By Don Banks
December 12, 2013
The Cowboys-Packers game this Sunday could be a near elimination game for both NFC playoff hopefuls.
David Stluka/Getty Images
Last week: 14-2; Season 138-69
Thursday, Dec. 12
8:25 p.m. ET (NFL Network) San Diego Chargers (6-7) at Denver Broncos (11-2)
The Broncos are ever so close to a motherlode of historic accomplishments, with Peyton Manning needing just six touchdown passes to break Tom Brady's 2007 single-season mark of 50 (2007) and 955 passing yards to surpass Drew Brees' '11 single-season best of 5,476. In addition, Denver is just 75 points shy of becoming the highest-scoring team of all time, beating those 2007 Patriots, who scored 589. But all of that will only add to the bitter letdown if the Broncos don't complete the job and win the Super Bowl. Just ask the 2007 Patriots and the 1998 Vikings how much it ultimately meant to re-write the NFL's offensive record books, and not earn a ring.
Sunday, Dec. 15
1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) Philadelphia Eagles (8-5) at Minnesota Vikings (3-9)
Having covered the Vikings for four seasons in the late '90s, as well as last week's ridiculously entertaining snow-globe game in Philadelphia, I'm here to tell the Eagles they're about to go from playing in one of the most memorable and indelible NFL settings ever to one of the most antiseptic and sterile venues in league history. No snow this week. Unless the roof collapses. Will anyone truly miss the Metrodome when the Vikings move on after this season? It was a loud, non-stop assault on the senses on gameday, and the Vikings often used that wall of noise quite well to their advantage. But charm was not one of its calling cards. This will be Minnesota's penultimate game in the dome, and if I forget to wax nostalgic when the Vikings close down the place with a Week 17 finale against the Lions, you'll forgive me.
1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) Washington Redskins (3-10) at Atlanta Falcons (3-10)
I'm on record saying Mike Shanahan's call to shut down Robert Griffin III for the rest of the season is more about the coach's exit strategy from Washington and his stare-down with team owner Daniel Snyder than it is a move to protect the Redskins' franchise quarterback for 2014. But I did find it interesting that Hall of Fame head coach and broadcaster John Madden said he views Shanahan's decision as one that affects the integrity of the game, because while Washington is out of the playoff chase, the 'Skins owe it to the teams that are still alive in the hunt to play it straight and field their best possible team. (For what it's worth, only one of Washington's three remaining opponents, Dallas in Week 16, remains a postseason contender). While I agree with Madden on that point, how come he doesn't voice the same concerns every season when teams that have already clinched playoff berths and seeds choose to rest half their key starters, often affecting the playoff race? The 2009 Jets come quickly to mind as a team that got to play the Colts' JV squad in Week 16, thus avoiding a likely loss and elimination from contention. Why is that not the exact same affront to the integrity of the game?
1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) Seattle Seahawks (11-2) at New York Giants (5-8)
Nothing about the Percy Harvin situation looks real promising at this point for the Seahawks. He continues to rehab his problematic hip and it's not making steady progress. It's both getting better and worse, depending on the day, according to Seattle head coach Pete Carroll. But in reality, this isn't the trip to MetLife Stadium the Seahawks really need Harvin for. It's the return journey to Jersey they're planning on making in another seven weeks that really counts.
1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) San Francisco 49ers (9-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9)
How'd you like to be the No. 3-seeded NFC East champ (either Philly or Dallas), finish maybe 9-7 or 10-6 and draw a first-round playoff visit from the No. 6-seeded 49ers, who are merely the defending NFC champions and could wind up, at maybe 12-4, representing one of the strongest No. 6's in recent memory? Yet another reason why the NFL should re-consider its stance against a straight seeding of the playoffs based on records, and not automatically sentence wild-card qualifiers to one of the bottom two seeds in their conference.
1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) Chicago Bears (7-6) at Cleveland Browns (4-9)
Josh Gordon is having one of the most spectacular seasons in NFL receiving history, and we can only wonder what he might have accomplished if the Browns had a stable and productive quarterback situation in 2013. If he can total at least 125 receiving yards against the Bears, Gordon will tie Calvin Johnson (2012) and Pat Studstill (1966) as the only players to ever rack up at least 125 yards for five consecutive games. Despite his two-game suspension to start the season, Gordon has seven games of 125-plus yards this year, and he's one away from tying Johnson (2012) and Hall of Famer Lance Alworth (1965) for the most ever in a single season. That said, the Bears' Alshon Jeffery might be the best pass-catcher on the field on Sunday. The second-year beast of a receiver has suction cups for hands.
1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) Houston Texans (2-11) at Indianapolis Colts (8-5)
I'm not convinced Wade Phillips has a real shot at earning the full-time head coaching gig in Houston, even if his Texans finish strong in the last three games. I understand why the organization wants him to believe he does, and why he doesn't want to entertain any talk about sticking around as defensive coordinator if he doesn't get the nod for the No. 1 job. But the track record of hiring interim head coaches full-time isn't a good one (think Romeo Crennel in Kansas City, Mike Singletary in San Francisco and Jason Garrett in Dallas), and Phillips has proven to be a good but never great head coach. If it's not either Lovie Smith or David Shaw coaching the Texans next year, I'm going to be a bit surprised.
1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) Buffalo Bills (4-9) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
The Jaguars' superb second-half turnaround is going to get lost in the shuffle with the playoff races concluding and the postseason looming, but it shouldn't. Jacksonville was a league-wide punchline at 0-8, but who's laughing now? Rookie head coach Gus Bradley and rookie general manager David Caldwell deserve a ton of credit for staying the course, refusing to panic and being the same people when they were winless as they have been on the Jags' recent 4-1 run. That's what they both preached in training camp, and that's what they've done. They've started to build a program in Jacksonville, not just a team, and the results of their patience and resilience are already obvious.
1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) New England Patriots (10-3) at Miami Dolphins (7-6)
There's some pretty nice symmetry lining up for Tom Brady in his annual trip to South Florida. If the Patriots can get the win and improve to 11-3, Brady will tie ex-Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino with 147 regular-season victories, ranking fourth all-time among starting quarterbacks. It would also clinch the AFC East for New England, extending Brady's league-record to 11 division titles earned in his 12 full seasons as the Patriots' starter. In its first game playing without tight end Rob Gronkowski since Week 6, New England will commence the all-too-familiar process of re-inventing itself on offense. Having no Gronk is yet another dagger to the Patriots' Super Bowl hopes after the loss of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, but it's not like they haven't been down this sort of road in the past.
4:05 p.m. ET (CBS) Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) at Oakland Raiders (4-9)
It sounds as if Raiders owner Mark Davis is going to practice patience and give head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie some more time to get things fixed in Oakland, and that's the right move. Ripping it up again so soon isn't going to help a Raiders organization that has known nothing but change, turmoil and false starts for most of the past decade. It has been a while since anything about 2013 has felt like a positive in Oakland, but there were bright spots along the way this season.
4:05 p.m. ET (CBS) New York Jets (6-7) at Carolina Panthers (9-4)
The beatdown the Panthers suffered at the hands of the Saints in the Superdome could prove very useful if they use it like smelling salts under their collective nose. It can be good to remember the sting of defeat, and feel a fresh dose of it from time to time, especially for a young team that is still on its way up. With next week's visit from New Orleans looming, Carolina will now have to focus on the Jets, with no trap-game concerns whatsoever.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) Arizona Cardinals (8-5) at Tennessee Titans (5-8)
The 8-5 Cardinals probably wish they were still in the NFC East, like back in the day. They'd be tied for first place with the Eagles in that hypothetical situation. As is, they're a very strong third-place team in the NFL's best division. But that probably leaves them on the outside looking in come playoff time, and the league does not give out trophies for mere participation.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) New Orleans Saints (10-3) at St. Louis Rams (5-8)
Rob Ryan has had an interesting season on the reunion front. He faced his twin brother's team, the Jets, and lost to them. He faced the team that canned him as defensive coordinator last offseason, the Cowboys, and beat them, decisively. And now he gets a crack at the Rams, the team he briefly worked for last January, spending less than two weeks as Jeff Fisher's defensive coordinator before backing out in order to join Sean Payton's staff in New Orleans. In the short term at least, Ryan made the right call. New Orleans is playoff-bound and he has revived the Saints defense after last year's epic collapse. The Rams? Still mired in that great middle third of mediocrity in the NFL.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) at Dallas Cowboys (7-6)
I would have gone with Green Bay in this near elimination game of NFC playoff hopefuls if the signs pointed to Aaron Rodgers finally returning from the broken left collarbone he suffered in Week 9. But No. 12 still seems to be a long shot to be cleared medically in time for the game. It was in Dallas in late November 2007 that we first got a chance to see Rodgers as the Packers' future franchise quarterback, when he relieved an injured Brett Favre in the second quarter of a Thursday night game at Cowboys Stadium, completing 18-of-26 passes for 201 yards in a 37-27 Green Bay loss. I covered that game, and his play that night was an eye-opener, no doubt giving the Packers confidence that their 2005 first-round pick was ready to take the reins and replace a legend in 2008.
8:30 p.m. ET (NBC) Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8)
After two consecutive losses brought on in part by key plays involving Steelers who had a foot barely in bounds and a foot barely out of bounds, the end result is that Pittsburgh, rather fittingly, will watch the playoffs from the sidelines for a second consecutive year. But not the Bengals. They're going to make the postseason for a franchise record third year in a row, and this time they can't possibly lose at Houston in the first round. Cincy will clinch a playoff berth with a Dolphins loss to New England and a victory over the Steelers, and the AFC North will belong to the Bengals for the first time since 2009 with a defeat of Pittsburgh combined with a Ravens loss to Detroit on Monday night.
Monday, Dec. 16
8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN) Baltimore Ravens (7-6) at Detroit Lions (7-6)
Hard to fathom what Ravens rookie safety Matt Elam was thinking (or if he was thinking), but calling Calvin Johnson "pretty old" would be foolish even if Megatron wasn't only 28 and still very much in the prime of his career. Elam, 22, said this week the Ravens have to get physical in coverage against Johnson, because "he's pretty old, so I don't know how physical he'll be. He's a big guy, but he's older. I guess when they get older they're not going to be as physical." Good luck with that approach, Matt, now that you've got Mr. Johnson's attention.
BURKE: Seahawks still on top in Week 14 Power Rankings
COVER-TWO: Buy or sell second-tier Super Bowl contenders
FARRAR: GMs now under more pressure than ever
BEDARD: Clowney scrutiny is just beginning
BELLER: Player-by-player fantasy projections for Week 15

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