By Dan Durkin
(CBS) The final quarter of NFL action is upon us.
With four games remaining, 29 teams remain in contention for a playoff spot, 20 of which are in or within one game of a playoff spot. There are several key matchups with playoff implications – particularly in the NFC – this weekend, so here’s my take on how everything plays out.
(Home team in all CAPS)
Game of the Week: SAINTS 27, Panthers 24 – 7:30 PM
Both of these teams are knotted atop the NFC South with 8-3 overall records and 3-0 division records, so the stakes are high. Winners of a franchise-record eight straight games, the Panthers are the hottest team in the league. Their defense has allowed a league-low 157 points, but they’ll face a stiff challenge against the Saints. The Saints were steamrolled in Seattle, but they’re an entirely different team at home. Look for the Saints to rebound from a poor performance on both sides of the ball and hold serve at home, setting up a key rematch in two weeks.
Chiefs 23, REDSKINS 20 – Noon
I cautioned earlier in the season to be skeptical of the Chiefs hot start, which was a byproduct of their creampuff schedule. Losers of three straight – all divisional games – the Chiefs have been exposed. During their nine-game winning streak, the Chiefs gave up a combined 111 points. During their three-game skid, they’ve given up a combined 103 points. Luckily, the Chiefs get the Redskins generous defense this weekend and will clinch a playoff spot.
RAVENS 27, Vikings 20 – Noon
As it stands, the 6-6 Ravens are the AFC’s No. 6 seed. Devilish imagery aside, they’ll be dealing with one of the NFL’s biggest beasts, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. The Bears may have cleared up the Vikings murky quarterback situation for them, as Matt Cassel was effective in relief of Christian Ponder. The Vikings secondary is thinned out and susceptible to big plays, so look for Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones to take the top off of the defense a few times in a Ravens win.
PATRIOTS 31, Browns 17 – Noon
In back-to-back weeks, the Patriots have mounted furious second-half comeback victories. With the AFC East crown fait-accompli and a head-to-head win against the Broncos, they’re still jockeying for the AFC’s top-overall seed and home-field advantage. Concussions to both Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden has left the Browns in a quarterback quandary, but it appears Campbell is in line for the start. The Browns are well positioned to compete in the near future, but this Sunday, they don’t stand a chance.
Raiders 20, JETS 17 – Noon
It’s interesting that in a small sample size, an undrafted free agent rookie quarterback – Oakland’s Matt McGloin – is putting up more steady performances than the second quarterback selected this past April – New York’s Geno Smith. Smith has not thrown a touchdown in six games, leads the league with 19 interceptions, and was benched last week at halftime. McGloin on the other hand, has been very efficient, particularly on the road. The Jets will stifle the Raiders strong running game, but I trust make McGloin to protect the ball for the win.
BENGALS 27, Colts 21 – Noon
As it stands, the Colts hold the No. 3 seed (based on a better conference record) and the Bengals have the No. 4 seed, so this game has huge AFC playoff implications. The Colts have won seven of their last nine games in Cincinnati, but have looked shaky over the past month. Their offensive line is having issues protecting Andrew Luck, and their running game is non-existent. Bad matchup this weekend in Cincinnati against a Bengals team that is pressuring the quarterback and locking down opposing passing attacks.
PACKERS 23, Falcons 20 – Noon
Injuries have derailed both of these team’s seasons. Aaron Rodgers is irreplaceable and it’s shown, the Packers are 0-4-1 since he went down, but they should snap their losing streak this weekend. The Falcons still have their quarterback, but his best weapons have been largely unavailable this season. Add in a leaky offensive line and a stalled running game and it’s no wonder the Falcons may go from first to worst in the NFC. Look for a heavy dose of Eddie Lacy as the Packers grind out an ugly win.
EAGLES 31, Lions 27 – Noon
Huge game between two NFC playoff hopefuls. For the Lions, they control their playoff destiny. Win out and they’re in. But, we’re talking about the Lions here. Ball security will be the key factor in determining the outcome of this game. Since taking over as the Eagles starting quarterback, Nick Foles has 19 touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a league-high 125 passer efficiency rating. The Lions have been careless with the football, which will be their undoing as the Eagles pick up their third-straight win at home.
STEELERS 27, Dolphins 23 – Noon
Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace will play his first game in Pittsburgh not wearing black and gold. Wallace and the Dolphins passing attack is starting to heat up and will need to continue to do so if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive. Up until last week, the Steelers offense had started to turn the corner and should find some success on the ground against the Dolphins. The key for the Steelers will be protecting Ben Roethlisberger against the Dolphins fierce pass rush. Close game, but I like the Steelers to pick up their fifth straight over the Dolphins at home.
BUCS 23, Bills 21 – Noon
Two rookie quarterbacks face off in Tampa Bay. Despite taking over less-than-favorable situations, both Mike Glennon (Bucs) and EJ Manuel (Bills) have performed well. The Bills rushing attack is the AFC’s best, which takes some pressure off of Manuel. Manuel needs just two touchdown passes to set a Bills rookie record. Over his past five games, Glennon has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 965 yards, seven touchdowns, two interceptions and a 110.8 passer efficiency rating. Close game, but I like Glennon and the Bucs.
BRONCOS 34, Titans 23 – 3:05 PM
The Broncos need to keep their foot on the gas if they want to maintain the top-overall seed in the AFC and ensure the playoffs run through Denver. While they’re missing a lot of key contributors on defense, they will get head coach John Fox back on the sidelines. The Broncos were able to go 3-1 in Fox’s absence and their offense hasn’t missed a beat. The Titans have slim playoff hopes to begin with and they’ll get even slimmer this weekend. The Broncos simply have too much offense for the Titans to compete with.
CARDINALS 24, Rams 23- 3:25 PM
The biggest news surrounding this game is the elbow of Cardinals starting quarterback Carson Palmer, who will be a gametime decision. While turnover-prone, Palmer has sparked the passing offense. If he does start, the next challenge for the Cardinals will be protecting Palmer against the Rams relentless pass rush. Offensively, the Rams run-first attack has opened up play-action opportunities for Kellen Clemens, who has cut down on his mistakes over the past few games. Not knowing the status of Palmer makes this game hard to predict, but I like the Cardinals at home.
CHARGERS 30, Giants 27 – 3:25 PM
Eli Manning and Philip Rivers will forever be connected by the 2004 draft. While Manning has the hardware, both players have been the cornerstone franchise quarterbacks that teams desperately seek via the draft. Manning has had a down year, saddled by erratic decision-making and accuracy. Rivers has been reborn under head coach Mike McCoy and is closing in on his fifth 4,000 passing yard season. The Chargers flopped at home last week, so expect a rebound performance in a shootout.
Seahawks 23, 49ERS 20 – 3:25 PM
Two NFC West heavyweights square off in San Francisco. The Seahawks own a three-game lead in the division and can clinch the division with a win on Sunday. The Seahawks made a huge statement on Monday night, completely manhandling the Saints on both sides of the ball. This week, they’ll face a 49ers team with a banged up offensive line, which spells doom for San Francisco.
Cowboys 27, BEARS 23 – Monday Night 7:40 PM
The Bears’ already slim playoff hopes took a huge hit last Sunday and their only chance to make it now will be by winning the division. They’ll be paying close attention to the outcome of the Eagles-Lions game, but rather than scoreboard watch, they need to take care of their own business. The Cowboys are a pass-heavy offense, but will try to establish the run against the soft underbelly of the Bears defense. The Bears defense is predicated on generating turnovers, but the Cowboys are careful with the ball, which will be the difference on Monday night.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin
(Season record: 124-68)