- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

Green Bay and St. Louis will meet for the third time in seven years tomorrow night and the result could be very different from the Rams’ dome drubbings of the Packers in 2001 (45-17 in the divisional playoffs) and 2003 (34-24).

First, this game is at Lambeau Field, where the Packers are 55-7 after October since Brett Favre became their quarterback in 1992. The Rams, meanwhile, are just 17-17 outdoors since Mike Martz began running their offense in 1999. That includes last week’s 37-17 thumping in Buffalo at the hands of the previously faltering Bills that left St. Louis (5-5) a game back of Seattle in the weak NFC West.

“We’re not happy where we are, [but] all is not lost,” said Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, who was intercepted three times and sacked six times by the Bills. “As bad as we’ve played, if the season ended today, we’d be in the playoffs.”

So would the Packers (6-4), who have won five in a row since hitting rock-bottom with a 48-27 home thrashing by Tennessee in their last Monday game. Coach Mike Sherman began calling the plays after that and Green Bay’s average yardage has since jumped from 376 to 438.

Eagles-Giants — Most of the focus will be on Giants rookie quarterback Eli Manning, who faced the NFC’s No. 2 team, Atlanta, in his starting debut last week and now gets the No. 1 team, Philadelphia.

However, watch the Giants’ tenacious defense against the Eagles’ high-flying offense. Despite missing All-Pro Michael Strahan and three other regulars, the Giants held the Falcons to just 14 points last week. Only Chicago has topped 17 points against coordinator Tim Lewis’ defense since its season-opening 31-17 loss in Philadelphia. Lewis has masterfully mixed in rookies, street free agents, ex-practice squad members and players out of position to keep the defense working.

“We’re realizing we all have to step up,” safety Brent Alexander said. “[Lewis] continues to make packages more and more diverse. [Offenses] don’t have a clue what we’re going to come out with.”

However, the Giants (5-5) are still the first team in 26 years to lose three straight while allowing fewer than 110 net passing yards each game because of their fading offense. New York’s once-golden playoff chances will dwindle with a fourth consecutive defeat.

Meanwhile, the Eagles (9-1) can clinch their fourth straight NFC East title with a victory as they seek homefield advantage in the playoffs for a third January in a row. Philadelphia is 19-4 in division play the last four years.

While it will be tempting for Manning to hand off to Tiki Barber, the NFL’s third-leading rusher, the Eagles held their past two foes to an average of 61 yards on the ground after allowing an average of 131 yards the first eight games.

Jaguars-Vikings — Both teams welcome back their former Marshall stars, Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich and Minnesota receiver Randy Moss, from injuries. And coaches Jack Del Rio of the Jaguars and Mike Tice of the Vikings have been buddies since they played three seasons together in Minnesota in the early 1990s.

Moss, perhaps the game’s best wideout, missed all but 11 snaps the past five games because of a strained right hamstring. The Vikings went 2-3 without Moss, averaging 23 points, but his return will only bolster the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense. It’s no coincidence Daunte Culpepper had 18 touchdown passes (eight to Moss) in Moss’ five healthy games and just nine in the five games since. With games left against fellow NFC contenders Seattle and Green Bay, Minnesota (6-4) could use a victory to boost its playoff prospects and help ensure Tice’s return in 2005.

While Leftwich was out with a sprained knee and David Garrard filled in, Jacksonville (6-4) got by lousy Detroit in overtime and was edged by struggling Tennessee. The Jaguars already have overachieved this season, and an upset today could really enhance their postseason chances in a conference in which 10 victories likely won’t clinch a berth.

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