Hello everyone and welcome to the penultimate regular season edition of Any Given Sunday. This week I have again excluded the games that do not have any bearing on the playoffs, but fear not the vast majority of the Week 16 contests are covered in this preview.
After you get done commenting on all of my predictions in this thread, please take a moment and check out the official Niner's Nation Bowl Game Thread.
I know that the holidays can be a very busy time for everyone, so I would just like to take this moment and thank you for spending some time with me and the rest of the Niner's Nation contributors. Now let's get to the games.
Sunday 1 PM EST
After attending teammate Chris Henry's funeral just five days before this game, the Bengals have a chance to clinch the AFC North title for the third week in a row. They played well in a loss to San Diego on a road last week, and they will need that same focus coming into this week's match-up. If Cincinnati fails to put away the Chiefs, their road to the playoffs will get much more difficult with a game against the Jets next week.
The newest member of the Bengals, Larry Johnson, will get his first chance to play against his former team. Johnson has played well in a backup role since joining Cincinnati, and he along with starter Cedric Benson should have plenty of success against a Kansas City team that gave up 351 rushing yards to Cleveland last week.
Prediction: Cincinnati Bengals
Check out the rest of the games after the jump...
Seattle Seahawks @ Green Bay Packers
Green Bay is coming off a disappointing loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and they will be looking to rebound against the struggling Seahawks. The Packers cannot afford a hangover from their last second loss to hamper their performance against Seattle. While they are in control of their own playoff destiny another loss could put them at risk of missing the postseason.
Expect rookie linebacker Clay Matthews to have a big game in this match up. He is second among rookies with 10 sacks, and he Seattle's offense has become one dimensional due to their struggling running game. If the Seahawks cannot keep Matthews from coming off the edge, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck could find himself on his back more than he'd like.
Prediction: Green Bay Packers
Houston Texans @ Miami Dolphins
This game is essentially a playoff elimination round for both of these teams. Although he has played well overall, quarterback Chad Henne cost Miami a chance at an 8-6 record when he threw an interception in overtime last week against the Titans. Henne and the Dolphins young receiving corp have shown promise in recent weeks, and they will need to continue their progression if they want to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
On defense Miami will be relying on three rookies: Vontae Davis, Chris Clemmons, and Sean Smith to slow down Houston's second ranked passing attack. The Dolphins' secondary vs. the Texans' Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson will be a key match up in this game.
Prediction: Miami Dolphins
Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers
After last week's thrilling win over Green Bay, the Steelers are suddenly in the playoff picture again. Ben Roethlisberger threw for a franchise record 503 yards against the Packers, and his play could be the difference in this match up. He missed Pittsburgh's first game against Baltimore, so the Ravens will have a much more difficult task this time around.
Baltimore has struggled playing against the Steelers on the road since Heinz Field was opened in 2001. The Ravens are just 2-8 at Heinz Field all-time, and they will need to find a way to clear that mental hurdle if they are going to stay ahead of Pittsburgh in the wild card race. The Ravens' defense has improved as the year has progressed, and they are now ranked 2nd in total defense DVOA. This should be a very close game, but Baltimore has proven that they are the more complete team this year and they should be able to get the win.
Prediction: Baltimore Ravens
Carolina Panthers @ New York Giants
The Panthers have already been eliminated from the playoffs, and the Giants need a win to stay alive. This game could come down to the play of each team's respective quarterbacks. New York's Eli Manning has been on fire in the month of December throwing for 900 yards, 8 touchdowns, and only one interception in his three starts this month. He will face a tough test going up against the Panther defense ranked 5th in pass defense DVOA, but if his line can contain the pass rush of Julius Peppers he should be able to have some success.
For Carolina, these last few games are essentially an audition for third year pro Matt Moore. He had a big game last week against Minnesota, and a strong finish for Moore could put him in line for the starting job next season. The Panthers have been a disappointment in 2009, but they have shown signs of life recently and they are talented enough to spoil the Giants playoff hopes.
Prediction: Carolina Panthers
Both of these teams are in the thick of the playoff hunt so the atmosphere in Gillette Stadium should be electric. The Jaguars' David Garrard has had a solid season at the quarterback position, but the last two weeks he has had an opportunity to lead his club on a game winning drive and failed to do so. While Jacksonville still has a chance at a wild card berth, those missed opportunities could haunt them all off season. New England's defense has the league's highest variance in their DVOA from week to week, so if the Jaguars execute they could put up a lot of points.
The Patriots are in position to lock up the AFC East title, but in recent weeks they have been winning in spite of Tom Brady. He has play has been uncharacteristically poor over the last four weeks, having thrown for only four touchdowns and six interceptions during that span. There is a good chance he will be able to rebound against the Jaguars non existent pass rush. While New England is still in good position to secure a division title, they will need their Pro Bowl quarterback to find his rhythm if they are going to have success in the postseason.
Prediction: New England Patriots
Despite losing to Dallas last week, the Saints can wrap up the NFC's number one seed with a win over Tampa Bay. It is hard to judge how New Orleans will react to the end of their undefeated run, but I suspect they will come out focused on the task at hand. With so much still to play for, this is no time to stay down after a loss. The Saints put up 38 points against the Buccaneers in their first meeting this season, and I expect they will use this as an opportunity to eclipse that mark and make one final statement before they rest their players for the playoffs.
Tampa Bay is coming off a rare win last week, but they will face a much higher level of competition on the road at New Orleans. Tight end Kellen Winslow has been the Buccaneer's most consistent threat on offense this season, and he will need to have a big game if they are going to pull off the upset.
Prediction: New Orleans Saints
Sunday 4:05-4:15 PM EST
With the NFC West division title already wrapped up, the Cardinals are playing for seeding. However, they are a long shot for a first round bye so it will be interesting to see how long Coach Ken Whisenhunt keeps his starters in. I expect the focus for Arizona will be on fine tuning their team in preparation for the post season. Rookie running back Beanie Wells has played well as of a late and he should see a lot of carries in this one. If the Cardinals can develop a consistent running threat with Wells it would greatly improve their hopes of returning to the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, the Rams have the league's worst record and have nothing to play for but pride and the draft. Still, they gave Houston a scare last week and I expect they will be able to keep this game close; you always have a chance with Steven Jackson in your backfield. Jackson currently leads the NFC with 1,353 rushing yards.
Prediction: Arizona Cardinals
Denver Broncos @ Philadelphia Eagles
There will be an emotional side to this game, as longtime Eagle's safety Brian Dawkins returns to his old stomping grounds. Dawkins embodied the spirit of Philadelphia's defense during his 13 year tenure as a member of the team, and many fans were outraged when the team let him sign with the Broncos as a free agent this off-season. He will have to play well if Denver is going to keep DeSean Jackson in check. Jackson has made explosive plays a weekly ritual for Philadelphia's offense and the Broncos will need to keep close tabs on the former Golden Bear.
The Eagles have been on a roll lately, having won five in a row. They have already secured a spot in the playoffs, but they are still playing for the NFC East title and a first round bye. Although their offense has been criticized for relying too heavily on the big play and their linebacking corp has been decimated by injuries, they have remained remarkably consistent. They are now ranked number one in total DVOA, and I expect they will prove too strong for the Broncos on the road.
Prediction: Philadelphia Eagles
New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts
With their playoff positing secure, the Colts are still playing for perfection. Last week Coach Jim Caldwell kept his top players in against the Jaguars, so it seems likely that he will do the same this week. Traditionally Indianapolis has rested their starters once they locked up their playoff seeding, but Caldwell appears to be opting for a different approach this season. One reason could be the relative youth of this Colts team compared to years past. Several rookies are seeing extended playing time at key positions, including wide receiver and in the secondary. If nothing else this game should be a good tune-up for the playoffs as the Jets boast the league's top rated defense and rushing attack.
Despite their proficiency in those areas, New York has been held back by the play of their rookie quarterback. After a promising start to the season, Mark Sanchez has shown a disturbing lack of ball security. He currently leads the AFC with 20 interceptions, and he will need to make better decisions with the football if the Jets want to pull off the upset and stay in the hunt for the postseason.
Prediction: Indianapolis Colts
Sunday 8:20 PM EST
Last Monday night the Redskins suffered one of the worst losses in franchise history before a national television audience. The players seem to have finally given up on the season, and if they do not put out a better effort against the rival Cowboys it could mean big changes are in store this off-season. The most glaring problem with Washington remains their offensive line. At this point in the season it is doubtfully that they will suddenly improve, but that is what the Redskins need if they are going to slow down DeMarcus Ware and the Cowboys pass rush.
For Dallas, this game is all about taking care of business. There is no reason why they shouldn't beat the Redskins, but they need to keep their focus against a lesser opponent. Offensively they have been carried by Tony Romo as of late. Although he has been much maligned for his poor play in past Decembers, Romo has lit up opposing defenses this year. It is important that the Cowboys' stars continue to play well in order to build some momentum heading into the postseason.
Monday 8:30 PM EST
After last week's disappointing loss to the Panthers, the Vikings need to regroup and get back on track this week against the Bears. Not only did Minnesota fail to take advantage of New Orleans' loss, but an apparent schism between Brett Favre and Coach Brad Childress has arisen. The issue is Favre's tendency to audible out of run plays and into passes, which allegedly frustrates Childress' play calling strategies. In my opinion this is the kind of problem that a blowout victory against the Bears will take care of. While I could see a lack of respect between Favre and Childress having a negative affect against a good team in the playoffs, I don't think it will come into play much on Monday night.
For the Bears, Monday will be all about salvaging something positive from a lost season. Quarterback Jay Cutler continues to struggle with his ball security and leads the league with 25 interceptions. While Chicago does have some talented young players on their roster, they need them to start fulfilling their potential if they're going to return to their winning ways. If they continue to falter down the stretch, it could cost their coaches job as well as their own.