With just five weeks remaining in the regular season, the playoff picture is beginning to crystalize. Several divisions are topped by teams with commanding leads, but there are still plenty of squads within striking distance of the two wild-card spots in each conference. This week's schedule features numerous clashes between teams that still have postseason aspirations. Several key individual battles will help determine the outcomes of these crucial contests.
Here are my five key matchups to follow in Week 13:
Robert Griffin III vs. Perry Fewell
This will be the first time an NFL defense gets a second shot at stopping Washington Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III. The New York Giants had their first chance to slow him down in Week 7, when RG3 threw for 258 yards, rushed for 89 yards and led a go-ahead scoring drive with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Fortunately for the Giants, Eli Manning quickly responded to re-take the lead and ultimately secure the win.
Griffin enters Monday's matchup as one of the NFL's hottest quarterbacks. In his last two games, he's tossed eight touchdown passes and just one interception. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, meanwhile, is one of the NFL's top defensive minds. He doesn't obsess over yardage (the Giants rank 23rd in yards allowed), instead focusing on creating turnovers. The Giants have picked off 18 passes and forced 17 fumbles, ranking second and third in the NFL, respectively. They are also successfully getting after opposing quarterbacks, having produced 30 sacks (fifth in NFL) this season. It will be fascinating to see how Fewell attacks RG3 this time around.
Brandon Marshall vs. Richard Sherman
The matchup between the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks should produce a playoff-like atmosphere, as both squads were set to make the postseason as of Friday. Marshall has been an excellent addition to the Bears' offense, providing quarterback Jay Cutler with one of the NFL's premier receiving weapons. Marshall, who ranks third in the NFL in receptions (81) and sixth in receiving yards (1,017), will square off against one of the NFL's top young cornerbacks in this contest.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has generated a lot of attention this season. He's called out Calvin Johnson and mocked Tom Brady, and he's reportedly appealing a suspension for allegedly taking a banned substance. However, it's his play on the field that has generated the most buzz in league circles. Sherman has quickly developed into one of the league's best cornerbacks by playing an aggressive, physical brand of football.
Edge: Marshall. This will be a very physical matchup, but Marshall has proven he can make plays even when defenders are draped all over him.
Broncos' pass rush vs. Buccaneers' offensive line
Peyton Manning has received most of the attention generated by the Denver Broncos' success this season, but it's also worth noting that Denver's defense has really blossomed under coordinator Jack Del Rio. The key to their defensive success has been their tenacious pass rush. The Broncos lead the NFL with 37 sacks and linebacker Von Miller has established himself as one of the NFL's premier edge pass rushers.
To add to those totals against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, the Broncos will need to be at their best. The Bucs' offensive line has managed to play at a very high level despite dealing with injuries. The unit doesn't have any dominant individual talents, but it plays very well together, having allowed just 16 sacks this season -- and no more than two in any single game. The Bucs' ability to protect Josh Freeman has helped their passing attack rebound from a disappointing 2011 campaign.
Edge: Broncos' pass rush. Denver's secondary will hold its coverage long enough for this talented pass rush to get after Freeman.
Andy Dalton vs. Eric Weddle
The Cincinnati Bengals are the forgotten team in the AFC North. Everyone talks about the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Bengals have quietly put themselves in playoff contention. Quarterback Andy Dalton has keyed a three-game win streak by tossing nine touchdowns without giving up a single interception. He has spread the ball around to several of his weapons, but wide receiver A.J. Green continues to be his go-to-guy when it comes to creating big plays down the field.
San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle will be tasked with slowing down the Bengals' passing attack, and the All-Pro has a very tough assignment. Weddle has picked off three passes this season after tying for the league lead with seven interceptions in 2011. He has outstanding instincts and the range to make plays all over the field. He will be tested early and often by Dalton and company.
Ray Rice vs. Lawrence Timmons
Whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens clash, it makes for must-see television. The two teams always seem to play close, hard-hitting games that come down to the fourth quarter. The Ravens should be riding high following their miraculous win over the Chargers last week; Ray Rice's conversion on fourth-and-29 late in the fourth quarter could be a sign that this is Baltimore's year. Rice finished that game with 164 all-purpose yards, proving he's still the most reliable weapon in coordinator Cam Cameron's offense.
Lawrence Timmons has emerged as a star linebacker on the Steelers' top ranked defense, racking up 69 tackles and three interceptions this season. He has outstanding speed to make plays sideline-to-sideline, and he's an explosive tackler. He helped the Steelers defense limit Rice to 40 yards on 20 carries when these two teams met just a few weeks ago. Timmons will need to lead a similar effort this weekend if the Steelers are to have a chance at winning.
Edge: Rice. The Ravens are very tough to beat at home. I expect Rice to be very productive in the passing game and gain close to 100 yards on the ground.