Playoffs, early-December style ...
That's what Week 14 is, always has been and will be again in 2018. No less than 14 games on this week's slate have moderate-to-serious playoff implications, starting with Thursday night's game and going all the way through to Monday night in Seattle. That weekend capper is particularly important, as a win pushes the pesky Seahawks closer to locking up a postseason bid, something that seemed quite improbable at the outset of this season.
While the 2018 landscape has been littered with powerhouses -- all of whom are jockeying for playoff positioning this week -- there has also been room for the surprising upstarts, and the 'Hawks are front and center on that list. The Colts mirror them in an upstart-NFL-team-parallel-universe kind of way. Indianapolis has a real opportunity to improve its stakes by upsetting the Texans in Houston. Speaking of potential upsets, Seattle and Indy each possess a sleeper Coach of the Year candidate -- no one expected this back in August. Of course, that's usually how this deal goes: The Cinderella teams push their head coaches past midnight and into the glow of major awards. For Pete Carroll, in particular, such consideration is more than merited. It's crazy the guy has never earned this honor. Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, the Seahawks and Colts need to win games.
Elliot Harrison went 9-7 on his predictions for Week 13, bringing his record for the season to 128-62-2. How will he fare in Week 14? His picks are below.
SUNDAY, DEC. 9
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | New Era Field (Orchard Park, N.Y.)
One of the few games this weekend that are relatively meaningless. Draft positioning will dominate all the discussion with these two teams going forward, though we know that no real fans will be rooting for their precious Jets or Bills to lose. Yeaaaaaaah, maybe that isn't a totally accurate statement. Sam Darnold appears poised to return for this game, but those Buffalo fans will definitely make life miserable for Darnold (or Josh McCown, if Darnold's foot acts up again), as will the Bills' front seven. The Buffalo defense gave up 175 total yards in Miami last week. If the Jets are to sneak in a road win here and end their six-game losing streak, they must re-script their red-zone plays. Blow up what they've been doing. Do a 180. That overlooked area of pro football cost them a win last week in Tennessee -- and, from a macro view, the Jets are the worst offense in the NFL inside the 20.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | FedExField (Landover, Md.)
Despite owning a 4-8 record, Big Blue doesn't think it's out of the postseason picture. For good reason, too: The NFC East could bunch up right quick. If the Giants are able to oust the Redskins this weekend, they will pull within a game of Washington. If the Eagles knock off the Cowboys, New York would suddenly be just two games back of first-place Philadelphia with three games left. Perhaps still a tall order to take the division, yet with the Vikings and Panthers struggling, eight wins might be enough to grab that last wild-card space. Eli Manning is the central figure in terms of the outcome of this NFC East tussle. The Redskins can be awfully tough to run against, which means Saquon Barkley can't be relied upon to bail out the offense. Also, Manning has fared quite poorly in D.C. Over his career, Eli's posted a sub-90 passer rating there in 10 of 14 starts, with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. In six of his last eight starts there, Big Blue has failed to score 20. So, the outlook is bleak. Then again, his counterpart across the field is Mark Sanchez. Sanchez can call the heck out of those plays.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Florida)
The Saints were knocked down a link or two last week in Dallas, at least in terms of team confidence. Kept them on the top rung of the league hierarchy, though, because they barely lost against a Cowboys team jacked up to beat the NFL's premier contender. Can the Bucs match that energy? Think so at home, but their personnel is not as strong as Dallas' at any of the three levels of the defense. Tampa's secondary must repeat what it did against the Panthers, being at the right place at the tight time and catching the football. Drew Brees doesn't provide too many gifts (three picks ... in 384 attempts!). With the Bucs likely to struggle running on Dennis Allen's front seven, short fields would most likely be needed for Jameis Winston to generate an upset.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Fla.)
They might be NFL royalty, but the Patriots have royally sucked in Miami during the Bill Belichick era. They have managed just an 8-10 record in Miami during his reign, which includes dropping four of the last five there. Key to the Dolphins' fortunes this week: A) If they can stop the four New England running backs from consistently putting Tom Brady in second-and-manageable situations; and B) converting third downs on offense. The latter's been an issue all year, and it hasn't improved with Ryan Tannehill under center the last two weeks, as Miami's gone 6-for-20 on pro football's most important down. Still waiting on the Brady-Josh Gordon connection to take off. Gordon has caught 34 balls for 605 yards in nine games with New England -- a rate of production that would produce 1,076 yards over a full 16-game slate -- but it's still far from the dominant WR1 status that we know (think?) he is capable of attaining. Maybe this is the week, against this Miami secondary.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Mo.)
Another huge game in the AFC, with the Chiefs trying to hold on to the conference's top seed and the Ravens trying to hold on to a potential wild-card spot. Baltimore's defense has performed quite admirably this season, pacing the league in points and yards allowed, thus allowing the offense to play conservative lately with Lamar Jackson under center. Don't think the unit matches up too well against this week's opponent, though. When the Ravens' pass rush doesn't get home, the secondary can get exposed. Now, that group has played great most of the year, but Baltimore hasn't seen a quarterback who throws on the move like Patrick Mahomes or a wide receiver who moves like Tyreek Hill. And the top tight end safety Eric Weddle and crew have played all year? Jared Cook. (Yes, they faced Greg Olsen, but with a balky foot.) So Travis Kelce presents a unique problem. Look for Jackson to log 17-20 runs, while the Ravens should look to pound the rock on the ground at least 40 times total. Did you know Baltimore hasn't lost in Kansas City ... ever?
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | NRG Stadium (Houston)
This matchup is a gem. While it might have lost a little luster with Indianapolis finally falling again last week, Colts-Texans could ultimately decide the division. Houston comes in with a three-game lead, so a win will basically call it a day in the AFC South. (UPDATE: This is not literally true, since the Titans' win on TNF means Tennessee stays within striking distance of the Texans.) On the other hand, an Indy W keeps the division race alive and puts the Colts right off the Ravens' wing on the wild-card front. Always key when you are trying to beat Viper. Wait, got off topic. In order to beat the Texans at their place, the Colts' wide receivers must find the soft spots in the zone and sit down. Come back to the ball when the quarterback is in trouble. Do whatever it takes to make life easier for Andrew Luck. The pass protection will probably be there most of the time for Luck, even against this extremely talented -- and active -- Texans front. But if Luck's guys outside start running routes like they did in Jacksonville, forget it. Deshaun Watson has picked up his game of late, completing more than 74 percent of his passes and rushing for 100 yards over the last two weeks combined. In other words, this won't be a case of overcoming a 6-0 deficit late. Indy must manufacture more points. Like 24 more.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Lambeau Field (Green Bay, Wis.)
What looked to be a must-watch game when the schedule came out in the spring is now a matchup of deflated organizations. The Falcons have fallen apart since climbing back into the postseason race with a win at Washington back in Week 9. In case you didn't hear it the first 1,000 times: The Packers fired their head coach after faltering against the worst team in the league at home. Anticipating a heavier dose of Aaron Jones against an Atlanta defense that has struggled against the run. The Falcons must find creative ways to get Tevin Coleman and their own ground game going -- they are averaging 52.8 rush yards per game over the last four weeks. That's putrid. I'm taking a rejuvenated Green Bay team under Joe Philbin in the cold at Lambeau. Watch Aaron Rodgers chuck eight touchdown passes or something ridiculously Tecmo like that.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland)
This odd interconference pairing features two teams coming off ugly losses, with ultra-confident quarterbacks having suffered multiple turnovers in the process. Cam Newton threw four picks, Baker Mayfield three -- with all of them being uber-relevant to the outcomes of those games. If Carolina loses in Cleveland, it will make for a five-game losing skid, possibly allowing the Seahawks and Vikings to lengthen their lead in the wild-card race and the Eagles and Redskins to pass the Panthers. The Browns are trying to sustain some kind of momentum and piece a few wins together. If Mayfield can create plays downfield without pressing, Cleveland will have a chance. Couple that with making accurate throws in the red zone, where the Panthers have allowed far too many scores. (They are 31st in the NFL in RZ defense.) Expect a heavy dose of Christian McCaffrey against the league's 28th-ranked run defense.
4:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)
The Broncos' schedule is so easy going down the stretch, it might as well have DeVry on the docket. Of course, that also speaks to the difficulty of the slate they've played up to this point, one that led to a .500 record. For Vance Joseph's group, the script should be familiar: lean on Phillip Lindsay, with a dash of Royce Freeman and a sprinkle of assorted Case Keenum runs. In related news, added sprinkles make for the best donuts. Keenum should also consider taking a few chances of the vertical variety: The Niners allow opposing passers a staggering 111.5 passer rating on throws that travel 20-plus yards through the air. That's not good. With Matt Breida out, Nick Mullens must use the short passing game to generate offense. Say what you want, but the kid was competing his tail off until the bitter end in Seattle.
4:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | Rokit Field at StubHub Center (Carson, Calif.)
The Bengals will be without A.J. Green's services. That's the latest news we have. That, and the fact they will get beat by multiple scores. Philip Rivers and the Chargers' offense are white hot ... wait ... lightning hot, having scored 78 points over the last two weeks, including 26 in the second half last week at Heinz Field. Cincy comes in sporting the worst defense in the NFL, both in points and yards allowed. Joe Mixon has been quite effective, averaging more than 5 yards per rush over his last seven games. The problem is that he has only received 15-plus carries in one of those games. Run the rock, play conservative and hope the Bolts come out at half-intensity. Put another way: Speed the game up with more runs and fewer possessions. Otherwise, this could get gnarly fast.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) | State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.)
The Lions have been playing just well enough to get beat, whereas the Cardinals have been beaten by everyone (including the Raiders) but managed the most surprising upset of the season just last week. Arizona's effort at Lambeau got a head coach fired. I sure hope the Cardinals are happy with themselves for that. Jerks. Actually, though, the Cards' own coach had some speculation swirling about his future prior to the win in Green Bay. Consecutive wins would do wonders for him -- and the entire organization. This Detroit-Arizona matchup was the same game that derailed the Cardinals' 2017 campaign, as David Johnson broke his wrist and was lost for the season. Byron Leftwich has gotten his lead tailback more involved since taking over the play calling in mid-October. Still problematic: simply acquiring a run-of-the-mill first down. The Cards average 12.8 of those per game. NFL average: 18.8. Ugh.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) | Oakland Coliseum (Oakland, Calif.)
The Steelers will be without James Conner this Sunday in Oakland, which will be an issue. You know what won't be? Their pass rush against the Raiders' pass protection. According to Pro Football Focus, Oakland is near the bottom of the league in pass blocking, whereas Pittsburgh comes in pacing the NFL in sacks. It's not just T.J. Watt, either, although he's been hell on wheels for opposing passers. Five different Steelers have at least 4.5 sacks. If it sounds like I'm picking 4.5 as an arbitrary stat to make the group sound fearsome, well, you got me. It's still darn impressive. Give Derek Carr credit (... if we can't give him time to throw). The guy put 33 points on the board last week against the AFC's No. 1 seed with the nucleus of an 0-13 fantasy team.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) | AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
The Eagles have won six of their eight meetings in Dallas this decade? What? So much for home-field advantage. Considering that playing at JerryWorld is like getting football (bottle) service at a nightclub, with an in-stadium Pappadeaux the most intimidating thing around, then ... OK, I made that part up -- at least I don't think there is a Pappadeaux there. But the truth is, the Cowboys haven't been that formidable in Big D. Then again, this 2018 defense of theirs is special, top to bottom. It's looking like Sean Lee will not make his return this week. That's OK, because Leighton Vander Esch is making plays Lee Roy Jordan would be proud of, and Jaylon Smith is running around with Dexter Coakley-ish, Hollywood Henderson speed. If the Eagles are to topple Dallas, they must run effectively early. They're averaging 43 rushing yards per game in the first half, at 3.8 per clip. That puts far too much onus on Carson Wentz, who then turns around and tries to throw the ball to Zach Ertz nine plays in a row.
8:20 p.m. ET (NBC) | Soldier Field (Chicago)
Ooooooh, this matchup is sexy. It would be even better if the Bears' defense had fared better at the Big Snoopy last weekend, or if the offense hadn't been struck with fumblitis in overtime. Still, Chicago has resembled Snoopy flying on his doghouse. No matter the holes in the foundation, or the repeated instances of getting whipped by the Red Baron, Snoopy always hung in there -- much like these Bears. Matt Nagy's group survived an emotionally draining loss at Lambeau back in Week 1, a running game that's been stuck in neutral much of the year, and Mitch Trubisky being out the last couple of weeks. Yet, here the Bears are, sitting atop the NFC North. These two teams could see each other in January, but with Chicago's loss last week, any prospective matchup will take place at the L.A. Coliseum. The really fun matchup will be Khalil Mack against Rob Havenstein -- PFF has Los Angeles' RT rated as the seventh-best tackle in football, right behind teammate Andrew Whitworth. If the Rams are overmatched up front, they'll lose. For all his greatness, Todd Gurley needs seams more than RBs who have a little more wiggle -- or are more compact. Of course, if Gurley breaks off chunk runs, Chicago could be done. Especially considering what that would lead to: Jared Goff's 158 pass attempts on play-action lead the league, and his 8:1 TD-to-INT ratio on those plays doesn't suck, either.
MONDAY, DEC. 10
8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN) | CenturyLink Field (Seattle)
Hugely important game in the NFC wild-card race -- and an outcome that'll likely be decided by the quarterbacks. I know: What a swashbuckling take full of risk! Maybe not, but given that Kirk Cousins has never won on Monday night and Russell Wilson has dominated MNF, maybe talking QBs here is not overblown. Score one for the pertinent! The running games certainly could be relevant, but unless Mike Zimmer directs Dalvin Cook to get more carries, who cares? Cousins has to play well on the big stage. The Vikes rank 30th in the NFL in rushing and average a chilling 2 yards per carry in the red zone. With the crowd in Seattle acting like every game is the first Van Halen concert with Sammy Hagar and noise being a certifiable distraction, a stout ground attack is oft the great elixir -- it can mitigate the disruption. Nothing quiets a crowd like pushing the ball methodically down the field, 4-6 yards at a time. Problem is, Minnesota never does that. The running scene of Seattle does, to the tune of 148.8 per game (tops in the NFL), and that will be the difference Monday night. So, I guess it didn't come down to the QBs after all. Score one for the ground game!
THURSDAY, DEC. 6
8:20 p.m. ET (FOX/NFL Network/Prime Video) | Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
It's the annual Jaguars-Titans "Thursday Night Football" game. In the spirit of the holidays, it's the gift that keeps on giving ... cruddy offense? Actually, this year, Jacksonville at Tennessee is rather important -- neither team can afford to lose. Jacksonville's chances of making the postseason are quite slim at this point. But after seeing what happened to Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, don't underestimate the need for the Jags' coaching staff to finish strong. Tennessee pulls into this game at .500 but trails the Ravens for the sixth seed in the AFC by a game -- and already lost to them, giving Baltimore the head-to-head tiebreaker. I like the Titans at home, particularly Dean Pees' defense versus quarterback Cody Kessler. Pees should spy Kessler with a nickel linebacker, as the third-year QB definitely looks to run, appearing to play with one mantra in mind last Sunday: NO GIVEAWAYS. Ever. PFP. Play For Punts.