Connect Four: The NFC's Top Seeds

Connect Four: The NFC's Top Seeds

As the NFC's four top seeds prepare for the regular season's last game, Seattle and Chicago have their postseason slots in the bag. Tampa Bay and New York still have something to play for, but keeping momentum will be key for all four teams.

Team

Div

Overall Record

Div. Record

Conf. Record

Strength of Victory

Strength of Sched.

Conf PF + PA Rank

Overall PF + PA Rank

Overall Net Pts

TD

1 *yz-Seattle

W

13-2-0

6-0-0

10-1-0

.400

.436

3

5

187

55

2 yz-Chicago

N

11-4-0

5-0-0

10-1-0

.388

.440

14

25

82

27

3 Tampa Bay

S

10-5-0

4-1-0

8-3-0

.447

.462

15

29

12

30

4 x-N.Y. Giants

E

10-5-0

4-2-0

8-4-0

.447

.511

9

21

99

42


x-clinched playoff berth
y-clinched division title
z-clinched first-round bye
*-clinched homefield advantage


================
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
================


The Seahawks are saying all the right things about trying to win this game at Green Bay on Sunday, but actions speak louder than words. Coach Mike Holmgren plans to substitute early and often, giving this season-ending game a preseason feel. "We've just got to get healthy and get our minds right for the playoffs," Holmgren said. "Winning 12 games in a row, though, and finishing the season with a record of 14-2, those are all good things. Those are real positive, good things. We'd like to do that, yeah."

Spoken like a man whose team is 13-2 and already has home-field advantage wrapped up. Seattle can no longer improve its playoff positioning and Holmgren wants his players ready for the divisional-round game Jan. 14 or 15. In the meantime, he'll use this game against the Packers to take a look at younger players.

Quarterback Seneca Wallace is taking most of the snaps in practice, a clear indication that Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck won't play very much. Wallace was a running quarterback at Iowa State, but he also possesses a strong throwing arm and a strong desire to prove himself. Wallace played well during the preseason, hurting opponents on the ground and through the air. He has played only in mop-up roles during the regular season, but that will change in this game.

For the first time as a pro, Wallace will play a regular-season game in which coaches have prepared the game plan with him in mind.

"It means a lot," Wallace said of finally getting some first-team reps during practice. "Just not getting an opportunity all season and now it's finally here. I just have to go out there and play and have fun and run our offense, just get back to doing the things that I was doing in training camp."

Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander will start the game, Holmgren said. But they won't play deep into the game.

Seattle has fewer options on defense. Defensive end Joe Tafoya and defensive tackle Chuck Darby might not play because of injuries. Cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Andre Dyson didn't even make the trip. All four players should be ready for the playoffs. Their absence Sunday would put pressure on other key players to pick up the slack.

Cornerback Kelly Herndon could play extensively in his first game back from a sprained knee. Seattle simply lacks alternatives at the position after Trufant left the most recent game with a back injury.

SERIES HISTORY: 10th meeting. Packers lead 5-4. Green Bay has also won the only playoff game between the teams. The most recent regular-season meeting saw the Packers claim a 35-13 victory at Lambeau Field in 2003. Seattle won the previous meeting, a 27-7 decision in 1999 on Monday night.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Coach Mike Holmgren was caught off-guard at his weekly press conference when someone asked about the time one of his Green Bay assistants showed film of him singing in a 1950s band. The film dated to Holmgren's 1970s tenure as a high school coach in California. Holmgren assumed the persona "Manifold Mike" while playing with "Big Bop and the Choppers" to raise money for school athletic programs.

Years later, when Holmgren coached the Packers, then-assistant coach Marty Mornhinweg inserted the film into a team video session. Mornhinweg had played quarterback at the same high school.

"The video is around somewhere," Holmgren said. "I used to be in a little rock-and-roll band and somehow the black market got ahold of the tape and somehow it appeared on one of our highlight films there one night. And of course the video director was fired. They've had a lot of fun with that - yeah, they have."

--RB Shaun Alexander said he isn't concerned about passing Priest Holmes for sole possession of the single-season touchdown record. "The touchdown record to me, I already got it," he said. "That's how it feels like. When they say who has the most touchdowns all year, they are going to say Priest Holmes and Shaun Alexander. It could be mine by itself but I don't think too much about it."

--Holmgren pushed offensive coordinator Gil Haskell as a head-coaching candidate if and when jobs open around the league. "For the life of me I don't understand how teams go about it sometimes," Holmgren said. "Someone should hire Gil Haskell to be their head coach, for sure. Now that would be a big loss to me personally. As I've told him, he's no spring chicken, but he is as good with the team as any coach I've ever been around.

"And he's a very meticulous, high-work-ethic guy and I just don't understand that one. He's not a self-promoter, is one of the things, I think. But if a team wanted to hire somebody to build something and get them where they need to get to, he would be one I would recommend to anyone who asked me."

BY THE NUMBERS: 1 - Touchdown RB Shaun Alexander needs to break the NFL's single-season record. Alexander has 27 touchdowns, tied with Priest Holmes for most in an NFL season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I want our starters to play and I want them to play well and I want them to move the football. That's what they have been doing all year so we are not going to do anything different now. It's just that now I have the luxury of at some point putting the younger guys in there." - Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

This week gives Seattle a chance to let first-round C Chris Spencer get extended playing time in a competitive situation. The team drafted Spencer knowing veteran C Robbie Tobeck would remain the starter this season. Tobeck is enjoying a solid season; he was recently named an alternate to the Pro Bowl.
Spencer has played in mop-up duty this season, but not for extended periods. The Seahawks figure to let Spencer play for long stretches in this meaningless game against the Packers.

Tobeck is 35 and could use the rest, anyway. The team relies on Tobeck's experience in various protections and coach Mike Holmgren wants him ready to go for the playoffs. Spencer could become the starter as early as next season.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


--LB D.D. Lewis missed practice Thursday. He is listed as questionable with a foot injury. The team might choose to rest him in preparation for the playoffs.

--WR Darrell Jackson missed practice Thursday. The team is listing him as probable on its injury report. Jackson recently returned from knee surgery.

--WR Bobby Engram missed practice Wednesday with an illness, but was back on the field Thursday. The team listed him as probable.

--FS John Howell missed practice Thursday and is listed as out for Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. .

--DT Chuck Darby did not practice Thursday He is questionable with a knee injury. The team might choose to rest him in preparation for the playoffs.

--CB Kelly Herndon returned to practice this week and should start Sunday at Green Bay. The team did not list him on its injury report. Herndon is returning from a sprained knee.

--CB Andre Dyson will not travel with the team to Green Bay, but the Seahawks expect to have him back for the playoffs. Dyson has been out with a high ankle sprain.

GAME PLAN: The Seahawks will try to start fast while their starters are in the game. From there, backups will take over and things could get a little sloppy. Staying healthy is the top priority. That means removing key players from the game in the early going. The offense will look different with backup QB Seneca Wallace in the game.

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Seahawks QB Seneca Wallace vs. Packers' top-ranked pass defense. Green Bay's high ranking against the pass is a bit deceptive because the Packers give up so many yards on the ground. Wallace has played pretty well in spurts this season but the coaches have held him back because the team was usually trying not to run up the score. This week gives Wallace a chance to function more freely in the offense, although he'll be surrounded by quite a few backups. Wallace has the feet to make plays on the ground, but people might be surprised by his arm strength. Wallace slings the ball pretty good. Don't be surprised if he plays well enough to keep Seattle competitive in this game.

INJURY IMPACT: The Seahawks appear more likely to hold out anyone listed as "questionable" or worse on the injury report. CB Andre Dyson and CB Marcus Trufant won't even make the trip, but CB Kelly Herndon is returning from a knee injury and should start. The front seven could suffer a bit from the expected absences of DT Chuck Darby and LB D.D. Lewis. Both players are questionable and Seattle wants to make sure they are ready for the playoffs.


=============
CHICAGO BEARS
=============


Don't tell Bears five-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz that Sunday's game against the Vikings at the Metrodome is meaningless. It makes no difference to the Bears' playoff status, since they're locked in as the NFC's No. 2 seed, but it matters to Kreutz, who's been called out by the Vikings' Pat Williams, a no-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

"Kreutz, he ain't nothing but a joke," Williams said. "He's been a joke since he came in the league. I've never respected the guy."

Kreutz missed practice Thursday and is questionable with a sprained ankle, so normally he'd be a likely candidate to sit out Sunday's regular-season final, but he might have to be chained to his locker to keep him off the field.

"It means a lot to me to play in this game because of the things he said about me," Kreutz said. "I want to go out there and play against him. Every time you compete against NFL players you know you better bring your best or you'll get beat up a little bit."

Kreutz admitted that Williams had a good game against him in the Bears' 28-3 victory at Soldier Field on Oct. 16, but he didn't know what he did to incur the wrath of the 6-foot-3, 317-pound nine-year veteran.

"I must have made him mad," the 6-foot-2, 292-pound Kreutz said. "I stole his cheeseburger or something. I was surprised. I kind of laughed. I enjoy when people hate me. That makes me happy, so he's made my whole week."

Bears players didn't have any derogatory comments about the Vikings in the wake of their lewd behavior on a couple party boats on Lake Minnetonka earlier in the season, and almost all NFL players abide by a code that discourages bad-mouthing opponents in public, especially when it comes to personal attacks. "I've never heard of it, but everybody floats their boat a different way," Kreutz said. "I don't talk about other players, and I never will unless they talk about me. If they talk about me, I'm not going to just sit there quiet. But I'm not going to talk about this too much more. We'll see each other Sunday. There's no sense talking. That's the great thing about football, you get to solve it on the field. It's not like we just talk and hide from each other. We have to face each other."

Williams and his agent, Angelo Wright, have also accused Kreutz of conspiring to keep the Vikings' run-stuffer out of the Pro Bowl since his negative comments were first published early last month. They allege that Kreutz and other Bears made calls around the league to discourage players on other teams from voting for Williams, whose father Mayfield died Tuesday night. Williams is expected to play Sunday.

"I wish I had that kind of power," said Kreutz, who wasn't aware when he met with reporters of Williams' father's death. "I would put all my teammates in the Pro Bowl. I don't know how I could keep him out of the Pro Bowl. That would be amazing to me. I haven't seen him on very many snub lists. I don't even know if he's a first, second or third alternate, so one good game against me is not going to put you in the Hall of Fame. I don't know if that's what he expected to do."

Kreutz, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past five seasons, had mostly positive comments about Williams.

"He's obviously a very good run stuffer, everybody knows that," Kreutz said. "He may not be a Pro Bowler, but at stuffing the run, he's probably the best at it. He creates a lot of havoc in the backfield. You guys have been around me long enough to know that I don't lie about anybody. I tell the truth. It's a tough challenge for me, but when he talks, gives you a little more incentive to go out there and block him. If he wants to call a five-time Pro Bowler a joke, that's his prerogative."

Williams did a lot of chirping on the field in the first meeting with the Bears this season, but most of that was between him and Bears guard Ruben Brown, who was on the sideline with a partially torn chest muscle. Williams and Brown were teammates with the Bills from 1997-2003.

"He did a lot of talking and deservedly so," Kreutz said. "I won't lie about the way he played the first game; he played well against me. That's why we'll play against each other again and see what happens."

SERIES HISTORY: 90th meeting. The Vikings lead the series 47-40-2. The series has been split in each of the past three seasons, with each team winning at home.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Sunday will be seven weeks since Cedric Benson suffered a sprained right knee that was expected to keep him out 2-6 weeks, but the rookie still isn't confident he can play, even though he practiced on Thursday inside the Walter Payton Center.

"I'd love to be available right now," Benson said. "I never wanted this to happen, but it did. I've got to deal with it, and I've got to be smart about it because this isn't the only season I'm having. This isn't a one-season career."

On Monday, when he was asked about Benson, Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said, "I think he should be ready to go. He looked better last week in practice, and the word I got last week was that he should be fine, he should be ready this week."

But Benson said he still feels some looseness and shakiness in the knee, and he isn't sure what the best course of action is. He said he still has soreness after practice and probably will the rest of the season. "We kind of came to the conclusion that we were gong to practice this week and see how we feel at the end of the week and make a decision on Friday or Saturday," Benson said. "This is my first MCL (medical collateral ligament), and it's my first major injury. I don't know how much time before (I'm ready). Everybody is different, everybody heals at different times, so I can't say when."

Since the Bears might not play many of their starters more than a half against the Vikings, a lot of young players could be slated for extensive action. But Adrian Peterson may be the only running back cleared to play after starter Thomas Jones gets the 27 yards he needs to become the only Bear besides Walter Payton to rush for 1,300 yards in a season.

"Being a rookie, I'm sure he's never been in this situation," Bears coach Lovie Smith said of Benson. "We're going to put our players on the field when they have been cleared and there is the least risk of injury. This past week we were playing for the division crown, and we had some players who were close to being able to go, and we probably could have played a few of them. But we'll always err on the side of caution. Cedric is a valuable part of what we're going to do around here for many years, and we'll never put him at risk."

Pro Bowl WR Muhsin Muhammad dropped three Rex Grossman passes last week, but the young quarterback isn't about to get in the veteran's face about it.
"It's definitely more supportive," Grossman said. "He's a Pro Bowl receiver. He led the league in touchdown catches and yards last season. He's been there, done that. He makes big catches in big games and I know he is going to come through when it counts. He'll pick his game up. He talked to me a little bit after the game and apologized and I just said, `Don't worry about it, you're a great receiver.' I know he's going to make the play. I've got to trust him that he's going to make the play and I do and I know he will."

BY THE NUMBERS:
Thomas Jones needs 27 yards to become the only player in franchise history other than Walter Payton to rush for 1,300 yards. Payton did it nine times.

The Bears need to hold the Vikings to 18 points or less to establish a franchise record for fewest points allowed, breaking the record of 187 set by the 1986 team. The 1985 Super Bowl Bears allowed 198 points.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's going to be fun to go back and play there. Obviously, I am going to remember what happened, but I think everything will kind of come full circle. I'll think about it a little bit, but mostly I will be thinking about what I am supposed to do. I'm glad we're playing there and I am glad I get a chance to go back to the scene of the disaster." - Bears QB Rex Grossman, on his return to the Metrodome, where he suffered a ruptured ACL in his right knee 15 months ago.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Bears coach Lovie Smith, who keeps information locked away for as long as he can, said he might offer more information about playing time later in the week regarding Sunday's meaningless season finale against the Vikings.

"We are practicing our guys with the game in mind," Smith said. "Just like we do each week. Trying to get the best guys we have on our squad ready to play, not only for this week but for upcoming weeks. As far as how much time guys will get, we are going to let that go," he said. "We haven't made decisions on that. If a guy is healthy, we plan on playing him."

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--FB Bryan Johnson is out with a foot injury.

--LB Brian Urlacher was sent home ill and missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday.

--RG Terrence Metcalf was not on the injury report for the first time in four weeks and should reclaim his starting job on the right side after missing three straight games.

GAME PLAN: To be healthy for the playoffs. The Bears want to win the game. They want to set a franchise record for fewest points allowed by holding the Vikings to less than 19 points. They want RB Thomas Jones to get the 27 yards he needs for 1,300. And they want to sweep the NFC North. But mostly they want to be healthy for their first playoff game, which will be the weekend of Jan. 14-15.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Bears five-time Pro Bowl C Olin Kreutz, if he plays on a mildly sprained ankle, vs. Vikings DT Pat Williams. "Kreutz, he ain't nothing but a joke," Williams said. "He's been a joke since he came in the league. I've never respected the guy."

Bears QB Rex Grossman vs. the Vikings Field Turf, on which he suffered a non-contact ruptured ACL 15 months ago while diving into the end zone for his only NFL rushing touchdown.

INJURY IMPACT:
FB Bryan Johnson is out with a foot injury. MLB Brian Urlacher is probable after missing Thursday's practice with an illness. CB Jerry Azumah (hip), RB Cedric Benson (knee), S Mike Green (shoulder), S Mike Brown (calf), WLB Hunter Hillenmeyer (thumb), C Olin Kreutz (ankle), DT Ian Scott (hamstring) and CB Charles Tillman (shoulder) are all questionable. All are expected to be able to play by Sunday if need be.


====================
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
====================


The Bucs' playoff scenario has never been more simple: a win clinches a playoff berth. Tampa Bay can claim the NFC South title with a victory over the New Orleans Saints Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Not so fast. Bucs coach Jon Gruden has never beaten the Saints in Tampa and he knows the voodoo that they do, having seen some of the worst collapses in club history. Last season, the Saints rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes. A fumble by Bucs running back Michael Pittman led to a touchdown pass to Donte' Stallworth with 32 seconds remaining.

Two years ago, in Gruden's first regular-season game coaching the Bucs, punter Tom Tupa threw an interception in his own end zone in overtime to end the game.
"I just know it's part of the history of this series that they have won here," Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "And defending our home turf is something we talked about way back in training camp. And going 6-2 here at home, we definitely would accomplish that goal. And again, just concentrate on the next game. Continue to focus on New Orleans. I think in that mind-set, we'll be ready to go. Just knowing there's another week for us to get better, win a division title and have some momentum going into next week hosting a playoff game."

In fact, the Bucs don't have to worry about motivation. Unless the New York Giants win at Oakland on Saturday night, the Bucs won't have clinched a playoff spot when they kick off against New Orleans.

The Saints are 3-12 and have endured a horrific season of being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and playing "home" games in three cities.
But New Orleans still is very talented, especially on defense, and knows how to play the Bucs.

"We're expecting everything they've got. It's not like they are a really bad team," cornerback Juran Bolden said. "They've got some really great guys over there. Great talent. It's just the fact things didn't happen their way. Starting with Hurricane Katrina. All the way to what's going on moving from here to there. It mean, it's real tough on those guys. You've got to take your hats off for them because they stuck through it regardless of where they had to go. They showed up, they tried, they did what they had to do. Unfortunately, they wouldn't win all of the time. But they still come out every week and try to battle to win."

The Bucs could be without several starters Sunday. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker (ankle sprain), receiver Michael Clayton (out with a turf toe) and safety Jermaine Phillips (knee sprain) all could miss Sunday's game.

That's just another reason why the Bucs aren't taking New Orleans lightly.

"Look what happened to Cincinnati against Buffalo," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "It's the NFL. Any given Sunday, anything can happen. We have to go out there and we have to play New Orleans as if they're the most important team on our schedule because they're the next opponent." Said defensive end Simeon Rice, "It's important to finish this thing the way we started. It's about W's at this point. Coming into the playoffs, we want to finish the way we started, in a dominant fashion, just kind of preview what we're about and how we've been doing it under the radar all year long."

SERIES HISTORY: 28th meeting. The Saints lead the series 17-10, but Tampa Bay has won three of the past four meetings. However, New Orleans has won three straight at Raymond James Stadium, where Jon Gruden has never beaten the Saints.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Bucs defensive end Dewayne White was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. In the Bucs' 27-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons, White blocked a potential game-winning, 28-yard field goal attempt by Todd Peterson in overtime. The Bucs eventually won on Matt Bryant's 41-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining in overtime. "We've been trying to block one all year," White said. "We came close a couple of times. To actually have to block it and get the win was great."

--Quarterback Chris Simms loves home cooking. Preparing for games is much easier without having to worry about crowd noise, Simms said. "Wednesday, Thursday and Friday without those speakers out there is so big, I go home with a ringing in my head because I'm yelling the whole practice," Simms said. "Even when I'm in the huddle calling the play, I'm trying to yell because they've got the crowd noise. It's more than any crowd noise you've ever heard before. We're playing in front of 200,000 people out there, and it's a stadium the size of Raymond James. It's extremely loud."

--Rookie Cadillac Williams needs 103 yards for the first 1,200-yard rushing season for the Bucs since Errict Rhett in '95 (1,207).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't know how drastic it is. That's up to people who measure 'drastic-ticity' or whatever the word is." - Coach Jon Gruden on the Bucs' drastic turnaround from 5-11 to potentially 11-5.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Veteran Todd Steussie could start at right tackle for Kenyatta Walker (ankle sprain). The Bucs also might be forced to play TE Alex Smith and Will Heller in place of injured starter Anthony Becht.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR Michael Clayton is out with a turf toe injury for Sunday's game against the Saints. It's uncertain whether he will return if the Bucs make the playoffs.

--TE Anthony Becht has a right ankle sprain and is questionable for Sunday's game. Becht was limited in practice.

--WR Mark Jones has a foot sprain and is questionable for Sunday's game against the Saints.

--RT Kenyatta Walker has a right ankle sprain and is questionable for Sunday's game.

--S Jermaine Phillips was upgraded to questionable for Sunday's game against the Saints. Phillips has a right knee sprain and did not practice Thursday.

--DT Anthony McFarland is probable for Sunday's game (hamstring).

GAME PLAN:
The Bucs' game plan on offense is simple: Hand the ball to Cadillac Williams and get out of the way. The Bucs' rookie is gunning for his seventh 100-yard rushing game this season. He had 96 yards in Tampa Bay's 10-3 win over New Orleans in Baton Rouge, La., earlier this season. Offensively, Tampa Bay has some issues in pass protection, and the Saints' defensive front is still a very talented one, with defensive end Will Smith leading the way with 8.5 sacks.
Defensively, the Bucs should have some opportunities to create turnovers against Saints QB Todd Bouman. Tampa Bay intercepted Aaron Brooks four times in the last meeting with New Orleans, including three by CB Ronde Barber.

"I think we're facing Todd Bouman at quarterback," DT Chris Hovan said. "Aaron Brooks is still a dangerous guy if they decide to bring him in the game. It's a two-headed beast, you know. I just think we have to get ready. I think if we go out and we played our game this Sunday, very physical and eliminate the penalties, I think we'll be all right."

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

--Saints WR Joe Horn vs. Bucs CB Ronde Barber. Horn was held to two catches for 40 yards in the Bucs' first meeting with the Saints. Barber had three interceptions, including one at the goal line to save a tying touchdown.

--Bucs RB Cadillac Williams vs. Saints LB Ronald McKinnon. Williams is going for his seventh 100-yard rushing game and went for 96 against the Saints in the first meeting. McKinnon leads New Orleans with 97 tackles.

--Saints QB Todd Bouman vs. Bucs pass defense. Bouman, who replaced Aaron Brooks two weeks ago, enters the game with a 46.1 passer rating. He has thrown one touchdown and five interceptions in two games. The Bucs are ranked fourth in the NFL in passing defense.

INJURY IMPACT: The Bucs' biggest concern is the status of RT Kenyatta Walker (ankle sprain). Tampa Bay has started the same five offensive linemen for 15 straight games. If Walker is unable to play, the Bucs will be forced to turn to veteran Todd Steussie, who might not hold up in pass protection. PR Mark Jones also is questionable with a foot sprain. Veteran WR Ike Hilliard would return punts if Jones is unable to play.


===============
NEW YORK GIANTS
===============


The ongoing discussion involving strongside linebacker Carlos Emmons and the Giants has taken a new turn. On Tuesday, the Giants placed the 10-year veteran on injured reserve with a sprained pectoral muscle. The move disqualified him not only from Saturday night's season finale against Oakland but also from any playoff appearances, and he vented his anger and displeasure to the media.

He claimed, among other things, that the Giants didn't tell him he was going to be placed on IR until Tuesday morning, but that "the new guy," who turned out to be seven-year veteran Jay Foreman, had been flown in the day before and was already in meetings. Emmons said that his injury was healing, that while he probably couldn't play against Oakland, he would be able to answer the bell for the first playoff game the next weekend. He also said that he rushed back from the same injury earlier in the season "for the reason that the team needed me," and that there was a risk then of tearing the muscle and requiring surgery.

"They let me play," he said, "and if there was a risk then that they shrugged off, why is the risk so important now?"

Sources close to the team indicated that the decision was made for two viable reasons. Emmons, in the estimation of the coaches, had not been playing particularly well, and with the injury still a factor, he was an iffy proposition. Also, the injury could result in a tear on any play, and if that occurred, the Giants would be minus one roster spot since changes cannot be made in the postseason. So they decided that it was better to bring in a healthy linebacker than to take a chance on losing one for the playoffs who hadn't been playing that well anyway.

It makes sense, and at the same time it indicates the cold-blooded nature of the big business that is the NFL.

At this point, since Emmons criticized the team in public and impugned coach Tom Coughlin (which is never allowed), it was also suggested that his return next season might be questionable at best. Yet another suspicion, not voiced by any team official or player, is that this was payback for the morning of Dec. 15, when the Giants were to play Kansas City, when Emmons walked into the locker room at 10 a.m., saying his pectoral muscle had been re-injured in practice during the week and that he did not feel comfortable playing that day.

No comment or response was received from anyone in charge, of course, but it is just another indication of an apparently growing unrest among the team's players and the harsh methods employed by Coughlin and the front office.

There has as yet been no comment on a rumor that wide receiver Plaxico Burress, when summoned to gather with the rest of the team by Coughlin, stayed by his locker in the rear of the clubhouse and responded: "I can hear you fine from here."

SERIES HISTORY: The Giants and the Raiders have met only nine previous times, with Oakland holding a 7-2 lead. Oakland has won the last four games. The Giants only victories were back-to-back in 1986 and 1989. The last meeting was a 28-10 Raiders victory in Giants Stadium in 2001.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Linebacker Jay Foreman (6-foot-2, 247 pounds) was signed as a free agent and will see action either from scrimmage or with the special teams. He is the son of former Minnesota Viking Pro Bowl running back Chuck Foreman. He was assigned the locker once used by Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, and a bronze plaque over the nameplate attests to that. "Pretty good company, isn't it?" he grinned.

--Defensive end Osi Umenyiora on the Giants' road record: "We have struggled every time we've gone on the road, and I don't know what the reason could be. This is our chance to get rid of it for good and just blow them out."
--Rookie Corey Webster is going to start at right cornerback in place of Curtis Deloatch. When asked if this was because Webster has been playing well in a substitute's role or if it had more to do with the fact that Deloatch was struggling, coach Tom Coughlin had a one-word answer: "Both."

--Quarterback Eli Manning on his current performance level: "I am not satisfied with the way I've been playing. Nobody would be. So we have to go out to Oakland and get a win, and I have to play well. My goal is to improve each week and get a win. And no, just making the playoffs is not satisfying. We need to win the division, and winning Saturday will do it."

--Left defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy was a college roommate and teammate of Oakland defensive end Derrick Burgess when both attended the University of Mississippi. "Yeah, we're good friends," he said, smiling. "We talk to each other all the time. I called him last night (Tuesday) and we trash-talked to each other."

--Right defensive tackle William Joseph, who should be able to play after three weeks out with a sprained ankle, is looking forward to the action. "Besides, they (the Raiders) don't have anybody on their team from (the University of) Miami," he said. "So how good can they be?"

--Left defensive end Michael Strahan isn't satisfied yet. "We're in the playoffs, but our goal was to win the division," he said. "We can do that if we beat Oakland on Saturday. We need to move into the playoffs on a winning note."

BY THE NUMBERS: There are nine possibilities (out of 29) that would make the Giants the third seed in the playoffs and thus the host team against the sixth seed (the lesser of the two wild-card entrants). Seven involve a Giants victory over Oakland and two involve a tie between the Giants and Carolina. The Giants hold an insurmountable 10-game lead in strength of schedule, the tiebreaker that would make the Giants the third seed.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Does it feel good? No, man, it's an empty feeling. Thank God for this chance to make it right." - Giants defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy on how he feels about "backing into" a wild-card spot rather than winning the NFC East last week, when the team lost to Washington.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

There will be roster changes aplenty on defense, but coach Tom Coughlin isn't sharing any of that with the public. He has, however, admitted that rookie Corey Webster will start for Curtis Deloatch at right cornerback. Other changes are expected to be made among the starting linebackers, and even WLB Nick Greisen isn't guaranteed of staying there. He may move to middle linebacker, where both Antonio Pierce and second-teamer Chase Blackburn are out due to injury. That would put Roman Phifer or Jay Foreman at the strong side, with Reggie Torbor the likely starter on the weak side. Rookie Eric Moore and Justin Tuck are also possibilities.

Offensively, the Giants should get RT Kareem McKenzie back after three weeks, putting the offensive line at full strength for the first time during that period. LT Luke Petitgout returned last week, allowing David Diehl to go back to his left guard spot.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--TE Jeremy Shockey did not practice Thursday (sprained ankle) but is considered a likely starter. He suffered the sprain last week against Washington.

--LCB Will Allen, who has not played well lately and who allowed Redskins' WR Santana Moss to get loose for two long TD catches last week, is the starter for now, but rumors persist that when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in March, the Giants will make only a cursory attempt to re-sign him.

--QB Eli Manning, whose arrival via the draft-day trade with San Diego in 2004 led to the angry demand for a release by QB Kerry Collins, now with the Raiders, says he doesn't really know Collins and has no ill will. "I think he is a very talented player," he said. "He took the Giants to the Super Bowl (2000 season), and I have met him once, as he got off the bus when the Raiders came here (Giants Stadium) to play the Jets. I walked up and shook his hand."

--LB Jay Foreman becomes the third player on the Giants' roster whose father also played in the NFL. He is the son of Minnesota great RB Chuck Foreman; sub QB Tim Hasselbeck is the son of former TE Don Hasselbeck; and LB Barrett Green, currently on injured reserve, is the son of former Giants SS Joe Green.

--RG Chris Snee was exonerated from the holding penalty that cost the Giants a touchdown last week against Washington (it negated a Manning to WR Amani Toomer pass), by none other than his father-in-law (Giants coach Tom Coughlin). "The guy tried a spin move on Chris," Coughlin said. "He slipped and Chris just threw him to the ground. Officials have to learn that when they see a guy on the ground, it isn't always because he was held."

GAME PLAN: The Giants will attempt to get RB Tiki Barber loose against an Oakland defense that ranks 25th in the NFL against the rush. To do this, they'll need to neutralize the middle of the Raiders defense, DTs Ted Washington and Tommy Kelly and MLB Danny Clark. If that works, and if the support corps has to move up to help, then QB Eli Manning can begin throwing passes, many of them to be directed at rookie LCB Fabian Washington. The Raiders will attempt to run the ball, but without RB LaMont Jordan (sprained big toe) that isn't a positive option. QB Kerry Collins has a weapon in WR Randy Moss, and he'll try to isolate him against rookie RCB Corey Webster.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

--Giants LDE Michael Strahan gets the blue-ribbon matchup, going against huge Oakland RT Robert Gallery (6-foot-7, 325 pounds), the second player drafted in 2004 (just after Eli Manning). Gallery is less quick than big, but quicker than most for his size. Strahan, whose weight is down to 255-260 pounds, is exceptionally fast off the snap and wily after 13 years in the league.

--Giants RCB Corey Webster, a second round draft pick this year, will have to find a way to contend with Oakland WR Randy Moss and/or Jerry Porter, two of the NFL's best. Each has 70 receptions for a combined 1,429 yards and seven TDs. But without a running game (if RB LaMont Jordan is out due to a sprained big toe) the Giants defense can afford to double-team and play zone formations all game.

INJURY IMPACT

Frankly, it's anybody's guess who the Giants' three linebackers will be and where they'll line up. All coach Tom Coughlin will say is that "we have to make some defensive adjustments" in light of the missing players. That list includes SLB Carlos Emmons, MLB Antonio Pierce, MLB Chase Blackburn and possibly SLB Reggie Torbor.

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