The NFL has never witnessed a playoff race as wild as this season's. And one of the most entertaining aspects of the race has been when contenders have been pitted against each other.
Already, the New England Patriots have beaten the AFC's three other division leaders, boasting decisive victories over Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The Green Bay Packers have played Seattle, Philadelphia and New England, with wins over the latter two. Denver has split matchups with Indianapolis and New England and will face the Bengals in Week 16.
While those contests have been important for figuring out tiebreakers, they also offer a glimpse of matchups that could develop down the road. Week 14 offers another round of possible playoff previews along with several other contests that have major postseason implications.
It's also not out of the question that Pittsburgh-Cincinnati could spawn a third matchup in the playoffs if they split their two remaining head-to-head games and win their other two. The loser of the Baltimore-Miami game could fall out the AFC race, while Kansas City and Arizona meet with each club trying to bolster its playoff status. And in addition to helping its own cause, a San Diego upset of New England could significantly alter things at the top of the AFC standings.
A wild race appears to be finally nearing the finish line.
Here are the trends for Week 14.
1. Who will drop out of the wild AFC playoff race? The AFC standings look like the crowded starting line at the New York Marathon. For the first time in NFL history, 11 AFC teams are at least two games over .500 this late in the season. Twelve teams sit at .500 or better, including six at 7-5, and only one-quarter of the conference is outside the playoff picture. Barring upsets, the list of contenders won't shrink too much this week, but a few things could be settled.
The Buffalo Bills face the toughest assignment, taking on Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Denver. While the Bills' defensive line could cause problems for Manning, the Broncos' defense won't fear Kyle Orton. If Buffalo drops to 7-6, its playoff hopes will be pretty much doomed, with two of its final three games against Green Bay and New England.
You also don't get a good vibe about the Ravens, who will visit Miami on Sunday. On the heels of a last-second loss to San Diego, Baltimore was hit with more bad news Thursday, as it lost Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata for the remainder of the regular season because of a performance-enhancing drug suspension. Minus Ngata, the Ravens could be vulnerable to Dolphins RB Lamar Miller.
Meanwhile, the Chargers also find themselves in a tough spot. They face the Patriots on Sunday night to begin a brutal closing stretch that also includes Denver, San Francisco and Kansas City. Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine is sticking with Brian Hoyer at quarterback, but a loss to Indianapolis could kill the team's shot at making the playoffs and usher in the Johnny Manziel era.
2. Divisional divide: Pittsburgh-Cincinnati heads a short list of Week 14 divisional games. After years of playing third fiddle to Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC North, the Bengals won the division last year and have been the front-runner for most of this season in what has been an unexpected four-team race. A Bengals win Sunday could give them enough distance that their Week 17 rematch at Heinz Field might not matter much.
As much as the Steelers' hopes rely on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's arm, running back Le'Veon Bell is the key in this game. The Bengals are giving up 125.1 yards rushing per game, and Bell is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. The other meaningful divisional game has Carolina visiting New Orleans. The Panthers are a disappointing 3-8-1, but a victory over the Saints could put them back in the NFC South race, as unbelievable as that sounds.
3. Controlling the tempo: It was amazing watching Eagles coach Chip Kelly ruin the Cowboys' formula for victory on Thanksgiving Day. Dallas coach Jason Garrett has been able to mask his team's defensive problems by running the ball with DeMarco Murray and having Tony Romo throw shorter, safer passes. Kelly, though, exposed Dallas' D by keeping it on the field and scoring points.
The Eagles' matchup against Seattle should also be fascinating. Philly runs a play every 22.8 seconds, fastest in the league, while the Seahawks slow down the game by running a play every 30.8 seconds. The Seahawks' defense enters the matchup red hot, putting together back-to-back 19-3 victories. Despite facing some of the best quarterbacks in football this season, Seattle ranks first on defense, giving up 285.8 yards per game.
Facing the defending champs will give Kelly an idea whether Mark Sanchez can be counted on to win a playoff game for Philly.
4. Sun setting on two NFC West teams: Most people figure Jim Harbaugh is coaching for his job in San Francisco in the final month of the season. Despite taking the team to three consecutive NFC title games, Harbaugh could be fired unless the 49ers win the Super Bowl this year. At 7-5, San Francisco probably has to win out just to get a wild-card spot. The 49ers should easily be able to handle Oakland on Sunday, but as you watch this game, you have to wonder whether Harbaugh would consider going to the Raiders next year. Owner Mark Davis would do anything to get Harbaugh along his sideline. Here's the problem: The Raiders are 1-11 this season, and their roster is so bad that it could take years for Harbaugh to get the team to .500.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals could be facing a complete collapse, and if it continues, they would be first team in NFL history to start 9-1 and not make the playoffs. The loss of QB Carson Palmer has completely stagnated the offense. Drew Stanton has led Arizona to only 16 points with five interceptions over his past three starts. Making matters worse, Stanton probably won't have RB Andre Ellington in the backfield Sunday because of a hip injury. The Cardinals host a Chiefs squad that has a great pass rush and a good running game. Coach Bruce Arians has to figure out a way to win a low-scoring game, or the Cards could be in serious trouble.
Despite adding Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and running back Carlos Hyde, the 49ers' offense has regressed, averaging a meager 19.3 points per game, down 6.1 points from 2013. The concern has been the slippage at quarterback. Kaepernick has lost his touch getting the ball to tight end Vernon Davis. Plus, he's struggled in the pocket. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 26 of his league-high 38 sacks have come with him in the pocket.
Down in Carolina, Newton's mechanics as a passer are in steady decline. In a 37-37 Week 6 tie in Cincinnati, the coaches let Newton run. Since then, he's had three games in which he threw for fewer than 200 yards and three more in which his completion percentage has been in the 50s. Those numbers simply won't get it done this week against New Orleans.