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Week 13 Game Rankings: With Saints-Falcons and more, expect the unexpected

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Robert Griffin III and the Redskins will try to avenge an earlier loss to the Giants. (US Presswire)  
Robert Griffin III and the Redskins will try to avenge an earlier loss to the Giants. (US Presswire)  


Officially, the playoff picture takes form this week. The field, at this rate, will be set well before Christmas.

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2012 NFL Week 13

We could, and likely will, have five teams book their spots this weekend, most of them able to do so only with a win and other scenarios existing for them as well. Houston, Baltimore, Denver and New England in the AFC and Atlanta in the NFC are on the cusp of entry. Wins by the Colts, 49ers, Packers, Bears and Giants would put them close behind.

Of course, in the NFL it won't go down that way, never does. We're always subject to an upset or five. But how can you not like this week? Always fun when teams start getting locked in. The weather is getting legit cold. Snow is coming down in various parts of the country. On the nights when football isn't on, Frosty and Charlie Brown and the Grinch are getting prime-time airwaves devoted to them (personally, count me in for some Heatmiser as well -- the cartoon and the band that gave us the late, great Elliott Smith, but I digress).

The division tilts take on renewed import. We have what might be the best Thursday night game of the year and Monday night bounces back after last week's yawner (at least from a playoff perspective). And we've got a strong CBS doubleheader to boot, topped off by the best rivalry in football -- Ravens/Steelers -- which happens to find Baltimore riding lengthy home and divisional winning streaks and Pittsburgh gripped by Big Ben injury drama. Doesn't get any better than that.

  
 

Pittsburgh Steelers  at  Baltimore Ravens

Pittsburgh at Baltimore
Sunday, Dec. 2, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: It seems like just two weeks ago I was writing about this rivalry, and how great it was, and how even with a back-up quarterback in place for the Steelers, it's always a game that comes down to the final drive ... Um, okay, that's because they just met two weeks ago. Duh. And the Steelers were soaring then but have dropped two since then. Good news is everyone expects another miraculous return from Ben Roethlisberger here, and Pittsburgh is banking on getting Troy Polamalu and Antonio Brown back as well. So it could be a different sort of game than the slugfest Baltimore won at Heinz Field in Week 11, but you have to expect a similar sort of late-game ending. That's what happens in this rivalry, and it's punctuated here with Baltimore knowing a win here virtually secures the AFC North title and dents Pittsburgh's playoffs hopes.

What To Watch For: Baltimore's offense is a different beast at home, running more no-huddle, up-tempo, vertical stuff. They will attack the Steelers' corners deep after going with an uber-conservative approach at Pittsburgh ... Look for Ravens to try to get Torrey Smith away from Ike Taylor ... After all of the running back fumbles a week ago, the Steelers are likely to go more by committee in that regard again. Big back Jonathan Dwyer was most effective against the Ravens in the last meeting, though, so watch for him to emerge ... The Steelers are short on tackles again, and Terrell Suggs will be freed up to move around. Should be more five-and-six man rushes from Ravens coordinator Dean Pees as well ... Steelers TE Heath Miller will be featured in this game plan ... Will Brian Hoyer, in just his second week with the team, be the Steelers No. 2 QB? Wouldn't surprise me ... Plaxico Burress used to get into it pretty good with the Ravens defense. Have a feeling he shows up in the red zone here, assuming Big Ben plays as expected.

New York Giants  at  Washington Redskins

N.Y. Giants at Washington
Monday, Dec. 3, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Why To Watch: Don't look now, but three weeks after Redskins coach Mike Shanahan waved the white flag at 3-6, his team is back in the hunt for a wild card, or perhaps even a division title. A win here would truly boost them back firmly on both fronts. Robert Griffin III continues to mesmerize and finally has some weapons going with a healthy Pierre Garcon. These two teams put on a great show the first time they met, with only a characteristic Skins secondary breakdown allowing the Giants to hold them off. Now, with Eli Manning back in the New York groove following his carving of the Packers coming off their bye, and with Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw as healthy as they have been in quite some time, there should be ample offensive fireworks on display Monday night.

What To Watch For: Redskins are beat up at linebacker and when the Giants spread them out, can anyone run with guys like Victor Cruz in the slot? ... Alfred Morris went for 120 yards in the first meeting between these teams and with that vaunted pass rush, and given some of the abuse RG3 has already sustained, I would expect a big run presence from the Redskins ... Trent Williams is playing an elite left tackle for the Redskins, but he is pretty banged up right now and will have his hands full with this rotation of edge rushers ... Can the Redskins exploit the middle of the field with Kenny Phillips ailing for the Giants?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at  Denver Broncos

Tampa Bay at Denver
Sunday, Dec. 2, 4:05 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: Two of the NFL's five best quarterbacks over the past two months meet with the Broncos pretty much wrapping up the AFC West with a victory and Tampa needing wins to stay in the wild-card race following a heartbreaking loss to the Falcons. Josh Freeman and Peyton Manning are doing it about as good as anyone right now and they're sure to have you drop your hoagie all over your lap a few times as they pull you out of your seats with perfect passes. Manning was off his game at Kansas City a week ago, and you would think that scare would be all the Broncos need to jolt them back as they have cruised to the division lead. The Bucs offense is the league's best in many regards, while their secondary is weak, which could mean a shootout in the high altitude.

What To Watch For: Doesn't get much better than when you get to see cagey veteran DBs like Ronde Barber and Champ Bailey try to bait quarterbacks as good as these two ... Bucs WR Vincent Jackson is playing out of his mind and he knows this Denver defense inside out. He's beating double teams all over the place ... Can the Broncos find the right rotation of backs as they cope with Willis McGahee being out, and can Knowshon Moreno carry a load two weeks in a row? ... Von Miller chasing around Freeman in the backfield will be something to see. Freeman is so elusive and yet so big while Miller is making a run for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

New Orleans Saints  at  Atlanta Falcons

New Orleans at Atlanta
Thursday, Nov. 29, 8:20 p.m. ET (NFL Network)

Why To Watch: It's a rare Thursday night game that features two teams with legit playoff hopes, a big divisional rivalry and, sure, the short week will likely impact the on-field product, but this is a can't-miss game. The Saints helped turn their season around by knocking off the Falcons in New Orleans a few weeks ago. They cannot afford a loss here and still expect to grab a wild-card spot, while the Falcons have made living dangerously, and escaping with close victories, an art form. Drew Brees will be plenty fired up after throwing consecutive pick-sixes last week to doom his team against the 49ers. Hard to see the Saints limiting this Atlanta offense, given their defensive struggles, and this could be a shootout, which always entertain.

What To Watch For: Can Michael Turner get it going for the Falcons, and if he can't, do they need to find other options on traditional run downs to maintain the tempo of this offense? ... Is the return of active linebacker Sean Weatherspoon really all it takes to make the Falcons more formidable against the run? New Orleans out-physicaled them in the first meeting, Chris Ivory in particular ... Matt Ryan has been interception prone the past three weeks or so; Roman Harper has pretty good at jumping things ... Could Matt Bryant shank another 22-yard chip shot this week? Probably not in a dome, right? ... Pretty cool meeting of the Old School and New School of tight ends, with Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham sharing the same field.

Seattle Seahawks  at  Chicago Bears

Seattle at Chicago
Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: This is a big-time tiebreaker right here. The Bears need an NFC win to try to fend off the Packers for the NFC North title, and/or to stay in line for a wild card. And the Seahawks, having already let too many NFC games slip away, particularly on the road, are suddenly in dire need of a victory, too. It's been a rough week for Seattle, with the loss at Miami and word getting out of impending possible suspensions for stud corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. The Bears were reeling before stomping the Vikings last week, but injuries are suddenly mounting for them. If the Seahawks were ever going to make a statement road win this season, now is the time.

What To Watch For: Chicago's offensive line remains a major issue, and the Seahawks will challenge them and attack both tackles. Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin could be in for big days ... Marshawn Lynch, who runs so hard and absorbs so much abuse, seems to be slowing down some, hitting the dog days of the season. He needs to bounce back here ... Bears assistant Jeremy Bates had an awkward departure from the Seattle staff a few years back, and will surely try to have a few tricks up his sleeve with quarterback Jay Cutler for this one ... Seattle has an elite secondary and it will double the heck out of Brandon Marshall and force someone else to beat it ... Have a feeling Sidney Rice, no stranger to Chicago, connects on a few deep balls ... Russell Wilson is playing superb football the past two months.

  
 

Cincinnati Bengals  at  San Diego Chargers

Cincinnati at San Diego
Sunday, Dec. 2, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: Cincy is back in the thick of the playoff hunt, back over .500 and one of the hottest teams in football, and the Chargers are reeling after finding another unfathomable way to lose last week. But isn't this the kind of game the Bengals would historically lose? Can't afford a slip up here. I suspect the Chargers keep playing hard as Norv Turner nears the end of his run there, but they simply cannot make the necessary plays in the clutch on either side of the ball right now and they allowed 300 yards passing in the second half/overtime to Joe Flacco last week. Andy Dalton is playing his best football of the season for the Bengals.

What To Watch For: Geno Atkins is the best interior player in football right now and has to be a top-three candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, though no one talks about him. If this Bengals' defensive revival continues I'd give him some MVP votes as well. He faces a beat up offensive line here, with the Chargers protection beyond spotty ... Could be a game where Marvin Lewis continues his emphasis on the rushing attack. Bengals are getting better in that regard as the season goes on ... Antonio Gates has been pretty quiet of late. I have to wonder if he will ever be the same guy after so many injuries in recent years ... Philip Rivers is still unable to maintain a high level of play through four quarters.

Indianapolis Colts  at  Detroit Lions

Indianapolis at Detroit
Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: Colts need to find a way to take their home performances on the road and play more complete football outside the confines of Indianapolis. A win here would keep them in the driver's seat for the top wild-card spot. How do the Lions respond to consecutive soul-sapping defeats, the latest aided by their coach's mistake throwing a replay flag? Do they revert to the Lions of old? Or do they close with a flurry despite their season basically being over?

What To Watch For: Any chance Ndamukong Suh is a changed man after escaping a suspension for his latest kicking incident? I suspect he comes out as edgy as ever ... Can anyone in Detroit's secondary get a body on Reggie Wayne? ... Matt Stafford is throwing a lot of balls sidearmed and from awkward angles these days ... Detroit seems due for a special-teams debacle or two ... Calvin Johnson rarely disappoints.

Minnesota Vikings  at  Green Bay Packers

Minnesota at Green Bay
Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: The loser of this game is in trouble and the Packers had better rectify some of their protection woes quickly before Jared Allen gets to town. They cannot afford a swoon now, while a Vikings loss would negate their surprising start and cast further shadows over any realistic playoff hopes. Aaron Rodgers coming off his worst game of the season will be motivated and fired up. Then, again, so too will Adrian Peterson. A lot of NFC North divisional games still yet to play and with the Bears looming again for Minnesota in Week 14, this is a defining game for the Vikings.

What To Watch For: Greg Jennings is back, finally, for this one, but is he explosive at all? And is Rodgers looking in his direction? … Packers receiver James Jones has been MIA in recent weeks ... If there is any chance Percy Harvin can dress for this game, even as a decoy, at least it opens up the offense and gives the Packers some pause ... Don't like the prospect of Christian Ponder on the road against Dom Capers in a big game. Expect a very conservative approach from the Vikings inside their own 30 ... Any chance injured Packers RB Cedric Benson, who has been moonlighting as a DJ, apparently, plays a set at halftime at Lambeau?

  
 

Philadelphia Eagles  at  Dallas Cowboys

Philadelphia at Dallas
Sunday, Dec. 2, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)

Why To Watch: Andy Reid is playing out the string in Philly, but the Eagles can at least relish that proverbial "spoiler" role, if nothing else. And the Cowboys, kings of the shaky psyche, are ripe for misery after getting run out of the building by RG3 last week. Dallas finally expects DeMarco Murray back, but is it too late, and can he get back into form right away? And will Tony Romo provide his critics with more empirical evidence by throwing picks with a pivotal game on the line? It's fairly juicy stuff, and if not for the Eagles' seven-game losing streak I may have rated this game higher.

What To Watch For: With Michael Vick getting healthy, should the Eagles continue to play rookie Nick Foles, who has looked overwhelmed lately? ... At what point to the Eagles sit Nnamdi Asomugha in some packages, or full-on strip him of his starting job to evaluate youth at that position as well? ... If Eagles back Bryce Brown can hold on to the football, the Eagles might have a shot here ... Dallas coordinator Rob Ryan needs to be willing to move DeMarcus Ware all over the place to exploit matchups against Philly's wrecked offensive line ... Could Jerry Jones come up with playoff rhetoric even after a defeat here? Could he resist the urge to fire Jason Garrett during his weekly postgame meeting with the media should this one not go the Cowboys' way?

New England Patriots  at  Miami Dolphins

New England at Miami
Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: The Patriots are about to pull away with the AFC East, or so it seems, and a win here would pretty much make the inevitable, well, even more inevitable. Even without Rob Gronkoswki, the Pats offense is rolling and on pace to challenge scoring records, Tom Brady is playing his best football of the season (which is always saying something) and New England's maligned defense is coming off its best effort of the season in a dismantling of the Jets on Thanksgiving night. Oh, and the Pats are pretty well rested now as well, so they've got that going for them.

What To Watch For: If we're lucky, the Dolphins will have another groundskeeping snafu and maybe the sprinklers will bust out in the third quarter again. Heck, maybe we'll get a slip and slide break out on the 50-yard line ... Reggie Bush, headed to free agency, seems out of the doghouse and was running hard last week. He'll want to close strong in December ... Ryan Tannehill is still looking shaky at key times, with only a penalty overturning a game-turning interception last week. Bill Belichick will throw some quirky zone blitzes his way ... Pats WR Wes Welker always shows up big against his former team.

Houston Texans  at  Tennessee Titans

Houston at Tennessee
Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: My first instinct was to put this as a slider, but given that the Texans have been flirting with upset losses lately, and came really close to blowing one against Jacksonville not too long ago, so just maybe the Titans respond to the firing of offensive coordinator Chris Palmer on a positive note. Getting Chris Johnson back to the stretch plays and out of power stuff would be a good start, and Jake Locker, who can't help air-mailing balls it seems, keeps things interesting even on routine swing passes. Also, the Titans horrific secondary could watch Andre Johnson go for 250 yards, easy.

What To Watch For: At some point, especially after all of the injuries they suffered a year ago, and with Brooks Reed joining Brian Cushing and Jonathan Joseph among key injuries lately, do the Texans, running away with the AFC South, start to rotate in more second teamers early in games? And how much of their recent defensive liabilities are fixable right away? ... Can Connor Barwin, in his final year of his deal, finish strong and rediscover some of 2011's magic with him sliding over with Reed out? ... Arian Foster has been a workhorse, again, but his average per carry is pedestrian and spelling him with Justin Forsett and Brandon Tate might make sense to preserve him for the postseason ... I have a feeling Titans TE Jared Cook is another player who benefits with more production post-Palmer.

San Francisco 49ers  at  St. Louis Rams

San Francisco at St. Louis
Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: These two conspired to play one of the more baffling games of the 2012 season just a few weeks backs, a wacky affair that ended in a tie. If it were up to me, the winner of this rematch would get two wins, and the loser two losses, and that tie would go away, but somehow I don't think that's how it will go down. Anyway, let's see if they can do it all over again. Who doesn't love a late-season quarterback controversy? Colin Kaepernick just gets better and better with each series, and he has breathed new life into the 49ers offense. The first-year starter looks ready to join the movement of impact young quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, RG3, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Russell Wilson), and must play a second straight game on the road in a dome, and this time against a defense that will get after the quarterback. He's facing a couple of corners with good ball skills this week.

What To Watch For: Will Alex Smith ever take his helmet off on the sidelines? Doesn't he remind you a little bit of Favre, circa Aaron Rodgers' arrival? ... I wonder if Sam Bradford's ankle condition has been bothering him this season. He hasn't had the breakthrough I expected, though he also still lacks for protection and weapons around him for all of the strides this franchise has quickly made ... Randy Moss getting a good piece of Kaepernick's ear and making sure the kid throws ample balls his way … Might Vernon Davis pop-off again during or after this one? His comments in recent weeks have been eye-raising and his production remains erratic ... Rams kicker Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein has hit his sophomore slump in his rookie year. Needs to regain some confidence.

  
 

Jacksonville Jaguars  at  Buffalo Bills

Jacksonville at Buffalo
Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: Chad Henne actually has the Jags playing respectable football on offense, which seemed like an impossibility for this outfit for much of the season. If Henne keeps this up, the end of the Blaine Gabbert era, always ill-fated, will be over (and it's going to end this offseason anyway, in all likelihood). And, once again Bills coach Chan Gailey -- a man of words and not actions when it comes to this particular topic -- says he will feed C.J. Spiller, his primary playmaker. But I'll believe it when I see it.

What To Watch For: Could see plenty of trickeration and special teams gambling since both of these staffs are feeling the heat and will try to pull out the stops to pick up a few late-season wins ... Ryan Fitzpatrick is still throwing crushing fourth-quarter interceptions ... If Mario Williams is going to pad his stats in meaningless games down the stretch, well, this is a perfect opportunity against this offensive line.

Carolina Panthers  at  Kansas City Chiefs

Carolina at Kansas City
Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: Who wouldn't want to see the first team to be eliminated from the playoffs meet up with what could be the second? Are you in a pool for which coach gets fired first in-season? Does the prospect of the Panthers, on a short-week, light your football fire? Yeah, um, well then ...

What To Watch For: Another opportunity to count the fans dressed in black or wearing brown paper bags on their heads at Arrowhead ... Any chance we get to see Jimmy Clausen and Brady Quinn on the field at the same time? ... Does Dwayne Bowe still play for the Chefs?

Arizona Cardinals  at  New York Jets

Arizona at N.Y. Jets
Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why To Watch: Should be a unique display of disastrous quarterbacking with Ryan Lindley going against Mark Sanchez, as the Sanchize makes his first start since getting clotheslined by a lineman's backside. If you are into real-time football follies, this is your game of the week. Who doesn't love that backdrop for three hours of football goodness? Doesn't get any better than that. Also, this is the Jets first home game since Thanksgiving Day debacle, first home game in the post-Fireman Ed era, and a slow start here and the exodus from the stands may begin before the end of the first quarter.

What To Watch For: Look for Cards coordinator Ray Horton to attack that offensive line, throw LeBeau-esque clandestine blitzes at Sanchez early and try to capitalize on the overall Jets malaise ... Beware of Tim Tebow gripping his ribs in agony on the sidelines while gripping that clipboard ... Patrick Peterson must be salivating watching the Jets special teams units on film this week ... Can Larry Fitzgerald continue to keep his cool and remain the picture of class while another year of his Hall of Fame career is wasted with no one able to throw him the football?

Cleveland Browns  at  Oakland Raiders

Cleveland at Oakland
Sunday, Dec. 2, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why To Watch: Browns Coach Pat Shurmur is trying to execute a Mangini, one of the rarest feats in pro sports, when a suffering team manages a string of improbable victories that belie all the problems that need to be overcome and ends up keeping his job under a regime that just took over a franchise. Timing, they say, is everything, as the Browns' offense continues to have some major issues, quarterback Brandon Weeden is not exactly getting better each week, but the defense is legit and they come in off an upset of the Steelers aided by eight turnovers. Oh, and the Raiders may be the worst team in football right now.

What To Watch For: Raiders don't get off to many fast starts, but could the Browns manage to take advantage of that? Even with all the turnovers a week ago they couldn't put points on the board ... Raiders may finally find some snaps for Terrelle Pryor, who has been languishing as an inactive while Carson Palmer plays in garbage time ... Trent Richardson will carve this defense up. The Raiders are giving up 200 yards rushing every other week.


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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