The Playbook: Previewing Panthers-Saints, Ravens-Patriots, more Week 16 games
New Orleans (10-4) at Carolina (10-4) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The first highly anticipated matchup between these NFC South rivals this season turned into a laugher. In it, the Saints pestered Cam Newton into a subpar performance en route to an easy 31-13 victory. The Panthers will need Newton at his absolute best in Sunday’s rematch, which could decide the division (New Orleans clinches with a win; Carolina would need only a win or Saints loss in Week 17 to secure the title, if it wins this week).
However, Newton’s issues were only a small part of the problem in that first meeting with New Orleans. Of greater concern was the secondary’s utter inability to stymie Drew Brees and the Saints’ passing attack. Brees made it look awfully easy, finishing with 313 yards and four touchdowns, two each to Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham. Nine Saints in all caught passes on a clueless Carolina D that day. If there’s a silver lining for Carolina, it is that such an outing has been an anomaly this season. Despite Brees’ bullying, the Panthers still sit No. 2 in points allowed, and in the top five against both the run and pass. The defense has been particularly good at home, too, holding every opponent thus far under 20 points.
Other than the two touchdowns, the Panthers actually did a decent job corralling Graham — six catches for 58 yards. Figuring out some way to slow Colston and New Orleans’ other receivers might be the key to victory, though that’s easier said than done.
The home/road splits for both teams have been significant. New Orleans and Carolina are a combined 13-1 on home turf and just 7-7 away. Brees’ offense also averages fewer than 20 points outside the Superdome. Upping the ante further: Sunday’s losing team could head to Week 17 in need of a victory to make the playoffs. – Chris Burke
Indianapolis (9-5) at Kansas City (11-3) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Colts faced the Chiefs in Week 16 of the 2012 season, as well. Though Indianapolis won that game 20-13, Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles torched Chuck Pagano’s defense for 226 rushing yards on 22 carries. And that was for a team that would win just two games all season.
Coming off his incendiary five-touchdown performance last Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, Charles has established himself as a legitimate sub-Manning MVP candidate on an 11-3 team fighting for playoff positioning. So, with that history in place, you don’t need to tell the Colts what Charles can do to them. They are all too aware.
“He’s everything,” Pagano said of Charles this week. “He drives the bus. Quarterback is the guy, but everything goes through him. As he goes, they go. Eighteen-hundred-plus yards, second in the National Football League from scrimmage this year. Eighteen touchdowns, number one in the NFL. We saw what he did last year. The guy is first and foremost public enemy No. 1. We got to do a great job and we better know where he’s at all times.”
Another challenge for the Colts will be putting their iffy offensive line up against a Chiefs defense that has regressed in recent weeks, but one that can still put a serious beating on any quarterback when they’re aligned. Recent dominant performances against the Redskins and Raiders may not indicate what will happen against playoff-level teams, but Indy’s offense has been a mixed bag at best since the team lost Reggie Wayne for the remainder of the season.
The Colts’ formula for playoff success is fairly simple at this point — beat the Chiefs and Jaguars, hope the Ravens can win out and/or the Patriots lose at least one game, and they wrap up the AFC’s No. 2 seed. Well, that’s not a simple formula, but it would be a big deal for a team that can match last season’s 11-5 record despite 14 players on injured reserve, tied for the most in the NFL.
Kansas City’s postseason route is more circuitous. If it wins out and Denver loses one of its last two games, Andy Reid would steal the conference’s top seed in his first year with the team. Coming off 2012′s 2-14 season, that would qualify as one of the greatest coaching jobs in recent memory. Even if they land just a wild-card spot, Reid should be the shoo-in pick for NFL Coach of the Year. – Doug Farrar
New England (10-4) at Baltimore (8-6) — 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: The Patriots have allowed fewer field goals this season (20) than all but five other teams. Does that alone serve as a bad omen for the Ravens, who have leaned so heavily on kicker Justin Tucker during their second-half resurgence?
There are all sorts of playoff implications here: AFC East title, AFC North title, wild-card race, home-field advantage. In terms of just getting to the postseason, the pressure’s still on the defending champion Ravens, who may have to stretch their current four-game win streak into a six-gamer just to play past Week 17.
Helping that cause along was the recent return of tight end Dennis Pitta, arguably Joe Flacco’s favorite target. Pitta made just two catches in the Ravens’ 18-16 Monday night win in Detroit, but Flacco targeted him 10 times the week prior. His presence also might sting the Patriots a little more, considering they’re without Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the season (and possibly beyond). Of course, Tom Brady remains plenty dangerous without Gronk — he threw for 364 yards in last week’s loss to Miami.
The Ravens defense more than answered the bell against a shaky Matthew Stafford in Detroit, mostly slamming the door other than on the Lions’ first and penultimate drives. Whether they can generate a repeat performance might hinge on how well the Ravens can limit the Patriots’ run game. Bill Belichick does not hesitate to roll through all of his running backs, so Baltimore has to be ready for everything and the kitchen sink.
In only one of New England’s four losses (Week 11 at Carolina) did it crank out more than 100 yards rushing. Baltimore’s had its own issues (and then some) on the ground, but Ray Rice has gradually shown some signs of life. He and Bernard Pierce will match wits with a Patriots D that’s allowing the second most yards rushing in all of football. – CB
Chicago (8-6) at Philadelphia (8-6) — 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: The Bears’ run defense has everyone in the Windy City upset, and for good reason — this formerly dominant unit is allowing a league-worst 152.4 yards per game on the ground. But the hidden problem along that line is the worrisome lack of anything resembling a consistent pass rush. Chicago is also dead-last in the league with just 26 sacks, and it also has a worrisome lack of overall quarterback pressures.
The addition of former Dallas Cowboys interior lineman Jay Ratliff has helped a bit, and it looks like linebacker Lance Briggs will be back in action for the first time since Oct. 20. The Bears will need all the help they can get because Philly’s complex zone running scheme is firing on all cylinders. Running back LeSean McCoy has said that he wants the team to put the offense on his back, and McCoy has all the talent required to carry that burden.
“I want to roll,” he said this week. “I feel like myself and the big guys up front — we’ve got to put this game on our back and take care of business and get a win.” McCoy carried the ball just eight times against the Vikings, one week after he set a team record with 217 rushing yards against the Detroit Lions. It’s clear that McCoy sees the Bears’ primary weakness — and he would like Chip Kelly to react accordingly. “We watched the tape. A lot of guys are gashing them. Missed tackles and things like that, it all adds up. It’s a big game. I feel like the matchup is there.”
The Bears will look to roll against an Eagles defense that was exploited by Minnesota’s choice to use multiple formations, creating blocking mismatches at every turn. Head coach Marc Trestman has used receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey in some very creative ways this season, and Philly’s secondary will struggle to counter when Jay Cutler goes up top and allows Marshall and Jeffrey to win physical battles in coverage.
If the Bears are able to take care of business here, and the Packers and Lions lose, Chicago will wrap up the NFC North. Meanwhile, the Eagles would clinch the NFC East with a win and a Dallas loss or tie. – DF