The Giants travel to Baltimore for their annual must-win Week 16 game. Drew Brees looks to spoil the Cowboys’ division-title dreams. And the reeling Bears will try to avoid the same fate the Lions endured last week in the Arizona desert. Adrian Peterson, Aldon Smith and Calvin Johnson all have long-standing records in their sights. The Rams continue to eye a winning record. The Broncos and Patriots aim to win and stay healthy against overmatched opponents.
No Thursday night football, no Monday night football — but plenty of fun over the weekend. Here are the Week 16 storylines.
— Peter Schrager
Eagles still big player in NFC East
In a season lost to injuries, off-the-field tragedy and various firings and releases throughout the year, the 4-10 Eagles still can end up playing a huge role in determining how the NFC East shakes out. If these, indeed, are Andy Reid’s final two games with Philadelphia, what better way for him to go out than beating the Redskins and Giants — and crushing their longtime rivals’ playoff dreams — in Weeks 16 and 17?
Philadelphia played inspired football in Tampa Bay two weeks ago but failed to show up for the Bengals game just four days later. With 10 days to rest and prepare, don’t be shocked if the Eagles give Reid — and the home crowd — one last reason to cheer this season vs. Washington.
AP vs. the 'Bulls on Parade'
After a 212-yard effort in Minnesota’s win over the Rams in St. Louis last weekend, Adrian Peterson’s case to break Eric Dickerson’s “unbreakable” record got a whole lot better. Peterson now has 1,812 rushing yards this season, topping his previous career high of 1,760. He is just 294 yards away from passing Dickerson's 2,105.
But before we crown him as the new rushing king, though, we have to look at who he’ll be lining up against Sunday. Houston’s “Bulls on Parade” defense is giving up an average of just 93.2 rushing yards per game, good for fifth in the league. The Texans held Ray Rice to 42 yards earlier this season and Chris Johnson to 51 a few weeks back. The league’s elite runners have struggled against Houston. Then again, Peterson is in an entirely different class than those guys this season.
Here we go again?
The Bears started the season 7-3 last year before losing Jay Cutler to a wrist injury and finishing with losses in five of their final six games. After Chicago missed the playoffs, it beefed up at wide receiver by trading for Brandon Marshall and drafting Alshon Jeffery and also signed Jason Campbell to serve as Cutler’s backup.
Yet here we are a year later, and the Bears are doing the same thing they did a season ago. After starting the season 8-3, they’ve lost three straight games and are currently outside of the playoff picture.
Arizona's defense flustered the Lions offense and got to Matt Stafford in the desert last weekend. It’s no safe bet that they won’t do the same thing to Cutler and the Bears on Sunday.
The 'What the #$^% Happened This Year Bowl'
It seems like years ago, but at one point this season, the Chargers were 3-1 and in first place in the AFC West. The Jets, meanwhile, jumped out of the gates with a 2-1 record with two division wins over the Bills and Dolphins. Now, the Chargers are 5-9, the Jets are 6-8, and both fanbases are completely bewildered at how it all came undone.
Both teams were eliminated from the playoff chase in Week 15 — in embarrassing fashion. Mark Sanchez turned the ball over five times in a listless effort against the Titans, while the Panthers notched just their second road victory of the season with a 31-7 drubbing of the Chargers in San Diego. The Jets-Chargers game originally was supposed to be in primetime on Sunday night. The way football fans react to both teams on Twitter, I almost wish it still was.
More than Harbaugh vs. Carroll
The last three times these two teams played, the frosty relationship between Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll took center stage. That’s old news now. Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick — the two most unlikely starting quarterbacks set for the playoffs — will be under the spotlight. So, too, will the defenses. 49ers DE Justin Smith, injured in the second half of the 41-34 win in New England, likely will be a game-time decision.
If Seattle wins this one — and it hasn't lost at home all season — it can win the NFC West if it beats the Rams and the 49ers lose to the Cardinals in Week 17. So, yeah, there’s a bit more to watch here than a postgame handshake.
Could Rivera save his job?
The Panthers have turned it on of late, winning three of their past four games, including their first two road wins of the season. Cam Newton hasn’t thrown an interception in five weeks and the running game has awoken. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera — all but a shoe-in to be given his walking papers on Black Monday as recently as a month ago — knows Carolina needs to keep winning games for him to keep his job.
“I think we have to keep going,” Rivera said Monday. “This is not about a couple of good, emotional wins. It’s really about the whole body of work from a certain point on. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Panthers host the Raiders in Charlotte this weekend. That should be a victory.
Giants right where they want to be
This is how the Giants do it under Tom Coughlin. In 2007, when they won their first Super Bowl under Coughlin, they lost a horrible Week 15 game to the Todd Collins-led Redskins at home on a Sunday night before heading up to Buffalo and winning on the road. Last year, they fell to an even worse Redskins squad in Week 15 before beating the Jets on the road in Week 16. Both years, they marched right on to the Super Bowl.
Last week’s loss in Atlanta was terrible, but this team has been here before. Though the Vikings are currently the second wild card in the NFC, New York still controls its own playoff destiny. Win in Baltimore and at home against Philly, and the Giants are in.
Playoff atmosphere in Pittsburgh
The Steelers are 3-0 against the Bengals since Andy Dalton and A.J. Green joined Cincinnati, but no meeting has had as much riding on it than this one. With Baltimore having already clinched either the AFC North title or a wild-card berth and Indianapolis likely in with an expected win over the Chiefs, there’s one spot left in the playoff picture.
It’ll more than likely come down to these two teams. The Bengals have been knocking on the door in the AFC North for a year and a half, only to be silenced by the Ravens and Steelers every time they’ve played them head to head. Pittsburgh is on the outside looking in. The defense is showing its age, Ben Roethlisberger is playing hurt and Todd Haley’s playcalling is under great scrutiny. It’s now or never for Pittsburgh. If they lose this one, the Bengals might be the better squad for years to come.
The Steelers are at home. If they’ve got one last push in them, this would be an awfully good time to kick it into high gear.
Michigan men square off
Chad Henne vs. Tom Brady isn’t exactly Peyton Manning vs. Brady, but folks in Ann Arbor might find this subplot in the New England-Jacksonville game interesting. The last two remaining active starting quarterbacks from the University of Michigan square off in a game that means a whole lot more for the Patriots than the Jaguars.
On a list that has to include Brian Griese, Jim Harbaugh, Rick Leach and Elvis Grbac — Brady and Henne are certainly among the top 10 Wolverines quarterbacks of all time. They’ve squared off five times before, with the Patriots winning four of those five. Henne’s numbers the one time he beat Brady in 2009? 29 of 52, 335 yards, 2 TDs. It will take a similar effort — and a whole lot of help — to get the best of his fellow alum on Sunday.
Can Romo stun Brees in December … again?
Three years ago, the Saints were riding high with a 13-0 record when the Cowboys surprised them in a Saturday night game in the Superdome in December. The Cowboys have faced the Saints 10 times since 1990 and, oddly enough, nine of those games have taken place in December.
You can make the argument that none of those meetings were as big as this one. Tony Romo and the Cowboys have won three straight games — all by margins of five points or less — and control their destiny in the NFC East. A win Sunday and a win vs. the Redskins in Week 17, and they’re division champs. Drew Brees tends to rise to the occasion in games like this. Something has to give.