Teams on playoff bubble, first-place tilts top Week 13 storylines

  • By Pat Kirwan
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It's December, and the pressure to make a playoff push mounts with each passing week.

With that in mind, that's where we start the Week 13 stories to watch.

1. On the outside looking in

There are a number of good teams -- Indianapolis, San Diego, Tampa Bay, and Green Bay -- that would not make the playoffs if they started today, which makes this weekend critical in the hunt to earn a postseason spot. I'm not sure all four teams will win, but each is at home and has a good shot to come away with a victory.

Playoff picture
The Chargers look like one of the best teams the AFC has to offer, but the way things are now, Philip Rivers and Co. would miss the playoffs if the season ended today. More ...

» Will Colts miss playoffs?
» Examining tight division races

2. Home-field advantage on the line

Getting the No. 1 seed is a big deal, and the Patriots and Falcons could make a strong case for the honor with wins this week.

It will not be easy for the Patriots, with the Jets also thinking about home-field advantage and hoping to snap Tom Brady's 25-game winning streak at home in the regular season. Who was the last team to win at New England with Brady under center? The Jets.

As for Matt Ryan and Co., they visit Tampa Bay, a tough task for a Falcons team that is 3-2 on the road and scores just 21.4 points a game away from Atlanta.

3. Rematch weekend

Season series between divisional foes usually result in splits rather than sweeps. The team that loses the first game knows what it has to correct, while the winner really is challenged to change things after the victory. There are eight rematch games on the docket, and I would be surprised if the majority of the games go to the teams that lost the first time around. Here's the outcome of the opening round:

1. Cardinals 17, Rams 13 in St. Louis
2. Ravens, 17, Steelers 14 in Pittsburgh
3. Bears 19, Lions 14 in Chicago
4. Falcons 27, Buccaneers 21 in Atlanta
5. Raiders 35, Chargers 27 in Oakland
6. Titans 30, Jaguars 3 in Jacksonville
7. Jets 28, Patriots 14 in New York
8. Broncos 49, Chiefs 24 in Denver

Packers off balance
The Packers have an explosive passing attack, but have failed to get the ground game going this season. Steve Wyche examines the possible consequences. More ...

» Winning without a running game

4. Can Packers win without running?

The Packers lost Ryan Grant a long time ago and their running game went with him, at least in the minds of many. Brandon Jackson is adequate, but there's a notion that Green Bay can't go very far without a run game. There were 85 pass plays in Super Bowl XLIV. The year before that, the Cardinals and Steelers threw their way to the big game. The 49ers are coming to Green Bay this week. They play the run pretty well, so the Packers will keep throwing their way to the playoffs and beyond. I expect Aaron Rodgers to throw 45 times, as he did the last time he played San Francisco in 2009.

5. Bears are contenders

The Bears have been playing championship football all season. The offense was not pulling its weight, but turned things around during its Week 8 bye. The sacks have been significantly reduced, the run game has become a factor, the deep passing game has been scrapped for a quicker, shorter package and the Bears have emerged as contenders. In the last four games, the defense has given up 14.5 points per contest, and the offense is generating 24 points a game. It should be more of the same against the beat-up Lions this week.

6. Two backs collide

When the Jaguars take the field in Tennessee, Maurice Jones-Drew has to outplay Chris Johnson if Jacksonville is going to retain a playoff spot. Jones-Drew has hit the century mark rushing in four straight games. In fact, he has carried the ball 106 times for 613 yards and three touchdowns over that span. Johnson has not stayed up with that pace, touching the ball just 70 times in the last four games for 350 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson is at home, Kerry Collins will likely be under center and Randy Moss is supposed to open things up for CJ2K.

7. Speaking of Moss

The receiver has played with Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Vince Young, Rusty Smith, and now Kerry Collins this season. Moss only has four receptions as a Titan, and it's about time he does something. The Jaguars have given up 22 touchdown passes in 11 games. Collins has a decent deep ball, and Moss is running out of time to establish his 2011 value.

Little-known players emerge
Browns RB Peyton Hillis is among a handful of players who came into the season without much fanfare but putting up numbers that could produce all-time statistical seasons. More ...

» Follow Hillis on Milestone Tracker
» Vote: Should Hillis make Pro Bowl?

8. Hillis Hawaii bound?

It's now more than a nice story. It's time to start thinking of Browns running back Peyton Hillis as a Pro Bowler. He leads the team in rushing yards (905) and catches (46). All of this production has come while the Browns have gone through three different starting quarterbacks and really don't pose much of a threat past Hillis. In 11 games, the guy the Broncos traded for Brady Quinn has touched the ball 245 times for 1,319 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has a tough matchup this week in Miami, against a pretty good run defense, but I hope he isn't forgotten in the voting.

9. Brady and Brees are the exception

It's always interesting that there's so much focus on finding the next Brady late in the draft, instead of grabbing the obvious quarterback in the first round. As we head into Week 13, the first-round quarterbacks are rising to the top in most cases. Granted, Drew Brees was the top pick in the second round and Matt Cassel never got on the field at USC -- he did win AFC Player of the Month for November -- but think about the number of quarterbacks taken early who are pushing their respective teams to the playoffs. The Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Chargers, Colts, Falcons, Bears, Eagles, Rams, Giants, Buccaneers, and Packers all have former first-round picks leading their teams. At least eight of the 12 playoff teams will have a first-round QB.

10. Focus on the game

It seems like everyone on the Steelers has come out in defense of James Harrison and somewhat attacked the officials and the league about safety. They have dragged saving money for Harrison's kid's college fund, 18-game schedules, Harrison being a marked man and the official having the flag in hand before the latest hit on a quarterback into the discussion. It's really time to drop it and focus on the Ravens, who beat Pittsburgh in Week 4. While the Steelers didn't have Ben Roethlisberger for that matchup, the Ravens didn't have Ed Reed. And now, the game is in Baltimore.



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