With four weeks left in the season, well over half the league's teams can still think seriously about the playoffs. The Cowboys kicked off Week 14 by becoming the NFL's sixth nine-win team with an impressive performance in Chicago on Thursday Night Football, and there is just as much uncertainty at the top of the conference standings as there is on the fringe of the playoff race as teams jockey for precious wild-card spots. In this week's Cover-Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss which team needs a win most in Week 14, the best defense in the NFL and whether Johnny Manziel will see the field this Sunday.
Must-win watch: Team most in need of a win in Week 14
Chris Burke: Baltimore. The Ravens gagged away a victory last week against San Diego, leaving them on the edge of desperation mode as they head to Miami (1:00 p.m. ET, CBS).
Should head-to-head tiebreakers come into play (it gets complicated when three or more teams are tied for a wild-card spot), the Ravens would be on the short end of the stick against the Chargers. They cannot afford to fall into a similar position with the Dolphins -- a loss this week would essentially leave them two games back of both Miami and San Diego with three games to play.
There’s also the matter of the AFC North race. Cincinnati holds a 1.5-game lead there but is far from out of the woods. The Bengals’ finishing stretch: Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Denver, at Pittsburgh. That slate is tough enough to keep hope alive that the 7-5 Ravens can steal the division if they make it to 11 wins.
But the margin for error in all of this is razor thin. San Diego holds the AFC’s No. 5 seed at 8-4, and six teams are tied at 7-5. Any margin for error the Ravens may have had left town with the Chargers.
Doug Farrar: Arizona. The Cardinals will welcome the Chiefs to their home turf this Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS), and it could just as easily be argued that Andy Reid's team needs this game to stay in the playoff hunt as much as Bruce Arians' team does. But Arizona is in trouble right now after being manhandled by the Seahawks two weeks ago and flat-out embarrassed by the Falcons last Sunday. All of a sudden, that 9-1 team that was the toast of the league is a banged-up 9-3 squad with Seattle breathing down its neck. The most important player for Arians is quarterback Drew Stanton; he must keep things together and avoid mistakes against Kansas City's aggressive pass defense.
The best defense in the NFL is ...
Burke: I still think the honor belongs to Seattle, and we’re starting to see why of late, although a trip to Philadelphia this Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) will put the Seahawks to the test.
Any discussion of the Seahawks' defense begins in the secondary. Just take a look at what that group has done since mid-October: the only team with more than 200 yards passing on Seattle in the past seven weeks was the Giants, in a 21-point Seahawks win. San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick barely made it to 100 yards through the air -- 121, to be exact -- and he was sacked four times last Thursday.
Brandon Mebane’s injury makes it look even more like running the ball is the way to go against Seattle. Except only Jamaal Charles has had success in that regard recently; the Raiders, Giants, Cardinals and 49ers have averaged 54.75 yards on the ground against the Seahawks in the last four weeks.
Farrar: Seattle. The Seahawks' formerly dominant defense struggled early in the season as injuries took their toll, but the unit is rounding into form at exactly the right time. With the return of cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Bobby Wagner, Seattle has 10 of its 11 Week 1 starters available on defense, and veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams has done a great job filling in for the seemingly indispensable Brandon Mebane, who is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. The 2014 version of the Legion of Boom limited the Cardinals and 49ers to three points each in a five-day stretch over Weeks 12 and 13, and the work put in by Maxwell and Richard Sherman over the last four weeks deserves special mention.
Per Pro Football Focus, Maxwell has allowed an opponent passer rating of 45.8, and Sherman has allowed a passer rating of 12.5. Between them, Sherman and Maxwell have three picks and have allowed no touchdowns in that stretch. Granted, it was against Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Drew Stanton and Colin Kaepernick, but you play who you play, and it's clear that the Seahawks' total defense -- which propelled the franchise to its first Super Bowl win last season -- looks very much like it did then. And that makes this team one that nobody wants to face right now. The real test will come this Sunday, on the road, against Philadelphia's high-volume offense.
True or false: Johnny Manziel will play meaningful snaps for Cleveland in Week 14
Burke: False. If there ever was an opening for Mike Pettine to make a switch at quarterback, this was it. He pulled Brian Hoyer for Manziel last Sunday, then had a full week to give Manziel starter reps before playing Indianapolis (1:00 p.m. ET, CBS).
Instead, the Cleveland head coach did what he’s done since the summer and backed Hoyer.
The Browns are almost going out of their way to keep Hoyer as their No. 1 guy. He might be able to find some success early this week, too, against a 25th-ranked Colts pass defense that could be without standout corner Vontae Davis. If the game is remotely close, Pettine won’t send in Manziel.
Farrar: False. Mike Pettine has made his choice to stick with Brian Hoyer, and I don't think that anything short of a total meltdown by Hoyer (which is possible, given the way he's played over the last few weeks) will put Manziel in the game. The Browns are playing the Colts this Sunday, and it's anticipated that cornerback Vontae Davis will either be out or very limited with a concussion. Indy's pass defense is a pale imitation without Davis at full go. In a larger sense, Pettine has to stick with one quarterback or the other; switching between Hoyer and Manziel whenever the other guy struggles is not the way to operate a team that might actually sneak into the playoffs.