Will defense beat offense Sunday night? Who’s ripe for an upset? Who will take control in the hotly-contested NFC East? Breakout Live answers all the pivotal questions heading into week 14 of the NFL.
Which top team is most vulnerable to an upset?
Since we’re talking upset, I’ll focus on top teams playing clearly inferior opponents. The Patriots are historically good in December, just as they are historically good in their own division. But they’ve looked vulnerable at times and now head on the road to play a Dolphins team that is desperate to stay in the wildcard hunt. On paper, the Chiefs face a rejuvenated Ravens team that’s won 3 in a row under the leadership of a new star quarterback. But games aren’t played on paper, and the Ravens have beaten 3 of the NFL’s worst teams with highly suspect quarterback play. The Saints head to Tampa to face a Bucs team that dropped 48 points on them in New Orleans and has won two in a row behind Jameis Winston’s 4 TDs and zero INTs and a QB rating of over 115. And the Saints still have injury concerns at wide receiver. The Texans have won 9 in a row and face a feisty Colts team at home, but the once explosive Colts just got shut out by a previously 3-win team. The Chargers and Steelers aren’t even in contention for this honor, as they face dismal opponents in the Bengals and Raiders, respectively. Out of the contenders, I’d say the Patriots are the most vulnerable to an upset, although the Saints better be careful in Tampa.
Who wins, Rams offense vs. Bears defense?
It’s the Rams #2 offense vs. the Bears #4 defense at Soldier Field Sunday night. Back in the olden days, a great defense always trumped a great offense. Especially at home. Today that’s no longer an axiom. But the Bears do have a stout defense, and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is expected to return from injury and play against the Rams. If you’re going to beat the Rams and their 35 points per game, you better be prepared to stop them in both phases of the offense. That’s because the Rams are rated 4th in passing and 4th in rushing. Fortunately for the Bears, they defend both well. The Bears rushing defense is ranked 2nd while their passing defense is still solid at #11. My biggest concern for the Bears? They don’t have a lot of quality wins. Their biggest quality win was at home to the Vikings, but the remainder of their victories were against teams that were bad to mediocre when they played them. The two best teams they played early in the season were the Dolphins and Patriots, and they lost both. But with the night game below freezing and the Rams playing their second road game in a row against the Norse division, I give the edge to the Bears.
Is the Monday night game do or die?
The Vikings at Seahawks on Monday night is certainly going to go a long way to sorting out the wildcard race in the NFC. It’s hard to call it a do or die game, because the Seahawks are guaranteed to at least be tied for a wildcard spot even if they lose, and the Vikings would be no worse than a half-game out with a loss. Of the two, the Vikings would be digging a deeper hole by losing, as they have to finish up against the playoff-hopeful Dolphins and back-to-back games against the rival Lions and Bears, and they’d likely be chasing multiple teams for the final wildcard spot.
Who will take control in the NFC East?
The Cowboys have a golden opportunity this Sunday. If they can take out their rival Eagles at home and the Redskins stumble with a third-string quarterback against a suddenly decent Giants squad, the Cowboys will wake up Monday morning with a 2-game lead with only 3 to go. But somehow I’m not sure the defending champs are going down without a fight. I think the Eagles will give everything they’ve got with the hopes of showing the league they’re back, and this win would put them inexplicably atop the division despite a rough season. I think this one’s a toss-up. If the Eagles pull it out, this division will be chaotic until the final whistle of the regular season.
Can the Steelers get back on track without James Conner?
Running back James Conner is said to be rigorously rehabbing a sprained ankle in hopes of returning for Week 15 against the Patriots. That means he won’t be available in Oakland against the Raiders. But let’s be honest, the Steelers could line up Franco Harris in the backfield and beat the Raiders. So yes, if you define getting back on track as winning this week, they will be fine without Conner. But should Conner remain out for any length of time, it could get ugly. The Steelers already looked shaky in surrendering a huge halftime lead to the Chargers and have nearly lost 3 games in a row, if not for a late comeback against the Jaguars. And Ben Roethlisberger has looked rather pedestrian in throwing 6 INTs against 5 TDs the last three weeks. With upcoming games against the Patriots and Saints, and zero chance of Le’Veon Bell running out of the locker room, the Steelers will need James Conner to stay in top seed contention and maybe even divisional contention if the Ravens can keep it going.
Which wildcard contenders are in most danger of dropping out of the race?
All 7 of the NFL’s 6-6 teams are on the outside looking in at the wildcard. Losing this week won’t knock any of them out, but it would be the next nail in their coffin. The Dolphins host the Patriots before heading to Minnesota. The Colts face off against Houston and Dallas the next two weeks. The Eagles face a brutal 3-game stretch against divisional leaders. The Redskins no longer have an NFL-caliber starting quarterback. And the Carolina Panthers have lost 4 in a row and still have to play the Saints twice with a hampered Cam Newton. So I think it’s safe to say those five teams may find their wildcard hopes dashed this week or next. Meanwhile, the Titans may end up facing sub-.500 teams the remainder of the season, and the Broncos have an absurdly easy schedule against the 49ers, Browns and Raiders the next three weeks, but will have to do it without leading wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Either of these two teams seem to have the best shot at remaining in contention, especially given the Ravens’ dubious quarterback situation.
Which teams will hold the #1 seeds after week 14?
I don’t think it’s much of a question in the AFC. The current top seed Kansas City Chiefs host the Baltimore Ravens in a game that should finally expose Lamar Jackson as a not-ready-for-prime-time NFL quarterback. The Chargers will remain on the Chiefs’ heels after dismantling the Bengals, but expect the Chiefs to hold the AFC crown for at least another week. Things are a little more complicated in the NFC. The Rams hold a tenuous one-game lead on the Saints, but the Saints hold the tiebreaker and have an easier game on Sunday. It might not be a cake-walk, as the Saints head on the road to play a Tampa team that already beat them in New Orleans and is suddenly getting mistake-free football out of Jameis Winston. But compare that to the Rams’ task at hand: a visit to Soldier Field on Sunday night. The Saints have more than a puncher’s chance of regaining the top seed come Sunday night.
Can Lamar Jackson keep the Ravens in contention?
Whatever dark magic Lamar Jackson is conjuring to keep the Ravens in contention, he better keep the cauldron hot, because it’s about to get a lot tougher for the Ravens’ rookie quarterback. Yes, Jackson is 3-0 as a starter filling in for the injured Joe Flacco. But he’s averaged 151 passing yards and thrown for a whopping 1 touchdown against 3 interceptions. Even worse, Jackson has fumbled five times in 54 rushes, which are the most in the NFL since Week 11. And it’s not a fluke. Jackson fumbled 17 times (losing seven) in his final two seasons at Louisville, which was tied for the third-most in the NCAA over that period. I do not believe Lamar Jackson is going to be a successful NFL quarterback. But he is going to be the starter this Sunday in Kansas City despite Joe Flacco moving around better in practice. And I fully expect that the Ravens will see all they need from Jackson on Sunday to reinstall Flacco as the starter for the stretch run.