3-and-out: NFL’s best matchups of Week 12

Thanksgiving only served to muddle the outskirts of the playoff race, but Sunday will help further define it with three games featuring five teams currently projected to be in the playoffs.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (7-3) at ATLANTA FALCONS (6-4)

The Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons are both still in the top six seeds in the NFC.

The Vikings, at 7-3, spent one day at the No. 2 spot early last week before the Arizona Cardinals won their Week 10 prime-time game, and after the Cardinals won again in Week 11 and the Vikings lost, Minnesota fell to the No. 5 projected seed in the NFC. But after the Packers lost on Thursday, Minnesota is now the No. 3 seed. Atlanta is No. 6 after a three-game losing streak, looking up at the New York Giants (No. 4), Vikings (No. 5), Cardinals (No. 2) and Carolina Panthers (No. 1).

The Vikings offense is dependent on Adrian Peterson’s excellence, and he moved to 10th all-time on the rushing touchdowns list with one more in a losing effort to the Packers on Sunday. While Peterson still leads the league with 1,006 yards rushing, his streak of three straight games with more than 100 yards was broken when the Packers limited him to 45 yards.  Peterson leads the NFL with five games of 100 rushing yards or more, and Falcons RB Devonta Freeman is tied for second with four such games.

The Falcons are the more well-rounded offense and have the top two players in yards from scrimmage this year. Freeman, whose status is in doubt Sunday after suffering a concussion last week, has 1,184 scrimmage yards, and Julio Jones leads the NFL with 1,189 yards receiving. He had nine catches for 160 yards last week, and his 89 catches so far this season tie him with Marvin Harrison for the most in a team’s first 10 games in NFL history. Jones has 121 catches for 1,802 yards and eight touchdowns in his last 14 games.

The two teams are fairly even in a lot of areas, but the Falcons dominate the passing game. Matt Ryan has had three or more touchdowns against the Vikings in each of his last three meetings with them and has a 106.5 rating over his last two meetings.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (5-5) at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (5-5)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven’t got much attention beyond Jameis Winston so far this season, but quietly they are working their way into the playoff conversation after two straight wins. Winston, of course, is deserving of the recognition after a five-touchdown performance last week with no interceptions, only the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to do that.  Add to that Doug Martin’s 235-yard rushing performance in Week 11 and the Bucs are suddenly presenting a balanced offense.  Martin is averaging 133 scrimmage yards in his past seven games, and the combination of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson presents a strong receiving threat.

The Colts, meanwhile, have the same record and are the projected No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs, thanks to Matt Hasselbeck’s 3-0 record as a starter in relief of Andrew Luck. Hasselbeck is one of only three quarterbacks to win three straight games after his 40th birthday and has passed for 708 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions in that span. T.Y. Hilton is still one of the league’s better receivers and has 45 catches for 724 yards, and somehow the Colts have survived a minus-6 turnover ratio to stay relevant.  

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-0) at DENVER BRONCOS (8-2)

The big game of the weekend, however, is reserved for Sunday night. The New England Patriots have a two-game lead in the AFC playoff chase and at 10-0 can already clinch a playoff berth with a win and loss by the New York Jets. The Denver Broncos are currently projected as the No. 3 seed in the AFC, with only the Bengals between them and the Patriots, so a win over New England would be big for working toward more home games in the playoffs.

Of course, the Broncos will be trying to get that done with Brock Osweiler making his second start in relief of Peyton Manning. Oswelier is 34 for 51 for 396 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in his limited action this season, and against Chicago last week he completed 74.1 percent of his passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns, being named the AFC offensive player of the week. But no doubt New England’s No. 1 scoring defense will challenge him more than he has been this season. Chandler Jones is second in the league with 10½ sacks, Logan Ryan has four interceptions and the Patriots have a plus-six turnover ratio.

Demaryius Thomas could be the key for the Broncos. He has 40 catches for 691 yards (115.2-yard average) and is gunning for his third game in a row against the Patriots with 125 yards. The addition of TE Vernon Davis has helped the Broncos passing attack, as he had six catches last week.

Tom Brady already has 25 touchdowns, the 11th time he has done that (tied for second-most in the NFL) and leads the NFL with 3,320 yards passing and leads the AFC with his 25 touchdowns and a 107.4 passer rating. Without Julian Edelman, WR Danny Amendola has stepped up with 19 catches for 196 yards in the last two games, but the Broncos will have to shift attention to TE Rob Gronkowski, too, as he has 34 catches for 428 yards and five touchdowns in five matchups against the Broncos (including the playoffs).

But the Broncos defense might be the best the Patriots have faced. LB Brandon Marshall has 78 tackles, LB Von Miller has five sacks in his last seven games and LB DeMarcus Ware has 6½ sacks in his last seven.

The Thanksgiving games provided the dressing, but the real meat and potatoes in the playoff chase will be served Sunday.

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