Week 12 offers captivating NFL matchups as usual, but there are a few teams in particular that will make the biggest statements in Sunday's action. Some of the league's heavyweights will crush the thin playoff hopes of others, while surprisingly hot teams will continue to roll—and inspire.
Check out this trio of teams determined to rise to the occasion and solidify their status as playoff teams this weekend.
San Francisco 49ers
Despite the fact that Alex Smith looks to be medically cleared to go, the Niners are going to go with their other hot handed QB, Colin Kaepernick. SI's Jim Trotter broke the news on Wednesday via Twitter:
BREAKING: Jim Harbaugh has informed Alex Smith that Colin Kaepernick will start Sunday, per source. Said decision not based on health.— Jim Trotter (@SI_JimTrotter) November 22, 2012
That creates a bit of a sticky situation, but it sort of makes sense in the context of Kaepernick's dazzling debut on Monday night against the Chicago Bears. Typically known for his running, the 2011 second-round pick out of Nevada displayed sensational arm strength and accuracy as well, making quick decisions and not turning it over once to a defense that has made a living off of takeaways.
Kaepernick is someone the organization felt could come in and be the franchise guy. Until the arrival of Jim Harbaugh and Co., Smith was a first overall bust. Now look what happened when the Niners got a chance to see someone they believed in from the beginning.
The QB guru Harbaugh is at work once again, and Kaepernick's unique skill set and incredible performance against such a tough Bears D makes his ceiling seem limitless.
Although this week's game in New Orleans will be the young signal-caller's first experience away from home, the Saints' defense has proven incapable of stopping anyone.
San Francisco will bring the Saints' recent momentum to a screeching halt and give themselves some breathing room over the Seahawks in the NFC West race.
Final score: Niners 45, Saints 27
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Greg Schiano has his players all-in on his system and has demanded respect as a first-year head coach. With the Bucs now sporting a 6-4 record and one of the best emerging offenses in football, they take a 5-1 record in their last six games into a home NFC South tilt with NFC-leading Atlanta.
The Falcons have found a way to win; six of their nine wins are by seven points or less. That happens to be the largest margin of victory that Tampa has surrendered in 2012.
In other words, it's perfectly plausible that the Bucs could sport a far better record than they do right now. Now that Doug Martin has emerged into an absolute stud running back and Josh Freeman is officially having a resurgent year, Tampa's offense seems unstoppable.
Martin should have a field day, since the Falcons give up an average of 130.5 yards per game on the ground, good for just 26th in the league.
But that pass defense still needs serious work, ranking dead last in the league. As bad as the Saints' defense is, they managed to hold Matt Ryan and Co. out of the end zone when it meant the most two weeks ago, and Ryan just threw five interceptions in a narrow escape against Arizona.
So Atlanta doesn't exactly come into Raymond James Stadium on a roll, and Ryan's confidence has to be at least somewhat shaken despite his outstanding supporting cast of skill players.
These circumstances seems ripe for the Bucs to make a huge statement at home—and perhaps make the seemingly inevitable division champs sweat it out for the South crown down the stretch. It will suddenly only be a two-game lead for the Falcons.
Final score: Buccaneers 38, Falcons 31
Two pick-sixes highlighted the rough outing for Andrew Luck against the New England Patriots last week, as the Colts simply looked overmatched in a 59-24 loss.
But Indy has looked like a completely different team at home this season, and that won't change in Lucas Oil Stadium against another playoff-hopeful foe, the Buffalo Bills.
This latest AFC East foe has had an extra few days to prepare for Luck and the Colts, courtesy of a Thursday night victory over Miami in Week 11. But it won't matter, because this Colts team has been nearly invincible at home, losing only on a flukey, last-minute play in Week 2 against Jacksonville.
In improving to 7-4, this inspiring bunch will be that much closer to a winning season—and more firmly in the driver's seat for the AFC's fifth seed.
Ironically, if the season were to end today, the Colts would travel to Denver to take on their old beloved quarterback Peyton Manning. That would be among the most hyped up playoff games in recent memory, but there is still plenty of football to be played.
Indianapolis has had to gut through a myriad of injuries throughout the season—including a leukemia diagnosis for head coach Chuck Pagano—and there is no reason this team won't get off the mat at home once again.
Look for Luck to have a big bounce-back game against a shaky Bills defense and for the Colts to finally begin to generate turnovers against erratic Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. This will be yet another step in the right direction for Luck, who has taken his share of rookie lumps.
Under his leadership—and that of veterans Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea, among others—Indy will begin to round into form and show how good they can be.
Final score: Colts 31, Bills 20