It's lucky Week 13 in the NFL, where some teams can clinch playoff spots and others will be eliminated, officially or otherwise. It's also an important tiebreaker week: Twelve of the 16 games are conference matchups. Here are the top story lines heading into Week 13:
1. Could Ben Roethlisberger really return Sunday? Would he be putting his career in jeopardy if he does? We’ll find out this week whether Roethlisberger can muster through a painful shoulder injury that he will have suffered 20 days earlier in the Steelers’ win over the Chiefs. There’s no question his team needs him. It slugged offensively through losses to the Ravens in Week 11 and Browns in Week 12, first losing backup Byron Leftwich to broken ribs after the first game, then watching third-stringer Charlie Batch struggle in the 20-14 loss at Cleveland. Of course, the Steelers’ eight turnovers — including five fumbles lost by four running backs and a wide receiver — didn’t help matters either. Batch was bad, no question. But the rest of the team has to play worlds better for the Steelers to have a chance of beating the sneakiest 9-2 team in recent memory.
2. It’s not as if the Ravens are blowing people out — with the exception of the sad Raiders. Six of their past eight victories have been one-score affairs, and they were housed at Houston in Week Seven. But as we’ve seen this season with the Packers blowing out the Texans, the Giants blowing out the Packers, the Bengals blowing out the Giants and the Ravens blowing out the Bengals, everything is up in the air this season. And that’s likely the precise reason there’s such an air of desperation surrounding Roethlisberger and the Steelers right now. They feel like this is one of those seasons (like 2005, when they entered the playoffs as a six-seed and won it all) where it’s anyone’s Super Bowl. The Ravens certainly have to feel that way, too, having been reborn since the Texans loss. They’ve run off four straight since the loss and the subsequent bye week and have to feel like they can close things out on Sunday. A Ravens win plus a Bengals loss (to the Chargers) equals an AFC North title for Baltimore.
3. Giants DE Justin Tuck can be prone to hyperbole at times. But he wasn’t just whistling Dixie when he praised Redskins QB Robert Griffin III after the teams’ first meeting this season, a 27-23 thriller won by the Giants (barely). And Tuck certainly wasn’t playing more games this week when he said, “Until I exit stage right, it seems like he’s going to be a fixture in my dreams and nightmares.” He appears to legitimately fear the rookie QB. Griffin gave the Giants all kinds of fits back in Week Seven, throwing for 258 yards and rushing for 89. In fact, the feeling that day was that he very well could have led the Redskins down the field in the final minute-plus had Santana Moss not fumbled (one of three lost by the Skins that day). "He's kind of like Cool Hand Luke," said Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said. "He just handles himself and goes about his business. He works extremely hard to prepare for a game. He knows how to avoid distractions. He focuses on his job and doesn't seem to let anything bother him. That's why he has the success that he has, because he is very disciplined, very determined."
4. The Giants head to Washington as field-goal favorites over the Redskins, and why not? They are coming off one of the biggest statement games of the season, throttling the Packers, who were winners of five straight coming in. The Redskins were 3-6 not long ago. Yes, they have Griffin, but they are far from perfect beside him. The pass defense wilted in the final 16-plus minutes against the Cowboys, and now LB London Fletcher and CB Josh Wilson are injury concerns heading into the Monday-nighter. But the Giants have concerns, too. RB Andre Brown is on I.R., putting rookie David Wilson in a position to step up alongside Ahmad Bradshaw. And S Kenny Phillips, just recently back in the lineup, also is banged up. The Giants must pressure Griffin the way they did Aaron Rodgers (another Cool Hand QB): relentlessly. Rodgers never got settled, had to throw on the run and constantly was off balance. Griffin adds more of a running-by-choice-and-design dimension, so it’s likely to be a mixture of zone coverage in shorter to-go situations and man when it’s 3rd-and-longer.
5. Will Colin Kaepernick start again Sunday when the 49ers play the Rams? We suggest the media forgo asking head coach Jim Harbaugh, who is tiring of this story. He has continued to say he has two hot quarterbacks and that he will decide as he goes. Check out this confusing exchange: “Alex Smith is our starting quarterback,” Harbaugh said Monday. Then he turned around and said, “You also can’t categorize Colin Kaepernick as a backup quarterback.” For the record, coach, thank you for that. Two sneaky-important injuries will test the 49ers’ depth: Both RB Kendall Hunter and WR Kyle Williams are done for the season, putting the onus more on RBs Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James and first-round WR A.J. Jenkins to step up. Jenkins, especially — he has been active for one game but has not seen the field yet.
6. The Rams are aware of the 49ers’ defensive prowess, even if it was not on full display the last time they met, the now-infamous tie game out at Candlestick in Week 10. They allowed 24 points (tied for second-most they’ve given up this season), allowed Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson to truck through them (combined 159 rushing yards) like few backs have, allowed touchdowns to Brian Quick (first career) and Austin Pettis (second) and nearly were torched by Danny Amendola in overtime, with an illegal formation penalty wiping out an 80-yard gain. The Rams might be fork-done this season at 4-6-1 and with a slew of teams ahead of them in the NFC wild-card mix, but they’ll come out with a purpose in this game and will have CB Janoris Jenkins (two INT returns for TD last week) and WR Chris Givens (diving TD catch), both of whom were suspended in Week 10. If Jeff Fisher’s game plan is half as creative as his two-fake-punt approach the last time these teams met, it should be another entertaining one. Provided there’s no tie again, that is.
7. It was a brutal week for the Seahawks. First, they travelled about as far as an NFL team has to travel inside the country and lost to the Dolphins on a last-second kick. Then they found out that their two starting corners, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, possibly could be suspended for dropping dirty. Both players are expected to play Sunday against the Bears. That’s the good news. The bad is that Bears QB Jay Cutler was back last week and looking pretty spiffy, rifling slants to Brandon Marshall all game against the Vikings. If Sherman and Marshall match up, it will be must-see TV: the most physical corner against one of the most physically gifted receivers. Just pure football-junkie crack right there. But this is not a game with one great matchup and nothing else. From the Seahawks’ standpoint, this is a crucial game with the division slipping away and a traffic jam in the NFC wild-card picture. “We don't have many chances left,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “We have five games to get it done, and we can't just lock into we're going to win all of our games at home either — that ain't going to be that easy. Right now it's Chicago. And it's a five-game push to see how far you can take it."
8. Pretty big one for the Bears, too. They’re fending off the Packers for the NFC North crown, but they also suffered a ton of injuries — affecting all three phases of the team — in Sunday’s win over the Vikings. The Bears are down to seven healthy O-linemen (including newly signed Andre Gurode) and figure to have newish starters at right tackle, right guard and left guard against a good Seahawks front. (Bears ORT Jonathan Scott vs. Seahawks DLE Red Bryant? Stupid mismatch.) RS Devin Hester (concussion), CB Charles Tillman (foot) and RB Matt Forté (ankle) are the other walking wounded. Whether they play or not remains up in the air. The Seahawks might be down, but they are not completely out. They’ll be competitive as long as rookie QB Russell Wilson — returning to Big Ten country — remains hot.
9. The Falcons are the only NFC team that can clinch a playoff spot this week, and their quest starts Thursday with what should be another spirited affair against the Saints in Atlanta. A win or tie and a Tampa Bay loss will wrap up the NFC South for the home team. Speaking of that, it’s interesting how the Falcons really have been a better road team this season when you boil it down. Yes, their one loss came to these Saints in the Superdome back in Week 10. But compare their margins of victory on the road (16, 24, seven, 13 and one point) vs. those at the Georgia Dome (six, two, three, six and four). Expect a close one, even if the Saints might be mathematically in serious playoff peril.
10. The Saints will pick themselves up off the turf after the loss to the 49ers and get ready for the quick turnaround. The familiarity with the Falcons helps, but if they want any chance of turning their season completely around, this is a win-or-else game. Even with the loss, though, this is the Saints’ favorite time of year. They have won 15 of their last 17 November games and have had a good plan for beating the Falcons recently. And considering their defensive turnaround — they held a team under 400 yards Sunday for the first time all season! — in recent games, you’d have to think they’ll give the Falcons a tough game. The big concern going is in their right tackle situation (Zach Strief might not be able to go) against Falcons DE John Abraham, who has had a terrific season.
11. The Packers suffered their most lopsided loss in five years Sunday, "beaten very thoroughly” per head coach Mike McCarthy. The Vikings were taken to the woodshed by the Bears. Now these teams meet in Green Bay, with the loser feeling pretty crummy. If it’s the Vikings, they’d fall to 6-6 with reality soon to set in thereafter. The Packers would be 7-5 if they lost, which would almost put their chances of a division crown out of reach. But on the good-news front, they could get WR Greg Jennings back this week. Is OLB Clay Matthews close behind? Maybe, but perhaps not for this game. Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier was not happy this week with RB Adrian Peterson missing the team bus to the Bears game, requiring him to cab it to Soldier Field. (If Peterson misses it this week, he could forgo the cab; every hotel in Green Bay is no more than a five-minute walk to Lambeau.) But Frazier might not have WR Percy Harvin back yet. He’ll have to practice this week before Frazier will allow him to play. The Vikings were a mess in the passing game Sunday without him.
12. The Buccaneers actually are looking to sweep the AFC West with a win over the Broncos Sunday. Clearly, this is the biggest test of the West teams, as the Broncos can clinch their division with a win or a Chargers loss. Assuming they do so, Sunday could be their final competitive home game until the playoffs begin. Their only other game of note against a winning club left on the schedule are the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 15. The Buccaneers theoretically have more to play for than the Broncos with such a cloudy NFC playoff picture. What they’ll have to spend most of the week doing is determining how the Chiefs managed to not let Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ passing game completely torch them. The Broncos come in ranked second in yards per pass attempt, and the Bucs rank second to last in yards per pass allowed. Although CB Eric Wright has been suspended four games, the Bucs have moved on from him recently following an Achilles injury. He had missed the Falcons game in Week 11 and missed parts of the previous two games as well.
13. Another year, another looming division title, right? It appears that way as the Patriots can clinch the division with a win, but they’re naturally also gunning for one of those top two seeds and the playoff bye that comes with them as well. Standing in their way: the Dolphins, who, believe it or not, remain right in the heart of a strange AFC playoff battle they appeared to kiss away with the blowout loss to the Titans two weeks ago. The Patriots have won the last four in the rivalry and the last two in Miami since the stunning 22-21 late-season loss to the Dolphins in 2009. But the Dolphins are coming off an impressive victory over the Seahawks in which they revived the run game and made enough key plays on defense to win. Interestingly, those elements have been hallmarks for the Patriots recently, too.
14. A year ago, the Lions were something of a darling team, if for no other reason than they made the playoffs after years of watching them on their couches. They were something of a feel-good story, you could say. Blowing them out of the water in that category are the heart-tugging, football-game-winning Colts, who are 7-4 right now and who probably could lose a few more down the stretch and still be in good shape for a wild-card spot in the watery AFC. (A year ago, the Colts hadn’t won a game yet. Now they’re gunning for the top wild-card spot, and it's the 4-7 Lions who are in the tank. Go figure.) This matchup of former No. 1 overall QB picks — Andrew Luck at Matthew Stafford — should provide some fireworks with both secondaries struggling. But interestingly, Luck has been far worse on the road (14 of his 18 turnovers have been away from home) and Stafford has been slightly less efficient (according to the stats, anyway) at home.
15. Philadelphia at Dallas, Sunday night — NBC, this was the best you could do? Last week came the semi-shocking news that this game would not be flexed out of prime time. Sure, the Eagles and Cowboys mean ratings, but it still won’t be fun — except for the schadenfreude crowd and Giants fans (there’s some crossover there) — for most people to watch. And for a second straight week, we get to watch an expressionless Andy Reid stalk the Eagles’ sideline. Maybe getting away from home will do them some good. Maybe the Cowboys — who beat them by 15 points in Philly a few weeks ago — will follow their pattern this season of staking visitors first-half double-digits leads. Maybe few will notice either way. Technically, the Cowboys remain in the race, but we all know it’s really over, right?