The Buccaneers finally play the Falcons for the first time this season, Charlie Batch gets the starting nod for the Steelers in Cleveland, and the Saints seek to avenge their NFC Divisional Round loss in San Francisco last season. Seattle travels across the country to play the suddenly hapless Dolphins, RG3 goes home to Texas for the first time as a pro, and the Eagles and Panthers square off in a game that looked a whole lot more intriguing when the schedules were announced in April than it does now. That's just scratching the surface. Here are Peter Schrager’s 10 storylines for a very entertaining Week 12.
The Best Young Quarterback in the NFC South … versus Matt Ryan
See what I did there? There are several great games this weekend, but Bucs-Falcons is the one I’ll be watching closest at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. Last week versus Arizona, Matt Ryan became the first quarterback since 1967 (Bart Starr) to win a game in which he threw five interceptions and zero touchdowns. Josh Freeman (pictured) has had no such struggles this season. He’s blazing hot, and if I needed to place a vote today, Freeman would get serious consideration as my All-Pro quarterback (it's him, Brady, Peyton, or Rodgers). Tampa Bay has won five of six games, but there are still questions around whether the Bucs can beat the league’s premier teams. A win over Atlanta in their own building will silence critics. A loss? Well, then they’re just a cute late-October/early-November story.
Is Eli Elite? Who cares? He needs to beat Aaron Rodgers and get the Giants on track
The “Is Eli Elite?” question dominated New York headlines and clogged up sports-talk radio phone lines last week, but it’s really a non-issue. Regardless of how ex-quarterbacks rate him, Eli Manning (No. 10) has got to beat Aaron Rodgers this weekend. Coming off three below-average performances in a row versus the Cowboys, Steelers, and Bengals, Manning had the bye week to prepare for a banged-up Green Bay defense. The Packers have won five straight games and have a score to settle for last year’s Divisional Round loss to Big Blue in Lambeau. Whether Eli is considered “elite” by talk-radio hosts and ex-jocks isn’t what matters this weekend. Getting a win and staying ahead of the Cowboys in the NFC East standings is.
The old Steelers get even older
Charlie Batch (pictured) is the starting quarterback. Plaxico Burress is now playing receiver. What’s next for Pittsburgh? Does Jerome Bettis have any interest in coming back? How about Jack Lambert? I’m making jokes, but the Steelers — the league’s oldest team before this week — are going to need contributions from a few guys who have to shake off a little rust first this weekend. Cleveland — 2-9 record aside — has lost by more than 10 points only once this season. A win over Pittsburgh in Cleveland would be the season’s highlight. A loss drags the Steelers into a two-game losing streak, gives them a less-than-dazzling 7-5 record, and puts them back in the thick of the AFC wild-card race with a trip to Baltimore up ahead.
It’s Saints vs. 49ers. And it’s Drew Brees vs ... TBD.
It’s very rare that a quarterback controversy emerges this late in the season for an elite-level team, but that’s exactly what we’ve got brewing in San Francisco this week. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick was spectacular in his first career start Monday night, but the 49ers were just a few special-teams miscues in last year’s NFC Championship Game away from playing in a Super Bowl with Alex Smith. Both quarterbacks have been magnificent at times this season. So, who gets the nod from here on out? Quite the dilemma, and a problem Chiefs and Browns fans would gladly take. Regardless of who ends up starting on Sunday, the 49ers have a red-hot Saints team in arguably the league’s toughest home building ahead Sunday. Could a quarterback controversy knock them off track? We shall see.
Von Miller, Aldon Smith and J.J. Watt are all within striking distance of Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record.
So, it might not be as sexy as the single-season passing yardage record that Drew Brees broke last year, but three different second-year defenders are within striking distance of Michael Strahan’s (pictured) single-season sack record of 22.5. J.J. Watt jumped out of the gates fast, Von Miller has picked it up of late and Aldon Smith’s 5.5 sacks against the Bears propelled him to the top. This is a race to watch until the last snap of Week 17. All three players face less-than-dominant offensive lines this weekend.
Henne to Blackmon: Take Two
In a lost season in which second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert somehow regressed after a horrendous rookie season, Chad Henne (pictured) has brought new life to the Jaguars offense in relief of the 2011 10th overall pick. Henne played well in relief of Gabbert in Week 10’s loss to Indianapolis. In Week 11, he came in for the oft-injured Gabbert and lit up the scoreboard. Henne’s 354-yard, four-touchdown afternoon suggested that Justin Blackmon just needed a real NFL quarterback throwing him passes. Blackmon, the fifth overall pick from April’s draft, had 236 yards receiving last Sunday. He had just 250 receiving yards entering the contest. Henne’s confident, tough and poised in the pocket. With him under center on Sunday versus Tennessee, Jacksonville actually may win a game. And watch out for Blackmon. The talent is all there.
The Bills need to go on a wild winning streak to make the playoffs. They can.
Buffalo (4-6) is two games behind the Colts in the race for the AFC’s second wild-card spot. With Cincinnati ahead one game and Miami, Tennessee, San Diego and the Jets all with matching 4-6 records — Buffalo’s likely going to need to win out if it's going to make its first trip to the postseason since 1999. I think the C.J. Spiller (pictured) and the Bills can do it. The defense woke up last week against Indianapolis, and check out this schedule from here on out: at Indianapolis, vs. Jacksonville, vs. St. Louis, vs. Seattle, at Miami, vs. New York Jets. There’s no reason the Bills can’t finish the season 6-0. 10-6 would get them that playoff bid. They’ve got to beat Indy this weekend, though.
The return of Carson Palmer
Do you think any Bengals fans — even one — has looked back at last year’s trade of Carson Palmer (No. 3) to the Raiders and thought, “We got the worst of that deal?” If that human being exists, please present him to me. I want “60 Minutes” to do an investigative report on him. Since the midseason trade last year, Oakland has plummeted to the deepest depths of the league’s overall standings, while Cincinnati’s made a trip to the playoffs and started this season 5-5. Palmer returns to Cincinnati, a place where he took the Bengals to the playoffs in his eight years. Cincinnati is Andy Dalton’s team now. He’s the guy. Palmer may as well be just another quarterback. Amazing how that happens sometimes.
The Bears look to avoid their second annual second-half swoon.
It’s deja vu all over again for coach Lovie Smith (pictured) and Bears fans. Chicago was 7-3 and in firm position of a wild-card spot last year when Jay Cutler went down with a season-ending wrist injury. Chicago finished the season 1-5 in its final six games, missed the postseason and signed Jason Campbell to a lucrative contract so they could avoid a similar fate in 2012. Hmm … Well, after two straight bad losses without Cutler in the lineup, there’s panic in the air in the Windy City. Beat the Vikings on Sunday and everyone can take a deep breath. Lose? Well, that’s a different story altogether.
Do the Chargers have any fight whatsoever left in them?
The Chargers’ 30-23 loss to the Broncos essentially put an end to any dreams they had of winning the AFC West title this season. But at 4-6 with a somewhat manageable schedule up ahead, the second AFC wild-card spot certainly is not an unobtainable goal for Norv Turner (pictured) & Co. The Ravens, who just played the Steelers in a slugfest in Pittsburgh, are traveling across the country on a holiday weekend to play in a building where they got blown out last season. The Chargers — if they’ve got any fight left in them — should be able to give the Ravens a game. If they don’t, it tells you all you need to know about this team and its coaching staff.