It’s unfortunate that the two biggest hyped and by far best games of Week 11 — 49ers-Saints and Patriots-Panthers — were marred by controversial calls that have trumped the discussion of the great action that ensued. So with this in mind, we pray to the refereeing gods that Week 12 brings us a cleaner and less controversial (as far as the stripes are concerned, anyway; we don’t mind other types of controversy) games, and there are some pretty good ones. Here are the biggest storylines heading into Week 12, and with 25 teams within a game and a half of a playoff spot, there are plenty:
1. You thought we’d start off with something other than Denver Broncos at New England Patriots? It’s tough to go any other way. Sure, there’s Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but let’s dig deeper. First, there’s Wes Welker — or is there? His concussion could prevent a healthy return to New England, and it could prevent him from playing. Then there’s the Josh McDaniels angle. The Patriots offensive coordinator will face 15 players left over from his regime in Denver, so he’ll have a leg up on defending them. But can the Patriots come back on a short week and devise a scheme to stop this Broncos team on Sunday night? That secondary had better get healthy. Quickly.
2. This might not be the sexiest matchup on paper, but the Dallas Cowboys heading east to face the suddenly scorching New York Giants might be the second-most important battle of the week — and the other NFC East contender, the Philadelphia Eagles, are on bye. The Cowboys undid the Giants in Week 1 by forcing six turnovers and eliminating the run game in a 36-31 final. But these teams are worlds different now, and heading in opposite directions. It has the feel of a Cowboys team trying like heck to hold on and a Giants club that, you’d think, can’t wait for a second crack at them. This game helps shape an intriguing East race.
3. The darling Carolina Panthers are now being talked about in Super Bowl terms, and they’ll put their six-game win streak on the line at the Miami Dolphins, a team that got a huge win last week to even their record at 5-5 and keep them in contention for the postseason. The Panthers have allowed an NFL-low 135 points (first in the NFL), and the Dolphins have been a bit point-starved with only 213 (24th in the NFL). So it will come down to the Dolphins finding ways not just sustaining drives but figuring out how to put it in the end zone, where the Panthers tighten up better than anyone. As for the flip side, the Dolphins have defended athletic quarterbacks pretty well, so it’s another solid test for sudden MVP candidate Cam Newton.
4. Bruce Arians was a steadying force and the Coach of the Year last season as the interim head coach for the Indianapolis Colts, and now he gets to take them on as — guess what — a Coach of the Year candidate with the quietly effective Arizona Cardinals. They’re 6-4 and right in the thick of the wildcard hunt, and the Colts have plenty to play for, too. They’re currently the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture, and yet there are plenty of holes to poke in a team that hasn’t been quite as sharp since handing the Denver Broncos their first and only loss. Can Arians dissect his old roster? Much of it is the same, including his former pupil Andrew Luck.
5. It’s a Long Brothers reunion in St. Louis as the Rams host the Chicago Bears on Sunday. Bears rookie offensive guard Kyle Long has been a nice addition to a front that needed help, and Rams veteran Chris Long has established himself as one of the best base ends in the game. But there also are ramifications beyond Thanksgiving table bragging rights. The Rams’ postseason hopes mostly have faded, but the Bears are in the thick of the NFC North race. Once more, they’ll entrust their hopes in Josh McCown in this battle of the backups against Kellen Clemens and the Rams.
6. Reunion week continues as Ed Reed, Rex Ryan and the New York Jets head to face the Baltimore Ravens, with both teams desperately needing a win and some solidarity. Reed actually will be facing his longtime teammates for the second time this season, so that emotional factor is almost nil. The most important reunion with these teams likely will be Dennis Pitta returning to the Ravens, but his chances of playing Sunday remain slim at best. The biggest matchup will be Geno Smith needing to find a way to limit his turnovers (20 of the Jets’ 21 turnovers have his name on them) against an opportunistic and savvy defense.
7. The mediocre Thursday night slate continues, pitting the No. 1 seed-seeking New Orleans Saints heading to face the Atlanta Falcons. Yeah, the Falcons are bad — no doubt. But you can’t say this game doesn’t mean anything. These teams just do not like each other, and their past three games have been decided by six, 10, four points. The Falcons would love nothing more than to get the monkey of losing off their backs and simultaneously deal their rivals a big loss in a tight NFC playoff race. The Saints present too many offensive problems for the Falcons (11 Saints caught passes in Week 11), but a short week — you never know — could favor the home team on Thursday night.
8. The suddenly flagging San Francisco 49ers head three time zones east to face the flagging-all-season Washington Redskins. The matchup for Monday night’s game looked prime on paper: Young, versatile and fearless quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III going head to head. But both have been criticized for their play this season, even if they are not always the problems. Both players, though, do have a lot of growth they need to achieve before they reach greatness, and the losing team will face serious questions going forward. It will be three straight losses for whichever team falls, but it clearly means more to the 49ers, who remain in postseason contention.
9. One team, either the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers or the hosting Cleveland Browns, will be — for all intents and purposes — eliminated from legitimate contention this weekend when the teams face off. The Browns hope to stem the tide after a blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Steelers hope to ride the wave of winning four of six and two in a row, including the big one over the Detroit Lions in Week 11. A suddenly on-point Ben Roethlisberger faces a good but no longer dominant Browns defense. But more critical for the home team: leaky special teams, which could be the difference in these close games.
10. And now for the rest of the Week 12 action … The Tampa Bay Buccaneers come into Detroit to face the Lions a confident team for the first time since early in the Doug Marrone era. Can they knock off the up-and-down Lions? It might be closer than some think. … So Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook is calling out the Green Bay Packers’ replacement quarterbacks? Cook and his own team have enough problems to worry about in this game. … Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: This could be a battle for the No. 1 pick in the draft. Seriously. Case Keenum is back in the saddle for the Texans, who now have gone eight games without a win. … The San Diego Chargers are capable of sneaking up on the Kansas City Chiefs in the sandwich game between Broncos contests. … Two backup quarterbacks face off when the Tennessee Titans head to face the Oakland Raiders, as Matt McGloin hopes to make it two straight strong starts, facing off against Ryan Fitzpatrick on the other sideline.
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