With week 16 nearly in the books, we look forward to the final week of the NFL season. Although five out of six teams have clinched in the AFC, there are still five playoff spots up for grabs in the NFC.
Some games may be difficult to predict accurately as many starters will enjoy a week of rest before their post-season appearance, but there are also a handful of potential playoff teams that will be battling for their lives next week.
The Sunday night game between St. Louis and Seattle will determine the NFC West title, while Green Bay can clinch a post-season berth with a win over the division champion Bears. If New Orleans loses tonight, they could be in a win-or-go-home showdown against the Buccaneers while New York, Indianapolis and Jacksonville will all be playing for the opportunity to play into February.
Who will emerge victorious? Can a 7-9 team win their division? Which teams will lock up a post-season berth? All those questions and more will be answered as we examine all 16 games on schedule for the final week if the season.
Why Oakland Could Win: Although they have been eliminated from post-season competition, the Raiders have a chance to go 8-8, ending a streak of seven consecutive losing seasons. Oakland is led by running back Darren McFadden whose 1,664 total yards this season have reminded fans why the Raiders selected the dynamic back with the fourth overall pick in 2008.
Why Kansas City Could Win: The Chiefs have already clinched a playoff berth and could be playing without key starters, but if KC doesn’t use a lineup of mainly bench players they should be able to win this game. Not only do the Chiefs lead the league in rushing at 167.5 yards per game, but they also sport an impressive 7-0 home record.
Prediction: 30-19 Chiefs.
Why Tampa Bay Could Win: The Tampa Bay defense has been impressive all season and Josh Freeman has evolved as a passer, but the key to victory could be rookie running back LeGarrette Blount. More renowned for punching an opponent than his on-field production, the undrafted back has been phenomenal since taking over for Cadillac Williams. At 6’0” tall, 247 pounds, one would think Blount is nothing more than a battering ram, but he’s so much more. Blount has shown surprising quickness, speed and athleticism given his massive frame, and has rushed for 941 yards despite starting just six games. Blount rushed for 164 yards on just 18 carries last week against the Seahawks, and another big game like that could lead to a post-season berth.
Why New Orleans Could Win: As always, it begins and ends for the Saints with Drew Brees. Last week against the Ravens, the veteran signal caller passed the 4,000-yard mark for the fifth consecutive season. The former Purdue standout has completed a league-best 68.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 31 touchdowns. Brees has been turnover prone this season and will have to be careful against an opportunistic Tampa defense that ranks amongst the league leaders in interceptions.
Prediction: 31-20 New Orleans
Why Minnesota Could Win: The Vikings will travel to the stadium that hosted their home game just two weeks ago for the season finale against the Lions. The Vikings struggled through a year filled with turmoil that included Brett Favre’s scandalous texts, the trade for and immediate release of Randy Moss and the firing of head coach Brad Childress. This team had Super Bowl aspirations at the beginning of the season, but they will settle for a win over division rival Detroit. Other than rookie defensive tackle Ndamokung Suh, the Lions front seven has been vulnerable all season – allowing 128.3 yards rushing per game. Assuming the Vikings sit out Adrian Peterson, rookie Toby Gerhart could be in for a big game. The bowling ball shaped back was one of the loan bright spots against the Bears (16 carries for 77 yards) and could top the century mark this weekend.
Why Detroit Could Win: As much as I would love to dedicate this section to the electric Calvin Johnson, this game may be more about Minnesota struggling than Detroit thriving. Joe Webb is expected to start at quarterback once again for Minnesota and the rookie from UAB has looked completely lost in limited action. Drafted as a WR, the athletic rookie is not yet adept at reading NFL defenses and could set back the Minnesota offense greatly. In his first game, Webb spelled an injured Brett Favre and completed just 15 of 26 passes for 129 yards and two interceptions. Webb looks lost behind center and could allow the Lions to have their best defensive showing of the season.
Prediction: 34-13 Lions.
Why Buffalo Could Win: After winning four of their last six, there were many out there who believed the Bills were capable of knocking off the Patriots. New England dismantled Buffalo by a score of 34-3, but it goes to show you how far the Bills have come after starting the season 0-8. Although Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t quite as intelligent as broadcasters would let you believe, this Bills team has no shortage of dynamic players. Stevie Johnson topped the 1,000-yard receiving mark against the Pats, while C.J. Spiller displayed the athleticism and explosiveness that made him a first round draft pick. If these two players can help break off a few big plays, this game may be closer than many are expecting.
Why New York Could Win: Even with Mark Sanchez scheduled to sit the season finale with a sore shoulder, the Jets have a far more talented team than the Bills. Despite allowing 38 points to the Bears this week, the Jets defense allowed only 322 yards – a result of often allowing Chicago to start with good field position. Darrelle Revis should be able to silence Stevie Johnson while David Harris helps anchor a run defense that allows less than 100 yards per game (good for fifth best in the league). Can Kellen Clemens or Mark Brunell take care of the ball while moving the chains? The answer to that question could decide the outcome Sunday.
Prediction: 20-17 Jets.
Why Miami Could Win: Last time these two teams met, the Patriots' special teams dominated the contest and New England overcame a halftime deficit to win 41-14. Since then, the Fins have fired their special teams coordinator, but they could struggle against this white-hot Patriots team. The biggest question is whether or not Tom Brady will play. Belichick routinely plays Brady deep into the fourth quarter of blowout games. Will Belichick once again play Brady in a meaningless situation or will he make the smart move and allow backup Brian Hoyer to start? Assuming the three-time Super Bowl-winning coach keeps Brady on the sideline, Miami will have a good shot at winning.
Why New England Could Win: At 13-2 the Patriots have already clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That poses the question, is it worth playing any of the team's key players? New England is 7-0 at home this season, but could take their first loss if they opt to empty their bench for their matchup with the Dolphins. Belichick has shown a propensity to run up the score, so I would hardly be surprised if a plethora of starters play on Sunday. If they do, look for New England to run away in a blowout. However, even if Tom Brady doesn’t play, this team has enough offensive depth with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and the rookie tight ends that they could still compete with a middle of the road Dolphins team.
Prediction: 24-21 Patriots with Brady playing the first quarter
Why Pittsburgh Could Win: Although Pittsburgh has already locked up a spot in the post-season, they have a lot to play for week 17 against the Browns. The Steelers currently sit atop the AFC North with an 11-4 record, and will need a win on Sunday to lock up a first-round bye. James Harrison and Troy Polamalu lead arguably the league’s top defense against a Cleveland team they defeated 28-10 in week six.
Why Cleveland Could Win: For the Browns to win, they will need a superhuman performance from Peyton Hillis. The bruising back ran for just 41 yards in the teams' first meeting, and will need a much-improved performance if they hope to upset their division rival. Hillis has shown he can put up big numbers against elite defenses (22 carries for 144 yards in week three’s loss to Baltimore), and will need to duplicate those numbers if Cleveland hopes to pull off the upset.
Prediction: 27-13 Steelers.
Why Carolina Could Win: Any other week I would make some sort of joke about the ineptitude of the Panthers and compare their offense to some sort of venereal disease. However, if the Falcons defeat the Saints tonight they would clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs and have no need to play their starters against Carolina. If that happens, Jonathan Stewart could rip through a depleted defense and the Panthers could pick up their third win of the season. The good news for Carolina fans? At least they’ve already locked up the top pick in the 2011 NFL draft – likely Stanford’s Andrew Luck.
Why Atlanta Could Win: Even if the Falcons win tonight, it’s entirely possible the offense could play the first half or even just the first quarter against Carolina as to not be rusty following their first-round bye. If that happens, they could score more points than the bungling Panthers offense is capable of scoring. Carolina is 0-7 on the road while Atlanta is 7-0 at home, meaning it may not matter who plays for the Falcons.
Prediction: 27-9 Falcons.
Why Cincinnati Could Win: With their top receiver (Terrell Owens) injured, facing one of the league’s top pass defenses, Carson Palmer posted his best game of the season completing 16 of 21 passes for 269 and four touchdowns. His 157.2 passer rating was nearly perfect with third-year receivers Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson playing like potential stars. Palmer will need an equally impressive performance if the Bengals hope to defeat the Ravens in Baltimore. Cincinnati defeated the Ravens 15-10 in week three with Carson Palmer completing just 16 of 35 passes for 167 yards. The former USC star has looked panicked under pressure this season, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to Terrell Suggs and the Ravens pass rush.
Why Baltimore Could Win: While the Bengals have little to gain with this win except the pride of playing spoiler, this game is still significant for the Ravens. A Baltimore victory coupled with a Steelers loss would give the Ravens a first-round bye, while a loss would force them to play their first playoff game on the road. With so much riding on this game, look for Joe Flacco to have a big game. The third-year field general threw four interceptions against Cincy the first time around, but has thrown just five picks in his 14 other games. The Bengals secondary has been inconsistent this season and Flacco will be looking to prove himself after an atrocious first meeting.
Prediction: 30-20 Ravens.
Why Dallas Could Win: After last week’s embarrassing loss to the anemic Cardinals, there is very little boding well for Dallas. After all, it’s not often you see two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the opening quarter of a ball game. As much talent as the Cowboys have on both sides of the football, their inadequacies at certain positions (sorry, Jon Kitna) combined with the lack of effort from others (come on Felix Jones) have made this team one of the league’s biggest underachievers. Still, the Giants did a good job of putting pressure on Michael Vick and containing him through three quarters last week. If DeMarcus Ware and the Dallas defense can match that effort for all four quarters, the ‘Boys offense should be able to score enough points to win.
Why Philadelphia Could Win: The Eagles have already clinched a playoff berth, but that doesn’t detract from the significance of Sunday’s game. The 12-2 Falcons will likely have home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but with wins tomorrow and Sunday plus a Chicago loss at Green Bay; Philadelphia could still land a first-round bye. With so much at stake, expect a spirited Eagles team to storm the field against perennial rival Dallas. LeSean McCoy was the difference maker against the Cowboys when these teams met the first time, and he could once again be the key to victory for Philly. All eyes will be on Vick, but the dynamic back from Pittsburgh could once again steal the show.
Prediction: 27-20 Eagles.
Why Arizona Could Win: Although the Cardinals have an anemic offense led by a slew of under qualified quarterbacks, their defense has been quietly productive. They rank fifth-worst in scoring defense, allowing 26.4 points per game, but that is due in large part to the great field position surrendered by the offense. The outstanding play of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie leads an Arizona defense that ranks first in football with seven defensive touchdowns. Facing the underwhelming quarterback play of Alex Smith, don’t be surprised if Arizona’s defense once again leads them to victory.
Why San Francisco Could Win: All season long I have maintained that the Niners are the most talented team in the NFC West. Nate Clements is still a top cornerback while Patrick Willis is arguably the best linebacker in football. On offense, Vernon Davis is the most athletic tight end in football while Michael Crabtree and Brian Westbrook (or a healthy Frank Gore) offer terrific receiving options. With news that Mike Singletary has been fired, it will be intriguing to see whether or not the team responds to interim head coach and former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. This team has underachieved all season, but could show their true potential in the season finale.
Prediction: 28-10 49ers.
Why Jacksonville Could Win: David Garrard has been inconsistent all season, but should record huge numbers this weekend against the Texans. Houston’s young secondary has been torched all season, ranking dead last amongst the league’s 32 teams in passing defense. This weekend in just his second career start, the supposedly not-ready-for-Sunday Tim Tebow threw for over 300 yards in a Broncos victory. Needing a win coupled with an Indy loss, look for Jacksonville to play with great fire and passion.
Why Houston Could Win: As awful as the Texans defense has been this season, their offense has been the direct antithesis. Arian Foster has been a revelation, rushing for a league-best 1,436 yards while Matt Schaub has once again put together a Pro Bowl caliber season with 4,117 yards and 23 touchdowns. Houston will be looking to avenge a week 10 loss on a last-second Hail Mary and could once again look to utilize Andre Johnson (nine receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting).
Prediction: 30-24 Houston
Why San Diego Could Win: The Chargers passing defense ranks first in the NFL by a wide margin, and could give rookie Tim Tebow fits. Tebow put up huge numbers against an inferior Texans secondary, but oftentimes struggled to make the right read. More importantly, Tebow’s arm strength and accuracy looked sub par on many throws, even if the end result on many of those plays was a completion. Shaun Phillips has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks all season and he could force the high-profile rookie into hurried throws and a few turnovers.
Why Denver Could Win: With the inexperienced Tebow still a work in progress, the Broncos may have to design their game plan around Knowshon Moreno. The second-year player from Georgia has shown glimpses of potential this season, gaining over 1,000 yards of total offense and eight total touchdowns. Moreno has struggled in recent weeks, gaining just 24 yards on the ground and leaving last week’s game with a rib injury. Still, if Moreno plays he will provide a safe option on passing plays for the rookie quarterback and could have a solid game against a middle of the road San Diego run defense.
Prediction: 28-16 Chargers
Why Chicago Could Win: The Bears have a playoff spot locked up, but need a win next week to clinch a first-round bye. Green Bay needs a win or they will be locked out of the playoffs completely. If the Bears hope to leave the frozen tundra with a victory, they will need marked improvement from their offensive line. Green Bay is amongst the best blitzing teams in the NFL, able to effectively bring pressure from linebackers like Clay Matthews (second leading sack artist with 13) or cornerbacks like Charles Woodson. Jay Cutler has taken 46 sacks this season, and the Bears O-line will need to keep him off his back if they hope prevail triumphant.
Why Green Bay Could Win: I was skeptical about whether Aaron Rodgers would be effective this past weekend. After suffering two concussions, it seemed logical that the B.J. Novak doppelganger would be worried about taking another shot and would be quick to get rid of the football. Boy, was I wrong. Rodgers looked better than I have ever seen him, pinpointing pass after pass en route to 404 yards and four touchdowns. Greg Jennings is one of the league’s elite big play receivers while Donald Driver has some of the best hands in the game. They may lack a true running game, but Rodgers' short passing ability coupled with Kuhn’s tough running on short yardage situations make the Packers a force to be reckoned with.
Prediction: 27-17 Packers.
Why Tennessee Could Win: Chris Johnson remains the most talented and electric back in football, despite his drop off in production. Against a porous Colts rush defense, the former Eastern Carolina Pirate could produce a season high in yards.
Why Indianapolis Could Win: Although a Jacksonville loss ensures the Colts of a playoff berth, the team would much rather take care of business by knocking off the Titans on Sunday. Tennessee’s secondary ranks amongst the league's worst, and could be victimized by Peyton Manning and the surging Colts offense. Last week against a top-ranked Raiders secondary, Manning struggled with only 179 yards and two interceptions (although he did toss three touchdowns). For the Colts to move into the post-season, Manning will have to dramatically improve. Indianapolis has turned into a somewhat one-dimensional team where Manning has to carry the team on his shoulders. He’s struggled over the last half of the season, but should be able to approach the 300-yard mark against Tennessee.
Prediction: 31-14 Colts.
Its Eli The Slack-Jawed Yokel
Why New York Could Win: After back-to-back embarrassing losses, the Giants need a victory in Washington to keep their season – not to mention Tom Coughlin’s coaching career -- alive. Against Green Bay, Eli Manning forced throws, misread defenses and generally did everything in his power to lose the game. The former number one overall pick did not look like a Super Bowl winning QB, completing just 51 percent of his passes and tossing four interceptions. Against the league’s second worst passing defense, those numbers better dramatically change.
Why Washington Could Win: The Redskins are just 2-5 at home, but could use a victory this week to ruin the Giants' playoff aspirations and build on momentum for next season. Playing without distractions like Donovan McNabb or Albert Haynesworth, the ‘Skins beat Jacksonville 20-17 last week in an overtime thriller. The defense allowed just 78 yards rushing while forcing two interceptions and two fumbles. With a lack of talent on the offensive side of the ball, Washington will need to be opportunistic defensively if they hope to knock off the Giants.
Prediction: 20-17 Giants.
Why St. Louis Could Win: After knocking off the 49ers over the weekend, the Rams have a chance to win their division and make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Although Sam Bradford has looked like a veteran all season in leading his team to a 7-8 record, the pressure is on Steven Jackson to produce for St. Louis. Jackson has never made the playoffs as a starting back, and is in the midst of a career-worst season with a meager 3.7 yard per carry average. Last week against San Fran, Action Jackson ran for just 48 yards on 24 carries. He’ll look to improve on those numbers against a Seattle defense that allows 123 yards per game on the ground.
Why Seattle Could Win: By no means should the Seahawks be in this position right now. Their quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has 15 total touchdowns to a whopping 22 turnovers (17 interceptions and five fumbles lost). Their leading rusher is Marshawn Lynch with less than 500 yards. Their top receiver hadn’t played in three years before posting 62 receptions this season. Yet somehow at 6-9, Seattle has a chance at making the playoffs with a win Sunday night. This is a team whose second leading tackler – Lawyer Milloy – is 37 years old! If Seattle hopes to win, they will need to pressure Sam Bradford and play with a short field. As always the difference maker could be kick return specialist Leon Washington.
Prediction: 24-23 St. Louis