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Week 12 NFL schedule: Top storylines and rooting guide

We break down the big story lines in Week 12, and what to make of Sunday's schedule. Who are you rooting for and against? New to Niners Nation? Sign up here and join the discussion!

Scott Cunningham

The San Francisco 49ers get Sunday off as they prepare for Monday Night Football against Washington. This is a huge game for both teams, as the playoff race is heating up. The 49ers are tied with three other teams at 6-4, with two of those teams on the outside looking in. Washington is scuffling along at 3-7, and yet they are only 2 1/2 games out of first in the NFC East. They are in must-win territory, but the playoffs are not completely off their radar (as sad as that is).

In the meantime, there are plenty of significant matchups on Sunday. Here is a quick rundown of some of the pertinent Week 12 matchups.

The Rams last stand?

The St. Louis Rams sit at 4-6, two games back of the 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals, the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions in the wildcard race. They host the Bears in the early slate of games. A loss does not end the Rams season, but it could drop them three back with only five to play.

I do think the Rams can win this game, but I still think they end up slipping with a tough closing schedule. Following this game against the Bears, the Rams travel to San Francisco and Arizona, then host the Saints and Bucs, and wrap up the season at Seattle. They're not looking at a friendly schedule.

Rooting interest: We definitely want to see the Rams knock the Bears down a peg. The 49ers hold the tiebreaker over Chicago, but any losses remove a little bit of the stress of the wildcard.

The rise of the Cardinals

Arizona has won three straight and is tied with the 49ers. They've gotten to this point with wins over the Falcons, Texans and Jaguars. We can call them on beating crappy teams, but the 49ers have built their schedule with the help of some bad teams. It leaves me wondering just what to make of Arizona. Today, we'll find out a little something. They host an Indianapolis Colts team that has beaten the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos, but also got pounded at home by the Rams. What do we make of the Colts?

Rooting interest: Gotta root against the NFC West. I do think the Cardinals slide back to earth, but at this point, the wildcard race demands rooting against them.

On roll the Panthers

The Carolina Panthers continue their hot streak, defeating the New England Patriots 24-20. It wasn't a pretty victory, but they continue to emerge as one of the top teams in the NFC. The Panthers have won six straight, dominating crappy teams, and doing what it takes to beat good teams. There is no doubting they are for real.

The Panthers hold the tiebreaker over the 49ers, so they would need to drop a full game back for the 49ers to take over the No. 5 seed. Obviously we would prefer the 49ers somehow shoot past the Seahawks in the NFC West, but that seems less and less likely. For now, the 49ers will look to a potential road date with a division winner, assuming they can straighten things out the rest of the season.

The NFC Least is on display

The New York Giants host the Dallas Cowboys in the FOX national game of the week. Normally a matchup between teams that are 4-6 and 5-5, respectively, would not be cause for much interest. However, the train wreck that is the NFC East is developing into an interesting competition. The Cowboys seemed ready to take a firm hold of the division, but they have let it slip away. The Eagles have won three straight, and now hold a half-game lead on the Cowboys.

What is really interesting is that the Giants are suddenly on fire. They have won four straight, and have a real shot at the division. They don't have an easy schedule the rest of the way, but eight or nine wins is not out of the realm of the possible. And given the state of the NFC East, that could very well get them to the top.

Rooting interest: It's always easy to root against the Cowboys. I would kind of be amused to see the Giants somehow climb back to take the division. Not that I want to see the 49ers end up going to the Meadowlands if they met up in the wildcard round. But there's a lot of football still to be played before that happens.