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Friday NFL preview: Vikings, Bengals could have key players return Sunday

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

AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills: Already down top cornerback Stephon Gilmore after he was placed on injured reserve earlier this week, the Bills might be without the services of another starter in their secondary, safety Bacarri Rambo, for Sunday's game at Washington. Rambo did not practice Thursday because of a knee injury, and coach Rex Ryan was unsure if he would be able to play. Rambo has been one of the Bills' more improved players over recent weeks, and his replacement, Duke Williams, would be a liability against Redskins receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. -- Mike Rodak

Miami Dolphins: With the playoffs now out of reach, a big topic in Miami this week is whether the Dolphins (5-8) should "tank" the final three games to improve their draft status. Interim coach Dan Campbell said he wants nothing to do with the term and refuses to buy into the notion that it helps the organization. "What do you gain?" Campbell said. "You gain a higher pick in the draft. But you're also teaching your team to really become some losers." -- James Walker

New England Patriots: Wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, who was claimed on waivers from Atlanta on Wednesday after the Falcons waived him from injured reserve, practiced for the first time Thursday and is expected to address reporters Friday. It's possible he could make his debut Sunday against the Titans, adding depth at a position where the Patriots have been short-handed. -- Mike Reiss

New York Jets: Running back Chris Ivory is 86 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard rushing season -- including high school, college and pro. He will attempt to reach the milestone Saturday night in Dallas, about two hours from his hometown of Longview, Texas. Yes, he was a Cowboys fan growing up. His idol was Emmitt Smith. -- Rich Cimini

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens: Matt Schaub was a full participant in Thursday's practice, but it seems Jimmy Clausen is the front-runner to start Sunday against the Chiefs. Clausen took more than half of the reps in practice, and Schaub appeared to labor on his throws. If the Ravens go with Clausen, he will be seeking his first win as a starter since 2010. If Baltimore goes with Schaub, he'll get a chance to tie his own NFL record of four straight games with a pick-six against a Chiefs defense that has returned three interceptions for touchdowns this season. -- Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals: It's beginning to look like Tyler Eifert won't be playing for the Bengals at San Francisco on Sunday. The tight end remained under concussion protocol Thursday and would have to come off it before the Bengals fly to the West Coast on Friday evening in order to have a legitimate chance of playing. If he misses action this week, it will be the second game he has had to sit out this season, after experiencing a neck/stinger issue earlier this year. While the news isn't very promising for Eifert, it's starting to look positive for cornerback Adam Jones, who practiced for a second straight day after missing last week's game with a foot injury. -- Coley Harvey

Cleveland Browns: If the forecast holds, quarterback Johnny Manziel will get a weather test on Sunday. Temperatures are supposed to be in the low 40s, with a lot of rain and wind. Seattle can be a tough place in December. -- Pat McManamon

Pittsburgh Steelers: Denver is the sixth top-10 defense the Steelers have faced this season, but that hasn't stopped Pittsburgh's second-ranked offense. A big reason is running back DeAngelo Williams, who missed Thursday's practice due to sickness. Williams has been intent on finishing strong and he badly wants his first Super Bowl ring, so count him in for Sunday at Heinz Field. -- Jeremy Fowler

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney has notched three sacks in the past two games after having only 1.5 in his career before that. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was muted in his praise of the former first overall pick. "He's beginning to help us a little bit," Crennel said. "He's been getting healthier as he has gone on and has been able to get on the field. ... He's making progress and we still need him to make progress and help us out." -- Tania Ganguli

Indianapolis Colts: The Colts continue to hurt themselves in the red zone. They're only 1-of-9 inside the opponent's 20-yard line in the past two games. Their lone touchdown came on a play where quarterback Matt Hasselbeck scrambled and found running back Frank Gore against Pittsburgh in Week 13. Hasselbeck ruined a chance for a touchdown when he threw an interception right outside the end zone against the Steelers. "If we keep kicking field goals, we'll be sitting home at the end of the season," receiver T.Y. Hilton said. -- Mike Wells

Jacksonville Jaguars: Tight end Julius Thomas has caught a touchdown pass in four consecutive games. If he catches one against Atlanta on Sunday, he'll tie the longest streak of his career, which he did at the beginning of the 2014 season when he was in Denver. -- Mike DiRocco

Tennessee Titans: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said the absence of outside linebacker Derrick Morgan and cornerback Jason McCourty, two productive veterans who are settling personalities, is the top reason the Titans' defense is backsliding. McCourty played only four games this season and Morgan has been out three games. They are both out for the season, and the Titans don't have the depth to survive well without them. A third starter, strong safety Da'Norris Searcy (hamstring), is likely out against the Patriots as well. -- Paul Kuharsky

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos: Coming off a season-low 34 yards rushing in their loss to the Raiders this past Sunday, the Broncos got a little good injury news. C.J. Anderson, who did not play against Oakland because of an ankle injury, took part in Thursday's workout after being held out of Wednesday's practice. Coach Gary Kubiak said Anderson was "on track to play'' Sunday against the Steelers. At this point, Ronnie Hillman is expected to start against the Steelers, but both of Anderson's 100-yard rushing games this season have come when he did not start the game. -- Jeff Legwold

Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs have spent plenty of time this week working on their field goals and point after touchdowns in practice. Largely because of shaky snaps and holds, the Chiefs have failed on two field goals and three PATs in the past four weeks. Cairo Santos has made 27 of 34 field goal attempts, which ranks 27th in the NFL. -- Adam Teicher

Oakland Raiders: The Raiders have improved in an area they desperately wanted to -- rushing the passer. Last season, the Raiders had 22 sacks, tied for second-fewest in the NFL. This season, they have 34 sacks, which is tied for ninth in the league. Of course, a big reason for the improvement is Khalil Mack. He had four sacks as a rookie last year. This season, he leads the NFL with 14 sacks. -- Bill Williamson

San Diego Chargers: Even though his offense has not scored a touchdown in three of San Diego's past four games, Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich said he remains confident that his group can still move the football and get into the end zone. He noted the Chargers had just two three-and-outs in a loss to Kansas City last week. "The scoring thing has obviously been very frustrating," Reich said. "It's been a tough stretch. There's no denying that. Obviously, the scoreboard shows that. We just have to keep fighting." -- Eric D. Williams

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys: After giving up 230 yards on 44 carries in last week's loss to the Packers, the Cowboys are expecting a heavy dose of Chris Ivory on Saturday night when the Jets visit AT&T Stadium. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has nine touchdown passes in his past three games and Brandon Marshall will be a tough cover, but unless the Cowboys show they can slow down the run better than they did last week, they know they will see a lot of Ivory, who has 914 yards on the season. Coordinator Rod Marinelli said Dallas missed more tackles against Green Bay than in any other game. That will have to change against the Jets. -- Todd Archer

New York Giants: Newly signed defensive tackle Barry Cofield should be in the mix right away and is likely to be active Sunday. Cofield says he bought an Orlando-area gym called D1 in February and has been working out and doing rehab work there since his offseason surgery. He says he's down to 300 pounds from his former playing weight of 310-315. Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Cofield's smart enough that he should pick up the defense very quickly, and he believes he'll be an asset to the defensive line down the stretch. With defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Markus Kuhn, who opened the season as the starters, out due to injury, the Giants need help at the position. -- Dan Graziano

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles go into Sunday's game against the Cardinals as healthy as they've been all season. Cornerback Byron Maxwell returned to practice Thursday. Defensive end Vinny Curry was the only player who missed practice, and that was because of an illness. The Eagles will need all hands to compete with the 11-2 Cardinals. -- Phil Sheridan

Washington Redskins: The Redskins are optimistic about having receiver DeSean Jackson and defensive end Jason Hatcher for Sunday's game against the Bills. With Jackson in the game, the Redskins don't anticipate as many Cover 0 blitzes as the Bills used versus the Eagles last week. Jackson hurt his kneecap against the Bears, while Hatcher is dealing with a pinched nerve in his neck. The Redskins are hopeful he'll be available for more than the 12 snaps he played last week. -- John Keim

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: The Bears will monitor the health of Alshon Jeffery on Friday. The club's No. 1 receiver missed practice Thursday due to an illness. Jeffery is also dealing with a tight calf muscle that caused him problems earlier in the year. On defense, the Bears may have to get creative at nickelback. Both Bryce Callahan (quad) and Sherrick McManis have sat out practice the entire week. Chicago is generally in its nickel package around 50 percent of the time. The Vikings, however, enter Week 15 ranked 31st in passing offense. That could be a huge break for the Bears. -- Jeff Dickerson

Detroit Lions: Heading back to the Superdome this week brings back a lot of memories for quarterback Matthew Stafford. He had his first career game there in 2009, played in his first playoff game there in 2011, and beat Hawaii in a Sugar Bowl there while he was at Georgia. There are some definitive milestone moments for him in New Orleans, although he has never won there as a pro. "A lot of memories go back to playing in that place," Stafford said. -- Michael Rothstein

Green Bay Packers: For only the second time this season, coach Mike McCarthy is taking his team on the road two days before a game. The Packers will leave Friday afternoon for Sunday's game at Oakland. He followed the same schedule before the Week 4 game in San Francisco, a game the Packers won 17-3. Typically, the Packers travel on Saturdays before Sunday games. "You have different challenges and obstacles that we need to do a better job of in our preparation," McCarthy said when discussing his decision to travel early. -- Rob Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings got Linval Joseph back on the practice field Thursday after the nose tackle missed two games with a foot injury, and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd was hoping Joseph would return so he could get back to his spot as the three-technique tackle. Floyd jokingly offered to give Joseph one of his toes so he could return, but coach Mike Zimmer said that wouldn't be necessary. "Hell, I'd give him one instead of Sharrif's," Zimmer said. -- Ben Goessling

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons: If the Falcons want to end their six-game losing streak, they will have to stop Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles and his favorite receivers, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. "It's really impressive. [Robinson and Hurns], those guys have the vertical speed; they're not like lightning, but they go deep and they have really good vertical leaping ability and they really go after the ball," Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith said. "Our corners have to do a really good job on the 50-50 balls downfield on the timing of the jump." -- ESPN.com staff

Carolina Panthers: The Panthers will replace running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) by committee on Sunday against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. Fozzy Whittaker or fullback/running back Mike Tolbert will start depending on the formation, but look for rookie Cameron Artis-Payne to get his share of carries. The coaches really want to see what Artis-Payne can do, and he is more of a feature back type than Whittaker or Tolbert. -- David Newton

New Orleans Saints: Though it hasn't been perfect, coach Sean Payton has been happy so far with his decision to switch defensive coordinators from Rob Ryan to Dennis Allen last month. Payton said there has been a noticeable decrease in misalignments and mental errors, which were among the main reasons why Ryan was fired. And Payton was obviously pleased with the results in last Sunday's 24-17 victory at Tampa Bay, which might have been New Orleans' best effort to date if not for another batch of costly defensive penalties. The Saints appeared to mix in some more zone coverages and do more disguising than they had in past games, which kept quarterback Jameis Winston off-balance. It's promising that New Orleans was able to do that while still avoiding the assignment and alignment issues. -- Mike Triplett

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Technically, the Buccaneers remain alive in the playoff hunt, but need other teams to lose while they win out -- which isn't likely. Coach Lovie Smith lamented the Bucs' poor performance Thursday night when they had so much to play for. After losing twice in a span of five days, Tampa Bay has time to regroup and can still finish .500 at 8-8. "We're disappointed tonight, but we have some positives," Smith said. "We're not there yet." -- Dave Luecking

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals: Despite an ankle injury that kept him out of practice Wednesday, Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson won't be taken off his punt return duties. At one point, a coach told Peterson he may be removed from being the punt returner, and Peterson said he begged to remain. -- Josh Weinfuss

St. Louis Rams: The Rams turned in their best offensive performance of the season en route to a second consecutive win Thursday night against Tampa Bay. Perhaps most encouraging was quarterback Case Keenum's performance as he picked up his second win in three starts for the Rams. The Rams and Keenum can now relax for the weekend before regrouping for a far more difficult challenge next week at Seattle. -- Nick Wagoner

San Francisco 49ers: Jekyll and Hyde much? In the friendly confines of Levi's Stadium, the Niners have given up an NFL-low 95 points. On the road? They have surrendered 220 points -- second-most in the league. Paging the Bengals for a meeting in Santa Clara. -- Paul Gutierrez

Seattle Seahawks: In the last month of the season, no rookie wide receiver has been more productive than Tyler Lockett. Lockett has 20 catches for 280 yards and four touchdowns in the past four games. He has added two more scores as a returner. There were nine wide receivers taken ahead of Lockett in the draft, but it looks like general manager John Schneider found a talented weapon in the third round. -- Sheil Kapadia