An early look at the Week 13 action, which features some teams trying to firm up playoff bids and others trying to stave off unemployment:
1. The Steelers know exactly what lies ahead. They know they must finish one game better than the Ravens, who swept the season series, and will have to do so by taking care of business within the division. It's tough sledding this season with all four AFC North teams ranking in the top six (!) in yards allowed and in the top nine in points allowed. They'll start it off in Week 13 with the Bengals in Pittsburgh, followed four days later with a game against the Browns. One nice improvement for the Steelers of late: They have improved in the turnover-creating department (Tyler Palko has helped that effort). Counting the two times they picked off Andy Dalton in the fourth quarter of the Week 10 matchup, the Steelers have created six turnovers in the past five quarters. Going back over the first 39 quarters, almost 10 whole games' worth, they had only forced a shocking four turnovers. What an amazing difference. The question now is whether the Steelers can get LaMarr Woodley back and have Troy Polamalu, assuming he passes his post-concussion tests, ready for this one.
2. Dalton was 14-1 as starting QB his senior year high school, 42-7 in four years at TCU and is now 7-4 as rookie. That's a Bud Wilkinson-esque 63-12 in the past six years. But even with Dalton's incredible amateur record, it's clear that A.J. Green makes him immensely better in the pros. Green gives the Bengals a chance to win, and the Steelers are well aware of this. He victimized them with a 36-yard touchdown in the previous meeting, splitting Polamalu and Ryan Clark. It was on that play that Green got hurt and then missed the Ravens game the next week. Dalton was shakier in that one and definitely missed his Wonder Twin. And Green came to the rescue Sunday against the Browns with a 51-yard grab that set up the game-winning field goal. We said that the first two games against the Steelers and Ravens were big tests, and the Bengals — though quite competitive in the games — went 0-2. Now comes phase two, and it's not an impossible challenge. The Chiefs showed that Ben Roethlisberger can be pressured and semi-contained, and the Bengals have a solid history of winning in Pittsburgh. Marvin Lewis has marched lesser teams into Pittsburgh and has four wins there since 2003. Win this one and the Bengals can be considered a legitimate playoff team.
3. Mike McCarthy addressed the team's mindset as the Packers hit the home stretch. "We're 11-0," he said. "Once you get to 11 wins, 12 wins, you can see that division championship in sight." McCarthy is playing this one brilliantly. Keep the talk about the division first, with the Bears and Lions still in it, and then turn their sights to everything but 16-0, or at least paint the undefeated thing as one way to earn larger goals. "The next focus (after that) will be home-field advantage. And the focus after that is winning the Super Bowl. ... We won't shy away from the (unbeaten) talk if we get to that (point)." That makes the Giants game Sunday in MetLife Stadium just another chance to inch closer to the NFC North crown. The Packers can clinch the division with a win and a Lions loss or having both the Bears and Lions losing. This contest certainly looks like a bit of a flashback to last season when the Giants came to Green Bay a weary team and left town feeling even worse in a 45-17 defeat. Aaron Rodgers in that game: 25-of-37 passing for 404 yards and four TDs. And Elisha Nelson Manning? Four interceptions. Of course, he wasn't the problem in the Giants' whipping down in New Orleans.
4. Many people have said that the Giants are the type of team that could prevent the Packers from going unbeaten, and they certainly have the history. Although the Giants failed in their first attempt to prevent the Patriots from remaining undefeated, losing to them in Week 17 of the 2007 season, they succeeded in the rematch, beating them in Super Bowl XVII. But nothing about this Giants team, certainly not the defense or run game, says it can win in Green Bay. Manning is capable of heroism; after all, remember New England earlier this season. But he alone can't make up for what the other elements of the team are doing. The Giants are built defensively to rush the passer and disrupt the timing of good passing attacks. That's fine against five- and seven-step drop teams with quarterbacks who process information at a normal rate. But Drew Brees and Rodgers perform this at a superhuman level. They get rid of the ball quicker than almost anyone in the league. That's why this looks like a bad matchup — again — for this team, even if the urgency and desperation are sky-high. "This is our playoffs," a beaten-up Justin Tuck said after the Saints dissected the Giants' defense. "We have to win this next game if we want to get where we want to go."
5. The Lions should find out soon whether they will be without DT Ndamukong Suh, who may or may not appeal his two-game suspension for stomping on a Packers lineman's head, sometime this week. Apparently Suh's last-ditch phone chat with Roger Goodell wasn't enough to change the commish's mind on the penalty. (An aside: PFW publisher Hub Arkush has a good reason on the possible genesis of Suh's rage.) But it might not matter. The Lions are expected to be without S Louis Delmas and perhaps CB Chris Houston and RB Kevin Smith. Stopping Brees and a multi-faceted passing game down two starting defensive backs is hard enough. Doing so without much of a run game is pretty damned tough. And trying to win a shootout with Matthew Stafford clearly off just isn't going to happen, at least not with all these things happening together. Stafford threw three picks on Thanksgiving against a Packers defense that likes to gamble (like the Saints in that regard) and has nine all told since fracturing his index finger and has had to wear The Glove, which is taking on Michael Jackson-like fame in Detroit. But Stafford was hopeful the extra time off this week could allow him to have the splint removed and that dang glove defenestrated.
6. Like the Giants, the Lions are built from the defensive line out. That's why the Saints' game plan on Sunday night could look quite similar to the one they unleashed upon the Giants on Monday. At times Sean Payton has been too cute with his offense and has spread the ball around too much, but there's no blaming him for the approach he took Monday. Even the fake field goal, which came up short, sent a message: It said, "You (the Giants) cannot stop us tonight and I am willing to call cutesy fakes on fourth-and-11 in makeable field-goal range." And he was right, too. So what chance do the Lions have? Well, the Saints defense lacks that same bravado. It caved a few times against the Giants and bent far too much for proper liking. This is not 2009; the Saints are not a turnover-forcing machine. That might turn out to be the team's Achilles heel, but for now it might not matter. With Brees, that offense and a rocking Superdome (excuse me, Mercedes-Benz Superdome), the Lions might be in trouble.
7. Well, the Texans might not have much in the way of luck, but they should not be dismissed either. The same reasons that many of us thought Matt Leinart would be in good shape — a great offensive line, the best 1-2 RB punch in the NFL, good tight ends and receivers and a top-10 (and maybe top-five) defense, to name a few — are the same reasons that T.J. Yates could be fine. Of course, we said similar things about Caleb Hanie in Chicago and Palko in Kansas City. It's certainly just as likely as the Texans get ready for the Falcons that they know deep down that Yates doesn't have a real chance and that whomever they sign this week might end up being their stretch-run and playoff QB. They held off on signing either Jeff Garcia or Jake Delhomme last week, opting instead for Kellen Clemens (nine unmemorable NFL starts) because they didn't want talk of distraction to bother Leinart in case he didn't come out of the chute on fire. But by going to either Garcia (58-58 regular-season record in NFL, 2-4 in playoffs) or Delhomme (56-40 regular-season mark, 5-3 in playoffs), they clearly are saying they need more. But Yates will have his chance, starting Sunday against the Falcons, and though the game is in Houston, he will be facing his hometown team. Yates grew up about 25 miles north of Atlanta in Marietta, and yet, interestingly, he lists the Colts as his favorite team growing up. Probably a Peyton Manning fan. Smart kid.
8. Don't look now, but the Falcons rank second in rush yards allowed and are tied for fifth in yards per carry allowed. For all the talk of the pass rush needing improvement in the offseason, as colleague Dan Parr notes, the run defense has been shockingly good. And they know it will have to be spot on with the rumbling Texans the next challenge. It would have been a nice comparison to see the Falcons try to slow down Adrian Peterson on Sunday, but he was out, leaving Toby Gerhart. Not quite the same thing, of course. Few teams have slowed down Arian Foster and Ben Tate, although the Jaguars did a somewhat remarkable job Sunday, holding Foster to 65 yards on 22 carries (and that included a 43-yarder) and Tate to 26 yards on five carries. Foster also fumbled twice in his own end of the field, losing one. Don't be stunned if the Falcons — pardon them if they are not frightened by Yates — do a good job shutting the run down.
9. In Week One, the AFC West starting quarterbacks were Philip Rivers (Chargers), Kyle Orton (Broncos), Matt Cassel (Chiefs) and Jason Campbell (Raiders). In Week 13, it likely will be Rivers (Chargers), Tim Tebow (Broncos), Orton (Chiefs, after a brief Palko respite) and Carson Palmer (Raiders). And — breaking news here — the division is very much up for grabs. Why else would the Chiefs claim Orton and take on his more than $2.5 million remaining salary? But they are the third-place team, despite some obvious talent. Right now, it's likely down to the Broncos and Raiders, separated by a game. And both teams must go on the road against teams mathematically out of the race. One of those opponents, though, appears to be playing vastly better than another.
10. Is it possible that the Raiders could struggle with the Dolphins this week and perhaps later beat the Packers? Why not? They turned in a complete-team victory against the Bears, and Palmer's comfort and confidence have grown with each throw. But the Dolphins are a bear to deal with lately. In the past six games, they have outscored their opponents by a count of 137-78 and have the improvement on the offensive line in that time to keep a dangerous Raiders' D-line at bay. Plus, Darren McFadden looks nowhere close to returning. The Raiders win ugly, they win in strange ways, but they win. It's a formula the Dolphins have taken a shining to after starting 0-7. "I have to reflect for a moment to Coach (Al) Davis," Raiders head coach Hue Jackson said after Sunday's win over the Bears. "One conversation I had with him before he passed was when he said, 'Hue, winning in this league is not easy, and it's not always going to be pretty.' ... He's right. I get disappointed when we don't do things as well as we can, and I am learning to enjoy the wins as they stack up. You know, we're a 7-4 football team, and we earned that victory (Sunday)."
11. If you want to read about what skills separate Tebow from the pack — and who doesn't? — please check out Nolan Nawrocki's Scout's Eye. For the rest of you, we'll turn our focus to two underrated elements of this surprising Broncos team: the defense and the offensive line. Dennis Allen, who was a candidate for the Eagles' coordinator position, has turned this unit into a very good one. It has allowed 10, 13 and 13 points the past three games and is built around the pass rush of Von Miller (just how good is this kid?) and Elvis Dumervil. The offensive line has been an incredible group, too, giving Tebow gobs to time to throw and that run game plenty of room to thrive. This looks like a rough matchup for the Vikings, who still might not have Peterson to counteract the Mighty Tebows and who outsmarted themselves a few times on Sunday. We also shouldn't forget about the Chiefs going to Chicago and the possible intrigue of Orton facing his old Bears team, but another element of the game worth talking about is the Chiefs' reborn defense facing Hanie, who was shaky in his first start, and the Bears.
12. More Thursday football! The ratings for this one likely won't match the Thanksgiving bonanza of the "HarBowl," certainly not with two disappointing playoff teams from a year ago, the Seahawks and Eagles, locking horns with matching 4-7 records. The Eagles are a hot mess, undressed in their loss to the Patriots that featured DeSean Jackson being benched late, coaches verbally sparring on the sideline and a "Fire Andy" Reid chant. Other than that, just another NFL Sunday in Philly. Now they must make the anti-49ers commute: Three time zones west to Seattle on a short week, and it's not clear if Michael Vick can heal up quickly enough to play. If he can't, it appears to be a semi-rematch of the 2006 Rose Bowl (hey, we need to give NFL Network some promo ideas here!) with Vince Young again facing Pete Carroll, who is coaching the Seahawks. His defense had been better coming into Week 12, but that was before Rex Grossman and the Redskins racked up more than 400 yards against it. Of course, Young hit the 400-yard passing mark Sunday and lost. Well, anyway, two of the best running backs — LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch — will be on the field, so don't forget to set your fantasy lineups accordingly.
13. I had a clever name pegged for Monday's Chargers-Jaguars game: The Coaching For Their Lives Bowl, sponsored by State Farm. And on Tuesday morning that yarn turned into reality as the Jaguars had something of a busy day, firing Jack Del Rio, promoting Mel Tucker, extending GM Gene Smith's contract and, oh, by the way, selling the team. You have to wonder whether the team will be focused, even with the guidance of Tucker, an excellent coach and defensive mind, for their primetime matchup, especially after Blaine Gabbert was benched in the fourth quarter of the loss to the Texans. (He'll start Monday.) But then again, the Chargers' focus isn't exactly razor-sharp right now, it would appear. Losers of six straight, the Chargers suffered their latest defeat when Norv Turner decided against trying to win in regulation Sunday against the Broncos. With 1:08 remaining in the fourth, a timeout in his pocket and the ball at his own 40, maybe 25 yards from field-goal range, Turner went soft and played for OT. That's when he and the Chargers were Tebowed (or something). But a confident coach doesn't call games that way. For Del Rio, the benching of Gabbert apparently was the last straw. A loss here for the Chargers, considering the circumstances, almost certainly would be Turner's Swan Song. As it is, things don't look too promising.
14. Speaking of coaching in peril, Steve Spagnuolo will march his beaten Rams into San Francisco with little in the way of hope following a step back defensively against the Cardinals, who bulldozed their way to victory. Other than an improbable win over the Saints at home, what evidence is there that the Rams can take this one? Sure, Sam Bradford looks a bit better, but this one looks rough on paper. The 49ers are rested and perhaps a little antsy and ornery following their Thanksgiving loss in Baltimore, and you'd have to think that the rough flight home and the extra time off will have the team ready to crack a few helmets as it focuses in on trying to secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC and the playoff bye that comes with it.
15. Colts-Patriots was for years the marquee conference rivalry that mysteriously appeared on the schedule without fail, despite the two teams not being in the same division since 2001. Now, this season, we wish it would go away. NBC made it go away by flexing these teams out and Saints-Lions in. The Patriots' 21-point spread is the biggest of the season, but it's worth noting that the Colts have lost only three games by that margin or bigger (two of those coming on the road) and the Patriots only have won two by that much, although they both have come in the past three games. That point spread is the NFL's first 20-plus margin since the Patriots were favored by 20.5 against the Jets in Week 15 of the 2007 season (per Mark Lawrence's Playbook) and the biggest line since the Patriots were a 25-point fave (believed to be the largest ever for an NFL regular-season game) against the Eagles three weeks prior that year. So yeah, there's some intrigue in this game. We have no doubts that Al Michaels would be slipping in some fourth-quarter references if he was doing the game. And with the news that the Colts are switching from Curtis Painter to Dan Orlovsky at QB, the latter could be the answer to a quite horrible trivia question one day: Who is the only quarterback to suit up for two 0-16 NFL teams? Orlovsky, you might remember quite mercifully, led the Lions to seven of their 16 losses in 2008.