The window of opportunity for many teams is beginning to close as conference leaders continue to clinch spots in the postseason. The New Orleans Saints (10-3), New England Patriots (10-3), and Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) hope to follow in the footsteps of the Seattle Seahawks (11-2), Denver Broncos (11-2), and Indianapolis Colts (8-5), and clinch spots in the playoffs this week with wins. The San Diego Chargers (6-7), Chicago Bears (7-6), and Arizona Cardinals (8-5) need to continue to win and hope for losses from conference contenders if they want to keep their hopes alive at making the playoffs.
It seems improbable that we are still talking about the Miami Dolphins (7-6) as a potential wildcard team given their off-field drama. But the team has remained in contention and will look to upset the Patriots this Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern time to remain in the hunt.
Many had written off the Dolphins following the bullying controversy that arose between offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. However, since the drama has subsided, the team has won three of their last four games and emerged as a team that could sneak into the playoffs as the last wildcard.
The Dolphins success has come from the on-field leadership of Ryan Tannehill. The quarterback has been consistent as ever on the field, throwing for an average of 277 yards on 64 percent passing in his past four games. Tannehill will look to remain sharp against a Patriots secondary that has overachieved, despite numerous injuries.
This game may not mean much to the Patriots, but the league will surely be watching to see how the offense operates without tight end Rob Gronkowski who was lost for the season after a devastating knee injury. Gronkowski, quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite target, was only just beginning to return to his pre-injury form and it was evident in Brady’s offensive output, which rose dramatically with the tight end on the field. Brady remains confident that his team will persevere without the star tight end.
"We're going to have to make do, whatever the combinations are," Brady told WEEI radio in Boston. "If Gronk's not out there, we've got to try to figure those out." With the Patriots offense in restructuring mode yet again, expect this clash of American Football Conference (AFC) East foes to be close, with the Dolphins playing like they have everything to lose.
From a team that has lost its most dangerous weapon to one that has been without theirs for weeks now, the Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys (7-6) at 4 p.m. Eastern time Sunday.
The question dominating the narrative of this game, and the Packers season, continues to be “Will Aaron Rodgers play?” Rodgers has a collarbone injury and his status remains uncertain for this week. But what has become apparent since the injury is the value Rodgers has to the Packers.
Since the injury, the Packers as 1-4-1 and their passing attack has dropped off drastically. Delving deeper into the numbers shows that a healthy Rodgers threw for 277 yards per game and a Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 70.35 out of 100, while starters who have replaced Rodgers have averaged a meager 205 yards per game on a QBR of 19.37. The Packers desperately hope Rodgers can come back to start this game and know that one more loss all but seals their fate.
If one question dominates the storyline of this game, then another continues to dominate Tony Romo’s career, namely “Can Romo win in December?” Romo’s Cowboys again enter December needing wins and Philadelphia Eagles losses to claim th National Football Conference (NFC) East title. No doubt Romo is hoping to reverse the narrative and emerge from December as a playoff quarterback, but his focus this week is on the coming game.
“I think for us it's just about winning," Romo told ESPN Dallas. "I think you guys [the media] add the extra stuff [to] the winning. All that matters is getting the job done.” Last week’s thrashing at the hands of the Bears does not do the quarterback any favors. Fans will hope that the mid-week theater matches the game quality when these two teams get together.
Like the Cowboys, the Detroit Lions (7-6) understand that only a divisional title will guarantee them a spot in the playoffs with the wildcards seemingly out of reach. This Monday night, the Lions host the playoff-hopeful Baltimore Ravens (7-6) in a prime-time match-up which will have major implications across both conferences.
The Ravens are coming off an unbelievable back-and-forth contest with the Minnesota Vikings (3-9-1) last Sunday in which the team emerged victorious following a last-second touchdown. The defending Super Bowl champions occupy the last AFC wildcard spot and need to continue winning to fend off the Dolphins, who trail by tiebreaker.
When asked about what accounted for his team’s success in December, Coach John Harbaugh told Fox Sports, ”The fact that we work hard… [we] make it a habit every single day. Go in there and start stacking those days. That adds up.”
Many have seen this Ravens team as underachieving this season, but few have looked closely enough to see that the team has in fact overachieved despite numerous obstacles. The most notable of these is injury-riddled running back Ray Rice and backup Bernard Pierce’s inability to develop any sort of a rushing attack this season. A team strategically built around running the ball to open up deep passing alleys, the team is the 29th ranked rushing team in the league, and has therefore struggled mightily at times this season.
Look for running woes to continue this Monday night as they match up with the stout Lions front four, which ranks 6th against the run this season. The Ravens will have to be efficient in the pass game and limit their mistakes to stay with the Lions at home, who average more than 31 points per game at Ford Field. With everything at stake for both of these teams, expect this game to have a playoff atmosphere from the get-go that comes down to the wire.