Carolina (9-3) at New Orleans (9-3) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: And it all comes down to this in the NFC South. The Saints have the conference-record tiebreaker, but as these two teams get ready to face off twice in three weeks, a division that was once thought to be New Orleans' by default is now a virtual toss-up. The Panthers have made it so by going on an eight-game tear in which they've outscored their opponents 211-99. The stretch of dominant play has also been kind to Cam Newton, who has now thrown for 2,616 yards and 19 touchdowns while adding 447 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Unquestionably, Carolina will be watching what the Seahawks did to the Saints on Monday night -- Russell Wilson keyed his zone-read runs off the inside-outside action of end Junior Galette, and Wilson riddled them with outside runs. Newton can do that to an even higher level.
The Saints couldn't return home until Tuesday afternoon because mechanical failures kept their plane from leaving Seattle, which means that head coach Sean Payton has his players focusing more on what challenges Carolina presents than all that went wrong during the 34-7 loss.
"The iPads had all the games of Carolina, cut-ups, everything that you necessarily need," Payton said this week. "I don't think there is a big adjustment or a big deal about getting back in the next day as opposed to 6 a.m."
The problem for the Saints is more schematic than geographical. Like Seattle, Carolina features a dominant front seven, great linebackers in pass coverage and a secondary that has improved in the second half of the season. Brees had his 43-game streak of games in which he threw for at least 200 yards snapped Monday, and the seven-point total was the lowest of the Payton era.
But the Panthers won't have home-field advantage until Dec. 22, and that's a problem, because the Saints play much better at home. They're 6-0 there, averaging 33.2 points per game (as opposed to 18.8 on the road), and Drew Brees' indoor quarterback rating is 121.4 (83.3 outside). Carolina has what it takes to sweep this series, but it may have to settle for a split if those trends hold fast. On defense, the key for Carolina will be to match linebacker Luke Kuechly on tight end Jimmy Graham, who lost several one-on-one matchups with Seattle's linebackers. Newton's main task will be to navigate Rob Ryan's blitzes, and he's qualified to do it -- he has a 90.1 rating against blitz packages, and he's thrown 11 touchdowns this season with five or more defenders on the line. -- Doug Farrar
Seattle (11-1) at San Francisco (8-4) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: This game has stood out all year as a must-see matchup -- two NFC West rivals in early December. The Seahawks have taken some of the drama out of the proceedings by pulling away in the division and conference race. Their 34-7 pasting of the Saints last week moved them to 11-1 on the year, ever closer to locking up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
One of those 11 wins came over the 49ers in Week 2, a 29-3 message-sending showing. The Seattle defense led the charge that day, opening the scoring with a second-quarter safety and forcing three Colin Kaepernick interceptions in the blowout.
San Francisco has had two other games in which it failed to hit double digits on the scoreboard -- and both came at home. The Colts shut the 49ers down in Week 3 (27-7), then Carolina pulled the trick in Week 10 (10-9). The offense has been better in its past two outings, topping 300 yards and 20 points in each.
Will the 49ers need more on Sunday?
Possibly, because Seattle's absolutely cooking right now. The Seahawks have won their past three games by an average of 23.7 points, while scoring at least 33 points each time. Russell Wilson has eight touchdowns and no interceptions in that stretch, again providing the balance to a run-heavy offense.
What San Francisco does have in this game that it did not back in Week 2 is some health at wide receiver. Michael Crabtree made his long-awaited 2013 debut last week and promptly broke free for a 60-yard catch. Mario Manningham's also a recent re-addition to the lineup, which means that Anquan Boldin is no longer the lone dangerous threat at WR.
Unsurprisingly, Kaepernick is on a little hot streak of his own, with four TDs and no picks over the past two weekends.
Of course, for all the attention Kaepernick and Wilson will receive, Seattle-San Francisco games tend to be won in the trenches. Will it be Marshawn Lynch or Frank Gore carrying the day in Week 14? The answer may determine the winner. -- Chris Burke
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Indianapolis (8-4) at Cincinnati (8-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bengals lead the AFC North, and they're succeeding now with a switched-up offensive line. Veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth moved inside to guard after Clint Boling was lost for the season to a torn ACL in Sunday's game against the Chargers, and that unit, with Anthony Collins replacing Whitworth outside, kept Andy Dalton from a single sack and cleared the way for 164 rushing yards. Of course, San Diego has the worst defense in the league, and the Colts provide a tougher test. Outside linebacker Robert Mathis leads the NFL with 15.5 sacks, and the Indy front seven allows almost a yard per carry less than San Diego's, per Football Outsiders. Where the Colts may have trouble is in defending the deep ball -- Andy Dalton has been slinging it deep all season, especially to super-receiver A.J. Green, and two of the Colts' three primary cornerbacks (Vontae Davis and Cassius Vaughn) are allowing opponent passer ratings above 90. Darius Butler has been the lockdown guy, but he spends more time in the slot. Of course, as we pointed out this week, more elite receivers are using the slot to create mismatches, and Green is one of them.
The Bengals' excellent defense will be tested more in the slot, especially by receiver T.Y. Hilton. Slot man Adam Jones was exposed against Chargers rookie Keenan Allen last week, and Hilton can stretch the field in ways that Allen can't. However, the Colts have had issues with slow starts this season, and conditions in Cincinnati could affect Andrew Luck. Indy's quarterback was asked about the last time he played in the snow -- which is forecasted for this game -- and he said that he probably hadn't done so since he was a kid.
That puts more of a focus on the run game, so expect to see more of Donald Brown in place of the ineffective Trent Richardson. Head coach Chuck Pagano started Brown over Richardson against the Titans last Sunday, and he responded with 54 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Luck added 42 yards on five scrambles, while Richardson managed just 19 yards on five chances. -- DF
Dallas (7-5) at Chicago (6-6) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Dallas topped 100 yards rushing just once in its first 10 games. It's gone over the mark each of the past two games on the efforts of DeMarco Murray and the now-injured Lance Dunbar. That's bad news for the Bears, who have not been able to stop anyone on the ground this season.
At 153.6 yards per game, Chicago has been the league's worst against the run this season and allowed 250 to Minnesota last week. Murray may not have his Dunbar safety net anymore, but he is coming off a three-TD showing.
If the Bears cannot limit Murray, they're likely to then have trouble against Tony Romo and the Cowboys' passing attack as well. And that means the pressure in this all-important game will fall on Josh McCown -- who's again starting in place of an injured Jay Cutler.
McCown has gone 2-2 as the Bears' starter, matching the .500 percentage put up by Cutler over his eight games. He's lost two in a row, however, at St. Louis and at Minnesota. The latter loss, in overtime after Robbie Gould missed a very makeable field goal, was particularly damaging. With it, the Bears fell to 6-6, a game back of the Lions in the NFC North (and Detroit owns a season sweep on Chicago).
The silver lining in that defeat was the play of wideout Alshon Jeffery. Chicago's emerging superstar went off for 12 catches and a franchise-record 249 yards. It also was his first multi-touchdown game of the season.
For as poor as Chicago has been against the run, Dallas' maligned defense has slumped almost as much against the pass. Three teams have thrown for more than 400 yards vs. the Cowboys, who rank next to last in pass defense.
So, if McCown has to air it out to keep pace with a Dallas ground assault, he might be able to do so. -- CB
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Detroit (7-5) at Philadelphia (7-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: These teams have two of the game's best passing attacks, but the real story here is that both defenses have turned things around. Billy Davis is making his hybrid defense work in Philly, and Detroit's front seven features DeAndre Levy, who's on pace to become the first linebacker ever to lead the NFL in interceptions. -- DF
Minnesota (3-8-1) at Baltimore (6-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Ravens have recovered from a 3-5 start to move into playoff position in the AFC. A brutal closing stretch (at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati) awaits, though, so this feels like a must-win. Despite tying the Packers and upsetting the Bears, Minnesota ranks 32nd in points allowed, so Joe Flacco and Baltimore's middling run game should have opportunities. That offense has not topped 22 points in the past six games. -- CB
Miami (6-6) at Pittsburgh (5-7) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Now that the league has meted out punishment to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin for his Thanksgiving night sideline gaffe, Pittsburgh needs to focus on its slim remaining playoff chances. Both Pittsburgh and Miami are spackling their offensive lines together, and that favors Miami at this point, because the Steelers defense has not resembled the great units of old this season. -- DF
Kansas City (9-3) at Washington (3-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: After their 9-0 start, the Chiefs have looked quite average in three straight losses. A matchup with the downtrodden Redskins could cure their ills -- or send K.C. fans spiraling into a full panic. Washington can draw on its last victory, back in Week 9 over San Diego. That's the same Chargers team that hung 41 points on the Chiefs on Nov. 24. -- CB
Tennessee (5-7) at Denver (10-2) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: Denver receiver Eric Decker won AFC Offensive Player of the Week after his four-touchdown performance against the Chiefs' sputtering defense, but the Titans are a different story. Cornerback Alterraun Verner's 30.2 quarterback rating allowed is more than 10 points lower than anyone else's, and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is just about unblockable. Peyton Manning's high-grade offense is going to have to earn this one. -- DF
St. Louis (5-7) at Arizona (7-5) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Had either of these teams won in Week 13, this game would have taken on added importance in the playoff race. Instead, only the Cardinals really have life -- and it's dwindling after a 24-21 setback in Philadelphia. The Rams won the first meeting of the season between these teams, an entertaining 27-24 contest. Both teams have improved since then, with Arizona's top-10 defense leading a major resurgence there. -- CB
Only For The Faithful
Oakland (4-8) at NY Jets (5-7) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Rex Ryan will keep Geno Smith as his starting quarterback this week, though he may want to trade for Raiders undrafted rookie Matt McGloin by the second quarter if Smith plays as he recently has. As always, the Jets will have to win with defense. -- DF
Atlanta (3-9) at Green Bay (5-6-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Count this as a do-or-die game for the Packers, who appear as if they'll have to find a way to win without Aaron Rodgers -- they're 0-4-1 since he injured his collarbone. Atlanta's offense is coming off its best showing of the year, a 34-point outburst to beat the Bills. -- CB
Cleveland (4-8) at New England (9-3) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Browns receiver Josh Gordon doesn't get enough national praise, but you can bet that Bill Belichick will have Aqib Talib shadowing Gordon all day -- despite Cleveland's travails at the quarterback position this season, Gordon is just about uncoverable when he's on. -- DF
Buffalo (4-8) at Tampa Bay (3-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: A rather meaningless game in the standings gets buoyed by two angles -- one, that the Buccaneers might be saving Greg Schiano's job with their improved play; and two, EJ Manuel vs. Mike Glennon brings some rookie-QB intrigue. -- CB
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(Unless otherwise indicated, all metrics come from our friends at Pro Football Focus).
• Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles has been just as impressive on the spreadsheets as he has been on the field, and his deep passing metrics are worth pointing out. Foles has thrown the ball 20 or more yards in the air just 34 times this season, but no quarterback has more deep touchdowns than his 12. Drew Brees ranks second with 11, and it's taken him 59 passing attempts to get that done.
No surprise, then, that DeSean Jackson is tied with Cincinnati's A.J. Green for the NFL lead in deep touchdowns with six. Both receivers have 13 deep catches, and Green has outgained Jackson on those plays, 504 yards to 483.
• Joe Flacco, on the other hand, has an unusual deep percentage. He's thrown 63 deep passes this year (tied for second with Andy Dalton, behind Matthew Stafford's 65), and he has just one deep touchdown with five interceptions. Last season, Flacco had 92 passes of 20 yards or more, and he racked up 11 touchdowns against no interceptions. Torrey Smith leads the league in deep targets with 33, but he has no scores to show for it -- and he had five in 2012.
• When it comes to protection stats, we spend too much time focusing on the linemen allowing the most quarterback pressures, so let's turn that around and praise San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley. On 337 pass-blocking snaps -- and with a mobile quarterback who sometimes runs himself into trouble -- Staley has just 12 total pressures allowed. Two sacks, one hit and nine hurries. Staley is unlikely to play against Seattle with a sprained MCL suffered against the Rams last Sunday, and the 49ers would turn to guard Alex Boone against the Seahawks. The good news is that Boone has allowed just 15 pressures of his own, though at a different position.
• You may not have heard of New York Jets defensive tackle Damon Harrison, but opposing running backs certainly know his name. The 6-foot-3, 350-pound second-year undrafted free agent from William Penn has 26 stops (plays for zero or negative yardage) in just 203 run snaps, ranking him second in the NFL behind Buffalo's Marcel Dareus, who has 32 stops in 268 run snaps. -- DF
• Matchup to Watch: Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake vs. Kelvin Beachum/Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert.
The Dolphins have recorded 37 sacks this season, with Vernon (10) and Wake (6.5) leading the way. For a banged-up Steelers offensive line that has struggled to protect Ben Roethlisberger, this stands as a tough draw.
Beachum has hung in there admirably on Roethlisberger's blindside, but he dinged his knee Thanksgiving night in Baltimore. (The Steelers also lost starting center Fernando Velasco, Maurkice Pouncey's replacement at center, to a season-ending injury in that game.) If Beachum cannot go, underachieving Mike Adams likely would slide back into the starting rotation. He and Gilbert would be primarily responsible for keeping the edges clean against Vernon and Wake.
If Roethlisberger's under constant pressure, the Dolphins will be in prime position to score a huge road victory.
• This Week’s Sleeper: Joseph Randle, RB, Cowboys.
DeMarco Murray will handle the majority of Dallas' duties in the run game on Monday, and Randle has averaged a mere 2.5 yards per carry this season. So, the upside may not be through the roof here.
Still, when the Cowboys opt to give Murray a breather Sunday, either Randle or Phillip Tanner will have the spotlight. In Chicago's loss to St. Louis, both Benny Cunningham and Zac Stacy found a groove, rushing for a combined 196 yards combined.
• Pressure’s On ...: Matt Flynn, QB, Packers.
If Flynn cannot bounce back from a brutal Thanksgiving Day showing in Detroit and get the Packers a win vs. Atlanta, well ... he might be starting the rest of the season, because Green Bay could shut down Aaron Rodgers at that point. At 5-6-1 through 12 games, the Packers likely need to win out to have any shot at the NFC North crown -- the possibility of a wild-card berth is long gone.
• Rookie Spotlight: Montee Ball, RB, Broncos. – CB
It took 13 weeks, but Ball finally broke loose last week against the Chiefs. Aided by a 45-yard run, Ball posted 117 yards on 13 carries, his first game up and over the century mark in his rookie season. Ball has moved into Denver's No. 2 RB role behind Knowshon Moreno, and the Broncos would love to see him keep his momentum going this Sunday. -- CB
• New Orleans: A loss Sunday to the Panthers, with a rematch set two weeks from now in Carolina, would put the Saints in serious jeopardy of falling to the edge of the playoff race. This team has to defend its home turf. -- CB
• Green Bay. The Packers are 0-4-1 since Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, and if they lose to the Falcons, it might be time to shut Rodgers down for the rest of the season as a pre-emptive move -- a measure which would open up all kinds of questions about the franchise's personnel acumen in recent years. -- DF
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