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Falcons-Bucs, bevy of intriguing games lead Week 13 storylines

The night games may grab the biggest headlines, but start-to-finish this could be the best weekend of intriguing matchups, bitter rivalries and fortune-changing games the NFL has yet seen.

The Week 13 storylines only begin in Baltimore and New England, which we certainly will cover. But before Sunday night and Monday night come old-school rivalries, last stands and new stars on the big stage.

We'll start in Tampa, where the Bucs face a playoffs-or-bust moment, and the Falcons may well take off to the top of the NFC heap.

• The Bucs have been one of the league's best stories under Raheem Morris, remaining in NFC South contention into the playoff stretch. But if the playoffs began today, the Bucs would be on the outside looking in. In Atlanta, the Bucs pushed the Falcons to the limit, losing 27-21 only after being stopped on 4th-and-1 late at the Falcons' 2-yard line. Get this one at home and not only does the division tighten up, but the Bucs would face a very favorable schedule down the stretch (Redskins, Lions, Seahawks).

• Sometimes these things are not fully appreciated until after the fact, but make no mistake: Atlanta's Matt Ryan is putting together a Super Bowl-type season. He's been consistent, carrying the Falcons to a 9-2 record and five consecutive wins. He's been clutch -- hence, the way-cool nickname, Matty Ice, after leading comeback wins over the 49ers, Ravens and last week the Packers. He's put up the big numbers. And he's gotten better late in the season, throwing for 10 touchdowns vs. just one interception over the five-game win streak.

• Who says there's no dominant team in the league? While balance and unpredictability have been the catchphrases league-wide, should the Falcons win at Tampa, it's highly likely they'll finish the year with a 13-3 record at worst and home-field throughout the playoffs. The final four Atlanta games include a pair against the Panthers, a roadie at Seattle and a home game against the Saints.

• Josh Freeman has been in a slump of late. That's to be expected of a still-young quarterback. He has a couple of big weapons in receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount, however, who are game-breakers and unintimidated by their surroundings. If they all rise on the big stage, the Bucs could be on the verge of building quite the Big Three offensive attack.

Other Week 13 storylines abound across the league, including:

2. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Step right up. For a mere $25,000 American dollars, you, too, can beat Titans safety Cortland Finnegan into submission. In other words, did NFL commissioner Roger Goodell almost literally open up a can of whoop-butt for the rest of the league by not suspending Texans receiver Andre Johnson?

Johnson merely did to Finnegan what most of the league has wanted to do. The bigger story in Titans-Jaguars, of course, will be whether the Jags whoop a Titans team that looked like it flat-out quit in a horrendous 20-0 road loss to the Texans last week.

3. Will the Cardinals defense see Sam Bradford and ask itself, "have we met before?" The last time the Cards saw Bradford, he was a wide-eyed rookie making his first start. Ultimately, Bradford tossed three picks, was sacked twice, but the Cardinals lost. Over the past six games, however, Bradford has transformed himself into an Offensive Rookie of the Year leader, tossing 11 touchdowns to just one pick. A win here and the NFC West championship goes through -- yup -- St. Louis.

4. Perhaps Josh McDaniels and Todd Haley should just settle on a fist-bump. The last time the Broncos and Chiefs met, Haley scolded his Denver counterpart and refused to shake Haley's hand. The background details of that encounter remain sketchy, but since then the Broncos and McDaniels each have been fined $50,000 for videotaping an opponent's walk-through. Did that have something to do with Haley's snub? He's not saying. Either way, Broncos-Chiefs always is spiced with bad blood, and it just got better.

5. The only thing riding on Jets-Patriots on Monday night is EVERYTHING. There are too many storylines to outline here, and they've been kicked around and commented-upon all week. But just know this: Beyond Rex Ryan's bluster, Bill Belichick's mind-games, key injuries (Jets safety Jim Leonhard fractured his tibia Friday) and obligatory trash-talk is the inside track to the Super Bowl. No doubt, the passing games of one or the other side should decide it, in the wake of Leonhard's injury and all-around Jets struggles. On the other hand, Mark Sanchez has been improving every week and the Pats secondary has been an epic fail all year.

6. The Cleveland Browns may not be going anywhere for now, but Colt McCoy and Peyton Hillis could be on their way to changing that. It's been a long time since the Browns have been this interesting. The matchup with the Dolphins may not add to the win column, but clearly the Browns are headed in the right direction. McCoy won't play again this week, but despite missing Friday's practice Hillis will. This is exactly the kind of one-two punch every team searches for -- a smart, mobile quarterback that doesn't make mistakes and a big, durable back that protects the ball and picks up tough yards.

7. Has there been a more complete change of fortunes and image than what's going on with the Bears' Jay Cutler? It's been in part because of his smarmy facial expressions that always grab the camera's eye. It's been in part because of his comments. But Cutler once had an image as a spoiled, entitled quarterback prone to bad moments and underachieving. No more. Maybe the guy is simply intense and competitive beyond what most expected. That's how things change when a player leads a team to an 8-3 record and four-game win streak -- soon to be five, if form holds on Sunday.

8. The 49ers had a choice between an MVP-type franchise quarterback and a bust of epic proportions in 2005. Yup, we all know how that turned out. For reasons unbeknownst to most, the Niners passed on drafting hometown product Aaron Rodgers in favor of Alex Smith. Now, in a what-could-have-been kind of moment, Rodgers is in line to dole out the death blow to any San Francisco post-season hopes and perhaps leave embattled coach Mike Singletary grasping for the final straw.

9. Will the real Peyton Manning stand up? Or have all the injuries and flaws in the defense finally caught up to the Colts? Manning enters Sunday's game against the Cowboys having lost three of his last four starts, throwing seven interceptions in his last two games and nine altogether in the last four games. The Cowboys, playing much-improved football, can make matters worse by throwing the AFC South into what could end up being a three-way tie at 6-6 between the Jags, Titans and Colts by the end of the day.

10. You can argue there may be a better rivalry than Steelers-Ravens, but none pack a better punch. These teams hate one another. Players hate each other. Fans from each side hate each other. And when it comes to backing up the talk, say hello to Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, James Harrison ... on and on it goes. The meanest, hardest-hitting players in the league line up for these teams. Buckle up. This is football the way God and John Facenda meant it to be.

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