The Sports Xchange breaks down all NFL Week 15 matchups, including keys to each game, players in the spotlight and picks on who will win.
Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, at Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis - TV: NFL Network
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
*Keys to the game: QB Case Keenum claims the short week and condensed preparation simplifies things for him and eliminates the so-called ghosts that appear with more practice days. Offensive coordinator Rob Boras is a disciple of Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith and should have Keenum well-practiced against the Tampa 2 scheme. The meal ticket for the Rams, even on a short week, is RB Todd Gurley. However, Tampa's secondary has been whittled by even weak passing teams, allowing 26 touchdown passes and a completion percentage of 68.7.
Third downs remain the unsolved riddle for the Rams on offense. St. Louis is the worst in the NFL at 25.3 percent conversions. Even so, the Bucs are 32nd in third-down defense, meaning Keenum and Gurley both will get chances to move the chains.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher praised Bucs rookie QB Jameis Winston for his development and specifically mentioned getting it done on third down. He's aided by the NFL's No. 2-ranked rushing offense but also the outside receivers St. Louis has failed to develop. WR Mike Evans will be his preferred option with Vincent Jackson (knee) hurting, but the Rams are openly discussing plans to double the second-year wideout. The Bucs can preserve their own defense by hammering the ball with RB Doug Martin. The Rams allowed more than 4.1 yards per carry to five of their past six opponents.
*Matchup to watch - Gurley vs. Bucs LB Lavonte David: Boras called David a game-wrecker, but it's Gurley who needs only 25 yards to become the first Rams rookie to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark since Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis in 1993.
*Player spotlight - Bucs WRs Dontaae Dye and Adam Humphries: The undrafted duo will be pushed into key snaps as Jackson limped off last week and might not play again this season. Humphries caught a 6-yard touchdown last week and Dye snagged a 16-yard reception.
*Fast facts: The Bucs have 20 turnovers, 21 takeaways. The Rams have 20 takeaways, 21 turnovers. ... The Bucs have 143 penalties this season and average 10.2 per game on the road. OT Gosder Cherilus has a team-high 14 penalties, not including four declined.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Bucs ride the league's second-ranked running back, Doug Martin, to a close victory by executing in the fourth quarter.
*Our pick: Buccaneers 26-22
Saturday, 8:25 p.m. ET, at AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas - TV: NFL Network
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
*Keys to the game: The Jets bring the No. 1 run defense in the league (78.9 yards per game) to Jerry World, and that likely means QB Matt Cassel and the Cowboys have to find a way to win without using their greatest strength. Dallas averages only 17.7 points per game and without Tony Romo has been held under 20 points four games in a row. That's because Cassel can't stretch the field - a proposition complicated with CB Darrelle Revis back and WR Dez Bryant looking less than full strength -- and the Cowboys are being stifled in almost every critical area: Dallas ranks in the NFL's bottom five in points, red zone efficiency, third-down rate, passing offense and total offense.
The Jets put 16 players on their Wednesday injury report, but QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (thumb) should have his full complement of skill players.
Fitzpatrick has nine touchdowns passes and zero interceptions in his past three games and New York has the personnel to push the ball downfield with RB Chris Ivory averaging 4.7 yards per carry since his 23-carry, 26-yard effort against Jacksonville. Dallas' ragged defense was whipped for 230 rushing yards last week. C Nick Mangold isn't 100 percent but expected to play, which could mean a long day for the Cowboys' second-level defenders.
*Matchup to watch - Cowboys RB Darren McFadden vs. Jets S Calvin Pryor: Pryor is a crash-test safety and won't slow up against the downhill running of McFadden, the source of Dallas' two biggest plays - both long runs - at Green Bay last week. But because the game was lopsided, he gained his 111 yards on just nine carries.
*Player spotlight - Cowboys WR Terrence Williams: With only one catch of 20-plus yards at home - a 21-yarder Week 1 against the Giants - Williams hasn't stretched the field or taken off as the sidekick to Bryant. He could get looks as Cassel searches for an outlet facing the Jets' blitz schemes.
*Fast facts: The Cowboys have allowed 10 or more points in the fourth quarter seven times in 13 games. ... Opponents are 11-for-44 on third down conversations vs. the Jets in the past three games.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
With Darrelle Revis in the fold and a Jets defense near full strength, the Cowboys are smothered for three quarters before picking up a few courtesy points with the Jets' regulars watching from the sideline.
*Our pick: Jets 27-13.
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at EverBank Field, Jacksonville - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Dick Stockton, David Diehl, Krista Pink
*Keys to the game: The Falcons' offense is in a full-scale freefall, having scored just two touchdowns over the past three games and being completely shut out at Carolina last week. QB Matt Ryan would appear to have an opportunity to get untracked against the Jaguars' 25th-ranked secondary, but no one seems to be able to put a finger on the genesis of the issues.
Declining pass protection and the inability to move the ball downfield to anyone other than Julio Jones are certainly factors. Ryan also isn't completing much to the right side of the field, where Roddy White is largely a nonfactor.
The Falcons must find a way to kick-start the offense because Jaguars QB Blake Bortles is at the helm of a rapidly ascending offense. He has 10 touchdowns against one interception the past three weeks - all against losing teams. But the Falcons' defense is in meltdown mode with coaches and players battling last week and others getting an earful regarding execution from coach Dan Quinn.
*Matchup to watch - Falcons Ss Ricard Allen and Kemal Ishmael vs. Jaguars WRs Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns: Allen was pulled into a private meeting with Quinn after quitting on one route and being out of position on multiple others last week. Ishamel, a former seventh-round pick, is now thrust back into the starting lineup with William Moore out for the season.
*Player spotlight - Jaguars RB Denard Robinson: Rookie T.J. Yeldon told reporters Wednesday that he has a sprained MCL and his status for the game is uncertain. Robinson replaced Yeldon last week, carrying 14 times for 75 yards, and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry on the season.
*Fast facts: Quinn succeeded Gus Bradley as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator when Bradley was hired by the Jaguars in 2013. ... Ryan needs 295 passing yards to reach 4,000 for the fifth consecutive season. ... Jones has already established a new career high with 109 catches. ... Bortles has set a single-season Jaguars record with 30 touchdown passes.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
After weeks of claiming they could turn their season around, no one on the Falcons seems to have an answer for the six-game losing streak, with dangerous words like effort and energy being bandied about. The Jaguars keep their nose in the AFC South title picture with more offensive weapons than the Falcons can contain.
*Our pick: Jaguars 31-26
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at FedEx Field, Landover, Md. - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin
*Keys to the game: The equation is simple for the Bills - when they throw 30-plus passes in a game this season, they are 0-7. RB LeSean McCoy will again see a heavy workload with Karlos Williams (shoulder) unlikely to play, and while McCoy has 100-plus yards from scrimmage in seven consecutive games, he has only one 100-yard rushing game in his past four. Washington allows an average of 4.6 yards per carry, so the opportunity is certainly there for McCoy to set the table for QB Tyrod Taylor to push the ball deep to WR Sammy Watkins, who has 28 catches for 569 yards and five touchdowns in his past six games.
The Redskins have stayed in the thick of the woeful NFC East race with QB Kirk Cousins limiting his turnovers - only three interceptions over his past seven games. There is little consistency from the ground game (3.6 yards per carry), so Cousins has opted to take more sacks - at least three in four of his past five games - rather than force the ball downfield in long passing situations. The Bills continue to struggle to generate pressure in their first year assimilating to coach Rex Ryan's scheme, but must take advantage of Collins holding onto the ball to help their injury-thinned secondary.
*Matchup to watch - Bills LG Richie Incognito vs. Redskins DE Jason Hatcher: Ryan has been pushing Incognito as the best guard in the NFL this season, even after he gave up a sack and was bulldozed on a 10-yard loss on a running play by Philadelphia's Fletcher Cox last week. Hatcher is no Cox, and gutted his way through a sore ankle and a pinched nerve in his neck last week.
*Player spotlight - Redskins TE Jordan Reed: He caught all nine balls thrown his direction at Chicago last week for 120 yards and a touchdown, and quietly leads all NFL tight ends with 22 receptions on third down for 206 yards and six touchdowns this season.
*Fast facts: The Bills have 1,086 yards in penalties, 22 shy of the single-season franchise record of 1,108 set in a 14-game season in 1970. ... Cousins has 314 completions on the season. The franchise record of 327 was set by Jason Campbell in 2009.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The teams enter with identical records but far different postseason realities. The Bills deliver a blow to the Redskins' playoff push by controlling the line of scrimmage on offense and physically wearing Washington down late.
*Our pick: Bills 23-21
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. - TV: FOX
*Keys to the game: The Panthers have rushed for at least 100 yards in 24 consecutive games, and that streak is likely to continue even without RB Jonathan Stewart leading the charge. Fozzy Whittaker or FB Mike Tolbert will start, and rookie Cameron Artis-Payne will be active for the first time since Week 7. Along with QB Cam Newton chipping in, Carolina will hammer away at the Giants' mediocre run defense to set up vertical shots against their last-ranked pass defense.
The difficulty for the Giants will be chipping away enough with their 32nd-ranked ground game to avoid a lopsided number in time of possession while knowing the reality that their offense predominantly falls on quarterback Eli Manning's right arm. Despite being so one-dimensional, the Giants have surrendered a respectable 21 sacks. Can that hold up against the Panthers, who have dropped opposing quarterbacks 40 times this season? In a game with a razor thin margin of error for the Giants, they must capitalize with touchdowns inside the red zone.
*Matchup to watch - Panthers CB Josh Norman vs. Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr.: Two likely All-Pros square off in what Panthers coach Ron Rivera deemed: "Another big, big, big, bigger, biggest matchups." Beckham has 100-plus receiving yards in eight games this season, including each of the past six, while NFL Network research credits Norman with holding Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, Indianapolis' T.Y. Hilton, Dallas' Dez Bryant and Atlanta's Julio Jones to a combined nine receptions and 89 yards.
*Player spotlight - Panthers CB Teddy Williams: The Giants must get production on the other side of the field from Rueben Randle. Williams has been used sparingly this season but could be in line to start with Bene Benwikere done for the season and Charles Tillman likely still out with a knee injury. Veterans Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain are other options.
*Fast facts: Newton has thrown 19 touchdown passes with just three interceptions while adding three scores on the ground over his past seven games. On the season, he has thrown 20 touchdowns with no interceptions in the red zone. ... Manning leads the NFL with six touchdown passes of 50-plus yards - five to Beckham.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Giants remain in the playoff hunt despite a pair of units - the ground game and pass defense - that rank dead last in the NFL. That's a fatal combination against an undefeated opponent that physically wears down opponents and then goes for the kill shot through the air.
*Our pick: Panthers 34-23
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver
*Keys to the game: The Vikings sat on the wide receivers screens and underneath passing game in the first meeting, a 23-20 Minnesota victory at Chicago on Nov. 1. QB Jay Cutler needs to stretch the field to keep the defense honest before working the ball back underneath on higher percentage passes. Cutler was moved around frequently from the pocket last week and that combination of wrinkles could help open the ground game a bit. The Vikings are ranked 20th in defending the run, allowing 114.4 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry as they have struggled through injuries to key personnel.
The Bears allowed nine catches on as many targets to Redskins TE Jordan Reed last week, and Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph enters with 22 catches for 239 yards over his past four games. With so much attention dedicated to containing RB Adrian Peterson, who had 105 yards in the first meeting, it leaves the Bears exposed to Rudolph's athleticism over the seam. The Vikings can be their own worst enemy at times and need to avoid the penalties and turnovers that have derailed their run-heavy approach in most defeats.
*Matchup to watch - Bears NT Eddie Goldman vs. Vikings C Joe Berger: Berger, 33, has done a commendable job with 13 starts as an injury replacement for John Sullivan. He'll have his hands full with Goldman, a rookie whose impact has grown against the run and pass. He can push the pocket, but must be wary of his assignments in the run game.
*Player spotlight - Bears ILB John Timu: The 6-foot, 247-pound undrafted rookie out of Washington was promoted from the practice squad and figures to get a strong look - if not a start - after the struggles in coverage of the inside 'backers in last week's loss to the Redskins.
*Fast facts: The Bears are 4-16 in their past 20 December games, including an eight-game losing streak in the month. The last time they beat a team in December that finished with a winning record was the New York Jets in 2010. ... The Vikings started a franchise-record six rookies at Arizona last week.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Vikings are riding their first two-game losing streak of the season but have had an extra three days to rest between games in front of their critical final playoff push. Healthier on defense with the ability to control the clock behind RB Adrian Peterson, Minnesota earns a not-as-close-as-the-score-indicates victory.
*Our pick: Vikings 23-19
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at o.Co Coliseum, Oakland - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale
*Keys to the game: With Mike McCarthy back as play-caller, the Packers ran the football 42 times, produced a season-high 230 rushing yards and dominated time of possession with 37 minutes, 48 seconds in their 28-7 rout of the Dallas Cowboys at home last Sunday. There's more of the same in mind this week as the Packers chase the Arizona Cardinals - they meet next week - for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Green Bay's ability to continue to play keep-away with the football with Aaron Rodgers at the helm will hinge on whether Eddie Lacy and James Starks can replicate their 1-2 punch from the previous game. Lacy dazzled with a season-high 124 yards and a touchdown in 24 carries, and Starks was as potent with 71 yards in 11 carries. The Raiders defense ranks in the top half of the league, allowing an average of 101 rushing yards per game.
Raiders QB Derek Carr has thrown for more than 3,300 yards and 28 touchdowns. He limits mistakes with a quick throwing release and having the wherewithal to break containment in the pocket. The Packers figure to try to rattle Carr early with a good dose of blitzing against a revamped offensive line. They will need to get home to keep Carr from picking apart a secondary that could be without its top cornerback.
*Matchup to watch - Packers RT Bryan Bulaga and LT David Bakhtiari vs. Raiders OLB Khalil Mack: Even at optimum strength, Bulaga and Bakhtiari would be in for a huge challenge going against the seemingly unstoppable Mack. They're playing hurt while Mack is putting a hurting on blockers and leads the league with 14 sacks. "You just have to turn on the last game. That jumps off the screen at you, for sure," McCarthy said. Mack typically lines up on the strong side of the offense, and he had all but one of the sacks last time out positioned on the left side of the defense. That puts Bulaga on the spot.
*Player spotlight - Packers CB Damarious Randall: Top CB Sam Shields (concussion) didn't practice Wednesday and his status is up in the air since he still has to get through the NFL-mandated concussion protocol before he can be cleared to play. Randall, the team's first-round draft pick this year, replaced Shields in the first half of the last game and would be in line to make the start Sunday.
*Fast facts: With their next win, the Packers will have seven seasons with 10-plus victories under McCarthy. ... The Raiders have lost six straight meetings by a cumulative score of 210-70.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
A different team, and one with versatile flair, with Mike McCarthy calling plays, the Packers push for the No. 2 seed shifts into high gear ahead of the Week 16 meeting at Arizona.
*Our pick: Packers 29-21
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis - TV: CBS
*Keys to the game: Since there are no asterisks on division championship banners, the Colts and Texans won't apologize for slipping into the playoffs with a less-than-ideal personnel situation. Starting quarterbacks are hurt on either side and the other headliners in this matchup - Colts WR T.Y. Hilton and Texans DE J.J. Watt - haven't been themselves.
Watt is playing with a broken hand encased in a full club cast and that made him easier to take out in Week 14 against the Patriots. Matt Hasselbeck remains the quarterback of the moment for the Colts with Andrew Luck (kidney) laid up, but Hasselbeck is hurting with rib and shoulder injuries and the Colts will fight for every yard. The Texans lead the NFL in allowing only 30.7 percent of third downs to be converted, but allow 4.3 yards per carry.
The good news for Indianapolis is the margin for error is slimmer for the Texans with T.J. Yates in for Brian Hoyer (concussion) and a lagging running game that ranks last in the league. With only two offensive touchdowns in the past nine quarters, Houston needs points early to avoid a meltdown. That miniscule margin means taking some calculated risks - the Colts' secondary is a good place to start. Indy has allowed 96 points and seven touchdown passes in the past two games.
*Matchup to watch - Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins vs. Colts secondary: Hopkins averaged just 4.3 catches for 58.6 yards during the past three games with 13 catches for 176 yards and one score during that span. Hopkins' impact has been negated by double-team coverage, but coach Bill O'Brien has reminded Yates to take measured risks. "You have to take some chances throwing him the ball because he's going to go get it for you," Yates said.
*Player spotlight - Colts RB Frank Gore: If ever the Colts needed Gore to deliver, this is the week. The Colts have allowed 31 sacks and the only healthy QB available is third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst, who finished the Week 14 drubbing at Jacksonville. Gore had his best game of the season - 22 carries, 98 yards, touchdown - at Houston on Oct. 8 when Hasselbeck wasn't sacked.
*Fast facts: The Texans are 0-13 all-time in Indianapolis and 4-23 overall in the series. ... The Colts have won nine division titles in Houston's 13 seasons in the AFC South.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
On the legs of Frank Gore and the foot of Adam Vinatieri the Colts get off the mat from disheartening defeats at Pittsburgh and Jacksonville to keep a grip on the division they've owned for more than a decade.
*Our pick: Colts 19-16
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Bryan Fischer, Otis Livingston
*Keys to the game: During the Chiefs' seven-game winning streak, coach Andy Reid has held a 51/49 pass-run ratio in his playcalling - a surprise considering his career mark is closer 60-40 and he doesn't have Jamaal Charles. RBs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have been sharing the workload and getting an assist from mobile QB Alex Smith.
Expect more of the same Sunday as the Chiefs seek to protect the ball and set up their high percentage passing game. The Ravens are struggling to get after the passer and with coverage breakdowns, and that only figures to increase with young defensive backs including Tray Walker and Jumal Rolle expected to see significant snaps.
The Ravens' quarterback situation is a mess with backup Matt Schaub recovering from a concussion, Jimmy Clausen still learning the offense and Ryan Mallett added to the depth chart this week. Rookie RB Buck Allen had better have more early success than he had against Seattle last week because the Ravens lack the steady quarterback play or talent at wide receiver to consistent convert long third downs.
*Matchup to watch - Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali vs. Ravens LT Kelechi Osemele: Osemele, who kicked out from guard with Eugene Monroe out for the season, received strong reviews from coach John Harbaugh against Seattle last week. Hali may be 32, but he still can get after the quarterback and has 6.5 sacks to go with a pair of forced fumbles this season.
*Player spotlight - Chiefs LS James Winchester: Yes, the long snapper. The Chiefs have had issues with the snap/hold on three kicks over the past two games, and the Ravens must generate a few big plays on special teams - like the block, TD return used to beat the Browns -- to be competitive.
*Fast facts: The Chiefs are the second team in NFL history to reel off seven consecutive victories following a five-game losing streak (1970 Bengals). ... The Ravens have placed a league-high 19 players on injured reserve. ... The Chiefs are second in the NFL with a plus-12 turnover differential. The Ravens are 31st at minus-12.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Ravens coach John Harbaugh finally admitted this week it's time to begin looking at younger players and evaluating personnel for 2016. The Chiefs are healthier across the board and won't give the Ravens the hint an upset is possible.
*Our pick: Chiefs 33-16
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn
*Keys to the game: Titans rookie QB Marcus Mariota has gone up against some of the NFL's top defenses this season, but he hasn't seen anything in terms of scheme quite like what he will face Sunday. Patriots coach Bill Belichick mixes schemes and tries to throw new looks at opponents on game day. Naturally, it's vital the Titans establish some semblance of a ground game to avoid getting blitzed out of the building, but it's equally important that Mariota - and the coaching staff - makes in-game adjustments to react to what the Patriots are throwing at them.
The Patriots' primary offensive objective is to work in RBs Brandon Bolden and James White, who will take on increased roles with LeGarrette Blount out for the season. Both are experienced in the offense, but now must step up into more critical roles. No unit is on point more than the offensive line, which has been shaky at times in protection due to its own injury issues. QB Tom Brady will rely heavily on short, quick passes to TE Rob Gronkowski and WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell. The Titans have six players with at least 3.0 sacks on the season and need to get after Brady to force turnovers if they're to have a glimmer of hope come the fourth quarter.
*Matchup to watch - Titans offensive line vs. Patriots DE Jabaal Sheard: An unsung standout this season, Sheard has 6.0 sacks and 10 quarterback hits in his first season with New England. Belichick praised Sheard's ability to be a factor from the inside or outside after playing primarily at left end while in Cleveland.
*Player spotlight - Titans RB Bishop Sankey: Banished to game day inactive Siberia when interim coach Mike Mularkey took over, the 2014 second-round pick will finally get some snaps with Dexter McCluster (wrist) placed on injured reserve. Sankey is averaging 4.0 yards on 41 carries this season, but has two touches since Week 6 despite new lead back Antonio Andrews averaging 3.7 on more than three times as many attempts (127).
*Fast facts: Mariota has a 106.7 passer rating with 10 touchdowns against just one interception on the road this season. ... The Patriots have clinched their seventh consecutive AFC East title, tying the Rams' record for longest division title streak in NFL history (1973-79)
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Patriots' latest injury dilemma at least hit on as good a week as possible, with a home game against an opponent currently slated for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. QB Tom Brady should be able to pepper the Titans with quick passes and score often on short fields while working in his new backfield mates.
*Our pick: Patriots 34-20
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at CenturyLink Field, Seattle - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, Tony Siragusa
*Keys to the game: Johnny Manziel was solid in throwing for 270 yards with one touchdown and one interception in last week's blowout win over the 49ers, but the Browns' quarterback was aided greatly by RBs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson ripping off 223 combined rushing yards and the defense racking up nine sacks. Manziel can't bank on that type of ground support this week with Seattle entering with the league's second-ranked run defense, having allowed 59 combined yards on the ground the past two games.
Tight end Gary Barnidge leads the Browns with 65 catches and could play an even bigger role with WR Brian Hartline sidelined. The Seahawks have been regularly burned by tight ends, and could be even more susceptible if SS Kelcie McCray has to play in place of Kam Chancellor (bruised tailbone).
Cleveland must put up points early to avoid a potential route because Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is on a record tear as the first quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to post a poser rating of at least 138.5 in four consecutive games. He is thriving in the shotgun, getting the ball out quickly and letting his receivers make plays. The challenge will be in adapting to anything new the Browns try to throw at him - last week in Baltimore it was a "spy" who nearly snuck off with a pick on a quick pass. But barring multiple turnovers, the Seahawks should be able to use the quick passing game to complement the x-factor of the beat-up backfield.
*Matchup to watch - Browns RG Austin Pasztor vs. Seahawks DT Ahtyba Rubin: Rubin quietly has a pair of sacks and has helped anchor that run defense in his first season in Seattle following seven with Cleveland. Pasztor is versatile and has decent feet, but will struggle with Rubin's power.
*Player spotlight - Seahawks RB Bryce Brown: Re-signed this week for his third stint with Seattle this season, Brown is likely to get thrown into a significant role with Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls out. FB Derrick Coleman and Christine Michael, a former Seahawks second-round pick re-signed Wednesday, could factor in as well, but coach Pete Carroll knows Brown from watching the former blue chip prospect back in high school and is intrigued by his size, speed and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
*Fast facts: Manziel has completed 62.2 percent of his passes with five touchdowns against two interceptions in his past six games. ... Wilson's 145.0 passer rating when targeting rookie WR Tyler Lockett leads the league. The second best tandem? Wilson and Doug Baldwin (142.0), per Pro Football Focus.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Seattle's depleted backfield is a definite concern and Browns QB Johnny Manziel's mobility could create big-play opportunities against a secondary that has been gashed many times this season. But Russell Wilson is on a tear that doesn't figure to be slowed by Cleveland's 30th-ranked defense.
*Our pick: Seahawks 30-21
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots, Jay Feely
*Keys to the game: There are no training wheels for QB AJ McCarron, who makes his first start in 30 career games with the Bengals. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson offered that he will change little to nothing for McCarron in Andy Dalton's stead, but bank on a run-heavy plan featuring Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill as short-area receivers. McCarron's long touchdown pass to A.J. Green last week traveled 30 yards in the air - something Dalton hadn't done all season - so there is some truth in Jackson's words. If he has TE Tyler Eifert (concussion), life gets easier against the 49ers' defense reamed by seam-splitting receivers this season.
The three teams that beat the Bengals this season held the ball and stuffed the run - including 56 yards against the Steelers last week - but the 49ers don't have the defense (133 rushing yards allowed per game) or a bell-cow back to hitch the offense to at this point in the season.
High-percentage passes could be the 49ers' best bet for a keep-away game plan considering the injuries in the Bengals' secondary. Cincinnati hasn't allowed a touchdown pass in three consecutive games, but with Adam Jones and Leon Hall hurting, the press coverage outside won't be as strong against deep threat Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, who needs just nine catches to reach 1,000 for his career.
*Matchup to watch - 49ers C Daniel Kilgore vs. Bengals DT Geno Atkins: Kilgore was active for the first time this season last week. He is recovered from a broken leg 13 months ago, ran with the first-team offense at practice Wednesday and will start against the Bengals' active defensive tackles one week after the 49ers allowed nine sacks. "It's great to have him back," coach Jim Tomsula said. "What he had to get through to get back on a football field is amazing. I'm happy for him."
*Player spotlight - 49ers OLB Aaron Lynch: The all-effort edge rusher is progressing and likely to return from a concussion.
*Fast facts: As McCarron makes his first career start, former Alabama quarterbacks are 0-13 as NFL starters since 1987. Giants QB Jeff Rutledge, who was a 2-7-1 career starter, has the most recent win by a former Crimson Tide QB (1987).
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
A pivotal game for the Bengals' bid to at least grab the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, AJ McCarron delivers as Cincy snags the early lead and squeezes the ball with a steady running game.
*Our pick: Bengals 20-13
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, Heinz Field, Pittsburgh - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
*Keys to the game: Denver is the only team in the league that lined up mano-a-mano with Tom Brady's offensive line and wide receivers and more than held up in individual matchups against New England. The Broncos have a rare collection of defensive backs to contend with most receiver corps, and that enticing matchup with the Steelers - 5-foot-10 dynamo Antonio Brown and 6-4 freakish athlete Martavis Bryant and CBs Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib is enough to pop our popcorn. Second-year CB Bradley Roby has given the Broncos quality downs and Denver's pass rush has bite. That'll bring RB DeAngelo Williams, averaging 133 yards from scrimmage the past five games, into play early and often.
The Broncos have gone seven quarters and 23 possessions without an offensive touchdown. It might not be enough to sound the panic alarm on QB Brock Osweiler after four starts, but recurring hiccups from his offensive line are of note. Osweiler was sacked five times last week and the Broncos didn't hold up well when Oakland played a more physical game with Denver's receivers. The Steelers will mix it up and find out if that was an aberration or trend. The best way to take heat off of Osweiler is popping a few big plays on stretch plays with Ronnie Hillman and, if he's ready to go, C.J. Anderson. The Steelers have 16 sacks in the past four games.
*Matchup to watch - Denver defense vs. Pittsburgh offense: The Steelers are No. 2 in total offense, the Broncos are first in total defense, yards per play and points allowed. While the Steelers thrive behind QB Ben Roethlisberger's arm and ability to keep plays alive, the Broncos can clamp down huge chunks of field with four talented cornerbacks and a dynamic front.
*Player spotlight - Broncos SS T.J. Ward: Officially day-to-day after missing the past two games with an ankle injury, the former Browns safety loved the rivalry with the smashmouth Steelers. Now that he has changed uniforms and the Steelers go heavy on the aerial attack, there's still a key role for Ward in a game where balance and field-position could be big factors.
*Fast facts: Brown has 48 catches for 679 yards and five total touchdowns (one return) the past five games. ... Steelers CB William Gay has returned his last five interceptions for touchdowns.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
First to 25? Could be the case, but the Broncos are hoping for a more methodical game dictated by defense. They'll get their wish if the secondary can keep the lid on Steelers WRs Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.
*Our pick: Broncos 26-23.
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein
*Keys to the game: Another week, another meet-and-greet with the offensive line for Chargers QB Philip Rivers. San Diego is taking the field without LT King Dunlap and possibly two other starters just in time for DT Ndamukong Suh to show up. The long string of injuries on the line is a season-long sad song for the Chargers.
The impact is widespread. Minus cohesion, the Chargers can't run the ball, and Rivers' favorite targets - WR Keenan Allen in particular - are hurt, too. Rivers said he'll play for the fans in what he sees as a potentially emotionally goodbye with the Chargers up for relocation to Los Angeles. His best option this week is finding two intermediate receivers - TE Antonio Gates (12 catches in the past two games) and RB Danny Woodhead, who leads NFL running backs with 601 receiving yards. Rivers has gone two straight games without a touchdown pass while being sacked nine combined times in losses to the Broncos and Chiefs.
The Dolphins will need to dig deep for their own motivation. They haven't been eliminated from playoff contention this early since 2011 and Miami is far from healthy. WR Jarvis Landry - 89 receptions in 2015 and coming off of a season-high 18 targets on Monday - and RB Lamar Miller have been reliable and productive down the stretch for QB Ryan Tannehill. While Miami's front five was been staggered by injuries and shifting positions, Miller is thriving as he edges closer to free agency. He should get ample opportunity Sunday because San Diego is 27th in the league stopping the run, allowing 126.5 yards per game.
*Matchup to watch - Dolphins secondary vs. Gates: Rivers can carve up the Miami secondary with little effort. Gates could become the third tight end to have 100 receiving yards or more against Miami this season if the Dolphins can't apply pressure to Rivers. The good news for Miami is Rivers has been sacked 35 times, tied for fifth-most in the NFL.
*Player spotlight - Landry: He will keep the return duties at which he excels, but Landry is fading down the stretch and interim coach Dan Campbell knows why. "Jarvis is beat up," Campbell said. "This is the worst he's felt in the two years he's been here."
*Fast facts: Since he became the starter in 2006, Rivers has gone two straight games without a touchdown pass only one other time. He has never gone three games in a row without a touchdown. ... If Landry reaches 100 receptions and 1,000 yards, he would be the first player in Dolphins history to hit those marks in the same season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Philip Rivers fights to the finish and gives Chargers fans a goodbye to remember with a late strike to longtime favorite target Antonio Gates.
*Our pick: Chargers 24-23.
Arizona Cardinals (11-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
Sunday, 8:25 p.m. ET, at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia - TV: NBC
*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
*Keys to the game: The Cardinals enter with the league's No. 2 scoring offense, three extra days of rest following a Thursday night game and the motivation to lock up the NFC West division title. That's a lot for an Eagles defense that surrenders an average of 385.6 yards per game to overcome. Coordinator Bill Davis has been blitzing less frequently of late, preferring to rush three or four and drop seven or eight players into coverage. Cardinals QB Carson Palmer will leave a few balls up for grabs per game, but typically that comes when pressured, so the chess match will be interesting.
Same for the other side of the ball, with the Cardinals blitzing as much as any defense in the league - often up to half the snaps. Eagles QB Sam Bradford is known for his quick release and has been sacked only once against the blitz this season, but he is also completing just 49.3 percent of his passes with a 4.2-yard average per attempt when facing extra rushers. He was 7-for-13 for 87 yards against Buffalo's blitzes last week and will need to build on that for the Eagles to have sustained success Sunday night.
*Matchup to watch - Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Eagles S Malcolm Jenkins: Fitzgerald's career numbers against Philadelphia are video game worthy - 47 catches for 802 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven meetings. Fitzgerald hasn't scored in the past five games and should see plenty of action against Jenkins, a converted corner who has done a solid job against slot receivers in the Eagles' sub packages.
*Player spotlight - Cardinals WR Michael Floyd: As if Palmer needed more weapons at his disposal, Floyd is healthy and exploiting a lot of man coverage to the tune of four 100-yard receiving games and four touchdowns over his past five games.
*Fast facts: The Cardinals seek a franchise-record 12th victory of the season, which would also clinch just their fifth division title. ... Eagles RB DeMarco Murray, who signed a five-year, $40 million deal as a free agent over the offseason, has 19 carries over the past two games and is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry on first down this season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
There is plenty of intrigue with the contrasting styles on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Arizona has more offensive firepower and its aggressive defensive nature forces the type of mistakes Philadelphia can't afford against superior overall talent.
*Our pick: Cardinals 27-23
Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans - TV: ESPN
*Keys to the game: The Saints allowed less than 20 points for the first time in a calendar year last week, and QB Drew Brees got great support from an improbable place - journeyman RB Tim Hightower. Given the sparse effectiveness of the defense, duplicating the task seems a long shot. The Lions will attack early with WRs Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, who could have big games against a soft Saints secondary prone to penalties. Detroit's rushing attack is mostly non-existent - 79.3 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry - making it difficult for the Lions to put away games when they do grab a lead. The other troubling trend for QB Matt Stafford: breakdowns in pass protection led to four sacks last week, 13 in the past four games.
The Saints are surviving without true star power on either side of the ball with Brees standing as the lone exception. He has 16 touchdowns and two interceptions in five career games against the Lions, who have a knockout run defense but are not as solid in the secondary. WR Brandon Cooks has six touchdowns in the last six games and the Lions have not matched up well with speedy slot receivers.
*Matchup to watch - Lions DE Ziggy Ansah vs. Saints LT Terron Armstead: The leader in the NFC in sacks with 13.5, Ansah has a sack in five consecutive games and 6.5 in his past four games. Armstead has been strong of late after a sloppy stretch at midseason.
*Player spotlight - Hightower: Back in the league after two-plus seasons and subbing for injured starter Mark Ingram (IR, shoulder), Hightower rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown last week to bring a semblance of balance to the New Orleans offense.
*Fast facts: The Saints have 10 or more penalties in five of the past seven games. ... Tate had two touchdowns last week and caught 10 passes for 154 yards in last year's meeting.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
It was recently inconceivable for a losing team to land in New Orleans and leave anything but embarrassed. But the Saints' defense props the door open for visitors and almost any play can be a scoring chance. Detroit capitalizes with more skill talent in a back-and-forth affair.
*Our pick: Lions 33-29
--By Derek Harper and Jeff Reynolds