Week 16 could not be more important for the three NFC South teams still alive in the playoff hunt. There is still an outside chance that Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta will all make the playoffs but with the Cowboys playing well and the Eagles and Bears still having long shots, it’s unlikely that it will happen. The division could be wrapped up this weekend, but with a Carolina loss, it’ll be wide open until the final whistle sounds in the final week of play.
1) Carolina………11-3………@NY Giants
2) Tampa Bay….9-5……….v. San Diego
Carolina Panthers @ New York Giants Sunday 8:15pm NBC
The winner of this game will clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs and will be able to breathe easy for the next couple of weeks. The top two teams in the conference could not be riding two more opposite waves coming into this match up as the Panthers have caught fire late in the season and the Giants seem to have hit a brick wall.
Winning their last two games by a total margin of 35 points, the Panthers have played their best football of the season in the last two weeks, beating Tampa Bay at home on Monday Night two weeks ago and taking care of Denver last Sunday. The Giants, on the other hand, have begun to crumble.
After Plaxico Burress ended his own season with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the leg, the ensuing media circus seemed to throw off the Giants’ focus. They have lost their last two games after winning seven in a row. They scored only one touchdown between the two games—a meaningless one in garbage time against Philadelphia. While the players and coaches vehemently deny that the Burress incident has not been a factor, it is obviously causing some ripples in a team that was thought to be unbeatable in the NFC just a few weeks ago.
The Giants, who had a death grip on home field advantage heading into the fourth quarter of the season, have stumbled, thus allowing a surging team from Carolina to control their own destiny as they race toward the finish line.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have established themselves as a top running back tandem in the league in recent weeks while Giants running back Brandon Jacobs struggles to return to his top form after a knee injury. Although Jacobs has guaranteed that he will play this week, it is a stretch to think he will produce at the level he normally would.
With the temperature forecasted to be in the 20’s along with a wintry mix, the passing game may become non-existent for both teams, giving an edge to Carolina given the current state of their backfield. While it’s safe to say that bad weather will turn the game into a running battle, the biggest plays of the game may come through the air.
Eli Manning has struggled in the last couple of weeks, completing 31 of 62 passes for 314 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in the Giants’ two most recent losses. Jake Delhomme, on the other hand, has completed 31 of 46 passes for 426 yards and two touchdowns in two winning efforts despite throwing three interceptions. Manning was brutalized last Sunday night in Dallas as he was sacked eight times. Delhomme has been sacked only eight times since the team’s bye week in Week nine.
As with most big games, you can throw the stats out the window and set the records to 0-0 on Sunday night. The playoff picture in the NFC will have its biggest puzzle piece in place after this titanic clash and we could very well be seeing a preview of the NFC Championship Game.
Atlanta Falcons @ Minnesota Vikings Sunday 4:15pm FOX
The Atlanta Falcons will look to improve their playoff chances on Sunday as they head to the frozen tundra of Minneapolis to face the Vikings, who will be looking to clinch a playoff berth. Playing in the less-than-stellar NFC North, the Vikings (9-5) can clinch their division with a victory or a Chicago loss on Sunday. The Falcons (9-5) are coming out of the NFC South, arguably the best division in football, and could only clinch a spot in the postseason if they pull out a victory and Tampa Bay and Dallas lose.
Minnesota will go with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback for the second straight week as the youngster has filled in nicely following Gus Frerotte’s back injury in the second quarter of their Week 14 win over Detroit.
Jackson began the season as the team’s starting quarterback but was benched in favor of Frerotte after the Vikings lost their first two games of the season. Since Frerotte went out a couple of weeks ago, Jackson has played lights out, completing 19 of 27 passes for 268 yards and five touchdowns without an interception.
The Falcons have their own gem under center in rookie Matt Ryan, who many felt was snubbed in the Pro Bowl selections. It has been a while since a rookie quarterback has made this big of a splash in his debut season and Falcons fans hope the fun doesn’t stop after next week.
The Falcons task is simple; keep winning and hope the teams amongst them at the top aren’t as fortunate. If the season ended today, the Falcons would be out of the playoff picture and, in a worst-case scenario, could wind up watching the postseason from home with an 11-5 record. Both of these last two games are crucial for Atlanta due to the fact that they are both against NFC opponents. If the Falcons and Buccaneers win out, then the tiebreaker will come down to strength of schedule.
For the time being, the Falcons will have to contend with the deafening noise inside the Metrodome on Sunday, and will try to improve on their 3-4 road record.
Michael Turner leads the league’s number one rushing offense against the league’s number one rushing defense. Atlanta averages 148.7 yards per game on the ground while Minnesota only gives up an average of 71.2 per game. The team that wins the battle on the ground will likely be the team that wins the game, seeing as how the passing games are nearly equal.
San Diego Chargers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday 1:00pm CBS
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will look to rebound from two straight losses and end the playoff hopes of the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. The Bucs have lost two in a row to division rivals and have not looked good doing it. In the last few weeks Tampa Bay has gone from controlling their own destiny to sitting in the purgatory of possible playoff elimination.
The Chargers, on the other hand, are clinging to their playoff lives. The only way that San Diego can reach the post season is if the Broncos lose this Sunday to Buffalo and the Chargers win, which would set up a Broncos/Chargers AFC West title game in Week 17. The Chargers are 4-1 in the AFC West while the Broncos are 3-2.
The setting of Sunday’s game doesn’t bode well for San Diego, as they have come up short in three previous trips to the east coast this season. The Chargers have lost in Miami, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh by a combined total of only 17 points.
That effectively sums up the Chargers disappointing season, as their eight losses have been by a combined total of only 34 points with their greatest loss being the nine point loss to the Bills in Week Seven; the last Bills win before they dropped seven out of their next eight.
Philip Rivers and LaDanian Tomlinson aren’t ready to call it quits yet, though, and will be fired up to play another week of meaningful football. Rivers has quietly put up big numbers this year despite his teams’ struggles. Rivers is fifth in the league in passing yards with 3,515 and is tied for first in the league with Drew Brees with 28 touchdown passes. River has only 11 interceptions to Brees’ 16, however, and is the only full time starter in the NFL with a quarterback rating over 100.0 for the season.
The Buccaneers have not had that kind of production under center, and will likely not know who will be there on Sunday until game time. Jeff Garcia is still nursing a calf injury and Brian Greise, who filled in last week, is tending to a right elbow injury. Coach John Gruden has not yet named a starter for the game, and Luke McCown is also available though it is not believed he will start.
It will be interesting to see if the Buccaneers’ play as of late dooms them against the desperate Chargers. If the Bucs lose now, they may not even see the post season that was just in reach a couple of weeks ago.