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Thursday NFL preview: How the Patriots, Panthers will replace injured RBs

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Reiss discusses Jackson, Ball (0:55)

ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss delves into his conversation with RB Brandon Bolden about taking on a greater role in the offense, as well as the team talking to RB Steven Jackson and signing RB Montee Ball to the practice squad for depth. (0:55)

NFL Nation reporters look ahead to what Thursday has in store for each team.

AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills: The Bills' chances of making a miracle run at the playoffs took a hit Wednesday when top cornerback Stephon Gilmore was put on injured reserve after labrum surgery. The news didn't get any better later Wednesday when the Buffalo News reported starting right tackle Seantrel Henderson has Crohn's Disease and could miss the rest of the season. The status of tight end Charles Clay, who sat out Wednesday's practice because of a back injury, is also uncertain. -- Mike Rodak

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are struggling in the secondary -- giving up four touchdown passes last week -- and the situation isn't getting any better with rookie starting cornerback Bobby McCain in concussion protocol this week. Brice McCain is projected to start Sunday against the Chargers. But rookie fifth-round pick Tony Lippett also is getting a look in practice this week, according to head coach Dan Campbell. -- James Walker

New England Patriots: Free-agent RB Steven Jackson was scheduled to arrive in town Wednesday for a visit, and so the next question is if it leads to a signing. The Patriots have only two healthy running backs on their 53-man roster -- Brandon Bolden and James White -- and there has long been mutual admiration between Bill Belichick and Jackson. -- Mike Reiss

New York Jets: Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have scored receiving touchdowns in the same game seven times, tying a league record held by Cris Carter and Randy Moss (Minnesota Vikings, 1998). Facing a thin Cowboys secondary on Saturday night, Marshall and Decker could make it eight times. The Jets are 6-1 when they score in the same game. -- Rich Cimini

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens: Tight end Crockett Gillmore was ruled out for Sunday after his back flared up this week, and he could potentially end up on injured reserve this week. Gillmore was the Ravens' second-best option in the passing game behind wide receiver Kamar Aiken. This doesn't necessarily mean more production for rookie second-round pick Maxx Williams. Gillmore didn't play last Sunday, and Williams didn't have one pass thrown his way. -- Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals: AJ McCarron has dominated the headlines in Cincinnati, but if he's going to have any success in his first career start Sunday, he will need a player who has flown a bit under the radar: Tyler Eifert. The tight end suffered a concussion last Sunday and remained under protocol Wednesday. As a result, he didn't practice. With the days drawing short before the Bengals fly to San Francisco on Friday evening, Thursday could be an important day to determine whether Eifert ultimately plays this week. -- Coley Harvey

Cleveland Browns: Russell Wilson is always mentioned as a guy Johnny Manziel can emulate as Manziel builds an NFL career. Neither are 6 feet, both can move and both can throw on the run. Does Manziel emulate Wilson? "He's a guy who is playing better than or as good as anybody in the entire league right now," Manziel said. "In the last four games, you look at his stats and it's pretty impressive. He's maintained this consistency for the last couple of years so my answer would be, 'Yes.' " -- Pat McManamon

Pittsburgh Steelers: Tight end Heath Miller was sidelined during Wednesday's practice, which is significant for an offense that has targeted Miller 42 times in the last five games. Miller has nursed a rib injury in recent weeks but should be fine for Sunday against Denver, though the practice absence is something to monitor. The Broncos have given up five touchdowns to tight ends, so Miller will be an integral part of the Steelers' offensive attack Sunday. -- Jeremy Fowler

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans: T.J. Yates will start for the Texans on Sunday in Indianapolis as the team works to figure out how to solve the double teams receiver DeAndre Hopkins is enduring. Brian Hoyer, who will miss Sunday's game because of a concussion, was hesitant to throw to Hopkins in the coverages he was seeing. I asked offensive coordinator George Godsey where the line is between forcing the ball into double coverages versus giving Hopkins a chance since he's excellent on contested catches. Godsey noted there are rules and ways to be smart with when to throw into what coverages. "The minute you try to force a ball into double coverage, if it's played with the right technique [by the defensive backs, it] can be very dangerous," Godsey said. "I think from a quarterback standpoint, we don't want to force any balls to anybody." -- Tania Ganguli

Indianapolis Colts: The hope is veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck will return to practice Thursday after watching practice with a sling on his left arm Wednesday. The sling helps limit the spasms in Hasselbeck's ribs, which he injured Sunday against Jacksonville. Charlie Whitehurst will start against Houston on Sunday if Hasselbeck doesn't play. "I feel good about the offense," Whitehurst said. "I feel good about the guys I'll be playing with." -- Mike Wells

Jacksonville Jaguars: Paul Posluszny (fractured right hand) returned to practice Wednesday and coach Gus Bradley said the ninth-year LB looked pretty good running around on the practice field. "It looked like he had fresh legs, to be honest with you," Bradley said. "He looked good." Posluszny will still wear some kind of protective equipment on his hand if he plays Sunday. -- Mike DiRocco

Tennessee Titans: Tight end Delanie Walker has averaged over six catches and 72 yards a game in 2015. The Patriots are known for taking away an opponent's best option and making them find an alternate route to success. If New England can limit Walker, Tennessee has limited alternatives. Kendall Wright is still working his way back from a rib injury and only ran Wednesday. Dorial Green-Beckham has been inconsistent as a rookie. And the rest of the Titans' targets are nowhere near as dynamic as Walker. -- Paul Kuharsky

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos: Quarterback Peyton Manning threw in practice Wednesday -- the first time he has participated in practice since Nov. 13. The Broncos want to gradually ratchet up his workload and see how his healing left foot responds before determining when or if he returns to game action. Manning will not be in uniform for Sunday's game in Pittsburgh and coach Gary Kubiak said while Wednesday's practice went well, Manning's potential return will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis. -- Jeff Legwold

Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs kept quarterback Tyler Bray on the non-football injury list rather than activate him to the 53-player roster. Bray, who tore his ACL playing basketball in January, began his three-week practice window last month and the Chiefs had to make a decision with him. The Chiefs are full at quarterback with Alex Smith, Chase Daniel and Aaron Murray. -- Adam Teicher

Oakland Raiders: Raiders punter Marquette King has been playing very well and he was great in an upset win at Denver on Sunday. He was named ESPN Stats & Information's punter of the week. King punted 10 times in the game. The last five of them were tremendous. On four of them, the Broncos got possession at their 11, 2, 14 and 8. The other was muffed, resulting in a Raiders recovery, which led to the game-winning touchdown. -- Bill Williamson

San Diego Chargers: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was asked this week about playing at Qualcomm Stadium for perhaps the final time Sunday. The Chargers, who have seen their fan turnout dip amid a 3-10 season, are expected to apply for relocation to Los Angeles in January. "I know it hasn't been quite the same," Rivers said. "Much has been made of all the opposing fans and this and that. When you win three games out of 13, you have a hand in that as well. But it doesn't put a damper on it for me how awesome it's been for me for the last 12 years there." -- Eric D. Williams

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys: By releasing Tyler Patmon on Tuesday, the Cowboys have opened up their nickel cornerback during a week in which they face a Jets passing game that can spread the field. The Cowboys figure to call up Terrance Mitchell from the practice squad and could move safety Byron Jones inside if needed. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said Mitchell is physical on the inside, which is something the coaches did not see from Patmon. -- Todd Archer

New York Giants: Giants left tackle Ereck Flowers was able to practice Wednesday, which surprised the Giants two days after he left the game because of a sprained ankle. Flowers has played on a sprained ankle for much of this season, and he says he's determined to play Sunday against the undefeated Panthers. It's not wise to bet against him, but the questions will be how much pain he can tolerate and how much of the game he'll be able to play. The Giants will need him against the Carolina pass rush. -- Dan Graziano

Philadelphia Eagles: Byron Maxwell says he will play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. The Eagles' top cornerback also said he could barely walk Monday, a day after spraining his ankle. A less-than-healthy Maxwell could mean trouble against Cardinals WRs Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd. -- Phil Sheridan

Washington Redskins: DeSean Jackson did not practice Wednesday because of an injured left kneecap, but coach Jay Gruden was not concerned -- yet -- about the WR's availability for Sunday's game vs. Buffalo. Jackson returned to the Chicago game after getting hurt. In the last five games, Jackson has averaged 18.82 yards per catch, but he has yet to surpass 100 yards in a game this season. -- John Keim

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: The Bears hit the practice field Thursday determined to stop Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 103 yards and 20 carries in Week 8. Minnesota scored 10 points in the final 1:49 of play to win 23-20 at Soldier Field. The venue shifts Sunday to TCF Bank Stadium, where the Bears have experienced mixed results. After the Metrodome roof collapsed in 2010, the Bears clinched the NFC North title in frigid temperatures on the University of Minnesota's campus. Last year, however, the Bears dropped the regular-season finale in Minnesota in what proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Marc Trestman and Phil Emery. -- Jeff Dickerson

Detroit Lions: The Lions will start their work preparing for New Orleans in a Monday Night game, and they'll do so after a flurry of moves Tuesday, including the release of a former starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle and the signing of a backup center to potentially push incumbent Travis Swanson. The offensive line has struggled throughout the season and could be of even more importance over the next three weeks as the team sorts out who should be part of the 2016 line, while trying to keep Matthew Stafford upright and healthy. -- Michael Rothstein

Green Bay Packers: The question of the week all season has seemingly been this: What can the Packers expect out of Eddie Lacy? His roller-coaster year continued Sunday. A week after his demotion for blowing curfew before the game in Detroit, he rushed for a season-high 124 yards against the Cowboys. "He's definitely coming off probably his best week and he needs to emulate that again this week, starting with his preparation," coach Mike McCarthy said. -- Rob Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings: Coach Mike Zimmer has praised Jay Cutler on several occasions this week for the improvements the Bears' QB has made taking care of the ball. Said Zimmer: "I see him making a lot of good decisions as opposed to in the past, maybe he didn't make quite as good of ones." As the Vikings continue to deal with injuries on defense, they will have to hope they can pressure Cutler enough to make the bad version of him come out. -- Ben Goessling

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons: After a 5-0 start has deteriorated to 6-7, there's speculation about possible changes in the Falcons' front office. Some wonder if general manager Thomas Dimitroff will have his duties further diluted. First-year coach Dan Quinn says he and Dimitroff are on the same page and all he is worried about is winning. "I don't worry about external factors. How good can we play? Thomas is a really big part of why I wanted to be here. The respect I have for him, and the partnership that I wanted to help create. ... We're in sync in every facet from the time we got here to every process." -- Heather Burns

Carolina Panthers: The Panthers are getting rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne ready for his first carries since October against Philadelphia, with starter Jonathan Stewart (sprained foot) already ruled out. Fozzy Whittaker or Mike Tolbert probably will get the start, but Artis-Payne is the player coach Ron Rivera mentioned before the season as more of an every-down back compared to the other two should Stewart be unavailable. Artis-Payne has been saying for weeks he is ready, and he's eager to get a chance to prove himself after eight straight weeks on the inactive list. -- David Newton

New Orleans Saints: The most positive stat for the Saints this season: They have the best third-down conversion rate in the NFL at 47 percent. That's nothing new for New Orleans, which also led the league in that category last year at 48.3 percent while finishing with a losing record. This past Sunday, the Saints went 12-of-17 on third downs (71 percent), which allowed them to stick with their run game for a total of 32 carries by running backs, even though they averaged less than three yards per carry. They won the time of possession by more than 14 minutes (37:14 to 22:46). -- Mike Triplett

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tampa Bay will be without Vincent Jackson for Thursday's game at St. Louis. Jackson suffered a knee injury against New Orleans that will keep him out. When Jackson missed time from Weeks 8-10, Mike Evans averaged 6.3 catches and 108 yards. -- Rick Brown

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals: If the Cardinals' offense continues to click, Sunday night's game against the Eagles can be record-setting. QB Carson Palmer is 271 yards and a touchdown away from tying his career highs. WR John Brown is 105 receiving yards away from reaching 1,000 for the first time in his career. And the Cardinals are 23 points away from breaking the franchise record for most points in a season. -- Josh Weinfuss

St. Louis Rams: The Rams host Tampa Bay on Thursday night in what could be their final home game in St. Louis. That won't be decided until later, but one thing the Rams can do is get their second win in a row to keep their incredibly slim hopes of a postseason berth alive. -- Nick Wagoner

San Francisco 49ers: No, he did not shout it from the mountaintop, but left guard Alex Boone did let reporters know Wednesday in the 49ers' locker room that he hoped to return to the 49ers next season as a free agent ... unless someone else comes calling. "I'll listen to anyone," said Boone, who is nursing a right knee injury suffered in Sunday's loss at the Browns. "I'm excited about free agency, but at the same time I'd love to hear an offer from the Niners." -- Paul Gutierrez

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks will go into Sunday's game with two running backs who weren't on the roster a week ago: Bryce Brown and Christine Michael. Look for both players to get opportunities against the Cleveland Browns. With Fred Jackson as the third-down back, the offense probably will employ a running-back-by-committee approach for the next couple of games. The hope is Marshawn Lynch can rehab from surgery associated with a sports hernia injury and return at some point in the next few weeks. -- Sheil Kapadia