The National Football League is a wild place. Anything can happen each week, with fortunes turning in an instant. With only four weeks remaining in the regular season, the games and each play within them are magnified. On Sunday, there are a host of critical contests for both teams involved.
Let’s take a glance at five things that will shape Sunday’s action:
1. Can the Miami Dolphins win in December?
Last year, the Dolphins were 8-6 and seemed destined to make the playoffs with games remaining against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. Instead, the offense went into hibernation and scored a combined seven points, dropping both decisions and missing the postseason.
This time around, Miami is 7-5 and holds the sixth seed in the AFC. On Sunday, the Dolphins host the Baltimore Ravens, also 7-5. To make the playoffs, the Dolphins have to win this game. It is going to take 10 wins to make it into the tournament and with a trip to New England looming, this one is a must.
2. Can Drew Stanton win a big game?
Stanton has been awful the past two games for the Arizona Cardinals, both resulting in defeat. With Larry Fitzgerald on the sideline, Stanton has thrown one touchdown and three interceptions. Fitzgerald is a game-time decision for Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, but it appears he will play.
The Chiefs have the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL and are also coming off two consecutive defeats. This should be a close game decided by who executes better and avoids the big mistake. At 9-3, the Cardinals don’t have room for error with contests against the San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks still looming. Stanton needs to make some plays and win this game for Arizona.
3. Can Mark Sanchez beat the Seahawks?
Seattle is playing great football the last couple weeks, especially on defense. The Legion of Boom has allowed a total of six points over that stretch and now come to play the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that torched the Dallas Cowboys for 33 points on Thanksgiving. In this NFC showdown, Mark Sanchez must play mistake-free football.
Nobody expects Sanchez to throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns against Seattle, but he can’t keep giving the ball away. Sanchez has thrown six interceptions in five games, along with fumbling another half-dozen times. Philadelphia might need this game for an NFC East title, and it could come down to Sanchez hitting the guys in green.
4. Will the New Orleans Saints finally make a move?
The Saints looked dead and buried after losing three straight games at the Superdome. Then, New Orleans beat the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, improving to 5-7 and staying in a dead heat with the Atlanta Falcons for first place in the woeful NFC South.
This week, New Orleans hosts the Carolina Panthers. Carolina is 1-8-1 in its last 10 games and non-competitive in most of the losses. The Saints have a huge opportunity to hold first place on their own with the Falcons playing at the Green Bay Packers on Monday night. New Orleans cannot afford another home loss.
5. Can the Buffalo Bills or Cleveland Browns stage an upset?
The Bills and Browns are consistently home for New Year’s, watching other franchises taste the postseason. This year, both are 7-5 but desperately need a win in Week 14. The problem is Buffalo draws a road game against the Denver Broncos while Cleveland hosts the Indianapolis Colts.
Most experts are picking the Bills and Browns to fall to 7-6. It would seem Cleveland has a better chance to win considering it is at home and is facing a lesser opponent. For either of these teams to change the national perception, they need to earn a win against a quality opponent in December.