The Playbook: Previewing Panthers-Saints, Seahawks-49ers, more Week 14 games
Carolina (9-3) at New Orleans (9-3) — 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: And it all comes down to this in the NFC South. The Saints have the conference-record tiebreaker, but as these two teams get ready to face off twice in three weeks, a division that was once thought to be New Orleans’ by default is now a virtual toss-up. The Panthers have made it so by going on an eight-game tear in which they’ve outscored their opponents 211-99. The stretch of dominant play has also been kind to Cam Newton, who has now thrown for 2,616 yards and 19 touchdowns while adding 447 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Unquestionably, Carolina will be watching what the Seahawks did to the Saints on Monday night — Russell Wilson keyed his zone-read runs off the inside-outside action of end Junior Galette, and Wilson riddled them with outside runs. Newton can do that to an even higher level.
The Saints couldn’t return home until Tuesday afternoon because mechanical failures kept their plane from leaving Seattle, which means that head coach Sean Payton has his players focusing more on what challenges Carolina presents than all that went wrong during the 34-7 loss.
“The iPads had all the games of Carolina, cut-ups, everything that you necessarily need,” Payton said this week. “I don’t think there is a big adjustment or a big deal about getting back in the next day as opposed to 6 a.m.”
The problem for the Saints is more schematic than geographical. Like Seattle, Carolina features a dominant front seven, great linebackers in pass coverage and a secondary that has improved in the second half of the season. Brees had his 43-game streak of games in which he threw for at least 200 yards snapped Monday, and the seven-point total was the lowest of the Payton era.
But the Panthers won’t have home-field advantage until Dec. 22, and that’s a problem, because the Saints play much better at home. They’re 6-0 there, averaging 33.2 points per game (as opposed to 18.8 on the road), and Drew Brees’ indoor quarterback rating is 121.4 (83.3 outside). Carolina has what it takes to sweep this series, but it may have to settle for a split if those trends hold fast. On defense, the key for Carolina will be to match linebacker Luke Kuechly on tight end Jimmy Graham, who lost several one-on-one matchups with Seattle’s linebackers. Newton’s main task will be to navigate Rob Ryan’s blitzes, and he’s qualified to do it — he has a 90.1 rating against blitz packages, and he’s thrown 11 touchdowns this season with five or more defenders on the line. – Doug Farrar
Seattle (11-1) at San Francisco (8-4) — 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: This game has stood out all year as a must-see matchup — two NFC West rivals in early December. The Seahawks have taken some of the drama out of the proceedings by pulling away in the division and conference race. Their 34-7 pasting of the Saints last week moved them to 11-1 on the year, ever closer to locking up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
One of those 11 wins came over the 49ers in Week 2, a 29-3 message-sending showing. The Seattle defense led the charge that day, opening the scoring with a second-quarter safety and forcing three Colin Kaepernick interceptions in the blowout.
San Francisco has had two other games in which it failed to hit double digits on the scoreboard — and both came at home. The Colts shut the 49ers down in Week 3 (27-7), then Carolina pulled the trick in Week 10 (10-9). The offense has been better in its past two outings, topping 300 yards and 20 points in each.
Will the 49ers need more on Sunday?
Possibly, because Seattle’s absolutely cooking right now. The Seahawks have won their past three games by an average of 23.7 points, while scoring at least 33 points each time. Russell Wilson has eight touchdowns and no interceptions in that stretch, again providing the balance to a run-heavy offense.
What San Francisco does have in this game that it did not back in Week 2 is some health at wide receiver. Michael Crabtree made his long-awaited 2013 debut last week and promptly broke free for a 60-yard catch. Mario Manningham’s also a recent re-addition to the lineup, which means that Anquan Boldin is no longer the lone dangerous threat at WR.
Unsurprisingly, Kaepernick is on a little hot streak of his own, with four TDs and no picks over the past two weekends.
Of course, for all the attention Kaepernick and Wilson will receive, Seattle-San Francisco games tend to be won in the trenches. Will it be Marshawn Lynch or Frank Gore carrying the day in Week 14? The answer may determine the winner. – Chris Burke
Indianapolis (8-4) at Cincinnati (8-4) – 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bengals lead the AFC North, and they’re succeeding now with a switched-up offensive line. Veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth moved inside to guard after Clint Boling was lost for the season to a torn ACL in Sunday’s game against the Chargers, and that unit, with Anthony Collins replacing Whitworth outside, kept Andy Dalton from a single sack and cleared the way for 164 rushing yards. Of course, San Diego has the worst defense in the league, and the Colts provide a tougher test. Outside linebacker Robert Mathis leads the NFL with 15.5 sacks, and the Indy front seven allows almost a yard per carry less than San Diego’s, per Football Outsiders. Where the Colts may have trouble is in defending the deep ball — Andy Dalton has been slinging it deep all season, especially to super-receiver A.J. Green, and two of the Colts’ three primary cornerbacks (Vontae Davis and Cassius Vaughn) are allowing opponent passer ratings above 90. Darius Butler has been the lockdown guy, but he spends more time in the slot. Of course, as we pointed out this week, more elite receivers are using the slot to create mismatches, and Green is one of them.
The Bengals’ excellent defense will be tested more in the slot, especially by receiver T.Y. Hilton. Slot man Adam Jones was exposed against Chargers rookie Keenan Allen last week, and Hilton can stretch the field in ways that Allen can’t. However, the Colts have had issues with slow starts this season, and conditions in Cincinnati could affect Andrew Luck. Indy’s quarterback was asked about the last time he played in the snow — which is forecasted for this game — and he said that he probably hadn’t done so since he was a kid.
That puts more of a focus on the run game, so expect to see more of Donald Brown in place of the ineffective Trent Richardson. Head coach Chuck Pagano started Brown over Richardson against the Titans last Sunday, and he responded with 54 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Luck added 42 yards on five scrambles, while Richardson managed just 19 yards on five chances. – DF
Dallas (7-5) at Chicago (6-6) — Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Dallas topped 100 yards rushing just once in its first 10 games. It’s gone over the mark each of the past two games on the efforts of DeMarco Murray and the now-injured Lance Dunbar. That’s bad news for the Bears, who have not been able to stop anyone on the ground this season.
At 153.6 yards per game, Chicago has been the league’s worst against the run this season and allowed 250 to Minnesota last week. Murray may not have his Dunbar safety net anymore, but he is coming off a three-TD showing.
If the Bears cannot limit Murray, they’re likely to then have trouble against Tony Romo and the Cowboys’ passing attack as well. And that means the pressure in this all-important game will fall on Josh McCown — who’s again starting in place of an injured Jay Cutler.
McCown has gone 2-2 as the Bears’ starter, matching the .500 percentage put up by Cutler over his eight games. He’s lost two in a row, however, at St. Louis and at Minnesota. The latter loss, in overtime after Robbie Gould missed a very makeable field goal, was particularly damaging. With it, the Bears fell to 6-6, a game back of the Lions in the NFC North (and Detroit owns a season sweep on Chicago).
The silver lining in that defeat was the play of wideout Alshon Jeffery. Chicago’s emerging superstar went off for 12 catches and a franchise-record 249 yards. It also was his first multi-touchdown game of the season.
For as poor as Chicago has been against the run, Dallas’ maligned defense has slumped almost as much against the pass. Three teams have thrown for more than 400 yards vs. the Cowboys, who rank next to last in pass defense.
So, if McCown has to air it out to keep pace with a Dallas ground assault, he might be able to do so. – CB