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Top storyline for each Week 12 NFL game

Courtesy of Steve Mitchell, USA Today Sports

All three of Thursday’s games on the Week 12 slate feature NFC teams, and five of those six teams are still in contention for a playoff spot in the conference.

What happens in those three holiday games will be a preview of what’s to come when the full slate kicks off Sunday.

In the AFC, there are seven teams within one game of the final wild card spot. Two of the games on this week’s schedule will actually feature teams that are currently in the mix. That’s going to tell us a lot about the playoff race heading into December.

On that note, here is your top storyline for each Week 12 NFL game.

Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions: Chip Kelly’s future in Philadelphia

Courtesy of Geoff Burke, USA Today Sports

Following an embarrassing 45-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, the Eagles find themselves at 4-6 on the year and on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture.

Since that loss, there has been a whole heck of a lot of talk around Philly that Kelly may find himself out of a job when all is said and done in January.

One report from ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith on Monday indicated that multiple Eagles players are not too fond of their head coach:

“Talk to any of these guys covering the league and they will tell you this type of stuff going on in Philadelphia — they haven’t seen this,” Smith said. “I’m telling you, there’s a whole bunch of dudes in that locker room who do not like Chip Kelly.”

While we might want to take Smith’s words with a grain of salt, this matches up well with issues Kelly had with multiple Eagles players in the past—Evan Mathis and LeSean McCoy included.

More than this, Kelly’s tenure as the franchise’s head of player personnel hasn’t necessarily worked out too well. With pretty much an entirely new group of core guys on offense, Philadelphia heads into Thanksgiving against Detroit with the 15th-best scoring unit in the league.

That’s a major regression from top-five finishes in each of Kelly’s first two seasons at the helm.

Now taking on a suddenly hot Lions team that has won two in a row, Philadelphia finds itself in position to potentially fall completely out of the NFC playoff picture.

Another embarrassing loss—this time on national television—could be the final nail in the coffin for Kelly in Philly.

Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys: Undefeated team as underdogs against a three-win squad

Things are definitely subject to change, but early betting odds had the undefeated Panthers as road underdogs against a three-win Cowboys team on Thanksgiving afternoon.

Considering Dallas won its first game since Week 2 this past Sunday, this has to be a kick in the face to a red-hot Panthers team. It’s also incredibly disrespectful when you look at the body of work these two teams have put in throughout the season.

The one difference between earlier in the season and this week is Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. The Pro Bowl quarterback missed all seven of the Cowboys losses with a collarbone injury. In the three games he has started, Dallas is undefeated.

Romo is one of the most valuable players in the NFL. Don’t think that Vegas didn’t take this into account.

While Carolina finds itself with a two-game lead for home-field advantage in the NFC, Dallas is sitting two back in the NFC East race. It’s reasonable to say the home team needs this much more than Cam Newton and Co. That might also play a role in the outcome of the game.

Still, there’s absolutely no reason an undefeated team should be anywhere near dogs against a three-win club.

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers: Last-ditch effort for Bears to remain in playoff race

At 4-6 on the season, Chicago is one loss away from becoming irrelevant in the NFC playoff conversation. Considering the team entered 2015 with muted expectations, this isn’t much of a surprise.

However, recent strong play prior to last week’s loss to the Denver Broncos had Chicago technically in the conversation. Here’s a team that had won four of six games and was feeling pretty good about itself. After a close loss to the Broncos, those feelings have been quieted.

All this could change if the Bears are able to go into Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving night and pull off a huge upset—a scenario that likely rests on the throwing shoulder of one Jay Cutler.

Chicago’s much-maligned quarterback is in the midst of one of his best seasons. That will need to continue Thursday if the Bears are going to have any shot here.

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs: Near must-win for both .500 teams

Courtesy of Jake Roth, USA Today Sports

Buffalo and Kansas City are currently tied with two others teams for the final wild card spot in the AFC, one game ahead of three other squads.

While we will have to wait until much later in the season to acquire an understanding of how this playoff picture might shake out, Sunday’s game could play a huge role in that.

The loser of this showdown won’t only fall one game behind the winner, it would have lost the tie-breaker. Mathematically, that’s akin to being two games back.

For Buffalo, who has already won four games against teams in the AFC currently with four or five wins, this could be a huge statement in the playoff race. With games still coming up against Houston and the New York Jets, a win Sunday would put the Bills in position to earn their first postseason appearance since 1999.

For Kansas City, it’s a bit more convoluted. It has yet to play a game against a team that’s currently in the mix for that final wild card position, unless you count the six-win Pittsburgh Steelers.

With three such games remaining in the Chiefs’ final six outings, this could be the continuation of a strong stretch run that has seen Kansas City win four consecutive heading into Sunday.

St. Louis Rams at Cincinnati Bengals: Home team looks to break two-game losing streak

It was just a couple weeks ago that the Bengals found themselves undefeated and with a commanding lead in the AFC North. After two consecutive losses, Cincinnati is now just two games out in the division and is in a battle for a first-round playoff bye.

A seemingly easy game at home against a free-falling Rams team would seem to be the tonic for Andy Dalton and Co. However, St. Louis has one tremendous asset the Bengals are going to have to stop in order take care of business against an inferior opponent.

Rookie running back Todd Gurley is averaging over 110 rushing yards in the seven games that he’s been the Rams primary ball carrier. While Cincinnati is yielding less than 75 rushing yards in its past three outings, it did let another rookie, Seattle Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls, put up 169 yards and a score back in Week 5.

The good news here is that Cincinnati will be able to stack the box against the league’s worst pass offense. As we have seen over the past few games, that should limit the production Gurley puts up. If so, Cincinnati will get back on track after two consecutive losses.

New Orleans Saints at Houston Texans: The play of one J.J. Watt

It’s not a secret that Watt is the best defensive player in the NFL. This is something that’s been repeated by analysts and players around the football world. It’s also something that’s been made even more clear over the past month or so.

In the past four games alone, Watt has tallied seven sacks and 13 quarterback hits. It’s not a coincidence that Houston has ceded just two touchdowns over the past 14 quarters.

Now at .500 on the season and tied for first in the AFC South, Houston has an opportunity to further cement itself in the playoff conversation. If Watt is able to continue his dominant play come Sunday, that should become a reality.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Indianapolis Colts: Sudden playoff contenders, Bucs looking good

Courtesy of Reinhold Matay, USA Today Sports

After winning its fourth game in six tries last week, Tampa Bay finds itself at 5-5 on the season and right in the thick of the NFC Playoff race. In fact, the Buccaneers are just one game back of the Atlanta Falcons for the final wild card spot with a win over the division rivals already in hand.

Taking on a struggling Colts team that also boasts a .500 record, Tampa Bay actually stands a good chance of getting to over .500 one year after finishing with just two wins.

The key here is going to be continued mistake-free football from Jameis Winston, who has only thrown two interceptions since Week 4. The rookie is coming off a five-touchdown performance on the road against Philadelphia. He was aided by a 235-yard performance from running back Doug Martin.

This type of balance has Tampa Bay playing darn good football heading into the final stretch. Whether it leads to a playoff appearance is a completely different story, but any hopes of earning that surprise appearance in the second season may start against Indy this week.

San Diego Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars: Can San Diego ruin the Jaguars season?

Don’t look now, but the Jaguars are one game back in both the AFC South and the wild card race heading into a Week 12 tilt with a Chargers team that’s suddenly tied for the worst record in the league.

In reality, this is a game good teams should win rather easily. At 2-8 on the year and with a roster laden with veteran talent, the Chargers don’t necessarily have a lot to play for. It may show up on the field, as evidenced in San Diego’s 30-point home loss to the Chiefs last week.

If so, the Jaguars need to take advantage by playing fundamentally sound football. This means converting on third downs, controlling the line of scrimmage against an injury-riddled offensive line and avoiding dreaded turnovers.

That last key is pretty much on Jags quarterback Blake Bortles, who has accounted for 10 of his team’s 13 giveaways over the past six games. If that happens, Jacksonville may find itself right in the wild card chase.

Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: Yet another must-win game for two AFC teams

Here are two more teams right in the thick of the AFC wild card race. Miami is coming off a dreadful home outing against Dallas while the Jets fell in another important game against Houston. Both need a win here to remain a viable contender in the playoff race heading into December.

Miami has lost three of four since starting Dan Campbell’s interim regime with two consecutive wins. This has the team on the cusp of falling completely out of playoff contention. A loss against the division-rival Jets would drop Miami to 4-7, making the team irrelevant moving forward this year.

After starting the year with a 4-1 record, the Jets have lost four of their past five. Their most recent loss to the Texans could very well come back to haunt this squad. After all, the Jets have lost three games to AFC teams currently with either four or five wins.

Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons: Playoff contenders looking to rebound from horrible losses

Courtesy of Kyle Terada, USA Today Sports

There is no other way to put it. The Falcons are playing some absolutely terrible football right now. Losers of four of five after starting the season 5-0, Dan Quinn’s squad needs to find a way to get back in the win column.

If not, a season that started with playoff expectations could lead to a collapse of epic proportions.

After winning seven of its past eight games, Minnesota put up a dud against the Packers last week. This team is going to have to rebound big time if it wants to be taken seriously in the NFC North moving forward this season.

That starts with a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater who has regressed a great deal from a season ago. The second-year signal caller has thrown just eight touchdowns in 10 games and is coming off a stretch of four games that’s seen him tally three total touchdowns.

Adrian Peterson may be the best running back of his generation, but he’s going to need some help here.

For the 6-4 Falcons, it’s all about getting back to the basics. Including a late-game pick-six last week against Indy, Matt Ryan has thrown eight interceptions compared to just nine touchdowns over the past six games.

It’s not a coincidence that Atlanta has turned the ball over a whopping 16 times during that span.

New York Giants at Washington Redskins: The miserable NFC East

Even after being absolutely destroyed by Carolina last week, the Redskins have an opportunity to actually tie the Giants atop the NFC East at home on Sunday. That’s been made possible by Washington playing in a division without a clear-cut contender to win even nine games.

With wins in their past four home games, the Redskins have a real shot here to bounce back from a humiliating loss last week. That’s going to have to start with Kirk Cousins actually giving his team a chance to win the game. This is something that just didn’t happen last Sunday.

The good news here is that Cousins has performed at an exceptional level at home this season. The oft-pedestrian signal-caller has tallied 10 touchdowns and two picks in five home outings this year.

For the Giants, it’s going all about maintaining the one-game lead against what has to be considered an inferior opponent. With losses to the Saints and Eagles on the season and less-than-stellar wins against the San Francisco 49ers, that’s much easier said than done.

Meanwhile, both Philadelphia and Dallas play on Thanksgiving with the ability to put more pressure on these two teams playing on Sunday. It’s mediocrity in its truest form.

Oakland Raiders at Tennessee Titans: Can Oakland remain viable in the AFC playoff picture?

Losing three consecutive games has the Raiders on the outside looking in as it relates to the wild card race in the AFC. While the losses to Pittsburgh and Minnesota are understandable for this young squad, falling to the then two-win Lions last week was unacceptable.

Playing a Titans squad that’s nowhere near its equal, Oakland has to perform like a playoff team in this one.

That’s going to start with Derek Carr returning to his early-season form and the defense actually finding a way to pick it up without the services of Aldon Smith. If this doesn’t happen, the Raiders will drop to 4-7 and completely out of the playoff race.

Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers: Carson Palmer and Co. must avoid trap game

Courtesy of Joe Nicholson, USA Today Sports

All three of San Francisco’s wins this season have come at home. In fact, two of them have come against squads that would be in the playoffs if they started today.

The splits between San Francisco’s performance at home and on the road are ridiculous. Jim Tomsula’s squad is only being outscored by eight points in five home contests thus far. On the road, the 49ers are winless while finding themselves outscored by a total of 105 points.

More than this, Arizona has not won against the 49ers in the Bay Area since Week 1 of the 2008 season. That’s all going to have to change if the Cardinals want to keep pace with Carolina for home-field advantage in the NFC while maintaining its three-game lead in the NFC West.

In terms of what we have seen this season, there is absolutely no reason to believe the Cardinals can’t destroy San Francisco in this one. The difference in talent on these teams is real—something Arizona needs to show on Sunday. That won’t happen if it takes the 49ers for granted.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Seattle Seahawks: Playoff implications galore

Despite a solid win against San Francisco last week, Seattle would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs started this week.

In the last of a three-game homestand, the defending champs need to find a way to start a winning streak, especially with road tilts against Minnesota and Arizona still on the schedule.

Coming off a three-touchdown performance last week, Russell Wilson must continue to help Seattle’s offense move the ball on a consistent basis. That’s only magnified by the fact that Marshawn Lynch will be sidelined for the near future.

Gone are the days that Seattle can simply rely on its defense to win 10-6 football games. We have seen the Legion of Boom be exposed in their previous three homes games, a clear indication that it has taken a step back. Taking on a high-flying Steelers offense, that’s not going to change come Sunday.

For Pittsburgh, it’s all about remaining a contender in the AFC North race while retaining its status atop the conference’s wild card standings.

More than anything, Pittsburgh is going to have to find a way to move the ball on offense. This means protecting Big Ben in the passing game and taking advantage of a middle of the field that’s been a vulnerable part of Seattle’s defense.

Both of these squads should be playing January football. The talent is there for lengthy playoff runs. However, a loss here would set either team back in the playoff standings.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos: Brock Osweiler and Co. looking to end Pats perfect season

Here’s a matchup that seems to favor the home team in a major way. The league’s top pass defense against a Patriots offense that’s going to be without Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman—an offense that might have also lost Danny Amendola for a bit to a sprained knee.

If Osweiler can continue to play mistake-free football after a zero-interception performance in his starting debut, there’s no reason to believe Denver can’t come out on top here. After all, it did win seven of nine with Peyton Manning throwing a league-high 17 interceptions.

That’s pretty much what Broncos defensive back Chris Harris said following the team’s Week 11 win over Chicago:

“If Brock has no turnovers, that’s the only thing I really need to look at. That’s a great game for him,” Harris said. “That’s all you have to do in this offense: Don’t turn it over. If you have to punt it, that’s great. It puts our defense on the field, and that’s what we want.”

With the best defense in the conference, this makes perfect sense. A repeat performance on Sunday could have Denver back in the mix for a first-round bye and potential home-field advantage in the AFC.

Looking at the Patriots schedule, this might be the last best chance for an opposing team to hand Brady and Co. a loss during the regular season.

All five of New England’s remaining games are against teams that are currently at .500 or below, including outings against the two-win Titans and free-falling Eagles.

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel done in Cleveland?

To be honest here, there really aren’t a lot of storylines for this game between two teams contending for the top pick in next year’s draft. Baltimore won its third game of the season last week, but it also lost its entire starting backfield for the year.

Meanwhile, Cleveland finds itself mired in more drama at the quarterback position while boasting the worst record in the NFL. As you likely already know, Johnny Manziel has been benched by the Browns after allegedly going on a partying spree during the team’s bye.

He will be replaced in the lineup by Josh McCown, who was benched in lieu of Manziel prior to Cleveland’s Week 10 game against Pittsburgh. In fact, Manziel will act as the team’s No. 3 quarterback behind Austin Davis.

None of this really has much of an impact on what’s going to happen moving forward this season. Baltimore and Cleveland are simply battling for draft positioning. However, there are still some pretty major stories heading into an otherwise meaningless Monday Night Football game.