It's difficult to remember the previous time the Carolina Panthers lost a regular-season game.
It sure wasn't this season. They are the lone remaining unbeaten after New England went down at Denver last weekend. The Panthers (11-0) have a realistic shot at repeating the Patriots' achievement of 2007, winning all 16 regular-season outings.
When they visit New Orleans on Sunday - where their 15-game string began last season - the Panthers can clinch the NFC South with a victory. New Orleans (4-7) has dropped three in a row and can't stop anyone, a far cry from Carolina's D.
''Obviously, their defense is tops in the league,'' says Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, who is close: Carolina ranks second.
''They're playing well. They're playing very aggressive football, very physical football. They are the main reason why they are 11-0. ... Their defensive line does a good job of creating pressure, they move around a lot. Their linebackers obviously get to the football, and they wreak havoc.''
The Panthers are plus-16 in turnover margin and have 28 takeaways.
That havoc has translated to the offense, too. Cam Newton running and throwing, Greg Olsen catching, Jonathan Stewart rushing - it's been a potent combination lately.
''It's just guys are making plays when their numbers are called,'' Newton says. ''There is no magic dust or anything that is special. It is just guys finding a way to win football games.''
The action began Thursday night with Green Bay's stunning 27-23 victory at Detroit.
Aaron Rodgers threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Richard Rodgers with no time left to lift the Packers (8-4) past the Lions (4-8). Green Bay got the untimed down after Detroit defensive end Devin Taylor was called for grabbing Aaron Rodgers' facemask on a tackle on what would've been the last play.
Seattle (6-5) at Minnesota (8-3)
Perhaps the feature presentation of the weekend, with the Seahawks finally above .500 and thinking they can stage a surge similar to last season's, which landed them in the Super Bowl. Seattle's offense has begun to crank up with Thomas Rawls at running back instead of injured Marshawn Lynch, and Doug Baldwin emerging as a No. 1 receiver. But tight end Jimmy Graham (knee) is done after getting hurt in last week's victory over Pittsburgh, when Russell Wilson threw for a career-best five touchdowns.
''We're not going to change,'' coach Pete Carroll said of losing Graham. ''We didn't really change when Jimmy got here. We just wanted to get the football there.''
Minnesota is for real, rebounding from a home loss to Green Bay with a solid win at Atlanta. Adrian Peterson once more is the league's best runner, and the defense is formidable.
Philadelphia (4-7) at New England (10-1)
New England remains formidable despite its injury woes, and a victory against the reeling Eagles, combined with a Jets loss, finishes off the AFC East race. Of most interest here could be who Tom Brady targets with his throws. Wondering if the Patriots have calls into Irving Fryar and Stanley Morgan to help their ailing receiving group?
Philly has dropped three straight and four of five as questions about coach Chip Kelly's offseason moves - and future with the Eagles - become louder.
Denver (9-2) at San Diego (3-8)
The Broncos' impressive rally in handing the Patriots their first loss has gotten attention throughout the NFL - in part because of who started it. Brock Osweiler seems to have learned his lessons well from Peyton Manning, who remains on the mend.
Denver's defense is its sharpest tool right now, which is a good thing considering how formidable San Diego's Philip Rivers has been. Despite a slew of injuries to the offense, Rivers ranks seventh in passer rating and has thrown 23 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
Kansas City (6-5) at Oakland (5-6)
Some juice has been added to this long and often nasty rivalry with both teams in contention for a wild card.
Kansas City's five-game winning string has been built on stingy defense, mistake-free passing by Alex Smith, a solid running game even with Jamaal Charles sidelined, and good coaching.
The Raiders also have some dynamic offensive options - David Carr, Latavius Murray, Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper - but their defense isn't nearly as fearsome as KC's.
Arizona (9-2) at St. Louis (4-7)
The all-time series between the current inhabitants of St. Louis - for how long? - and the former is deadlocked at 36-36-2.
Arizona fell at home to St. Louis in Week 4, when rookie Todd Gurley made his first start and ran for 146 yards. But these Rams are struggling, their pass offense going nowhere. They have dropped four in a row, yet are 3-0 within the NFC West.
For St. Louis to have any chance, it must get a big pass rush on Carson Palmer, the NFL's No. 2 passer behind Brady.
Cincinnati (9-2) at Cleveland (2-9)
A playoff berth is within reach for the Bengals, who need a win over the hapless Browns and losses by Houston, Indianapolis and the Jets as the most clear entry point. There are others.
But the Bengals are one game behind for overall AFC home-field advantage, and Cleveland certainly is no place to stumble.
The Browns chose Austin Davis over Johnny Manziel as the starting quarterback with Josh McCown on injured reserve. What does that say about Johnny Football's future in Cleveland?
New York Jets (6-5) at New York Giants (5-6)
Ask each team about archrivals and there's not likely to be much mention of this matchup. Fans in the Big Apple are far more intrigued.
The Giants have won the past five meetings, taking the past two, in 2007 and 2011, on the way to NFL titles. They don't seem headed on the same path and come off an awful performance at Washington. Still, they are tied atop the NFC East with the Redskins.
The Jets have the good fortune of this being a ''road game,'' and a win would re-establish their wild-card credentials.
Dallas (3-8) at Washington (5-6), Monday night
Now THIS is a rivalry game, one of the most intense in the NFL.
Washington has two meetings left with Dallas, which of course won't have Tony Romo and is winless without its top quarterback. That alone could decide the mediocre NFC East.
Dallas' Jason Witten needs two catches to become the second tight end with 1,000 catches, joining Tony Gonzalez.
The Redskins have won their past five home games.
Atlanta (6-5) at Tampa Bay (5-6)
Talk about struggling teams, the Falcons reeled off five wins to begin 2015 and are 1-5 since. Matt Ryan's inability to protect the ball and bad decision making have haunted Atlanta, even with Julio Jones having a sensational season. Jones leads the NFL with 94 catches for 1,245 yards and he batters the Bucs: a 147.3-yard per game average.
The Buccaneers are going for the first season sweep of this series since 2007. Doug Martin is second in the league in rushing behind Adrian Peterson with 1,038 yards.
Indianapolis (6-5) at Pittsburgh (6-5)
Matt Hasselbeck is making quite a statement for the fortysomethings. He is 4-0 filling in for the injured Andrew Luck. No quarterback in league history has won five straight starts at age 40 or older. He is as responsible as anyone for Indy's turnaround to a tie for the top spot in the AFC South.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger removed himself late from the loss to Seattle last Sunday, and he either was concussed (as coach Mike Tomlin has said) or has had migraines (as Big Ben has said).
Houston (6-5) at Buffalo (5-6)
Like the Colts, AFC South co-leader Houston has a difficult road assignment. And like the Colts, the Texans have been playing some solid football, led by a defense that is peaking behind star end J.J. Watt. He leads the league with 13 1-2 sacks and seems to be everywhere on the field.
The Bills, on the other hand, have not made the big statements expected of a Rex Ryan defense. Worth watching will be the production of two former Clemson wideouts who have become their teams top receiving options: Houston's DeAndre Hopkins and Buffalo's Sammy Watkins.
San Francisco (3-8) at Chicago (5-6)
The job John Fox and his staff have done in resurrecting the Bears has been somewhat stunning considering how awful they were in September. Yet here they are with an outside chance at a wild-card berth. Four of Chicago's five remaining games are against teams with losing records: San Francisco, Washington, Tampa Bay, Detroit (4-7). The exception is at Minnesota on Dec. 20.
The 49ers have lost all five road games.
Baltimore (4-7) at Miami (4-7)
Two of the NFL's biggest disappointments. Baltimore has a big edge here in that Ravens coach John Harbaugh is 5-0 against the Dolphins. His defense has sacked Ryan Tannehill 12 times in two meetings.
Miami has become pass happy. It throws 67 percent of the time, the highest rate in the league. And the Dolphins rank 31st in third-down conversions at 28 percent. They're even worse on fourth downs, 27 percent (4 for 15).
Jacksonville (4-7) at Tennessee (2-9)
The Titans remain winless at home, a streak now at 11; the previous win was in 2014 over the Jaguars. The only race they are in is for the top overall draft choice. But they've been relatively competitive and they do have their quarterback of the future in Marcus Mariota.
As does Jacksonville in Blake Bortles. He has 22 TD throws and needs two to pass David Garrard (23 in 2010) for the franchise's single-season record.
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