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Week 14 should bring playoff picture into clearer focus

This is the week we truly begin to sort out the NFC playoff picture. It's also the week we very well could end up with our winner in the AFC West. The most compelling matchups come on the NFC side, however. If Chicago can't handle the Patriots, Green Bay is positioned to pounce at Detroit. The garbled mess of the NFC West should come into focus through two games. Teams still somewhat on the periphery of the NFC wild card scene, like Tampa Bay and Washington, meet with no more time to waste if they want to make a playoff run.

The storyline:

It would be easy to call this a potential Super Bowl preview. I don't quite see it that way despite the formidable records of both teams. Tom Brady will test Chicago's reborn defense. * #### Why you should watch:

The Bears catch the Pats coming off a brutal stretch of games. Mike Martz has the Bears much more balanced the last five weeks with his run-to-pass play-call ratio. This is the kind of game where Devin Hester usually does something special. * #### Did you know?

The Patriots lead the NFL in points scored. ... New England is 4-0 when Brady has at least four touchdown passes in a game. ... When Jay Cutler has at least a 100 passer rating, his teams are 19-0. ... Chicago's Julius Peppers has five sacks in his past three games. *

The storyline:

The Chargers look to avenge a Week 1 loss at Arrowhead, while the Chiefs look to stake a claim to the AFC West title with a sweep. A win would lock this up for KC, I figure, even if the Raiders go 6-0 in the division. * #### Why you should watch:

Matt Cassel has been as good as any QB in the NFL over the last nine weeks. Philip Rivers has played like an MVP candidate all season. The Chiefs' top-ranked rushing attack goes up against one of NFL's top defenses. Can anyone stop Dwayne Bowe (other than Champ Bailey)? * #### Did you know?

The Chiefs haven't swept the Chargers since the 2003 season. ... Kansas City's Tamba Hali has a career-high 10 sacks this season. ... Chargers tight end Antonio Gates has 12 touchdowns against the Chiefs -- his most vs. any opponent. ... San Diego is 22-8 at home under coach Norv Turner. *

The storyline:

The Saints have slipped up against less-established teams and a Rams win here would put them in the driver's seat in the NFC West. * #### Why you should watch:

Sam Bradford is thriving despite a decimated receiving group. The Rams' defense is holding teams below 20 points a game. Reggie Bush is overdue to dazzle the home crowd. Steven Jackson is needed to carry a heavy load down the stretch. The Saints could re-establish their ground game with Pierre Thomas rounding into health. * #### Did you know?

Jackson has a touchdown in his last three games against the Saints. ... St. Louis' Chris Long has six sacks in his past seven games. ... Saints quarterback Drew Brees holds the franchise record for passing yards. ... New Orleans' Marques Colston has three touchdowns in his past three games. *

The storyline:

The physical Titans always play the Colts tough, even when they have little to play for. The Colts need all the AFC wins they can muster if they hope to make the playoffs. * #### Why you should watch:

Could Cortland Finnegan goad Reggie Wayne into a brawl? Could Peyton Manning throw another four picks in a prime time game? This could be a breakout game for Chris Johnson as well, running at the ends and getting outside. * #### Did you know?

The Colts have won their last five Thursday games. ... Indianapolis' Javarris James is tied for the rookie lead with five rushing touchdowns. ... Titans wide receiver Randy Moss has four touchdowns in four career games against the Colts. ... Stephen Tulloch leads Tennessee with 136 tackles. *

The storyline:

The Dolphins would love to derail the Jets and have the ability to do it on the road. This is one of the AFC's more intense rivalries. * #### Why you should watch:

Speed rusher Cameron Wake will get to Mark Sanchez. This could be a difficult day for the Jets to run the ball. Will L.T. slow down in December? Will the Jets' late-game magic reverse? * #### Did you know?

Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano had four touchdowns against the Jets -- his highest total vs. any opponent. ... Wake leads the NFL with 12 sacks. ... Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards has six career touchdown catches. ... New York's Brad Smith is third in the NFL with a 27.6-yard kickoff return average. *

The storyline:

As much as it would seem the 49ers should be cooked, they're still in the hunt in this miserable division. As are the Seahawks, who have been blown out frequently lately. * #### Why you should watch:

Brian Westbrook's return is the latest comeback story in this the year of the comeback. Matt Hasselbeck's distinguished career with the Seahawks could be winding down; catch him while you can. * #### Did you know?

Hasselbeck has won 10 of his past 13 starts against the 49ers. ... Seattle's Earl Thomas leads all rookies with five interceptions. ... 49ers running back Brian Westbrook is one of only two active players with 6,000 rushing yards and 3,000 receiving yards. ... San Francisco's Vernon Davis leads all tight ends with 18 touchdowns since 2009. *

The storyline:

Throw out the records. It's an old-school NFC East showdown. * #### Why you should watch:

Trent Cole is leading the league in QB hurries/knockdowns. He faces a depleted offensive line here. Field conditions should be ideal for Michael Vick to wreak havoc. The Cowboys are trying to close strong with Jason Garrett at the helm, and a win here coupled with that Colts win would be huge. * #### Did you know?

Vick leads the NFC in third-down passer rating (109). ... Philadelphia's Asante Samuel has six interceptions in his last five games. ... Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware has 8.5 career sacks against the Eagles. ... Dallas' Jason Witten leads all tight ends with 65 receptions. *

The storyline:

Who thought these two teams would be jostling for playoff position in December? The last time the Raiders traveled cross-country for a 1 p.m. kickoff, the Steelers destroyed them. The Jags could put distance on the Colts. * #### Why you should watch:

David Garrard has been a top-five passer the second half of the season. Mike Thomas and Marcedes Lewis deserve more attention than they're getting. Jacoby Ford's blazing speed should give the Jags' secondary fits. * #### Did you know?

The Raiders have won four of the past five December road games. ... Oakland's Darren McFadden is third in the NFL with 122.1 yards from scrimmage per game. ... Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew has had five consecutive 100-yard rushing games. ... Daryl Smith leads Jacksonville with 66 tackles. *

The storyline:

Brett Favre is like Jason Voorhees. He has a thousand lives, and the snowstorm that blew this game to Monday night in Detroit might have given him one more. Despite a powerful Giants pass rush on an artificial surface, the extra day of rest might just be enough to keep the iron man streak alive. * #### Why you should watch:

Adrian Peterson is on a mission. The Giants might finally start getting some regular receivers back. If Leslie Frazier keeps winning, the Vikings will have heavy competition for his services. Will Eli be the only Manning going to the postseason? * #### Did you know?

The Giants are 9-1 when Brandon Jacobs rushes for at least 100 yards. ... New York's Osi Umenyiora has four sacks in two career starts against Minnesota. ... Peterson is one of only four players in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards and score 10 touchdowns in each of his first four seasons. ... Minnesota's Jared Allen has a sack in five consecutive games. *

The storyline:

Two teams that pretty much maximize their limited talent look to keep stacking victories (moral and in the standings). * #### Why you should watch:

Who would have thought guys like Colt McCoy, Peyton Hillis, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Stevie Johnson would be standouts in the AFC this season (even if in some cases in a limited window)? Shaun Rogers could be a load for the Bills' interior offensive line, if he is healthy. * #### Did you know?

Browns tight end Benjamin Watson had a career-high 10 receptions last week. ... Cleveland's Joe Haden has an interception in four consecutive games. ... Fitzpatrick is one of only five quarterbacks in Bills history to throw for at least 20 touchdowns. ... Buffalo's Paul Posluszny leads the team with 111 tackles. *

The storyline:

This looks like a relative gimme for the Falcons as they continue their quest for the top seed in the NFC. But alas, in the NFL of 2010, anything is possible. * #### Why you should watch:

Matt Ryan needs to continue making plays on the road as well as at home. The Panthers are quietly resurrecting their rushing attack. This could be a very big day for Roddy White. * #### Did you know?

The Falcons have won six games in a row. ... White leads the NFL with 91 receptions. ... Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson has a sack in three consecutive games. ... Carolina's Steve Smith has 26 catches in his last four games against Atlanta. *

The storyline:

The Lions find a way to give anyone a game for a good 40 minutes or so, but Aaron Rodgers is finding 40-60-yard plays with crazy ease. * #### Why you should watch:

Ndamukong Suh is a beast, and the Packers' offensive line can wilt at times. Would the Pack play their press-man on Calvin Johnson in a dome? James Starks is emerging as a run-carrying threat for the Packers, perhaps. * #### Did you know?

Rodgers is 5-0 in his career against Detroit. ... Green Bay's Greg Jennings has a touchdown in four straight division games. ... Johnson leads the NFC with 12 touchdown catches. ... Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew has the club record for receptions by a tight end with 60 this season. *

The storyline:

The Texans are scuffling, but have the offensive firepower to test the Ravens downfield, where they can struggle. Arian Foster is a load as well. Interesting matchup. * #### Why you should watch:

Can the Texans save Gary Kubiak's bacon in December again? Ray Rice hasn't had a big season but this could be a good spot for him. Anquan Boldin could post another big game. * #### Did you know?

Ravens linebacker Terrell Sugs had a career-high three sacks against the Texans in 2005. ... Baltimore's Joe Flacco has only two interceptions in his past seven games. ... Foster leads the NFL with 13 rushing touchdowns. ... Houston's Andre Johnson has three receiving touchdowns in three career games on Monday night. *

The storyline:

The Bucs have stayed in the hunt by beating lesser teams, but losing to winning teams. The Redskins seem to play up or down to the level of their opponent. Something has to give. * #### Why you should watch:

The winner will still have a shot at the postseason, particularly if it's the Bucs. Josh Freeman-to-Mike Williams doesn't fail much. Can the Bucs withstand losing two more starters to IR? * #### Did you know?

Williams leads all rookies with seven receiving touchdowns. ... Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy has three sacks in his last three games. ... Redskins wide receiver Anthony Armstrong leads the NFC with a 20.7-yard per catch average (minimum 30 receptions). ... Washington's Chris Cooley has a touchdown in his past three games against Tampa Bay. *

The storyline:

It seems like an awful long time ago since the Bengals reeled off eight straight divisional wins. This has the makings of a beatdown for the Steelers. * #### Why you should watch:

Mike Wallace and Hines Ward look to feast on a once-vaunted, but now injured secondary. Big Ben against a team with little pass rush is a mismatch. This could be the final game in this rivalry for Marvin Lewis, Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco. * #### Did you know?

Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens has five touchdowns in six career games against the Steelers. ... Ochocinco averages 81.2 receiving yards per game on the road. ... Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall has five touchdowns in five home games this year. ... Pittsburgh leads the league in rushing defense. *

The storyline:

Two of the most hapless teams in the league get together to play out the string, with Josh McDaniels' job security no longer even a nominal issue. * #### Why you should watch:

Tim Tebow sighting anyone? The weather will probably be perfect enough to keep the roof open again. * #### Did you know?

Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno has had at least 100 yards from scrimmage in four consecutive games. ... Denver's Champ Bailey has three interceptions in his past two games against Arizona. ... Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has 10 receiving touchdowns in his past 10 games against AFC opponents. ... Arizona's Joey Porter is third among active players with 97 sacks. *

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