In the spirit of the Salute to Service campaign, former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks spotlights players who are poised to have hero-like performances for their respective teams in Week 12:
Gordon, who was suspended for the first 10 games of the season, is expected to make a significant impact on the Browns' passing game in his 2014 debut. The Pro Bowler led the NFL in receiving yards in 2013 (despite missing two games) and has totaled the third-most receiving yards (2,451) by any player in his first two seasons since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, behind only Randy Moss (2,726) and Jerry Rice (2,497).
Gordon is an unquestionably rare talent on the perimeter with the potential to take over a game at a moment's notice. The Falcons can't muster a consistent pass rush, lack the kind of big, athletic corners who can hold up in one-on-on coverage and must worry about slowing down a potent Browns running game. Thus, Gordon could post monster numbers on Sunday. Expect Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer to target Gordon early and often, to re-establish a connection with the prolific pass catcher while forcing Atlanta to respect the aerial game. If the Falcons relent and remove a defender from the box to keep a safety shaded toward Gordon's side, the Browns can smash Atlanta with "ground and pound" football in the Georgia Dome. If not, Gordon will go bananas against a Falcons secondary that lacks the ability to contain the dynamic playmaker.
The best receiving tandem in football has been nearly impossible to defend this season. Nelson and Cobb have combined for 19 touchdowns and posted nine 100-yard games (Nelson has five, Cobb has four) as the featured playmakers in the Packers' high-octane offense. Aaron Rodgers certainly deserves a lot of the credit for the success of the Packers' majestic machine, but the inability of opposing cornerbacks to contain Nelson and Cobb on the perimeter makes life easier for the MVP of Super Bowl XLV.
The Vikings' imposing pass rush (Minnesota has tallied 30 sacks, tied for third-most in the NFL) will limit some of Rodgers' big-play opportunities. But the Packers will attempt to create some one-on-one chances for Nelson and Cobb against Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson on a variety of play-action passes with maximum protection. If the Packers can give Rodgers enough time to push the ball downfield, Nelson and Cobb should be able to have their way with the Vikings' secondary.
After watching the Titans surrender 200-plus rushing yards to Le'Veon Bell in Week 11, the Eagles will make it a point to feed McCoy early and often, to see if Tennessee's defense has solved the issues that led to last week's dismal performance. McCoy's numbers are down from 2013, but he's started to be a big factor in the game plan, notching 20-plus carries in five of the Eagles' past six games. McCoy has found more success running to the left behind Jason Peters and Evan Mathis (McCoy averages 4 yards per attempt on rushes to that side, compared with 3.3 up the middle and 3.8 to the right), meaning the Titans must try to adjust their defensive front to account for a left-handed running game. If McCoy enjoys success from the get-go on a variety of off-tackle and stretch plays to the left, Tennessee will have a tough time defending the Eagles' potent bootleg passing game to the right. Given quarterback Mark Sanchez's ability to make pinpoint throws rolling to his right, the Titans' game plan must revolve around stopping the run, to disrupt the rhythm and flow of the Eagles' offense.
Miami Dolphins' defense
It's uncommon for a defense to enjoy a favorable matchup against Peyton Manning, but the Dolphins' defense is perfectly suited for playing the Broncos. The unit excels at snuffing out the run with its front seven, which allows defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle to use maximum coverage to contain the pass. As a result, the Dolphins rarely concede big aerial plays (Miami is holding opponents to an NFL-best 19 percent completion rate on throws that travel 20-plus yards in the air); in fact, they feast off opponents who try to force the ball downfield.
Brent Grimes has snatched five picks on a variety of overthrows and deflections, including four in the Dolphins' past four games. With Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon wreaking havoc off the edges, Miami has the right ingredients to harass Manning into another disappointing outing. The veteran has tossed multiple interceptions in three straight games and could be without two of his primary targets (Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders). Without a sufficient running game to balance out their attack, the Broncos' one-dimensional approach could yield few points in this pivotal AFC showdown.
The veteran playmaker is rarely mentioned as someone who could go down as one of the top runners in NFL history, but a quick glance at the numbers suggests Charles is an all-time great at the position. His 5.54 yards-per-carry mark is the highest for a running back in league history, ahead of three Hall of Famers: Jim Brown (5.22), Gale Sayers (5.0) and Barry Sanders (4.99). This season, his 5.2 average is second among running backs (behind only Justin Forsett's 5.42).
Facing a beleaguered Raiders defense that's been worn down by persistent rushing attacks, Charles could run wild. Look for Andy Reid to make Charles the focal point of a ground-heavy game plan in this AFC West battle, giving him 20-plus carries. If the Chiefs' most explosive offensive player notches his second 100-yard game of the season, Kansas City should be able to take care of business on the road.