NFL

5 Players to Watch in Week 14

on

Just about every time the Giants and Cowboys lock horns in primetime, something special happens.

Think back to last season’s opener in which Dallas burned Big Blue for its bungled clock management on a last-second touchdown pass from Tony Romo to Jason Witten. In 2011, the Giants won a pair of Sunday Night Football showdowns en route to a victory in Super Bowl 46 – the latter game settled the outright NFC East title.

Even the seemingly meaningless games produce some magic. Odell Beckham Jr.’s mesmerizing one-handed catch came on a Sunday night in Week 12 of 2014 at the Meadowlands. Dallas had the last laugh, though, when Romo again ripped out the hearts of Giants’ fans by hitting Dez Bryant for a go-ahead, 13-yard touchdown with 1:01 left in regulation.

As we enter the final month of the season, the longtime division rivals square off with huge stakes on the line. The Cowboys can clinch the division, and potentially the No. 1 overall seed in the conference, with a win. As for the Giants, they can get to 9-3, earn a series sweep against arguably the league’s best team and almost assuredly grab hold of a wild card spot.

There are plenty of other compelling matchups this weekend. Houston and Indianapolis tangle for first place in the somewhat resurgent AFC South. The red-hot Buccaneers host Drew Brees and the high-flying Saints, with Tampa Bay looking to make it five straight wins. Speaking of must-watch rivalries, the Seahawks and Packers renew acquaintances at Lambeau while the Ravens seek to again frustrate Tom Brady and the Gronk-less Patriots.

Welcome to the stretch run. Enjoy the show. Here are five players to watch in Week 14.

Cameron Brate, TE, Buccaneers

One of Tampa Bay’s breakout stars in 2016, Brate has rapidly developed into Jameis Winston’s No. 2 threat in the passing game behind Mike Evans. The Harvard product has five touchdown receptions in six home games; his lone road score came last week in San Diego as the Bucs extended their winning streak to four.

Reliability has quickly become a calling card for Brate. According to PFF, he’s dropped only one of 48 catchable passes. Brate ranks second among Buccaneers with 66 targets, four more than wide receiver Adam Humphries.

Humphries remained in the concussion protocol Friday afternoon, along with starting tackle Demar Dotson, and is unlikely to suit up. Expect lots of fireworks and cannon blasts on Sunday when the Saints visit Raymond James Stadium. New Orleans has surrendered 55 catches for 668 yards and four scores to tight ends.

Robert Griffin III, QB, Browns

I mean, how can you not keep at least one eye on the former No. 2 pick? This could be the end of the line for Griffin if he’s unsuccessful over the final four weeks.

Griffin’s spent three months on the shelf after breaking the coracoid process in his left collarbone in a loss to the Eagles. Not to mention, he sat out all of 2015 after Jay Gruden chose Kirk Cousins to lead Washington.

According to ESPN’s Pat McManamon, Griffin is due a roster bonus of $1.5 million in March. So the Browns need to see if he can help them in any way, shape or form. Otherwise, he’ll hit free agency and the suitors are unlikely to be out there.

Hue Jackson believes RG3 gives the Browns the best chance to win; they’ve only got four chances left to avoid matching the 2008 Lions as the lone 0-16 teams in league history.

Damon Harrison, DT, Giants

This is the reason Big Blue spent big on Snacks.

With the Cowboys’ dominant running game coming to town, Harrison will need to control the middle. Per Pro Football Focus, Harrison leads the NFL in run-stop percentage (17.1). Not to mention, he’s got more tackles (72) than any interior lineman.

Derailing what has been a tremendous personal comeback, Jason Pierre-Paul is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season with a sports hernia, putting extra pressure on both Harrison and fellow big-ticket free agent pickup OIivier Vernon.

The Giants held rookie Ezekiel Elliott to a season-low 51 rushing yards back in Week 1. Since then, he’s piled up at least 80 yards on the ground in every game. Should the Cowboys struggle to run the ball, expect them to exploit the Giants defense in between the hashmarks with slot receiver Cole Beasley and the aforementioned Witten.

David Johnson, RB, Cardinals

Arguably the best back in football right now, no defense has truly slowed Johnson down in 2016.

The second-year man out of Northern Iowa has totaled 15 touchdowns and 1,709 yards from scrimmage, including 704 yards receiving – more than 200 yards clear of any other running back for the league lead. He ranks 20th in the league in receptions (64) as well – more than Terrelle Pryor, DeAndre Hopkins, Brandin Cooks, Jimmy Graham and Allen Robinson among others.

Don’t look for Johnson to slow down this Sunday, either. The Miami Dolphins allow 4.7 yards per carry, 30th in the NFL ahead of only Oakland and San Francisco. The Cardinals kept their slim playoff hopes alive last week with a victory over Washington. Feeding Johnson equals their best chance for victory.

Steven Terrell, S, Seahawks

Insert backup safety playing centerfield against Aaron Rodgers here.

Terrell, once an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M, will fill the vacancy left by Earl Thomas. But can he handle the responsibility when, and if, the Seahawks give their typical single-high look?

He’s seen action in every game this season, including a start in Tampa Bay, and contributes regularly on special teams. Terrell certainly possesses the speed to cover some ground, running a 4.36 in the 40-yard dash at Texas A&M’s pro day, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times.

Terrell will have plenty of support around him. Richard Sherman has allowed a 48.3 percent catch rate on balls thrown into his coverage, per PFF. And Kam Chancellor has recovered after missing four games with a groin injury.

Seattle can clinch the NFC West with a win and an Arizona loss. As for the host 6-6 Packers, they virtually need to win out to steal either a wild card or, possibly, the NFC North.


About Chris Boyle