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The 10 most important players to watch in Week 12

The playoff race is heating up and Week 12 is make-or-break for several teams. We break down who could prove critical in these key matchups, and one free agent who could still impact things down the stretch.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott throws the ball during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Detroit, Michigan USA, on Sunday, November 17, 2019. Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The NFL kicks off Week 12 with the Houston Texans hosting the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday Night Football. This is a huge matchup with the teams tied atop the AFC South at 6-4. The Colts won the first matchup in Week 7, so plenty is riding on this one even with six weeks remaining in the season.

The playoff race is heating up across the NFL and quite a few teams are fast approaching must-win mode if they want any kind of shot at a Lombardi Trophy. There will be a host of players looking to get their teams over the hump this weekend. We’ve got a look at the ten most important or notable players heading into Week 12 of the NFL season.

Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

The 6-4 Cowboys travel to face the 9-1 Patriots in a possible Super Bowl preview. The Cowboys’ divisional games will be more important for winning the NFC East, but Sunday’s game is a huge marker for Dallas to measure itself against coming down the stretch. Dak Prescott is having a career year in a potential contract season, but the Patriots have the best pass defense in the NFL. This will tell us a lot about where Dak and this offense stand as the playoffs approach.

UPDATE: The Cowboys came up short against the Patriots, losing 13-9. Prescott had a chance to climb into the MVP race with a game-winning drive to close out the game, but couldn’t get the job done.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers

Jimmy G had a career-best game last week in bringing the 49ers back against the Cardinals. This week, Garoppolo and the 49ers open a three-game stretch that is unprecedented in its difficulty. They play three straight games against teams that are 8-2 right now: home vs. the Packers and then on the road against the Ravens and Saints. Garoppolo could be without tight end George Kittle again this week and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is playing with a rib injury. Garoppolo will need to step up if the 49ers want to prove they belong atop the NFC.

UPDATE: The 49ers crushed the Packers, and while the defense deserves much of the credit, Garoppolo had a strong game. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns in the 37-8 win.

Preston Smith/Za’Darius Smith, LB, Green Bay Packers

A Packers win moves them to the top of the NFC, and their pass rush will be key. The 49ers offensive line struggled against a fierce Seahawks pass rush two weeks ago, and Garoppolo will be without left tackle Joe Staley. If Kittle doesn’t play and Sanders is slow with his rib injury, Garoppolo could face problems without his safety blankets. Smith and Smith could flip the script in this game in a hurry.

UPDATE: The Packers lost big to the 49ers, but it was not due to a lack of effort by the two Smiths. They combined for two sacks and gave the 49ers offensive line a ton of trouble in pass protection for extended stretches.

Jonathan Williams/Nyheim Hines/Jordan Wilkins, RB, Indianapolis Colts

Marlon Mack broke his right hand in last week’s win over Jacksonville, and he will miss multiple weeks after surgery. Williams replaced him as the lead back, with Hines serving as the passing down back. The Colts should have Jordan Wilkins back, so how they utilize this trio will be important on Thursday Night Football against the Texans. Jacoby Brissett may or may not have T.Y. Hilton at his disposal, so the backfield will be critical as the Colts play for first place in the AFC South.

UPDATE: This was the Jonathan Williams show. The Colts came up short against the Texans, but Williams had a solid night. He rushed 26 times for 104 yards and a touchdown and had three receptions for 17 yards. Nyheim Hines had nine carries for 51 yards and two catches for ten yards. Jordan Wilkins was effectively an emergency running back.

Kyle Allen, QB, Carolina Panthers

When Cam Newton went down with his foot injury, Allen took over and got off to a hot start with four touchdowns in Arizona and seven total in his first four games. After the Panthers bye, things went downhill in a hurry and he’s coming off a four-interception performance against the Falcons last week. If he doesn’t turn things around, the Panthers playoff chances are going to disappear in a hurry.

UPDATE: The Panthers came up short in New Orleans due to their kicker, but Kyle Allen bounced back after a miserable Week 11. Allen completed 23 of 36 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 loss.

Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

The Saints wide receiver depth chart is Thomas and then everyone else. Through ten games, Thomas has 94 receptions for 1,141 yards and five touchdowns. The 94 receptions is a record for ten games, and he is a key cog to this Saints offense. They’re going to make the playoffs, but how far they go will depend on where Thomas can take them. He looked great with Drew Brees, looked great with Teddy Bridgewater, and still looks great in Brees’ return.

UPDATE: Michael Thomas once again dominated the stat sheet. He had ten receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown in the Saints 34-31 win over Carolina. His 104 receptions are a ridiculous 23 more than the next closest receiver (DeAndre Hopkins). Thomas won’t win the MVP award, but he’s making an argument for at least modest consideration.

Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens

It’d be easy to say Lamar Jackson is the player to watch, but Andrews will be a key weapon against this Rams secondary. Marquise Brown and Willie Snead could have a difficult day against the Rams top-flight cornerbacks. If Aaron Donald is able to get pressure on Jackson, Andrews could be the outlet option that keys the offense when Jackson isn’t finding his running lanes.