Week 14 preview

There is little doubt at this point that several playoff spots, and a division title or two, will come down to the final week of the season. In that respect, Week 14 is a little like the calm before the storm. Half of the games feature teams facing out-of-conference foes, and most of the divisional matchups look like mismatches. Coming off what may have been the best week of football this season — which is saying something because I feel like I have typed that sentence at least three other times already — I may be a bit spoiled at this point.

Regardless, there are still a handful of marquee games, and, with two teams still undefeated heading towards Christmas, no lack of intrigue overall.

Here is the rundown:

Eagles at Giants: These two longtime foes meet at Giants Stadium for the last time ever — assuming they don’t somehow hook up there in the postseason — with wild card and NFC East ramifications all over the place. Should the Giants turn in a three-game run within the division (they beat Dallas last week and travel to Washington in Week 15), they would still have a shot at the NFC East title. The Eagles hope to have Jason Peters and DeSean Jackson back for this one. The Giants, back to their power running ways last week, will no doubt look to challenge the Eagles’ depleted linebacker group. Michael Vick could be in line for more work coming off his best outing in years. Both teams have just one loss within the division, and the Giants already swept Dallas, so the winner will be well positioned to host a playoff game.

Chargers at Cowboys: Let the annual Dallas December debacle begin. Well, actually, it might already be underway. The Cowboys followed a very fortuitous win against Washington, with a victory over Oakland and then last week’s loss. They have the toughest schedule in the NFL down the stretch. Pass coverage breakdowns, a shaky kicking game and a predilection for boneheaded turnovers are all cropping up (sound familiar?). San Diego has won seven in a row, relying heavily on the arm of Philip Rivers, and the Cowboys are looking vulnerable in the secondary again. Darren Sproles is getting more active in the Chargers’ offense. San Diego is kind of beat up on defense, but few teams can match it in a shootout. That should be what we get here in Big D.

Broncos at Colts: The Broncos have turned it around after a four-game losing streak, winning two in a row. But I get the feeling I’m not the only one still somewhat skeptical. A victory here would be huge, both for their divisional and wild-card hopes. Indianapolis has won 21 straight regular-season games, is dominant at home and the tandem of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis at defensive end could get off with that Indy crowd going nuts in the dome, and Kyle Orton not being the most mobile quarterback. A Colts win would be No. 13 on the season, assuring them of the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It should be a highly entertaining matchup, but if the Broncos have to try to match the Colts big play for big play, things heavily slant in the home team’s favor.

Bengals at Vikings: Minnesota has had some trouble with overtly physical teams this season, and the Bengals are street fighters in 2009 (ask Pittsburgh and Baltimore). The Vikings have slipped in terms of their rushing attack offensively and their run defense. Opponents are averaging 4 yards per carry against Minnesota, tied for eighth in the NFL, not quite as lofty as in years past. The Vikings have faced an average of just 21 rushing attempts per game (that’s six carries fewer than the league average), but the Bengals run the ball an average of 34 times per game (second most in the NFL) and will stick with that game plan here. Cincinnati could still land the No. 2 seed in the AFC, while the Vikings remain in great shape to win the NFC North no matter what. I would not be surprised if Minnesota dips in form down the stretch, however, and we’ll have to see how Brett Favre holds up as the games and hits mount.

Green Bay at Chicago: A must win for both teams for very different reasons. The Bears need a strong finish to avoid having wholesale changes take place, from head coach on down (you’re likely looking at new coordinators coming in next season regardless at this point). The Packers are trying to continue a strong second-half push, and boast a 6-3 conference record (6-1 vs. the NFC, excluding Minnesota) that will aid their wild-card run. Finishing 4-2 against the NFC North would be big, also. The Bears have been good at home, but don’t look right on either side of the ball. I would expect this to be a game where Jay Cutler supplements the run game, and not vice versa. Chicago still has a shot to finish around .500, which wouldn’t meet expectations, but would be respectable.

Steelers at Browns: Pittsburgh is just 1-3 against the AFC North, and though they have to be heavy favorites in this game, the same could have been said against Oakland last week. There is a chance Troy Polamalu returns, which seems to make all the difference in the world. As much heat as Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense has faced recently, the real problem is the defense. They can’t get teams off the field in the fourth quarter and overtime — Baltimore, Kansas City and Oakland all mounted recent game-winning drives against them — and the special teams is a mess. The Steelers are a middle of the pack team in terms of points allowed. Cleveland has few, if any, positives to take from this lost season, but the recent play of QB Brady Quinn has been one of them. The team has been fighting for 60 minutes lately despite a string of debilitating injuries. A win Thursday — thereby derailing Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes — would do something to salvage the season for Browns fans. Given the Steelers’ recent fourth-quarter woes, the longer the Browns hang around, the more likely it is Pittsburgh might wilt. I have a hard time believing I just wrote that sentence, but it has proven true. Pittsburgh is now finding ways to lose games.

Cardinals at 49ers: Arizona can clinch a second straight division title, and also continue its surprising road success (5-1). Kurt Warner has posted a 120 passer rating or better in each of his past four starts, and the Cardinals look ferocious on both sides of the ball right now. The 49ers are in deep trouble after a promising start. QB Alex Smith is making strides, but is just not winning the close games. Last Sunday’s loss at Seattle was crippling. On the bright side, the 49ers are 3-1 within the division, and should they run the table, a wild-card spot isn’t entirely out of the question, but the chances look pretty bleak right now.

Saints at Falcons: When the schedule came out I figured this game would pretty much decide the NFC South, but the Saints have already locked it up with a 12-0 start. New Orleans has pulled off some crazy improbable wins (Miami, Washington and Carolina games leap to mind), and this would point towards being another potential pitfall just in terms of emotional highs and lows. Still, I like their chances in a dome against a beaten and bruised Falcons club. Atlanta just can’t defend downfield, and the Saints will tear you up. The Falcons’ small corners are an issue. Not having Matt Ryan and Michael Turner in good health foils their chances of keeping pace in a track meet, and with the way the defense has been giving up points, that’s the only way the Falcons can win. It’s a must-win game for Atlanta to stay in the playoff hunt, but I suspect the Saints will coax a few turnovers out of that depleted Atlanta offense and win again, perhaps going away.

Seahawks at Texans: Don’t look now, but the Seahawks still have a shot to finish second in the NFC West and end up somewhere right around .500. Problem for Seattle is, the team has been awful on the road. Matt Hasselbeck is keeping them in games, however, and Olindo Mare is still a clutch kicker. The defense seems to have stabilized a bit lately. The Texans come in reeling like no other club in the league, having lost four straight divisional games, some in heartbreaking fashion, to fall deep in the pack in the AFC wild-card race. A loss here and Gary Kubiak is pretty much doomed. Quarterback Matt Schaub‘s injured shoulder doesn’t bode well, nor does RB Steve Slaton‘s neck injury or the fact that TE Owen Daniels is out for the season. Injuries are not an excuse, however, and this team just cannot finish games sufficiently to be a playoff threat. I’m sorry, but a 1-5 division record and a 4-6 conference mark dooms them.

Dolphins at Jaguars: If you like bare-knuckle power running football, this is the game for you. No frills ball-control offense here. Neither team has much margin for error in its playoff pursuit, and both have suffered recent letdown losses, then euphoric wins. I’m still not sold on the Jags, despite their record, and this could be the start of a plummet. The Jaguars have been difficult to beat at home (5-1 despite the small crowds), and Miami hasn’t traveled well. The loser of this game is in real trouble, while the winner stands a better shot at holding off Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the other wild-card contenders. Miami is still alive in the AFC East race, while the Jags’ only hope is as a wild card.

Jets at Buccaneers: If Mark Sanchez is ever going to learn to slide, now’s the time. The lush surface in Tampa provides a perfect training ground. Of course, Sanchez’s status will be up in the air until we get deeper into the work week, but the Jets are hopeful he will be ready, especially after seeing how poorly Kellen Clemens played in Toronto. The resurgent Jets will get a nice long rest, and they have gotten better secondary play since demoting Kerry Rhodes briefly. The Jets also seem to have adjusted to the loss of DT Kris Jenkins a bit more over time and find themselves in the thick of the playoff chase. Ultimately, I don’t see more than the AFC East winner reaching the playoffs from the division — and New England is still my strong favorite to hold on to the lead. The Bucs, meantime, could be looking at the first overall pick.

Panthers at Patriots: What the heck is going on in Boston? Man, I figured the Pats would be passing out AFC East division winning t-shirts by now. Bill Belichick can’t close games? Wow. Wes Welker is carrying the offense, but the running game isn’t good enough to put people away and Fred Taylor is probably still a week away from returning. The defense can’t make a late stop when it’s needed (I might think about getting Shawn Springs back in the corner rotation). Carolina, meantime, could perhaps save John Fox‘s job with a late surge, and if it’s me, I’m in no hurry to get Jake Delhomme back from the finger injury. Let Matt Moore and the running game carry things for a while. DeAngelo Williams could be back for this game, not that Jonathan Stewart looked like he needed him last week. This could turn into a scary trap game for New England, which ranks just 20th overall in terms of yards per rush allowed, while the Panthers average nearly 5 yards per carry as a team. It’s a game where the Patriots need to get up early — and stay up — because if the Panthers are allowed to stick with the run attack, they just might grind this thing out.

Lions at Ravens: Detroit has lost 18 straight road games dating back to 2007, and this won’t be any easier. Matthew Stafford is all kinds of beat up, Detroit’s defense has yielded by far the most points in the NFL and the Ravens should be able to run the ball down the Lions’ throats with their three-headed rushing monster. Baltimore is in the middle of an odd scheduling quirk, with three straight December games against NFC North clubs before finishing with Pittsburgh and Oakland. The Ravens know these are all must-win games. Baltimore’s defense is back to being very stingy, and is among the NFL leaders in points allowed and stopping the run. The vulnerability comes in the secondary, but Detroit is likely too battered to capitalize there.

Rams at Titans: Two of the game’s truly elite running backs meet here: Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson. Johnson’s pursuit of the all-time single-season rushing title is very real. Tennessee is coming off a tough loss to Indianapolis (a holding penalty near the goal line was ultimately the decisive play in the game), but could still finish out at .500 or better. Each game is important for Vince Young to continue his development.

Redskins at Raiders: The records would point to this being a bad game, but both of these teams have fought the good fight more weeks than not lately and are capable of biting an elite club in the backside. It remains to be seen whether they can get up for a contest against another last-place team, but you have to love the resiliency shown by their quarterbacks lately. Both clubs could be looking at coaching changes no matter what, and it’s a long way for the Redskins to travel coming off a game they handed to the Saints with turnovers and a missed chip shot field goal. Regardless, I’d expect the fighting spirit to prevail. The Redskins’ defense is truly special. Pride is all that’s at stake here, but that’s been more than enough to carry these clubs through the second half of the season.

Bills at Chiefs: It’s hard to fathom the Chiefs are 1-5 at Arrowhead (and that win came over a Pittsburgh club badly in need of a victory), but that is the case. Matt Cassel needs a rebound game, while the Bills are coming off an outing that was equally inept in terms of aerial production. I suppose there are some draft-pick tiebreaker permutations at play here, but I’m not going to delve into it.

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