Ready the scenario generator: Week 13 offers a few top teams the chance to secure their places in the playoffs. Although the Patriots dropped from the ranks of the unbeaten in Week 12, they join the 11–0 Panthers with clear paths to locking up their respective divisions by the end of Sunday’s action. Both win their division with one more victory, but there’s plenty of intrigue within the rest of the day’s action, as several teams with wild-card aspirations meet to help whittle down the playoff field.
Welcome to The Playbook, where Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 13 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 Tecmo Super Bowl upset prediction.
Seahawks at Vikings (1:00 p.m. ET, FOX)
OK, perhaps that’s simplifying the stats too much. But take Rawls’s whopping 5.6 yards per carry average and extrapolate it out to Peterson’s 237 carries, and we get 1,327 yards through Week 12—a number that easily tops Peterson’s current total of 1,164.
Even if you’re of the belief that Rawls would have slowed down at some point with that workload, the Seahawks will be quick to reassure you of just how valuable their undrafted rookie back has been. Heck, Rawls is just 109 rushing yards behind Todd Gurley, who remains among the Offensive Rookie of the Year front-runners.
Kam Chancellor called Rawls “a little baby Marshawn [Lynch]” a couple weeks ago, per the Seattle Times. Rawls actually has been better this season, by a significant margin, than his veteran backfield mate. Minnesota may load up to stop him, but Russell Wilson also comes in scorching hot. He has eight touchdown passes in Seattle’s last two games, five of them coming against Pittsburgh in Week 12.
Those eight touchdowns match Teddy Bridgewater’s total for the entire year. The second-year quarterback has just one multi-passing touchdown game (Week 7 vs. Detroit) and most weeks has found himself under siege behind porous protection.
Fortunately for the Vikings, Peterson is available to shoulder as much responsibility as is required. He’s currently top in the league in rushing attempts, yards per game and total yards from scrimmage, as well as rushing yards. Peterson has hit the century mark in four of Minnesota’s last five games, and the Vikings have won each time he’s done so this season.
While its secondary has struggled off and on, though, Seattle mostly has held its own against opponents’ ground games. The Seahawks are allowing just 3.8 yards per attempt and a mere 92.9 yards per outing.
Can Bridgewater save the day if Peterson is held in check? Will the Vikings’ offensive line even give its quarterback a chance in that hypothetical?
We’ll see, but both Seattle and Minnesota would prefer to carve up chunks of yardage on the ground, just as they have all year long. —CB
Panthers at Saints (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
We knew the Saints’ defense was all kinds of awful—that’s why defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was recently fired, with Dennis Allen tasked to take his place, at least through the rest of the 2015 season. But the extent to which Sean Payton’s offense was shut down last Sunday in a 24–6 loss to the Texans should be worry the Saints beyond 2015.
J.J. Watt, mic’d up for the game, trash-talked New Orleans’s entire offensive line, and he had reason to. Brees was pressured from everywhere, completing just 25 of the 44 passes he attempted for 228 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, and the Saints managed just 268 yards of total offense. Brees completed four of the 13 passes he attempted 10 yards or more downfield, and just one of the passes he attempted against the blitz. It was the first time the Saints hadn’t scored a touchdown in a game since Payton and Brees came to the Crescent City in 2006.
Now, the Saints welcome the 11–0 Panthers and their stout defense to the Superdome, and if you think Houston’s rejuvenated defense presents a problem, here come Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short ready to finish what Houston started. A lot has changed since the Saints nearly upset Carolina in Week 3, when New Orleans was driving for the win before Norman picked off backup quarterback Luke McCown in the end zone with 1:09 left. That was a watershed game for the Panthers: Their defense came together, and Cam Newton really started to show his ability to read defenses and throw the ball all over the field.
Two months later, Norman may be the best cornerback in football, Newton is a legit MVP candidate and the Panthers are the NFL’s lone undefeated team. The Saints will need everything in their quivers to end that streak—and their quivers are fairly bare these days. —DF
Colts at Steelers (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
The Colts certainly do not need to be reminded of their last trip to Heinz Field. It occurred just last October, and it featured Ben Roethlisberger slinging the ball around for 522 yards and six touchdowns in a 51–34 Steelers win.
Big Ben put on a similar show a week ago in Seattle: 456 yards and a touchdown. However, he left that game with a concussion, putting his status for Sunday in a bit of doubt. Assuming he plays, the Colts have to come up with a better way to slow the Steelers’ passing attack.
It won’t be easy. Roethlisberger has at his disposal Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Week 12 star Markus Wheaton (nine catches for 201 yards), as well as running back DeAngelo Williams. The latter has been so effective that the impact of Le’Veon Bell’s season-ending injury has paled in comparison to what happened when he sat out the 2014 playoffs.
The Colts have their work cut out for them. They also have to like their chances, at least based on their recent run of play. The AFC South co-leaders picked themselves up by the bootstraps with a Week 9 upset of Denver, then followed that up by downing Atlanta and Tampa Bay the past two weeks. They forced the Falcons into four turnovers; they sacked Jameis Winston five times.
Meanwhile, the Colts’ offense has a little bit of a Cinderella story cooking. Forty-year-old Matt Hasselbeck led the way to those victories over Atlanta and Tampa Bay, just as he did in earlier wins against Jacksonville and at Houston. He picked apart the Bucs to the tune of 315 yards and two touchdowns, as Indianapolis rallied in the second half.
Pittsburgh’s defense has been better this season than it was in 2014, but it remains vulnerable. To wit: The 39 points Seattle racked up on the Steelers last Sunday. The Colts may not come out firing in a hurry-up offense, but they should be able to take some downfield shots here or there. Pay particular attention to how well Pittsburgh tracks Hasselbeck when he rolls off play-action.
The Colts are in the playoffs as of now, clinging to first place in the AFC South. The Steelers are on the outside looking in following that loss to Seattle. The roles could reverse if Indianapolis lets Roethlisberger loose again. —CB
49ers at Bears (1:00 p.m. ET, FOX)
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio swears this is just another game for him, but you can bet he’ll dial up a little something extra for his old team. Fangio has done a brilliant job with Chicago’s defense this season, which could be bad news for the 49ers and QB Blaine Gabbert. To his credit, Gabbert mostly has been better than anyone expected since taking over for Colin Kaepernick.
The Bears are coming off a stunning Thanksgiving night upset of Green Bay, one that came in spite of a second straight sluggish performance from their banged-up offense. Don’t count on a repeat now that WR Alshon Jeffery is healthy again. —CB
Texans at Bills (1 p.m., CBS)
The Texans are hot, especially on defense—they’ve won their last four games and haven’t allowed a touchdown in three of those games. J.J. Watt is playing at his usual level, but there are other players stepping up now, and Houston looks like an outside playoff contender at this point. The same cannot be said for the Bills, who at 5–6 are just trying to maintain in the AFC East. The key to this matchup will be how well Houston's defense can keep Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor under wraps. If Taylor gets the deep ball going to Sammy Watkins, that Texans resurgence might not last too long. —DF
The quadrennial Battle for the Meadowlands carries the weight of dueling playoff hopes, just as it did in 2011—the Giants beat the Jets that year and won the NFC East at 9–7; the Jets missed a wild-card spot by a game. Both teams are within an eyelash of postseason position this time around, too.
How well the Giants bounce back from a tough Week 12 loss to Washington could depend on their lethargic pass rush and NFL-worst pass defense. The Jets are limited mainly to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker through the air (no one else has 200 yards receiving this season), but they are balanced on offense and can be explosive at times. —CB
Bengals at Browns (1 p.m., FOX)
Say this for the Browns: They do find some interesting and agonizing ways to lose games. Monday’s blocked field goal returned for a touchdown at the hands of the Ravens was a new one, and now here come the Bengals, fresh off a 31–7 shellacking of the Rams. With starting quarterback Josh McCown out for the rest of the year, it’s now on backup Austin Davis to keep things rolling as well as they will roll for Cleveland these days. The Bengals should procure an easy win—the only drama in this game might be the ongoing calls for Johnny Manziel to return to the field. —DF
Falcons at Buccaneers (1 p.m., FOX)
Quick, which quarterback would you rather have in your team’s starting lineup for the rest of 2015: Matt Ryan or Jameis Winston? If everyone is being honest here, the majority might go with Winston, which speaks to a) the rookie’s rapid development this season and b) Ryan’s extended downslide.
The Falcons haven’t topped 21 points in any of their past six games, including a 23–20 home OT loss to the Bucs in Week 8. Tampa Bay forced four turnovers in that game. Running back Devonta Freeman’s return will boost Ryan & Co., but Tampa Bay has its own rushing dynamo—free agent-to-be Doug Martin is over 1,000 yards for the season. —CB
Cardinals at Rams (1 p.m., FOX)
The Rams have a penchant for making things difficult for teams better than them, which is what they did to the Cards in Week 4 with a 24–22 win. That was a breakout game for rookie running back Todd Gurley, who rushed for 144 yards in the second half alone and turned Arizona’s usually stout defense into Swiss cheese. The Rams haven’t been using Gurley much during their current four-game losing streak, and the calls for Jeff Fisher’s job have increased. To beat the Cards again and stem that tide, a heaping helping of Gurley is the best way to go. —DF
Broncos at Chargers (4:05 p.m., CBS)
When the NFL released its 2015 schedule, the Chargers’ final five weeks set up beautifully for a final charge at the AFC West title. They still have four games left within the division, including two with Denver.
Alas, San Diego’s season long ago went off the rails, so it’s reduced to playing spoiler. First up in the home stretch: the Brock Osweiler-led Broncos. They’re flying high off a comeback win over New England, sparked by their new quarterback and a reinvigorated rushing attack. The latter figures to be key. San Diego cannot stop the run (26th in rush defense), nor can it generate anything on the ground itself (30th in rush offense). If Denver dominates in the trenches, Osweiler could enjoy a breezy afternoon. —CB
Chiefs at Raiders (4:05 p.m. CBS)
Is any team hotter than the Chiefs right now? They’ve put up five straight wins, edging back from a 1–5 start to create a spot for themselves as potential playoff contenders. A surprising component to that comeback has been Alex Smith’s deep ball. Usually reticent to sling the ball down the field, Smith completed four of five passes longer than 20 yards in the air for two touchdowns against the Bills last Sunday, and Oakland’s defense doesn’t present that same challenge. It may be up to Derek Carr to match Smith deep ball for deep ball in this exciting AFC West matchup.
Eagles at Patriots (4:25 p.m., FOX)
The only thing worse than Philly’s pass defense right now is Philly’s pass defense against a hyper-motivated Tom Brady, which is what Brady will most certainly be after his Patriots suffered their first loss of the season against the Broncos last Sunday night. Brady is very short on targets these days, a situation exacerbated by Rob Gronkowski's knee bruise/sprain. But no matter who takes the field to catch the ball from Brady, Bill Davis’s Eagles defense will be challenged as they have been all season to stop any aerial game. A few missteps, and Philly could extend its two-game streak of 45 points and five touchdown passes allowed.
Cowboys at Redskins (Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Kirk Cousins’s numbers during Washington’s ongoing five-game home win streak are incredible: 127 of 167 passing (76%) with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. He, and his team, have been far less productive on the road, but that’s a worry for next week. With Brandon Weeden at the helm, the Cowboys’ offense isn’t capable of keeping pace in a shootout, so the Dallas defense will have to keep Cousins in check.
Washington’s run game also has been much more productive at FedEx Field, which could be the Cowboys’ real issue. Their defense is top 10 against the pass, but it has allowed 100-plus yards in seven games this year.—CB
Only for the masochists
Jaguars at Titans (1 p.m., CBS)
The Jaguars’ home loss to San Diego last week means that this matchup has far more significance for the 2016 draft than the '15 playoffs. Tennessee (2–9) currently holds the No. 1 overall pick. The AFC South rivals met just two weeks back: a 19–13 Jacksonville win on Thursday night. —CB
Ravens at Dolphins (1 p.m., CBS)
RyanTannehill’s regression and the general malaise of Miami’s offense led to the firing this week of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and the promotion of quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. Any port in a storm will do for a team that has dropped four of its last five games, and the Ravens’ vulnerable secondary might be the ticket to at least short-term gains for the Dolphins. —DF
• Raiders quarterback Derek Carr’s most glaring weakness in his rookie season of 2014 was an inability to throw the deep ball for consistent completions, but he has cleared that up in 2015 with the help of a massively improved receiving corps. Against the Titans last Sunday, Carr completed nine of 16 passes that went 10 yards or more in the air for 223 yards.
• What’s the key to Matt Hasselbeck’s success as the Colts’ quarterback in place of the injured Andrew Luck? Quick throws. Per Pro Football Focus charting, he’s getting the ball out in an average of 2.4 to 2.5 seconds, a good half-second quicker than Luck. That’'s a must when delivering the ball behind Indy’s porous offensive line.
• For a young quarterback, Brock Osweiler certainly has a knack against the blitz. Last Sunday night, Denver’s new field general completed six of 10 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown when New England brought extra pressure. —DF
Player with the most to prove
Scott Chandler, TE, Patriots. The news on Rob Gronkowski’s injury was about as positive as New England could have hoped—a bruised/sprained knee and a week-to-week outlook. While he’s out of the lineup, Chandler stands to become the Patriots’ go-to target at tight end. Based on what they’ve gotten from their free-agent signing in 2015, that could be problematic.
Chandler has just 19 catches for 198 yards and three TDs this season, numbers stunted by Gronkowski’s extreme usage but disappointing nonetheless. Tom Brady has completed just 55.8% (19 of 34) of the passes thrown Chandler’s direction this season. Gronkowski’s catch rate is 61.9% (57 of 92), and Brady is completing 65.2% of his passes overall. —CB
Underrated player to watch
Seahawks center Patrick Lewis. Seattle’s coaches were on the fence about Lewis in the preseason, and assistant head coach Tom Cable, who controls the offensive line, preferred to go with former defensive lineman Drew Nowak to start the regular season. But a huge part of Seattle’s massive line issues early in 2015 had to do with Nowak’s relative inexperience with line and protection calls, which put too much burden on Russell Wilson and threw the offense out of balance. Lewis replaced Nowak against the Panthers in Week 6 but was sidelined with ankle and knee injuries.
It wasn’t until Week 11 against the 49ers that Lewis began to start consistently, and the results against San Francisco and Pittsburgh over the last two games have been transcendent. Wilson has played at an entirely new level, because he has reasonably good pass protection for the first time all season—his five-touchdown performance against the Steelers last Sunday was the best endorsement yet that the undrafted Texas A&M alum is the right man in the middle for the line.
“I think he has been a factor, because it’s the most obvious thing that’s really changed,” Pete Carroll said last week. “I don’t mind giving him credit for that. In general, it’s been a process of growth for the whole group. I think a lot of guys can go in there and fill in right now, and we could pop guys into the lineup if we had to. I think they would perform well also. I do think he’s been a factor, and I’m hoping that’ll continue to be a real positive for us.”
The Seahawks pretty much need to run the table to have any serious hope of a home playoff game, and they may have to slip in as a sixth-seed. At least with Lewis instead of Nowak (who was subsequently released and brought back on the practice squad), they have a shot at advancing on offense through the rest of the year.
Washington has been unstoppable at home of late, and Dallas is reeling after losing Tony Romo yet again. This should be a Washington win, right? If so, it would go against the franchise’s recent Monday Night Football history. In their last 15 home MNF games, the Redskins are 2–13, including a 27–17 loss to Seattle last year. —CB
Burke: Falcons and Buccaneers. Unofficially declaring the loser of this game toast in the playoff race. If the Buccaneers come up short, they would be sitting on seven losses, meaning they’d have to win out even to have a prayer at a wild card. A Falcons loss would be their sixth in seven games, dropping them to .500. They’d also be 0–2 against Tampa Bay (so long, head-to-head tiebreaker) and, oh yeah, face the first of two remaining games against Carolina in Week 14.
Farrar: Raiders. Oakland has been a great and unexpected story this season, but after dropping three of the last four games and beating the Titans on a call the league admitted should have gone the other way, it’s time for Jack Del Rio’s team to turn things around. Losing to the Chiefs and dropping to 5–7 overall (not to mention 1–2 in the division) is not a good look for the Raiders’ playoff hopes.
Tecmo Super Bowl 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:
And then there were none. One week after the Broncos knocked New England from the ranks of the unbeaten, our Tecmo Super Simulator calls for New Orleans to do the same to Carolina. The Saints’ virtual defense showed up in a big way here—anything close to a matching performance from its real-life counterpart would be a stunner. —CB