A win over the Dolphins would give Tom Brady his 11th AFC East title in 12 full seasons. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Chris Burke and Doug Farrar get you ready for the weekend with The Playbook, a detailed weekly preview that gives you everything you need to know about the upcoming slate of games.
New England (10-3) at Miami (7-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: One thing's for sure: The Dolphins are getting the Patriots at the perfect time, or as good a time as it ever is to get the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski's season-ending knee injury against the Browns last Sunday ostensibly puts Tom Brady back in a situation he'd rather not repeat. Gronk missed the first six games of the 2013 season as he was recovering from other injuries, and when he's out of the lineup, New England's offense regresses to a frightening degree -- from second to 22nd in the NFL in points scored, from fourth to 30th in red zone efficiency, from third to 19th in passing yards per game and from second to 16th in first downs per game. Since 2010, Brady has 5.1 touchdowns per interception with Gronk in the game and 2.2 without.
So, what to do? The Pats will likely do what they did when Gronkowski was injured before -- go to more three- and four-receiver sets and target running back Shane Vereen more often. Vereen had a career-high 17 targets last week in a game that New England had to score two touchdowns in the final minute to win. Spackling the passing offense will likely be enough during the regular season. Even if the Dolphins take this game, the Pats have a serious lead in the AFC East, including a tiebreaker win over Miami in October.
As for the Dolphins, it's all about keeping the faith and getting into the wild-card round. They've won three of their last four games and turned their season around. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has improved of late, and that's opened things up for a formerly moribund run game.
"I think he’s playing a little bit faster, his play speed is better, and I think his decision-making has improved," Miami head coach Joe Philbin said of Tannehill this week. "He’s probably really made a few more plays with his feet, be it scrambling or in other ways. He’s done a better job of throwing the ball on the move this year as well.”
The Dolphins should be confident about this game ... to a point. When the two teams last met, the home crowd was booing the Patriots after Miami got out to 14-0 and 17-3 leads. However, the Pats scored the game's last 24 points, proving once again what Philbin's team already knows -- one should never discount a Brady-led team, no matter the supposed issues in his way. -- Doug Farrar
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Green Bay (6-6-1) at Dallas (7-6) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Whether or not Aaron Rodgers plays for the Packers (and it looks like "not" at the moment), the stakes do not change. Green Bay, 6-6-1, is just a half-game back in the NFC North; Dallas, 7-6, fell a game back in the NFC East last week and needs a win to stay on track for a winner-take-all showdown against Philadelphia in Week 17.
If Rodgers misses his seventh straight game, he may lament missing this matchup. Dallas is on pace to allow the most passing yards in franchise history (4,775) and is coming off a horrendous showing at Chicago on Monday night. Matt Flynn has made his fair share of mistakes in Rodgers' stead, but he should be able to spread the ball around to Jordy Nelson and others in Dallas.
It would help Flynn's cause if a hobbled Eddie Lacy can shake off an ankle injury to suit up. The Packers' rookie is closing in on 1,000 yards -- and the Cowboys have not been much better against the run than they have been against the pass, allowing 128 yards per game.
On the flip side, the Packers' defense hasn't exactly been the 1985 Bears so far. Remember, we're just two weeks removed from Green Bay allowing 561 yards and 40 points to Detroit on Thanksgiving. Dallas gave up on its ground game early in Week 14 for some reason, but DeMarco Murray is in the midst of his best season as a pro.
If the Packers commit extra bodies to keeping Murray in check, expect Tony Romo to take to the air early and often. The Packers simply do not have the personnel to match up with Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten all at once. Few teams do.
Green Bay's pass rush also has a mere two sacks combined over its past two outings. The Bears managed to get in Romo's kitchen Monday with some timely blitzes from LB James Anderson. Might Green Bay be able to generate similar results from its second level of defense? -- CB
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Cincinnati (9-4) at Pittsburgh (5-8) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Which Andy Dalton will show up for this game? That's a good question. Dalton is coming off a three-touchdown game against the Indianapolis Colts that bagged him an AFC Offensive Player of the Week award. Pack that in with his October Offensive Player of the Month award, and it's easy to see him as a leader in a Bengals playoff run. However, there was also November, when he threw just five touchdown passes versus five picks.
He's not historically great against the Steelers, either -- he's thrown five touchdowns and five picks in five games against Dick LeBeau's defenses, which is about as average as it gets. And it took him 45 passing attempts to get one touchdown against Pittsburgh in Cincinnati's 20-10 Week 2 win.
"To play this game you have to have thick skin, especially at the quarterback position, unless you have proven yourself and won a lot of Super Bowls," Dalton said this week. "We're 9-4 and in a good position right now. I'm going to be me regardless of what anyone says."
This might be a good time for Dalton to finally break that Steelers curse. The current version of Pittsburgh's defense is among the least impressive of the LeBeau era, ranking 20th overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics and 17th against the pass. It's even less effective against No. 1 receivers, which doesn't bode well for it against A.J. Green. Dalton has also been finding other targets of late; Marvin Jones and Jermaine Gresham also caught touchdowns against the Colts.
The real reason the Steelers still have an eight percent chance of making the playoffs even if they win out, however, is their offense. Once again, there has been public exposure given to the disconnect between quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Asked why Pittsburgh didn't run the ball more in Sunday's 34-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Big Ben told the media to direct those questions to Haley.
Roethlisberger later said that the comment was blown out of proportion, and that Haley has his full support. In reality, that would be a first. And the Steelers have gone 21 games without a 100-yard rushing game from any back, which is the longest streak in the league. Perhaps Haley was looking at that stat when he chose to go a different way, The better strategy against Cincy's injured secondary might be to keep receiver Antonio Brown rolling -- right now, there are few more effective receivers in the league, and Brown came oh-so-close to scoring what could have been the game-winning touchdown against Miami. -- DF
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Baltimore (7-6) at Detroit (7-6) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Ravens have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can win at home. Now, can they take their act on the road?
Baltimore is 6-1 in front of its rowdy home fans, including a 3-0 showing over the past three weeks. But the reigning champions have won just one game in six tries on the road -- a victory in Miami that currently has the Ravens holding the wild-card tiebreaker over the Dolphins.
This week, they travel to Detroit for a rare Monday nighter in the Motor City. The Lions have hosted just one MNF contest since 2002: a 24-13 win over Chicago two years ago, which helped propel them to the playoffs. (Technically, a game against Atlanta last season was a Monday Night Football broadcast, but it was played on a Saturday.)
Detroit could use this game as a springboard to the postseason, too. In an alternate universe where the Lions are a much more consistent franchise, the they might be playing to clinch the division Monday. Instead, because of a Week 12 home loss to Tampa Bay and blown chances on the road in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the Lions are hanging on to the division lead for dear life -- despite the extended absences of Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler in Green Bay and Chicago, respectively.
Detroit has to hope that a ghastly performance against the Eagles' run game last week was just a mirage. Jim Schwartz's team had been formidable against the run until that 299-yard performance by LeSean McCoy and Co. The Ravens' still-sluggish ground game might be just what the doctor ordered.
Though Ray Rice has shown some signs of life in recent weeks, he's still only at 549 rushing yards for the season. Baltimore, as a result, ranks 29th on the ground.
The onus may instead fall on Joe Flacco to test a shaky Detroit secondary. Flacco, in the midst of one of his worst statistical seasons as a pro, did throw three TDs versus Minnesota last week. Of course, he also fired three interceptions -- and the Lions will pressure him, if not bring him down.
Baltimore's toughest challenge may be in containing a motivated Calvin Johnson. Rookie safety Matt Elam poked the bear this week, telling ESPN.com that Johnson is "pretty old" and doesn't play physically any more.
The last team to provide bulletin-board material for Megatron was Dallas, when Dez Bryant said he could do whatever Johnson does and owner Jerry Jones said Reggie Bush is the more dangerous offensive weapon.
Johnson caught 14 passes for a career-high 329 yards in Detroit's subsequent 31-30 win over the Cowboys. -- CB
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Chicago (7-6) at Cleveland (4-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Josh McCown is the first Bears quarterback in franchise history to throw for more than 300 yards in three straight games, and he's thrown eight touchdowns to just one interception in that span. Despite that amazing, recent performance, head coach Marc Trestman announced Thursday that Jay Cutler will be his starting quarterback now that he's recovered from the ankle injury that's had him out since Nov. 10. It's understandable that Cutler is Trestman's guy when he's healthy, but it's tough to go against a player on a hot streak like McCown's, especially against a Browns defense that ranks 22nd against the pass. -- DF
Philadelphia (8-5) at Minnesota (3-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Vikings seem to be relishing the role of spoiler, having tied Green Bay, beaten Chicago and pushed Baltimore to the limit over the past three weeks. Working that magic again in Week 15 will be a tall task on account of injuries to Adrian Peterson and his backup, Toby Gerhart. Minnesota's also been shaky against the run, and Philadelphia is coming off a 299-yard rushing performance in the snow versus Detroit. -- CB
Seattle (11-2) at NY Giants (5-8) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Giants have taken their playoff clocks off the wall, which leaves them playing for pride against a Seattle team looking to regain its footing after a close loss to the 49ers on Sunday. The Seahawks could be scouting MetLife Stadium as a Super Bowl preview, but they'll need to spend some time shoring up their run defense in the meantime. The Giants view this game as a test of their resilience, which could lead to "trap game" whispers. -- DF
San Francisco (9-4) at Tampa Bay (4-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: A dangerous trap game for the 49ers, who are coming off an emotional win over Seattle. Tampa Bay is not the pushover it appeared to be six or seven weeks ago. The Buccaneers have won four of five, including last week over Buffalo despite just nine completions by Mike Glennon. It was RB Bobby Rainey leading the way in that one, with 127 yards on 22 carries. Rainey likely will find the going much more difficult Sunday, so can the Buccaneers' underrated defense keep this one tight? -- CB
Kansas City (10-3) at Oakland (4-9) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: Kansas City rebounded nicely from a three-game losing streak by thrashing the dysfunctional Redskins, but the Raiders might prove to be a tougher opponent, especially against a Chiefs defense that has had trouble pressuring quarterbacks other than Robert Griffin III in recent weeks. Oakland has allowed just 17 quarterback takedowns this season. Where the Raiders are most vulnerable is in their weak special teams coverage units; the return game has been a consistent strength for the Chiefs. -- DF
NY Jets (6-7) at Carolina (9-4) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: The Carolina defense is likely on the verge of a huge bounce-back performance. The secondary was gashed by Drew Brees and the Saints last week, but this remains the league's No. 1 defense. And the Jets' Geno Smith-led attack will not be able to test Carolina through the air as Brees did.
New York needs an upset to stay in the wild-card picture. It will enter Sunday one game back of Baltimore and Miami in the race for the AFC's No. 6 seed. -- CB
New Orleans (10-3) at St. Louis (5-8) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: While the Saints are looking to keep momentum going after their Sunday night win over the Panthers, the Rams will try to get their pass-rushers after Drew Brees to negate any potential mismatches against New Orleans' phalanx of formations. If Robert Quinn can't get home, oft-penalized cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson will have their hands full. -- DF
Only For The Faithful
Washington (3-10) at Atlanta (3-10) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The All-Disappointment Bowl. Both teams are 3-10 after winning their divisions in 2012, and at least Washington appears headed toward a coaching change. The Redskins could use a strong closing run from new starting QB Kirk Cousins, if only to bump up his trade value for the offseason. -- CB
Buffalo (4-9) at Jacksonville (4-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Having lost five of their last six games, the Bills must now guard against a letdown versus a Jaguars team that, believe it or not, has been on a bit of a run, winning four of its last five. First-year head coach Gus Bradley has said improvement is more important than victories at this point, but that's an easier sell for him than it is for Bills rookie coach Doug Marrone. -- DF
Houston (2-11) at Indianapolis (8-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Colts have won 19 games in their last two seasons, but they have a point differential of minus-33 over that time. The Texans have seen their season go down the drain, but quarterback Case Keenum said this week that his team is "pissed off" and looking to finish the season on a high note. Could be trouble for an Indianapolis offense that has struggled to get off the blocks all season. -- DF
Arizona (8-5) at Tennessee (5-8) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: How different are the NFC and AFC races? Tennessee, which closes with an Arizona-Jacksonville-Houston run -- has to be eyeing 8-8 as a possible playoff-worthy record. The Cardinals hit the eight-win mark last week ... and it's not enough. They likely need to win out for an 11-5 record and hope that cuts it. -- CB
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(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus.)
• One way to make Philip Rivers even better than he's been this season -- and he's been MVP-level great -- would be to work some more play-action in the Chargers' playbook. Even before Thursday's win over the Broncos, he had thrown six touchdown passes and no picks out of play-action in just 62 dropbacks and 60 attempts, and he's completed 76.7 percent of his passes. Without play-action, he had completed 69.6 of his 401 attempts for 20 touchdowns and nine picks. As new head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt direct Rivers to check down and throw more short and intermediate passes, freezing the linebackers and safeties makes a lot of sense.
• On the other hand, Robert Griffin III has completed just 55.6 percent of his 135 attempts out of play-action, throwing four touchdowns and four picks. Last year, he completed 67.7 percent of those types of throws for nine touchdowns and four picks in 155 attempts. Yet another sign of regression in RGIII's second season.
• There are times when stats can be deceiving. No team has allowed fewer quarterback pressures than San Francisco's 106, but that's not the be-all/end-all when it comes to line performance. Colin Kaepernick has just 332 passing attempts in 404 dropbacks this season, which puts his pressure percentage at a very pedestrian 33.4 percent. In addition, only two teams have lower Adjusted Line Yards averages (Football Outsiders' proprietary metrics for line performance). Running back Frank Gore is racking up serious numbers after he breaks free from the line: After his 51-yarder against the Seahawks last Sunday, Gore ranks second in the league, tied with Adrian Peterson and behind only LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles, with 16 runs of 15 yards or more.
• How good is Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner? Good enough that one bad play doesn't define him. Verner was burned for his first touchdown of the season by Peyton Manning and Eric Decker in Denver's 51-28 win over the Titans on Sunday, and he still leads all NFL cornerbacks in opponent passer rating allowed by a wide margin -- 46.3. Carolina's Drayton Florence is second at 60.2.
• New England's Rob Ninkovich might be the most versatile 4-3 defensive end in the league. Not only is he tied with Justin Tuck of the Giants for third in the NFL with 56 total pressures (St. Louis' Robert Quinn and Minnesota's Brian Robison are ahead), but also he ranks second at his position behind only Oakland's LaMarr Houston with 30 run stops. -- DF
• Matchup to Watch: Le'Veon Bell versus Cincinnati's run defense.
The Steelers had yet to unleash their then-injured rookie running back when they took a 20-10 loss in Cincinnati back in Week 2. Bell has not exactly blown the doors off the league in the 10 games he's played since, but he definitely constitutes an upgrade over the Felix Jones-Isaac Redman combo Pittsburgh used that day.
How much heat Bell can take off of Ben Roethlisberger may dictate Sunday night's game between the two AFC North foes. Cincinnati has the fifth-best run defense in the league at 98.1 yards per game allowed.
• This Week’s Sleeper: Jason Campbell, QB, Browns.
Because the Bears have won games with Josh McCown, a lot of praise has been heaped on Marc Trestman's offensive system. Had it not been for Brandon Weeden and a few close losses, we might be saying the same things about Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner's work in Cleveland.
Case in point: Jason Campbell is operating at a career-high QB rating of 88.0 right now, and he threw three touchdowns (with no INTs) versus New England last week. The Bears have held four of the last six QBs they've faced under 200 yards passing, but Campbell will do what he can to break that run.
• Pressure’s On …: Chris Ivory, RB, Jets.
The Jets are not going to walk into Carolina and win a shootout -- just look at how Geno Smith has played this season compared to Cam Newton to see why. So, for New York to stay firmly planted in the wild-card picture, it will need to lean on the run game. That puts the onus on Ivory to repeat or top last week's decent showing against Oakland (18 carries, 76 yards, one touchdown).
• Rookie Spotlight: Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Colts.
In hopes of solving their issues at receiver, the Colts turned loose Rogers last week to the tune of six catches, 107 yards and two touchdowns. He also played 41 snaps, 18 more than struggling veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Indianapolis' Week 15 foe, Houston, has lost 11 in a row but its pass defense still ranks No. 2 in the league. That means the Texans ought to provide a nice test for Rogers this Sunday. – CB
• Chicago. The Bears do not have it easy in Weeks 16 and 17 (at Philadelphia, vs. Green Bay), so they cannot afford a slip-up in Cleveland, where the Browns might be able to find enough offense to pull off an upset. -- CB
• Green Bay. Their 1-4-1 record since Aaron Rodgers' broken collarbone speaks to a lack of depth at other positions. There's been talk about shutting Rodgers down if the Packers fall from postseason contention, and though Rodgers has taken more reps in practice, it might be up to Matt Flynn to attack Dallas' sub-par secondary and save Green Bay's season. -- DF
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