In an NFL Week 16 matchup that will go a long way toward determining the playoff seeding for the NFC, the Carolina Panthers will host the New Orleans Saints for an NFC South showdown.
At 10-4, the two teams are tied atop the division. They are also tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the second-best record in the conference.
For both teams, winning this game is likely the difference between starting the playoffs at home in the Divisional Round or starting on the road in the Wild Card Round.
Obviously, that game qualifies as one of the week's most pivotal.
Check out my full predictions for the week, and then I'll break down the three most crucial contests of the week.
|Away Team||Home Team||Prediction|
|Miami Dolphins||Buffalo Bills||Dolphins, 24-20|
|New Orleans Saints||Carolina Panthers||Panthers, 23-16|
|Dallas Cowboys||Washington Redskins||Cowboys, 31-27|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||St. Louis Rams||Rams, 27-17|
|Chicago Bears||Philadelphia Eagles||Bears, 35-31|
|Cleveland Browns||N.Y. Jets||Browns, 16-13|
|Indianapolis Colts||Kansas City Chiefs||Chiefs, 27-17|
|Minnesota Vikings||Cincinnati Bengals||Bengals, 27-24|
|Denver Broncos||Houston Texans||Broncos, 42-20|
|Tennessee Titans||Jacksonville Jaguars||Jaguars, 20-17|
|Arizona Cardinals||Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks, 17-13|
|N.Y. Giants||Detroit Lions||Giants, 28-27|
|Oakland Raiders||San Diego Chargers||Chargers, 31-24|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Green Bay Packers||Steelers, 25-24|
|New England Patriots||Baltimore Ravens||Patriots, 27-20|
|Atlanta Falcons||San Francisco 49ers||49ers, 24-13|
New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers
When the Saints beat the Panthers in Week 14, the Panthers' excellent defense was shredded. The Saints posted 31 points and 373 yards of offense at home.
Most of the damage was done through the air as Drew Brees threw for four touchdowns and hit for 7.2 yards per pass. The Panthers were able to sack him just twice.
The Saints will not be able to duplicate that success in Carolina, which is something Panthers coach Ron Rivera seems to be banking on. Following the Panthers' loss in Week 14, the Associated Press passed along this quote from Rivera, via the New York Daily News:
They [Saints] have the crowd behind them and they're on turf, not natural grass, which is a little bit different. It helps them as far as their speed and their timing. The things that they do here, they do very well. We'll see how things go when they come to Carolina.
For the season, the Panthers have been playing solid pass defense. They are fifth in passing yards allowed per game and seventh in yards allowed per pass. They are 27th in opponent completions percentage, however, so it's not like this is an airtight secondary.
That secondary gets a boost from a pass rush that has the league's third-best sack percentage.
All of this will be enough to slow down the Saints on the road. New Orleans does not have the same offense away from the Superdome.
The Saints have combined to score just 36 points in their last three road games. Meanwhile, the Panthers have not allowed more than 20 points in any home game this season.
Carolina's defense will do a much better job of getting the Saints off the field, and that will allow their eighth-ranked rushing attack to wear down the Saints' 21st-ranked rush defense.
Prediction: Panthers 23, Saints 16
Chicago Bears at Philadelphia Eagles
This game is going to be a shootout.
The Philadelphia Eagles are coming off an outing where they allowed 48 points to a Minnesota Vikings team that was playing without Adrian Peterson. Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel threw for 382 yards.
The Eagles' 31st-ranked pass defense is banged up, and it wasn't very good to begin with.
The state of the Bears' defense is not any better. Chicago is dead last in yards allowed per rush and 24th in yards allowed per pass.
Neither of these defenses will find much success in this one.
The Bears are second in the league in points per game, seventh in yards per game and third in yards per play. The Eagles are seventh in points per game and second in both yards per game and yards per play. They also feature the league's leading rusher in LeSean McCoy.
Despite playing on the road, the Bears will pull out this shootout because they will wear out the Eagles defense and then control time of possession in the final quarter.
Playing in Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense, the Eagles are last in the league in net time of possession. That's something Bears head coach Marc Trestman will look to take advantage of.
Prediction: Bears 35, Eagles 31
New England Patriots at Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have won four straight to pull themselves up to 8-6 to sit in the driver's seat for the AFC's second wild-card spot.
The offense is still struggling, however.
The Ravens won a thriller Monday night against the Lions on the strength of six field goals and no touchdowns.
Baltimore's offense is doing little right. It is last in yards per rush and 28th in yards per pass, as the offensive line has spent most of the season looking completely overwhelmed.
That weak offensive line will allow a Patriots defense that is 31st in rushing yards allowed per game and 25th in yards allowed per rush to force the Ravens into passing situations.
The Patriots have been solid in pass defense this season with the league's 10th-ranked sack percentage helping them to the 13th-best mark in yards per pass and the 15th-highest opponent interception percentage.
New England's sack percentage is the real key to this game.
It's not that it's better than the Ravens. It's not. Baltimore is ninth in the category. The Patriots, however, are ninth in quarterback sacked percentage compared to the Ravens' 22nd standing.
Tom Brady will enjoy more time to throw than Joe Flacco, and given time, the Ravens' secondary is vulnerable.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 20
Stats via TeamRankings.com.