The place to focus on this week is Down South, as in NFC South.
All three contenders in the NFL’s best division have difficult matchups Sunday, two of them facing off when top dogs Carolina and New Orleans go at it in the Big Easy. Atlanta, meanwhile, hosts NFC North leader Minnesota.
The Panthers and Saints are 8-3, and New Orleans has a win in Charlotte. So a season’s sweep by Drew Brees and company would make for a tidy tiebreaker.
“The fact is we play in a really tough division and there are a lot tough teams sitting at the top fighting for that spot, and we are all within a game of each other,” Brees says. “This is a tough stretch, the toughest stretch as we could possibly have, but it is good for us. We need this. Hopefully it brings out our best football.”
Maybe a comforting thought for the three teams involved is they all could be playing in January.
“It’s really crazy. You look at the NFC South, and there’s a chance that three teams actually make the playoffs, which is absolutely crazy to me,” Panthers veteran linebacker Thomas Davis says. “I think it’s just the NFC South and the way we’ve been playing this year.”
At 7-4, the Falcons trail by a game in the NFL’s toughest division. They go outside of it Sunday, but hardly get a relief: Minnesota (9-2) can beat you every which way and has won seven in a row.
The matchup of the Vikings’ powerful defense and the Falcons’ revitalized offense is a spicy one. Nowhere is that more true than Atlanta’s brilliant receiver Julio Jones against Minnesota’s shutdown cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
“Don’t believe in the hype, don’t be afraid of the name, just believe in the game,” Rhodes says. “I know he’s one of the best receivers in the league, and I’ve just got to go out and play with the mindset of having confidence going against him.”
The week’s action began Thursday night with Dallas’ 38-14 home victory over Washington.
Dak Prescott threw two touchdown passes, including a franchise record-breaker to Dez Bryant, and Dallas (66) finally won without suspended star running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Prescot shook off a hand injury and found Bryant on a 13-yard leaping grab in the end zone for the 2014 All-Pro’s first score in six games and 72nd of his career, one more than Hall of Famer Bob Hayes. Washington dropped to 5-7.
Philadelphia (10-1) at Seattle (7-4)
With the Eagles soaring toward the postseason behind the sensational work of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz and a dynamic defense that no one can run on, much attention will be centered on the hosts.
The Seahawks uncharacteristically need to win with offense as the Legion of Boom has been ravaged by injuries and penalties keep mounting.
Yet they can win that way thanks to Russell Wilson, who deserves consideration in the MVP race, and re-emerging tight end Jimmy Graham.
“I have to find ways to get him the football. It’s not just him, it’s everybody, but I think that he really stands out. He can do some special things,” Wilson says.
Philly has won nine in a row, four straight by at least 20 points. Only the 1999 St. Louis Rams did it five times. They won the Super Bowl.
Los Angeles Rams (8-3) at Arizona (5-6)
A nice bounce back by the Rams with a 26-20 win over New Orleans that followed a loss at Minnesota. This one can be tricky — witness what the undermanned Cardinals did to Jacksonville last Sunday.
These teams went at it in London in October, a 33-0 Rams win that was Arizona’s worst performance and cost it QB Carson Palmer (broken left arm). Los Angeles has displayed balance on both sides of the ball and was especially hard on Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 21 yards on 11 carries in London.
An LA win would even the series, which now is 38-37-2 for the Cardinals.
Pittsburgh (9-2) at Cincinnati (5-6), Monday night
The Bengals haven’t been bungling much lately, but this isn’t a matchup in their favor. Pittsburgh’s all-time edge in this series is 61-35, including two playoff wins at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers have won five straight and eight of nine in the rivalry. They also are 6-3 on Monday night vs. Cincinnati and have won 10 straight prime-time games. Pittsburgh is 11-2 on Monday nights under Mike Tomlin, including 6-2 on the road.
The Bengals are 11-23 on Monday nights, dropping its past three. During their loss in Pittsburgh on Oct. 22, the Bengals managed only one first down and 19 total yards in the second half.
New England (9-2) at Buffalo (6-5)
Shield your eyes, Bills fans, as we convey the numbers in this lopsided series. Under Bill Belichick:
— The Patriots are 29-5 overall vs. Buffalo;
— New England is 17-2 in games played after Halloween against the Bills;
— Tom Brady is 26-2 vs. Buffalo in games he plays more than one half;
— With a 15-2 record at Buffalo since 2000, Belichick has more wins at Orchard Park, N.Y., than any Bills coach since Wade Phillips went 17-7 from 1998-2000.
And, Brady’s 26 wins against Buffalo are tied with Brett Favre for most by a quarterback against one opponent in NFL history. Favre had 26 wins against Detroit.
OK, Bills fans, you can look now.
Detroit (6-5) at Baltimore (6-5)
A pair of wild-card chasers looking up at strong division leaders.
Detroit blew its chance to really tighten the NFC North by losing at home on Thanksgiving Day to Minnesota. Now, the Lions must concentrate on getting a wild-card invitation.
Lions WR Marvin Jones Jr. has eight TD catches, tied for second in the NFL, and if Matthew Stafford can go despite a bothersome ankle, they would be testing the No. 2 pass defense.
Baltimore had an NFL-high 18 interceptions and 26 takeaways for a turnover differential of plus-11. Terrell Suggs is the acknowledged leader of the unit that is reminding some of the glory days.
Indianapolis (3-8) at Jacksonville (7-4)
The tide has turned toward Jacksonville in this series, which Indy still leads 22-11 despite losing three of the past four.
As the Jaguars push for a playoff berth behind their sack-happy defense led by Calais Campbell — the DE needs one sack to break the franchise record set by Tony Brackens (12) in 1999 — they might want to test the Colts’ weak pass defense. But the Jags are a run-first team behind rookie RB Leonard Fournette.
Indy’s RB, Frank Gore , needs 27 yards rushing to pass Jerome Bettis (13,662) for sixth on the NFL’s career list and 49 yards to pass LaDainian Tomlinson (13,684) for fifth.
Houston (4-7) at Tennessee (7-4)
When the Texans set a team record in a 57-14 romp over the Titans in October, rookie Deshaun Watson was behind center. He’s sidelined by a torn ACL, and DeAndre Hopkins — the NFL leader with nine TD catches — gets the ball delivered by Tom Savage now.
NFL interceptions leader Keith Byard will also be seeking Savage’s throws as Tennessee looks for a sixth win in seven games to maintain at least a share of the AFC South lead with Jacksonville.
Kansas City (6-5) at New York Jets (4-7)
Two spiraling clubs, although much more has been expected of Kansas City, which opened with wins over New England and Philadelphia.
But Chiefs coach Andy Reid is 5-0 against the Jets, while QB Alex Smith is 3-0.
It will be noteworthy how Darrelle Revis fares for KC. The formers Jets star signed last week as a free agent. Revis’ second stint with the Jets ended when New York didn’t bring him back in offseason after subpar season. He played with the Jets from 2007-12 and 2015-16. Expect plenty of rust.
Cleveland (0-11) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-6)
We know what you’re thinking: Cleveland got off the schneid last season in Game 15 by beating the Chargers for the Browns’ only win.
For that to happen again would be a huge upset considering how LA has gone from 0-4 to contention in the AFC West.
The Browns are 1-26 in two seasons under coach Hue Jackson and 4-44 in the past 48 games — the worst stretch in NFL history. The Chargers could go sack-happy with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
New York Giants (2-9) at Oakland (5-6)
Tell us this: Was there more consternation from Raiders fans over the move to Las Vegas, or from Giants fans over the benching of Eli Manning?
Considering the Giants can’t block or run the ball, and have had their two best receivers on IR for months, blaming the quarterback who led them to two Super Bowls seems off-target.
Oakland remains on-target in the AFC West, where it trails slumping Kansas City by one game. The Raiders also are weakened at wideout, where Michael Crabtree is suspended and Amari Cooper has been battling an ankle problem while in the concussion protocol.
Tampa Bay (4-7) at Green Bay (5-6)
A shootout would seem possible with both defenses vulnerable to the pass. So can Jameis Winston, expected to start after missing three games with a shoulder injury, taking advantage for Tampa Bay? Winston has four games this season with at least 300 yards passing, tied for the most in one season in team history.
Despite losing at Pittsburgh with some strange clock management and play calling, the Packers did get backup QB Brett Hundley’s best showing since coming in for injured Aaron Rodgers. It would help Hundley if he could create some rapport with Jordy Nelson, who has not had more than 35 yards receiving in each of the five games started by Hundley.
Denver (3-8) at Miami (4-7)
Forget any shootouts here. The Dolphins are anemic with the ball, and the Broncos are unsteady as Trevor Siemian returns at quarterback.
Neither side is much good in the takeaway-giveaway department, either. Denver, which has lost seven straight, is next to last in turnover differential at minus-16. Miami is third worst at minus-10. The Broncos rank next to last with 24 turnovers.
Of most interest might be the coaching matchups. Denver’s Vance Joseph was Miami’s defensive coordinator last season, while Dolphins coach Adam Gase was a Broncos assistant from 2009-14.
San Francisco (1-10) at Chicago (3-8)
The Niners have lost all five road games, but they have something fresh going as QB Jimmy Garoppolo makes his first start since the trade from New England at the end of October. San Francisco also brings back Robbie Gould, who kicked for Chicago from 2005-15 and is the Bears’ all-time leader in points (1,207), field goals made (276), and field goals of at least 50 yards (23).
Chicago has lost four straight and John Fox is 12-31 in three seasons with the Bears.