Our preview of the NFL offseason continues today with the teams of the AFC North, a division where all four teams are disappointed at how they did in 2013, and are hoping to rebound quickly next year. Let’s take a look at the needs that the four teams of the AFC North will hope to address this offseason.
Baltimore Ravens – The biggest surprise in Baltimore during the 2013 season was how poorly they ran the ball, and fixing that is going to require changes on the offensive line. The Ravens will definitely look to upgrade at center, while both starting tackles are free agents, so that will have to be addressed, and could lead to Baltimore drafting an offensive tackle within the first few rounds. The Baltimore offense could also use another receiver, preferably a big target with reliable hands, as well as a tight end if the team doesn’t re-sign Dennis Pitta. On defense, the Ravens have some young players that they hope will improve, while their biggest priority will be to either re-sign Arthur Jones or find someone to replace him on the defensive line if he ends up signing with another team.
Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals are in an interesting position, as their two biggest losses this offseason were their two coordinators, which could hurt them. Cincinnati’s roster remains one of the strongest in the league, at least outside of the quarterback position, but don’t expect a change to be made there. The Bengals will look for the most help at cornerback, where they could try to sign a big-time free agent entering the prime of his career. Meanwhile, they should look to add depth to their defensive line so that they can continue to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks next year. Offensively, the Bengals should have all the skill players they need, but giving the offensive line a boost is something to consider.
Cleveland Browns – Quarterback is obviously at the top of Cleveland’s to-do list this offseason, and the Browns will likely address that with their first round pick. Of course, the rest of the offense needs help as well. The Browns need to find a running back and at least one wide receiver, maybe two, so that their new quarterback has some support. On top of that, center Alex Mack has to be re-signed because there are a slew of teams that will want to sign him if the Browns let him go. Once the offense is improved, new head coach Mike Pettine can turn his attention to the defense, which is his specialty. Cleveland will need to bring in a lot of help at linebacker, as Pettine wants to pressure the quarterback as much as possible, which is something the Browns didn’t do well enough last year. If they have a chance, the Browns could also improve their secondary, but that’s not as big of a priority as the offense or the linebacker position.
Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers came painfully close to the postseason this year, but they’re going to have to make some changes this offseason if they want to be in a similar position next season. Pittsburgh has been known for its defense for many years, but now is the time to replenish that defense with youth and talent. The secondary is their biggest concern, as they’ll need to acquire a number one cornerback, while also addressing the depth in their secondary, especially at the safety position. Pittsburgh could also use a fresh face along the defensive line and possibly some help at linebacker. The Steelers may also need to look into improving the offensive line, especially with an aging Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, while perhaps giving Roethlisberger another receiver or two to throw to, specifically someone with high-end speed, as the Steelers lacked a deep threat in 2013 after Mike Wallace left last offseason.
The Chargers and the Bengals are probably the least intriguing matchup of the weekend, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an entertaining game between two teams that believe they can reach the Super Bowl. Let’s take a closer look.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
The Chargers had quite the journey to get into the playoffs, winning five of their final six games, including two against Kansas City and one against Denver just to stay mathematically alive heading into week 17. With Miami and Baltimore losing games early in the day last Sunday, San Diego controlled its own destiny in their game against the Chiefs, but struggled to defeat a watered down Kansas City roster, needing a 4th quarter comeback and some good fortune to beat the Chiefs in overtime and clinch the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Bengals, meanwhile, have been as steady and consistent as any team in the NFL this season, and while they didn’t clinch the AFC North until week 16, Cincinnati won their division with a three-game cushion after putting up a record of 11-5 during the regular season.
SAN DIEGO OFFENSE VS. CINCINNATI DEFENSE
Philip Rivers has had a resurgent season, and he and the San Diego offense are rolling heading into the postseason, as the Chargers won five of their final six games. Of course, their only loss over that span was to the Bengals in week 13, when the Chargers only scored 10 points, in part because of three turnovers. Rivers has received plenty of help this season from rookie receiver Keenan Allen, reliable tight end Antonio Gates, short-yardage receiver Danny Woodhead, and running back Ryan Matthews; as a result the Chargers have a top-5 passing attack. However, the Cincinnati defense is top-5 against both the run and the pass, which made it tough for San Diego to put points on the board back in week 13. In that game, Allen was the only dangerous skill player for San Diego, and in the rematch this weekend they’re going to need a few more players to step up and make plays for them, especially since they’ll be on the road. It’ll also be critical that Rivers doesn’t turn the ball over, which is a problem he’s had in the past but has been able to keep in check this season. If Rivers can avoid turnovers and spread the ball around, it’ll put the Chargers in a position to score points against a tough Cincinnati defense.
CINCINNATI OFFENSE VS. SAN DIEGO DEFENSE
The Bengals have one of the top wide receivers in football in A.J. Green, as well as a deep contingent of skill players, who have helped Andy Dalton have a great season in 2013. However, Cincinnati has two issues on offense. First is the health of tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, as the presence of those players opens up the offense and helps give the Bengals a dynamic passing attack. Without them on the field, opposing defenses can pay more attention to Green on the outside, which makes it harder for Dalton to get the ball to their best playmaker. The other issue Cincinnati has is that Dalton can be turnover prone, throwing 20 interceptions this season. Dalton has looked brilliant at times this season, but he’s also looked terrible at times, and that inconsistency from week to week can be both frustrating and costly. If Dalton doesn’t play well, the Bengals have trouble winning, and considering the fact that he’s coming off a four-interception performance in the regular season finale, there’s no telling how Dalton will fair this week. However, the San Diego pass defense is vulnerable, as even Chase Daniel had success throwing against them last week, so Dalton should be in a position to have success, although he was mediocre against the chargers in week 13, and if he has a similar performance the Bengals will be in for a fight, as Dalton’s performance will dictate the direction of the game.
The first meeting between these teams was low scoring, but expect this game to open up a little more, as San Diego struggles defending the pass, while Rivers should rise to the occasion and play well to help make up for a bad defense. However, the Bengals have a better defense and a better overall roster, so unless Dalton has a disastrous game, they’ll be in good shape. Cincinnati is also perfect at home this season, and it’s hard to imagine that ending now. Cincinnati 28, San Diego 23.
NFL Week 17 Preview: Panthers-Falcons, Ravens-Bengals, Jets-Dolphins, Browns-Steelers, Eagles-Cowboys and More
Well, it all comes down to this. With one week left in the NFL season, there have already been eight teams that have clinched a playoff spot, but that means there are still four spots available, while all four divisions in the NFC are still undecided, as well as the home-field advantage in both conferences. Let’s take a closer look at the games on the week 17 schedule that have postseason post-season implications:
Carolina at Atlanta – With a win the Panthers can clinch the NFC South title, secure a first-round bye, and possibly get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if Seattle loses. However, Atlanta has not been a pushover late in the season, especially at home, so despite the disparity in their records, it won’t be an automatic win for Carolina. The Falcons are the worst rushing team in the league, but if they can get Steven Jackson going, they’ll have a chance to keep the game close and put some pressure on Carolina, who is one of the best teams in the NFC, but they’re also a team that hasn’t had to handle success before this season, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Panthers play with a lot on the line.
Baltimore at Cincinnati – The Bengals have a chance to earn a first round bye with a win and a New England loss, which would give their postseason hopes a huge boost. They’d also like to avenge an earlier loss to the Ravens, and at home they should be expected to win. As for the Ravens, there are a lot of scenarios that will get them into the postseason, but most require them winning, and there’s no way they’ll win if they play like they did last week. The Baltimore offense needs to get its act together and not put the defense in a bad situation like they did last week, as it’ll be tough to keep the Cincinnati offense out of the end zone for four quarters.
Jacksonville at Indianapolis – A lot needs to happen for the Colts to get a first round bye, but after some unsavory play during the latter part of the season, it’d be nice to enter the playoffs on a three-game winning streak, so they need to secure a win even if there’s nothing to gain in the standings. The Jaguars have shown that they can stay competitive with good teams, so the Colts need to take them seriously or else they could struggle to come away with the win. Andrew Luck and the offense should be fine, but the key for Indy is their defense, which has only given up 10 points over the past two weeks, and needs to keep that going with the postseason approaching.
New York Jets at Miami – The Dolphins will need some help to get the playoffs, but they’ll also have to win, which isn’t a certainly after the way they played last week against the Bills. Miami dominated the Jets less than a month ago, but Gang Green has played better since that game and started to find their stride offensively, which could be a concern for a Miami defense that doesn’t exactly shut down opponents on a regular basis. This game could come down to Ryan Tannehill’s health and his effectiveness after a disastrous game last week. Look for Rex Ryan’s team to come out loose and excited to play spoiler, and if the Dolphins come out tight, they could be in trouble.
Cleveland at Pittsburgh – The Steelers will need a lot of help this week, but getting a win shouldn’t be much of an issue against a Cleveland team that has lost six in a row. Pittsburgh has looked the part of a playoff team down the stretch, and even if the Browns come to play and compete, the Steelers should be able to find a way to win at home.
Green Bay at Chicago – It’s as simply as it gets in the NFC North, the winner of this game goes to the playoffs and the loser stays home. The Packers have somehow held on long enough to get Aaron Rodgers back on the field. Rodgers may be a bit rusty, but he’ll be facing a Chicago defense that was humiliated last week against Philadelphia with a chance to clinch the division. Of course, the Chicago offense is capable of putting points on the board as well, so this game could come down to how sharp Rodgers is in his return and which offense can be more effective.
Denver at Oakland – Even with the loss of Von Miller and a slew of other injuries, the Broncos should be able to handle the Raiders and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It’s a rivalry game, so Oakland will be ready to play and hoping to play spoiler against Denver, but Peyton Manning won’t let his team lose focus this late in the season, especially since a loss could mean a return trip to New England, which is the last thing the Broncos want.
Buffalo at New England – The Bills almost pulled out the win when these teams met back in week 1, so perhaps they’re ready to surprise the Patriots on the road, especially after an impressive shutout of the Dolphins last week. Buffalo doesn’t have an offense that can keep up if the Patriots get rolling, but they have a defensive line that can put a lot of pressure on Tom Brady and slow down the New England offense, would could keep the game low scoring and give them a chance to win.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans – A win and the Saints are in the postseason; it’s as simple as that. However, New Orleans has lost three of their last four games, and the Bucs are just good enough to make things difficult for them, especially after the Saints barely survived a 16-14 game with Tampa in week 2. The Tampa offense has sputtered in recent weeks, which will make it tough to win on the road, but if they can put pressure on Drew Brees and slow down the New Orleans offense, they’ll give themselves a fighting chance.
San Francisco at Arizona – The defending NFC champs can rest easy knowing they’re in the playoffs, but there’ll be nothing easy about a trip to Arizona, especially with the Cardinals riding high from their win in Seattle last week and knowing that they need to win to give themselves a chance to reach the postseason. The Cardinals have the top rushing defense in the NFL, so if they can slow down the San Francisco running game it’ll put more pressure on Colin Kaepernick to move the ball with his arm, which isn’t necessarily what the 49ers want. Of course, Arizona will also have to move the ball and score points, while avoiding four turnovers like they had last week.
Kansas City at San Diego – The Chargers need a win and some help to get into the playoffs, but they should feel good after winning four of their last five games, including a road win over the Chiefs. Meanwhile, Kansas City knows they’ll be playing a road playoff game next week, and they also know that they need to get their act together, as the only teams they’ve beaten in the last six weeks and Washington and Oakland. The Chiefs are no longer dominant on defense, which will make it difficult to stop Phillip Rivers and win this game. This should be a good practice game for next week, but if the Chiefs can’t rediscover their incredible pass rush from earlier in the season, they’ll not only have trouble beating San Diego, but they’ll also enter the playoffs on a downward spiral and void of confidence.
St. Louis at Seattle – The Seahawks need to shake off a home loss from last week and get ready for a St. Louis team that has proven they can go toe to toe with some top teams. Seattle is in fine shape on defense, but their offense has had some trouble in previous weeks, which could cause problems against a great Rams pass rush. St. Louis doesn’t have anything to play for except trying to finish the season at .500, but is the Seahawks lose it could cost them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and possibly the division, which could take them from being the NFC favorite to a team that needs three road wins to get to the Super Bowl, so it’s imperative that Seattle finds a way to win this game.
Philadelphia at Dallas – The winner goes to the playoffs while the loser goes home, just the way it should be in the NFL regular season finale. All the focus has been on the health of Tony Romo, but ultimately this game will be decided by whether or not the Dallas defense can slow down the Philadelphia offense, which has looked close to unstoppable in recent weeks. The Cowboys have been deplorable on defense the second half of the season, and it won’t matter who’s playing quarterback or what their offense does if they can’t find a way to get stops, or at least force turnovers, which has been tough for any defense to do against Nick Foles this season. If Dallas expects to make the playoffs, their defense will have to make some kind of positive contribution, or else the Eagles and their high-powered offense will soar into the postseason.
Yesterday, we took a look at the leading candidates for defensive rookie of the year, and now it’s time to take a closer look at the first-year standouts on the offensive side of the ball. There are a lot of great candidates for this award, but we’ve narrowed it down to the top five.
Keenan Allen, San Diego – In a tight and crowded rookie of the year race, Allen may be one of the few players that is starting to stand out. The Chargers needed somebody to step up at wide receiver and Allen responded, as he has become San Diego’s leading receiver with nearly 1,000 yards on the season and eight touchdowns. Few rookie receivers are able to make a big impact, but Allen has made a seamless transition from college to the NFL, and that has put him in good position to be offensive rookie of the year.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati – Bernard is only playing part time, but he has taken that part time play and carried it a long way. The Bengals drafted him to be a change-of-pace back, but he’s nearly in equal to BenJarvus Green-Ellis in yards, while averaging 4.3 yards per carry. What has separated Bernard from a lot of the other rookie running backs has been his pass catching ability, as he’s the team’s third leading receiver with 51 catches for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. He may not have enough carries or played a big enough role on his team to win the award, but he’s been a great addition to an offense with a lot of playmakers and has shown great promise during his rookie season.
DeAndre Hopkins, Houston – His team’s terrible record will probably prevent him from garnering serious consideration for the award, as will some of his inconsistencies, but Hopkins has made an instant impact for the Texans as a nice complement to veteran Andre Johnson. Hopkins has nearly eclipsed the 800-yard mark this season and is averaging 16 yards per reception. His chances to win are hurt by the fact that he only has two touchdowns on the season, but compared to other rookie wide receivers, Hopkins has had a good season and made a difference, even on a bad team.
Eddie Lacy, Green Bay – Lacy is most likely Allen’s biggest competition for offensive rookie of the year. He has gone over the 1,100-yard mark and found the end zone 10 times, while averaging nearly 80 yards per game. Most importantly, he has helped carry a team that has been without its starting quarterback for half the season. Lacy has had no trouble adjusting physically to life in the NFL, even against teams stacking the box against him. Perhaps most importantly, he’s only fumbled the ball once, so he’s taken care of the football and his team has been able to rely on him, which should carry him a long way in the rookie of the year race.
Zac Stacy, St. Louis – Stacy was my pick before the season as a rookie running back that could come out of nowhere and make an impact, and now he’s a dark horse to win rookie of the year. He didn’t start playing regularly until October, and yet Stacy still has 958 yards rushing on the season, making him second only to Lacy among rookies, and giving him a chance to eclipse 1,000 yards in what would essentially be three-quarters of a season. If his stats could be extrapolated to a full season and his team was better, Stacy would certainly be among the top two or three candidates for the award and have a real chance to be rookie of the year.
There’s just one week left in the NFL regular season, and hopefully by now we have everything figured out. However, that’s not so easy to do in the AFC. Let’s take a look at the AFC power rankings as we close out the season.
1. Denver – There’s no doubt about it, the Broncos are the best team in the AFC. By no means are they perfect; they have some flaws and some injury concerns heading into the postseason, but they have one of the best offenses in NFL history and have been a dominant team for much of the season. Regardless of what the weather is like, Peyton Manning and company will be tough to beat in the postseason.
2. Cincinnati – The Bengals can be frustrating to watch at times, and among all the division winners in the AFC they have the least reliable quarterback, but it’s important to remember that from top to bottom they have arguably the most talented and balanced roster in football. Cincinnati can win in a number of different ways and they’re going to have a chance to win every game they play, which is why they’re a distant second to the Broncos in the AFC.
3. New England – Winning in Baltimore the way they did was a great reminder of what exactly the Patriots are capable of doing, as they completely shut down the hottest team in the NFL on the road. Of course, with the depleted supporting cast that Tom Brady has, New England won’t be the favorites in the AFC heading into the playoffs, but they’ll definitely be contenders.
4. Indianapolis – The Colts finally won back-to-back games, and doing so in convincing fashion in Arrowhead Stadium this late in the season was quite impressive. The defense has gotten the job done the past two weeks, albeit against weak offensive teams, and Indy is now going to enter the postseason with some momentum and some confidence, and when those two intangibles are combined with Andrew Luck at quarterback, the Colts start to look like a team that might be dangerous in the postseason after all.
5. Pittsburgh – All of a sudden the Steelers look like the hottest team in the NFL the past two weeks, dominating the Bengals and pulling out a close win in wintry conditions at Lambeau Field. They’ll need a lot of help next week to get into the playoffs, but rest assured that the Pittsburgh team we’ve seen the last seven weeks is a playoff worthy team and will be a tough matchup if they can find a way into the postseason.
6. Kansas City – The Chiefs don’t look like a team that’s won 11 games, as they’ve lost four of their last six games. Granted, two of those losses came against the Broncos, but Kansas City has lost three in a row at home, which won’t matter for them in the postseason, but it indicates a team that the Chiefs are a team that reached its peak a long time ago, as their offense is still limited and their defense looks fairly average. It’s been a great rebound season under Andy Reid, but their trip to the postseason could be brief.
7. San Diego – Regardless of what happens in week 17 and whether or not the Chargers sneak into the postseason, they won’t have a losing record in a tough division, and they’re going to have at least four wins over playoff teams, including a road win in Denver, which is one of the most impressive results by any team all season. San Diego does have a lot of moments they wish they could take back, but they’re a quality team that has finished the season strong, and if they some how find their way into the playoffs, no one can say they don’t deserve to be there.
8. Baltimore – The defending champs had us believing that they were going to pull off something special at the end of the season, but playing that poorly at home in the most important game of the season is unacceptable. The Baltimore defense deserves a lot of credit, but the Ravens have been mediocre on offense all season and it’s finally caught up to them, and it’s the reason they fall all the way to eight in the power rankings, as the season comes to its conclusion.
9. Miami – With so much on the line, there’s no excuse for the Dolphins playing as poorly as they did in Buffalo on Sunday. Miami has been too streaky this season, winning three in a row on two separate occasions, but also losing four in a row at one point, and that’s not the M.O. of a playoff team. The Dolphins were in a lot of games, but to get shutout by a sub-.500 team with so much to play for is not what quality teams do, even if there’s still a decent chance they can find their way into the postseason.
10. Buffalo – The Bills crack the top 10, and for good reason. Consider this, they have wins over Carolina, Baltimore, and Miami twice, with close losses against New England, Cincinnati and Kansas City. They’ve done all that with either a rookie or a practice-squad player at quarterback, so despite the continued disappointment in Buffalo, that’s not a bad season.
11. New York Jets – As bad as the Jets have been for large chunks of the season, they’ve won two of their last three with a chance to finish .500 on the season, and they have wins over New England and New Orleans to hang their hat on. It might not be enough to save Rex Ryan’s job, but it’s not bad for a team that had the lowest of expectations coming into the season.
12. Tennessee – Despite a hot start and a little bit of hope this year, the Titans are going to finish the season without a win over a playoff team. On top of that, they’re going to finish below .500 in arguably the weakest division in football, which is not a season they should be proud of.
13. Jacksonville – The Jaguars were as bad as can during the first half of the season, but they’ve shown real signs of improvement and progress over the second half of the season. They have a long way to go, but they do have three wins inside their division, which is a nice start under new head coach Gus Bradley.
14. Cleveland – There was a glimmer of hope at the midway point in the season, but the Browns have been an absolute mess late in the year and they remain at the bottom of the AFC North, where they’ve been for quite some time.
15. Oakland – It’s going to be six straight losses for the Raiders at the end of the season, and eight losses in their last nine games. There are no answers at quarterback and the defense hasn’t played particularly well either. Oakland is bottom-5 team in the NFL, there’s no doubt about it.
16. Houston – With 13 straight losses, the Texans may very well be the worst team in the NFL. Head coach Gary Kubiak didn’t survive the season, and now this organization needs a new coach and a new quarterback, and has a long climb ahead of them to get back to where they were a couple of years ago.
It was not a good week for the top teams in the AFC, as three division leaders all suffered a loss. Let’s see if it makes a difference in this week’s power rankings:
1. Denver – Let’s not overreact too much to Denver’s loss last Thursday. If it were easy to control the clock and keep the ball away from Peyton Manning, more teams than the Chargers would have done so. The Broncos are still in position to have home field advantage in the playoffs, and they should still be seen as the favorites in the AFC.
2. Kansas City – Giving up 31 points to the Raiders is a major red flag. The Chiefs won’t be scoring 56 points against any team they’ll meet in the postseason, so they need to find a way to get their defense back on track. This week’s game against the Colts will be an interesting test for Kansas City, as it’ll be their first game against a playoff-caliber team other than Denver since September.
3. Baltimore – Despite being kept out of the end zone, the Ravens pulled out a huge road win on Monday night. The Baltimore defense is looking like the Baltimore defenses we’ve seen in years past, and it’s delivered the Ravens four straight wins, control of their own destiny in the wildcard race, and a shot at winning the AFC North. The Ravens will be challenged the final two weeks, but they’re playing good football and finding a way to win close games, which makes them a dangerous team right now.
4. Miami – Just about every game they play is close, but after a rough patch earlier in the season and plenty of drama off the field, the Dolphins are coming on strong late in the year. The eye test says that they’re a playoff team, and they could be a tough team to face if they’re able to get there.
5. Cincinnati – The Bengals take a big hit in the power rankings after their poor effort Sunday night. Special teams was their biggest problem in their loss to the Steelers, and as solid as they’ve been on offense and defense this season, they need to be good in all three phases when they get to the postseason. The Bengals also hold a 3-5 record on the road, and those three wins are by a combined 13 points, so they haven’t been great away from home, which would be another problem if they want to go deep in the playoffs.
6. San Diego – The Chargers get a big boost in the power rankings for figuring out and executing the formula for beating the Broncos, doing so in Denver nonetheless. They’ll need a lot of luck to reach the postseason, but they’ve played good football for the past month, and that deserves some recognition.
7. Pittsburgh – If only the Steelers hadn’t gotten off to that 0-4 start, because they look like a playoff-caliber team after manhandling the Bengals on Sunday night. If Pittsburgh were to make the playoffs, they’d be a team that nobody wants to play, which means something, even if their postseason hopes are slim.
8. New England – This is just not the same team without Rob Gronkowski, as they don’t have the red zone target they need in clutch situations, and that was evident at the end of the game on Sunday against the Dolphins. The Patriots barely got past Houston and Cleveland, and without Gronkowski beating playoff-caliber teams is going to be a real struggle, which is why they don’t look like a big threat in the AFC.
9. Indianapolis – Even after a comfortable win over the Texans, the Colts still look very pedestrian. They haven’t beaten anybody outside of Houston and Tennessee in two months and they’re one of the least feared teams in the AFC right now. The Colts will travel to Kansas City this week with a chance to make a statement and pick up some momentum heading into the postseason, which is something they need because they won’t survive in the playoffs unless they start playing better.
10. Tennessee – The Titans nearly pulled out a win against a quality team on Sunday, but they found a way to lose the game in overtime. Of course, Tennessee still has a chance to finish the season strong and avoid a double-digit loss total.
NFL Week 15 Preview: Redskins-Falcons, Bears-Browns, Patriots-Dolphins, Packers-Cowboys, Bengals-Steelers
We’re getting down to the nitty gritty with just three weeks left to play, and the playoff picture in both conferences is still far from decided. Things are bound to start taking shape after this weekend’s games, so let’s take a closer look at the week 15 schedule:
Washington at Atlanta – This game is meaningless playoffs wise, but it does have draft order significance, although the Redskins won’t have their first round pick anyway. Kirk Cousins is taking over at quarterback, so it’ll be interesting to see if he moves the ball any better than Robert Griffin III did. Of course, Cousins will have little affect on Washington’s defense, which will have to stop an Atlanta offense that is capable of scoring points against a weak defense.
Chicago at Cleveland – The Browns let one slip away last week, but they’ll have another chance to play spoiler this week, as the Bears can’t afford to lose another game the rest of the season. Chicago was lightning in a bottle offensively Monday night, but that won’t be so easy against a tough Cleveland defense. Despite winning one game in the past two months, the Browns have a solid defense, and with Jason Campbell at quarterback, Cleveland’s offense is capable of scoring points against a questionable Chicago defense, which means a win is far from a certainty for the Bears, whose defense needs to play with a sense of urgency on the road in order to win.
Houston at Indianapolis – The Colts have already locked up the division, but they need to start playing better down the stretch or their postseason will be brief and disappointing, and this is a game the Colts should be able to win in order to get back on track. As for the Texans, they are still riding an 11-game losing streak, but they’ve lost plenty of close games during that stretch and looked better with Matt Schaub back at quarterback last week, so this is a game they can steal if Indianapolis continues to struggle and doesn’t play a complete game.
New England at Miami – The Patriots are lucky to have won the last two weeks, and they won’t have much margin for error this week down in Miami against a team that needs to win to stay in the playoff hunt. Despite some deficiencies, the Dolphins are playing good football and always put themselves in position to win in the 4th quarter; Ryan Tannehill and company need to make sure they’re the ones making the game-winning plays late, especially against a team that has a history of making key plays when it matters the most. Miami is tied with Baltimore for the last playoff spot, but the Ravens own the tiebreaker between the two teams, so there is no margin for error down the stretch for the Dolphins, as they have to finish ahead of Baltimore to make the postseason, and that’ll be tough to do if they lose this game.
Philadelphia at Minnesota – The Eagles are really rolling right now, and their offense should be tough to stop inside a dome, where there’s no chance of the weather becoming a factor. The Vikings are a little better than their record indicates, and they’ll put up a fight against a contending team, but if Adrian Peterson doesn’t play, or isn’t 100%, it’ll be difficult to keep up with Philadelphia’s offense.
Seattle at New York Giants – The Giants put up a fight after starting the season 0-6, but after their performance last week in San Diego it looks like their season is over. Meanwhile, the Seahawks are comfortably in first place, but they won’t be happy about last week’s loss, which means they’ll be motivated to play on the road, whereas the Giants may have resigned themselves to just playing out the season.
San Francisco at Tampa Bay – The 49ers made a statement by beating Seattle last week, but their playoff spot is not yet secure, so they need to bring that same intensity with them to Tampa Bay. We know the Bucs are going to play hard, and they’re just good enough to take advantage of teams that aren’t at the top of their game, especially on defense. The San Francisco offense needs to do a better job of finishing drives in the end zone than they did last week, because if they don’t the Bucs will hang around and have a chance to pull off the upset.
Buffalo at Jacksonville – Nothing much to see here, although the recent resurgence by Jacksonville is a pleasant surprise for a team that some had pegged as a one or two win team this season. The Bills embarrassed themselves last week in Tampa, and they need to avoid repeating that this week and at least play with some pride.
Kansas City at Oakland – There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned AFC West rivalry. The Raiders are out of contention, but they’re going to play hard and look to knock off the Chiefs on their way to the postseason. If the Oakland offense can get it going like they have the past couple of weeks, this game could get interesting, although the Chiefs can lock in a postseason birth with a win, so they won’t be taking the Raiders lightly, while also hoping that their recent offensive surge will continue.
New York Jets at Carolina – The Panthers had a rough time last Sunday night and they need to respond well this week or speculation will start to grow that they peaked too early. Of course, the Jets may be the best team for them to play right now. New York had a nice game offensively last week against Oakland, but that’ll be tough to repeat against Carolina’s defense. As long as the Panther’s defense gets back on track, winning shouldn’t be an issue and they can go back to setting their sights on the postseason.
Green Bay at Dallas – It doesn’t look like Aaron Rodgers will play in this one, but that doesn’t mean the Packers won’t be able to score against the Dallas defense, which was atrocious Monday night and now has a short week to prepare for the Packers. If Green Bay can establish their running game early, it could soften up the Cowboy’s back-seven and create some space in the secondary for Matt Flynn to get the ball downfield. If the Packers are anywhere close to as efficient on offense against Dallas as the Bears were Monday night, once again all the pressure will be on Tony Romo and the offense, which is not where Dallas wants to be. The Cowboys can score on offense, but it won’t matter unless their defense can get some stops.
Arizona at Tennessee – This could be a tricky game for the Cardinals, but with Seattle and San Francisco on the schedule the final two weeks, it’s a game they need to win. Arizona has built up a lot of momentum over the past month and a half, and they need to keep that going into the final three weeks. In this game, the Cardinals need to start fast and take an early lead. The Titans would like to win and play spoiler, but if Arizona gets up early, it’ll be easier to take care of business against a team that’s just 2-4 at home this season.
New Orleans at St. Louis – The Saints were quite impressive last week at home against the Panthers, but now it’s time to show everybody that they can just as impressive on the road. The Rams haven’t looked all that threatening the past couple of weeks, but they’re capable of pulling of a surprise, so the Saints need to make sure they’re crisp and efficient on offense by controlling the St. Louis pass rush, which could pose some problems for the Saints. For now, New Orleans has a strong hold on the NFC South, but a loss in St. Louis could cause some problems for them heading into their road trip to Carolina next week.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh – A couple of close losses the past two weeks have all but ended Pittsburgh’s postseason hopes, but they’ve playing much better than they were early in the season, and they’ll have a chance to knock off the Bengals at home Sunday night. The Steelers are going to have to clamp down defensively and force Andy Dalton into making bad decisions and bad throws because playing from behind against the Cincinnati defense will be a difficult task for them. If the game stays low scoring, the Steelers will have a good chance of winning, but if Dalton plays mistake free football the Bengals should score plenty of points, making it hard for the Steelers to keep up.
There are just three weeks left to play in the season, and the picture in AFC isn’t getting any clearer. Let’s try to make some sense of everything with this week’s power rankings of the top-10 teams in the AFC.
1. Denver – The injuries and the personnel turnover in the secondary are definitely a concern, but the Broncos played in freezing temperatures on Sunday and Peyton Manning looked as sharp as ever, proving that he is capable of playing in cold weather. There’s no reason why the Broncos shouldn’t be able to win their final three games and close out home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
2. Kansas City – The Chiefs accomplished two things in week 14: they put a stop to their three-game losing streak, and they continued to look impressive on the offensive side of the ball. The Kansas City defense may not be the same as they early in the season, but if the offense continues to score at a high rate, they’ll be a more balanced team and a dangerous team down the stretch and in the postseason.
3. Cincinnati – When the good Andy Dalton shows up, this team is dynamic offensively and is tough to beat. They’ve won three in a row, and if not for a pair of overtime losses, they could have nine straight wins. Not enough people are talking about them as a viable contender, but if Dalton plays well, they’re definitely a threat in the AFC.
4. New England – The Patriots are a bit lucky to have won their past two games against inferior teams, and on top of that, they’ve now lost Rob Gronkowski for the season, which will weaken their offense, much like the beginning of the season. They should be able to wrap up the AFC East at some point, but they have two road games against teams with a lot to play for coming up, so they’ll be challenged even more so than they have in their narrow wins against inferior teams the past two weeks.
5. Miami – Even in the games they’ve lost, the Dolphins have been close and competitive with everybody they’ve played this year. Miami has been both lucky and good, and now they have a real chance to win out and finish the season with 10 wins; they can also put some pressure on the Patriots if they can beat New England at home this weekend.
6. Baltimore – The Ravens survived a rough stretch in October and November, and now they are winners of three in a row, although those three wins haven’t been pretty. There are signs that Baltimore is starting to put things together at the right time, and make a late-season push for the playoffs. Of course, they face a tough schedule the rest of the way, which means Joe Flacco will have to be at the top of his game, whether he gets help from his surrounding cast or not.
7. San Diego – The Chargers have been the victims of a tough schedule and being in a division with the AFC’s two best teams, but on any given day, they can play with anybody. They won’t factor into the playoff picture, but they’re on a level playing field with the teams that still have a realistic chance of claiming the final wildcard spot in the AFC.
8. Indianapolis – They may have clinched their division, and they may be hosting a playoff game, but this is not a good team. They have a lot of injuries, and they tend to start slow, which has hurt them time and time again this season. The Colts have alternated wins and losses for the last six weeks, and that inconsistency is not becoming of a top team that will be a threat in the postseason.
9. Pittsburgh – The Steelers are mere inches away from still being in the midst of the playoff race. Despite their record, they’ve played good football for the past month and have done well to shake off a bad September. It might be too little too late, but expect Pittsburgh to finish the season strong.
10. Tennessee – Somebody’s got to round out the top-10, and unfortunately it’s the team that has lost four of their last five and surrendered 51 points this past week. Aside from their game against Denver, the Titans have hung tough during the past month, and lost a lot of close games, and for now that’s enough to make them 10th in the AFC.
NFL Week 14 Preview: Colts-Bengals, Falcons-Packers, Raiders-Jets, Lions-Eagles, Chiefs-Redskins and More
We’ve made it to December, and that means just four weeks left in the NFL regular season. There is plenty left to be decided concerning the playoffs, so let’s take a closer look at all the games on the week 14 schedule:
Indianapolis at Cincinnati – Both these teams are heading to the playoffs, although they probably won’t meet unless both get to the AFC Championship Game. As bad as the Colts have been over the past month, they will clinch the AFC South with a win, although if Indy doesn’t get better performances out of their defense and running game, Andrew Luck is going to have a lot of heavy lifting to do against a good Cincinnati defense. Meanwhile, the Bengals have been in a lot of close games and are battle tested; in fact, they’re two overtime losses away from an eight-game winning streak, so they’re actually playing quite well coming into this game. Even if Andy Dalton isn’t at the top of his game, the Bengals have a lot of playmakers that will be tough for a questionable Colts defense to stop.
Atlanta at Green Bay – The status of Aaron Rodgers is still up in the air, but even without Rodgers, the Packers should be able to move the ball against Atlanta’s defense. Green Bay has a sliver of postseason hope left, but they can’t afford to lose at home to the Falcons, who are still playing for pride. The Packers will need to show a sense of urgency to secure their first win in over a month, even against the 3-9 Falcons.
Cleveland at New England – The Patriots almost let one slip away last week, and they need to make sure that doesn’t happen again this week against another inferior team, especially with New England still chasing Denver for the top seed in the AFC. The Browns shouldn’t be able to hang with the Patriots in Foxboro, unless the Patriots let them.
Oakland at New York Jets – Expect this one to be ugly. The Jets are good enough on defense to shut down the Raiders, but they’re also terrible on offense and shouldn’t be expected to score many points. Whichever team can make fewer mistakes and commit fewer penalties, a steep challenge for both sides, will have the advantage in this game.
Detroit at Philadelphia – This game has major playoff implications, with the Lions trying to create some distance in their division and the Eagles locked in a tie with the Cowboys in their division. The Philadelphia defense has shown signs of improvement lately, but playing Detroit will be a true test of how good they are. If the Eagles are truly better on defense than most people think, they should be able to slow down Detroit’s offense enough to win this game, because the Lions may not be able to stop Nick Foles and the Eagles on offense. However, if Detroit’s offense gets rolling as well, this one could go back and forth and become a shootout between Foles and Matthew Stafford.
Miami at Pittsburgh – This game is critical in the AFC wildcard race, as the Steelers are still alive, but only if they win this game. Pittsburgh won three straight before losing on Thanksgiving, and if they can get their offense rolling again, they could have the advantage in this game, especially at home. The Dolphins will need Ryan Tannehill to step up his game and lead them to victory in a tough road environment against a defense that can be tough to go against; otherwise, Miami’s playoff hopes could start to slip.
Buffalo at Tampa Bay – The Bills need to win out to have any hope of reaching the postseason, although it’s not impossible, considering their remaining schedule. Doug Marrone had Greg Schiano’s number when the two faced each other as head coaches in college, so the Bills should have an advantage in that department, although most coaches have had Schiano’s number the past couple of seasons. If Buffalo can avoid costly turnovers, they have a good chance to win on the road.
Kansas City at Washington – The last thing the Redskins need right now is to see a Chief’s team that is angry after losing three straight. Of course, Washington is at home and the Kansas City defense isn’t quite as intimidating as they were earlier in the season, so there is some hope for them. If RG3 can avoid Kansas City’s great pass rush, the Redskins should be able to score some points and have a chance to win. However, if the Chiefs get after RG3, a disastrous year in Washington will continue.
Minnesota at Baltimore – The Ravens have moved toward the front of the AFC wildcard race, but even at home the Vikings can be a tricky team to face. Baltimore has one of the top rush defenses in the NFL, but those stats go out the window when facing Adrian Peterson. If Baltimore can stuff the run, they should win easily, but if they can’t, it’ll be up to Joe Flacco to give the Ravens their third straight win.
Tennessee at Denver – The Broncos are rolling again after last week’s win in Kansas City, and they should be able to win again this week, officially end any hope the Titans have of making the playoffs. It will be nice to see John Fox back on the sidelines for the Broncos, and interesting to see how the team to reacts to having their head coach back, as they have four weeks left to come together and prepare themselves for a deep postseason run.
St. Louis at Arizona – The Cardinals need to avenge a week 1 loss to the Rams if they’re going to remain in the playoff hunt. Three turnovers doomed Arizona last week, and that’s something that can’t repeat itself this week against a St. Louis defense that can pressure quarterbacks and force turnovers. The Rams are also a little more dangerous offensively than they were in week 1 with two solid running backs and Tavon Austin starting to breakout, so the Cardinals will have their work cut out for them at home against a team that has the potential to play spoiler down the stretch.
New York Giants at San Diego – The playoff hopes for both teams are bleak and both will need to win out to have a chance, so both teams should have a lot of urgency to win. Outside of that, the matchup of Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers is always an interesting one, as the two were traded for one another on draft day about a decade ago. Whichever team gets better play out of their quarterback should win the game.
Seattle at San Francisco – The Seahawks crushed the 49ers back in week 2, and now San Francisco seeks some redemption against Seattle, who can lock up the division with a win. It’s hard to imagine anybody beating Seattle after what they did to the Saints on Monday night, although the 49ers look much improved in recent weeks and they have a front-7 that may be able to force the Seahawks into throwing the ball to win the game, and Seattle may not have the wide receivers to do that. However, the key to this game is Colin Kaepernick. His slump started when he faced the Seahawks the first time this season, and he’s going to need to make plays with his arm and his legs if the 49ers are going to have a chance to win.
Carolina at New Orleans – This is the game of the week, a Sunday night showdown with the NFC South Division lead on the line. These teams will meet again in two weeks, so this game isn’t the deciding factor in the division race, but it will go a long way. Moreover, the Saints haven’t played great football for the past month, and they are coming off a humiliating loss to the Seahawks Monday night, while the Panthers are riding an eight-game winning streak. However, New Orleans remains undefeated at home this season, so something will have to give. Carolina’s defense has shut down a lot of teams this season, but stopping the Saints in the Super Dome might be their toughest challenge yet, so we’ll see if they’re up to it.
From top to bottom, the Cincinnati Bengals may have the most talented and balanced roster in the NFL. But if there’s one weakness on their team, it’s probably the quarterback position, where Andy Dalton has become more of a liability than an asset over the past month, and has actually held the team back instead of developing into a quarterback capable of leading his team deep into the postseason. If the Bengals had better and more consistent play at the quarterback position they would unquestionably be among the NFL’s elite and a Super Bowl favorite in the AFC on par with the Denver Broncos; however, with Dalton as their quarterback, they are a second tier team in a mediocre conference.
Ever since Dalton threw for five touchdowns in a 40-point win over the New York Jets, he’s been a disaster. Over the last three games, Dalton has thrown eight interceptions, most of them costly, while barely completing 50% of his passes. Despite throwing three touchdown passes against Cleveland, Dalton threw for less than 100 yards, and had it not been for touchdowns scored by Cincinnati’s defense and special teams, the Bengals may not have been able to overcome Dalton’s early interceptions and lackluster performance and put a stop to their losing streak before it reached three games.
Even earlier in the season, Dalton’s performance was unsteady. He’s had just two games this season in which he hasn’t thrown an interception, and he’s on pace for a career-high in interceptions, as well as fumbles. In his third pro season, he should be coming into his own as a quarterback; instead, Dalton has failed to take off and hit a wall in his development. He’s made an effort to assert himself as a top-10 caliber quarterback, but it hasn’t worked out; in fact, it’s only led to more mistakes and exposed him as a quarterback that isn’t capable of playing at a championship level, despite one of the strongest rosters in football as his supporting cast.
For his struggles this season, Dalton has no one to blame except himself. Even though Cincinnati returned all 11 starters on offense from last year, the Bengals used their first two draft picks on offensive skill players in support of Dalton. Cincinnati now has two productive running backs, two big and versatile tight ends, and three viable wide receivers, including one of the best receivers in the NFL in A.J. Green. That collection of skill players should be enough for any quarterback to play at an elite level, but that hasn’t been the case with Dalton, even with a top-10 defense that allows fewer than 20 points per game and rarely puts a game solely on his shoulders.
Despite having a contingent of skill position players that would make a vast majority of the quarterbacks in the NFL jealous, Dalton has failed to perform at a high level this season. He should be slinging the ball all over the field and making the Bengals a favorite to reach the Super Bowl. Instead, his development has stalled and he’s preventing the Bengals from reaching their full potential. With a better quarterback at the helm, there would be less than a handful of teams that would even have a chance of standing in Cincinnati’s way of accomplishing something great this season. But Dalton’s average skill set and mediocre performance this season is getting in the way, and there doesn’t seem to be anything the Bengals can do to change that, which is why the Bengals will make the playoffs this year but remain exactly one quarterback away from greatness.