NFL Week 13 Preview: Ravens/Steelers Battle, Playoff Races Heats Up


November 18, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich (4) runs past Baltimore Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard (31) to score a thirty-one yard touchdown run during the first quarter at Heinz Field. The Baltimore Ravens won 13-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The fourth quarter of the NFL season is finally here. The playoffs, technically, begins in January, but for many squads, the postseason starts now.

“This is when you need to be playing your best ball heading into the cold weather and the playoff atmospheres that we’re about to embark on,” said New York Giants’ defensive end Justin Tuck Monday after practice, who team normally performs well at this time of the season. “This is when you want to be playing your best, so that’s very important. A lot of times we see teams start hot and end on a cold note.

“We’ve been more of the variety of start hot, get cold and then heat up again,” he continued. “So hopefully we can end this season playing our best ball and heading into the playoffs playing our best ball. That’s where you want to be.”

As the NFL move into Week 13, there are 26 teams either in or within two games of a playoff spot.

“Our goal is to keep winning and get to the big one,” said Denver Broncos’ wide receiver DeMaryius Thomas. “We’re going to take every game one at a time, take it week by week and just keep going. We’re going to try to keep winning.”

For the most part, the legitimate contenders are in place and they now must position themselves to better their chances to get to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.

Five teams – The Atlanta Falcons (NFC South), Baltimore Ravens (AFC North), Denver Broncos (AFC West), Houston Texans and the New England Patriots (AFC East) – can clinch a playoff berth this week.

However, there’s still a month to go, which means there is a ton of football left to be played.

“It’s all right there in front of us,” said New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees, who faces an elimination game each week with a 5-6 record. “I firmly believe that if we take care of our business and worry about ourselves, things will happen in a way we envision and we’re going to have a chance to get into the playoffs. We understand the sense of urgency and the small margin for error at this point.”

As the NFL enters Week 13, there are 19 teams either in or within one game of a playoff spot, including 11 in the NFC.

Among the teams seeking to strengthen their position in the AFC playoff race are the Indianapolis Colts (7-4), who have already made a five-win improvement from their 2-14 record last season.

The Colts are looking to reach the postseason for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons. They will have to travel to Detroit to face the Lions’ team who will be looked to pound an opponent after losing a close contest to the Texans last Thursday.

“It’s December, but the process is still the same,” said Colts’ interim head coach and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. “Stay with it one play at a time, one day at a time and don’t get caught up in all that. The team philosophy is that we just keep winning. Just stay within the moment.”

New Orleans and Atlanta kicked off Week 13 with great drama, but the Falcons held off the Saints (and picked off quarterback Drew Brees five times. Brees’ five interceptions was a career-high for a single game as he pressed to get his team a win.

“It’s the first time it has ever happened to me and is extremely disappointing,” said Brees. “I pride myself on being a great decision maker and the guy that is going to help us win the game and not be a detriment and turn the ball over like that.

“A couple of critical mistakes today that ended up costing us the game and I’m okay saying that because I have to hold myself accountable,” said added. “I’ve made some critical mistakes in the last few weeks and they have cost us dearly. I felt like our team really played their butt off in all phases. Were there mistakes made yes, but we played well enough to win.”

The Falcons ended Brees’ 54 game streak of completing a touchdown pass and their four game losing streak against the Saints. The Saints (5-7) can not win their division, but they still have a slim chance to make the playoffs, with a lot of help.

The Falcons (11-1) can have the NFC South wrapped up this weekend with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost.

Clearly, the Falcons are happy to exercise some demons by defeating the Saints, but the playoffs are not on their minds, just the Carolina Panthers in 10 days.

“We still have four regular season games to go and we try and take them one game at a time,” said Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan. “We’re going to try and enjoy these couple of days off. After that we’re going to get back to work. We have Carolina in 10 days or so and we’re going to need to get ready for that. We try not to think that far ahead. One of the things I’ve learned in my five years is that if you’re worrying about what you’re going to do in January in September, October, November, December, you’re wasting your time.

“I’ve tried to keep that week to week focus but at the same time we’ve had some sour tastes in our mouths at the end of the last couple of seasons, so hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to change that.”

Upset Alert!!!

The Minnesota Vikings (6-5) are on that pretenders list as a team that would to shock the football universe and make it to the playoffs. Minnesota started off hot this season as winners of three out of their first four contests and led their division, until they chilled out. Nevertheless, the Vikings are good for at least one more shocker and the Green Bay Packers (7-4) maybe that squad for the pickings.

Both the Vikings and the Packers are coming off loses. However, the Vikings are looking to stop the bleeding of missing the playoffs for the third straight year. The Vikings are balanced and the Packers are a little banged up, especially without having their pass-rushing monster in linebacker Clay Matthews in the lineup (although there is no word yet about his participation for Week 13).

If the Vikings can find a way to keep Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his offense off the field for all long period of time, which they can with running back Adrian Peterson carrying the load, the Vikings could get their second road victory of the year Sunday.

Games to Watch

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) at Baltimore Ravens (9-2)

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The biggest, baddest rivalry of all sports – Take Two. The Steelers will take on their favorite, most hated opponent, the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore Sunday. The Ravens will be without their defensive captain, linebacker Ray Lewis. However, Lewis has not been the thorn in the Black and Yellow’s side in recent years. That honor goes to defensive end Terrell Suggs.

Suggs has haunted and tormented the Steelers, especially quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Well, Big Ben is not expected to play Sunday due to his shoulder injury, in which he could perform with if he could endure the pain. Apparently, the man Suggs will be chasing around is 38-year old quarterback Charlie Batch, who had a rusty outing against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday.

This game will be tight because both of the teams’ defenses will keep them in it. It just boils down to which offense will make the big play when they need it.

Seattle Seahawks (6-5) at Chicago Bears (8-3)

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Two beastly teams in the thick of things for this season’s playoff chase will meet at Soldier Field. The Bears lead the NFC North, while the Seahawks are battling for a Wild Card spot.

Thanks to the New York Giants’ victory over the Green Bay last Sunday, The Bears have a one game lead in their division over the Packers.

Seahawks’ rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has guided Seattle to six wins and has led the NFL with a 128.6 passer rating in November. Wilson posted a passer rating of at least 125 in all three November starts and he is the first rookie in NFL history to register a 125-plus rating in three consecutive games.

“We’ve got a huge game in front of us,” said Wilson about the Bears. “That’s our only focus. That’s got to be a narrow focus. We’ve just got to keep battling.”

Seahawks’ cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman may miss out on the contest as they face a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy for steroids and related substances.

“To allow our focus to remain on football, during the appeal process we will refrain from any further public comments regarding this situation,” said the players in a release statement from the Seahawks’ press release Wednesday. “Thank you for your consideration on this matter.”

Chicago improved to 8-3 with a dominating 28-10 performance over the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday. Running back Michael Bush rushed for two touchdowns and the defense recorded its league-leading 20th interception. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall, in his first year with the Bears, became the fifth player in NFL history with a 1,000-yard receiving season with three different teams (Bears, Broncos, and the Miami Dolphins).

“We are where we want to be,” said Bears’ head coach Lovie Smith. “Back on the winning track and we feel good.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-5) at Denver Broncos (8-3)

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The Broncos (8-3) can clinch the AFC West on Sunday with a win, while the Buccaneers remain in the middle of the NFC playoff hunt. Denver has won six consecutive games – the longest active streak in the NFL – and the Bucs has won four of its past five.

Since Week 6, the Buccaneers have led the NFC with 228 points (32.6 per game). During that period, quarterback Josh Freeman has 16 touchdowns, three interceptions with a 104.1 passer rating and rookie running back Doug Martin has 1,082 scrimmage yards (154.6 per game) and nine total touchdowns.

The outstanding play of Martin has helped the Buccaneers during their midseason push towards the playoffs.

“Being a rookie, I haven’t seen a whole lot of him,” said Broncos’ head coach John Fox Wednesday. “On a short look, you turn on that Raider tape, and he’s efficient. He’s got good power, even in tight spots. He can take you the distance when he gets into the secondary, so he’s definitely on our radar.”

The Broncos has won six in a row, outscoring opponents 183-107 during period. Quarterback Peyton Manning has led the Broncos to average 30.5 points an outing during their winning streak. Last week, Manning passed for 285 yards and two touchdowns to record his 149th career win, passing Pro Football Hall of Famer John Elway (148) for the second-most in NFL history.

“I think you can build off of each game and certainly when you win, I think it does help,” said Manning. “I think you have better practices but you still want to try to improve and the coaches challenge us to improve and I think we have the right kind of players that challenge each other to improve and get better. You’re always trying to play that perfect game. Whether you can or you can’t, but you still strive for that. We still feel like we can improve as a team and we need to improve.”

New York Giants (7-4) at Washington Redskins (5-6)

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The Giants leads the NFC East by two slim games over the Cowboys (5-6) and the Washington Redskins (5-6), but the burgundy and gold can close the gap when they host New York on Monday night.

In Week 7, the Giants edged out the Redskins 27-23. In that game, Giants’ wide receiver Victor Cruz caught the game-winning 77-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Eli Manning with1:13 remaining in the game. The score marked the longest game-winning touchdown in the final two minutes of a game in franchise history.

“Washington is a great team and in this division, everybody plays each other tight, so we’ve got to go out there and prepare well and take advantage of the opportunities when they come,” said Giants’ wide receiver Hakeem Nicks.

The Redskins have won two in a row – both against NFC East opponents – and have been led by rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. The second overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft has thrown eight touchdowns in the past two games and is the only rookie in NFL history with back-to-back games with four passing touchdowns.

“Well, [they are the] Super Bowl Champs, very talented football team,” said Redskins’ head coach Mike Shanahan. “At the end of the day, we lost the football game. We had four turnovers and we have to find a way to win, especially when you play well. So hopefully we can step up and do what we are capable doing on Monday night and find a way to finish the game.”

In the team’s past two games, Griffin has completed 34 of 43 passes (79.1 percent) for 511 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception for a 146.1 passer rating.

“It has been pretty consistent all year if you take a look at the stats,” said Shanahan. “You have to find a way to close those games. You have to find a way to win those games and that is what we have been able to do the last couple of weeks. We weren’t able to do that in a few very close games before and bottom line is we have to find a way to win.”

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