Week 16 is upon us, and the action got underway Thursday night as Tennessee moved one step closer toward securing the top pick in the 2015 NFL draft with a loss to the Jaguars.
But let’s stop while we’re ahead because there are actually meaningful NFL games on the slate this Sunday and on Monday night.
A week ago, we whiffed, our worst week of the season. Pittsburgh handled the Falcons, Denver took care of the Chargers, and Johnny Manziel was shutout against Cincinnati. We narrowly escaped with the Cowboys winning and taking over control of the NFC East.
That was then. This is now, and we’re ready to make amends. Let’s move onto Week 16 where we dissect five significant showdowns.
Atlanta Falcons @ New Orleans Saints
Nearly four months have passed since these two rivals last met in the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons knocked off the Saints in overtime and began what we eventually saw as the most convoluted division in all of football.
That first meeting between the two teams included 71 points, 139 plays, and a combined 1,040 yards of offense. What a week to have Falcons or Saints players in your fantasy football championships!
Even more is at stake in this game, as with a win the Saints can eliminate Atlanta from NFC South contention, which spells the end of the road for their arch-rival. New Orleans controls its playoff destiny, but must win out in order to do so, assuming the Panthers don’t slip up along the way.
The issue is that the Saints have not had Dome-field advantage this season, with a measly 3-4 mark in the Superdome, having lost their last four games at home, including two blowouts.
Bold prediction: This week, both teams have exchanged trash talk, which is expected when these two teams meet. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis said Sunday would be the Falcons’ funeral, while injured Atlanta linebacker Sean Witherspoon said his team’s bringing their brooms to the Bayou. It’s interesting to note that since the Drew Brees era in New Orleans, the Saints are 13-4 versus Atlanta, so history dictates the Saints should take care of business yet again on Sunday. Julio Jones is a question mark, and by far the difference-maker for Atlanta’s offense. The Saints defense is starting to figure things out just in the nick of time. This division needs a winner, and it might as well be the pre-season favorite. Saints return the favor and earn the blowout win, as home-field advantage returns to New Orleans.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers offense has been incredible this season, thanks to the triplets of Big Ben, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. But as explosive as their offense has been, their defense has been incredibly beatable.
According to NumberFire, the Steelers’ defense has allowed each of the last four quarterbacks it has faced — Zach Mettenberger, Drew Brees, Andy Dalton and Matt Ryan — to post top-10 passing net expected points against them. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Alex Smith is coming to town.
Smith has only eclipsed 180 yards passing in three of his last six games, which includes two meetings with the Raiders. Still, the Chiefs have yet to see one of their wide receivers haul in a touchdown pass. Not surprisingly, the Chiefs have gone 3-3 during that stretch and find themselves one game out of the playoff picture and in a must-win situation come Sunday.
Bold prediction: Given how Kansas City has played in the latter half of the season and the fact it’s stumbling into this meeting of Wild Card hopefuls with a 1-3 record over the past month, the odds are certainly in the Steelers’ favor. Pittsburgh remains in both the Wild Card hunt and in the mix for a division crown, if the team can get a little help from Denver on Monday night. It was at Heinz Field when Ben Roethlisberger began that tear of six-touchdown games against Indianapolis and Baltimore. He’s averaged almost 374 yards passing at home this season, and that trend is bound to continue. Big Ben hits both Brown and Martavis Bryant for two touchdowns apiece, shoving it in the Chiefs’ face that they haven’t had a wide receiver catch a touchdown pass yet this season.
Indianapolis Colts @ Dallas Cowboys
There’s something … off … about the Colts right now, and it begins with their quarterback. Andrew Luck has thrown four interceptions and fumbled five times since the team’s Week 10 bye, and that’s coming against the likes of Jacksonville, Washington, Cleveland, and Houston. Since they’ve already clinched an AFC South title they may not be as hungry as they ought to be at this juncture in the season.
The team continues to trot out ineffective offensive players such as Trent Richardson and Reggie Wayne, when they should be giving more opportunities to Daniel “Boom” Herron and rookie Donte Moncrief. In this showdown with Dallas, top wideout T.Y. Hilton is questionable after failing to practice Wednesday and Thursday due to a hamstring injury.
Tony Romo and the Cowboys continued their dominance on the road Sunday night when they ran over Philadelphia to take over control of the NFC East. The 38-27 victory marked Dallas’ seventh road win of the year, whereas every other team in the league has at least two road losses.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, who are 7-0 away from their home stadium, this showdown is being played in Jerry’s World. And that’s not even the biggest storyline.
MVP candidate and running back DeMarco Murray is not a lock to play after undergoing hand surgery to repair a break in his left hand on Monday. The decision to play will be up to Murray, according to ESPN Dallas, as the back practiced — albeit on a limited basis — Thursday in hopes of playing on Sunday.
Bold prediction: If Murray can suit up and be effective with a cast on his left hand, we might as well gift wrap him the MVP trophy. Emmitt Smith did something similar back in 1999 after undergoing surgery midway through the year, but missed a game. It’s sort of fitting, though, to see Murray emulate Smith when he’s 87 yards shy of breaking the former Cowboys great’s single-season rushing record. To play devil’s advocate, Murray is in a contract year and he’s already set himself up to do well as a free agent. A setback with his hand could not only damage his chances of landing a mega-deal but destroy the Cowboys’ chances of being formidable in the postseason. But let’s say Murray is a go. Expect him to just get those 87 yards — if that — as the Cowboys knock off Indy. It won’t be Murray’s best statistical day, but it’ll say enough about his toughness and a go long way in the MVP race.
Seattle Seahawks @ Arizona Cardinals
Wasn’t it just a month ago when these two teams squared off in the Pacific Northwest and the defending Super Bowl champions wiped the slate clean with the Drew Stanton-led Cardinals?
Fast forward to Week 16, and now the suddenly revitalized Legion of Boom is chomping at the bit to harass another Cardinals backup quarterback, this time Ryan Lindley.
Lindley gets the start in place of an injured Stanton, who like Carson Palmer was injured in the team’s victory against St. Louis. Lindley last drew a start in the NFL back in 2012, when he played six games and started four as a rookie. In those games, he threw seven picks, was sacked 12 times, lost a pair of fumbles, didn’t throw a touchdown pass and finished with the worst single-season passer rating among quarterbacks with at least 150 pass attempts since 2009, according to Stats LLC.
Shall I continue?
Lindley’s second chance comes against a Seattle defense that has been on fire of late. The league’s top-ranked defense in terms of yardage allowed and No. 2 unit in terms of points allowed, the Seahawks have held their opponents to under 7.0 points per game and 188 yards of total offense in their last four games — all wins — which began in their triumph over Arizona back on Nov. 23.
Bold prediction: With a win, Seattle can tie Arizona with an 11-4 record and move back into first place in the NFC West. Oh, and what a story that would be after the champs began the year 3-3 with back-to-back losses to Dallas and St. Louis, then lost in Week 11 in Kansas City. Overreaction — I think so, too. The Seahawks are rolling and again look to be the class of not only the NFC, but the entire NFL. The offense isn’t wowing anybody, but the defense certainly is. And there may not be a bigger mismatch this weekend then Seattle’s D lining up against a third-string quarterback with four starts under his belt. The Seahawks roll Arizona in the desert, posting a shutout of the lowly Cardinals, who’ll need a bit of luck and a lot of health to regain their form in the postseason.
Denver Broncos @ Cincinnati Bengals
Much like the Colts, the Broncos have been winning a lot lately, but there’s something fishy about the whole situation. We got some insight into what could be the problem on Thursday, when quarterback Peyton Manning left practice to undergo thigh treatment. Manning has not been the MVP-worthy passer he was at the start of the season, averaging under 250 yards passing with eight touchdowns and four interceptions over his last five games.
Still, Denver has been piling up the wins, largely due to their newly discovered running game headed by C.J. Anderson. The third-string running back has been the linchpin for the offense which has averaged nearly 165 yards on the ground the past four weeks, compared to fewer than 90 yards per game through the first 11 weeks of the season.
It seems very unlikely Manning won’t be ready for Monday night’s showdown against Cincinnati, which has won four of its last five games and continues to hold onto first place in the crowded AFC North.
The Bengals are now notorious for delivering the first loss of the Johnny Football era in Cleveland, and doing so with a 30-0 shutout. But for Bengals fans, as awful as Manziel was, Andy Dalton didn’t fare much better. Dalton threw for 117 yards with a pick, leaving us with more questions than answers as the team inches closer and closer to the playoffs.
Bold prediction: At the beginning of the year, this looked like a game that would feature explosive offenses with the likes of Manning and A.J. Green and Demaryius Thomas and Gio Bernard all involved. Now it’s looking like a time of possession battle, where the winner can cruise onto Week 17 with a 14-7 victory. Maybe this is the game Manning decides to shut us all up with a 350-yard, four-touchdown game, exposing the Bengals secondary. Perhaps this is Dalton’s turn to shine, mustering up big-time performance to remind everyone that Cincy is leading the AFC North for a reason. But on any given Sunday, I’d take a banged up Manning over Dalton at 100 percent. I do think Manning shakes off what’s been ailing him — at least temporarily — with a very precise victory at home to stay alive in the race for the AFC’s top seed.