The storylines are thick with intrigue for Week 13’s slate of NFL action.
As the final chapter of the NFL season unfolds, some guys are barely making their first appearances of the season—or in some cases, their career.
Some teams are fortunate enough to be receiving reinforcements heading into the final month of the regular season while others are being depleted at the worst possible time.
In other parts of the football universe, rookie quarterbacks must take their game to the next level as they’re faced with career changing obstacles. Meanwhile some second year signal-callers are just trying not to get bullied.
But without wasting too much of your precious time setting the scene, let’s jump right into the meat and potatoes.
Last time the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs went to war, the Chiefs were 9-0 and had sole possession of the No. 1 seed. The game was considered one of the most anticipated of the season considering the AFC powerhouses had a combined record of 17-1 at the time. The Broncos came away with a convincing 27-17 win, handing the Chiefs their first loss of the season.
Now, only two weeks later, these two teams square off for round two of their division rivalry and there is no doubt the Chiefs will be seeking vindication.
Last time these two went head-to-head, Peyton Manning was barely able to walk after dealing with two aggravated ankle injuries. The thinking was that the top-rated pass rush of the Chiefs could give the immobile QB fits. However, Manning and the Broncos executed a nearly flawless game plan consisting of quick, short passes and a healthy running game. As a result, Manning went nearly unmolested for four quarters.
This time around Kansas City will be asked to improve upon its pass rush despite the injuries to its two best sack artists Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Hali is expected to play against Denver, but Houston is out.
So, how will Kansas City shut down the best offense in the league?
To be fair, the Chiefs did hold the Broncos to a season-low 27 points last time and this time the game will be played at Arrowhead Stadium. Having the home crowd could hamper Manning’s uncanny ability to make adjustments at the line, thus helping to offset the loss of the Chiefs’ stud rushers.
The real problem here might be the quarterbacking of Alex Smith. Smith has notoriously struggled throughout his entire career to push the ball downfield and is not a likely candidate to keep up with Peyton Manning in a shootout.
Smith did throw for a season-high 294 yards last week against the Chargers, but their secondary is one of the worst in the league.
It should be interesting to see what the Chiefs plan to do in this matchup.
Look for them to try to disrupt the receivers at the line of scrimmage and provide help for rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper, who was picked on by Manning all game long.
We can expect both sides to be playing with a ton of emotion. The winner of this game will likely solidify its chances to win the division and secure a first-round bye in the playoffs.
In the months leading up to the NFL draft, few wide receivers were entering the league with as much raw talent and athletic ability as Da’Rick Rogers. Rogers is an interesting case study considering this is a guy with first-round talent, yet he managed to go completely undrafted by an NFL team.
He was even ranked the 10th-most gifted rookie according to my “Total Measureables” grading system.
Due to character concerns and a history of failed drug tests, Rogers would eventually sign as an undrafted free agent with the Buffalo Bills only to be released during the final cuts.
Shortly after his surprising release in Buffalo, he signed onto the Colts’ practice squad and was actually released just a few days later. He would however, return a couple days after being released where he would remain until being elevated onto the active roster on November 11th.
The promotion was a move out of necessity as the Colts looked for answers to replace the loss of Reggie Wayne for the season.
Despite being on the active roster Rogers had yet to be activated for a single game until now.
This Sunday, against the Tennessee Titans, rookie receiver Da’Rick Rogers will make his much-anticipated NFL debut.
At 6’2” and nearly 220 pounds, Rogers can out-jump almost anyone he faces. He can also outrun most of his competition with blazing speed and deer-like strides.
Keep a close eye on No. 16 for the Colts. This troubled young stud may actually end up being the spark Andrew Luck and this hapless offense needs.
The big storyline out of Miami this season has been the issue of bullying amongst teammates. Well, come Sunday the Dolphins will have to contend with two very scary bullies on the New York Jets defensive line.
Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson combine to create quite a disruptive tandem on the front lines.
Meanwhile, as the Dolphins learn how to be kind to one another and create a friendly, fun-loving locker room, their offensive line has been turning the other cheek to far lesser talent than what they’re about to face against New York.
With bad-boy villain Richie Incognito suspended from the team and Jonathan Martin not likely to return anytime soon, Miami is looking to find some warm bodies capable of staying in front of the defense and keeping their franchise quarterback on his feet.
That has been a task easier said than done. Since the beginning of the season, Ryan Tannehill has been sacked more times than any other quarterback in the NFL and things don’t appear to be getting any easier.
The Dolphins offensive line has the ominous look of a human turnstile with the exception of center Mike Pouncey. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription site), four of the five starting offensive linemen for Miami have negative grades on the season. This means by PFF standards, the Jets will be facing one of the least talented offensive fronts in the NFL.
Expect big performances from Wilkerson and Richardson this game as the Jets look to completely dominate in the trenches. These two “bullies” have combined for 13.5 sacks and 36 QB hurries on the season.
It will be a feat onto itself if Tannehill finds time to look through his progressions without having either of these monsters in his face.
If the plan is to run the ball, that too will be met with the disruptive duo upfront.
As it stands, the road to victory for the Miami Dolphins will undoubtedly pass through the gatekeepers of Wilkerson and Richardson.
We know that Ryan Tannehill will have his work cut out for him on the other sideline, but what about the turnover factory known as Geno Smith?
Though both the Dolphins and the Jets are 5-6, this game surprisingly has significant playoff implications in the AFC.
It seemed like ages ago that rookie quarterback Geno Smith was being considered one of the greatest steals of the 2013 draft class as he ascended to a respectable 26th in the QB power rankings and appeared to be the savior of the Jets franchise. He even helped guide their talent-deficient offense to a 5-4 record. This was something nobody expected was possible at the beginning of the season.
These days Geno is hanging onto his starting job by a thread and is quite literally one bad performance away from being handed a clipboard by head coach Rex Ryan.
Over the course of 11 games, Smith has been responsible for 22 turnovers, including 18 interceptions and four lost fumbles.
Ryan can’t be happy about this considering his primary point of emphasis heading into the regular season was to hold onto the football at all costs.
Furthermore, Geno has only completed 39 percent of his passes in the last three games.
It’s hard to imagine any quarterback could play much worse than he has lately. Come Sunday, he must step up his performance or risk being excommunicated for the rest of the season and quite possibly beyond.
And who might the hottest rookie quarterback be you might ask?
Look no further than the awkwardly tall Mike Glennon who was drafted in the third round.
Few people, including myself, expected much from Mike Glennon as a professional quarterback. Although his arm talent was impressive coming out of NC State, he seemed to lack the consistency and poise required of a guy who was to be the future of any NFL franchise. Yet, only eight months later, Glennon has taken full command of the starting spot in Tampa Bay and is performing with incredible efficiency for any NFL quarterback, let alone a rookie.
The 6’6” QB has completed an impressive 62 percent of his passes with a passer rating of 91.6. He has thrown 13 touchdown passes and only four interceptions on the season. To put that into perspective, only three quarterbacks in the league (Rodgers, Bradford, Foles) have thrown more touchdown passes with fewer dropbacks than Glennon, per PFF.
In addition, Glennon is currently in the midst of a three-game winning streak after the Buccaneers started off the season 0-8.
On the other side of the line will be a defense that has given up the fewest points in the NFL while dominating opponents all season long. The Carolina Panthers are fourth in defensive third-down conversion percentage and also second in the league in first downs allowed per game.
The Panthers are also in the middle of a win streak of their own, having won seven straight games, including a 31-13 shellacking over the Bucs in October.
However, Glennon did play well in that loss throwing for a career-high 275 yards while completing 59 percent of his passes. He also managed to avoid any interceptions.
But this is supposedly a different Bucs team than what Carolina faced over a month ago and Glennon has matured at a rapid pace.
Clearly this rematch will be the biggest test Mike Glennon has faced all year. If he somehow finds a way to be productive against this stout unit, we can officially declare him to be the best rookie quarterback in the NFL.
Personally, I still have my money on EJ Manuel as the most promising signal-caller of the 2013 draft class, but Glennon has continued to make a case for himself with each passing week.
Don’t forget, Manuel beat the Panthers in Week 2, scoring more points (24) than any other team has so far on this defense.
One thing the Panthers need to be mindful of is getting caught looking ahead to next week’s matchup against the Saints. This Buccaneers squad has been playing well as of late and is not a team to be taken lightly.
The Buffalo Bills appear to be a team on the rise with rookie QB EJ Manuel settling into the offense and adjusting to the speed of the game. But he’s not the only youngster in Sunday’s battle against the Atlanta Falcons. Both teams are loaded with rookies making enormous impacts on their season.
It’s always fun and somewhat uncommon to watch rookies square off against each other in head-to-head matchups, but it’s even more rare when a unit comprised of mostly rookies will be taking on an opposing unit made up of the same demographic.
This is what we have to look forward to on Sunday when the Bills play host to the disappointing Falcons.
On offense, Buffalo fields a group of wideouts that’ll showcase two rookies who’ve been making their mark early and often this season. Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin were the second- and third-round selections for the Bills last April and have played a big role in this offense. Woods is third on the team in receiving yards (349) while Goodwin is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions (3) and leads all receivers in average yards per catch (16.3).
The guys who will be tasked with shutting them down on the other side of the ball will be fellow rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. These two rookie cornerbacks have played well so far with all things considered.
Trufant is third on the team in tackles and has held quarterbacks to a 78.9 passer rating on throws in his direction. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that Trufant is tied for the most pass deflections in the NFL with former Falcon Brent Grimes. (PFF)
Alford leads the team in interceptions (2) and has allowed opposing QBs a passer rating of only 73.5.
If nothing else, these promising youngsters should keep the Falcons watchable despite the fact that they’re out of playoff contention at 2-9 on the season.
Clearly the Bills will have their work cut out for them come Sunday against those talented young corners. The winner of this contest will likely be determined by which set of rookies has the better day.
When Michael Crabtree shredded his Achilles last May most of the football world assumed he would not return in 2013. That assumption turned out to be false. Now, after just six months, the 49ers’ No. 1 receiver from a year ago is set to play against the St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park this Sunday.
With that said, don’t expect the eager receiver to light up the box score in his first bit of action since the injury. Coming back from a torn Achilles takes time and we should expect a slow re-acclimation process over the next several weeks.
Crabtree will need to learn how to trust his tendons once again while getting into football shape in the process. His snap count should be limited, but considering Colin Kaepernick seems to be a creature of habit, expect No. 15 to see a few balls thrown his way when he enters the game.
His impact on the game against the Rams this weekend should be minimal, but his real value will likely be realized by the time the postseason rolls around.
Last year Crabtree had over 100 yards receiving on four occasions in the regular season. This year, without him, only one wide receiver (Boldin) has surpassed the 100-yard receiving mark and he has only done it once.
Now that the 49ers have Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree at their disposal, what was once a weakness has suddenly been transformed into a promising strength.
Keep an eye on how well Crabtree moves around out there and whether or not he looks fluid breaking in and out of his routes. This will determine just how effective he’ll be in 2013.
How quickly the tides do turn throughout the NFL landscape. Just as their arch-rival 49ers appear to be getting stronger, the once dominant secondary of the Seattle Seahawks now looks to be a makeshift group of vagabonds.
In a surprising turn of events for the Seahawks, two of their top-three cornerbacks will be suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Starting corner Brandon Browner is expected to be hit the hardest as he is to be suspended for the rest of the year.
Meanwhile, fellow corner Walter Thurmond is dealing with a four-game suspension for violation of the substance abuse policy.
Suddenly, the Seahawks are left trying to field a group of capable cornerbacks as they prepare to face one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Drew Brees is probably the last quarterback you want to face when dealing with issues in your secondary. There is nobody better at finding the mismatch than Brees and it looks as though there might be a ton of said mismatches all game long.
This should make it difficult for Russell Wilson to compete against one of his mentors. It now appears that the second-year quarterback will have to engage in a full-fledged shootout against Drew Brees. The good news for Seattle is it should at least benefit from the return of Percy Harvin, who made his Seahawk debut against the Vikings two weeks earlier.
Heading into this game the Seahawks’ secondary is second in the league in passing yards per game (180) behind only the Houston Texans. Considering the recent developments and their opponent, don’t be surprised if they give up a season high in passing yards to the Saints this Sunday.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently writes for Bleacher Report.
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