The fourth quarter of the regular season kicks off this weekend. Playoff spots are still up for grabs, coaches are fighting for their jobs, some teams have to overcome lots of injuries, and we get a chance to sit back and enjoy all the action. Here are six storylines that I find very intriguing this weekend.
Battle for NFC East lead
The Giants played the Packers to the wire last week and got robbed by the officials on a no-touchdown call that cost them the game. The Cowboys gave a game away with poor quarterback and sideline judgment that cost them against the Cardinals. That sets up this Sunday night matchup with first place on the line.
Tony Romo vs. Eli Manning! Manning is the most productive fourth-quarter QB in the NFL with 13 touchdown passes in the money quarter and a 5-2 record over the Cowboys the past seven times they've met. Romo is at home and he gets Miles Austin back to go with Dez Bryant, Laurent Robinson and Jason Witten. There should be great passing numbers in this game as both teams will come out throwing the ball.
Can the Giants block DeMarcus Ware, the top pass rusher in the NFL? He only has two sacks of Manning in the past four games against the Giants. Can the Cowboys protect Romo from Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul?
In Dallas' five losses this year, they have given up nine touchdown passes but in their seven wins, they have only given up seven touchdown passes.
Tebow's toughest test to date
Tim Tebow is the talk of the NFL. Two weeks ago, he ran 22 times and led his team to a win. That was the most runs by a QB since 1950. Last week, he led his team to a win by completing 10 of 15 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Now Tebow faces Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and, most importantly, Julius Peppers. I expect Peppers to line up on the right side of the Bears defense and do two things: rush Tebow in pass situations, and contain his predictable left escape and handle him in the run game. Cam Newton faced this Bears defense and rushed eight times for 35 yards and two touchdowns. The Bears offense will struggle in this game, so it will be up to the defense to end the Tebow win streak at five games. I'm not so sure they can do it, but I know I will not miss one play of this game. By the way, Denver coach John Fox told me Tebow has a full complement of audibles at the line of scrimmage. Which means he is now reading defenses.
Can my spoiler do it again?
A month ago, I proclaimed that my two spoiler teams for the rest of the season would be the Dolphins in the AFC and the Panthers in the NFC. Miami is doing its part, going 4-1 after an 0-7 start. Now, the underachieving Eagles come to town. The Dolphin defense is red hot in this 4-1 run. They have given up just four touchdown passes, and they have seven interceptions and 13 sacks. On top of that, the Fish haven't given up a rushing touchdown in seven games. I think Miami officially ends the Eagles' dreams of a postseason.
The Panthers have a rematch at home with division rival Atlanta. The Falcons beat Carolina seven weeks ago when Cam Newton threw three interceptions. But now the Falcons are barely holding on to a playoff spot and a loss would be devastating. As Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said to me this week, "For Cam Newton, seven weeks ago was a lifetime ago for a rookie QB." Since that game, Newton has led his team to a 3-3 record with six touchdown passes and in four of those games didn't throw an interception. Carolina is coming off three straight road games and will be treating this game like it's the Super Bowl. A tough spot for the Falcons.
Parallel paths, different approaches
The Bears and Texans are both in the playoffs if they started right now -- but lots can happen in the next month. Both teams have lost their starting QB. The Bears are without RB Matt Forte and the Texans have had a number of other injuries. The Texans wasted no time signing Jake Delhomme two weeks ago and came back this week and added Jeff Garcia. I guess they have no issues teaching older veterans their offensive system. The Bears declared that they will not sign someone off the street and are sticking with Caleb Hanie.
Is their system so difficult that no one could come in and learn enough to function? Hanie has been in the system for two years yet he went 0-for-11 on third downs last week, amassed a mere 181 yards of total offense and was sacked seven times by a Chiefs team that was at the bottom of the NFL in sacks. All of that happened at Soldier Field. Now Hanie is in Denver against a Broncos pass rush that features Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. It would be a shame if the playoffs slipped away for the Bears because the offensive system is too hard to learn.
Seahawks, Chargers hold onto hope
Fans around the country and the media may think the season is over for the Chargers and Seahawks, but don't tell those guys. Both teams have a history of rallying back into the playoff picture and, after talking with people from both organizations, they are in that mindset once again. Seattle has a fairly easy game this week at home against the Rams. In the three games Pete Carroll's Seahawks have faced Steven Jackson, they have held him to 3.3 yards per carry and zero touchdowns. On the other hand, Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch leads a running game that has piled up 705 yards and six touchdowns in the past five games. Can the Rams stop the Seahawks? If they do, then they face Tarvaris Jackson coming off his best game last week, when he went 13-for-16 for 190 yards. Carroll told me that Jackson is throwing the ball better this week in practice than ever before.
The Chargers finally got all of their receivers healthy last week when Gates, Floyd, and Jackson combined for 14 receptions, 250 yards and two TDs. On top of that, Ryan Mathews ran right through a pretty good Jacksonville defense. Buffalo is in San Diego and the Bills struggle to stop the run. In the past five games, the Bills are giving up 142 yards a game on the ground.
Packer machine keeps rolling
The Packers look unbeatable at times, but the Giants demonstrated they can be scored on. The conversation about the Packers' desire to go undefeated needs to be put on hold until they get to win No. 15 -- if they get that far. Right now, the Packers are still dealing with the reality that the 49ers are only two games behind them. Any slip-ups now could cost them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Green Bay averages 39 points a game at home and knows the value of playing at Lambeau Field throughout the postseason. This weekend a wounded Oakland team comes to town and they will be focused on one thing: sacking Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is awesome but he gets sacked once every 15 pass attempts and the Raiders, this week's opponent, have 20 of their 33 sacks on the road. This is a good game for Green Bay to work on the running game and take some pressure off Rodgers. In the past three weeks, the Raiders have given up 505 yards on the ground at 5.3 yards a clip.