With the NFL playoff picture becoming more concrete, it’s that time of year when favorites turn on cruise control for the betterment of their playoff runs.
The New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and Denver Broncos have all clinched their divisions with four weeks to go, a bit earlier than usual. As a result, that opens the door for some pesky underdogs to play spoiler in the upcoming four weeks.
The 1998 Broncos come to mind concerning favorites down the stretch. The defending Super Bowl champions at the time were undefeated going into their last three weeks but turned on the cruise button and subsequently lost two of three to finish 14-2.
In 2012, there are no teams of that magnitude, but those performances set the precedent for letdowns in the league’s final month.
You’ll know when you see it: Offensive game plans get more vanilla, while backups get a bit more TV time than usual. Those teams aren’t playing to win. They are playing for January.
Here are the favorites who are on upset alert this weekend.
Atlanta Falcons (at Carolina Panthers)
The Falcons keep finding ways to win and maintain their gaudy record at 11-1, but they have already clinched the NFC South. A letdown performance is in order.
Not to mention that Atlanta squeaked by Carolina earlier this season in a game in which the Falcons had no business coming out on top.
The Panthers needed one yard to seal the game and couldn’t get it, while Matt Ryan and Roddy White connected for a 50-yard bomb deep in their own territory to set up the game-winning field goal. Those late-game heroics are unlikely to surface for a second time.
Meanwhile, Cam Newton has been playing his best football of the season, with six touchdowns and no picks in his last three contests.
Carolina has its bearings this time around. The Panthers will get their revenge Sunday.
Cincinnati Bengals (vs. Dallas Cowboys)
While the Bengals are riding high on a four-game winning streak, three of those victories came against teams which are bottom-feeders in the league standings.
The Cowboys are Cincinnati’s most talented opponents in a month, which will surprise once these teams clash on the gridiron.
That includes the Cowboys’ counter to superstar wideout A.J. Green: corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. These two defensive backs can neutralize the Bengals’ biggest advantage and turn their offense into a low-scoring one.
Dallas comes into this matchup motivated by the Giants’ woes in the NFC East race. That will straighten out a team which has played better on the road in recent years.
Washington Redskins (vs. Baltimore Ravens)
The winning musk from Monday night will wear off the ‘Skins by Sunday, as the battle-tested Ravens come into Washington in better shape than the public believes.
Baltimore had been on a four-game winning streak before last week’s slip-up against Pittsburgh and now needs to right the ship to clinch the AFC North title. With the Steelers lurking behind and getting healthy, the Ravens can’t give away any gimmes now.
As great as Washington played on Monday Night Football, a short week will make the Redskins susceptible against a desperate team. Expect a few deep connections to Torrey Smith to seal Washington's fate in Week 14.
Mike Shiekman is a Breaking News Writer for Bleacher Report. He gives fantasy advice and talks sports nonsense on Twitter @TheRealShiek