This feels like a playoff weekend. No more byes, and, even with a solid slate of Thanksgiving games cutting into the weekend pile, there is more than enough left over. Plenty. A virtual cornucopia of football brilliance.
We have games that very likely could settle the first overall seed in each conference based on the head-to-head outcome. We have a host of these 5-6 teams in what appear to be make-or-break playoff scenarios. We have some last-ditch divisional meetings that could settle a season, or allow a team to still feel like its December will have meaning.
I had a hard time coming up with too many sliders from this group, and even those games could end up sorting out which club gets the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. With parity in full bloom, there are still ample games with some sort of playoff connotation to be played, and thus we turn the calendar to the final month of the regular season with a bounty of options to be savored.
We're nearing the portion of the year where divisional games dominate the field, and this week serves to start whetting that appetite.
Denver at Kansas City
Sunday, Dec. 1, 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: Why wouldn't you? The teams with the AFC's top record met only two weeks ago in an entertaining affair and suddenly the Chiefs, once the last unbeaten in the NFL, are now reeling after two losses and suffering from some key injuries. The Broncos, with Peyton Manning as their quarterback, are, oddly enough, going to have to show they can win massive, cold-weather games, having just blown an excellent opportunity to do so in New England last Sunday night. So, here's another chance to do just that. I believe, with the weather changing and the playoffs now on the horizon, we will continue to see the Broncos remain ground-heavy to protect Manning and limit the abuse he will face. And the Chiefs are having to deal with the growing chorus of naysayers who doubted them even when the team was unbeaten, and have now seen them lose twice in succession as the schedule has asked more of them. A third consecutive loss wouldn't derail their playoff hopes, but no one wants to stumble into the postseason in a league where getting hot at the right time can mean everything.
What To Watch For: The Chiefs defense is under a microscope now. They have been bad against the run all season and now that is exacerbated by a dwindling pass rush and injuries to stars Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Couple that with a scheme that puts a lot of pressure on the corners in man-to-man situations, and you could have a tumbling tower without the ability to routinely pressure the quarterback into poor decisions. The Chiefs couldn't get a finger on Manning two weeks ago, and that was with KC on a roll and much healthier than the team is now ... Chiefs' offensive-line woes compounding their problems -- and I feel like I say this every other week -- but Von Miller is going to show up big here soon for the Broncos, right? ... Injuries and fumbling cutting into the Broncos' run-by-committee approach. Denver needs Knowshon Moreno for the stretch drive, with him by far the most trusted all-around back securing the football and aiding in pass protection ... Broncos have not targeted Eric Decker much and if TE Julius Thomas remains hobbled, getting that big receiver back in the mix might take away from some of the doubling of Demaryius Thomas.
New Orleans at Seattle
Monday, Dec. 2, 8:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Why To Watch: This should settle first overall in the NFC, or at least give one of these teams a huge tiebreaker if need be. The Seahawks and Saints can both make a claim to have the best home-field advantage in the NFL, but only one of them gets to host this game and its Seattle coming off a bye. Tough gig for the Saints. Remember, the Saints' Super Bowl repeat dreams came crumbling down, and they played their last "pre-Bountygate" game losing at Seattle in the postseason in January 2011, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' last game with the team and coach Sean Payton's last game before he would end up serving a one-year suspension. New Orleans' defense has tightened up this season, and Payton has brought their swagger -- and offensive wizardry -- back to the fore. This game could go several different ways, with both of these teams able to run up the score, but also not opposed to hammering things out at a more tempered pace on the ground. We get two of the most dynamic small quarterbacks in recent memory on the field together, in Drew Brees and youngster Russell Wilson, and, with New Orleans having last played on a Thursday night, both clubs should be well rested, which should make for a quality football product.
What To Watch For: This should be the time Percy Harvin is unleashed. He got re-acclimated to game scenarios before the bye, but the dervish of a receiver, return man and tailback will be a major focal point of coordinator Darrell Bevell's offense moving forward and should become a favorite safety valve for Wilson soon enough ... Similarly, the Saints need a healthy Darren Sproles, who sat out last week, to return more balance and symmetry to their offense with the unique options that dynamo presents out of the backfield ... The Saints will spread you out, and with Seattle down two of its top three corners now (with Walter Thurmond suspended and Brandon Browner injured), I would expect plenty of shots over the middle of the field, testing the slot coverage ... Can safety Earl Thomas -- who is an big-time candidate for defensive player of the year -- man up on TE Jimmy Graham? Thomas is a beast in coverage but isn't blessed with great size ... Have a feeling Seahawks edge rusher Bruce Irvin will make a big impact in December ... With Seattle's offensive line finally healthy again, and Harvin now available to draw attention to the line of scrimmage, Golden Tate, who makes as many acrobatic catches as anyone in the league, will see more opportunities to latch on to deep stuff.
Arizona at Philadelphia
Sunday, Dec. 1, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: In the past, when things haven't gone well for the Eagles, they usually pointed the finger at the defensive coordinator -- whether it was Sean McDermott, or Juan Castillo, or, most recently, Todd Bowles. It has worked out pretty well for most of the guys they have let go, and in the case of Bowles, it has been a blessing in disguise. Since replacing Ray Horton running Arizona's defense, Bowles has wreaked havoc for the opposition, and his unit has everything to do with the Cardinals being 7-4 and very much in the thick of the playoff picture. If you don't think he's going to be fired up to return to football, you're crazy. Chip Kelly's team comes out of the bye atop the wacky NFC East but knowing the margin is very slim for any slipups.
What To Watch For: Will Nick Foles get intercepted this season? The Eagles' quarterback looks at ease in this system and you have to like Kelly's chances of concocting a few unique twists with so much time to prepare for this game ... Eagles pass rusher Trent Cole looks much more comfortable in this 3-4 scheme than he did early in the season, toggling between attacking the passer and dropping in coverage. He could be a factor as the weather turns, and the Eagles defense hasn't allowed more than 21 points since September -- a huge factor in their revival ... The Cardinals produce more stops behind the line of scrimmage for opposing offenses, for more negative yards, than anyone else in the NFL. If they can exploit some of Kelly's five-man protections, it could be the difference in the game, and Bowles loves to bring the heat from the secondary ... Bruce Arians is not going to stop flinging the football all over the field for anyone -- he has proven that much -- but will the elements intervene here? ... Darnell Dockett will be a critical factor in this game. If the Cards' versatile defensive lineman can fight off double teams and keep Shady McCoy from getting to the second level, I like Arizona's chances.
Cincinnati at San Diego
Sunday, Dec. 1, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: The Chargers, on their day, can look capable of beating any team in the NFL, but can they keep the good times rolling? They reversed their season last week with a wild comeback at Kansas City, and have the chance here to begin making a case to be the sixth seed in the AFC. Better opponents have seemed to bring out the best in them (Philadelphia, Dallas, Denver -- a close loss -- Kansas City, Indianapolis), but they have been pedestrian at home, and could use a little more oomph from the home crowd here. The Bengals re-righted their season by beating Cleveland before the bye, but with the Ravens and Steelers back in the thick of things now, too, must show they can defeat a decent opponent on the road and try to maintain that distance within their division. Yet another game where the loser will suddenly be under fire, and that much closer to seeing their playoff status in jeopardy.
What To Watch For: What did Andy Dalton learn from the bye? Surely he spent plenty of time going over the string of mistakes and interceptions that haunted him for November, and Dalton's dedication and work ethic is beyond reproach ... Will the Bengals get more out of their two-tight-end sets with the season now reaching the final quarter? It has been a point of emphasis since spring workouts ... Danny Woodhead showed up big for the Chargers last week after not being as much of a factor the previous few weeks. It will be vital for him to provides the change-of-pace and third-down stuff ... Bengals are 1-2 since losing All-Pro DT Geno Atkins. They allowed a team 100 or more rushing yards only twice in the first eight games and have done so twice already since Atkins suffered a season-ending injury, but surprisingly losing his ability to push the pocket inside hasn't caused their sack totals or pass defense to dip markedly -- at least not yet ... Can the Chargers continue surviving the weekly assault on their offensive lineman? The attrition there has been astonishing.
Tampa Bay at Carolina
Sunday, Dec. 1, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: There aren't many teams that are any hotter than these NFC South rivals right now, or playing more physical football. I'll give you Seattle, a Super Bowl favorite, but not many others come to mind. Carolina plowed through Tampa, 31-13, in late October, but that was before the Bucs learned how to win again and before rookie quarterback Mike Glennon began his ascent. They seem like a totally different team. Meanwhile, how many would have guessed that the Panthers' victory against Tampa Bay would have been part of a seven-game winning streak carrying them into this contest? Carolina already survived one dreaded trap game last week at Miami and I suspect they will be ready to play from the onset for this one. The Bucs, meantime, are able to play this spoiler role and look like a team with nothing to lose. They won't go down easy here.
What To Watch For: Carolina's offensive line had some issues last week, and early on, Cam Newton was particularly under pressure. Tampa Bay can do that to you by rushing only four, and they have the kind of athletic linebackers who should be able to contain some of what Newton does on the outside ... Panthers won the first meeting due largely to their superior run game, but Tampa Bay's offensive line solidified since then and they seem to have adjusted to the loss of Carl Nicks ... In November, Glennon ranked fourth in the NFL with a 70.5 completion percentage, he tossed seven TDs against one interception, and his 119.7 passer rating was third best in the league. The Panthers secondary is a more conducive spot to target than their front seven, and Glennon certainly will take a few chances downfield ... If Darrelle Revis is out with a groin injury, Panthers WR Steve Smith could be in for a big day. Even with a safety over top, he will find seams on outs to the sidelines ... FB Mike Tolbert is an X-factor in the red zone for Carolina. He got in the end zone in the first meeting with Tampa Bay and they will use him as a lead blocker, ball carrier, decoy and pass receiver, particularly the closer they get to the goal line ... Fewer targets than normal for Bucs WR Vincent Jackson last week, but I suspect that changes here.
Miami at N.Y. Jets
Sunday, Dec. 1, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: This is it. Lose here, and forget about trying to put together equations and advanced math to illustrate the faint playoff chances. This game is their season. The winner here will have the leg up in the head-to-head battle. Both have already lost to the Ravens. Both will have lost to the Steelers if Pittsburgh defeats Miami in Week 14. So, this is not time for a losing streak. Neither of their reeling, young quarterbacks is in a position to withstand sustained losing, either, and, frankly, the losing coach here will all of a sudden hear more rumblings about his job security, too. By AFC East terms, in December, for a game not involving the Patriots, this is about as big as it can get.
What To Watch For: Does Geno Smith get a quick hook here? Does the surprising relative success of the Jets leave them at odds with their long-term desire to evaluate and develop Smith with the franchise in need of stability at the position? Would he learn more by fighting through this rut, or would he, and the team, benefit by giving veteran David Garrard a shot? ... Tannehill is getting a little gun shy, understandably so, and throwing some stuff up for grabs. This looks like a horrible matchup for his offensive line, and I expect Jets defensive lineman Mo Wilkerson to leave his imprint all over this game ... Mike Wallace was running past people on double moves last week -- a rarity since joining Miami -- and with New York's secondary struggling and top corner Antonio Cromartie banged up, if Tannehill can get a little protection, there should be openings downfield. He can't force Wallace to wait on the ball, though, and needs to lead him down the sideline ... Jets rookie CB Dee Milliner is in a bad funk and a Cromartie absence would be bad news for him -- and the Jets ... The addition of safety Ed Reed has yet to bear any fruit for the Jets. It hasn't been pretty thus far ... Miami needs to stick with its inept run game here, if for Tannehill's health and sanity alone, but they won't get anything on the ground against this front.
St. Louis at San Francisco
Sunday, Dec. 1, 4:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: The Rams know how to line up against the 49ers, and they are back to playing the kind of stifling defense that led to their rise a year ago -- and San Francisco isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut. It's probably too late for St. Louis to salvage anything in terms of playoff hopes, but they can certainly disrupt the seasons of their rivals. Two physical football teams here. San Francisco is going to need every game possible against its NFC West foes if it is to have any shot to catch Seattle. And it might already be too late for that. There is time to find more of an offensive identity beyond the power run game, however, and get Colin Kaepernick playing better football leading into the playoffs. These clubs played to a tie last season and both of their games were pretty wacky, so I suspect the unexpected when they get together again on Sunday.
What To Watch For: This should be the season debut of 49ers WR Michael Crabtree, and not a moment too soon. The passing attack has been predictable and vastly inefficient without him. Finally, Kaepernick will have an outside presence to create some matchup problems and demand some attention from a safety -- assuming Crabtree can look like his old self from the get-go, which might be expecting too much ... Frank Gore, all day long. St. Louis has issues stopping the run, but can tee off on quarterbacks and has started making plays on the ball again. Ball control on a short week for the 49ers, having played Monday night on the East Coast, is the way to go ... Few teams run the ball well on the 49ers, and the Rams could be without feature back Zac Stacy, but rookie Benny Cunningham is an intriguing option as well, and the coaches have faith in his ability to break into the open field if a crease is there ... Rams CB Janoris Jenkins is getting his swag back. He's due to take one to the house ... 49ers TE Vernon Davis seems slowed by the succession of injuries he has had to battle. They'll need some explosive plays from him to get teams to defend them differently ... Wonder if tempers will flare here? The Rams have had dustups with a few teams already and they don't back down, and the 49ers are loaded with maulers as well ... 49ers WR Anquan Boldin certainly appears to be in playoff mode after torching Washington's secondary Monday night.
Tennessee at Indianapolis
Sunday, Dec. 1, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: Are the Colts going to go into a death spiral? Have we already seen the best of them for this season? They get crushed 38-8 by the Rams, managed to get by the Titans 30-27, and then come out of their bye and get whacked 40-11 by Arizona. The victory against Tennessee gives them enough padding to win this woeful division, in all likelihood. However, they seem to have lost their heart and direction after losing veteran WR Reggie Wayne for the season, and it's hard to take them seriously as a Super Bowl contender, while their upset of Denver, on the night Wayne got hurt, had many believing they were poised to be a real factor in the postseason. The Colts are getting overpowered at the line of scrimmage, and that's a specialty of this Titans defense. Whether you believe in them or not, the Titans would be in the playoffs as the sixth seed if the playoffs started today by virtue of their victories against other 5-6 teams. If the Titans are going to make it a race in the AFC South, this is must-win territory, and a victory would have them only one game back.
What To Watch For: If Ryan Fitzpatrick manages not to turn the ball over, the Titans can hang with anyone. It really is as simple as that. When he protects the football, they win, and after a last-second drive to win at Oakland, he should be feeling confident ... Andrew Luck has been ineffective in November and other than TE Coby Fleener, no one is stepping up to try to offset the loss of Wayne ... Not sure why Trent Richardson was on the field more than twice as much as Donald Brown at RB for the Colts last week, but with the season slipping, I expect that equation to change. Richardson ranks 48th in the NFL, of all qualified players, with a puny 2.9 yards per carry. He hasn't averaged three yards in a game since Oct. 14 and has gone seven games without a rushing score ... Colts haven't allowed fewer than 24 points in a game in their past five games and have allowed a total of 162 points in that span -- 32.4 per game. No bueno. When guys are celebrating their first sacks with elaborate dances while trailing by like 21 points in garbage time ... um, that's not what Chuck Pagano had in mind for his defense, either ... Titans third-down defense has been getting it done recently, and if they can keep it close, I like Tennessee late. They have outscored opponents 122-84 in the fourth quarter this season.
Chicago at Minnesota
Sunday, Dec. 1, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: Chicago is still in the hunt, and got another nice outing from backup QB Josh McCown last week, but the defense is beat up and suspect. They are particularly poor against the run and Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart are coming off their best game of the season; the Vikings took it to the Packers for most of last week's tie game. The Bears cannot afford a losing streak now, with their division still muddled and the possibility of the playoffs still very real. And the Vikings are running out of chances to win a game in the NFC North this season, with only the Lions still looming in their farewell game at the Metrodome in Week 17.
What To Watch For: Hats off to Vikes QB Christian Ponder, who has handled the revolving door under center with class and who is playing with plenty of guts and heart, even though this is likely it for him in Minnesota (along with everyone else who has worn a Vikings jersey at that position this season). It seems to be bringing out the best in his teammates ... I could see Martellus Bennett having a big day at tight end for the Bears. Not sure the Vikings are equipped to handle him in the seam of their Cover-2 stuff ... Bears rookie head coach Marc Trestman has been pretty aggressive this season and he was riding a hot streak for a while, but will he keep pushing it with the fourth-down stuff after seeing a few decisions backfire recently?
N.Y. Giants at Washington
Sunday, Dec. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Why To Watch: A true masochistic Redskins fan has so much to wallow in these days. The team seems intent on staying in the hunt for the first overall pick, which of course still goes to the Rams as part of the obscene bounty to move up a few slots and draft Robert Griffin III two years ago. And, well, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan spent part of the week trying to defend his decision to stick with RG3 as his starting quarterback, so that pretty much tells you all you need to know about this outfit right now. Washington is 1-7 in the conference and does not yet have a division win, and they might not get it here, either. The Giants are trying to propagate the notion they are still alive for the postseason at 4-7, but even in the crappy NFC East, that's folly. However, this is an opportunity to continue the national discourse on RG3's health, decreased athleticism, decision making, leadership, etc. And Eli Manning is having himself a brutal year, too, and might just find a way to trump Griffin in the gaffe department.
What To Watch For: Creative signs. Skins fans excel at them. Last week, we saw some wearing brown paper bags to FedEx Field, with signs imploring their team to “Free Fred Davis” and pining for their former special-teams coach, Danny Smith. After the Monday night debacle, the best competition could be in the stands ... There is a drinking game to be fleshed out with each time RG3 botches a snap, has a ball knocked away, drops the ball or otherwise fumbles it ... Manning has been poor against the Redskins during the totality of his career, with a 74 rating and 14 TDs and 15 INTs in 17 career games. .. Not that it matters much anymore, but the Giants might want to squeeze these last few games out of impending free-agent WR Hakeem Nicks; holding him back last week did them no favors ... If nothing else, the Redskins have a chance to get Alfred Morris in contention for a rushing crown. Shanahan needs something to try to hang his hat on.
New England at Houston
Sunday, Dec. 1, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: What a time for the Texans to have a rare three-game homestand. The franchise is in crisis, reaching a new low each week, and now have to face the Patriots -- a team that owns them -- with a home crowd already eager to lash out at them and darn near foaming at the mouth. So if that whole “they eat their own” thing floats your boat, then you will want to keep a keen eye here. Upstart QB Case Keenum has taken several steps back the past few weeks, though at 2-9 and in good shape for the first overall pick, why go back to a veteran like Matt Schaub now? Coach Gary Kubiak has to know in his heart he is merely coaching out the string here until someone else takes over this team in 2014, and, dare I look ahead at Week 14 to see a Thursday night trip to Jacksonvile looming, with the chance to be swept by the Jags on national TV and perhaps drop an 11th consecutive game. Yikes. Oh, and Tom Brady still has a little of that comeback moxie in him, eh?
What To Watch For: Rob Gronkowski is really starting to look like himself now. The hulking tight end is trampling over dudes again and rumbling all over the place, and with Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman providing some veteran complements in the slot, New England has some life in the passing game ... Except when (or if) they really have to go outside the hash marks and try something deep down the sidelines, it's still a hope and a prayer ... Don't notice a whole heck of a lot out of Texans LB Brooks Reed anymore, do you? ... At some point, Houston might want to play around with some more advanced and complex coverages. If not, you know, this season, then maybe by 2014 ... The good news for Houston was they snapped a stretch of allowing at least 24 points in three consecutive games last week. The bad news is it came against the Jaguars, and they only scored six themselves. I would like to at least be able to tell you the six points was a season low, but, um that would be incorrect.
Atlanta at Buffalo
Sunday, Dec. 1, 4:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: Could the Falcons really end up with the first overall pick in the draft? They already became the first team to be eliminated from playoff hope. What other surprises do they have up their sleeve? Having to go into the cold here, with a mere semblance of an offensive line, with Matt Ryan looking more each week like he wishes the damn season was just over already ... well, this could be just what the Bills need coming out of the bye to keep their wafer-thin playoff hopes alive. You have to wonder, the deeper Atlanta falls in the standings (and really, there isn't too much more they can drop) if the proclamations of everyone's job safety will ring true.
What To Watch For: Bills rookie QB EJ Manuel finally had a nice chunk of practice time, what with him actually being healthy and able to catch up for lost time some on the bye week. That can't be a bad thing, and he has a chance to finish with a bang and take some momentum into 2014 ... CJ Spiller seems relatively healthy, too, by his standards, and there is every reason to run right at ends like Osi Umenyiora ... Expect to see big plays from Bills S Jairus Byrd as he makes his case in free agency ... I like Mario Williams to have one of his once-a-month-three-sack-in-a-game specials for the Bills here coming off the edge against this wounded group ... Do we get a few more highlights from Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez before his Hall of Fame career closes?
Jacksonville at Cleveland
Sunday, Dec. 1, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: Jacksonville better look out or it is going to have a few teams selecting quarterbacks ahead of them next year. That's not what they need. At the midpoint of the season, there were legit concerns if this team would win a single game, and keep from getting blown out most weeks. Now the problem is they might win too many. The Browns botched any real chance of making a move in the AFC North by playing football follies two weeks in a row against divisional foes -- a comedy of turnovers, blocked punts, penalties ... you name it -- and now, in all honesty, the best thing for them would be for them and the Colts to stop winning games, to increase Cleveland's chances of landing the best quarterback on their board in the first round. So, if you support one of these teams, cheer for a loss. Or a tie.
What To Watch For: Good chance the Browns are forced to go back to Brandon Weeden at quarterback, again, with Jason Campbell suffering a concussion last week. That generally spells doom for their offense, aside from WR Josh Gordon, who will give the Jags fits ... Browns TE Jordan Cameron was seeing a fair share of the ball last week for the first time in weeks ... Jags RB Maurice Jones-Drew still has some time to make some sort of case for himself heading into free agency. Last week was a better step in that regard.