North