With the playoffs just on the horizon, the drama surrounding Week 16 in the NFL is heating up fast. What warms the winter chill out of our frosty, tailgating bones better than the intensity of football action coming right down to the wire?
Can a team find postseason relevance without the best player in football?
How many times will the league’s most prominent pass rush take Miami’s QB to the ground? Will he survive long enough to see his first playoff action?
Find out what storylines are worth watching in this week’s edition of What to Watch For.
We all know that Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Not having a player of that caliber is clearly going to be an enormous obstacle to overcome—as if the opposing team that happens to be fighting for its life isn’t enough of a challenge.
The magnitude of Sunday’s game cannot be overstated. If Green Bay falters in either of its next two games, it can kiss its postseason hopes goodbye.
The Pittsburgh Steelers seem poised and ready to go out on a high note knowing they still have a slight chance of a postseason berth. They’ve been playing with fire and passion in the second half of the season, going 4-2 after a 2-6 start, and seem to have found a spark on offense.
For the Packers to win, they will undoubtedly require a productive running game. RB Eddie Lacy is working on a sore ankle but should be ready to go.
If Green Bay finds a way to win with Matt Flynn, we have to consider the possibility that this guy really can play quarterback in the NFL. Since he entered the picture, the Packers are 2-1-1. Furthermore, according to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, Flynn has led a 23-point comeback win and a 16-point comeback for a tie in 2013 alone.
To put that into perspective, the largest comeback for Packers legend Brett Favre is 14 points—which also happens to be the same number for Aaron Rodgers, per Kacsmar.
But let’s not diminish the Rodgers effect—the Packers have averaged 20 points per game in his absence. In Flynn's four appearances, Green Bay has averaged 24 points per game. In Rodgers' seven full games, the Packers scored fewer than 28 points just twice.
How badly will this team want it come Sunday?
In case you didn’t know, the Arizona Cardinals are still alive in the playoff hunt despite being in third place in the NFC West.
One of the main reasons for their success, especially recently, has been the solid play of veteran QB Carson Palmer. Thanks to his turnover-free performances, the Cards have won six of their last seven games—making them one of the hottest teams in football.
Palmer has had a horrendous habit of throwing careless interceptions throughout his career and started this season in much the same way. In his first seven games he only had two performances where he didn’t throw multiple interceptions. In his last seven games, he's only had one game with two or more picks. Perhaps something has finally clicked for this gunslinging headache.
Interestingly enough, before the Week 12 loss to the Eagles, the last time Palmer threw multiple picks came against none other than the Seahawks in Week 7. In that game Seattle held him to one touchdown pass and a passer rating of 70.4.
It seems fortuitous for us fans of good matchups that the football gods would wedge the Seattle Seahawks secondary directly between the Cardinals and a playoff berth.
A loss against the top-seeded Seahawks and the Cards can pack it up for the year—a win and they can stay alive in their quest to go all the way. However, even if Arizona wins its final two games, it needs the loser of next week's Carolina-New Orleans game to drop its Week 17 contest as well.
The Seahawks secondary will be the ultimate test for Palmer and his reformed passing style. No team in the NFL has picked off more passes than Seattle’s 22.
Let’s see if Palmer can keep the ball out of the hands of the opposing team. A solid game by Carson here would be a huge accomplishment for him and his team—especially considering he’s listed as questionable with an injured ankle and is considered a game-time decision.
Something has to give here. Will the Seahawks finally look vulnerable on defense?
Will Palmer resort to his old habits?
One way or the other, Arizona’s season is riding on it.
If you like big plays, high scores and exotic passing offenses via first-year head coaches, then you certainly must tune in to the matchup between the Eagles and Bears on Sunday night.
Both teams sport potent offenses, along with defenses ranked near the bottom of the league. This could be one of those games where the team that gets the ball last wins the game.
The Eagles are coming off an embarrassing blowout loss to the Vikings and should be looking to redeem themselves—especially on defense. Meanwhile, the Bears have averaged more yards in the last three games than any other team in the league. This should be one of the more entertaining heavyweight fights on offense.
Unfortunately, I was really looking forward to an intriguing matchup between two surprising Day 1 backups who took the league by storm with incredible efficiency and one big play after another. That would have been Josh McCown taking on Nick Foles with playoff implications.
Jay Cutler, the incumbent starting QB for the Bears, had to get healthy in a hurry and return before Chicago officially cast him aside like yesterday’s newspaper.
Cutler’s welcome back game against Cleveland rendered mixed results, especially early on when he threw two interceptions and exhibited general sloppiness throughout.
Even star wideout Brandon Marshall admitted on Jay Mohr's Fox Sports radio show, via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, that the locker room is somewhat on the fence about who the starter should be moving forward.
In Philly, there is no dispute over who the starter is this season. Nick Foles has won that job convincingly on his impressive body of work thus far.
Both teams also have extremely versatile running backs that can make big plays for their teams in a variety of ways.
The Bears certainly have more offensive weapons than the Eagles do, but Cutler is known to be inconsistent and could be more of a liability than an asset after we witnessed what McCown brings to the table.
With so much riding on this game for both teams, let's see which one is more equipped to handle the pressures of a playoff-type atmosphere.
As mentioned in the previous slide, the Bears are struggling mightily on defense this season. They’re currently ranked 27th out of 32 teams in total yards allowed. These are not the signs of a team that has what it takes to go very far in the postseason.
Enter their leader, Lance Briggs, who looks to be back from a fractured shoulder that has sidelined him since Week 7.
During that time the Bears have struggled to find an identity on defense. The 33-year-old veteran was instrumental to the Chicago defense, racking up 64 tackles and two forced fumbles over the first seven games.
In addition, Briggs is their unquestioned leader out on the field, and that defense has missed his presence greatly.
If there was ever a game where the Bears could really use him, it would be this one. The Eagles will feature RB LeSean McCoy in the backfield this week, and Chicago will need some serious help trying to contain this guy.
Aaron Dobson (foot) is expected to return to the lineup, per Nick Underhill of MassLive.com, on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. These teams do not like each other very much and have had some amazing playoff battles over the years.
Tom Brady is badly in need of some big bodies for the red zone after losing TE Rob Gronkowski. It appears Dobson will have to do as a Plan B. He has accumulated 35 catches for just under 500 yards on the season.
The best part about Dobson is that he's come through in the red zone—an area that has been a concern lately. He's tied for second on the team in receiving touchdowns with four.
Baltimore is playing stingily on defense with a lot to lose in this game, while Brady will likely need to trust his young receiver more than he has all season. It’s rare having to watch a Patriots offense struggle as much as they have at points this season.
Brady has been quite animated with his frustration levels throughout.
In order to beat the Ravens this weekend, Dobson will need to carry his weight and serve as a reliable target. Can the Patriots generate enough offensively to compete against playoff-caliber teams? Consider this game the first test as to whether these Pats are even worth cheering for this January.
Sometimes you just can’t stage better scenarios than the ones that naturally fall into your lap. It may be time to whip out the band-aids and pain medication for Ryan Tannehill, because we’re about to witness the most sacked quarterback in the NFL take on the best team at getting to the quarterback.
The Buffalo Bills have quietly racked up 49 sacks on the season, good enough for a league high this year.
This defensive line must be licking its chops as it prepares to face Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins.
Tannehill has been sacked 52 times, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which is nearly 10 more than the guy in second place, Geno Smith.
DE Mario Williams leads the way for the Bills with 12 sacks on the season. LB Jerry Hughes has also played well totaling nine sacks so far.
At 8-6, the Dolphins can still make it into the postseason. They would need the Ravens to lose at least one game in order for them to slip into the final playoff spot.
The last time these two division foes faced each other, the Bills won 23-21 in Miami. However, the Dolphins didn’t play horribly up front. Williams had the only two sacks of the day for the Bills. This game will challenge the Dolphins as they travel to the frigid temperatures of Buffalo.
If Miami wants to compete for a Super Bowl, it must prove it can keep its talented young quarterback clean for four quarters against one of the best pass rushes in the league.
Monday Night Football will have an added element of sentiment to it in the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers. This marks the final regular-season home game for the 49ers at Candlestick Park before they transition to their new stadium in 2014.
The 49ers will move to Levi’s Stadium, located 45 miles south in Santa Clara, Calif. According to the New York Times, technology innovator and Silicon Valley mainstay Intel will pack the venue with enhanced products from security and sensors to computers. The estimated $1.2 billion stadium’s capacity will also be expandable to 75,000 and will incorporate a more wide-open style with nearly double the square footage of Candlestick.
Candlestick has been entertaining fans in the chilly Bay Area since 1960 and has housed many legendary moments in sports history.
To celebrate the special occasion, the stadium will play host to several events coordinated throughout the game.
“We’re going to try to give her a good send-off. I don’t want to spoil any of that for the fans that might be listening,” 49ers Vice President of Stadium Operations and Security Jim Mercurio said to CBS San Francisco. “We’re planning to do some pretty special things, some great tributes.”
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and writes for Bleacher Report.