NFL Week 16 Picks: Playoff Hopefuls That Will Make Big Sunday Statements
There are a lot of games on tap for Sunday's Week 16 NFL action that look like mismatches on paper, but several marquee matchups have huge playoff implications for both teams involved.
In these crossroads showdowns, franchises still fighting for their postseason lives are determined to make a big statement.
At the center of this discussion will be the defending Super Bowl champions, a perennial AFC contender with one of the best organizations in football, and an NFC team whose stock has been rising throughout 2012.
New York Giants (8-6; No. 9 in NFC)
If anyone can bounce back from a 34-0 loss on the road to the NFC-leading Atlanta Falcons, it's the G-Men.
This has been one of the most inconsistent regular season teams in recent memory, which is precisely what makes them so dangerous. QB Eli Manning hasn't had a very pretty statistical year to follow up a career 2011 campaign that culminated in a second Super Bowl MVP award. In fact, for most of 2012 he has looked like a shell of the quarterback who orchestrated all those fourth-quarter comebacks last season.
There are also plenty of injury concerns for the Giants: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, DE Justin Tuck, CB Prince Amukamara and WR Rueben Randle are all questionable.
Most important of all, free safety Kenny Phillips has the same status, but finally returned to practice for the first time in two weeks on Wednesday (h/t ESPN). Phillips is vital to the defense's success, and will be a key cog if the Giants are meant to make a playoff run.
ESPN New York reports that Phillips will be on the field Sunday in Baltimore, which will be a huge lift after the defense was shellacked in the Georgia Dome a week ago.
So who is this Giants team, the 34-point, Week 15 losers or the same bunch that smacked the Green Bay Packers 38-10 just under a month ago?
They're somewhere in between, which is more than can be said for the Baltimore Ravens. Without a shift in the offensive paradigm—i.e. giving the ball to Ray Rice 30 times a game—the Ravens are in serious trouble.
A thin, shaky defense is not what it once was for Baltimore, and Joe Flacco will be counted on to outscore Manning and Co.
Manning may be inconsistent, but come on now. Flacco may not even be the Ravens' QB beyond 2012.
With the immensely talented supporting cast of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and others, Manning is going to bounce back at M&T Bank Stadium—however improbable it may seem right now—and Phillips' return will boost the Giants' D to a strong performance.
Prediction: Giants 34, Ravens 17
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7; No. 7 in AFC)
Another team seemingly left for dead that has established themselves as a playoff fixture, and have played in three of the past seven Super Bowls, winning two.
At 7-7, the Steelers may finally be considered "too old" to continue their reign among the NFL's elite, but that's not actually the case. Not yet. Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu happen to have the ability to grace the field, which always gives Pittsburgh a chance no matter what.
In an AFC North clash with Cincinnati, the Steelers will make a huge statement at home. The Bengals have improved after an ugly four-game winning streak set them back early, and they have only one loss in their past six contests.
This Pittsburgh core of players have weathered every type of adversity imaginable in the NFL, not least of which was last year's disappointing loss in the wild-card round to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.
It's hard to fathom the postseason without the Steelers being featured, and to bow out by losing to a division rival at home doesn't seem characteristic of this consistently great franchise.
Cincinnati has been a warming story of resilience and rebellion against a second-year slump after 2011's shocking run to the playoffs, but the Steelers will put their AFC North foe back in their place on Sunday.
Prediction: Steelers 24, Bengals 13
Seattle Seahawks (9-5; No. 5 in NFC)
An NFC West matchup against the San Francisco 49ers could possibly be an NFC Championship game preview.
The first clash between these two ended in a 13-6 Niners victory in Candlestick Park, but that was the most lopsided loss the Seahawks have endured all year. Seattle has arguably the best home-field advantage in football, and that will be apparent once again in prime time on Sunday night.
Both teams' stocks couldn't be much higher. The Seahawks have outscored their last two opponents 108-17, and San Fran just endured a heroic comeback effort by New England Patriots QB Tom Brady to win in Foxboro.
Although not much has changed in terms of how the Niners are winning as of late, newly anointed starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick brings so much explosiveness to the fold.
Another QB with seemingly limitless potential is rookie Russell Wilson for Seattle, who has improved by leaps and bounds since losing at San Francisco. In fact, since that ugly showing (9-of-22, 122 yards, 1 INT), Wilson hasn't had a passer rating lower than 88 in any game, and only one other that wasn't in the 100s.
Not a bad way to bounce back.
With the improvement in Wilson's play and just enough depth at wide receiver—there's no one behind Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin—the Seahawks' strong running game has been supplemented by an improving passing attack.
Combine that with one of the best defenses and the very best young secondary in the league, and that translates to a formidable playoff team.
The Seahawks will utilize the 12th man and play another hard-fought game against the Niners, but this time will come out on top. There will be some magic from Kaepernick, but he won't quite be able to pull out two incredible road triumphs in a row.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, 49ers 21
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