Week 14 Game Rankings: Panthers-Saints tastiest of defining battles
Division titles, playoff spots and draft order -- it's all on the line in Week 14, starting with a battle for the NFC South with the Panthers rolling into the Big Easy.
This is a pretty damn good week of football. There is plenty of can't-miss stuff in every time slot, including great weekend prime-time games (we'll ignore the Thursday night blemish, because, well, we pretty much always do, and it's pretty much always bad football anyway). Aside from that, we have a handful of games that will go a ways to settling some seasons.
By the time we sort through Week 14, I'm not sure much more is really in doubt beyond a wild-card spot here or there, and maybe a division title or two. But most of the 12 spots could be more or less secured, and most divisions just about locked up, too. The number of teams mathematically eliminated will soar as well, after this week, and we'll no longer have to look at full-screen graphics during games that depict the playoff picture and are littered with teams stuck on four or five wins. And, everyone still on six wins after this week will be on life support (and, in the NFC, maybe already expunged).
I've already peeked ahead at Week 15 (keep that secret between us), and it's not nearly as good, and, this might be the best week of defining football we get until Week 17, when, obviously, everything is settled in terms of playoff position.
So this is it, people. Aside from the odd conference title game that matters, meaningful college football is shut down until January or February or March or whenever they get around to playing the bowl games that matter. No one cares about the NBA or NHL until the playoffs (if even then) and the baseball hot stove league hasn't even heated up yet. This is our time, only a few more weekends left where we could get five games going at once and most of them actually matter.
It's part of what's best about the holiday season, and Week 14 will not disappoint.
Carolina at New Orleans
Sunday, Dec. 8, 8:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: How can you not enjoy what Riverboat Ron and the fightin' Carolina Panthers are doing? Eight straight wins after standing at the crossroads of what looked like it might be another middling season. A young team that has finally come into its own, figuring out how to win close games, avoiding a couple of trap games and now in position to storm past the Saints, who most had handed the NFC South title to back in October. Can the Saints withstand the physical challenge coming their way, and do they hear footsteps? Getting back into the dome should help the Saints get their offense going again, but who would have thought come Week 14 there would be more MVP buzz mounting for Cam Newton than for Drew Brees? And who would have thought the Panthers would be the hottest team in the NFL?
What To Watch For: Don't let the Panthers get a lead here, or things could get ugly. The Saints offensive line has slipped some, and the Panthers are hopeful of having stud pass rusher Charles Johnson back to book-end Greg Hardy. Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is not afraid to go agro, and the Panthers should have some success on the ground here as well, always a good thing when nursing a lead … Rob Ryan getting exposed more lately on his red-dog blitzes … Should see some dynamic returns between Darren Sproles and Ted Ginn; never underestimate the import of special teams in a game like this … Ryan's attacking mindset, against an offense with a QB able to move the pocket and cause problems with misdirection, could be a problem here after Russell Wilson carved up the Saints Monday night. Saints lack elite personnel on defense, and if people adjust to their scheme, there could be problems ahead … Panthers one of few teams who have the kind of linebackers able to run and at least have a shot at staying with Saints TE Jimmy Graham.
Indianapolis at Cincinnati
Sunday, Dec. 8, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: Well, the Colts finally stopped their slide, but it wasn't very impressive. They survived the Titans thanks to five field goals and a turnover implosion from Tennessee, and now have to take their show outside the confines of their dome. The Bengals have not lost at home, due to a dose or two of good fortune as well, and this game could end up deciding who gets a bye and who, as a division winner, has to host a team with a Super Bowl MVP quarterback, like say, Baltimore or Pittsburgh if one of them sneaks in. That's less than ideal for two teams without a proven playoff pedigree (at least the post-Manning Colts). A win here would be a coveted tiebreaker, and, especially in the case of the Bengals, would sustain their cushion with games against divisional rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh still ahead.
What To Watch For: Andy Dalton didn't exactly come out lighting it up last week, out of the bye, and the scrutiny around him will only intensify as the playoffs draw closer. He managed to find AJ Green for two backbreaking plays, but the Bengals quarterback will be compared directly to Andrew Luck on Sunday. He needs to avoid those sideline picks and make more dynamic plays … Indianapolis' offensive line is an open wound right now, and Bengals defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, though down some talent due to injury, will find ways to exploit it. Expect a conservative approach here by the Colts, knowing Luck could be taking a season-ending shot if this keeps up, but is anyone fearing Donald Brown and Trent Richardson on the ground? … The tape of Titans DL Jurrell Casey swallowing up the interior of Indy's line will have Zimmer salivating … Have a feeling Colts S LaRon Landry tries to send a physical message to Green here early … Bengals RB Gio Bernard, with his explosive first step, will be a problem for this Colts defense on screens.
Detroit at Philadelphia
Sunday, Dec. 8, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: Both of these teams are still well positioned to win their divisions, but will need to stack as many NFC wins as possible to aid that cause, and should they not secure that title, then this is a direct wild-card tiebreaker. Detroit is a little better rested, having not played since Thanksgiving, and really, they weren't given much of a fight there by the Packers, anyway. The Eagles are suddenly getting their footing back at home, having won a few in a row after going over a year without winning there. This has the potential to be something of a shootout as well, with two offenses able to create explosive plays and quick-strike scores. Pretty much every game the Lions have played has been interesting and compelling down to the end. No reason not to expect the same here.
What To Watch For: At some point Nick Foles is going to throw an interception this season, right? He's come very close and been aided by drops and penalties, but you know it is coming. Everything regresses somewhat to the mean eventually, and the Lions will be able to get pressure by just sending four rushers -- critical against Chip Kelly's protections … Not sure Eagles top corner Cary Williams has the temperament to handle four quarters of Calvin Johnson, and the additional rest should aid Megatron, in particular as he battles a wobbly knee … Detroit's run defense has been vastly improved from the start of the season, and no running back has been better than LeSean McCoy this season. Once his legs get turning and he hits that hole out of a spread formation, he's awful tough to stop … Reggie Bush is another Lion who I expect to be particularly sharp with some additional rest … Count how many different arm angles Matt Stafford utilizes to complete passes.
Seattle at San Francisco
Sunday, Dec. 8, 4:25 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: This has become a very good rivalry with some very real emotion and these games have very real ramifications. If the 49ers have any chance to win the division -- and it's bleak -- they must win here, while the Seahawks haven't lost since Oct. 6. And Seattle absolutely beat the living snot out of the 49ers the first time these two teams got together early in the season. Never discount a revenge factor when it comes to Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. The 49ers, involved in a heated wild-card race, certainly need this game more, and no matter what happens here, you know, inevitably, the conversation will turn to their young quarterbacks -- Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick -- and those two could well decide this game.
What To Watch For: The return of WR Michael Crabtree last week definitely changed the dimension of the 49ers attack. Anquan Boldin seemed refreshed and unburdened, no longer a threat to be doubled. TE Vernon Davis survived getting tackled by his manhood and came back to score a TD. And Crabtree was much more than just a decoy, with Kaepernick trying to find him downfield and connecting a few times. That confidence will only grow as Crabtree readjusts to game conditions … This is the kind of game Golden Tate shows up big, latching on to deep balls and also in the return game … Do the Seahawks end up getting anything out of Percy Harvin this season? That hip injury sounds like something that could hamper him for a while … The 49ers have to be concerned about the state of their offensive line, and Seattle has the kind of diverse options in its front seven to create a mismatch … Any chance Harbaugh decides to let Kaepernick freelance a little more here in the read option now with more options teams must respect in the pass game?
Miami at Pittsburgh
Sunday, Dec. 8, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: The loser of this game is cooked. This is do or die. A Dolphins team at 6-7 would have an uphill challenge of getting a wild card, with a head-to-head loss to the Ravens and then facing New England in Week 15. The Steelers, after their loss to the Ravens on Thanksgiving night, are still certainly playing much better football than they were at the start of the season, but they dug such an early hole that this is their last stand at 5-7. They haven't been their normal selves at home, however, and Miami has managed some surprises on the road. It's enough to make this game intriguing and I still don't think we've seen the least meaningful game Ben Roethlisberger will play this season. Do the Steelers go down early for the second straight year? Hard to fathom.
What To Watch For: Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill still seems mechanical, a little too methodical, for me at times, and this will be a tough spot for him and his makeshift offensive line. Steelers Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau could be coaching in his final games, with retirement perhaps looming, and you know he will cut it loose against a kid quarterback in a must-win game … I'm going to assume Mike Tomlin is standing a good eight yards deep on the sidelines all game, right? … If Dolphins DE Olivier Vernon can keep up his recent work, then he will free things up a bit more for Cameron Wake. The Steelers offensive line is in tatters and Big Ben can't help but hold the ball sometimes … Perhaps this is the week the Dolphins settle on a running back? Better late than never? … You know that Dolphins WR Mike Wallace, who has showed up more in the second half of the season, will be amped up to face his old team. And he might be catching aging CB Ike Taylor at just the right time. That will be a feisty battle.
Dallas at Chicago
Monday, Dec. 9, 8:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Why To Watch: Same storyline as Lions/Eagles. Both of these teams could still win their divisions, but if they don't then winning a game like this would be vital. Both are walking a fine line, too. The Bears have dropped two in a row, in somewhat spectacular fashion, since outlasting the Ravens in that tornado game. Dallas survived the Raiders on Thanksgiving, but remain very much a team of fits and starts and they need to prove they can string some good things together. The Bears can't count on having Jay Cutler back at quarterback, but I doubt he could play any better than Josh McCown has. Nothing about the Bears stumbles are related to quarterback play.
What To Watch For: DeMarco Murray looked like a game breaker on Turkey Day, and this Bears defense is loaded with turkeys. They don't even pretend to play the run and could give up something like 2,200 yards on the ground this season if this keeps up. No reason for Jason Garrett to get cute at all here, and no reason to have Tony Romo chucking it up all over the place … The Cowboys need to establish a better early pace on their offense and go no-huddle more often; they have the personnel to do it and it leads to their best stuff on offense … I figure Dez Bryant gets fed early here after being more of a bit player recently … No one in the NFL is making more acrobatic catches than Bears WR Alshon Jeffery … Since Oct. 20, when McCown first replaced Cutler at the half, only three QBs have a better rating than his (103.6), only five QBs have a better average per attempt and only Nick Foles (13-0) has a better TD/INT ratio than McCown (9-1). He's played in nothing but big games, really, and he hasn't flinched … Still trying to figure out why Marc Trestman tried a 47-yard field goal in overtime on second down last week, and wonder if that perceived lack of confidence rubs off on his team's performance at all here, with everything at stake.
St. Louis at Arizona
Sunday, Dec. 8, 4:25 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: The Cardinals were pretty ticked off about the officiating in their controversial loss at Philadelphia last week, and justifiably so. They can't let that distract them from the fact that this is a must-win game, however, if they are going to stay in the thick of the playoff race in a very competitive NFC. They dropped the first meeting to the Rams and are already 0-3 in their division; when it comes to tiebreakers, especially with their division rival 49ers, they may need to run the table their second time through the division just to have a real chance. I'm not ready to write off another year of Bruce Arians magic just yet, and this team plays with a bit of a chip on its shoulders, which I appreciate.
What To Watch For: Can Carson Palmer protect the football in December? It was a big problem in September and October, and he settled down in November, but this team isn't built to play from deep behind and his decision making must improve over last week … Should be some fun stuff with Patrick Peterson and Tavon Austin on the field at the same time; dynamic possibilities in the return game … When Kellen Clemens is bad -- which is not unusual -- he is awful. The Rams aren't getting nearly enough out of their quarterback to win consistently, even when the defense is functioning at a high level … Zac Stacy retained his role as the Rams' lead back, coming back from a concussion, touching the ball 20 times in a lopsided loss to the 49ers last week … Cards WR Michael Floyd has just one fewer catch than Larry Fitzgerald this season; Floyd has 19 catches for 396 yards and two touchdowns in the past three games.
Tennessee at Denver
Sunday, Dec. 8, 4:05 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: Peyton Manning continues to make his march to over 50 touchdown passes and over 5,000 yards and what looks like a sure-fire MVP season. He was back to the bizarre-world fantasy football numbers again last week, and the loss of receivers and tight ends to injury seems to have no impact on his productivity. John Fox returns to the sidelines for the Broncos for the first time since undergoing heart surgery and we'll see how conservative his approach is down the stretch with some key veterans a little banged up, and as the Broncos get close to locking up that first-overall seed. The Titans still have some sort of a playoff heartbeat, but the odds would say it gets stifled at Mile High.
What To Watch For: This Titans front four can be beastly and Jurrell Casey in particular will demand all kinds of attention. Protecting Manning is paramount and Fox could be doing a fair amount of max protecting against a Gregg Williams defense that will be intent on quarterback pressure … Do the Broncos take the longview and hold TE Julius Thomas out another week, given how productive they have been even without him? … The Broncos have to worry about the secondary some, and the rush defense has been slipping for weeks as well. The loss of DT Kevin Vickerson could prove huge … Keep your eyes on Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno, if at all possible, during the National Anthem. He might start a flood with the biggest tears known to mankind … Titans can't afford a slow start or feeling sorry for themselves after blowing a game they should have won to the Colts last week. But I wouldn't be surprised to see a bit of a hangover as their season flashed before their eyes … Can Titans QB Ryan Fitzpatrick stem the turnover tide he started last week?
Minnesota at Baltimore
Sunday, Dec. 8, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: Baltimore closes out an essential three-game home stand needing a win to go over .500 and stay in the sixth seed, for now, because a very tough schedule (at Detroit, vs. New England and at Cincinnati) looms. This is another must-win game for them, and under John Harbaugh they pretty much always get it done when they need it, and especially at home. But they run into Adrian Peterson playing the best football of the season, and the Vikings, since hitting rock bottom and having nothing to play for, have already derailed rivals Green Bay and Chicago the past two weeks. Baltimore is 0-2 against the NFC North already.
What To Watch For: Is this finally the game when Ravens TE Dennis Pitta returns? His import cannot be overstated, and even as a decoy it would open up some things for others … Ravens scrapped the wildcat look against the Steelers and I doubt they need it here, but I'm far from convinced they won't go back to it in a pinch, despite Joe Flacco's objections … Ray Rice seems to be a little more like himself lately and I hear he is feeling better than earlier in the season. He had prolonged rest after last playing on Thanksgiving and faces a defense that can be had … With Christian Ponder trying to recover from a concussion and Matt Cassel earning an overtime win after taking over last week, Cassel could get the start here -- which might not be a good thing for him or the Vikings. Cassel went 9-of-15 for 92 yards and two INTs last year as a Chief against the Ravens and was 9-for-18 for 70 yards with three INTs and three sacks when he faced them in the playoffs a few years before that. He didn't throw a touchdown in either game and his longest completion was 22 yards.
Kansas City at Washington
Sunday, Dec. 8, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: The Chiefs have to stop their slide here soon, you would think. I don't believe any team has ever started a season with nine straight wins and then lost four in a row, but that's what Kansas City is threatening to do. The division hopes are gone and putting together a balanced effort on the road would certainly help provide some confidence heading into the playoffs, especially with three of their final four games away from Arrowhead. And the Redskins, even in another lost season of theirs, remain must-see theatre, with RG3's every move dissected and Mike Shanahan's every vein-popping scream replayed over and over as his job security hangs in the balance. There will be at least a few images from them (someone booting an errant pass in the end zone into the stands; a left tackle berating an official) to make you shake your head.
What To Watch For: The Chiefs' defense is a total mess. They were never good against the run but now, without a pass rush, they are getting skewered downfield, and last week the safeties couldn't stop anything Peyton Manning threw over the middle. They have allowed 103 points in three games, and with Tamba Hali still ailing and Justin Houston out entirely, even a bewildered Redskins offensive staff should be able to find some chunks of yards out there … Saying that, Redskins RT Tyler Polumbus is in a terrible rut -- not that he is even more than barely serviceable -- and at some point Shanahan might want to take a look at some of the offensive linemen he has invested significant draft picks in recent years … Even if Shanahan saves his job, can the Redskins keep going on like this with all their personnel issues and no real GM? And, would having to fire his son, the offensive coordinator, and give up his final say in personnel be enough for Shanahan to just go and seek tanner pastures? … Kansas City is finally taking deep shots and getting Dwayne Bowe involved downfield, which they absolutely have to gamble on now that the defense is giving up points in droves. The uber-conservative attack wont cut it anymore … The Redskins tend to abandon Alfred Morris at the drop of a hat, like last week.
Atlanta at Green Bay
Sunday, Dec. 8, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Why To Watch: This is it for Green Bay, after an 0-4-1 stretch. Must win. Time to put on the big boy pants, if, in fact, they still have them. The defense has been in total decay since Aaron Rodgers got hurt -- to say nothing of the chilling effect losing the best quarterback in the league has on any offense (run game in particular). Rodgers will try to play if at all possible, but it might be Matt Flynn instead. And kudos to the Falcons for ending their freefall and showing some spirit and spunk after getting humiliated more than once this season. The Bills jumped on them early and Atlanta rallied to eventually win in overtime. It's hardly something they will celebrate in Atlanta given the Super Bowl expectations there, but avoiding the first-overall pick and a 3-13-type season would go a ways to curtailing any major changes there. So maybe we get a more interesting game here than imagined, and maybe the Falcons play spoiler down the stretch.
What To Watch For: The calls for the firing of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers sound more like a roar now, and they may be inevitable at this point barring a total reversal. Too few once-elite players like BJ Raji and Tramon Williams are more like passengers now, and there are not enough difference-makers stepping up on that side of the ball. With Roddy White back finally healthy for Atlanta, that could prove a problem for the Packers on Sunday … Packers RB Eddie Lacy has been held to two yards per carry or less in two of the last three games; that, as much as anything, is attributed to the difference in how defenses approach Green Bay with Rodgers, and without … Don't sleep on James Jones; the WR no one seems to talk about on Green Bay is making plays even with the issues at quarterback.
N.Y. Giants at San Diego
Sunday, Dec. 8, 4:25 p.m. ET (FOX)
Why To Watch: These teams still have their calculators. They can still concoct some germ of a seed of a way they could reach the postseason. They aren't dead yet. At least not on paper. But they will need all kinds of help to make it happen. I'm sorry, but the NFC East is not sending three teams to the playoffs, and neither is the AFC West. And these two clubs won't be able to catch the other two teams in their division. But for now, they still play with some semblance of hope. And, heck, you know the fine people of San Diego still remember Eli Manning not wanting to go there and that draft-day trade that resulted in Philip Rivers being their quarterback instead. As good as Rivers has been, two Lombardi's later and, um, yeah they'll have some signs for Manning. But then again, this could be the second blackout in the NFL this season; the first was last week in San Diego.
What To Watch For: Don't look now, but the Giants have a pass rush. Justin Tuck is getting home again, the Chargers are short on tackles, and aren't doing much of anything in the run game, either … Similar to some other recent first-round pick RBs, Ryan Mathews' career in San Diego is likely trickling to its conclusion as well. He's been a non-factor and doesn't see much of the ball … Keenan Allen is already a big play guy for the Chargers as a rookie; he and the emergence of TE Ladarius Green have given the Chargers a new identity on offense. They'll need to be huge down the stretch to keep hope alive there … Manning is looking more and more at his TE, Brandon Myers, in key situations and around the red zone.
Oakland at N.Y. Jets
Sunday, Dec. 8, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: Raiders rookie QB Matt McGloin, an undrafted free agent, keeps showing enough to warrant more looks, and, in what will be a motif in the sliders section for the rest of the season, that's all that really matters for Oakland right now. This regime has no real ties to Terrelle Pryor and always seemed to be looking for a reason to make a switch. McGloin has made some beautiful throws, especially back-shoulder lasers to the sidelines, and nothing has seemed too big for him yet. And Geno Smith just got benched, himself, but the Jets, finally basically out of the playoff equation, have no reason to do anything but evaluate him in every setting possible in all 16 games before deciding a QB plan for the future, should they not want to roll with their second-round pick.
What To Watch For: The Jets defense has been in decline, at least in part because of their non-existent run support, if you will. Mentally you can tell they feel they have to be perfect to have a chance, and they are getting beat up front much more the last month than earlier in the season … Does Santonio Holmes still play for the Jets? What about Kellen Winslow? Might want to give them a look at some point here with the offense in dire straights … Raiders WR Rod Streater is showing a willingness to go up high and make plays along the sidelines, clicking well with McGloin … The return of Darren McFadden made no impact on Oakland's run game and his time there is likely coming to an end. Rashad Jennings is the better option.
Buffalo at Tampa Bay
Sunday, Dec. 8, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: Both teams need to continue to evaluate their rookie quarterbacks for the future, with their seasons basically over. With no hope of playoffs, do they let it rip a little more? Last week wasn't rough for EJ Manuel, who has been stunted by all his missed time, while Mike Glennon turned the game with a bizarre mishandling of the ball on a passing attempt and, like most passers, struggled against a dominant Carolina defense. It will be all about the quarterback for both of these struggling franchises. Neither team will be able to take much out of the standings, but having their passers close the season strong would provide some solace to suffering fan bases at least.
What To Watch For: The Bills finally got both Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller healthy and active last week and it was a thing to see. The Bucs are much tougher against the run than the Falcons (heck, who isn't?), however … Just five receptions for Vincent Jackson combined the past two weeks -- far too few -- on just eight targets (far too few). No reason not to try to thread it to him … Seems like Bills LB Kiko Alonso hasn't flashed quite as much the past few weeks, at least not to the All-Pro level he was before … I Would imagine it would take a spirited finish, and a few wins, for Greg Schiano to stave off the calls for his job as Bucs head coach. Getting this one at home against a reeling opponent would help his cause.
Cleveland at New England
Sunday, Dec. 8, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why To Watch: I feel for Browns fans. They got just enough glimpses of what a competitive team looks like -- particularly during the brief spell of Brian Hoyer under center -- and had enough hope in November to make their current plight even tougher to stomach. But the reality is, losing a game like last week's, to Jacksonville, could end up giving a massive boost to their ability to land the quarterback they want in this draft -- and that is more important than anything. If they got stuck on four wins all season, it wouldn't be the end of the world, and given all the injuries they have absorbed at quarterback, it's also somewhat justifiable. So I guess what I am saying, Browns fans, is root to lose. As for the Pats, well, they need to avoid a letdown after playing a series of big-time games, because they have an inside rack at a first-round bye.
What To Watch For: Browns defense has slipped some in recent weeks, which is natural considering some of their issues offensively. Special teams have suffered too, and not all these points were scored on Cleveland's defense, but still, they have yielded 100 points during their three-game losing streak … Browns CB Joe Haden was all over himself for some mistakes last week; I expect that will bring out the best in him here and he gets one on Tom Brady … Brady seems to be favoring Julian Edelman these days among the revolving door at wide receiver for them … Any chance Bill Belichick lets RB Stevan Ridley out of the doghouse this week? I'm thinking probably not until he really needs him, which is probably not here. .. Could Browns WR Josh Gordon actually go for 200 yards again?
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