Week 14 of the NFL season brings us some major intrigue surrounding playoff contenders. It starts with the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals taking on one another in a potential preview of the postseason.
It ends with the New York Giants attempting to maintain their status atop the pitiful NFC East on Monday night against a fledgling Miami Dolphins team.
In between, LeSean McCoy will make his long-awaited return to Philadelphia while Johnny Manziel will find himself under center for the first time since being benched last month.
Here is a look at your top storyline for each Week 14 NFL game.
Minnesota Vikings at Arizona Cardinals: Teddy Bridgewater’s lackluster 2015 performance
Following a disastrous 38-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks last week, all the positive vibes the Vikings had been feeling for the first 12 weeks of the season was thrown completely out the window.
Just one game ahead of Seattle for the fifth seed in the NFC and tied with the Green Bay Packers atop the NFC North, Minnesota needs to find a way to get back on track Thursday against another elite opponent.
That’s going to have to start with a second-year quarterback that has been downright dreadful for most of the season. Bridgewater completed 17-of-28 passes for just 118 yards and an interception against Seattle last week.
It was his seventh game with less than 200 passing yards and the fifth time that he has failed to put up a touchdown pass.
Overall, Bridgewater ranks among the worst regular starting quarterbacks in passing yards per game (199.8), touchdown passes (eight), average yards per pass (6.9) and rating (83.0).
It’s not a coincidence that Adrian Peterson put up his worst performance of the season last week with just 18 yards on eight attempts.
Simply put, Bridgewater needs to find a way to keep defenses honest. Over the course of the past several games, that just hasn’t been the case. During that span, it has led to defenses going all out against the run — something that has limited Peterson’s production.
It’s not going to be easy against a Cardinals defense that has yielded the eighth-fewest passing yards on the season while allowing 17 touchdowns compared to a whopping 16 interceptions in 12 games.
Buffalo Bills at Philadelphia Eagles: LeSean McCoy’s return to Philly
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 9, 2015
We already know the backstory here. McCoy made some news during the offseason by indicating that Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has some sort of racial bias within him. This led to a ton of drama surrounding both teams following the trade of McCoy to Western New York.
Now back in Philadelphia for the first time since being dealt back in March, McCoy is going to want to make a statement against his former team. Equally as important, his Bills are currently 6-6 on the season and just one game out of the final wild card spot in the AFC.
With six consecutive games of 100-plus total yards, McCoy is playing his best football in years.
Taking on an Eagles defense that has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards in the NFL, this Pro Bowl running back should have himself a heck of a game.
Seattle Seahawks at Baltimore Ravens: Russell Wilson’s ridiculous recent play
After struggling through the first nine games of the season, Wilson has performed at an elite level during Seattle’s three-game winning streak.
He’s completing 77 percent of his passes for nearly 300 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and zero picks during that span. It’s not a coincidence that Seattle has outscored its opponents by 56 points in these three games.
Set for potentially the easiest game on Seattle’s schedule thus far this season, Wilson will have the pleasure of taking on a three-win Baltimore Ravens team that boasts a defense that’s allowed 22 touchdowns compared to four interceptions on the season.
The key here for Wilson and the Seahawks will be to avoid a letdown after impressive wins against two playoff contenders. If that happens, Seattle will find a way to win its fourth consecutive game and inch closer to yet another postseason appearance.
San Francisco 49ers at Cleveland Browns: It’s Johnny Football time
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 8, 2015
We could talk about Johnny Manziel going up against Blaine Gabbert in this one. Though, that narrative wouldn’t be quite as sexy, especially the way Gabbert has performed in San Francisco thus far this season.
Instead, it’s all about Johnny Football’s final chance to prove that he can be the Browns’ franchise quarterback.
In what will be Manziel’s first start since head coach Mike Pettine benched him last month, the backstory here is whether Pettine is fully supportive of the former first-round pick taking over as the starter once again.
By now, the drama is well known. Pettine himself indicated this week that there is some tension within the organization during what has been a disastrous season for Cleveland:
“I can’t sit here and say, ‘Absolutely, we’re all on board, 100 percent.’ That’s not reality because when things don’t go well, everybody has their opinions and their reasons why,” Pettine said, via Cleveland.com. “but it’s going to come down to a brutal self-assessment and to be able to have the strength to make tough decisions and trust them and move forward.”
With a league-worst 2-10 record and coming off a 37-3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, part of the issue in Cleveland could be Pettine’s job status — something that’s been magnified by the way he’s handled the entire Manziel situation.
Taking on a San Francisco defense that has not allowed a touchdown pass in two games, there is no guarantee that the second-year quarterback will have success come Sunday. That scenario would raise even more questions about the Browns heading into the final three games of the season.
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: One last-ditch effort for Falcons to right ship
There’s a legitimate reason to believe that Atlanta is already out of the NFC playoff race. At 6-6 on the season, it is one game behind the suddenly red-hot Seahawks for the final wild card spot.
With two games remaining against the undefeated Panthers and in the midst of six losses in their past seven games, the Falcons playoff chances are hanging by a thread.
Any chance Atlanta has of catching Seattle for the final playoff spot starts Sunday in Carolina. And in reality, the onus is going to be on Matt Ryan to overcome what has been the worst stretch of his career. He has thrown 11 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions over the past eight games.
During that span, Atlanta has tuned the ball over a whopping 20 times. If this doesn’t change, Atlanta will fall to under .500 for the first time on the season.
Washington Redskins at Chicago Bears: Can the Redskins finally have success on the road?
Following an ugly home loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Monday, Washington threw away a golden opportunity to take over sole possession of first place in the NFC East. It was the Redskins first home loss since Week 1.
Now having to head to Soldier Field to take on a Bears team that’s in desperation mode, the Redskins simply need to find a way to have success on the road.
Here’s a team that hasn’t won on the road since an overtime win against Dallas last October. Since, the Redskins have lost eight consecutive road outings by a combined 116 points.
With three of Washington’s final four games coming on the road, any realistic thought of winning the dumpster fire of an NFC East starts this week against a Bears team that is coming off an overtime home loss to the hapless San Francisco 49ers.
If it doesn’t happen this week, there’s very little reason to believe it will moving forward on the year.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: Home team looking to clinch AFC North
It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Cincinnati will win the division. Three games ahead of Pittsburgh, the Bengals can clinch the AFC North with a win or a tie on Sunday.
The larger picture here is home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. At 10-2 on the year, Cincinnati controls its destiny when it comes to that aspect of the playoff race.
First things first. In addition to being able to maintain its status atop the AFC, the first step has to be ruining any possibility that a surging Steelers team could make the division race interesting.
With both teams coming off dominating performances against inferior competition last week, this promises to be a heck of a game.
The key here for Cincinnati will be finding a way to stop a high-flying Steelers offense that has tallied an average of 539 yards and 35.8 points over the past four games.
Yielding an average of just nine points per game in their past three home outings, the Bengals have the talent to be able to do just that.
Detroit Lions at St. Louis Rams: Two lame duck head coaches
Is there anyone outside of these two cities actually excited about this game? Heck, we aren’t even sure Lions and Rams fans can get pumped for this one.
Two coaches who have used offensive coordinators as fall guys while feeling their seats get increasingly hot taking on one another in an otherwise meaningless game.
The only real drama here is draft positioning in a draft that neither will be employed by their current team.
In the midst of a five-game losing streak and after losing their last two outings by a combined 58-10 score, Jeff Fisher and the Rams are merely playing out the string here. Even then, Fisher doesn’t seem to be worried about his job status:
“I’ve been doing this for probably short of 20 years, and I’ve never gone into a game or into a season worried about my job security,” Fisher said prior to last week’s game, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “That would be unfair to the organization and unfair to the players. So I’m not concerned about that.”
It must be nice to think you are secure in your surroundings when mediocrity has been your high-water mark during a substandard four-year tenure in St. Louis.
For Jim Caldwell and the Lions, the situation seems to be just as clear cut. He fired pretty much his entire offensive coaching staff in late October.
And while Detroit has won three of its past four games, a 4-8 record heading into Week 14 isn’t good enough for an owner in Martha Ford that promised continued changes within the organization after firing the team’s general manager and president earlier this year.
Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars: Gus Bradley’s squad has a real opportunity here
Despite losing their past two games (by a combined nine points), the Jaguars still find themselves just two games out in the dreadful AFC South.
Taking on a Colts team that was absolutely destroyed by Pittsburgh last week, Jacksonville can pull to within a game of the defending division champs at home on Sunday.
With the Houston Texans forced to take on what might be an angry New England Patriots team, Jacksonville has a prime opportunity to get back in the division race this week.
The key here will be finding a way to put up any sort of a resistance on defense. Jacksonville ranks 30th in the NFL in scoring defense at over 28 points per game. It has also yielded 350-plus yards all but four times this season.
Despite red-zone struggles and some turnover issues, Jacksonville has the talent to outscore a struggling Colts team. It’s now all about finding a way to put together four good quarters of good play on defense.
If that happens, the Jaguars could realistically find themselves just one game out in the AFC South heading into Week 15.
San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith and Co. looking to cement status as legit AFC contender
The narrative that any Alex Smith-led team is nothing more than a pretender can be thrown completely out the window this year.
Winners of six consecutive games, Kansas City is the hottest team in the AFC. It has turned the ball over a total of two times while forcing 17 takeaways during this six-game streak.
For his part, Smith has not thrown an interception since Week 3. He’s also led the Chiefs to 29-plus points in each of the past five games, a clear indication that Kansas City’s offense is more than ready to do its part.
Without any truly dominating team in the AFC, it’s not unrealistic to look at Kansas City as a potential contender for the conference title.
Taking on a bad Chargers team at home on Sunday, Andy Reid and Co. must enforce their will in all aspects of the game.
Not only would that get Kansas City closer to a playoff spot, it would show the rest of the conference that the Chiefs can take care of business against inferior competition.
New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can the Buccaneers stay in the NFC playoff race?
Following the team’s fifth win in eight games, confidence seems to be incredibly high in Tampa Bay. Now at 6-6 on the season, Lovie Smith and Co. are legitimately thinking playoffs.
In order for this to even be a possibility heading into the stretch run, the Buccaneers need to take care of business against an inferior Saints team at home on Sunday.
The last time these two NFC South rivals matched up, Tampa Bay pulled off what was a then surprising win in New Orleans. Three months later, and the surprise here would be Dreew Brees and Co. actually coming out on top.
Based on how well Seattle is playing recently, it’s hard to imagine Tampa Bay finishing the season with a better record than the two-time defending NFC champions.
However, the Buccaneers could very well have their eyes on the Minnesota Vikings, who remain two games.
With two of their final four games coming up against the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers, there is no guarantee the Vikings will finish the season strong.
None of this should really be on the Buccaneers’ radar right now. They simply need to take care of business on their end and see where the chips fall.
A loss to the Saints on Sunday would make all this playoff talk and the scenarios surrounding it a moot point.
Tennessee Titans at New York Jets: The revelation that is the Jets offense
Remember when there was talk of the Jets turning to Geno Smith during some struggles earlier this year? Well, Ryan Fitzpatrick would love to have a word with you.
With the 11th-ranked scoring offense in the NFL, the Jets have been one of the biggest surprises thus far this season. And at 7-5 on the year, this team controls its own destiny in the AFC playoff race.
For his part, Fitzpatrick could be playing the best football of his career. He’s completing over 60 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on the season.
Meanwhile, Brandon Marshall is having himself a heck of a first season in New Jersey. He has put up 83 receptions for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games.
If these two are able to continue playing good football, the Jets will be perfectly fine.
Taking on a three-win Titans team at home on Sunday, the Jets have an opportunity to continue their recent success. They better take advantage of said opportunity in an AFC that’s ripe with teams that boast between five and seven wins.
Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos: Final knockout punch for the Raiders?
Even if the Raiders were to win out, there is a whole heck of a lot that would have to happen for them to make the playoffs.
Such is the nature of the beast when you lose three of four games in the third quarter of the season.
Despite all this, confidence still remains high in Oakland. Here’s a team that has already bested its win total from each of the past three seasons with four of its seven losses coming by one score.
Oakland isn’t going to go into Denver and wilt under the pressure. Fresh off a disastrous three-interception performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, you better believe Derek Carr will have a rebound performance.
The question here, like it has been pretty much all season, is whether Oakland has the all-around talent to compete with the big boys.
A substandard secondary having to take on a solid young quarterback in Brock Osweiler with a tremendous amount of weapons at his disposal. A defense having to do that facing a running game that has put up nearly 500 yards in the past three games.
Yeah, it is going to be a tall order here. If the Raiders are able to go into Denver and pull off an upset win, it would represent that signature moment for first-year head coach Jack Del Rio. And even if the playoffs aren’t in the cards, that would be huge for this young team.
Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers: Four-win Cowboys just one game back in NFC East
A Matt Cassel-led Cowboys team going into Lambeau Field to take on the mighty Packers. This has blowout loss written all over it for Dallas.
That’s until we realize that Green Bay has lost each of its past two home games, both to teams that are currently under .500 on the season.
Even after a miracle late-game win against the Detroit Lions last week, the trajectory isn’t necessarily pointing up for a Packers squad that has lost four of six after starting 6-0.
Dallas needs to take advantage of that in order to remain viable in the NFC East race. If it is able to do just that, a 5-9 squad will enter Week 15 with a pretty decent shot at the playoffs.
New England Patriots at Houston Texans: Pats looking to stop two-game slide
The Patriots may have dominated the stat line against Philadelphia last week, but it wasn’t good enough to overcome horrendous special teams play and one big mistake from Tom Brady.
In this, New England enters Week 14 losers of two consecutive and coming off one of the most-shocking defeats in the recent franchise history.
With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman unlikely to go in this one, Brady is going to have to continue getting water from a rock as it relates to his skill-position players.
Equally as important, his offensive line must find a way to contain one of the most-dominating defensive players this game has ever seen.
Simply put, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt can take over a game by himself. And in reality, that might be the only way Houston finds a way to jump to over .500 while handing New England its third consecutive loss.
New York Giants at Miami Dolphins: Fledgling playoff contenders in need of a win
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 8, 2015
Tied with two other teams atop the NFC East, New York has a much less difficult path to the playoffs than Miami.
In fact, Eli Manning and Co. could enter Monday night’s game knowing they have an opportunity to control their destiny in the division.
Losers of three consecutive and coming off a late-game meltdown against the Jets, it’s important for the Giants to take care of business in this one.
As we have seen all season, it comes down to making the plays at the right time. This is something the Giants simply haven’t been able to do all season.
For the Dolphins, the task ahead is clear: Win out and see what happens. This is the only way Miami will even sniff the playoffs.
As unrealistic as that might sound, it can start with an impressive home win against New York in front of a nationally televised audience.