NFL Week 16 Biggest Individual Matchups

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IDecember 21, 2012

NFL Week 16 Biggest Individual Matchups

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    Two weeks to go and if you have any aspirations of winning Super Bowl XLVII, now would be the time to start making your plans.

    In 2010, the Green Bay Packers were 8-6 and coming off consecutive losses. But Mike McCarthy’s team gathered itself, won their last two regular-season contests and went onto win Super Bowl XLV.

    A season ago, the New York Giants were 7-7 and coming off a second loss of the season to the Washington Redskins. However, Tom Coughlin’s team shifted into high gear and got the job done enroute to beating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

    If not now, when?

    Without much further ado, let’s get to the showdowns.

1. Falcons QB Matt Ryan vs. Lions QB Matthew Stafford

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    Thanks in part to their productive quarterbacks, the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions finished 10-6 last season and captured a pair of playoff berths.

    In 2012, only one of these signal-callers has picked up where he left off.

    Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is on the verge of another career season. He is on pace to throw a career-high number of touchdown passes, something he's accomplished in each of his first four seasons. He's thrown for 27 TDs through 14 games this season after throwing 29 last year.

    In 2012, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was off the charts, throwing for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns. But 14 games into a disappointing season, the former first overall pick has thrown nearly as many interceptions (15) as touchdown passes (17).

    While the Falcons are on their way to the playoffs, the Lions are in the midst of a six-game losing streak. This  might be a good time for Stafford and company to show that last season was not a fluke.

2. Bills DT Marcell Dareus vs. Dolphins C Mike Pouncey

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    Once again, the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins have been non-factors in the AFC East race. These longtime rivals have combined for just 11 wins.

    The Bills defense has been a non-factor as well. Chan Gailey’s team has allowed 402 points, tied for the most in the league, and is a dismal 30th in the NFL against the run. Last Sunday at Toronto, the Seattle Seahawks rolled up 270 yards rushing in their 50-17 victory.

    Also last week, Dolphins running back Reggie Bush showed signs of life, rushing for 104 yards in the team’s 24-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was just the second 100-yard game for Bush in 2012 and the first since running for 172 yards in Week 2 against the Oakland Raiders.

    If Joe Philbin’s team is to avenge this season’s earlier loss to the Bills, center Mike Pouncey must help control the middle of the Buffalo defensive line, namely second-year pro Marcell Dareus, and open up some holes for Bush.

3. Chargers WR Danario Alexander vs. Jets CB Kyle Wilson

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    It wasn’t too long ago that the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets were making their share of playoff appearances. Now the teams are producing more news than wins.

    Still, there’s a game to be played. While the Jets will give quarterback Greg McElroy his first start, the Bolts will stick with Philip Rivers. The former Pro Bowler has struggled of late, having almost as many turnovers (47) as touchdown passes (49) since the start of 2011.

    One of Rivers’ newer targets has been wide receiver Danario Alexander, who joined the team in mid-October but has made his presence felt, catching 33 passes for 555 yards and five touchdowns, the latter tied for the team lead.

    Last week vs. the Carolina Panthers, Alexander was targeted just three times and did not catch a pass in a game in which Chargers ran only 45 plays, 29 fewer than the Panthers' 74.

    No doubt Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson will be looking to put the “o” in Danario for a second straight week.

4. Titans CB Jason McCourty vs. Packers WR James Jones

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    It’s certainly no secret that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is once again among the game’s leaders in touchdown passes in 2012.

    But It may be a surprise to know that Packers wide receiver James Jones is near the top of the league in touchdowns scored.

    Raise your hand if you knew that the Green Bay wideout was tied for second in the NFL with 12 touchdowns this season, trailing only Houston Texans running back Arian Foster (16) in that department.

    Last Sunday at Soldier Field, Jones caught all three of Rodgers’ scoring strikes in a 21-13 win over the Chicago Bears, the fourth time this season he’s caught at least two touchdown passes in a game. More importantly, the victory wrapped up the NFC North title for the Packers.

    This week, Tennessee Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, the club leader in interceptions (four) as well as passes defensed (11), hopes to keep the productive Jones under wraps.

5. Raiders RT Khalif Barnes vs. Panthers LDE Greg Hardy

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    Safe to say it’s been a disappointing season for the Oakland Raiders and Carolina Panthers.

    Still, each team comes off a victory last Sunday in which its much-maligned defense made an impression. Ron Rivera’s team held the San Diego Chargers to 164 total yards in a 31-7 victory, and Dennis Allen's Raiders pitched a shutout against the Kansas City Chiefs, 15-0.

    Last Sunday at San Diego, the Carolina defense sacked Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers six times, two sacks each by the team’s defensive end combination of Kevin Hardy and Charles Johnson. It may be a surprise to some that Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010 from Mississippi, leads the team with 11.0 sacks. Johnson is second with 10.5.

    In last Sunday’s victory over the Chiefs, Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer did not commit a turnover and wasn’t sacked. Teammate and right tackle Khalif Barnes will do his part to help Palmer in his bid for a repeat performance.

6. Bengals RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis vs. Steelers LB Lawrence Timmons

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    One of the reasons the Cincinnati Bengals have won five of their last six games has been their running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, in particular, has picked a good time to get hot.

    The former New England Patriots running back, perhaps better known for his propensity NOT to fumble, has been very productive of late. With two games to play, he already has run for 1,080 yards and reached the 100-yard mark in four of his last five contests.

    Of course, if he’s going to reach the century mark again, he’ll have to do it against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have the top-ranked defense in the league. Only three units have given up fewer rushing yards than Dick LeBeau’s group.

    One of those on call for the Pittsburgh defense will be sixth-year inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who ranks third on the team with 90 tackles and first with three interceptions. He’s been the big-play performer for a defense that has produced too few big plays this season.

    But first things first. That’s putting the clamps on Green-Ellis, who will be looking to play a game of keep-away with the Steelers.

7. Colts WR T.Y. Hilton vs. Chiefs CB Brandon Flowers

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    Quarterback Andrew Luck isn’t the only rookie making a splash in Indianapolis these days.

    Led by wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, the Colts' rookies have scored 19 of the team's 34 touchdowns. Hilton, a third-round pick from Florida International, has a a team-high seven touchdowns, six on passes from Luck and another on a 75-yard punt return in a win over the Buffalo Bills.

    It’s been a pretty down year for the Kansas City Chiefs, but the team is coming off a 15-0 loss to the Oakland Raiders in which the team didn’t give up a touchdown.

    Keeping Hilton out of the end zone may be easier said than done. But Brandon Flowers, who has three of the team’s seven interceptions, appears to be the right man for the job.

8. Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Cowboys QB Tony Romo

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    This is usually the time of year when the New Orleans Saints are gearing up for a strong showing in the playoffs and the Dallas Cowboys are usually not showing up.

    But this season, the Saints are looking to salvage a non-losing season and the Cowboys are playing their best football, having won three in a row.

    Saints quarterback Drew Brees leads the league in passing yards (4,335) and touchdown passes (36). But he is also tied for the NFL lead with 18 interceptions. While the Saints are coming a 41-0 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that victory only “raised” their record to 6-8.

    Meanwhile, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has overcome a shaky start, leading Dallas to three straight wins that has it tied with the Washington Redskins and New York Giants for the NFC East lead.

    Since throwing four interceptions and only one touchdown pass in a 29-24 loss to the Giants in Week 8, Romo has thrown 13 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.

    Let’s see if both teams and quarterbacks continue their present course.

9. Patriots CB Alfonzo Dennard vs. Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts

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    You don’t often say rough evening and the New England Patriots in the same sentence, especially when Bill Belichick’s team is playing at home.

    Despite a huge rally, the AFC East champions fell at home last week to the San Francisco 49ers, 41-34, as Niners’ second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw four touchdown passes in the surprise win. San Francisco wideout Michael Crabtree caught seven passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the Sunday night shootout.

    It’s been a forgettable season for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who can set a franchise record for losses in a season with their next setback. But one bright spot has been wide receiver Cecil Shorts, who is second on the club with 49 catches but has team-high totals in receiving yards (925) and touchdown receptions (seven).

    Keep an eye on Patriots rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who is third on the team in interceptions (three) and passes defensed (seven). He will do his best to keep Shorts from adding to that impressive 18.9-yard average per catch.

10. Redskins RB Alfred Morris vs. Eagles MLB DeMeco Ryans

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    All signs point to Washington Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III returning to the lineup this Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    But whether it’s RG3 or Kirk Cousins at quarterback in the City of Brotherly Love, he'll be aided by one of the league’s most consistent running backs.

    In some ways, the season that Redskins rookie Alfred Morris is having goes a little unnoticed. Not that the sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic has rushed for 1,322 yards, but the realization that only the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson (1,812) and the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch (1,379) have rushed for more yardage this season.

    It would be nice to say that Eagles middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, acquired from the Houston Texans in the offseason, has helped cure what ails the Birds these days. But despite a team-high 107 tackles, it wasn’t meant to be.

    Now we’ll see if Ryans can prevent Morris from climbing further up the NFL rushing chart.

11. Rams CB Cortland Finnegan vs. Buccaneers WR Mike Williams

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    Despite losing records in 2011, the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made their share of strides in 2012.

    While the Rams (two) and Bucs (four) combined for only six wins a year ago, each team has won six games this season.

    For St. Louis, the play of the defense has been a big part of its improvement. Despite a few bumps in the road, Jeff Fisher’s team has allowed only 315 points and held six of 14 opponents to 17 or fewer points.

    One of the key acquisitions for the Rams this offseason was Cortland Finnegan, who ranks second on the team in tackles, tied for first with three interceptions and second in passes defensed (eight).

    Meanwhile, Tampa’s offseason acquisition of wideout Vincent Jackson has helped teammate Mike Williams. A season ago, the former Syracuse standout caught 65 passes, but only three went for scores.

    This season, Williams ranks second on the club with 50 catches and has already scored seven touchdowns. He figures to be a handful for the veteran Finnegan all afternoon in Tampa.

12. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson vs. Texans RB Arian Foster

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    Talk about a clash of warriors.

    Both Adrian Peterson of the Vikings and Arian Foster of the Texans have taken their turns in recent seasons leading the league in rushing. Peterson turned the trick in 2008 with 1,760 yards. Foster achieved the feat two years later with 1,616 yards.

    Barring an injury or something unprecedented, Peterson will win his second rushing title this season. He also could break Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL record of 2,105 yards if he can add 294 rushing yards to his total of 1,812.

    Foster ranks fourth in the league with 1,313 yards rushing, and no player in the NFL has scored more touchdowns (16). Foster ran for 165 yards in last week’s division-clinching, 29-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

    Of course, Peterson totaled 212 yards rushing in last Sunday’s 36-22 victory over the St. Louis Rams and has run for at least 100 yards in eight straight games.

    This is going to be fun.

13. Browns CB Joe Haden vs. Broncos QB Peyton Manning

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    Despite last week’s disappointing 38-21 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Browns have played better football recently.

    Pat Shurmur’s team is 4-3 in its last seven games, and in those four victories the Browns limited their opponent to 17 or fewer points.

    Of course, that may be a little more difficult this Sunday as cornerback Joe Haden and his Cleveland teammates head to the Mile High City to face the Denver Broncos, the second-highest-scoring team in the league.

    Led by quarterback Peyton Manning and an emerging defense, the Broncos have won a league-high nine straight games and have their sights set on a first-round bye in the playoffs. Manning has thrown for 4,016 yards and 31 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. Manning has thrown two or more touchdown passes in 10 of 14 games and has totaled 300 or more passing yards seven times this season.

    Defending wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who have combined for 150 receptions, 2,133 yards and 17 touchdowns, will be a daunting task for Haden and company. But all it may take is a pick or two and a scoring return by Haden, who is tied for the team lead with three interceptions, to alter Denver’s plans on Sunday.

    Never say never in today’s NFL.

14. Bears WR Brandon Marshall vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson

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    We’ve thrown out the numbers before, but they are worth repeating.

    It’s been an amazing year for Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall. In his first season reunited with Jay Cutler, Marshall has 107 receptions for 1,398 yards and 10 touchdowns. The other 14 Bears who have made a reception have totaled 150 catches for 1,497 yards and nine touchdowns.

    Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals finally snapped a nine-game losing streak last week with a 38-10 win over the Detroit Lions. Although the Bears are the team with the gift for grab, leading the league with a league-high 37 takeaways, the Cards aren’t far behind, forcing 32 turnovers, including a league-high 22 interceptions.

    Seven of those 22 picks have come from former first-rounder Patrick Peterson, who will look to add to his total and in the process prevent Marshall from doing the same.

15. Giants FS Antrel Rolle vs. Ravens TE Dennis Pitta

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    Not too long ago, the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens appeared on cruise control en route to repeating as division champions.

    But a funny thing happened on the way to a couple of first-place finishes.

    The defending Super Bowl champions have been their usual inconsistent selves, losing four of their last six games following a 6-2 start and coming off a 34-0 loss at Atlanta.

    Once 9-2, the Ravens are in the midst of a three-game losing streak. After winning 16 straight games at home (including playoffs), John Harbaugh’s club has now fallen to the Steelers and Broncos in Baltimore.

    One of the culprits for the Giants has been an inconsistent pass rush that has produced 11 sacks in its last six games, but nine of those came in the split with the Steelers (lost) and Packers (won).

    If Tom Coughlin’s club is unable to get to Joe Flacco, free safety Antrel Rolle is going to have to do a better job of sticking with Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught seven passes for 125 yards and pair of long scores (31 and 61 yards) in last week’s loss to Denver. Five of Pitta’s seven touchdown receptions this season have come in the last six games.

16. 49ers RB Frank Gore vs. Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch

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    This NFC West showdown and second go-round of the season for the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks should be a doozy.

    When last these teams met on a Thursday night at Candlestick nine weeks ago, Jim Harbaugh’s club shut out Pete Carroll’s team in the second half and held it without a touchdown in a 13-6 victory.

    It’s hard to believe we’ll see that kind of defensive struggle this time around.

    For instance, the Niners now have Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, and the second-year pro threw four touchdown passes last week in the team’s 41-34 Sunday night win at New England.

    Meanwhile, the Seahawks have scored an astounding 108 points in their last two games, 50 or more points in each contest, and rookie Russell Wilson improves on a weekly basis.

    But the onus here is on the team’s leading rushers—San Francisco’s Frank Gore and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch. Both backs ran for 100-plus yards in this season’s first meeting. But given the way these offenses are flowing, the winner here will be the running back who has the most carries.