It’s Week 16 of the NFL season and the end is near. As far as the league's worst division is concerned, only the Broncos have meaningful games left, but there’s still plenty of intriguing matchups lined for this week. Let’s take a closer look:
SAN DIEGO AT NEW YORK JETS
After a brief hiatus from their losing ways, the Chargers were right back at it last week as they laid an egg at home against the Panthers. Their reward is a 3,000-mile road trip to New Jersey to take on the Jets. In San Diego’s defense, they did respond well to being the away team two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, but this time there’s no chance of playing spoiler, as the Jets are also out of playoff contention. This is a matchup of what could be the two most disappointing teams in the NFL this season, and two teams with nothing much to play for.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
The San Diego defense vs. Greg McElroy. It’s too late to matter this season, but the Jets have finally made a change at quarterback. McElroy doesn’t have a big arm and probably won’t be throwing too many deep balls, but he’s a smart quarterback and he knows where to go with the ball, so it’ll be a good test to go up against a San Diego defense that has hung tough the second half of the season despite little support from the offense.
Also, after athlete/quarterback Cam Newton had a big game against the Chargers last week, look for Tebow to be included in the game plan, which will give the defense one more thing to think about. For the record, Tebow was 9 for 18 with a touchdown pass and 67 yards rushing in Denver’s 16-13 overtime win against the Chargers last year.
Since getting lit up by the Patriots for 49 points a few weeks ago, the Jets defense has been rather stingy, which doesn’t bode well for a Chargers offense that has struggled to score points for much of the season. This one will be low scoring and incredibly ugly, but McElroy will lead the team to a touchdown in the first half, and Tebow will bust out a long run to put the game away in the second half while the San Diego offense continues to sputter: Jets 14, San Diego 6.
OAKLAND AT CAROLINA
Carolina has won two in a row since their embarrassing loss in Kansas City, and the Panthers have a real chance to get to 7-9 and avoid double-digit losses this season (which would be a nice accomplishment and good progress for Ron Rivera). Meanwhile, the Raiders were able to break their six-game losing streak last week, which if nothing else keeps them out of the running for the top overall pick next year.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Carson Palmer vs. Cam Newton. With any luck there will be little defense played in this game, leading to a shootout between the quarterbacks. It’s a clash of styles between Palmer, a true pocket passer, and Newton, an athletic runner who sporadically throws nice passes. If the scoreboard starts to light up, it’ll be because of these two quarterbacks, and it might actually make this game interesting.
The Raiders managed a win last week without finding the end zone, but they’ll be able to find it this week; in fact, both teams will. The Oakland defense was uncharacteristically good against the run last week, but they won’t be able to keep up with a running quarterback like Newton, who will burn them with both his legs and arm. Palmer, as usual, will do his part to keep the Raiders close, but in the end, Newton will win this shootout: Carolina 38, Oakland 28.
INDIANAPOLIS AT KANSAS CITY
In one of the best stories in the NFL this season, the Colts can clinch a spot in the playoffs with a win over the Chiefs. After a slow start and after their head coach was forced to take a leave of absence, Indy has been surging with seven wins in their last nine games. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have failed to show up at all the last two weeks. This will be Kansas City’s final home game of the season, and despite a 1-6 home record, the Chiefs have played a little better at home this season. In arrowhead this year, the Chiefs have played some close games, which is exactly what the Colts have been doing all season, so this game could end up being tighter than people may think.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
The Kansas City secondary vs. Andrew Luck. Young Mr. Luck probably hasn’t seen a secondary this talented in quite a few weeks. Brandon Flowers and Javier Arenas form a solid cornerback tandem, and safety Eric Berry has quietly returned to pro-bowl form this season. Luck, as you’d expect for a rookie, has had some problems with turnovers, throwing 18 interceptions this season. However, the Kansas City secondary is much better at preventing big plays than they are at collecting interceptions, so this will become a matchup of strength vs. strength. Luck is a quick learner, so how quickly he’s able to figure out the Kansas City secondary will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.
Nothing has come easy to the Colts this year and that remains the case, as they’ll get a fight out of a Kansas City team that’s hoping to make a good lasting impression in front of the home fans and maybe send Romeo Crennel out with a win. That being said, Indy is in the position they’re in because of their ability to pull out close games late, and with a special rookie at quarterback, they’re not going to let this one get away. Luck will lead the Colts on a 4th quarter drive that delivers a win and a spot in the playoffs: Indianapolis 21, Kansas City 17.
CLEVELAND AT DENVER
With New England’s loss to the 49ers last Sunday night, the Broncos are now in the driver’s seat for the second seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. All they need to do is take care of business at home and win these final two games, starting with the Browns this week. Unfortunately for Denver, these are not the same old Browns that will roll over at the sight of Peyton Manning’s high-powered offense. Up until last week, Cleveland had won three games in a row, and a relatively young Browns team will want to get back on the winning track and end the season strong.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Peyton Manning vs. The Cleveland pass defense. The Browns rank 25th in the NFL in pass defense, as they give up close to 250 yards per game. To say that Manning and his receivers pose a stiff challenge would be an understatement. Cleveland won’t be able to win a shootout, so they’ll need to keep things low scoring, which means having to slow down Manning and company. The Broncos were aggressive with their play calling against the Ravens last week, so if nothing else, the Browns will have to prevent Manning from completing the deep ball and scoring points in a hurry.
The Browns have defeated the other three teams in the AFC West this season, but they’re not going to get a clean sweep of the NFL’s worst division. It’s hard not to think that the Broncos are due for a loss after winning their last nine games, but now that Denver has a chance to get a first round bye and at least one home playoff game, there’s too much on the line for them to get tripped up now. The Broncos have been away from home three of the last four weeks, and they’ll come home to Mile High and be greeted by a fan base that can smell a deep playoff run. Denver will come out motivated and blow away the outmatched Browns: Denver 42, Cleveland 14.