The Panthers will need Cam Newton at his absolute best in a pivotal NFC South game with the Saints. (Chris Graythen/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 Orleans (10-4) at Carolina (10-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The first highly anticipated matchup between these NFC South rivals this season turned into a laugher. In it, the Saints pestered Cam Newton into a subpar performance en route to an easy 31-13 victory. The Panthers will need Newton at his absolute best in Sunday's rematch, which could decide the division (New Orleans clinches with a win; Carolina would need only a win or Saints loss in Week 17 to secure the title, if it wins this week).
However, Newton's issues were only a small part of the problem in that first meeting with New Orleans. Of greater concern was the secondary's utter inability to stymie Drew Brees and the Saints' passing attack. Brees made it look awfully easy, finishing with 313 yards and four touchdowns, two each to Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham. Nine Saints in all caught passes on a clueless Carolina D that day. If there's a silver lining for Carolina, it is that such an outing has been an anomaly this season. Despite Brees' bullying, the Panthers still sit No. 2 in points allowed, and in the top five against both the run and pass. The defense has been particularly good at home, too, holding every opponent thus far under 20 points.
Other than the two touchdowns, the Panthers actually did a decent job corralling Graham -- six catches for 58 yards. Figuring out some way to slow Colston and New Orleans' other receivers might be the key to victory, though that's easier said than done.
The home/road splits for both teams have been significant. New Orleans and Carolina are a combined 13-1 on home turf and just 7-7 away. Brees' offense also averages fewer than 20 points outside the Superdome. Upping the ante further: Sunday's losing team could head to Week 17 in need of a victory to make the playoffs. -- Chris Burke
Indianapolis (9-5) at Kansas City (11-3) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Colts faced the Chiefs in Week 16 of the 2012 season, as well. Though Indianapolis won that game 20-13, Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles torched Chuck Pagano's defense for 226 rushing yards on 22 carries. And that was for a team that would win just two games all season.
Coming off his incendiary five-touchdown performance last Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, Charles has established himself as a legitimate sub-Manning MVP candidate on an 11-3 team fighting for playoff positioning. So, with that history in place, you don't need to tell the Colts what Charles can do to them. They are all too aware.
"He's everything," Pagano said of Charles this week. "He drives the bus. Quarterback is the guy, but everything goes through him. As he goes, they go. Eighteen-hundred-plus yards, second in the National Football League from scrimmage this year. Eighteen touchdowns, number one in the NFL. We saw what he did last year. The guy is first and foremost public enemy No. 1. We got to do a great job and we better know where he's at all times."
Another challenge for the Colts will be putting their iffy offensive line up against a Chiefs defense that has regressed in recent weeks, but one that can still put a serious beating on any quarterback when they're aligned. Recent dominant performances against the Redskins and Raiders may not indicate what will happen against playoff-level teams, but Indy's offense has been a mixed bag at best since the team lost Reggie Wayne for the remainder of the season.
The Colts' formula for playoff success is fairly simple at this point -- beat the Chiefs and Jaguars, hope the Ravens can win out and/or the Patriots lose at least one game, and they wrap up the AFC's No. 2 seed. Well, that's not a simple formula, but it would be a big deal for a team that can match last season's 11-5 record despite 14 players on injured reserve, tied for the most in the NFL.
Kansas City's postseason route is more circuitous. If it wins out and Denver loses one of its last two games, Andy Reid would steal the conference's top seed in his first year with the team. Coming off 2012's 2-14 season, that would qualify as one of the greatest coaching jobs in recent memory. Even if they land just a wild-card spot, Reid should be the shoo-in pick for NFL Coach of the Year. -- Doug Farrar
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New England (10-4) at Baltimore (8-6) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: The Patriots have allowed fewer field goals this season (20) than all but five other teams. Does that alone serve as a bad omen for the Ravens, who have leaned so heavily on kicker Justin Tucker during their second-half resurgence?
There are all sorts of playoff implications here: AFC East title, AFC North title, wild-card race, home-field advantage. In terms of just getting to the postseason, the pressure's still on the defending champion Ravens, who may have to stretch their current four-game win streak into a six-gamer just to play past Week 17.
Helping that cause along was the recent return of tight end Dennis Pitta, arguably Joe Flacco's favorite target. Pitta made just two catches in the Ravens' 18-16 Monday night win in Detroit, but Flacco targeted him 10 times the week prior. His presence also might sting the Patriots a little more, considering they're without Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the season (and possibly beyond). Of course, Tom Brady remains plenty dangerous without Gronk -- he threw for 364 yards in last week's loss to Miami.
The Ravens defense more than answered the bell against a shaky Matthew Stafford in Detroit, mostly slamming the door other than on the Lions' first and penultimate drives. Whether they can generate a repeat performance might hinge on how well the Ravens can limit the Patriots' run game. Bill Belichick does not hesitate to roll through all of his running backs, so Baltimore has to be ready for everything and the kitchen sink.
In only one of New England's four losses (Week 11 at Carolina) did it crank out more than 100 yards rushing. Baltimore's had its own issues (and then some) on the ground, but Ray Rice has gradually shown some signs of life. He and Bernard Pierce will match wits with a Patriots D that's allowing the second most yards rushing in all of football. -- CB
Chicago (8-6) at Philadelphia (8-6) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: The Bears' run defense has everyone in the Windy City upset, and for good reason -- this formerly dominant unit is allowing a league-worst 152.4 yards per game on the ground. But the hidden problem along that line is the worrisome lack of anything resembling a consistent pass rush. Chicago is also dead-last in the league with just 26 sacks, and it also has a worrisome lack of overall quarterback pressures.
The addition of former Dallas Cowboys interior lineman Jay Ratliff has helped a bit, and it looks like linebacker Lance Briggs will be back in action for the first time since Oct. 20. The Bears will need all the help they can get because Philly's complex zone running scheme is firing on all cylinders. Running back LeSean McCoy has said that he wants the team to put the offense on his back, and McCoy has all the talent required to carry that burden.
"I want to roll," he said this week. "I feel like myself and the big guys up front -- we've got to put this game on our back and take care of business and get a win." McCoy carried the ball just eight times against the Vikings, one week after he set a team record with 217 rushing yards against the Detroit Lions. It's clear that McCoy sees the Bears' primary weakness -- and he would like Chip Kelly to react accordingly. "We watched the tape. A lot of guys are gashing them. Missed tackles and things like that, it all adds up. It's a big game. I feel like the matchup is there."
The Bears will look to roll against an Eagles defense that was exploited by Minnesota's choice to use multiple formations, creating blocking mismatches at every turn. Head coach Marc Trestman has used receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey in some very creative ways this season, and Philly's secondary will struggle to counter when Jay Cutler goes up top and allows Marshall and Jeffrey to win physical battles in coverage.
If the Bears are able to take care of business here, and the Packers and Lions lose, Chicago will wrap up the NFC North. Meanwhile, the Eagles would clinch the NFC East with a win and a Dallas loss or tie. -- DF
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Miami (8-6) at Buffalo (5-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bills have clinched their ninth straight losing season, but you can bet they'd love to spoil the Dolphins' playoff dreams. Buffalo already has a win versus Miami under its belt this season, a 23-21 triumph in Week 7. The fill-in quarterback for Buffalo that day: Thaddeus Lewis, who will get the nod again Sunday. He threw for 202 yards (to Ryan Tannehill's 194) in that earlier victory. -- CB
Minnesota (4-9-1) at Cincinnati (9-5)-- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Andy Dalton has thrown six touchdowns and just one interception in the month of December, and the Bengals' quarterback could feast on a Minnesota secondary that might be the NFL's worst north of Dallas. The Bengals need this win to stay on pace with the surging Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. Their suddenly porous defensive line will be tested by Minnesota's rushing attack -- with or without Adrian Peterson. -- DF
Tampa Bay (4-10) at St. Louis (6-8) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Should things fall into place for these franchises in the offseason, this could be an early preview of 2014's surprise teams. For now, all that hinges on this outcome is draft position and pride. Bucs rookie QB Mike Glennon has slumped recently, which ought to be music to the ears of St. Louis' remarkable pass rush, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Quinn. -- CB
Dallas (7-7) at Washington(3-11) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Resistible force, meet moveable object. The Cowboys defense is the kind that could earn Kirk Cousins one of those Matt Flynn-style contracts, while the Redskins defense has allowed the NFL's most rushing touchdowns with 21. After last Sunday's second-half debacle against the Packers, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett had best put the ball in the hands of running back DeMarco Murray. Otherwise, Washington's Mike Shanahan may actually have more job security than Garrett does. -- DF
NY Giants (5-9) at Detroit (7-7) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: The Lions dipped from being in control of their playoff destiny to facing elimination this week -- a Detroit loss and wins by Chicago and Green Bay would do the trick. Which error-prone quarterback, Eli Manning or Matthew Stafford, will rise to the occasion? Manning leads the league with a whopping 25 interceptions, while the well-paid Stafford has come under fire from a frustrated Detroit fan base. -- CB
Arizona (9-5) at Seattle(12-2) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: The Cards must win out if they want to make the playoffs, and they'll have to earn it with this trip to Seattle and next week's game against the 49ers. The good news is that the Cards have won six of their last seven games, and the one loss was by three points. The bad news? Seattle has never lost a home game with Russell Wilson at quarterback, and despite the excellence of Arizona's defense, it's tough to see that trend reversing on Sunday. -- DF
Pittsburgh (6-8) at Green Bay (7-6-1) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: The fascination recently, as it relates to Green Bay, has been over Aaron Rodgers' health. As with Week 15, though, the Packers must win -- healthy Rodgers or not -- to keep pace in the NFC North race. This matchup actually may boil down not to the quarterback but to the running backs. Each team has been paced by a rookie there: 1,000-yard rusher Eddie Lacy in Green Bay and Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh. -- CB
Oakland (4-10) at San Diego (7-7)-- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: The Chargers are hoping to put up a nine-win season in Mike McCoy's first year as head coach despite a defense that has been among the NFL's worst. The Raiders don't really have the offensive weapons to exploit that weakness, though -- in the first meeting between these teams this season, Oakland won 27-17, but did so with a defensive touchdown and two field goals. Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense present a far stronger test these days. -- DF
Only For The Faithful
Denver (11-3) at Houston (2-12) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Matt Schaub will start at QB for the Texans, in front of a less-than-friendly home crowd. He'll do so minus RB Ben Tate, who's on injured reserve. All signs point toward an emphatic Broncos victory, but they had best beware: another loss could drop them from first to fifth in the AFC. -- CB
Cleveland (4-10) at NY Jets (6-8) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Now that the Jets have officially been eliminated from the playoffs for the third straight season, we're about to find out if Rex Ryan's players will put forth the kind of effort that brings their coach back next year. It might take a couple of blowouts for that to happen. -- DF
Tennessee (5-9) at Jacksonville (4-10) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Believe it or not, this is a battle for second place in the AFC South. And recent history would point the Jaguars' way -- they've won two of three and four of six in this series, including a 29-27 win at Tennessee back in Week 10 that was Jacksonville's first of 2013. -- CB
Atlanta (4-10) at San Francisco (10-4) -- Monday, 8:40 p.m. ET, ESPN: The 49ers have been under the radar this season, but they're a real threat to anyone in the playoffs, and it's unlikely that they'll look past the Falcons after thrashing the Bucs last Sunday. Matt Ryan's offensive line has allowed the league's most pressures, and he'll be running for his life in the last regular-season game ever held at Candlestick Park. -- DF
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• When the Seahawks welcome the Cardinals to CenturyLink Field this Sunday, they'll want to pepper Carson Palmer with pressure as much as possible. Though Palmer has been playing very well over the last month, he's as vulnerable to pressure as he's always been -- he's tied with Eli Manning for the most interceptions under pressure this season with 10, and he's thrown just three touchdown passes while under fire.
Seattle's Russell Wilson gets pressured a lot behind an equally questionable offensive line, but he leads the NFL in touchdown passes in such situations with 10 -- one more than his idol, Drew Brees.
• It's fairly clear that Dallas' offense had two major issues last week against the Packers -- a mind-blowing refusal to run the ball when it works, and Tony Romo's tendency to throw picks at the worst possible time. These issues could be related. Romo has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions this season when Dallas runs play-action ... so, of course, the Cowboys have only run play-action 76 times in 2013. Of course.
• Chicago's Brandon Marshall has been lobbying for teammate Alshon Jeffrey to make the Pro Bowl, and Jeffrey has a compelling argument. Not only has Jeffrey kept pace with Marshall in production, but also he's far more efficient when the ball comes his way. Jeffrey has dropped just four passes on 123 targets, while Marshall has dropped 11 in 140 targets. One could argue that Marshall is getting passes requiring tougher one-on-one battles, but Jeffrey has won enough of those to invalidate such talk. Outside of Jeffrey's two fumbles this season, there's little separating him from the league's best at his position.
• This week's underrated defensive tackle we'd like to bring to your attention is Denver's Malik Jackson. While injuries to Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson have affected the Broncos' front seven, Jackson hasn't missed a beat. The second-year man from Tennessee ranks eighth in the league in total pressures among interior linemen with five sacks, eight quarterback hits and 23 hurries. Not bad for a fifth-round pick.
• The Vikings might want to look at a few more cornerbacks in the 2014 draft. They took Florida State's Xavier Rhodes in the first round in 2013, and Rhodes has played reasonably well. But Minnesota also has the league's two worst qualifying pass defenders by opponent passer rating in Chris Cook (145.5) and Josh Robinson (127.0). Cook has allowed seven touchdowns with no picks, and Robinson has allowed 56 catches on just 66 targets. -- DF
• Matchup to Watch: Kirk Cousins vs. Dallas' secondary. Cousins committed three turnovers last week in a loss to Atlanta. He also threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns -- not bad for his first start since last season. Sunday, he draws a prime matchup with the Cowboys' ghastly pass defense, the same one Green Bay's Matt Flynn fired four touchdowns against ... in the second half. Cousins worked the deep ball rather well in his first 2013 start, and Washington should give him some chances to do that again this week. The Cowboys really do not have anyone who can cover Pierre Garcon one-on-one.
• This Week’s Sleeper: Dennis Johnson, RB, Texans. The Broncos might blow the Texans out of the water Sunday, but the game at least ought to provide Houston an opportunity to give its undrafted back a heavy workload. Ben Tate joined Arian Foster on injured reserve this week, leaving Johnson as the go-to guy in the run game. Par for the course in a miserable season, Houston's run game has been disappointing in 2013. But Johnson might be able to provide a little spark.
• Pressure’s On …: Jay Cutler, QB, Bears. The Lions' Week 15 loss handed Chicago control of the division, for now. To keep it, the Bears need to come through on Sunday night in Philadelphia. And even with an inspired defensive effort, the Bears' suspect run defense figures to have issues limiting LeSean McCoy. That means Cutler likely will have to hang a decent number of points on the scoreboard to walk out with a victory.
• Rookie Spotlight: Matt Elam, S, Ravens. Elam backed up some talk last week by playing his best game yet Monday in Detroit. He totaled 10 tackles and sealed the game with an interception. He'll be put to the test again in Week 16, as he attempts to read and diagnose the Patriots offense. Gronkowski's absence ought to make everything more manageable for the Ravens defense, but there are still several slippery receivers to deal with, plus the threat of any of New England's backs sneaking out to make a catch. Elam can't get beat deep and he needs to be as aggressive as he was against Detroit in coming up to help his front seven. -- CB
• Baltimore. The Ravens have done just enough to take a crack at the AFC North title and the playoffs. A loss this week, however, and they could head into Week 17 out of the division race ... and in need of help elsewhere. -- CB •
Arizona. It's a base formula for Bruce Arians' team -- win out or go home. If they can pull the upset against the Seahawks in Seattle, it would set the tone for a huge game against the 49ers in the regular-season finale. -- DF
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