Everything you need to know as kickoff approaches...
Key game-time decisions
All players questionable unless noted
McCaffrey was limited on Thursday and Friday and should play as long as Saturday's walkthrough goes well. Davis, Thompson and Kalil were also all limited on Thursday and Friday.
Lattimore returned to practice on Friday as a limited participant after missing Thursday's session. Armstead was limited on Friday.
Abdullah and Lang both returned to practice on Friday as limited participants.
Novak was limited on Friday after getting in a full practice on Thursday. Hayward sat out all week while dealing with the death of his brother, who died in a car accident this week.
Collins was full go on Thursday and Friday, a good indication he should play Sunday. Stanley was also a full participant at the end of the week. Smith, Mosley and Humphrey were limited all week.
Matthews returned to practice on Friday on a limited basis.
Forte was limited on Thursday and Friday.
The trio was limited on Friday.
Sitton and Callahan were limited on Friday.
Winston will start Sunday after missing three games. Brate and Jackson were limited on Thursday and Friday. The Bucs ruled out RB Doug Martin (concussion), DE Robert Ayers (concussion), CB Vernon Hargreaves (hamstring), DT Clinton McDonald (back), S Josh Robinson (hamstring), and S T.J. Ward (concussion).
Walker sat out all week.
Vikings at Falcons (indoors) -- 59 degrees, partly cloudy
Texans at Titans -- 66 degrees, clear
Chiefs at Jets -- 50 degrees, partly cloudy
Broncos at Dolphins -- 78 degrees, partly cloudy, winds 10 mph
Lions at Ravens -- 51 degrees, clear
Patriots at Bills -- 42 degrees, clear
49ers at Bears -- 47 degrees, clear
Bucs at Packers -- 44 degrees, clear
Colts at Jaguars -- 70 degrees, partly
Browns at Chargers -- 69 degrees, mostly cloudy
Panthers at Saints (indoors) -- 69 degrees, partly cloudy
Giants at Raiders - 57 degrees, clear
Rams at Cardinals (indoors) -- 75 degrees, partly cloudy
Eagles at Seahawks (SNF) -- 44 degrees, partly cloudy
Steelers at Bengals (MNF) -- 59 degrees, mostly cloudy, winds 10 mph
What to Watch For
We begin a week of big matchups with the best game of the early slate.
A pivotal matchup for playoff position, Sunday's tilt in Atlanta game features an ascending Falcons offense against a stingy Vikings defense. Atlanta is one of three teams ranking in the top 10 in both pass and rush offense, while Minnesota is one of three teams in the top five in both scoring and total defense. Coming off his huge game last week, Julio Jones will be the focal point in a matchup against Xavier Rhodes. The Vikes' corner has two INTs and seven passes defended this season. Meanwhile, Jones looked like a video-game player hauling in 12 catches for 253 yards in Week 12. If Rhodes stymies Jones early, it will put the onus on Matt Ryan to connect with Mohamed Sanu and tight end Austin Hooper repeatedly. Sanu versus veteran Terence Newman is an underrated matchup as the ageless slot corner has played stellar in recent weeks.
We can stop questioning Case Keenum. The Vikings' quarterback has completed 70 percent of his passes and eclipsed 100-plus passer rating in three straight games. He's no longer simply a placeholder. Keenum's sublime pocket movement allows receivers time to work open on intermediate routes and his ball placement on deep passes has been on the money all season. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have the advantage against a hard-hitting, but vulnerable Atlanta secondary that will be without top corner Desmond Trufant. With the running game able to churn out yardage against the Falcons' interior, look for Keenum to connect on deep shots off play action to Thielen and Diggs on Sunday in the fast indoor track in Atlanta.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Falcons' offense has improved in several key areas over its last five games: Weeks 8-12: 27.4 points per game (won 4 of 5 games). Weeks 4-7: 13.7 points per game (lost all three games).
With no running game to speak of, Matthew Stafford will be forced to throw into the teeth of the Baltimore secondary. The Ravens rank No. 2 in Football Outsiders' DVOA against the pass and have allowed just 191.0 pass YPG since Week 8. Stafford has been on fire of late, tossing for 316.4 yards per game since Week 8 -- tops in the NFL in that span. Marvin Jones will be the key target Sunday. The boundary receiver has 100-plus receiving yards in three of his last five games and got the best of Xavier Rhodes last week. The Ravens have pummeled a gaggle of low-level passers this season. Shutting down Stafford on Sunday would put to rest the questions about beating up on creampuffs.
The Ravens dead-on-arrival offense ranks last in the NFL in passing yards per game (164.3) and yards per play (4.4). While Joe Flacco talked about opening the offense this week, the best matchups for the Ravens are tight end Ben Watson on intermediate crossers and leaning on the run game versus a weak Detroit interior front. Sunday's tilt in Baltimore sets up as a game to ride bruising Alex Collins up the gut to churn out yards. Collins runs as angry as anyone this side of Marshawn Lynch. Leaning on Collins to shred a Lions D-line that sorely misses Haloti Ngata should be the game plan for Marty Mornhinweg.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Ravens have yet to beat a team with a winning record this season (0-4, based on record entering Week 13). Six-and-one vs. teams with a record below .500 this season. All of Baltimore's wins have come against QBs with a career passer rating below 90 this season.
We could discuss Tom Brady's accolades all day or talk about Rob Gronkowski's annual torching of the Bills. Instead, let's focus on Dion Lewis, who isn't getting enough praise as the engine out of the backfield. Lewis has the fourth-most all-purpose yards (795) in the NFL since Week 5. The running back is not merely doing it as a satellite player but he has gashed defenses between the tackles in recent weeks. If not for the Patriots' desire to rotate, Lewis could be a legitimate three-down back. Buffalo's run defense bounced back last week but remains 27th in DVOA. With the Bills hyping up to try and slow Brady and Gronk, Lewis could gash Buffalo between the tackles, as we saw Alvin Kamara do several weeks ago.
LeSean McCoy accounts for 30.5 percent of the Bills' scrimmage yards this season, third-most in the NFL. We know Bill Belichick prides himself on taking away the opponent's best weapon, which means all Patriots eyes will be on McCoy in the ground and pass game. Can Tyrod Taylor carry the load if McCoy is bottled up? The quarterback doesn't turn the ball over (only Brady has a better interception rate than Taylor this season) and can be deadly Sunday with his legs against a Pats defense that struggles with running quarterbacks -- see Cam Newton earlier this year. New England's defense has stiffened, however, allowed the fewest PPG since Week 5 (13.1) and held every opponent to 17 points or fewer.
NFL Research stat of the week: The Patriots are on pace to become the first team since the 1963 Colts, led by HOF QB Johnny Unitas, to lead the NFL outright in net pass YPG and have the fewest INTs (no ties) in the same season. 2017 Patriots: 297.0 pass YPG, 2 INT. 1963 Colts: 235.4 pass YPG, 12 INT.
Few games for one-win teams come with as much anticipation as the 49ers' tilt in Chicago on Sunday. Fans in the Bay Area will rise early to catch Jimmy Garoppolo make his first start in a Niners uniform. Garoppolo has 96 career pass attempts (including attempts in non-starts), going 65-of-96 passing for 708 yards, six TDs and zero INTs, and a 110.1 passer rating. Everything we've seen and heard suggests he's the franchise quarterback for which San Francisco has been searching. Yes, his offensive line is disastrous. Yes, his receiving corps is among the worst in the NFL. Yes, he's facing a Vic Fangio defense that can cause havoc to even experienced players. Aren't franchise quarterbacks supposed to elevate their teammates' play above such troubles? Garoppolo's mobility will help him behind a faulty line, and his accuracy should aid his pass catchers. Sunday could be the first glimpse of the future for the Niners.
Mitchell Trubisky has struggled recently and had his first career multi-INT game last week in Philadelphia. While John Fox's history suggests he'll go back to the ground-only attack, it would be a welcome sight to let his rookie quarterback sling it against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL -- No. 29 in DVOA. Let's see how the connection between Trubisky and Dontrelle Inman has grown. The duo should be able to take advantage of the soft, injured 49ers secondary. In a lost season, the few glimpses of promise are all fans have to cling to this time of year. A big game Sunday could set Trubisky up for a good stretch-run against a few suspect defenses and build confidence for the offseason. With the Niners trotting out their young quarterback, Fox should let Trubisky show Chicago fans his own progress. (However unlikely this scenario is, we can always dream.).
NFL Research stat of the week: In an extremely limited sample size (2 starts), Garoppolo has the highest passer rating as a starter by any quarterback with multiple starts since the 1970 merger: Jimmy Garoppolo 119.0; HOU Deshaun Watson 108.4; GB Aaron Rodgers 104.5; DAL Dak Prescott 102.2; HOF Steve Young 101.4.
Jameis Winston returns after missing the past three games with a shoulder injury. The Bucs' franchise quarterback has a plus matchup to come back with a bang. The Packers' secondary is porous, and the defensive front gets little pressure. Green Bay has given up big games to the likes of Antonio Brown and Marvin Jones, and even a good one to Dontrelle Inman. This sets up for a big day for Winston's favorite target, Mike Evans. Evans has yet to break the 100-yard barrier this season but has 11 catches for 170 yards the past two weeks. He could finally break triple digits and is a good bet to find pay dirt Sunday at Lambeau.
Can Brett Hundley repeat his stellar performance from last week when he had career highs in pass yards (245), pass TDs (3), and passer rating (134.3)? The Packers quarterback displayed calmness and confidence in Week 12 that he's lacked since taking over for Aaron Rodgers. Is everything finally clicking or was that a flash that will quickly dissipate? Hundley has a good matchup against a Bucs defense that rarely disrupts the quarterback -- where he struggles the most -- and repeatedly gets burned deep on the back end. Against the Bucs' 30th ranked DVOA pass D, Davante Adams should be in for a big day as Hundley's go-to target.
NFL Research stat of the week:Brett Hundley's 134.3 passer rating in Pittsburgh on SNF was the highest of any QB on the road against a team 8-2 or better since at least 1970.
In a rematch of the sack-a-palooza (10) in Week 7 that helped fuel the Sacksonville moniker, can Jacoby Brissett avoid the pressure this time around? The Jaguars' defense is allowing 15.3 PPG and will enter Sunday's tilt angry after being beaten by Blaine Gabbert last week. Couple a rage-filled Jags pass rush with bad offensive line play from Indy, and it's not a good recipe for Brissett to continue his stellar play. The Jags' most consistent weakness on defense has been covering backs out of the backfield. Expect the Colts to try to take advantage with Frank Gore and especially Marlon Mack. If the screen game is going early, it could relieve some of the pressure on Brissett.
Blake Bortles had his best game of the season against the Colts in Week 7, tossing for 330 yards and one TD. Leonard Fournette didn't play that week. With teams stacking the box to stymie the run, Bortles has averaged 38 passes the past four games. While that ratio leads to an inconsistent offense, it's a trend that will likely continue against Indy. The Colts do a decent job mucking up the run but have one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL (28 in DVOA). Leaning on Bortles blew up on the Jags last week, as he had his worst game of the season. Against a worse defense, can Blake do enough to bounce back or will the season spiral out of control for the maligned quarterback?
NFL Research stat of the week:Calais Campbell has 11.5 sacks this season (T-3rd in NFL). He needs one sack to set JAX franchise record (Tony Brackens 12.0, 1999).
The Broncos turn back to Trevor Siemian, the best quarterback on the roster. If he can get the ball out before Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh injure him, Siemian has a matchup to exploit through the air. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders should eat against Dolphins' Xavien Howard, Cordrea Tankersley and the No. 31-ranked pass defense by DVOA metrics. With the quarterback merry-go-round highlighting the seven-game losing streak, the Broncos' offense could finally get right in Miami.
Jay Cutler returns. Again. Get excited. The Dolphins will hand the reins back to Cutler after two pedestrian games with Matt Moore under center. Facing the Denver defense isn't a reprieve for Miami, despite injuries to the Broncos' front. The Aqib Talib suspension will provide the most tangible benefit for DeVante Parker. While Jarvis Landry tussles with the stingy Chris Harris, Parker has a plus-matchup against backups. Parker was again called out by coaches this week for inconsistent play. Will he snap out of the funk and show life as Cutler's best option on the outside?
The vocal anxiety about Alex Smith's play won't change things for Andy Reid. The bigger issue for the Chiefs' staff is the stagnated running game, which isn't getting holes from the offensive line. If defenses are going to sit back and play Cover 2, forcing Smith to check down, the run game must take advantage. Kareem Hunt has failed to record 100 scrimmage yards in each of his last four games after gaining 100-plus yards in each of his first seven career games. Sunday versus a Jets defense that has stuffed the run regularly this season makes it a tough task to snap Hunt's struggling streak. Against a Todd Bowles defense that consistently plays hard, it could be another problematic day for Smith and the Chiefs, which will, in turn, lead to more questions about the quarterback's status. Who isn't ready for another week of QB question in K.C.?
Darrelle Revis returns to New York wearing enemy colors. I doubt anyone on the Jets is terrified of the veteran corner. Revis allowed the third-highest passer rating in coverage last season (114.7) among all players targeted 80-plus times (41 players). Notably, Revis was burned deep repeatedly in recent seasons. Expect Josh McCown to test Revis with big-play wunderkind Robby Anderson on Sunday. The Jets' offense, which has been solid most of the season, faces a K.C. D that is one of two teams in the bottom five in pass defense and run defense this season (2-9 Giants). Gang Green's offense should move the ball with Anderson, Jermaine Kearse and Austin Seferian-Jenkins at home. If they don't commit Jetsy turnovers, New York could send the Chiefs into a further tailspin.
NFL Research stat of the week: Regression on deep passing in the second half of the season (last 8 games) is nothing new for Alex Smith:
Smith on passes of 20-plus air yards since 2015:
First 8 games of season: 3.5 attempts per game 42.1 completion percentage, 16.0 yards per attempt, 8-0 TD-INT, 124.3 passer rating
Last 8 games of season: 2.8 attempts per game 37.3 completion percentage, 12.2 yards per attempt, 2-4 TD-INT, 64.3 passer rating
DeAndre Hopkins is quickly becoming the most underappreciated wide receiver in the NFL. Outside of Antonio Brown, no wide receiver is doing more to aid his team. And Nuk is performing with turnover-bot Tom Savage throwing him the ball. On Monday, Nuk tortured Ravens corner Jimmy Smith. Last week, he burned All-Pro Patrick Peterson on a two-play sequence that led to a pivotal touchdown in a win. Of Hopkins' 69 catches, a whopping 52 have resulted in first downs. He also draws a couple of pass interference calls a game. This man deserves an All-Pro bid if he keeps carrying the offense with a wayward Savage under center. Imagine the Texans' offense if you took Hopkins out of the lineup? Nuk has a great matchup to keep piling up stats. The Titans' pass defense ranks 24th in DVOA by Football Outsiders.
Will Marcus Mariota's struggles get a reprieve against a weak Texans secondary? Among the 18 quarterbacks this season with a winning record, only Joe Flacco has a lower passer rating than Mariota (Flacco 74.2, Mariota 79.1). Only three qualified QBs have a worse TD-INT ratio than Mariota this season -- DeShone Kizer, C.J. Beathard and Brett Hundley (combined 2-18 record). It's not accuracy or ball placement that have led to Mariota's struggles, but rather decision making and communication with receivers. Those are fixable issues, especially against a Houston secondary that allows large open windows. The key matchup when the Titans have the ball is the offensive line versus game-wrecking Jadeveon Clowney. The Texans are moving the pass-rusher all over the place to get mismatches. Mariota had better know where Clowney is at the snap, or he risks getting his chest caved in.
In a lost season, the Browns are finally starting to get some weapons on offense. It's no coincidence that DeShone Kizer has played his best since the return of Corey Coleman. Josh Gordon's first game back should have similar influence. The last time the 6-foot-3 receiver returned from a suspension in 2014, he went for 120 yards on eight receptions. Missing two years could have an influence, but Gordon is a freak athlete that will demand attention. Kizer and the Browns face a surging Chargers defense that boasts playmakers at every level. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram blast the passer, Denzel Perryman stuffs the run, and Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams stifle the outside. If L.A. is to make a run at the playoffs, the defense needs to shut down a Browns offense that has leveled up on its weapons.
The Chargers' improved record has coincided with Philip Rivers playing his best ball of the season. The QB has 16 passing touchdowns against just three interceptions over the last eight games. Key to the attack has been Keenan Allen, who is averaging 11.5 receptions for 165.5 receiving yards over his last two games. Allen has another stellar matchup against a Browns defense that allowed huge games to Golden Tate and Adam Thielen from the slot. Melvin Gordon also has a plus matchup on the ground against a run D that has been decimated by injury. It's very Brownsy that Cleveland gets its offensive weapons back just as the defense begins to sink.
In the Rams' 33-0 whitewash of the Cardinals in Week 7, Todd Gurley dominated, going for 106 yards on 22 carries. Gurley leads the NFL with 11 touchdowns this season and has eight games this season with 100-plus scrimmage yards (most in NFL). I expect it to be a tough sled for Gurley this time around against a good Cards run D that ranks fourth in DVOA against the rush. We could see Gurley do damage in the pass game Sunday as Arizona struggles covering backs out of the backfield. Also, expect the ascendant Jared Goff to look toward Cooper Kupp repeatedly out of the slot. Arizona's defense has been discombobulated by shifty slot receivers this season.
What if I told you that since becoming the starter in Week 11, Blaine Gabbert (87.6) has a higher passer rating than Russell Wilson (85.7), Alex Smith (68.4) and Dak Prescott (44.0 -- entering Week 13). After beating the Jags last week, Gabbert faces another tough D in Wade Phillips' crew, but the quarterback has shown mettle in Bruce Arians' system. The Rams stuffed Adrian Peterson in Week 7, but much of that had to do with game flow. L.A. is still a defense most susceptible to the ground game. Peterson is questionable with a neck injury and is a game-time decision. If he plays, expect Arians to ride All Day early. Peterson (12,276 rush yards) needs four rushing yards to surpass Marshall Faulk for 11th on the all-time rushing list. He'll get it Sunday if he suits up. If Peterson sits, Gabbert must carry the load versus Aaron Donald and Tremaine Johnson, which is not an optimal situation regardless of how well he's performed.
NFL Research stat of the week:Jared Goff is on pace to become the fourth QB in NFL history to have 4,000-plus passing yards and a 95-plus passer rating in his second NFL season.
The winner of this game will lead the NFC South after Week 13.
The Saints' defense frustrated Cam Newton in a Week 3 win. Since then, the Panthers have scrapped pigeonholing Cam into a pocket-passer role. Unleashing Newton's legs has led to a better ground game. The QB is averaging 8.6 carries per game since Week 3, rushing for 328 yards and three TDs in the past eight tilts. Carolina is averaging 213.3 rushing yards per game since Week 9. Newton will not be so easily contained as the last matchup. With Marshon Lattimore still banged up for the Saints, Devin Funchess gets a reprieve. Since Week 9, the receiver has averaged 95.3 yards per game and 16.8 yards per reception. The Newton-Funchess connection will need another big game to beat Drew Brees on the road.
In Week 3, Alvin Kamara had only five touches for 42 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown jaunt. The dynamic rookie running back will blow those numbers out of the water Sunday. Kamara has averaged 8.4 yards per touch on 131 touches this season -- most yards per touch by any running back with 100-plus touches in any of the last 25 seasons. Kamara's matchup with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson will be fascinating to watch. The Panthers boast as speedy and heady a linebacker corps as there is in the NFL. Kamara, meanwhile, has made professional defenders look like beer-leaguers this season. The rookie is the key to deciding who takes the lead in the NFC South on Sunday.
The New York Giants decided to bench Eli Manning to ride the GenoCoaster. Enough internet space has been devoted to Big Blue's decision to bench Manning. The question for Sunday is what Geno Smith brings to a Giants team lacking in weapons. On the plus side for Smith, he faces an Oakland defense that has been torched through the air, ranking 32nd in pass DVOA by Football Outsiders. Likely getting Sterling Shepard back gives Smith at least one go-to receiver alongside tight end Evan Engram. On paper, even Smith should fare well against Oakland's defense. If he struggles, we could see Manning back in or Davis Webb throwing his first NFL passes.
With Michael Crabtree suspended and Amari Cooper (concussion, ankle) out, the Raiders need to ride Marshawn Lynch to keep their playoff hopes alive. Beast Mode looked fresh last week against a good Broncos run defense. Lynch touched the ball 29 times in Week 12, and he faces a sieve Giants rush D on Sunday. With the issues at receiver, Jack Del Rio needs to keep it simple and feed Beast Mode in the Black Hole.
NFL Research stat of the week: Ode to Eli Manning's 210-game starting streak ending: Every other NFL team has utilized at least three starting quarterbacks since the start of Manning's streak. Every other team in NFC East has utilized 10-plus starting quarterbacks. The Browns have utilized 24 different starting quarterbacks in that span.
Sunday Night Football brings us the case of the man carrying his team versus the QB dishing it like Jason Kidd in his prime.
Carson Wentz and the Eagles have scored 30-plus points in five straight games for the first time since Weeks 5-9, 1953(!). Wentz has thrown a league-high 28 touchdown passes but has gotten a ton of help from the running game. The Eagles have 175-plus rush yards in each of the last three games. The Seattle defense is injured in the secondary, but the run D has performed well the last four contests, allowing 64.5 rush YPG and 2.6 yards per carry. If LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement are stymied, Wentz will need to work his magic against the banged-up Seahawks secondary on the road. The second-year quarterback has passed every test put in his way this season. Sunday's will be the toughest yet.
Russell Wilson has accounted for a combined 311.8 pass and rush yards per game this season, most of any player in the NFL. He is averaging more combined pass and rush yards per game than five teams (NYG, CHI, MIA, BAL, CIN). It will be all on Wilson's shoulders Sunday night to keep the Seahawks in the playoff hunt. Seattle has been much better pass protecting since the arrival of Duane Brown but faces a menacing Eagles front four that comes in waves. Philly's secondary has been underrated this season, and the Eagles rank No. 4 in pass DVOA. With no running game, if Wilson thwarts one of the best defenses in the NFL, the MVP chatter for Seattle's QB will be justified.
NFL Research stat of the week: Opposing QBs have found more success this season when facing the Seahawks without at least one member of the Legion of Boom (Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas):
QBs vs. SEA with whole LOB: 2-5 W-L, 56.5 completion percentage, 9-8 TD-INT, 75.2 passer rating
QB vs. SEA missing at least one member of LOB: 2-2 W-L, 60.7 completion percentage, 4-1 TD-INT, 85.8 passer rating.
One of the best runs of the season came in Week 7 when Le'Veon Bell violently stiff-armed Bengals corner Dre Kirkpatrick to the ground. On that day, Bell decimated the Bengals' defense for 134 rushing yards on 35 carries and 58 receiving yards on three catches. While Ben Roethlisberger has been the catalyst in recent weeks, expect Pittsburgh to ride Bell again Monday night against a Cincy D allowing more than 110 rushing yards in six straight games.
Can Joe Mixon build off the best game of his career? In Week 12 the rookie running back set career highs in carries (23), rush yards (114) and scrimmage yards (165). The Bengals need a repeat performance from Mixon against a Steelers defense ranking No. 7 in run DVOA and No. 7 in pass DVOA. In Week 7, the Bengals had 179 total yards of offense, and Andy Dalton was sacked four times while throwing two interceptions. In the Steelers' nine wins, Pittsburgh has allowed just 67.0 rushing YPG and 3.2 yards per carry. If Mixon can't get going early, it could be another long night for Dalton in prime time.