As we prepare to kick off Week 14 of the 2011 NFL season, the stakes are getting higher as teams fight to stay in playoff contention.
What other teams will put themselves in great position to make the playoffs with big wins this week?
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has had a decent season, but the star of the show has been running back Ray Rice, who has accumulated almost 1,500 total yards along with 11 touchdowns. The complementary passing game has been led by Flacco and Rice as well as receivers Anquan Boldin and rookie Torrey Smith.
The Colts should be able to get some pressure on Flacco with defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but considering they give up the third-most yards on the ground and the most points per game, Baltimore's offense should have a spectacular day.
Indianapolis will be quarterbacked by Dan Orlovsky, who actually had a pretty good game against the New England Patriots last week in a 31-24 loss. However, Baltimore's defense is far beyond New England's.
The Ravens are ranked fifth or better in all four major defensive categories and have a ferocious pass rush that should make Orlovsky nervous. Even without their defensive general, Ray Lewis, on the field, this defense should dominate.
Baltimore's only worry will be overlooking the Colts, and assuming that doesn't happen, they will roll.
Ravens 35, Colts 10
The Falcons will field an offense that has the potential to be one of the most explosive in the NFL, though the numbers haven't shown that so far this season.
Quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones have been productive this year, while running back Michael Turner adds a second dimension and has had a great year on the ground. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has proven he isn't done yet either.
Carolina's defense, which ranks 15th against the pass but 29th in points allowed, is in for a rough day if they can't shut down Turner and force Ryan to beat them through the air.
Behind the play of rookie quarterback Cam Newton, however, Carolina's offense might be able to keep up with the Falcons. Newton has been limiting turnovers lately and put three rushing touchdowns on the board last week, while running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and receiver Steve Smith have been accenting Newton's strong play.
The Falcons have a very strong rush defense, but their already-struggling pass defense is at further disadvantage without cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Kelvin Hayden, who will both miss the game.
This game could be a nail-biter for the Falcons, but I think they stay in the thick of the playoff race with a road win.
Falcons 33, Panthers 28
The Texans have continued to win despite starting a rookie quarterback in TJ Yates, thanks in large part to a juggernaut-of-a-running game led by backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate. This week, however, the offense will be at a huge disadvantage without Andre Johnson, who will miss time with another hamstring injury, further damaging an already-crippled passing game.
Cincy's defense will do their best to exploit this by stacking the box against that strong ground game. Already one of the top run defenses in the NFL, the Bengals could have a lot of success against the Texans this week.
The Bengals are also starting a rookie at quarterback, but Andy Dalton will have his star receiver in AJ Green, with whom he has developed a strong rapport. Cedric Benson will try to get things going on the ground despite averaging less than four yards per carry this season.
Houston's defense has done a complete 180 from last year under Wade Phillips, and despite losing Mario Williams for the season, they are still ranked fourth or better in all four categories. The Bengals, who scored only seven points against a similarly-good defense last week, could be in for another low-output game.
Though this matchup should be low-scoring, I think the Bengals end Houston's winning streak on a count of home-field advantage and their must-win situation.
Bengals 19, Texans 16
The Vikings will be hobbled at the running back and quarterback positions, even if the starters end up playing. Adrian Peterson and Christian Ponder were both limited in practice this week and listed as questionable.
Receiver Percy Harvin will likely have to shoulder a big load regardless, though backup running back Toby Gerhart filled in nicely for Peterson last week and should get a considerable amount of carries again.
The Lions will have to really focus on stopping Peterson and Gerhart, because Detroit has struggled to stop good running games this year. Beyond that, Ndamukong Suh will be out for another game, which we saw last week had an effect on the Lions' biggest defensive strength—their pass rush. End Lawrence Jackson will also be out, while rookie Nick Fairley is questionable.
Detroit's offense, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson, should have a big day provided the offensive line is able to hold Jared Allen and Minnesota's good pass rush at bay. If not, Stafford may not have enough time to get the ball down the field.
The running game won't help matters, as Kevin Smith will be out yet again and fourth- and fifth-stringers Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams will be the starters.
Minnesota's only chance to stop Detroit is, like I said, Jared Allen and the pass rush. The Vikings linebackers are pretty good too, but the secondary is so bad that the Lions passing game should be able to go up and down the field at will.
The Lions keep their playoff hopes alive with a win at home, but not without a fight from the Vikes.
Lions 30, Vikings 24
Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman has struggled after putting up impressive numbers the previous season, and running back LeGarrette Blount has been hit or miss. Receiver Mike Williams has also regressed. These three players could be the future of the franchise, but their seasons don't figure to get better this week against a tough Jags defense.
Jacksonville is eighth in points allowed and fifth in total defense, which doesn't bode well for Tampa, although Blount could conceivably have a good day against Jacksonville's 14th-ranked run defense.
The Jaguars have struggled mightily on offense this season, ranking 31st or 32nd in three of the four major categories. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who has lifted the ground game to 11th, is their only legitimate weapon.
Tampa Bay's defense has been similarly awful, ranking 27th or worse in all four categories. Despite their struggles, however, they should be able to stop the Jags as long as they can corral MJD to some extent.
I think this battle of the bottom-dwellers will swing the way of Tampa Bay, who has the most talent despite their disappointing record.
Buccaneers 20, Jaguars 17
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is listed as probable this week and should be on the field against the tough Miami defense. Receiver Jeremy Maclin should finally be back as well. Running back LeSean McCoy has been a diamond in the rough for the Eagles this season and is having a statistically-dominant year both on the ground and through the air.
For all the firepower the Eagles have, however, they have yet to maximize on that talent, and that doesn't figure to happen this week against a Dolphins team that features the fifth-ranked scoring and rushing defenses in the league. The Dolphins have struggled against the pass, but Vick has had a tendency to turn the ball over this season.
Miami's offense—originally one of the worst in the NFL—has caught fire recently, so their low rankings don't hold much water. Quarterback Matt Moore and running back Reggie Bush have both been on a tear, while receivers Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess have reaped the rewards of Moore's play through the air.
Philly's defense also started the year horribly, but have since somewhat solidified. Still, they are giving up 23.5 points per game and they get a tough test against the 'Fins this week.
When it's all said and done, I'm not confident the Eagles can avoid mistakes and come out on top against a team that has played extremely well over the last five weeks.
Dolphins 27, Eagles 24
The Chiefs are basically eliminated from the playoffs unless they win out, and both the Broncos and the Raiders would have to utterly collapse. The Jets, on the other hand, are still squarely in the playoff race.
Quarterback Mark Sanchez has been shaky this season, but he's doing enough to win right now. Receivers Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes and running back Shonn Greene have helped him out a lot lately.
Kansas City's defense has played very well the last two weeks, but their low rankings illustrate their awful inconsistency up to this point. New York's run game should be able to do some damage.
The Chiefs have really struggled on offense as well, due in large part to injuries. The quarterback position would likely be occupied by Kyle Orton if it weren't for an injured finger, but Tyler Palko will take the reigns again this week.
The receiving corps is strong and the running game has been good, but Palko hasn't been able to capitalize on the talent. Dexter McCluster will need to be a big factor this week.
New York's defense has been disappointing this year considering Rex Ryan is the man in charge, but they still rank pretty highly in pass and total defense and frankly shouldn't have much trouble stopping KC.
The Jets should keep themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt with a home win over the inferior Chiefs.
Jets 23, Chiefs 13
The Tennessee Titans get a whale of a test this week when they host the New Orleans Saints, who have been on a rampage offensively. If they can somehow secure a win, things would get very interesting in the AFC South.
The 7-5 Titans will be led by Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback, but leading receiver Nate Washington is questionable for the game. Running back Chris Johnson has finally started to show up, though part of his success has been due to playing poor defenses.
The Saints haven't been poor defensively, but they certainly haven't been great either. They rank 19th in points allowed and 16th against the run, though their pass and total defenses are much lower. The Titans should be able to put up points, but the problem will be stopping quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints offense.
Brees is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing record (along with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers), and he's been spreading the wealth around healthily, as seven different receivers have at least 23 catches on the year.
Tight end Jimmy Graham has been unstoppable this year, and the running game has been a very solid complement (though rookie Mark Ingram will be out for the game).
The Titans give up the sixth-least points per game, but as far as yardage goes, they have not been very good, ranking 18th or worse in those three categories. To make matters worse, starting middle linebacker Barrett Ruud will be out for the game.
The Titans might be in over their heads in this game, unless the Saints overlook them, which is difficult to imagine.
Saints 31, Titans 20
The 9-3 New England Patriots look to continue their tear against the 4-8 Washington Redskins this week.
The Patriots, led by Tom Brady at quarterback, have been on fire offensively. Receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski have been racking up fantastic numbers during the stretch, and that doesn't figure to end any time soon. The running game has been serviceable at best, but that's all this offense needs.
The 'Skins have been pretty solid defensively this year, but all bets are off against the Pats offense. To make matters worse, safety LaRon Landry won't be in the lineup for the game. Unless Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan can get relentless pressure on Brady, they don't stand much of a chance.
Washington's offense started the year strong, but quarterbacks Rex Grossman and John Beck have both been ineffective since. Rookie running back Roy Helu has emerged as their starter and has done a great job in the process in both the passing and running game, and they'll need to lean on him if they hope to move the ball much.
The Patriots give up a ton of yards, but they don't allow a lot of points and they force plenty of turnovers. That doesn't bode well for Grossman, who is a turnover machine.
New England should have no problem securing their 10th win this week.
Patriots 34, Redskins 14
The 10-2 San Francisco 49ers have had their division locked up for some weeks now, and they go on the road to take on the 5-7 Arizona Cardinals, who could be the 'Niners' biggest divisional competition.
The 49ers lean on a strong ground game led by Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter at running back, but quarterback Alex Smith could have a bigger day than usual against Arizona's 25th-ranked pass defense. Receivers Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis provide Smith with quality receiving options.
Arizona's defense has been chewed up and spit out in a couple of games this year, but they have steadily improved over the course of the season. Still, it's hard to see them being able to stop San Francisco's powerful run game.
The Cardinals will have to try to outscore the 'Niners in this one, but that will be a tall task against the top-ranked scoring and rushing defense in the NFL.
Arizona has a decent passing game led by quarterback Kevin Kolb and stellar receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Early Doucet, and the running game has been productive behind the best season of Beanie Wells' career.
The 'Niners have allowed a considerable amount of yards through the air, and that stands as Arizona's only chance. Once teams get in the red zone, though, they don't often finish in the end zone. Star linebacker Patrick Willis will likely be out, but Navorro Bowman should make up for Willis' absence.
The 49ers have lost games only to the Cowboys and the Ravens this year. The Cardinals don't have the defense to knock off the division leaders.
49ers 31, Cardinals 16
If you would have told me prior to the season that the late-season matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Chicago Bears would have huge playoff implications for both teams, I would have laughed at you.
But here we are, with both teams sitting at 7-5, and both teams fighting to stay in playoff contention.
The Broncos have gotten a ton of publicity by way of Tim Tebow, the controversial starting quarterback who has helped the team win six of its last seven games after starting 1-4. Tebow's 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio has had a lot to do with that, along with great play from running back Willis McGahee and receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, who broke out against the Vikings last week.
The Chicago defense will have a lot of pressure on them in this game, but luckily, their strengths line up with Denver's offensive strengths. If they stop the run and force Tebow to beat them through the air, they could come out on top in this one.
Chicago has been absolutely awful offensively, though, since the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler. To make matters worse, workhorse running back Matt Forte is also out, which leaves Caleb Hanie and Marion Barber to carry the offense.
This scenario would seem to be very advantageous for the Broncos defense, who has been a huge part of the teams' success during their 6-1 run. They also get back Von Miller this week, who has been a key cog in the defense, though Miller may be less effective this week with a cast on his arm. Either way, the Broncos should be able to hold the Bears at bay.
The Broncos would still be alive if they lost this game considering they could still win the division, but Chicago's hopes would be all but dashed. Still, unless Caleb Hanie has an unexpectedly good game passing, Chicago will be at a disadvantage. I like Denver to continue its streak.
Broncos 20, Bears 12
The Oakland Raiders are tied with the Denver Broncos atop the AFC West, but they get a tall task on the road against the Green Bay Packers this week.
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer has been playing better lately after shaking the rust off, but he will have to be very careful with the ball against a very opportunistic defense.
Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey will have to shoulder the load this week with Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford both out of the lineup. Running back Michael Bush will have to establish a good running game to open up the offense.
Green Bay's defense has struggled to stop teams from gaining yards this year, but they've done a little better keeping teams out of the end zone, largely due to a great turnover ratio. They've been decent against the run as well.
Green Bay's offense is what should really scare the Raiders. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is having a record season for the undefeated Packers, and his receiving corps has been a big part of that. Running back James Starks will not be in the lineup, which will hamper the running game, but Rodgers has been getting it done through the air in spite of the ground game all year.
The strong point of Oakland's defense is the secondary, but that's not saying much considering they are ranked 17th in the NFL in pass defense. Even worse, cornerback Chris Johnson will not play against the Packers because of a family tragedy.
I'll put it this way: if the Raiders beat the Packers, it will be because the superior team overlooked their opponent.
Packers 30, Raiders 17
San Diego has one of the most talented offenses in the NFL, and it was strange to see them struggle so much. Quarterback Philip Rivers enjoyed a phenomenal game against the Jags after inexplicably struggling for weeks. Running backs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert have led the running game while receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates have been the most productive in the passing game.
This doesn't bode well for the Bills defense, which has struggled all year in pretty much all phases, especially after losing two starting safeties. George Wilson and Jairus Byrd will finally be back this week, but cornerback Aaron Williams is doubtful.
Buffalo's offense was potent towards the beginning of the year, but the loss of running back Fred Jackson was part of their downfall. CJ Spiller has filled in admirably and Stevie Johnson has been having a good year, but this Bills offense isn't what it was earlier this year.
The Chargers also have one of the more talented defenses in the NFL, but despite being ranked sixth against the pass and 12th in total defense, they are giving up 24.1 points per game. Still, they played well last week in their win.
I wasn't surprised to see the Chargers dominate the Jaguars last week, because I figured once they were basically eliminated from playoff contention and the pressure was off, they would start taking out their frustrations by thrashing opponents. The Bills could be victim number two.
Chargers 37, Bills 24
In what could be the biggest game of the week, the Dallas Cowboys host the New York Giants in a matchup surrounded with anticipation. The winner of the game will have the leg up in the division, and the loser of the division won't have a good enough record to secure a wild-card berth.
The Cowboys have been pretty good offensively this year behind the play of quarterback Tony Romo, and running back DeMarco Murray has been a revelation in the running game. Receivers Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson have been productive, and Miles Austin has a good chance of getting back on the field for this game. Tight end Jason Witten adds yet another strong target.
The Giants defense does not match up well with the Cowboys on paper. They rank 23rd or worse in all four major categories and will be missing a good chunk of their defense, including Osi Umenyiora, Kenny Phillips and Mark Herzlich. New York does have a great pass rush, though.
The Giants offense has been fantastic through the air this season, ranking fourth in the NFL, but their normally-strong running game is ranked dead last in the NFL. It should help to have Ahmad Bradshaw back in the lineup, however, and quarterback Eli Manning and receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks could all have outstanding games against the Cowboys secondary.
Dallas has a solid defense, ranking 14th or better in all four categories. Star pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware is listed as questionable for the game, but in all likelihood the Cowboys will do everything they can to get him on the field. The Cowboys will need him to get to Manning frequently if they are to slow down the passing game.
This should be a hard-fought game with a ton of fireworks, but the when it comes down to the clutch, the Giants will stay alive. This game is their season.
Giants 34, Cowboys 31
The Seahawks have actually been playing pretty well lately. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has been playing a little better lately and running back Marshawn Lynch is tearing defenses up. Top receiver Sidney Rice has been placed on injury reserve, so their top receiver becomes Doug Baldwin.
St. Louis has been strong against the pass this year, but their last-placed rush defense could get pushed around by Lynch and the Seahawks.
The Rams have been pretty bad offensively this year, which is disappointing after Sam Bradford's fantastic rookie season. Bradford is questionable this week and his top backup, AJ Feeley, is out with a thumb injury, so if Bradford can't play, the Seahawks will be licking their chops. Running back Steven Jackson is an outstanding player stuck in a bad situation, but he still makes the most of his opportunities.
Seattle's defense has been decent this year, and they might look dominant this week against the Rams, especially if Bradford doesn't play. Without much of a threat through the air, they could stack the box and stop Jackson in his tracks. Either way, I think this defense has a great game against a bad offensive line.
Seahawks 30, Rams 9