We’ve broken down the game and went over the matchups to watch in this week’s Super Bowl between the Broncos and Seahawks. Now let’s go over some of the uncertain elements that could end up playing a part in Sunday’s game. Here are five X-factors to watch for in Super Bowl XLVIII.
For good or bad, the weather is going to play a role in this game; we just won’t know what that is until game time. The current forecast is for cold temperatures, a slight chance of precipitation, and relatively light winds. If that forecast comes to fruition it shouldn’t have a major effect on the game, although Denver quarterback Peyton Manning has been known to struggle in cold weather, although he was fine in a few cold weather games during the regular season. However, if that forecast changes, it’ll likely change for the worse, as any kind of precipitation or increased wind speed would effect both teams, although the Broncos would likely suffer more than the Seahawks in poor weather conditions.
KNOWSHON MORENO’S RIBS
Moreno suffered a rib injury in the AFC Championship game, and while x-rays were negative and he returned to practice late last week, how close he is to 100% is known only to him and the Broncos. Even with Montee Ball taking on a larger role late in the season, Moreno is an essential part of Denver’s offense and the Broncos need him to be at his best, especially if the weather forces the Broncos to put more emphasis on their running game. If he’s not at full strength, it could really hurt the Broncos; Ball has been fine late in the season, but there’s no substitute for what Moreno has done for the Broncos this season with regard to rushing, receiving, and pass protecting. If it’s clear early in the game that the rib injury is affecting him, it’ll put the Broncos at a significant disadvantage.
Harvin has been Seattle’s x-factor all season, as he’s struggled to get on the field and stay on the field following a hip injury. Harvin missed the NFC Championship Game, but he’s been practicing throughout Seattle’s preparations for the Super Bowl and is expected to play on Sunday. He has just one reception all season, so the Seahawks are accustomed to playing without him, but if he’s on the field the Broncos will have to account for him, which is something few teams have had to do against Seattle this year. Even if he doesn’t get a lot of touches, Harvin will draw attention from the defense and open things up for other players, which means there’s a good chance he ends up having an effect on the game.
Holliday has had a relatively quiet season, returning just one kickoff and one punt for touchdowns, but he has the ability to be a game changer for the Broncos. Denver has been weary to put him on punt returns as of late because he is a ball security risk, but he’s on the field during kickoffs, and unless the Seahawks can kick it out of the end zone on every kickoff they’ll have to worry about tackling Holliday, which can be tricky due to his lightning fast speed. Holliday is equally capable of taking one to the house for a Denver touchdown as he is of fumbling the ball away to give the Seahawks an extra possession, and if he does either of those, the smallest player in the Super Bowl could have the biggest impact on the game, making him an x-factor to watch.
The focus of the Super Bowl has been on the showdown between the Denver offense and the Seattle defense, and deservedly so. The Denver defense and the Seattle offense have received a little attention too, but the kicking game has been completely overlooked. If this game is as close as it’s expected to be any missed kick could be monumental and change the complexion of the entire game. Denver place kicker Matt Prater has made 25 of 26 field goals this season; with his only miss coming from 52 yards away, although he’s had the benefit of kicking in the thin Denver air for much of the season. Seattle place kicker Steven Hauschka has been equally impressive, connecting on 33 of 35 field goal attempts. However, both kickers will not only have to deal with the pressure of the game, but unpredictable weather conditions, including wind. Hauschka may have an advantage over Prater if the weather becomes a factor for the kickers, but both kickers will have to battle trough rough conditions in the biggest game of the year, and a miss by either one could end up costing his team the game.
For the first time ever, these two bitter division rivals will face one another in the postseason, doing so appropriately in a season in which they split the regular season matchups, with each team winning on the other’s home field. Let’s take a closer look at round 3 between the Chargers and the Broncos.
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Rarely was there a doubt this season that the Broncos would end up being the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Despite a couple hiccups, Denver finished 13-3 and will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. As for the Chargers, they won their final four games of the regular season in must-win situations and they carried that mentality into Cincinnati last week and came out with a convincing win after a dominating performance in the 2nd half.
SAN DIEGO OFFENSE VS. DENVER DEFENSE
The Chargers beat the Broncos back in week 15 because they were able to run the ball effectively and control the clock, keeping Peyton Manning and the Denver offense off the field, and that’s something the Broncos need to be aware of repeating itself this week. Outside of his 23-yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter, San Diego running back Ryan Matthews rarely broke off a big run, but he consistently got positive yards with each rush attempt, which moved the ball down field and kept the Denver pass rush at bay. Matthews and the Chargers need to do their best to repeat that performance if they expect to knock off the Broncos in Denver for the second time this season. As well as Philip Rivers has played this season, San Diego does not want him in a shootout with Manning, as the Chargers have a .500 record when Rivers attempts more than 30 passes in a game, so they need to make sure they stay balanced on offense. Moreover, even without Von Miller on the field for the Broncos, San Diego does not want to give the Denver pass rush a chance to pin their ears back and come after Rivers, if that starts to happen the Chargers will be in trouble. But the Broncos need to make a commitment towards stopping the run so that they aren’t dominated in time of possession, even if it means relying on their banged-up secondary to contain Rivers and the San Diego skill players.
DENVER OFFENSE VS. SAN DIEGO DEFENSE
In the last meeting between these two teams, the Broncos had the ball for just 21 minutes but still managed to score 20 points, which says all you need to know about the Denver offense this season. The Broncos have been historically good this season, and keeping them off the field is just about the only way they’ve been stopped this season. Wes Welker has been cleared to play, which means he will rejoin the lineup alongside Demaryius Thomas, who is heading to the Pro Bowl, Eric Decker, who came on strong late in the season, and tight end Julius Thomas, who is also heading to the Pro Bowl. Of course, it’s not all about Manning and the passing game, as the Broncos stay balanced with running back Knowshon Moreno, who’s had a great season and has been an underrated part of the Denver offense. San Diego’s best hope for defending the Broncos would be to put pressure on Manning, as their pass rush was a big part of their 2nd half dominance over the Bengals last week. However, the Denver offensive line has held up well this season amidst injuries, Manning is great at getting rid of the ball quickly, and blitzing the Broncos leads to one-on-one matchups with their receivers, which can be a problem, putting the San Diego defense between a rock and a hard place. If the pass rush is effective, the Chargers will have a chance to keep the Denver offense from blowing them out; otherwise, the Broncos could start clicking on offense and be tough to stop.
To San Diego’s credit, they’ve played two good games against the Broncos this season, and they’ve made a great run by winning their last five games and reaching the second weekend of the playoffs. However, this is where their magical run comes to an end. It’s unrealistic to think that the Chargers can control the clock the way they did in week 15. That game was also played on a short week, while this time around Manning and the Broncos have had an extra week to prepare, which should make a difference. The Chargers will play well and put up a fight once again, but the Broncos will eventually be too much for them. Denver 38, San Diego 21.
The final game of NFL wildcard weekend figures to be a good one. The 49ers and Packers met back in week 1 and in the divisional round of the playoffs last year, with San Francisco winning both games. These two teams should know each other pretty well, so it should be interesting. Let’s take a closer look:
HOW THYEY GOT HERE?
The Packers persevered over an eight-week period without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, enduring a five-game winless streak during that time, and thanks to a complete collapse by the Lions, Green Bay was in position to win the NFC North in week 17, when Rodgers returned and led the Packers to victory over the Bears to put them in the postseason. Things weren’t quite as complicated for the 49ers, who won their final six games and clinched a playoff birth in week 16. However, with Seattle winning the NFC West, San Francisco had to settle for a wildcard spot, despite winning 12 games this season.
SAN FRANCISCO OFFENSE VS. GREEN BAY DEFENSE
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has had an uneven season and hasn’t always been a game changer with his arm, but he finished the regular season strong with 10 touchdowns and one interception over the final six games. The Green Bay defense has had their fair share of problems this season, especially over the last three weeks, and if that continues it may put Kaepernick in position to make plays with his arm, especially with the trio of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Vernon Davis in place. Meanwhile, the 49ers know that they have a good rushing attack behind Frank Gore, with Kaepernick also being a threat to take off and make plays with his legs. The goal for the Packers on defense will be to stop the run as best they can and force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm, which will be their best chance to keep the game as low scoring as possible and keep the pressure off Rodgers and their offense as much as possible, although based on how Kaepernick has played in recent weeks, that doesn’t guarantee success for the Green Bay defense, as Kaepernick is capable of beating the Packers through the air, throwing for over 400 yards against them in week 1.
GREEN BAY OFFENSE VS. SAN FRANCISCO DEFENSE
Not only is Rodgers back, but so is Randall Cobb, and that combination came up big for the Packers in crunch time last week, with both of Cobb’s receptions going for touchdowns, and those two will have to come up big for Green Bay again this week. Rodgers did show some signs of rust, but he should be a little sharper in his second week back, and it should help that he has a nice collection of receivers, including Cobb, the reliable Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jarrett Boykin, and emerging tight end Andrew Quarless. That group should be enough for a quarterback like Rodgers, although if the Packers need to rely on their running game, they can do so with potential rookie of the year Eddie Lacy, as well as James Starks, who had a big game against the Bears last week. Of course, things won’t come as easy against the San Francisco defense as they did last week against the Chicago defense. The Packers may have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, but they’ll be going up against one of the top rush defenses in the league, and whichever team gets the better of that matchup will have a distinct advantage, especially if the weather conditions make it difficult to throw the ball. As good as Rodgers can be, it will be tough for him if the Packers are forced to become one-dimensional on offense against a quality defense, so it’s imperative that the Packers run the ball effectively and maintain balance on offense, especially if the Green Bay defense struggles and the game turns into a shootout in the second half.
It’s inevitable that the cold temperatures at Lambeau Field will become a factor, although it may end up helping the 49ers more than the Packers, as the strength of the 49ers is their defense, which should be largely unaffected by the weather. The Packers have made a great run to the playoffs, but the 49ers are a more balanced team and better suited for the postseason. It’ll be tough for both teams to throw the ball, and while Rodgers will have some success in the passing game, San Francisco has a better front-7 defensively, as well as a quarterback that can help move the ball on the ground, and those two areas will ultimately give the 49ers the edge. San Francisco 23, Green Bay 14.
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.
The NFL playoffs get underway Saturday afternoon when the Chiefs visit the Colts, a rematch of a week 16 game that the Colts won in Kansas City. Let’s take a closer look:
HOW THEY GOT HERE?
Kansas City backed into the playoffs, losing five of their final seven games, although they played well in their week 17 loss to the Chargers while many of their key starters were inactive. However, the Chiefs are far from the team that started the season 9-0, and while some may marvel at an 11-5 wildcard team, they haven’t looked like an 11-win team in two months. Meanwhile, a month ago the Colts looked like a team that was going to back up into the playoffs, but they ended up playing well down the stretch, winning their final three games and outscoring their opponents 88-20, albeit against weak teams, including the Chiefs.
KANSAS CITY OFFENSE VS. INDIANAPOLIS DEFENSE
The Indy defense has really stepped up its play over the final three weeks of the season, allowing just 20 points during that span, including just seven points against the Chiefs two weeks ago. They do have a bit of a weakness at stopping the run, which is a strength of the Kansas City offense behind Jamaal Charles, but the Chiefs trailed for most of the game two weeks ago, which means they couldn’t take advantage of the Indianapolis rush defense, as Charles was limited to just 13 carries, even though he averaged eight yards per carry. The Chiefs need to get Charles as many touches as possible and stay out of obvious passing downs, as the Indy pass rush sacked Alex Smith five times two weeks ago, forcing three fumbles from Smith and six fumbles overall. Kansas City was hurt by four turnovers in that game, and that’s something they’ll have to avoid this time around. The Chiefs will also need to stay ahead of the chains and remain within striking distance of the Colts, as they’ll be in trouble if they have to overcome a deficit against Indianapolis on the road.
INDIANAPOLIS OFFENSE VS. KANSAS CITY DEFENSE
The Kansas City defense that dominated teams the first half of the season has been no better than average during the second half of the season, and they had all kinds of trouble trying to defend Andrew Luck two weeks ago. Injuries to their linebacker corps have taken away their terrifying pass rush and left the rest of their defense vulnerable. Meanwhile, Luck has survived the loss of Reggie Wayne and rebounded from a mid-season slump, looking real sharp the final two weeks of the season. T.Y. Hilton continues to emerge as a big-time playmaker and a favorite target of Luck, and the Colts also have a few solid complementary receivers like Coby Fleener and Griff Whalen, who were both college teammates of Luck at Stanford and players he’s comfortable throwing the ball to. Of course, Indy’s offense has its flaws, as their running game can be inconsistent and the offensive line is not always reliable either. Some of the banged up players on Kansas City’s defense should benefit from sitting out last week, and if they can get healthy and stuff the run, they’ll give their pass rush a chance to do some damage. However, if Luck is given time in the pocket, he’ll be tough to keep under wraps for four quarters.
A big part of the postseason is momentum and playing well at the right time of year. The Chiefs have sputtered down the stretch, and on the season they have exactly one win over playoff teams. Meanwhile, the Colts are riding a three-game winning streak and have come out of their mid-season slump playing good football in December, and that gives them an advantage heading into this game. This game will go just like the game two weeks ago went: Luck will have his way with the Kansas City defense and the Chiefs will struggle to come from behind. Indianapolis 27, Kansas City 10.
11NFL 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.
11NFL Week 16 Preview: Cowboys-Redskins, Saints-Panthers, Steelers-Packers, Raiders-Chargers and More
There are two weeks left in the NFL season and yet the playoff picture remains unsettled. Let’s not waste our time with the meaningless games on this week’s schedule and take a closer look at all the games that have playoff implications.
Miami at Buffalo – The Dolphins need to win and get some help over the final two weeks in order to get to the playoffs, and a win over the Bills isn’t a guarantee, especially after Buffalo beat them earlier in the season. The Dolphins hurt themselves with turnovers when the teams met in week 7, and that’s not something that can repeat itself this time around, as Miami will have to do a better job of handling Buffalo’s defensive front, which can be disruptive against the Dolphin’s suspect offensive line. Thad Lewis will be Buffalo’s quarterback for the injured E.J. Manuel, but Lewis was the quarterback when the Bills beat the Dolphins in week 7, so that shouldn’t hold them back from trying to pull off a season sweep of the fish.
Minnesota at Cincinnati – Believe it or not, the Bengals still haven’t wrapped up the AFC North, nor have they assured themselves of a playoff spot yet. With a win and some help Cincinnati can lock up a postseason spot, but that may not be so easy against the Vikings, who have just one loss in their last four games. Matt Cassel has played great over the last three weeks, and even if Adrian Peterson doesn’t play, Cassel is capable of leading the offense and putting points on the board, which could put pressure on Andy Dalton to have a good game as well, and if Dalton doesn’t play well, the Bengals could be in trouble.
Indianapolis at Kansas City – If the Colts are going to be taken seriously in the postseason, this is a game they need to win. Indy hasn’t won two in a row since week 9, as their play since then has been erratic and inconsistent. If the Colts have another sluggish first half, they’re likely to be blown out, as the Chiefs have found a groove offensively in recent weeks, even though their defense has taken a step back. It all hinges on Andrew Luck, but if he’s sharp and the Chiefs can’t put pressure on him, Kansas City could find themselves in another shootout, which is something they’d like to stay away from.
Dallas at Washington – The Cowboys are sinking fast, but they may be catching a break by playing the Redskins this week. However, Kirk Cousins looked good in his first start of the season last week, and he’s certainly capable of carving up the Dallas defense, which has been downright terrible in recent weeks. If Cousins can get the Washington offense moving, it would put a lot of pressure on Tony Romo and the Dallas offense to win a shootout, which could lead to Romo forcing throws and making mistakes. As bad as the Redskins have been this year, all the pressure in this game is on Dallas, whose season will be over if they lose and the Eagles win, so all the problems the Cowboys have had the past two weeks need to be fixed in a hurry, because Washington would love to play spoiler against their division rivals.
New Orleans at Carolina – The winner of this game will win the NFC South and get a first round bye in the playoffs, although technically the Panthers would have to win in Atlanta next week to wrap everything up. Carolina has some adjustments to make after getting dominated by the Saints two weeks ago, but being at home should help, especially considering that the Saints have been a mediocre road team this season. New Orleans is most vulnerable when Drew Brees is put under pressure, so Carolina’s best chance to reverse the outcome of two weeks ago is to have an effective pass rush. Offensively, the Panthers will have to capitalize on red zone opportunities by getting into the end zone, something they’ve struggled to do. If Carolina can do those two things, they’ll have a chance to take down the Saints and win the division.
Denver at Houston – Despite last week’s loss, the Broncos are still in line to have home field throughout the playoffs if they win their final two games. On paper this looks like a mismatch, but if the Texans can run the ball effectively and control the clock the way San Diego did against the Broncos last week, Denver could have a problem. The Denver secondary also has to start playing better amidst all the injuries, as Houston has two quality wide receivers that have the potential to do some damage against a vulnerable secondary.
New York Giants at Detroit – The Lions are now on the outside of the playoffs after losing four of their last five games, but a home game against the Giants could be just what they need. After a brief glimmer of hope, the Giants have been abysmal the last two weeks and appear to be just playing out the season. If Detroit can start fast and get an early lead, the Giants may not put up much of a fight, but if the Lions are sluggish and can’t get their pass rush going against a questionable offensive line, the Giants will be able to hang around and could be a tough team for the struggling Lions to beat.
Arizona at Seattle – The Cardinals are still in contention, but if they’re going to make the playoffs they have to beat the Seahawks, who are virtually unbeatable at home. The first time these two teams met, Arizona couldn’t run the ball at all, which put a lot of pressure on Carson Palmer. If the Cardinals expect to win this game, they’ll need to run the ball effectively and play great defense, as they’ll need just about everything to go their way if they’re going to win in Seattle.
Pittsburgh at Green Bay – With or without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers need to win this game. They’ve found a way to win each of their last two games by a single point, but the Steelers are far better than either of the teams they’ve played the last two weeks. Pittsburgh has slim odds to reach the postseason, but they’re playing quality football on both sides of the ball, and there is no team in the NFL that wants to play them right now. Green Bay may have to beat Pittsburgh at their own game, by grinding it out on the ground and trying to be more physical than the Steelers, which will be tough, but if the Packers don’t have Rodgers, they’re going to have a hard time beating the Steelers, even at home.
Oakland at San Diego – San Diego still has slim playoff hopes if they can win out, but beating the Raiders may not be a lock. Oakland has picked it up offensively behind Matt McGloin and they may be able to keep pace with San Diego. However, the Raiders will need to avoid turning the ball over if they hope to win, and that could be a problem.
New England at Baltimore – There may be no hotter team in the NFL right now than the Ravens, and a win in this game will set up a de facto AFC North championship game next week against the Bengals. Baltimore is coming on strong at the right time of year while the Patriots are beginning to sputter and are barely able to pull out wins against bad teams. New England will need their defense to step up and play well in this game in order to stay close and have a chance in the 4th quarter, because the offense could have a tough time against the Baltimore defense, especially if they have to come from behind late in the game.
Chicago at Philadelphia – All of a sudden, the Bears control their own destiny in the NFC North, but to keep it that way they need to win a night game in Philadelphia against an offense that can be tough to stop. Chicago does not have a strong defense, and that could be a problem against Philadelphia’s potent offense. If the Bears can’t slow down the Eagles, it’ll be up to Jay Cutler to not only put a lot of points on the board, but also avoid costly turnovers. We know that Nick Foles takes care of the football while helping the Eagles reach the end zone, and it’ll be up to Cutler to do the same if the Bears are going to pull off the win on the road.
11NFL 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.
11NFL 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.
The Saints and Seahawks could end up playing one of the best Monday night games of the season tonight, as well as one of the most meaningful. Let’s take a closer look:
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The top seed in the NFC playoffs will probably be decided by this game. The Seahawks are 10-1, which puts them a game ahead of the 9-2 Saints, and a win for Seattle would make it difficult for anybody to in the NFC to catch them for the top seed in the conference. A win for New Orleans would give the two teams the same record and give the tiebreaker to the Saints, giving them the inside track for securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Both Seattle and New Orleans are incredibly difficult teams to beat at home, meaning whichever team gets the top seed in the NFC will be the obvious favorite to reach the Super Bowl, making this game critical for both teams.
NEW ORLEANS OFFENSE VS. SEATTLE DEFENSE
The Saints are one of the top offensive teams in the NFL, but they’ve been vulnerable this year against teams that are able to put pressure on the quarterback, which is something the Seahawks are capable of doing, averaging three sacks per game. Seattle has one of the top pass defenses in the league, and despite the suspension of cornerback Brandon Browner, they should pose a challenge for Drew Brees and the New Orleans wide receivers, especially since the Seahawks are also one of the league leaders in interceptions. The Saints have sputtered on offense in their last two games, even against a mediocre Atlanta defense last week, and New Orleans will have to be sharp and at the top of their game if they’re going to have sustained success against Seattle’s defense, who will have the home crowd behind them.
SEATTLE OFFENSE VS. NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE
Defense is a big reason for New Orleans’ success this year. The Saints are one of the best defenses against the pass this season, although that may not be much of a factor in this game, as the Seahawks are a run-based team. Marshawn Lynch has been the biggest contributor to the Seattle offense all season long, and stopping him will be the biggest priority for the Saints in this game. The Seahawks will ride Lynch for as long as they can, and if New Orleans can’t stop him, it’ll be easier for Russell Wilson and the Seattle passing game to have success. The x-factor in the game could be Percy Harvin, who will be playing in just his second game of the season. If Harvin can make an impact, it could give the Seahawks enough of a boost to be the difference in the game.
These two teams are starting to move in opposite directions. The Saints have looked fairly average the past couple of weeks, while the Seahawks are finding their stride at the right time of year. New Orleans will bring their A-game, but Seattle is too tough to beat on the road, and the Saints won’t be able to get over the hump after staying close with the Seahawks throughout the game. Seattle 27, New Orleans 20.