The Minnesota Vikings have the inside track for the top seed in the NFC at the three-quarter mark of the season and put their eight-game winning streak on the line when they visit the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Minnesota, which holds the tiebreaker with Philadelphia for the No. 1 seed, has a chance to clinch the NFC North title.
While the Vikings hold the tiebreaker over Philadelphia for home field throughout the playoffs, coach Mike Zimmer is more concerned with the immediate task at hand against an opponent also in contention for a division title. "We've got four games left," Zimmer said. "My only thoughts are on the Carolina Panthers and trying to get a win this week. All that stuff is nice to talk about, but for us we'll go about our business." Carolina had a four-game winning streak snapped at New Orleans last week in a showdown for first place in the NFC South, but it sits one game behind the Saints and two back of Minnesota. "There's still things in our future that can get us on the right track again," acknowledged quarterback Cam Newton of the Panthers, who play their next three games at home.
TV: 1 p.m. ET, CBS. LINE: Vikings -3. O/U: 41
ABOUT THE VIKINGS (10-2): Minnesota improved to 3-0 against NFC South competition with an impressive 14-9 road win at Atlanta last week, limiting the defending conference champion to three field goals and 275 total yards. The Vikings lead the NFC in scoring defense (17.0 points) and are the league's best third-down defense, holding Atlanta to 1-for-10 in such situations. Quarterback Case Keenum posted his fourth consecutive 100-plus passer rating and completed a season-high 83.3 percent of his passes at Atlanta, giving him five touchdowns and zero interceptions in the past three games. Wideout Adam Thielen (74 receptions) is Keenum's top target while Latavius Murray has stabilized the running game with seven straight games of at least 15 carries.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (8-4): Newton has rushed for at least 50 yards in five of the seven games, and he may be on the run again facing a Minnesota defense that sacked him eight times in a 22-10 win last season. Newton, who has six touchdown passes and no interceptions in the past three games, could be bolstered by the return of tight end Greg Olsen and center Ryan Kalil, who have each missed the bulk of the season due to injuries but are on track to play. Devin Funchess has thrived since the trade of top wideout Kelvin Benjamin with 21 receptions and three TDs in four games since the deal. Linebacker Thomas Davis (hamstring) is a question mark for a defense that coach Ron Rivera said was "embarrassed" by last week's performance.
1. Keenum is averaging 275.3 passing yards with 10 TDs and three interceptions in his last four road games.
2. Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart is averaging a career-worst 3.2 yards per game.
3. Vikings DE Everson Griffen ranks fourth in the league with 12 sacks.
PREDICTION: Panthers 20, Vikings 17
Eagles at Rams
The Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles feature high-octane offenses that are fueled by the top two quarterbacks selected in the 2016 NFL draft. Top overall pick Jared Goff will look to lead the Rams to a victory at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday over the Eagles and Wentz, who was tabbed with the second overall selection of that draft.
"Obviously it'll be fun to play against him, but I'm more excited to play their team," Goff (3,184 yards, 20 TDs, eight INTs) said of Wentz (3,009 yards, 29 TDs, six INTs) and the Eagles. "... They're a great team and obviously one of the best in the league for a reason." The Rams have their reasons, too, with Goff at the top of the list as the 23-year-old threw for two touchdowns for the second straight week and guided his team to its sixth win in seven outings with a 32-16 triumph at Arizona. Philadelphia was unable to clinch the NFC East title after seeing its nine-game winning streak snapped with a 24-10 loss to Seattle, but the Eagles can wrap up the division with either a win or tie or a Dallas loss or tie this week. Wentz, 24, threw for a season-high 348 passing yards against the Seahawks, but failed to throw for multiple touchdowns for the first time since Week 4.
Packers at Browns
The Green Bay Packers are one week away from the potential return of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers and are trying to ensure he has a playoff race to rejoin. The Packers will try to keep their dwindling postseason hopes alive when they visit the winless Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Rodgers (broken collarbone) returned to practice last weekend and is eligible to come off injured reserve at Carolina on Dec. 17. "I think we know when (Rodgers) comes back we know what he brings to the table," Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews told reporters. "In the meantime, there's no point in getting too excited over his hopeful return, because (backup Brett Hundley is) our guy. We've got these four more games, and I assume one more game with Brett at the helm. We've got to get this win first, but hopefully that's the plan moving forward." The Packers enter the weekend ninth in the NFC with four games left while the Browns are just trying to avoid becoming the second NFL team to go winless in a 16-game season. Cleveland is dealing with its own issues at quarterback as rookie DeShone Kizer goes through some growing pains and ranks last in theNFL in scoring at an average of 14.7 points.
Lions at Buccaneers
Matthew Stafford is no stranger to playing through injuries, and with the Detroit Lions scraping to stay in the NFC playoff race, he is making every effort to be on the field Sunday against the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Lions have lost two straight to fall two games off the pace for the second wild card.
Stafford, who had his throwing hand stepped on by Terrell Suggs during a 44-20 loss at Baltimore last week, resumed throwing in practice Thursday with his right pinky and ring fingers taped. He was limited, however, and the possibility remains that Jake Rudock could be called upon if Stafford is unable to make his 109th consecutive start or is ineffective due to the injury. "I think anytime in this league when the starting quarterback is not playing, offenses change," Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter told reporters. "So we would adjust to play to Rudock's strengths, and obviously, he hasn't had a ton of experience, he's a younger player. We would adjust as needed, but we'll evaluate that as needed." The Buccaneers have lost two straight contests and seven of their last nine, including a setback against another backup quarterback last week - a 26-20 overtime defeat at Green Bay.
Ravens at Steelers
After rallying for a dramatic win to knock off one bitter division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers return home to face another when they host the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night. Winners of seven in a row, the Steelers can maintain their tenuous grip on the No. 1 seed in the AFC and wrap up the AFC North Division title with a victory.
Pittsburgh will be without a key player on both sides of the ball—injured linebacker Ryan Shazier and suspended wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster—as it vies for a season sweep of the Ravens. "We embrace the challenges of playing in this division—how tough it is and the intentions of those we compete against," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We'll be energized by game time on Sunday. We'll be excited about defending our turf against a very good football team." Baltimore, which was dominated at home by Pittsburgh 26-9 in Week 4, has won three in a row and holds a one-game edge for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. "It's a great rivalry," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of facing the Steelers. "We love playing in it. It's the most physical game we play every single year. It's always tough coming out of the game in that you're going to have a lot of bumps and bruises for sure. We have respect for them."
Colts at Bills
After a disastrous NFL debut, Nathan Peterman may get another chance to make a first impression at quarterback as the Buffalo Bills host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Peterman threw five interceptions in the first half of his first start with the Bills three weeks ago in a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and will get the call again if Tyrod Taylor is unable to play after sustaining a knee injury last week.
Taylor has practiced in a limited fashion, leaving his availability in question and possibly putting Peterman back under center for the Bills, who have lost four of their last five and are near the brink of elimination in the playoff picture. The Colts have lost three straight and are 1-5 on the road. Jacoby Brissett has kept Indianapolis competitive for much of the season, but without much success to show for it as the Colts' defense has been the main culprit, ranking last in the NFLwhile surrendering 27.5 points a game. Brissett has thrown seven touchdown passes over the past four games, but was stymied by Jacksonville's solid defense last week by throwing for just 174 yards with two interceptions in a 30-10 loss.
Cowboys at Giants
A December meeting between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys had the potential to be a key NFC East meeting when the schedule was released, but things didn't quite work out that way. The last-place Giants will be operating under an interim coach and will have Eli Manning back under center when they host the Cowboys on Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will serve as the interim head coach for New York the rest of the way after the team fired head coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese on Monday. "I feel for Coach McAdoo—he's been a great coach for me, a great friend," Manning told reporters. "We had a great relationship; I hope we continue to have one. I was able to have a good talk with him Sunday before the game and then got to see him Monday before he left as well. So, I have great respect for Coach McAdoo and I don't think this is his fault, but obviously, just where the team is, the Giants had to make a decision, and that's what happens when you're 2-10." The Cowboys aren't where they thought they would be, either, and they sit two games out of a wild-card spot in the NFC with four games left. "The biggest thing we tried to preach to our guys is just to prepare for the opportunity that we have on Sunday," Dallas coach Jason Garrett told reporters. "It's the same thing we're preaching right now to our team, to get ready for this opportunity that we have. Each day's worth of preparation is critical to allow us to play our best."
49ers at Texans
The Jimmy Garoppolo era apparently has begun for the San Francisco 49ers, who seek their third win in four games when they visit the injury-plagued Houston Texans on Sunday. Acquired from New England at the end of October, Garoppolo made his first start for the 49ers last week and guided them to a 15-14 triumph in Chicago.
The 26-year-old Garoppolo, who was a second-round pick in the 2014 draft, completed 26-of-37 passes for 293 yards with an interception but helped guide San Francisco to the game-winning field goal, earning himself a second consecutive start. Already without numerous key players due to injuries, Houston lost three players to concussions in last week's 24-13 setback at Tennessee. Running back Alfred Blue, wide receiver Braxton Miller and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz all wend down with head injuries in the loss, which was the second straight and fourth in five games for the Texans. Miller wasn't the only receiver Houston lost in the defeat, as Bruce Ellington exited the contest early with a season-ending hamstring injury, leaving quarterback Tom Savage without many targets other than DeAndre Hopkins, who is tied for the league lead with nine touchdown catches.
Titans at Cardinals
The Tennessee Titans hope to maintain their hold on first place in the AFC South when they visit the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Tennessee shares the same record as Jacksonville but sits atop the division by virtue of its 37-16 road victory over the Jaguars in Week 2.
The Titans have grabbed the top spot by winning six of their last seven contests, including last week's 24-13 triumph over Houston. Arizona is coming off its third defeat in four games, a 32-16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, but is looking to avoid a second consecutive non-winning season under coach Bruce Arians. With Adrian Peterson unlikely to face Tennessee due to a neck injury, the Cardinals again may have to put their running game in the hands of Kerwynn Williams, who gained 97 yards on 16 carries against the Rams despite playing with two cracked ribs. Arizona has won two of its last three meetings with the Titans, including a 20-10 triumph on Oct. 23, 2005 in the last matchup in the desert.
Raiders at Chiefs
Two of the three teams deadlocked atop the AFC West go head-to-head on Sunday, when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Oakland Raiders. The Chiefs have lost four games in a row and six of seven, while the Raiders have won two straight.
The Raiders, once three games behind the Chiefs, turned around their season with a wild 31-30 win over Kansas City in Week 7, scoring the winning touchdown on an untimed down on the last play. "These are hard-fought games," Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith told reporters. "They are close and they come down to the smallest of things. You scratch and you fight for all those little things. You anticipate it probably being a similar situation, coming down to the end of the game and who can make the play." The Chiefs will be without top cornerback Marcus Peters, who was suspended by the team following an outburst in the final minutes of last week's 38-31 road loss to the New York Jets. Kansas City's depleted secondary could catch a break, though, as Oakland receiver Amari Cooper, who torched the Chiefs for 210 yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches in the first meeting, is doubtful with an ankle injury.
Seahawks at Jaguars
Some members of the Jacksonville Jaguars are complaining about a lack of respect, but there is plenty of opportunity to gain a measure of it when they host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. The upstart Jaguars are battling Tennessee for first place in the AFC South and can make a loud statement by prevailing against the Seahawks, who have made five straight playoff appearances.
Jacksonville leads the NFL in scoring defense (14.8 points), total defense (282.5 yards) and sacks (45), and cornerback Jalen Ramsey is barking about the lack of recognition. "We were sorry last year, but we're not this year," Ramsey told reporters. "We ain't talking about last year. You all have to stop doing that. ... It's a new year. It's a new league - everything. There are new big dogs around the NFL. Stop doing that. Stop hyping people up." Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson will present a big challenge for the stingy Jaguars as he is enjoying an MVP-caliber season with 3,256 yards and 26 touchdown passes. The Seahawks trail the Los Angeles Rams by one game in the NFC West and can't afford to overlook Jacksonville with a showdown against the Rams on the docket next week.
Bears at Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals' playoff hopes took a major hit last week when they blew a 17-point lead in a loss to division rival Pittsburgh on Monday night. With no room left for error, Cincinnati hosts the Chicago Bears in a must-win on Sunday and may have to do it without several of their top players who were injured in the violent contest against the Steelers.
Cincinnati not only dropped a brutal 23-20 decision to the Steelers, but may have also lost running back Joe Mixon and linebacker Vontaze Burfict to concussions in the hard-hitting affair. Both players missed practice during the week while in concussion protocol and Burfict, who was blasted by Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster late in Monday night's game, is unlikely to play. The Bears have been reduced to the role of spoiler for some time and lost to San Francisco 15-14 last week despite not giving up a touchdown. Chicago is just 1-4 on the road this season and ranks last in the NFL in passing as rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and company have thrown for just over 160 yards a game.
Redskins at Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers surprisingly are in a battle for first place in the AFC West as they prepare to host the Washington Redskins on Sunday. The Chargers got off to a woeful 0-4 start but have won six of their last eight games and now own the same record as division-leading Kansas City and Oakland.
Los Angeles' turnaround has revolved around stellar play from Philip Rivers and receiver Keenan Allen, as well as an opportunistic defense that has forced a league-best 19 turnovers during the eight-game stretch. "If your turnover margin is where we are, you should win six of eight," Rivers told reporters of the team's plus-14 ratio during the span. "That is a direct correlation to winning. Not turning the football over and getting turnovers, that is as direct as you are going to get." The Redskins are close to being eliminated from the NFC playoff picture, but quarterback Kirk Cousins (3,289 yards, 21 touchdowns, eight interceptions) is having just as good a season as Rivers (3,292, 21, seven). "I respect, first of all, his longevity," Cousins said of Rivers during a conference call. "He's like the Terminator; he just says, 'I'll be back,' no matter what happens. Injuries. Adversity around him. Coaching changes. Roster changes. He just keeps coming back, and his production has never really wavered."
Jets at Broncos
Josh McCown enjoyed his best performance of the season last week during what has become a career year for the journeyman quarterback. Fresh off accounting for three touchdowns to earn AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors, McCown looks to lift the New York Jets to their second straight win on Sunday when they visit the reeling Denver Broncos.
McCown passed for one touchdown and rushed for two others in the Jets' 38-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, a performance that perhaps aided in the decision of coach Todd Bowles naming the 38-year-old as the team's starting quarterback for the rest of the season. "When he's on the field, he's very effective," Bowles said of McCown, who looks to exploit a slumping Broncos defense that has yielded multiple touchdown passes in five straight games. That statistic among many others is why Denver has answered a promising 3-1 start with losses in eight straight, with seven of the setbacks by double digits - including four by 20 or more points. "Losing obviously is one thing, but I think the way that we've lost has been the most frustrating thing," general manager John Elway said on Denver radio station KDSP-AM 760.
Patriots at Dolphins
The New England Patriots have been among the league's best teams at keeping focused on the task at hand, but they must avoid looking ahead when they visit the Miami Dolphins on Monday night. Red-hot New England is tied with Pittsburgh for the best overall record (and No. 1 seed) in the AFC and has a showdown looming in the Steel City on Dec. 17.
The Patriots have ripped off eight consecutive victories, including a 35-17 win over the Dolphins three weeks ago, but they have lost three of their past four visits to Miami. "They always play well down there against us, so I think we know it's going to be a lot different game, and environment, and everything else Monday night from what it was (on Nov. 26)," New England coach Bill Belichick said. While the Patriots can clinch a record nine AFC East title in a row, the Dolphins need a victory to keep their flickering postseason hopes alive. Miami, which entered the weekend trailing Baltimore by two games for the final playoff slot in the AFC, halted a five-game skid with a 35-9 drubbing of the reeling Denver Broncos last weekend.
NFL News & Notes
Browns claim Rooney Rule compliance
Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam introduced new general manager John Dorsey on Friday and said the team "absolutely" complied with the NFL's Rooney Rule that requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate.
The winless Browns shook up their front office Thursday, first firing executive vice president/general manager Sashi Brown, then hiring Dorsey as the new GM.
Dorsey made a significant move immediately. The Browns waived wide receiver Kenny Britt just one season into a four-year, $32.5 million contract signed in the offseason. Britt has 18 receptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns this season.
Dorsey was fired by the Kansas City Chiefs in June after a four-season run as general manager. He previously worked in the front offices of the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. He received a four-year contract from the Browns.
The quick move to hire Dorsey raised questions from John Wooten, head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, over whether the Browns violated the Rooney Rule, which calls for at least one minority candidate to be interviewed for general manager and head coach openings. A league spokesperson confirmed to USA Today on Friday that the Browns did not violate the Rooney Rule.
Payton rips refs
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton is still fuming over what he called "extremely poor" officiating in Thursday night's loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
The NFL is reviewing Payton's behavior toward the officiating crew after he drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the fourth quarter, according to ESPN. He has not talked to anyone yet in the league office following the Saints' 20-17 loss.
Payton's frustrations during the game carried over to Friday when he expanded on his issues with the officials during a teleconference.
"I thought the officiating was extremely poor," Payton said. "Inconsistent would be a great way to put it, and I thought that had a lot to do with the way this game ended. It's frustrating when you have a game, instead of it being decided on the field like it's supposed to, you have a crew make so many mistakes in one event."
Brees no fan of Thursday games
The Saints lost six players to injuries during Thursday's game, and quarterback Drew Brees sounded off after the game, saying the reason is "100 percent a product of playing on Thursday night."
New Orleans lost running back Alvin Kamara and guard Senio Kelemete with concussions; linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro with groin injuries; defensive end Trey Hendrickson with an ankle injury; and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. with an unspecified injury.
"It's 100 percent a product of playing on Thursday night," Brees told reporters after the game.
Giants' Jennings retiring
Former New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings announced he is retiring after eight seasons in the NFL.
The 32-year-old Jennings wrote on Twitter: "If good things don't come to an end, then how can better things begin? I'm truly humbled. I'm truly excited... More to come on this. But for now, I just want to say THANK YOU. Thank you to everyone! #ShadHumbled."
Jennings finished with 3,772 rushing yards, 1,469 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns in a career that began with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009 as a seven-round draft pick.
Stafford nursing injury
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers due to a bruised right hand.
Stafford threw more passes in Friday's practice after throwing none on Wednesday and only light tosses on Thursday.
Stafford has started 108 consecutive games, the third-longest current streak among NFL quarterbacks.
Bengals banged up
The Cincinnati Bengals ruled out six starters for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears, including five on defense.
In Monday night's physical 23-20 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and running back Joe Mixon all sustained concussions, while cornerback Adam Jones injured his groin in the game.
Linebacker Nick Vigil (ankle) and safety Shawn Williams (hamstring) had injuries prior to Monday night's game and also were ruled this week.
Peterson to miss another game
Arizona Cardinals running back Adrian Peterson will miss Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans due to a neck injury, coach Bruce Arians told reporters.
It will be the second straight game Peterson has missed.
Oakland Raiders receiver Amari Cooper returned to practice on Friday and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cooper suffered a concussion and an ankle injury two Sundays ago against the Denver Broncos and missed last week's game against the New York Giants.