Nothing goes better with the holidays than football, eh? We may not have the greatest matchups of the season this week, but more than enough to whet our palate for the playoffs. Our Christmas night game on NFL Network should be as good as any this week — Chargers at Titans — and we still have one team continuing its path to perfection. The playoff picture should crystallize more this week and, with any luck, we’ll have at least a few spots still on the line come Week 17.
Here is the rundown:
Jets at Colts: Will the Colts go 16-0? How much will they push to do so? As their last game went on, it became increasingly clear that guys like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis had no interest in resting. I wouldn’t risk too much here, personally. The Jets have the best scoring defense in the league, Rex Ryan can dial up ways to get to your quarterback and New York is trying to retain its playoff life. The Jets will not lack for motivation. It’s a physical defense, even with some key injuries. This one could be tricky terrain for rookie coach Jim Caldwell to navigate. Should be a good test of just how willing the Colts are to sacrifice potential history for what they believe makes the best sense in terms of the Super Bowl.
Chargers at Titans: We get to finish our NFL Network schedule with what should be another excellent game. San Diego may be playing the best football in the NFL right now, and certainly its passing attack is as good as it gets. The Titans have been absolutely reborn after an 0-6 start and the only loss over that span came against Indy. The Titans will try to beat you up, and the Chargers have had trouble with physical teams like Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Titans RB Chris Johnson is chasing the single-season rushing record. Vince Young is flashing franchise quarterback potential. It should make for a great Christmas present for football fans everywhere.
Ravens at Steelers: It’s a slugfest whenever these teams get together, not to mention in a spot like this — a must-win for both teams (or close to it). Nothing could do more to excite the Steelers and their fans at this point that derailing Baltimore’s playoff push. The Ravens can’t afford any more AFC defeats, and barely beat the Steelers, at home, in overtime, a few weeks back even with Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines. A win here would further boost the Ravens for what could be a formidable playoff ride (they reached the championship game as a wild-card team with a rookie coach and quarterback a year ago). The Ravens might be wise to go with unbalanced line and power formations and try to pound the ball on Pittsburgh, something they had success with in the first meeting. The Steelers will try to chuck the ball all over the place on Baltimore’s beat-up secondary.
Broncos at Eagles: The Brian Dawkins Bowl! The longtime Eagles stalwart safety, the heart and soul of so many elite Eagles defenses and an all-time fan favorite there, returns less than a year after leaving as a free agent. And he’d like nothing more than to head west with a W. In a week where there are few games that feature two teams who seem like playoff locks, this qualifies. There could be a fair amount of offensive fireworks here, and I’d expect a highly entertaining affair. I like Donovan McNabb, bigtime, in spots like this, and the Broncos could find themselves in big trouble with Baltimore and Pittsburgh having tiebreakers over them.
Vikings at Bears: There are some in the NFL who wonder how Brett Favre, at this late stage of the season, would hold up under very cold conditions. Given the way the NFC playoff situation is shaping up, he might be dome-bound from here on out. But this is another game where a struggling team possibly sticks it to its thriving rival. Throw in all of Favre’s latest drama — I leave a game when I want to leave a game — and you have to wonder about the Vikings. I don’t necessarily think the upset happens here, but the Bears gave the Packers a good fight a few weeks back, and will try to do the same here. Jay Cutler has actually been quasi-okay at home. Chicago’s rushing attack and defense have been so bad, however, that they have generally trumped all else come game day. Lovie Smith had best avoid another blowout.
Cowboys at Redskins: This had all the makings of a trap game, didn’t it? That was before the Redskins fell down the stairs Monday night. That’s the ‘Skins team most expected to see down the stretch: A complete departure from the over-achieving bunch the past five weeks. It’s a rivalry game, so don’t discount the ‘Skins giving Dallas a game like they did in Texas last month. But the utter lack of anything resembling an offensive line would seem to be enough to undermine the Redskins against a Cowboys team in need of a win.
Jaguars at Patriots: The Jags simply cannot afford a third straight loss and expect to have a postseason berth. Given the various ailments along New England’s defensive line, and the fact that Jacksonville runs the ball inside much more than any team in the NFL, that might not be a bad mode of attack. The Patriots are looking to rejoin the AFC’s elite, and Jacksonville’s porous pass defense would seem problematic for the Jags here. We saw Peyton Manning pick on over-anxious safety Reggie Nelson in key spots last Thursday, and I’d expect Tom Brady/Randy Moss to try to pick up where the Colts left off.
Panthers at Giants: The Giants are still alive in the playoffs and just completed a tough stretch against divisional foes. Their biggest issue — downfield pass coverage — shouldn’t be a problem here, as long as the safeties don’t blow Cover-2 assignments against Steve Smith (something far too frequent this season). Ahmad Bradshaw‘s better health has given a significant lift to New York’s run game. Eli Manning is generally very good in big games like this, particularly at home.
Texans at Dolphins: Both of these teams have probably let their playoff hopes slip away. This looks like a physical mismatch on paper, with the Dolphins seemingly in position to exert their will at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. I would expect Houston to try to test Miami’s young corners as much as possible, especially given the limitations in its running game right now. If the Texans want to make a case for Gary Kubiak to remain their head coach, it may take some kind of great finish. Expectations were high this season, and, like with their playoff chances, perhaps it’s already too late.
Chiefs at Bengals: The Larry Johnson Bowl! LJ gets to play the team that released him earlier this season after he made some ill-advised comments about coach Todd Haley, and wrote some very poorly thought out tweets. Now he’s with a team a win away from clinching the AFC North, while the Chiefs are far from being competitive at this point. A must-win game for a Bengals team that has dealt with more than its share of adversity this season. The Ravens just might push them until the end for that division crown. This is a good opportunity for Cincy’s passing game to restore some confidence.
Buccaneers at Saints: New Orleans should bounce back from its first loss of the season. Losing a game, to me, is something of a relief. No one has to sweat going 16-0, playing for a perfect season, etc. All the questions about chasing history are gone. Now the Saints can regroup and just do whatever it takes to be as healthy and primed for the postseason as possible. The Saints need to get a few bodies back on defense, primarily Jabari Greer and Sedrick Ellis. If they aren’t ready for this game, they should be back a week from now. Tampa Bay appears rudderless at times and easily overwhelmed from a coaching and performance standpoint. The Bucs could be looking at the first-overall pick.
Seahawks at Packers: The Holmgren Bowl! Mike Holmgren took the West Coast offense from Green Bay to Seattle many, many moons ago, but only one of these teams has really clicked this season. The Packers have a great chance to put a strangle-hold on a playoff spot, and the Seahawks have been awful away from home this year. Lambeau Field will not be kind to them. Aaron Rodgers will continue his Pro Bowl season here.
Bills at Falcons: T.O. should be making his full-on push to showcase himself for free agency, while safety Jairus Byrd continues to add to his case for Rookie of the Year. Buffalo might be able to stick to the run game and have some success here, while the Falcons will look to finish strong after taking a step back in 2009. Matt Ryan, in particular, could benefit from a quality final few weeks.
Rams at Cardinals: Arizona can pad it’s playoff pedigree here with another divisional win and another conference win. Give the Rams credit for fighting hard, but it’s difficult to see them finding a way to slow Kurt Warner and the Arizona passing attack. This could be a chance for the Cards to rest some veterans in the second half, if not sooner.
Lions at 49ers: The Mariucci Bowl! (Mooch, by the way, is as good of a guy as you’re going to find in any profession. Love that dude.) The Lions haven’t won on the road in over two years, and the 49ers have been studs at home (just ask the Cardinals). Frank Gore alone should be enough to win this one for the 49ers. It could be a big breakout game for him.
Raiders at Browns: Okay, nothing to really see here … except Josh Cribbs. I can’t harp on this one enough (and heaven knows I’ve tried). This guy is spectacular. He is as dominant in the return game as anyone else in the NFL is at any particular job description (quarterback, pass rusher, whatever). He changes games time and time again. He’s making history week after week and adds plenty of oomph as a Wildcat quarterback, a receiver and he can play defensive back, too.