Friday December 2nd, 2011

Tyler Palko's days as the starting quarterback in Kansas City could be numbered. (John W. McDonough)

Given how deep we are into the NFL season, there are a high number of teams scrambling to get their acts together. At least two playoff contenders (three, if you count the Chiefs) head into Week 13 with major quarterback issues looming over their heads.

Then there are teams like the Titans, Jets, Bills and Lions, who remain enigmas with just five games left to go. Are they playoff contenders or just plucky also-rans?

Sunday's action should help sort some issues out. Here's what to keep an eye on:

• Quarterback conundrums in Chicago

Will it be Tyler Palko or Kyle Orton for the Chiefs? That's the million-dollar question for Kansas City right now. Palko got the start against Pittsburgh last week, while Orton sat on the sideline in street clothes, just three days after being claimed off waivers. But with the Chiefs' chances dwindling -- they're three back of Oakland in the AFC West -- can they delay Orton's debut any longer?

Chicago missed out on Orton in the waiver process, leaving Caleb Hanie as the de facto starter with Jay Cutler shelved by a thumb injury. Perhaps predictably, Hanie struggled in his first start against the Raiders and Chicago lost. Can he bounce back against the Chiefs? Chicago still has trips to Denver and Green Bay on the schedule, so it can ill afford to drop this one at home.

• And speaking of quarterbacks ...

You have to feel a little sorry for the Houston Texans. This looked for all the world like their year to break through in the AFC. And while they may still take the AFC South and claim their first-ever playoff berth, the Texans don't look like the Super Bowl threat they did just a few weeks back.

Why? Well, first they lost starting QB Matt Schaub to a season-ending injury. Then they lost backup QB Matt Leinart to a season-ending injury. So now it's third-string rookie T.J. Yates, who has never started an NFL game. His first start won't be easy, either -- the Falcons head to Houston Sunday, very much in need of a win of their own.

• Desperate times for Titans and Bills

Neither Tennessee nor Buffalo finds itself in great playoff position heading in to Week 13. The Titans, at 6-5, are two games back of the Texans and one game outside a wild-card berth. Meanwhile, the 5-6 Bills are struggling to stay afloat in that wild-card race -- their division title hopes have set sail.

The loser to this Sunday matchup in Buffalo would be in a world of hurt (especially if it's the Bills). Those aforementioned trouble in Houston opened the door for Tennessee in the AFC South, and the Titans take on the Texans in Week 17, but they have to take advantage of the opportunity.

Mark Sanchez watch continues in Washington

Sanchez heard boos from his home fans last week, then rallied the Jets past Buffalo in a near must-win game. Now, he and the Jets hit the road to take on the disappointing Redskins. Washington's coming off a win in Seattle, but at 4-7 looks like the type of opponent the Jets should steamroll. Of course, those are precisely the games that have caused trouble for Sanchez in the past. A loss Sunday would be hugely damaging for New York's playoff hopes and would crank up the volume of the disgruntled Jets fans.

• AFC North playoff hopefuls clash in Pittsburgh

The AFC North currently holds three of six possible playoff bids in the conference, with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati trailing Baltimore in the division race but clinging to wild-card spots. What happens when the two teams meet in Pittsburgh Sunday will hold major ramifications in the playoff picture. A Pittsburgh win would put Cincinnati in danger of losing its hold on a playoff spot, but a Bengals victory would leave the Steelers in danger of missing the postseason.

• Green Bay, San Francisco can lock up division titles

It's a foregone conclusion that the Packers and 49ers reach the playoffs, but they can both make it official Sunday. Green Bay can lock up the NFC North with a win over the Giants and a Detroit loss in New Orleans, or losses by both the Bears and Lions. San Francisco just needs a win or tie at home against St. Louis to claim the NFC West.

Green Bay's task might be a little tougher. The Giants are wounded heading into Sunday's game in New York, but they ought to be desperate too. At 6-5, New York has slipped outside the playoff picture and also has fallen a game back of Dallas in the NFC East.

Ending Green Bay's perfect season and delaying the Pack's division crown would be a great way to turn things back around.

• Are you paying attention to the Cowboys yet?

Usually, Dallas cannot get out of the spotlight, no matter what happens. But for whatever reason this year, the Cowboys have flown under the radar. A four-game win streak, though -- albeit against four under .500 teams -- has propelled the 'Boys to first place in the NFC East. They get another mediocre opponent Sunday in Arizona, but no matter how it's happening, the Cowboys are closing in on a playoff berth.

• Expect plenty of offense in New Orleans

Both defenses will have their hands full in this one, especially the Lions, who learned Friday afternoon that Ndamukong Suh's appeal of a two-game suspension was denied. The Lions' banged-up secondary could be an easy target for the red-hot Drew Brees and his bevy of weapons. And on the other side of the ball, New Orleans has had its own trouble stopping the pass, meaning that Matthew Stafford could bounce back from a subpar Thanksgiving Day performance to hang some points on the Saints. He may not be able to keep up with Brees, but he's going to try.

• NFL not exactly saving the best for last

There are a lot of entertaining and meaningful games on the Week 13 schedule. Monday night's Chargers-Jaguars game doesn't look like one of them.

Jacksonville will be playing its first game without fired head coach Jack Del Rio; San Diego could be playing one of its last with the embattled Norv Turner. Perhaps no team in the league has been more disappointing than Turner's Chargers bunch, which had Super Bowl aspirations and now sits 4-7 and tied for last in the AFC West.

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