New Orleans (9-2) at Seattle (10-1) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: This had the makings of a circle-your-calendar game before the NFL season started. Now that the NFC picture has cleared a bit, it's even more of one.
Realistically, all that stands between the Seahawks and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs is this game. Win and they would have to lose three of their last four to choke away that colossal postseason edge. That will be easier said than done.
The 9-2 Saints are but a game back in the race for the NFC's No. 1 seed ... but a mere game up on Carolina in the NFC South (somehow with two games still left against the Panthers). A road win Monday would jump the Saints to the head of the class, where they'd control their own destiny regarding home field.
How opposing defenses attack Drew Brees' passing game usually is the element to watch in any Saints game, but it's doubly so this week. Despite being ranked No. 2 against the pass, the Seahawks enter this one shorthanded in the secondary courtesy of suspensions for Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner.
Bet on Brees taking to the air early and often, then, be it to Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham or any number of players out of the backfield. Until the reworked Seattle secondary shows it can at least limit New Orleans, Brees ought to have the ball in his hands, with plenty of options in front of him. He's been in a bit of a groove lately, too, with seven touchdown passes to just one interception over the past three games, all wins.
Of course, both teams feature top-five offenses and defenses, so the result will not hinge on Brees alone. Russell Wilson has kept on keeping on this season, as he nears 3,000 total yards. Running back Marshawn Lynch also needs only 75 yards to hit 1,000 on the ground this season.
The Saints have held eight of their nine opponents under 20 points -- and they've won all of those games. What does defensive coordinator (and growing New Orleans legend) Rob Ryan have in store for the versatile Seahawks on a national stage? -- Chris Burke
Denver (9-2) at Kansas City (9-2) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: If you want a perfect indicator of just how quickly fortunes can change for NFL teams, look no further than the Chiefs and Broncos. When they met on Nov. 17, and the Broncos won 27-17, Denver was the AFC's unstoppable force, and the Chiefs were a great defense and running game without a quarterback who could make big plays. The following week saw the Patriots handle the Broncos in overtime, adding new concern to Peyton Manning's throwing velocity in cold weather, while the Chiefs lost to the Chargers despite one of Alex Smith's best-ever games.
Now, both teams are 9-2, and both are looking in the rear-view at New England when it comes to who will have home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. The Chiefs, who once lapped the league in quarterback sacks, are now tied with four other teams in that category because they've amassed just one quarterback takedown in their last three games. Losing outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston to injury in the Chargers game didn't help, but both men played against Peyton Manning two weeks ago, and neither got a hand on him all day. Andy Reid hopes to have Hali back for this game; Houston reportedly could miss the next 2-3 weeks.
The Broncos are dealing with their own injury issue -- running back Knowshon Moreno, who bashed New England's defensive line for 224 yards on 37 carries, is recovering from a significant bone bruise in his lower right leg. Having a power running game at Arrowhead would be of great benefit to the Broncos, but Manning might be eager to air it out -- the Chiefs had some uncharacteristic coverage breakdowns against San Diego, and it's possible that the needed balance between quarterback pressure and pass coverage is going askew in Kansas City.
"It's tough losing your Pro Bowl pass rushers with the way those guys dominate and get pressure," cornerback Brandon Flowers said after the game. "We had to change up a little here and there, but at the end of the day no matter who is out there, we have to stop the other team ... we have to go back to the drawing board and tighten up what we do."
If Peyton Manning sees an empty drawing board, he has no trouble creating his own particular masterpiece.
The Chiefs hoping that Alex Smith can make shot plays to make up for a leaky defense? Manning looking to the running game after an iffy start? Yes, the NFL can change more quickly than you think. -- Doug Farrar
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Arizona (7-4) at Philadelphia (6-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has yet to throw an interception this season. He's about to face his toughest test.
The Cardinals have 15 picks on the year (tied for third-best in the NFL) and have rolled to four straight wins on the strength of their opportunistic defense. During that run, no opposing offense has made it to 300 total yards. Philadelphia, averaging 453 yards during its own three-game win streak, ought to challenge the Cardinals in ways no team has since Arizona lost to San Francisco and Seattle on consecutive weekends.
But what of when Arizona has the ball? Lost in the Cardinals' unexpected playoff contention has been the steady improvement of Carson Palmer as the season has progressed. Palmer started the season with eight TD passes and 13 interceptions in Arizona's first seven games; he has eight touchdowns and just two interceptions in the four games since. Both Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald are threatening 1,000 yards receiving, with Fitzgerald leading the team at eight scores.
The Eagles have not surrendered more than 20 points in six games, but they still rank dead last in passing defense (300.1 ypg). And if Palmer lights things up, with some help from the Rashard Mendenhall-Andre Ellington run game, can Foles answer?
Finding a little space for LeSean McCoy against Arizona's stout run defense may be the key. McCoy stands as the NFL's lone 1,000-yard rusher for the moment -- he surpassed the mark two weeks ago with a 77-yard, two-TD showing vs. Washington. When Philadelphia has rushed for 100 yards or fewer, though, it's 0-3 this year.
Which team needs this one more? Hard to say. The Eagles can join Dallas atop the NFC East with a win; Arizona, at 7-4, sits just outside the wild-card race on account of a tiebreaker with San Francisco. There is the possibility that this is an opening-round playoff preview, since Philadelphia would be the 3- or 4-seed if it were to win the division crown and Arizona almost certainly will not wrestle the NFC West from Seattle.
Oh, and one more topic to chew on: Does the winning team here give its coach the inside track for Coach of the Year? -- CB
Tennessee (5-6) at Indianapolis (7-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Colts may have the inside track on the AFC South, but they have a host of issues to reconcile before the postseason. They've been outscored 93-9 in the first halves of their last four games and lost two of their last three contests by a combined score of 78-19. Inbetween those defeats at the hands of the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals was a 30-27 win over the Titans, the one team with half a shot at giving the Colts grief at the top of the division standings.
"There is blood in the water right now," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said after the loss to Arizona, in which the Cardinals defense outfoxed Andrew Luck, and Cards quarterback Palmer put up an AFC-Offensive-Player-of-the-Week performance against his defense. "Until you get it fixed they are going to keep coming at us. It is the same thing week in and week out on both sides of the ball and on special teams. ... They are going to keep coming at you until we put out the fire."
In that first Titans game, Indy started quite the blaze with a 14-0 deficit to start, before Pep Hamilton's offense turned things around by holding the ball on long drives and scoring points in relatively unspectacular fashion. A Colts team that has been underwhelming on the ground for the most part scored three rushing touchdowns -- two by Donald Brown and one by Luck, who didn't throw a passing touchdown in the game. Indy also shut Chris Johnson down in the second half, and it will need a repeat performance in that regard.
Through a series of mathematical miracles, Tennessee actually holds the sixth seed in the AFC playoff race. Ryan Fitzpatrick, subbing for the injured Jake Locker for the rest of the season, has thrown five touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last three games, proving that at his height, he's a game manager in the positive sense. To make things happen down the stretch, a Titans team that has lost four of its last five games will have to repeat the formula that worked against the Raiders last Sunday -- keep Fitzpatrick on point with manageable throws, find consistency in the running game and take advantage when their opponents make mistakes. Against the Colts, there's an additional caveat: remember that football games are 60 minutes long. -- DF
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Tampa Bay (3-8) at Carolina (8-3) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Their mirror-image records notwithstanding, the Panthers know that the Bucs are a tough out right now. Greg Schiano's team has won three straight after an 0-8 start, Mike Glennon is the league's best rookie quarterback, and Tampa Bay's defense has enough to give Cam Newton a Grade-A headache. The Panthers are winning the kinds of games they used to lose, but this is the kind of trap game that gives coaches headaches of their own. -- DF
Miami (5-6) at NY Jets (5-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The battle for second place in the AFC East also holds substantial importance in the conference's wild-card chase. And this is just the first of two meetings between these rivals in 2013 -- the second comes in Week 17. Lamar Miller and the Dolphins' run game has struggled in two of the past three weeks. A matchup with the Jets' top-ranked run defense doesn't figure to help matters, meaning Ryan Tannehill may have to get the job done himself. -- CB
Chicago (6-5) at Minnesota (2-8-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Speaking of upset alerts, how about Adrian Peterson against a Bears defense that ranks dead last in the NFL with 145.2 yards allowed per game? New head coach Marc Trestman seems to have the offense on lock whether it's Jay Cutler or Josh McCown at quarterback, but last Sunday's 42-21 loss to the Rams proves that Chicago can be vulnerable against power-based offenses with unimpressive quarterbacks. -- DF
St. Louis (5-6) at San Francisco (7-4) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: As intriguing an under-the-radar option as the Week 13 slate offers. The 49ers are clinging to the NFC's second wild card, while St. Louis has found some traction in recent weeks. San Francisco dominated an earlier matchup, 35-11 in St. Louis, but this is a better, more confident Rams team than the 49ers saw then. The Rams' upset bid will take a serious hit if rookie RB Zac Stacy is not cleared after suffering a concussion last week. -- CB
Cincinnati (7-4) at San Diego (5-6) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: This game's early pick-'em line confirms that distinguishing between these two inconsistent teams right now is darn near impossible. San Diego does have four (of its five) wins over teams currently tied for or in first place. And Cincinnati is just 2-4 away from home so far, with two OT losses on a recent road trip. Philip Rivers, with his 70.8-percent completion rate, will test Cincinnati's banged-up secondary. -- CB
Only For The Faithful
Jacksonville (2-9) at Cleveland (4-7) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Brandon Weeden will replace the concussed Jason Campbell as the Browns' starting quarterback, which is good news for a suddenly sparky Jags defense. Jacksonville has won two of its last three games, and Weeden has looked overwhelmed in nearly every one of his performances this season. -- DF
New England (8-3) at Houston (2-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Texans have deemed this their "Homecoming" game for 2013. Might not be too much celebrating going on. Houston's only hope of stopping a nine-game losing streak might be catching the Patriots on an emotional downswing after their dramatic win over Denver. -- CB
Atlanta (2-9) at Buffalo (4-7) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: Subjecting Canada to the Falcons offense and in-game strategy calls won't do much for relations between the two countries, but the Bills could benefit, as their defense has been on the upswing and quarterback EJ Manuel is starting to round into form after an injury-plagued early part of his rookie season. -- DF
NY Giants (4-7) at Washington (3-8) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Last season, these teams battled right down to Week 17 for the NFC East. This year? Both are all but done by Week 13. A Giants D that's played well for the past five games could be a tough draw for the ever-struggling Robert Griffin III. -- CB
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• Wondering why Chip Kelly named Nick Foles his starting quarterback for the rest of the season? Wonder no more. In November, Foles completed 51-of-72 passes for 932 yards, 10 touchdowns no interceptions. His subsequent 152.8 November passer rating is the NFL's all-time mark for any quarterback in a month -- ever. Foles has 16 touchdown passes this season, and he still hasn't thrown a pick.
Of course, Foles may have a tougher time against Arizona's defense this Sunday, and defensive lineman Calais Campbell is a primary reason. Campbell has been blowing up offensive lines all season in Todd Bowles' scheme at both end and tackle -- among players classified as 3-4 ends, only J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan have more total pressures than Campbell's 46.
• One trend we've seen more and more in recent years is the use of top receivers in the slot to create matchup nightmares against third cornerbacks, box safeties and linebackers. Among the leaders through Week 12 of this season: 202 of Larry Fitzgerald's 416 pass routes have come from the slot (48.6 percent), Brandon Marshall has lined up there on 196 of his 426 routes (45.9 percent) and even Calvin Johnson is spending a lot more time inside with 112 of his 421 routes (26.6 percent). Marshall is the most effective of the "X-iso" guys from the slot with five touchdowns, but Johnson has four scores on just 26 targets and 14 catches from the slot.
• And the best matchups for those big slot guys? The best third cornerbacks include Buffalo's appropriately-named Nickell Robey (51.8 quarterback rating allowed), Philly's Brandon Boykin (four interceptions from the slot) and Arizona's Tyrann Mathieu (a 59.5 QB rating allowed and two picks). Atlanta's Robert McClain has had the toughest time in that spot, giving up 24 catches, 360 yards, three touchdowns and a 152.9 quarterback rating on 29 slot targets.
• After a nice start to the season from a pass-blocking perspective, it would appear that the Bears are regressing a bit. They lead the league with 174 total pressures allowed, though they've allowed just 10 sacks, and rookie right tackle Jordan Mills leads all linemen with 64 total pressures. Add their iffy run defense to the equation, and it would seem that the Bears are falling apart from the inside out. -- DF
• Matchup to Watch: Chicago's linebackers vs. Adrian Peterson.
What in the world has happened to the Bears' run defense? Chicago has allowed six straight teams to run for more than 100 yards, capped by St. Louis' 258-yard outburst last Sunday. At 145.2 yards allowed per game, Chicago currently sits dead last in the league in that category.
And now ... Adrian Peterson (and Toby Gerhart) await Sunday, off 237 yards at Green Bay last week. Christian Ponder threw for 227 yards in an earlier matchup this season, a 31-30 Bears win back in Week 2, but the Vikings figure to hammer the football between the tackles early and often this time around. If Chicago's front seven cannot put up at least a little resistance, it might be in line for a repeat of that letdown vs. the Rams.
• This Week’s Sleeper: Marquise Goodwin, WR, Bills.
Buffalo's hoping to have both Robert Woods and Stevie Johnson back this Sunday against Atlanta, but it still will be difficult to keep the ball out of Goodwin's hands. The rookie stepped up in Week 12 with six grabs for 81 yards and a touchdown, and QB EJ Manuel stated this week that the Bills want to feed Goodwin a bit.
Some potential winter weather might be more of a hindrance for Manuel's passing attack than the struggling Atlanta D. If the rookie QB can navigate the wind and snow, Goodwin could benefit.
• Pressure’s On ...: Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos.
Feels odd to throw down the gauntlet for Manning, but off another cold-weather letdown last week, he and his team could use an emphatic response this Sunday in Kansas City. That the Chiefs and Broncos are knotted atop the AFC West only heightens the stakes awaiting Manning in Week 13. Denver coughed away its divisional cushion with that epic collapse in Foxborough, leaving little room for error.
• Rookie Spotlight: Keenan Allen, WR, Chargers.
Allen has been everything and more that San Diego could have hoped as a rookie. He's without question the first WR option Philip Rivers looks for in the passing game, as evidenced by the 124 yards and nine grabs he posted last week in an upset win at Kansas City. This week, he gets another stingy secondary: Cincinnati's. The Chargers need him to stay hot, though, if they're going to stick in the playoff chase. -- CB
• Indianapolis. Owner Jim Irsay called out his team for a recent lack of effort, so the Colts should be itching to respond Sunday. If they don't do so against the Titans, their AFC South lead will be down to just one game. -- CB
• New York Jets -- Rex Ryan's team has lost three of its last four games, Geno Smith has fallen off the rookie wall, the Patriots are running away with the AFC East, and if the Jets lose to the Dolphins on Sunday, that will likely be the end of their hopes as a wild-card contender. -- DF [si_video id="video_875FDCA2-3713-72F3-E381-95FE81952645" height="470"]