NFL Week 12 storylines: Packers-Giants, 49ers-Saints rematches on tap
The Green Bay Packers appeared headed to the Super Bowl last year after rolling through the regular season nearly untested (and one game away from unbeaten). The playoffs brought a new reality, though, as Green Bay had no answers for the Giants -- offensively or defensively -- in a stunning 37-20 setback.
The same weekend, the 49ers and Saints engaged in one of the more memorable playoff games in recent memory, with Drew Brees and Alex Smith trading big plays. Smith's team came up with one more game-changer en route to a 36-32 victory.
Both the Packers and Saints have a shot to exact some revenge on Sunday, as Green Bay visits New York and New Orleans hosts San Francisco.
The 49ers will bring a relatively new look into New Orleans for that matchup, with Colin Kaepernick having claimed (at least temporarily) the starting QB job over Smith. The Saints' defense has been playing better ball in recent weeks after starting the season on an historically bad pace. But they had no answer for Vernon Davis in that playoff loss and now must figure out a way to corral the athletic Kaepernick.
Green Bay, meanwhile, has won five straight to skyrocket back to the top of the NFC North. Can the Pack protect Aaron Rodgers, as it failed to do against the Giants a few months back?
The NFC playoff picture seems to grow more clouded by the week. The 49ers-Saints showdown and Packers-Giants Sunday nighter could clear things up a bit.
• Everything old is new again in Pittsburgh
The one and only pass that Charlie Batch has ever completed to Plaxico Burress occurred just shy of 10 years ago. In a Steelers loss on Nov. 30, 2003, Batch, in relief of Tommy Maddox, hit Burress for a 22-yard connection.
The Steelers may need a lot more from that duo on Sunday and in the coming weeks. With Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich injured, Batch will make just his third start since 2008, when Pittsburgh visits Cleveland.
He should have Burress as an option out wide -- the receiver who spent his first five NFL seasons in Pittsburgh re-signed with the team this week. The Steelers are banged up at that position too, with Jerricho Cotchery out indefinitely and Antonio Brown still hobbled by an ankle injury.
Pittsburgh remains in solid shape in the AFC wild-card race, but any AFC North title hopes the team has hang in the balance.
• Colts searching for a bounce-back performance
The team tied with Pittsburgh in the wild-card race, Indianapolis, took one on the chin last week, losing 59-24 to Tom Brady and the Patriots. At 6-4, Indianapolis holds its playoff destiny in its hands, but it feels pretty imperative that the Colts get back on a winning track Sunday against Buffalo.
Why? Well, the Colts still have two games left against the Texans plus a potential trap game at Detroit in Week 13. Heading into that closing stretch with a two-game skid could set Andrew Luck's squad up for disappointment.
• Is Atlanta's stranglehold on the NFC South in danger?
A couple weeks ago, the Falcons were 8-0 and wide receiver Roddy White was waxing philosophic about his team's chances to finish the season undefeated. The situation in Atlanta doesn't seem quite as cozy with Week 12 approaching.
The Falcons still have a three-game cushion in the NFC South, but that could be whittled down to two if Tampa Bay can knock Atlanta off on Sunday. Atlanta also faces a short turnaround for Week 13 -- the Falcons host the Saints in the Thursday nighter -- and closes the year with another game against the Bucs.
Suddenly, from looking like they could clinch the division around Week 11, the Falcons now find themselves fighting to nail down their standing. Raising the stakes further: San Francisco (7-2-1), Green Bay (7-3) and Chicago (7-3) all have the NFC's top spot within sight.
• After his reprieve, will Ed Reed be a difference-maker?
The Ravens initially believed they'd have to prep for Philip Rivers' San Diego offense sans Reed, their star safety. Reed was handed a one-game suspension for "repeated violations" of the NFL's defenseless player rule, due to a hit he laid on Pittsburgh's Emmanuel Sanders last week. After he appealed that punishment, however, Reed received a reduced sentence -- a $50,000 fine, instead of a suspension and loss of game check.
That's great news for the Ravens and bad news for the Chargers, two teams headed in opposite directions at the moment. Baltimore has won three straight, including one in Pittsburgh last week, to take control of the AFC North; San Diego has dropped back-to-back games, the latest a crushing defeat in Denver, all but eliminating the Chargers' division title hopes.
Reed could be a major playmaker Sunday against a mistake-prone Rivers. The 34-year-old Reed has three interceptions this season and 60 for his career, while Rivers already has thrown 14 picks of his own. Advantage: Baltimore.
• Black & Blue Division up for grabs
The aforementioned Packers have their hands full against the Giants on Sunday night, but a huge game in the NFC North division kicks off about seven hours before that. The 6-4 Vikings head into the Windy City this weekend to battle the struggling 7-3 Bears, who have lost two straight.
A Chicago win would crank up the pressure on Green Bay -- the Packers would then need to win in New York to stay tied atop the division. A Minnesota victory, on the other hand, could create a three-team deadlock for first -- that result plus a Packers loss would result in a trio of 7-4 clubs. The Bears and Vikings also meet again in Week 14, when the Vikings will play host.
• Monday night of misery
Back before the season started, when the TV minds were putting together their football lineups, the Panthers-Eagles matchup surely looked enticing -- Cam Newton vs. Michael Vick; a rising Carolina team against a Philadelphia squad expected to challenge in the NFC.
The Monday night audience still will get to see Newton, but he'll likely be matched up with rookie Nick Foles, in for an injured Vick. And of those high hopes for the teams? Carolina and Philadelphia are a combined 5-15 this season, with neither being in the playoff mix. Unfortunately, Monday night games are exempt from the NFL's flex-scheduling rules. Otherwise, you can be certain that ESPN would have headed a different direction this week.