NFL Preview – San Francisco (5-4) at NY Giants (3-6) (ET)

By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) – A thrilling finish helped the San Francisco 49ers keep pace in the NFC playoff hunt. A second-half dud kept the New York Giants on track for a third straight year without postseason football. The Niners hope to pick up another key road victory and hand the Giants a fifth straight setback this Sunday when the clubs meet at MetLife Stadium. San Francisco snapped a two-game slide with a 27-24 overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints last weekend, with kicker Phil Dawson coming up with a pair of clutch field goals.

His first from 45 yards out tied the game with 44 seconds remaining and came after Colin Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree for a 51-yard pass on 4th-and-10. Dawson later came out to kick a 35-yard winner with 5:14 left in overtime following Ahamd Brooks’ sack of Saints quarterback Drew Brees that caused a fumble that Chris Borland recovered. Dawson almost never got a chance to make his clutch play as Saints tight end Jimmy Graham appeared to haul in his third touchdown catch of the game on a Hail Mary as time expired in regulation, but he was called for offensive pass interference. ”We were out there playing in a do-or-die situation, and we had guys out there who came up big at the right time,” 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin remarked. ”We said it all week, that we felt our backs were against the wall. This was a must-win game for us and that’s what you saw.”

Kaepernick threw for 210 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown strike to Boldin, who ended with six catches on 95 yards. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde ran for touchdowns in the first quarter and cornerback Chris Culliver and safety Antoine Bethea came up with interceptions. San Francisco improved to 5-4 on the season, one game back of Seattle for second place in the NFC West and three behind first-place Arizona. The Giants, meanwhile, are tied for last place in the NFC East, with Sunday’s 38-17 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks giving New York a fourth loss in a row.

The Giants have allowed an average of 34 points over the slide and lost each game by double-digits. New York led Sunday’s game 17-14 at halftime, but was shut out in the second half and allowed Seattle to run for a franchise-record 350 yards. Eli Manning completed 29-of-44 attempts for 283 yards with a touchdown and an interception for New York.

”In the second half we continued to not tackle very well and not be able to contain the quarterback,” said Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. ”We had a couple of different schemes that were utilized in regard to that, but none of them seemed to work. And offensively, we had the ball in the middle of the field three or four times and didn’t push it beyond that and obviously didn’t score. It’s hard to believe what you saw in the second half.”

Odell Beckham finished with 108 yards on seven catches with Preston Parker accumulating 79 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions. Linebacker Jameel McClain had a game-high 12 tackles, but was part of a Giants defense that allowed Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to score four rushing touchdowns. The Giants have won four of their past five meetings with the Niners and that does not include an overtime victory in San Francisco to win the NFC Championship Game during the 2011 season.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Even after giving up 423 yards to the Saints, the 49ers still rank second in the NFL in total defense (306.4 yards allowed per game) and fifth against the pass at 215.2 YPG. San Francisco is known for its front seven on defense and has had success despite a new look at linebacker. That won’t change this weekend as linebacker Patrick Willis was officially placed on injured reserve due to a toe injury that has held him out of the past three games.

His official loss comes in the same week that Aldon Smith returns to the roster after serving a nine-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies. Though Smith has not been with the club for the entire regular season up to this point, he is still slated to make his season debut versus the Giants. He’ll try to immediately boost San Francisco’s sack total, which stands at 15, and has amassed 42 career sacks over three seasons. ”A big lift,” said Kaepernick of Smith’s return. ”He’s a freak of nature on the field. He’s a huge component to our defense. So, very happy to have him back.”

San Francisco also has been without linebacker NaVarro Bowman all season due to a knee injury, but inside linebackers Michael Wilhoite and the rookie Borland have more than held their own. Borland has 35 tackles in his past two games, including 17 versus the Saints. ”He’s doing a great job. He does have a … sense for the ball,” noted Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh of Borland. ”I’ve been watching it in practice and you watch it in the games he’s like a thief in the night, he’s going to get under somebody, get around somebody.” While Kaepernick didn’t put up outstanding numbers last weekend, he continues to click with Boldin, who was targeted 15 times. The wideout’s 95 receiving yards made him one of 12 players in NFL history to register 12 seasons of at least 600 yards. He also joined Jerry Rice as the only players in league history to reach the mark in each of his first 12 seasons.

The Giants, meanwhile, have their own emerging wide receiver in Beckham, who last weekend became the first Giants rookie to have consecutive 100-yard receiving games since Byron Williams in 1983. No rookie in team history has ever reached the mark in three straight games. San Francisco’s secondary will have to watch Beckham and tight end Larry Donnell, who has led New York in receiving in four of nine games this season. New York should also get a boost with the return of running back Rashad Jennings, who has sat out this entire losing streak due to a knee injury suffered on Oct. 5. His return comes at a great time, with running back Michael Cox landing on IR due to a leg issue and Peyton Hillis out with a concussion.

Jennings still leads the Giants with 396 yards on 91 carries for a 4.4 yards per carry average. Rookie running back Andre Williams does lead all NFC rookies with four rushing touchdowns, but averages just 2.9 yards a carry. ”Having Rashad back will definitely be helpful,” said Manning. ”Andre’s done a great job at running back but having that one-two punch is going to be a good combination. He was playing well for us before he got injured, does a lot of things in the pass game and in the run game, so it will be good to have both guys in there.”

New York will need to slow down the Niners’ own 1-2 punch of Gore and Hyde, but come in ranking dead last in the NFL with 404.9 yards allowed per game and 144.7 on the ground. ”(The 49ers) are going to run. That is their deal,” said Coughlin. ”They are going to set things up with the run. You have to be very, very good and very, very strong. We need turnovers. We need field position. We need all the things we always talk about.”

The Giants allowed Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to run for over 100 yards and face another mobile signal-caller in Kaepernick.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

San Francisco’s offense has been motored by its ground game and has the chance to expand on its numbers against a struggling Giants front line. Stopping Kaepernick and Gore will be key for New York, which is tied for second in the NFL with 13 interceptions but won’t get a chance to make those plays in the secondary if San Francisco has no issues moving the ball on the ground.

Manning, meanwhile, has the unfortunate task of facing a motivated and fresh Smith, who should be in the quarterback’s face all day long. That should make a healthy Jennings a big focus to the offense, but the Giants can’t afford to fall behind.

Sports Network predicted outcome: 49ers 23, Giants 16

Philadelphia 76ers (0-7) at Dallas Mavericks (5-3), 8:30 p.m. (ET)

(SportsNetwork.com) – The Dallas Mavericks have a good chance at win No. 6 when they continue a four-game homestand Thursday versus the Philadelphia 76ers at American Airlines Center. The Mavericks posted an impressive comeback over the Sacramento Kings in Tuesday’s 106-98 decision and rallied from a 24-point deficit (44-20) in the second quarter. Dallas, which was down 32-14 after 12 minutes, trimmed the hole to 57-48 at halftime and used a big run to take a 69-67 edge.

Dallas outscored Sacramento 30-15 in the third and went on to win for the fifth time in eight games this season. Dirk Nowitzki scored 23 points, Chandler Parsons had 19 and Monta Ellis ended with 16 points for the Mavericks, who shot 47.5 percent and scored 15 points off 22 Sacramento turnovers. Nowitzki (26.953) passed Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon (26,946) for ninth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and became the all-time leader in scoring for a foreign born player. He needs 47 points for 27,000 and will be the ninth player to reach that mark.

”It was special to do it in front of the home crowd,” Nowitzki said. ”They knew exactly how many points I needed. You know to pass ”The Dream’ is unbelievable. I was watching the NBA in the 90s.” Nowitzki is three games away (1,196) from matching Eddie Johnson and Derek Harper in games played. He is currently tied with Dikembe Mutombo for 33rd on the all-time list. Dallas guard Jameer Nelson left the game in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury and is questionable Thursday. The Mavs, who sit third in the NBA with 105.1 points per game, are 3-1 at home and will host Minnesota on Saturday.

Philadelphia is 0-7 this season and could be looking down an 0-10 start with the next three games in Texas against Dallas, Houston and defending champion San Antonio. The 76ers started 0-15 back in 1972-73 and will have some reinforcements for the opener of this Lone Star State tour. Reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams is expected to make his season debut after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Carter-Williams averaged 16.7 points, 6.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds in 70 games last season, and is excited to join his teammates. ”I am real anxious to be out there,” Carter-Williams said. ”I am probably too anxious. I need to relax a bit. I need to get the feel of real live situations, but I am excited to be back out there.”

Sixers forward/center Nerlens Noel has missed the last two games with a sprained ankle and is probable for Thursday’s game. He is averaging 7.2 points and 5.6 rebounds, and will be on the floor with Carter-Williams for the first time. The two are expected to be the cornerstones of the franchise. ”We will welcome them back with open arms,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said Wednesday. ”There has been a spirit at practice that has been noticeable. I think it is born out of having two friends back, two teammates back, and two pretty good players.”

Brown said he doubts MCW will play big minutes right away. Noel added that the team is still without 2014 lottery picks Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. Embiid is expected to miss the season and Saric is tied to a contract overseas. The 76ers opened a four-game road trip with Sunday’s 120-88 blowout loss to the Toronto Raptors. Leading scorer Tony Wroten (21.9 ppg) posted 18 points and has been the lone bright spot for the team. Chris Johnson had 16 off the bench and Alexey Shved finished 14 in a reserve role. Philadelphia made 37.9 percent of its shots and committed 20 turnovers, leading to 28 Toronto points.

”We came in here and we got manhandled,” Brown said. ”They have elite athletes that can score.” The Sixers, who are allowing 106.1 ppg, are 0-3 on the road this season and finished the 2013-14 campaign with a 9-32 mark as the guest.

Dallas beat Philadelphia twice last season and has won 13 of the last 16 games in this series. The Sixers are winless in eight straight trips to Big D and have a 1-10 mark in the previous 11 games at Dallas.

NFL Preview – Tampa Bay (1-8) at Washington (3-6) (ET)

(SportsNetwork.com) – Washington Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson isn’t known for his vocal leadership in the locker room and does his talking on the football field. Jackson made news off the gridiron in regards to the situation surrounding Robert Griffin III and the Redskins hope to rally behind their quarterback Sunday versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field. Amid reports of a divided locker room and Griffin allegedly alienating himself from his teammates, Jackson felt it was time to speak up.

”I just felt it was needed. Silence is sometimes a good thing, but if you have an opinion on a topic or a certain situation, then it needs to be spoken, and that’s what I felt,” Jackson said. ”You have to understand the importance of supporting one another. We’re in this locker room together. We work so hard. We compete and do all them great things. But if everyone’s not on one page, it’s hard to get the benefit of the doubt.”

Redskins first-year head coach Jay Gruden said the normally quiet Jackson usually sits with a hooded sweatshirt on. ”He’s starting to open up a little bit,” Gruden said. ”People have a lot of respect for him as a player for what he does when the lights are on. But, now that he’s starting to be a little more vocal behind the scenes, it’s good to see.” Jackson leads the Redskins with 784 yards and four touchdowns on 61 receptions, and has recorded back-to-back 100-yard games. He had 120 yards and a score on four catches in a 29-26 loss at Minnesota on Nov. 2, one week before the bye. Jackson, in his first season with Washington, has five games with 100 or more yards receiving.

Jackson leads the NFL with 21.8 yards per reception. He has never posted three straight 100-yard games in his career. D-Jack is the reason why the Redskins are sixth in passing yards (282.3) and seventh in total yards (386.9).The Redskins, who are 3-6 on the season and tied for last in the NFC East with the New York Giants, are trying to surpass last year’s win total of three and come into Sunday’s game refreshed and energized. ”It was good for everybody to get away, see their families and get some quality time away from this building,” Gruden said. ”But now that everybody’s back, we’re focusing on what we’re doing and getting ready for Tampa.” Washington was 3-6 at one point in 2012 and ripped off seven straight wins to win the division and reach the postseason.

”When you go back and just look at what’s going on, being 3-6, you look at the six losses and there’s a play here and a play there that we’re just so close to being 7-2 as opposed to 3-6,” Gruden said. ”That’s the way the NFL is right now.” Tampa Bay is a disappointing 1-8 on the season, the first for head coach Lovie Smith. Smith’s Bucs lost for a fifth straight time in Sunday’s 27-17 setback to Atlanta at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers have been outscored, 83-31, in two games against Atlanta this season and actually had more yards (373) than the Falcons (322). Three turnovers hurt the Bucs and quarterback Josh McCown threw for 301 yards with a pair of touchdown passes and two interceptions.

”One-and-eight,” McCown said. ”One-and-eight. You want to show your teammates and the coaches and the fans and your family and everybody that you’re better than that, and it just hurts. We lost, and as the quarterback it starts with me. It’s disappointing.” McCown was making his first start since Sept. 18 after taking over for the ineffective Mike Glennon. McCown has thrown an INT in every game this season (6 total) and the Bucs are 0-4 in his starts.

Rookie wide receiver Mike Evans caught seven passes for 125 yards and a touchdown and is tied for third among rookies with five TD catches and 585 receiving yards. In a Week 9 loss at Cleveland, Evans became the youngest player in NFL history with at least 100 receiving yards (124) and two touchdowns (two) in a game. ”He’s got an unbelievable skill set and is super talented,” McCown said. ”But more than that, his focus and attention to detail are what give Mike an edge. To see what Mike is doing now and how he’s developing and coming along, that’s huge for us. It’s reflective of the way he works and the type of competitor that he is.”

The Buccaneers will play two straight and four of the next five games on the road, and their only win this season came in Pittsburgh on Sept. 28. Tampa Bay and Washington have split 18 meetings in the regular season and two games in the playoffs. In a 24-22 Redskins victory over the Bucs on Sept. 30, 2012, Griffin threw for 323 yards and Alfred Morris compiled 113 rushing yards and a score. Vincent Jackson caught six balls for 100 yards and a touchdown in that one for Tampa Bay, which has lost two of three to the Redskins.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Griffin made his first start since Week 2 in the loss to the Vikings and completed 18-of-28 passes for 251 yards and one touchdown. He also threw an interception and added 24 rushing yards on seven carries. The former Heisman Trophy winner threw some passes he would like back and many wonder if he’s fully recovered from a dislocated ankle. When healthy and on top of his game, Griffin can be a nightmare for opposing defenses. He keeps the defense honest with his scrambling ability, but putting RG3 in harm’s way is not a good idea at this point.

Washington has proven it can air it out and eat up yards. If only the Redskins could produce better results on the ground. Morris has 605 yards on the season and is on his way for a third straight 1,000-yard campaign. Morris, though, has yet to record 100 yards rushing in a game and had a season-high 92 yards and two TDs on 19 carries in Minnesota.

The Redskins are 28th in rushing yards with 90.0 ypg. ”I think the big thing is we’ve got to continue focusing on situational football,” Gruden said. ”Whether it’s third downs, whether it’s two-minute drills, whether it’s we got the ball at the plus-40 and all we need is 10 yards to get a field for overtime or a touchdown.” Gruden said Washington just has to put it all together for 60 minutes and stay consistent in the week-to-week approach. The plug hasn’t been pulled on the Redskins just yet, but it’s definitely dangling in the socket.

An effective Morris will open the aerial assault for the Redskins, who will face a Bucs defense rated 31st against the pass (277.1 ypg). That should make Jackson and fellow receiver Pierre Garcon excited. Tampa Bay is also just 29th in total yards allowed (391.2) and 31st in points allowed (30.2). Only Chicago is worse with 30.8 points allowed. The Bucs have two stout linebackers in leading tackler Lavonte David (103) and Danny Lansanah. Lansanah and cornerback Johnthan Banks have two interceptions apiece, while defensive tackle Gerald McCoy boasts a team-best five sacks.

McCoy isn’t too pleased with the current state of the Buccaneers. ”It’s really frustrating,” McCoy said after the loss to the Falcons. ”You can’t think of a reason behind it. It all comes down to just doing it. We’ve just got to do it. I don’t know man, I don’t know. I know we’re going to keep going. ”We’ve got to be more disciplined, because a lot of points in the game we were at because of penalties. We were a very undisciplined team, very undisciplined team.”

Tampa Bay was penalized 10 times for 79 yards last week. It cannot afford to give the Redskins chances Sunday or the Bucs will be 1-9 for the first time since starting the 2009 season 1-12. Bobby Rainey leads the Bucs with 388 rushing yards and had only 14 on six carries last week. Rookie RB Charles Sims had a team-best eight carries for 23 yards versus Atlanta and could see a more extended role against a Washington team allowing more than 100 rushing yards a game (110.4).

The Redskins are tough against the pass, giving up 222.9 ypg, so it’s important Tampa Bay gets the ball rolling on the ground. ”Without going into detail (without) watching the video, if you don’t have production from your running game, you’re going to start with the offensive line first and everybody involved in that,” Smith explained. ”From there, though, as a running back, when you get a couple of holes, you need to make someone miss and be able to get yards that way.”

Bucs running back Doug Martin is questionable with an ankle injury and has missed the last two games. Martin has been a huge disappointment with 166 yards and only one TD on 58 carries in five games. The Redskins will have a big body in the middle to help stop Tampa’s run game, as defensive tackle Barry Cofield was added to the active roster from the reserved/injured list. Cofield was placed on the short-term IR list Sept. 9 after suffering a high ankle sprain in the team’s Week 1 loss to Houston.

”He just adds more depth,” Gruden said of Cofield. ”He’s obviously a good player. We think a lot of him, and in his absence guys have stepped up and done some good things. But it to add another big body to the mix, as far as rotations are concerned, it can’t hurt, especially one with his ability.”

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Redskins have had plenty of time to lick their wounds, rest and prepare for the lowly Buccaneers. Giving Griffin another week will benefit a squad still clinging to hopes of making a turnaround for the second time in two years. Look for Morris to get his first 100-yard rushing game of 2014 and Washington moving out of the NFC East basement.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Redskins 27, Buccaneers 17