As we head into the last 1/3 of the season, some games naturally get more attention than others from fans and commentators as we start thinking about the playoffs. Therefore, in addition to looking for the more interesting matchups, the weekly Games to Watch from here out will focus on those games that have more meaning to the postseason. Luckily for us, this week’s GTWs combine both intrigue and meaning.
Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, CBS):
The AFC North is currently a three-way race between the Bengals, Steelers and 8-3 Baltimore Ravens. As mentioned in Week 11’s GTWs, the Bengals only had to face a division opponent once in the first ten weeks of the season, and that opponent was the Cleveland Browns, a perpetual basement dweller in the division. The Bengals lost to the Ravens in their Week 11 contest and need to pull out an upset against the Steelers to prove that they are contenders for the AFC North crown. They pulled out a win against the Browns again last week, but after trailing at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Steelers, who have only lost one game at home this year, held off the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 12 to beat them 13 to 9, but without scoring any points in the second half. With both teams coming off by-the-hair-on-their-chinny-chin-chin wins, this should be anyone’s game. However, look for the Steelers defense to have new life with the expected return of safety Troy Polamalu (from a head injury) and the possible return of linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring). No matter what happens, though, with the Ravens and Browns (4-7) playing each other, the race for the AFC North should become much more clear after this weekend.
Atlanta Falcons (7-4) @ Houston Texans (8-3) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, FOX):
The Atlanta Falcons are right in the hunt for the NFC South championship, trailing the New Orleans Saints by only one game. The Texans have a clear lead in the AFC South, but still need to look over their shoulder at the 6 and 5 Tennessee Titans. However, the Texans are in a very vulnerable position in the most critical part of their season because they are down to their third quarterback due to injuries. With two seasoned quarterbacks—starter Matt Schaub and six-year backup Matt Leinart—ahead of him, rookie T.J. Yates probably hadn’t had much practice time with the first-string offense before this past week. Luckily, the Texans rank third in the league in rushing yards per game, gaining an average of 151.7 yards per game. So, we can probably expect them to continue to lean on the run while Yates breaks in his cleats. Unluckily for the Texans, the Atlanta Falcons are second in the league in defending the run, allowing only 83.5 yards per game. After this week, the Falcons finish their season playing each of their division rivals and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are only 3-8 and just fired their head coach, Jack Del Rio. Even with the 8 and 3 New Orleans Saints, the combined record of the Falcons’ remaining opponents is 18 and 26. If they can beat the Texans this week, they have a chance to not only catch but pass the Saints for the lead in the NFC South.
Green Bay Packers (11-0) @ New York Giants (6-5) (Sunday, 4:15 PM ET, FOX):
The Packers have all but sewn up the NFC North with a four-game lead over the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions; if they win this week and Detroit loses Sunday night (see below), they will clinch the division championship. In addition to the division title, they are fighting for a first- or second-place finish in the National Football Conference so they can enjoy a bye in the first week of the playoffs, and the coveted home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a first place finish. It’s hard to find a weakness for the Packers, but if I had to pick one, it would be their pass defense. The Packers actually rank 31st—yep, second to last—in the league in passing yards allowed per game. Luckily, their explosive offense is able to outscore their opponents (this may, in fact, explain the defense’s performance against the pass, since opponents have to fight from behind). For their part, the Giants love to play the role of spoiler for undefeated teams. It was the Giants who dashed the hopes of the New England Patriots, fans of the Patriots and fans of NFL history when they defeated the Pats in Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots had gone undefeated in the regular season and fell one Super Bowl short of being the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to achieve an unblemished record in a single season. Right now, though, the Giants don’t look anything like a bugaboo for the Packers with a three-game losing streak. In any event, with Giants QB Eli Manning fourth in the league in passing and the Giants offense ranked dead last in rushing, look for a pass-heavy attack from both teams, which always makes for an exciting game.
Detroit Lions (7-4) @ New Orleans Saints (8-3) (Sunday, 8:20 PM ET, NBC):
As I just mentioned, the Lions need to win this game to stay alive in the division championship battle. They’ve been hamstrung this week by the two-game suspension of their star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after Suh stomped on Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith in their Thanksgiving game. He has appealed his suspension and may get a decision today, but the Lions will need to prepare a defense without him as a part of it. In fact, it’s doubtful that Suh will get a last minute reprieve given his reputation for dirty play and prolific history of personal fouls. This couldn’t come at a worse time for the Lions. The Saints are on a three-game winning streak and firing on all cylinders as a team, especially on offense. The Lions are going in the opposite direction; after starting 5 and 0, they’ve lost four of their last six, including a big loss against the Packers on Thanksgiving. Will the Saints be sluggish after their Thanksgiving feast, and will the Lions are hungrier for the win?
Well, that’s the slate for lucky Week 13. Enjoy the games!