NFL begins final quarter with key games
The Dolphins displayed a serious weakness for all the football-viewing nation to see in prime time against the Jets.
Now, the Baltimore Ravens get a chance to perhaps replicate Denver’s 201 yards rushing two weeks ago. Or New York’s 277 yards rushing last Monday night — but not repeat the final score, which went in Miami’s favor.
Baltimore’s trip to South Florida on Sunday is one of many intriguing matchups as the NFL schedule hits the final quarter with 26 teams still owning playoff hopes.
Both are 7-5 and probably should be thinking wild card rather than division title.
The Ravens probably should be thinking run, run, run. Yet their primary ball carrier, Justin Forsett, isn’t carrying any such mindset.
“I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking this thing is going to be easy and we’re going to be able to run all day,” says Forsett, who has rushed for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns in a breakthrough season. “I know that they’re a physical bunch, they’re athletic and they’ve got a lot of playmakers over there. I’m anticipating a tough game.
“Every team is different. I’m sure with the Jets and the other teams they played, they weren’t expecting certain things. Us, we’ve got to be balanced.”
But the Ravens’ strength is the running game, and how Forsett fares easily could decide this one.
“We are certainly going to have our hands full stopping their run game,” Miami coach Joe Philbin says. “I think we have to tackle better. ... You have to get guys to the ground.
“Again, they are going to gain some yards. This is a good team, Baltimore. It’s a good running (team) and a good offensive line. At the end of the day, to play good run defense you have to tackle.”
Week 14 began with Dallas (9-4) dropping Chicago to 5-8 with a 41-28 victory. League rushing leader DeMarco Murray ran all over the Bears with 179 yards as the Cowboys improved to 6-0 on the road. Tony Romo threw for three scores.
Atlanta visits Green Bay on Monday night.
Seattle (8-4) at Philadelphia (9-3)
The Seahawks have rediscovered the swaggering defense that led them to the NFL title last season, allowing a total of six points the past two weeks. They are ranked at the top again for stinginess, and also have the No. 1 rushing offense.
Into the Linc they go, where the Eagles have won 10 in a row in the regular season. Philadelphia’s balanced offense and improving defense will offer a terrific test for the defending champions.
New England (9-3) at San Diego (8-4)
Even after their loss at Green Bay, from which they immediately flew to California rather than back to chilly New England, the Patriots own the AFC’s top seed. This is their biggest remaining challenge to keeping it.
The Chargers have won three straight, but quarterback Philip Rivers is 1-5 as a starter against the Patriots.
Juicy matchup has two premier tight ends, Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and Chargers’ Antonio Gates.
Atlanta (5-7) at Green Bay (9-3), Monday night
A rarity: These teams are meeting on Monday night for the first time since Atlanta’s 28-21 win on Nov. 22, 1971 — the second year of Monday night games.
Not so rare: Green Bay winning at home with a prime-time offense and opportunistic defense. Aaron Rodgers has thrown an NFL-record 360 straight passes at Lambeau Field without an interception. The Packers also have converted 15 turnovers into touchdowns, tied for first with Houston with 96 points off takeaways.
Atlanta has 11 takeaways in the past four games and ranks third in the NFL with 24 this season.
Indianapolis (8-4) at Cleveland (7-5)
Houston (6-6) at Jacksonville (2-10)
The Colts will become the first team to secure a playoff spot with a win and a Texans loss, which hands Indianapolis the AFC South title.
Indy has the league’s top offense overall, led by Andrew Luck coming off five-TD game. Luck leads the league with 4,011 yards passing.
With the Browns still in playoff contention, they are sticking with starting QB Brian Hoyer despite his recent slump. Don’t be surprised if rookie Johnny Manziel comes off the bench if Hoyer struggles.
Houston comes off its best game of the season and one of the top offensive performances in franchise history, with 45 points and 457 yards. Ryan Fitzpatrick set a franchise record with six TD passes last week and always fares well against Jacksonville.
The Jags got two defensive TDs in last week’s win over the Giants, a franchise first.
Buffalo (7-5) at Denver (9-3)
Denver is the other team playing with a playoff-clinching scenario, albeit not a division crown. It’s complicated, but Denver clinches a playoff spot with a win and losses by Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Kansas City and a Houston loss or tie. Peyton Manning and the Broncos also get in with a victory and win, losses by Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and San Diego; a Houston loss or tie; and a Kansas City tie.
Both quarterbacks need to be alert for sackmasters. Buffalo DE Mario Williams has 12 sacks and DT Marcell Dareus has 10. Denver LB Von Miller has 11 1-2 sacks and DE DeMarcus Ware has 10. The Bills lead NFL with 48 sacks and have a sack in 25 straight games.
Kansas City (7-5) at Arizona (9-3)
What’s happened with the Cardinals’ expanding injury list is a shame, because it has removed much of the glow from their season, replacing it with murky questions. They could be playing backups in seven positions, including, of course, quarterback Drew Stanton, who has struggled lately. At least he figures to get back star receiver Larry Fitzgerald from a bruised knee.
Like the Cardinals, the Chiefs come off two straight defeats and are in a more precarious position, third place in their division. Arizona still leads the AFC West.
Pittsburgh (7-5) at Cincinnati (8-3-1)
These teams meet twice more in the ultracompetitive AFC North, and if either should sweep, it would have an excellent shot at winning the division where, for now, no one is worse than 7-5.
Pittsburgh, coming off a distressing home loss to struggling New Orleans, surely has the offensive firepower to challenge Cincinnati, which barely edged Tampa Bay last week. Ben Roethlisberger is 15-6 vs. Cincinnati, including a playoff victory in 2005, with 27 TDs and 20 INTs. Le’Veon Bell is second in the NFL with 1,689 yards from scrimmage and has consecutive games with 200 yards from scrimmage, a franchise first. Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 96 receptions, had 1,258 yards and 11 TDs.
In Cincinnati, they are asking which Andy Dalton will be behind center. He was ill and threw three first-half interceptions at Tampa Bay and has been erratic all season. But the Bengals have won three in a row.
Carolina (3-8-1) at New Orleans (5-7)
Hard to imagine, but the Saints lost all three games on a recent homestand, then went to Pittsburgh and romped. New Orleans can put away Carolina, loser of six in a row, in the NFC South, and has the weapons to do it. Star TE Jimmy Graham has seven TDs in his past six games against the Panthers, with at least one TD in each of those games.
Tampa Bay (2-10) at Detroit (8-4)
Detroit can’t afford to stumble here as it pursues Green Bay in the NFC North, and also a wild-card berth should it not catch the Packers. A staunch run defense, stingiest in the league, faces a weak rushing attack, although Tampa Bay has RB Doug Martin back.
The Bucs have played some contenders tough, with close losses to Cincinnati (last week) and Cleveland, and a win over Pittsburgh.
San Francisco (7-5) at Oakland (1-11)
A short trip across the bay to play the worst team in the league. Not a bad assignment for the up-and-down 49ers. Hopefully, they can find their way: This is only the second meeting between the teams in Oakland since 1979.
This one could be over early. San Francisco is tied for the most points on an opening drive of a game with Green Bay with 41. The Raiders have allowed the most points on opening drives with 44.
St. Louis (5-7) at Washington (3-9)
St. Louis has not won consecutive games this year, but come off a 52-0 demolition of Oakland. A loss would clinch an 11th consecutive non-winning season for the Rams.
Washington has lost four straight, but got a strong performance from QB Colt McCoy in his third start for Redskins. He went 31 of 47 for a career-high 392 yards and three touchdowns.
New York Jets (2-10) at Minnesota (5-7)
The clamor for getting rid of coach Rex Ryan and GM John Idzik grows in New York, where Ryan called his team’s record “a joke.” Well, yeah.
The Vikings, though, are showing progress, but all of their wins are over opponents with bad records. No joke.
New York is 8-1 against Minnesota.
New York Giants (3-9) at Tennessee (2-10)
The clamor for getting rid of coach Tom Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese is growing for the other New York team. Apparently two Super Bowl titles in the past seven years no longer count for much for Coughlin, at 68 the league’s oldest coach. He deserves a more graceful exit, but the Giants’ injury-ravaged roster already was low on talent, so a turnaround is unlikely.
Tennessee also is banged up and not particularly deep on talent, but coach Ken Whisenhunt is in his first year of a rebuilding plan.
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