The Playbook: Previewing Seahawks-Saints, Chiefs-Broncos, more Week 13 games
New Orleans (9-2) at Seattle (10-1) — Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: This had the makings of a circle-your-calendar game before the NFL season started. Now that the NFC picture has cleared a bit, it’s even more of one.
Realistically, all that stands between the Seahawks and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs is this game. Win and they would have to lose three of their last four to choke away that colossal postseason edge. That will be easier said than done.
The 9-2 Saints are but a game back in the race for the NFC’s No. 1 seed … but a mere game up on Carolina in the NFC South (somehow with two games still left against the Panthers). A road win Monday would jump the Saints to the head of the class, where they’d control their own destiny regarding home field.
How opposing defenses attack Drew Brees’ passing game usually is the element to watch in any Saints game, but it’s doubly so this week. Despite being ranked No. 2 against the pass, the Seahawks enter this one shorthanded in the secondary courtesy of suspensions for Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner.
Bet on Brees taking to the air early and often, then, be it to Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham or any number of players out of the backfield. Until the reworked Seattle secondary shows it can at least limit New Orleans, Brees ought to have the ball in his hands, with plenty of options in front of him. He’s been in a bit of a groove lately, too, with seven touchdown passes to just one interception over the past three games, all wins.
Of course, both teams feature top-five offenses and defenses, so the result will not hinge on Brees alone. Russell Wilson has kept on keeping on this season, as he nears 3,000 total yards. Running back Marshawn Lynch also needs only 75 yards to hit 1,000 on the ground this season.
The Saints have held eight of their nine opponents under 20 points — and they’ve won all of those games. What does defensive coordinator (and growing New Orleans legend) Rob Ryan have in store for the versatile Seahawks on a national stage? – Chris Burke
Denver (9-2) at Kansas City (9-2) – 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: If you want a perfect indicator of just how quickly fortunes can change for NFL teams, look no further than the Chiefs and Broncos. When they met on Nov. 17, and the Broncos won 27-17, Denver was the AFC’s unstoppable force, and the Chiefs were a great defense and running game without a quarterback who could make big plays. The following week saw the Patriots handle the Broncos in overtime, adding new concern to Peyton Manning’s throwing velocity in cold weather, while the Chiefs lost to the Chargers despite one of Alex Smith’s best-ever games.
Now, both teams are 9-2, and both are looking in the rear-view at New England when it comes to who will have home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. The Chiefs, who once lapped the league in quarterback sacks, are now tied with four other teams in that category because they’ve amassed just one quarterback takedown in their last three games. Losing outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston to injury in the Chargers game didn’t help, but both men played against Peyton Manning two weeks ago, and neither got a hand on him all day. Andy Reid hopes to have Hali back for this game; Houston reportedly could miss the next 2-3 weeks.
The Broncos are dealing with their own injury issue — running back Knowshon Moreno, who bashed New England’s defensive line for 224 yards on 37 carries, is recovering from a significant bone bruise in his lower right leg. Having a power running game at Arrowhead would be of great benefit to the Broncos, but Manning might be eager to air it out — the Chiefs had some uncharacteristic coverage breakdowns against San Diego, and it’s possible that the needed balance between quarterback pressure and pass coverage is going askew in Kansas City.
“It’s tough losing your Pro Bowl pass rushers with the way those guys dominate and get pressure,” cornerback Brandon Flowers said after the game. “We had to change up a little here and there, but at the end of the day no matter who is out there, we have to stop the other team … we have to go back to the drawing board and tighten up what we do.”
If Peyton Manning sees an empty drawing board, he has no trouble creating his own particular masterpiece.
The Chiefs hoping that Alex Smith can make shot plays to make up for a leaky defense? Manning looking to the running game after an iffy start? Yes, the NFL can change more quickly than you think. – Doug Farrar
Arizona (7-4) at Philadelphia (6-5) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has yet to throw an interception this season. He’s about to face his toughest test.
The Cardinals have 15 picks on the year (tied for third-best in the NFL) and have rolled to four straight wins on the strength of their opportunistic defense. During that run, no opposing offense has made it to 300 total yards. Philadelphia, averaging 453 yards during its own three-game win streak, ought to challenge the Cardinals in ways no team has since Arizona lost to San Francisco and Seattle on consecutive weekends.
But what of when Arizona has the ball? Lost in the Cardinals’ unexpected playoff contention has been the steady improvement of Carson Palmer as the season has progressed. Palmer started the season with eight TD passes and 13 interceptions in Arizona’s first seven games; he has eight touchdowns and just two interceptions in the four games since. Both Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald are threatening 1,000 yards receiving, with Fitzgerald leading the team at eight scores.
The Eagles have not surrendered more than 20 points in six games, but they still rank dead last in passing defense (300.1 ypg). And if Palmer lights things up, with some help from the Rashard Mendenhall-Andre Ellington run game, can Foles answer?
Finding a little space for LeSean McCoy against Arizona’s stout run defense may be the key. McCoy stands as the NFL’s lone 1,000-yard rusher for the moment — he surpassed the mark two weeks ago with a 77-yard, two-TD showing vs. Washington. When Philadelphia has rushed for 100 yards or fewer, though, it’s 0-3 this year.
Which team needs this one more? Hard to say. The Eagles can join Dallas atop the NFC East with a win; Arizona, at 7-4, sits just outside the wild-card race on account of a tiebreaker with San Francisco. There is the possibility that this is an opening-round playoff preview, since Philadelphia would be the 3- or 4-seed if it were to win the division crown and Arizona almost certainly will not wrestle the NFC West from Seattle.
Oh, and one more topic to chew on: Does the winning team here give its coach the inside track for Coach of the Year? – CB
Tennessee (5-6) at Indianapolis (7-4) – 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Colts may have the inside track on the AFC South, but they have a host of issues to reconcile before the postseason. They’ve been outscored 93-9 in the first halves of their last four games and lost two of their last three contests by a combined score of 78-19. Inbetween those defeats at the hands of the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals was a 30-27 win over the Titans, the one team with half a shot at giving the Colts grief at the top of the division standings.
“There is blood in the water right now,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said after the loss to Arizona, in which the Cardinals defense outfoxed Andrew Luck, and Cards quarterback Palmer put up an AFC-Offensive-Player-of-the-Week performance against his defense. “Until you get it fixed they are going to keep coming at us. It is the same thing week in and week out on both sides of the ball and on special teams. … They are going to keep coming at you until we put out the fire.”
In that first Titans game, Indy started quite the blaze with a 14-0 deficit to start, before Pep Hamilton’s offense turned things around by holding the ball on long drives and scoring points in relatively unspectacular fashion. A Colts team that has been underwhelming on the ground for the most part scored three rushing touchdowns — two by Donald Brown and one by Luck, who didn’t throw a passing touchdown in the game. Indy also shut Chris Johnson down in the second half, and it will need a repeat performance in that regard.
Through a series of mathematical miracles, Tennessee actually holds the sixth seed in the AFC playoff race. Ryan Fitzpatrick, subbing for the injured Jake Locker for the rest of the season, has thrown five touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last three games, proving that at his height, he’s a game manager in the positive sense. To make things happen down the stretch, a Titans team that has lost four of its last five games will have to repeat the formula that worked against the Raiders last Sunday — keep Fitzpatrick on point with manageable throws, find consistency in the running game and take advantage when their opponents make mistakes. Against the Colts, there’s an additional caveat: remember that football games are 60 minutes long. – DF