III's ability to elude the Giants
' defense Monday may hold the key to what team wins the NFC East. (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)
The current scoreboard reads: Eli Manning 1, Robert Griffin III 0.
The Giants' two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback claimed victory in his first meeting with the Redskins' spectacular rookie, 27-23, back in Week 7. Griffin threw a costly interception late in the third quarter, but it's hard to pin too much of the blame for that Washington setback on him -- he completed 71.4 percent of his passes (20-for-28), put up 347 total yards (258 passing, 89 rushing) and posted a 108.9 QB rating.
Griffin is in even more of a groove now. Over the Redskins' last two games, wins against Philadelphia and Dallas, RGIII has thrown eight touchdowns and just one interception. Washington's offense, in turn, has averaged 34.5 points in those two victories, the latest a 38-31 triumph in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.
Monday, Griffin retakes the national stage for a critical game against the first-place Giants. New York currently holds a two-game lead in the NFC East but a tough closing stretch awaits (New Orleans, at Atlanta, at Baltimore, Philadelphia). Should the Giants lose Monday night to Washington, they'll have an extremely difficult time fending off the Redskins and Cowboys for the division title.
Griffin could put a huge stamp on his early NFL legacy, too, by dropping the defending champs in a must-win December ballgame.
It won't be easy. The Giants are coming off arguably their best performance of the season in a 38-10 rout of Green Bay, and Tom Coughlin's team has shown time and again that it thrives on adversity.
Manning vs. Griffin will be the obvious headliner Monday night. But even that matchup cannot overshadow how critical the game's outcome will be for the Giants, Redskins and the rest of the NFC.
The rest of Week 13's key storylines:
• Four division titles on the line.
For all the parity that the NFL can boast currently (25 of its 32 teams either hold a playoff position or are within no more than two games of a spot), the situations are slightly different in the AFC East, AFC North, AFC West and NFC South.
All four of those division races could be in the books by Sunday afternoon.
You can read more on the scenarios in play here, but the Patriots and Broncos need only to win their games this weekend to be crowned division champs; Baltimore and Atlanta (which already knocked off New Orleans) need a little more help.
The Texans, meanwhile, cannot sew up the AFC South due to a pair of remaining games against Colts. But they, too, can join the playoff party officially before Sunday's out.
• Big Ben: Will he play?
Maybe a more appropriate question is: Should Ben Roethlisberger play? Either way, at this point, the answer looks like no.
Roethlisberger's status for Sunday's key Steelers game in Baltimore has been up in the air all week, with reports Friday indicating that Pittsburgh's quarterback is highly unlikely to suit up. He is just three weeks removed from suffering serious injuries to his shoulder and ribs -- Byron Leftwich replaced him in a Week 11 loss to the Ravens, only to fracture multiple ribs himself.
Even with a win, the Steelers' chances of catching the Ravens in the AFC North are slim. And no matter what happens, Pittsburgh will control its destiny over the season's final four weeks (San Diego, at Dallas, Cincinnati, Cleveland). So, is it worth exposing a wounded Roethlisberger to the NFL's hardest-hitting rivalry?
• The Colin Kaepernick Era, Week Three.
Alex Smith said this week that "it sucks" to have lost his starting job in San Francisco while out with a concussion. That may be true, but 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh almost has no choice but to ride the hot hand of Colin Kaepernick right now, including Sunday in St. Louis.
Kaepernick stepped into the starting lineup in Week 11 and delivered a dazzling performance against the Bears. One week later, he outdueled Drew Brees in New Orleans. Smith's ready if the 49ers need him again, but right now, their offense is firing on all cylinders.
• So, about those Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman suspensions ...
Word leaked last Sunday that Seattle cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman faced four-game suspensions for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. However, both Browner and Sherman are set to be in the lineup Sunday when Seattle visits Chicago in an important NFC matchup.
How? Well, the two Seahawks have maintained their innocence -- according to reports, they tested positive for Adderall, a banned substance. Because of that, they both appealed the four-game suspensions, delaying their possibly punishments.
The NFL plans to hear those appeals next week. Seattle, then, could be without its top two cornerbacks for the final four weeks of the regular season. Browner and Sherman will be there for Week 13, though, as the 6-5 Seahawks try to hold on to their wild-card spot.
• The NFC East's other key game.
The Giants-Redskins showdown ought to close the NFL's week in style. About 24 hours before, the Cowboys and Eagles will have their shot on national TV, with host Dallas desperately in need of a victory.
The Cowboys sit at 5-6, even with the Redskins and two back of the Giants in the NFC East. To keep their division title (and maybe even their wild-card) hopes alive, they cannot afford a slip-up against a banged-up and skidding Philadelphia squad.
• Will any team take control of the wild-card races?
Indianapolis and Green Bay are atop the wild-card ladders in the AFC and NFC, respectively, as the only non-division leaders to reach the seven-win plateau so far. Is anyone else ready to join them there?
Only two other teams in the AFC's wild-card race even have above-.500 records (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, both 6-5); there are just three teams there in the NFC (6-5 Seattle, Tampa Bay and Minnesota). By the end of Sunday, two 6-6 teams could be in postseason position, should everyone in the hunt continue to stub their toes.
That's why the door has yet to be closed on teams like the Chargers and Saints, who sit with seven losses, and why the Redskins, Cowboys and even Dolphins (vs. New England) have such key contests this week.
The playoff cut line may wind up settling at 9-7 or 8-8 -- giving plenty of teams life as we head down the stretch.