This upcoming week of NFL action promises to be one of the best of the entire season. Multiple teams are battling for playoff relevance as the league opens up the final quarter of the regular season.
In the NFC East, the New York Giants look to hand the division-rival Dallas Cowboys just their second loss of the season. That nationally televised game, set to take place Sunday night, will have wide-ranging playoff implications. It also boasts a ton of tremendous one-on-one matchups, including Dez Bryant going up against Janoris Jenkins.
Over in the AFC, the Oakland Raiders look to continue their dominating play against an equally hot Kansas City Chiefs squad in a battle for first place. How will Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack and Marcus Peters play into the outcome of this excellent game?
These are among the top-10 matchups for NFL Week 14.
1. Jordy Nelson vs Richard Sherman
The Green Bay Packers will be battling for their postseason lives in this rematch from last season’s playoffs. Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks will attempt to clinch the NFC West title and inch closer to a first-round bye in the second season. Needless to say, this is a huge late-season game between the two conference rivals.
This one matchup above all else will likely play the biggest role in the outcome of the game. After struggling to get his footing following his return from last year’s ACL injury, Nelson has picked it up big time for the Packers.
Aaron Rodgers targeting Jordy Nelson past three games: 70.4 completion, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 123.5 rating pic.twitter.com/oWmhkxv1VS
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 5, 2016
Overall, Nelson has caught 42 passes for 551 yards and five scores over the past six games. While it didn’t initially lead to team-wide success for the Packers, they have won their past two games.
It most definitely won’t be an easy task going up against Sherman in this one. Sherman may not shadow the opposing team’s top receiver on a consistent basis. But with Earl Thomas out for the remainder of the season, that’s going to likely take hold here moving forward. Simply put, Seattle needs to put its top cover guy on Nelson without elite-level help over the top. It’s in this that Sherman should be able to hold his own against Nelson.
2. Jameis Winston vs Drew Brees
There could very well be a new sheriff in town in the NFC South. He doesn’t go by the name of Drew Brees or Matt Ryan. Instead, it’s a second-year quarterback that has improved his team’s standing on a consistent basis since being selected No. 1 overall back in 2015.
The Buccaneers won a grand total of two games the year prior to Winston’s arrival. Since, the team has posted a 13-15 record. More than that, Tampa Bay now finds itself in a tie for first while maintaining a four-game winning streak.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Winston is one of the primary reasons why Dirk Koetter’s squad is in the process of taking that next step towards playoff contention. The second-year quarterback has been absolutely dazzling in recent weeks.
Since starting out the season with eight touchdowns and eight picks in his first four games, the former Heisman winner has put up 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions over the past eight games. It’s not a coincidence that Tampa is 6-2 during that span.
On the other hand, Brees headed into Week 13 riding a tremendous hot streak. He had put up 20 touchdowns and five picks while averaging well over 300 passing yards per game in the Saints’ previous seven outings. That enabled the team to get back in the playoff race in the NFC.
Unfortunately, Brees’ magic came to a surprising end against a bad Detroit Lions pass defense this past week. He threw three interceptions and turned the ball over a total of four times in a 28-13 loss.
Now at 5-7 on the season, the Saints find themselves in a must-win situation against the suddenly surging Buccaneers. Should the team lose here it would be almost certain of missing out on the playoffs for a third consecutive season. That in and of itself would pretty much pass the NFC South’s baton to Winston in just his second NFL season.
3. Mitchell Schwartz vs Khalil Mack
Mack is a man on fire. Seriously, he’s now doing something we haven’t even seen from J.J. Watt in the past. We’re talking about absolute domination in every imaginable way. Here’s a guy that’s recorded nine sacks in the past seven games, putting up a quarterback takedown each outing. Talk about consistency. More than that, what Mack has done over the past two weeks is borderline historical.
Back in Week 12 against reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, Mack accomplished a feat the NFL has not seen since 2009. He became the first player since Charles Woodson to record a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown in the same game (more on that here).
Then, last week against the Buffalo Bills, Mack added to his potential MVP resume by putting up a strip sack on Tyrod Taylor to ice the game.
This came immediately after the superstar put pressure in Taylor’s face, directly leading to a Nate Allen interception and ultimately a Raiders touchdown. It’s this type of game-changing ability that has Mack acting as the talk of the NFL for his first-place Oakland Raiders.
Now set to take on a hot Kansas City Chiefs team on the road Thursday night, Mack can be the difference maker here. That’s where new Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz comes into play. Along with left tackle Eric Fisher, he’s been one of the primary reasons Alex Smith has seen tremendous pass protection this season.
Smith has been sacked 25 times in 11 games, but that number is a bit misleading. He went down six times in one game aagainst the Von Miller-led Denver Broncos pass rush back in Week 12. That simply can’t happen taking on an equally dominating player in Mack come Thursday night. Should it happen, the Chiefs will fall two games behind Oakland with just three remaining on the season.
4. Jason Witten vs Landon Collins
We will cover Dez Bryant’s tilt with Janoris Jenkins below, but this one might actually take precedence in what promises to be a titanic NFC East tilt on Sunday Night Football.
Landon Collins is the 1st safety in Giants history to win a Defensive Player of the Month Award pic.twitter.com/tAYFOMns4v
— Randall Liu (@RLiuCBS) December 1, 2016
Not known for his coverage skills coming out of Alabama back in 2015, Collins has vastly exceeded expectations early in his New York Giants career and is now playing at an All Pro level. Through the first 12 games of the 2016 campaign, the former second-round pick has tallied 94 tackles, five interceptions, 13 passes defended, three sacks and a touchdown. Talk about a catch-all performance from Collins.
It’s going to be especially important for the Defensive Player of the Year candidate to come up big against his division rival Sunday night. Witten has had an on again, off again relationship with Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott this season. In fact, the future Hall of Famer is coming off a Week 12 performance that saw him held without a catch for the first time in 130 games.
With that said, Witten has played an instrumantal role as Prescott’s safety valve thus far this season. Starting with his game-winning touchdown in overtime against Philadelphia back in Week 8, Witten is the guy Prescott has gone to in important situations over the past month-plus.
Should Collins work well to shut down that avenue, it could bait the elite-level rookie into forcing the ball elsewhere against what has been a surprisingly good Giants secondary this season.
5. David Johnson vs Dolphins run defense
Two teams pretty much in must-win mode taking on one another as the NFL season enters its stretch run. This should be an absolute blast. Following their much-needed win over the Washington Redskins this past Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals head into Week 14 one game back of Tampa Bay in the loss column for the sixth seed in the NFC.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) December 6, 2016
In reality, Arizona’s ability to contend moving forward this season will likely rest on the elite-level play-making ability of David Johnson. The second-year running back put up 175 total yards and two more touchdowns last week. All said this season, Johnson has recorded an NFL-best 1,709 total yards and 15 scores through 12 games.
Better news for fans in the desert. Johnson is set to take on a Miami Dolphins team that’s yielding the third-most rushing yards in the NFL this season. In fact, the Dolphins have allowed 405 rushing yards over the past three games.
For Miami, it’s going to be all about snuffing Johnson out on the ground and forcing a mistake-prone Carson Palmer to beat its above-average secondary. Should that happen, Miami will be able to rebound from last week’s humiliating loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
At this point, it is a necessity for the Dolphins to win out. At 7-5 on the season, Miami is one game behind Denver for the final wild card spot in the AFC. Stopping Johnson would go a long way in Miami remaining viable in the playoff race heading into Week 15.
6. Marcus Mariota vs Broncos pass defense
Coming off a bye, Mariota and his Tennessee Titans have an opportunity to remain tied for first place in the AFC South heading into Week 15. Regardless of what happens between Houston and Indianapolis this upcoming Sunday, a win by the Titans against Denver would guarantee this.
For Mariota, it’s the ultimate test in what has been a tremendous sophomore campaign for the former Heisman winner. Since starting out the season with four touchdowns and five interceptions in his first four starts, Mariota has been among the game’s best quarterbacks.
Marcus Mariota past eight starts: 67.4 completion, 2,314 total yards, 23 TD, 2 INT, 119.4 rating pic.twitter.com/4O5TN0YqvN
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 5, 2016
That’s not just elite-level stuff, it’s an MVP-caliber performance from Super Mario over the past half season. Though, as we mentioned above, he’s going to have the ultimate test against one of the league’s best pass defenses.
Through the first 12 games of the season, Denver has yielded a grand total of 10 touchdown passes compared to 12 interceptions. It also ranks No. 1 overall in passing yards allowed, completion percentage and opposing quarterback rating.
In an ultra competitive AFC where the Titans and Broncos are both jokeying for a playoff spot, Mariota’s performance in the face of a tremendous defense will go a long way in determining the outcome of this surprisingly pivotal late-season matchup.
7. Dez Bryant vs Janoris Jenkins
Bryant put up just one catch for eight yards in his first meeting with Jenkins and the New York Giants back in Week 1. It was one of the worst statistical outings in Bryant’s illustrious career. It was also the first regular season action he saw with rookie Dak Prescott under center.
After the Giants’ narrow 20-19 Week 1 win, the only loss for Dallas on the season, fellow defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie touched on what he viewed to be the key to his team’s performance against Bryant.
“We just challenged him,” Rodgers-Cromartie said, via NJ.com. “Any chance we got to get up there and try to put our hands on him, frustrate him and just play ball. When you get the chance, just double him sometimes and make the other guys beat us.”
Unfortunately for Jenkins, Rodgers-Cromartie and the Giants, Sunday night’s battle is going to be a completely different monster. With Bryant back at 100 percent and finding a rhythm with Prescott, the Cowboys’ offense is clicking on all cylinders. Winners of 11 consecutive games, this dynamic duo is no small reason why.
Dak Prescott when targeting Dez Bryant past four games: 70.0 completion, 352 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 148.9 rating. pic.twitter.com/SrxdKC3kPs
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 6, 2016
In order for the Giants to remain alive in the NFC East race, they need Jenkins to come up big against Bryant. After all, he won’t be receiving any help over the top from Collins, who is going to be tasked with shutting Witten down over the middle.
The good news here for New York is that Jenkins has continued to play at an exceedingly high level after signing a huge deal with the Giants during the offseason. Should that continue, Ben McAdoo and Co. will have a fighting chance come Sunday night.
8. Amari Cooper vs Marcus Peters
Get accustomed to this being one of the top matchups in the NFL over the next decade or so. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Cooper and Peters are among the top young players at their respective positions. Now playing on two teams set to contend for the AFC West crown over the next several seasons, this is going to be a fun rivalry to watch develop.
In three games against his fellow 2015 draft class member, Oakland Raiders receiver Amari Cooper has caught 16-of-29 passes for 218 yards. Though, most of that damage came earlier this season when the Kansas City Chiefs allowed 10 receptions for 129 yards. That did, however, come in just one of the Raiders’ two losses this season.
As it relates to Peters, his play-making ability is still up there among the game’s best defensive backs. That’s not really in question. The issue here is that he’s been burnt by multiple big plays over the past several weeks. This will need to change in order for Kansas City to take control of the AFC West heading into Week 15.
9. Antonio Brown vs Stephon Gilmore
Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore is not having the contract year many expected of him. A truly elite cover guy last season, Gilmore has given up too many big plays in 2016. That’s definitely changed to an extent in recent weeks.
In fact, Gilmore has yielded just three receptions for 15 yards over the past two games. That includes outings against the likes of Allen Robinson and Amari Cooper.
Gilmore will definitely have to be on top of his game Sunday in order to keep the Bills alive in the playoff race. While Brown has been rather inconsistent for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season (less than 100 yards in each of his past three games), he still provides a mighty difficult matchup here.
Also important to note, Buffalo won’t be able to consistently throw help over the top to Gilmore’s side when he is shadowing Brown. The problems both Le’Veon Bell and Ladarius Green provide in the passing game will force safeties to either cover the hashes or push down to the line of scrimmage.
In reality, this is a do-or-die game for Buffalo. It currently sits at 6-6 on the season and two games back of the final wild card spot in the AFC. Standing between Rex Ryan’s squad and Denver are these Steelers and the Dolphins at 7-5. You can do the math from there. It’s in this that Gilmore must come up big here.
10. Jimmy Graham vs Clay Matthews
There’s a couple different things to look at as it relates to this interesting one-on-one matchup. We already discussed the importance of this game above, but this one particular subplot promises to be interesting.
Forced inside due to a slew of injuries to the Packers’ middle linebackers, Matthews’ role on the team’s defense is two-fold. He will be asked to provide underneath coverage against Graham. The former All Pro will also be tasked with providing pressure at times from the EDGE position.
On the same note, Graham, as we have seen throughout his Seahawks career, will be forced to act as an in-line blocker at times. This is something he didn’t do with the New Orleans Saints, but he’s definitely improved on this aspect of his game.
For the Packers, it’s all about Matthews providing pressure at times while still being able to contain a tight end in Graham that boasts a 72 percent catch rate on the season.
Interestingly enough, Graham’s biggest impact here might not come through the air. Seattle’s lackluster offensive line demands that he perform at a high level as a chip blocker out on the edge. If Graham is able to do that, it will enable Russell Wilson to beat what is still an injury-plagued Packers secondary.
In one of the most intriguing matchups to look at thus far this season, whoever plays the better all-around game here will likely see his team come out on top.