Only three games lack playoff implications this weekend. Nine teams can punch their tickets into January. The fact that either Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder will have their holidays marred by a loss on Sunday. Truly, Christmas has come early.
A rundown of Week 16’s slate:
Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
The Lowdown: Miami’s season has been one of streaks: winning (two three-game victory stretches), losing (a nine-week spell featuring just two triumphs) and mean (Richie Incognito). Despite the lingering clouds stemming from the latter’s fall from grace, positivity exudes from this Dolphins campaign, knocking off the Patriots, Bengals and Colts. Furthermore, four of Miami’s six shortcomings have been by four points or less. Ryan Tannehill has steadily progressed in his second year, and Miami’s defense ranks in the top 10 in points allowed (21.1 points per game).
Also radiating optimism for the Dolphins: Buffalo is keeping rookie quarterback EJ Manuel out this Sunday, deferring to Thad Lewis to run the show. One could make the case that, judging by his recent display, sitting Manuel gives the Bills the best shot at a W, and in earlier relief appearances, Lewis ran a competent unit. Nevertheless, with Stevie Johnson also out, Buffalo may not have enough juice to keep up with the Fins. In short (let me get into my talking-head persona), If you’re a PLAYOFF team, this is a game that a PLAYOFF team HAS to win!.
Line: Miami -2.5, 43 points
Fantasy Impact: Mike Wallace is the winner of this year’s Vincent Jackson Award, bestowed to the fantasy player who catches fire in the final weeks after submarining many a fantasy season with his first-half no-shows, rendering said triumphs useless except for padding his stat line and thus tricking new managers into ownership the following year. (Unfortunately, the description did not fit on the trophy mantle.) Through the first 10 games of the season, Wallace failed to build rapport with Tannehill, crossing the goal line just once and averaging a pedestrian 53.4 yards per contest. The last month has been a different tale, justifying his opulent offseason contract with three touchdowns and 83.3 yards per outing. Look for this prosperity to continue against a Bills team that’s been generous to wideouts, ranking 25th in fantasy points allowed.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Bills win if… C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson attack a Miami defense ranked 22nd against the run, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas fail to provide support for Tannehill.
The Dolphins win if… They take care of business. That or, “After that vicious hit to Lewis, it appears Jeff Tuel is warming up for Buffalo…”
Prediction: Dolphins 28, Bills 21
Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals
The Lowdown: The Vikings are 2-1-1 in the last month, putting the Bengals on notice that this four-win club should not be taken lightly. Additionally, Adrian Peterson is set to return following a one-week absence, adding vitality to an offense that surprisingly ranks in the top-10 in scoring (25.9 points per contest).
Yet should the Vikes risk suiting up their franchise star? Factoring the defense’s vastly-improved performance with a healthy Harrison Smith last weekend, the case could be made that this roster is just a decent arm away from relevancy in 2014. This notion is especially true given Chicago’s ambiguous plans for quarterback at the moment and Green Bay’s depth struggles on D. Aside from padding the stat book, the juice is not worth the squeeze in trotting out Peterson against a formidable Cincinnati rush defense (fifth in the NFL at 98.7 yards per appearance).
The Bengals find themselves in a precarious situation, as a first-round bye or seats outside the playoff fire are both feasible. Although a postseason berth is likely, the Who Deys are far from hitting their stride as the holidays roll in. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been magnificent in keeping his unit menacing in spite of a host of injuries, including the season-ending losses of stars Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. A sprained MCL to corner Terence Newman could be a bridge too far though, leaving the Cincinnati secondary in shambles. Special teams weapon Kevin Huber is also done for the winter after a cold-blooded blow from Pittsburgh’s Terence Garvin.
Cincinnati does enjoy a plethora of talent at the skill positions in the likes of A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Gio Bernard, and the Bengals front line is a relatively sturdy group. Unfortunately, until Andy Dalton’s capriciousness levels out, Cincinnati will not be a serious threat to the Lombardi Trophy.
Line: Cincinnati -7, 47.5 points
Fantasy Impact: This candidacy is asserted in a hip injury sidelining Jermaine Gresham this Sunday against a Vikings club that’s giving up the second-highest point total to tight ends. Gresham and Tyler Eifert often negate each other’s fantasy worth, but Bengals’ third-string tight end Alex Smith is unlikely to see Gresham’s usual allotment of targets, bequeathing an amplified rate of balls in Eifert’s direction. Available in 92 percent of FOXSports.com fantasy football leagues, Eifert is a must-start if Gresham can’t go.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Vikings win if… Matt Cassel duplicates last week’s success (over 400 total yards, three scores) on a susceptible Cincinnati D, Dalton goes “Agent Orange.”
The Bengals win if… AP is encumbered by his foot woe, Dalton’s “Red Rifle” ethos emerges. By the way, I’m going to keep pushing this Red Rifle/Agent Orange nickname down your throat (similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) until Dalton starts playing like the franchise quarterback he claims to be.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Vikings 24
Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs
The Lowdown: Good probability these teams will face-off again in two weeks, so envision vanilla-type game plans this Sunday. Reflecting these offenses would be classified as bland in normal circumstances, this won’t be an aesthetically-pleasing watch.
A recurring theme since Reggie Wayne’s injury has been the lifelessness of the Colts offense. Granted, Indy is 4-3 since Wayne went down, but those wins have come against deprived AFC South foes Tennessee and Houston, and the Horseshoes’ three losses have come by a combined score of 120-47.
The Colts do have the division title wrapped up, and the beleaguered backfield showed signs of life last week, amassing over 150 yards on the ground. Moreover, neophyte receivers LaVon Brazill and Da’Rick Rogers have started to acclimate into Wayne’s void, conferring Andrew Luck effective weapons. While not the same force that upended San Francisco, Seattle and Denver earlier this fall, the Colts are more than capable of inflicting damage come January.
Speaking of damage, Oakland’s D is still licking its wounds from the chaos caused by Jamaal Charles. Last week I casted my imaginary MVP vote for Nick Foles, a proposition that was promptly thrown into the street and crushed. Concededly, that Manning guy for Denver probably deserves the award, deeming that he’s about to cross the 50-touchdown barrier this weekend. (Although not sure why that’s a big deal. I did the same thing with Steve DeBerg in Tecmo Super Bowl last year.) However, in the rare chance that the Broncos stumble and the Chiefs capture the conference’s top seed, Charles better get some love. Cat is averaging 84.4 rushing and 46.8 receiving yards per outing, finding the Promised Land 18 times. Credit goes to Alex Smith and Andy Reid for stabilizing the aerial game, and Kansas City’s defense incited its first-half success. At this juncture, those structures are merely ancillary compared to the foundation Charles has laid. Give the man his due, that’s all.
Line: Kansas City -7, 45 points
Fantasy Impact: Oh T.Y. Hilton, you are a fickle squirrel. Imagined to be the de facto No. 1 target in Wayne’s absence, the second-year receiver out of FIU has fallen short of these projections. Before Week 15’s modest harvest (eight receptions, 78 yards), Hilton was colder than Michael Corleone, accumulating a scant 135 yards in the previous four games. In truth, Hilton has been a dud the majority of the time, surpassing the 80-yard barrier in just four games. For those seeking further proof, Hilton’s five touchdowns become tainted upon discovering they emitted from just two games.
The heightened figures from the Kansas City secondary are somewhat of an illusion, dividends of a five-game stretch featuring Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell and Jeff Tuel. Nevertheless, the Chiefs defense is a steady group, one that should wreak havoc on the Indianapolis passing game.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Colts win if… Trent Richardson proves last week was no fluke, Luck is able to keep Smith and Charles on the sidelines.
The Chiefs win if… Luck is forced to hit the sky early, Smith lessens some of the offensive responsibility off Charles’ shoulders.
Prediction: Chiefs 30, Colts 17
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams
The Lowdown: Above we mentioned Minnesota as a quarterback away from relevancy. Let’s photocopy this disposition and amplify it for the Rams. Install a qualified field general and St. Louis could be a conference contender.
This constitution might seem farcical, and, as a glance at the comment section would attest, this wouldn’t be the first time readers feel compelled to call shenanigans. An examination of the Rams roster might change your stance. The defense is loaded with playmakers like Robert Quinn, James Laurinaitis, Alec Ogletree and Janoris Jenkins. Tavon Austin has showcased the speed and elusiveness that warranted a top-10 selection, and the receiving corps is overloaded with sound producers in Chris Givens, Jared Cook and Austin Pettis. Zac Stacy is looking like a diamond in the rough as a fifth-round pick. Even the offensive line, once an aspersed collection, has developed into a cohesive front. If the Rams can find a firm hand – one that’s not Sam Bradford – to guide the ship, don’t be surprised if St. Louis gives Seattle and San Fran a run for their money.
Tampa Bay will likely kick the tires on the signal caller position as well this offseason. In a sense, Mike Glennon hasn’t been dreadful. Sure, he has five turnovers in the past three weeks, but facing Carolina and San Francisco will do that to most quarterbacks. On the other side of this continuum, despite the contentions of Dan Orlovsky that Glennon is progressing, the impartial viewpoint would beg to differ. Working without Doug Martin hasn’t helped, and Vincent Jackson’s battles with a hamstring issue have further impeded growth. Even with these factors in consideration, Glennon falls into the “project” category. Unlike others, I think he has a higher ceiling than a glorified backup, and do envision him as an eventual starter; alas, that day is far from now.
Line: St. Louis -4.5, 43 points
Fantasy Impact: Tim Wright saw a team-high nine targets last week and made the most of these opportunities, hauling in seven catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. Though he should see comparable prospects in terms of throws in his direction, the Rams are giving up the third-fewest points to fantasy tight ends this season. Only start in deeper formats.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Buccaneers win if… Tampa curbs Stacy’s production, Glennon exploits a Rams defense conceding 257.5 yards per game (27th in the NFL).
The Rams win if… Glennon’s security issues resurface, Austin stays off Revis Island.
Prediction: Rams 21, Bucs 20
Cleveland Browns at New York Jets
The Lowdown: I suppose we’re supposed to make something of Kellen Winslow’s “They can’t guard me!” decree, which might have been relevant if it was 2007. Unfortunately, this matchup is about as apathetic as NFL games go. Any fervor surrounding these comments is strictly smoke for the sake of conversation. In truth, the response should be, “Woah…Kellen Winslow is still in the league?”
Rex Ryan needs these final two games to keep his gig. By virtue of Geno Smith under center, an outlook that’s unpromising. Ryan’s defensive sagacity and likeability among players would land him a coordinating job if such a circumstance transpires, but as I’ve stated previously this season, I’d love to see him in a studio role. Not only is he articulate and witty, he wouldn’t be afraid to drop the hammer down to keep it real, a way of thinking that’s lacking in most broadcasts. Plus, there’s an 87.4 percent chance he’d land in weekly hot water for saying something taboo. As you can imagine, it’s a concept that excites me tremendously.
I know Cleveland gets lost in the national consciousness because, well, it’s Cleveland, but where are the props for Josh Gordon? Dude is leading the league in receiving (1,467 yards) regardless of a two-game suspension. And this is with Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer as his tossing machines. Imagine if Gordon was imparted with an average cannon like Eli Manning or Joe Flacco. Man might have breached 2,000 yards.
Line: New York -2.5, 40.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Shutdown corner back Joe Haden’s readiness is uncertain after taking a knee to the side versus the Bears. Excluding Haden from a crew that’s lost eight of its past nine seemingly places stay-away status on the Browns defense this weekend. My counter to such a claim: Geno Smith will be lining up on the other side of the ball, he of 21 interceptions and eight fumbles (four lost). For owners iffy on Carolina, Baltimore or Kansas City, the Cleveland D is a viable option.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Jets win if… The Cleveland run game stalls against the Jets’ third-ranked rush defense, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell turn in a decent performance.
The Browns win if… In Geno Smith, all ways of losing are possible. Then again, it’s a time of merriment and joy, meaning the exact opposite will happen to Cleveland, so…
Prediction: Jets 17, Browns 13
Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins
The Lowdown: Hey, more gossip from the Washington locker room trying to discredit another party! Robert Griffin III (and II), Dan Synder and Mike Shanahan need to knock it off. They’re starting to give “Redskins” a negative connotation.
Washington’s self-destruction, coupled with the gravitas this game carries for the Cowboys, ostensibly puts Dallas in a favorable position. Conversely, America’s team has lost consecutive games to backup quarterbacks, the play calling has been questionable at best and the defense has been hit with injuries (most notably linebacker Sean Lee). Also – hope you’re sitting down – people are starting to question if Tony Romo has the fortitude to lead this squad during crunch time.
The Cowboys do have the services of DeMarco Murray (whose 5.5 yards per attempt is tops for rushers with over 100 carries), and following a quiet November, Dez Bryant has found the end zone in each of the last three weeks. However, with a loss likely knocking Dallas out of the playoff picture, all eyes – and heat – will be on Romo and Jason Garrett.
Line: Dallas -2.5, 53.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Kirk Cousins is set to make his second start for Washington, but it could be Robert Griffin III, Rex Grossman or Patrick Ramsey under center and we’d still endorse Aldrick Robinson against Dallas’ league-worst secondary. Coming off a 99-yard day versus the Falcons, roll with Robinson in most standard formats as a Flex and possibly a WR2 in deeper leagues.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Cowboys win if… Dallas feeds Murray early and often, Cousins struggles in the spotlight of the rivalry.
The Fightin’ Fletchers win if… The Cowboys continue to air it out with a lead, the Dallas defense continues its porous ways.
Prediction: Fightin’ Fletchers 35, Cowboys 31
New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers
The Lowdown: Carolina has come out on top in nine of its past 10 contests, including wins over San Francisco, New England and Miami. However, you could understand one’s apprehension in picking the Panthers this weekend. Ron Rivera’s club seemed totally outmatched against the Saints in the Big Easy a mere two weeks ago. Carolina’s defense, a vaunted crew that arrived at the Superdome allowing just over 12 points per contest during the squad’s eight-game winning streak, was decimated by Drew Brees and the air attack. Worse, Newton and the Panthers offense were stuck in neutral, making their lone trip to pay dirt with only five minutes to go in 31-13 blowout. Every NFL squad has one week where things don’t go their way, but given the peripherals and implications associated with said matchup, it’s fair to question if Carolina owns the maturity and temerity to succeed at this juncture of the season.
Reigning Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly (122 tackles) headlines a defense surrendering 14.9 points per game, second-best in the league. Kuechly, along with Charles Johnson (nine sacks), Greg Hardy (eight sacks) and Thomas Davis (103 tackles, four sacks), highlight a front seven that is holding opponents to 84.9 yards per appearance, second only to Arizona for tops in the league. Yet while this group gets the majority of the attention, the secondary has held up its end of the bargain, ranking fifth in the NFL at 211.4 passing yards per game. This unit will get a shot at redemption on Sunday against the only offense that has surpassed the 30-point barrier on the Panthers in 2013.
Somewhat surprisingly, scoring has not been as easy for the Saints as one would assume. Although New Orleans ranks fifth in the league with 397 total yards per contest, the offense has been unable to translate these figures to the scoreboard. In fact, here’s a stat that will blow your socks off: the Vikings are averaging more points per game (25.9) than the Saints (25.6). Concededly, that number still ranks 10th in the league, yet given its preeminent reputation, the offense’s bark is not living up to its bite. For the Saints to come out on top, a replication of Week 14’s feats is vital.
Some of this offensive fallout derives from Brees’ struggles on the road. In the friendly confines of the Crescent City, the Super Bowl MVP has been magnificent, hitting 73.2 percent of his targets for 2,454 yards (350.6 per game) for 24 total scores and three turnovers, leading the Saints to a 7-0 mark. Away from Louisiana? Not so much: a 63.4 completion percentage, 12 end-zone excursions and nine turnovers, equating to a 3-4 record. With Brees’ performance particularly disconcerting in Seattle during a Week 13 journey (22-for-38, 147 yards, one touchdown, fumble lost), it’s imperative for New Orleans to grab a W this weekend to keep the venerable arm indoors in January as long as possible.
Line: Carolina -3, 47 points
Fantasy Impact: New Orleans dropped 31 on the Panthers in their first rendezvous. However, in their other 13 games, Carolina has held challengers to a meager 13.6 points per tilt, putting an aberrational reflection on the Saints’ victory. Coupled with a front seven that is relinquishing only 84.9 rushing yards per game (second-best in the NFL), the forecast looks ominous for the Big Easy running backs. Even in PPR formats where Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles hold a high standing, keep these entities on the pine.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Panthers win if… Newton and the run game keeps Brees on the sidelines, ensuing karma from Ron Rivera’s charity offering.
The Saints win if… Brees is able to navigate through Carolina’s defense, Jimmy Graham is able to shake off his December rust (averaging only 41.7 yards per game this month versus an 86.0 mark in the first 11 contests), Ryan agrees to entertain the entire defense to a night on the town if victory is achieved.
Prediction: Saints 23, Panthers 20
Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Lowdown: If you’re reading this section, you’re either a fan of one of the two teams, a degenerate gambler or a sadist. And if you are gambler weighing the options of 4-10 Jacksonville versus 5-9 Tennessee, might as well light your money on fire. (Also, are there any gamblers that are not degenerate? Before I die, I would like to meet someone who classifies themselves as a virtuous bettor.)
The Jaguars are limping in without their top two receivers (Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts), and Maurice Jones-Drew’s hamstring issues places a questionable tag on the All-Pro back. Additionally, the lack of faith in Blaine Gabbert has made the premise of starting Chad Henne the sought-after alternative. There are numerous tidbits that highlight Jacksonville’s horridness, but this one takes the cake: despite appearing in just four of the team’s 14 games, Blackmon enters Week 16 as the Jags’ second-leading receiver. That’s…that’s not good.
Tennessee will leave 2013 chasing a brighter sun. Jake Locker’s injury puts somewhat of an asterisk on this campaign, and his development and poise in the first quarter of the season gives hope that the Washington product can be a viable leader for the Titans. Second-year wideout Kendall Wright has enjoyed a promising year, crossing the 1,000-yard plateau, and the Titans defense has a vibrant core that’s a pass rusher away from transcendence. Look for Tennessee to be a player in the AFC playoff hunt in 2014.
Line: Tennessee -5.5, 44 points
Fantasy Impact: Winning just twice since the end of September tends to push a team out of the national spotlight. Still, fantasy owners that examine Nashville’s gridiron affairs will realize Delanie Walker has become a dependable receiving asset. The former Niners tight end has garnered at least eight targets in four of the past five contests and made the most of these opportunities, stamping three end-zone excursions in this span. Though the Jaguars are not the historically-awful team we once believed, Jacksonville is surrendering the third-most fantasy points to tight ends in 2013, vaulting Walker to a must-start designation.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Jaguars win if… Jordan Todman puts forth a similar effort from last week (153 total yards), Henne secures the rock.
The Titans win if… Chris Johnson goes nuts on the third-worst rush defense in the league (131.9 yards per game), Todman can’t get going on the ground.
Prediction: Titans 21, Jaguars 14
Denver Broncos at Houston Texans
The Lowdown: Houston has lost 12 straight. Arian Foster and Ben Tate, once presumed the league’s best backfield tandem, are both on the IR. The team is on its fourth iteration at quarterback. Lovie Smith, he of just three winning seasons since 2006, was interviewed this week. Worse, Wade Phillips is also under consideration as a coaching candidate. Oh, and possible No. 1 pick Blake Bortles’ girlfriend has more Google relevancy than Bortles himself. Actually, that’s not the worst of things…
As bad as the gridiron proceedings have been in Space City, there is hope in Houston. The resistance ranks fourth in total defense, impressive considering the hazardous spots the offense puts the defense in and that the unit has missed linebacker Brian Cushing for most of the season. The offensive line is a durable section and the receiving corps is deeper than it’s ever been. A skilled arm (cough cough Jay Cutler? cough cough) will instantly insert credibility back to the Texans, making their offseason one to watch.
Denver lost last weekend, yet looks like the Super Bowl favorite more than ever. New England and Cincinnati, generally regarded as the Broncos’ top challengers, have been riddled with injuries to prime-time performers, and the Kansas City defense has been unable to match its first-half boom in the past four weeks. Throw in Von Miller edging closer and closer to his All-Pro form, it’s hard to envision the Broncos faltering on the way to the Meadowlands.
Well, unless Peyton Manning has to play in the cold. In that case, all bets are off. (For what it’s worth, I don’t buy this assertion, although the tidal wave of hate mail from Manning backers after any perceived diss is quite comical. You know, aside from the death threats.)
Line: Denver -10, 52.5 points
Fantasy Impact: This suggestion parades a caveat – Andre Caldwell’s worth is hinged on Wes Welker’s availability. If a concussion keeps Welker shelved for the second straight week (reports have Welker out until the playoffs), implement Caldwell as your WR3 or Flex play. Houston is holding adversaries to the second-lowest passing output in the league at 183.3 yards per game; of course, the Texans are also 2-12, so don’t be too concerned about that lowered mark.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Broncos win if… Denver escapes injury-free.
The Texans win if… C’mon, these guys lost to Jacksonville twice.
Prediction: Broncos 34, Texans 20
New York Giants at Detroit Lions
The Lowdown: I’m blown away that, to some extent, Gotham has been patient with Eli Manning’s tribulations. I suppose having two Super Bowl rings does lend such bearing. That said, while I understand chalking things up to a disappointing year, let’s not try to reason his performance. All for picking apart numbers, but 25 interceptions is 25 interceptions.
Also, how about this: Manning is two weeks away from turning 33, logging 10 seasons under his belt. Athletes, doctors, and, ahem, “medicine” are redefining longevity, but not every quarterback is built to play 15 years in the league. Could Manning simply be hitting his wall? No shame in that. What this does mean: in respect to Ryan Nassib, should the G-Men hunt for a new long-term investment at the position? Keep your eye on this development.
Detroit is sympathetic to quarterback frustration. In his fifth season in the league, Matthew Stafford’s development has stagnated. Hitting only 58 percent of his intended targets (lowest since his rookie year), Stafford has a career-high 12 fumbles (four lost) with 17 interceptions. The former No. 1 overall pick’s pigskin security has especially been questionable as of late, with a whopping 11 turnovers in the past month. It’s fair to question if Jim Schwartz’s direction, for a team that constantly misses the playoffs with such talent is intolerable. In his defense, it’s hard to win when your quarterback continues to fall short in the clutch. For Detroit to make a final push, Stafford simply needs to be adequate to give the Lions a fighting chance.
Line: Detroit -9.5, 49 points
Fantasy Impact: Mentioned above, 25 picks is 25 picks. Detroit’s rush embankment is firm (fourth in the league at 98.6 yards per game), which should propel Manning to the air often. If this event transpires, it will be tidings of joy Lions secondary. Feel free to start the Detroit D this weekend.
TV: FOX – 4:05 PM EST
The Lions win if… Reggie Bush is not limited by his calf issues, the Giants’ receivers fail to step up in the absence of Victor Cruz.
The Giants win if… New York can minimize the damage from Calvin Johnson, no appearances from “the Manning Face.”
Prediction: Lions 27, Giants 21
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
The Lowdown: Andy Reid or Ron Rivera will likely grab Coach of the Year honors, and these candidates undoubtedly have earned this recognition. Let’s throw the reigning award winner into this discussion as well. The Cardinals lost 11 of its last 12 to end last season. Offseason acquisition Carson Palmer was an upgrade from the John Skelton-Kevin Kolb-Ryan Lindley-Brian Hoyer Quarterback Quartet from Hell, although Palmer wasn’t coming off a particularly strong 2012 campaign either. Arizona’s offensive line remained a mess, and the team would be without All-Pro Daryl Washington for the first four games of the season. In the face of these obstacles, Bruce Arians has guided the Cards to a 9-5 mark, just a game out of the Wild Card. His exploits get lost in the desert, and the lack of style points doesn’t help his recognition. If Arizona pulls off the upset this weekend? Best believe Arians will get some votes.
For the Cards to stand a chance, its front seven, surrendering a league-low 83.2 yards per contest, will have to suffocate Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle running game. This is not a farfetched proposition. The Seahawks rank second in the league at 141 ground yards per contest, but Beast Mode has been anything but in the past month, averaging just 3.2 yards per attempt (albeit with four trips to pay dirt). Stopping Lynch puts the onus in Russell Wilson’s hands, a suggestion that’s not as safe as it sounds (see below). Don’t be shocked if this shindig is tight.
Line: Seattle -10.5, 43 points
Fantasy Impact: I love Seattle. The duo of Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf was an unstoppable force in NBA Jam. When I disclosed my affinity for homemade coffee brewing, more than a few from the Emerald City shot their homemade recipes via Twitter or email. Twins Peaks was the bomb.
I preface as much knowing the following will upset the 12th Man: should we be concerned with Wilson’s performance on the road? In the friendly confines of the Clink, Wilson boasts a QB rating of 114.1, 68.3 completion percentage, 13 total touchdowns, four interceptions and two fumbles (one lost) in six games. Away from Washington? Eh: a 62.3 completion rate, 12 touchdowns (but in eight contests, not six), four picks and a whopping eight fumbles (four lost). Not saying, just saying.
Arizona is without playmaker Tyrann Mathieu and Wilson did notch three touchdowns in their last meeting. Nevertheless, there are better fantasy options in Week 16 than running out the sophomore signal caller in opposition to the seventh-ranked resistance.
TV: FOX – 4:05 PM EST
The Cardinals win if… Andre Ellington gets to the second level against Seattle’s defense, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd take advantage of a weakened secondary.
The Seahawks win if… Wilson steps up to the task, the Seattle defensive front has a field day against Arizona’s maligned offensive line.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Cardinals 23
Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers
The Lowdown: I’m ambivalent on Ted Thompson’s decision to sit Aaron Rodgers. (And make no mistake, its Thompson pulling the trigger on this call). In one regard, Thompson deserves a level of acclaim for not rushing his franchise star back, keeping the organization’s long-term interests in mind rather than the instant gratification. Sounds bizarre, although it’s reasoning that’s not universal in the NFL (right, Washington?).
On the other side of that spectrum, Thompson is basically telling his roster to get lost, a mindset that I can’t get behind. As we’ve seen with the Ravens and Giants the past two seasons, it’s not necessarily the best teams that win the Super Bowl, but the ones that are riding hot. Once you get into January, anything can happen, and a team with Rodgers at the steering wheel has a fighting chance. Ultimately, I think Thompson is making the wrong call.
Few quarterbacks have been has solid as Ben Roethlisberger in the second half. Big Ben has 12 touchdowns and one interception in the past five games, and with Le’Veon Bell finally healthy, the Pittsburgh offense is capable of lighting up the scoreboard. A healthy defense could thrust the Steelers back into the AFC North conversation in 2014. Speaking of the Steel City, during my time at Ohio University I often heard that the Black and Yellow had the best fan base in football. I know the Steelers are having a down year, but would the “best” football following leave 20,000 unfilled seats for a prime-time Sunday night game against a rival? Doubt you’d see these openings in Lambeau.
Line: Green Bay -7, 47 points
Fantasy Impact: This comes with a proviso. If Matt Flynn is the Green Bay QB, feel free to ride the Steel City defense. If the sleeping giant that is Rodgers awakens? You don’t want any part of that rodeo, cowboy.
TV: CBS – 4:25 PM EST
The Steelers win if… Flynn can’t pull another rabbit out of his hat, Big Ben employs a dink-and-dunk approach on Green Bay’s vulnerable defense.
The Packers win if… Eddie Lacy submits an outing only seen in video games, Rodgers delivers a Christmas miracle to Wisconsin by pulling a Willis Reed.
Prediction: Steelers 28, Packers 14
Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers
The Lowdown: The Raiders were torched for 56 points last week. Nick Foles’ seven scores in early November against the Silver and Black tied a league record. How bad has the Oakland defense been this year? A Geno Smith-led team hung up 37 on the Raiders. THAT bad.
The Chargers are a pedestrian 5-4 since losing to the Raiders in Week 5, but each defeat has been by a touchdown or less. And at 7-7, the Lightning Bolts remain in the Wild Card hunt. Here’s hoping San Diego maintains a shot in Week 17, if only for one more week of crazy Philip Rivers faces.
Line: San Diego -10, 50.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Ryan Mathews has quietly strung together a solid season, going over 1,000 yards with five touchdowns. Tackling a Raiders defense that ranks ninth against terrain assaults, Mathews might seem like a sit candidate. Then again, it is Oakland. Feel free to insert Mathews as a RB2 in your fantasy championship.
TV: CBS – 4:25 PM EST
The Raiders win if… Rashad Jennings’ second-half performance endures one more week, Chargers defense doesn’t plug its holes in the secondary.
The Chargers win if… We mentioned the Jets put up 37 points against the Raiders, right?
Prediction: Chargers 38, Raiders 21
New England Patriots at Baltimore Ravens
The Lowdown: Above we mentioned Arizona’s Arians as meriting Coach of the Year honors. Another Rundown endorsement: Bill Belichick. The Patriots have an outside shot at home-field advantage, mind-blowing considering the losses of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Rob Gronkowski, an inexperienced receiving corps and a plethora of backfield issues. Having Tom Brady doesn’t hurt the cause, but Belichick has used smoke and mirrors to get New England to 10-4.
Alas, the Patriots aren’t entering January with much gusto. Not only did New England lose to Miami last weekend, but the Pats squeaked by the Texans in Week 14 and needed a Cleveland collapse AND an errant flag to beat the Browns. Even with Belichick’s genius, the Patriots might not have enough firepower to pull off a magic trick this winter.
The Ravens are heading in the opposite direction of the train tracks. Following initial problems out of the gate, Baltimore has won its past four games and are garnering “dark horse” status as a Super Bowl contender. Along with its winning streak, the closeness in Baltimore’s defeats (five losses by six points or less) has been used as indication of this club’s potential.
However, in that same breath, five of the Ravens’ last six wins have been by three points or less. Ray Rice is a shell of his former self (more on this below), exceptionally problematic now that Joe Flacco is dealing with a mild MCL sprain. And it’s not like Flacco was performing at a high level before this injury, owning more turnovers (19) than touchdowns (18). I’m not casting condemnation on the Ravens, as this juncture of the season showcases the aptitude, or lack thereof, of a head coach, and Baltimore has a good one in John Harbaugh. Just pump the brakes on hoisting the Ravens with the likes of the Broncos and Chiefs until, you know, they actually make the playoffs.
Line: Baltimore -1, 44.5 points
Fantasy Impact: Bearing in mind his first-round stock, Rice’s output has been the fantasy equivalent of punting Baxter off the bridge, finding the Promised Land just once in the past nine weeks. Worse, his only conquest has come against the Bears, a team so bad versus the run that someone named Edwin Baker hit pay dirt last weekend. Rice’s body of work, or lack thereof, makes insertion of the 26-year-old a risky venture.
His disappointing showing can be salvaged this weekend with a strong performance, a premise not as arbitrary as believed. New England is allowing the second-most rushing yards to opposing backs at a 132.5 clip, and as bad as Rice has been, Bernard Pierce is not a threat to siphon touches. And for those searching for parallels, Baxter did return to save the day. So, yeah.
TV: CBS – 4:25 PM EST
The Ravens win if… Rice makes the most of the aforementioned matchup, Brady’s rapport with his receivers continues to wither without Gronk.
The Patriots win if… Brady and Belichick in a meaningful December game? That’s what I thought…
Prediction: Patriots 20, Ravens 17
Chicago Bears at Philadelphia Eagles
The Lowdown: I love me some Brandon Marshall. Roughly 99.2 percent of athletes, when inquired about locker room rumblings, would dismiss such claims. Marshall? Man comes clean. Besides, who wouldn’t root for Josh McCown? Guy seems like a beacon of positivity next to the ever-petulant Jay Cuter (which is kinda why I love the guy, although the Kristin Cavallari angle doesn’t hurt, either).
Can’t comprehend the amount of consternation from the Eagles’ loss last weekend. Granted, the Philly crowd is so fussy that it could find a complaint about Mila Kunis. But it’s the NFL. Defeats happen. Nick Foles is still the man, and LeSean McCoy gets to face a Bears defense ranked last in rush defense (152.4 yards per game). Cool the jets, City of Brotherly Love. Things are going to be alright.
Line: Philadelphia -3, 56.6 points
Fantasy Impact: Philadelphia is allowing 291.6 passing yards per game, second-most in the league. Jay Cutler is back under center for Chicago, welcomed news for Bennett, as the tight end wasn’t seeing as much love with McCown at the helm. Ipso facto, Bennett gets the thumbs-up facing Philly. And since I have nothing else to add, what the hell, Shia LaBeouf? You realize Google exists, right? While we’re here, for a guy who spends a lot of his time combating alien machines, you sure lose a lot of bar fights. But keep rocking that kimono, dude. That will stop people from questioning your sanity.
TV: NBC – 8:30 PM EST
The Bears win if… Cutler picks apart an Eagles resistance surrendering the second-most passing yards in the league (291.6 per tilt), McCoy can be relatively contained.
The Eagles win if… Foles has a bounce-back outing, McCoy keeps Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the sidelines.
Prediction: Eagles 33, Bears 27
Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers
The Lowdown: Last game at Candlestick Park. Anyone who tries to wax poetic about that dump has their head in the sand, to put it nicely. In fact, I think this headline sums up the place.
After a seemingly erratic season, the Niners have regained their mojo, winning their past four games, including a 19-17 conquest over the rival Seahawks. Colin Kaepernick has settled down (more on this below), and the resistance is back to full strength, ranking third in total defense. For all the supposed issues this team faced, if it takes care of business, San Francisco will march into January with a 12-4 record. Not bad for an alleged “down” season in the Bay Area.
Houston has received the wrath for under-delivering this fall, yet Atlanta certainly embodies this sentiment as well. The Falcons rank last in rushing, 25th against the pass and third-worst versus the run. The offensive line has been nonexistent, and the defensive depth is lacking. Maybe most disconcerting is the play from Matt Ryan. The 28-year-old hasn’t been awful this season, but he hasn’t shown to be up to the task of elevating the output of others. You can certainly win a Super Bowl with Ryan at the helm. Unfortunately, this year demonstrated what his playoff record proclaims: you won’t win a title because of him.
Line: San Francisco -13, 45.5 points
Fantasy Impact: This column hasn’t been kind to Kaepernick this fall, warning that his fantasy value was more bark than bite. In the first half of the year, this was rightfully so, with the Niners quarterback owning as many turnovers as touchdowns in a nine-game stretch following the season opener. Moreover, the ground endeavors from Kaepernick’s celebrated playoff run were painfully absent, curbing his roto appeal.
So what spurs this endorsement at the most critical of fantasy junctures? In the words of Aziz Ansari, “Game recognizing game.” As of late, Kaepernick has turned his fortunes around, flaunting seven scores versus one pick. That he’s accomplished such feats against stout defenses in Seattle, St. Louis and Tampa is all the more impressive. The Niners offense is predicated on the run, yet with Frank Gore hitting a wall (averaging less than four yards per carry in four of the past five games), look for Kaepernick to serve as the team’s stimulus. Given his relative disappointment to his proprietors this campaign, Kaepernick has a chance at redemption this weekend.
TV: ESPN – 8:30 PM EST
The 49ers win if… Gore shakes off his recent rust, Kaepernick stays firm with the football.
The Falcons win if… At this juncture, do the Falcons really want to win? Don’t want to jeopardize that draft position, right? Right…
Prediction: 49ers 34, Falcons 23
Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall