This is it folks, the last week of the bye. Playoff season is upon us. The races heat up around Thanksgiving and while I am not naive enough to expect much separation in this up-and-down league -- especially the AFC -- we will eventually see some teams fall in too deep of a hole to recover.
Three division leaders get the late break -- the Seahawks, Bengals and Eagles -- which should set them up for a nice run in December. Two of those teams were riding a nice hot streak on the way in. Actually, all three enter their bye off a fairly resounding victory, which can't hurt either. That late bye puts more pressure on the teams behind them to make up some ground here while the leaders rest. A slip-up by the 49ers, Steelers or Cowboys, for instance, would tilt things a little more in favor of the first-place teams.
This isn't a week loaded with heavyweight clashes, but there also isn't much chum in the water. The schedule resembles the league and standings -- a bunch of teams that are all really mediocre playing one another with pretty much no one having an idea how those games will go. So we are loaded with six inchers and wraps, because, hell, how am I supposed to be able to sort this stuff out?
Why to watch: Who doesn't love the grudge match that is Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning? We know Jim Irsay will be watching, with Brady the King of the Rings and Manning the Lord of The (Regular Season) Stats and this quite possibly another AFC Championship Game preview. Foxboro hasn't been all that kind to Manning when it matters most. You wonder if the Broncos get a little caught up here, with this game coming smack between two games against Kansas City, the team they are trying to hold off for the AFC West title and No. 1 seed. This would have been spicier if a healthy Wes Welker was available to stir the pot, but, alas a concussion could keep him out of this revenge game against New England. I figure Manning still has his back, though, and in what could be the final meeting of these two master quarterbacks -- hey, you can't take anything for granted in this league -- we'll all be tuned in on Sunday night and hoping the product lives up to the billing.
What to watch for: Was last week's stellar performance by Denver's offensive line an anomaly or a signal of things to come? Can the Broncos keep that clean of a pocket again and neutralize elite edge rushers as they did against the Chiefs? Will they run a little more max protection, especially if Welker -- so key on hots -- is out? ... It looks like Montee Ball is in for a bigger role in the Broncos' backfield. ... Shane Vereen should be even more of a factor in the Pats' backfield as well, with Bill Belichick hardly opposed to the by-committee approach. ... Still seems like Von Miller is finding his way and getting his wind back, but he's going to have a few big games rushing the passer soon enough. ... I suspect Pats elite corner Aqib Talib could end up matched on tight end Julius Thomas at times for the Patriots and I'm not sure he gets asked to shut down one particular receiver given all of Manning's options. ... Expect Broncos DL Derek Wolfe to show up big in this one. I like this matchup for him. ... Will there be any lingering mental impact from the ending of the Pats' game at Carolina on Monday night?
Why to watch: The wild saga of Bruce Arians continues. He is shown the door by the Steelers after a long run there. Goes to Indianapolis as a coordinator, ends up coaching the bulk of the season when Chuck Pagano is diagnosed with cancer and wins Coach of the Year. Goes to Arizona in the toughest division in football and has the Cards in position to fight for a playoff spot. Dare I say it, he could be Coach of the Year again, this time in the opposite conference. It may be a stretch but it's not impossible. And who would have thought that the Colts would enter this game as the team facing more questions. Either way, Arizona knows it has a chance to start pulling ahead of rivals like San Francisco if it can keep stringing together wins, and the Colts are trying to erase visions of a 38-8 beatdown by the Rams that sent them to the bye week unceremoniously. The Colts have pretty much already won the AFC South, but do they look like a team prepared to take the next step?
What to watch for: The Colts made a great effort to become more balanced this season, focusing on the run game, but do they take the ball out of Andrew Luck's hands too much -- especially when handing off to plodders like Trent Richardson? Have they gotten away from too much of the deep stuff that Luck and the Colts used to rally to a surprise playoff appearance last season under Arians? I don't see them having much success running the ball here, especially on first down. ... The loss of Reggie Wayne is altering the scope of the Colts' offense, too. TE Coby Fleener needs to be a difference maker every week. ... I'm still a little baffled Arians is not using RB Andre Ellington with more regularity. ... I like John Abraham to do some damage against a reeling Colts offensive line. ... I was pretty hard on Carson Palmer for the first six weeks of the season, but he is lighting it up now. In the past month Palmer is averaging 9.04 yards per attempt -- third in the NFL -- while completing 69 percent of his passes with a rating of 109.5. I would still love to see this team find ways to get the ball in Larry Fitzgerald's hands, however. He has been targeted 10 times in a game only once all season.
Why to watch: How about them Giants? The 0-6 start -- a rut that began with a Week 1 loss to Dallas in a game in which Eli Manning was awful -- seems like a long time ago. The Giants actually might have been the better team in many regards that Monday night, and the Cowboys have lost a lot of talent since then. New York has won four in a row and the Cowboys know that, coming out of the bye, they need to keep up their perfect record within the division given the run the Eagles are on. In terms of the pedestrian NFC East, this is about as big as it gets, at least to this point. It's kind of hard not to root for Tom Coughlin as his team finds ways to win games, not all that impressive for the most part, but certainly showing some guts.
What to watch for: Look for the Giants to attack with Victor Cruz and others on seam routes, especially with Dallas without top linebacker Sean Lee, who shines in coverage and can cover that route in the Cover-2 this team is married to. To that end, will Jerry Jones have gotten a hold of coordinator Monte Kiffin and forced him to play more man coverage coming out of the bye? ... Was that acrobatic pick-six by Jason Pierre-Paul last week a signal of his better health and perhaps a strong finish to the season? ... Cannot discount the burst Andre Brown has given the Giants in the run game since his return. Can the Cowboys get something close to that out of theirs? ... Jason Witten should be refreshed from the bye. He has been pretty quiet since lighting up the Giants in Week 1 and grabbing three touchdown passes. ... Antrel Rolle is playing some quality football and I figure he gets to one of Tony Romo's passes. ... Will DeMarcus Ware be able to stay relatively healthy and attack quarterbacks near to his normal level in the final stretch of the season? If not this Dallas defense will remain historically bad.
Why to watch: For the first time since he arrived last winter we get to see how Andy Reid will respond to a loss as boss of the Chiefs. His team went on the best run of the season and pretty much secured a playoff berth by the middle of November, but might they go into a little swoon here, facing another division opponent before getting a second crack at the first-place Broncos? This certainly appears to be the last stand for San Diego, which has not been the same team since blowing a game at Washington at the start of the month -- the first of three straight close losses to leave the Chargers in last place in the AFC West and take them from a team that looked like it had an inside track on a wild card to one that is desperate for a win and is facing a difficult schedule to conclude the season.
What to watch for: Chiefs receivers need to focus on their concentration this week. They had too many dropped balls against the Broncos, especially those crossing routes so vital to keeping their offense moving on third down. ... Chiefs QB Alex Smith will continue to be doubted until we see more balls completed outside the hash marks and down the field. ... Jamaal Charles should see a bigger workload and more daylight against this defensive front. ... Philip Rivers has flat-lined some since his Manning-esque start to the season. He has four touchdowns and three interceptions in his three starts this month, and just five plays over 25 yards, after throwing 15 TDs and just five picks in his first seven games and 20 passing plays of 25 yards or more. ... Haven't seen as much flashy play from Chargers do-everything RB Danny Woodhead since he was stopped at the goal line at the end of regulation in that loss at Washington. Can the Chargers get back mentally from that setback?
Why to watch: It's hard to take either of these teams all that seriously, given their massive deficiencies on offense, but they remain in the thick of this AFC wild-card hunt. If either of them could actually string together two or three wins in a row then, by golly, they would probably control their own destiny in December. Baltimore is trailing the Dolphins and Jets right now, but already knocked off Miami and get the Jets at home -– where the Ravens usually find a way to win. Rex Ryan knows this team well from his tenure in Baltimore. After his release by the Texans, beloved ex-Raven Ed Reed returns to M&T Bank Stadium for the second time this season, this time as a Jet. You can't help but wonder if he makes more of an impact here than he did when the Texans lost at Baltimore early this season. Weird as it sounds to say it, things are still lined up pretty well for one of these two to reach the postseason, if they care to take advantage of it (and the Jets are due to win this if they follow their W-L-W-L pattern).
What to watch for: The Ravens actually ran the ball with purpose and success last week for the first time all season, but that was against the weak Chicago front. Hard to see that continuing against the best run stuffers in the NFL. ... How rattled is Geno Smith after getting yanked following three more picks last week? I expect rampant blitzing of him early and guys like Lardarius Webb have to get their hands on the ball in that Ravens' secondary. ... Santonio Holmes broke free a few times last week -- remember him? -- and Baltimore has to watch double moves and deep stuff off play action because the Jets will be giving them plenty of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell in the run game. ... Eugene Monroe, who the Ravens traded two picks for a month ago, doesn't look like the answer at left tackle for Baltimore. ... It would be huge if the Ravens can get DT Haloti Ngata back for this game, given the Jets' ability to pound the ball inside.
Why to watch: These teams are tied for second in the AFC North (with Baltimore) and both badly need a win. Much like the above game, if either of these outfits could put three decent weeks together it would change their entire season and spring them into prime playoff position. But is that too much to ask? The Browns suffered through a special-teams meltdown last week to allow the Bengals to turn a 13-0 Cleveland lead after one quarter into a 31-13 Bengals lead by the half. But the Browns aren't that bad and their defense has bite, especially at home. Not much would give Browns fans more pleasure than derailing Pittsburgh's season, and this Steelers team, coming off an impressive win over Detroit, has fallen prey to letdowns this season. Hard to predict exactly what we'll get from either of these clubs.
What to watch for: I get the sense Ben Roethlisberger is feeding off these bogus trade rumors and playing a little more inspired football than he was early in the season. He loves to prove people wrong and bring teams back from the brink, and the Steelers just might have a surge in them. ... Antonio Brown is showing up in key spots, winning third downs and giving the Steelers a consistent threat in the pass game. ... Le'Veon Bell can be explosive catching balls out of the backfield and the Browns will probably take away much of the run game. Critical aspect for him. ... The Browns must have more of a downfield intent and QB Jason Campbell needs to take more chances. There has been too much checking down and attempting little outs near the sidelines. Getting Josh Gordon going early and feeding Jordan Cameron over the middle is imperative. ... Big Ben needs to stay away from Joe Haden. Work to get Brown free by putting him in motion or stacking him in bunch formations, but if it's one-on-one with Haden, look elsewhere. Buster Skrine continues to impress at corner for the Browns. ... Gordon has been held in check the past few weeks (only 13 of his past 32 targets have been caught) and Ike Taylor is coming off an excellent second half of last week's game.
Why to watch: Break up the Bucs! They've won two in a row and all of a sudden players are even saying positive things about Greg Schiano and his willingness to adjust some things to their liking. Who would have thunk it? Could Tampa Bay go on enough of a run to save the coach's job? I have a hard time seeing it given all that has gone on this season, but Schiano's QB, Mike Glennon, has been plenty good and Tampa Bay has the talent to play spoiler and win a few more games. Detroit let one slip away to the Steelers last week and needs to try to keep pace with Chicago and Green Bay and Arizona and San Francisco and everyone else you can make a case for as being in the wild card/NFC North race. Also a chance to see Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh play in the same game -- with them always linked after being the No. 2 and 3 overall picks a few years back.
What to watch for: Bobby Rainey has become the latest Bucs RB to put up big numbers out of the backfield and the Lions suffer against the run. Could be plenty of him to come, especially against this Lions front with a rookie quarterback. ... Reggie Bush didn't protect the ball as much as he would like last week, and the Lions need to retain balance in their offense. ... Look for Matthew Stafford to bounce back from his poor second half against the Steelers, but it's hard not to be a little concerned about Calvin Johnson's health and ability to avoid aggravating injuries through the course of a game. ... Have a hard time seeing too many guys in Detroit's secondary who can hang with Vincent Jackson. ... Detroit may get even more vertical looks with WR Nate Burleson nearing his return; he was the primary complement to Megatron before the late-night pizza run gone awry. ... Few teams get less out of their tight ends than the Bucs. ... Speaking of tight ends, if Brandon Pettigrew wants to position himself for free agency, he had better get going soon. He's only getting about five targets a game and averaging just three catches a game.
Why to watch: Bears coach Marc Trestman, in the midst of a playoff chase, is going out of his way to say Jay Cutler is his starting quarterback no matter what. If Josh McCown keeps thriving and winning close games, we'll see just how quickly Cutler gets back and what transpires if the Bears are still rolling when he is ready. Also, Rams backup Kellen Clemens has been better by the week and should be well primed coming off the bye. The Rams will be a sneaky spoiler team down the stretch, especially at home, where they can really pester the opposing quarterback on the fast track they play on and all the youth and speed they have on defense. The Rams' 1-5 conference record will doom them, but they can get after you. Chicago's protection remains surprisingly stout, but the Bears will be tested here, and don't want to get into a situation where they get too one-dimensional. As a battle of backups, you can do a lot worse than this.
What to watch for: I really like Zac Stacy here. Chicago's injury-ravaged defensive front is making everyone look like Barry Sanders (Ray Rice emerged from a season-long funk at their expense last week, for instance) and Stacy looks better the more work he gets in a game, though the Rams do get multiple backs involved in the attack. ... Janoris Jenkins will make some big plays before this season ends. He has too much playmaker in him not to. ... Tavon Austin certainly emerged as a special-teams demon before the bye, but he remained a bit part in their offense. That has to change and I expect the bye week gave them time for new ideas on getting the ball to him in creative ways. ... Alshon Jeffery is getting better by the week and if he gets Cortland Finnegan opposite him, could be a monster day for him. ... Josh McCown has yet to turn the ball over but that could well change here, on the road, with Robert Quinn and Chris Long coming off the edge. ... Watch how McCown interacts with some of the defensive players on his team and how he helps fire them up. Very different energy with him under center.
Why to watch: This Mike Shanahan and Robert Griffin III thing isn't going away. With each loss the questions about Shanahan's future there and what RG3 thinks of him come up. A loss here against a suddenly desperate 49ers team will only throw all of that into overdrive. This team doesn't look equipped to duplicate last year's finish. Griffin has been erratic and a turnover machine this year, including the awful pick that ended last week's game. You could question all the Redskins gave up to move up and draft Griffin, and some are questioning Jim Harbaugh's decision to take Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith a year ago -- even after he produced a near Super Bowl. So, yeah, it's pretty much make-or-break time for both of these teams and you can bet the loser of this game is going to be grilled for the better part of the following week.
What to watch for: At some point, does Shanahan snap back? After last week's loss, one in which his quarterback was again sloppy at times and started slowly and was hardly infallible, Griffin intimated the Eagles had their play-calling figured out. Of course, Shanahan's son, Kyle, is calling plays. We've seen some sideline fireworks elsewhere this season. Against a tough 49ers defense, might we see tempers flare in Landover? ... Harbaugh needs to go back to the read option. At some point I figure he will. Against this defense, maybe he doesn't need to as much -– I would run Frank Gore down their throat -- but the day is coming, soon. ... 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith is playing some of his best football of the season and the interior of this Redskins line is there for the taking. ... Returning to Washington tends to bring out the best in 49ers corner Carlos Rogers. ... Washington's lack of a stable No. 2 option to Pierre Garcon in the passing game has been problematic. ... The Redskins have been finding new ways to implement the fullback into the offense in recent weeks. ... Brian Orakpo has just 2½ sacks in his past six games and hasn't had a big game in quite some time. Washington still needs to dial up big blitzes too often to generate pressure.
Why to watch: Who thought the Packers would end up in a similar quarterback situation as the Vikings? In Minnesota it's no shocker that Christian Ponder lost his job a few times and Matt Cassel is used only in a mopup role and Josh Freeman might be in line to close out the season now. But the Packers, sans Aaron Rodgers, have been unable to win a game -- or really even come all that close -- and they're stuck with Scott Tolzien again this week. Green Bay needs to get a win here to stay in position to make a run whenever Rodgers does come back, because a fourth straight loss might be enough to send this team spiraling out of the playoffs entirely.
What to watch for: What kind of reception does Vikings WR Greg Jennings get in his return to Lambeau Field (assuming he is able to play)? He was silent on the field and ignored the media when Green Bay went up to Minnesota a few weeks back and whacked the Vikings, and his former crowd might not be as restrained. ... Eddie Lacy suddenly has nowhere to go as teams load up with seven- and eight-man boxes to stop the run-first Packers (imagine that). I figure the Vikings take their chances with a single-high safety and a loaded box, too. ... Adrian Peterson is not close to 100 percent and it is showing, but the lack of a passing game will result in Green Bay selling out to stop the run. ... Jordy Nelson went off last time against the Vikings and I suspect Tolzien isn't shy about trying to force feed him the ball in this big game. ... Clay Matthews is getting back to himself after having that club taken off his hand. The Packers need to get an aggressive pass rush revved up for the final month of the season. ... I don't see too many big plays out of Packers DT B.J. Raji anymore. ... Does Vikings first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson work his way back into the lineup after being benched last week? It's not a surprise the raw prospect has struggled to find his way in their system.
Why to watch: The Panthers are the hottest team in the NFL and they just churned through two preseason Super Bowl faves -- the 49ers and Patriots. So this would be the proverbial trap game, would it not? The Panthers travel, on a short week, to face a dysfunctional team. The Dolphins remain in the playoff equation but spend part of the week with a lawyer asking players and employees probing questions about the locker room and exactly what went on between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. So how does Carolina handle its six-game win streak and newfound status as an NFL contender? Does the young team wilt at all or fall in love with the press clippings? Or do the Panthers keep rolling into the holiday season, taking aim at New Orleans and the few teams ahead of them in the NFC standings? This could be a statement game as well, in a different but just as telling way as the past two weeks against San Francisco and New England were.
What to watch for: Cam Newton is the most exciting player in the NFL right now. He has been cool under pressure, he had another contender for play of the year last week with his wild scramble that covered about 78 yards -- including broken tackles behind the line of scrimmage to convert a huge third-and-long. He is can't miss TV, and is quietly building an MVP résumé. ... Let's see the Dolphins run the ball well again this week, against this unit. I suspect Luke Kuechly and this gang get the Dolphins back to a 2.5-yard-per-carry average. ... Miami's linebackers have been poor tacklers and the four-headed Panthers backfield could be more than they can handle. ... I like Ted Ginn to break something off in the return game for the Panthers, and possibly at wide receiver as well.
Why to watch: Matt McGloin made a nice showing on the road last week in his first NFL start, joining the musical chairs at the position for Oakland. The undrafted free agent might be able to string together a few decent performances and hold on to the job for a while, given how this regime has never been totally sold on Terrelle Pryor, who is recovering from a knee injury. So if quarterback controversies are your thing, we have you covered. Otherwise, this one could be rough unless this has some major fantasy team ramifications for you.
What to watch for: Do the Titans go into a freefall with Jake Locker out for the season and end up with some major changes to the staff and/or front office? Ryan Fitzpatrick's turnover-prone play has shifted the tenor of the season and it's going to be hard to reverse course. This might be the last stand for Fitzpatrick as well, with the Titans wanting to check out what else is out there. ... Not sure Chris Johnson will sustain much against this defense playing in the Black Hole. ... With Darren McFadden always hurt and heading to free agency, the Raiders could do worse than rolling with Rashad Jennings in the future. He is averaging over 5 yards a carry this season with an almost identical number of carries as McFadden (who was averaging 3.6 per carry).
Why to watch: This certainly looks like Gary Kubiak's last stand. He has had a nice run at the helm of the team, but the fan base is expressing its disapproval en masse and this home game could have a decided feel to the contrary. Last week when Kubiak brought defrocked starting QB Matt Schaub off the bench for Case Keenum in the second half, the revolt in the stands was so loud the Texans had to go to a silent count. Then after the game, an eighth straight loss, Kubiak wouldn't declare a starter at a time when looking at the youngster, Keenum, is the only thing that seems to make sense for the reeling club. It really shouldn't be that hard to give the kid the final few weeks of the season to show something. Regardless, at this point changes are coming this offseason.
What to watch for: That spat between Schaub and Andre Johnson on the sidelines last week might not end up being an isolated issue. Frustration is boiling over for a Texans team that thought it was a true Super Bowl contender. ... Keenum must improve reading the blitz and making adjustments, for sure, but the best way to do that is to continue playing in real games against varied opponents, and he will definitely try to reward Kubiak's decision to go back to him. ... It's noble for Ben Tate to be playing with cracked ribs for an aimless team as he plays out his rookie contract, but it may not be so fiscally prudent in the end. His allure in free agency could be taking a hit here, especially given how devalued his position has become. He had a better outing against the Raiders last week, averaging 4.6 per carry, but has been looking less than explosive since replacing injured Arian Foster. ... Would like to see if the Jags could get the ball in the hands of Ace Sanders a bit more. ... I wouldn't be shocked if the Jags picked up their second win here; their lone win to this point was also within their weak division, against the Titans. They are certainly looking like the looser team.