Every Thursday, Steve Wyche examines a handful of the week's premier matchups on the field.
Broncos, Raiders vs. Spoilers
During the Broncos' 5-1 run with Tim Tebow as the starting quarterback, there rarely has been an expectation that they could win the upcoming game. All but one of the opponents they faced (Miami) was in the playoff chase, and five of the games were on the road. But they found a way.
Now comes what could be the Broncos' biggest test. Although it's facing a bad and injury-wrecked Minnesota team, Denver is expected to win. That hasn't been the case all season.
Adding to that, a victory could pull Denver into first place should Oakland lose to Miami, so now there's a little pressure, too.
The Raiders (7-4) sit a game ahead of the Broncos (6-5) in the AFC West, but facing the Dolphins is no easy task. A loss to Miami could prove far more damaging to Oakland than just falling back in the division.
The Broncos figure to play the Vikings with an edge, because doubt remains that this string will continue for much longer -- that they've padded their record against teams that were struggling and because they're still chasing Oakland.
Even so, playing as the hunted is new territory. Minnesota has nothing left to play for but to spoil the party. Its season has been toast for a while, and knocking some of the shine off Denver's storybook run would be a conquest of some valor.
Overshadowed by Denver's run, Oakland has ripped off three straight wins -- including a 27-21 road victory over the Vikings -- and has one of the NFL's best road records at 4-1. Still, Miami is one of those opponents no team with playoff aspirations wants to face. It has won three of four with its last two at home convincing victories. It narrowly lost to Dallas on Thanksgiving and has a few extra days to prepare for a team traveling cross country.
The matchups for Oakland and Denver might not look great on paper, but the outcome this week could change the complexion of the AFC playoff picture.
Giants have anything left?
New York probably feels like Kevin Bacon in "Animal House" as he's getting paddled during a fraternity pledge ceremony: "Thank you, sir. May I have another?"
The Packers have laid the wood to a lot of teams this season, and the reeling Giants look prone to get spanked. New York has lost three straight and is poised for its typical late-season swoon after a 6-2 start had it atop the NFC East.
Let's not misplace the NFL ego here, though. New York's prideful defense was flat, gassed and didn't appear as if it wanted to play for long Monday against the Saints. At the very least, the attitude and effort will be different. Players respond when their toughness -- or lack thereof -- gets exposed like it did in New Orleans.
The Giants will have the same matchup issues covering Packers TE Jermichael Finley as they did covering Saints TE Jimmy Graham. That is what it is. Where New York got humbled was up front, where it didn't generate any pass rush and pretty much shepherded New Orleans' running backs through gaping holes. If the Giants allow that to happen against the Packers, then they deserve another smackdown.
Rarely does that happen with any team in the NFL in successive weeks, though.
Dalton's chance to make a stand
There's already growing sentiment for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to win offensive rookie of the year. A chunk of that chorus is coming from Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the AFC North foes who are trying to fend off Dalton's Bengals in the playoff hunt. So far, each has, as the Ravens and Steelers defeated Cincinnati by a touchdown in mid-November games.
Dalton gets another crack at Pittsburgh on Sunday, and a victory would further enhance the Bengals' playoff chances, weaken the Steelers' and give Dalton some redemption for a late-game interception he threw in the first meeting after driving Cincinnati deep into Steelers' territory.
A Bengals win would tie them with Pittsburgh at 8-4. With upcoming games against Houston, St. Louis, Arizona, and Baltimore, Cincinnati has a realistic shot at winning 11 games, which should lock it into the postseason.
Getting the Bengals double-digit wins will also give Dalton a realistic shot at winning the offensive rookie of the year.
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