Following a drama-filled slate of Thanksgiving weekend action, the NFL is finally hitting its stretch run. With a ton of games representing playoff implications, there are storylines galore heading into Week 13.
Can the Oakland Raiders remain alive in the AFC Playoff race at home against a red-hot Kansas Chiefs team? How will the Pittsburgh Steelers respond to a disheartening loss to the Seattle Seahawks last week?
Meanwhile, can Seattle continue where it left off last week in what is a huge game against the Vikings in Minnesota?
These are among the top storylines for NFL’s Week 13 action.
Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: Can Aaron Rodgers and Co. exact revenge?
A funny thing is happening in the NFC. Green Bay finds itself just one game up on the Atlanta Falcons in the race for one of the two wildcard positions in the conference.
This has been made possible by the Packers losing four of five after starting the season with a perfect 6-0 record.
While no one really expects Green Bay to miss out on the second season, Aaron Rodgers and Co. have to get their house in order right now.
That starts against a Lions squad that has won three consecutive games and is just a couple weeks removed from handing Green Bay a rare loss at Lambeau Field.
The key here for Green Bay will be to continue getting some sense of balance on offense. Despite falling to the Chicago Bears last week, the Packers were finally able to get Eddie Lacy going. He tallied 105 yards on 17 attempts while adding a receiving touchdown.
In their loss to the Lions back in Week 10, the Packers were only able to produce 47 rushing yards on 18 attempts. If that doesn’t change, Green Bay could very well be looking at yet another loss to an inferior divisional opponent.
Houston Texans at Buffalo Bills: Rex Ryan’s squad battling for playoff relevancy
At 5-6 on the season and with a recent loss to the six-win Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo needs to find a way to fend off a red-hot Texans team at home on Sunday.
Houston possesses one of the two wildcard spots in the AFC with a 6-5 record. If it is able to steal one on the road here, that will, pending the outcome of the Chiefs-Raiders game, potentially put the Bills two games back of the wildcard while having lost the tiebreaker to both squads.
That would pretty much signal an end to the Bills aspirations of earning their first playoff appearance since Bill Clinton was in office.
Four of Buffalo’s six losses on the season have come by one score. The issue over the past two weeks, both one-score losses, was the Bills’ defense — a known specialty of head coach Rex Ryan. Buffalo gave up an average of 25 points and 385 total yards in those two games.
It’s not a coincidence that Buffalo boasts a 5-0 record when it holds opponents to under 20 points per game. The team is also 0-6 when the other squad puts up 20-plus points.
That in and of itself will be the major key here. If Buffalo is able to take care of business against a talent-stricken Texans offense while avoiding the large amount of penalties we have seen in the past, it will head into Week 14 very much alive in the AFC Playoff race. If not, it will be another long winter in Western New York.
Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins: Change at offensive coordinator in Miami
With Zac Taylor taking over for Bill Lazor as the Dolphins offensive coordinator, the expectation here is that Miami will look to actually get some sort of a running game going.
Last week’s 38-20 loss to the New York Jets saw this offense attempt a total of nine rushes while putting the ball up an astounding 58 times. It doesn’t take a genius to realize this isn’t a plan that will lead to much success in today’s NFL.
Taylor has obviously bought into the idea, created by interim head coach Dan Campbell, that Miami needs to put up more of an effort on the ground.
If that’s the case, we can expect a pretty big workload for a running back in Lamar Miller that tallied 354 yards and three scores in Campbell’s first two games as the Dolphins’ head coach.
At 4-7 on the year, Miami is pretty much out of the AFC Playoff race. This doesn’t mean that a lame-duck coaching staff should avoid seeing what the team has on offense. That will likely start Sunday against the Ravens.
Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns: Is Johnny Football done in Cleveland?
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 2, 2015
Now that Josh McCown is lost for the season with a broken right collarbone, it looks like the Browns will go with Austin Davis this week against the Bengals.
That means that Manziel is still in Mike Pettine’s doghouse with just five games remaining in the season.
The story is by now well known. Manziel allegedly partied away the team’s bye week late last month, leading Pettine to demote him from the starting role to third string.
Then, when McCown went down to injury last week, Cleveland called on Davis to finish up the game against Baltimore.
It will be telling if the Browns don’t give Manziel an opportunity against Cincinnati should Davis struggle come Sunday.
At the very least, that will be an indication that the team has already moved on from considering the former first-round pick an option beyond the 2015 season.
San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears: Home team must dominate inferior opponent
Chicago suddenly finds itself one game out of the final wildcard spot in the NFC after a string of five wins in its past seven games.
While no one really expects the Bears to actually earn a playoff spot, they can remain in the race with a win over one of the league’s worst teams.
Not only does Chicago need to come out on top in this one, it must display a level of domination we have not yet seen this season. After all, San Francisco has lost all five of its road games by a combined 105 points.
Playoff teams find a way to dominate inferior opponents. Mediocre squads let said opponents remain the game throughout.
More so than simply getting out of dodge with a win here, Chicago needs to lay the hammer down on San Francisco in order to prove its worth in the NFC Playoff race.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans: Rebound performance from the Jaguars?
Despite losing last week to drop to 4-7 on the season, Jacksonville is still somewhat alive in the AFC South race. It’s two games behind both Indianapolis and Houston, meaning the Jaguars have some catching up to do here.
Taking on a two-win Titans team that they defeated last month, the Jaguars have an opportunity to put more pressure on Indy and Houston heading into Week 14. After all, each of those teams play much better competition come Sunday.
As is usually the case, the key here will be turnovers. Jacksonville boasts a 2-2 record in its past four games. In those two wins, the team is plus-two in the turnover battle. In the two losses, it’s minus-five.
While Blake Bortles finds himself on pace for over 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns on the season, he has also turned the ball over 16 times in 11 games. That’s going to be the biggest key in this one.
If the second-year quarterback is able to avoid the turnover plague, Jacksonville will likely come out on top in this one.
Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings: Playoff ramifications galore
Most chalked Seattle’s early-season struggles up to being more of a fluke than anything else. Now after a hard-fought win against Pittsburgh last Sunday, all the talk is about how Seattle could be hitting its stride.
While that might very well be true, Seattle is still technically tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the final wildcard spot and has a lot of kinks it needs to work out.
First off, lost in all the hoopla of Russell Wilson putting up a career-high five touchdowns last week, Seattle’s defense yielded 538 yards and 26 first downs to Pittsburgh. This means that the Legion of Boom gave up an average of 400 yards during Seattle’s three-game home stand.
Say what you want about Wilson. He might very well have turned that corner in becoming more than a game manager. It’s still going to be up to Seattle’s defense to lead the team to a third consecutive NFC title. That starts Sunday in Minnesota against the Vikings.
The ramifications are real here. Not only is Minnesota two games up for the final wildcard spot in the NFC, it is one game ahead of Green Bay in the NFC North. A home win against Seattle would go a long way in the Vikings showing everyone that they are a legitimate conference title contender.
On the other hand, a loss by Seattle would put the team at .500 heading into Week 14, and likely right there with a few different squads fighting for one of two wildcard spots.
New York Jets at New York Giants: Playoff scenarios in New Jersey
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 2, 2015
After falling to Washington last week, the Giants find themselves tied for first in the NFC East at 5-6. Any hope that this team would pull away in the substandard division was thrown out the window following that loss.
Now taking on a Jets squad that is statistically tied with the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans for the two wildcard spots in the AFC, the Giants are taking on yet another team with playoff aspirations.
The biggest key here for New York will be its passing game. Can Eli Manning take advantage of a suddenly vulnerable Jets secondary that might be without Darrelle Revis?
If not, do the Giants stand any chance of getting the league’s 28th-ranked running game going against one of the best run defenses in the NFL.
For the Jets, it will be all about continuing the stellar play we saw last week against Miami.
Todd Bowles and Co. opened up a 35-7 lead early in the fourth quarter in what was a dominating overall performance. Ryan Fitzpatrick put up four touchdown passes while Chris Ivory added 102 total yards and a score.
If the Jets can get that type of balance on offense come Sunday, they could very well earn a second consecutive win, moving to two games over .500 in the process.
That’s going to be needed. The Jets have three losses against teams that boast either five or six wins in the AFC. This means that they will lose the tiebreaker to those three squads should they finish with the same record.
With a 5-6 record, the only real opportunity the Giants have of earning a playoff spot is by winning the NFC East. In this, Tom Coughlin’s squad needs to find a way to get back in the win column after losing its past two games.
Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams: Can the Rams continue their stellar play against the NFC West?
The Rams may be 10-17 since the start of the 2014 season. However, the team boasts a surprising 5-4 record within the NFC West during that span.
In fact, St. Louis is undefeated within the division on the year, already defeating the Cardinals in Arizona back in Week 4. It just seems that Jeff Fisher’s squad plays an entirely different level of football when taking on division rivals.
Losers of four consecutive after inching to over .500 in early November, the Rams sole role here will be to play spoiler against a Cardinals team that is in the midst of a five-game winning streak and controls its own destiny for a first-round playoff bye.
Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another revenge game
Atlanta desperately needs to get a win to remain viable in the NFC Playoff picture. Losers of five of their past six, the Falcons are tied with Seattle for he final wildcard spot, just one game ahead of three other teams for that spot.
Now taking on one of those squads, the very same one that defeated them back in November, it’s pretty much desperation mode for the Falcons.
Should they fall to the Buccaneers on Sunday, the Falcons would have lost both games to a team that won a total of two games last season. This means that if the Buccaneers and Falcons were to finish with the same record, the former would get the playoff nod.
In what has been a common theme for both teams this season, it’s going to be all about turnovers. Atlanta is minus-nine in this all-important category during the aforementioned six-game span. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay plus-four over the past five games.
Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers: Brock Osweiler’s chance to cement status as starter
If Osweiler is able to win a third consecutive game as the Broncos’ starter, there is little doubt that he will remain under center for the remainder of the season.
Considering he took out the undefeated New England Patriots last week, the odds have to be in favor of the former second-round pick coming out on top in this one.
While it might be nothing less than good feeling for the Broncos under Osweiler, the task at hand is clear here. Denver finds itself in a tie with Cincinnati for one of two first-round playoff byes in the AFC. It is also just one game behind New England for home-field advantage.
With a win against the Patriots already under their belt, the Broncos can continue to put pressure on Tom Brady and Co. by winning against a vastly inferior Chargers squad on the road Sunday.
You better believe Osweiler will have a major impact on the outcome of the game. If he does struggle, there will likely be talk of the Broncos turning back to Peyton Manning once he’s proven to be 100 percent healthy. That’s what is at stake here.
Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders: Final chance for Raiders to prove their worth
A loss at home to Kansas City would pretty much end any hopes of meaningful January football in Oakland. The Raiders were able to stave off that potential inevitability in an ugly win against Tennessee last week. It’s now all about getting that signature win within the division.
It’s not going to be easy against a Chiefs team that has won five consecutive games and currently holds one of the two wildcard spots in the AFC.
For the Raiders, it’s going to be all about finding some way to create mistakes for Kansas City. Alex Smith is currently nearing 300 pass attempts without an interception with the Chiefs turning the ball over a grand total of zero times during their five-game winning streak.
Oakland doesn’t have the talent on defense to stop Kansas City without forcing a couple miscues. It really is that simple.
Offensively, Derek Carr needs to pick up where he left off last week. The second-year quarterback threw three more touchdowns without an interception against the Titans. He now takes on a Chiefs defense that ranks in the top 11 against the pass.
With a win over the Jets on the season, Oakland already boasts the head-to-head tiebreaker against another playoff hopeful in the AFC.
If the Raiders can find a way to get back to .500 with a victory over the division-rival Chiefs, they will be very much alive in the playoff race heading into Week 14.
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: Can Drew Brees will the Saints to upset victory?
Now that Carolina has disposed of the toughest part of its schedule unblemished, we can talk of the possibility of an undefeated regular season.
At 11-0 on the year and with two remaining games (Atlanta) against a squad that’s currently over .500, this is becoming a real possibility.
Can the untested Panthers survive an inner-division road game against a Saints squad that has nothing to lose? This is one of those trap games that can derail a perfect season.
While Brees has done very little to quiet suggestions that he’s nowhere near the player he once was, the future Hall of Famer has put up 13 touchdowns compared to three interceptions in his past four home starts, winning three of those outings.
Carolina needs to be at the top of its game to avoid what would be a major letdown. With the NFC South pretty much already locked up and a first-round bye looking likely, it’s now all about finding new ways to get motivated.
This week, the goal is to remain undefeated against what might be a game Saints squad.
Philadelphia Eagles at New England Patriots: Chip Kelly’s job status
Unless you have been hiding under a rock over the past few weeks, you know that there have been some major rumors regarding Kelly’s job status following the 2015 season.
That’s only magnified by the Eagles losing their past two games by a combined 59 points.
Lost in all the talk of Kelly potentially leaving Philadelphia after three seasons is the fact that the team is just one game out of first place in the NFC East.
If it can hand the Patriots their second consecutive loss in what would be a stunner, conversations regarding Kelly’s job status will quickly morph into talk about the team potentially making the playoffs.
If the last two weeks are any indication, this one scribe is more likely to get that long-awaited first date with Anna Kendrick.
Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers: More AFC Playoff implications
Indianapolis currently finds itself in first place in the AFC South with a fallback option that has the team also ahead in the wildcard race.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s sole focus from here on out has to be the wildcard after falling three games behind Cincinnati in the AFC North.
It could be said that this game is more important for Pittsburgh. With only one real avenue of earning that postseason appearance, it can’t afford to lose a conference game against a squad that might very well be relegated to this particular avenue for a playoff spot.
The key here will be the health of Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a concussion last week against Seattle. He practiced on Wednesday — an indication that he will be ready to go.
Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins: First-place Redskins look to squash Cowboys playoff hopes
Even after losing Tony Romo for what looked to be the season due to yet another collarbone injury on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys have refused to place the quarterback on injured reserve.
They are keeping the option open of him returning to the field solely based on what appears to be dwindling playoff aspirations.
Heading into Week 13, Dallas finds itself two games out of first place in the NFC East with a 3-8 record. Outside of the fact that this tells us just how bad the division is, it might be giving Dallas false hope that it has a chance to win the division.
Washington can pretty much end any idea of the Cowboys pulling off a stunning late-season run by taking care of business at home on Monday night. In the process, it could maintain its status atop the mediocre division.