On Fridays during each week of the NFL season, Tiebreaker.com will take a look at what we believe to be the five most interesting storylines for that weekend’s games.
It could be about a player, a team, maybe a trend that’s developed over time that might impact a matchup. In other words, we’ll be fluid, reacting to what has happened in the league and what might be coming next.
Someone must win the NFC East
It’s been one of the most highly ridiculed races in recent memory. It’s seemed at times as if neither the Cowboys or Eagles were interested in winning the NFC East. Both have been prone to slumps and poor play and struggling to stay at .500 or above.
But on Sunday in Philadelphia, the two teams, tied at 7-7, will play for the division lead. What’s more, they are playing for their postseason lives since winning a wild card is no longer mathematically possible.
Still, it’s unlikely that anyone who plays in the game will have more to win or lose than Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. Remember, the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles under center after Wentz was injured. And Wentz, whose last two seasons have ended because of injury, still has still not played to the level expected of someone of his status.
Wentz was asked earlier this week if this Cowboys game was the biggest of his career.
“You could probably say that,” Wentz told the team’s official website. “I mean, it’s definitely a big game. We know the situation. We know what’s going on. At the same time, we’re treating it as another game and we’re aware of everything. We’re real excited and for one, I’m real excited that we’re at home. I know these fans are going to show up and be loud. I can’t wait until Sunday afternoon.”
To his credit, Wentz has played well of late. The Eagles would not even be in this position had he not pulled out late wins over the lowly Giants and Redskins that ended a three-game losing streak.
If the Eagles lose they will be eliminated because the Cowboys have already blasted them, 37-10. That means Dallas would own the tiebreaker should they end tied at 8-8.
“The Cowboys have been a team we’ve struggled with,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “We’ve just got to continue to work and try to overcome it. They’ve had our number recently and really since my time in Philly. Hopefully we can turn things around.”
The Eagles have won just two of the seven games they’ve played against the Cowboys since Pederson took over as coach in 2016.
One thing that might work against them again is their lack of quality receivers. Injuries have left former college QB Greg Ward as their No. 1 receiver. And that situation has been compounded by an offensive line that has been equally undermanned.
“I’m excited about it,” Wentz said. “The last couple of years didn’t end the way I wanted them to, personally, obviously being hurt and everything, so I’m just excited to be playing here in December with what’s at stake and to be out there with my guys. I’m excited.”
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have been dealing with their own problems. Dak Prescott has an injured shoulder and the teams have been nursing him through the week,
“I’m totally convinced that he’ll be in top form, and we’ve got to have him in top form, and he will be in top form,” Jerry Jones told the Dallas Morning News. “I think we’re in good shape.”
Gilmore and his boys could bury the Bills
If Buffalo (10-4) has any chance of winning the AFC East, the road must begin with a win on Saturday in New England, which leads the division by one game.
That path could be clogged by the Patriots defense, which has been one of the staunchest in the league this season. And leading that unit has been cornerback Stephon Gilmore. There has been a lot of talk about him winning the league’s defensive player of the year. If he does, he’d be the first secondary player to do so since Troy Polamalu in 2010.
Earlier this week, Gilmore was asked about that possibility on a local radio show.
“I mean, my play speaks for itself,” Gilmore said. “If you really watch the tape each and every game, it’s no question.”
Gilmore’s six interceptions are tied with Buffalo corner Tre’Davious White for the most in the league. Gilmore’s one of three players with multiple pick-sixes. But here’s where the difference lies. Gilmore’s 82 targets have resulted in zero touchdowns. His 32.8 passer rating when targeted is the second-lowest in the NFL among corners with a minimum 100 coverage snaps.
“I’m in a rhythm and I’m just daring the quarterback to throw at me and I’m just trying to make them pay…” Gilmore told NFL Network. “Playing against the best guy, you have to really focus, every play is important – if you don’t play well on one play, it can cost your team. I try to focus each and every play, be in tight-coverage, try to be in great shape.”
The Patriots are allowing 11.2 points per game to opposing offenses. That’s the fourth-best defense ever through 14 games. The 1970 Vikings are the best defense through 14 games.
Bell awaits fan’s verdict
The Steelers are playing the Jets at MetLife Stadium on Sunday and if their game in Arizona two weeks ago was any indication, their fans might take over the place and turn it into Heinz Field away from home.
If that’s the case, it will be very interesting to hear what kind of reception former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell receives. You’ll recall his departure from Pittsburgh last season was rather acrimonious with Bell sitting out the looking for a new contract.
“It’ll probably be 50-50,” Bell told the media earlier this week. “I think half will be happy to see me and still love me, and half that hates me, despises me. It is what it is. I’m going to show love, regardless. Anybody who’s wearing my jersey, I’ll go sign it. It’s going to be fun.”
Bell, who signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the Jets, said he doesn’t dwell in the past. Of course, that doesn’t mean the fans don’t.
“No, last year was last year and two years ago was two years ago,” he said. “I’m over it now. I’m past it. I’m here. I’m with the New York Jets, and I’m happy.
“It’s going to be packed with Steeler fans. When we played the Raiders, there were a lot of Raider fans and it was loud. I think it’ll be the same as that, if not more. Steeler fans travel well. I definitely know that.”
Titans now reliant on others
Tennessee blew its chance to take control of the AFC South last week by losing to Houston at home. The Titans are now one game behind the Texans, who they will play again next week in Houston.
So what needs to happen for the Titans (8-6) to make the playoffs? According to the league’s playoff breakdown, its likely going to take some help from teams like the Ravens, Jets and Buccaneers.
But here is the most basic scenario:
If Houston beats Tampa Bay on Saturday it clinches the division title, which would leave the second wild card to either Tennessee or the Steelers, who are also 8-6. That would make their game against the Saints this weekend especially critical.
If Houston loses to the Buccaneers, the Titans still have a shot at winning the AFC South, providing they can beat the Saints and then win at Houston next week.
If the Texans beat the Buccaneers as expected on Saturday, the focus is on the wild card. For that to happen, the Steelers must lose at least one of their two remaining games, either at the Jets or at the Ravens. If Pittsburgh goes 10-6, the Titans are toast.
If the Steelers lose one of their final two games, the Titans could earn a playoff berth by beating the Texans and finishing 9-7. But if the Titans beat the Saints and lose to the Texans, and the Steelers also finish at 9-7, Pittsburgh is in because it has a better record against AFC opponents than the Titans.
After last week’s record performance against the Colts, during which he set the league record for most touchdown passes, you might think there wasn’t anything left to Drew Brees to do. But there is.
If the Saints quarterback connects on his first four passes at Tennessee, he will set the league record for consecutive completions at 26. At the moment, Foles (Eagles), Marcus Mariota, Philip Rivers and Ryan Tannehill all share the mark at 25.
Brees isn’t the only Saint on the verge of big things. Receiver Michael Thomas needs 11 receptions to pass Marvin Harrision (143 in 2002) for the most catches in a single season. Coming into Sunday’s game, Thomas is fourth behind Harrison, Julio Jones (136 in 2015) and Antonio Brown (136 in 2015). Thomas also needs 58 yards to pass Randy Moss (5,396) for the most receiving yards in their first four seasons.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes needs two TD passes against the Bears to pass Dan Marino (31games) as the fastest to 75. Mahomes would do it in his 30th game. Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce needs four receptions to surpass Kellen Winslow (101 games) for the fastest to 500 for tight end. Sunday will be Kelce’s 95th game.
And finally, Atlanta’s Julio Jones needs 119 receiving yards at Jacksonville to pass Jerry Rice (142 games) as the fastest to 12,000. Jones will play in his 126th game on Sunday.