Patriots at Dolphins
When: 1 p.m. EST
Story line: Tom Brady and the Patriots start life without Rob Gronkowski -- for the second time. They were 5-1 without their great tight end earlier this year.
About the Patriots: A win gives them a fifth consecutive division title and 10 of the last 11. These guys obviously are good, but they're also lucky and last week they got a ton of help from the refs. They've overcome deficits of 24, 10 and 17 points just in the last three weeks. The Pats are 47-6 in December since 2001.
About the Dolphins: Only been to the playoffs once in the last 11 years, but an upset here and then wins over the Bills and Jets should get them in. Ryan Tannehill has been sacked more times (47) than anyone, and the Fins really need to get more from their ground game, especially vs. the No. 31 rush defense.
Prediction: Patriots, 28-24. Brady finds a way to pull off some more late magic.
Eagles at Vikings
When: 1 p.m.
Story line: The Eagles have won five in a row to take over the NFC East lead, scoring an NFC-best 32 points per game during their run.
About the Eagles: A bend-but-don't-break defense is allowing nearly 400 yards per game, but keeping opponents out of the end zone. The Eagles haven't allowed more than 21 points in nine straight games, the longest streak in the league and the best for the franchise in 12 years. Offensively, everything is great. RB LeSean McCoy leads the league in rushing with 1,305 yards.
About the Vikings: Adrian Peterson would like to settle the NFL rushing lead with McCoy, but is dealing with a sprained foot. Matt Cassel gets the start at QB. The pass defense has allowed a league-high 29 TDs and 282.5 yards per game.
Prediction: Eagles, 35-24. Nick Foles finally threw a pick, but he leads the league with a 120 QB rating. And Philly is 5-1 on the road.
Seahawks at Giants
When: 1 p.m.
Story line: This is the Seahawks' final road game. In fact, they hope they don't take any more trips until returning to MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2 for the Super Bowl.
About the Seahawks: The NFL's No. 1 defense has 28 takeaways. CB Richard Sherman has 16 interceptions since 2011, the most in the league in that span. DE Cliff Avril has 51/2 sacks in the last seven games. Marshawn Lynch is due to bust out, averaging 3.2 yards over the past three outings. Pete Carroll appears to be saving WR Percy Harvin for the postseason.
About the Giants: Already eliminated, the Giants will test their pride. RB Andre Brown looks like a keeper, and DE Justin Tuck, DT Cullen Jenkins and S Antrel Rolle each are playing well. But WR Hakeem Nicks has not caught a single TD pass all year.
Prediction: Seahawks, 27-17. Seattle isn't losing two in a row.
49ers at Buccaneers
When: 1 p.m.
Story line: The Niners are getting it cranked up at the right time. They've won three in a row, holding opponents to 12 points and 255 yards per game.
About the 49ers: This is a power-running team that doesn't throw well, even with Michael Crabtree back. The Niners average 133.2 yards on the ground, but are dead last in passing with 178.3 yards. RB Frank Gore is 61 yards shy of his seventh 1,000-yard season. The defense is ranked fourth.
About the Bucs: Won four of five after an 0-8 first half. The Bucs throw for more yards (180.8) than only the 49ers. Rookie QB Mike Glennon has taken a couple steps backward after an excellent two months. Hard-hitting (some would say thuggish) S Dashon Goldson, an All-Pro in San Fran last year, faces his old team.
Prediction: 49ers, 24-17. A good defense travels well.
Texans at Colts
When: 1 p.m.
Story line: There's never a 100-percent lock in sports, but ... Indianapolis is 11-0 all time at home against Houston, and the Texans are riding a current 11-game losing streak.
About the Texans: Wade Phillips takes over as interim coach of a befuddling team that has talent but lacks willpower. The Texans have dropped their last six by a combined 28 points. They hang around, then they lose. In yardage, the defense is still ranked third and the offense 11th. But we know better.
About the Colts: The AFC South champs will work on fine-tuning for the playoffs. The pass defense has deteriorated. In the first seven games, they held top QBs to a 79.5 rating and 58.7 completion percentage. In the last six, lower-echelon QBs have a 104.9 rating and 65.9 percentage vs. the Colts.
Prediction: Colts, 28-14. There's little to worry about facing Case Keenum/Matt Schaub.
Bears at Browns
When: 1 p.m.
Story line: After admirably keeping the team in contention, Josh McCown passes the baton back to Jay Cutler as the Bears try to track down the Lions for the division lead.
About the Bears: McCown is the first player in franchise history to post three straight 300-yard passing games, but now he's back on the bench. It's a tough coaching call that could backfire: The players like McCown. The Bears are averaging 28.3 points, their best since their 1985 Super Bowl Shuffle.
About the Browns: Josh Gordon is the one salvation from another dismal season. Gordon is on an incredible roll, the best four-game stretch of any receiver in NFL history. He had 36 catches for 774 yards, five TDs and two 200-yard games. Gordon's 1,400 yards lead the league. And just think: He missed the first two games with a suspension.
Prediction: Browns, 28-27. Upset special. Cleveland comes up big in its last home game.
Redskins at Falcons
When: 1 p.m.
Story line: The Kirk Cousins era begins for the Skins. Robert Griffin III is benched for the rest of 2013, supposedly to protect his health.
About the Skins: Cousins has played in six games in two years. He won his only start, throwing for 329 yards in Cleveland in 2012, and has generally looked promising. Pierre Garcon, with an NFC-best 89 catches, will help, but this team is in turmoil.
About the Falcons: They're conducting tryouts for next year on defense, where at least five rookies will start and two more will see extensive action. Cousins could be facing three first-year DBs -- Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and safety Zeke Motta.
Prediction: Falcons, 31-28. How the mighty have fallen. Last year these two were division champs; this year they have matching 3-10 records.
Bills at Jaguars
When: 1 p.m.
Story line: Jacksonville chases four wins in a row for the first time in six years. A Buffalo loss gives it double-digit defeats for the fifth straight year.
About the Bills: They're retreating at an alarming rate. Other than a win over the Jets, the Bills have been outscored 142-77 over the past six games. EJ Manuel, coming off four picks vs. the Bucs, is 0-4 on the road. Even the normally reliable run game is showing signs of wear and tear.
About the Jags: After an 0-8 first half, they are 4-1 and during this stretch have held each opponent under 100 yards rushing. Maurice Jones-Drew is fresh off his first 100-yard outing of 2013, and his eyes light up when he sees the Bills' 26th-ranked rush defense.
Prediction: Jaguars, 28-21. The Jags have trick-play scores in the last two games; none are needed here.
Chiefs at Raiders
When: 4:05 p.m.
Story line: The Chiefs, 2-14 a year ago, are 10-3 and one victory away from clinching a wild-card playoff spot.
About the Chiefs: Jamaal Charles is running wild again, averaging 6.9 yards per carry while rushing for 359 yards and four TDs in the past three games. He has struggled vs. Oakland, though. Dwayne Bowe is getting more involved, with TDs in three of the last four weeks and 45 targets in the past five games. KC tops the league with a plus-15 turnover margin.
About the Raiders: To get an idea where this team is, they started seven undrafted players on offense last week, which hasn't been done in the NFL for 11 years (Redskins). A combination of a good running attack and injuries has led to four players with 100-yard rush games.
Prediction: Chiefs, 24-20. They've won eight of the last 10 in the Black Hole.
Jets at Panthers
When: 4:05 p.m.
Story line: A sandwich game for Carolina, which suffered a reality check in New Orleans last week and eagerly awaits a visit by the Saints next week.
About the Jets: They have to win out and hope for the best to slip into a wild card. Hard to see that happening with Geno Smith at the helm. The Jets are 3-0 vs. the NFC South and 4-0 when Smith has a QB rating of 80 or better. DE Muhammad Wilkerson has 10 sacks.
About the Panthers: The defense has allowed the fewest points per game (14.5) and touchdowns (16) in the league. The 26 takeaways rank fourth. It is tough across the board: No. 1 vs. the run and No. 5 vs. the pass. DE Greg Hardy has 16 sacks in the last 22 games. Graham Gano is 6 of 6 on FGs of 50 yards or more.
Prediction: Panthers, 23-10. An eight-game win streak snapped, Carolina starts a new one.
Packers at Cowboys
When: 4:25 p.m.
Story line: The Pack is 16-5 in December/January since 2009; the Cowboys 10-11. But those Packers had Aaron Rodgers.
About the Packers: Rodgers (collarbone) remains unlikely to play. Matt Flynn has been erratic in three starts, yet he should be brimming with confidence against Dallas' horrendous pass defense, torched for about 300 yards per game. The Pack lost its last nine at Texas Stadium and has yet to face the Cowboys in their new palace, though they did win Super Bowl XLV at Jerry World.
About the Cowboys: The question becomes can they score enough to overcome their wretched defense? Slumping DeMarcus Ware has to put some heat on Flynn, maybe even force him into a couple turnovers because the Cowboys cannot stop drives. However, they can score, and the Packers' No. 21 defense (25th vs. the run) is a bit generous itself.
Prediction: Cowboys, 35-34. As long as Rodgers isn't playing.
Saints at Rams
When: 4:25 p.m.
Story line: New Orleans can wrap up a playoff spot with a win. St. Louis will have a 10th straight season without a winning record.
About the Saints: The concern here is they are a totally different team home and road. In the Superdome, they averaged 32.9 points and allow 15.4. Away from home, they scored 18.8 and allow 22.5. TE Jimmy Graham has five of his league-high 14 TDs in the last three games. DE Cameron Jordan is second in the NFC with 111/2 sacks.
About the Rams: The only NFC sack artist better than Jordan is St. Louis' Robert Quinn, who has 13. Rookie LB Alec Ogletree is tied with James Laurinaitis with a team-high 95 tackles. Rookie RB Zac Stacy has 721 yards rushing but might be hitting a wall.
Prediction: Saints, 31-17. Road woes or not, we'll take Drew Brees over Kellen Clemens.
Cardinals at Titans
When: 4:25 p.m.
Story line: The Cardinals are in a fierce fight with the 49ers and Panthers for two wild-card spots. They would lose the tiebreaker to San Fran and win it vs. Carolina.
About the Cards: They're on fire, winning five of six. Carson Palmer has a 106.8 passer rating during this stretch, Larry Fitzgerald has five TDs in the last four games and even plow-horse Rashard Mendenhall has rumbled for a score in three of four outings. LB John Abraham has 11 sacks and four forced fumbles in the last seven games, and LB Karlos Dansby has been a game-changing beast lately.
About the Titans: They're out of the race and concentrating on developing young players, like rookie WR Justin Hunter, fresh off a career-high 114-yard receiving effort. Third-year DT Jurrell Casey has a career-high nine sacks.
Prediction: Cardinals, 24-20. It's hard to buck Arizona at this point.
Bengals at Steelers
When: 8:30 p.m.
Story line: Cincinnati is on the verge of reaching the playoffs three straight years for the first time in franchise history. Pittsburgh is about to miss the postseason for the second year in a row.
About the Bengals: Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have combined for 1,282 yards rushing and 10 TDs, and Bernard also has three receiving scores. The defense is really good and has a dozen players with at least one sack, a big concern for Ben Roethlisberger and his shaky lines.
About the Steelers: The offense has made strides, climbing over 20 points in six straight games. WR Antonio Brown (90 catches, 1,241 yards, 7 TDs) is challenging some of Hines Ward's club records and aims to show Cincy's A.J. Green (78 for 1,175, 8 TDs) that he's his equal.
Prediction: Bengals, 24-20. Home isn't what it used to be for the Steelers, just 3-3 there.
Ravens at Lions
When: Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Story line: Two 7-6 teams who pretty badly need to reach 8-6 if they want to see January.
About the Ravens: They have to figure out a way to win on the road, where a 1-5 record doesn't cut it. The Ravens also can't keep relying on Houdini acts to escape. The offense just hasn't clicked and is ranked 29th overall. Nothing wrong with the ninth-ranked defense, which has forced 13 fumbles.
About the Lions: A high-powered offense has been held scoreless in the fourth quarter of each of the last three losses. Detroit has won one game in the past month, largely because of 15 turnovers. WR Calvin Johnson was a no-show in the snow last Sunday and RB Reggie Bush a late scratch, but they'll be called on often here. CB DeAndre Levy tops the league six interceptions.
Prediction: Lions, 28-24. Home field is the difference.
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