By BARRY WILNER – AP Pro Football Writer
In early November, the NFC East was all about the Runaway Cowboys.
Now in December, it could be Washington’s (6-6) skyrocketing if he can beat Dallas (8-4) on Sunday.
A division that was won by Washington in 2020 with a 7-9 record will be up for grabs – with even Philadelphia in the mix – if Dallas falters in this game of rivalry.
“It’s definitely a critical game,” said Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who suffers from a right knee injury that has limited his production. “They play really good football, I think, what are four wins in a row? “
“And they’re a little stoned, but it looks like they haven’t really missed a lot of time and they’ve had some great game plans.”
Washington doesn’t feed on the league’s dregs either, with wins over Tampa Bay and Las Vegas in its recent streak. That chain happened even though 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Chase Young, was sidelined.
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Quarterback Taylor Heinicke looks to land a future contract in the nation’s capital. Proven coach Ron Rivera appears to be having his squad in their prime as they head to five straight divisional competitions to complete the schedule, a first in the NFL.
“I have blind faith, I guess,” Rivera said, thinking back to a 2-6 mark. “I have a lot of confidence in our guys. I had a lot of confidence in our coaches and I just think it’s unfortunate, but we were most definitely better than what our track record said. I know you are that. what does your file say, but I did not believe it.
“I think when guys believe in something and they really feel like they have a chance, all they need is that opportunity. And that’s what we hope to create. To get to where we are at. are currently, with the opportunity with the door wide open, we just have to take the plunge.
The action began with Minnesota surviving 36-28 against Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
Indianapolis (7-6), Miami (6-7), New England (9-4) and Philadelphia (6-7).
Los Angeles Rams (8-4) vs. Arizona (10-2), Monday night
A win gives the Cardinals their first place in the playoffs since 2015. They ended a seven-game losing streak against the Rams earlier this season, going 4-0 in the Division.
But Rams coach Sean McVay is 8-1 against the Cardinals, and LA has playmakers on both sides of the ball to make things tough for Arizona. Cooper Kupp leads the NFL with 1,366 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Cardinals will be looking to establish running back James Conner, who has scored at least one touchdown in six straight games.
Buffalo (7-5) at Tampa Bay (9-3)
After a horrific performance on the field and the blustery and cold Buffalo sideline on Monday night, it’s fair to wonder if the Bills will even make the playoffs. A loss here could be very damaging.
“It’s never easy,” said tackle Dion Dawkins. “We’ve had a lot of lessons. We’ve had a lot of tough days. In this league nothing is ever promised, and it shows.”
Tampa Bay has won three in a row and no quarterback likes playing Buffalo more than Tom Brady. He’s 32-3 against the Bills and pitched for 70 touchdowns and ran for two more against Buffalo.
Brady needs 18 goals to edge Drew Brees (7,142) for most in league history. He’s two assists away from becoming the first player with 700 touchdown passes, including the playoffs. And the Bucs could secure a playoff berth with a win and losses against the Saints and Panthers.
San Francisco (6-6) at Cincinnati (7-5)
Two wildcard playoff slot contenders suffered losses.
San Francisco forced four fumbles in Seattle but fell. The Niners lead the NFL with 18 forced fumbles. Two keys to stopping them: The 49ers rank second in the NFL with a gain of 6.31 yards per game on the first down and have converted 77.4% of the red zone‘s best records to touchdowns.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow heals a damaged finger but will play. The Cincinnati offense is third in the red zone TD rate (69.7%). Tee Higgins has become another playmaker for Burrow. He had nine catches for 138 yards and one touchdown last week against the Chargers, and six receptions for 114 yards and one touchdown the week before against the Steelers.
Baltimore (8-4) at Cleveland (6-6)
Hey, didn’t these guys go head to head two weeks ago?
Yeah. Indeed, this is the first time Cleveland, coming off a pass, has faced the same opponent in back-to-back regular season games since 1957, when the Browns split a pair with the Eagles.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh is 23-4 against Cleveland, including 11-2 at FirstEnergy Stadium. Since 1950, only Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll (25-21) has more wins against the Browns. And Baltimore has won four straight, 11 of 14 wins against the Browns since 2014. Plus, the Ravens’ December 14-3 record since 2018 is the NFL’s best for the month.
Both offenses are in trouble. The Browns haven’t scored more than 17 points in six of the last seven games. Baltimore has been held under 20 points in five of its last six games, going 3-3 in that span after a 5-1 start.
Chicago (4-8) at Green Bay (9-3)
Another chance for Aaron Rodgers to show the Bears “I’m still yours,” as he screamed after beating them in Chicago in October. The Packers went 22-5 against the Bears in games Rodgers started. In one of five losses, Rodgers left with an injury after the Packers’ first series.
“I feel good to be able to leave that at some point with us, which you never know, it’s been an ebb and flow in this rivalry, and it was fun to come back forward in everyone’s show. times, ”Rodgers said. , referencing Green Bay’s 102-95-6 mark in the league’s oldest rivalry.
The Bears, who have lost six of seven, should have rookie quarterback Justin Fields back from broken ribs.
Las Vegas (6-6) at Kansas City (8-4)
The Chiefs are aiming for a sixth straight win, and facing a high school sieve like the Raiders could give a somewhat searing offense a boost. Patrick Mahomes had another tough game against Denver, throwing for 184 yards with an interception and no touchdown pass. The Las Vegas pass defense is allowing just over 230 yards per game. Mahomes threw for 406 yards with five touchdowns and no pick in a 41-14 win for Kansas City earlier this season.
The Chiefs have won seven of the last eight in the series. Las Vegas, losing four of the last five outings, is 6-0 when Derek Carr throws for at least 300 yards and 0-6 when he doesn’t.
Jacksonville (2-10) at Tennessee (8-4)
There couldn’t be a better way out of a bye than to face the humble Jaguars. Tennessee also hope to be healthier, but the Titans have 18 players in the injured reserve and unparalleled safety Kevin Byard on the COVID-19 list. They used 86 players, the highest in the NFL.
The Titans have won four in a row and eight of the last nine against the Jaguars. They also have seven straight wins in Nashville.
Only four players from the Jacksonville roster have even scored victories at Nissan Stadium, and none of them came with the Jaguars. Receiver Tavon Austin, defensive tackle Malcom Brown, running back Carlos Hyde and defensive end Jihad Ward are the only Jaguars to have won in Nashville.
New York Giants (4-8) vs. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5)
Both sides are concerned about who will not be available. Chargers receivers Keenan Allen are absent, and Mike Williams and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. are in COVID-19 protocol but could test before Sunday and play.
Giants QB Mike Glennon will start after clearing the concussion protocol, but could be dealing with a diminished receiving body. Starting quarterback Daniel Jones remains sidelined with a neck injury.
The Chargers have won four in a row against the Giants, who have lost their last four games this season on the road. They will be assured of a fifth consecutive losing record with one defeat.
Detroit (1-10-1) to Denver (6-6)
For the Lions to get another victory after securing their first against Minnesota – thank you, Vikings, for that absurd defensive plan in the last practice – they will have to stop the race. Rookie RB Javonte Williams has emerged for Denver, and Detroit’s run defense ranks 28th, allowing for 131 yards per game.
Keep an eye out for Denver rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain II, who has collected three interceptions in his last two games and four overall. He leads all rookies with a dozen pass breakages and has one pass breakage in eight straight games, the NFL’s longest active streak.
This is only the third time since 2017 that the Broncos have been favored by more than one touchdown.
New Orleans (5-7) vs. New York Jets (3-9)
With New Orleans having recovered their best offensive player, running back Alvin Kamara, the Saints could possibly end their first five-game slide since the 2005 season, the year before Sean Payton was hired as coach. . New York allowed 418 total yards in a loss to Philadelphia, the sixth time this season the Jets have allowed at least 400 in a game. Yes, it’s Kamara who smiles.
New York’s best luck could come from special teams. Braxton Berrios ranks first among players with 15 or more kickoff returns with an average of 28.9, helped by his 79-yard return in the opening kickoff last Sunday. He is also among the leaders in the league with an average of 13.6 on punt returns.
Atlanta (5-7) at Caroline (5-7)
Like a few teams in 2021, the Falcons enjoy road travel more than home cooking. The Falcons are 5-2 away, including a win over the Jets in London; the Panthers are 2-4 at home.
The Panthers haven’t won at Bank of America Stadium since defeating the Saints 26-7 on September 19. Quarterback Cam Newton has lost his last 10 starts for Carolina.
Seattle (4-8) at Houston (2-10)
The Seahawks certainly learned to handle the early games. Managing the Texans might not be a chore, either.
This will be the second kickoff of the season at 10:00 a.m. PST for Seattle. The Seahawks are 20-7 in their last 27 games in this situation, including wins in 12 of the last 13.
Houston coach David Culley put veteran QB Tyrod Taylor on the bench for rookie Davis Mills, who threw eight interceptions with seven TDs in 6½ substitute games when Taylor was injured.
AP Pro football writer Schuyler Dixon and sports writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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