A whirlwind of a 2013 NFL regular season is already entering Week 14, and the stakes are increasing for all the teams fortunate to be involved in the playoff race.
On tap are a couple of intense divisional battles in the NFC, along with a showdown between two of the AFC's division leaders jockeying for postseason position while representing the highlight of the upcoming schedule.
Here is a look ahead at the most critical upcoming clashes, with predictions as to how they will play out along with a list of picks for every game this week.
Indianapolis Colts (8-4) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (8-4)
Thanks to a 22-14 win over the Tennessee Titans, the Colts can breathe easier with some distance between themselves and their closest competitor in the AFC South.
Cincinnati will provide a big test for Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, though, ranking fifth in the league in scoring defense (18.0 PPG) and sixth in total yards allowed per game with an average of 314.8.
Luck has not looked the same since superstar receiver Reggie Wayne was lost for the season in Week 7, as Bob Glauber of Newsday.com points out:
Andrew Luck just not the same w/out Reggie Wayne in the lineup. In games with Wayne, Luck had 10 TDs, 3 INTs. Without: 5 TDs, 5 INTs.— Bob Glauber (@BobGlauber) December 2, 2013
The onus is on the 2012 draft's No. 1 overall pick more than ever to carry this team, especially with a defense that is porous against the run.
No one on the Colts can match up with Bengals wideout A.J. Green, and the Bengals have the power-running BenJarvus Green-Ellis and a speedy change-of-pace back in rookie Gio Bernard to give Indianapolis problems.
As long as Andy Dalton can avoid interceptions, his Cincinnati bunch should be able to take care of business in Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
Prediction: Bengals 31, Colts 17
Seattle Seahawks (11-1) vs. San Francisco 49ers (8-4)
After an incredible performance on Monday night in which he threw for 310 yards and ran for a game-high 47, Russell Wilson should be a legitimate fixture in the MVP conversation.
The second-year pro has an 8.8 yards-per-attempt average—up from a stellar 7.9 in his rookie campaign. Wilson's scrambling ability and threat to run off the read-option are devastating defenses when he's not picking them apart from the pocket, too.
That 34-7 victory over the New Orleans Saints also gives Seattle a huge leg up on the No. 1 spot in the conference ahead of a potential NFC West-clinching road trip to San Francisco.
The Seahawks clinched a playoff spot with tonight's win. They can go 2-2 over their last four games and still get the No. 1 seed in the NFC.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 3, 2013
But Colin Kaepernick has picked up his play under center in recent weeks for the Niners, welcoming back last year's leading receiver in Michael Crabtree for Week 13's win over St. Louis to aid his resurgence.
A lot of focus will be on the two precocious signal-callers and which can avoid mistakes against two of the league's most formidable defensive units.
The last time these teams met, the Seahawks began Kaepernick's slump with a 29-3 beatdown at CenturyLink Field. It should be a different story—a closer outcome, in short—this time around.
However, B/R's Matt Miller put it best after Seattle's dominance on Monday Night Football:
As if this needed said—the #Seahawks are the best team in football. And it’s not even close.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 3, 2013
As much parity as there is in the NFL and with much of the playoff picture still to be decided, it does seem the Seahawks are playing at a higher level than anyone and are showing no signs of slowing down.
The difference in this one will be Wilson's consistency and Seattle's superior pass defense that stymied New Orleans' Drew Brees and limited him to 147 yards on 39 attempts to cap off Week 13.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, 49ers 23
Carolina Panthers (9-3) vs. New Orleans Saints (9-3)
Any and all questions about Ron Rivera's job security as Panthers coach and Cam Newton's viability as a franchise quarterback have been laid to rest.
Carolina has proven to be one of the league's premier defenses and has a still-growing QB in his third season who is coming into his own amid an eight-game winning streak.
Which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl?
It will be tough for the Saints to bounce back from Monday's shellacking in Seattle, but if anyone can do so, odds are Brees and Co. can. Then again, the Panthers are second in the NFL with 39 sacks this season, and Brees was under duress all evening in facing the Seahawks.
Brees won't likely be able to turn to his backfield for help. In Week 13, it produced a combined 16 carries for 43 yards, with 12 of those coming on an unexpected carry from fullback Jed Collins.
Squaring off with Carolina's No. 2 rush defense won't help. Although the Saints are a perfect 6-0 at home, this will be the week that record becomes blemished.
New Orleans will play far better on offense, but Newton's athleticism will be the X-factor that gives the Panthers yet another landmark win, along with sole possession of first in the division.
Prediction: Panthers 34, Saints 27
|Away Team||Home Team||Winner|
|Houston Texans||Jacksonville Jaguars||Jaguars|
|Indianapolis Colts||Cincinnati Bengals||Bengals|
|Atlanta Falcons||Green Bay Packers||Packers|
|Cleveland Browns||New England Patriots||Patriots|
|Oakland Raiders||New York Jets||Raiders|
|Detroit Lions||Philadelphia Eagles||Eagles|
|Miami Dolphins||Pittsburgh Steelers||Steelers|
|Buffalo Bills||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Bills|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Washington Redskins||Chiefs|
|Minnesota Vikings||Baltimore Ravens||Vikings|
|Tennessee Titans||Denver Broncos||Broncos|
|St. Louis Rams||Arizona Cardinals||Cardinals|
|New York Giants||San Diego Chargers||Giants|
|Seattle Seahawks||San Francisco 49ers||Seahawks|
|Carolina Panthers||New Orleans Saints||Panthers|
|Dallas Cowboys||Chicago Bears||Bears|
Picks are strictly opinion