With 24 of 32 NFL teams still in contention for one of the 12 playoff spots and turnover already taking place in some front offices, there are plenty of storylines worth noting. Here are 10 that I'm paying close attention to this weekend:
1. Can Pittsburgh stop the bleeding?
I think the biggest shock of the 2009 season has been the Steelers losing games to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland. Ending their current five-game losing streak won't be easy with the Packers coming to town. Green Bay is plus-18 in turnovers while the Steelers are minus-5; the swing of 23 is the largest of the 16 games this weekend. Aaron Rodgers has reduced his sacks in recent weeks and if he gets the ball out of his hand before LaMarr Woodley and/or James Harrison (19 sacks between them) get to him, then the bleeding continues.
|Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press|
|With Bruce Allen taking over as Redskins GM, Washington veterans may be auditioning these last three games for a roster spot in 2010.|
2. New sheriff in town
How do you think the Redskins players are going to react to a new GM in place when they host the Giants on Monday night? Bruce Allen will get the players' attention. Veterans know changes are coming and if they want to keep the big contracts the Redskins organization gave them in years past, then they better play well. In fact, the addition of Allen makes the Washington team a very dangerous squad that may play the role of spoiler for the rest of the season. Washington lost 23-17 to the Giants in Week 1 and may be more trouble now than they were before.
3. CJ? AD? How about TJ?
There's no doubt Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson are the "hot" running backs in the NFL the last two years, but the hottest running back when it comes to scoring touchdowns is Thomas Jones of the New York Jets. Jones has 26 touchdowns in the last 29 games. Peterson has 24 and Johnson has 22. I know Peterson and Johnson are marked men, but Jones is playing with a rookie QB and every opponent knows Jones is running the ball.
4. The December storyline
The Cowboys never win in December, the Chargers never lose in December and the players supposedly have those thoughts in their heads. Dallas has a tough schedule, not a December jinx. The Chargers get to play at home this week while Dallas goes to the Superdome, so both December trends should continue. Tony Romo is playing well this month and doesn't need the superstitious December issue on his shoulders. The Chargers have an emotionally-charged Bengals team coming to town with the pain of the loss of teammate Chris Henry. Regardless of the outcome of these games, I don't think what month it is has anything to do with what these teams are doing.
5. How will Cowboys use Ware?
DeMarcus Ware is a great pass rusher and there's no doubt the Cowboys need him to make the playoffs this year. On Saturday night, Dallas must stop Saints QB Drew Brees, who only gets sacked once every 31 attempts. Ware is not 100 percent after the neck injury he suffered last week, so full-time duty may not be a good idea. I'm looking for Ware to play on passing downs at best, with Bobby Carpenter or Victor Butler handling first and second downs.
|Kevin Terrell / Associated Press|
|If JaMarcus Russell had any chance to win back his job in a relief performance last week against Washington, it didn't work. Charlie Frye gets the start this week.|
6. Hitting a new low
Embattled Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell hit a new low last week when he came in for the injured Bruce Gradkowski and promptly got sacked six times in 22 pass plays. A sack every 3.6 pass attempts is a disgrace. One Redskins player told me last week that when Russell entered the game, the Raiders acted like they knew they didn't have a chance. Well, that message rang true with the front office and coaches, because, with Gradkowski still out, Charlie Frye gets the start this week over Russell. Frye has started two games since 2006. Russell is nearing the end of his Raiders career if he doesn't shape up soon.
7. Matchups to watch
Here are my favorite one-on-one matchups for Week 15, battles that will be critical to the outcome of their games:
Denver wide receiver Brandon Marshall against Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Marshall had 21 receptions last week, but only 20 career receptions and one touchdown against the Raiders in four previous games.
Cowboys left tackle Flozell Adams has to keep Saints defensive end Will Smith off Romo. Smith has 10 sacks and Adams struggles on the road.
Steelers OLB LaMarr Woodley has seven sacks in the last five games and Packers RT Mark Tauscher has his hands full on the road.
Dolphins left tackle Jake Long has to stop Titans DE Kyle Vanden Bosch.
8. The Bengals corners
San Diego might have the most impressive set of receivers in the NFL. When I was at Chargers camp this summer, it looked like an NBA practice with Vincent Jackson (6-foot-5), Malcom Floyd (6-5) and Legedu Naanee (6-2). This week they face the Bengals, who may have the best tandem of corners in the league with Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. The Bengals like to man up the corners and this will be their biggest test of the year. If they can man up these wide receivers, then the Bengals can go deep into the playoffs.
9. Will he bounce back?
Randy Moss had a bad game last week after being sent home last Wednesday for being late for a meeting. Tom Brady was even trying to encourage Moss on the bench, but to no avail. The last time Moss was held to one reception like he was last week was against the Broncos in Week 5. He came back the next week with eight receptions for 129 yards and three touchdowns. Get ready for a solid "comeback" game from Moss.
10. Wild playoff race
The AFC playoff race, especially for a wild-card berth, heats up this weekend. I would be surprised if the Broncos don't secure one spot but the other spot should come down to the Jaguars, Ravens and Jets. Baltimore has the best schedule, which makes their path the easiest, but the Jets have a winnable game Sunday against a beat-up Falcons team and games left against teams that should have clinched their spots and shut down the starters. The NFC race comes down to the NFC East. Keep an eye on the spoilers -- better known as the Washington Redskins -- who play the Giants and Cowboys in the next two weeks.