Rams, Seahawks headed for epic finish in NFC West race

The Rams haven’t sniffed the NFC West title since the Seahawks stole it from under their noses in 2010. Neither team will be limping to what should be a spectacular finish to the divsion race in 2017.

Seven years ago, however, both teams had only seven wins. This time, with Los Angeles leading at 8-3 and Seattle right behind at 7-4, a good team will end up with the title, while the other might be left at home in January with no playoff berth at all.

Both the Rams and Seahawks got much-needed rebound victories in Week 12 after tough losses to fellow NFC contenders. Although the difference remains only one game, the Rams have moved up to the No. 3 seed in the playoff picture, while the Seahawks are stuck at No. 7.

MORE: Updated NFL playoff picture

The division will be decided in the next five weeks, with the teams’ head-to-head rematch coming in Week 15. Here’s a look at how it will play out.

Rams: Will their defense keep it up?

Offensive rankings: 2nd in scoring, 4th in yardage, 6th in passing, 9th in rushing

Defensive rankings: 7th in scoring, 16th in yardage, 9th in passing, 27th in rushing

Turnover margin: plus-5 (tied for 9th)

Schedule: at Cardinals, vs. Eagles, at Seahawks, at Titans, vs. 49ers

Los Angeles keeps lighting up teams with Jared Goff going off in the passing game, no matter who’s out there with him. Sean McVay keeps pushing the right buttons and can always lean on a big-play running game, too, with Todd Gurley. Even without top wide receiver Robert Woods for a few games, the Rams are loaded with versatile playmakers and still have two dangerous game-breakers in Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp.

The key to slowing them down — much like the old Greatest Show on Turf Rams teams in St. Louis with Marshall Faulk — is containing Gurley as both a rusher and a receiver. Minnesota did it in Week 11, and Seattle was capable of doing it in Week 5. Going forward, Philadelphia, Seattle and Tennessee — L.A.’s opponents in Weeks 14 through 16 — have the personnel against the run to do that.

Those represent the three toughest games of the Rams’ last five. What can help there is the defense is keeping up its stifling play. After some early breakdowns, everything has started to jell for Wade Phillips’ unit, especially against the pass. Aaron Donald leads the pressure push up front, while safety Lamarcus Joyner has been the glue guy in coverage.

The Rams won at the line and on the back end against Drew Brees and the Saints, and that needs to happen against Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson and Marcus Mariota. All three of those QBs are loaded with more reliable targets than Brees is, however, and also bring the wrinkle of their running ability.

As good as those teams have been up front, their secondaries have been vulnerable for injuries or other reasons. Goff will need to keep bringing out his best to out-duel those counterparts in critical matchups. Much like Dak Prescott last year, Goff’s confidence grows with each veteran QB he outplays.

If LA’s defense plays as well as it did against New Orleans to complement the offense, the Rams can win the West in continued high-scoring fashion.

Seahawks: Will their offense carry them?

Offensive rankings: 10th in scoring, 8th in yardage, 7th in passing, 20th in rushing

Defensive rankings: 9th in scoring, 8th in yardage, 10th in passing, 9th in rushing

Turnover margin: plus-5 (tied for 9th)

Remaining schedule: vs. Eagles, at Jaguars, vs. Rams, at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals

Seattle is a two-trick team at the moment. Offensively, it’s all on Russell Wilson and the passing game. Defensively, it’s mostly on Bobby Wagner and the run defense.

With more offensive line issues and still no reliable power back, Wilson is by far the Seahawks’ best, most consistent rushing threat. With no Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor on defense, they don’t intimidate nearly as much on the back end against teams with multiple big-play receivers.

So the key for the Seahawks is rendering Wilson’s counterpart as one-dimensional as he is. After shutting down Gurley in the first matchup against the Rams, the Seahawks were able to tee off on Goff, producing three sacks and pressuring him into three giveaways.

Wilson is as great as any QB one could have to win shootouts. That will certainly be the case vs. Philadelphia, as Seattle tries to finish what it couldn’t against Atlanta in its previous high-scoring home affair. He’ll also need to rise above the high degree of difficulty against Jacksonville’s top-ranked pass defense before being up to the task vs. Goff and Phillips again.

The Seahawks also won’t catch a break in Week 16 at Dallas, as Dak Prescott will be back to getting Ezekiel Elliott’s support in that game. Overall, there’s no doubt the Seahawks have a harder schedule than that of the Rams.

Seattle saw Arizona rise recently with Carson Palmer under Bruce Arians, and before then, Colin Kaepernick under Jim Harbaugh had been their toughest threat in West. But with Goff and McVay here to stay together for longer than those pairings have, Wilson and Pete Carroll — with a coaching counterpart now less than half his age — face a legitimate contender to take their five-year division dominance away from them.

While his Seahawks are shorthanded elsewhere, Wilson needs to be his explosive and efficient best to lift both sides off the ball. Carroll can’t afford the few lapses he had in the Falcons and Redskins losses. Wilson gives them a chance in every game, and he probably will deserve a lot more MVP consideration if the Seahawks finish 11-5 and win the division.

Goff has a lot more balance and support, both offensively and defensively, and the big win over the Saints was key to having an extra cushion for the final five games.

The fair projection is that the Rams and Seahawks will split the four games in which they don’t play each other. That means the division appropriately will come down to their Week 15 matchup. It shoudn’t disappoint as one of the best games of the season with everything on the line. With the way the NFC South is going, there may be no wild-card on which the NFC West runner-up can fall back.

The Seahawks no longer have The Legion of Boom as we know it, and they’re no longer invincible on their home field. The Rams are no longer as bad defensively, and they haven’t proved to be intimidated on the road.

It will be either more next-level stuff for Wilson or Goff’s latest breakthrough in becoming a second-year QB as special as Wilson once was. Seattle will and should be favored in the epic battle, but it’s a chance for Los Angeles to force a change of the guard in the West.

Chances for Browns to avoid 0-16 shrink as Packers make unexpected leap

Now, the will-they-or-won’t-they portion of the Browns’ season has begun in earnest. It’s been ongoing, of course, but now that the games played have advanced into double-digits, it gets exponentially more serious by the minute.

That’s not an exaggeration. The Browns are now 0-11, and the second 0-16 season in NFL history is looming once again. Last season, it took until Week 16, the next-to-last game, when they were 0-14, for them to avoid the shame of association with Dan Orlovsky, Rod Marinelli and the 2008 Lions.

It’s time, then, to search for wins on the Browns’ remaining schedule … and that’s where “by the minute” takes on new meaning.

MOCK DRAFT 2018:

Browns shift focus away from QB

After the Bengals, of all teams, completed the season sweep of their in-state rivals Sunday, the Browns have five games remaining: in order, at the Chargers, at home against the Packers and Ravens, then at Chicago and Pittsburgh.

The two games that stand out as possible wins: Packers in Week 14, Bears in Week 16.

As Sunday began, including the game against Minnesota in which Aaron Rodgers got hurt, the Packers had lost four of five games. They had scored more than 17 points in a game once. They had been shut out at home the week before by Baltimore, the first such instance since 2006. Brett Hundley looked as if he was either in over his head, or as if he’d hit the wall after some brief glimpses of improvement in his first time holding the team’s reins.

The Browns halting the 0-for train against the Packers in Cleveland seemed like a solid bet. As of mid-afternoon Sunday, that is.

Not so much seven hours later.

The short version: Before the Packers-Steelers game Sunday night, Rodgers threw a football around on the field. The freakout, nationwide and Packers Nation-wide, began immediately. There are all sorts of crucial dates coming in the next few weeks in his rehab, but the important one is his first possible game if the Packers activate him at the earliest date — Week 15 against the Panthers, a week after the Browns game.

So no, there’s no tease about that. But if that Browns game does happen to be the Packers’ last game before Rodgers returns, and if they’re still in playoff contention, that game will have a completely different atmosphere than the one anticipated a week ago after the Ravens debacle.

And that was all before the Steelers game kicked off. Once it did … Hundley played the game of his brief NFL life.

IYER: How Packers can make playoffs

It was a 180 from the Ravens game. In a hostile environment, in prime time, with Rodgers looking on, Hundley nearly pulled off the upset of the year. Three touchdowns, no interceptions, 245 yards, a stunning game-tying touchdown drive with two minutes to go, all in response to a seemingly game-breaking Steelers touchdown.

The Packers’ loss was more impressive than some of their wins this season.

That made the chances of that Packers game in two weeks in Cleveland look much less like the game that takes the Browns off the hook.

The target, then, shifts to two weeks after that, to the Bears game, when the Browns might be, again, 0-14.

Of course, that gives Mitchell Trubisky time to pull a Brett Hundley. And that’s the last thing this Browns team needs.

Kam Chancellor injury update: Seahawks safety officially out for season

Kam Chancellor’s season is officially over.

During his Monday appearance on 710 ESPN Seattle, coach Pete Carroll confirmed that the Seahawks safety will miss the remainder of the season with a neck injury.

“He’s not going to make it back this year,” Carroll said. “Beyond that, it’s up to him.”

Chancellor was hurt in the Seahawks’ Week 10 win over the Cardinals and has remained sidelined since. The team had anticipated he would be out the rest of the year after visiting multiple doctors to have the neck injury examined.

The loss is a significant blow to Seattle’s secondary after cornerback Richard Sherman was also ruled out for the remainder of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Chancellor, 29, was selected by the Seahawks in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft and had missed just one game in his first four seasons before being limited to 11 games in 2015 and 12 games in 2016. He finishes this season with 34 tackles, 49 combined, and a forced fumble in nine games.

Chiefs sticking with Alex Smith at QB for Week 13 vs. Jets

The Chiefs aren’t making any changes at quarterback.

Kansas City coach Andy Reid on Monday confirmed Alex Smith “is my guy” and will remain the team’s starter for Week 13 against the Jets.

“Without getting philosophical, and I’m not sitting here with a crystal ball or projecting things like that, that’s not how I roll,” Reid said, via Arrowhead Pride. “We’ve all got a responsibility to do our job at all positions, starting with me, and that’s not getting done the right way. Right? It’s not one guy, and that has to be understood. It’s not one person.

“We’ve all got to pull together as a football team, in this case, an offensive football team, right now, and get that taken care of as a team. Not one guy. And that’s about as clear as I can be.”

Smith struggled in the Chiefs’ loss to the Bills on Sunday, throwing a crucial interception in the fourth quarter that sealed Buffalo’s 16-10 victory as talks to bring in rookie backup Patrick Mahomes began to swirl. However, Reid said after the game he isn’t giving up on Smith, and apparently he hasn’t changed his mind — yet.

After starting the season 5-0, Kansas City has lost three consecutive games to drop to five losses on the season. The Chiefs (6-5) will look to snap their skid when they visit the Jets (4-7) at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.

Greg Olsen injury update: Panthers TE’s foot checks out OK, report says

Further evaluation Monday of Greg Olsen’s foot showed not major issues, NFL Network reported.

After tests today, #Panthers TE Greg Olsen’s foot was deemed OK, I’m told. The good news the team was expecting.

— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 27, 2017

The Panthers tight end re-aggravated his surgically repaired right foot during Sunday’s game against the Jets and he was slated to see an orthopedic foot specialist Monday in Charlotte, N.C., ESPN reported.

According to the report, initial X-rays on Olsen’s foot came back negative and the team didn’t believe the setback will be serious, but the veteran was to get an opinion from the doctor who performed the reparative procedure in September.

Olsen, who had been out since Week 2 with a broken foot, made his anticipated return Sunday but left the team’s Week 12 win over the Jets after halftime, and was ruled out for the rest of the game. He caught a 10-yard pass in the first quarter for his lone reception of the game.

It’s unclear if he will miss any practice this week because of the lingering soreness.

Olsen had returned to practice on a full-time basis last week as the team was on its bye and was activated from injured reserve on Friday. His availability will be closely monitored this week as the Panthers prepare for a division showdown against the Saints.

Carolina (8-3) will look to keep its four-game winning streak alive when it visits New Orleans (8-3) at 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday.

Broncos’ Paxton Lynch out 2-4 weeks with ankle sprain

The slumping Broncos have suffered yet another blow.

Coach Vance Joseph on Monday announced that second-year quarterback Paxton Lynch will miss 2-4 weeks after sustaining a high ankle sprain Sunday in the team’s 21-14 loss to the Raiders.

Joseph confirmed that Trevor Siemian will start under center in Lynch’s absence for the Broncos’ Week 13 matchup against the Dolphins.

Lynch suffered the non-contact injury late in the second quarter and was visibly upset on the sideline. He already had been inactive for Denver’s first nine games as he nursed a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason. Despite trying to play through the pain, Lynch was done after completing 9 of 14 passes for 41 yards with an interception.

Siemian, who started the first seven games of the season after beating out Lynch to earn the starting job in August, entered the game in relief and led the Broncos to 14 unanswered points as he completed 11 of 21 passes for 149 yards with the two touchdowns. Still, it wasn’t enough to overcome Oakland, and Denver was dealt its seventh straight defeat.

The Broncos (3-8) will look to get their first win since Oct. 1 when they visit the Dolphins (4-7) at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.

Patriots’ Martellus Bennett, Nate Ebner land on injured reserve

Martellus Bennett is being shut down for the season after just two games with the Patriots.

The team announced Monday that the veteran tight end has been placed on injured reserve along with special teams standout Nate Ebner.

Bennett was released from the Packers earlier this month after he failed “to disclose a physical condition.” However, he was quick to dispute this claim, saying the team doctor knew he had a torn rotator cuff and was “trying to cover his own ass.”

It didn’t take long for the Patriots to claim Bennett off waivers and bring him back to New England for his second stint with the team.

Bennett, 30, had six catches for 53 yards in his two games with the Patriots.

Ebner injured his knee on a fake punt Sunday. He was a second-team All-Pro selection for his special teams work last season.

Kelvin Benjamin injury update: Bills WR has torn meniscus

Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin missed Sunday’s 16-10 win over the Chiefs with what has been confirmed as a torn meniscus in his right knee.

Coach Sean McDermott told reporters Monday that Benjamin is day-to-day while dismissing a report from ESPN that their newly acquired wide receiver would miss several weeks.

Benjamin does have a torn meniscus, confirmed by Bills PR. McDermott thought he heard torn “ligament” when he was asked today.

— Bucky Gleason (@ByBuckyGleason) November 27, 2017

Benjamin has not practiced since injuring his knee on Nov. 19 against the Chargers.

It’s not the first time Benjamin has faced a serious injury. The wide receiver missed the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL in his left knee, which he suffered in the preseason. In Week 3 of this season, Benjamin also injured the same knee.

The Bills acquired Benjamin in an Oct. 31 trade from the Panthers. After playing two games for Buffalo, Benjamin has four catches for 62 yards.

Winless Browns have ‘big plans’ for Josh Gordon’s return vs. Chargers

Expect Josh Gordon to take the field Sunday in Los Angeles.

The Browns are ready to play the wide receiver in his first regular season game since December 2014, coach Hue Jackson said during his Monday press conference.

“My plans for him? Oh boy, let me tell you,” Jackson said. “I got big plans for him. I plan for him to play and play as much as he can handle.”

Gordon has been suspended for the past 43 of the Browns’ 48 games due to repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. He returned to practice for the first time Wednesday, and Friday he said he was “feeling good.”

“I think he is a very talented player,” Jackson said. “He needs to play, needs to get out there and play, but we have to see where he is and make sure how much can he handle, how much can he do.”

Gordon can be activated at any time this week to play Sunday, but Jackson said he will wait a couple of days.

The winless Browns will try to secure their first win of the season Sunday, when they take on the Chargers (5-6).

Packers’ playoff scenarios line up well with Aaron Rodgers’ possible return

The Packers lost a 31-28 heartbreaker to the Steelers on Sunday night. But in the process of dropping a close game to the AFC’s top team in the standings, Green Bay gained a glimmer of hope that it still has a shot at making the NFC playoffs.

That’s because backup QB Brett Hundley (17-of-26, 243 yards, 3 TDs, 134.3 passer rating) had his breakout game filling in for Aaron Rodgers against a tough Pittsburgh pass defense on the road. The path to a ninth consecutive postseason berth for the Packers remains difficult, but it now feels at least possible.

MORE: Updated NFL playoff picture

Green Bay with Sunday’s loss fell to 5-6, two games behind 7-4 Atlanta for the final NFC wild-card spot. Also in between are two more teams, 7-4 Seattle and 6-5 Detroit. But with five games left to play and a lot of matchups featuring NFC contenders, nothing is certain until official elimination and/or clinching.

That includes the miracle that would be Green Bay catching 9-2 Minnesota in the NFC North.

From the Packers’ end, it’s simple: They must run the table to match their 10-6 finish of 2016, when they won their final six games. Hundley must play well enough to help them beat two bottom-feeders, the Buccaneers and Browns, over the next two weeks, and then Rodgers needs to return from his collarbone injury in Week 15.

Here are some of things that need to happen with other teams ahead of them to give the Packers a realistic shot.

Lions lose before Week 17

Detroit has its toughest game in Baltimore in Week 13, but it also finishes with Green Bay. Otherwise, it has favorable games at Tampa Bay, vs. Chicago and at Cincinnati.

The bottom line is nine wins aren’t going to get it done in the NFC. The Packers can’t really move up until the Lions, who won at Lambeau Field earlier this season, are in position to finish one game behind.

Seahawks also finish 10-6

One game that could come into play nicely for the Packers is their season-opening victory over the Seahawks. Seattle has been inconsistent of late, losing two at home and winning two on the road. This scenario would require the Seahawks to go 3-2 and finish second in the NFC West. It’s plausible given their remaining schedule: vs. Eagles, at Jaguars, vs. Rams, at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals.

The Packers don’t want to see the Seahawks get hot to the point of taking back the division from the 8-3 Rams. That would probably mean both Seattle and Los Angeles finish 11-5, a mark Green Bay can’t reach.

Panthers or Falcons fade hard in NFC South

The Packers have no chance to make the playoffs over the 8-3 Saints should New Orleans fall from first to third in the NFL’s toughest division. The Saints have strong three-game advantage over the Packers that includes a win at Lambeau in Week 7.

That means Green Bay should root for New Orleans to beat Carolina next week and/or Atlanta twice. The Packers are set to play the 8-3 Panthers in Week 15, making it a critical time for Rodgers’ return. The Packers already lost to the Falcons in Week 2 with Rodgers.

The Panthers need to go 2-2 in their other four games, and/or the Falcons need to go 2-3 overall to give the Packers a chance over either team.

Carolina goes to New Orleans in Week 13 and to Atlanta in Week 17. In between, in addition to hosting Green Bay, it also hosts Minnesota and plays at Tampa Bay. Atlanta hosts Minnesota and New Orleans next, then travels to Tampa Bay and New Orleans before closing vs. Carolina.

The Panthers have the harder slate, and the Packers have some control of their fate there. So it probably makes sense for the Packers to root for the Falcons, too, so Atlanta can rise to No. 3, No. 4 or No. 5. Then Green Bay can try to beat out Carolina for No. 6.

WATCH: Packers-Steelers highlights

Vikings collapse in NFC North

This is the most unlikely of scenarios, but then again, we’ve seen it happen before with the Lions free-falling in the Packers’ favor. At 9-2, however, Minnesota would need to finish 1-4.

If the Falcons or Panthers don’t plan to oblige for the Packers in the wild-card race, Green Bay should root for both to beat Minnesota over the next two weeks. That would suddenly cut the division lead to two games before Rodgers’ possible return — the exact 9-4 vs. 7-6 situation that burned Detroit last season.

Because of the conference record tiebreaker, the only win the Packers can afford the Vikings getting is their Week 15 home game against the Bengals. Based on the assumption Green Bay needs to get revenge on Minnesota with Rodgers at Lambeau in Week 16, it comes down to trusting Chicago to pull off an upset at Minnesota in Week 17 while Green Bay dispatches Detroit on the road.

The Packers can’t be ruled out thanks to an improving Hundley and a revved-up Rodgers, but it will take a lot of proper permutations beyond what’s in their control to sneak back into the postseason as a wild card or division winner.