Minnesota Vikings (8-4) at Arizona Cardinals (10-2)
Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, at University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz. - TV: NFL Network
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
*Keys to the game: The one-dimensionality that many experts feared would prove the Vikings' Achilles Heel was fully exposed by Seattle last week. Shut down RB Adrian Peterson, build an early lead and Minnesota is woefully ill-equipped to play from behind with shoddy pass protection and QB Teddy Bridgewater's poor mechanics when pushing the ball vertically.
You can bet the house Peterson will get the ball more than the eight times he saw against the Seahawks, the Vikings simply have no other choice than to win time of possession and shorten the game. Problem is, Arizona enters with the fourth-ranked run defense allowing just 89 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry. The Cardinals did give up 146 yards to St. Louis rookie Todd Gurley, but that was in Week 4 and Arizona has sported the leading rusher in nine of 12 games this season.
Injuries are the issue for Minnesota on the other side of the ball. They were without four starters for much of last week's game, and it's unknown if NT Linval Joseph (knee), OLB Anthony Barr (groin) or FS Harrison Smith (hamstring) - their top three playmakers at each level - will be available. Arizona has the league's top scoring offense and rookie RB David Johnson is proving capable of taking over the lead back role. If the Vikings can't slow him and get after QB Carson Palmer, it's going to be a long day for the Minnesota secondary. The Vikings added two safeties for depth on Tuesday.
*Matchup to watch - Vikings LG Brandon Fusco vs. Cardinals DT Ed Stinson/OLB Alex Okafor: Fusco has struggled since moving to the left side due to injury, and the Vikings have allowed 14 sacks over their past four games. Okafor hasn't had a sack since recording two in the season opener, but will be a factor rushing against Fusco and LT Matt Kalil.
*Player spotlight - Vikings DT Sharrif Floyd: Floyd is an emerging presence in his third season, but had to move to nose tackle with Joseph out last week and the entire defensive line suffered from the domino effect.
*Fast facts: Vikings WR Stefon Diggs' 42 receptions is a team rookie record for most catches in nine consecutive games, breaking the mark set by Randy Moss (40) in 1998. ... Palmer has a 122.3 passer rating with 17 touchdowns against two interceptions in the second half of games this season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
It would be difficult to envision a worse matchup for the Vikings while traveling on a short week. Their injury-depleted defense is undermanned against Arizona's top-ranked scoring offense and Minnesota proved last week it is not built to play from behind or match scores.
*Our pick: Cardinals 34-20
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver
*Keys to the game: The Falcons have yet to find the counter-punch since opponents started seeing film of the new scheme under coordinator Kyle Shanahan and began focusing on shutting down WR Julio Jones and RB Devonta Freeman in the red zone. The easy answer is to say run the ball, control the clock and set up high-percentage passes.
Problem is, the Panthers allow just 87.2 rushing yards per game and have a stout defensive line that may control the line of scrimmage. That puts the onus on QB Matt Ryan to push the ball downfield while avoiding the mental mistakes that have plagued him over the past eight games (11 touchdowns, 11 interceptions).
The offensive struggles have had a direct impact on the run defense, which only a few weeks ago led the league. Too much time on the field and bad tackling has seen the Falcons give up 191 and 166 rushing yards the past two weeks as Atlanta plummeted to No. 12 in run defense. Carolina owns the league's top ground game with RB Jonathan Stewart and QB Cam Newton combining for 1,390 yards and 12 touchdowns. Newton doesn't have a fearsome receiving corps by any means, but he'll steadily pick Atlanta's secondary apart if able to attack single coverage.
*Matchup to watch - Falcons RT Ryan Schraeder vs. Panthers DE Charles Johnson: Johnson is rounding into shape after missing eight games with a hamstring injury. He played 51 snaps (81 percent) last week, and was credited with a quarterback hit and a pass defended. He has a quickness edge on Schraeder.
*Player spotlight - Panthers WR Ted Ginn: He was targeted 10 times and came up with five catches with a pair of touchdowns last week. He also dropped two more potential scores. His hands aren't the greatest, but he still has the speed to exploit man coverage vertically.
*Fast facts: The Falcons began the season 5-0. Of the 72 teams that started 5-0 between 1970-2014, 66 (92 percent) went on to make the playoffs. ... The Panthers don't face another team that currently has a winning record, with their final four regular-season opponents currently owning a combined 23-25 records.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Panthers have plenty of motivation as they chase home-field advantage in the NFC. Barring the Falcons' breaking out of their lengthy offensive slump, Carolina dominates the trenches on both sides of the ball and wins another ugly but physically dominant game.
*Our pick: Panthers 24-20
Buffalo Bills (6-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots
*Keys to the game: The Eagles have plummeted to 27th in the league in rushing defense and are allowing 4.3 yards per carry. And now comes LeSean McCoy, their highly motivated ex-teammate who leads the league's fourth-best rushing attack. Buffalo also could get rookie Karlos Williams back from a shoulder injury and that 1-2 punch has been Buffalo's calling card when healthy this season. After establishing the run, Buffalo likes to mix in the pass and attempt to stretch the field to WR Sammy Watkins - a blueprint that on paper should work well against the Eagles.
Philadelphia is coming off a huge win at New England, but RB DeMarco Murray was only on the field for 14 of 50 snaps. Darren Sproles had a team-high 19 touches and is a good fit in the up-tempo attack, especially with Buffalo's front seven struggling in coverage much of the season. With Bills CB Stephon Gilmore (shoulder) likely to be out, expect rookie Ronald Darby to be tasked with tracking Eagles WR Jordan Matthews, with QB Sam Bradford testing fill-in starter Leodis McKelvin early.
*Matchup to watch - McCoy vs. Eagles linebackers: McCoy has made no secret of his desire to light up his former team, and he has rushed for exactly 112 yards in three of his past five games. He was traded straight up for Kiko Alonso, who didn't start last week but did play 79 percent of the team's defensive snaps and will be a big factor in run support and tracking McCoy out of the backfield.
*Player spotlight - Bills TE Nick O'Leary: The rookie sixth-round pick - and grandson of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, was signed off the practice squad with other teams considering scooping him up. He's a receiving threat compared to the man he replaces, Matthew Mulligan, a 260-pounder who played around 26 percent of the snaps and was a regular special teams contributor.
*Fast facts: Taylor is now 6-0 as a starter when he throws fewer than 30 passes in a game, and he's 0-4 when he attempts more than 30 passes. ... Murray's 3.5-yard average per carry is the lowest in the NFL among running backs with at least 150 carries.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
"Shady" McCoy gets the revenge he seeks by spearheading a ground-and-pound approach that the Eagles' front seven eventually caves into, opening up a few deep completions downfield in a convincing Philly victory.
*Our pick: Bills 27-21
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale
*Keys to the game: Quarterback issues are crippling the Rams, who turn back to Case Keenum this week, and even St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher said the way to put Keenum at ease is by giving him a strong running game. But the Lions are yielding an average of only 58 rushing yards in their past four game, and the bull's-eye of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin sits squarely on RB Todd Gurley. The Rams fired offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti after putting up three points last week, and Fisher said the Rams promise to run the ball. Tackling has not been a strength of Detroit until the past month, and at 227 pounds with some bounce in his cuts, Gurley is no picnic to take down in the open field.
The game plan has become predictable and downright simple for the Lions, and it shouldn't change much against the Rams. Stop the run on defense and limit turnovers on offense. With that formula, the Lions nearly won their last four games -- they would have downed the Packers last Thursday if not for a Hail Mary. Stopping Gurley won't be easy, but the Lions intend to load the box and force Keenum to beat them.
Lions QB Matt Stafford is getting the ball out quickly in recent games, and Detroit has shortened his progressions while inviting checkdowns to his athletic stable of running backs. Charging up the running game remains a focus, and the Rams have been waylaid by lesser rushing attacks this season. While the defensive line is dynamic, the Rams get blinders for taking down the quarterback, which leads to gashing plays against the run.
*Matchup to watch - Rams DT Aaron Donald vs. Lions interior OL: Lions coach Jim Caldwell compared Donald to former Vikings DT John Randle and said his speed makes Donald "tough to handle." Donald has 8.0 sacks. Players with speed and power inside were problems for the Lions = early in the season, when Stafford was a ragdoll behind his leaky offensive line.
*Player spotlight - Rams CBs Lamarcus Joyner and Marcus Roberson: St. Louis has just four cornerbacks on the roster and these two are the only healthy ones as of Thursday. CB Trumaine Johnson is trying to come back from a thigh injury and CB Janoris Jenkins is in the concussion protocol. With Johnson and Jenkins out last Sunday, FS Rodney McLeod was forced into man coverage on Cardinals WR John Brown and gave up a 68-yard play.
*Fast facts: Rams P Johnny Hekker is tied for the NFL lead with 74 punts and second in net average (43.8 yards). ... Gurley has six touchdowns in the past seven games. ... Stafford has a 7-0 TD-to-INT ratio in his last two games.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Not enough offense and issues in the secondary equates to another loss for the Rams and a few touchdown celebrations for Lions WR Calvin Johnson.
*Our pick: Lions 22-12
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla. - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Tom McCarthy, Adam Archuleta
*Keys to the game: Matt Hasselbeck made his first start of the season against the Jaguars on Oct. 4, and the Colts didn't envision he would be in the saddle for the Week 14 rematch. But Hasselbeck, who led the Colts to a 16-13 win in the first meeting, has been highly efficient at the controls while Andrew Luck recovers from multiple injuries.
It's likely this is Hasselbeck's last start according to owner Jim Irsay, and he has a chance to set the Colts up for a big one against the Houston Texans for the AFC South division crown. One reason he's winning - the Colts are converting almost 42 percent of third downs, a pronounced weak spot for Jacksonville's defense (46.7 percent, dead last in the NFL). Hasselbeck is playing with neck and shoulder soreness but the game plan will be simple. Pass protection, especially against the blitz, has to get better. The Steelers blitzed from all angles last week, confusing the Colts' blocking assignments and not giving the quarterback much time to throw.
Jacksonville has thrived in the two-minute offense. The trouble is, the defense is sagging and winds up dragging because QB Blake Bortles too often is pushed into score-now situations to keep the game close. RB T.J. Yeldon rushed for 105 yards in the first meeting, giving the Jaguars some hope that they can win a game at their own pace.
*Matchup to watch - Jaguars WRs Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns vs. Colts secondary: The Colts were scorched early and often in man coverage last week. It doesn't get any easier. Robinson's breakout season includes 65 receptions for 1,080 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hurns, meanwhile, has caught 48 passes for 758 yards and seven touchdowns and leads the NFL in 20-plus-yard receptions. He has had a touchdown catch in seven of the past nine Jacksonville game.
*Player spotlight - Jaguars CB Davon House: He has 18 passes defensed this season and is likely to draw a healthy dose of WR T.Y. Hilton, a Floridian who is averaging 15.8 yards per reception. Hilton has 24 catches in the past four meetings with Jacksonville.
*Fast facts: Bortles has 10 touchdowns passes this season in the last five minutes of games. ... With three touchdown passes, Bortles would become the first Jaguars QB with 30 in a season. ... Colts RB Frank Gore is 99 yards shy of 15,000 career yards from scrimmage.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Neither team has a pass rush with secondary issues to boot, meaning a shootout could be all set. The Colts are finding ways to win close games, and Jacksonville is still finding a way to get it done.
*Our pick: Colts 29-27
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Dick Stockton, David Diehl
*Keys to the game: With RB Mark Ingram (shoulder) not available to lean on, the Saints are back to more of a game of darts with QB Drew Brees preying on the Buccaneers' woeful pass defense. While ranking seventh against the run, Tampa Bay has given up 24 touchdown passes (two per game) and Brees has taken down the Bucs in seven of the past eight meetings. That sets up yet another shootout for the Saints, who bring along a defense that is a danger only to itself. Much like C.J. Spiller and Tim Hightower are not legitimate featured backs, don't look for a true No. 1 receiver on the Saints' roster. But WR Brandin Cooks is emerging and TE Benjamin Watson has held up much better than expected. Controlling the ball with high-efficiency passing becomes the best friend of the Saints' beleaguered defense.
The Saints have given up 33 touchdown passes in 12 games and finding a way to tighten things up against Jameis Winston after Cam Newton lit them up for five touchdowns seems a riddle without any answer. The bigger concern for the Saints in Week 14 could be their run defense. New Orleans is giving up a league-worst 138.7 yards per game. A comeback season for RB Doug Martin could get a huge boost here with the Bucs' second-ranked rushing attack averaging 143.3 yards per game and 4.8 yards per rush.
*Matchup to watch - Cooks vs. Bucs CBs Sterling Moore and Jude Adjei-Barimah: Cooks has been on a tear in the Saints' past five games. The team's leading receiver in receptions (61), yards (840) and touchdowns (7) has 26 catches for 396 yards and six touchdowns during the five-game stretch. In addition to being productive with the short passes, Cooks has grabs of 60 and 54 yards in the last three outings.
*Player spotlight - Saints CB Brandon Browner: A penalty machine, Browner leads the NFL in that category. He had three more big flags thrown for infractions last week and only Ted Ginn's butterfingers saved Browner from giving up two more long touchdown passes. The Bucs will attack him deep and do it relentlessly unless the Saints cover Browner with safety help at all times.
*Fast facts: The Saints' .617 winning percentage all-time against the Bucs is their best against any opponent. ... Martin enters Week 14 just 49 yards behind Vikings RB Adrian Peterson for the NFL rushing lead.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Saints' defense is taking on water and Bucs rookie QB Jameis Winston already found a way to beat New Orleans. The rematch goes to the Bucs, who legitimize their playoff push while officially flushing the 2015 season for the Saints.
*Our pick: Buccaneers 29-24
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati - TV: CBS
*Keys to the game: The Bengals can expect a different Ben Roethlisberger than the one they picked off three times en route to a 16-10 victory in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1. That was then, when Big Ben was coming off a four-game absence due to a knee injury. This is now, and Roethlisberger has appeared nearly unstoppable in throwing for 1,533 yards and 10 touchdowns in just the past four games.
The Bengals do enter with the league's top-ranked scoring defense allowing only 16.3 points per game. But they will have to contain RB DeAngelo Williams and get constant pressure on Roethlisberger because given time, he simply has more weapons than any secondary can currently keep tabs on. Cincinnati did do a good job of keeping the ball in front of them in the first meeting, holding WRs Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant to under 50 yards each and a long completion of 25 yards to TE Heath Miller.
This is the game Bengals fans, and critics, have been waiting for to see if QB Andy Dalton can go toe-to-toe in a marquee late-season battle. He was confused by some coverages at times in completing 23 of 38 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown and two picks in the first meeting. He will need to be far more efficient in the rematch, and improve his decision-making against the varied looks of coordinator Keith Butler's scheme.
*Matchup to watch - Steelers RT Marcus Gilbert vs. Bengals LDE Carlos Dunlap: Dunlap has 9.5 sacks on the season, but he was held without one in the first meeting and Gilbert has yet to be charged with a sack allowed this season.
*Player spotlight - Steelers CB Brandon Boykin: The former Eagle finally saw extensive playing time last week, logging 40 snaps at slot corner. He responded with an interception and is taking playing time away from starter Antwon Blake, who also logs time on special teams.
*Fast facts: The Steelers are 3-1 in averaging 36 points over their past four games. ... RB Jeremy Hill needs one touchdown to become the first Bengal to record at least 10 in each of his first two NFL season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Bengals played their safeties deep in the first meeting and did an excellent job of keeping the Steelers' passing attack in front of them. But this is a different Steelers beast, with RB DeAngelo Williams softening the underbelly, forcing the safeties closer and opening the vertical shots. Bengals QB Andy Dalton has yet to prove he can win this type of slugfest.
*Our pick: Steelers 33-27
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo. - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein
*Keys to the game: The Chiefs embarrassed the Chargers in a thorough domination, 33-3, three weeks ago and present nightmare matchups across the board for San Diego. Though QB Philip Rivers is somehow holding up in perpetual comeback mode - with a 504-285 pass-run imbalance - he was swarmed for four quarters by the Chiefs and finished with a 65.7 passer rating. The surprisingly balmy December weather should spare the Chargers to a degree, but the Arrowhead crowd will not. San Diego hasn't scored in the first quarter in the past three games and has zero first-quarter touchdowns on the road this season.
The Chargers are being abused on third down and that has sapped the moments of success from a modest pass rush and placed the San Diego secondary under siege. In the past six games, opposing quarterbacks are hitting nearly 70 percent of their completions and QB Alex Smith completed 80 percent (20 of 25) at San Diego on Nov. 22. He has helped the success rate of an offensive line with six different starting combinations in 12 game by using his wheels, a freedom granted - even encouraged - by coach Andy Reid since Jamaal Charles went down. The Chargers must contend with a lethal combination of WR Jeremy Maclin and TE Travis Kelce, but the focus is stopping the run.
The duo of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware combined for 16 carries and 61 yards with a touchdown last week. Three weeks ago at San Diego, the Chiefs ran for 153 yards, with 52 yards on one run by Ware. The backs combined for 165 offensive yards and two touchdowns.
*Matchup to watch - Chiefs Ss Eric Berry and Ron Parker vs. RB Danny Woodhead and TE Antonio Gates: Berry and Parker have played at a very high level during their winning streak. Woodhead, Gates and Lardarius Green were kept under wraps in the first game against the Chiefs, combining for just nine touches for 31 total yards.
*Player spotlight - Chargers ILB Denzel Perryman: Manti Te'o has played better in recent weeks, but the rookie Perryman has stepped into a key role. For the second level to thrive, the Chargers need NT Sean Lissemore (shoulder injury) to rally; he's also been slowed with an ankle injury.
*Fast facts: The Chargers' last red-zone rushing touchdown was scored in Week 1 vs. Detroit. ... Smith's 305-pass streak without an interception is the third-longest in NFL history.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Chargers lack consistency and injuries have thinned the wide receiver corps for Philip Rivers, who is fighting a losing battle against the scalding-hot Chiefs.
*Our pick: Chiefs 35-17
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland. - TV: FOX
*Keys to the game: While the Browns are playing mostly for draft position, they'll take the field behind a quarterback with something on the line in Johnny Manziel. He's back for another second chance to prove he's worth developing going forward after a series of off-field transgressions, and draws a 49ers defense that has shown fight of late as the Niners are 2-2 under retread starting QB Blaine Gabbert.
Gabbert is getting it done without much help from his flowchart of subs at running back - primarily Shaun Draughn (3.3 yards per carry) - by dodging turnovers and not making negative plays. The worry for the 49ers is that Gabbert is too conservative - he held the ball for ages last week and was sacked four times at Chicago. To speed him up, watch for more multiple-WR sets and run plays that include a run option for Gabbert, who executed a run-based spread in college and had a 44-yard touchdown run last week.
Manziel's offense is lacking the same type of threats at wide receiver and Cleveland is not running the ball when it matters, averaging 3.4 yards per carry with leading ballcarrier Isaiah Crowell under 400 yards for the season. Manziel is dangerous outside the pocket but not accurate. If he can keep plays alive and give receivers time to uncover, Manziel can be highly effective.
*Matchup to watch - 49ers WR Anquan Boldin vs. Browns pass defense: Boldin enjoyed two of his best receiving efforts at the Browns' expense as a member of the Baltimore Ravens; an eight-catch, 142-yard game in 2010 and a nine-catch, 131-yard outing the following season. Cleveland has allowed three 100-yard receivers in the past three games.
*Player spotlight - 49ers PK Phil Dawson: In a likely field goal festival, Dawson could have a happy homecoming as a visitor. He has hit 18 consecutive field-goal attempts. Dawson was the Browns' place-kicker from 1999-2012. He scored 1,271 points with the Browns to rank second on their all-time scoring list behind Lou Groza.
*Fast facts: Eric Mangini, 49ers defensive coordinator, was the Browns head coach in 2009-10 and at 10-22 is the winningest coach of the franchise since it returned to the NFL in 1999. ... The Browns have been outscored by 117 points during their current seven-game losing streak.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Unless Johnny Manziel creates his own magic, his supporting cast doesn't set him up for success. The 49ers are closing the season with purpose, which is more than can be said for the woebegone Browns.
*Our pick: 49ers 20-16
Seattle Seahawks (7-5) at Baltimore Ravens (4-8)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, Tony Siragusa
*Keys to the game: Seahawks QB Russell Wilson has been on absolute tear the past three games, throwing for 879 yards with 11 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 148.2 passer rating. Granted, it has come against shaky secondaries in the 49ers, Steelers and Vikings, but it has also coincided with steadying play from the offensive line and coordinator Darrell Bevell putting Wilson in more shotgun snaps with quick reads to get rid of the ball.
With RB Thomas Rawls continuing to run well and the Ravens entering with the league's 19th-ranked pass defense, there is every reason to believe Wilson's roll will continue.
Baltimore needs only to look at last week's film against Minnesota to know what to expect from Seattle's defense. The Seahawks bottled up Vikings RB Adrian Peterson (18 yards on eight carries) and then bullied an overmatched offensive line and undermanned receiving corp. That should ring a concerning bell for Ravens fans - and QB Matt Schaub, who will start after passing the league's concussion protocol. Rookie RB Buck Allen must get untracked early and be the catalyst for an offense that will be in deep trouble if forced into a one-dimensional passing mode.
*Matchup to watch - Seahawks SS Kam Chancellor vs. Ravens TE Crockett Gillmore: Gillmore caught just one pass for seven yards last week and must be more involved in the game plan with the Ravens likely to struggle to complete passes to the outside. Gillmore has 33 catches on the season, and communication in covering the tight end has been an issue for Seattle all season, particularly in the red zone.
*Player spotlight - Seahawks DE Frank Clark: The rookie is coming on strong, including two sacks and a pair of batted passes in only 27 snaps last week.
*Fast facts: Rawls' 712 rushing yards is the most by an undrafted player through his first six starts since 1970. ... Schaub has thrown 14 career pick-sixes, including seven since 2013 and two in two games with Baltimore.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Seahawks pounded a similarly one-dimensional, but far more talented, offense in Minnesota last week. Ravens QB Matt Schaub is expected to start, but Jimmy Clausen has also taken first-team reps this week and could face the Seahawks for the second time this season - he started the Bears' 26-0 shutout loss in Seattle in Week 3.
*Our pick: Seahawks 30-13
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Otis Livingston
*Keys to the game: Marcus Mariota's 87-yard touchdown scamper against Jacksonville last week was highlight-reel fodder, but it was also the result of a concerted plan by Tennessee to utilize the rookie quarterback's mobility. Mariota's scrambling is a mix of feel and opportunity - zone-read calls and how well his blocking is holding up. He's healthy and looking to take advantage of what the defense gives him.
Mariota's ability to keep the defense guessing and pick up some yards with his legs is vital because he lacks threats in the backfield and the Jets own the league's top-ranked run defense. So if Mariota doesn't use his legs, he's going to be stuck in an awful lot of long passing situations behind an offensive line that does not protect well, to put it kindly.
On the flip side, the Jets will put their offense on the legs of power RB Chris Ivory and look to dictate field position. Their biggest threat in this game is QB Ryan Fitzpatrick's penchant for turnovers, which can be mitigated by a run-first game plan. Tennessee can be solid against the run, however, and to threaten the upset must take advantage on third-and-longs.
*Matchup to watch - Titans CB Perrish Cox vs. Jets WR Brandon Marshall: Marshall leads the Jets with 83 catches for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns. He lacks top-end speed, but uses his 6-4, 230-pound frame to box out cornerbacks. Cox was targeted by the Jaguars and WR Allen Robinson last week. He won't work exclusively against Marshall, but he's the Titans' most consistent cornerback and the two will square off consistently.
*Player spotlight - Titans TE Delanie Walker: With slot receiver Kendall Wright suffering through an injury-riddled season, Walker is Mariota's unquestioned favorite target. He leads the Titans with 67 catches - more than twice as many as No. 2 Wright (33), and needs 200 yards over the final four games to become the first Titans tight end with 1,000 in a season.
*Fast facts: Mariota needs one touchdown pass to become the first Titan to throw for 20 in a season since Steve McNair in 2003. He has also tied Peyton Manning's NFL rookie record with three games with three-plus touchdown passes. ... This will be the fourth consecutive season the teams have met, with the Jets winnings 16-11 in Nashville last season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Jets' top-ranked run defense will keep a spy on Marcus Mariota and dictate field position. As long as QB Ryan Fitzpatrick avoids the turnover bug, the Jets dominate time of possession and methodically wear down the Titans' defense.
*Our pick: Jets 26-21
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Soldier Field, Chicago - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin
*Keys to the game: The Bears were popped for multiple big plays last week in a gut-wrenching overtime loss to the 49ers. While Redskins QB Kirk Cousins is no threat to scramble - 49ers QB Blaine Gabbert forced overtime with a 44-yard touchdown run - the Redskins are well stocked at running back and can take advantage of a zone-heavy defense dropping seven defenders. The flipside to that is sticking to man coverage on the edges exposes inexperience at safety. WR DeSean Jackson, who has averaged 18.5 yards a catch in his last four games, is the classic speed deep threat and has nine more touchdown catches of 50 yards or longer (23) than anyone else in the league since he came on the scene in 2008.
Washington's 3-4 defense has flaws defending the run on the edges. The loss of TE Martellus Bennett as an edge-setting blocker will be big and the Bears will need to find other ways to get Matt Forte outside or in open field. Using Jermon Bushrod as an extra blocking tackle is one way, but the unbalanced line makes the Bears' intent on a play more apparent. WR Alshon Jeffery represents a big challenge for Washington, but Bashaud Breeland has the physical frame and confidence to get the job done. QB Jay Cutler might need more from role players, such as returning slot WR Eddie Royal, to keep the chains moving.
*Matchup to watch - Bears LB Pernell McPhee vs. Redskins RT Morgan Moses: A team-high 10 penalties and other communication breakdowns have exposed Moses this season. He gets a relative break in this game with McPhee battling a knee injury, but the relentless and powerful pass rusher will be a big part of the Redskins' protection plan.
*Player spotlight - Jackson: The wrong-way punt return and fumble are old news to the Bears, who said this week Jackson's speed has them concerned. As defensive coordinator Vic Fangio put up: "unlike a lot of guys that are extremely fast, he's fast in a hurry." Expect punts to be directed away from Jackson and double-team attention at the line of scrimmage. He has touchdown catches of 28, 56 and 63 yards the past three weeks.
*Fast facts: Chicago has 18 third-quarter points this season. ... The Redskins have 20 turnovers and 20 takeaways this season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Big plays are hurting the Bears on both sides of the ball and unless QB Jay Cutler can land a haymaker, the Redskins wear down Chicago with body blows and end it in the fourth quarter.
*Our pick: Redskins 20-17
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn
*Keys to the game: The first meeting in Week 5 was an ugly affair that included five turnovers and a 16-10 Broncos victory in Oakland. Much has changed for both teams since, most notably quarterback Brock Osweiler starting for Denver.
Osweiler is taking a lot more sacks than Peyton Manning, but he is protecting the ball. The Broncos' receivers are seeing more press-bail coverage, with cornerbacks trying to read where Osweiler is going with the ball, so the coaching staff isn't terribly concerned with his sack rate. Ball security will again be Priority 1 with Denver's defense capable of controlling the field position and setting Osweiler & Co. up with shorter fields to play with.
Oakland's regression can be traced - beyond the 27th-ranked defense - to the inconsistency of the ground game and late-game mistakes by Derek Carr. Of his nine interceptions, seven have come in the fourth quarter and six when the Raiders were within six points. Denver boasts the league's top pass defense, but it will be up to Carr to attack without making poor decision as the Broncos enter with the status of several injured safeties uncertain.
*Matchup to watch - Raiders WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree vs. Broncos CBs Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr.: Harris had a pick-six in the first meeting and Talib will challenge at the line and attempt to jump a few routes. The rookie Cooper and Crabtree are each on pace for more than 1,000 receiving yards, and the Raiders rewarded Crabtree with a four-year extension Wednesday to keep the tandem together.
*Player spotlight - Broncos S Shiloh Keo: He was just signed Wednesday, but played in Houston for coach Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips. He knows the scheme very well and could be asked to step in and have a role on defense and special teams due to a very lengthy injury list.
*Fast facts: The Raiders' 44.7 conversion percentage on third down this season ranks third in the NFL. ... Osweiler has an interception rate of 2.5 percent of his passes this season, compared to 4.3 percent for Peyton Manning.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Always an intense rivalry, this will be a dogfight for a while with Broncos QB Brock Osweiler primarily concerned with ball security. But the Raiders' offensive backslide continues against a well-balanced elite defense.
*Our pick: 23-19
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Lambeau Field, Green Bay - TV: FOX
*Keys to the game: This could be the week the Eddie Lacy redemption tour kicks off unless the Cowboys can muster a few chunk plays out of their passing game and keep their defense from logging overtime minutes in the second half. Lacy, displaced as the primary back for the Packers due to ineffectiveness and last week's curfew violation at Detroit, can still "grab the role" in front of him, coach Mike McCarthy said. The sledgehammer element would ease some of the concerns about the Packers' declining offensive line play, caused partly by injuries at center and right tackle. QB Aaron Rodgers settles in quickly against basic cover-2 looks but Dallas coordinator Rod Marinelli's crew held Green Bay to 26 points in last year's divisional playoff game. Pressure becomes a prerequisite to any Cowboys upset bid.
More than that, QB Matt Cassel's ability to keep the ball out of the hands of Green Bay's secondary is vital. That means setting the table with a heavy dose of RB Darren McFadden and utilizing play-action. WR Dez Bryant - whose non-catch nearly drove Dallas past Green Bay at Lambeau in January - appears closer to full strength and Cassel can trust him to go get the jump ball. It will take touchdowns, not field goals, for the Cowboys to sneak out with a victory, and they have only two in their past 22 possessions.
*Matchup to watch - Cowboys offensive line vs. Packers front seven: The king bee for the Packers is versatile LB Clay Matthews, and communicating protections to shield Cassel from Matthews is vital. But Green Bay's underrated front can create pressure across the board when one-on-ones are available. Matthews has not had a sack in seven straight games but he remains the Packers' most disruptive defensive player.
*Fast facts: The Packers are 17-3 at home in December under McCarthy. ... Cowboys LT Tyron Smith has been charged with allowing seven sacks this season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Green Bay gains balance and forces the Cowboys into a style of game they cannot win without several gifts from the typically mistake-free Aaron Rodgers at home.
*Our pick: Packers 28-14
New England Patriots (10-2) at Houston Texans (6-6)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at NRG Stadium, Houston - TV: NBC
*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
*Keys to the game: New England's offense had a sandlot feel for the first 10 games of the season. Without WR Julian Edelman and other key parts for different games, it had more of a stuck-in-the-sand feel against the Eagles in last week's loss. Danny Amendola has stepped into a lead receiver role alongside TE Rob Gronkowski. Because it's QB Tom Brady's comfort zone, watch for a return to the spread offense with quick throws and a more prominent role for RB James White. The Texans' coaching staff knows Brady and his coaches well - that doesn't mean Houston can slow down a four-wide receiver, quick-hitting attack with Brady at the controls.
The task for the Texans sounds easy: Score early and keep the heat on Brady. Easier said than done for a team averaging 3.6 points per game in the first quarter. The defensive pressure might be simpler to execute, considering Brady has been hit 32 times in the past three games. QB Brian Hoyer will capitalize on one-on-one matchups with WR DeAndre Hopkins, but it would be a surprise to everyone in the building if the Patriots showed that look often. Houston is still trying to squeeze more out of the running game and might have found a solid change-of-pace option in Chris Polk last week. He gained a season-high 61 yards and caught a touchdown pass.
*Matchup to watch - Patriots offensive line vs. Texans DE J.J. Watt: The right side of the offensive line isn't a fortress for the Patriots, but all the help New England can afford will be utilized to wall off Watt. Coach Bill Belichick is not prone to hyperbole but made it clear Watt is the most disruptive player in the NFL, comparing him to former pupil Lawrence Taylor.
*Player spotlight - Patriots LB Jamie Collins: Regarded by some as the team's top defensive player, Collins finally was back on the field last week and off the injury report entirely this week. He missed four games with an undisclosed illness. He had eight tackles, forced a fumble and is back this week in his role as the Patriots' most versatile defender.
*Fast facts: Hoyer spent three seasons as Brady's backup in New England (2009-11). ... The Patriots have never lost three consecutive games after Thanksgiving under Belichick.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
It will not be pretty, and that favors the Texans, but QB Tom Brady always gives the Patriots a puncher's chance in the second half.
*Our pick: Patriots 23-22
Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla. - TV: ESPN
*Keys to the game: In a game of matchups, the Giants must find a way to flip the script with their scuffling ground game. The rank 29th at 88.1 yards per game, but the Dolphins' biggest weakness is their run defense that allows 134.8 yards per game. If Giants QB Eli Manning doesn't have ground support, the Dolphins have shown the ability to generate pressure and turnovers from their front seven.
The Giants are averaging more than four fewer minutes in time of possession than their opponents, and that threatens to be a lopsided figure again Sunday. Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell backed up his promise to stay more committed to the ground game last week after firing coordinator Bill Lazor, with RB Lamar Miller getting a season-high 20 carries. Campbell and new play-caller Zac Taylor called 26 runs vs. just 19 passes and want the passing game to complement the ground game, not vise-versa. But the Giants can't consistently overload against the run and leave their secondary exposed with a season-long lack of a pass rush.
*Matchup to watch - Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Dolphins CB Brent Grimes: Grimes has had mixed success shadowing the opponent's top receiver this season, but the Dolphins have little choice considering their other cover options against one of the NFL's most dynamic playmakers. Grimes won't follow Beckham into the slot, but should trail him most everywhere else.
*Player spotlight - Giants LS Danny Aiken: Zak DeOssie's 140-game ironman streak came to an end when he was placed on injured reserve with a wrist injury. Aiken played in 63 regular-season and 10 postseason games with the Patriots from 2011-14.
*Fast facts: The Dolphins are fourth in the league averaging 4.7 yards per carry, but rank last at 20.3 attempts per game - 1.5 fewer on average than the 31st-ranked Lions. The Giants rank 26th averaging 3.7 yards per carry. ... While passing for a season-low 86 yards last week, Ryan Tannehill joined Dan Marino as the only Dolphins with three 3,000-yard passing seasons.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
What do you get when two enigmas square off? A game of darts. The Giants are still tied for first in the woeful NFC East and could easily be 8-4 if not for some horrendous fourth-quarter meltdowns. If this team has any fight in it, this is a must-win road game for the Giants with three difficult games remaining.
*Our pick: Giants 30-27
--By Derek Harper & Jeff Reynolds