Home-field advantage in sight
Week 13 will go a long way toward determining home-field advantage in both conferences.
The Denver Broncos visit the Kansas City Chiefs in a game that will produce a clear front-runner for the AFC's No. 1 seed. The Seattle Seahawks host the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, and the winner will be that much closer to home-field advantage in the NFC. These are four teams with seven losses among them.
This is only the second time since the 1970 merger that the two top teams in each conference have met on the same week this late in the season. The last time this happened was in Week 16 of 2008.
The Saints and Seahawks have the most on the line. The Saints play much better at home than they do on the road, and the Seahawks have perhaps the best home-field advantage in football. If the Seahawks win, the Saints might have to concede the No. 1 seed. They would be two games behind Seattle and play two of their final four against the ever-improving Carolina Panthers.
Peyton Manning wasn't as effective Sunday night in Foxborough against the New England Patriots, so the last thing he wants to do is lose the AFC West to Kansas City and enter the playoffs as a wild card. The Chiefs and Broncos each are 9-2.
Here are the top 10 trends going into Week 13.
1. Secondary issues: Seahawks cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond allegedly tested positive for a substance and face suspensions. Thurmond started serving his four-game suspension Tuesday. Browner, who is recovering from a groin injury, faces a one-year suspension. He had his hearing Monday. If he loses, it would be the seventh time a Seahawks player has been suspended since 2011, including Browner twice. Clearly, Pete Carroll has a problem in the locker room, a problem he thought was addressed when veterans stepped up and preached accountability when Bruce Irvin got a four-game PED suspension in May. On the football side, believe it or not, the Seahawks could get by. Byron Maxwell takes over Browner's spot at corner. Jeremy Lane will handle the slot. Richard Sherman is the corner on the other side. Opponents have completed 14 of 21 passes against Maxwell in the time he's been on the field, which is 15 percent of the snaps. Last year, he had five passes completed against him. Naturally, Drew Brees and Sean Payton will be trying to attack those two corners, which will put more pressure on the pass rush to prevent Brees from having time to throw.
2. Defensive attrition: The Chiefs and Broncos met Nov. 17 in Denver, and the Broncos won 27-17. A lot has changed on both defenses since then, but the Chiefs have the biggest concerns. In the second quarter of last week's loss to San Diego, the Chiefs lost Tamba Hali to an ankle injury and Justin Houston to a dislocated elbow. Their departures spelled doomed for Kansas City's defense. Without both outside linebackers, the Chiefs allowed 8.8 yards a play and 38 points in the game's remaining 32 minutes. To generate any pass rush, the Chiefs had to blitz a safety or a corner, but no one got to Philip Rivers. Hali said he'll play, but if he and Houston can't play at a high level, Manning might have the time to put up 45 or 50 points on the Chiefs. Injuries have hit the Broncos, too. Since the Nov. 17 game, the Broncos lost safety Rahim Moore to a potential season-ending leg injury and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson for six weeks with a dislocated hip. After a 9-0 start, the Chiefs have hit a tough stretch. They played the Chargers game down a right guard and right tackle. They didn't have defensive end Mike DeVito. In the first 10 games, they had only nine missed starts for injuries. If the Chiefs can't beat Denver, their destiny is to be the top wild-card team in the AFC.
3. Brees needs the Superdome: The Saints outscore opponents by an average score of 33-16 in the Superdome. They outscore opponents only 21-20 on the road. Sean Payton has built a dome team that is dynamite, but things clearly are rougher on the road. All teams can say that, but the Saints know the importance of beating Seattle on Monday night and trying to secure home field. They are still stinging from a playoff loss in Seattle after the 2010 season to what was then a 7-9 start-up team with Carroll. Now, Carroll has assembled a roster that is loaded with talent and is directed by a quarterback -- Russell Wilson -- who has not lost a home game since coming into the league. Down the line, the Saints know they have to deal with a hot Carolina team, which is breathing down New Orleans' neck with an 8-3 record. That's for later. On Monday, the Saints will find out if their road to the Super Bowl goes through New Orleans or Seattle.
4. An unhappy owner: On Tuesday, Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted out a bunch of frustration about the team's 7-4 standing after a 29-point loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 12. Technically, the team is in great shape. The Colts are 7-4, and a win over the Tennessee Titans will give them a three-game lead in the AFC South. But that's not the point. The Colts went 11-5 last year and are playing like a team that might finish 10-6 or 9-7. That's not what Irsay had in mind. You can see the problems. The passing offense isn't the same without Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen. They gave up a first-round pick for Trent Richardson, who is averaging only 2.8 yards a carry. The offense was designed to allow fewer hits on Andrew Luck, but he's absorbing just about as many as last year. Here's the bigger problem. Over the past five games, the defense is giving up 32.4 points a game. Irsay wants it fixed.
5. Potential playoff preview: Chip Kelly has the Philadelphia Eagles' offense on track possibly to win the NFC East. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has Carson Palmer clicking at quarterback and Michael Floyd developing at wide receiver. Sunday's meeting in Philadelphia could actually be a playoff preview. Of the two, the Cardinals might be the hotter team. Their defense isn't getting enough credit for how good it is. Defenders fly to the football as fast as any team in the league. The defense has star power, and the schemes are creative. But the big story has been Palmer. Over the past three games, he has been almost unstoppable. He's completed better than 70 percent of his passes over the past two games and has averaged two touchdowns a game over the past three. The key for him has been cutting down on his interceptions. Floyd now has 49 catches and a 15.5-yard average. The combination of Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald is formidable. In Philadelphia, Nick Foles has been named the starting quarterback for the remainder of the season because he is getting touchdown drives and not throwing interceptions. The Eagles and Cowboys are battling for the playoffs, and the Cardinals are battling the 49ers for the final wild-card spot in the NFC. If the Eagles win the division, they might have to face the Cards in the first round.
6. Charging to the playoffs: Because of too many early-season close losses, the Chargers face an uphill climb to make the playoffs. However, they have four of their final five games at home and could make a run at a wild-card berth. The key will be Rivers' play. Rivers was masterful in the Chargers' 41-38 victory over Kansas City in Week 12, and the team will need more of that play to make a run. The Chargers' closing schedule includes teams with a combined record of 33-22, but being at home helps as long as the Chargers can close out close games -- a problem for them in the past couple of years. Sunday's game against a Cincinnati team coming off a bye is an interesting matchup. The Chargers seem to do better against man-to-man teams, and the Bengals play a lot of man coverage. Last Sunday, the Chiefs played man and Keenan Allen had a huge game with nine catches for 124 yards. If Rivers can stay hot, the Chargers have a chance.
7. The Jeff Fisher effect: The St. Louis Rams entered the season as the league's youngest team, and coach Jeff Fisher knew there would be ups and downs. Despite the loss of Sam Bradford, the Rams are now playing their best football. One thing Fisher's team has done play division games tough. That could mean a close game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Last year, Fisher went 1-0-1 against a 49ers team that went to the Super Bowl. The key is whether the Rams can run the football. Zac Stacy has revitalized the Rams' rushing attack, and Tavon Austin has been mixing in big plays on offense and special teams. For the 49ers, they need to get on a roll to secure a playoff spot. The Monday night victory over the Redskins was a start, but Colin Kaepernick probably won't be as successful throwing against the Rams as he was against Washington.
8. Divisional doings: There are seven intradivisional games Sunday. While Broncos-Chiefs is the most glamorous, the Rams-49ers tilt might be the next best, followed by Jets-Dolphins. Geno Smith continues to struggle for the Jets, but Rex Ryan has little choice but to play him and hope he turns his season around. During training camp, Ryan labeled one of Smith's practices as brutal. That might be the best word to describe Smith's past three starts, in which he's completed 25 of 64 passes for 345 yards along with five interceptions. For the season, Smith has thrown 18 picks and lost four fumbles. Say what you want about the Dolphins, but they have a solid enough defense to take advantage of a struggling quarterback, and they need to win this game if they have any hopes of getting into the postseason. For the first time in years, it's hard to get excited about a Redskins-Giants game. Washington is 3-8 and New York is 4-7. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have reeled off three straight wins for coach Greg Schiano, but they face a hot Carolina Panthers team that has won seven in a row. Bears fans are worried about the defense, so a loss to a struggling Minnesota Vikings team would cause a lot of concern in Chicago. The Colts need to end their poor play with a home win against the Tennessee Titans.
9. What gets blown up first -- the Astrodome or the Texans? The city of Houston held a recent vote on whether to destroy the Astrodome. The vote went against the Astrodome, but there are still efforts to save it. It's a good thing the future of the Texans' roster isn't being put up for a vote. It's doubtful anyone would want to save it. Once viewed as a Super Bowl contender, Houston is on a nine-game losing streak and might wind up with the first pick in the draft. Last week's 13-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars was rock bottom for the season. Sunday doesn't get any easier with the New England Patriots rolling into town. Things were so bad in the last home game, Texans were outraged at how fans were booing Matt Schaub and the team. Case Keenum is on a five-game losing streak, with each game decided by a touchdown or less. Close, unfortunately, doesn't count in Houston.
10. The turkey leftovers: There are two other non-impact games on Sunday's schedule. The 2-9 Atlanta Falcons travel to Buffalo to face the Bills, and the Jaguars face Cleveland. The Falcons are still scratching their heads about how bad the season has gone. On the other side, the Bills still have some hope, and the bye week allowed EJ Manuel and his receivers to get healthy, as Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods should be available. Jags coach Gus Bradley had this to say last week: "The road to success is always under construction.'' I love that quote and the way his team has played hard in recent weeks. Another win could be in the cards for Bradley & Co., who face a Cleveland team starting Brandon Weeden while Jason Campbell recovers from a concussion.