Every NFL Team's Biggest Key to Victory in Week 12

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor INovember 22, 2013

Every NFL Team's Biggest Key to Victory in Week 12

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    Peyton Manning will renew acquaintances with Tom Brady on Sunday night in Foxborough.
    Peyton Manning will renew acquaintances with Tom Brady on Sunday night in Foxborough.Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor

    Get ready to say goodbye to the byes.

    When the proverbial smoke finally clears on Monday night or early Tuesday morning, each of the 32 teams in the NFL will have played 11 games.

    But what about the winners and losers come this Sunday and Monday evening?

    Once again, we are only here to help—hence here are some thoughts on what each club needs to do in Week 12 to ensure a victory. Of course, we are also looking back to Thursday night's game and how the New Orleans Saints knocked off the Atlanta Falcons.

    We will also take a look back at the seasons for the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks. With the exception of the Bills, the other three teams are currently in first place in their respective divisions.

    Emphasis on currently...

Buffalo Bills (4-7) and Cincinnati Bengals (7-4): OFF

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    Buffalo Bills (4-7)

    Could it actually happen this season?

    No, we are not talking about the Buffalo Bills reaching the playoffs in 2013 (although that is still far from impossible). Can the team from Orchard Park avoid a sixth straight last-place finish in the AFC East?

    The Bills have certainly had their moments this season under new head coach Doug Marrone. The team’s top three draft choices—quarterback EJ Manuel, wide receiver Robert Woods and middle linebacker Kiko Alonso—have all proved their worth. In fact, Alonso may be the front-runner for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

    Both Fred Jackson (591) and C.J. Spiller (507) have topped 500 yards rushing this season, but the passing game—due mainly to the fact that Manuel is one of three different starting quarterbacks this season—has produced only a dozen touchdowns. Along with Alonso, veteran defensive linemen Kyle Williams and Mario Williams, and cornerback Aaron Williams have all excelled.

    But there’s that matter of escaping the AFC East basement as well as the postseason drought. Could a five-game winning streak cure both ailments at once? Stay tuned.

    Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)

    No matter what happens this weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals will have at least a two-game lead in the AFC North with five games to play.

    And while the last few weeks have wrought erratic football by his squad, head coach Marvin Lewis has to like his chances as his club zeroes in on its first division title since 2009.

    Of course, that would also mean a third straight playoff appearance by the Bengals for the first time in their history.

    Give credit where credit is due. Three of the team’s four losses have been by three points or less, including a pair in overtime. The defense looks like it is holding together minus All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict is having a big year.

    On offense, wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the best in the game, second-year wideout Marvin Jones has had his moments, and rookies like tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard have made their presence felt.

    Then there’s quarterback Andy Dalton. In seven wins this season, he’s thrown 17 touchdown passes and committed only seven turnovers. But his numbers are dramatically different (four touchdown passes, 11 turnovers) in the team’s four losses.

    And if the third-year pro doesn’t end his recent struggles (eight interceptions in his last three games), a third straight playoff appearance will have a very familiar ending.

Philadelphia Eagles (6-5) and Seattle Seahawks (10-1): OFF

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    Philadelphia Eagles (6-5)

    As we all know, you can’t spell Philadelphia without a D.

    The previous two seasons, the Philadelphia Eagles were thought to be a “dream” to one player and a “dynasty” to another.

    Of course, neither actually materialized as these Birds followed up a “disappointing” 8-8 showing in 2011 with a 4-12 “disaster” in 2012.

    But isn’t it funny that the pre-ordained dynasty could be resurrected by a “duck?”

    It’s taken some time, but these Eagles have turned a 3-5 start into a 6-5 record and a berth atop the NFC East.

    Second-year quarterback Nick Foles has made the most of his playing time, throwing 16 touchdown passes without an interception. Running back LeSean McCoy is healthy and leading the league in both rushing and total yards from scrimmage, and wideout DeSean Jackson has come up big.

    While the Philadelphia defense has had its issues, Chip Kelly’s team has forced 19 turnovers—six more than all of last season. And the Eagles have even won a home game in 2013.

    It’s been a great turnaround in the City of Brotherly Love. And with all due respect to the surging Giants, don’t we all know that the NFC East won’t be decided until Kelly’s club plays the final game of the season at Dallas?

    Seattle Seahawks (10-1)

    At this time one season ago, the Seattle Seahawks were a 6-5 football team that couldn’t lose at home and could barely win on the road.

    A total of 16 regular-season games later, Pete Carroll’s team has learned to win just about anywhere. Over that span, the current NFC West leaders are a gaudy 15-1 and are currently on a six-game winning streak. The team’s 10-1 record is the best start in the franchise’s history.

    And as Howard Jones once sang, “Things Can Only Get Better.”

    How? The Seahawks have starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini back in the lineup. And last week versus the Minnesota Vikings, wide receiver/kick returner Percy Harvin made his Seahawks debut.

    There’s talented second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, and running back Marshawn Lynch and his 11 total touchdowns. There’s also the league’s second-ranked defense, anchored by the “Legion of Boom” secondary.

    And this is a very hungry football team looking for its first NFL championship.

New York Jets (5-5) at Baltimore Ravens (4-6)

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    New York Jets

    Key to Victory: Protect the football

    When your team boasts one of the top defensive units in the league and no one is better at stopping the run, the worst thing you can do is make life easier for the opposition.

    Such is the case with the up-and-down New York Jets. Only seven teams in the NFL have allowed fewer total yards per game this season, and no club is better at shutting down the ground game.

    But Rex Ryan’s club has totaled three times as many turnovers (21) as takeaways (seven). As has been well documented, rookie quarterback Geno Smith has 20 of his team’s 21 miscues. It is also worth noting that 16 of the Jets’ 21 turnovers have come in their five losses.

    With one of the better running games in the league, Ryan’s team should be able to move the ball on the Baltimore Ravens defense. Now if only Smith and Co. can hang on to the pigskin while they are moving it.

    Baltimore Ravens

    Key to Victory: Protect Joe Flacco

    No matter how you slice it, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and his teammates have certainly taken their lumps.

    A year ago, this was a 10-6 team that suddenly caught fire in the postseason. In 2013, we are still waiting for the defending Super Bowl champions to look the part.

    Speaking of parts, you may be able to find some of Flacco’s on the ground. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP has been sacked 33 times in 10 games this season—only two fewer times than he was sacked (35) in 16 games last season. Conversely, Flacco has also served up 13 interceptions this season compared to just 10 picks in 20 outings (including playoffs) in 2012.

    Keeping the Baltimore signal-caller out of harm’s way against the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples won’t be easy. And wouldn’t it be ironic if interception No. 14 or No. 15 this season came via former teammate-turned-Jets safety Ed Reed?

Carolina Panthers (7-3) at Miami Dolphins (5-5)

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    Carolina Panthers

    Key to Victory: Keeping Cam Newton clean

    The last time the Carolina Panthers lost a football game was the first week of October.

    Ron Rivera’s team had just returned from an off week, and the team was off its game in a 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

    It looked like it was going to be another rough start for the Panthers, who had opened both 2011 and 2012 with a 2-8 record.

    But everything is working these days. Carolina has won six straight games and opened some eyes the last two weeks with conquests of the 49ers in San Francisco as well as a Monday night win over the New England Patriots.

    But quarterback Cam Newton will certainly be paying attention to the Miami Dolphins and those 30 sacks amassed by defensive end Cameron Wake and friends. Newton has been sacked 28 times in 10 games in 2013—14 times in the team’s seven wins and 14 times in three losses.

    Miami Dolphins

    Key to Victory: Going deep

    The state of Florida is known for its great beaches and sunny weather, not for its roller coasters.

    But welcome to the ride known as the 2013 Miami Dolphins.

    Head coach Joe Philbin got the team off to the first 3-0 start by the franchise since 2002, and then it promptly lost four games in a row. But the Dolphins have rebounded with two wins in their last three games.

    This week, they face the Carolina Panthers, a team the Dolphins have never lost to during the regular season (0-4). Of course, that doesn’t really mean a lot these days.

    But what it does mean is that Miami could give one of the hottest teams in the league some trouble, as Carolina is coming off a short week.

    It also means that it is time for wide receiver Mike Wallace to earn his keep. The former Pittsburgh Steelers standout has totaled 44 catches for 534 yards. But he has scored just one touchdown in 10 games, and that was back in Week 2 versus the Indianapolis Colts.

    While Carolina’s talented front seven is as good as it gets, the secondary can be had if the team’s pass rush isn’t up to snuff. And that may be the case if defensive end Charles Johnson can’t give it a go, which he may not be able to do, according to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.

    It has not been a banner year for the inconsistent Wallace, but he could change some things if he can come up big here and his team can end the Panthers’ six-game winning streak.

    After all, we do know that a Mike Wallace—including the late, great journalist—is capable of a good 60 Minutes.

Pittsburgh Steelers (4-6) at Cleveland Browns (4-6)

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    Pittsburgh Steelers

    Key to Victory: Finish drives

    Well, what do you know?

    It wasn’t long ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers were 0-4 and off to the team’s worst start since 1968—before the days of Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach Chuck Noll.

    Thanks to four wins in their last six games, Mike Tomlin’s team is still breathing when it comes to a playoff berth in the muddled AFC.

    Last Sunday, the Steelers scored a season-high 37 points in a 10-point win over the Detroit Lions. But for a number of reasons, the offense has stumbled more times than not this season. Tomlin’s club has produced just 21 touchdowns in 10 games.

    But the Pittsburgh attack could get better here against a Cleveland Browns defense that ranks fifth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game. How so? While the Steelers are 31st in the league in red-zone touchdown percentage, the Browns do them one better by being dead last in the NFL in the same category on the defensive side of the ball.

    Cleveland Browns

    Key to Victory: The Ike Test

    It was hard for anyone to miss what Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson did to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half last week.

    In particular, it proved to be a rough outing for Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. Despite the team’s throwback uniforms, the veteran defender didn’t earn any stripes for his first-half performance versus “Megatron.”

    And while no one in the league offers the physical challenge Johnson does, Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon has certainly done all right for himself this season. The second-year pro has totaled 40 receptions for 751 yards, an average of 18.8 yards per catch, and scored four times in eight games. Gordon has also totaled 100 or more yards receiving in four outings this season.

    And the young deep threat will give Taylor and the Steelers’ erratic defense something to think about. And if the savvy cornerback isn’t up to the task for all 60 minutes, any playoff thoughts for his team could last just three more hours on Sunday.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-8) at Detroit Lions (6-4)

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Key to Victory: Mega-Jackson

    There hasn’t been a lot to cheer about if you are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013.

    Still, the team has now won consecutive games for the first time all year. And that’s not bad, considering the Bucs did nothing but lose consecutive games the first half of this season.

    In last week’s 41-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons, Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson enjoyed his finest outing of the year. The veteran was targeted 12 times and pulled in 10 passes for 165 yards and a score in the victory.

    Keep in mind that Jackson and rookie quarterback Mike Glennon take aim at a Detroit Lions defense that had its hands full a week ago in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 367 yards and four scores—meaning Jim Schwartz’s team has allowed 19 touchdown passes in 10 games this season.

    And cornerbacks Chris Houston, Rashean Mathis, Darius Slay and Co. could be in for a rough outing if they don’t get a little help. And that brings us to…

    Detroit Lions

    Key to Victory: Means to the end?

    You would think that in the process of restoring the roar in the Motor City, the Lions defense would also show a little more bite.

    The talent always seems to be there for Schwartz’s team. And despite some issues, Detroit is tied for first place in the NFC North.

    But if the Lions want to stay there this weekend, they will have to fend off a Buccaneers team that is starting to feel better about itself following consecutive wins.

    While Schwartz’s club has done a much better job forcing turnovers this season, the pass rush has been a disappointment in certain aspects. The Lions have produced just 16 sacks in 10 games, and more specifically, their defensive ends have dropped the opposing quarterback only six times. Rookie Ziggy Ansah has three of those six sacks but has also missed the last two games with an ankle injury.

    We shall soon see if the first-round pick is ready to give it a go this Sunday afternoon.

Minnesota Vikings (2-8) at Green Bay Packers (5-5)

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    Minnesota Vikings

    Key to Victory: Defensive support

    First thing's first, and that means the starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings.

    Despite a shaky outing in the Pacific Northwest, Christian Ponder will get the nod in this rematch with the Green Bay Packers.

    “I appreciate Coach Frazier having the confidence in me to be able to go out this week and play,” said Ponder to the Associated Press via Vikings.com.

    Ponder has certainly had his issues this season. While he’s thrown for six scores and run for four touchdowns, he has also been picked off nine times and lost four of his seven fumbles.

    However, what about Minnesota’s defense? Only two teams in the league have allowed more total yards per game, and Leslie Frazier’s club has allowed at least 23 points in all 10 games this season. In three games versus their divisional rivals from Detroit, Chicago and Green Bay, the Vikings have allowed a combined 109 points.

    Ponder those numbers while the Vikings quarterback is getting the brunt of the blame for the team’s dismal record.

    Green Bay Packers

    Key to Victory: Big plays from defense

    Perhaps it would be easier to write “A healthy Aaron Rodgers.”

    In any case, the defending NFC North champion Green Bay Packers are in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Over that span, Mike McCarthy’s club has utilized three different starting quarterbacks.

    With Rodgers at the controls back in Week 8, the Packers put 44 points on the board on a Sunday night at the Metrodome. Without him for most of Week 9 and all of the last two games, McCarthy’s team has scored a combined 46 points.

    But like Minnesota, a little blame can be assigned to the defensive side of the ball. Getting to the quarterback hasn’t necessarily been a problem thanks to 31 sacks in 10 games. But the Pack can’t seem to get the ball back, forcing a mere nine turnovers this season.

    It goes without saying that having the football is a great way to win a game. But that’s been easier said than done for this team all year, and a few takeaways would certainly help the Packers’ cause.

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9) at Houston Texans (2-8)

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    Jacksonville Jaguars

    Key to Victory: Play keep-away

    What exactly is the game plan for the Jacksonville Jaguars?

    Gus Bradley’s team plays hard but has one win to show for it this season. The Jaguars are averaging a league-low 12.9 points per outing and have also gained the fewest total yards and rushing yards per game.

    How about the other side of the football? Only three teams in the NFL are allowing more total yards per contest, and no team has given up more rushing yards per game. Bradley’s defensive unit has allowed a whopping 35 offensive touchdowns.

    So can veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew muster up one of those 120-yard rushing performances on 30-plus carries? His season high for attempts is 21 and his best output has been just 75 yards.

    Then again, he’s facing a Houston Texans defense—led by the relentless J.J. Watt—that is ranked just 23rd against the run this season.

    Houston Texans

    Key to Victory: Air it out

    Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is back on the Case.

    As in quarterback Case Keenum. In last Sunday’s loss to the Oakland Raiders—a franchise-record eighth straight setback—the young signal-caller was pulled in the third quarter in place of veteran Matt Schaub.

    But Keenum will start Sunday against the Jaguars—so says Kubiak. While the exciting performer hasn’t wowed anyone with his completion percentage (55.6), he has thrown eight touchdown passes and turned over the ball only three times in his four starts.

    However, it’s safe to say Keenum digs the long ball. Three of his eight touchdown passes have covered more than 40 yards.

    And when you consider that the Jaguars defense has already allowed 29 touchdown passes this season and gave up 419 yards passing and two scores to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer last week, the game plan here is pretty apparent.

San Diego Chargers (4-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (9-1)

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    San Diego Chargers

    Key to Victory: Business as usual

    Let’s give some credit where credit is due.

    In recent seasons, it’s been very easy for people to blame the woes of the San Diego Chargers on quarterback Philip Rivers. The previous two years, the Colts were a combined 15-17, and that cost head coach Norv Turner his job.

    In those 32 games, the Chargers were guilty of committing 54 turnovers—47 of them were by Rivers via 35 interceptions and 12 lost fumbles.

    Mike McCoy’s team is off to a 4-6 start this season and is currently riding a three-game losing streak. But Rivers has been solid for the most part. He’s thrown more than twice as many touchdown passes (19) as interceptions (eight) and has lost just one fumble in 10 games this season.

    Add in the fact that Rivers owns a 10-4 lifetime record as a starter versus the Kansas City Chiefs. Don’t be surprised if the Chargers get back on track this Sunday.

    Kansas City Chiefs

    Key to Victory: Forgetting Week 11

    Last Sunday in Denver was a night of firsts for the Chiefs.

    Andy Reid’s team lost its first game of 2013 following a 9-0 start, and Kansas City allowed more than 17 points for the first time in 10 games this season.

    Then again, that wasn’t the first time the Chiefs lost a game in the Mile High City. The franchise is now 6-25 at Denver dating back to 1982.

    However, this is the first time we will see Reid’s team respond to a little adversity. It’s far from unusual to see a club following a long winning streak with a few setbacks.

    Reid knows that he has to stop the losing streak at one. His team is tied atop the AFC West with the Broncos at 9-1 and now has consecutive home games against divisional rivals. It’s imperative that the Chiefs hold serve.

    And while last week’s loss to the Broncos should be forgotten, perhaps it would be wise if the Kansas City defense remembered how to rush the passer. After totaling three or more sacks in their first seven games, the Chiefs have zero sacks in their last two outings and just one sack in their last three contests.

Chicago Bears (6-4) at St. Louis Rams (4-6)

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    Chicago Bears

    Key to Victory: Get to the quarterback

    One of the big reasons for the Chicago Bears' success this season has been the ability to protect the quarterback.

    And unfortunately for head coach Marc Trestman, one of his team’s shortcomings has been the ability of his opposition to do the very same thing.

    This season, the Bears have allowed just 16 sacks in 10 games—one of the better rates of success in the league. But only four teams in the NFL have totaled fewer sacks than Chicago (17) in 2013.

    Be it with Sam Bradford (15) or Kellen Clemens (nine), the St. Louis Rams have allowed a so-so 24 sacks in their 10 outings this season.

    Hence, keep an eye on a battle royal up front as Rams left tackle Jake Long tries to fend off Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, who has totaled just four sacks so far this season.

    St. Louis Rams

    Key to Victory: Zac attack

    Do you think Jeff Fisher likes what he has seen from rookie running back Zac Stacy?

    I can give you 26, 27 and 26 reasons why the fifth-round pick from Vanderbilt has found favor with his head coach.

    Those are Stacy’s carries in his last three games. Those combined 79 attempts have added up to 323 yards rushing and three touchdowns.

    This is far from complicated. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars are giving up more rushing yards per game than the Bears. Just ask the Baltimore Ravens, who enjoyed their best effort of the season (174 yards rushing) in this department last week despite a loss at Soldier Field.

    And that could be a problem for Trestman and a Bears defense that is a shell of its 2012 self.

Indianapolis Colts (7-3) at Arizona Cardinals (6-4)

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    Indianapolis Colts

    Key to Victory: First-half performance

    If the Indianapolis Colts were an excavating company, they would be the best in the business.

    Let’s take a look at the last three weeks alone. Chuck Pagano’s team has found itself behind 24-6, 38-0 and 14-0. Now those are some big-time holes.

    With a lot of savvy and plenty of good (Andrew) Luck, the Colts managed to rally to win two of those games. Just over a week ago, Pagano’s club came back from a two-touchdown deficit to beat the Titans in Nashville, 30-27.

    But perhaps this clash with the Arizona Cardinals is just what the vet ordered for these Colts. While Indianapolis has been outscored a combined 78-37 in the first quarter this season, the Cards have had their early issues as well. Bruce Arians’ club has given up nearly twice as many points (54) as it has scored (54) in the first quarter in 2013.

    Just make sure you are in your seats for the opening kickoff.

    Arizona Cardinals

    Key to Victory: Familiarity

    Bruce Arians did such a good job filling in for Chuck Pagano last season that he was named the NFL Coach of the Year in 2012.

    The longtime assistant took over a rebuilt Colts team a year ago while Pagano was dealing with the effects of leukemia. And while Indianapolis’ regular coach was fighting the good fight, Arians and Co. were fighting for Pagano.

    It all added up to an 11-5 finish and a playoff berth for a team that was 2-14 the previous season. And the sight of Pagano dancing in the Colts locker room following the team’s season-ending win over the Houston Texans was one of the feel-good moments of that or any other year.

    Now Arians gets to say thank you to Pagano and the Colts in his own way. Due to his performance last season, he is now the head coach of the Cardinals. And it is safe to say that he is once again in the running for Coach of the Year accolades as he has led Arizona to a surprising 6-4 start.

    And when you combine the Cardinals’ opportunistic defense with Arians’ familiarity with Luck, this shapes up as perhaps the most intriguing game on the Week 12 schedule.

Tennessee Titans (4-6) at Oakland Raiders (4-6)

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    Tennessee Titans

    Key to Victory: Ball security

    With apologies to specialist Rob Bironas, it’s the Tennessee Titans that actually must be kicking themselves these days.

    Halfway through the season, Mike Munchak’s team owned a 4-4 record and was pushing the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South. But a pair of home losses—first to the then-winless Jacksonville Jaguars and then to the Indianapolis Colts (after leading 14-0)—will be something the Titans won’t soon forget.

    But one thing Munchak’s club has forgotten is how to take care of the football. During the team’s 3-1 start, the Titans did not commit a turnover. But in their last six games, five of which resulted in a loss, Tennessee has coughed up the football 14 times.

    And just about half of those miscues (five) have come via Ryan Fitzpatrick, the team’s starting quarterback now that Jake Locker is gone for the season.

    Given the fact that the Raiders have totaled a respectable 16 takeaways in 10 games, Fitzpatrick and his offensive teammates should certainly be on guard.

    Oakland Raiders

    Key to Victory: Avoid a letdown

    Despite a Pryor commitment, the Oakland Raiders will give quarterback Matt McGloin his second straight start.

    Excuse the pun. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor remains on the mend after injuring his knee a few weeks ago. Re-enter McGloin, who enjoyed quite a debut last week in the team’s 28-23 win over the Houston Texans.

    The undrafted free agent from Penn State threw for 197 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in last week’s victory at Reliant Stadium. But now that the opposition has seen a little of McGloin on tape, things figure to be a little tougher for the Raiders’ rookie quarterback this week against the visiting Titans.

    And if Dennis Allen’s team can run the ball against Tennessee like it has all season, this becomes a very intriguing Raiders team that will be right in the thick of the wild-card chase.

Dallas Cowboys (5-5) at New York Giants (4-6)

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    Dallas Cowboys

    Key to Victory: Repeat performance

    Let’s hope that for the sake of the Dallas Cowboys, two weeks was enough to fix the league’s worst defense when it comes to yards allowed per game this season.

    The last time we saw Jason Garrett’s club, it was being planted at the Superdome. That night, the New Orleans Saints totaled an NFL-record 40 first downs in a 49-17 victory. The Cowboys allowed 627 total yards in the loss.

    During that game, Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware did his best to return to the field after missing the previous three games. He expects to be back for this crucial showdown with the New York Giants, according to Todd Archer of ESPN.com.

    “I’m feeling a lot better,” said Ware. “I tested it (Monday) in practice, it felt pretty good. Then this week I’ll just do all the drills, make sure I get all my keys, and get ready for this week.”

    The Cowboys must also feel pretty good about their chances, considering the team’s 36-31 victory over Tom Coughlin’s club back in Week 1. That night, Dallas forced six turnovers and sacked Eli Manning three times. Half of those turnovers were interceptions thrown by Manning, one of those to Ware.

    New York Giants

    Key to Victory: Cruz control

    Who wouldn’t want to play against the Cowboys defense these days?

    Struggling for any number of reasons, no team in the league has allowed more total yards per game and more passing yards per contest than Dallas.

    When these teams met back in September, quarterback Eli Manning was indeed picked off three times. But he also threw four touchdown passes—three to wide receiver Victor Cruz. The speedy performer caught five passes for 118 yards on the evening and was one of three Giants in the game to total at least 100 yards receiving. But the former Pro Bowler has scored only one touchdown since.

    So what can we expect from Cruz, who is having another banner season and leads New York with 58 receptions? Perhaps not what you think, considering he has one touchdown since opening weekend. Meanwhile, second-year pro Rueben Randle has emerged in recent weeks. While he has totaled just 18 catches in the last six games, six have gone for scores.

    In any case, be it target or decoy, Cruz could be putting the Victor in victory this Sunday.

Denver Broncos (9-1) at New England Patriots (7-3)

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    Denver Broncos

    Key to Victory: Patience

    Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has faced Bill Belichick enough times to know that the veteran coach will have something up his sleeve (or something in his hoodie) on Sunday night.

    And while the Broncos are averaging an amazing and NFL-high 39.8 points per game this season, there’s another category that the team is leading the league in.

    That would be lost fumbles.

    Denver has turned over the ball 19 times in 10 games this season, 13 of those via fumble. And nearly half of those 13 miscues have come via Manning, who has a total of 12 turnovers split evenly between interceptions and fumbles.

    So when we suggest patience, that means playing it smart and knowing that a second effort may not be the wisest of moves. All told, Denver has fumbled 21 times in 10 games and retained possession on only eight occasions.

    That is certainly something to keep an eye on this Sunday night at Foxborough.

    New England Patriots

    Key to Victory: Limit Denver possessions

    This season’s version of the Patriots defensive unit has certainly been an upgrade from recent editions.

    The leaders in the AFC East rank just 20th in total yards allowed per game but have allowed only 19.9 points per contest, better than the majority of teams in the NFL.

    That’s a tribute to Belichick and his team, which is playing these days without defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo.

    Of course, asking this shorthanded unit to hold off the highest-scoring team in the league may be a bit much.

    But let’s switch to the other side of the ball. In six of the Patriots’ seven wins this season, they’ve totaled at least 30 rushing plays. In their three losses, the team has 25 or fewer rushing attempts.

    Look for the New England offense to play a little keep-away and don’t be surprised if the Pats ring up 40 or more running plays on the evening.

    It may be wishful thinking. It may also be a necessity.

San Francisco 49ers (6-4) at Washington Redskins (3-7)

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    San Francisco 49ers

    Key to Victory: Consistency from the quarterback position

    Some may know the numbers in their sleep.

    The defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers have had their ups and downs this season. For the second time in 2013, the team has dropped consecutive games. That was something that never happened during head coach Jim Harbaugh’s first two seasons at the helm.

    It has also been well documented that the Niners have scored at least 31 points in each of their six victories this season, while the club has totaled 39 points in four setbacks.

    So what to make of third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has seemed to bear the brunt of the criticism every time his team loses? The numbers aren’t good, as the talented signal-caller has thrown two touchdown passes and six interceptions in the team’s four setbacks.

    In six wins in 2013, Kaepernick has thrown for nine scores and been picked off just once. Of course, given the state of the woeful Washington Redskins defense, you have to give the Niners quarterback the benefit of the doubt here…

    We think.

    Washington Redskins

    Key to Victory: Stop the run

    While Mike Shanahan’s Redskins haven’t been eliminated from winning the wacky NFC East this season, the team has been doing its best to make that happen.

    The defending division champions dropped to 3-7 last week following a 24-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Redskins now find themselves in the NFC East basement, which is not that far from the penthouse this season, but the club is 0-3 vs. its divisional rivals this season.

    The play of RG3 has been only one reason for the disappointing showing in 2013. A defense that ranks 28th in the league in total yards allowed per game is another. Washington has already allowed 311 points this season, just one year after giving up 388 points in 16 games in 2012.

    Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s unit also ranks just 19th in the NFL in rushing yards per game allowed. And given the fact that the 49ers own the fifth-best ground game in the league, it could be a long night for the disappointing ‘Skins.

New Orleans Saints 17, Atlanta Falcons 13

16 of 16

    It was business as usual in many respects on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome.

    Once again, the Atlanta Falcons lost a game. Mike Smith’s club dropped its fifth straight via a 17-13 setback to the New Orleans Saints.

    “Two teams with history, regardless of the records it’s always been a close game,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton via NewOrleansSaints.com. “It's a good win for us. We'll enjoy it for now...and then get ready for our next game.”

    That next game is an NFC showdown a week from Monday against the Seahawks in Seattle.

    As for Thursday night, it was yet another victory for quarterback Drew Brees against this divisional rival. Since his arrival in the Crescent City, he and the Saints own a 13-3 record versus the Falcons.

    With the loss, New Orleans raised its record to 9-2. Atlanta fell to 2-9. That means the Falcons were mathematically eliminated from winning their division. And that means that once again, no team will have ever won back-to-back NFC South titles.

    But the one aspect of this result that wasn’t standard fare is the fact that the Falcons will not finish with a winning record in 2013—a first under not only Smith but general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan. It snaps a five-year streak of success dating back to 2008.

    As for the game itself, the Saints’ improved defense sacked Ryan five times and limited the Falcons to a single touchdown. Meanwhile, Brees threw a pair of touchdown passes, and he and his teammates played turnover-free football.

    And while the Saints go marching on, the Falcons can only guess what went wrong this season.