The 2012 NFL season is officially in the home stretch. This week's games feature all kinds of implications for the playoffs as well as the draft. Here's our handy guide to help you choose what to watch.
The 2012 NFL season is winding down, with just five weeks left go after this one wraps up on Monday night. This week's slate of games carry a host of playoff implications. For the teams still looking for something meaningful in the waning weeks of the season, the annual dance for draft position is officially here.
Let's find some hidden meaning in this week's games:
1. San Fracisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints
The cat's out of the bag, thanks to Donte Whitner. Colin Kaepernick is now – for the week, anyway – the starting quarterback in San Francisco. Alex Smith's riches to rags and back to riches story is over. Starting the second-year signal caller against the Saints and Steve Spagnuolo's awful run defense is a pretty good idea, proof that Jim Harbaugh possesses a thimble full of sanity.
2. Green Bay Packers vs. New York Giants
Eli Manning hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in a month. Forget the over/under of 50 points. We need an over/under on Manning Face.
The Falcons beat the Arizona Cardinals last week in spite of Matt Ryan's five interceptions. Unlike Arizona, Tampa Bay can score points. Tune in to see which Falcons team we'll be talking about on Monday morning. Football fans in Tampa Bay without tickets will have to find something else to do for three hours on Sunday since this is the 19th time that the Bucs have been blacked out in their last 22 home games.
4. Minnesota Vikings vs. Chicago Bears
Are we going to see Jason Campbell or Jay Cutler? Your viewing experience might still be OK with Campbell in the huddle, thanks mostly to savvy camera operators giving us a bundle of Cutler reaction shots on the sidelines. Adrian Peterson is on fire, rushing for a total of 629 yards and five touchdowns in his last four games. He hasn't faced the Bears yet this season.
Charlie Batch is starting, and the Browns and Steelers are as close to equal footing as the two teams have ever been. I'll be watching to see what new coaching ploys Pat Shurmur uses in order not to lose, only to end up losing anyway.
The Ravens aren't as good as they were supposed to be. It's the same way we've been talking about the Chargers for years now.
There is so much disappointment and unmet expectations swirling around this game. One team is probably going to win, by default.
Trading Carson Palmer to the Raiders last year will go down as one of the all-time greatest swindles in the history of free enterprise. Oakland finished with an 8-8 record last year, winning just as many games with Jason Campbell as with Palmer. It's a rare thing when an Oakland personnel move has observers pining for the seemingly rational decision-making of the departed owner. This game is blacked out too, because football fans in Cincinnati aren't used to having nice things.
9. Buffalo Bills vs. Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck and the Colts weren't quite ready to play at the same level as the Patriots. This should be a nice bounce-back game, giving Indianapolis another win and keeping the team in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.
10. Seattle Seahawks vs. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins took a few games to get things going before finally rattling off three straight wins to get themselves into the playoff conversation and looking like the second-best team in the AFC East. Florida football is not unlike the state's mercurial real estate market, prone to boom and bust cycles. Seattle's defense should be a real problem for Ryan Tannehill. Then again, Pete Carroll is 1-4 on the road this season.
11. St. Louis Rams vs. Arizona Cardinals
Like the Dolphins, there was a time when the Cardinals and Rams both resembled very good teams, competitive at the very least. Arizona failed to beat the Falcons last week in spite of picking off Matt Ryan five times. The Rams have been outscored 96-44 over the last three games. So much for a more competitive NFC West. Arizona's four-game winning streak came to an end in St. Louis. Will the hapless Rams help snap a six-game losing skid?
12. Denver Broncos vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Romeo Crennel earned another head coaching gig with an upset win last season, knocking off the Packers. Everyone knows his main qualification for the job was his non-threatening demeanor, prized by Nixon acolyte Scott Pioli. At least Chiefs fans don't have to worry about that happening again ... or do they?
13. Tennessee Titans vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
At some point, the Jaguars are going to win a second game. Chad Henne is just the man to do it, setting up a debate among fans/hostages in Jacksonville about Henne finally being the answer under center. It's impossible to tell which Titans team is going to show up. Secondary question: Is Bud Adams the spiritual heir to Al Davis?