Each NFL week I’ll choose five particularly intriguing match-ups and analyze them. This being Week 15, there are plenty of games with drastic playoff implications. Lets take a look.
New York Giants @ Atlanta Falcons
There may be more judging eyes on the Atlanta Falcons these days, but the Giants have far more at stake this week. The 8-5 Giants are clinging to a tenuous one game lead over the surging Redskins. Unfortunately for the Giants, Washington has clinched the tiebreaker in the scenario that they tie the G-men for the division lead, making it imperative for the Giants to keep winning and sew up the NFC East. Many have already earmarked the Giants as a dangerous team in the NFC playoff field. Based on past history this is a good bet, but they need to make sure they get in first.
Atlanta faces no such worries, having secured their division in Week 14 and needing merely to win two of their final four games to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, serious questions continue to be raised about Atlanta’s legitimacy as a Super Bowl contender. Whatever goodwill the Falcons earned by picking off Drew Brees five (!) times en route to a convincing Week 13 win over the Saints was squandered in last week’s loss to the lowly Panthers. Skeptics can point out that the Falcons are merely 3-2 in their last five games, that seven of their 11 wins have come by less than a touchdown (including recent squeakers against Tampa Bay and Arizona!) and that their running game has not been nearly as effective as past seasons. The Falcons are certainly good, but its fair to question whether they peaked too early. A win in this one will go a long way to quell the notion that the Falcons are staggering into the playoffs.
Once you slog your way through the storylines, there’s some pretty good football to be found in this one. Both teams feature strong vertical passing games and weaker (albeit occasionally effective) running games. The difference lies in the defenses. The Giants have been decent against the run but leaky in the secondary, where former stalwart Corey Webster has been routinely beaten all season. The Falcons have been the opposite; they boast one of the league’s better secondaries but they’ve been mediocre at best against the run. I like the Falcons chance of exploiting the Giants secondary better than the Giants chance of controlling the game with run. Falcons get the win and deal the Giants playoff hopes a severe blow (With or without RG3, the Redskins should be able to beat Cleveland). 27-20 Falcons
Denver Broncos @ Baltimore Ravens
Big game for playoff seeding. Baltimore is currently a game back of New England and Denver courtesy of their overtime loss last week to Washington. A loss here will likely relegate them to the fourth seed and playing a Wild Card game. However, a Baltimore win coupled with a New England loss to San Francisco (certainly feasible) would enable Baltimore to jump from the four to the two-seed, as the three-team logjam behind Houston this time would have Baltimore holding the tiebreakers courtesy of wins over both Denver and New England. The two-seed and its accompanying bye week could be huge for the Ravens, who arguably have been hit harder with injuries this year than anyone in the NFL (Pittsburgh of course would fight them over this, but what else is new; Pittsburgh and Baltimore would fight over whether the sky is blue).
With their division already clinched, Denver certainly has less at stake but they are not without heavy incentive to win, as New England’s early season win over the Broncos weighs heavily on their chances of overtaking the Pats for the two-seed. A Pats loss (again not inconceivable, as they face the Niners) coupled with a Denver win would enable the Broncos to leapfrog the Pats for the two-seed. With only the Browns and Chiefs remaining on their schedule, this scenario would likely result in Denver winding up with the coveted playoff bye week and, perhaps even more importantly, the daunting home-field advantage of Mile High Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs.
After a 9-2 start, Baltimore has lost two in a row and is desperately in need of a win. Denver, meanwhile, hasn’t lost since the aforementioned Week 5 loss to New England, but they haven’t played a single playoff team (unless Cincinnati sneaks in) during that eight-game winning streak. This tells me they are due for a letdown, and a proud, talented and desperate team playing at home is just the kind of team to provide that type of reality check. Baltimore gets the upset and clinches the AFC North in the process. 24-21 Ravens
Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears
A tremendous matchup between two storied franchises and long-time rivals with serious playoff implications. Whats not to like? The Packers can clinch the NFC North with a win and remain in a dogfight with San Francisco for the NFC’s second seed. However, a Bears win will tie them with the Packers at 9-5. The Packers would still hold a tie-breaker in that scenario, but could be in danger of losing the division (and any playoff home games) if the Bears were to win out.
The real importance to this game is in the Wild Card race. Da Bears have followed up their 7-1 start by losing four of the last five games. This free-fall has not only opened the door wide open for another Packers divisional title but also has put their Wild Card hopes in jeopardy. The bad stretch by the Bears has coincided with a 4-1 run by Washington that leaves the ‘Skins merely a game behind in the Wild Card chase. With Washington facing very winnable games (Cleveland and Philadelphia) the next two weeks, it is imperative for the Bears to keep winning to avoid the kind of epic collapse that could cost Lovie Smith his job.
With that said, its tough to see the Bears getting it done this week. The Packers have won 7 of their last 8, with the only letdown coming against a dangerous Giants team that desperately needed a turnaround win. Likewise, the Bears recent losses have come not from bad luck but some serious flaws being exposed. Jay Cutler has gotten horrendous protections and has received little to no help from his receivers not named Brandon Marshall. The Bears defense is better than the offense, but they have declined considerably since the unsustainable forced turnover numbers started to slow down. The Packers will manage put some points on the board and it will be too much for the Bears to keep up with. 23-14 Packers
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Dallas Cowboys
What? No Houston-Indy? Sorry, that game has some intrigue, but both of those teams are near locks to make the postseason and highly likely to finish in the same exact seeding they currently sit at. These two teams, on the other hand, are fighting for their playoff lives. Pittsburgh is a long-shot to win their division, but currently have a lead on division rival Cincinnati for the last Wild Card spot. Next weeks showdown between the two looks to be a huge game, but Pittsburgh will likely need to win this week to (temporarily) hold them off if the Bengals can take care of Philly Thursday Night (A.J. Green against the Eagles secondary tells me that will happen). Dallas, on the other hand, has seemingly been written off most of the season. However, they still have an outside shot at the division title should the Giants stumble and are another team that could capitalize on a Chicago collapse with a Wild Card berth. Of course, much of Dallas’ hopes center around whether Dez Bryant can play (and play effectively) with his injured finger. However, the point remains that the Cowboys are very much alive still and winning out should give them a solid chance at the final NFC Wild Card.
So, who comes on top in this battle of historically great franchises? In this case, it will be the home team. Dallas is hot, having won four of their past five to make a late season vault into the playoff picture. They are also much better than their record. A few plays (including a Dez Bryant fingernail) could have turned close losses to likely playoff teams Baltimore, Atlanta and the hated Giants into wins. Most importantly, the return of RB DeMarco Murray from injury has added a semblance of balance to the offense. Dallas has been a different, better team when Murray is in the lineup. If Bryant, who has played like a Top 3 Receiver the past few weeks, is unable to go this could swing the other way, but its hard to see the limping Steelers outscore Dallas if he can play. Dallas gets the win and makes a lot of (Ok, a few) fans in Cincinnati very happy. 27-17 Cowboys
San Francisco 49ers @ New England Patriots
Back-to-back monster games for New England, who have been rewarded for their Monday Night beatdown of Houston with a short week to prepare for the Niners. There isn’t a hotter team in the league than New England, who have won seven in a row with four of those coming in blowout fashion. However, there are some match-ups in this one that should scare Patriots fans. The Patriots offensive line hasn’t been great in their past two games. Houston only sacked Brady once, but they managed to hit him hard several times, while Miami’s defensive line had their way most of their matchup before the Pats killer game-clinching drive. Thus, it shouldn’t thrill the Pats to see Aldon Smith and his 19.5 sacks coming into town. Smith and his burly counterpart, Justin Smith are the type of players that periodically give New England problems; big, physical, talented lineman. Likewise, the Niners offense brings a unique challenge to the Patriots defense. New England’s defense has steadily improved throughout the season, but struggled the last time they faced a quarterback with the athleticism to rival Colin Kaepernick (Russell Wilson). It is no coincidence that New England’s defensive improvement has coincided with a willingness to attack the opposition more with blitzing linebackers (likely due to increased confidence in the secondary since acquiring Aqib Talib); the dual-threat of Kaepernick’s game could force the linebackers to stay much more honest. New England has been able to get away with the absence of Rob Gronkowski so far, but a defense like San Francisco’s (one that gets pressure consistently from its linemen) could throw off Brady’s rhythm, making the absence of his top weapon much more noticeable. As a Patriots fan I certainly hope I’m wrong, but I can see San Francisco turning this into the type of ugly game they excel at winning. 20-17 Niners