has the Panthers
on the rise. But can they weather a tough second-half schedule? (Gary Bogdon/SI)
A few of the NFL's division races (particularly in the AFC) might be wrapped up before we reach late December -- the Colts, Patriots and Bengals all hold two-game leads through Week 9 of the season.
There still figures to be a boatload of drama down the stretch. Of the NFL's 32 teams, 21 are either in playoff position or within one loss of their conference's top six. Every NFC race is either tied up top or features a one-game gap between first and second place. All of that is promising news for NFL fans hoping for some nail-biting action in November and December.
Eight weeks remain in the regular season, which wraps just three days before the calendar flips to 2014. What's on tap between now and then? Let's take a look at 12 storylines to follow as the season heads toward its exciting conclusion:
• Have Cam Newton's Panthers arrived?: Maybe it is because the 2012 QB draft class stormed the NFL with such vigor, but it does feel like Cam Newton has been around the league longer than two and a half years. Nevertheless, Panthers fans have been waiting for Newton's big breakthrough ... and this could be it.
Newton has been locked in over the Panthers' current four-game win streak, backed by the league's No. 2 defense. Carolina sits just a game back of New Orleans in the NFC South, with two games left against the Saints.
Here's the rub: The Panthers have played an easier schedule to date than any other team. Their closing stretch is much more formidable, starting Sunday in San Francisco. They'll have to earn Newton's first playoff berth.
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• Has Michael Vick played his last game in Philadelphia?: (Alternate title: Is Nick Foles about to take off as the Eagles' QB?)
Foles is coming off one of the great performances in NFL history: 22-for-28 passing for 406 yards and a record-tying seven TD passes at Oakland. His prior outing: 11-for-29 for 80 yards and no points. Chip Kelly ought to be more excited about the former performance than he is worried over the latter. Foles -- with 13 TDs to zero interceptions this year -- has proven quite capable of operating Kelly's intricate offense.
So what does that mean for Vick? Well, with his contract up at the end of this year, probably nothing too promising. Foles might be the future in Philadelphia; Vick almost assuredly is not.
Still, with the Eagles just a game out of first in the NFC East and Foles having dealt with his own injury issues this year, could Kelly go back to Vick at some point down the stretch?
• When will the Chiefs lose?: If the Chiefs do make it to 16-0, all those arguments about the difficulty of their schedule will be out the window. Over the season's final seven weeks, Kansas City plays Denver twice, San Diego twice, Indianapolis and has a back-to-back at Washington and Oakland. Only the Redskins and Raiders are below .500, while the Broncos are breathing down the Chiefs' necks for first in the AFC West.
Keeping the Broncos at bay ought to be goal No. 1 for Kansas City. With the spectacular home-field advantage the Chiefs enjoy, having the AFC playoffs roll through Arrowhead could be the difference between a really nice year and a trip to the Super Bowl.
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• When will the Buccaneers and Jaguars win?: We're halfway to that answer being "in 2014." Both have winnable games remaining, at least in theory -- Tampa Bay at home against Miami, Buffalo and reeling Atlanta, and on the road at St. Louis; Jacksonville at Houston, at Cleveland, plus home against Houston and Buffalo.
However, it's possible that the Buccaneers and Jaguars will be underdogs in every game the rest of the way, meaning it'll take an upset to avoid 0-16. The obvious subplot in the plummet to the bottom: Whichever team finishes 32nd in the NFL's overall standings gets the No. 1 pick, and first choice between Teddy Bridgewater, Jadeveon Clowney, possibly Marcus Mariota and others. (In the event of a tie, since the two teams do not play each other, the team that finishes with the lowest strength of schedule would get the No. 1 spot.)
• When will Aaron Rodgers play again?: The timetable for Rodgers' return from a fractured collarbone is murky -- somewhere between three and six weeks is the anticipated window. That's a substantial gap for a team fighting for its postseason life while stuck in a three-way tie for first in the NFC North.
The Packers' Thanksgiving Day game with the Lions falls about 3.5 weeks from the day Rodgers injured his shoulder. Their second showdown with Chicago does not take place until Dec. 29, beyond that six-week prognosis. Rodgers should be ready to go well before that game with the Bears, but will there be anything left to play for by then?
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• Will the Broncos be the most prolific offense in NFL history?: Denver scored 343 points in its first eight games, an average of 42.9 per contest. That pace extended out over the full season would put the Broncos at 686 points -- 97 more than the 2007 Patriots' record mark of 589.
Doable? It may depend on how Denver fares in two games with Kansas City's top-ranked defense. So far, the Broncos' lowest point total in a single game is 33 during a Week 7 loss at Indianapolis. Even if they averaged 33 points per game in Weeks 10-17, they'd break the Patriots' mark by more than two touchdowns.
• Are the Jets really a playoff team?: Sort of incredible to even have this conversation considering the Jets' preseason outlook. But the Jets would be off to Indianapolis for a wild-card round game if the playoffs started today.
Step one for New York is stopping its current trend of alternating wins and losses, which has gone on all season. The last victory was a stunner: 26-20 over the Saints. And this next stretch could be make or break -- the Jets head to Buffalo and Baltimore, before hosting 4-4 Miami.
• Will Michael Strahan's sacks record fall?: The magic number is 22.5, Strahan's sack total from 2001. A few weeks ago, it looked as if several players might challenge the mark. Now but one (Indianapolis' Robert Mathis, at 11.5 sacks through eight games) is on pace to reach that height.
Kansas City's Justin Houston and Buffalo's Mario Williams both have 11 sacks in nine games, while St. Louis' Robert Quinn is on 10. A couple of multi-sack games here and there could pull any of those players back onto Strahan Watch, but it's the Mathis Show right now.
• Will any coaches be fired before the end of the year?: It seems unlikely, as we're through that portion of the schedule where franchises often make this move in hopes of saving the season. However, several guys could be headed toward the ax on "Black Monday" -- the day after the regular season ends.
Tops on the list are Minnesota's Leslie Frazier, Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano and possibly Miami's Joe Philbin, depending on where the recent Jonathan Martin story leads. Mike Smith (Atlanta), Jason Garrett (Dallas) and Mike Munchak (Tennessee) also might not feel too comfortable if their respective teams miss out on the playoffs.
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• Which return will be more important: Michael Crabtree's or Percy Harvin's?: The answer here could determine who wins the NFC West, as well as which team comes out of this conference to get to the Super Bowl.
Crabtree developed into Colin Kaepernick's favorite weapon down the stretch and in the postseason last year. His return coinciding with the 49ers finding a little rhythm on offense could make for an explosive combination. Harvin, meanwhile, has yet to actually play a game for the Seahawks following an offseason trade, but they're hopeful that he can open up their offense in previously unavailable ways.
Circle Dec. 8 on your calendars. On that Sunday, the Seahawks visit San Francisco for the second of two regular-season meetings between these teams (Seattle won the first). Both Crabtree and Harvin are expected to be on the field by then.
• Who will claim home-field advantage?: The Chiefs are undefeated at home (and everywhere). The Seahawks have not lost at CenturyLink Field since Week 16 of the 2011 season. Will the road to the Super Bowl be as simple as Kansas City and Seattle holding serve?
Maybe not, but you can bet that both those teams would feel much more comfortable in front of their raucous home crowds. Several other teams remain in the mix for the top two playoff seeds -- New England and New Orleans currently sit in second place in the AFC and NFC, respectively; neither of those teams have lost at home yet either.
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• How much will be on the line in Week 17?: Credit the NFL schedule-makers for sticking with the intra-division matchups on the season's final Sunday. Once again, we appear headed toward some critical showdowns that afternoon.
As things stand right now, 11 games would feature teams in playoff position, with a couple others (Green Bay at Chicago, Washington at the Giants, Houston at Tennessee) lurking as potentially make-or-break outings for at least one of the teams involved. No doubt there will be shuffling in the standings between now and then, but the races are close enough that there ought to be plenty left to play for on Dec. 29.
And could the Cowboys
' shot at a division crown hang in the balance for the third straight season? Dallas has missed out on an NFC East title and playoff berth thanks to Week 17 losses each of the past two seasons. Its foe this year? Philadelphia, which currently sits in second place, one game back.