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Milt Northrop’s Sunday playbook: It’s a parity party as December approaches

It’s not quite December, when the truth is supposed to be told about the capability of would-be NFL playoff contenders, but it’s close enough.

We already emphatically learned that the Carolina Panthers are for real, that the only team deader than the Philadelphia Eagles is the San Diego Chargers, and that the Green Bay Packers are a tad overrated. But the studying isn’t over.

The Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs may be facing a virtual elimination game Sunday. The New England Patriots will tackle their most serious obstacle to another 16-0 regular season when they play the Broncos in Denver. Seattle, Atlanta and Indianapolis also face major tests at home.

Pete Rozelle would have loved the parity. Seventeen of the 32 teams are within one game of breaking even. Eight are at 5-5, seven are 4-6 and two are 6-4.

A capsule look at what’s left of the Week 12 games:

Game of the day

Patriots (10-0) at Broncos (8-2)

TV: Ch. 2, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Patriots (-3).

The scoop: Brock Osweiler actually was an improvement over Peyton Manning in home win over Bears last week. Beating John Fox defense is impressive but it’s not beating Bill Belichick. Osweiler will see things he never dreamed about. NFL stats say New England defense ranks 15th in league. They’re much better than that. Ask the Bills. Without Edelman, Lewis and Amendola, Pats will have to rely on Tom Brady throwing to Gronk, journeymen Brandon LaFell and untested Chris Harper, an undrafted rookie from California.

Outlook: If Patriots are going to stumble in regular season, it’s here against No. 1 defense in league. Got to think Broncos studied Bills’ schemes against Brady. Denver, 20-17.

Top attractions

Bills (5-5) at Chiefs (5-5)

TV: Ch. 4, 1 p.m.

The line: Chiefs (-5½).

The scoop: In each of last two seasons the Chiefs walked out of The Ralph with a win they probably didn’t deserve because of huge Buffalo gaffe, same kind of plays that cost a chance to upset Patriots last Monday. ... KC has won last four to jump back into playoff picture. Toughest game remaining is at Oakland and three of five are at home. ... Health of QB Tyrod Taylor (right shoulder) and absence of Mario Williams not good for Bills. Chiefs QB Alex Smith is 3-0 in career against Buffalo with no INTs. That includes one game as a 49er. Odd stat: In seven games, Smith never has thrown an INT against an AFC East opponent. ... Justin Houston of Chiefs has 7½ sacks. Bills have only 15 as a team. Chiefs had given up more sacks than Buffalo, however.

Outlook: Where would Chiefs be if they hadn’t blown game to Denver on last-minute pick-six? Can’t see Bills offense being effective in Arrowhead bedlam against KC rush. Chiefs, 27-10.

Steelers (6-4) at Seahawks (5-5)

TV: Ch. 4, 4:25 p.m.

The line: Seahawks (-3½).

The scoop: If Vikings and Bucs lose, Seattle is solidly in wild-card picture with a win here. This is almost a must because roadies at Minnesota and Arizona are left on otherwise easy schedule. Thomas Rawls ran for 209 yards filling in for Marshawn Lynch (may be out for season) last week against Niners. An undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan, Rawls is another plus for quality of play in Mid-American Conference.

Outlook: Dream matchup: Steelers WR Antonio Brown (another Central Michigan guy) and Martavis Bryant against Seattle’s All-World secondary. Steelers, 24-21.

Vikings (7-3) at Falcons (6-4)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Falcons (-2½).

The scoop: Bears did Vikings a huge favor by upsetting Packers at Lambeau Thursday night. That means Minnesota can take over sole possession of lead in NFC North by beating Falcons, who have lost four of last five, three by field goal or less. ... Atlanta will be without RB Devonta Freeman again (concussion). ... Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater having solid season but Vikings have only eight passing TDs, tying Rams for fewest in league. ... Atlanta signed well-traveled kicker Shayne Graham for this one because of injury to Matt Bryant.

Outlook: Conservative Vikes winning with defense. Home edge to Falcons, 20-17.

Buccaneers (5-5) at Colts (5-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Colts (-3).

The scoop: Forty-year-old Matt Hasselbeck has saved Colts. He’s 3-0 as starter. It’s been a while since Indy has felt late-season pressure in division. Colts are tied with Texans in AFC South, where they’ve gone 15-0 last three seasons. ... Bucs routed Eagles, 45-17, on road last week with Jameis Winston throwing for five TDs, but after Philly’s showing in Detroit on Thursday, that’s not so impressive now.

Outlook: Colts pushed Carolina to OT on road then won next two. Coming through under a little pressure, Indy, 24-17.

Best of the rest

Dolphins (4-6) at Jets (5-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Jets (-3½).

The scoop: Just being a combined 0-3 versus Bills should disqualify these two. ... Jets won, 27-14, when teams met in London last month and it was sayonara for coach Joe Philbin. ... Jarvis Landry of Dolphins will try not to get marooned on Revis Island this week.

Outlook: Todd Bowles wins battle of rookie coaches. Jets, 20-13.

Giants (5-5) at Redskins (4-6)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Giants (-2½).

The scoop: All of Redskins’ wins have come at home since opening-day loss to Dolphins. However, Giants have owned them recently. New York has won last five against NFC East division rival and Tom Coughlin is 18-8 in career against Redskins. ... Washington now closest to Giants in NFC Least. With Eagles and Cowboys losing in routs on Thursday, Giants can take a two-game lead in division with win and schedule is very manageable the rest of the way.

Outlook: Giants won’t slip up here. Big Blue (that’s what they used to call Yale), 30-17.

Rams (4-8) at Bengals (8-2)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Bengals (-9).

The scoop: Even with weapons like running back Todd Gurley and WR Tavon Austin, St. Louis offense ranks ahead of only San Francisco. Nick Foles likely to start for Case Keenum (concussion). ... Bengals have lost last two, one at home to Houston, the other at Arizona, reawakening Andy Dalton critics.

Outlook: Rams have lost by only three in last two road games despite inefficient offense. Don’t expect them to be an easy mark. Bengals, 20-13.

Saints (4-6) at Texans (5-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Texans (-3).

The scoop: This is first game for New Orleans since defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was replaced by former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen. We’ll see if it helps unit that is giving up 424 yards and 31.5 ppg. ... Brian Hoyer back to start at QB after T.J. Yates directed wins over Bengals and Jets and put Houston in playoff contention. ... Saints QB Drew Brees will have to run for his life with J.J. Watt (league-leading 11½ sacks) chasing him all day.

Outlook: Houston looks like good choice but not if its a thirty-ish shootout with Saints. Texans, 28-24.

Raiders (4-6) at Titans (2-8)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Raiders (-1½).

The scoop: Raiders have lost three in a row after promising wins over Chargers and Jets. They allowed 37 and 30 to Steelers and Vikings, then 18 to Detroit, before Lions became a juggernaut on Thanksgiving. ... Titans lost 10 days ago in Thursday nighter against Jaguars when special-teams breakdown cost them the game. See, Titans finally paying for Music City Miracle.

Outlook: Young Raiders a little too inconsistent to become steady winners yet. Titans, 23-17.

Cardinals (8-2) at 49ers (3-7)

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m.

The line: Cardinals (-10½).

The scoop: After loss at Pittsburgh, Arizona has won four in a row including toughies at Seattle and home against Cincinnati. ... Did you ever think that you’d see San Francisco, where vaunted West Coast offense was refined, last in NFL offense (288.2 ypg)? What in the name of Bill Walsh is going on? ... Blaine Gabbert makes third start for Niners with Colin Kaepernick out of the picture (for good?). Gabbert wasn’t the problem in loss at Seattle last week.

Outlook: After dealing with Seahawks and Bengals last two weeks, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a Cards letdown on road. Niners are only half-bad at home, where they are, 3-2. Cards, 27-18.

Ravens (3-7) at Browns (2-8)

TV: ESPN, Monday, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Browns (-3).

The scoop: It’s long shot that Johnny Manziel will ever wise up. Just when Browns were to give Manziel a true test as starter, he messes up again and Cleveland goes back to Josh McCown. Wonder if Mike Pettine wished he were back as defensive coordinator of Bills. Well-traveled Matt Schaub, who hasn’t started an NFL game since season opener in 2013 with Texans, will make first start for Baltimore in place of injured Joe Flacco.

Outlook: It’s Browns’ first home game since Nov. 1. They are 1-3 there but one loss was to Broncos in OT and another to Arizona. Cleveland, 17-13.

Dog of the day

Chargers (2-8) at Jaguars (4-6)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Jaguars (-5).

The scoop: First time Jaguars have been favorite all season. Shows how bad the situation has gotten in San Diego despite (or because) Philip Rivers has thrown for 3,211 yards, second in league. Chargers have given up 27 or more points seven times this season. Jags’ high game was 34 against Bills in London.

Outlook: This isn’t London, but Chargers belong with dead poets in Westminster Abbey. Jaguars, 31-20.

Last week’s results: 7-6 straight up; 3-9-1 versus spread.

Season’s record: 92-56 straight up; 77-66-5 versus spread.