With just four weeks left in the regular season and seven divisions currently being decided by a game or less, almost every game in Week 14 will have a significant effect on the NFL playoff picture. (Condolences to the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals… at least the Cleveland-Buffalo game has some fantasy impact…) Here are three games to watch on Sunday, featuring one contest that wouldn’t have caught our eyes before this season.
Oakland @ Jacksonville: 1:00 pm, CBS
Who saw this coming? The 7-5 Jaguars lead the AFC South, and that’s a bit odd considering that the Jacksonville Jaguars are not the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are still in the picture after their 30-28 win over the helpless Tennessee Titans on Thursday night. They sit a half-game back.
Maurice Jones-Drew is back on track after a slow start to the season. He has 803 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns in his last five games. The Jags are 4-1 in that span.
The quarterback carousel in Oakland continues between Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski, as Campbell will get the start Sunday. The real story, however, has been the Raiders’ success with the rush. Darren McFadden and Michael Bush have over 1,300 yards on the ground this season and 10 touchdowns.
The Oakland Raiders (6-6) are tied for second in the AFC West with the San Diego Chargers. The Raiders will need a win on Sunday to stay in the playoff picture. They are 4-0 in division matchups and have a Week 17 date with the division-leading Kansas City Chiefs to close out the regular season. If they can match their three-game winning streak earlier this season, the Raiders could see their first playoff action in eight years.
New England @ Chicago, 4:15 pm, CBS
No one is excited to play the New England Patriots right now. After a 45-3 shalacking of the supposed Super Bowl contending New York Jets, the Pats look like the best team in the NFL… but the Chicago Bears (9-3) are for real, too. The Bears finally boast an offense that is clicking and a defense that is amongst the best in the NFL.
Jay Cutler has a real chance to continue his recent domination of NFL defenses. The Pats are 31st in the league in pass defense, giving up more than 275 yards per game. If the Pats’ pass rush continues to struggle, Cutler could pick them apart, especially with Matt Forte as both a rushing and a receiving threat. It also doesn’t help that the team lost linebacker Brandon Spikes to a four-game suspension.
The Patriots have averaged 40 points in their past four games, but may have trouble approaching that number against the league’s third-best scoring defense. Last week, however, they embarrassed the league’s sixth-best scoring defense. Bill Belicheck’s ability to gameplan and the raw talent of quarterback Tom Brady will be the X-factors on the offensive side of the ball. They’ll have to deliver if the Pats want to win their 11th game of the year.
Philadelphia @ Dallas: 8:20 pm, NBC
You can bet your last pennies that NBC is thankful that the Dallas Cowboys (4-8) have won three out of four games under new head coach Jason Garrett. That, combined with the intrigue of a Dallas-Philadelphia rivalry that has never been more heated, will make for great ratings this Sunday night.
The Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) haven’t seen the ‘Boys since last postseason, when Tony Romo and company almost singlehandedly sent Donovan McNabb packing to Washington, D.C. via trade. For tomorrow’s matchup, neither McNabb, nor Romo will play, with Romo still sidelined for a shoulder injury that likely has ended his 2010 season. Instead, it will be Jon Kitna and Pro-Bowl leading vote getter Michael Vick taking the stage.
Vick has it all. Aside from his 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season, he serves as a significant running threat on the ground. He also has LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and a reemerging Brent Celek as options. His offensive line is playing a bit better than they were earlier in the season, when Vick was running for his life after getting no time in the pocket.
Kitna has been playing better under Garrett, throwing seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He won’t have to deal with cornerback Asante Samuel this week, after the league leader in interceptions suffered a setback with his knee during practice on Wednesday. Joselio Hanson and Dmitri Patterson will have to step up for the third straight game in his absence. Kitna will have to worry about defensive ends Trent Cole and Jaqua Parker. Cole has nine sacks in 2010 and Parker will be returning from a hip injury after missing two games.
The Cowboys will look to play the spoiler role against the Birds this week. The Eagles are tied atop the NFC East with the New York Giants (8-4), who they’ll visit eight days from now in the new Meadowlands. The Giants will be coming off a short week after snow caused the postponement of their game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday. The game will now take place on Monday night.