WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - In a clash of the NFL's two top-scoring offenses and two rising star quarterbacks, a defensive tackle might make the difference.
Already a two-time All-Pro selection, Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams could be on his way to defensive player of the year consideration in what is shaping up to be a wide-open race. Another disruptive outing in Sunday's matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles could throw the NFC playoff picture for a loop.
Donald has eight sacks, including seven in the past seven weeks, but the statistic doesn't reveal the full extent of his havoc. The NFL's pre-eminent interior threat has provided constant pressure and led the charge for a defense allowing opposing passers just a 77.3 rating, fifth-lowest in the NFL. Los Angeles also ranks third in total sacks with 38.
Handling Donald is easily the most imposing task for an Eagles offense that was thrown off by the Seattle Seahawks' pressure in a 24-10 loss last week. Though Carson Wentz still threw for 348 yards, he was hit 13 times and Philadelphia scored a season-low 10 points. And with tight end Zach Ertz still in the concussion protocol, Wentz is without his top safety valve.
Offensive guard Stefen Wisniewski will have the primary responsibility of dealing with Donald. Steady but unspectacular, Wisniewski likely will have to rely on technical proficiency to overcome the athleticism gap.
But even if avoiding Donald comes down to Wentz evading him in the pocket, Philadelphia's offense might not be overwhelmed at the point of attack. Los Angeles ranks 27th in rushing yards allowed with 122.8 per game, and running backs Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount can help keep the Rams' rush at bay with sizable gains on first down.
Here are four other matchups that will define Week 14 in the NFL:
Seattle Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin vs. Jacksonville Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey
Ramsey ratcheted up the smack talk this week in preparation for a showdown of NFC contender. The cornerback warned against giving Seattle too much respect based on its past accomplishments and said Baldwin couldn't compare to Larry Fitzgerald.
While Ramsey and several of his Jaguars teammates have dismissed the idea of Sunday representing a statement game, there's little question that a win would be seen as validation. Jacksonville's top-ranked defense is giving up a league-low 167.1 yards passing and 14.8 points per game. Ramsey is a big reason why, as the second-year standout has emerged as the NFL's best at his position this season.
But holding coverage against Baldwin and the Seahawks' wide receivers for long stretches will be key on Sunday. Though "Sacksonville" has a league-best 45 sacks so far this year, Russell Wilson's evasiveness could open up opportunities that the defense hasn't had to face this year against other quarterbacks. Baldwin has been one of Wilson's favorite targets on those deep-play balls and could measure up as the rare challenge for Ramsey.
Oakland Raiders QB Derek Carr vs. Kansas City Chiefs' secondary
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton shrugged off concerns this week about Marcus Peters' one-game suspension, but the outlook for Kansas City is ominous. The Chiefs head into a critical game breaking a three-way tie atop the AFC East without their top cornerback.
In a Thursday night thriller in Week 7, Carr racked up a season-high 417 passing yards and three touchdowns in the Raiders' 31-30 win. Wide receiver Amari Cooper had 11 catches for a career-high 210 yards and two touchdowns in that contest. Michael Crabtree returns after his own one-game suspension.
Kansas City will need its struggling secondary to make significant strides to avoid losing for the seventh time in eight games. Darrelle Revis likely will figure prominently into the plan in his second game, but he'll need to show stamina after playing just one half in his debut last week after a nearly two-season layoff. With Oakland's offensive line only having given up 18 sacks so far this year, the Chiefs can't count on its lackluster pass rush to pressure Carr.
Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton vs. Minnesota Vikings' defensive line
When Newton last faced the Vikings in 2016, he was smothered for eight sacks by six different defenders. With a chance to move back into a tie with the New Orleans Saints for first place in the NFC South, the Panthers will be counting on Newton to once again prop up the offense in an unfavorable matchup.
Just as important for Minnesota in last year's matchup was holding Newton to 26 rushing yards on seven carries. With Newton having failed to break 200 yards passing in four of his last five games, Carolina likely will be looking to him to set the tone for the rushing game. While Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey have found limited stretches of effectiveness, neither has proven a consistent option to ignite the offense.
That leaves the NFL's second-ranked defense to zero in on Newton. Everson Griffen's speed off the edge could be particularly troublesome for his former teammate in Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil. But Linval Joseph might have the best impact of any of the Vikings' defenders given his ability to both stuff the run and pressure the quarterback.
Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Baltimore Ravens' secondary
With 28 catches for 414 yards and six touchdowns in his last three games, Brown is on a tear that has affirmed his standing as the rare wide receiver worthy of MVP consideration. Sunday's contest might seem like a simple tune-up before the Week 15 showdown with the New England Patriots, but Brown and the Steelers still have to take care of an old rival first.
Brown was held to a season-low 34 yards on four catches in the first matchup. But the Ravens have since lost top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who was on a Pro Bowl trajectory. Though the wide receiver will warrant plenty of additional help from safeties, cornerback Marlon Humphrey will get his first start and be counted on to make a seamless transition.
With a chance to wrap up the AFC North, Pittsburgh likely will continue to route its offense through Brown and Le'Veon Bell. But that dependency is even more notable this week after wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster's one-game suspension.
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