Every game counts in the NFL, but as the season winds down the pressure to succeed compounds dramatically — especially for teams that could fall out of the playoff picture.
These teams are in desperation mode at the start of December. With just five games left in the season, one more loss could be the final nail in the coffin. On the flip side, with a win in Week 13 they still have a slight hope of making it into the postseason tournament, where anything is possible.
Oakland Raiders (5-6)
A win against Tennessee last weekend kept the Raiders from falling into a hole too deep to climb out of. As it stands — on the wrong side of .500 and currently occupying the No. 9 seed in the AFC — Oakland is in do-or-die mode the rest of the way. The AFC West is out of the question, with Denver currently comfortably at No. 1 with a record of 9-2, so the wild card is the only chance the Raiders have of getting in.
The upcoming matchup on Sunday at home against the Kansas City Chiefs is compelling. If the season ended today, the Chiefs would be the No. 5 seed in the AFC with a record of 6-5, having won five in a row.
Oakland’s offensive line will have its hands full keeping second-year quarterback Derek Carr clean in the pocket. Kansas City’s defense is adept at wreaking havoc against the pass, racking up 30 sacks and 14 interceptions. This means the Raiders should try to establish the run early as a means of keeping Tamba Hali and the rest of the Chiefs’ front seven honest.
The matchup pitting Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree against Sean Smith and Marcus Peters should be entertaining. Sammy Watkins did quite a number on Smith last weekend in the first half, but Peters shifted to his side of the field in the second and the Bills didn’t make the proper adjustments.
The Raiders have their hands full in this one. Perhaps the best chance of securing a win comes on the defensive side of the ball. If Khalil Mack can get to Alex Smith and create a turnover or two — either by forcing fumbles or interceptions — then Oakland could keep the season alive for at least one more week.
Dallas Cowboys (3-8)
Unbelievably, even though Dallas is tied with San Francisco for the worst record in the NFC, the Cowboys are still in the playoff picture because the NFC East is a cesspool.
The New York Giants and Washington have the division lead (Washington is technically ahead after beating New York) with records of 5-6, and Philadelphia is one game back at 4-7. This means the Cowboys are only two games back and could make a late-season push into the playoffs with some help from their NFC East rivals.
Given the turmoil we’ve witnessed all year long within Dallas’ locker room, and given the team’s 1-8 record since opening 2-0, it seems unlikely this team has what it takes to accomplish the task. However, you know Jerry Jones is trying desperately to keep hope alive within his organization. He refused to place Tony Romo on the IR recently because he could technically still come back from fractured clavicle for the playoffs.
Up next for Dallas is a road game in Washington, which took down New York last weekend to move into the division lead (and the No. 4 seed in the NFC). However, Cowboys fans should take heart in the fact that Washington hasn’t won two games in a row all year long.
Matt Cassel must find a way to be better than mediocre Sunday. Dez Bryant is still one of the league’s preeminent superstars and can take the game over if Cassel can get him the ball.
The passing game must get going in order for the Cowboys to stop the bleeding, and if ever there was a week to get the running game back on track it’s this one. Washington’s defense is particularly generous against the run, allowing 4.7 yards per carry and 126.6 yards per game.
Buffalo Bills (5-6)
It’s really not fair that Buffalo shares the AFC East with New England, which has owned the division the past decade-plus. Making matters worse, Rex Ryan’s Bills haven’t lived up to the hype this year — especially on defense — and they are now the No. 10 seed in the AFC with a record of 5-6.
Given the way teams like Houston and Kansas City have been surging (both with 6-5 records), another loss for Buffalo could mean the end of any playoff dreams harbored by Ryan and his team. Thankfully, this weekend’s matchup offers the Bills a chance to take big strides towards righting the ship as they host the Texans, winners of four straight and five of their last six.
Defensively, Houston has been on fire since losing big to Miami five games back. In the four games since then, the Texans have allowed just under nine points per game, which isn’t good news for an on-again, off-again Bills offense. J.J. Watt should be a regular in Buffalo’s backfield. He’s on a five-game tear in which he’s racked up 9.5 sacks, meaning Tyrod Taylor will likely be running for his life most of the game.
It’s time for LeSean McCoy to bust out with a huge game on the ground after being held mostly in check the past couple of weeks. The Bills desperately need a signature performance out of “Shady” on Sunday in order to avoid getting shut down offensively and losing the game.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-7)
Like Dallas, Philly is still right in the thick of things in the NFC East.
But this team’s panic button has been pushed already, be assured of that fact. Chip Kelly reportedly was “despondent” and “feeling the heat” after last weekend’s disastrous loss to the Detroit Lions, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what he does to try and turn things around.
The Eagles have now lost three in a row and four of the last five games, and the last two weekends when they got pummeled by a combined score of 90-31 were particularly humbling.
Sam Bradford could be back at quarterback, but will that have any impact at all? He wasn’t particularly great before sustaining a concussion three games ago, compiling a 4-5 record while throwing 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Chip Kelly needs to make Ryan Mathews the lead back with DeMarco Murray spelling him this weekend. Mathews has consistently showed more explosion on the ground this year than the overpriced free agent from Dallas, and the Eagles desperately need to establish a consistent rushing attack to move the chains offensively and put more points on the board.
Philadelphia is on the road this weekend to face the New England Patriots, and it’s going to take nothing less than a perfect outing to keep the season alive at Gillette Stadium. You know Tom Brady is going to be as focused as ever after losing to the Denver Broncos last Sunday night. He told WEEI’s The Dennis and Callahan Show on Monday, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so visibly pissed off after a loss.”
This is the wrong weekend for a must-win game. Desperation mode, indeed.
Chicago Bears (5-6)
Chicago has been in desperation mode since falling into a 2-5 hole after getting beat by Detroit and Minnesota. Veteran head coach John Fox has weathered many a storm, however, and his steady leadership has been a big factor as the Bears have clawed themselves back into the playoff race with three wins the past four games.
Thanks to the outstanding efforts of offensive coordinator Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Chicago is getting the job done on both sides of the ball of late. A defense that most thought was un-fixable this year is now ranked No. 14 in the league in yards allowed, and quarterback Jay Cutler is playing some of the best ball we’ve ever seen out of him.
All this progress is encouraging, but the Bears are still well outside of playoff range, ranked No. 10 in the NFC playoff picture and three games behind the Minnesota Vikings in the loss column in the NFC North. The division crown is almost assuredly out of the question, as Green Bay would be the team to topple Minnesota, not Chicago. This means the Bears need to climb over four other teams to reach the postseason as a wild card team.
Thankfully, the San Francisco 49ers are next on the menu for the hungry Bears. San Francisco is tied with Dallas for the worst record in the NFC and hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record since Week 1 against the Vikings.
As long as Cutler continues taking care of the football, this should be a win at home for the Bears.
Atlanta Falcons (6-5)
What in the world has happened to the Falcons?
Since starting the season 5-0, Atlanta has dropped five of six with the only victory coming against the Tennessee Titans — a team that has won just two games this year.
Yes, it is time to panic for rookie head coach Dan Quinn and his Falcons, who are playing like their wings are clipped.
Now five games behind the undefeated Carolina Panthers in the NFC South, Atlanta is relegated to fighting for a wild card spot, and the Falcons are trending the wrong way at the worst possible time. Teams need to be playing their best heading into December, and the Falcons may have already peaked.
Atlanta now heads on the road to face NFC South rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are one game behind at 5-6. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan must outplay rookie Jameis Winston in order for the Falcons to have a chance in this one. Ryan has struggled of late, however, while Winston seems to be coming into his own in the second half of the season.
Nobody should be surprised if the Falcons end up falling to 6-6 after this one. It may already be too late to resurrect the spark that ignited the team’s 5-0 start.