NFL Week 14 questions: Will Cowboys make statement in NFC East?

We’re down to the last quarter of the season, when NFL playoff races tighten up, individual player awards are won and lost and coaches could be on notice. In particular, there are two NFC matchups this week with massive playoff implications.

Here are six questions for Week 14:

Will the Packers offense be better without Mike McCarthy?

In atypical move for the franchise, the Packers fired coach Mike McCarthy and have turned to offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to take over. Depth at receiver is still a problem for the offense, and running back Aaron Jones needs more touches. But against the Falcons, Philbin will have his first chance to call plays in a non-exhibition game since 1996, so a learning curve is to be expected. Look for him to rely heavily on Aaron Rodgers – one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL – and give his star the kind of plays he's most comfortable executing.

How will James Conner’s absence affect the Steelers?

Pittsburgh lost a key weapon when Conner was ruled out of Sunday’s game against the Raiders with a sprained ankle. When the Steelers haven't abandoned the run, Conner had been effective. But now it will rely on rookie Jaylen Samuels. The fifth-round pick caught a 10-yard touchdown pass late in the loss against the Chargers after Conner left the game, but he’s not used to a heavy workload. Against Oakland, the Steelers should be fine with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger likely carrying the offense. But with games against the Patriots and Saints in back-to-back weeks, Pittsburgh might need Conner back soon.

Will the Texans' winning streak reach double digits?

There’s no team hotter in the NFL right now than Houston, which has won nine straight. The schedule hasn’t been onerous, but the Texans are riding a wave of steady and solid play from quarterback Deshaun Watson, a dose of consistent production from running back Lamar Miller and a defense that can get to the quarterback and is tied for fourth with 22 takeaways. Up next is a division battle against a Colts team (6-6) needing a win in order not to fade further from postseason contention after a shutout loss to the Jaguars.

Will Chiefs get more production out of their running backs?

The release of running back Kareem Hunt after footage was published of his physical altercation in February with a woman leaves the Kansas City ground game at a crossroads. Spencer Ware paced the team in carries (14) in a victory against a Raiders team that entered the week ranked dead last in rushing defense, but posted only 47 yards and one touchdown. Kansas City’s leading rusher was quarterback Patrick Mahomes (nine attempts for 52 yards). Backup running back Damien Williams added 38 yards on five carries. While that approach worked against Oakland, the Chiefs will likely need more production out of their backs starting Sunday against a red-hot Ravens team that has won three in a row and ranks third in the NFL in rushing defense (87.2 yards per game).

How will the NFC East look after the Eagles-Cowboys game?

Over the past three weeks, there has been at least one pivotal matchup in the division. And on Sunday, when the Eagles (6-6) travel to face the first-place Cowboys (7-5), the game essentially amounts to a battle for first. If Philly wins, both teams will still be tied in overall record, so the remaining three games after would be paramount. But if Dallas pulls it out, it would hold a two-game lead over the Eagles as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker after claiming the Week 10 meeting between the two teams. The Cowboys have won three in a row and are surging – especially after toppling the Saints last Thursday – but this matchup is unpredictable. Over the last six, the squads are split 3-3.

Who will emerge in the NFC wild-card hunt?

The Vikings (6-5-1) are currently the NFC’s sixth seed, while the Seahawks (7-5) stand as the fifth seed. They face off in a fascinating matchup Monday night that could set the trajectory of the conference’s final two playoff berths. But the Panthers (6-6) – even amid a four-game losing streak – still aren’t finished, though they need to bounce back against the Browns (4-7-1). And though they current lead in the NFC East, the Cowboys would factor into the wild-card chase even with a loss to the Eagles.

Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.

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