BY BARRY WILNER
If the Dallas Cowboys are for real, they will win their sixth straight game and clinch the NFC East at Indianapolis on Sunday.
If the Colts are for real, they will knock off the Cowboys and stamp themselves as true contenders for the AFC playoffs.
With three games remaining, Dallas (8-5) is in control of its division, thanks to a staunch defense and a revived air game with the addition of Amari Cooper. Has any veteran been more worth a first-round draft pick in a midseason trade?
“I didn’t know we were going to get all that, honestly,'” says NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott about Cooper, acquired from Oakland. “But when I finally saw him in person, when I saw him catch the ball, I saw him run around and run after the catch, that’s when I really realized he’s truly special.”
A Cowboys win does the trick in the NFC East, as would losses by Philadelphia and Washington. Dallas has almost no chance at a first-round playoff bye, though.
So what? The Cowboys were 3-5 and sinking and now look where they are.
Talking about sinking, Indianapolis was 1-5 two months ago. Then the Colts (7-6) won five straight before that string ended with an awful performance at Jacksonville. So they went to AFC South leader Houston, winner of nine in a row, and won.
In his comeback from a 2017 season lost to a shoulder injury, Andrew Luck has been sensational, working behind an offensive line that has gone from sieve to sturdy. Luck has been sacked 16 times, second fewest in the league.
Indy is in a four-way tie for the second AFC wild-card slot with Baltimore, Tennessee and Miami.
“Most people call this the dash for cash,” Colts tight end Eric Ebron says. “So you just try to win.”
The weekend began Thursday night with the Los Angeles Chargers’ 29-28 comeback victory at Kansas City.
Philip Rivers led the Chargers to a pair of touchdowns in the final minutes, then hit Mike Williams for the go-ahead 2-point conversion with 4 seconds remaining. The Chargers (11-3) trailed 28-14 before Justin Jackson scored with 3:49 to go.
Not only did the Chargers clinch a playoff berth, they forged a first-place tie with the Chiefs (11-3) in the AFC West while ending a nine-game losing streak to their longtime division rivals.
New England (9-4) at Pittsburgh (7-5-1)
Tampa Bay (5-8) at Baltimore (7-6)
The AFC North has become a jumble with Pittsburgh’s slump (three successive defeats) and Baltimore’s resurgence. These matchups don’t bode well for the Steelers, especially if Ben Roethlisberger’s rib and James Conner’s ankle are factors.
The Patriots have won the past five meetings. Of course, the 2017 version is unforgettable: Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone with 5 seconds remaining after tight end Jesse James’ apparent go-ahead touchdown with 29 seconds left was overturned on review. Officials ruled the catch did not “survive the ground;” James jostled it after stretching across the goal line.
So the league amended the rule in the offseason to allow some movement by the ball if a receiver maintains possession.
New England can clinch its 10th straight AFC East title with a win or tie and a Miami loss or tie.
Baltimore, meanwhile, will sit the now healthy Joe Flacco behind first-round pick Lamar Jackson, who has won three of his four starts with Flacco (hip) sidelined. The Ravens’ ground game has been sensational with the rookie behind center:
Jackson has 336 yards rushing over the past four games, the most by any NFL quarterback in his first four starts during the Super Bowl era. Baltimore also is allowing an NFL-low 18.5 points per game.
Philadelphia (6-7) at Los Angeles Rams (11-2)
New Orleans (11-2) at Carolina (6-7), Monday
Top seed in the NFC is what it’s all about for the Saints and Rams, who lost to New Orleans this season.
The Rams and Saints each clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Chicago loss or tie, or a tie and a Chicago loss.
New Orleans has struggled offensively the past two weeks, but this is a matchup Drew Brees enjoys. The Saints beat the Panthers three times last season, including the playoffs. Brees has completed 76.7 percent of his passes for 2,714 yards with 21 touchdowns and four interceptions in the past 10 NFC South games, and has 46 TDs and 20 INTs vs. the Panthers, who have lost their past five overall. But Carolina is 5-1 at home.
With the Rams coming off the lowest-scoring performance under Sean McVay, a 15-6 loss to the Bears, they try to avoid falling in consecutive games with McVay in charge. Indeed, he has won at least two straight after all seven of his career defeats.
Eagles QB Carson Wentz is battling a back injury. He tore up his knee at LA last year and missed his team’s run to the championship.
Houston (9-4) at New York Jets (4-9), Saturday
Despite flopping at home against Indy, the Texans are in solid position, closing in on the division crown, with a playoff berth almost certain at the least. Houston also has an outside chance at a first-round playoff bye, but probably needs to win out and get some help.
QB Deshaun Watson has thrown at least one TD pass in 18 straight games, while top target DeAndre Hopkins has caught at least one TD pass in five straight road games. He and Watson have connected for 16 TD passes in 20 games they’ve played together.
New York got back rookie quarterback Sam Darnold and he put together his first fourth-quarter comeback to beat Buffalo last week and end a five-game slide.
Tennessee (7-6) at New York Giants (5-8)
The other weekend game at MetLife Stadium; notice the neutral end zones.
New York once was 1-7, yet has a very long shot at making the playoffs. A retooled offensive line has provided time for Eli Manning to show he isn’t over the hill, and for rookie running back Saquon Barkley to go wild.
Tennessee has had at least 400 yards in each of the past two games, and hasn’t managed three straight since Oct. 1-16, 2000. It has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the league this season, 27.
Green Bay (5-7-1) at Chicago (9-4)
Miami (7-6) at Minnesota (6-6-1)
Chicago’s last-to-first climb in the NFC North could be finalized against its biggest rival. A win over Green Bay, which leads the NFL’s longest series 97-94-6, gets it done. So does a Minnesota loss or tie.
The Bears lead the NFL in turnover differential (plus 13) and interceptions (25).
Green Bay, under interim coach Joe Philbin, must win out for any chance to play in January. The Packers have won eight in a row at Soldier Field and nine of the past 10 meetings overall. But with a win, Chicago would finish 7-1 at home for the first time since 2005.
Miami’s stunning “Drake Escape” victory against New England kept it viable in the AFC playoff chase. The Dolphins are second in the NFL with 19 interceptions and tied for third with 25 takeaways.
Minnesota was overwhelmed last Monday night at Seattle, and fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. In their past three losses, all on the road, the Vikings have averaged just 274 yards and 12 points per game. But they’re at home and the Dolphins are 0-5 on the road since beating the Jets in Week 2.
Seattle (8-5) at San Francisco (3-10)
Surging Seattle has won four straight and its defeats are to opponents who are a combined 36-16, with two of losses to the 11-2 Rams. The Seahawks have the league’s top rushing team and have become as stingy as anybody on defense despite being in a rebuild.
A win gets them into the postseason, and they have won 10 straight in this NFC West rivalry, starting with the conference title game in January 2014. Linebacker Bobby Wagner , making a hefty statement for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, seeks his eighth straight game with at least eight tackles. Wagner had 12 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, two passes defensed and a 98-yard interception return for a TD in the Week 13 win over San Francisco.
Cleveland (5-7-1) at Denver (6-7), Saturday
Yes, both clubs have outside shots at the postseason as they meet in prime time.
Denver has won the past 11 meetings, going back to 1990. But these Browns are spunky, led by top overall draft choice Baker Mayfield. He has 1,406 yards passing, 11 TDs, four interceptions since interim coach Gregg Williams supplanted coach Hue Jackson on Oct. 29.
He needs to watch out for DE Bradley Chubb, the fifth overall selection in April. Chubb’s 12 sacks are a rookie franchise record and 2½ shy of Javon Kearse’s 1999 NFL rookie record.
Detroit (5-8) at Buffalo (4-9)
Don’t look for much scoring here.
With 3,187 yards passing, Detroit QB Matthew Stafford is in jeopardy of ending his seven-season streak of topping 4,000 yards. His counterpart, first-round pick Josh Allen, has a combined 335 yards rushing in the past three games. He’s the second NFL QB to top 90 yards rushing in three consecutive games, joining Green Bay’s Tobin Rote in 1951.
Arizona (3-10) at Atlanta (4-9)
Atlanta might do some scoring here, while Arizona ranks at the bottom in most offensive categories. Its pitiful 178 points are 23 lower than the next-worst team, Buffalo. The Cardinals started five rookies on offense last week.
After being held without a TD catch in the first seven games, Atlanta WR Julio Jones has five in the past six games. Jones leads the NFL with 1,429 yards receiving and has topped 100 yards in nine games.
Oakland (3-10) at Cincinnati (5-8)
Banged-up Cincinnati has been in freefall, dropping five in a row and seven of eight. This is its final home game. The Bengals have averaged 51,673, the second-smallest attendance since Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000. They’re 3-4 at home.
The Raiders fired GM Reggie McKenzie on Monday, one day after a stunning upset of Pittsburgh.
Washington (6-7) at Jacksonville (4-9)
What does a team do when its top two QBs have broken legs and the third guy has a broken career? In Washington’s case, it turns to someone who hasn’t started since 2011, is 0-5 in the NFL and recently had a contract with the startup Alliance of American Football, Josh Johnson.
Redskins RB Adrian Peterson needs 112 yards rushing to pass Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson (13,259) for eighth most in NFL history.
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