After a Thanksgiving full of haphazard football, we turn our heads to Sunday in anticipation of how Week 12 of the NFL season will close out. Here’s a quick look at this week’s top matchups to keep your eyes on.
St. Louis vs. Cincinnati
The Rams have their fair share of problems on the field, this week, the complications became disheartening. Late Tuesday night, it was announced currently suspended wide receiver Stedman Bailey was shot twice in the head in Miami. Bailey was suspended earlier in the month for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He underwent significant surgery on Wednesday, and doctors are hopeful for his prognosis, according to multiple reports. Stedman is expected to spend the next 3-to-5 days in intensive, according to the NFL Network.
After storming out of the gate and winning eight consecutive, the Bengals are winless in their past two — including a last-second loss to the Cardinals on Sunday night. Quarterback Andy Dalton will face a Rams team which ranks third in pass-defense, and that has allowed the second fewest passing touchdowns (9) in the league.
“The best football starts getting played now in November and December and January,” Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told the Associated Press. “You have to get hot. You have to catch your groove back again so that you can be one of those teams that can be hitting the stride at the right time.”
The Bengals haven’t lost three straight since dropping four in a row midway through the 2012 season.
St. Louis is currently facing a losing streak of its own — they have dropped three straight since a 27-6 defeat over San Francisco. Labeled with one of the most dysfunctional passing games in football, Todd Gurley has been left as their only true means of generating offense. Last week against Baltimore, Gurley authored his lowest performance of the season (2.64 YPC, lost fumble), will now face a potent Bengals run defense. Cincinnati has not allowed a single rushing touchdown since Vontaze Burfict returned four games ago, and has held runnings backs from the Cardinals, Texans and Browns scoreless.
New Orleans vs. Houston
The Saints are returning from their bye as three-point underdogs as they prepare to kickoff against the Texans at NRG Stadium. They’re also bringing a new defensive coordinator with them — Dennis Allen replaced Rob Ryan after he was fired when the Saints defense was torched for 510 yards in a 47-10 loss against the Redskins.
“It’s not like you can just go in and just wholeheartedly change everything you’ve been doing schematically,” Allen said to the Associated Press. “What we’ve got to do is try to give guys a plan that they can go out and execute.”
Domed stadiums are a Drew Brees speciality, where he has averaged 7.96 yards per pass attempt in 96 indoor games. He’ll have his hands full against a Texans pass-defense that ranks fifth in the league. The Saints’ backfield belongs to Mark Ingram, who is averaging 4.56 YPC on the season and on pace for a career-high 64 receptions.
For Houston, quarterback Brian Hoyer returns from a one-week absence after sustaining a concussion against the Bengals; the Texans will look to utilize his passing attack, while implementing an effective Wildcat formation they dusted off when Hoyer was out. The quarterback spoke earlier in the week on how he was feeling by saying “everything’s clear.” Hoyer has won three of his last four starts while completing 57.7 percent of his passes, throwing eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
Arizona vs. San Francisco
For now, the Cardinals have a clear path to the NFC West title, and are looking for their fifth straight against the 49ers on Sunday. Quarterback Carson Palmer feels right at home on the road — his passer rating is 110.2 on the road, as compared to 107.0 at home. He should be set up for a big game against San Francisco, the Cardinals possess the league’s highest-scoring offense with an average of 33.6 points per game, defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s pass defense is ranked No. 31 in the league.
After tormenting Colin Kaepernick earlier in the season during a 47-7 blowout, the Cardinals will get their first live-look at newly minted starter Blaine Gabbert. The backup was promoted to make his first start since the 2013 season against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 9. His efforts were enough to carry the 49ers to a nail-biting 17-16 victory, and earn himself a second start on the road against the Seahawks last week. After knocking Kaepernick around the yard in their previous matchup, the Cardinals have spoke keenly on their observations of Gabbert.
“Gabbert is taking care of the football better. The receivers are more involved so it’s a good challenge for us,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “It seems like Gabbert has a better understanding of coverages and getting his receivers involved. He’s an underrated passer.”
The Cardinals have lost six straight on the road against the 49ers, a streak Gabbert will likely be looking to keep alive.
Oakland vs. Tennessee
After it looked like things were finally starting to turn around for the Raiders, they find themselves in the middle of a three-game slump. Taking their trek to Nashville, the silver and black enter the game as measly two-point favorites against a 2-8 Titans squad. A win for Oakland would hand Tennessee its 11th straight home loss — a loss would tie for the third-longest home skid in league history.
A quick change for a team who three weeks ago was coming off consecutive wins; talks of becoming a playoff contender were sparked for the first time in 12 seasons. Oakland’s most recent loss came against a struggling Detroit Lions squad, where the Raiders were held to a season-low 214 yards in a 18-13 loss. Quarterback Derek Carr failed to throw a touchdown pass in the game, the first time such an event has occurred since Week 1. Rookie wide receiver had just one reception in the game.
“It’s important that we not look at (extending the playoff drought),” head coach Jack Del Rio told the Associated Press. “When you deal with adversity like we are, when you drop a few in a row, you have to be able to get up, dust yourself off and move forward.”
The Titans currently sit at the bottom of the table in the AFC, averaging just 18.2 points per game. In their past two, Tennessee has scored a total of just 23 points. An offensive boost should be expected with the anticipated return of wide receiver Kendall Wright — he’s missed the previous three games with a knee injury. Primarily a slot receiver, Wright will likely be matched up against D.J. Hayden, whom Pro Football Focus has charged with the third most yards allowed in the league.
New England vs. Denver
Brady vs. Manning has been the benchmark NFL matchup for the better part of the last 15 years. Manning will miss Sunday night’s game, but the contest will be the must-see game of the week regardless. New England is favored by three, according to the latest Vegas odds.
The Patriots have a two-game lead in the AFC playoff race, and with their 10-0 record, can already clinch a playoff berth with a win and a loss by the New York Jets. The Broncos are projected as the No. 3 seed in the conference, with Cincinnati between them and the Patriots.
Making his second consecutive start in relief of Manning, Brock Osweiler has compiled a respectable stat line of 34 for 51 for 396 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Demarylus Thomas and Vernon Davis have been his favorite targets since he got the job, with 15 and 9 throws to each respectively. Osweiler showcased a 48-yard touchdown pass against the Bears last week at Soldier Field. For the season, Thomas has 40 catches for 691 yards.
Tom Brady has thrown 25 touchdowns this season — the 11th time he has accomplished such a feat — and leads the NFL with 3,320 passing yards. His touchdown count and 107.4 passer rating also paces the AFC. In place of the injured Julian Edelman, receiver Danny Amendola has stepped up, fielding 19 catches for 196 yards in the past two games. The Broncos will likely have their eyes on tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has recorded 34 catches for 428 yards and five touchdowns in five games against Denver.