The NFL playoff picture is coming into focus more and more each week. Which teams can expect to win in Week 16, and which will go home defeated?
We're breaking down every game in the NFL Week 16 schedule, telling you who will win and why. Don't wait until later in the week to get started on a slate of games kicking of Thursday, we have you covered.
When Houston Has the Ball:
Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates came back down to Earth last week, but he is still good enough to get the job done against a meager defense. Riding the talented backs on the roster, Arian Foster and Ben Tate, will give Houston enough offense to build a lead.
The Houston offensive line must play better this week than they did against the Carolina Panthers. Duane Brown and Eric Winston must control the speedy Indianapolis defensive ends. If they can't, the Colts have a chance in this one.
When Indianapolis Has the Ball:
Dan Orlovsky did a good job last week, but can lightning strike twice in the form of a good game from Orklovsky?
Houston's defense has been almost immovable this season. They looked weak against the run when facing the Panthers. Houston needs a rebound this week on the defensive side of the ball.
The front seven for Houston is good enough to control Donald Brown and the rest of the Colts' offense.
Prediction: Houston 37, Indianapolis 10
When Miami Has the Ball:
Reggie Bush has quietly put up a very good season behind an improved offensive line. He will be the focus of the New England defense and the Miami offense this week.
The Dolphins know they can and must move the ball on the ground against the Patriots. New England is weakest against the run, but this also controls the tempo of the game and will keep the ball out of the capable hands of Tom Brady and friends on offense.
New England may be without Andre Carter for the rest of the season with a torn quad. If Carter is out, New England will struggle to pressure the passer off the edge.
When New England Has the Ball:
The story is the same in New England this weekend, where the Patriots will once again exploit even the best defensive schemes and production. Miami has been built on defense to compete with the speed and timing of the Patriot defense, but coming up big when the game starts is much harder to do.
Miami will want to force rookie Nate Solder into mistakes at left tackle. Look for Miami to move Cameron Wake around to attempt to confuse the rookie. Brady is smart though, and anything Miami does will be countered quickly.
As good as the talent is on defense, Miami has no one to shutdown Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Prediction: New England 31, Miami 23
When Jacksonville Has the Ball:
The play of rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert should have fans in Jacksonville scared, but it's not time to give up on him just yet. Gabbert has two more games to show the potential that made him an early draft choice. Now is his time.
Tennessee has a stout, mean defense filled with young players and smart veterans. The Jaguars will have to find a way to counter Colin McCarthy (if healthy) and Jurrell Casey, as the two rookies are playing as well as anyone in Tennessee could have hoped for from the first-year players.
Jacksonville will undoubtedly feed Maurice Jones-Drew the ball this week, as they always do. But Tennessee has the man-power to shut him down.
When Tennessee Has the Ball:
It sounds like veteran Matt Hasselbeck will get the start at quarterback if he's healthy, keeping rookie Jake Locker on the bench. Whether it's Hasselbeck or Locker, the Titans' wide receivers should have a walk in the park against a depleted Jaguar secondary.
Tennessee hasn't seen the production they wanted or paid for from Chris Johnson. His season is unsalvageable, but he will still be playing to prove he's worth the $8 million the team owes him this summer. Expect Johnson to be highly motivated.
Prediction: Tennessee 21, Jacksonville 0
When Tampa Bay Has the Ball:
Quarterback Josh Freeman has gone from future All-Pro to a possible wasted pick during the 2011 season. Watching Freeman play it seems like he's hurt, or very confused by everything the defense is throwing at him.
Carolina's run defense came up big against the Houston Texans, which plays against what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would like to do. Tampa has a big, strong back in LeGarrette Blount who can pick up yards after contact. If he can get rolling against the interior line of the Panthers, Tampa has a chance.
When Carolina Has the Ball:
Is there anyone on the Tampa defense who can keep up with Cam Newton?
Cornerback Aqib Talib was placed on IR today, which leaves Tampa with just veteran Ronde Barber to matchup against stud Steve Smith at receiver. Barber will need safety help, but that pulls coverage off Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen at tight end. Tampa will have to make a tough decision on who to cover here.
Expect Smith to break free deep on at least one touchdown, giving Carolina the room they need to get a win.
Prediction: Carolina 27, Tampa Bay 21
When Cleveland Has the Ball:
It remains to be seen if it will be Colt McCoy or Seneca Wallace starting for the Browns this weekend. It really doesn't matter.
Cleveland got a good game from Peyton Hillis last week, but getting a great game from any running back against the stingy Pittsburgh defense is damn-near impossible. The Browns would be in much better shape if it were their passing game that was the strength of the team, but it's not, and they will struggle to move the ball against an impressive defense.
When Baltimore Has the Ball:
Ray Rice is having a brilliant season, and he'll once again be the featured player for the Ravens' offense. Expect heavy doses of Rice early, often and with great results.
The Baltimore offensive line has been hot and cold, especially at left tackle, but stopping a young Cleveland defensive line won't be a problem. The Baltimore gameplan will be to run it right down the throat of the Cleveland defense.
Prediction: Baltimore 37, Cleveland 21
When Arizona Has the Ball:
The Cardinals haven't announced if they will roll out John Skelton again at quarterback, or if Kevin Kolb is back healthy, but we will assume they will ride the hot-hand of Skelton in a must-win game.
Arizona is getting very good play from Skelton, largely because he is smart enough to throw Larry Fitzgerald open. Fitzgerald will be a big part of the gameplan this week, as Cincinnati is down to backups and veterans at cornerback.
Cincinnati can get after the quarterback, but they have been weak against the pass since losing Leon Hall.
When Cincinnati Has the Ball:
Andy Dalton will miss A.J. Green if his side-kick cannot go this week with a separated shoulder. Green says he's playing, but the doctors may think otherwise.
Without Green, Dalton will have to lean heavily on Cedric Benson in the run game and look to Jermaine Gresham to move the ball down field. Gresham is talented, but he's a poor match-up against the safeties of Arizona.
Benson will have room to run, and if Green is healthy he'll be an epic match-up against rookie Patrick Peterson. The two will revisit the glory days of their SEC escapades in a head-to-head the entire NFL will be watching.
Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Arizona 24
When Minnesota Has the Ball:
Adrian Peterson was surprisingly absent from the game plan last week for the Vikings. This week, Peterson should be the entire game plan.
Christian Ponder has regressed over the last month, but he's still good enough to make things happen on offense against average defenses. Unfortunately for Ponder, Washington has an above-average defense. Ponder will struggle all day behind his patch-work offensive line.
Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo will haunt the dreams of Ponder for weeks after this game. The speed and power of the two edge rushers will attack Charlie Johnson and the rest of the line. Expect a four to five-sack day from Washington's defense.
When Washington Has the Ball:
Roy Helu, Jr. is the new man in Mike Shanahan's offense. While he's not ready to be the next Terrell Davis, Helu has the potential to be a feature back over the long-haul in Washington. He is consistently turning out 100 yard performances and is a threat as a receiver too.
Rex Grossman has as much of my trust as a rabid dog. He's hot and cold from week to week and is someone the Redskins win in spite of. Grossman cannot be viewed as more than a game manager, which is all he should have to do this week against a meager Viking defense.
Prediction: Washington 23, Minnesota 10
When Denver Has the Ball:
Tim Tebow couldn't bring the Denver Broncos back against the New England Patriots, but he was able to move the ball successfully on the ground and through the air. Tebow should have room to operate this week against a Buffalo front seven that's full of holes.
Keep an eye on center J.D. Walton going against Marcell Dareus. Dareus is a dynamic player in the middle of the defense and could cause problems for Walton and Tebow all day. When Tebow is pressured from the middle of the line, he tends to fall apart.
Buffalo's cornerbacks will be tested this week, but it will be the play of their linebackers who determine if Tebow wins again, or the Broncos lose two straight.
When Buffalo Has the Ball:
The Bills sorely miss running back Fred Jackson from their offense. Without him the team has struggled to move the ball, and the pressure on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been paramount.
Denver can bring the heat unlike any team in the league with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil coming off the edge. With Buffalo's less than talented tackles, Miller and Dumervill will have a field day against the Bills' line.
Prediction: Denver 27, Buffalo 13
When St. Louis Has the Ball:
A merciful end to the 2011 season is coming soon for St. Louis. And it couldn't come sooner for the Rams. Unfortunately, they have to face the Pittsburgh Steelers first.
If you think things have been bad in Pittsburgh this year, wait until next weekend. The Steelers are dominant at every position and in every facet of the game. The Rams will struggle to move the ball all day. If they gain more than 200 yards in total offense, I will be surprised.
The Steelers can play a base, vanilla defense and keep their game plan for the playoffs a mystery this week.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball:
Pittsburgh has locked up a playoff spot, which could let the team sit Ben Roethlisberger and let his ankle get healthier before the stretch run. If there's nothing to play for, this strategy makes the most sense.
With Big Ben in the game, Pittsburgh will be able to move the ball at will. A heavy day from Rashard Mendenhall and the run team should pave the way to an easy victory.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 42, St. Louis 12
When Oakland Has the Ball:
The loss of running back Darren McFadden for the season was disappointing, but McFadden had barely contributed in the second half of the season. The offense belongs to Carson Palmer and Michael Bush now.
Palmer has to limit his mistakes, as this is a must-win game for the team if they want to see their playoff hopes realized. That means less gambling from Palmer and more checkdowns. Kansas City's cornerbacks are the strength of the defense, but they also have a load of talent at outside linebacker that the Raiders will have to scheme around.
Jared Veldheer has been good at left tackle, but he'll meet his match with Tamba Hali lining up across the way. Hali had three sacks last week and is amped up for a big finish to the season.
When Kansas City Has the Ball:
Kyle Orton was a breath of fresh air in the Chiefs' shocking win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 15. Can he get it done against a bitter rival though?
Orton did a good job making reads and didn't make the mistakes that had plagued Tyler Palko. He also got production from Thomas Jones and benefited from mistakes by the Packers. One thing the Chiefs can count on is penalties from Oakland. No team sees more yellow flags, a benefit that could be the difference in a close game.
Kansas City's offensive line has been improving, but they'll need to step up agains this week to shutdown the strong pass rush the Raiders can bring.
Prediction: Kansas City 23, Oakland 17
When the Giants Have the Ball:
Eli Manning and the New York offense struggled last week in a surprising loss to the Washington Redskins. They'll be on notice this week, as the G-Men need wins if they want to see the playoffs.
If the Giants want my expert opinion this week, they should scheme around running back Ahmad Bradshaw. If they can get the run game going they will slow down the pass rush, and limit what Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie are able to do. The Giants need to take their shots deep, but they also want to control the game with the run.
Manning will want to avoid Revis and Cromartie as much as possible, which could mean more checkdowns and less shots on the outside. Expect Manning to attack the seam with Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham.
When the Jets Have the Ball:
Shonn Greene has to be a factor this week. If we've learned anything over the last 15 weeks it is that Mark Sanchez is not good enough to carry this team. With help from Greene, the Jets have a shot.
Rex Ryan lives for situations like this, and he'll have his team ready to play and fired up for a must-win game. Expect an aggressive approach from the Jets on both sides of the ball. Taking deep shots against the Giants can be risky, but it's something the Jets have to do to keep their pass rush off Sanchez.
Keep an eye on Jason Pierre-Paul. If he's able to get into the backfield consistently, he has the talent to be a major difference maker.
Prediction: Giants 31, Jets 27
When San Diego Has the Ball:
Ryan Mathews is proving he's among the best young backs in the NFL...when he holds on to the football.
Mathews is a feature back in every sense of the word, but his inability to hang on to the ball has the Chargers nervous about trusting the young back with the ball in key moments. And that's OK when you get the good Philip Rivers.
San Diego has been seeing the good Rivers lately, but against a defense like Detroit's that can pressure the pocket and make plays on the quarterback, we may see the bad Rivers from earlier this season. Getting into Rivers' head is the key. Detroit will need to attack the San Diego backfield to win this game.
When Detroit Has the Ball:
The Lions remembered this week that Calvin Johnson is almost impossible to stop with one, two and even three defenders committed to his side of the field. When Matthew Stafford wants to attack the defense and has time to get the ball to Johnson, big things happen.
The Lions' offensive line has to play better this week than the Baltimore Ravens did in Week 15. Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus will have their hands full against Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes.
San Diego has the speed and talent to attack the edge, but stopping the run way be a chore if the Lions commit to running out of spread formations.
Prediction: Detroit 31, San Diego 28
When Philadelphia Has the Ball:
A healthy Michael Vick makes all the difference for the Philadelphia Eagles. With healed ribs, Vick was able to run around and make the throws that made him a $100 million man before the season. As much as the Eagles are paying Vick, they need him to put it all on the line this week in a must-win game.
The Eagles will look to work the right side of the field, running and throwing away from DeMarcus Ware. Undoubtedly the best outside linebacker in the game, Ware has an amazing impact on the field and the game plan each week. The Eagles have an elite left tackle in Jason Peters, but even so they will work away from Ware.
LeSean McCoy should have his chances this week against Dallas' average safeties and coverage linebackers.
When Dallas Has the Ball:
It's not exciting for most fans, but the key to Dallas winning this game will rest in the hands of offensive tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. If they can slow down Trent Cole and Jason Babin, Dallas will win. If the Philadelphia defensive linemen are able to run free, watch out.
Dallas will want a balanced attack, getting good production from Sammy Morris and Felix Jones at running back instead of relying on the passing game against a Philadelphia secondary that is as good as any in the league.
Watch to see who the Eagles place Nnamdi Asomugha on in coverage. If he's on Miles Austin, I like the matchup of Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson against the rest of the Eagles' coverage.
Prediction: Philadelphia 31, Dallas 30
When San Francisco Has the Ball:
If you expected this one to be easy for the 49ers, think again. Seattle's defense is among the best kept secrets in the NFL. They also play in one of the most volatile environments for opposing offenses. Seattle will be much more than a warm-up for San Francisco.
Frank Gore has to be the key, as always, but the dink-and-dunk offense from Alex Smith and the passing game actually benefits the 49ers. San Francisco will want to stay away from safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, and if Smith is patient to work the edges and take what's there, he can avoid the big mistake against a great safety tandem.
When Seattle Has the Ball:
This game will be closely contested thanks to two dominant defenses. It will be a true test for the San Francisco defense to try and stop Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle run game. No player in the NFL runs with more power and more violence than Lynch.
Tarvaris Jackson can be a liability, especially when pressured off the edge. The 49ers will get pressure on the Seattle offensive line, which is beat up at tackle and ready to be exploited by the speed of the 49ers' edge rushers.
San Francisco lives and dies with the play of their front seven. The game plan will be to key on Lynch and hit Jackson as early and often as possible.
Prediction: San Francisco 21, Seattle 17
When Chicago Has the Ball:
Those asking for Caleb Hanie to replace Jay Cutler before the season began should feel incredibly stupid right now.
Rant over, the Bears are in trouble. There were rumors that Cutler could be ready to play this week, but the team has but a remote chance at the playoffs after seeing their record fall to 7-7. Why risk Cutler's health? By Sunday Chicago will know if they have a shot at the playoffs or not. That could very well determine if Cutler plays or not.
Green Bay will want to attack the backfield, no matter who is in at quarterback. Unleashing Clay Matthews and even bringing heat from the secondary will be enough to throw off the Bears' quarterback situation.
When Green Bay Has the Ball:
How will the Green Bay offense respond after scoring just 14 points against the Kansas City Chiefs? I expect the reply to be explosive.
Minus two starters at offensive tackle, the Packers were exploited on the edge last week. They'll do more to help Marshall Newhouse at left tackle this week and should have Bryan Bulaga back by Sunday night. The Packers will need to chip Julius Peppers as much as possible with tight ends and fullbacks, as they won't want to let Peppers free against Newhouse one-on-one.
The Packers will do what they always do-air it out and play smart football. Chicago's secondary is far less talented than Kansas City's and won't be able to frustrate Rodgers.
Prediction: Green Bay 38, Chicago 13
When Atlanta Has the Ball:
Matt Ryan has an explosive group of players on his offense, all ready to attack the Saints' defense. The match-up of Julio Jones and Roddy White against the New Orleans defense will be worth the wait to Monday night.
Ryan has to stay clean and on his feet this week. When protected, Ryan is an elite quarterback. Will Svitek has played well at left tackle in replacing Sam Baker, which bodes well for Ryan. The Saints' aren't known for their great players on defense, but the scheme and execution are solid.
The Saints have to know the Falcons can and will move the ball. The game plan should focus on creating turnovers and hoping Brees can outscore Ryan.
When New Orleans Has the Ball:
This should be the week that Drew Brees passes Dan Marino as the all-time single-season passing leader. Impressive stuff, but meaningless if the Saints can't win this game to keep their chances for the No. 2 seed in the NFC alive. Brees would tell you records mean little in the here and now. It's all about winning.
Brees gets a ton of credit, as he should, but it's the run game of the Saints that impresses me most. Even with guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans having down seasons, the Saints are able to get into a rhythm running the ball and can steamroll a defense.
Atlanta will look to counter the run game with their speed on defense and their girth up front. Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux need monster games to hold off the interior of the Saints' line. If they can hold their ground, Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon have the speed and vision to make plays and shut down the Saints' offense.
One player who makes a world of difference is Brent Grimes. Without Grimes, the Falcons' defense is very different. They need him back this week.
Prediction: Atlanta 31, New Orleans 30