Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 14, beginning with an unlikely career renaissance and continuing below with 10 more things to watch.
Before his career retrospective was reduced to an inglorious collision, Mark Sanchez was the butt of much gentler jokes.
"So many times in our locker room, we would say, 'Where were these performances in the regular season?' -- where he would throw four interceptions in a game," said former New York Jets offensive lineman Damien Woody, who helped protect Sanchez during Gang Green's back-to-back runs to the AFC Championship Game in Sanchez's first two years in the NFL.
"That was the thing that baffled us. It seemed like he played his best in the biggest moments. We would get a good laugh out of it -- 'Dude, if we had these type of performances during the regular season, we might have the No. 1 seed.' Everybody remembers the butt-fumble, but the man did have quite a few good games in the playoffs."
It was a steep, rapid plummet for Sanchez, from beating Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive years in the playoffs to crashing into Brandon Moore's posterior while a national television audience watched. Sanchez's divorce from the Jetswas ugly, wrapped in the bandage that sheathed his torn labrum, and it was precipitated by an extended tailspin that took down not just Sanchez's career arc but, it seems in hindsight, at least two full seasons for New York.
The wreckage is still plain for the Jets. They have the memory of winning the Snoopy Trophy, which was the ostensible reason for disastrously inserting Sanchez behind backup linemen in a preseason game last year, but little else. Coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik might lose their jobs in a few weeks, and Geno Smith, Sanchez's successor, has lost his way.
The only person to emerge from the smoldering heap so far is Sanchez himself, who was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason to be Nick Foles' backup, and who is now so far removed from the butt-fumble that he can joke about it. On Sunday, he will play in what will arguably be his biggest game since those distant playoff runs. He'll lead Philly against the Seattle Seahawks in a matchup between one of the game's most explosive offenses and one of its best defenses, with playoff spots very much within reach of both squads.
Sanchez's role in one of the most important NFC contests of the regular season might seem improbable, but Woody's recollections are an important reminder. However mediocre the career statistics look -- a regular-season completion rate of 55.78 percent to go with 76 touchdowns and 75 interceptions -- Sanchez has always done better, much better, in his biggest games, when the pressure and stakes are greatest.
His completion percentage in six playoff outings is five points higher than his career regular-season number. He has nine touchdown passes and three interceptions, and he has those victories, over Palmerand Rivers in the 2009 playoffs and over Manningand Brady in the 2010 playoffs. They came at a time when, like now, his ability to raise his game was very much in doubt -- and he delivered winning drives and important third-down conversions.
"It's the best feeling in the world to know that you're the triggerman," Sanchez said the night that he beat Brady to set up his second trip to the AFC Championship Game in two years. "You're the guy they're counting on to make a play, and I'm proud to be that guy for them."
Now it is the Eagles counting on him while Foles recovers from his own injury. For Sanchez, though, this is an opportunity to reclaim his livelihood. He has a one-year contract with Philadelphia and stands to become a free agent when the 2014 season ends -- which will either be in December, if Philly fails to make the playoffs, or in the new year. In the five games he's played this year (including four starts), the Eagles are 4-1. They lead the NFC East and on Thanksgivingbeat their only division competition: the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles and Cowboys will play again in Week 15.
The improvement in Sanchez's performance with coach Chip Kelly and the Eagles' array of offensive weapons is stark. In four years as the Jets' starter, Sanchez's completion percentage was 55.1, and he averaged 195 yards per game. His passer rating was 71.7. In his four Eagles starts thus far, Sanchez has completed 62.7 percent of his passes while averaging 300.5 yards and posting a QB rating of 89.3. With Sanchez as the starter, the Eagles are averaging 35.3 points per game, the highest this year by any quarterback with at least four starts -- that's 3.5 points more than Andrew Luck.
The biggest knock on Sanchez's Jets tenure was his propensity for committing turnovers, and that has not entirely disappeared. As a starter with the Eagles, he has six touchdown passes and four interceptions, although he had zero picks or fumbles lost while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and notching two touchdowns (one throwing, one rushing) against the Cowboys on Turkey Day. It was Sanchez's best game since those early days of promise with the Jets.
"That's the real goal, to get more and more comfortable in the system," Sanchez said, adding that his growing comfort level would help the Eagles' offense play even faster.
Sanchez certainly will be tested by the Seahawks, who are 5-1 in their past six games and whose defense is allowing 10.2 fewer points per game in that span than it did in the first six games of the season. Seattle is the only team that ranks in the top five in total defense, scoring defense, passing defense and rushing defense. A critical element of the Seahawks' revival: In the past six games, they've racked up 13 takeaways, a cringe-inducing statistic for those who have tracked Sanchez's career.
Still, the Eagles are the only team ranked in the top six in scoring offense, total offense, rushing and passing. If there is a concern, it is that in the past three games, the Eagles' red-zone offense has stalled, with an efficiency rate of 31.25 -- converting just five of 16 chances. For the season, the Eagles rank 29th in red-zone efficiency. This week, Sanchez explained the problem as missing opportunities on early downs in the red zone that would have given the Eagles a better chance of getting another set of downs, even if they didn't score the first time around.
As a young player, Woody said, Sanchez never seemed fazed by the biggest stages, and he believes Sanchez's personal pride caused him to rise to the occasion against the game's premier players. But Woody thinks Sanchez's renaissance with the Eagles came about because he's a perfect fit for the warp speed at which Kelly's offense runs.
"One thing Mark did well in New York, he played his best football in the hurry-up or no-huddle," Woody said. "Defenses have to simplify their packages, and offensively, you simplify your playbook. He's out there playing, not thinking. They are so up-tempo, a defense can only come with so many things. Mark was a guy who can roll out, throw on the run; you see a lot of athleticism. It's amazing."
1) The Browns' QB drama. The leader of the league's top passing, total and scoring offense will be on the field for the Colts, but all eyes will be on Cleveland's Brian Hoyer, who retained his starting job despite throwing one touchdown and six interceptions in his past four games. Why not Johnny Manziel? Because the Browns are 7-5 and very much in the playoff race. In their past three games, though, the Browns have averaged 14.3 points per outing, and sustaining drives could be a problem against Indianapolis. The Colts are third in the NFL in forcing three-and-outs (27 percent of drives) and second-best at preventing third-down conversions (allowing a 34 percent conversion rate). If Hoyer gets the Browns to the red zone, though, they should be able to capitalize. The Colts are 31st in red-zone defense.
2) Wintertime Goliaths collide.Tom Brady and Philip Rivers have the two best December records of any current starting quarterbacks. But Rivers will need lots of help from his defense. New England could choose to run, because the Chargers have given up at least 100 yards rushing in six of their past seven games. The Chargers' pass defense is much better at home, giving up 84 fewer yards per game and 10 fewer touchdown passes this season. The Chargers will have to concentrate on taking away the Patriots' tight ends. When throwing to Timothy Wright and Rob Gronkowski, Brady is 87 of 127 for 1,112 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions.
3) Monday night massacre? This is not an ideal matchup for the Falcons, who lead the NFC South at 5-7 but have the league's worst passing defense and rank 31st in sacks and 28th in third-down defense: They play Aaron Rodgers' Packers at Lambeau Field. Atlanta is 3-11 in its past 14 road games, while Rodgers has won 34 of his past 37 home starts and has not thrown an interception in Green Bay in two years (360 pass attempts). He has 32 touchdown passes and three interceptions total this season.
4) Who will stop their slide? The Chiefs and Cardinals have both lost two straight and will be in fights for their playoff lives because of their offenses. The Cardinals have scored one touchdown in their past 29 drives and just 35 points total in their past three games. Drew Stanton's 55.3 completion rate is the worst among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, and he has thrown five interceptions in his past three games. The Chiefs still haven't thrown a touchdown to a wide receiver this year, and Jamaal Charles has a bruised knee.
5) Buffalo's best path to success. The Bills' superb defensive front (Buffalo leads the league with 48 sacks) has propelled them into the AFC wild-card race; they also have the second-best scoring defense in the league, having allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns. They will need to get plenty of pressure on Peyton Manning, whose offensive line has given up a league-low 13 sacks. Manning also leads the league in touchdown passes (36) and now has the benefit of an emerging power running game led by C.J. Anderson, who has run for more than 160 yards in each of Denver's past two games.
6) Unstoppable object vs. very movable force. The Ravens and Dolphins are both 7-5, and the Dolphins currently hold the sixth AFC playoff seed (the Ravens are in ninth place). But Miami's run defense has suddenly turned into a sieve, allowing at least 200 rushing yards in each of its past two games, the first time that's happened to the Dolphins in 24 years. Baltimore, in its post-Ray Rice era, has run for at least 100 yards in nine of its 12 games, is ranked fifth in rushing offense and leads the league with 17 rushing plays of at least 20 yards.
7) In a critical AFC North showdown, will Ben Roethlisberger or Andy Dalton snap out of a funk first? Since Week 10, both have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. The Bengals' pass defense is better, allowing a league-low 11 passing touchdowns and intercepting 12 passes, while opposing QBs have thrown 24 TD strikes and eight interceptions against the Steelers. Cincinnati's run defense is ranked 25th, though, so the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell, who has gained at least 220 scrimmage yards in each of his past two games, could get another heavy workload.
8) It's the Jim Harbaugh Bowl in Oakland. While the 49ers could certainly use a victory to stay in the playoff mix, the Raiders might be looking longingly across the sideline at Harbaugh, whose on-again, off-again psychodrama with San Francisco management is going to provide the offseason's most compelling storyline. The 49ers' offense is faltering in the red zone (last in touchdowns in red-zone opportunities). But will the one-win Raiders look so bad that Harbaugh wants no part of them?
9) There are no playoff implications in the RGIII Trade Bowl between St. Louis and Washington. But the Rams are a dangerous team with a good pass rush (27 sacks in their past seven games) that has already knocked off Denver, Seattle and San Francisco. This is a big test for Washington quarterback Colt McCoy, who was more productive last week than Robert Griffin III has looked all season. McCoy can use the final month of the year to build his case as a viable long-term option for Jay Gruden. His offensive line, though, has given up 39 sacks, second-most in the league.
10) Back to normal in New Orleans? The Saints will try to stop a previously inconceivable three-game home losing streak in Sunday's contest against the Panthers, who haven't won in seven games. Meanwhile, the NFC South title is incredibly within reach for both teams. This could also be the game that helps Saints coordinator Rob Ryan's 31st-ranked defense look better. The Panthers have 20 giveaways in their past 10 games, and Cam Newton has thrown at least one interception in eight straight games. Carolina has just two runs for at least 20 yards, tied for the fewest in the league.