We've hit the fourth quarter of the 2012 season, and while a few teams have already punched their tickets for the postseason across the National Football League, some teams are scrambling to keep their playoff hopes alive. Others have resigned themselves to playing the role of spoiler.
As usually happens in the NFL, there's bound to be an upset or three this week. Here's a look at a trio of the most likely candidates, beginning with a battle in the Queen City between two teams fighting for their playoff lives.
Dallas Cowboys (+3) at Cincinnati Bengals
Sunday's matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Dallas Cowboys features one squad on a hot streak and another that desperately needs to string together two decent outings in a row.
After a midseason swoon, the Bengals are right back in the thick of things in the AFC thanks to four straight wins. A large part of those victories has been the running of tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis. As offensive coordinator Jay Gruden told Matt Beardmore of The Associated Press via Yahoo! Sports, it was simply a matter of Green-Ellis becoming comfortable in his new home.
"It was his first time with a new line and a new system and terminology and all that stuff,'' offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said of Green-Ellis' early struggles. "A lot of the runs were the same he's used to, but still you've got to get used to your linemen and our aiming points and all that. He's done a great job being patient, but making his decisions and getting up the field have been outstanding. That's the big thing.''
The Cowboys' run defense is middle-of-the-pack this year, but the team possesses a top-10 pass defense capable of containing star wide receiver A.J. Green, which will allow the Cowboys to sell out a bit in an effort to slow down "Law Firm."
That defense should keep this game close, which will shift the pressure to the Dallas offensive line to help keep a Cincinnati pass rush that leads the NFL in sacks off quarterback Tony Romo.
The return of running back DeMarco Murray and the dimension he adds to the Dallas offense will help in that regard, and while picking the Cowboys to play well two weeks in a row is a risky proposition, a late Dez Bryant touchdown catch will propel the Cowboys to victory in one of Week 14's most entertaining games.
The Pick: Dallas 24, Cincinnati 20
St. Louis Rams (+3) at Buffalo Bills
Granted, technically neither the 5-6-1 St. Louis Rams nor the 5-7 Buffalo Bills have been eliminated from playoff contention, but the reality of the matter is that, in all likelihood, the only way either of these teams is getting into a postseason game is by buying a ticket.
That makes the 2012 season something of disappointment for the Bills, given that many pundits labeled them a dark-horse playoff contender this year.
However, after winning all of two games in 2011, the Rams have made significant strides in their first year under head coach Jeff Fisher, although Fisher told Beardmore that his squad isn't looking at anything other than the task at hand this week.
"This team is focused on Buffalo. It's our next opponent," said coach Jeff Fisher, whose club has won two straight following an 0-4-1 stretch. "There's too much that could happen right now. I don't even know what the record is of some teams in the division. So, we just go play."
Some of the Rams' success can be attributed to an improved secondary featuring cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan. Between Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's penchant for turnovers and the Bills' inability to stop the run this year,, the stage is set for the Rams to get back to .500.
The Pick: St. Louis 20, Buffalo 13
New York Jets (-3) at Jacksonville Jaguars
Home underdogs can often be a gambling man's best friend, and when that home underdog is playing a team that just can't get out of its own way, that's doubly so—even if that underdog has won all of two games this season.
Such is the case with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have been an improved team with Chad Henne under center and play host to a New York Jets team that has been embroiled in one controversy after another once again this season.
The latest controversy involves the starting quarterback, but despite benching Mark Sanchez in last week's win over the Arizona Cardinals, head coach Rex Ryan has decided to go back to Sanchez this week according to Jeff Bartl of the Associate Press via Yahoo! Sports.
''When I looked at everything, the biggest thing I kept coming back to is: Who gives us the best opportunity to win?'' Ryan said. ''When I kept coming back to that, I believed the correct answer was.''
Apparently Ryan has been watching game film from 2010, because given that Sanchez ranks dead last among starting quarterbacks in both passer rating and completion percentage, the chance he gives the Jets of winning isn't all that great from where I sit.
The Pick: Jacksonville 13, New York 10