Packers have a lot working against them

The road to the Super Bowl in the NFC was supposed to go through Chicago this season. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones officially hopes to hang up the "Dallas"' detour sign Thursday night.

In the best NFL game the fewest will see, the Cowboys host the Packers on Thursday night in what could be a preview of the NFC title game. Both teams are 10-1 and both have hot quarterbacks -- Tony Romo (Cowboys) and Brett Favre (Packers). With worries about winning their divisions behind them, the Cowboys and Packers can concentrate on how they are seeded in the playoffs.

The Packers are at a considerable disadvantage; their injury report is scary. Defensive tackle Johnny Jolly, tight end Bubba Franks and safety Aaron Rouse aren't expected to play. Defensive tackle Colin Cole is out for the season. Cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila will be game-day decisions based on how they do in pregame warm-ups. The only good news is that safety Nick Collins will be back after missing two games.

The other problem for the Packers is their inexperience. Favre has been to Super Bowls. Most of his teammates have been to college bowl games only. Seven of the Packers' starting offensive players are 27 or younger, and five came into the league after the Packers finished their last playoff run in 2004.

Favre has joked about not knowing what to expect from this team because it is so young. The 38-year-old has more than a 10-year age gap on most of his teammates. The loose, fearless attitude of his young teammates excites and scares him.

The winner of this game will hold a tie-breaking edge for homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, so a lot is at stake. Both teams are destined for a bye in the playoffs because they have a three-game lead over the Bucs and Seahawks with only five games left. With bye weeks meaning so much in terms of getting teams healthy, the odds are that the Cowboys and Packers will meet again in the NFC title game.

Another factor that tilts this game is the Cowboys' ability to run the ball. Dallas has Julius Jones and Marion Barber in the backfield. The Packers have some downhill running ability with Ryan Grant, but they have relied almost exclusively on a pass-oriented offense.

That puts a lot of pressure on Favre. While Favre is having one of his best seasons, it's not easy to successfully work play-action passes when defenses don't have to worry about the run. Opponents of the Packers haven't had to worry much about putting an eighth defender near the line of scrimmage to stop the run.

A good running attack could be the difference, and maybe it's something the Packers could develop in this game. Grant has done a nice job in recent weeks, and the Cowboys' safeties are vulnerable to play-action fakes.

The odds are stacked against the Packers, but they have been stacked against Green Bay all season. Thanks to Favre, coach Mike McCarthy and a great defense, the Packers are back among the NFL's elite teams. Even if they lose this game, they can use the experience for the next meeting.

1. Jacksonville at Indianapolis: When these teams met last, the Jaguars were 5-1 and the Colts were 6-0. On that Monday night in Jacksonville, the Colts proved that their defense -- loaded with speed -- can contain the Jaguars' powerful running attack. The Colts' 29-7 victory was a statement. Now the Jaguars have to make one final push at the Colts or concede the AFC South.

Jack Del Rio has done his best coaching since that game. The Jags won twice during a three-game road trip with Quinn Gray at quarterback. Del Rio also has survived the suspension of defensive tackle Marcus Stroud and injuries to linebacker Mike Peterson and cornerback Rashean Mathis.

Colts head coach Tony Dungy also has done a remarkable job. His team has been down as many as nine players because of injuries, including key offensive and defensive starters. The Colts have three AFC South home games in the final five weeks, but this is the most important one. If they win this game, they pretty much clinch the division and can set their sights on a playoff rematch with the Patriots in New England.

2. Tampa Bay at New Orleans:
Nothing comes easily for the Bucs. Coach Jon Gruden has taken a 4-12 team and turned it into a potential division champion with guts and hard work. On Sunday, the Bucs could virtually wrap up the NFC South. A win would give them a three-game lead over the Saints, but it won't be easy.

Quarterback Jeff Garcia has a bad back and isn't sure he's going to play. Michael Pittman reinjured his ankle in Week 12, pretty much leaving the running game to Earnest Graham. Plus, the Bucs will be facing a desperate team at the crossroads of its season.

If the Saints want to be a playoff team -- either a division winner or a wild-card team -- they have to win this game. The numbers have been scary for the Saints this season. They have been among the worst in dropped passes, opposing quarterback rating and big plays allowed. The schedule is favorable for the Saints to pass the Lions for the final wild-card spot, but that mission starts with this game. If they can't win a home game against the Bucs, they would almost have to start making plans for next season. Saints fans don't want to do that.

3. N.Y. Giants at Chicago: Few quarterbacks get as much criticism as Eli Manning and Rex Grossman. New York's Manning is vying for his third consecutive trip to the playoffs as a starting quarterback, but his performance drop-offs in the second half of the season continue to kill any confidence fans have in him. Chicago's Grossman started in the Super Bowl, but he's lost his starting job once and is fighting an uphill battle just to stay with the Bears beyond this season.

What's clear is that both quarterbacks need help from the running game, and Grossman could be the loser in that battle. Derrick Ward should be available this week, giving Manning some help even though Brandon Jacobs probably won't be available. Without the threat of the run in Week 12, Manning looked lost against the Vikings. He threw to bad spots and made bad decisions in the passing game. Not that he was much of a factor, but Cedric Benson is lost for the season with an ankle injury, so Grossman has to rely on backups.

4. Cleveland at Arizona: Though their playoff hopes aren't gone yet, the Cardinals know it's do or die in the next two weeks. The overtime loss to the 49ers in Week 12 was devastating. The Browns come to town with supreme confidence. Against Houston in Week 12, the Browns' offense had another big game and their secondary stepped

Browns coach Romeo Crennel might not be willing to say it publicly, but he knows the Cardinals should be able to move the ball through the air. The Cardinals have big, physical receivers who overmatch the Browns' corners. The key to this game will be how Cleveland's Jamal Lewis runs the ball. Lewis is getting hot down the stretch. The Browns are hoping Lewis can chew up yardage and clock, which will keep the Cardinals' offense on the sidelines for long stretches..

5. San Diego at Kansas City: In Week 12 against the Ravens, the Chargers' defense finally looked like the unit that was dominating pro football in 2006. Coach Norv Turner needs to take that show on the road and do the same at Arrowhead.

The Chiefs are a potential standing target. The offensive line is suspect. Quarterback Brodie Croyle is raw. Larry Johnson isn't expected to play.

The Chargers are 1-4 on the road, and they need to show they can play better away from home. After all, the Chargers are looking at only one home playoff game, figuring they will have to travel either to New England or Indianapolis if they advance past the first round.

6. Detroit at Minnesota: The Lions are in free fall. They have lost three games in a row. Momentum is shot. Panic is starting to set in, and Rod Marinelli needs to turn things around quickly. A great 6-2 start is turning into a tease that is driving Lions fans crazy.

The Vikings have gained a lot of confidence in recent weeks. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson might not be putting up big numbers, but he's being more efficient. Running back Adrian Peterson should be back from his knee injury, although the Vikings won't overuse him.

Coach Brad Childress plans to work Peterson back gradually, and he can do that because of the hard running of Chester Taylor. For the Lions to win, they have to make sure they can stop the Vikings' running attack.

7. Houston at Tennessee: Albert Haynesworth says his hamstring injury shouldn't be blamed for the Titans' three-game losing streak, but the Titans' defense isn't the same without him. Haynesworth and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch formed a great one-two punch on one side of the Titans' defensive line.

The Titans hope Haynesworth will be back this week -- they need him. The playoffs are slipping away. Vince Young is having some growing pains at quarterback. And, surprisingly, the running attack has been missing in recent weeks. That can't be blamed on Haynesworth.

8. Buffalo at Washington: The Redskins have to somehow focus on football in the wake of Sean Taylor's death. Expect a lot of emotion at FedEx Field, and don't be surprised if the Redskins play their best football. Coach Joe Gibbs is a strong person and the team will likely rally around his sound leadership.

The Bills are making a switch at quarterback, going to rookie Trent Edwards. Injuries to running back Marshawn Lynch and Anthony Thomas won't help, and having 11 injured players on an already-thin roster might make this a tough road trip.

9. New England at Baltimore: The Patriots looked vulnerable against the Eagles in Week 12, but the Ravens don't have the offense to show them up. Baltimore QB Kyle Boller was betrayed in Week 12 by poor blocking. On defense, the Ravens have a lot of proud veteran players, but they have been beaten too many times in the secondary. Expect a big game from Tom Brady. Oddsmakers set the line at around 20 points. They still can't figure out what to do with the Patriots.

10. Seattle at Philadelphia: The Eagles installed new sod at the stadium, but it has had two weeks to settle, not the two days that made such a mess in Pittsburgh. Coach Andy Reid's biggest decision this week is whether to go with Donovan McNabb or A.J. Feeley at quarterback. Feeley was sensational at times against the Patriots, but McNabb is still the best quarterback on the roster.

The Seahawks don't play their best football away from home, so this will be a good test to see if they can play well on the road against a good team. With road games remaining against Carolina and Atlanta, this is Seattle's last big road test before the playoffs.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.