There is little time left for those vying for an NFL playoff spot to grab one, and there are several games among the myriad of magnificent matchups in Week 16 that will go a long way in shaping the postseason picture.
Headlining the early action is a showdown between the last two teams standing from the AFC in last year's playoffs. One division title in the NFC is essentially on the line in Charlotte, while two other division leaders from the conference will square off in the final Sunday night contest of 2013.
Below is a closer look at those epic clashes and projected scores for them, along with a complete list of picks for the contests on the upcoming schedule.
New England Patriots (10-4) vs. Baltimore Ravens (8-6)
It's a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game in which Patriots legendary quarterback Tom Brady was shut out in the second half while his counterpart Joe Flacco continued on an amazing run to Super Bowl MVP.
Brady will be facing a far less experienced defense this time around, but he also be throwing to a bevy of new targets that occupy his current supporting cast.
Mike Reiss of ESPN.com notes how at least rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins—who missed the Patriots' most recent game—are back on the practice field:
Rookie WRs Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) are present at practice. Looks like they are close to a return to action.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 18, 2013
ESPN Stats & Info highlights one discouraging trend for the visitors: How Brady has had a difficult time outplaying Flacco in previous meetings:
Tom Brady has 6 TD passes and 9 INT in 6 head-to-head matchups with Joe Flacco (including playoffs). Flacco has 12 TD passes and 4 INT— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 17, 2013
This is dangerous territory for New England, because it just lost a chance to clinch the AFC East in Miami last week, which caused the hyper-competitive Brady to be rather short with the media afterwards:
The key to this game will be whether or not the Ravens, who have won five straight, can establish a running game. That has been a challenge this season as the Ravens have averaged just 82.3 rushing yards per game—29th in the league.
In the front seven, the Patriots are very thin with Vince Wilfork and Jerrod Mayo being out. That has resulted in opponents gashing them for 132.5 yards per contest on the ground.
Chances are, though, it will come down to a late play, and Brady should be more trusted to come through in that scenario over Flacco. Despite a poor history in this budding head-to-head rivalry, Brady has made more plays and been less mistake-prone (23 TDs, 10 INTs) than Flacco (18 TDs, 17 INTs).
Prediction: Patriots 31, Ravens 27
New Orleans Saints (10-4) vs. Carolina Panthers (10-4)
The NFC South is knotted once again after New Orleans' surprising loss to St. Louis in Week 15 and Carolina's 30-20 victory over the New York Jets.
Drew Brees devastated the Panthers in the Superdome in Week 14, throwing for 313 yards and four touchdowns en route to a decisive 31-13 win. That got a lot of people off the Carolina bandwagon, but it should be filling up yet again.
There needs to be more of an effort by the Panthers to get running back DeAngelo Williams going after he registered 52 yards on 13 carries against the Saints in their first matchup.
Williams caught three passes for 87 yards and a TD versus the Jets to go with 15 carries for 81 yards—his highest total on the ground since Week 3.
That could be the X-factor in this one, but QB Cam Newton must do a better job of utilizing his athleticism and avoiding New Orleans' strong pass rush led by Cameron Jordan (11.5 sacks). He lost 49 yards on five sacks when he last faced the Saints.
Newton is in the friendly confines of home field this time around, and with an elite defense to help him out and just as eager to bounce back, the setup is in place for the Panthers to pull ahead in the division with one game remaining.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Saints 20
Chicago Bears (8-6) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (8-6)
Which projected winner is the bigger Super Bowl threat?
The battle of two division leaders pits the Bears (NFC North) against the Eagles (NFC East), and as disastrous as their two clusters have been, they have managed to rise to the top at this late juncture.
What will be fascinating is the war of wits between first-year head coaches and play-callers in Chicago's Marc Trestman and his adversary Chip Kelly.
Trestman is based in the West Coast system but has a lot of creative wrinkles that should give the Eagles' 31st-ranked pass defense serious problems. Then there's Kelly, more of an innovative, uptempo and spread type of coach who thrives on tempo and momentum.
After cooling off in Week 14, Philadelphia QB Nick Foles threw for 428 yards and three TDs in last week's loss, but Jay Cutler made his return under center for the Bears and was amazing after two early interceptions in a win in Cleveland.
Both signal-callers are hot, so this one should come down to the final possession. That's where Cutler may have the edge, per ESPN Stats & Info:
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
Star linebacker Lance Briggs practiced on Wednesday, too, per Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. It seems he is increasingly likely to play, which would bring back a huge emotional leader to the Bears' defensive huddle.
The concern is that Chicago's decimated defensive line could be vulnerable to the Eagles' top-ranked rushing attack.
While that is true, look for Cutler to destroy the Eagles with big targets in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery being enough to give the Bears this statement triumph on the road in the Sunday night finale.
Prediction: Bears 41, Eagles 38
|Away Team||Home Team||Winner|
|Miami Dolphins||Buffalo Bills||Dolphins|
|New Orleans Saints||Carolina Panthers||Panthers|
|Dallas Cowboys||Washington Redskins||Redskins|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||St. Louis Rams||Buccaneers|
|Cleveland Browns||New York Jets||Jets|
|Indianapolis Colts||Kansas City Chiefs||Chiefs|
|Minnesota Vikings||Cincinnati Bengals||Bengals|
|Denver Broncos||Houston Texans||Broncos|
|Tennessee Titans||Jacksonville Jaguars||Titans|
|Arizona Cardinals||Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks|
|New York Giants||Detroit Lions||Lions|
|Oakland Raiders||San Diego Chargers||Chargers|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Green Bay Packers||Steelers|
|New England Patriots||Baltimore Ravens||Patriots|
|Chicago Bears||Philadelphia Eagles||Bears|
|Atlanta Falcons||San Francisco 49ers||49ers|
Picks are strictly opinion