NFL Week 17's Biggest Individual Matchups

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IDecember 28, 2012

NFL Week 17's Biggest Individual Matchups

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    It’s over… It’s almost over…

    Too bad, because as much fun as the 2012 NFL playoffs figure to be, there’s nothing like a Sunday watching as many games as humanly possible at the same time.

    Unfortunately, watching television will be one of the likely offseason activities that players on 20 of the 32 clubs will get started on Monday.

    For the dozen that are getting ready to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy, here we go.

    And, of course, don’t touch that dial.

New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez vs. Buffalo Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick

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    He’s baaacckk…

    Thought to be banished to the Forbidden Zone, General Zod (we mean New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez) is back at the helm of his team. Expected starter Greg McElroy was a scratch on Thursday after being diagnosed with a concussion, the expected after-effects of being sacked 11 times last Sunday vs. the San Diego Chargers.

    It’s been a rocky four seasons for Sanchez, who helped lead the team to the AFC title game in each of his first two seasons in the league.

    But his play has been erratic to say the least, although it’s been somewhat better during the postseason, at least when it comes to taking care of the football. In four NFL seasons, Sanchez has thrown for 68 scores and committed 87 turnovers in 61 regular-season games. This in comparison to his half-dozen postseason contests, where he’s thrown nine passes and coughed up the football only four times.

    Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick can certainly relate. In 15 games this season, he’s thrown 23 touchdown passes but committed 22 turnovers. And last season, the well-traveled signal-caller led the NFL with 23 interceptions.

    This rematch of this season’s Week 1 clash, a 48-28 Jets victory, should be interesting indeed.

Ravens RBs Ray Rice/Bernard Pierce vs. Bengals DT Geno Atkins

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    Last Sunday proved to be a huge afternoon for the Baltimore Ravens and the running back tandem of Ray Rice and rookie Bernard Pierce.

    All Sundays have proven to be big for Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is on his way to a second straight Pro Bowl.

    In a convincing 33-14 win over the New York Giants in Baltimore last week, which clinched the Ravens' second straight AFC North title, Pierce (123) and Rice (107) combined for 230 yards on the ground. Rice’s 1,138 yards rushing in 2012 rank 11th in the league.

    Atkins is a big reason the Bengals rank eighth in the NFL in rushing defense. And the star performer’s 12.5 sacks this season rank fifth in the league.

    It figures to be an intriguing afternoon in the Queen City in this clash of 2012 playoff teams.

Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt vs. Indianapolis Colts RT Winston Justice, Etc.

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    Now would be a good time for the Houston Texans to put it all together once again.

    In recent weeks, we have seen Gary Kubiak’s team blasted on a Monday night at New England and, last Sunday, pushed around at home by the Minnesota Vikings.

    In between was a 29-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts that locked up a second straight AFC South title for the Texans.

    Now the AFC front-runner for the majority of 2012 needs a win in a place where they’ve yet to win (0-10 lifetime).

    The Texans' Pro Bowl defensive end, J.J. Watt, leads the NFL with 20.5 sacks, and when last he met the Colts, he appeared unstoppable. Watt totaled 10 solo tackles (six for loss) and three sacks and forced a fumble in Houston’s win.

    Colts right tackle Winston Justice sat out that game and last week as well but could be back to take on Watt.

    But forget Watt. The bigger question is, who will he need an assist from on Sunday?

Cleveland Browns DC Dick Jauron vs. Pittsburgh Steelers DC Dick LeBeau

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    Now here’s a little football history.

    Both Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau have seen the NFL from the point of view of a player, head coach and coordinator.

    Jauron played eight seasons with the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals and totaled 25 interceptions. LeBeau played 14 seasons with the Lions and totaled 62 interceptions, earning him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

    Jauron had stints as a head coach with the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills, LeBeau with the Bengals. Now both make their home in the AFC North, where the Browns are making strides while the Steelers, despite an off year, rank first in the league in total defense.

    When last these teams met, Jauron’s defense came up with eight takeaways in a 20-14 win at Cleveland.

    It’s been a frustrating season for the Black and Gold, but it’s not like they didn’t have their opportunities. Consider that Pittsburgh lost a pair of divisional games at home this season to the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals—both postseason teams—by identical 13-10 scores. And in each instance, LeBeau’s defense did not allow a touchdown.

    Ah, the stories these gentlemen could tell…

Jacksonville Jaguars MLB Paul Posluszny vs. Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson

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    Will the real Chris Johnson please stand up?

    In all seriousness, the Tennessee Titans ran into a buzzsaw last Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field as the Green Bay Packers rolled Mike Munchak’s club, 55-7.

    Johnson was limited to 28 yards rushing on 11 carries, the sixth time this season the former Pro Bowler has totaled fewer than 50 yards on the ground.

    Meanwhile, Johnson has also rushed for 120 or more yards five times this year.

    Unfortunately, this has been the pattern as of late for the speedy running back. The Titans workhorse has totaled less than 50 yards rushing in dozen games since the start of 2011, something that happened just seven times in his first three NFL seasons.

    Johnson rushed for 80 yards on 21 carries in this season’s first meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars, a 24-19 loss five weeks ago. And middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and his team-high 129 tackles hope to keep the erratic but explosive performer in check.

Philadelphia Eagles HC Andy Reid vs. New York Giants HC Tom Coughlin

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    There’s been enormous speculation that this Sunday’s contest between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants will be the final one for Andy Reid as head coach for the Eagles.

    Of course, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin can certainly relate.

    The two-time Super Bowl champion had his share of success taking over the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995, and just one year later, he led the team to the first of its four straight playoff appearances, including a pair of berths in the AFC title game.

    In 1999, the Jaguars owned the league’s best record at 14-2. But when it was all said and done, they couldn’t beat the Tennessee Titans in three tries that season, including the conference championship game at home.

    That same season, Reid began his tenure in Philadelphia, leading the Eagles (3-13 in 1998) to a 5-11 record. A year later, the Birds made the first of five straight playoff appearances, including four consecutive NFC title games. And the fourth finally proved to be the charm as Philadelphia upended the Atlanta Falcons en route to a Super Bowl XXXIX date with the New England Patriots…in Jacksonville.

    But you wouldn’t find Coughlin there, at least not as head coach of the city’s team. In 2004, he began his run with the Giants, one that has seen only four double-digit-victory campaigns in nine seasons but a pair of Super Bowl titles. And how many times has the veteran football mind been rumored to be on the outs with Big Blue?

    So a victory by the Eagles, which would ironically raise Reid’s record to 5-11 in 2012, would also end the defending NFL champions' reign after one season. And it certainly would be odd to see a pair of head coaches with a combined 302 overall wins (162 by Coughlin, 140 by Reid) on the outside looking in…perhaps in more ways than one.

Chicago Bears WR Brandon Marshall vs. Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson

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    Perhaps any other year, Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall would be the talk of the league in terms of big-time production.

    But when you’ve already set a new NFL mark for receiving yards in a season, you don’t take a backseat to anyone.

    While the Bears are still hoping to grab a playoff berth and the Lions are looking to end a seven-game losing streak, we all get to see the two leading pass-catchers in the league in 2012.

    Detroit’s Calvin Johnson has totaled an NFL-high 117 receptions, good for a record 1,892 yards but just five scores. Marshall is second in the league with 113 catches, and while his yards (1,466) don’t compare to his NFC North rival, he’s totaled more than twice as many touchdown receptions (11).

    When last these teams met (Week 7), Johnson tied his season low with three receptions, and his 34 yards were his lowest total of the year. Of course, these days he’s totaled at least 100 yards receiving in an NFL record eight straight games and amassed 10 or more catches in four consecutive contests.

    Still, don’t be surprised if Marshall steals the show in this vitally important game for Lovie Smith’s team.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman vs. Atlanta Falcons FS Thomas DeCoud

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    Talk about cooling off.

    What looked like an impressive bounce-back season for Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman has turned into a nightmare as of late.

    We all know that the Bucs have lost five straight games following a 6-4 start. And even during the recent losses, the Tampa signal-caller has performed very well. But it all came apart two weeks ago at the Superdome and has been downhill ever since.

    After throwing 25 touchdowns passes and only eight interceptions in his first 13 outings this season, Freeman has thrown one scoring pass in two weeks while serving up four interceptions each in the loss to the New Orleans Saints (41-0) and St. Louis Rams (28-13).

    Now Greg Schiano’s team squares off against the Atlanta Falcons once again. A 24-23 home loss to the NFC’s top seed was the beginning of the Bucs’ current five-game skid.

    Falcons free safety Thomas DeCoud leads the team with six interceptions and has seven of the team’s 30 takeaways. Atlanta’s fifth-leading tackler this season looks to add to all of his numbers this Sunday.

Carolina Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly vs. New Orleans Saints RB Darren Sproles

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    For some, it’s probably not that surprising that the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints are separated by one game in the NFC South standings.

    Then again, many felt that both would be in the mix for a division title. But while the 6-9 Panthers are looking to avoid double-digit losses for the third straight year, the 7-8 Saints are looking to avoid a losing season.

    One of the constant bright spots for Ron Rivera’s team has been middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads the club with 151 tackles. He has totaled two interceptions and three fumble recoveries and also has a sack on his resume.

    Saints running back Darren Sproles remains one of the more dangerous players in the game, rushing for 243 yards and a score while totaling 67 receptions for 588 yards and six touchdowns. And that’s not including his work on punt and kickoff returns.

    Carolina’s Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate should be a very busy young man on Sunday.

Kansas City Chiefs LT Branden Albert vs. Denver Broncos RDE Elvis Dumervil

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    The Denver Broncos own a 12-3 record and are the NFL’s hottest team these days, riding a 10-game winning streak with an opportunity to grab the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

    The Kansas City Chiefs own a 2-13 mark, have lost three straight games and have an opportunity to grab the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

    Speaking of firsts, that’s where the Broncos rank these days when it comes to getting to opposing quarterbacks. Led by Pro Bowlers Von Miller (17.5) and Elvis Dumervil (11.0), Jack Del Rio’s unit has totaled a league-leading 48 sacks.

    Now Miller, Dumervil and company take aim at the lowest-scoring team in the league in the Chiefs (208 points), who have amassed only 18 total touchdowns all season while giving up 36 sacks and turning the football over an NFL-high 37 times.

    Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert will try and minimize the damage Dumervil could do this day.

Oakland Raiders TE Brandon Myers vs. San Diego Chargers LOLB Shaun Phillips

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    Quick question: Who leads the Oakland Raiders in receptions this season?

    Give yourself an atta-boy (or atta-girl) if you said tight end Brandon Myers.

    The former sixth-round pick in 2009 from Iowa has totaled 75 catches for 753 yards and four touchdowns this season, totaling five or more receptions in nine of 15 games.

    Meanwhile, the San Diego Chargers come off a 27-17 road win over the New York Jets in which the Bolts defense sacked quarterback Greg McElroy 11 times. Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips totaled four tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery in that victory.

    Be it Matt Leinart or Terrelle Pryor at quarterback for the Silver and Black, Myers (just six receptions in his last three games) may be better served as a blocker against Phillips and company this week.

Arizona Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson v San Francisco 49ers WR Michael Crabtree

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    After tying an NFL record during his rookie season by returning four punts for touchdowns and going to the Pro Bowl, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson is now headed back to Honolulu with a new assignment.

    Patrick Peterson, Pro Bowl cornerback.

    The former first-round pick is tied for second in the NFL with seven picks on a team that ranks second in the league with 22 interceptions.

    Somewhat quietly, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree has put together a solid season for Jim Harbaugh’s team. The improving wideout has already exceeded his numbers from 2011, and he leads the Niners in receptions (77), receiving yards (933) and touchdown receptions (seven) this season.

    If San Francisco hopes to wrap up a second straight NFC West title, Crabtree and the San Francisco offense must rebound from a rough evening in Seattle.

St. Louis Rams K Greg Zuerlein vs. Seattle Seahawks LDE Red Bryant

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    Does anyone recall the first time the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks met this season?

    Back in Week 4 in the Gateway City, Jeff Fisher’s team managed a 19-13 victory thanks to four field goals from rookie placekicker Greg Zuerlein (kicks of 58, 48, 60 and 24 yards) and also had a hand (or foot?) of sorts in the Rams’ only touchdown, a fake field goal that turned into a two-yard touchdown pass when rookie punter Johnny Hekker found wideout Danny Amendola in the end zone.

    On Sunday night in Week 16 vs. the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant blocked a David Akers field-goal attempt that was returned 90 yards for a touchdown in Seattle’s rousing 42-13 win. The heady defensive end has had a niche for blocking kicks, rejecting three field goals and an extra point in 2011.

    So the question here is whether Zuerlein will be seeing Red on Sunday afternoon in the Pacific Northwest.

Miami Dolphins RB Reggie Bush vs. New England Patriots RLB Jerod Mayo

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    The 7-8 Miami Dolphins have won four fewer games than the AFC East champion and 11-4 New England Patriots. And the Fins won’t be going to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

    But don’t think they don’t have some things to play for.

    A victory over the Patriots would give Miami an 8-8 season under first-year head coach Joe Philbin and a season-ending three-game winning streak.

    Meanwhile, it’s also a big game of sorts for running back Reggie Bush, who is 40 yards short of a second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing campaign.

    In his way are the Patriots, who still have eyes on the No. 1 seed and/or first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.

    Pro Bowl outside linebacker Jerod Mayo leads Bill Belichick’s team with 142 tackles. Add in three sacks and four forced fumbles, and you can see why he’s an all-star once again.

    These clubs played a gritty 23-16 game last month, won by the Patriots. Look for a similar kind of contest this Sunday at Foxborough.

Green Bay Packers DC Dom Capers vs. Minnesota Vikings RB Adrian Peterson

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    There’s so much on the line at the Metrodome on Sunday besides an NFL rushing record.

    Yes, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson needs 208 yards to break Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson’s mark of 2,105 rushing yards, set with the Rams in 1984.

    But there’s this thing about getting to the playoffs that takes precedent for Leslie Frazier’s 9-6 team, who have had quite a season after winning nine games in the previous two years combined.

    The Green Bay Packers and defensive coordinator Dom Capers watched Peterson run for 210 yards and a touchdown that covered 82 yards just four weeks ago at Lambeau Field, although the Pack came away with a 23-14 win.

    The Pack can hardly afford to have AP repeat that performance as Mike McCarthy’s team looks to wrap up the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

    Then again, that might be hard to accomplish if they can’t wrap up Peterson on a consistent basis on Sunday afternoon.

Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant vs. Washington Redskins CB DeAngelo Hall

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    Who knew?

    Five weeks ago, it turned out that the Washington Redskins' 38-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day was the second of six straight victories for Mike Shanahan’s team.

    The Redskins jumped out to a 28-3 lead and wound up holding on for the win. But no one could get a hold of Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant in the second half. The former first-rounder finished the day with eight receptions for 145 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with six catches, 125 yards and both scores coming in the second half.

    Here we stand with the Cowboys and Redskins battling for the NFC East title on Sunday night at FedEx Field.

    In that first meeting, Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall totaled three tackles, knocked down two passes and picked off Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

    The Washington defender may be called on to do even more if the ‘Skins are to win their first NFC East title since 1999.