As the NFL season enters its final quarter, there are some absolutely tremendous games and individual matchups on the slate for Week 14.
It starts with the New Orleans Saints attempting to put a damper on the Atlanta Falcons’ playoff aspirations while remaining alive for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. How will rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore perform against All-Pro receiver Julio Jones in this one?
Remaining in the NFC, the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings will do battle with one another. What can we expect from former Vikings Pro Bowler Matt Kalil as he looks to protect Cam Newton from one of the best defensive lines in the game?
These are among the top matchups for NFL Week 14.
Julio Jones vs Marshon Lattimore
After missing last week’s game against the Carolina Panthers, it’s looking more and more like Lattimore will suit up for the Saints against the defending NFC champion Falcons on Thursday. That’s huge news for a team in New Orleans that’s looking to put a damper on Atlanta’s playoff chances.
A potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate as a rookie, Lattimore has yielded a sub 45 passer rating when targeted. He’s also put up nine passes defended, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a touchdown en route to leading the Saints’ defense to a vast improvement.
On the other side of the ledger, Jones has been horribly inconsistent recently. Back in Week 12, he absolutely dominated Tampa Bay to the tune of 12 receptions for 253 yards two touchdowns. Then, last week against a much better Vikings defense, Jones was held to two catches for 24 yards on six targets. Atlanta needs him to step up this week if it is going to improve off a substandard 7-5 start to the season.
Derek Carr vs Chiefs pass defense
Now that Carr is likely to have both Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree back in the mix this week, there’s absolutely no excuses for last year’s MVP candidate. Oakland heads into Week 14 with a 6-6 mark and tied with Kansas City for first place in the AFC West. It does so with the Chiefs in the midst of a stretch that have seen them lose six of their past seven games.
It really is a tale of two struggling entities. Carr’s numbers might be nearly the same (on average) as we saw last season, but he’s heading a Raiders offense that ranks in the bottom third in scoring after finishing in the top seven in 2016.
For their part, the Chiefs are coming off a Week 13 outing in which their defense allowed Josh McCown to complete 26-of-36 passes for 331 yards in a loss to the Jets. Kansas City is now yielding the fifth-most passing yards on the season. Something has to give here between two teams that might very well be a rung below another 6-6 AFC West squad in the form of the Los Angeles Chargers.
Matt Kalil vs Everson Griffen
These two former teammates will do battle this week in a game between two likely NFC Playoff teams. For Kalil and the Panthers, it’s all about protecting Cam Newton from what has been a fearsome Vikings defensive line up to this point in the season.
While Griffen and the Vikings did not sack Matt Ryan last week against Atlanta, this unit held the Falcons to three field goals in a 14-9 victory. For his part, Griffen has recorded 12 sacks in 11 games this season and is seen as a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
On the other hand, Kalil has picked up his game big time after bombing out in Minnesota and struggling early on in his first season with Carolina. He didn’t allow a single pressure in either Week 10 or Week 11 and helped protect Newton to the tune of just two sacks in last week’s loss to New Orleans. Kalil will have to maintain this performance on Sunday if he wants to help Carolina end his former team’s eight-game winning streak.
Jimmy Garoppolo vs Texans pass defense
If we had told you two months ago that a 49ers quarterback was set to take on the Houston Texans’ defense, the response would have likely been akin to when a kitten first sees his reflection in the mirror. Scared. Wondering what happened. No real reprieve. Nightmares of all sorts.
Now, two months later, and it’s not a stretch to say that the two-win 49ers have a real advantage here. Coming off a tremendous first start as a member of his new team, Garoppolo’s comfort level in Kyle Shanahan’s offense will be taken to a whole new level over the final month of the season. Considering he put up nearly 300 passing yards while throwing dart after dart last week against Chicago, that’s a pretty big thing for San Francisco.
On the other hand, injuries have plagued this Texans defense in a big way through the first 13 weeks of the season. We already know about the injuries to J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. But it’s the secondary that has failed to pick up the slack. Houston ranks in the bottom 11 of the NFL against the pass and is yielding a 96.9 quarterback rating. It will be interesting to see if Garoppolo can build off last week’s performance heading into Week 14.
Doug Baldwin vs Jalen Ramsey
Are they Jaguars the NFL’s newest version of the Legion of Boom? Here’s a defense that ranks first in the NFL in total defense, first in pass defense, first in points against and is yielding an absurdly low 65.6 quarterback rating. It has Jacksonville at 8-4 on the season, and Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin knows first-hand how this can impact a team in its entirety.
As it relates to Seattle, this team is coming off a strong Week 13 home win against a previously red-hot Philadelphia Eagles squad. It’s a game that saw Baldwin put up five catches for 84 yards after he tallied a grand total of 65 yards in the previous three games. In order for Seattle to come out on top here and remain in good standing for the NFC West title, Baldwin will have to perform well against a corner in Ramsey that is yielding a 51.9 passer rating on the season.
Keenan Allen vs Josh Norman
Allen has been absolutely on one for the first-place Los Angeles Chargers recently. He has caught 33-of-41 targets for 436 yards and four touchdowns in the past three games. What type of witchcraft is that? We’d really like to know. Whether it’s the Los Angeles water or something else, Allen is one of the primary reasons the Chargers have won six of their past eight games.
We’re not too sure what’s in the water in D.C., but Norman has fallen victim to the Redskins’ coaching more than anything else. There’s absolutely no explanation in the world that can lend credence to the idea of Washington deciding not to shadow Dez Bryant last week.
It led to an absolutely huge game for the Cowboys’ offense and pretty much a season-ending loss for the Redskins. We’re going to assume for a second that Jay Gruden and Co. decided to join us back in reality and will shadow Allen with Norman. If that’s the case, this will be a tremendous one-on-one matchup.
Demarcus Lawrence vs Justin Pugh
After struggling over the past few games, Lawrence broke out big time in the Cowboys’ huge Week 13 win over Washington. He tallied two sacks and put consistent pressure on Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins throughout the game. This enabled Dallas’ revamped secondary to hold Cousins in check en route to the Cowboys’ pulling off the must win.
It’s pretty much the same story this week against a Giants team that fired its heads coach and reinserted Eli Manning into the starting lineup. At 6-6 on the season, Dallas likely needs to win out. Taking advantage of a weak Giants offensive line and a struggling pass protecting right tackle in Justin Pugh is a necessity if Dallas wants to remain in the NFC Playoff race. Period.
Greg Olsen vs Harrison Smith
We’re going to assume that Olsen was held out last week because Carolina was playing it safe with his foot injury on the turf in New Orleans. In what now amounts to being a must win for the Panthers’ NFC South title hopes, the expectation here is that Cam Newton’s favorite target will be able to go.
If that’s the case, it’s really good news for the Panthers given that Olsen is the only consistently reliable pass-caching option in Carolina following the trade of Kelvin Benjamin. After all, he did put up three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons prior to this injury-plagued 2017 campaign.
It most definitely won’t be easy sledding against a Vikings defense that ranks in the top five in the NFL in stopping tight ends. That really starts with a player in Smith who head coach Mike Zimmer can line up one-on-one against tight ends, leaving his plus-level corners to focus on the outside. It’s a huge matchup for two likely NFC Playoff teams.
Russell Wilson vs Jaguars defense
We focused on Baldwin-Ramsey above, but really the focal point of Jacksonville’s defense will be an MVP candidate in Russell Wilson who continues to act like a wizard on the football field.
Here’s a guy that’s accounting for 80-plus percent of Seattle’s yardage on the season. He’s put up the most fourth quarter touchdowns since Eli Manning in 2011 and currently boasts the best single-season fourth quarter passer rating since Joe Montana in 1989. It really is some absurd stuff.
In order for Wilson and the Seahawks to continue winning games down the stretch, this quarterback must keep up his high level of play. The onus here will be on Wilson avoiding pressure behind one of the worst offensive line in the NFL while facing a defense that has racked up an NFL-best 45 sacks. If that happens, he also then needs to avoid mistakes against a secondary that’s yielding the lowest passer rating of any unit in the NFL.
Carson Wentz vs Jared Goff
The first two picks in last year’s draft are leading two teams with viable Super Bowl aspirations. What a difference one season makes in today’s NFL. Not only is this game huge for the bragging rights of two quarterbacks that will be linked to one another for their entire careers, it could help dictate home-field advantage in the NFC Playoffs.
Wentz and the Eagles head into Week 14 with a conference-best 10-2 record (tied with Minnesota). They do so after being held to 10 points in a loss to Seattle last week. Meanwhile, Goff’s Rams have rebounded nicely from a Week 11 loss to the aforementioned Vikings by winning their past two games. They’re just one game out of the top spot in the conference.
How these two young quarterbacks perform here could have wide-ranging implications on both the game and the remainder of the NFC Playoff race down the stretch. That makes this a huge individual matchup.