It’s getting down to the wire in the 2012 NFL season. The Thursday and Monday games are over. Week 16 will help with the playoff picture and its many wild scenarios.
Before we get into a "Stat of the Year" on Adrian Peterson, the piece of history Drew Brees can salvage this season with, and the rebirth of an NFC West rivalry, let’s start with a look at a de facto playoff game in Pittsburgh.
Bengals at Steelers: Time for Cincinnati to stop being the “Bungles”
Come on already, Cincinnati.
This is your opportunity to step up and close out Pittsburgh in its house on Sunday. The win would clinch a playoff spot for the Bengals (and Colts), eliminating the nemesis Steelers in the process.
Marvin Lewis has never won a playoff game (0-3), and has very few big wins in his 10 years (wow, it’s been that long?) as Cincinnati’s head coach. He did beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in 2005 to practically win the division, but lost in the playoff rematch.
Way back in Week 1 I asked if the Bengals can beat the big boys in 2012. They were 0-8 against playoff teams last season. This season they lost to Baltimore (44-13), which means Andy Dalton started his career 0-9 against playoff teams.
This year Cincinnati beat Washington (38-31), lost at home to Pittsburgh (24-17), lost to Denver (31-23), beat the Giants (31-13) and blew a game to Dallas (20-19).
Most of those teams have their playoff fates undecided as of this moment, but what we do know is with a win this weekend, the Bengals are in.
So what is going on with the wounded Steelers (7-7) anyway?
They have played mistake-prone football in their losses and even in some of their wins. Ben Roethlisberger has been injured and just questioned Todd Haley’s play-calling in the latest loss to Dallas. Ike Taylor is a big injury on defense, especially when he’s not there to guard A.J. Green.
Pittsburgh is just 1-4 in the last five weeks. The increase in giveaways and lack of takeaways is a killer, resulting in a turnover differential of minus-14. Just a year ago they were minus-13 in turnover differential, but still finished 12-4.
This season it has been a ton of close games, but the Steelers are not making the plays late to win enough of these games. Sometimes it has been on the offense, while other times it has been more on the defense. Either way, it is mistakes in crunch time that have produced a .500 record and an elimination game in Week 16.
How can a team win on the road against the Giants and Ravens (with Charlie Batch in Baltimore), but lose to the Raiders, Titans, Browns and Chargers?
The season-long inconsistency has been very troubling, and there have been many warning signs that tell us the Steelers are destined to not make the playoffs in 2012.
Pittsburgh has not had three consecutive postseason trips since making it in each of Bill Cowher’s first six seasons (1992-97). Something always happens in that third year, whether it is 2003, 2006 or 2009. You can finish that sequence.
The Steelers lost to Oakland in 2006 and 2009, which are the only times Roethlisberger has missed the playoffs. They did it again this year despite one of Roethlisberger’s best games ever. Oakland is a low-benchmark team, as you do not want to lose to that team since 2003 seeing as how it has not had a winning record once in that time.
If Oakland was not the sign, then there is always the Cleveland litmus test. Since returning in 1999, Cleveland is just 5-23 (.179) against Pittsburgh. But in each of the last four Cleveland wins (1999, 2000, 2003 and 2009) the Steelers failed to make the playoffs. They turned the ball over eight times in a 20-14 loss in Week 12 this year.
Dick LeBeau’s defense had a fraudulent No. 1 ranking last season, and this year it has the No. 1 total defense (based on fewest yards allowed), which has meant practically nothing as it has just 13 takeaways and very little pass rush (27 sacks).
The defense has allowed four comebacks and game-winning drives in 2012, which is something it has not done since 2009. The defense allowed five comebacks and six game-winning drives that season.
Roethlisberger threw a crucial pick six in Week 1 to Tracy Porter that led to that loss. He did something similar in Dallas on Sunday in overtime with Brandon Carr returning it to set up the winning field goal.
*Dallas interception was in overtime.
Excluding Hail Mary attempts, the last time Roethlisberger had multiple interceptions in a clutch opportunity in a season was 2006. He had five of them and missed the playoffs. Roethlisberger’s had just two clutch interceptions in losses from 2007-2011 combined.
But every few years one of these mistake-prone, underachieving Steelers teams pops up, and 2012 has fit that identity well.
I have to go with the Bengals this time, as they have the advantage with Green against a battered secondary, and they have the better defense this season.
For Cincinnati, this is the one. To not win this game, the doubt will build as the Bengals have to beat Baltimore (another hurdle) in Week 17 to make the playoffs. At 8-6, two straight losses to your main competition would be a disastrous 8-8 finish.
It would be so “Bungles” of the Bengals to do that. This is why they have to prove it is a new era of Cincinnati football with a win in Pittsburgh.
Vikings at Texans: A lot on the line for stars Peterson and Watt
With a win the Houston Texans will clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Minnesota needs a road win to stay alive for the postseason. Each team’s star player, J.J. Watt and Adrian Peterson, is having a historic season, but only one will improve his team’s chances at a Super Bowl on Sunday.
Watt has an incredible 19.5 sacks (among other impactful plays) as a 3-4 defensive end. This just does not happen. Though the key to beat Houston is to spread the field and attack through the air, it is not Watt’s fault it has the big losses it does.
Minnesota’s offense has gone back 1973-style to putting the ball in Peterson’s hands, and he has responded with a record 1,313 rushing yards in the last eight games alone. But Minnesota is only 4-4 in those contests because of the lack of effectiveness from Christian Ponder.
The Vikings have really had two different seasons. The first half was a 5-2 start in which Ponder effectively dinked and dunked, and Percy Harvin was a “do-everything man” and the Vikings’ MVP candidate.
Then Ponder regressed, Harvin was injured and Peterson has just taken over in historic fashion. After having a run no longer than 34 yards in the first seven games, Peterson has had a run of at least 50 yards in six of the last seven games.
Want a candidate for “Stat of the Year”? Peterson has seven runs of at least 50 yards in the last seven games, or as many as the Houston Texans have in their entire franchise history.
That’s also more than three teams have had this century (206 games), including two of the most prolific offensive teams in NFL history.
Put it this way: Peterson has as many runs of 50-plus yards in his last seven games as the Colts and Patriots have in their last 412 games combined.
Though Watt is so disruptive at not just rushing the passer but also stopping runs in the backfield, his impact may be lessened this week with Minnesota’s lack of a passing game. The Vikings try to have Ponder not lose the game for them.
That makes it tough to score points, and if Houston’s offense has the success it is capable of, Houston will open up a lead unlike many opponents have been capable of on the Vikings. That takes Peterson out of it, unless the Texans go out of their way to get him the rushing record.
For the Vikings to make the playoffs, they must win, and Peterson must be fantastic if he should set the record and potentially get the league MVP. But also, Ponder has to protect the ball and make some plays too.
I don’t think he will, and the Texans will win this game. Do not forget Arian Foster is a very good running back too.
Saints at Cowboys: Brees bringing coal to Dallas?
Do you know which quarterback leads the league in fourth-quarter comeback wins this season?
The correct answer is Tony Romo, who has set the Dallas franchise record with five comeback wins this year. That includes a franchise-record three straight, and Dallas has actually scored the game-winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime in five of its last six games (5-1).
The clutch push has Dallas at 8-6 (3-0 in December) and in contention for the playoffs and NFC East. It is a big departure from the usual narrative for Dallas this time of year.
But since 2009 Romo has actually thrown 25 touchdowns to four interceptions in games played in December or later in the regular season. He’s just finally getting his teammates to help him out for the wins this year.
He’ll need a big effort this week when the Cowboys host a dangerous New Orleans team. Sure, they may only be 6-8, but the Saints just shut out Tampa Bay 41-0 last week.
Drew Brees has struggled with turnovers this year, throwing 18 interceptions. The level of efficiency has just not been the same as past years, but Brees can make some more history with a strong start.
Brees has thrown 36 touchdowns this season after having 46 last year. With four more, Brees will become the first quarterback ever to throw 40 touchdowns in consecutive seasons. The only other quarterback to even have two such seasons was Dan Marino (48 touchdowns in 1984; 44 touchdowns in 1986).
Hard to believe Brees may do that on a team that can finish 6-10 or 8-8 at best, but that is the case. The defense just played its best game of the season, and the expectations for this one will be a shootout.
In 2009 the Cowboys went into New Orleans and ended the team’s bid for a perfect season when they were 13-0. Now it is the Saints trying to spoil Dallas’ hope of the playoffs, and this should be a good game.
Though few ever have the confidence in Dallas late in the year, I like how it is playing on both sides of the ball right now, and I think the Saints are the more inconsistent team. I am picking the Cowboys to win and set up an interesting game in Washington in Week 17.
But they should not overlook the Saints this week.
49ers at Seahawks: A much different NFC West rematch
When these NFC West rivals met in Week 7, it was a sloppy 13-6 game decided by defense on a Thursday night. The 49ers won, but it was one of Alex Smith’s worst games under coach Jim Harbaugh.
Flash forward to now and the 49ers are coming off a 41-point explosion in New England behind Colin Kaepernick. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson has continued to get better, utilizing his legs more (three rushing touchdowns versus Buffalo), and Seattle has scored 50 points in each of the last two weeks.
That hasn’t been done since 1950, and it took the dreadful Baltimore Colts for that to happen for the Giants and Rams that year.
Sure, Arizona (58-0) and Buffalo (50-17) aren’t scary. This year the 49ers beat Buffalo 45-3, becoming the first team to ever have over 300 yards both rushing and passing. They also beat Arizona 24-3 when Smith completed 18 of his 19 passes.
Kaepernick and Wilson are also two of three quarterbacks to lead a game-winning drive against Bill Belichick’s vaunted Patriots this season.
With their recent scoring outbursts, San Francisco (139) has the second-best scoring differential while Seattle (131) is fourth. They are nearly identical in points scored and points allowed.
Basically, the season has been building up for this showdown, and we fortunately get to see it in prime time thanks to flex scheduling. That will be tough for the 49ers to win on the road in prime time in New England and Seattle back to back.
Seattle is 6-0 at home, which is notoriously one of the toughest places to play in the NFL.
But right now the 49ers are playing at a high level, even if they did nearly let one slip away in historic fashion to the Patriots. Harbaugh was proven right on the move to Kaepernick, and he is getting better.
Despite the 13-6 game and the fact they are the top two scoring defenses, this game will definitely have more fireworks offensively, and I actually am going to lean with Seattle to win as I like the improvement in its offense. It had chances to win last time but came up short.
I am expecting San Francisco to be a little flat after last week’s roller coaster. Remember, this team has not beaten the Rams this season, and this is its toughest divisional game yet.
Still, don’t get too happy, Seattle fans. Even with a win Sunday, the 49ers are still going to take the NFC West when they take care of Arizona in Week 17. That tie helps in the end.
There will be no tie this Sunday. Just a great game (fingers crossed).
For the record, my season picks stand at 145-78-1 (.650).
Falcons over Lions
Expect the Falcons to clinch that No. 1 seed in the NFC. Detroit could give them a game, as they have given everyone a game this year outside of Arizona last week in a horrific performance by the offense.
About the only thing going for Detroit is whether or not Calvin Johnson will break Jerry Rice’s receiving record of 1,848 yards in 1995. Johnson has 1,667 yards on 174 targets. Rice was targeted 176 times in 1995. Targets have been plentiful as Matthew Stafford has thrown 629 passes (642 for the team). The single-season record for pass attempts is 691 by Drew Bledsoe (1994 Patriots), and the team record is 709 (1981 Vikings).
Redskins over Eagles
Remember when Washington was buried at 3-6? It has won five in a row, and Robert Griffin III might be back this week. It really does not matter though, as Kirk Cousins is in better position here than Nick Foles in Philadelphia.
At least LeSean McCoy will be back, but turnovers have plagued the Eagles all season. They can only play spoiler. Washington is playing for the division and already had a dominant 31-6 win over the Eagles.
Dolphins over Bills
Buffalo won the first meeting at home this year, but Miami is coming off an easy win over Jacksonville, which was one of Ryan Tannehill’s best games this year. He has played fairly well at home, and the Bills were just steamrolled in Toronto by Seattle. Neither team is particularly good right now, but edge goes to the Dolphins at home.
Packers over Titans
Green Bay has been on a roll, winners in eight of its last nine games. While Tennessee’s defense has done much better the last five games (held everyone to 332 yards or less), it will struggle to slow down Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay’s defense is also likely going to make multiple interceptions off the erratic Jake Locker. Not expecting much from this one.
Patriots over Jaguars
This should be a massacre. The Patriots will look to get back on track and there aren't many better opportunities better than a game in Jacksonville. They have destroyed this defense in years they were good. Expect a big number from Tom Brady and the scoring machine here.
Panthers over Raiders
Carolina has a good chance to end strong in 2012. Oakland’s defense should provide Cam Newton with another opportunity to post big stats.
Buccaneers over Rams
The Rams have been playing better than Tampa lately, so this one is a coin flip, and not a relevant game in the grand scheme of things. Just going with the home team.
Colts over Chiefs
Andrew Luck was pressured on 27.1 percent of his dropbacks in the first 10 games this season. In the last four, that number has gone up to 40.8 percent as the offensive line struggles to protect him, resulting in a significant decline in offensive efficiency.
Last week Houston, led by J.J. Watt, pressured Luck on a season-high 51.5 percent of his dropbacks. Fortunately, the Chiefs have little pass rush, a 99.3 defensive passer rating and an offense that can make the Indianapolis defense look good. Colts get win No. 10.
Chargers over Jets
Me love you long time, flex scheduling. It spared us from having to watch this one in prime time. Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow step aside for Greg McElroy in his first start. After last week I said I was done picking San Diego this year, then I looked at its schedule. I hate to even pick San Diego as it has done nothing but screw me over lately, but here I go again.
Broncos over Browns
Isn’t the first-round bye a lock now that the Broncos have two home games against Cleveland (5-9) and Kansas City (2-12)?
Peyton Manning was 53-4 (.930) at home in Indianapolis against teams without a winning record. Half of those losses were in his rookie season (1998). Cleveland has played teams well this year, but good luck getting a win over the league’s most consistent team and quarterback.
Manning also has an MVP race to finish off, and his name is currently involved with one streak that has produced five MVP awards.
Bears over Cardinals
The Bears started 7-1. They are 1-5 since, but keep in mind they lost to Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay. For the most part, those teams are just better than Chicago. Arizona is not better. The Bears are who we thought they were, and the Cardinals will let them off the hook.
Giants over Ravens
Does either team want to make the postseason this year? Whether they like it or not, the Ravens are going to the playoffs. The Giants may not be joining them without two more wins as they have let the NFC East slip away. Only cautiously going with New York because they seem to do so well when they are backed into a corner. Baltimore just looks lost on both sides of the ball.
All I want for Christmas is the world to continue and not have Jets/Titans be the last NFL game ever played.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.