The must-see games this week carry a common theme among them, namely that wins not only take each team closer to the playoffs, but also might decide how the playoff seeds play out.
The Seattle Seahawks (11-1) became the first team to clinch a postseason berth after a decisive home victory last weekend, and six other teams this week have the opportunity to book their place in the playoffs. The American Football Conference (AFC) leading Denver Broncos (10-2), New England Patriots (9-3) and Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) need wins this weekend coupled with losses from fringe contenders to clinch a spot. While in the National Football Conference (NFC), the New Orleans Saints (9-3) and Carolina Panthers (9-3) need wins and lots of help to advance.
Two teams who look to be cruising to division titles and playoff berths, the AFC South leading Indianapolis Colts (8-4) travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals (8-4) at 1 p.m. Eastern time Sunday. Both teams carry large divisional leads into this game and know that each win brings them closer to the coveted 3rd seed in the AFC which would have them avoid facing the Chiefs.
For the Colts, getting off to a fast start is the key to their success. In the past four games, the Colts have gotten off to woefully bad starts in three out of four, trailing the Rams, Titans and Cardinals by a combined score of 72-9. The team went 1-2 in those games, but has not been impressive over the last several weeks without wide out Reggie Wayne or any semblance of a running game.
"We have to find something," said Colts head coach Chuck Pagano to reporters at wthr.com in Indiana when asked about the slow starts. "We have to figure a way to get off the field, figure out a way to get some drives together, put some points on the board."
Cincinnati too suffers from a vice – their propensity to turn the ball over. The Bengals have conceded 24 turnovers total, two a game, which ranks them in the Bottom 4 in the AFC. However in most games their defense has been able to bail them out, racking up 23 takeaways this season. If the Bengals can limit their turnovers, they will have a good shot at winning this game.
From teams in control of their division to two teams fighting for the top spot, Sunday's second must-see 1 p.m. Eastern time match-up with playoff implications features the Detroit Lions (7-5) traveling to Lincoln Financial Field to face the Philadelphia Eagles (7-5).
The Eagles find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in, tied with the Dallas Cowboys for tops in the NFC East while the Lions have used injuries to NFC North quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler to catapult themselves into first place.
The player to watch this game will be the Eagles’ otherworldly quarterback Nick Foles. Starting the season as a back-up and filling in after Michael Vick’s injury, Foles has thrown 19 touchdowns to 0 interceptions on a passing rating of 125.2, top in the league. The quarterback has now set the 3rd best mark for fewest interceptions to start a career with a minimum of 350 attempts, only throwing 5 despite consistently throwing down the field. Beyond the numbers, Coach Chip Kelly has high praise for the quarterback.
“Real smart, intelligent quarterback,” Kelly told the Detroit Free Press. “Very, very good understanding of our offense and what we’re trying to get accomplished on each individual play. Works really, really hard at it off the field.”
Detroit tandem Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson know a thing or two about throwing the ball down the field, and with two of the worst passing defenses on display in this game, expect a high-scoring affair.
Closing out the Sunday games is a battle of offense and defense, one which could decide the division title as well as have major playoff implications in the NFC. This Sunday night the surprise Carolina Panthers (9-3) travel to the Superdome to face the New Orleans Saints (9-3) in a game that will no doubt captivate NFL fans.
For both teams, a whole lot is at stake this weekend as the winner will be in the driver’s seat for clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC and the coveted first round bye. The Panthers enter this game winning their last 8 games and playing with a confidence that has not been there since the team made a Super Bowl run. The team has dispatched quality opponents in that time as well, winning at San Francisco (8-4) and New England, while also beating Miami.
All eyes Sunday night will be on Drew Brees and Sean Payton, who suffered possibly the worst loss in the tandem’s history together. Following the 34-7 loss to the Seahawks, Payton was asked about how to juggle mulling over defeat and moving on from it, telling NewOrleansSaints.com, “One of the things that we discussed was just the quick turnaround. It’s a set back and now you’re on a short week but we have to make the corrections. We can’t just say it didn’t happen. But that being said, we have to quickly get focused on Carolina.”
The question on everyone’s mind will be what response the two can manage this Sunday in primetime. If history is a good tell, then the Saints look to be in pretty good shape. Coming off losses to the Patriots and Jets earlier this season, the Saints have outscored their next two opponents by 50. Looking back further, in games since 2009 in which the Saints have lost by more than one score, the team has come back to beat their opponent by an average of roughly 15.
History says New Orleans will turn their shocking loss into a dominating victory, but given that Carolina has been unable to manage a winning record in their last four seasons, we assume the Panthers are ready to prove that William Shakespeare was wrong when he wrote: "What's past is prologue."