Though four teams have already clinched playoff berths, the playoff picture is anything but clear heading into Week 14. Only three teams — Oakland, Jacksonville, and Kansas City — have been officially eliminated from the postseason. Carolina and Philadelphia — though the lights are certainly flickering — are still mathematically alive in the NFC playoff race. The Texans and Patriots square off in what might very well be an AFC Championship Game preview, the Redskins and Ravens go at it in a battle of the Mid-Atlantic, and the Giants look to avenge last year’s embarrassing 'Monday Night Football' loss in New Orleans. Here are Peter Schrager's top 10 storylines for Week 14:
Arizona’s quarterbacks going into CenturyLink Field? Oh, boy.
Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Mark Sanchez -- four quarterbacks who've combined for four Super Bowl rings and 25 postseason victories -- have all lost games in Seattle this season. What are John Skelton (pictured) and Ryan Lindley going to do? If you're interested in finding out the answer, you probably like pain. Some would call that Schadenfreude. After Lindley's horrendous 10-31, 72-yard performance last week against the Jets, coach Ken Whisenhunt is giving the ball back to Skelton on Sunday. Losers of eight straight, the 2012 season can't end quickly enough for Arizona. It's amazing to consider this squad was once 4-0.
Big offense meets big defense in the AFC's biggest game of the week.
Think home-field advantage matters in the AFC? Whereas the NFC Championship Game has featured road team winners in each of the past two seasons, the past six AFC Championship Games were won by the home team. Houston (11-1) and New England (9-3) would be the top two seeds in the AFC if the playoffs were this weekend. A win for the Texans, and they’ve got tiebreakers over the Patriots, Ravens and Broncos heading into January. A Texans' loss, and things get awfully interesting. Remember, Houston still has to play the Colts twice this season.
The Jets. The Jaguars. Yuck.
Let’s be honest — this one’s not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing matchup on the Week 14 slate. If anything, it will serve as a sociological experiment for the football obsessed. How much pain can you — as a die-hard NFL fan — endure? The Jets boast the 29th-ranked offense in the league. The Jaguars offense, ranked 30th, make Gang Green look like the ’99 “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams. Chad Henne, one week after getting his first win as a starter since 2010, came back down to Earth last week in Buffalo. The Jets’ three-headed monster at quarterback is anything but a monster. Somehow, the 5-7 Jets are still relevant in the playoff picture. A loss would put an end to that notion.
Christian Ponder’s engaged. Neat. Now, can he go out and play well in a big football game?
There has been lots of Internet ink spilled on Christian Ponder’s engagement to ESPN sideline reporter Samantha Steele this week, but not nearly as much ink spilled on the egg that Ponder laid last week against the Packers. Though the 24-13 score might have made the game appear to be a bit one-sided, it really wasn’t. The Vikings could have won had a few bounces gone their way, and had Ponder played better. Ponder threw an ill-advised interception that cost the Vikings a valuable score, but subpar play has been a season-long issue. The Vikings are 32nd in the league in passing, and Ponder has had just one particularly strong individual performance — a 220-yard, 2-TD, 0-INT effort against the Lions in Week 10 — since the team’s Week 6 near comeback in Washington. Is Ponder the quarterback of the future in Minnesota? A win over the Bears would go a long way in helping us answer that question.
The Giants look to avenge last season’s low point.
The Giants had some tough losses on their road to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy a season ago. There was the bad Week 1 loss in Washington on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. There were the heartbreaking defeats to the 49ers and Packers in Weeks 9 and 13. There was the confusing loss at home to the Redskins in Week 15. The Giants got to avenge those 49ers and Packers losses in the playoffs and had no problem with the Redskins finishing the year 5-11. But they never got to avenge their embarrassing 49-24 loss in New Orleans in Week 12 on national television. Here they are, again on national television, again with the playoffs in sight — but this time at home. New York lost to Washington for the third time in four meetings with the Redskins on Monday night. They’ve got a one-game lead on the ‘Skins in the NFC East standings coming into this one and New Orleans has lost two in a row. A loss would be a blow to New York’s still positive postseason outlook.
Brady Quinn’s return to Cleveland.
Brady Quinn was magnificent both on and off the field last week, leading Kansas City to victory and serving as the team’s spokesman just 24 hours after tragedy struck and shook the entire Chiefs organization. After being a highly touted first-round pick and local favorite, Quinn struggled mightily in his first three years as an NFL player with the Browns. He goes back now — older, wiser, better — to play the team that cut ties with him in 2010.
Calvin Johnson’s chase of 2,000.
No player has ever had 2,000 receiving yards in an NFL season. In 1995, Jerry Rice caught 122 balls for 1,848 yards. That’s the closest a wideout has ever gotten to 2K. Calvin Johnson — though it won’t be easy — has a shot. Johnson, who’s single-handedly put the “Madden Curse” myth to bed this season, has 1,428 yards with four games left to play. The Lions’ season is all but finished, but this is something worth tracking on the final four Sundays of the year. Johnson’s last four games? He’s put up 207, 143, 104, and 171 yards. If he can match those numbers in Weeks 14-17, he’ll eclipse 2,000.
Andy Dalton — the league’s most underappreciated star. The Bengals — the league’s most underappreciated team.
The Broncos and Patriots are both riding longer win streaks and division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh get far more attention, but the Cincinnati Bengals are looking awfully dangerous of late. The Bengals enter Week 14 riding a four-game win streak. Andy Dalton is 20 yards shy from a 3,000-yard passing season. His 24 touchdown passes rank fifth in the NFL, behind Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Nobody’s talking about the Bengals, but at 7-5, they’re very much in the playoff picture. Beat the Cowboys on Sunday, and the world will notice. Maybe.
The Cowboys look to keep their season alive in Cincinnati.
The Week 2 loss in Seattle was ugly. The Thanksgiving loss on national television was embarrassing. And things certainly did not look very good for the Cowboys at 3-5. But here we are, heading into Week 14 of the 2012 season, and Jason Garrett’s Cowboys are 6-6 and still very much in the thick of the playoff hunt. A game behind the 7-5 Seahawks for the second NFC wild-card berth, a win over the Bengals in Cincinnati — coupled with a little help this week — could make the Cowboys a very dangerous team from here on out. Cincinnati has won four consecutive games. Going into Paul Brown Stadium and coming out with a victory won’t be an easy task, by any means. But if the Cowboys do it, December gets a lot more interesting for America’s Team.
Can the Ravens D stop RGIII and Alfred Morris?
The Ravens run defense hasn’t been one of the team’s strengths this season. Ranking near the bottom against the rush on the year, teams have been able to shove the ball down Baltimore's throats to the tune of 125.8 yards per game this season. They’re up against quite the challenge Sunday. In what could be viewed as a “must win” for both teams, the Ravens travel to D.C. where they’ll play a red hot Redskins team, fresh off three straight wins. RG3 gets all the headlines and the buzz, but rookie running back Alfred Morris is quite a handful, too. The first Redskins rookie to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Reggie Brooks did it in 1993. The league’s fourth leading rusher, Morris presents a problem for the once impenetrable Baltimore D.