This week in the NFL
With four weeks to go, there are 20 teams at .500 and better, and of those 12 are no more than two games over. That leaves a lot of uncertainty in the playoff picture, which isn’t a bad thing as far as the NFL is concerned and might not be a bad thing for those interested in tight playoff races. But it doesn’t speak well of the quality of football we might see in the playoffs. In the AFC South, for instance, Indianapolis, Houston and Tennessee are all 6-6. Maybe the Colts will get hot, but they’ve got lots of holes. In the NFC North, Green Bay and Minnesota are mathematically in the game, but the Vikings’ offense is punchless and the Packers’ defense is down for the count. In the NFC South, Atlanta and Tampa Bay are 7-5. The Buccaneers have won four straight and might keep going, but they are young and not bad-weather tested. The Falcons can’t seem to finish anyone off and have lost three times at home. In the AFC North, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both 7-5 and on winning streaks. The Ravens’ defense has been resurrected but will lead them only so far, and Pittsburgh hasn’t been the juggernaut everyone expected. The bottom line is the playoffs might not be competitive until the championship round. Dallas and Seattle appear head and shoulders above everyone else in the NFC and New England, Oakland and Kansas City will be next to impossible to beat at home come the postseason. Until then, let the jostling begin.
The New England Patriots have won at least 10 games a total of 14 consecutive seasons and are showing no sign of slowing down. This week, the Patriots face another tough test with the hot Baltimore Ravens, who have won four of their past five games. New England has won 10 games while playing four games without quarterback Tom Brady and against a very good slate of teams. Among the teams they’ll have played this season are Seattle, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Denver. If the Patriots beat the Ravens and Miami loses to Arizona, the Patriots would become the first team in NFL history to win eight consecutive division titles. They and the Packers lead the NFL with active streaks of seven consecutive years in the playoffs. It won’t be long before they’re guaranteed No. 8.
The Detroit express keeps rolling on and before the Lions (8-4) take on their obstacle-laden final three games, they get a chance to blow out the Chicago Bears and rest some starters. After Chicago, the Lions have the New York Giants (8-4), Dallas Cowboys (11-1) and Packers (6-6). As hot as the Lions are, this would be the perfect week to jump all over the Bears early and cruise into the fourth quarter with a huge lead. The last thing they need is a starter getting hurt in a meaningless quarter of football. The Lions have won six of the last seven meetings, but they laid a 17-14 egg in Chicago on Oct. 2, suffering their worst loss of the season. A year ago at Ford Field, the Lions squeaked out a 37-34 overtime victory. The Bears (3-9) are coming off a 26-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, which might not be saying a whole lot, but they did show some spunk on offense behind rookie Jordan Howard’s 117 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Howard is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. The Vikings (6-6) catch a break with a warm-weather game against a withering Jacksonville Jaguars team, losers of seven straight. The Vikings have scored 114 points over their last seven games (16.3), during which they’ve gone 1-6.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Dallas Cowboys (11-1) at New York Giants (8-4)
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday (NBC).
Key injuries: Cowboys — CB Morris Claiborne (groin), T Chaz Green (back) and S J.J. Wilcox (thigh) are out; S Barry Church (forearm), DE Jack Crawford (foot), LB Justin Durant (hamstring), DE Demarcus Lawrence (back), CB Orlando Scandrick (foot, not injury related) and T Tyron Smith (back) are questionable. Giants — S Nat Berhe (concussion), LB Mark Herzlich (concussion) and DE Jason Pierre-Paul (core muscle) are out; DT Johnathan Hankins (quadriceps), WR Dwayne Harris (ankle), DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa (knee), G Justin Pugh (knee) and CB Coty Sensabaugh (ribs) are questionable.
Player to watch: Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott leads the NFL with 1,285 rushing yards and ranks second in the league with 12 rushing TDs.
Recent history: The Giants have won the last two.
Key statistic: Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon has at least one sack in five straight games and two or more in his last two games.
Bottom line: The Giants handed the Cowboys their only loss way back in Week 1. Dallas was still making the transition from Tony Romo to rookie Dak Prescott and is a better team now. Both teams are winning with offense, but the Cowboys are dominating teams with theirs. They’re averaging 395.7 yards per game and they haven’t even had receiver Dez Bryant for a full season. Cole Beasley leads them in receiving with 60 catches for 670 yards and five touchdowns. No one has been able to rattle Prescott. In his last five games he has not thrown an interception and has a 123.2 rating. The Giants are improved on defense. They rank fifth in rushing defense and third in rushing average. Their pass defense is suspect, but their best bet is to try to shut down Elliott with eight in the box. In the opener, they held him to 51 yards on 20 carries with a long run of 8. Giants quarterback Eli Manning is hot at home with nine touchdowns and one interception in his last five games at MetLife. But he also has thrown eight of his 12 interceptions this season there.
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BY THE NUMBERS
26 Offense’s 10-play drives, third-most in the NFL.
0 Two-point conversions against the defense on four opponent tries.
14 Consecutive December home games quarterback Aaron Rodgers has won.
7 Consecutive games the team has gone without forcing a fumble.
46.7 Percent the offense is converting fourth downs (7 of 15).
8 Turnovers the Detroit Lions have committed, tied for fewest in the NFL.
1 300-yard passing performances by Minnesota’s quarterbacks.
7-17 Combined record on the road of the division’s four teams.
5 Consecutive games the Vikings have played without WR Stefon Diggs catching a touchdown pass.
2 Times Lions QB Matthew Stafford has fumbled. He had fumbled 24 times over the previous three seasons.
51.5 Jacksonville QB Blake Bortles’ third-down passer rating, lowest in the NFL.
Minus-127 Net point differential of the four teams in the AFC South.
1 Teams that are undefeated at home (Seattle).
8 Field goals of 50 or more yards by Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker this season, tied for second-most in NFL history.
3.2 Yards per carry Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley is averaging.