Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at SunLife Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla. – TV: CBS
TV announcers: Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein
- Keys to the game: Run fits and tackling have been the buzzwords around the Dolphins’ facility this week with the defense allowing 478 rushing yards over the past two weeks. Miami threw eight and nine defenders into the box against the Jets last week with little fear of the pass, and still gave up 277 yards on the ground. The Dolphins will see more of the same with RB Justin Forsett (1,009 rushing yards) leading the charge for the Ravens.
- Baltimore wants to blow Miami off the line in the ground game and keep the defense off-balance with a few reverses and screens, and not subject QB Joe Flacco to being forced to throw the ball into the teeth of Miami’s pass rush.
- The Dolphins’ offense has hit a nice stride with QB Ryan Tannehill completing at least 70 percent of his passes in each of his past five games. He isn’t accurate on the deep ball and the Ravens’ safeties can focus on plays in front of them, but Tannehill did find rookie WR Jarvis Landry on a few slants and passes over the seam last week. RB Lamar Miller’s role also becomes more important with the suspension of Ravens DT Haloti Ngata, a big setback for the league’s fourth-ranked run defense. Rookie Timmy Jernigan, who has 12 tackles and a pair of sacks, will see increased snaps in his place.
- Matchup to watch — Ravens WR Steve Smith vs. Dolphins CB Brent Grimes: Smith needs 74 receiving yards to pass Steve Largent for 15th place on the all-time list. Grimes may shadow him, which increases the pressure on the other side of the field against speedy Torrey Smith, especially if Cortland Finnegan (ankle) misses his fourth consecutive game.
- Player spotlight — Dolphins TE Dion Sims: With Charles Clay missing the past two games, Sims has emerged as a reliable option, including catching all four of his targets for 58 yards last week.
- Fast facts: The Ravens have knocked the Dolphins out of the playoffs in Miami’s last two appearances — 2008 (29-9) and 2001 (20-3). … The Dolphins have allowed four 100-yard rushers. They allowed only two all of last season.
Miller should have more success with Ngata out of the picture, enabling Tannehill to pepper the league’s second-worst pass defense with a slew of bubble screens and underneath passes to keep the chains moving. The question is whether Miami can cash in once it reaches the red zone.
Our pick: Dolphins 23-20
Carolina Panthers (3-8-1) at New Orleans Saints (5-7)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans – TV: FOX
TV announcers: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
- Keys to the game: With the prolonged struggles of QB Cam Newton and a strong push toward youth on defense, the Panthers would be well served to attack on the ground early. RB Jonathan Stewart may get the start in place of DeAngelo Williams (broken hand), and the Saints’ run defense has been particularly vulnerable since NT Broderick Bunkley was injured. Look for New Orleans to counter with eight men in the box and daring Newton to engage in a shootout.
- The Panthers’ defense has slowly unraveled minus the consistent pass rush of DE Greg Hardy. The secondary has been exposed and now coach Ron Rivera is shifting personnel. That’s a recipe for a monster day for Saints QB Drew Brees. New Orleans still wants to establish RB Mark Ingram to set up play-action, which leaves that secondary in a precarious situation with too much man coverage to hold up if the pass rush doesn’t get home.
- Matchup to watch – Panthers secondary vs. Brees: Carolina cut veteran CB Antoine Cason and will slide rookie fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere into his starting job. Practice squad call-up Carrington Byndom is also likely to see snaps, while veteran S Thomas DeCoud is also in danger of losing his starting job to fourth-round rookie Tre Boston.
- Player spotlight – Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin: The rookie caught just two of 10 targets during the first meeting as he was shadowed by veteran CB Keenan Lewis, who has been dealing with a sore knee of late.
- Fast facts: By kickoff time, it will have been 63 days since the Panthers have won a game. … Carolina has led for only 42:41 seconds during its six-game losing streak. It has trailed for 228:47 and been tied for 88:07.
The Panthers are technically still in the race, but Newton has regressed badly, including a career-low 10 completions in the first meeting. New Orleans snaps its three-game home losing streak and likely closes the day with division lead with Atlanta traveling to Green Bay on Monday night.
Our pick: Saints 28-16
Houston Texans (6-6) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, EverBank Stadium, Jacksonville- TV: CBS
TV announcers: Brian Anderson, Adam Archuleta
- Keys to the game: Houston’s Ryan Fitzpatrick made a statement in his return to the starting quarterback role last week with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has a 109.4 passer rating (1,050 yards, 11 touchdowns, two INTs) in his past four games and with RB Arian Foster back, the Texans have far more muscle than the Jaguars. But Houston hasn’t put consecutive wins together since starting the season by beating Washington and Oakland.
- Jaguars rookie QB Blake Bortles calls J.J. Watt of the Texans fun to watch, but getting a first-person account of the MVP candidate’s dominance might not be described as enjoyable. Bortles has enough size and mobility to move to throw within the pocket. Moving away from Watt is likely to be the order of the day. Watt has 48 quarterback hits this season and 11.5 sacks.
- The Texans have forced a league-high 28 turnovers, including 15 interceptions. Bortles has thrown 15 interceptions. Third downs will be critical. The Jaguars are converting 34 percent into first downs, but only 10 of 38 in the past three games.
- Matchup to watch — Jaguars CB Demetrius McCray vs. Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins: McCray, in his second year, is developing quickly and the Giants threw to his side only once last week. The Texans could challenge him more with Hopkins emerging as a potential star.
- Player spotlight — Texans WR Andre Johnson: A matchup Johnson has enjoyed for years, he needs eight receptions to tie Marvin Harrison for the fastest in history (167 games) to reach 1,000 career receptions.
- Fast facts: The Texans are tied for the AFC lead with a plus-11 turnover margin. … Fitzpatrick is the only active quarterback and the 12th quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards in a game for four different NFL teams.
Fitzpatrick isn’t likely to throw for six TDs again anytime soon, but if he can continue to avoid turnovers Houston can put enough points on the board to slowly squeeze the offensively-challenged Jaguars.
Our pick: Texans 28-17
Indianapolis Colts (8-4) at Cleveland Browns (7-5)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at First Energy Stadium, Cleveland – TV: FOX
TV announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver
- Keys to the game: Colts coach Chuck Pagano was adamant there was no Hoyer Paranoia or Manziel Madness in the Indianapolis locker room this week. Instead, the team honed in on the opportunity to win the AFC South again (with a win and Houston loss) and polishing up a few weak links – namely the Trent Richardson-led running game. While Pagano claimed “no level of concern” about Richardson’s recent run, the fact that Boom Herron is getting the bulk of the work speaks volumes. Richardson, drafted third overall by the Browns in 2012, went 188 picks ahead of Herron.
- QB Andrew Luck, on a record passing pace in 2014, is making due without a great ground game and will tax Cleveland’s slogging offense.
- In the past nine red-zone trips led by QB Brian Hoyer, the Browns have one touchdown. That won’t cut it against the high-scoring Colts. His favorite target the past two games has been WR Josh Gordon, who has 15 receptions since returning from NFL suspension. More of the burden might fall to Hoyer should Isaiah Crowell (hip) be limited.
- Matchup to watch — Browns FS Jim Leonhard vs. Luck: Tashaun Gipson was on the way to the Pro Bowl before a knee injury in the end zone at Atlanta. Leonhard is a subpackages player with size-speed limitations that make him vulnerable as a centerfielder.
- Player spotlight — Browns QB Johnny Manziel: Indianapolis spent practice time preparing for Manziel, who rushed for a 10-yard touchdown in his first drive in relief of Hoyer at Buffalo last week. Pagano, citing the “shock factor” of facing Manziel for the first time, called him a great improvisational quarterback.
- Fast facts: The Colts have 400-plus yards total offense in a franchise-record nine games this season. … The Browns are allowing an average of 132.5 rushing yards per game.
Cleveland’s defense held up reasonably well the past two weeks when Hoyer and the Browns’ offense turned anemic, but Luck’s many weapons will eventually break through.
Our pick: Colts 27-18
New York Giants (3-9) at Tennessee Titans (2-10)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at LP Field, Nashville – TV: FOX
TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, David Diehl, Laura Okmin
- Keys to the game: The Giants placed five more players on injured reserve this week, including two on each line, which only complicates their issues in the trenches. They have managed to hold the halftime lead in three of their past four games, but have struggled to put together four solid quarters of football.
- Key is the status of RB Rashad Jennings, who missed practice midweek due to an ankle injury. If he’s not available, the Giants lack a true backfield threat to exploit the league’s worst run defense. The Titans were also torched for six touchdown passes by Texans journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick last week, so Tennessee’s defense can be exposed through the air as well if QB Eli Manning can avoid turnovers.
- The Titans are the only defense ranked lower than the Giants against the run, but Tennessee often abandons the run too quickly. With a banged up offensive line and rookie QB Zach Mettenberger trying to play through a shoulder injury, expect RB Bishop Sankey to be more of a focal point for as long as the Titans keep the game close.
- Matchup to watch — Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Titans CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson: Wreh-Wilson was on coverage for much of last week against Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins, who caught nine passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns.
- Player spotlight — DE Damontre Moore: The second-year player is expected to start with Robert Ayers and Matthias Kiwanuka on injured reserve. The 6-5, 250-pound second-year player has primarily played on third downs, but will get an opportunity to show over the final four games that he can be an every-down contributor.
- Fast facts: The Giants have an NFL-high 20 players on season-ending injured reserve. … The Titans have allowed a league-high 338 points.
The silver lining is one of the two longest losing streaks in the NFL will come to an end. Edge goes to the Giants with the Titans allowing six TD passes last week to complement their league-worst run defense.
Our pick: Giants 27-20
New York Jets (2-10) at Minnesota Vikings (5-7)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis – TV: CBS
TV announcers: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots
- Keys to the game: In a return to his ground-and-pound approach that defined his brief glory days, Jets coach Rex Ryan went with a run-heavy plan against Miami on Monday night and the results were everything the team could ask for – short of a victory. With 277 yards on the ground, New York is re-establishing the running game as its exclusive identity. Can it effectively mask the marginal play of QB Geno Smith in a winter wonderland road environment?
- Based on the Vikings’ recent difficulty stopping the run – Minnesota is 25th in the NFL allowing 4.4 yards per carry – Ryan will surely dare to find out, even against eight- and nine-man loaded boxes.
- Rookie Teddy Bridgewater is getting good reviews from Vikings coaches, who praise his ability to slow the game down in big moments and dodge turnovers. The Jets are tied for worst in the NFL with 27 touchdown passes allowed, but woeful protection from the offensive line demands Bridgewater is quick to get the ball out of his hand.
- Matchup to watch — Jets WR Percy Harvin vs. Vikings WR Cordarrelle Patterson: When the Vikings shipped Harvin out of town, they drafted Patterson to replace him. Harvin has since been traded again and has 50 total touches with the Jets, and he’ll have a chip on his shoulder this week. Patterson is not performing up to high expectations, especially on offense.
- Player spotlight — Jets RB Chris Johnson: Signed in the offseason to carry the load, Johnson has been a niche player in New York. He hits Minnesota after his first 100-yard game with the Jets (18-102), leaving him 1,530 yards short of 10,000 career rushing yards.
- Fast facts: The Vikings are 1-8 against the Jets, winning at Mets Stadium in 1975. … Vikings CB Captain Munnerlyn intercepted Smith for a 41-yard touchdown return with the Panthers in December 2013.
The Jets are dangerous because of their rugged style on both sides of the ball, and have the ability to dominate the Vikings’ susceptible offensive line.
Our pick: Jets 20-19
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-3-1)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati – TV: CBS
TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Jenny Dell
- Keys to the game: Any pleas from QB Ben Roethlisberger to spare RB Le’Veon Bell of wear and tear won’t be heeded this week with the Steelers in a fight to remain in the playoff picture. Bell has four of the team’s 14 explosive plays in the past six games and is going for his third straight game over 200 yards from scrimmage. Bell, whose 281 touches (216 rushes, 65 catches) are second in the league, will see this defense twice this month and to be successful, Roethlisberger will need to make a few plays of his own. But Roethlisberger has only six touchdown passes on the road – and the largest TD differential in the NFL at 12, with 18 scoring tosses at home.
- The Bengals are not yielding big plays – two over 30 yards in the past six games – but admitted this week that Bell concerns them.
- The approach from the Bengals is becoming predictable yet no easier to slow down. RB Jeremy Hill brings a powerful element to the offense the Steelers have not seen in recent years. Hill is also explosive but not in the class of wriggly Giovani Bernard, who is working his way back to full health. Bernard had three touchdowns in two games against Pittsburgh last season.
- WRs A.J. Green (thigh) and Mohamed Sanu could put up big numbers. The Steelers allowed five touchdown passes to Drew Brees and the Saints last week with a lot of slow-reacting zone looks.
- Matchup to watch — Bengals LT Andrew Whitworth vs. Steelers LB James Harrison: The ageless Harrison returns to Cincinnati after spending part of last season battling Whitworth on the practice field with the Bengals and appears refreshed back in his familiar role as a pass rusher in the Steelers’ 3-4. Whitworth is having the best season of his nine-year career.
- Player spotlight — Steelers ILB Ryan Shazier: If he can get healthy, the Steelers drafted Shazier in the first round for this matchup – containing a speed back without entirely altering the defensive scheme.
- Fast facts: The Bengals have the longest current winning streak in the AFC at three games (tied, San Diego). … The Bengals’ rush defense has allowed 75 or fewer yards in each of the past three games.
Pittsburgh’s play on the road is troublesome. If Roethlisberger continues to be a slouch in Cincy, the Bengals build their AFC North edge in a tight one.
Our pick: Bengals 23-20
St. Louis Rams (5-7) at Washington Redskins (3-9)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at FedEx Field, Landover, Md. – TV: CBS
TV announcers: Sam Rosen, Kirk Morrison
- Keys to the game: Positives for the Redskins under Colt McCoy do exist, notably explosive plays in the passing game and limited turnovers. Pressure in the pocket and sacks are still an issue, though not to the extreme Robert Griffin III experienced. St. Louis is in perpetual attack mode with its agile and aggressive front four, and McCoy has been sacked 11 times in 89 pass attempts.
- Taking a page from Jeff Fisher’s offenses, the short and middle screen game will be prominent. When the score dictates the Redskins go pass-heavy, as they did last week in a 49-27 loss to the Colts, Washington is in trouble.
- St. Louis rookie RB Tre Mason is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and flashed big-play speed with an 89-yard touchdown run last week. WR Stedman Bailey is coming on strong, too, with 12 catches for 189 yards and has winnable matchups this week. Washington’s young secondary is experiencing growing pains in addition to injuries, and ranks 29th in the NFL in yards per pass play (7.64).
- Matchup to watch — Redskins S Phillip Thomas vs. Rams QB Shaun Hill: Thomas is expected to start for Brandon Meriweather (toe) or at least split time in just his fifth career game. Thomas followed a textbook open-field tackle of Colts RB Daniel Herron last week by being way out of position on an easy 79-yard touchdown pass by Andrew Luck.
- Player spotlight — Rams DE Robert Quinn: With three sacks and two forced fumbles last week, Quinn has nine sacks and four forced fumbles in a dominant seven-game stretch. McCoy was sacked six times last week at Indianapolis.
- Fast facts: McCoy has zero touchdowns and has been sacked eight times in the fourth quarter this season. … Hill beat the Redskins in 2008 as starter for the 49ers. … The Rams have only one loss to a losing team (Minnesota, 5-7) this season.
Hill threw more than expected to open last week’s game and the Rams like that approach against aggressive defensive coordinators. If the Redskins get RB Alfred Morris going, the upset isn’t impossible.
Our pick: Rams 26-20
Seattle Seahawks (8-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (9-3)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia – TV: FOX
TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews
- Keys to the game: Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis has spent his coaching career in the NFL, but most of his staff comes from the college ranks and he’s confident that will help the Eagles prepare for Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. Wilson lacks dynamic playmakers to stretch the field and his accuracy has been inconsistent at times this season, but the constant in Seattle’s offense has been the threat of the read-option.
- With defenses forced to key in on RB Marshawn Lynch, Wilson is averaging 5.9 yards per carry on read-options and designed runs and 9.6 yards per carry on scrambles. He’ll mix that in with plenty of screens to his backs and tight ends and only occasionally push the ball downfield – the Eagles have allowed a league-high 23 completions of 30-plus yards. But if the Eagles can keep Wilson penned in the pocket, that’s when the quarterback’s small stature plays against him and Philadelphia should be able to generate plenty of pressure.
- The Eagles will come out of the gates with their fast-paced attack looking to get the Seahawks’ defense on its heels. Philadelphia has scored 64 points on its first and second possessions over the past eight games, and have outscored their last eight opponents 85-31 in the first quarter.
- The key is whether RB LeSean McCoy can find early running lanes. Seattle has great team speed and the vulnerability lies in the middle without DT Brandon Mebane. If the Seahawks shut down the run, their secondary could feast on turnover-prone QB Mark Sanchez.
- Matchup to watch — Seahawks CB Richard Sherman vs. Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin: Sherman is the All-Pro coming off Defensive Player of the Week honors. Maclin is the comebacker player of the year candidate with nine touchdowns while averaging 15.3 yards per catch. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur insisted the Eagles will “run their offense,” when asked if they would throw at Sherman.
- Player spotlight — Eagles ILB Mychal Kendricks: Kendricks is the lynchpin of a defense allowing 3.6 yards per carry over the past seven games, including holding Dallas’ DeMarco Murray to a season-low 73 yards.
- Fast facts: Wilson is 15th in the NFL with 679 rushing yards and is first in third-down running (210 yards on 21 carries). … McCoy needs 48 yards to surpass Wilbert Montgomery as the Eagles’ all-time career rushing leader.
Both teams enter well rested after playing on Thanksgiving. The Seahawks traditionally have not traveled well to the East Coast, but they also allowed a total of six points in their past two games. McCoy is the key in keeping the pressure off Sanchez to attack the Legion of Boom.
Our pick: Seahawks 20-16
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-10) at Detroit Lions (8-4)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Ford Field, Detroit – TV: FOX
TV announcers: Dick Stockton, Brady Quinn, Kristina Pink
- Keys to the game: The Bucs continue to lack offensive identity, trying to establish the ground game last week after weeks of spreading the field more and having QB Josh McCown attack the edges with WRs Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. RB Doug Martin knocked off some rust to rush for 55 yards on 12 carries in the first half against Cincinnati last week, but the Bengals dropped an eighth defender into the box in the second half and Tampa Bay ground to a halt.
- Detroit’s league-leading run defense won’t need the extra help, and McCown will likely have to do his damage working against the Lions’ secondary.
- The bright spot for Tampa Bay has been a steadily improving defense that should get LB Lavonte David back into the fold. Detroit doesn’t run the ball with much consistency, ranked 30th in the league at just 81.7 yards per game. That puts a large burden on QB Matthew Stafford, but the passing game is starting to show signs of more big-play life with WR Calvin Johnson closer to full strength.
- Matchup to watch — Lions DT Ndamukong Suh vs. Bucs C Evan Dietrich-Smith: Combatants for years when Dietrich-Smith played for the Packers, few can forget the infamous Thanksgiving Day game in which Suh was seen stomping on Dietrich-Smith.
- Player spotlight — Bucs RS Solomon Patton: The rookie handled the punt and kickoff return duties for the first six games, and was brought back with Bobby Rainey dealing with an injured ankle.
- Fast facts: DT Gerald McCoy needs 1.5 sacks to become the first Tampa Bay player since Simeon Rice in 2005 to record double-digit sacks in a season.
At home, the Lions should be able to steadily move the chains, but in the back of their minds should be a six-turnover loss to the Bucs last season.
Our pick: Lions 27-16
Buffalo Bills (7-5) at Denver Broncos (9-3)
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver – TV: CBS
TV announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon
- Keys to the game: The Bills would love to control the ball and limit time of possession for the Broncos’ offense, which beckons a big workload for RB Fred Jackson. As good as the Buffalo defense has been of late – the front seven was downright nasty against the Browns last week – there are few groups that can match counter punches with Broncos QB Peyton Manning, his stable of receivers and what is evolving into a potent running game.
- Even Bills QB Kyle Orton himself understands the notion of outgunning Manning is foolhardy. A blend of Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown and controlled horizontal routes are likely to define Buffalo’s approach as long as the game is tight. To stand a puncher’s chance, more is needed from rookie WR Sammy Watkins. He has 13 catches for 105 yards in his last four games.
- The Broncos can adjust the tempo of their offense at will, and to slow down the Bills’ front four, it’s highly likely Manning will be cut loose in the first quarter. To protect himself from the NFL’s top pass rush (48 sacks), Manning will get everyone involved and work RB C.J. Anderson into the mix as a runner and receiver.
- Matchup to watch — Bills RT Seantrel Henderson vs. Broncos SLB Von Miller — Miller leads the Broncos with 11.5 sacks, and is the very type of player who has given Henderson fits. The Bills need LT Cordy Glenn to handle DE DeMarcus Ware so that they can afford help to Henderson.
- Player spotlight — Bills CB Corey Graham: The journeyman is having a career season and is the pesky type of cover man who will win or lose with aggressive play, which could bite him against a surgeon like Manning.
- Fast facts: Orton has a 107.9 fourth-quarter passer rating, fourth-best in the NFL. … The Bills have three players with 9-plus sacks (Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus). … Anderson is averaging 164.5 yards from scrimmage in the past four games.
Short of a record rushing day from the Bills, the Broncos separate from Buffalo in the second half with balance and a resurgent defense.
Our pick: Broncos 31-20
Kansas City Chiefs (7-5) at Arizona Cardinals (9-3)
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz. – TV: CBS
TV announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Evan Washburn
- Keys to the game: Both teams are known for strong defenses, but the Chiefs allowed 214 rushing yards on 4.8 yards per carry in Denver last week while the Cardinals were trucked over for 142 yards on 4.2 yards per carry in Atlanta. Naturally, both teams were hammered in the time of possession battle as they made futile attempts to come from behind.
- The issues, however, begin on the other side of the ball. The Chiefs ran just 44 offensive plays, with RB Jamaal Charles finishing with 59 yards on 14 touches. If Kansas City cannot sustain drives it cannot create any rhythm for its most dynamic offensive threat.
- Arizona will leave its talented corners in man coverage and let S Rashad Johnson attack moving forward against the run and in the underneath passing game after he picked off Matt Ryan once last week and nearly came down with another.
- The Cardinals’ offense may be in an even more precarious situation with QB Drew Stanton leading one touchdown drive in his past 11 quarters while struggling with his timing and accuracy. With RB Andre Ellington dealing with a “severe” hip pointer, according to coach Bruce Arians, along with a season-long issue with his foot, the Cardinals’ offense appears to be toothless. Then again, the Chiefs have the third fewest takeaways in the NFL with 10. Coach Andy Reid believes they will come in bunches when they come, and this could be the week if the Chiefs build a lead and turn the Cardinals one-dimensional.
- Matchup to watch — Charles vs. Cardinals ILB Larry Foote: The Chiefs need to get Charles more involved early on than they did in Denver. Foote is third on the team in tackles, but one has to wonder if the 34-year-old may be running out of gas after watching Steven Jackson bowl through the Cardinals’ defense last week.
- Player spotlight — Cardinals S Tony Jefferson: Arizona’s vaunted secondary takes a bit of a hit with Jefferson’s snaps increasing with Tyrann Mathieu (fractured thumb) out.
- Fast facts: Chiefs wide receivers have no touchdown receptions this season. Texans DL J.J. Watt has three. … Stanton has a 66.2 passer rating in the red zone with 2 TDs, 1 INT and a 47.6 completion percentage.
Two midseason darlings have seen the shine come off their rising stars over the past two weeks due to scuffling offenses. At least the Chiefs bring the threat of a potentially dynamic ground game to the table.
Our pick: Chiefs 16-13
San Francisco 49ers (7-5) at Oakland Raiders (1-11)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at o.Co Coliseum, Oakland – TV: FOX
TV announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale
- Keys to the game: After watching QB Colin Kaepernick struggle with his accuracy in last week’s loss to Seattle, look for the 49ers to come out trying to establish RB Frank Gore against the league’s 27th-ranked run defense. The only thing that can really trip San Francisco up Sunday is multiple turnovers, and the Raiders do sport a solid secondary on the strength of a pass rush that can get home.
- Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has come under intense fire in the Bay Area, and the 49ers need to get back to allowing Kaepernick to use his dynamic dual-threat skillset rather than trying to develop him into a pocket passer.
- The Raiders’ margin for error is minute, and things can quickly snowball when they fall behind early as they did in last week’s 52-0 washout in St. Louis. The 49ers allow only 4.1 yards per carry, but the Raiders must stay committed to the ground game for as long as they can with rookie QB Derek Carr coming off a very rough outing against the Rams. San Francisco has 16 interceptions and if Oakland falls behind early, the 49ers will quickly add to that total.
- The problem for the Raiders is they’re not capable of sustaining many drives, and San Francisco holds opponents to an average starting field position of the 23.9 yard line.
- Matchup to watch — 49ers OLB Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch vs. Raiders RT Menelik Watson: Brooks isn’t happy about losing snaps to the rookie, but both possess the quickness and strength to get by the best right tackles in the league. The 25-year-old Watson has great physical skills, but has yet to put it all together and has been highly inconsistent.
- Player spotlight — Raiders CB DJ Hayden: Finally healthy, the second-year player has flashed playmaking skills. The Raiders must get turnovers, and Kaepernick threw two picks to that side of the field last week – granted, they went to All-Pro Richard Sherman.
- Fast facts: The 49ers have played Thursday night games in four straight seasons. They have won their games following the previous three Thursday night contests by a combined score of 84-6. … Carr has a 52.2 passer rating in the fourth quarter when the game is within seven points.
The 49ers are desperate and well rested. The Raiders should at least be motivated against their cross-Bay rivals, but the talent level isn’t there to compete for four quarters.
Our pick: 49ers 27-6
New England Patriots (9-3) at San Diego Chargers (8-4)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego – TV: NBC
TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
- Keys to the game: Troubling coverage breakdowns last week at Baltimore are a focus of preparation for San Diego this week. The issue for the Chargers starts with minimal pressure on the quarterback. In the past five games, they have only three sacks, which means QB Tom Brady could have five or six seconds to survey San Diego’s shaky secondary.
- Blitzing Brady is not out of the question – the Packers were able to get to him with A-gap pressure – but it comes with significant risk, especially if the Patriots get their running game rolling.
- Run-blocking is suspect for San Diego, yet the predictable plan of attack from the Chargers is not simple to slow down. WRs Keenan Allen (17 catches) and Eddie Royal (15) and TE Antonio Gates (9) have picked up the pace the past two weeks with RB Ryan Mathews back in the lineup. How the Patriots plot to contain Gates could be intriguing. CB Darrelle Revis, who practices against Rob Gronkowski on a daily basis, said he would like the assignment.
- Matchup to watch – Chargers WR Malcom Floyd vs. Patriots secondary: Floyd is leading the team with a 17.7-yard average on 39 receptions and is mostly a deep threat. At 6-5, he has great speed and excels at making contested catches while working primarily against man coverage as defenses roll to Gates and Allen.
- Player spotlight – Patriots C Brian Stork: The fourth-round pick has impressed since making his first start in Week 4 and LG Dan Connolly called him one of the most studious, hardest-working players on the roster. Teams are testing Stork by shooting inside gaps on passing downs, but he has been quick to adjust as an extension of Brady.
- Fast facts: Rivers has a 30-6 career December record. … The Patriots are 3-3 on the road this season with an average margin of defeat of 15 points.
A week of preparation in California has the Patriots situated for the primetime game with serious postseason implications. There is not enough time for San Diego to upgrade a listless pass rush and spotty secondary.
Our pick: Patriots 37-28
Atlanta Falcons (5-7) at Green Bay Packers (9-3)
Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisc. – TV: ESPN
TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
- Keys to the game: Steven Jackson showed the tires haven’t completely worn down in bulldozing the Cardinals for 101 yards on 18 carries last week. The Falcons need a whole lot more of that in Lambeau, where the Packers are averaging 40.8 points in six games this season. Atlanta has reached that threshold just once this season, a 56-0 win over hapless Tampa Bay in Week 3, and hasn’t topped 28 points since.
- Quarterback Matt Ryan was 3-for-3 with 98 yards on deep passes against the Cardinals and can do some damage against the Packers secondary given time, but that is not a luxury he will be afforded often with Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews Jr. attacking his overmatched line.
- The only stat that may matter is the Falcons enter with the league’s worst pass defense, allowing an average of 284.9 yards, contributing to the league’s 32nd-ranked overall defense (403.2 ypg). The Falcons didn’t record a sack against Arizona and have only 14 on the season, leaving Packers QB Aaron Rodgers free to toy with Atlanta’s secondary.
- Matchup to watch — Falcons CB Robert McClain vs. Packers WR Randall Cobb: The Falcons are getting strong play out of Desmond Trufant, but the rest of the secondary is a massive weakness. McClain has been battling through a calf injury and struggling with crossing routes, which is no way to line up against Cobb, who has 65 catches for 922 yards.
- Player spotlight — Falcons LT Jake Matthews: The rookie is finally close to full strength and made strong strides in recent weeks. He’ll receive yet another lesson in working against Peppers.
- Fast facts: Jackson’s 101 yards last week represented the Falcons’ first 100-yard rushing performance in 36 games. … Rodgers has thrown 360 passes with 31 touchdowns since his last interception at home, both NFL records.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
It’s not often a division leader in Week 14 enters as a double-digit dog. But the Packers are on a tremendous hot streak at home and despite last week’s drubbing of the Cardinals, the Falcons don’t have anywhere close to enough defense to sniff an upset.
Our pick: Packers 38-27