The storylines are starting to take over the individual matchups around the National Football League as we start the final quarter of the regular season.
From a whole host of teams technically tied for the last wild card spot in the AFC to questions being raised about who the best team in the NFC West is, there is a lot to look at entering Week 14.
Here is the top storyline for each Week 14 NFL game.
Dallas Cowboys at Chicago Bears: Cowboys Look to Remain Viable in the Playoff Race
It wasn’t too long ago that the Cowboys were considered one of the top teams in the NFL. Now after losing three of their past five, Jerry Jones’ boys are on the outside looking in when it comes to a playoff spot. By virtue of an odd three-way tiebreaker for the playoffs, the Cowboys would not make it if the season were to end today. This means that Dallas has a whole lot of work to do in order to earn that rare postseason spot.
A few weeks ago, this game against the Bears seemed a lot easier than it is today. Chicago has won two of its past three games and is playing some good football. And despite being out of the playoff race, Jay Cutler and Co. will come to play in a nationally televised home game at Soldier Field. A loss here by the Cowboys, and their chances to make the playoffs take a dramatic hit. Depending on the outcome of San Francisco’s game against Oakland, it could mean yet another notch down in the NFC Playoff picture. In reality, this is a must win for Dallas here.
Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins: Playoff Implications Galore
Both Baltimore and Miami sit at 7-5 on the season, but the Dolphins currently hold the six-way tiebreaker for the final wild card spot in the AFC. A win here by the home team, and a playoff appearance becomes extremely likely. The issue here is that Miami is 3-5 against teams that currently boast a winning record. Meanwhile, the Ravens are 2-5 against winning clubs. Something has to give, right?
Not only is Baltimore currently behind Miami in the race for the sixth spot, its 1.5 games behind Cincinnati in the AFC North. A loss here would mean that Joe Flacco and Co. would have to look squarely at a wild card berth while being one game behind Miami and already losing out on the head-to-head-tiebreaker. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is a must win for Baltimore. The same can also be said for Miami.
Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns: Brian Hoyer’s Quick Hook
Hoyer may have been named the team’s starting quarterback for Week 14, but it’s highly likely that he will be given a quick hook should he struggle early on here. Hoyer has thrown one touchdown compared to six interceptions and boasts a horrendous 47.1 quarterback rating over the past four games. Needless to say, that’s not going to get it done. Should Hoyer struggle early, the Browns will likely turn to rookie Johnny Manziel.
As it relates to playoff implications, they are real here for both squads. Indianapolis can earn the AFC South title with a win here and a loss by Houston to Jacksonville. Meanwhile, the Browns are the last of six seven-win teams based on current tiebreakers. While this is most definitely not a must win for the road team, Cleveland needs to pull out a victory in order to remain viable in the playoff race moving forward.
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees and Co. Looking to Get Back on Track at Home
New Orleans pretty much saved its season by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road last week. It’s a performance that not many expected following the Saints losing three consecutive games (all at home) heading into Pittsburgh. Now returning to the Superdome against a lacklsuter Panthers team, the Saints need to show that their home-field advantage still exists. More than that, New Orleans has to take advantage of the Falcons traveling to Green Bay to take on the Packers. The two teams are tied for first in the NFC South. And in reality, it would be seen as a major disappointment for Sean Payton’s squad if that still remains the case following Week 14.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: Pretty Much a Must Win for Pittsburgh
In order to avoid missing out on the postseason for the second consecutive year, the Steelers are likely going to have to go into Cincinnati and beat a Bengals team that has lost just once since mid October. They’re tied with five other teams with seven wins heading into Week 14. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it loses the tiebreaker to every team outside of the Cleveland Browns. More than that, the Steelers can get right back into the AFC North race with a win here. If they do go into Cincinnati and win, the Steelers will then just be a half game out of the division with three weeks left. If they lose, that’s a 2.5 game deficit in the division with Pittsburgh finding itself behind the proverbiel eight-ball in the wild card race.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions: Home Team Can’t Take Lesser Opponents for Granted
The Lions need to continue their momentum against lesser teams in order to stave off the likes of the Cowboys and 49ers for one of the final two wild cards spots. Following a beat down of Chicago on Thanksgiving, Detroit plays the second of four consecutive games against losing teams here. And while the Buccaneers are 2-10 on the season, seven of their 10 losses have come by one score. To say that this could be a trap game for the eight-win Lions would be an understatement. It’s all about keeping up their high level of play against lesser opponents. If Detroit does that, it will earn a playoff spot.
Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars: Texans Continue Playoff Chase
The odds are remote that Houston will find itself in the playoffs when all is said and done, but it still has a fighting chance to make it interesting down the stretch. At 6-6 on the season, Bill O’Brien’s squad is one game behind a half dozen teams for the final wild card spot. It goes without saying that they have to take care of business in the first of two meetings against a bad Jaguars team in order to even be in the conversation when all is said and done.
New York Jets at Minnesota Vikings: Tedd Bridgewater’s Development
Neither of these teams are playing for much right now. For the Jets, it’s all about draft position and what might happen to head coach Rex Ryan at the end of the season. But unlike the Jets, Minnesota has a bit more to look into in the final quarter of the season.
Throwing Teddy Bridgewater to the wolves after the Matt Cassel injury earlier this year has had its ups and downs. The rookie first-round pick has struggled at times, but he’s also coming off a solid performance in a win against the Carolina Panthers last week. Bridgewater completed 15-of-21 passes for 138 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Now over the course of his last five outings, the rookie has racked up seven touchdowns compared to two interceptions. That comes on the heels of him throwing five picks in his previous two outings. For Bridgewater and the Vikings, the remainder of the season is all about progression.
New York Giants at Tennessee Titans: Really?
Five combined wins between these two teams. There really isn’t a whole heck of a lot to look forward to in what amounts to be a meaningless game between two bottom feeders. Outside of the Tom Coughlin narrative in New Jersey, maybe the top storyline here should be how well Zach Mettenberger responds from the first minor injury of his career last week. The rookie has played pretty well for a two-win Titans team.
St. Louis Rams at Washington Redskins: The RGIII Bowl Revisited
While Robert Griffin III will not see action in this one barring an injury to current starter Colt McCoy, all the storylines surrounding this one is the trade that the two teams pulled off leading up to the 2012 NFL draft. As you already know, Washington sent two first-round picks and a second rounder to St. Louis in order to move up in the first round to select RGIII that season. And what looked like a coup following the Redskins surprise trip to the postseason in RGIII’s first season, now looks to have major long-term ramifications for both teams. Washington is playing at an inept level this season, while the Rams seem prepared to turn the corner. Could this be even more magnified come Sunday? That’s the storyline in this one.
Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos: Real Statement Game for the Bills
Now that Buffalo is firmly in the AFC Playoff conversation, it takes on added importance that this team actually finds a way to win against an upper-echelon opponent. Despite boasting a 7-5 record, the Bills are just 3-5 against teams that are .500 or better on the season. Imagine if they were able to go into Mile High and defeat the defending conference champions? That would be absolutely huge for the confidence of this newfound contender.
Unfortunately for the Bills, who are one of the six teams tied for the final wild card spot, the Broncos are 22-3 at home under Peyton Manning. That’s not necessarily a history that Buffalo would like to see repeat itself come Sunday. And to be honest, a loss here would pretty much throw a damper on any playoff hopes for the upstart Bills.
Kansas City Chiefs at Arizona Cardinals: Both Teams Need to Get Back on Track
Kansas City and Arizona enter Sunday’s matchup losers of two consecutive. For the Chiefs, these recent struggles have knocked them out of the sixth and final seed in the AFC. Meanwhile, Arizona is now only one game up on Seattle in the NFC West and boasts one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NFL.
As with every seven-win team in the AFC, Kansas City can look at the rest of the regular season as the playoffs. It will likely have to go 4-0 to guarantee itself a spot in the second season. On the other hand, Arizona’s recent struggles coupled with a rash of injuries has put its playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. Bruce Arians’ squad will likely have to finish 2-2 in order to make it to the playoffs. And with games remaining against the other three teams in the NFC West, this almost become a must win for the Cardinals.
San Francisco 49ers at Oakland Raiders: 49ers Need to Get Back on Track
No, I am not talking about a close victory against a bad team. San Francisco needs to go into Oakland and lay the hammer down against a vastly inferior opponent, especially following a disastrous loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Thanksgiving. Anything short of that would be a disappointment for Jim Harbaugh and Co. No matter how the other afternoon games play out in the NFC West, the 49ers need to show the football world that they aren’t going to go quietly into the night. And with a convincing win against a bad team, they could very well set themselves up for a solid stretch run and potential playoff spot. A loss here, and the 49ers are done. Period.
Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles: Battle of Top-Tier NFC Contenders
Now that the Seahawks are officially out of their funk, they have an opportunity to go into Philadelphia and take out a first-place team to make an even larger statement in the NFC. A statement that would tell the rest of the conference that the defending champs are here to stay. Coming off convincing wins against Arizona and San Francisco, the Seahawks are playing their best football of the season.
As it relates to the Eagles, they are also coming off their most impressive performance of the year against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. If Philadelphia is able to hold court at home, it would also send a serious message to not just the Seahawks, but the rest of the NFC. More than that, it would inch the Eagles closer to the NFC East title. Yes, this is a rather big game.
New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers: Playoff Positioning Everywhere
After a third consecutive victory last week, San Diego is now a full game up on a half dozen teams for the first wild card spot in the AFC. In order to maintain that advantage, Philip Rivers and Co. will have to defeat an angry Patriots squad that’s coming off its first loss since Week 4.
As it relates to the overall playoff picture, this is a huge game. New England is tied with Denver for the top spot in the AFC, but holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with the AFC West leaders. Meanwhile, San Diego is just one game behind Denver in the division and would hold a head-to-head tiebreaker with New England if both teams were to win their division. And in a sign of parity, the Chargers could go from that thought process to being completely out of the top six by the end of the night on Sunday.
Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers: Battle of First-Place Teams
It might be time to start looking at the Falcons as being legitimate. Following what can be described as a blowout victory over Arizona, the first-place Falcons have won three of their last four games and are in the driver’s seat in the horrendous NFC South. Unfortunately for Atlanta, it goes up against the best team in the NFL in a stadium that has seen Aaron Rodgers absolutely destroy opponents in recent seasons.
Photo: USA Today