We had a full day of football to go along with our Turkey on Thanksgiving, but the Week 12 action picks up again on Sunday. With many teams' records languishing near .500, the must-watch games are few but necessary. Can QB Brock Osweiler, filling in for the still-injured Peyton Manning, keep Denver in the game against the undefeated team from New England on Sunday night? Will the Vikings take control of the NFC North with a win against the Falcons?
Welcome to The Playbook, where Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 12 and offer their viewing recommendations for your Sunday and Monday, along with numbers to know, matchups to watch around the league and, most importantly, a shocking Tecmo Bowl upset prediction.
Patriots at Broncos (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Quarterbacks? Sure, we can talk quarterbacks.
The visiting, 10–0 Patriots head out to Denver with arguably the best quarterback in NFL history, Tom Brady, somehow peaking again at age 38. The 8–2 Broncos are still missing their all-time great, Peyton Manning, so Brock Osweiler will make his second career start—he threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns in his first gig, last week at Chicago.
This game could come down to the defenses, though. New England, which is No. 1 in scoring and No. 2 against the run, up against Denver, which is No. 2 in scoring and No. 1 against the pass. The Patriots have to keep Brady clean against a stout Broncos pass rush, but Brady also has to figure out who is catching his passes. Dion Lewis is done for the year, Julian Edelman out until the playoffs, and both Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson left a Week 11 win early. (Dobson landed on I.R. this week.)
The Broncos, meanwhile, will cross their fingers and hope that the stage is not too big for Osweiler.
“We put a lot on [Osweiler's] plate last week,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said during a press conference this week. “It won't be any different this week as far as the load and what we do. It will be a little bit different for him because of what [the Patriots] do. These guys defensively do a great deal. You may practice against one thing all week and you may play against another, so that'll be a great test for him.”
It would certainly help Osweiler if Denver can establish the run like it did against Chicago. Ronnie Hillman carried 21 times for 102 yards in that win, with C.J. Anderson chipping in another 59 yards on the ground. The game marked just the fourth time this season that the Broncos have topped 100 total yards rushing.
New England held the Broncos to just 43 yards rushing in a 43–21 win last season, and that was with Manning under center. Neither of the Patriots' two leading rushers in that game (Jonas Gray and Shane Vereen) are still on the roster. Their run game now almost exclusively flows through LeGarrette Blount, who could be needed to pick up the slack if Brady's remaining pass-catchers fail to show.
But count on the Patriots to leave the game in Brady's hands. Will the Broncos do the same with Osweiler?—CB
Vikings at Falcons (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Vikings and Falcons have enjoyed good stretches of performance through the season, but both potential contenders are struggling to break out of the rank and file after recent defeats. The Falcons have lost three straight close games to the Buccaneers, 49ers and Colts, leaving them with a 6–4 record and no real shot at taking the NFC South over the undefeated Panthers. There have been questions about head coach Dan Quinn's Cover-3 base defense, as well as the consistency of quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw three picks against the Colts last Sunday—his fourth multi-interception game of the 2015 season. Ryan started the season looking very comfortable in Kyle Shanahan's offense, but either he or the scheme has regressed, and it's not working now.
“We've got a confident group in our locker room and guys that believe that we're going to be successful,” Ryan said after the 24–21 loss to the Colts last week. “We haven't been there the last three or four weeks, but it's a long haul. The one thing that I've learned in my career is that you have to be steady throughout the 16-game regular season because there are lot of ups. There are a lot of downs. If you get caught kind of on either end, it takes away from how you prepare.”
The Vikings had won five straight games—all against teams without winning records—before a 30–13 loss to the Packers brought Mike Zimmer's team back down to earth last week. QB Teddy Bridgewater was sacked six times, which was mostly the product of a porous offensive line that has been living on borrowed time all season.
This is the second in a series of games that will take Minnesota through a new level of challenges—the Falcons, Seahawks, Cardinals and Bears. This is the stretch where the 7–3 Vikings, who still lead the NFC North due to the Packers' recent inability to beat anyone but them, need a new level of consistency to prove that they're ready for the big time. Atlanta's relative paucity of quarterback pressure created should help Bridgewater, but he needs to bring more to the table, as well—especially against the more dynamic offenses Minnesota's defense will be facing from here on out.—DF
Rams at Bengals (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
This showdown looked a lot juicier a few weeks back. Both teams are skidding, though the situation is far more dire in St. Louis. A three-game losing streak has dropped the Rams to 4–6, all while coach Jeff Fisher has to answer claims that a) his team is dirty and b) he botched the handling of Case Keenum's concussion.
Cincinnati (8–2 after two straight losses) is banged up in the secondary. That might not matter Sunday—the Rams rank 31st in passing and their leading receivers have 31 catches and 341 yards, respectively. The Bengals would love to carry over the momentum they generated on offense last week: 31 points and 301 yards passing at Arizona.—CB
Saints at Texans (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Saints' decision to fire defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was the right move, though interim defensive coach Dennis Allen may not help much to turn the boat around, as he's been in charge of New Orleans' hole-filled coverages.
There are no such issues with the Texans at this point—defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has been dialing up plays that have Houston's defense playing at a very high level. Houston's problem, as it has been throughout Bill O'Brien's tenure as head coach, is with the quarterback position. Brien Hoyer is back from the NFL's concussion protocol to start, though he's been the highest participant over a very low bar with his performances. It will be up to Crennel and his men on that side of the ball to keep the game close.—DF
Giants at Redskins (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Washington is back in the comforts of home, where it has won four straight behind a lively offense. The results have not matched up on the road, hence a 4–6 record, but the stage is set for a run—the Redskins play three of their next four at FedEx Field.
There could be a cornucopia of points in this matchup. The Giants' defense ranks last in sacks (just 12 all season) and in passing yards allowed (309.9 per game); Washington has far better numbers through the air, but mainly because its D has permitted 136 rushing yards per game.—CB
Buccaneers at Colts (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Is there a hotter team than the Buccaneers now? Probably not, which is the bigger surprise. Tampa Bay stands at 5–5 (like most teams right now), after a 1–3 start in which the defense looked completely out of its depth. But rookie QB Jameis Winston has taken the team on his shoulders to an unexpected degree, and nothing has personified that more than his five-touchdown performance against the Eagles last week. While Winston won't have quite as easy of a time against Indy's middle-of-the-pack pass defense, there's certainly more momentum on the Bucs' side of the ball than there is for Lucas Oil Stadium's home team.
In their last two games, the Colts have beaten an undermanned Denver offense and a Falcons team at the crossroads. The team has won all three starts by backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, but the Colts are still vulnerable, and Hasselbeck doesn't handle the blitz very well. That could be the difference in this game.—DF
Bills at Chiefs (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Counting the unbeaten Patriots and Panthers, there has not been a hotter team over the past month than Kansas City. The Chiefs have ripped off four straight wins, two on either side of their Week 9, and enter this matchup off back-to-back runaway victories at Denver and San Diego. Their turnover margin in those four games: plus-12. In fact, Kansas City has committed just two turnovers since October began.
Cardinals at 49ers (4:05 p.m. ET, FOX)
It's still unclear exactly what 49ers CEO Jed York and Trent Baalke were thinking when they ran Jim Harbaugh out of town and replaced him with Jim Tomsula, but it didn't take long for York to throw his continued support behind his new head coach after his team was thrashed by the Seahawks last Sunday -- their third loss in their last four games. This doesn't look like a better outlook for anyone in the Bay Area -- the Cardinals are playing at an incendiary level on both sides of the ball, and Bruce Arians looks like he might pick up his third Coach of the Year award since 2012.—DF
Steelers at Seahawks (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
It feels like an odd thing to wonder if the Seahawks can come up with enough stops, but that's the situation headed into Sunday. Amid its usual moments of brilliance, Seattle's defense has been unusually beatable at times this season (see: a 39-32 loss to Arizona last week).
The Steelers will put that unit to the test. Ben Roethlisberger had the bye week to rest his foot after throwing for 379 yards vs. Cleveland. He has the dynamic Antonio Brown-Martavis Bryant combo alongside him, plus a resurgent DeAngelo Williams at running back. Pittsburgh also boasts an overachieving defense (No. 5 in scoring), so the Seahawks, saddled with an inconsistent O-line, cannot afford to get into a shootout. —CB
Only for the masochists
Dolphins at Jets (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
This divisional matchup is crucial for both teams, stuck as they are at the bottom of the AFC East. Right now, it's a three-way competition for New England's table scraps, and right now, neither team looks capable of challenging for more than that. The Jets have lost four of their last five games, and the Dolphins have dropped three of their last four after a brief motivational uptick under interim head coach Dan Campbell. The loser of this one might want to buy tickets for the playoffs.—DF
San Diego at Jacksonville (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
For the second consecutive week, the Jaguars—yes, the Jaguars—could pull into a first-place tie with a win and a little help. They have a good shot to hold up their end of the bargain, as the Chargers head in losers of six straight. —CB
Raiders at Titans (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
What in the name of Fred Biletnikoff has happened to the Raiders, once a potential playoff team? They've lost their last three games and stand at 4-6. The offense has lost its way, and the defense is not what it once was. Following a four-touchdown performance against the Steelers two games ago, Carr threw two picks against the Vikings and did very little against the Lions last week. If the Raiders can't get well against Tennessee, you can pretty much count them out of the playoff picture.—DF
Ravens at Browns (8:30 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN)
Matt Schaub! Josh McCown! We might finally have the Monday night matchup that tests Jon Gruden's enthusiasm. Technically, both teams remain alive in the playoff race. Realistically, the loser of this game comes out on top because of improved draft position. —CB
One reason the Patriots have a better defense than they've had in years (10th in defensive DVOA after 10 games, their highest mark since 2006, when they ranked seventh) is New England's ability to create pressure without blitzing. According to ESPN's Stats & Info, the Patriots have five sacks this season when sending three or fewer rushers, by far the most in the NFL. Last season, New England's nine sacks with three or fewer pass-rushers was the most for any team since at least 2006. Bill Belichick has established brilliant A-gap pressure schemes with his linebackers as well, but this is a hidden element to his team's recent defensive excellence.
Weird Split of the Week: At home this season, Jameis Winston has completed 96 of 170 passes for 1,217 yards, a 56.5 completion rate, with five touchdowns and eight interceptions. On the road, he's completed 87 of 144 passes for 1,188 yards, a 60.4% completion rate, 10 touchdowns and one pick. Last Sunday's five-touchdown performance against the Eagles obviously skewed the data, but the curious thing here is the picks Winston's thrown at home—two against the Titans in his NFL premiere, four against the Panthers on Oct. 4, and two against Dallas two weeks ago. The only pick he's thrown on the road was in Tampa Bay's third game of the season against Houston.
Weird Split of the Week, Part 2: Tennessee's Marcus Mariota, taken second overall in the 2015 draft after Winston, has an even more compelling series of home/road statistical oddities. When he's played at Nissan Stadium, Mariota has completed 85 passes in 133 attempts for 958 yards, a 63.9% completion rate, three touchdowns and six picks. Away from home, he's been one of the NFL's best quarterbacks in 2015, with 84 completions in 126 attempts for 1,068 yards, a 66.7% completion rate, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. What is it about home cooking for the rookie class that has them looking away from the friendly confines?—DF
Player(s) with most to prove
The Seahawks have yet to reveal (at least publicly) who will get the start opposite Richard Sherman on Sunday, but whoever it is figures to have his hands full. Either Sherman will track Antonio Brown and the Seahawks' other starting outside corner will draw Martavis Bryant, arguably the league's premier deep threat; or Sherman will try to lock down one side, forcing his CB counterpart to alternate between Bryant and the electrifying Brown.
Williams was benched for Shead last week, throwing the depth chart into some chaos. Lane is on track to be activated off the PUP list, too, adding another body into the mix.—CB
Underrated player to watch
Thomas Rawls, RB, Seahawks
He won't be underrated for long, as Marshawn Lynch's abdominal surgery will have Beast Mode out for about a month, if not longer—and this may point to the end of Lynch's time with Seattle, and even in the NFL altogether. Against the 49ers last Sunday, Rawls became the 15th rookie in NFL history to rush for more than 200 yards in a game. He also caught a touchdown pass, he's averaging six yards per carry on 101 carries, and he leads the league in yards after contact. The Central Michigan product is a perfect fit for Seattle's zone- and gap-blocking system, as questionable as it is due to sketchy personnel, because he has great ability to put his foot in the ground, make quick cuts and absolutely blast through gaps.—DF
The Cardinals have enjoyed three consecutive seasons with at least nine wins just once in their history, from 1974–76 (10 wins, 11, 10, respectively). They were the St. Louis Cardinals then, led by Hall of Fame finalist Don Coryell. A victory over San Francisco Sunday would give Arizona, winners of a combined 21 games in 2013–14, its best stretch since then. —CB
BURKE: Buffalo. The Bills just came out of a three-game AFC East gauntlet 2–1, their lone loss a hard-fought 20–13 setback in New England. They are solid, during a season in which many teams would kill for that rather neutral designation. But there may be no coming back from a loss Sunday in Kansas City if they're dreaming of a playoff spot.
Not only would a second straight loss drop them to 5–6, it would cost them the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Chiefs (who would be 6–5). The other current wild-card team, Pittsburgh, already has six wins on the season. Buffalo has a workable schedule beyond Sunday, but it would be in a sizable hole with another defeat.
FARRAR: Chiefs. Kansas City has won four straight games very much under the radar, putting their record at 5–5. If Andy Reid's team can take care of business against the Bills on Sunday, and the Broncos lose to the Patriots on Sunday night, they'd be just two games behind the Broncos with a season split already in the books.
Tecmo super upset of the week
We’re simulating the entire 2015 season using updated rosters on the classic Tecmo Super Bowl video game. (Download the game at TecmoBowl.org.) Each week, The Playbook will spotlight the most surprising result:
In a battle of two slumping teams, Tecmo Simulator 3,000 says it will be St. Louis that snaps out of it on Sunday. The surprise hero: Lance Kendicks. He has just 164 yards this season, but he racked up 142 yards in this stunner. —CB