NFL Picks Week 16: Predicting Winners of Marquee Divisional Matchups

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 23, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Defensive tackle Ray McDonald #91 of the San Francisco 49ers loses his helmet as safety Dashon Goldson #38 and linebacker NaVorro Bowman #53 tackle running back Marshawn Lynch #24 of the Seattle Seahawks for a loss of a yard on October 18, 2012 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  Goldson was called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The 49ers won 13-6.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Every divisional showdown on the NFL Week 16 schedule will have some kind of playoff ramification, and at this juncture in the 2012 season, it will be the second time each pair of teams have matched up. That makes them all the more difficult to predict.

Some of these clashes will garner much more attention than others, but one surprising playoff contender makes an otherwise non-noteworthy game extremely interesting. The potential game of the year is featured in this cluster, too.

Here is a breakdown of the marquee matchups between division rivals, with predictions as to who will emerge victorious on Sunday.

Buffalo Bills (5-9) at Miami Dolphins (6-8)

Yes, the Dolphins still have a chance at the playoffs. An AP report published by FOX Sports indicates that if Miami wins out, there is hope.

The Bengals have to lose out, the Steelers—who play Cincinnati this Sunday at home—need to lose their last game and the Jets need to lose one of their final two.

As surprising as this all may be, Miami has been quietly frisky all season long.

Check out some of these narrow losses: three points hosting the Jets, three points at Arizona, three points at Indianapolis, seven points versus the Patriots and a five-point loss to the Bills on Thursday Night Football in Week 11.

Other than a season-opening defeat in Houston and the mysterious 37-3 debacle against Tennessee, the Dolphins may be better than their 6-8 record indicates.

Miami may not have the best pass defense in the league, but the Bills have Ryan Fitzpatrick playing quarterback, who victimizes his maligned franchise often with erratic, high-risk throws that his less-than-elite arm strength can manage.

Although the offensive numbers aren't pretty, No. 8 overall pick Ryan Tannehill has definitely shown improvement since throwing two costly INTs in the previous loss to Buffalo. He had his best game as a pro in Week 15, going 22-of-28 for 220 yards, two touchdowns and zero picks.

Tannehill also ran for 52 yards on eight carries, which is a critical development. With so much athletic ability and shocking speed, it's mind-boggling that Tannehill—still raw in the pocket and without much experience at the position in general—doesn't take off and run more often.

Moreover, with the implementation of the pistol and read-option with many other teams' very mobile QBs, why haven't the Dolphins capitalized on that with their presumed quarterback of the future?

Perhaps they're protecting their heavy investment and solely focusing on getting him developed into a pure pocket passer. But Tannehill hasn't used his athleticism enough this year, and those 52 yards he gained may be more of a sign of things to come.

With the season on the line, look for Tannehill's instincts to take over and for the Dolphins to continue opening it up for their rookie signal-caller to make plays.

The stout Dolphins run defense has to stop C.J. Spiller—easier said than done—but should be able to notch a win in their home finale if they can at least limit Buffalo's explosive running back.

Final score: Dolphins 20, Bills 10

Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)

The roller coaster tenure of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has been encapsulated within the 2012 campaign. An early four-game losing streak once again had outsiders clamoring for Lewis to be fired, but the resilient, athletic and talented young Cincinnati team fought through the adversity.

Everything turned around in Week 11 with a blowout triumph at home over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and the Bengals have only lost one game since then—by one point to Dallas as the game clock struck zero.

A win and the Bengals are in, but it won't be easy. The Steelers are playing desperation football and must have this game after losing to the Cowboys themselves in overtime in Week 15.

The AFC North has generally had a pretty down year, as evidenced by Pittsburgh's record, the Ravens' recent collapse down the stretch and the typical dire situation in Cleveland.

Cincinnati lost 24-17 earlier in the year at home to the Steelers, and will now have to get it done at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh does have a banged up secondary, but still features safety staples Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu, who are always dangerous playmakers on the back end.

QB Andy Dalton will have to limit mistakes and the Bengals will have to continue consulting their Law Firm for great production on the ground. RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis has provided the team with more balance lately, which has been key to their resurgence.

This should be a classic matchup, but I suspect the ever-clutch Ben Roethlisberger has something big in store for the home fans. He will pull out a fourth-quarter victory to keep the Steelers' season alive.

Final score: Steelers 24, Bengals 23

Washington Redskins (8-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (4-10)

All indications are that Redskins QB Robert Griffin III will be ready to go for this NFC East matchup barring a setback, according to Pro Football Talk.

Despite how bad the Eagles' season has been as a whole, this is still a game within the division, and Philadelphia would love to play spoiler for its rivals' playoff hopes.

The Redskins lead a logjammed division through a tiebreaker, but are tied with Dallas and the Giants record-wise. That makes this win within the division all the more critical for Washington, and RGIII gives the team the best chance to get that done.

Although the Redskins are rightly favored in this game in Lincoln Financial Field, their secondary has to be a bit of a concern against the Eagles' own rookie quarterback, Nick Foles.

The third-round pick struggled in his first NFL start in Washington a little over a month ago, but has shown signs of promise since then. Foles has only thrown one interception since the two he threw that day.

Several other teams need to lose for the Redskins to clinch a playoff spot with a victory, but this is nonetheless a must-win game with a home contest with the Cowboys looming in Week 17.

Philadelphia won't be able stop the ground game of RB Alfred Morris and Griffin, which will shorten the game and force Foles to beat the Skins with his arm. Even Washington's porous defensive backfield can manage that scenario.

They may rack up some points in garbage time, but the Eagles will no longer be in this contest once the third quarter ends.

Final score: Redskins 38, Eagles 27

San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1) at Seattle Seahawks (9-5)

Any way you slice this game, it's going to be a special one. The 12th Man will be in full effect in CenturyLink Field as the Niners look to continue building on a strong road victory at New England in a rematch with their divisional foe.

The Seahawks are also one of the hottest teams in football, and will reportedly have shutdown CB Richard Sherman at least for this week while a decision on his four-game suspension appeal hangs in the balance (h/t USA TODAY).

That is a huge lift for Seattle, who would be in trouble without both Sherman and Brandon Browner starting at corner. 

This should be a higher-scoring encounter than the last time these two met in Candlestick Park thanks to the quarterback play. Russell Wilson has improved immensely since his season-worst outing against San Fran, and the Niners have turned to the dynamic Colin Kaepernick as their new QB, who has superior running ability and arm strength to stretch the field than Alex Smith.

Kaepernick hasn't faced a front seven like the Seahawks', though, and will be in an even tougher environment to win in than Foxboro was. Clearly he was up to snuff against the Patriots in prime time, throwing for four touchdowns and weathering a most amazing comeback by counterpart Tom Brady.

It's hard to imagine even someone like Kaepernick—who has been so impressive in his limited action—to pull out back-to-back road victories of such quality. Then again, he has a strong running game and outstanding defense to help him.

Unfortunately for him, so do the Seahawks, and they also have a huge home-field advantage.

The physical styles of Niners RB Frank Gore and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch should make this another extremely physical encounter that will top the first in terms of entertainment, stakes and lights on the scoreboard.

Look for the home team to make a statement by avenging their worst loss of the season and officially establishing themselves as legitimate contenders.

Final score: Seahawks 27, 49ers 21


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