Top 10 storylines for NFL Week 14

Week 14 of the NFL season offers us so many storylines that’s it’s hard to dwindle the number down to 10. From a Green Bay Packers squad looking to stay alive in the NFC Playoff race to the Dallas Cowboys attempting to clinch the NFC East, huge games are abound here.

A bit further down on the totem pole, certain coaches on borderline playoff contenders are facing must-win games. Should the Carolina Panthers and San Diego Chargers drop key games in Week 14, uncertainty will surely come up regarding their coach’s job status.

Meanwhile, over in the AFC, the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs do battle in one of the biggest games the Raiders have played in 15-plus years. With a win here, Jack Del Rio’s squad will inch closer to home-field advantage in the AFC.

These are among the top-10 storylines for NFL Week 14.

1. Can the Packers stay alive against streaking Seahawks squad?

For now, it appears that the Green Bay Packers have righted the ship. Winners of two consecutive, it’s been the team’s defense that’s stepped up the most here. After yielding an average of 38.3 points during Green Bay’s four-game losing streak, this unit has given up 13 points in each of the past two weeks.

If the Packers’ defense is capable of continuing to hold up its end of the bargain, Aaron Rodgers and Co. on offense will definitely do their part. After all, Rodgers has tallied 21 touchdowns and just three picks over the past seven games. Even during that aforementioned slide, the former MVP was doing what he could to lift the Packers up. Now that the team’s defense is performing well, Green Bay could be in the midst of a late-season playoff run.

Though, that will surely be tested when Rodgers and Co. host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Seattle is coming off a 40-7 destruction of the Carolina Panthers this past week. It was a game that saw the team’s offense get right following a disastrous performance the previous week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

2. Week 14 to play huge role in Black Monday

We already know the likes of Gus Bradley and John Fox are probably sweating out the final quarter of the season. Short of either the Jacksonville Jaguars or Chicago Bears showing something of substance, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see at least one of them fired following the season. The same could potentially be said for New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles.

But let’s be honest here for a second. None of these three teams are in contention for a playoff spot. What happens with these coaches has already likely been decided by their respective front offices.

Instead, the focus here should be on coaches who are leading fringe playoff contenders but also find themselves firmly on the hot seat.

Less than a calendar year after leading his Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ron Rivera get some bad news come Black Monday. The long-time head coach has led one of the most-disappointing teams in the NFL this season. At 4-8 on the year, the Panthers seem destined for last place in the NFC South.

And in reality, there’s a lot of blame that should be placed squarely on Rivera’s shoulders. From his blunder of benching Cam Newton for the first play of Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks to a major regression on defense, it simply hasn’t been a good look for Rivera thus far in 2016.

Now, after watching his team get embarrassed by Seattle this past Sunday night, Rivera has to be thinking he might not be long for the job. If somehow the Panthers continue to fail to show up over the final quarter of the season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Rivera become a victim of the blame game.

Long on the hot seat in Southern California, Mike McCoy has his San Diego Chargers at 5-7 on the season. While not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, a lot would have to go right for the Chargers to make a trip to the postseason. They are currently three games out of the final wild card spot with five teams standing between themselves and that final spot.

The backdrop here is also important to note. The Chargers will likely announce their intention of joining the Rams in Los Angeles at some point in January. Does the team want to simply hang on to its head coach for continuity sake or start anew? We’ve seen how that continuity strategy worked for Jeff Fisher and the Rams following their relocation from St. Louis.

Chuck PaganoIn Indianapolis, the Colts find themselves in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC South. Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans will go a long way in determining what happens with head coach Chuck Pagano.

He seemed to be out of a job following last season’s disastrous performance, but owner Jim Irsay made a questionable commitment in bringing him back.

Will that loyalty ring true should the Colts drop an important game to Houston, falling to 6-7 on the season in the process? That’s a huge question heading into Week 14.

We also have to check in on Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. Despite last week’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati remains three games back in the win column in the AFC North.

Considering the Bengals headed into 2016 with Super Bowl aspirations, this is a major disappointment. Would a loss to the winless Cleveland Browns force Cincinnati to move on from Lewis immediately? That’s a darn good question.

3. Titans look for statement against defending champs

Fresh off their bye week, the Tennessee Titans look to continue their recent stellar play. Here’s a squad that’s won five of eight after earning victories in just four of its past 30 games. Think about that for a second before concluding Tennessee’s recent success is nothing more than a fluke.

It all starts and ends with second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has been in MVP form over the past half season.

As we mentioned in our matchups piece earlier in the week, Mariota will be facing his most-difficult test of the season. The Denver Broncos’ defense ranks first in the NFL in multiple passing categories, including completion percentage, touchdowns allowed and quarterback rating. In fact, Denver has yielded less than 200 yards through the air in nine of its 12 games this season.

With Tennessee currently in a three-way tie for first in the AFC South, it’s going to be extremely important for the team to keep up its recent stellar play. After all, a loss here would pretty much guarantee the Titans will fall to one game back with the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans set to take on one another this week. On the other hand, a win over the Broncos would guarantee Tennessee a share for first heading into Week 15.

While Denver surely has the advantage on defense, the Titans boast the better offense here. In addition to Mariota’s performance, DeMarco Murray has been among the biggest surprises at the running back position in the NFL. The former Offensive Player of the Year has put up 1,352 total yards and 11 scores on the season. Should Mariota and Murray come up big here, the Titans will announce their presence as a legit playoff contender.

4. Brock’s last stand

There could potentially be a shocker in play surrounding the Houston Texans should Brock Osweiler continue to show himself to be out of his league as a starter in the NFL. Despite boasting a $25 million dead cap hit for next season, there’s a scenario in play that could include Houston moving on from the high-priced Osweiler after just one season.

The fundamental philosophy here would be for Houston to move forward with another quarterback as a way to give the rest of the talented squad a chance to compete in the AFC.

At 6-6 on the year, what happens over the next four games will play a huge role in determining the outcome of the quarterback situation. Houston finds itself tied with Indianapolis and Tennessee for first place in the AFC South. Set to go up against the Colts on Sunday, Osweiler needs to prove his worth here. He simply can’t continue to perform at this disastrous level for a substandard Texans offense if they hope to make it to the playoffs.

Despite Osweiler’s claims that the Texans’ offense is on the verge of “exploding,” it’s simply something we haven’t seen this year. Houston has scored 13 points in each of the past two games (both losses) and hasn’t hit the 30-point plateau on the season. For his part, Osweiler has thrown 14 touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions in 12 starts. Ouch.

Simply put, things need to change here in a hurry for Osweiler to salvage his career in Houston and for the Texans to salvage their season.

5. “Elimination game” for Dolphins and Cardinals

Carson Palmer

Two teams potentially heading in different directions, both the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals need to come out of Sunday’s game with a win. Miami saw its six-game winning streak snapped in a disastrous 38-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens last week. Adam Gase’s squad is now 7-5 on the season and one game behind Denver for the final wild card spot in the AFC.

On their other hand, Arizona saved its season with a tremendous win over the Washington Redskins last week. And while Bruce Arians’ squad is all but done in the NFC West race, it just one game behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the loss column in he NFC Wild Card race.

Yeah, this is a pretty big game.

For the Dolphins, it’s all going to be about stopping MVP candidate David Johnson on the ground. Miami has given up over 400 rushing yards in the past four games and ranks 30th in the NFL against the run. Johnson, a second-year stud from Northern Iowa, leads all NFL running backs with 1,709 total yards and 15 touchdowns.

In reality, that’s going to be the biggest determining factor here. Can Miami force Carson Palmer to beat it in the passing game? It is also going to need a rebound performance from Ryan Tannehill against the NFL’s third-best pass defense. Should that not happen, the Dolphins can pretty much kiss the playoffs goodbye.

6. Robert Griffin III to the rescue?

Barring a setback in practice, the Cleveland Browns will trot out Robert Griffin III under center this upcoming week for the first time since the regular season opener. RGIII has missed the past 11 games with a shoulder injury, a span of time that has seen Cleveland fail to in a single game.

There’s really nothing for the Browns to lose here, except four more games. They simply need a shot of energy, something Josh McCown, Charlie Whitehurst, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan couldn’t provide at quarterback. Could RGII become the savior in Cleveland? Will he be the quarterback to help the Browns avoid becoming just the second team in NFL history to go winless during a 16-game regular season?

These two questions will likely be answered over the next four weeks, starting Sunday against the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals. In his first and only start of the season back in Week 1 against Philadelphia, RGIII put up 227 total yards in a 29-10 loss. For the embattled and injury-plagued quarterback, this could be an opportunity to prove his worth as a starter once again. Barring injury, it will be the first of a four-game audition for the former Heisman winner.

Despite one analyst’s claim that Cleveland would be undefeated if Tom Brady were on the team, Hue Jackson’s squad is completely void of talent. Finding out what it has at quarterback could be the first step in what promises to be another lengthy rebuild for the bottom-feeding organization.

7. Figuring out the Eagles’ plans for Carson Wentz

Rookie quarterbacks should not throw the ball 60 times in any game. Ever. Unfortunately, without any real receivers or offensive line to speak of, this is exactly what the Eagles had Wentz do in last week’s blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. It happened on the road, where Wentz has struggled all season. Predictably, the small-school product put up his first three-interception performance of the season.

We’d really like to know what the plan was here. Surely, Doug Pederson and Co. aren’t trying to ruin their rookie quarterback this early in his career, right? More than that, we want to know that the plan is moving forward toward the final quarter of the season.

Ryan Mathews is injured. Jordan Mathews is injured. Starting right tackle Lane Johnson is suspended. The Eagles are completely out of the NFC Playoff race. This seems like the best possible time to potentially shut Wentz down for the season. Call it a net gain due to his early-season performance and wait until you have more weapons around him to throw the youngster back on the field.

Okay, so that’s not going to happen. Then, what does Philly do come Sunday against the division-rival Washington Redskins? Likely needing to put up a ton of points to stay competitive, are we looking at another 50-plus pass outing from Wentz? Is that sustainable? Does that possibly put him in the best situation to progress as a quarterback in the NFL?

These are the questions Pederson and Co. have to ask themselves heading into Sunday’s game. Is the faint hope up a playoff spot worth potentially ruining your rookie quarterback? Remember Robert Griffin III? Remember Alex Smith during his early years in San Francisco? Let’s not have a repeat of this.

8. Bucs time to shine in the NFC South

Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a real opportunity Sunday to prove that they are the class of the NFC South. And while the Atlanta Falcons might have something to say about this in a separate game, Tampa’s outing against the New Orleans Saints is huge for multiple reasons.

First off, Winston and Co. currently hold the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. They are also tied with Atlanta for first place in their division. At this point, and with everything still up in the air, each game takes on more significance.

Now add in the fact that a win against the Saints would pretty much eliminate Drew Brees’ squad from playoff contention, and this really is like killing to birds with one stone (horrible pun).

Playing the best football of his young career, Winston has the Buccaneers in the midst of a four-game winning streak. Dating back even further than that, the second-year signal caller has thrown 15 touchdowns compared to four picks over the past eight games. The Bucs are 6-2 during that span.

Sunday’s game against New Orleans provides the young Bucs with a relatively plentiful matchup. Winston’s primary target, Mike Evans, has caught 51 passes for nearly 700 yards and seven scores over this eight-game span. He’s also taking on a Saints defense that’s yielding a 63 percent completion mark and 13.1 yards per catch to receivers on the season.

If Evans and Winston are able to continue this connection, New Orleans will have no real shot to remain in the NFC South race. Killing the hopes of one contending team en route to the playoffs themselves. That has to be the Buccaneers’ goal for the remainder of the season. It’s worked up to this point. Just ask the San Diego Chargers last week.

9. Cowboys look to put away the Giants

Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott

Even after their loss to Pittsburgh last week, the Giants still have a clear path to the playoffs. They’re currently two games ahead of Washington in the win column for one of the two wild card spots in the NFC. Though, Eli Manning and Co. need a win Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys in order to remain viable in the NFC East race.

At 11-1 on the season, Dallas is three games up on New York with four left. Simple math suggests a win here would clinch the division for Dallas heading into Week 15. Considering the only loss this squad suffered on the season was against these Giants back in Week 1, there’s even more urgency for Dallas. Why not revenge that loss while eliminating their division rival from contention in the NFC East?

There’s definitely a lot to look at here. While the Giants are battling playoff possibilities on two fronts, so are the Cowboys. A win Sunday wouldn’t just guarantee them a division title, it could give the Cowboys a first-round bye in the playoffs while inching closer to home-field advantage. Some of that will depend on what happens earlier in the day, but it’s interesting to look at nonetheless.

Riding an 11-game winning streak and taking on a Giants team that will be without Jason Pierre-Paul, all signs seem to point in the direction of the Cowboys coming out on top here. And after we’ve all questioned the sustainability of their success in the past, it might be time for us to just sit back and enjoy it.

Of course, New York has different thoughts here. Janoris Jenkins absolutely shut down Dez Bryant the first time these two met. The Giants also have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Landon Collins ready to make an impact. Whether that will be enough to shut down Bryant, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott remains to be seen. But it should make for a fun Sunday Night Football game.

10. Titanic Thursday Night Football Tilt

This might be the Oakland Raiders’ biggest game since Super Bowl XXXVII. That isn’t hyperbole. The previously downtrodden Raiders simply haven’t had many big games over the course of the past 15 years. Though, with a win against the Chiefs in Kansas City Thursday night, Jack Del Rio’s squad would announce its presence as one of the Super Bowl favorites. Again, not hyperbole.

At 10-2 on the season, Oakland can push its lead in the AFC West to two games with just three weeks remaining. It can also maintain its status ahead of the New England Patriots for the No. 1 seed in the conference.

Interestingly enough, Thursday’s game comes against the team that last defeated Oakland. That came all the way back in mid-October when Alex Smith led his now resurgent Chiefs into Oakland Coliseum, coming away with a dominating 26-10 win in the process.

Most of the talk heading into this game is surrounding the Raiders and MVP candidate Derek Carr. And for good reason. What they’ve done thus far this season is nothing short of amazing. However, Kansas City also heads into Week 14 playing tremendous football. It’s won seven of eight games and could pull even with the Raiders should Andy Reid’s squad come out on top. More than that, a win here would give the Chiefs a clear path to both the AFC West title and a first-round playoff bye — especially considering it would result in a season sweep of the Raiders.

In reality, the team that comes out on top here has to be considered the biggest competition to New England in the AFC. If that team is the Raiders, they may in fact head into Week 15 as the odds-on favorites to come out of the conference and play in the Super Bowl this upcoming February.