Seahawks-49ers, Saints-Panthers among Week 14 must attend games

Thursday December 5th, 2013

'Tis the season for such time-honored expressions as peace on earth, good will toward men and playoff implications. You'll hear more of the latter in December as NFL teams try to position themselves for the postseason.

So far, only Seattle has punched its ticket to the big dance. With 11 of the 12 playoff spots still up for grabs, and 29 other teams remaining in the hunt, don't expect to see a lot of holiday spirit exhibited on the football field.

The Seahawks, who claimed a place in the postseason with a dominating, 34-7 victory over New Orleans in Week 13, can clinch the NFC West on Sunday by beating the 49ers in San Francisco, where Seattle hasn't won since 2008. Six more teams can gain postseason credentials with victories in Week 14: The Broncos, Colts, Chiefs and Patriots in the AFC, and the Panthers and Saints in the NFC.

Here are the must-see games.

Carolina Panthers (9-3) at New Orleans Saints (9-3)

The Panthers are the league's hottest team. They will carry a franchise-record and NFL-best eight-game winning streak into their game against the Saints -- the first of two meetings in three weeks that likely will determine the NFC South title.

What a turnaround Carolina has forged. Four weeks into the season, it was 1-3 and coach Ron Rivera looked like a dead man coaching. Now he has to be in the discussion for coach of the year.

The Panthers have allowed the fewest average points (13.1) of any team in the league and are second behind only Seattle in average yards allowed (289.8). Coordinator Sean McDermott's unit has shut out opponents in the second half in three of the last four games, and is No. 1 in the league in the red zone, having yielded touchdowns on only nine of opponents' 28 series inside the 20.

Sunday night's nationally televised game will give many fans their first look at some of the rookies who have contributed to the defense's success. First-round tackle Star Lotulelie has 34 tackles and two sacks, and fifth-round linebacker A.J. Klein, who has started four straight games on the weak side in place of Chase Blackburn, has 20 tackles and two assists. A couple of undrafted rookies also have chipped in. Melvin White, who has started six games at cornerback, has one interception, three passes defended and a forced fumble, and end Wes Horton had two sacks in last week's win over Tampa Bay.

Quarterback Cam Newton, of course, drives the offense. During the Panthers' eight-game winning streak, he has passed for 13 touchdowns and run for five scores.

The Saints, meanwhile, didn't have time to lick their wounds following the beatdown in Seattle. An already short week of preparation became even more compressed when problems with their chartered plane forced them to stay overnight in the Pacific Northwest and not return home to New Orleans until 3 p.m. local time on Tuesday. It will be interesting to see how they respond against Carolina in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they are 6-0 this season.

New Orleans gained only 188 net yards against Seattle, its fewest since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees began collaborating in '06. Brees passed for just 147 yards, snapping his streak of 43 games with at least 200.

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Seattle Seahawks (11-1) at San Francisco 49ers (8-4)

The holiday season looks bright for Seattle, which probably could nail down the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed just by splitting its final four games (at San Francisco, at New York Giants, vs. Arizona, vs. St. Louis). Winners of seven in a row, the Seahawks have suffered only two losses in the last calendar year -- a playoff game at Atlanta last season and a regular-season game at Indianapolis this season -- by a total of eight points.

Second-year quarterback Russell Wilson is in a groove. One of only four players in league history to throw at least 20 scoring passes in each of his first two seasons, Wilson is coming off a 310-yard, three-touchdown performance against New Orleans (he also rushed for 47 yards), which earned him NFC offensive player of the week honors. It was his third consecutive game with a passer rating above 130.

The 49ers, who currently hold the sixth NFC playoff seed, have rebounded from back-to-back losses to Carolina and New Orleans in November. Led by arguably the best front seven in the league, San Francisco's defense has allowed the fewest points (113) of any team since Week 4, after giving up 84 points in the first three games.

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Detroit Lions (7-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (7-5)

This is a key interdivisional game that could have playoff implications for both teams. The Lions, who haven't won a divisional title since '93, hold a one-game lead over the Bears in the NFC North but own the tiebreaker by virtue of their two wins over Chicago. The Eagles have won three straight games and are tied with Dallas for first place in the NFC East, but the Cowboys hold the tiebreaker, having won a Week 7 game in Philly (the two teams will meet again in Dallas on the final Sunday of the regular season).

Unless you're a Lions fan, you might not have heard much about DeAndre Levy, Detroit's fifth-year outside linebacker, who is having a Pro Bowl type season. He has a league-leading six interceptions (one which he returned for a touchdown, another for a TD that was called back). No linebacker has led the league in interceptions during the Super Bowl era. With one more pick, Levy will become only the ninth linebacker since 1967 to have at least seven in a season.

Earlier this week, first-year Eagles coach Chip Kelly proclaimed that Nick Foles will be the starting quarterback "for the next 1,000 years" in Philadelphia. Foles won't have much of an arm left by 3013, but it certainly has been lively this season. The second-year player has thrown 19 touchdown passes without an interception (Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson picked off a Foles pass last week but it was nullified by a penalty) and leads the league in passer rating (125.2). To put his performance into perspective, Foles has thrown as many scoring passes this season as Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, and has more than Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck.

And let's not overlook the Philadelphia defense, which has held opponents to 21 or fewer points in eight straight games.

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Indianapolis Colts (8-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-4)

With a three-game lead over Tennessee in the AFC South, the Colts can secure a playoff berth as well as their first divisional title since 2010 with a victory over Cincinnati or a Titans loss to Denver. The Bengals can't clinch a postseason spot, but a win would protect their lead, currently at two games, over Baltimore in the AFC North.

Even without two of its top players, defensive tackle Geno Atkins (torn ACL) and cornerback Leon Hall (torn Achilles tendon), Cincinnati's defense ranks among the league's top 10 in several important categories: points per game (fifth), yards (sixth), first downs (tied for sixth), rushing yards (eighth), passing yards (eighth) and red zone efficiency (tied for 10th). And linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a second-year player who wasn't drafted, leads the league in tackles.

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