Top 10 storylines for NFL Week 12

Starting with a trio of tremendous Thanksgiving day matchups, Week 12 of the NFL season offers us an abundance of stories as the professional football world heads into December action.

The red-hot Washington Redskins will travel to Dallas to take on a Cowboys squad that’s won nine in a row and boasts the best record in the NFL. Can Kirk Cousins will his team to victory here? Is Dallas actually a beatable foe? Those are two big stories to watch there.

Moving over to the AFC, the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs will be doing battle out west on Sunday Night Football. Which team will keep pace with the surprising Oakland Raiders? For the Raiders, they look to guarantee themselves their first winning season since 2002. It will definitely be a test against a desperate Carolina Panthers squad on the road.

These are among the top-10 storylines for NFL Week 2.

1. Huge NFC East battle on Thanksgiving

Joe Theismann Kirk Cousins

Thanksgiving pretty much represents shut up or put up time for the Washington Redskins in the NFC East. With a 6-1-1 record after starting the season 0-2, the Redskins have been among the hottest teams in the NFL.

They are coming off a blowout win over the Green Bay Packers last week. Their offense is clicking on all cylinders with Kirk Cousins playing the best football of his career and undrafted rookie free agent Robert Kelley dominating on the ground.

That’s all fine and dandy. Washington is still three games behind the Dallas Cowboys in the win column in the NFC East. A loss on the road Thanksgiving afternoon would pretty much end the Skins’ hopes of winning the division. And in reality, a loss is what we should expect here. Dallas has been good, even dominant, during its nine-game winning streak.

The stats are by now well known. Dak Prescott has tallied 20 touchdowns compared to two interceptions. Fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott is on pace 2,211 total yards. Dallas has scored 27-plus points in each of the past six games and ranks third in the league in points.

This is a whole heck of a lot for Washington to have to overcome on an especially short week that saw this team play Sunday night. Should the Skins somehow come out on top in this one, it would put both the Cowboys and the rest of the NFL on notice. That’s what makes this game so big for Washington.

On the other hand, a win here by the Cowboys would give the team a 10-game winning streak and inch it closer to home-field advantage as well as a first-round bye in the playoffs.

2. Battle for playoff positioning out west

It sure looks like there will be three teams come out of the AFC West to make the playoffs. The first-place Oakland Raiders boast a conference-leading 8-2 record while both the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos sit at 7-3 on the season. That’s one game ahead of the Miami Dolphins for the wild card spots in the conference.

Sunday night will represent an opportunity for both Kansas City and Denver to grab the upper-hand for the first wild card spot while remaining within shouting distance in the AFC West.

It’s the first of two matchups between these rivals within a calendar month. It’s also taking place in Denver, which pretty much makes this one a must win for the Broncos.

Trevor Siemian

Unfortunately, the defending champs have been far from their elite selves recently, posting a 3-3 record since winning the first four games of the season. And in reality, most of this regression has been due to less-than-stellar play at the quarterback position.

Since starting out the season with three interceptions in his first six starts, Trevor Siemian has thrown four interceptions in his past three outings.

That’s not a recipe for success on a team that relies on mistake-free football on offense and a dominant defense.

If the Broncos are able to find a way to lower these turnovers numbers, it will put the team’s defense in position to dominate with a large field behind the unit. That simply hasn’t happened over the past two games.

Short of Siemian somehow reversing course here, it’s going to be difficult for the Broncos’ offense to break through against a Chiefs defense that’s returning both Marcus Peters and Justin Houston from injury. Along with Dee Ford and Eric Berry, they represent the biggest playmakers on this roster.

They should also be able to shut down the Broncos’ passing attack, forcing Gary Kubiak and Co. to rely on the running game against a defense that’s yielded the sixth-most yards on the ground.

That’s going to be the biggest key here. Which team blinks when it comes to its biggest weakness? Can Alex Smith lead his offense against the best pass defense in the conference? If not, will the Chiefs’ defense do enough to to stall Denver’s offense to come out on top? The answers to these questions will tell us where each team is headed as the NFL season enters December.

3. It’s now officially time to talk about the Raiders

With a win this upcoming Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, Oakland will guaranteed itself a winning season for the first time since 2002. It would also inch closer to breaking the second-longest playoff drought in the NFL.

At 8-2 on the season, Oakland has turned the corner. It is no longer that up-and-coming young team looking to simply get into the playoffs as a building block. Now tied with the New England Patriots for the best record in the AFC, the Raiders have to be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

One game ahead of both Kansas City and Denver in the AFC West, the Raiders can gain separation from one of those teams heading into Week 13. It, however, won’t be easy going up against a desperate Carolina Panthers squad that needs a win in order to remain relevant in the NFC South race.

The good news for the Raiders is that they’ve played considerably better away from Oakland than they have at the friendly confines. In six games away from Oakland Coliseum, Jack Del Rio’s squad boasts a perfect record. More than that, MVP candidate Derek Carr has been near perfect in these six games.

Also working to the upstart Raiders’ advantage here, Carolina boasts one of the worst pass protecting offensive lines in the NFL, having yielded 25 sacks on Cam Newton in his nine starts. Look for Khalil Mack to take full advantage of this.

Two weeks removed from defeating the defending champion Denver Broncos, Oakland can cement its status as a Super Bowl contender by pretty much knocking the team Denver beat in last year’s title game out of playoff contention. Yes folks, that’s where we are at right now. We know, it’s a complete shock.

4. Figuring out the AFC North

What is definitely a down season in this division might bring extra drama as the regular year draws to a conclusion. As of right now, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are tied atop the division with identical 5-5 records. Meanwhile, the struggling and injury-plagued Cincinnati Bengals fans themselves just one game out in the loss column.

It’s most definitely an interesting dynamic to look at considering multiple teams have made the playoffs from the AFC North in seven of the past eight seasons. Based on what we see thus far in 2016, that most definitely won’t be the case this season.

Week 12 offers the Cincinnati Bengals an opportunity to right the ship on the road against the Baltimore Ravens. It won’t be an easy task with both Giovani Bernard and A.J. Green out of action. That’s only magnified by the fact that Baltimore ranks No. 2 overall in total defense.

Should Cincinnati find a way to win for just the second time since late September, it will surely announce itself as contender in the division once again. If not, questions will start to be raised regarding Marvin Lewis’ job status.

On Thanksgiving night, Pittsburgh will travel to Indianapolis to take on a Colts team that will be without quarterback Andrew Luck. It’s the Steelers’ opportunity to get to over .500 on the season and potentially remain alive in the wild card race in the AFC, not to mention the AFC North race itself. Though, as we have seen this season, the Steelers have struggled considerably away from Pittsburgh.

That’s going to be the biggest key here. Can Pittsburgh find a way to put up a solid offensive effort knowing full well that the Colts likely won’t put up a bunch of points in this one? If so, the Steelers will either be tied for first or alone atop the AFC North heading into Week 13.

5. First coach to be fired?

We’re at the point in the NFL season where some of the coaches on the hot seat are given their walking papers. It’s less magnified this year with parity taking hold and more teams being alive in the playoff race. In fact, one could draw the legitimate conclusion that only seven teams in the NFL are out of the race heading into Week 12.

With that said, there’s still a lot to look at here. There are some squads that might fall out of contention with losses this week. More than that, other teams will continue season-long struggles, which could potentially give a coach or two a bad post-Thanksgiving gift.

We can’t move forward here without mentioning two coaches that likely should have been fired a while back. Jeff Fisher of the Los Angeles Rams continues to prove himself to be among the most-overrated head coaches in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Jaguars continue to cellar-dwell under Gus Bradley.

The Rams’ situations a bit more convoluted. Despite last week’s late-game meltdown in a 14-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles finds itself just two games behind the Washington Redskins in the win column for the final wild card spot in the NFC.

That could, however, change big time this week. Washington is set to square off with Dallas on Thanksgiving and has lost a grand total of one game since Week 2. A win by Washington there coupled with what could very well be a Rams loss to the Saints in New Orleans would pretty much end Los Angeles’ playoff aspirations.

Jeff Fisher

Then, set to take on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at Gillette the following week, we could easily see things start to snowball for Fisher and Co. That’s only magnified by the fact that he has handled the quarterback situation and rookie No. 1 pick Jared Goff in one of the worst ways imaginable. Should Los Angeles drop its next two games and fall to 4-8 on the season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Fisher get axed.

On the other hand, there’s absolutely no rhyme or reason for Bradley remaining the Jaguars’ head coach. He’s overseen a tremendous regression from Blake Bortles, only to use former offensive coordinator Greg Olson as a scapegoat. Overall, the Jags find themselves at 2-8 on the season and in last place in the AFC South.

There’s patience. And we have to give Jacksonville’s brass credit for displaying this. There’s also this beauty of a quote.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

At 14-44 in three-plus seasons as the Jaguars’ head coach, Bradley has proven he’s incapable of moving this team in the right direction. It’s obvious to even the untrained eye. A loss Sunday to the Bills in Buffalo would only add to this, potentially leading to the Jaguars finally pulling the plug on Bradley altogether.

6. Packers in disarray 

Losers of four consecutive games, the Green Bay Packers find themselves in a rare position. They pretty much have to win out in order to guarantee themselves a playoff spot. Even then, things might not work out in their favor without some luck. That’s the situation Mike McCarthy and Co. must overcome at this late point in the season.

The primary issue as of late hasn’t been the performance of the suddenly maligned Aaron Rodgers under center. In fact, he’s been borderline elite over the past month-plus of the season.

Unfortunately, the Packers find themselves at 1-4 during this five-game span. It’s one thing to expect an MVP to carry an average roster. We’ve seen this with Rodgers a great deal in the past. It’s a completely different thing to ask him to get water from a rock.

Green Bay’s injury-plagued defense has been an embarrassment as of late, yielding an average of 38.3 points and 421 yards over the past four games. Should that not change, the Packers will be playing out the stretch with more questions surrounding Mike McCarthy’s job status than a potential playoff run.

If the Packers are not able to take care of business against Philadelphia on Monday night, we can pretty much put an end to talk of them making the playoffs. That’s what makes this game so darn important.

7. Lions look to take control of NFC North

It seems safe to conclude that the Green Bay Packers have fallen out of the NFC North race after losing four consecutive games. This isn’t to say Aaron Rodgers and Co. can’t turn it around. Instead, it’s all about the issues on defense and injuries we’ve seen on both sides of the ball. That was covered above.

It also leads many to believe that the race for the divisional crown is between the Minnesota Vikings and surprising Detroit Lions. That makes their Thanksgiving day matchup even more important.

Despite boasting identical 6-4 records, Detroit has the upper-hand here. That was made possible by a late-game meltdown from Minnesota at home back in Week 9. Should the Lions find a way to hold serve at home come Thursday, they will practically hold a two-game lead in the division heading into Week 13.

More than anything, that outcome would place Minnesota behind the proverbial eight-ball when it comes to a potential wild card spot. Already a half game behind Washington, the last thing Mike Zimmer’s squad envisioned after a 5-0 start to the season was battling for a playoff spot into December. A loss here would pretty much make this an inevitability.

With Stefon Diggs questionable to go in this one, the onus might be even more on Minnesota’s elite-level defense to put up a dominant performance against Matthew Stafford and Co.

8. Two under-the-radar teams look to continue surprising streaks

Adam Gase

Don’t look now, but both the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins have won five consecutive games. They haven’t necessarily been terribly impressive during this stretch, but racking up that many wins in a row is definitely a good sign. Also a good sign, both New York and Miami take on cellar-dwelling opponents this week.

For the Giants, it will come at home against a winless Browns team that will be forced to start Josh McCown under center. There’s absolutely no reason Cleveland should be able to keep pace with the Giants on the road. But that’s why we play the game. We also know very well the Browns will come out fired up. At the very least, they don’t want to join the 2008 Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history. If that’s not incentive, we’re not too sure what is.

On the other hand, Miami will be playing host to a San Francisco 49ers team that has lost nine consecutive games since a Week 1 win. This is the type of game that the Dolphins struggled with prior to Adam Gase’s arrival. That is to say the team has in the past overlooked weak competition, eventually losing said game and starting an extensive losing streak.

Gase and in his coaching staff need to be on alert for any sign of this, especially considering San Francisco still boasts enough talent to make the Dolphins sweat.

9. Must-win for Cards against the dirty birds

Now at 4-5-1 on the season, the Arizona Cardinals find themselves two games out of the final wild card spot in the NFC. That’s the situation this team finds itself in following a mistake-filled Week 11 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. In that game, Carson Palmer threw two picks, including one that was returned for a touchdown by Xavier Rhodes (watch here).

Adding to the Cardinals’ misery, their special teams gave up a game-changing 104-yard kickoff return to Cordarrelle Patterson.

In reality, this has been the problem for Bruce Arians’ squad throughout the season. Mistakes at the least opportune times combined with bone-headed mental lapses. This has Arizona on the verge of falling completely out of the NFC Playoff picture

If the Cardinals were to lose here, not only would they likely fall further behind the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West, they would find themselves at least two games out of the final wild card spot heading into Week 13. That would most definitely be a less-than-ideal scenario.

Though, there’s a couple things working in Arizona’s favor here. Atlanta heads into Week 12 with the second-worst pass defense in the NFL. It might also be without cornerback Desmond Trufant for a second consecutive game. That could be a recipe for success when it comes to the team’s struggling passing game.

10. Are those Cowboys really beatable?

Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott

There’s been a lot of innuendo around the media that somehow the 9-1 Dallas Cowboys are still a beatable bunch. Sure they have surprised the skeptics with a nine-game winning streak. Sure they have to rookies exceeding expectations in the offensive backfield. Does this mean that the Cowboys’ record is tainted or that they are somehow not as good as said record indicates?

When looking at the stats, we have a hard time drawing this conclusion. Outside of a pass defense that ranks in the bottom third of the NFL, there’s not a lot to dislike about this team. Dallas’ defense finds itself in the top-three of the NFL against the run and has yielded the fifth-fewest points in the league.

Offensively, Dallas ranks third in points scored, second on the ground and fourth in total yards. All said, the Cowboys boast the league’s top point differential at 9.8 points per game. Only the New England Patriots come close to that.

Thursday’s game against the division-rival Redskins will be yet another opportunity for the Cowboys to prove their skeptics wron. And based on what we’ve seen through the vast majority of the season, that’s more than likely going to be the end result in Dallas when all is said and done on Thanksgiving.