The Once-Over: Week 14
The Early Games
New York Jets (6-6) at Tampa Bay (1-11): Kellen Clemens wasn't sharp in place of Sanchez last week, but should be better with a week of first-team snaps under his belt. He may not need to be perfect as Tampa's run defense is ranked 30th in the league.
Bucs rookie quarterback Josh Freeman looked flummoxed at time against the Panthers pass rush last week and Rex Ryan will surely bring new looks at Freeman this Sunday. It won't be all that easy to throw against the Jets, even if Freeman evades the pass rush. No team has given up fewer yards through the air than the Jets.
Pick: New York
Carolina (5-7) at New England (7-5): Matt Moore is going to get another chance to pull of a win, just like he did last week against Tampa. The Patriots will be a little tougher of a task, but at least Moore will have the use of both his start running backs -- Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are both healthy and ready to run.
Since the scoreboard read zeros last week and New England was on the wrong end of it, Tom Brady has told his teammates to man up and he's also became a father again -- welcoming a baby boy to the mix. It's been a crazy off-the-field week for the quarterback who will be tested against a good Panthers defense.
Pick: New England
Cincinnati (9-3) at Minnesota (10-2): The offensive line for Cincinnati can force its will on opposing defenses, which is good for Cedric Benson, who needs just 31 yards to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the season. The bad news is that Benson and the Bengals are facing the second-ranked run defense in the NFL. Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer will need to take over and work the aerial attack.
Adrian Peterson gained only 19 yards last week against Arizona, and you can bet he'll be out to make up for that pitiful performance. The Vikings, unfortunately, are facing the best run defense in the league and will also need to go to the air to put up points. On the other side of the ball, this will be the first look at a Minnesota defense without E.J. Henderson. And he'll truly be missed.
Buffalo (4-8) at Kansas City (3-9): Buffalo had one of the worst passing days imaginable last week as Ryan Fitzpatrick amassed only 98 yards passing and completed just 39.1 percent of his passes. After one of those games, the best news is that this week brings a Kansas City defense that ranked 27th against the pass. Lee Evans and Terrell Owens are bound to be happy with this news.
Matt Cassel was benched last week as his play lacked any resemblance of the quarterback Kansas City expected to arrive from New England. Cassel should rebound a bit, but watch Jamaal Charles on Sunday. He'll be running against a defense that has given up more yards on the ground than anyone else in the league.
Pick: Kansas City
Miami (6-6) at Jacksonville (7-5): With last week's win against New England, all of Miami's games from this point forward became much more important. A win puts the Dolphins in a favorable wild-card situation, so forget about the in-state rivalry. Miami's run defense will have to step up on Sunday and stop Maurice Jones-Drew if it expects a win.
The Jaguars really need to hold off the Dolphins and hold on to the last wild-card spot they currently possess. They are likely going to have to play without Mike Sims-Walker, who is battling injury. David Garrard's game plan will be to limit mistakes and give the ball to Jones-Drew as much as possible. If only Garrard had a hyphen in his name too, it'd be easier to pick Jacksonville.
Denver (8-4) at Indianapolis (12-0): Denver is back on track, winning two in a row after dropping four straight. The last thing this streaky team needed was to head into Indianapolis to play this undefeated Colts team that still has home-field advantage at stake. You can run against this Colts defense and Knowshon Moreno is averaging just under 88 yards per game over his last four games.
Champ Baily is great, and he'll be covering Reggie Wayne -- also great. But Peyton Manning has learned to love throwing to Pierre Garcon, who has two 100-plus yard receiving games in his last three weeks, and if the Broncos find a way to cover both Garcon and Wayne, Manning will surely find Dallas Clark.
Seattle (5-7) at Houston (5-7): Did anyone expect these two team to only have five wins each heading into Week 14? It's desperation time for both teams and Matt Hasselbeck will have some time to throw this Sunday as Houston ranks 30th in sacks. That's good news for Hasselbeck and Nate Burleson, who may be the recipient of a deep ball or two.
Nobody really knows what's going on in the Texans backfield. Who will start or get the most carries is anyone's guess. We only know that Steve Slaton is gone, and even when he was around, the unit underperformed. The Texans haven't won since Owen Daniels went down for the season. Matt Schaub needs to throw this team on his back and make a final playoff push -- if it's even still possible.
Green Bay (8-4) at Chicago (5-7): The one matchup I'm looking forward to seeing on Sunday -- one I'd pay to watch -- is Charles Woodson versus Jay Cutler. Woodson has made quarterbacks look silly this season, capitalizing on mistakes. No one makes more mistakes throwing the ball then Cutler.
Matt Forte busted off 91 yards rushing last week and scored a touchdown -- but that was against St. Louis. This Sunday, he goes up against the third-best run defense in the league. The only way Chicago wins this game is if Forte can run like 2008, not 2009. And to make matters worse for Forte's season, looking ahead to Week 15 and Week 16, he has to run against the Ravens and the Vikings.
Pick: Green Bay
Detroit (2-10) at Baltimore (6-6): It's going to be difficult to rely on Kevin Smith on Sunday to rack up decent yardage, as the Ravens rank sixth in the NFL against the run. Matthew Stafford is listed as doubtful, leaving Daunte Culpepper to run the Lions' offense. That means the only star left to shine is Calvin Johnson, and he's not having the type of year to lead me to believe he can lead this team to victory.
This needs to be a coming out party for Joe Flacco, who started hot but has been pedestrian over the last month and a half. If he can't shine against this Detroit defense, red flags are going to start popping up all over Ravens nation.
New Orleans (12-0) at Atlanta (6-6): The Saints are going to try and remain perfect on the season against their divisional foe, the Atlanta Falcons. Drew Brees has to be licking his chops to get another shot at this Falcons secondary, and you had better believe he'll be looking often for one of his new favorite targets, Robert Meachem.
This isn't a mathematical fact, but Atlanta sure does need to win this football game to keep its playoff hopes alive. In their Week 8 game, the Falcons were able to get pressure on Brees, sacking him twice. This must happen again. John Abraham hasn't registered a sack since Week 5 and needs to find his "A" game on Sunday. The Falcons would also get a boost if injured offensive stars Matt Ryan and Michael Turner were able to play, although that isn't likely.
Pick: New Orleans
The Late Games
Washington (3-9) at Oakland (4-8): The Redskins will be using a running back-by-committee approach this Sunday, as the team has reached areas of the depth chart better left alone. Luckily, the Raiders rank 29th against the run. Now if the Redskins can only keep a lead in the fourth quarter this week, they'll be happy.
Bruce Gradkowski has pulled off some big wins since taking over for JaMarcus Russell in Week 11. Gradkowski still isn't considered a long-term option in Oakland, but if he can put up stellar numbers against this great pass defense, Big Al may have to take notice.
St. Louis (1-11) at Tennessee (5-7): If you like power running backs, you're in for a treat. It doesn't get much better than watching Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson go head-to-head. The difference, when all is said and done, will likely be that Tennessee's run defense is ranked eighth in the league and St. Louis' 28th.
Vince Young may be sitting on the sidelines nursing a sore right knee. If so, the play of Kenny Britt and Johnson -- two players who have shined of late after a newly formed bond with Young -- may fall off a bit. After starting miserably, Tennessee is just playing too good right now to let that slow them down though.
San Diego (9-3) at Dallas (8-4): If not for Brees and Manning, most Americans would be preaching the name Philip Rivers for MVP. Rivers' numbers are fantastic this season and he should be able to flourish against the Cowboys this weekend.
Before I talk about Dallas' fear and loathing of the month of December -- actually, I'll make no further comment about that -- I'd like to mention that Felix Jones and Marion Barber are extremely important to the success of the Cowboys this Sunday. The Chargers do give up some yardage on the ground, but they've only allowed eight rushing touchdowns this season. Either Jones or Barber is going to have to find a way to get into the end zone.
Pick: San Diego
Philadelphia (8-4) at New York Giants (7-5): Philadelphia jumped all over the Giants earlier this season, winning 40-17. Last week aside, the Giants don't seem to have fixed the defensive issue that allowed Philadelphia to thump them. The Eagles don't have all of the weapons available to them this time around, however -- the score may be closer. I'm also interested to see if Michael Vick's newfound playing time was just a special treat for Atlanta, or a new segment of the game-plan.
If you look at the all-purpose yardage of Brandon Jacobs over the last four weeks you'll see that 74 of his 290 yards have come in one play, his lone reception last week against Dallas that he broke off for a touchdown. I'm not ready to believe that Jacobs, who had 26% of his offensive output over the last four weeks come from one play, is ready to lead New York to victory.
Arizona (8-4) at San Francisco (5-7): Over the last four games that Kurt Warner has been able to start, he's thrown 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions, averaging a little over 272 yards passing per game. San Francisco's pass defense ranks 26th in the league, which should mean fireworks on Monday Night Football.
In each of Alex Smith's last four games he's increased his passing yards per game and four touchdown passes without a pick over his last two games. It looks like Smith is learning to love the spread offense, and he's going to love throwing against Arizona's 29th-ranked pass defense. Maybe it'll be fireworks from both offenses.