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2011 NFL Week 14 Primer

Denver Broncos Tim Tebow throws against the New York Jets during the second half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on November 17, 2011. Denver came from behind to defeat New York 17-14 on a 20-yard touchdown run by quarterback Tim Tebow UPI/Gary C. Caskey

Usually I would break down every NFL game on the schedule for that week, but I don’t even think Buccaneers and Jaguars fans care about Bucs-Jags, the “War on the Shore” this Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

Thus, I’ll roll out a different format this week with only four games remaining on the regular season schedule. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it but if you don’t, well, it’s too late now. The words are already sprawled across your screen…

MARQUE MATCHUP: Giants vs. Cowboys, 8:20PM ET
Neither of these teams seem very motivated to win the NFC East right now. While the Cowboys have won four of their last five games, they barely beat Washington in overtime, had to hang on to beat Miami in the closing minutes, and lost outright to Arizona last Sunday in extra frames. The Giants, meanwhile, showed great effort in their 38-35 loss to the Packers last weekend but as Tom Coughlin said, the G-Men are beyond morale victories at this point. Morale victories won’t get them a division crown and a chance to make it back to the Super Bowl. So which team will step up this Sunday in Dallas? Will it be the Cowboy team that won four in a row before laying an egg against the Cardinals? Or will the Giants build off their solid effort last Sunday and force another tie with the Cowboys in the division? The way I look at it, you could flip a coin. It’s hard what to make of these teams because while the talent is certainly there, the execution sometimes isn’t.

THE POTENTIAL (NOTEWORTHY) UPSET: Panthers over Falcons, 1:00PM ET
Atlanta has a couple of underlying issues that could be its undoing yet again this week. First and foremost, Michael Turner isn’t 100-percent healthy. He’s been dealing with a groin injury and as I wrote last Sunday following the Week 13 games, he ran like he had nine tons of cement tied around his legs. If he’s slowed again this week, the Falcons’ offense may struggle to find balance, which affects Matt Ryan and the passing game greatly. Furthermore, two of Atlanta’s top three corners (Brent Grimes and Kelvin Hayden) are out again this week due to injuries. With the way Cam Newton continues to sling the ball around the field, don’t be surprised if Carolina pulls off the upset this Sunday at home. Granted, the Panthers still have plenty of issues that the Falcons can exploit. Their run defense is soft and their pass coverage is below average. But again, if Atlanta can’t get Turner going and the Falcons once again allow an inferior opponent to stay in the game, they could be primed for an upset.

Which team has a golden opportunity to improve its standing in its division and playoff race? Look no further than Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, who host a wounded Bears team at 4:05PM ET on Sunday. Chicago will be without quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte, making it difficult to generate points against an already stout Denver defense. Thrown in the fact that the Broncos are at home while the Raiders head to Green Bay to take on the undefeated Packers, and Denver arguably stands to benefit the most from this week’s schedule. Obviously the Broncos still have to beat the Bears and the Raiders have to succumb to the Pack. But with both Denver and Oakland tied at 7-5 in the AFC West, this is a perfect chance for the Broncos to seize first place in the division and take control of their own destiny.

PUT UP OR SHUT UP: Tennessee Titans
“Put up or shut up” could apply to several different teams. The Bengals certainly have a “put up or shut up” game this Sunday at home against the Texans. Houston is banged up on both sides of the ball and if Cincinnati wants to hold onto the number sixth seed in the AFC, then it better find a way to win. (Especially considering the Jets have a very winnable game against the Chiefs and are also in the running for a Wild Card spot in the conference.) The Falcons also need to prove that they can rebound from their loss to the Texans last week and both the Lions and Bears need to step up to prove that they’re going to remain in the NFC playoff picture. But looking at all of the games, the Titans stand out to me as the team that has the most to prove this weekend. The Saints are easily one of the top 5 teams in the NFL, if not top 3. They’ve also looked like a different team on the road this year than at home, so if the Titans wanted to play them anywhere, they’d want to take on New Orleans in Tennessee. Guess what? They have their shot this Sunday. The Titans are only two games behind the Texans in the AFC South but there’s also only four games remaining. Houston could lose this Sunday in Cincinnati but if Tennessee can’t rise to the challenge and pull off the upset against New Orleans, then the Titans’ odds of catching the Texans become slim and none. But this game versus the Saints is more than just about trying to catch Houston. For Tennessee, this is a measuring stick for what you are as a football team. Do the Titans belong in the mix of legit contenders or are they going to be blow out by a vastly superior team? It’ll be interesting to see if Tennessee raises its level of play.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Five Questions for Week 14 in the NFL

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett (L) talks with quarterback Tony Romo in the second half of their NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Arlington, Texas November 6, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Every Tuesday I’ll take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding NFL teams for that week. In Week 14 I tackle the decimated Bears and their quarterback situation, the race in the NFC East and of course, the Tim Tebow-led Broncos.g

1. Which team will step up in the NFC East?
Last week I wrote that it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cowboys choke with a golden opportunity to take a two-game lead over the Giants in the NFC East. They were on their way to Arizona to play a very beatable Cardinals team while New York hosted the undefeated Packers, so naturally the Cowboys lost (when Jason Garrett essentially froze his own kicker) and didn’t create more separation between them and the Giants. That’s okay though, because the Sunday Night Football tilt this week becomes an even bigger affair because if the Giants win, then things will be tied again in the division. It’s tough to know what to make of either team. The Cowboys are healthier and have a slew of explosive weapons on offense to exploit a banged up New York defense. But Dallas always seems to kill itself with dumb mistakes and penalties. For all intents and purposes, they should beat the Giants at home this weekend and build a two-game cushion with just three games left to play. But it’s always a crapshoot when it comes to the ‘Boys.

2. What will the Bears do at quarterback?
Following Caleb Hanie’s brutal performance against the Chiefs on Sunday and the injury that will sideline Matt Forte for the next 2-3 weeks (if not the rest of the regular season), the Bears are now entertaining the idea of signing a free agent quarterback. Donovan McNabb is available and Brett Favre seems ready to whore himself out again, but will Chicago actually pull the trigger? The terminology in Mike Martz’s system is supposedly hard to grasp in a short amount of time so it would appear as though Hanie is still the Bears’ best option under center. But Chicago can’t keep rolling him out there every Sunday only to watch him produce a field goal worth of offense. It would, at the very least, make sense to sign McNabb and see how much he can learn in a week. Maybe he can produce just enough points to win while the defense and Devin Hester does the rest. Nobody is saying McNabb is a shoe-in to save Chicago’s season but if the playoffs started today the Bears would own the fifth seed in the NFC. GM Jerry Angelo owes it to his team to at least see if he can catch lightning in a bottle.

3. Will the Broncos take control of their own destiny?
As noted in question No. 2, the Bears are in serious trouble. Not only is Jay Cutler out for the rest of the year, but Matt Forte won’t play this Sunday and might miss the remainder of the season as well. Caleb Hanie couldn’t generate more than a field goal last week against Kansas City, which has an underrated defense but zero offense. Denver has an even better defensive unit and an offense that has made clutch plays with the game on the line for the past four weeks. Thus, the Broncos should win this week at home against Chicago. But there are many people that are still waiting for the wheels to fall off the Tim Tebow joy ride. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Detroit traveled to Denver and absolutely harassed Tebow into huge mistakes in a blowout victory. The Bears still own a relenting defensive unit that’s capable of putting its beleaguered offense in good field position, or scoring themselves with opportunistic plays. Thus, it’s important for Denver to continue to take things one game at a time. With Oakland in Green Bay this Sunday taking on the undefeated Packers, the Broncos have a massive opportunity to control their own destiny from here on out with a victory over the Bears.

4. Which Wild Card hopefuls will start to emerge from the pack?
Outside of the Steelers who seemingly have the fifth seed in the AFC sewn up, there are a lot of flaws when you look at the Wild Card contenders in each conference. In the AFC, the Bengals were just trounced by the Steelers and still have to play the Ravens one more time. Although the Titans have won two in a row, they nearly lost to the hapless Bucs two weeks ago and host powerhouse New Orleans this Sunday. Miami proved last week that Oakland has a couple of underlying issues, namely its run defense and lack of explosives offensively. The Jets have experience making late-season runs but it’s hard to trust Mark Sanchez not to muck things up over these next four weeks. In the NFC, the Bears’ issues are well documented and the Lions look like a team ready to implode thanks to a lack of composure and injuries. The Falcons have more than enough talent on both sides of the ball to secure a postseason berth but their offense has been stuck in mud all season and if the Giants can’t beat the Cowboys this Sunday, then it’s hard envisioning them playing past Week 17. Will somebody please step up?

5. Can the Chargers get back into the AFC West race?
The focus in the AFC West has largely been on the Broncos and Raiders, which makes sense given how their odds of winning the division are the best among the four teams. But while everyone continues to analyze, dissect, and agonize how Tim Tebow continues to win despite usually only playing one quarter of good football, I have a sinking suspicion that the Chargers aren’t finished quite yet. Maybe that’s because we’ve seen Norv Turner’s teams underachieve before, only to swoop in during the final weeks and pull a postseason berth right out from under someone. Granted, it came against a decimated Jacksonville secondary but Turner’s offense was firing on all cylinders Monday night. For the first time in over a month Philip Rivers played with confidence and was making throws that he used to make on a weekly basis in 2010. Winning breads confidence and when a team plays with confidence it becomes dangerous. Given how the Chargers still have to play Baltimore, Detroit, and Oakland to finish out the season, it’s probably too little too late for Rivers and Co. But if their defense overachieves and the offense finally starts playing with some consistency, you never know how things will play out down the stretch.

NFL Week 14 Primer

Marion BarberSunday’s Best: Cowboys (8-4) at Steelers (9-3), 4:15 PM ET FOX
The Cowboys are fighting for their playoff lives while the Steelers are trying to stay ahead of the surprising Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. Dallas could be without running back Marion Barber (toe injury), which would be a massive blow going against the best defenses in the league. If the ‘Boys can’t run the ball, expect Dick Lebeau to dial up plenty of blitzes to force quarterback Tony Romo into mistakes. This essentially is a must-win for the Cowboys, who would be left on the outside looking in if the playoffs started today. A loss coupled with a Falcons win over the Saints and the Cowboys would need some help the rest of the way, with a remaining schedule that looks like this: vs. Giants, vs. Ravens, at Eagles. The Steelers, meanwhile, should be at full strength as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker are expected to play. We’ll see what the Cowboys are made of come 4:00 o’clock on Sunday. Steelers are a currently a 3-point favorite.

Upset Watch: Texans (5-7) at Packers (5-7), 1:00 PM ET CBS
Houston welcomes back quarterback Matt Schaub this week but he’s not the reason they could pull off a decent-sized upset in Week 14. Rookie running back Steve Slaton is. Slaton is coming off a 130-yard effort against the Jaguars on Monday night and racked up 156 yards three weeks ago against the Colts. Considering the Packers are allowing a whopping 141.2 yards a game on the ground this year, Slaton could be set up for another huge day. The Texans will need to find a way to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, however, or else it’s going to be tough to win at Lambeau. The Texans’ pass defense is improving, but Rodgers and company are averaging 228.9 passing yards a game and could find success against a young Houston secondary. If the Texans don’t win outright, I say they cover the 6-point spread.

Gus FrerotteIntriguing Matchup: Vikings (7-5) at Lions (0-12), 1:00 PM ET FOX
There’s nothing intriguing about the winless Detroit Lions, but what is interesting is whether or not Kevin and Pat Williams will play for the Vikings. Minnesota needs a victory to stay at least one-game ahead of the Bears and Packers in the division, but without their interior defensive line, even the Lions are capable of finding some running room. The league suspended the Williamses on Tuesday morning, but a court ruling could change all that and allow the two mammoth d-tackles to play. If they don’t, could Detroit get its first win and turn the NFC North upside down yet again? Can Gus Frerotte keep this team afloat if the defense loses two key players?

Other notable games:

Eagles (6-5-1) at Giants (11-1), 1:00 PM ET FOX
Philly will try and keep its slim playoff hopes alive, while a win would crown the G-Men as NFC East champions and get them one step closer to claiming home field advantage throughout the postseason.

Redskins (7-5) at Ravens (8-4), 8:15 PM ET FOX
This Sunday night matchup is a great one. Both teams desperately need a win to stay within reach of a playoff berth. A loss for the ‘Skins could essentially knock them out of the postseason race.

Buccaneers (9-3) at Panthers (9-3), 8:30 PM ET ESPN
Finally a great Monday Night Football matchup after weeks of utter crap. The winner takes a one-game lead in the NFC South and holds an edge for the second spot in the NFC playoff picture, while the loser gets tossed into the Wild Card mix.

Falcons (8-4) at Saints (6-6), 1:00 PM ET FOX
Atlanta has been a nice story this year, but it can’t relax now. A win would go a long way in securing a playoff spot for the Falcons, who finish with a possibly depleted Vikings and a hapless Rams team in their final two games.

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