NFL Week 12: Everything You Need to Know for Sunday's Games

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2015

NFL Week 12: Everything You Need to Know for Sunday's Games

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    We're already in Week 12 of the 2015 NFL season, and the playoffs are approaching rapidly.

    In fact, one team—the Carolina Panthers—can clinch a postseason slot without even being in action. If the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each lose or tie Sunday, Carolina is in the dance. This is because the Panthers improved to 11-0 on Thursday. Two other teams—the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions—also managed to win on Thanksgiving.

    On Sunday, 24 other NFL teams will attempt to join the Panthers, Bears and Lions in the winner's circle.

    The New England Patriots can clinch the AFC East title with a win and a loss by the New York Jets. The Patriots' chance will come against the Denver Broncos in the night game, which caps an exciting day of action. Teams such as the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals (each 8-2) can also take a step closer toward the postseason.

    With plenty of playoff implications going around, these games are going to be good. Here's everything you need to know for Sunday's action. 

Biggest Questions

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Can the Vikings Clamp Down on the NFC North?

    The 7-3 Minnesota Vikings are back on top in the NFC North, thanks to the Packers' loss Thursday night. However, a loss Sunday would put Green Bay back on top thanks to a head-to-head victory over Minnesota.

    In order to stay atop and potentially put a firm grip on the division, the Vikings need to beat the 6-4 Atlanta Falcons.

    This is one of many matchups between potential playoff teams Sunday. However, this is one that should heavily favor Minnesota. The Falcons have lost three straight and come into this game less than 100 percent. 

    Atlanta will be without running back Devonta Freeman, wide receiver Leonard Hankerson and kicker Matt Bryant. However, this game isn't a gimme. If the Vikings want to prove they are the new kings of the division, they need to put a winning stamp on this one.

    Can the Patriots Keep Surviving Injuries?

    Aside from a possible undefeated season, injuries have been the biggest story for the Patriots in 2015. The team has already lost running back Dion Lewis and starting tackle Nate Solder and fellow tackle Ryan Wendell for the season. Wide receiver Julian Edelman is also out for an extended period after having surgery to repair a broken foot.

    Earlier this week, the Patriots added wideout Aaron Dobson to the injured reserve.

    The Patriots have survived to this point by executing the next-man-up philosophy to near perfection. However, the team is going up against a tough Broncos defense this week on the road.

    Can New England continue to milk production out of guys such as James White and Brandon Bolden, or will the rash of injuries finally crash the party this week in Denver?

    Are the Buccaneers, Gasp, a Playoff Team?

    One story that has flown under the radar is the steady improvement of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

    The Buccaneers have won three of their last four games and now sit on the cusp of playoff contention at 5-5. They would be one game behind the 6-4 Falcons for the final NFC wild-card spot if the season ended today. They beat the Falcons earlier this season.

    If Tampa can construct a win against the Indianapolis Colts, the team can leap right into the NFC playoff hunt. If the Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks both also lose, the Buccaneers can put themselves into the No. 6 slot.

    This probably isn't a team that can realistically compete for a championship, but the fact that we're even talking about the Buccaneers as a playoff team just one year after they "earned" the No. 1 overall pick in the draft is impressive.

    Sunday's game should help tell us if the Buccaneers are ready to handle the pressure of success.

Game of the Day

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    What: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos

    When: 8:30 p.m. ET

    Where: NBC

    If you're any sort of an NFL fan, you've probably had this game circled on your calendar since the beginning of the 2015 season. Of course, this is probably because you expected another classic Tom Brady-Peyton Manning battle.

    Unfortunately, we won't get to see Manning in this game, as he is dealing with a plantar fascia tear. Instead, it will be Brady against Brock Osweiler in the quarterback department.

    However, this isn't just a contest of signal-callers. It's a matchup between two of the best teams in the AFC and a battle of contrasting styles. Brady and the Patriots are going to continue adapting their passing attack to deal with the steady stream of injuries on that side of the ball. The Broncos, meanwhile, are likely to employ a run-first attack both to control the tempo of the game and to protect Osweiler.

    What's probably overlooked is the fact that these teams boast two of the top defenses in the NFL. Pro Football Focus rates Denver first overall in defense and New England fifth. 

    Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knows this is one of the most important games of the season.

    “Right now it’s really just the one-week season for us,” he said, per Sam Galanis of NESN.com. “We don’t really care anything about last week or next week, it’s just about Broncos week. The challenges that we face from this team are numerous and very specific, different than we’ve seen in other weeks.

    This is easily one of the best matchups of the entire week, and there will be plenty on the line. The Patriots are trying to stay undefeated, while the Broncos desperately need a win if they are going to leapfrog the Bengals and snag a first-round playoff bye. 

    Cincinnati will play Denver in Week 16.

    Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh Steelers at Seattle Seahawks

    The Pittsburgh-Seattle tilt doesn't carry quite as much weight in the grand scheme of things, but this is still an important matchup of potential playoff teams. At 6-4, the Steelers would be in the postseason if the season ended today but face pressure from 5-5 clubs such as the Jets, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills.

    The 5-5 Seahawks are on the outside looking in at the NFC wild-card race and cannot afford a loss here.

    The on-field matchup is also intriguing. We'll get Ben Roethlisberger and the high-flying Steelers offense against Richard Sherman and the Seahawks' playoff-caliber defense.

    This one is going to be fun. 

Stats of the Week

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    Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

    130

    Points surrendered by the defense of the New Orleans Saints in the team's last three games. This is largely why the team decided to part ways with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan during the bye week and why the team could have its hands full with the Houston Texans Sunday.

    4

    Games won by the Texans in their last five contests. Houston is now tied with Indianapolis atop the AFC South standings and can take over the division with a win and a Colts loss. This week, quarterback Brian Hoyer makes his return to the starting lineup.

    34

    Points surrendered by the Cincinnati Bengals in last week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The Bengals defense came into that game allowing an average of just 16.8 points per game. Fortunately, this week should bring a slightly easier test in the form of the St. Louis Rams. 

    17.9

    Points scored by the Rams on a per-game basis this season. This is the second-lowest total in the NFL. 

    200

    Yards rushing by Rams running back Todd Gurley over his past three games. He had 420 combined rushing yards in the three games prior. Teams are now focusing on slowing the rookie sensation, and it appears to be working. Gurley hasn't averaged at least four yards per carry since Week 8.

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    Games won by the Jacksonville Jaguars in their last four contests. We talked about the Buccaneers being a potential surprise playoff team already, but it's worth noting that Blake Bortles and his Jaguars could be as well. The team is a game behind the Texans and Colts in the AFC South. Jacksonville gets the wilting San Diego Chargers at home Sunday.

Who's Favored?

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Here are the odds for Sunday's games, via Odds Shark:

    Odds for Sunday
    Game Time (ET) Away Team Home Team Favorite
     1 p.m. Minnesota Atlanta Even
     1 p.m.  St. Louis  Cincinnati Cincinnati -9.5
     1 p.m.  New Orleans  Houston Houston -2.5
     1 p.m.  Tampa Bay Indianapolis Indianapolis -2.5
     1 p.m.  San Diego Jacksonville Jacksonville -4.5
     1 p.m.  Buffalo Kansas City Kansas City -7
     1 p.m.  Miami New York Jets NY Jets -4
     1 p.m.  Oakland Tennessee Even
     1 p.m.  NY Giants Washington  NY Giants -2.5
     4:05 p.m.  Arizona  San Francisco Arizona -11.5
     4:25 p.m.  Pittsburgh Seattle Seattle -3.5
     8:30 p.m.  New England Denver New England -2.5

Matchups to Watch

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Todd Gurley vs. Cincinnati Run Defense

    We mentioned that Rams running back Todd Gurley has been mostly held in check as of late (though he continues to find the end zone with regularity). If he can't get back on track this week, St. Louis probably has no chance of upsetting the Bengals in Cincinnati.

    Fortunately for Gurley, the Bengals run defense is good but not great. Cincinnati is allowing an average of 100.4 yards per game on the ground and is rated 15th in run defense by Pro Football Focus.

    With the mostly inefficient Nick Foles likely back under center for St. Louis, Gurley is going to have to be the focal point of the Rams offense. On the other side, stopping him has to be the focal point of the Cincinnati defense.

    Brock Osweiler vs. Patriots Pass Defense

    The Patriots have quietly produced one of the league's better pass defenses this season. Though the team is allowing an average of 252.5 passing yards per game, the Patriots are rated third overall in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus.

    The challenge this week will be Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler, who is making just his second career NFL start.

    What will be fun to watch is the chess match between Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Kubiak will obviously want to protect his young quarterback, but at some point he will likely have to press the attack.

    Belichick, who is perhaps the greatest game-to-game coach in league history, is sure to have some defensive surprises in store for the young signal-caller. How Osweiler handles the pressure and the defensive looks that come his way will go a long way toward determining this game.

    Tom Brady vs. the Denver Pass Rush

    Due in large part to injuries, pass protection has been an issue for the Patriots in recent weeks. Brady has been sacked four times in the past two weeks, and the New England line is rated just 27th in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus.

    The Patriots have been able to counter thanks to Brady's ability to make pre-snap adjustments and to get rid of the football quickly.

    However, this week's challenge is going to be a completely different animal. The Broncos defense has racked up 34 sacks already this season and is rated second overall in pass rush by Pro Football Focus.

    The Patriots line simply doesn't have the talent to hold up in a direct battle with the Denver defensive front. This one is going to come down to Brady finding creative ways to buy time and to beat Denver's fearsome sack attack. 

Injury Report

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Each week, we'll take a look at the most significant injuries from around the league.

    Case Keenum, QB, St. Louis Rams (questionable): Rams quarterback Case Keenum is officially listed as questionable. However, Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com reported Friday that Keenum still hadn't cleared concussion protocol and that the plan is to start Foles at quarterback.

    Darqueze Dennard, CB, Cincinnati Bengals (out): Dennard (shoulder) will not play for the Bengals Sunday. Fellow cornerback Adam Jones (foot) is listed as questionable.

    Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons (out): Freeman (concussion) has been ruled out for Sunday's matchup with the Minnesota Vikings. According to the Falcons' injury report, kicker Matt Bryant (quadriceps) and receiver Leonard Hankerson (hamstring) are also out.

    Dannell Ellerbe, LB, New Orleans Saints (out): Ellerbe (hip) is officially out for New Orleans. Fellow linebacker David Hawthorne (thigh) and cornerback Damian Swann (concussion) have been ruled out as well.

    Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (doubtful): Seferian-Jenkins (shoulder) was limited in practices again this week and is officially listed as doubtful. Defensive end George Johnson (calf) and safety Keith Tandy (concussion) have been ruled out.

    Phillip Dorsett, WR, Indianapolis Colts (out): Dorsett (ankle) is out again this week, as is offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo (knee). Unsurprisingly, quarterback Andrew Luck is still out with his abdominal injury. According to Mike Chappell of CBS 4 Indianapolis, though, Luck is confident he will return this season.

    Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets (out): Star cornerback Darrelle Revis has been ruled out with a concussion for Sunday's game against Miami.

    Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills (out): Williams (foot) has officially been ruled out, along with defensive tackle Kyle Williams (knee), guard John Miller (ankle) and receiver Marcus Easley (concussion).

    Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs (questionable): Kelce (groin) and running back Charcandrick West (hamstring) are both listed as questionable. Receiver De'Anthony Thomas (concussion) is out.

    DeMarcus Ware, DE, Denver Broncos (out): The Broncos have ruled out pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware again this week because of his back injury. Of course, Peyton Manning is also out once again.

Expert Picks and Predictions

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Each week, we take a look at picks and predictions from Bleacher Report's top NFL writers. We also spotlight the experts' results on a week-to-week basis.

    NFL Picks Week 12: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Picks

    NFL Predictions Week 12: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Projections

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