NFL Week 16: Giants-Ravens Fight For Survival

It wasn’t that long ago that Sunday afternoon’s tilt between the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens looked like a possible Super Bowl preview. It still might end up that way, but both teams are struggling, with the Giants having lost control of their division, and the Ravens fighting to hang on in theirs. It’s this showcase game from Baltimore (4:25 PM ET, Fox) that serves as the focal point of our NFL Week 16 previews, with the NFC East & AFC North up for grabs.

Both teams played a bad game last week, with Baltimore getting blown out at home by Denver and New York no-showing it on the road in Atlanta. But I think the Ravens’ struggles are more serious. This is a team whose defense has badly slipped, and they’re no longer effective against either the run or the pass. There are noises that Ray Lewis may make his way back into uniform, something that would have big intangible impact, but would do nothing to improve this unit’s declining speed. There are no noises that corner Lardarius Webb might come back and he’s now the best defensive player in Baltimore.

New York is certainly not playing well, but unlike Baltimore—who had a series of unimpressive wins before their current three-game losing streak—the Giants have had their share of moments where they looked like a Super Bowl team again, the notable recent example being their Sunday night smackdown of Green Bay last month. And while Eli Manning was awful in Atlanta, a game the Giants lost 34-0, that’s just one week removed from this same New York offense dropping 52 against New Orleans.

So it’s the Giants lack of consistency against the Ravens declining talent. I reject the notion that we should just assume New York will show up and play well now that it’s must-win to get into the playoffs—they still control their destiny for a wild-card. There’s more to recent Giants’ history than 2007 and 2011. There’s also 2009-10 when they missed the playoffs, and if we think back to 2010, they played a big Week 16 game on the road in Green Bay and got hammered. New York’s ability to get on a playoff run has earned respect, but it’s not as though they’ve just magically flipped a switch every time they need to win.

And say what you will about Baltimore—I’ve felt all year this team was in decline, even as they built their record to 9-2 and my dinner of crow was being prepared—but John Harbaugh’s teams compete each week. The strategy isn’t always enlightened—hence, the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, but they do play hard.

The problem is that playing hard isn’t going to be enough against a team with better talent. I don’t see New York mailing it in this week, and I don’t see how Baltimore can stop the Giants’ offense with any consistency. The Baltimore path to victory is narrow—they have to really commit to running the ball with Ray Rice and pile up 35 minutes or so of possession time. Joe Flacco has to be money on third down and the coaching staff has to find some ways to get Torrey Smith the ball down field for the occasional big strike. Then the defense needs to come up with some red zone stops.

In other words, Baltimore can win if they have the perfect game plan and execute it perfectly. It’s more realistic to hope New York just mails it in. And that makes the most realistic outcome a Giant victory.

Should Baltimore lose, that opens the door for both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to stay in the hunt for the AFC North crown, and the Bengals and Steelers meet in Pittsburgh in the CBS game that will go to a national audience (1 PM ET) with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on hand to call the game.

The Bengals come into this game with extra prep time, off last Thursday’s win in Philadelphia and they’re also healthy. The Cincy defense is playing very well in all phases right now. On the flip side, we can say that the Steelers don’t run the ball against anyone, regardless of whether their rush defense is good or bad. And the Bengal pass rush can be negated by Ben Roethlisberger’s mobility within the pocket.

Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton hasn’t improved in his second season and a lot of the team’s recent success has come in spite of him rather than because of him. That will have to continue on Sunday, because he’s facing the best pass defense in the league. The Bengals have been saved by a rush offense that’s done better than expected with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and ranks in the league’s top half.

Last week, I took Pittsburgh to beat Dallas on the grounds that in spite of the Steelers’ flaws they would give a championship effort in a big situation. They did that, but I was unprepared for the number of stupid mistakes Pittsburgh would make, especially on special teams, as they gave away a game they should have won.

The situation in the AFC is fluid enough that the Steelers still go to the playoffs if they win this game and next week against Cleveland. Even though their flaws are as obvious as those in Baltimore, I’m going to go again with Pittsburgh to dig deep and this time to eliminate the dumb mistakes. Basically it comes down to this—in a truly big game, as this one is, which organization is more likely to break the hearts of their fan base? Yeah, I think the answer to that one is Cincinnati too.

That’s the AFC North side of the whole Baltimore-NY Giants hinge game. Now let’s move to the NFC East. The Fox doubleheader opens with Dallas hosting New Orleans, in a game seen by most of the country (1 PM ET) and at the same time Washington will be in Philadelphia. If both the Cowboys and Redskins win, their Week 17 game is set up as the battle for the NFC East.

Tony Romo is playing excellent football for Dallas right now and there’s zero reason to think that will change against the New Orleans defense. Drew Brees had an outstanding game last week as the Saints demolished Tampa Bay, and killed whatever flickering playoff hopes the Bucs had. Even though New Orleans is 6-8, the main reason is the 0-4 start they had against a relatively soft schedule. The Saints are playing better of late against tough competition and given the bizarre circumstances of their season, with Bountygate and the suspensions, I think we should assume they’ll give top effort in the closing weeks.

Dallas has the capacity to make some noise defensively, and if Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer can get sacks against Brees, the Cowboys are going to win. But note that I say “sacks”, not “pressure”. If Brees gets the ball away against the blitz, this game will turn into a shootout. And if it does, I like Brees over Romo, even if the game is in Big D. I like New Orleans to get the win here, and I really like the Over 51 on the totals line in Las Vegas.

Robert Griffin III is upgraded to probable on Sunday in Philadelphia, a game that too many people are conceding to the Redskins. I know the team I root for is playing well, and the defense has made some admirable improvement. But that improvement has come post-Thanksgiving, and I’m still a little skittish on whether it’s real. Philadelphia is playing with backups at most key offensive spots, but Nick Foles has shown he’s capable of a big game. I guess I believe Washington is going to win, thanks to better offensive balance and the incomparable presence of RG3, but the fact we’re a six-point favorite on the road in a division game scares me to no end.

Sunday Night Showdown: San Francisco-Seattle (8:20 PM ET, NBC): The 49ers took a lot of juice out of this game when they got their big win in Foxboro last Sunday night, a victory that had dramatic implications on the playoff bracket in both conferences. Even if San Francisco loses, they still clinch the NFC West with a win over Arizona in Week 17.

But lack of juice doesn’t mean nothing’s on the line. San Francisco has to hold off Green Bay for the #2 seed and first-round bye in the NFC playoffs, and the Packers are only a half-game back. Most of us assume Seattle will be in the playoffs, but that’s still not official and I’m sure they don’t want to play a feisty St. Louis team in Week 17 with that still in doubt. Each team’s got reason to play.

Both teams play outstanding defense and both do it in very aggressive fashion, which should make for a fun game to watch—well, unless you’re addicted to flag-football style games and big Fantasy point totals. But if you like to watch genuinely good defense, this game will offer it.

Each quarterback is mobile, in Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Each team has the ability to run the ball, though the challenges they’ll face on defense are considerable. In the end, I think this is a homefield game. San Francisco won the first meeting in a 13-6 defensive battle. I see a few more points this time around but not many, and I like Seattle. Kaepernick is more susceptible to the big mistake than Wilson and that spells the difference in the game. The Over/Under on this game is low, at 39.5, but I’d still go under. Unless you get defensive scores, the offenses won’t push it any higher.

Other NFL Week 16 games involving playoff contenders…

Minnesota-Houston:  The Vikings are still in the hunt for a wild-card berth at 8-6, but games with the Texans and Packers are a tough row to hoe. At the very least, both will be indoors (Week 17 is at home). But Houston still needs to win one more game to seal homefield advantage, and as good as Adrian Peterson is, Minnesota needs to get some production through the air to win a game like this. The guess here is that Wade Phillips’ defense forces Christian Ponder into mistakes, which in turn takes away the running game and Houston pulls away.

Atlanta-Detroit: This game is on Saturday night (ESPN, 8:30 PM ET) as the substitute for Monday Night Football, because of Christmas Eve. Atlanta is another team that needs one more win to nail down the #1 seed, and after Detroit’s 38-10 loss to Arizona last week, it’s safe to say the Lions have called it a season.

Cleveland-Denver: After the way the Browns wilted against the Redskins in the second half of a home game, how can you be confident of their ability to compete on the road in Denver? After their defense was picked apart by Kirk Cousins, how can you like their chances against Peyton Manning?

New England-Jacksonville: Unless you think Denver is going to lose either this week or next week in a home game with Kansas City, the New England regular season is effectively over. They are the #3 seed in the AFC and the sole focal point has to be getting Rob Gronkowski back and flowing into the offense. The tight end is listed as questionable for this week, so the next two games amount to 120 minutes of glorified practice time for him.

Indianapolis-Kansas City: Even though the Colts lost their dark horse chance at the AFC South, they still need a win to clinch an improbable playoff spot and with the inspiration this team is playing with for Chuck Pagano, there’s no way they won’t be ready. And if they’re ready, there’s no way they’ll lose.

Chicago-Arizona: Don’t write off the Bears just yet. If the Giants lose in Baltimore, it’s Chicago who controls its destiny for the last playoff spot, and the only obstacles are the Cardinals and Lions. Actually I should issue an apology to the word “obstacles” for daring to ascribe that term to Arizona and Detroit.

Tennessee-Green Bay: The ugly Monday Night win for Tennessee over the Jets showed two things—the Titans are still showing up and competing. They also have no offense. The Packers have Clay Matthews back and he quickly got into form with a couple sacks in Chicago last week and they might get Charles Woodson back this week to. And they’re playing to put some pressure on San Francisco for that #2 seed. The Packers win big.

Buffalo-Miami: The Dolphins are still breathing in the playoff picture at 6-8, and while it’s a huge longshot, at this time of year you grasp at any chance there is. If Buffalo was going to show up for December, they might have done so last week against Seattle. Instead they lost 50-17 in a quasi-home game up in Toronto. The Bills’ bodies may show up in South Beach, but I doubt their hearts and minds are there.

Three games have no playoff implications and its San Diego-NY Jets, Oakland-Carolina and St. Louis-Tampa Bay. Though I’m sure the media will find some way to make sure the Jets’ quarterback situation gets into the headlines.