Roaring out of Texas come the Dallas Cowboys, headed to the Big Apple ready to grab a division crown and maybe more.
Crawling out of Texas come the Houston Texans , headed to Naptown for a first-place showdown with the Colts after blowing an exclusive AFC South lead.
Yes, the Lone Star state has two division leaders heading into Sunday. That’s about the only resemblance.
Dallas (11-1) takes on the New York Giants (8-4), the only team to beat it, in prime time. A Cowboys victory gives them the NFC East title. They already own a playoff berth, and if Detroit and Settle both lose, they also could leave the Meadowlands with home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.
That’s big doings in Big D, so don’t expect them to back off.
“A mentality is something you’ve built up to get to this point,” says rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher.
“It’s something that is your character. If you’re the type of guy who coasts, you’re the type of guy who coasts. But we don’t have those type of guys in this locker room. I don’t have any worries about that.”
The Giants had won six straight before falling in Pittsburgh. They also lost their top pass rusher, Jason Pierre-Paul, for the season.
But they’re the leader in the NFC wild-card race.
“This is huge,” says defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. “Not saying the last game we had wasn’t huge, but this is big in the division. We have got to win this. My ultimate goal is to win the division and they are in our way, so we have to make sure that we get them taken care of.”
No matter who wins in Indianapolis, the AFC South will be far from decided. A Texans team that dominated the division early on has turned it into a three-team scramble by losing three in a row.
Plus, the Colts have Andrew Luck back after he missed one game with a concussion. He returned with a four-TD passing show against the Jets.
“It certainly feels like a playoff game. I know personally our football team knows how important this game is,” says Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, whose struggles have mirrored Houston’s.
“We know that it’s a must-win game if we want to accomplish the goals that we set out.”
Impressively, this is the first year since the 1970 merger that three teams were perfect on the road entering Week 14: Dallas, New England and Oakland. And then the Raiders stumbled in frigid Kansas City on Thursday night, falling 21-13.
Tyreek Hill had touchdowns receiving and on a punt return, and Kansas City’s defense made life miserable for Oakland quarterback Derek Carr. The Chiefs (10-3) moved into a first-place tie with Oakland (10-3) in the AFC West, but hold the tiebreaker with two wins over their longtime divisional rival.
Baltimore (7-5) at New England (10-2), Monday night
Pittsburgh (7-5) at Buffalo (6-6)
The AFC North figures to go down to the wire — the Ravens and Steelers meet in Pittsburgh on Christmas night — and both teams have difficult road challenges this week.
The Patriots can secure the AFC East title by winning or tying and having Miami lose, and they also have a shot at clinching a first-round bye. But Tom Brady and Co. don’t exactly relish facing Baltimore, which has won four of five as its defense has become extra stingy.
“They’re the first-rated defense in the league, so no one has done a better job over the course of the season than them,” Brady says. “They don’t give you anything easy. You have to earn it. I think they do a good mix with their scheme and also with their personnel, so we’re prepared for a 60-minute game.”
Pittsburgh has won five straight and nine of 10 against the Bills, including three straight at Orchard Park. A victory Sunday would be No. 100 for coach Mike Tomlin.
Buffalo opens a three-game homestand one win short of 400 in franchise history. The Bills, led by LeSean McCoy, have topped 150 yards rushing in five straight games; their team record is seven straight spanning 1973-74.
New Orleans (5-7) at Tampa Bay (7-5)
Atlanta (7-5) at Los Angeles (4-8)
Let’s also tie these two matchups together with the focus on the NFC South race that the Falcons and Bucs lead.
Tampa Bay is surging with four straight wins, but has lost eight of the past nine to Drew Brees and the Saints, including the past four in Tampa. The Bucs are getting terrific performances from a rapidly maturing Jameis Winston (15 touchdowns versus four interceptions over the past eight games), and Mike Evans, who ranks third with 1,058 receiving yards and is tied for second with 10 TD receptions. The tough part will be dealing with Brees. He leads the league in completions (375), passing attempts (500), completion rate (71.4 percent), passing yards (3,913) and touchdown passes (30).
Atlanta has dropped four of seven to fall into the tie with Tampa Bay. It has the lowest-ranked pass defense in football, though against LA’s weak throwing attack, that’s not so big a drawback. Brilliant receiver Julio Jones is battling turf toe, which could rob Matt Ryan of his top target. The Rams lost three straight and seven of eight.
Denver (8-4) at Tennessee (6-6)
While the Raiders and Chiefs battled on Thursday night, the Broncos watched their division rivals. Tennessee doesn’t have that luxury Sunday because it plays at the same time as the teams it’s tied with atop the AFC South.
Neither side can afford a stumble, the Titans much less so. They come off a bye after their offense has gotten in gear with a balanced approach. DeMarco Murray, the 2014 NFL rushing champ with Dallas, trails only the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott in yards gained on the ground. Marcus Mariota is up to 25 TD passes and a 101.9 passer rating. Mariota has 21 TDs through the air, three interceptions with a 117.7 passer rating in the past eight games. The Titans are averaging a league-best 30.8 points per game since Oct. 6.
But penetrating the dynamic Denver defense with passes is another story. With the Broncos more vulnerable against the run, look for lots of Murray. And lots of Broncos star linebacker Von Miller tracking him.
Seattle (8-3-1) at Green Bay (6-6)
Seattle can clinch the NFC West with a win or a tie against the Pack and an Arizona loss or tie. That division title will come, if not on the Lambeau Field tundra, then down the line.
The Packers haven’t lost to the Seahawks in Green Bay since 1999. Should Russell Wilson lead Seattle to victory, it would move him one behind Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (56) for most victories in any quarterback’s first five seasons. Wilson would have another three games left this season, too.
One key matchup to watch: Aaron Rodgers’ receivers trying to avoid outstanding linebacker Bobby Wagner, who has an NFL-best 127 tackles, 68 solo.
Chicago (3-9) at Detroit (8-4)
Chicago comes off a rare win, over disinterested San Francisco, and actually has beaten the Lions this season. More impressively, Detroit comes off its easiest win of the season, at New Orleans.
Bears rookie Jordan Howard ran for 111 yards against Detroit in Week 4 and had 117 yards rushing and three touchdowns last week. He’s one of the few dangers Chicago will present to the Lions, who have won four straight and seven of eight since losing at Chicago.
Washington (6-5-1) at Philadelphia (5-7)
Washington desperately needs this one, and the Eagles are fading rapidly, dropping five of their past six.
The Redskins seek a fifth straight win over the Eagles for the first time since a six-game streak from 1981-84. They’ve scored a total of 72 points in their past two visits to the Linc.
If Kirk Cousins gets time to throw, he can pick apart a defense. That makes this fact distressing for Philly fans: the Eagles had 20 sacks in the first five games and only six in the past six games, including none in the past two.
Cincinnati (4-7-1) at Cleveland (0-12)
It’s great to see Robert Griffin III healthy enough to get back on the field. It’s also uncertain how much of his skills remain intact; it’s been years since RG3 has been able to stay on the field with any consistency.
Expecting him to lift the Browns to their first win might be a bit much, even against a Bengals squad that has underachieved possibly more than any other team. Should Cleveland lose, it will mark one year without a victory. The previous one came Dec. 13, 2015 against San Francisco.
Minnesota (6-6) at Jacksonville (2-10)
Both slumping teams have highly ranked defenses, which means very little because they can’t get out of their own ways with the ball. The Vikings, losers of six of seven since beginning with a five-game winning streak, still have some playoff hopes if they make an immediate turnaround. But they are severely banged up. The Jaguars have lost seven straight overall and are winless in five games at EverBank Field. Their previous home victory was a year ago.
Arizona (5-6-1) at Miami (7-5)
Arizona was heading downward and the Dolphins were looking up before last week, when the Cardinals handled Washington and Miami stumbled at Baltimore.
The Dolphins haven’t beaten the Cardinals since 1999, but Arizona has dropped all three of its games in the Eastern time zone this season.
Miami has beaten only one team that’s above .500 (Pittsburgh at 7-5). The other victories came against teams that are a combined 19-52. Yet the Dolphins are in AFC wild-card contention.
San Diego (5-7) at Carolina (4-8)
San Diego can move the ball and seems to have found a top receiver in Tyrell Williams, who has TD catches in four successive games. Star tight end Antonio Gates has 109 TD catches, second for the position in NFL history to Tony Gonzalez, and RB Melvin Gordon has been highly productive after a bust of a rookie year. Carolina has gone bust just about everywhere after losing in the Super Bowl in February. It has lost five games by three points or fewer and is only 3-3 at home after going 10-0, including playoffs, last season.
New York Jets (3-9) at San Francisco (1-11)
Two teams that didn’t show up last week and embarrassed themselves. If they both learn from it and show some character, this could be an interesting and hard-fought contest.
Don’t count on it.