With two weeks left in the NFL regular season, Week 16 will do much to reveal how the playoffs will shake out in both conferences.
Last week, the AFC was given a shock at the top. The San Diego Chargers (7-7) upended the Denver Broncos (11-3), 27-20, on Thursday Night Football. A few days later, the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8) knocked off the Cincinnati Bengals (9-5), 30-20, on Sunday Night Football, meaning even the No. 1 seed in the conference is very much up for grabs.
Things were just as wild in the NFC. The Minnesota Vikings (4-9-1) upset the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles (8-6), 48-30—without Adrian Peterson. The Arizona Cardinals (9-5) stayed in the wild-card hunt with a 37-34 overtime victory against the Tennessee Titans (5-9).
Speaking of thrilling action without star players, the Green Bay Packers (7-6-1) remain in the playoff hunt after posting 34 second-half points—including 20 points in the final frame—in Arlington to cap off an impressive comeback victory over the Dallas Cowboys (7-7), 37-36.
Best of all, the remaining two weeks should be just as exciting with so many teams in the hunt. Here are some early predictions for all 16 games this week.
|Miami Dolphins 24, Buffalo Bills 20||After a major win over New England to stay in the playoff hunt, Miami gets revenge on Buffalo here for a Week 7 loss.|
|Cincinnati Bengals 24, Minnesota Vikings 6||Cincinnati looked horrible in a loss to Pittsburgh while Minnesota pulled off an upset over Philadelphia a week ago. But the Bengals remain a contender and will have little issue at home against a Vikings team that has yet to win on the road.|
|Indianapolis Colts 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24||Indianapolis has played up and down to the competition all year, so of course the Colts will show up at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City has folded in its last three games against legitimate competition (Denver twice, San Diego).|
|St. Louis Rams 28, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17||Minus the opener, St. Louis has won all its games this year in pairs. A visit from four-win Tampa Bay will keep this trend alive. The Buccaneers rank in the bottom 10 through the air and on the ground—they won't be moving the ball in the dome.|
|New York Jets 21, Cleveland Browns 17||Cleveland has lost five in a row, while the New York Jets have lost four of five. In a battle of inept offenses, the Jets win at home in the elements via an ability to find room on the ground with running back Chris Ivory (4.5 yards per carry).|
|Dallas Cowboys 34, Washington Redskins 24||This NFC East matchup was ugly in Week 6 via a 31-16 Dallas win. Both teams have issues from top to bottom, but even Tony Romo can't blow it against the Washington defense. Right?|
|Carolina Panthers 23, New Orleans Saints 20||See Below|
|Jacksonville Jaguars 28, Tennessee Titans 26||Tennessee has lost three straight and lost to this same Jacksonville team in Week 10. Jacksonville has won four of six and shown heart. With playoffs all but out of the question, a trip to Jacksonville does not bode well for Tennessee.|
|Denver Broncos 38, Houston Texans 24||Houston touts one of the NFL's best pass defenses, but the Texans have still lost 12 straight. Make it 13 after a visit from Peyton Manning.|
|Detroit Lions 27, New York Giants 20||Eli Manning has thrown 16 touchdowns to 25 interceptions this year, with seven picks in his last two games. Detroit has a bad secondary, but Manning will cost New York the game when coerced into a shootout.|
|Seattle Seahawks 30, Arizona Cardinals 20||Seattle at home? Forget it, Arizona. The Cardinals showed heart in escaping Tennessee with a win in Week 15, but that will not be possible against the Seahawks. This was a 34-22 beatdown in favor of Seattle when they met in Week 7.|
|Green Bay Packers 27, Pittsburgh Steelers 20||Emotional wins the week prior and playoff hopes in tow for both (slim for both), this one could swing either way. A shaky Steelers run defense (average of 115.6 yards allowed) will be exploited by Packers back Eddie Lacy. Not to mention the potential return of Aaron Rodgers.|
|San Diego Chargers 24, Oakland Raiders 17||The San Diego Chargers represent one of four victories for the four-win Oakland Raiders this year thanks to a 27-17, Week 5 outcome. This time the Raiders will not be able to keep up as San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers exploits a weak pass defense. The Chargers have playoff hopes on the line.|
|Baltimore Ravens 21, New England Patriots 20||Bumped out of the Sunday-night slot, these two AFC foes have plenty at stake. New England is familiar to losing on the road to desperate, playoff-hungry teams, as it did in Week 15 to Miami. Baltimore controls its own destiny at home through a savvy defensive showing.|
|Philadelphia Eagles 34, Chicago Bears 31||See Below|
|San Francisco 49ers 30, Atlanta Falcons 14||See Below|
Carolina Panthers over New Orleans Saints
Not all is well for the New Orleans Saints despite a 10-4 record and the NFC South lead.
The Saints came out flat on the road against the St. Louis Rams in Week 15. The result was a humbling 27-16 loss, which does not have coach Sean Payton pleased with his team, per the team's official site:
That was pretty ugly. Obviously, it is a disappointing loss, extremely disappointing. I thought in all three areas we didn’t play well at all. Obviously we didn’t get them ready to play, we looked flat coming out. I take responsibility for that. Much has been written about how we play on the road and how we play at home and you know what? That is where it is right now with this season.
Of course, Payton is referring to the stereotype that his team can only win at home.
That will have to change in Week 16 on a business trip to Carolina. A win means the Saints lock up the NFC South crown regardless of what happens the week after. A loss gives the title to Carolina, pending Week 17 results.
Carolina also holds a 10-4 record after a Week 15 victory over the New York Jets. Quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers are surely still seething after a 31-13 loss suffered in New Orleans in Week 14.
Newton himself put it best via the team's Twitter account:
Cam Newton on next Sunday’s home game vs. the #Saints: “We control our own destiny.”— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 16, 2013
A variety of factors work against the Saints here. For one, all four losses have come on the road this season.
Best Week 16 game?
Two, the Saints are elite against the pass but simply mediocre against the rush with an average of 116.4 yards allowed per game. The trio of Newton (507 rushing yards and six touchdowns) and running backs DeAngelo Williams (743 and two) and Jonathan Stewart (180) will find room against the Saints in the elements.
Away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees will not be throwing for 313 yards and four scores as he did two weeks ago—especially not against a top-five pass defense.
Newton and the Panthers will pull through on the heels of a strong defensive showing.
Philadelphia Eagles over Chicago Bears
The 8-6 NFC North-leading Chicago Bears make the trip to Lincoln Financial Field in Week 16 to meet the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles, a team that touts an identical record.
Offensive enthusiasts will not want to miss this.
Philadelphia's secondary is porous and ranks in the bottom five with an average of 291.6 yards allowed per game. In Week 15, the unit allowed Minnesota quarterback Matt Cassel to throw for 382 yards and two scores in a 48-30 loss—his first journey over the 300-yard mark since September of 2012.
There's also bad news for Philadelphia, as Chicago starting quarterback Jay Cutler is back in the fold. ESPN has the details of his return last week in a 38-31 victory over Cleveland:
Jay Cutler on 3rd down for Bears in win today: 11-for-12, 151 yards, 2 TD passes— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 15, 2013
Jay Cutler had a 99.9 Total QBR in 4th quarter. His Total QBR in the 4th quarter this season is 95.2, tops in NFL— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 16, 2013
The saving grace for the Eagles is running back LeSean McCoy. "Shady" only ran for 38 yards against Minnesota, but he was more of a decoy than anything with his team playing from behind. He still caught five passes for 68 yards.
Remember that McCoy is just two weeks removed from running for 217 yards and two scores against Detroit. Oh, and Chicago ranks dead last in run defense with an average of 152.4 yards allowed per contest.
Chicago only escaped with a win last week because Cleveland's leading rusher, Edwin Baker (who?), could only gain 38 yards. McCoy is set to run wild once more as the deciding factor in a close game.
San Francisco 49ers over Atlanta Falcons
It's a shame the NFL did not have the foresight to know the Atlanta Falcons would have their season ruined by injuries.
Atlanta has won four games this year. A win last week over three-win Washington is nice, but the thrilling 27-26 victory is draining for a team that must now hit the road to take on a San Francisco team desperate for a postseason berth.
Falcons running back Steven Jackson has come on in recent weeks with four touchdowns in his past three games, but he will find little room to operate against a San Francisco defense that allows just 99.4 yards on average.
At 10-4, the 49ers are on a tear with four consecutive wins. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has gotten his act together during the streak, throwing for seven touchdowns to one interception, with his pick and sub-200-yard performance coming in a win over the highly vaunted Seattle defense.
Kaepernick will find it easy to move the ball Monday night against an Atlanta defense that ranks in the bottom 10 against the pass and rush. So will running back Frank Gore (1,017 yards and eight scores), who heads a top-five rushing attack.
Monday Night Football will be an ugly affair this time around with playoff implications for just one of the contestants. But the ripple effect will be felt across the NFC, as the 49ers will keep pace with the second-place team from the NFC South while fending off 9-5 Arizona in the wild-card hunt.