By Chris Burke
December 07, 2012

Carolina-defense Matt Ryan and the Falcons have defeated the Carolina Panthers five games in a row. (AP)

You have to hand it to Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy. His Panthers are 3-9, on the verge of mathematical elimination from the playoff race and about to host an 11-1 Atlanta that already has wrapped up the NFC South.

And yet, here we are, heading into Week 14 with a curious eye cast toward Sunday's Panthers-Falcons contest.

The reason: Hardy said Wednesday that the Panthers "better" than the Falcons, according to the Charlotte Observer. When he was asked to clarify if he meant that the last-place Panthers can handle the NFC's top team or if he was merely commenting that Carolina let one get away against Atlanta in Week 4, Hardy replied: "Both."

"I'm trying to mess up their whole playoff experience," he told the Observer. "I want them to go home sick in the stomach, mad about life, a couple depression issues, all types of things. It's going to be a long day from my point of view. I'm coming."

Atlanta could downshift into cruise control after clinching the division, but the Falcons do still have a first-round bye and the No. 1 seed in their sights. They could claim both this week, with a win and some help.

Hardy and his teammates appear ready to do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening Sunday.

Here's what else is on our radar heading into Week 14:

Big Ben makes his return

The Steelers will trot Ben Roethlisberger back out as their starting quarterback, complete with Kevlar-lined padding to protect his injured ribs and shoulder. Could Pittsburgh have given its QB another week? Maybe. The Chargers head into Sunday's game riding a four-game losing streak and they've never won in Pittsburgh, posting an 0-14 mark all-time.

With Byron Leftwich and then Charlie Batch filling in for Big Ben, the Steelers posted a 1-2 record -- but that one win might have changed their plans slightly. Batch's shocking upset of Baltimore in Week 13 not only kept the Steelers in a wild-card position, but also pulled them within two games of Baltimore in the AFC North.

The Ravens face a trying final four games, so Pittsburgh might sense an opportunity. Hence, Roethlisberger's insertion into the lineup.

An AFC championship game preview?

Just about any way you slice it, the marquee matchup of Week 14 occurs Monday night, when 11-1 Houston visits 9-3 New England. Both teams have secured playoff spots already, and the Texans should soon join the Patriots as division winners.



As the AFC stands right now, all roads to the Super Bowl would go through Houston in the playoffs -- the Texans have a two-game cushion on New England and Baltimore, and a 1.5-game edge on Denver, which moved to 10-3 Thursday. The Patriots would love to wrestle home-field advantage away, but their chances of claiming the top seed would drop to nil with a loss Monday.

Denver's win over Oakland also means that New England needs a victory to stay in line for a first-round bye. The Patriots hold the head-to-head tiebreaker on the Broncos, but they could slip to as low as fourth place in the conference should they stumble against the Texans.

• On record watch in the NFC North

Aaron Rodgers may be the favorite right now for Offensive Player of the Year, but an argument can be crafted that he's been only the third-best weapon in his own division.

Nos. 1 and 2, in some order, are Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson. Neither may wind up in the playoffs -- the Lions are all but dead at 4-8, while the Vikings face a must-win Sunday against the Bears -- but both could rewrite the record books before all is said and done.

Peterson, in an amazing return from a serious knee injury, has 1,446 yards rushing with four games left. He told reporters this week that he is "always looking for 2,000" yards in a season, and that breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing mark of 2,105 yards "sounds good, too."

Peterson needs to average 164.8 yards in his final four games to break Dickerson's record. So, that is a bit more of a stretch that what Calvin Johnson has in his sights: Jerry Rice's single-season receiving record.

Johnson has compiled 1,428 yards receiving this season, a mere 420 shy of Rice's mark, set in 1995. For the Lions' superstar to dethrone Rice, he'd have to average 120 yards per game to close the season; he has at least 129 yards in each of his last five outings, during which he's averaged 158 yards receiving.

The NFC East, headed down to the wire

Washington thrust the NFC East into some chaos last week by toppling first-place New York. Now, both the Redskins and Cowboys sit just a game back in the standings. The Giants host New Orleans Sunday, the first of four very difficult foes awaiting Eli Manning's bunch.

The Redskins, meanwhile, are set to host a very intriguing showdown with AFC North-leading Baltimore -- is the Ravens defense, with Ray Lewis still out and Terrell Suggs ailing, capable of slowing Robert Griffin III? Dallas is the only team of the three East contenders on the road, with a trip to Cincinnati looming.

Romeo Crennell, Peyton Hillis, Brady Quinn return to Cleveland

The past few days have been extremely trying for the Kansas City Chiefs, in light of teammate Jovan Belcher's murder-suicide incident. Sunday will be emotional too for several Chiefs, in an entirely different way.

Brady Quinn, a winner in Week 13, will get the start again this week as the Chiefs visit Cleveland, where Quinn's career began. RB Peyton Hillis joined him there, putting up a Madden video game cover-worthy 2010 before falling out of favor. And Crennel led the Browns from 2005 through 2008 -- his last head coaching job before taking over in K.C.

Mark Sanchez gets his 1,000th shot

Despite Greg McElroy's relief win last Sunday, Jets coach Rex Ryan is sticking with Mark Sanchez as his No. 1 quarterback. You can read more about the reasoning behind that decision here, in an Audibles post from earlier this week. The summary is this: The Jets have too much money committed to Sanchez to cast him aside completely.

But McElroy will be ready and waiting if Sanchez bombs in Jacksonville.

Wild-card leaders try to hold serve

We've touched on Pittsburgh's tenuous position, but its fellow wild-card frontrunners -- Indianapolis in the AFC, Chicago and Seattle in the NFC -- have plenty of work left to do as well.

The Colts and Bears, both at 8-4, seem to be in pretty decent shape three-quarters of the way through the year. Each has a two-game cushion in their respective wild-card races; the Bears are tied for first in the NFC North and host Green Bay next week.

Seattle does not appear to be coughing up its foothold any time soon either. The Seahawks went to Chicago last week and pulled off a dramatic OT win. They now return home, where they are 5-0 this season, for three of their final four games.

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