Panthers (9-3) at Saints (9-3)
Time (TV): 8:30 p.m. (NBC).
Line: New Orleans by 4.
Notable: Three weeks ago, in a nationally televised win over the Patriots, Carolina had its coming-out party. Now it has a going-in challenge, and successfully handling this major test would put the team in line for a major celebration. What the Panthers are going into, of course, is the Superdome, and nothing less than the NFC South title and a first-round-playoff bye could be at stake. That’s because the teams play again in two weeks, and given the Saints’ tie-breaker advantage and the teams’ other opponents, Carolina will likely have to sweep both games. A win in New Orleans would put the Cats in the catbird seat, and it would mean they had accomplished the more daunting of their remaining tasks. The Saints are 6-0 in the Superdome, and Drew Brees leads the league with a 122.2 rating at home, having thrown 19 touchdowns against three interception. In addition, New Orleans already has plenty of motivation — if less time to prepare — after its Monday night humiliation at Seattle.
Fantasy scout: In most leagues, the waiver wire is pretty well picked clean and half the teams are done, anyway, as the fantasy playoffs have begun. So I’ll devote this space to identifying players who need to come through for owners in this do-or-die spot. Let’s start with Brees, who has just averaged just 243.3 yards passing and 1.3 touchdowns over his past three games. As detailed above, his real-life contest amounts to something of a playoff game in its own right, so Brees is at least as eager for a return to points-aplenty form as his fantasy owners are.
Vikings (3-8-1) at Ravens (6-6)
Time (TV): 1 p.m. (Fox).
Line: Baltimore by 6.
Notable: Minnesota just broke ground on a new stadium, so it will have a fabulous facility for home games — in 2016. The team hopes to have won a road game before then — it is the only NFL team that has yet to do so in 2013 (although it did notch a tie at Green Bay). Winning at Baltimore, which is now in control of its playoff fate, will be a tall order, but the Vikings should be able to hang around, given that seven of the Ravens’ past nine games have been decided by three points or fewer.
Fantasy scout: The fact that Ray Rice is still being started in 75 percent of Yahoo! leagues indicates two things: 1) the scarcity of depth at RB, and 2) the fact that there an awful lot of absentee owners in public leagues. Still, Rice did well against the Bears three weeks ago, and now he gets another bad NFC North run defense, so there's hope.
Seahawks (11-1) at 49ers (8-4)
Time (TV): 4:25 p.m. (Fox).
Line: San Francisco by 2.
Notable: The Seahawks outscored the Niners in their past two meetings by a total of 71-16, but both of those games came at the friendly, if deafening, confines of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. Now the scene has shifted to San Francisco, and not a moment too soon for the home squad, which has won four straight over the Seahawks at Candlestick Park but which finds itself clinging to the NFC’s final playoff berth. By contrast, Seattle can wrap up the NFC West with a win.
Fantasy scout: The thing about taking the bull by its horns is that sometimes when you do so, you get gored. If you have Frank Gore on your team, you’re not thrilled that, over his past three games, he’s only put up 139 yards and one score on 46 touches. But chances are, you don’t have another RB2 option about whom you can feel more bullish.
Cowboys (7-5) at Bears (6-6)
Time (TV): Monday, 8:40 p.m. (ESPN).
Line: Chicago by 1.
Notable: After having enjoyed a bye in Week 11, and now having 10 days between its last game on Thanksgiving and this Monday nighter, Dallas shouldn’t lack for rest. But relaxation? That’s another matter, considering that the Cowboys have to be worried about how their 31st-ranked pass defense will hold up against the Bears. Jay Cutler has been ruled out for Chicago, but QB Josh McCown will have imposing threats at wide receiver in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Fantasy scout: Really, Tony Romo? It’s not enough to constantly disappoint fans of your real-life team, but now you’re going to alienate the fantasy community, too? We were your last bastion of support! But, nooooo, you had to spend November wasting golden opportunities for stats. And against Chicago, you’ll probably just keep handing it off. Ugh.
Lions (7-5) at Eagles (7-5)
Time: 1 p.m.
Line: Philadelphia by 3.
Notable: As far as Detroit is concerned, today would be a really good time for Nick Foles to start making some ill-advised passes. The Lions have won three of their past five games, but have just four takeaways against 17 turnovers in that span. Now they face a QB who has thrown 19 touchdowns and no interceptions this season, just shy of the NFL record.
Fantasy scout: Obviously, Foles is the exact opposite of a player who’s been scuffling of late. But given that the Eagle was a waiver pickup, many of his owners probably have a choice to make at QB, and are choosing Foles’s recent success (and opposing defense). So don’t let today be the day the other shoe drops, Nick.
Dolphins (6-6) at Steelers (5-7)
Time: 1 p.m.
Line: Pittsburgh by 3.
Notable: Miami is trying to make a sprint to the playoffs, but you’ll never believe who’s standing in the way. Yup, it’s that rascally Mike Tomlin! His sideline obstructionism grabbed headlines, but an even bigger problem is that Tomlin’s team could miss the posteason for a second straight year, an unusual event in Pittsburgh.
Fantasy scout: Mike Wallace is coming off a strong couple of games, but he’s had way too inconsistent a season for people to feel completely comfortable starting him. And it’s fair to wonder if the ex-Steeler will find comfort in a return to his old stomping grounds, or if that will throw him off his game.
Colts (8-4) at Bengals (8-4)
Time: 1 p.m.
Line: Cincinnati by 6.
Notable: Cincinnati’s 17-10 win last week at San Diego is all the more impressive in light of the fact that the team lost Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, two of its best defenders, several weeks ago. One Bengal picking up the slack — and dropping opposing ballcarriers — is linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who leads the NFL in tackles with 131.
Fantasy scout: With defenses discovering that Darrius Heyward-Bey is, indeed, the Creature From the Bust Lagoon, they have been focusing attention on T.Y Hilton, and the result has been some poor showings by the undersize Colts WR. Owners can only hope he’s due for a huge play.
Falcons (3-9) at Packers (5-6-1)
Time: 1 p.m.
Notable: To use an analogy folks in Green Bay might appreciate, they might have a bottle of Miller High Life, the “Champagne of Beers,” at QB today, or they might have a bottle of Dom Perignon. Matt Flynn will go if Aaron Rodgers can’t, and you know Packers fans will feel a lot more bubbly if the latter is on the field.
Fantasy scout: To start Roddy White and Jordy Nelson, or not to start the would-be WR1s? That is the question. I say, start ‘em! Obviously, if Rodgers plays, then Nelson’s a no-brainer, but the matchup is right, either way. And White finally looks healthy and just got 14 targets.
Browns (4-8) at Patriots (9-3)
Time: 1 p.m.
Line: New England by 12.
Notable: Last week’s comeback against Houston served as a reminder that New England winning is the one thing you can always count on in December. Well, that and not being able to ever, ever escape Christmas jingles. But the Pats have won 16 of their past 17 in this month, so it’s their most wonderful time of the year.
Fantasy scout: After Jordan Cameron’s first four games, he was, to quote another J. Cameron, “King of the world!” Since then, his stats have sunk, if not quite to Titanic depths, at least enough to give owners pause. Even with just one TD in his past eight games, however, he’s still a top-five option at TE.
Bills (4-8) at Buccaneers (3-9)
Time: 1 p.m.
Line: Tampa Bay by 2.
Notable: No truth to the rumor that the first 10,000 fans who show up for this game get free lessons on the Heimlich Maneuver, but it is true that there is a high probability of at least one of these teams choking. Along with Houston, both Buffalo and Tampa Bay lead the league in blown leads, with seven.
Fantasy scout: Having had only one really big performance since Week 7, Vincent Jackson was already shaping up as a risk-reward kind of play today, but then he apparently developed a hamstring issue during the week. So trotting VJax out there will not be for the faint of heart.
Raiders (4-8) at Jets (5-7)
Time: 1 p.m.
Line: New York by 3.
Notable: Jets fans can be forgiven for having a strong sense of, shall we say, deja boo. Geno Smith experienced some early success, but now he cannot stop playing ineptly. The team has started losing, but Rex Ryan, either due to stubbornness or on orders from above, refuses to bench the QB. Sound familiar (cough, Sanchez, cough)?
Fantasy scout: With Rashad Jennings questionable (and facing the Jets’ run defense), neither team has a very compelling fantasy option on offense, so how about the Oakland D/ST? That will be a popular streaming option this week against Smith, aka the Big Apple Turnover.
Titans (5-7) at Broncos (10-2)
Time: 1 p.m.
Line: Denver by 12.
Notable: John Fox is back from open-heart surgery and ready to coach Denver again, although it remains to be seen whether he will actually be on the sideline or up in a coach’s box. Peyton Manning, of course, has no such choice, but the Titans hope it will be cold enough to make him wish he were indoors somewhere.
Fantasy scout: Manning is said to be in such command that he can determine which of his receivers deserves a statistical boost, and then make sure that actually happens. Wes Welker owners certainly want that to be the case; if so, their guy could be penciled in for a pretty nice day.
Giants (5-7) at Chargers (5-7)
Time: 1 p.m.
Line: San Diego by 3.
Notable: This is only the second time Eli Manning has played in San Diego since he forced a draft-day trade away from the Chargers in 2004, and the first time came in 2005. So expect plenty of pent-up negativity to be unleashed today, although some of that vitriol may also go toward the home team, if it keeps stumbling.
Fantasy scout: Just when owners bought into Danny Woodhead as an RB2, especially in PPR leagues, his touches began decreasing. Woodhead averaged 14.3 touches between Weeks 2 and 8, but has only averaged 9.0 in his past four games. However, he remains a good bet for a score.
Rams (5-7) at Cardinals (7-5)
Time: 1 p.m.
Line: Arizona by 6.
Notable: Arizona has a loss to St. Louis this season, but that was all the way back in Week 1, and so much has changed since then. For example, MIchael Floyd’s four catches for 82 yards that day were just a hint at what he would eventually do. What he’s done over the past three games is nab 18 receptions for 396 yards and two touchdowns. The kid is hot!
Fantasy scout: One thing will almost certainly be true about Zac Stacy’s day: he’ll get the ball a lot. However, he’ll face Arizona’s fourth-ranked run defense, so yards might be fairly hard to come by. Therefore, at the risk of seeming greedy, Stacy owners demand that at least one of those carries wind up in the end zone.