Thanksgiving weekend is when the drama starts to feel real around the National Football League. We are transitioning from mid-season to late-season mode within the matter of just one week.
Week 13 of the 2014 season brings us a ton of huge matchups in both conferences.
From the Seattle Seahawks traveling to Levi’s Stadium to take on the San Francisco 49ers in a must win for both teams to Tom Brady leading his Patriots into Lambeau against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, there are some season-defining games set to take place starting Thursday.
Here is our look at the top storyline for each Week 13 NFL game.
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions: Two Teams Potentially Going in Different Directions
Chicago might have righted the ship a bit too late with two consecutive wins, but it can still play the role of spoiler down the stretch. The talent is most definitely there on the offensive side of the ball for Matt Forte and Co. to score against a Lions defense that was absolutely torched by the New England Patriots last week.
Losers of two consecutive and now fighting to remain in the NFC North conversation, Detroit finds itself in a near must-win situation at home on Thanksgiving afternoon. Can Matthew Stafford rebound from a two-game stretch that has seen him complete less than 50 percent of his passes and fail to lead the Lions on a touchdown-scoring drive? That will tell us what we need to know come Thursday.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys: Battle for NFC East Supremacy
Not only is this a battle for first place between two conference championship contenders, it’s the first of two matchups between the Eagles and Cowboys in a three-week span. The loser here will also find itself in an unenviable position of being among multiple wild card contenders with either seven or eight wins. No matter who wins the NFC East, the second-place team must finish with a one-game lead over the San Francisco 49ers in order to be seeded ahead of Jim Harbaugh’s squad. That’s yet another reason this game is so big.
For the Cowboys, this game is absolutely huge. Coming off a short week following a late-game win against the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football, Tony Romo and Co. can’t afford to lose at home against the Eagles with a game still remaining against them in Philadelphia.
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers: Winner with Clear Path to the Playoffs, Loser Behind the Eight-Ball
In the third of three HUGE Thanksgiving matchups, these two heated division rivals take on one another with a lot on the line. The loser of this game will likely fall completely out of the top seven in the NFC with four games remaining. In addition to that, it will find itself at least two games behind the division-leading Arizona Cardinals with a month remaining in the season.
And while a lot has been made about San Francisco’s inability to win in the Pacific Northwest, it’s important to note that Seattle hasn’t won in Northern California in five meetings. Coming off a game that saw him get sacked seven times, Russell Wilson is going to have a hard time finding a clean pocket to throw in with the emergence of Aaron Lynch opposite a fresh Aldon Smith. As it relates to the 49ers, their offense simply needs to pick it up. Two consecutive substandard performances against the Giants and Redskins doesn’t give this unit much confidence going up against one of the best defenses in the NFL. Overall, this game is going to have a playoff feel to it at Levi’s Stadium come turkey night.
Cleveland Browns at Buffalo Bills: Playoff Implications Everywhere
Both Cleveland and Buffalo are in the playoff conversation heading into December. While you take time to let this resonate, remember just how important this game in Western New York is for both teams. Buffalo sits one game back a whole host of other teams for the two wild card spots. Meanwhile, Cleveland joins three other AFC North teams with seven wins on the season.
Can Brian Hoyer up his game at the quarterback position against a really good Bills defense? If so, is Josh Gordon going to provide him with that consistent weapon we saw in Gordon’s season debut last week? This should go a long way in determining who wins a matchup between two surprising playoff contenders.
For the Bills, every game from here on out seems to be a must win. It’s likely going to take an 11-5 record in order to get into the playoffs. If not, the team that makes it to the postseason with 10 wins will have to possess a ton of tie-breakers. One such tie-breaker could be had here against Cleveland.
San Diego Chargers at Baltimore Ravens: Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Another non-division conference game with huge playoff implications. If the postseason were to start right now, San Diego would hold one of the two wild card spots based on tie-breakers and Baltimore would be on the outside looking in based on Cincinnatti’s 7-3-1 record. A win here by the Ravens at home, and that would change pretty much everything.
Baltimore is playing exceptional football of late. It dominated the New Orleans Saints on the road Monday night and seems to have found the right run/pass mix on the offensive side of the ball. Over the course of his last two games, Joe Flacco is attempting just 26.5 passes and hasn’t thrown an interception. It’s not a coincidence that Just Forsett has put up over 300 total yards and four touchdown during that span.
On the other hand, San Diego has been much less impressive recently. While it has won two consecutive, those came against the Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams by a combined 10 points. Philip Rivers and Co. will have to up their game considerably in order to go into Baltimore and come away with a win.
Carolina Panthers at Minnesota Vikings: Cam Newton and Co. Potentially Playing for First
At four games under .500 heading into Week 13, there is no reason why the Panthers should be just a half game out of first place. But such is the nature of the beast in the NFC South. Coming off a bye week to clean up some wounds that led to a current six-game winless streak, the Panthers can pretty much view the remainder of the year as starting anew.
That new year begins Sunday against a Minnesota Vikings team that has lost two straight after looking like it might be contending for a postseason spot heading into November. If the Panthers want anyone to take them seriously, the rest of the NFC South included, they need to win against an inferior team on the road. And the only way they are going to do that is by protecting Cam Newton, who has been sacked a whopping 32 times thus far this season. If not, it really doesn’t matter how bad the NFC South is.
Cincinnati Bengals at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Must Win for Bengals Against a Lackluster Opponent
After going winless during a three-game span earlier this season, the first-place Bengals have righted the ship. They have won four of five and are coming off two consecutive solid road outings against the New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans. The two common themes regarding this turnaround is the improved play of Andy Dalton (let’s ignore the Browns game for a second) and much better all-around defense. Over these past two games, Cincinnati’s defense has yielded a total of 23 points and under 600 yards of offense.
It’s not exactly going to be an easy matchup against the Buccaneers in Florida. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson will cause some major mismatches on the outside. That’s something the Bengals will have to fend off if they are going to be avoid being upset and losing out on their small half game lead in the AFC North.
Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: Houston’s Season is on the Line Here
At 5-6 on the season and without Ryan Mallett for the remainder of the year, Houston seems to be prepared to just play out the stratch without really contending for a playoff spot. Simply put, there are too many factors going against Bill O’Brien’s squad to expect anything different at this point.
I guess the intrigue here could be who will get substantial playing time under center. Houston seems fully prepared to go back to veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick after benching him in favor of the now injured Ryan Mallett. But what about rookie Tom Savage? He’s someone that the Texans might just have to look at moving forward this season. Sadly.
Washington Redskins at Indianapolis Colts: Drama in D.C.
Late Tuesday evening, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Redskins had done an about-face and were planning on starting Colt McCoy over the much-maligned Robert Griffin III. This comes after a week or so of speculation that head coach Jay Gruden was not sold on RGIII as the team’s quarterback. It also comes on the heels of the former No. 2 overall pick putting up another disastrous performance against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
But Colt McCoy. Is he really the answer here? A veteran that seems to have the ceiling of a career backup. A veteran that the 49ers replaced on their roster by actually giving up draft picks for Blaine Gabbert.
The larger issue at hand here isn’t what happens in the final five games of what has been a dumpster fire of a season in D.C. Rather, it’s about the future of the once heralded and now former franchise quarterback as well as the team’s first-year head coach. Did Gruden turn away from owner Daniel Snyder in making the decision to start McCoy over RGIII? And if so, what does that mean for Gruden’s future beyond this season? Oh yeah, the drama is alive and well in the nation’s capital.
New York Giants at Jacksonville Jaguars: NFL Draft Positioning
There really isn’t a whole lot to look at here. We could take a gander at Tom Coughlin’s hot seat, but there really is no reason to burn down the Internet during the holiday season.
With one win on the season, Jacksonville has an opportunity to acquire the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. In fact, the Jaguars would own the first pick based on strength of schedule if the season were to end today. On the other hand, New York comes into this meaningless football game between two meaningless football squads with three wins on the season and firmly in a top-10 draft position. Who will stink it up less in this matchup of the two teams Tom Coughlin has coached in his NFL career?
New Orleans Saints at Pittsburgh Steelers: Saints Look to End Three-Game Losing Streak
Leave it to the Saints to have to travel away from New Orleans to break a three-game skid and remain in a tie with the Atlanta Falcons in first place in the NFC South. They will be going up against one of the real secrets of the NFL world today. And depending on what Steelers team shows up on Sunday, the Saints may very well pull off the upset win. Then again, Ben Roethlisberger could throw another six touchdowns in an effort that wouldn’t necessarily be rare against a team in the worst division in modern league history. Either way you put it, the Saints need to win this game.
Oakland Raiders at St. Louis Rams: Battle of Los Angeles?
Okay, we are being a bit outlandish here. But there is a decent chance that at least one of these teams ends up in Southern California next season. Rather than focus on draft order (because there really isn’t much more to look at here), let’s look at a matchup between two franchises that are seemingly on a collision course with one another headed for the City of Angels. While the Raiders and Rams weren’t necessarily rivals in Los Angeles prior to the two teams leaving following the 1994 season, there is something to be said about going full circle here.
Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons: Trap Game for the Cardinals
Fresh off a loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Bruce Arians’ squad will have to travel to Atlanta to take on a first-place Falcons team. No, this doesn’t mean that the 9-2 Cardinals are underdogs or will lose this game. It just means that the Falcons are the “best team” in a bad division.
With that said, this could potentially be a trap game. Despite their struggles since the start of last season (8-19), the Falcons have won five of those games at home. It might not mean much, but with the Cardinals looking squarely to a final four games that includes matchups with the 49ers, Seahawks and Chiefs, they could very well overlook a dangerous Falcons team that still has a whole heck of a lot to look forward to. If so, there is a chance that Arizona might be only one game up in the NFC West heading into December.
New England Patriots at Green Bay Packers: Super Bowl Preview?
My preseason Super Bowl pick wasn’t looking too good earlier in the year. Remember when both the Patriots and Packers were struggling to win actual football games? It surely does seem like a long time ago. But now, entering the stretch run, these are the unquestioned best teams in their respective conferences. And in reality, it’s not even that close.
Green Bay has won seven of its last eight games and is averaging 37.5 points per game during that span. Over the course of those last eight games all-world quarterback Aaron Rodgers has set everything ablaze to the tune of 25 touchdowns and just two interceptions. In an even crazier stat, Rodgers has thrown 29 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions in his last 11 regular season home starts dating back to December of 2012.
Not to be outdone, Brady has his Patriots playing their best football in years. They have won seven consecutive games since starting the season 2-2. Over the course of those seven outings, Brady has thrown 22 touchdowns and four interceptions while leading the team to an average of 39.7 points per game. In what could end up being a Super Bowl preview, this is a true matchup of titans.
Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs: Broncos Have a Chance to Gain Stranglehold on Division
Denver boasts a one-game lead over Kansas City and San Diego in the AFC West. It also holds the tiebreaker over both teams. And with a win over Kansas City on Sunday, the Broncos will complete the season sweep of their division rival. It hasn’t been the same Broncos team over the past few weeks, but we can rest assured that Peyton Manning and Co. are relieved after getting off the snide last week against game Miami Dolphins team at home.
For the Chiefs, it’s rather simple. They have to protect home-field advantage against the class of the division in order to have a chance in the AFC West. They also have to win in over to remain in playoff position heading into Week 14. This might not be the Seahawks-49ers or Packers-Patriots, but it’s going to be a darn good post-Thanksgiving game.
Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: Rex Ryan NOW Coaching for his Job
Following a disastrous loss to the Buffalo Bills on Monday, Rex Ryan’s seat has to be as hot as it’s been before. His Jets are now 2-9 on the season and closer to the first overall pick than .500. We already know the storylines here. Michael Vick and Geno Smith. Neither have played like NFL-caliber quarterbacks this season. And to be honest, that’s one of the primary reasons the Jets are in the cellar with absolutely no short-term hope of getting out of it. Can the players perform at a high level over the final five games to give Ryan a decent shot of retaining his job? That’s pretty much all the veteran head coach can hope for right now.
Photo: SB Nation