Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 14

Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 14
December 6, 2013, 2:45 pm
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It’s Week 14 in the NFL, and after a quick Thanksgiving break, the Alphabet Preview is back. On that note, I can’t believe that Thanksgiving was only a week ago. And on that note, onto the preview.
 
A1: There are two games that deserve consideration for A1 status this week, but we’re going with Seattle at San Francisco (Sunday, 4 pm). First, because while no one will argue with the idea that the Seahawks are the best home team in the NFL, if they go on the road and beat San Francisco, then they’re the best team period (period)
 
For what it's worth, Seattle (11-1) hasn’t won at Candlestick since 2008. So long ago that TJ Duckett ran for a touchdown.
 
On the other side, forget the rivalry, the 49ers (8-4) really need this game. They’re only one up on Chicago and Arizona in the race for the second wild card. It also wouldn’t hurt for San Francisco to prove they can beat a good team. They’ve played four opponents this season that would be in the playoffs started today (Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina, New Orleans) and lost all four.
 
Harbaugh SMASH!
 
BOWL BOUND: If the Seahawks win, they instantly become the one team, in either conference, most likely to make a trip to the Super Bowl. They might hold that title anyway, but a victory on Sunday will just about wrap it up. That’s because, with a win, Seattle’s magic number to clinch homefield throughout the NFC playoffs is down to one. And when you look at their remaining schedule (at Giants, vs. Cardinals, vs. Rams) there’s no question that at least one more win is in the cards.
 
Either way, the Seahawks aren’t going to lose at home. The path to MetLife stadium will be wider than Charlie Weis.
 
Cam Crazies: The preview is back and playoff spots are on the line. Panthers (9-3) at Saints (9-3).
 
This is the opportunity that Cam Newton has been waiting for. Sunday Night Football. Under the Superdome. With first place on the line. This could very well be the night that Newton once and for all leaps into any discussion of the best quarterbacks in football. I’m not saying he can sit in the pocket and pick apart a defense like Brady, Brees or Manning, but he can dominate the game like no one else. And he’s doing more consistently. He’s finally taken a step back and embraced everything that goes into being a successful quarterback and leader.
 
Of course, in typical Newton fashion, he’s doing it to the extreme. He makes such an obvious point to always give credit to the team that sometimes it’s hard to tell if he’s being 100 percent genuine. But that’s nitpicking. This has been an unbelievable year for Newton, and if he pulls off the upset on Sunday Night it’s about to get a whole lot better.
 
DESTINY: There have been so many opportunities to bury the Ravens this season, and I’ve taken just about all of them. But here we are in Week 14, and Baltimore controls its own destiny for the playoffs.
 
The Ravens (6-6) host the Vikings (3-8-1) this Sunday, and although Minnesota has nothing to play for, that doesn’t matter when Adrian Peterson’s involved. I’m not sure there’s a guy in this league who plays harder with nothing on the line than AP. Part of that, unfortunately, is that he has a lot of practice. But also, he’s so obsessed with breaking every record in the NFL history that he’ll play the fourth quarter of 50-7 blowout like it’s the Super Bowl. Peterson’s coming off last week’s 211-yard explosion against the Bears, and is obviously the biggest, and only, challenge for the Ravens D.
 
If they can keep a lid on AP, the Ravens will win, and hold their ground in the standings. But after that, it gets brutal. Their last three games come against three division leaders: at Detroit, vs. New England and at Cincinnati.
 
EVEN NO MORE: Speaking of Cincinnati, that’s the site of the biggest game in the AFC this week: Colts at Bengals.
 
Both teams are 8-4, and have a reasonable shot to catch New England for a first round bye. The winner will, at least.
 
For the Colts, this is a big statement game. They haven’t had an impressive win since beating the Broncos in Week 7. And since then, they’ve had a few really bad losses. With Reggie Wayne out for the year, Trent Richardson a total bust and recent reports that the organization isn’t so happy with offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, a win would go along way in restoring some faith. Even if the Colts are still at least a year a way from really competing.
 
For the Bengals, this is a game that they should win. They’re six and a half point favorites and should benefit from the currently horrible weather report that’s calling for freezing rain and snow. Cincinnati has two quality running backs and one, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who’s at his best in messy conditions. Meanwhile, thanks to the Richardson disaster, the Colts have Donald Brown.
 
FRESHNESS: Back to the NFC, because that’s where all the good games are this week. This one’s on Monday night: Dallas at Chicago. A classic battle of two old school franchises looking to get over the hump.
 
If nothing else, the Cowboys (7-5) will be the fresher of the two teams. They last played on Thanksgiving, and the Thursday night to next Monday night break is about as good as it gets. It’s basically a second bye. That had to help Dez Bryant, who’s been dealing with a sore back. It definitely helped starting linebacker Sean Lee, who’s back after missing the last two games with a sore hamstring.
 
It doesn’t seem right to say (or think) because we’re talking about the Cowboys here, something always goes wrong, but right now, they’re set up pretty well for the home stretch. Assuming they get out of Chicago.
 
GASPING FOR AIR: The Bears should be dead, but they’re still holding on. Despite losing three of their last four games, they’re only one game behind the Lions for first place in the AFC North. And those Lions have a tough test on Sunday in Philadelphia. First place is right there.
 
Chicago’s offense will be fine on Sunday. Josh McCown is filling in admirably for Jay Cutler. Matt Forte is less than 30 yards away from 1000 on the season. Plus, the Cowboys defense stinks.
 
But the Bears defense isn’t much better, and I’ll take Tony Romo in a duel over McCown.
 
HOMECOMING: One fun storyline to watch in Sunday’s Dolphins at Steelers game (aside from how many tackles Mike Tomlin has), is Mike Wallace’s return to Pittsburgh.
 
As far as I can tell, there are two positive aspects of Wallace’s decision to spurn the Steelers in free agency.
 
1. He got paid.
 
2. It allowed Antonio Brown to emerge as one of the best receivers in the league.
 
Other than that, it’s been a mess. Wallace isn’t living up to expectations in Miami. The Steelers offense is a bust. If they could do it all again, I wonder if the two sides would find away to make it work?
 
Who knows. In reality, the Steelers are 5-7 and need a win to stay alive. The Dolphins are 6-6 and tied with the Ravens for the last playoff spots in the AFC. Pittsburgh is a three-point favorite, and that seems about right. This is the kind of game that the Steelers typically win. Although I guess that depends on how much you’re willing to compare these Steelers with the teams that have come before them.
 
ICE QUEEN: For the Broncos, the objective is simple: Win your last four games against four very beatable opponents, and clinch home field advantage through the AFC playoffs. But for Peyton Manning, the objective is somewhat complicated by the arrival of winter.
 
At this point, Manning’s issues in the cold are no secret. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he’s 3-7 for his career when the game time temperature is 32 degrees or colder. In those 10 games, he’s thrown 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Of course, who knows? Maybe it’s all just one big coincidence. Peyton certainly thinks so.
 
So often in sports we find ourselves jumping to conclusions and speaking in absolutes about what particular players are capable of in particular situations. He can’t win on the road. He can’t win in the playoffs. He’ll never win at all! That is, until he proves otherwise and we all forget the whole conversation ever happened. Remember when LeBron James couldn’t win a title?
 
However, in Peyton’s case, we’re on year 15 of subpar performances in the cold. At the very least, it’s something to consider when evaluating the Broncos chances this year.
 
If Peyton wants to shut everyone up, he can start on Sunday against the Titans. The weatherpeoples in Denver are calling for a game time temperature in the high-teens, and there’s a 30 percent chance of snow. And while the Titans are a very average team, their secondary is among the best in the league. On the season, the Titans rank seventh in passing yards allowed, despite ranking fourth in opposing pass attempts. They’re led by safety Bernard Pollard, who, aside from being one of the most evil human being to ever walk the Earth, was also one of the anchors of the Ravens secondary that helped knock out Peyton in last year’s playoffs.
 
The good news for Denver (and everyone) is that John Fox will make his return to the sidelines on Sunday, four weeks after open-heart surgery. No doubt that Manning will be happy and inspired by Fox’s presence. Especially if he brings extra handwarmers.
 
JOSH GORDON!!!!: From the moment this year’s schedule was released there were very few expectations for Sunday’s Patriots/Browns game. It was always supposed to be exactly what it is: A match-up between one of the AFC’s best, fully focused on jockeying for playoff position, and a perennial AFC also-ran, fully focused on April’s draft.
 
But there is a little unexpected excitement heading into Sunday’s game: JOSH GORDON!!!! Gordon comes to Gillette with 24 catches, 498 yards in three touchdowns in his last two games. For reference, Kenbrell Thompkins has 32 catches for 466 yards and four touchdowns on the season. Gordon became the first player in NFL history to have back-to-back 200 yard receiving games, and the fact that he did it with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell at quarterback is an achievement worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
 
Unfortunately for Gordon, without any other legitimate threats on the Browns offense (aside from maybe rookie tight end Jordan Cameron), Bill Belichick has dedicated his entire week to shutting down Cleveland’s budding superstar. Gordon might spend the afternoon fighting off triple coverage and dodging sniper bullets from the Gillette watchtower. But it will be fun to watch him do it.
 
KEEPING PACE: A Patriots (9-3) loss to the Browns (4-8) would be inexcusable, but more importantly, it would really threaten New England’s seemingly firm grasp on a first round bye. In fact, if the Patriots lose on Sunday and the Bengals beat the Colts, Cincinnati would take over the two-seed. On the flip side, the Pats still probably need to win out to have any chance of catching Denver for the No. 1 overall seed.
 
Above all else, while not entirely necessary, it would sure be nice to see the Patriots run Cleveland off the field this Sunday. To dominate wire-to-wire leave no doubt as to which team has Super Bowl aspirations and which one is the Browns.
 
LETDOWN: The Atlanta Falcons (3-9) have the market cornered on letdown games this season. Just about every week, you can look at Atlanta’s match-up and think, “Man, this game was supposed to be amazing back in September.” But today, those games are irrelevant because the Falcons are irrelevant. Well, unless Matt Ryan’s your fantasy quarterback. Then again, if Matt Ryan’s your fantasy quarterback then your fantasy team is also irrelevant.
 
All that said, this time around, it’s hard to put all the letdown blame on Atlanta, seeing how Sunday’s opponent was supposed to be pretty good too, yet hasn’t won a game since before Halloween.
 
MYSTERY MAN: That opponent is Green Bay, and the only storyline that matters for the Pack is the status of Aaron Rodgers. As I type, he wants to play and has been practicing on a limited basis. However, five weeks removed from his broken collarbone, Rodgers hasn’t been cleared. The Packers aren’t sure if it’s even worth it.
 
In related news: It’s not worth it.
 
Yeah, a relatively healthy Aaron Rodgers will make Green Bay (5-6-1) a better team. Rodgers could be high on mushrooms with weights tied around his ankles and his left arm in a bear trap and he’d still be more effective than Matt Flynn. But the Packers’ 2013 Super Bowl ship has sailed. They’re better off letting Rodgers heal while positioning themselves for a better draft pick.
 
(Update: He’s been ruled out for Sunday. Smart move.)    
 
NINE YEARS AND COUNTING: The Rams got off to a promising start this season with a Week 1 victory over Arizona. But in the time since, they’ve lost Sam Bradford to a torn ACL, lost seven of their last 11 games and now (at 5-7) are all but guaranteed to miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year. Ninth! Think about that. The last time the Rams made the playoffs, Marshall Faulk was their starting running back. Tom Brady was only a one-time Super Bowl champ. Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t launched Facebook. Brad Stevens was 16 years old!
 
OK, that last one isn’t true, but the Rams’ nine-year drought is the fourth longest active streak in the NFL behind the Bills (about to be 14), and the Raiders and Browns (who are both headed for No. 11).
 
St. Louis takes on the Cardinals again on Sunday (4:25 pm, in Arizona), but their focus is already on 2014.
 
ONE THAT YOU NEED: On the other hand, at 7-5, the Cardinals are still alive for a playoff spot, but it won’t be easy. First of all, because they have no shot in their division. Second, because they’ll need the 49ers, Saints and/or Panthers to fall apart down the stretch. And third, because they’re remaining schedule after Sunday’s visit from the Rams is about as inviting as car ride with Aaron Hernandez. The Cardinals are at Tennessee next week. They’re at Seattle in Week 16 and then wrap up the season at home against the 49ers.
 
There’s a chance that the finale will played with a postseason berth on the line, but Arizona needs to take care of business against the Rams to have any chance.
 
QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Is this the Lions year?
 
Between Matthew Stafford putting it all together, the success of Reggie Bush, the dominance of Megatron, the fact that the defense has gotten over its obsession with personal fouls and not to mention the injuries to Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, it really feels like this should be the year that Lions finally get over the hump and win their first NFC North title since 1993.
 
And for the most part they’ve lived up to that expectation. They have been and currently are the best team in that division. It feels like they’re in control. But when you look at the standings, Detroit’s still only up one game on the Bears. And this Sunday, they have a tough game on the road against the Eagles, who haven’t lost since October 27.
 
RECORD SETTER: The key to the Lions beating the Eagles is for them to somehow wake Nick Foles up from whatever dream he’s been living these past six weeks. On the season, Foles leads the NFL with a 125.2 passer rating, and more impressively, he’s one touchdown shy of breaking Peyton Manning’s record for most touchdowns in a season before throwing an interception.
 
Foles hasn’t been perfect. There have been more than a few balls that should have been intercepted. Patrick Peterson picked him off last week, before the play was erased by a penalty. But in general, Folk’s been good enough to save Philly’s season. They’re currently tied with the Cowboys atop the NFC East at 7-5, and although Dallas owns the tiebreaker, all the Eagles need to do is keep pace, with one eye on their Week 17 trip to Dallas.
 
SEQUEL: You’ve heard of 127 Hours with James Franco, well the sequel’s called 127 Minutes and it’s about the New York Jets and the time they spent 127 minutes stranded on a football field without scoring a touchdown.
 
The exact count is actually 129 minutes and 36 seconds since the Geno Smith and the Jets found the endzone. That’s a total of 114 offensive plays. And on that note, it’s no surprise that New York has lost two straight games, four of their last five and completely dropped out of the AFC playoff picture.  
 
As far as this week’s game against the Raiders (4-8) goes, it should help that for the first time since Week 4, Geno’s in line to have both Santonio Holmes and Jeremy Kerley in the line-up at the same time. Also, that the Raiders D ranks 21st in points allowed this season and the Raiders team is 0-5 away from the Coliseum.
 
THE TRADE: There’s almost nothing on the line between the Giants (5-7) and Chargers (5-7) on Sunday, so instead, the media spent a lot of time this week discussing the 2006 Draft and the trade that sent Eli Manning to New York, Philip Rivers to San Diego and altered the outcome of at least two of the last six Super Bowls.
 
You ever wonder what would have happened if Rivers and Manning never switched teams? I hadn’t until just now, but I think Rivers would have been fine. He has the right personality for New York. On the other hand, what about Eli? How much did he benefit for playing that first season behind Kurt Warner? What if he spent those formative years under the gaze of Norv Turner’s sleepy eyes instead of Tom Coughlin’s iron fist?
 
Either way, we can all agree this is a horrible game. Although it’ll be fun to watch Ladarius Green’s continued transformation into one of the most dominant tight ends in the league.
 
UPSET OF THE WEEK: When you’re looking for a good upset, it’s best to start with the home underdogs, but this week, there’s a little problem. Or maybe it’s less of a problem. Either way, across all 15 games to be played on Sunday and Monday night, the Kansas City Chiefs (-3 at Washington) are the one and only road favorite.
 
So, that makes the Skins the safest upset bet, but I’m not feeling it. For whatever reason, I don’t see the Chiefs losing four straight games. I don’t see things getting better in Washington until they get worse and Mike Shanahan gets fired.
 
Instead, I’ll take the Lions over the Eagles. Even though Philly has won four straight, those wins came against Oakland, the Rodgerless Packers, the struggling Skins and last week they barely beat the Cardinals at home. Detroit is Philly’s toughest competition in more than a month, and they won’t be up to it.
 
Final Score: Detroit 38, Philadelphia 27
 
VANISHING ACT: Poof! There went the Chiefs playoff chances. Of course, they’ll still make it. They’re still a good team, with a very underrated quarterback and I already picked them to bounce back on Sunday against the Redskins. But the Super Bowl dreams are gone. Two games at Arrowhead was KC’s only realistic path. And it’s about as likely that they catch Denver as it is that Andy Reid’s named People’s 2014 “Sexiest Man Alive.”
 
WARMING EFFECT: Not much to say about Sunday’s Buffalo at Tampa Bay game, except that I’m sure the Bills appreciate the opportunity to escape the harsh Buffalo winter for a few days.
 
Then again, while this game means very little to anyone outside of the two participating cities, and has less than zero playoff implications, it’s an important one for the Bills and Bucs. Every game’s important when you have a rookie quarterback under center. These next few weeks will be as important as any in the development of Mike Glennon and EJ Manuel, and the good news is that there’s no pressure because no one will be watching.
 
X-FACTOR: To take it back to the conversation at the very top of the preview, right now, one of the biggest x-factors in the entire season is Percy Harvin. Everyone expected him back eventually this year, and when he returned to the lineup, he instantly added another dimension to an already legitimate Super Bowl contender.
 
But after one game, he was back on the sidelines nursing that injured hip. He won’t play against the 49ers, and there’s no guarantee he’ll play again this year. If he doesn’t Seattle might still be OK. But Harvin, even if he’s not 100 percent, raises the expectations to another level.
 
YESTERDAY’S NEWS: How about them Jaguars?! Three games in a row! They’re now owners of the longest win streak in the entire AFC and if they’re not careful might win themselves right out of the top 10 in this year’s draft.
 
The Texans don’t have to worry about that. They’re pretty much guaranteed a top pick. Meanwhile, Gary Kubiak won’t have to worry about anything pretty soon. Except finding a new job.
 
ZEBRAS: The NFL officiating has been awful this season, and the Patriots will be reacquainted with one of the worst this Sunday against Cleveland.
 
Yup, looking at you Jerome Boger.
 
Honestly, the league would be a much better place if there were less Bogers and more Peter Morellis.
 
That’s all. Enjoy the games.