NFL Nation: Final Word 2011 Week 16

Final Word: NFC North

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
1:31
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 16:

Busted rivalry: When the NFL released its schedule this spring, most of us had high expectations for a late-December matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Instead, an injury-devastated Bears team will limp north as (deserved) 13-point underdogs. It's possible the Packers will have clinched home-field advantage even before taking the field Sunday night, if the San Francisco 49ers lose Saturday at the Seattle Seahawks. If not, the Packers will attempt to secure it against a team playing without quarterback Jay Cutler, running backs Matt Forte and Marion Barber, and receiver Johnny Knox. Third-string running back Kahlil Bell is expected to start, pairing with third-string quarterback Josh McCown -- who has a history of helping the Packers' playoff positioning. (See: Noooooooooooooooo!) One other interesting bit of history: The Packers are one of five teams in NFL history to open a season 13-0 and then lose in their 14th game. All four of the other teams lost their 15th game, too. That list includes the 2009 and 2005 Indianapolis Colts, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 1998 Denver Broncos.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireGreen Bay's James Starks is expected to play Sunday against the Bears.
Packers run game: For several reasons, Sunday night's game would be an obvious target for the Packers to rely on and enhance their running game. James Starks (ankle) and Brandon Saine (concussion) are expected to return. The Packers will start a makeshift offensive line that likely will include T.J. Lang at right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard; the best way for offensive linemen to get comfortable is via run blocking. And it's also worth repeating that the Bears historically have done a good job limiting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' downfield opportunities. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers has completed only five of 26 attempts on throws against the Bears that traveled in the air 21 yards or more. He's thrown one touchdown, a game-winner to receiver Greg Jennings in 2009, and two interceptions on those passes.

Detroit's challenge: The Detroit Lions will clinch a playoff spot Saturday if they beat the San Diego Chargers in what will likely be a raucous atmosphere at Ford Field. (There are also several scenarios to clinch this weekend even if they lose. They're noted in this post.) Hopefully everyone knows the Chargers are on one of their annual December rolls. They've won three consecutive games after a six-game losing streak. Since Norv Turner took the head coaching job in 2007, the Chargers are 20-2 in December. This will be no cakewalk.

Big targets: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers struggled earlier this season, but he has been the NFL's most efficient quarterback over the past three weeks based on Total Quarterback Rating. Rivers has hit a groove with a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers that will pose significant matchup problems for the Lions. Malcom Floyd has 11 receptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games, while Vincent Jackson has caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. Jackson has been sidelined in practice this week by a groin injury. Lions cornerback Chris Houston (knee) clearly wasn't 100 percent last week against the Oakland Raiders, and the team re-signed Brandon McDonald this week for extra depth. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) also remains sidelined, and backup Chris Harris was cleared Thursday to practice following a concussion.

Make it stop: If you're a big-picture observer, you see ample motivation for the Minnesota Vikings to lose Sunday at the Washington Redskins. One more victory by the Indianapolis Colts, in conjunction with two more Vikings defeats, would give the Vikings an excellent chance to secure the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft. A loss to the Redskins would extend the Vikings' losing streak to seven games, tying a franchise record set in their original expansion season of 1961. But I'm not sure what would be worse: tying that record or extending their NFL record of games without an interception, which currently stands at nine. Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman has thrown at least one interception in his past 10 starts, and he is tied for the second-most interceptions in the NFL (18) despite missing three games this season. Something's got to give.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
1:31
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

About those playoff scenarios. The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks must win Saturday to remain in contention for the fifth or sixth seed in the NFC. But if Detroit beats San Diego and Atlanta wins against New Orleans, both NFC West teams are out regardless. That is because all scenarios placing an NFC West team in the postseason require the NFC West team going 2-0 while Detroit and/or Atlanta goes 0-2. The Falcons and Saints do not play until Monday night, so the Seahawks and Cardinals could remain in suspense all weekend even if they win. Update: The Falcons directly affect the Cardinals' eligibility for postseason; they affect only the Seahawks' ability to claim the fifth or sixth seed.

[+] EnlargeAldon Smith
AP Photo/Rick Osentoski49ers linebacker Aldon Smith needs just two more sacks to break Jevon Kearse's season record for rookies.
The Rams and draft order. Indianapolis' second consecutive victory following an 0-13 start has left the Colts tied with St. Louis (2-12) and Minnesota (2-12) for victories this season. But if Indy loses to Jacksonville in Week 17, the Colts will hold the No. 1 overall choice in the 2012 draft, no matter what happens with the Rams or Vikings. Another Colts victory would open the door for the Rams to land the top overall choice. But if the Rams and Vikings tie for the worst record at 2-14, Minnesota would have the inside track on the No. 1 choice based on an easier strength of schedule. The Rams finish the season against Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The Vikings face Washington and Chicago.

Big plays aplenty. We should expect the Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals to strike for big gains through the air, provided A.J. Green's shoulder injury allows for it. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and the Bengals' Green each entered Week 16 with seven receptions of 40 yards or longer, one behind Detroit's Calvin Johnson for the NFL lead. Fitzgerald had only one 40-plus reception last season. He had zero in 2009, when Kurt Warner's shoulder injury affected his ability to throw downfield. The seven receptions for 40-plus yards are a season high for Fitzgerald. He had 17 in his previous seven seasons. That helps explain why Fitzgerald is averaging 17.8 yards per reception, up 5.2 yards from last season and well above his previous season high (14.9 in 2008).

Chasing the rookie record. The 49ers' Aldon Smith, with 13 sacks through 14 games, needs an additional 1.5 sacks to tie and two to break Jevon Kearse's rookie record for most in a season, set in 1999. The record dates to 1982, when sacks became an official NFL stat. The Seahawks will presumably take extra precautions in guarding against sacks while playing their third game without injured left tackle Russell Okung. Last season, they allowed eight against Oakland when an injury sidelined Okung. They allowed none against the sack-happy New York Giants one week later, also without Okung. Scheming made the difference. So far this season, the Seahawks are gaining fewer yards per rush (4.0 to 2.9) and allowing fewer sacks per pass attempt (.09 to .04) without Okung, but a small sample size diminishes what the numbers say. Okung has played about 84 percent of the offensive snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Pro Bowl marketing drives. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has been promoting quarterback Alex Smith for the Pro Bowl. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has been promoting cornerback Brandon Browner the same way. The matchup between Smith and the Seahawks' ball-hawking secondary stands out as critical to the game's outcome. Browner, despite leading the NFL in penalties, has six interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. He has five picks in Seattle's past four games. The 49ers lead the NFL in takeaways this season, but Seattle ranks fourth -- and first since Week 10, just ahead of San Francisco. Smith has done an outstanding job protecting the ball. He has no interceptions in his past three games and only five all season. He's facing a Seattle defense that has steadily improved and now ranks eighth in yards allowed and sixth in points allowed.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
1:31
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Running wild with Rice: It was 19 days ago in Cleveland where Rice continued his great success against the Browns with a career-best 204 yards rushing. It was the fourth-highest rushing performance in the NFL this season. Rice averages 98.3 rushing yards per game against the Browns, and his 688 yards rushing is his most against any team. The NFL's leader in total yards from scrimmage, Rice needs 52 receiving yards to join Marshall Faulk as the only players in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 700 yards receiving in multiple seasons. The Browns have allowed running backs to crack 100 yards rushing nine times this season but none since Rice.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
Scott Rovak/US PresswireA.J. Green has been the Bengals' top deep threat this season.
Going deep: The health of Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (shoulder) will play a big factor in Cincinnati's push for a playoff berth. Green is fifth in the NFL with 19 catches of 20 yards or more. Only Steve Smith, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Vincent Jackson have more. Andy Dalton continues to show a great amount of trust in Green, throwing into coverage because he knows the 6-foot-4 receiver can outleap defenders for the ball. Green has a catch of at least 35 yards in five straight games. The Arizona Cardinals have been susceptible against deep passes this season. Arizona has given up 54 completions over 20 yards, which is the fifth most in the league.

Bad streaks for Browns: One more defeat will give the Browns four straight 11-loss seasons for the first time in team history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Browns are already the only team in the NFL to lose at least 11 games in each of the past three seasons (2008-10), a skid that has included seven starting quarterbacks: Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Jake Delhomme, Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace. To end this streak, Cleveland would have to end other ones Saturday. The Browns have lost eight straight AFC North games and seven in a row to Baltimore. Cleveland's last win against the Ravens was Week 11 in 2007.

Relying on the run: The Steelers are reportedly starting QB Charlie Batch in place of Ben Roethlisberger (high ankle sprain), but they won't be relying on the backup. Pittsburgh will turn into a run-first team, just like it did when Roethlisberger was suspended at the start of the 2010 season. In those four games, running back Rashard Mendenhall ran the ball 89 times while the Steelers threw 81 passes. Mendehall averaged 102.7 yards rushing during that time and could have similar numbers against the Rams, the NFL's worst run defense. St. Louis allows an average of 153.4 yards on the ground -- which is 56.2 yards per game more than what the Steelers run defense gives up.

Perfect at home: The Ravens are looking to finish undefeated at home for an entire regular season for the first time in franchise history. Baltimore is one of three teams that are perfect at home so far this season. (The others are Green Bay and New Orleans.) The Ravens' average margin of victory at M&T Bank Stadium this season is 13.4 points. The Ravens have won a franchise-best nine straight games at home and are 26-5 under coach John Harbaugh in Baltimore (that's second only to the New England Patriots since 2008). This is why a home playoff game is so important to the Ravens.

Final Word: AFC West

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Will the Denver Broncos' playoff hopes get buffaloed again? Good thing there aren’t many players from the 2008 Broncos team still in a Denver uniform. The situation is eerily similar. The Broncos are playing the Buffalo Bills in Week 16, just as they did three years ago. Like that game, Denver can clinch a playoff berth this week against a Buffalo team that has lost seven of eight. In '08, the Bills entered the Denver game having lost seven in a row. What happened in that Week 16 meeting in 2008? The Bills came back and won a close game, preventing the Broncos from being able to clinch a playoff berth. The Broncos couldn’t get the job done and the 14-season run of former head coach Mike Shanahan era was suddenly over. Will the Bills’ mess with another Denver playoff push this year?

[+] EnlargePhilip Rivers
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswirePhilip Rivers will try to keep the Chargers' playoff hopes alive when they take on the Lions Saturday.
Last AFC West-NFC North game is meaningful: The AFC West’s matchup against the NFC North ends Saturday when the San Diego Chargers play at the Detroit Lions. Both teams are trying to keep playoff hopes alive with a victory. That may be a bad sign for San Diego. It is 1-3 against the NFC North this season, while Detroit is 3-0 against the AFC West. Overall, the AFC West is 8-7 against the NFC North this season. Last-place Kansas City has the best record against the division at 3-1, while Denver and the Oakland Raiders both went 2-2. The AFC West plays the NFC South next season.

Hue can’t get his Haley revenge: We are missing a fun Christmas Eve storyline because the Kansas City Chiefs fired coach Todd Haley last week. Oakland coach Hue Jackson had some words for Haley after a 28-0 Kansas City win in Oakland in October. After the game, Jackson wouldn’t say what his problem with Haley was, but he did say the Raiders would get their second chance against the Chiefs. It was a chippy game the first time, with several players being fined for their actions. Expect tensions to be even higher this time around with both teams trying to keep playoff hopes alive.

WiIl Dareus get back at the Broncos? Prior to the season, Buffalo rookie defensive lineman Marcell Dareus said he had the Bills’ Christmas Eve game against Denver circled. Dareus was offended the Broncos didn’t draft him with the No. 2 pick and said he wanted to show the Broncos what they missed. Dareus was one of a handful of defensive players the Broncos considered, but they ultimately opted for Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller. Dareus was scooped up by the Bills with the next pick and has been solid. The Alabama product has 38 tackles and 5.5 sacks so far. The Broncos, however, are not second-guessing their choice. Miller has 11.5 sacks and is a major building block for the franchise going forward. He is the favorite to win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Chargers' bosses working for jobs: The Chargers have won three straight games to improve to 7-7. Their playoff hopes are still alive, but their odds are not great. Still, because the Chargers have made some noise, people are wondering if San Diego general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner will be retained even if the team’s playoff push comes up short. While a second straight season missing the playoffs would be disappointing, both Smith and Turner have done good things during their stay in San Diego and this late surge is a reminder of it. Smith has led the Chargers to division titles in five of his eight years with San Diego, and he is five wins from becoming the most successful general manager in team history. Turner has the best regular-season winning percentage (48-30, .615) in team history, ahead of the likes of Sid Gillman, Don Coryell and Marty Schottenheimer.

Final Word: AFC East

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Sanchez missing the mark: The New York Jets haven't made many big plays this season. A major reason is that Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez is missing the mark on deep passes. Sanchez is completing just 25.6 percent of his passes of more than 20 yards. He also has four interceptions and an abysmal Total Quarterback Rating of 14.4 when throwing deep. The Jets' offensive line hasn't protected well, and that's affecting their deep passing game. The New York Giants have a solid pass rush and will try to pressure Sanchez. But if the Jets' pass protection holds up, big plays can be had against the Giants, who rank No. 29 in pass defense.

[+] EnlargeShonn Greene
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesJets RB Shonn Greene needs 59 rushing yards on Saturday to reach 1,000 for the season.
Greene for 1,000: Another key in the "Battle for New York" will be Jets running back Shonn Greene. He's come on strong in the second half of the season and is just 59 yards shy of 1,000. The Jets are at their best offensively when Greene has it going and Sanchez can throw it successfully off play-action. The Giants' defense also allows 127.6 yards per game on the ground, which is 22nd in the league.

Taking care of business: The New England Patriots (11-3) have to win their final two games at Gillette Stadium to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It starts Saturday against the Miami Dolphins (5-9). Miami hasn't quit this season. The Dolphins are 5-2 in their past seven games but are just 2-5 on the road. Chances look pretty good for the Patriots, who are 22-1 in their past 23 regular-season games at home.

Big game for Moore: It's a critical time for Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore. He is 5-5 as a starter this year, but this is by far his biggest game of the season. Moore, liked other quarterbacks in the AFC East, ultimately will be judged on whether he can compete with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. If not, the Dolphins need to find someone else who can. Moore's performance Saturday in Gillette Stadium will go a long way toward making that determination.

Bills face TebowMania: The disappointing Buffalo Bills (5-9) have lost seven straight games. But Buffalo has a good opportunity to play spoiler to one of the biggest stories in the NFL. The Bills (5-9) host quarterback Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos (8-6), who are trying to hold onto a one-game lead in the AFC West over the Oakland Raiders (7-7) and San Diego Chargers (7-7). Most expect Tebow to lead Denver to the playoffs. But a Buffalo upset would put Denver at risk in the final week.

Final Word: NFC South

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Bob Donnan/US PresswireMatt Ryan has thrown seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the Falcons' past two games.
Ryan's on fire: The Falcons appear to be getting hot at the right time. In the past six quarters, against the Panthers and Jaguars, Atlanta has outscored opponents 65-14. Quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in those two games. Ryan also is playing for a spot in the record books. He is 42-18 in his career. Joe Flacco, who also entered the league in the 2008 draft, is 42-20. Each already has won more starts in his first four seasons than any quarterback since the Super Bowl era started in1966.

Monday Night Fever: The New Orleans Saints have all sorts of streaks going. They’ve clinched a playoff berth for the third straight season. They’ve won at least 11 games in each of the past three seasons. They’re on a six-game winning streak. That ties them with the Patriots for the longest active winning streak in the NFL. Finally, the Saints have the NFL’s longest active winning streak in “Monday Night Football’’ games. They’ve won six straight and haven’t lost since a 2008 game against Minnesota.

The “other’’ record: Understandably, most of the talk surrounding the Saints has to do with Drew Brees’ pursuit of Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season. But another member of the Saints is chasing history. That’s second-year tight end Jimmy Graham. He’s on pace for 99 catches and 1,338 receiving yards. The NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end is 1,290, set by San Diego’s Kellen Winslow in 1980. Graham also has had at least five catches in six straight games.

Making history: Even in a season that hasn’t been filled with wins, the Carolina Panthers have a chance to make some very positive history. Running back Jonathan Stewart needs to gain just 6 rushing yards to reach 600 for the season. Fellow running back DeAngelo Williams already has 717 yards and quarterback Cam Newton has 609 yards. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last two teams to have three 600-yard rushers in a season were the 2006 Falcons (Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood) and the 1978 Patriots (Sam Cunningham, Horace Ivory and Andy Johnson).

Losing at historic rate: Some unflattering notes on Tampa Bay’s eight-game losing streak. It’s the longest active streak in the NFL and the first time the Bucs have lost eight straight in a season since 1987. If the Bucs lose to the Panthers and make it nine straight, it will set off some more statistical bells. The Bucs haven’t lost nine straight in a single season since starting 0-9 in 1985.

Final Word: AFC South

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

On pace to be rushing king: No Jaguar has ever led the NFL in rushing, but Maurice Jones-Drew is atop the leader board now with 1,334 yards. He needs 239 rush yards in his final two games to top Fred Taylor’s franchise single-season record set in 2003 — and is just 57 yards off his career best of 1,391 from 2009. He carried 24 times for 97 yards in the Jaguars’ 16-14 Week 1 victory Tennessee at EverBank Field. Jacksonville came into the season talking about monitoring Jones-Drew so he’d still be close to full strength at the end. He’s taken a very heavy load and is still going strong.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Jones-Drew
Kim Klement/US PresswireMaurice Jones-Drew is closing in on some milestones -- and maybe an NFL rushing title.
Four times 1,000: Titans running back Chris Johnson needs 70 yards to reach 1,000 for the season. He topped 1,000 yards each of his first three NFL seasons. In careers that began since 2000, only four players have had four 1,000-yard seasons in their first four NFL years: Adrian Peterson, Clinton Portis, LaDainian Tomlinson and Jamal Lewis. Johnson’s been very inconsistent this year, with more bad than good. He averaged 3.0 yards per rush in his past two games and 7.5 yards per rush in the two games before that.

Trouble to mull: The Texans come out of their second consecutive loss with a couple big issues, but none that outranks their dwindling scoring production. Since Matt Schaub went down, Houston is averaging 17.2 points in five games. With Schaub, that number was 27.3. Although the defense can handle some dropoff, 10 fewer points per game dramatically slices the margin for error. If the Texans have a bad defensive drive like they did at the end in Indianapolis, they might not survive it -- in the finale against the Titans or in their first playoff game a week or two later.

Riding a wave: The Colts are peaking late with two victories in a row. Even if they win Jan. 1 in Jacksonville, the late surge won’t mean that a healthy Peyton Manning will fix everything. A big finish shouldn’t wash away all the concerns that became obvious during the 0-13 start, but it might make a case for the survival of the defensive system and perhaps for Mike Murphy to remain in place as the coordinator.

Also: The Jaguars need to win one of their final two games to avoid matching the worst record in franchise history. They were 4-12 in 1995, their first season in NFL. … Blaine Gabbert’s Total QBR of 20.4 is the league’s lowest. … The Titans can be eliminated from playoff contention this week -- most simply with a loss and either a Bengals or Jets win or tie. … The Jags have six sacks in their last five games, which is one more than the Titans have had in the same span. Veteran Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck handles pressure better than rookie Gabbert will.

Final Word: NFC East

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16:

Wow, does something have to give: The Minnesota Vikings have played nine games in a row without intercepting a pass -- the longest such streak in the league since the NFL-AFL merger. Their six interceptions for the season is the lowest total in the league, obviously. But this week they get to face Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman, who has thrown at least one interception in 10 straight games and whose 18 interceptions for the season are one short of Ryan Fitzpatrick's league lead -- remarkable, considering Grossman has played in only 11 games. One of these streaks ends Saturday. Which way are you betting?

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks and the Giants' receivers are among the NFL leaders in dropped passes.
Third and wrong: The New York Giants are working on a streak of five straight games in which their opponent has converted at least 50 percent of its third-down opportunities. That's the longest such streak since the merger, and the Giants are 1-4 in those games. The good news is that the Jets' third-down conversion percentage of 36.5 is only the 18th-best in the league, much worse than that of any of the five teams the Giants have played during that stretch.

Hang on tight: Even if the Giants' offensive line can keep the Jets away from quarterback Eli Manning, Manning will need his receivers to catch the ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Giants' receivers have 28 dropped passes this season, second-worst in the league behind the Cleveland Browns. Hakeem Nicks' drop of what would have been a long touchdown pass early in the Week 15 loss to Washington stands out, but the team has five drops in the past two weeks. Victor Cruz leads the team with seven this season, and Nicks, Jake Ballard and Mario Manningham have five.

Thank the big guys up front: Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy is in the midst of a special and historic season, having already set a team record with 20 touchdowns and amassed 1,579 yards from scrimmage. But a large part of his success as a runner is due to the job the Eagles' offensive line has done blocking for him. According to ESPN Stats & Info, McCoy leads the league in the percentage of his yards that are gained before initial contact -- 64.4 percent. Of his 1,274 rush yards, 820 have come before he has been hit. McCoy is extremely shifty and excels at finding his way through holes. But his line is also doing a great job of making those holes for him.

Playing clean: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has played three games in a row without an interception and has just two interceptions (against 18 touchdown passes) in his past seven games. If he can avoid turning the ball over against the Eagles, the Cowboys will greatly improve their chances of winning. Philadelphia leads the league with 35 turnovers, and its minus-12 turnover margin is the second-worst in the league.

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