The Playbook: Previewing Panthers-Saints, Ravens-Patriots, more Week 16 games
Miami (8-6) at Buffalo (5-9) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bills have clinched their ninth straight losing season, but you can bet they’d love to spoil the Dolphins’ playoff dreams. Buffalo already has a win versus Miami under its belt this season, a 23-21 triumph in Week 7. The fill-in quarterback for Buffalo that day: Thaddeus Lewis, who will get the nod again Sunday. He threw for 202 yards (to Ryan Tannehill’s 194) in that earlier victory. — CB
Minnesota (4-9-1) at Cincinnati (9-5) – 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Andy Dalton has thrown six touchdowns and just one interception in the month of December, and the Bengals’ quarterback could feast on a Minnesota secondary that might be the NFL’s worst north of Dallas. The Bengals need this win to stay on pace with the surging Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. Their suddenly porous defensive line will be tested by Minnesota’s rushing attack — with or without Adrian Peterson. — DF
Tampa Bay (4-10) at St. Louis (6-8) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Should things fall into place for these franchises in the offseason, this could be an early preview of 2014′s surprise teams. For now, all that hinges on this outcome is draft position and pride. Bucs rookie QB Mike Glennon has slumped recently, which ought to be music to the ears of St. Louis’ remarkable pass rush, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Quinn. — CB
Dallas (7-7) at Washington (3-11) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Resistible force, meet moveable object. The Cowboys defense is the kind that could earn Kirk Cousins one of those Matt Flynn-style contracts, while the Redskins defense has allowed the NFL’s most rushing touchdowns with 21. After last Sunday’s second-half debacle against the Packers, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett had best put the ball in the hands of running back DeMarco Murray. Otherwise, Washington’s Mike Shanahan may actually have more job security than Garrett does. — DF
NY Giants (5-9) at Detroit (7-7) — 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: The Lions dipped from being in control of their playoff destiny to facing elimination this week — a Detroit loss and wins by Chicago and Green Bay would do the trick. Which error-prone quarterback, Eli Manning or Matthew Stafford, will rise to the occasion? Manning leads the league with a whopping 25 interceptions, while the well-paid Stafford has come under fire from a frustrated Detroit fan base. — CB
Arizona (9-5) at Seattle (12-2) — 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: The Cards must win out if they want to make the playoffs, and they’ll have to earn it with this trip to Seattle and next week’s game against the 49ers. The good news is that the Cards have won six of their last seven games, and the one loss was by three points. The bad news? Seattle has never lost a home game with Russell Wilson at quarterback, and despite the excellence of Arizona’s defense, it’s tough to see that trend reversing on Sunday. — DF
Pittsburgh (6-8) at Green Bay (7-6-1) — 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: The fascination recently, as it relates to Green Bay, has been over Aaron Rodgers’ health. As with Week 15, though, the Packers must win — healthy Rodgers or not — to keep pace in the NFC North race. This matchup actually may boil down not to the quarterback but to the running backs. Each team has been paced by a rookie there: 1,000-yard rusher Eddie Lacy in Green Bay and Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh. — CB
Oakland (4-10) at San Diego (7-7) – 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: The Chargers are hoping to put up a nine-win season in Mike McCoy’s first year as head coach despite a defense that has been among the NFL’s worst. The Raiders don’t really have the offensive weapons to exploit that weakness, though — in the first meeting between these teams this season, Oakland won 27-17, but did so with a defensive touchdown and two field goals. Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense present a far stronger test these days. — DF
Only For The Faithful
Denver (11-3) at Houston (2-12) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Matt Schaub will start at QB for the Texans, in front of a less-than-friendly home crowd. He’ll do so minus RB Ben Tate, who’s on injured reserve. All signs point toward an emphatic Broncos victory, but they had best beware: another loss could drop them from first to fifth in the AFC. — CB
Cleveland (4-10) at NY Jets (6-8) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Now that the Jets have officially been eliminated from the playoffs for the third straight season, we’re about to find out if Rex Ryan’s players will put forth the kind of effort that brings their coach back next year. It might take a couple of blowouts for that to happen. — DF
Tennessee (5-9) at Jacksonville (4-10) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Believe it or not, this is a battle for second place in the AFC South. And recent history would point the Jaguars’ way — they’ve won two of three and four of six in this series, including a 29-27 win at Tennessee back in Week 10 that was Jacksonville’s first of 2013. — CB
Atlanta (4-10) at San Francisco (10-4) – Monday, 8:40 p.m. ET, ESPN: The 49ers have been under the radar this season, but they’re a real threat to anyone in the playoffs, and it’s unlikely that they’ll look past the Falcons after thrashing the Bucs last Sunday. Matt Ryan’s offensive line has allowed the league’s most pressures, and he’ll be running for his life in the last regular-season game ever held at Candlestick Park. — DF
• When the Seahawks welcome the Cardinals to CenturyLink Field this Sunday, they’ll want to pepper Carson Palmer with pressure as much as possible. Though Palmer has been playing very well over the last month, he’s as vulnerable to pressure as he’s always been — he’s tied with Eli Manning for the most interceptions under pressure this season with 10, and he’s thrown just three touchdown passes while under fire.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson gets pressured a lot behind an equally questionable offensive line, but he leads the NFL in touchdown passes in such situations with 10 — one more than his idol, Drew Brees.
• It’s fairly clear that Dallas’ offense had two major issues last week against the Packers — a mind-blowing refusal to run the ball when it works, and Tony Romo’s tendency to throw picks at the worst possible time. These issues could be related. Romo has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions this season when Dallas runs play-action … so, of course, the Cowboys have only run play-action 76 times in 2013. Of course.
• Chicago’s Brandon Marshall has been lobbying for teammate Alshon Jeffrey to make the Pro Bowl, and Jeffrey has a compelling argument. Not only has Jeffrey kept pace with Marshall in production, but also he’s far more efficient when the ball comes his way. Jeffrey has dropped just four passes on 123 targets, while Marshall has dropped 11 in 140 targets. One could argue that Marshall is getting passes requiring tougher one-on-one battles, but Jeffrey has won enough of those to invalidate such talk. Outside of Jeffrey’s two fumbles this season, there’s little separating him from the league’s best at his position.
• This week’s underrated defensive tackle we’d like to bring to your attention is Denver’s Malik Jackson. While injuries to Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson have affected the Broncos’ front seven, Jackson hasn’t missed a beat. The second-year man from Tennessee ranks eighth in the league in total pressures among interior linemen with five sacks, eight quarterback hits and 23 hurries. Not bad for a fifth-round pick.
• The Vikings might want to look at a few more cornerbacks in the 2014 draft. They took Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes in the first round in 2013, and Rhodes has played reasonably well. But Minnesota also has the league’s two worst qualifying pass defenders by opponent passer rating in Chris Cook (145.5) and Josh Robinson (127.0). Cook has allowed seven touchdowns with no picks, and Robinson has allowed 56 catches on just 66 targets. – DF
• Matchup to Watch: Kirk Cousins vs. Dallas’ secondary. Cousins committed three turnovers last week in a loss to Atlanta. He also threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns — not bad for his first start since last season. Sunday, he draws a prime matchup with the Cowboys’ ghastly pass defense, the same one Green Bay’s Matt Flynn fired four touchdowns against … in the second half. Cousins worked the deep ball rather well in his first 2013 start, and Washington should give him some chances to do that again this week. The Cowboys really do not have anyone who can cover Pierre Garcon one-on-one.
• This Week’s Sleeper: Dennis Johnson, RB, Texans. The Broncos might blow the Texans out of the water Sunday, but the game at least ought to provide Houston an opportunity to give its undrafted back a heavy workload. Ben Tate joined Arian Foster on injured reserve this week, leaving Johnson as the go-to guy in the run game. Par for the course in a miserable season, Houston’s run game has been disappointing in 2013. But Johnson might be able to provide a little spark.
• Pressure’s On …: Jay Cutler, QB, Bears. The Lions’ Week 15 loss handed Chicago control of the division, for now. To keep it, the Bears need to come through on Sunday night in Philadelphia. And even with an inspired defensive effort, the Bears’ suspect run defense figures to have issues limiting LeSean McCoy. That means Cutler likely will have to hang a decent number of points on the scoreboard to walk out with a victory.
• Rookie Spotlight: Matt Elam, S, Ravens. Elam backed up some talk last week by playing his best game yet Monday in Detroit. He totaled 10 tackles and sealed the game with an interception. He’ll be put to the test again in Week 16, as he attempts to read and diagnose the Patriots offense. Gronkowski’s absence ought to make everything more manageable for the Ravens defense, but there are still several slippery receivers to deal with, plus the threat of any of New England’s backs sneaking out to make a catch. Elam can’t get beat deep and he needs to be as aggressive as he was against Detroit in coming up to help his front seven. – CB
• Baltimore. The Ravens have done just enough to take a crack at the AFC North title and the playoffs. A loss this week, however, and they could head into Week 17 out of the division race … and in need of help elsewhere. – CB •
Arizona. It’s a base formula for Bruce Arians’ team — win out or go home. If they can pull the upset against the Seahawks in Seattle, it would set the tone for a huge game against the 49ers in the regular-season finale. – DF