NFL Week 13 stories to watch: 49ers-Eagles, Broncos-Texans drama, Jordan Love’s Chiefs test

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NFL Week 13 begins the make-or-break window across the league. The Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, Miami Dolphins, and Jacksonville Jaguars are all closing in on the division title and a major playoff seeding. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, and Atlanta Falcons are struggling to keep their seasons alive.

For others, bad luck and poor performance dashed their postseason hopes. We saw a second coach, Carolina’s Frank Reich, fired for the season this week after the Panthers fell to 1-10. (The Raiders fired Josh McDaniels at the conclusion of Week 8.) Meanwhile, some of their peers are coaching for their lives. The Los Angeles Chargers and Washington Commanders continue to underperform, putting Brandon Staley and Ron Rivera on the hot seat. Bill Belichick continues to face questions about his future with the New England Patriots. Meanwhile, their players play for pride and future opportunities. Contrary to some perceptions, there is no such thing as a meaningless game in the NFL.

Amid the matchups, rivalries and high-stakes teams in survival mode, here are five compelling stories for Week 13. (Find the NFL Week 13 schedule here.)

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1. Surprising Broncos-Texans drama

A few months ago no one would have considered Denver’s matchup at Houston that interesting in Week 13. The Broncos followed up a dismal 2022 campaign with a 1-5 start to the season, and the Texans were supposed to be experiencing growing pains under new coach DeMico Ryans and rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud.

But here are the fringe AFC playoff teams that have spots up for grabs. The Broncos (along with the Eagles) are the hottest team in football, riding a five-game winning streak to reach a 6-5 record and moving to the No. 9 seed in the AFC. The Texans (also 6-5) have won six of their last nine games, and are the No. 8 seed in the seven-team AFC field.

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Can Sean Payton, Russell Wilson and company, after beating the Chiefs, Bills and Browns (who boast the NFL’s top defense), keep it going against an ever-improving Ryans team? Or will Stroud turn in his seventh 300-yard performance and continue his bid for Offensive Player of the Year honors? Whoever wins will have an advantage over a crowded group of AFC teams — the Bills, Steelers, Browns and Colts are the other four — who enter Sunday with six or seven wins. (Broncos at Texas, 1 p.m. ET Sunday.)

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2. The Panthers’ reaction to Frank Reich’s firing

Firing McDaniels and handing the Raiders over to Antonio Pierce on an interim basis helped bring about an immediate culture change and a two-game winning streak. Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, who fired Reich on Monday after just 11 games as head coach, is eager for similar results.

The Panthers are now led by special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, who cut back on offense by firing Reich’s top assistants Josh McCown and Duce Staley. He hopes the move will now allow young offensive coordinator Thomas Brown the freedom to hire top rookie Bryce Young to take strides toward production that would rival Stroud. The Panthers begin this next chapter in Tampa against the 4-7 Buccaneers, who have dropped two in a row. At this point, the season is lost for Carolina. Growth and promise for next season is the goal now. (Panthers at Buccaneers, 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday.)

The Browns’ postseason chances took a major hit earlier this month when starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, who needs shoulder surgery, was on IR. Cleveland is sixth in the AFC, and coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry believe they still have a championship-caliber defense (with statistics to back that up). But with little confidence in rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson and journeyman P.J. Walker, the general manager and coach decided they needed a veteran quarterback to help keep the ship afloat.

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Enter Flacco, the former Super Bowl MVP who signed with Cleveland on Nov. 20 and is starting to learn the playbook. And that’s a good thing: Thompson-Robinson suffered a concussion in the third quarter of last week’s loss to the Broncos, so Flacco is expected to start on Sunday.

The 38-year-old Flacco has played only sparingly in the past five seasons and went 1-3 as a starter for the New York Jets in 2022, but the Browns (7-4) hope he has enough in the tank to help keep them in the playoff hunt. Flacco’s first job: Help guide them to a win over Aaron Donald and the Rams. (Browns at Rams, 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday.)

4. NFC Championship Game Rematch – And Preview?

And so they meet again. Ten months after the Eagles and 49ers faced off in the NFC Championship Game, they meet again at Lincoln Financial Field.

As was the case last season, the Eagles and 49ers remain elite teams in the NFC. But the coaches and players in San Francisco are hoping for better fortunes this time around. Last January, the Eagles cut Brock Purdy from the game. With both Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance on IR, the 49ers had no choice but to turn to Josh Johnson at QB, and their hopes of reaching a second Super Bowl in four seasons were dashed when the Eagles cruised to a 31-7 victory. Philadelphia now leads the NFL with a 10-1 record while on a five-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the 49ers are 8-3 and have won three straight games.

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This week’s contest features two MVP candidates in Purdy and Jalen Hurts, a versatile offense and a talented, stingy defense. Who will prevail this time and take another step toward securing home-field advantage in the postseason? (49ers at Eagles, 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday.)

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After a slow start to the season, Love appears to be evolving into the new face of the Packers. He has won three of the last four while putting up some of his best numbers of the season, averaging 276.8 yards and two touchdowns per game while completing 66.4 percent of his passes.

The Packers have scratched and clawed their way to eighth place in the NFC and can help their quest with a win Sunday night over the Chiefs. Given the stakes — both Seattle and Minnesota are down — and given that he has to work to keep up with Patrick Mahomes, this will be the most important game of Love’s young career. Can the quarterback get the boost needed (contributions from an improved wide receiver corps and a defense that produced three takeaways in last week’s upset of Detroit) to keep the Packers on an upward trend? (Chiefs at Packers, 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday.)

(Best photos by Jordan Love, George Kittle, Russell Wilson: Stacey Revere, Steve Chambers, Michael Reeves/Getty Images)

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