NFL Week 12 storylines: Leinart, Hanie in the spotlight
How quickly things can change in the NFL ...
The Texans appeared to be cruising toward a division title, only to lose starting QB Matt Schaub. Chicago, meanwhile, has been one of the NFL's hottest teams, but now must survive minus Jay Cutler.
The playoff picture is as muddled as ever, meaning that just about every game (save for Carolina-Indianapolis or Arizona-St. Louis) has added significance.
What to watch this weekend:
• Matt Leinart takes over in Houston
Given the current state of the AFC South, Matt Leinart might not need to do much to get Houston to a division title -- the Texans have a two-game lead on their only real threat, Tennessee. Sunday, Leinart makes his first start since 2009 and just his second in the past four years, as Houston heads to Jacksonville. Can he revive his career and admirably replace the injured Matt Schaub? Or will the Texans' promising season come crumbling down?
• Can Cincinnati get its season turned back around?
Sure, the Bengals played Pittsburgh and Baltimore tough in back to back weeks. But you know what? They also lost both those games, meaning that the Bengals are sitting at 6-4 and clinging to a wild-card spot in the AFC. A loss at home to Cleveland in Week 12 would be an absolute killer. With a trip to Pittsburgh up next week, followed by a home game against Houston, this Sunday falls in the "must win" category for Cincinnati.
• Reeling AFC East rivals meet in New York
For all their recent struggles, both the Bills and Jets find themselves just a game out of the playoff picture in the AFC. But it's hard to say either looks like a real contender at the moment -- Buffalo has been blown out twice in a row and lost three straight overall, while New York's riding a two-game skid of its own. Whichever team loses when these two collide Sunday probably can be scratched off the list of possible postseason guests.
• Titans turn back to Matt Hasselbeck
There's no doubt that Jake Locker is the future in Tennessee, a plan made more clear by the rookie's impressive relief effort at Atlanta last week. But it sounds like Locker's first start will have to wait, with Matt Hasselbeck recovering nicely from an elbow injury. Whomever gets the nod at QB, Tennessee needs him to come through -- the 5-5 Titans need to get hot, starting Sunday vs. Tampa Bay, if they hope to catch Houston in the AFC South.
• Caleb Hanie time in Chicago
The Bears did their best to reunite with Kyle Orton this week, in hopes that he could replace Jay Cutler as their starting QB. But with the Chiefs claiming Orton off waivers, Hanie, he of the zero career starts, is the man in Chi-town for the foreseeable future. His first test is a tough one: The Bears hit the road Sunday to battle AFC West-leading Oakland. A Chicago win, coupled with Detroit's Thanksgiving Day loss, would put the Bears in prime playoff position. A loss, though, could leave them on the outside looking in. And every game is big for Oakland, which will have one eye on the Broncos-Chargers matchup in San Diego.
• Will the Eagles pull off another surprise?
Every time we write them off for the season, the Eagles turn around and deliver a performance like they did last Sunday -- Philadelphia went into New York, in prime time, without Michael Vick and upset the Giants. Philadelphia needs to win out to have a shot at any postseason play, which means beating the Patriots Sunday. New England, though, has its sights set on the No. 1 seed in the AFC and brings a two-game win streak to Philadelphia. Whether Michael Vick or Vince Young starts at QB for the Eagles, he'll have his hands full.
• Chiefs look to keep hope alive
Kansas City's move to pick up Orton showed pretty clearly that the Chiefs still believe they can win the AFC West this season. But at 4-6 and already two back of Oakland, they cannot afford too many more defeats. Which brings us to Sunday, when K.C. will again turn to Tyler Palko at quarterback, as Pittsburgh comes to town. Palko had a miserable Monday night in New England last week, and the Steelers don't figure to be a much easier target. A Chiefs loss coupled with a Raiders win would push K.C. three back with five to play -- a tall mountain to climb, no matter who's under center.
• Monster NFC matchup on Monday night Week 12 closes with a critical showdown: The 6-4 Giants, losers of two straight, visit New Orleans, which is clinging to a one-game edge in the NFC South. The wheels are on the verge of coming off again in New York -- remember, the Giants were 5-0 in 2009 and 6-2 last year, and wound up missing the playoffs both times. The Saints certainly won't roll over for them. New Orleans again looks like the team to beat in their division, and with San Francisco up to two losses now, the 7-3 Saints can start dreaming of a first-round bye in the postseason.