Sports

Plenty to learned about NFL playoff contenders come December

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, center, looks on from the bench during the first half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, in Orchard Park, N.Y. Though Gronkowski will be serving a one-game suspension for a late, gratuitous hit to the head of Bills defensive back Tre'Davious White, Tom Brady isn't likely to miss him much when they face the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus, File)

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, center, looks on from the bench during the first half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, in Orchard Park, N.Y. Though Gronkowski will be serving a one-game suspension for a late, gratuitous hit to the head of Bills defensive back Tre'Davious White, Tom Brady isn't likely to miss him much when they face the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus, File)

Call it "December Definition."

We'll learn plenty about the various playoff contenders this week when the Eagles visit the Rams, the Vikings take on the Panthers, the Seahawks meet the Jaguars, the Raiders play at the Chiefs, and the Ravens head to Pittsburgh.

The Eagles, Rams, Jaguars, Vikings and Steelers all have ways of clinching post-season berths. So do the Patriots, who visit Miami.

Most intriguing might be Philadelphia (10-2) at Los Angeles (9-3).

The Eagles had their nine-game winning streak snapped at Seattle, then stayed out west trying to figure out why an offence that had been dominant was shut down. Now they take on the Rams, with an equally dangerous offence and, like Philly, a division leader.

"I think sometimes ... winning can kind of cover up or mask some things, some deficiencies," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "A little chink in your armour , if there is any. And coaches and players fall into the same boat sometimes. We need games where we get hit in the mouth and we have to fight and battle and scratch. ... You just have to understand that there's no substitute for the preparation and the hard work."

The coolest of matchups has Rams QB Jared Goff , the top selection in the 2016 draft, against Eagles QB Carson Wentz, who went second overall that year. Both have matured rapidly, sparking turnarounds that could lead to, well, the Super Bowl.

A Philadelphia win gives it the NFC East title. So does a Dallas loss.

Should the Rams win, a complicated formula gives them a playoff spot.

The pivotal week began Thursday night with the Atlanta Falcons' 20-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints that set up a three-way race for the NFC South title. Deion Jones made a leaping interception in the end zone with 1:25 remaining for the Falcons (8-5) after Drew Brees drove the Saints (9-4) to the Atlanta 11.

Minnesota (10-2) at Carolina (8-4)

The Vikings haven't gotten to the top of the NFC the easy way. They've already played New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Atlanta, Green Bay and the Rams — none of which has a losing record. Most of those teams will make the playoffs.

Now, a trip to Carolina, which also is in the NFC mix. A victory in Charlotte, with Cincinnati, Green Bay and Chicago remaining, would stamp the Vikings as a conference favourite . And remember, the Super Bowl will be played in Minneapolis in February.

The Panthers must improve late in games: Carolina has been outscored 75-58 in fourth quarter. They are hopeful that standout tight end Greg Olsen can contribute more in his return from a broken foot.

Baltimore (7-5) at Pittsburgh (10-2)

Pittsburgh's victory over Cincinnati on Monday night was brutal, marred by malicious hits, launching and taunting on both sides. Now, the Steelers get their biggest rival in what always has been a physical affair.

"When you play Baltimore you are going to get your head knocked off, they're going to knock your head off, you're going to try to knock theirs off, but you're going to help them up and respect it, and say 'Hey great job, let's go at it again," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says.

The Steelers need to step up their game, despite having won seven in a row. They are barely getting by inferior opponents, and the Ravens — no matter the situation — are always dangerous for Pittsburgh. Preventing the Steelers from winning the AFC North is almost as prime a goal for Baltimore as remaining in front for a wild-card berth.

Seattle (8-4) at Jacksonville (8-4)

Tennessee (8-4) at Arizona (5-7)

The AFC South race, with a huge dose of NFC West.

Tennessee holds the tiebreaker right now over Jacksonville, but the teams finish off the schedule against each other. The Titans are the only franchise never to have played at University of Phoenix Stadium. In their visit Sunday, they bring a potent running game of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, who's coming off his second career 100-yard rushing game, including a 75-yard run against Houston.

Tennessee hasn't allowed an opponent to run for more than 100 yards in eight straight games, the longest streak in NFL this season, which doesn't bode well for Arizona's Adrian Peterson.

Jacksonville has a much tougher task, even at home. Although Seattle has some key injuries in its secondary, the defence has stepped up and shut down Philadelphia last week. The offence , as sensational QB Russell Wilson states his case for league MVP, has been dynamic, particularly now that TE Jimmy Graham has become a major force.

With a series of occurrences, the Jags can clinch a playoff spot.

Oakland (6-6) at Kansas City (6-6)

Washington (5-7) at Los Angeles Chargers (6-6)

If it's not the best rivalry in pro football, Raiders-Chiefs is top three. That it has so much meaning Sunday is like adding a tasty dessert to some delicious Kansas City BBQ.

Raiders coach Jack Del Rio explains the AFC West situation best.

"There's a better feel when you're winning and doing things well. For us, it's about the next game," Del Rio says. "We went through, we had our stretch. ... The Chargers had theirs the first four games. We had ours, four in a row after winning two. The Chiefs have had a little bit of a spell. Yet we all sit here at 6-6 with an opportunity.

"Which team takes the most advantage of that opportunity is sitting there?"

Lately, that team has looked like LA. And they get perhaps the most injury-ruined squad in the league in the Redskins, who have lost five of seven.

The Chargers have racked up more than 400 yards in three straight games while outscoring opponents 101-40.

Philip Rivers has completed 72 per cent of his passes for 1,029 yards, six TDs, no interceptions in the past three weeks. Keenan Allen became the first player in NFL history with 10-plus catches for 100-plus yards and at least one TD in three straight games.

New England (10-2) at Miami (5-7), Monday night

If the Patriots haven't secured their ninth straight AFC East crown by kickoff time — a Buffalo loss does the trick on Sunday — they are heavily favoured to get the clincher here.

One main reason: the Patriots are plus-9 in turnover differential, fourth best in the NFL. The Dolphins are minus-10, third worst.

The Patriots have won eight games in a row, and though Rob Gronkowski will be serving a one-game suspension for a late, gratuitous hit to the head of Bills defensive back Tre'Davious White, Tom Brady isn't likely to miss him much.

Miami RB Kenyan Drake had a breakout game last week with 120 yards rushing, and New England is allowing 5.1 yards per rush, worst in the league.

Green Bay (6-6) at Cleveland (0-12)

The house-cleaning has begun in Cleveland with the firing on Thursday of vice-president Sashi Brown. There's little reason to think that — or anything else — will lead to a Browns victory against a Packers team holding out hope of reach wild-card status.

Green Bay should get back star quarterback Aaron Rodgers (collarbone) next week, and if it doesn't stumble here, the team will give Cheeseheads some hope for the final three weeks.

Indianapolis (3-9) at Buffalo (6-6)

Two banged-up teams whose best remaining options are their running backs.

Indeed, Indy's Frank Gore and Buffalo's LeSean McCoy are worthy of top billing. Gore leads the active list and last weekend moved into fifth place overall with 13,697 yards rushing. McCoy is third on the active list and 31st overall with 9,805 yards.

With Bills QB Tyrod Taylor (bruised left knee) uncertain, rookie Nate Peterman could get his second start. All anyone needs to know about his first one: Peterman threw five interceptions in the first half.

Dallas (6-6) at New York Giants (2-10)

A classic matchup with little significance this year.

Dallas finally won without suspended star running back Ezekiel Elliott when it beat Washington, but making a playoff push is a long shot in the rugged NFC. A loss would cap a bad week for owner Jerry Jones, whose fight to delay Commissioner Roger Goodell's new contract was fruitless.

Eli Manning gets his job back — how insulting was the way his starting string ended? — now that Steve Spagnuolo has replaced the fired Ben McAdoo as coach.

Big days for tight ends Jason Witten of Dallas and rookie Evan Engram of New York could be on tap.

Detroit (6-6) at Tampa Bay (4-8)

Opponents can pass on Tampa Bay, and that's about all the Lions can do. But with QB Matthew Stafford's health (hand) uncertain, counting on Detroit's attack makes little sense. Detroit has won three of the past four meetings.

Key matchup figures to be Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans against cornerback Darius Slay, who is tied for the NFC lead with 15 passes defenced . Evans has been better at home than on the road recently with 696 receiving yards and seven TDs over his past nine at Raymond James Stadium.

New York Jets (5-7) at Denver (3-9)

Denver has been on a Rocky Mountain low for two months, dropping eight consecutive games. With an inept offence , the defence has gotten worn down, but it does get back CB Aqib Talib from a one-game suspension.

The Jets play everyone tough, and will have a say in the AFC West outcome. They defeated Kansas City last Sunday and still must play the Chargers.

Chicago (3-9) at Cincinnati (5-7)

Other than Cleveland, the Bears might be the NFL's worst side. They have the NFL's lowest-ranked offence , have lost five in a row — they haven't dropped more than five straight since a 2002 eight-game slide — and John Fox has a 12-32 record for a franchise-worst .273 winning percentage, in three seasons coaching the Bears.

After the Bengals blew a game they led most of the way on Monday night to Pittsburgh, their post-season chances appear gone. Not that they have been playing poorly lately. Consider that Andy Dalton hasn't thrown an interception since an Oct. 22 loss at Pittsburgh, 176 attempts.

San Francisco (2-10) at Houston (4-8)

Only the fourth meeting of these clubs, and it has little meaning.

San Francisco has won two of its past three, and has its likely future QB, Jimmy Garoppolo, running things. He threw for 293 yards last week to set a franchise record for most yards passing in a first start with the team.

The one guy who's fun to watch in this is Houston WR DeAndre Hopkins. He's tied for the NFL lead with nine TD receptions and has a TD catch in six straight home games.

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