Thanks to the Jets miserable loss to the Titans last Monday there are now 13 teams that have been officially eliminated from the post-season. That also means 19 teams are still alive. Not only are playoff spots on the line this weekend but the NFC West, NFC East and AFC North division titles are still up for grabs.
With that in mind it is time now to delve deeper into the key games in the NFL for Week 16.
The 49ers and the Seahawks in Seattle
After scoring at least 50 points in their last two games the Seahawks will host their Division rivals, the 49ers in the marquee game of Week 16.
The 49ers are ranked second in the NFL in total defence, the Seahawks are ranked third. The 49ers have allowed the fewest points in the NFL; the Seahawks have allowed exactly one point fewer. The 49ers running game is ranked second in the NFL, the Seahawks are ranked third. That is just a small example of how close these two teams are in nearly every category and just how tough of a game this will be for both teams.
Seattle’s big ace up their sleeve is the vaunted 12th man and their distinct home field advantage of CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks are 6-0 at home this year and you can be sure that Colin Kaepernick will have a brutal time trying to call audibles at the line of scrimmage Sunday night. The 49ers beat the Seahawks 13-6 back in week seven and held Russell Wilson to 122 yards passing and intercepted him once. Since then Wilson has thrown 13 touchdowns, two interceptions, he has an average quarterback rating of 111.19 and the Seahawks offense has scored 234 points in a seven game stretch where they’ve gone 5-2. Wilson’s strong play the last seven games have put him into serious conversation for the Rookie of the Year award and earned the respect of everyone in the Seahawks locker room. The engine that drives the Seahawks offence is running back Marshawn Lynch, a player who seems to feed off of physical contact and the violent nature of the game. One of the keys to the Seahawks excellent defence all year has been cornerback Richard Sherman. With his appeal to the NFL over his four game suspension still pending, the Seahawks fully expect to have Sherman in the line up Sunday night.
Since their win over the Seahawks back in October Colin Keapernick has taken over from Alex Smith as the starting quarterback and completely changed the way opposing team’s have to defend the 49ers. Last week’s four touchdown performance on the road against the Patriots was Kaepernick’s true coming out party and helped to convince a lot of people the 49ers have what it takes to go all the way this year. The 49ers biggest concern isn’t on offence; it is the health of bad-ass defensive lineman Justin Smith. One of the most relentless defensive players in the league Smith missed three practices this week with an elbow injury and is listed as questionable. Even is Smith can’t play, Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks) and the 49ers defence know that they can clinch the NFC West with a win over the Seahawks.
The bottom line is that this is a grudge match game between two teams that are both well coached, both feature dynamic young quarterbacks, both can run the ball, both play punishing defence and they both have a little swagger about them.
The Giants and the Ravens in Baltimore
Talk about two teams in desperate need of a win. The Giants are coming off of a 34-0 shutout in Atlanta; the Ravens come into this game reeling from three straight defeats. Because of the surging Redskins and Cowboys the Giants need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Ravens are already in the playoffs but they are in real danger of losing the AFC North. More importantly they are in danger of being “one and done” in the post-season if they don’t get their act together soon. In the last four weeks the Giants have beaten the Packers and the Saints by a combined score of 90-37. They have also lost to the Falcons and the Redskins by a combined score of 51-16. So which is the real Giants team; nobody is really sure, least of all Tom Coughlin. Even though he’s still not fully recovered from a torn biceps linebacker Terrell Suggs is expected to play again for the Ravens; so is Ray Lewis. There is every indication Lewis has finally recovered from his torn triceps and will be activated for this game. The problem for the Ravens is that neither Suggs nor Lewis plays on offence and that’s where a lot of their problems can be found. Joe Flacco’s 98-yard pick six he threw last week to Broncos cornerback Chris Harris is symbolic of his struggles the past month. Flacco and the Ravens were one for 12 on third down conversions last week and now face a Giants defence that will be hell bent on avenging a brutal effort against the Falcons. Flacco’s rookie contract expires at the end of this season and he is looking to get paid like some of the big boys around the league. He could make his off-season contract talks go a lot smoother if he can start playing like some of the big boys in the NFL and lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl. The Giants have a habit of playing their best football when faced with the most adversity. Last year they were 7-7 before running the table all the way to a win in Super Bowl 46. Can they do it again? A win over the Ravens might just be the kind of thing that starts the Giants on another run to the Super Bowl.
The Redskins and the Eagles in Philadelphia
Last week Kirk Cousins did yeoman’s work starting in place of the injured Robert Griffin III as the Redskins beat the Browns on the road. One week later RG3′s knee is feeling a lot better and he is listed as a probable starter for Sunday’s game in Philadelphia. Whether RG3 or Cousins is in at quarterback the Redskins hold fate in their hands; if they win out they will win the NFC East. That is a remarkable feat for a team that was 3-6 going into their bye week and coach Mike Shanahan was ready to write off the season. With the Redskins on the verge of making the playoffs Shanahan is the toast of Washington D.C. (just after RG3 of course) right now. The same cannot be said for Eagles coach Andy Reid. After a good run in Philadelphia, Reid is just playing out the string until the end of the season and the inevitable happens; he gets fired. LeSean McCoy is healthy and so is Michael Vick. The problem for Vick is that he will be dressed as third string quarterback behind Nick Foles and Trent Edwards (Trent Edwards for goodness sakes!). The week before the Eagles committed an embarrassing five turnovers in an ugly loss to the Bengals. All Eagles fans can hope for at this point is that their team can at least make a game of it against a hot Redskins team.
The Saints and the Cowboys in Dallas
No coach in the NFL has been fired and re-hired more by the local fans and media this year than Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. Winners of three straight and five of their last six games I doubt many people in Dallas are calling for Garrett’s head right about now. A big reason for the Cowboys resurgent has been the steady play of quarterback Tony Romo. With their season on the line Romo has six touchdowns, one interception, an average quarterback rating of 112.1 and a completion percentage of 68.8 per cent over their current three game winning streak. Having a healthy DeMarco Murray helps and it also helps when Dez Bryant is catching touchdown passes with a broken finger. The Cowboys are playing inspired football right now and Garrett deserves a ton of credit for that. While mathematically still alive all Drew Brees and the Saints really have to play for the final two games is the role of spoiler.
The Vikings and the Texans in Houston
If the Vikings make the playoffs this year they will have definitely have earned it. For a team built around the incomparable Adrian Peterson the Vikings are about the ultimate test when they do battle with the excellent Texans defence, ranked fifth in the NFL against the run. As good as the Texans defence has been this season head coach Gary Kubiak knows that stopping Peterson won’t be easy: “He’s tremendous. They’re just lining up and pounding people right now. Nobody has probably ever done it better than he’s doing it right now over this stretch.” The dilemma for the Vikings is that unless Peterson has a big game, they have little chance of beating the Texans if they are forced to rely on the arm of Christian Ponder. Peterson has run for more yards (1,037) than Ponder has thrown (737) the last six games. The other bad thing that can happen if Ponder has to throw the ball is J.J. Watt. The monster Texans defensive lineman has 19.5 sacks and has knocked down a staggering 15 passes at the line of scrimmage. For those keeping track Peterson is 188 yards shy of the 2,000 mark and 294 yards away from breaking Erick DIckerson’s single season record of 2,105 yards.
The Bengals and the Steelers in Pittsburgh
Nothing is more dangerous in the wild than a cornered and wounded animal; because they will do anything to survive. The Bengals had better be prepared for a real battle at Heinz Field as they take on the cornered and wounded Steelers in a must-win game for Pittsburgh. The Bengals have won five of their past six games and have a chance to make the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1982. Speaking to reporters this week Bengals receiver A.J. Green sad it is going to be a great atmosphere Sunday: “It’s going to be like a playoff game for both of us. It’s a must-win for both of us. It’s going to be a great game.” Losers of four of their last five games Ben Roethlsiberger had to issue a public apology this week after criticizing the play calling of offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Ben would feel a lot better if the Steelers could run the ball and take some of the pressure off of his battered shoulders. When the Steelers beat the Bengals in Week 7 Jonathan Dwyer ran for 122 yards. Since then the Steelers have struggled to run the ball and haven’t had a back run for 100 yards since Week 10. Meanwhile the strong running game provided by Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis has played a big role in the Bengals late season push.
The Bears and the Cardinals in Arizona
I don’t blame Brandon Marshall for his post-game tears last week. Heck, I would be crying too if my team went from 7-1 to 8-6 in a few shorts weeks. Last week’s loss to the Packers marks the seventh straight defeat for the Bears in the month of December. Playing the Cardinals should be exactly what the doctor ordered for Marshall and the slumping Bears; the key word there being “should”. The beleaguered Bears offensive line needs to have a big game and give Jay Cutler time to sit in the pocket and make his reads. Having said that, the Cardinals O-line makes the Bears look the 1988 Dolphins (seven sacks allowed in 16 games). The Cardinals have allowed a staggering 52 sacks, 11 more than the Bears much maligned O-line. The Cardinals are also dead last in the NFL running the football so the Bears defence, even with their injuries, should be able to force a lot of three and outs and get the ball back to Cutler.
The Colts and the Chiefs in KC
The Colts received a true gift from the football gods with this week’s match-up against the Chiefs. Because of a rib injury to Brady Quinn there’s a chance the Ricky Stanzi could get the start at quarterback for the lowly 2-12 Chiefs. If that happens there is no excuse for the Colts not to pick up their fourth road win of the year and lock up a spot in the playoffs. Even if Quinn is able to start the Colts are the better team and with Andrew Luck under centre they have the far superior quarterback. On paper Luck’s numbers (20 TDs, 18 INT’s) do not look that impressive but it is his “never-say-day” attitude that has given the Colts a chance to win a lot of games they looked to have no chance of coming back in.
The Patriots and the Jaguars in Jacksonville
I really pity the poor Jaguars. The Patriots are bound to be in a nasty mood after last week’s loss to the 49ers and will be looking to vent their frustration on their next opponent; the 2-12 Jaguars. Bill Belichick usually doesn’t say too much on his mandatory reporter’s conference call. But this week he provided some good insight into why Tom Brady is able to push himself to play at a high level week after week: “That’s one thing Tom (Brady) does a good job of is every week he starts all over again and really tries to work hard to understand what the other team is doing, how we can attack them, what things we have to defend against, or be able to handle. I think from a physical standpoint he throws the ball and physically is as good as he’s been for the last however many years. He’s a lot better quarterback than he was back in ’01, ’02, ’03, and ’04 back in there.” There is no doubt that he will receive MVP votes this year because of his passing numbers (4,276 yards, 30 TD’s, 6 INT’s); but Brady has also set a new career high this season with four rushing touchdowns. The best thing I can say about the Jaguars is that their owner Shahid Khan has a really cool moustache.
The Titans and the Packers in Green Bay
Already NFC North champions the Packers still have designs on being the second seed in the NFC. The Titans won’t have the luxury of facing Mark Sanchez two weeks in a row and you can be sure that Aaron Rodgers won’t make the same mistakes as Sanchez did. Despite injuries to key players on both sides of the ball Rodgers and the Packers have won eight of their last nine games and are 6-1 on the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field. And I do mean “Frozen”, the forecast is calling for a wind chill of minus 18 Celsius Sunday morning so home field will be a distinct advantage for the Packers. While his numbers won’t be as impressive as they were last season in a lot of ways what Aaron Rodgers has been able to accomplish this year is far more impressive. With a ton of injuries all season Rodgers has been the one constant holding the team together. The Packers are still missing Jordy Nelson, Charles Woodson, and James Starks and Coach Mike McCarthy is desperately hoping for a bye week so his team can heal up in time for the playoffs.
Falcons and Lions in Detroit
A win Saturday night by the Falcons and the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will go through the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The biggest change from last year for the Falcons has been the improved play of their defence. Under new coordinator Mike Nolan the Falcons defence shut out the Giants last week, held the Chargers to three points earlier in the season and they are averaging three fewer points per game than they did in 2011. Nobody is going to confuse them with the 49ers D but at least now Atlanta has a defence that gives them a better chance to compete in the post-season. The only thing the Lions have left to play for is Calvin Johnson. Megatron is 182 yards away from breaking Jerry Rice’s single season receiving yardage record.