We’re down to two weeks left in the NFL regular season and Christmas Eve Day on Saturday has the bulk of the Week 16 games. Here’s the breakdown of the action.
MAJOR TV GAMES
The three games that most of the country will see are Denver-Buffalo (1 PM ET, CBS), NY Giants-NY Jets (1 PM ET, Fox) and Philadelphia-Dallas (4:15 PM ET, Fox)…
Denver-Buffalo: If Denver wins and Oakland loses to Kansas City, the Broncos clinch the AFC West. On the surface, a collapsing Bills’ team looks like easy pickings, but if Rule #1 about the Tebow-led Broncos is to never count them out, Rule #2 is that nothing ever comes easy. If Ryan Fitzpatrick can stop throwing what’s become his standard three interceptions a game and Buffalo can run the ball with C.J. Spiller, this one will be another tough fight. Buffalo’s biggest weakness is an inability to pressure the quarterback, but against Tebow the defensive line might be just as well off playing containment anyway. For Denver, it’s imperative that their own pass-rush tandem of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil keep Fitzpatrick rattled in the pocket and to continue making mistakes. I like Denver to win this one in their usual close fashion, but to actually take the lead into the fourth quarter rather than play from behind.
NY Giants-NY Jets: It’s a disappointing year for football in the Big Apple as the two city rivals both fight for their playoff lives. A Giant loss puts them on the brink of elimination when the Cowboys-Eagles play later in the day. The Jets still lead the race for the last wild-card spot in the AFC, but at 8-6 are still looking in the rearview mirror at Cincinnati, Tennessee and Oakland, all of whom are beating Rex Ryan’s team in a free-fall to the bottom (San Diego is also 7- 7, but with a loss to the Jets, the Bolts would need a big tiebreaker train wreck to come in via the wild-card route). Both of these defenses have played mediocre at best, but the Jets have at least been pretty good at stopping the run. The Giants have put way too much pressure on Eli Manning this season and he’s going to vulnerable to mistakes against Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie on the corners if he can’t get help from the ground game. I don’t think he will, and expect the Jets to get this win.
Philadelphia-Dallas: If the Jets do win, it means that Dallas can clinch the NFC East and that Philadelphia could stay alive into Week 17. Dallas’ run defense is subpar, and I think LeSean McCoy can have a good game running the ball for the Birds, while the Cowboys have health concerns in the backfield. Felix Jones is the only healthy body, and even he’s not all that healthy with a hamstring problem. Which shifts the burden to Tony Romo, which means that resurgent defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin, who’ve been dominating in Philadelphia’s last two wins can tee off. The matchups favor Philadelphia, but much does the intangible edge of Dallas being at home matter? I think it matters enough to rattle Michael Vick, cause some turnovers and set up a Cowboy win. Another intangible factor—if the Giants win in the early time slot, this game is meaningless, as Philly would be eliminated and Dallas would have a head-to-head battle next week in the Meadowlands for the NFC East regardless.
GAMES WITH PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS
San Francisco-Seattle: The 49ers are trying to get the #2 seed. Seattle is trying to stay alive, needing to win both of their final two games, while hoping either Atlanta or Detroit collapse and lose both. The Frisco defense gets justifiable ink, but don’t overlook the Seahawks’ improving D and their ability to rush the pressure. In the raucous atmosphere of Qwest Field, I like Seattle to get turnovers and get the win.
San Diego-Detroit: The place should be rocking in Ford Field as the Lions can clinch their first playoff trip since 1999, while the Chargers will know by kickoff if Denver lost and kept the AFC West race alive. Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers in a climate-controlled environment will keep ball moving up and down the field, but Detroit’s superior ability to generate pressure from its base front four is the difference.
Arizona-Cincinnati: Arizona is 7-7 and another NFC West team hoping for a late push. The Cardinals are playing their best football right now, while the Bengals are playing their worst. I’m looking for Larry Fitzgerald to have a big game and Arizona to win based purely on momentum and current form.
Miami-New England: The Patriots need to win out to clinch the #1 seed in the AFC and with the loss of defensive end Andre Carter, they are without the pass rush that was their defense’s one saving grace. I like the Dolphins to keep this one close, but Tom Brady is enough of a saving grace himself to produce a win.
Cleveland-Baltimore: Baltimore has to win out to hold off Pittsburgh for the AFC North and they can move into the #1 spot overall if New England stumbles. Against one of the game’s worst offenses, the Ravens’ D restores its pride after that beatdown in San Diego on Sunday night.
Oakland-Kansas City: Oakland would win a tiebreaker with Denver if both teams finish 9-7, so even though the Raiders trail by a game, they’ll be in the hunt in Week 17 if they win. If the Chiefs have been anything this year it’s been inconsistent and coming off a win over Green Bay, you know what the next logical step is—self-destruction. The Raiders run the ball better than the Packers do and that keeps Tamba Hali and the Chief pass rush off-balance enough for Oakland to win.
Jacksonville-Tennessee: After losing to the Colts last week, you wouldn’t think the Titans would sleep on anyone, and they better not sleep here. As bad as Jacksonville’s offense is, they play pretty good defense and have the ability to stop Chris Johnson and bring this one down to the wire. I like the Titans to win, but for the game to be closer than the Vegas line of (+7) says.
St. Louis-Pittsburgh: The Steelers stand to move into first in the AFC North if Baltimore stumbles, but the real question is whether Pittsburgh should just rest an obviously wounded Ben Roethlisberger and just focus on a first-round playoff date at the home of the AFC West champ in two weeks. If their defense can’t carry them past the Rams at home, how much hope is there for an extended playoff run anyway?
Minnesota-Washington: I’m a Redskins fan and we have relatives from Minnesota coming in for Christmas, so I need the ‘Skins to get this game. Playing at home against a porous pass defense, look for Rex Grossman to have a good game and Washington to win. The Redskin’s well-worn path to self-destruction consists of Jared Allen pressuring Grossman into mistakes, the Vikes getting an early lead and then pounding the ball with Adrian Peterson to control the rest of the game.
Tampa Bay-Carolina: The Bucs have utterly mailed in the year, while the Panthers continue to seem like an excited team that’s building to a better 2012. And from a strategic standpoint, the Bucs can’t take advantage of Carolina’s shaky defense anyway.