Week 16 signals that the playoffs are just two weeks away. It's still unclear who will make up the Wild Card Round, so for many teams, the playoffs have already begun.
At this point of the season, many teams are playing each other for the second time. With how the schedule has been laid out this year, many of those rematches are taking place just a matter of weeks after their first outing. In the NFC South, there is a crucial rematch that will take place in Carolina.
In the AFC, it's not a rematch between division rivals from this season, but it will feel like a very familiar rivalry for two teams chasing division crowns. Having faced off against each other in each of the last two AFC Championship games, with one side winning each, both of these teams will be desperate for victory in case they meet again in January.
Two teams with two first-year head coaches are also facing off as they chase playoff spots. One came from Canada and the other from college football, but both have taken the NFL by storm so far. Will their teams begin to show cracks now that the importance of every minor moment is vastly more important than it has been to this point?
Terron Armstead versus Greg Hardy
When the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints met in Louisiana two weeks ago, the Saints steamrolled their NFC South rivals by a scoreline of 31-13.
It wasn't a major shock because the Saints were coming off an embarrassing loss to the Seattle Seahawks the previous week and are always exceptionally good at home during prime time. That game is still strong in the memories of both the Panthers and the Saints as they approach their rematch in Carolina this week, but the Saints will feel somewhat deflated after losing to the St. Louis Rams last week.
The term "trap game" comes to mind, but the Saints can't simply write it off as that. They haven't done enough during road games this season to really feel confident about their chances against the Panthers. Most importantly, their loss in St. Louis highlighted just how bad their pass protection on the left side of their offensive line could be.
Left tackle Charles Brown has started every game of the season to this point, but he was benched last week.
Brown took over for the departed Jermon Bushrod this season, but he has never proven himself as a viable long-term option at the position. Against the best defensive end in the NFL last week, Robert Quinn, Brown gave up two sacks and played a big role in Drew Brees' interception early in the first quarter.
That interception led to a Rams touchdown.
Giving up sacks to Quinn is essentially unavoidable for someone like Brown. Even the elite left tackles in the game struggle with Quinn because of his incredible burst and impressive strength. Brown needed to do more to make him earn his production, though. On the interception in particular, he showed off why he needed to be benched.
Quinn and his teammate Chris Long line up wide of the offensive tackles. The Rams are being very aggressive with the Saints, who are backed up close to their goal line. Brown doesn't have a tight end next to him, but he has a fullback offset so that he is lined up behind him and a running back in the backfield to potentially give him help.
At the snap, Quinn attacks Brown's outside shoulder. Not only does Brown overplay this move because he fears his speed rush, he doesn't understand that his help from the fullback is on his outside shoulder. This is the worst possible mistake the left tackle can make in this situation because it opens a huge lane to the quarterback past his inside shoulder.
Quinn very quickly recognises Brown's mistake and is able to quickly step inside of him, before fighting through his arms to disrupt Brees. Brees is trying to throw the ball to Jimmy Graham down the seam, but he is hit by Quinn and Brown as he throws, so the pass never makes it to Graham.
Rookie safety T.J. McDonald is able to run underneath the wobbling pass to catch it. He proceeds to run the ball back to ultimately set up a touchdown for the Rams offense.
Even if Brown had just played to his assignment and pushed Quinn outside instead of negating his help, then the Saints could have avoided complete disaster. Brees only needed a split second more and could have had a huge touchdown to Graham. The veteran quarterback had manipulated the deep safety, and Graham was already behind the defensive back trying to cover him.
Terron Armstead, a third-round pick in the 2013 draft, will be taking over for Brown this week.
Armstead won't have to deal with anyone on Quinn's level, but that's little comfort considering he has to face off against Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Johnson had half a sack two weeks ago, but he had only just returned from an injury he suffered against the New England Patriots. Hardy had a sack against the New York Jets last week.
Johnson has always been the greater threat of the pair, but Hardy is no slouch either.
Hardy has eight sacks on the season and one forced fumble. He won't need to sack Brees on Sunday for the Panthers to win, but if he and Johnson can expose the Saints' pass protection problem, then they should have a much greater chance of splitting the season series.
Terrell Suggs versus Logan Mankins
While the Baltimore Ravens came away with a victory on Monday night against the Detroit Lions, they have little to feel optimistic about from their performance.
Even though the defense relied on mistakes from the Lions offense, you can at least say it was opportunistic when opportunities arose. The same can't be said for the offense. Joe Flacco led a game-winning field-goal drive, but it was a very long field goal from Justin Tucker, and the offense could only muster field goals through the four quarters.
Before the Ravens escaped Detroit with a close victory, the New England Patriots could only find a four-point loss against the Miami Dolphins.
The Patriots' injuries appear to be taking toll on the team's fortunes on the field. Defensively, the losses on the defensive line are impacting the defense as a whole, while the offensive line has struggled over the last two weeks against tough defensive fronts.
That is where this game likely will be decided. The Ravens have a lot of talent in their defensive front, but the unit has tailed off in recent times. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have combined for 18.5 sacks, while Daryl Smith and Arthur Jones have contributed 8.5 more.
Over the last three games, the Ravens have five sacks. They had just one against the Lions and just one more against the Pittsburgh Steelers three weeks ago. In between those games, they had three sacks against the Minnesota Vikings.
Getting to Brady and bringing him down will be vital if the Ravens are to win this game. While the Ravens have a variety of different pass-rushing specialists, it's former defensive player of the year Suggs who should step into the spotlight.
With Patriots starting left tackle Nate Solder ailing with an injury, the Patriots could be set to use left guard Logan Mankins as an emergency left tackle.
Suggs spends most of his time on the right side of the defense, whether lined up as a right defensive end or outside linebacker. This means that he will be pitted against Mankins more often than Dumervil. Mankins is one of the best guards in the NFL when healthy, and he has a lot of experience to call on, but he doesn't carry the same athleticism as the best left tackles.
Working Mankins in space could allow Suggs to take over this game in such a way that he has done in the past.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, Suggs is enduring a barren spell. His last sack came in Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns. He has come close during that time, and he has still been a valuable member of the defense, but another passive display on the sack chart could be the difference between winning and losing this game.
Suggs has always been a varied rusher. He has the speed to get around offensive tackles, the strength to overpower them and the awareness to use one to set up the other. When he last took over a game, in Week 5 against the Miami Dolphins, he had three sacks in the fourth quarter: two against Jonathan Martin and one against a double-team on the other side of the offensive line.
Although the Dolphins didn't have outstanding pass protection, Suggs won't be facing an outstanding pass protector in the form of Mankins this week.
Cary Williams versus Alshon Jeffery/Brandon Marshall
The Philadelphia Eagles have had an impressive first season under new head coach Chip Kelly. As an offensive coach, it's not a major surprise that Kelly has been able to successfully navigate his offense through some turmoil at the quarterback position. It's the defensive side of the ball where the Eagles are vulnerable.
Inconsistency has been the Eagles' biggest problem on defense.
Entering the season, the Eagles revamped their personnel on the defensive side. That lowered expectations for the unit as a whole, but the front seven still appeared to be strong. The real question marks were in the secondary with Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher arriving to be starting cornerbacks.
Neither player is an overly impressive starter. In fact, in an ideal world, neither would be more than a strong backup option.
Against certain teams, the impact of Fletcher and Williams could be lessened by a higher output on offense and taking advantage of matchups upfront. Against the Chicago Bears in Week 16, that's unlikely.
Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall have taken over the NFL this season. They are clearly the most effective wide receiver partnership in the league right now. Neither player is limited to one aspect of the game, but both thrive on high balls that allow them to extend for the football over defenders.
Both Williams and Fletcher are 6'0" or taller, but Fletcher is a much more physical cover corner than Williams.
Although the Bears won't feel the need to target either defensive back—neither is intimidating and neither should be able to handle Jeffery or Marshall. Williams will be the weak link. Both Jeffery and Marshall have taken advantage of much better cornerbacks than Williams when given opportunities this season.
With Jay Cutler back under center, there should be no question about how many opportunities they receive.
Cutler played relatively well in tough conditions against a strong defense last week. The Cleveland Browns were able to intercept Cutler twice, but he completed 22 of 31 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns. Most importantly, he trusted his receivers to win 50-50 situations.
After scoring just three points during the first half of the game, the Bears are showing urgency during the two-minute drill to score before the half. As you'd expect, they come out in a passing formation. Ray Horton's defense isn't being cautious, as they show a single-high safety look at the snap.
Cutler understands the defense, and he also understands that Joe Haden is on Brandon Marshall to the top of the screen. Therefore, at the snap he looks left to pull the safety out of position, while Marshall wrestles his way inside of Haden.
Within a second, Cutler has turned back to find Marshall, and he immediately releases the ball downfield. Cutler didn't look to perfectly fit the ball into a window, he just put it up there for Marshall to go and get. Marshall was held by Haden, but even in spite of that he was still able to go up and snatch the ball out of the air with ease.
Having one receiver who can make these kinds of plays is something every offense desires. Having two multiplies the impact through the offense.
When an offense has one wide receiver who can do what Marshall does above, the defense concedes space around the field to focus on him. When an offense has two, the defense can't hide any individual. They can't double-team both players without giving up huge space to Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett.
That puts the pressure on both of the Eagles cornerbacks to show up. Fletcher has a better chance to fight with Marshall or Jeffery, but Williams will need to have an atypical performance if the Eagles are going to win this game.
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