- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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To squeeze out one or two more games at Candlestick Park beyond Week 16, the San Francisco 49ers need a minor miracle.
The Seattle Seahawks need only to win just one of their final two games to clinch the NFC West title and seize home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. That would seal the 49ers' fate as a wild card, likely relegating them to the road the rest of the way. San Francisco needs to focus on beating the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night in what promises to be an emotional game to at least lock up a wild-card spot.
Candlestick Park, the NFL's third-oldest stadium and the home of the 49ers, will host its final regular-season game Monday night. The team moves to brand-new Levi Stadium in Santa Clara next season. There will be plenty of emotion on the field -- former San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo and several former players will be on hand to see if the current team can take care of business against the Falcons.
Speaking of the Falcons, what a difference a year has made in Atlanta.
Last season, the 49ers had to pull out a last-minute victory over the Falcons to advance to the Super Bowl. Since that contest, the Falcons have endured one of the greatest falls for a top seed since 1990, going from 13-3 to 4-10. The 2003 Oakland Raiders dropped to 4-12 after going to the Super Bowl as a No. 1 seed. The 2005 Philadelphia Eagles and 1999 Denver Broncos each dropped to 6-10 after being top seeds.
With closing games against San Francisco and Carolina, the Falcons might end up tying the Raiders for biggest drop.
Here are the top 10 trends going into Week 16.
1. Road-weary Saints: Much has been made about Drew Brees' struggles in road games, and the criticism is warranted. Away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Brees transforms from an unstoppable quarterback to a very good signal-caller. At home, he's a 73.2 percent thrower with a 23-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. On the road, his completion percentage dips to 63.4 and his interception-to-touchdown ratio slides to 11-7. After last Sunday's loss in St. Louis, coach Sean Payton conceded the road problems can't be ignored anymore. To shake things up, he cut kicker Garrett Hartley and benched left tackle Charles Brown in favor of rookie Terron Armstead, a very raw third-round choice. But the road problems aren't limited to the team's offense. The Saints' defense isn't consistently winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, leading to opponents gashing the Saints on the ground and keeping Brees on the sideline. Part of the problem is the unit's inexperience as defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro are great playmakers but have been prone to making mistakes. The Saints can claim the NFC South and a first-round bye with a win, but a loss could make them a wild card and hand the division to the Panthers.
2. Ghost of the Patriots' past resurfaces: Dean Pees coached linebackers for the New England Patriots in 2004 and 2005 and replaced Eric Mangini as defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2009 before departing in 2010. On Sunday, Pees, the Ravens' defensive coordinator, could stand in the way of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady getting one of the conference's top two seeds when the Patriots visit the Ravens in a critical AFC game. Not having to scheme for Rob Gronkowski (ACL) will help Pees in attacking Brady & Co. Minus Gronk, the Patriots' offense is pretty pedestrian. They go from scoring 32 points a game to 20.7 while the yardage total slides from 417.7 to 363.7 a contest. The Gronk factor was very evident in the red zone during last Sunday's loss in Miami. New England made three trips inside Miami's 20, resulting in two field goals and a game-ending interception. Pees knows Brady's tendencies well but will spend some extra time studying the Pats' small and quick receivers. Last week, Brady fired 47 of his 55 passes at targets 6 feet or shorter and for the season he's thrown a league-high 321 passes to diminutive receivers.
3. Chipping away at the Chicago Bears' defense: Last week, Marc Trestman resolved one major question mark when he brought back Jay Cutler from a high-ankle sprain and pulled out a seven-point victory over the Cleveland Browns. Fans in Chicago were pushing for hot backup Josh McCown, but Trestman won the debate when the Bears rallied around Cutler in the second half. The next task for the Bears' coach to resolve is their defense, and that resolution could determine whether the team will make the playoffs. The Bears are giving up a staggering 152.4 yards a game on the ground and a ridiculous 5.2 yards an attempt. These aren't the "Monsters of the Midway," they've been puppies against the run. Chicago now faces a Philadelphia team that has a fast-paced running offense. The Eagles lead the league with 152.9 rushing yards per game, and starting RB LeSean McCoy averages 5.0 yards an attempt. If the Bears surrender 150-plus rushing yards, this may be a hard win to come by.
4. AFC wild-card preview: While Denver, New England and Cincinnati battle for seeding atop the AFC, it sure looks as though the Indianapolis Colts, already in the playoffs with the AFC South title, will be the No. 4 seed. At 11-3, the Kansas City Chiefs may have to settle for a fifth seed. On Sunday in Arrowhead, both teams get to test each other out in what should be a preview of a great wild-card matchup. Both teams have had recent issues caused by injury. A once-devastating pass rush lost some luster in Kansas City when Tamba Hali was hurt and Justin Houston was forced out of the lineup with a dislocated elbow. The Chiefs survived a three-game losing streak but have allowed 29.5 points a game over the past four weeks. The Colts haven't looked like a playoff team over the past month. Since their bye week in Week 8, the Colts' defense has allowed 415.8 yards a game, 33.2 points a game and 6.32 yards a play. The problem is the Colts no longer have the offense to survive that. Minus Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen, Andrew Luck struggles to find open receivers. Darrius Heyward-Bey is losing playing time because of dropped passes, and Luck has had to rely on T.Y. Hilton and tight end Coby Fleener as his only reliable targets. The Colts can test things in this game without much consequence. First, they would host a playoff game against the Chiefs. Second, they finish the season at home against Jacksonville and should get that win to finish no worse than 10-6. Sunday's game against the Chiefs will give head coach Chuck Pagano an idea of where his team is before the playoffs get underway.
5. Fractured collarbone, fractured season? Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy spent the week preparing with Matt Flynn as his starting quarterback. Aaron Rodgers continues to wait for his fractured left collarbone to heal. Rodgers fractured that collarbone on Nov. 4 and history says it's an injury that takes time to heal. In 2010, Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys fractured his left collarbone and waited until the final couple weeks of the season before he finally had to go on the injured reserve list. Rodgers wants to return to the field but can't until Dr. Pat McKenzie clears him. With Rodgers starting, the Packers were 5-3 and averaged 29 points and 423 yards per game. Without him, they are 2-3-1, averaging 20.2 points and 362.8 yards a game. Last week, backup Matt Flynn led the Packers on an incredible, 23-point second-half comeback to beat the Cowboys, but can that magic continue? The Steelers are on the verge of elimination from the playoffs, but they are a dangerous next opponent.
6. Decembers not to remember: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones may love giving himself votes of confidence for his role as a general manager, but the formula isn't working. The Cowboys have been pretty much a .500 team since 1997 and are squandering the Romo years. The Cowboys, who face the 3-11 Washington Redskins, usually beat losing teams. But December has been the worst month for America's team. Romo is 13-21 in December, a .382 winning percentage that is his worst in any month. Last week, the Packers dictated Dallas' play calling. They loaded the box to stop the run and enticed Romo to pass. He threw two critical fourth-quarter interceptions that cost Dallas the game. Since 2006, Romo has seven fourth-quarter picks in one-possession games that ended up in a loss. The Redskins, meanwhile, are trying to market Kirk Cousins for draft choices. The Cowboys' defense might enhance that value.
7. From first to possibly oblivion: It's been an incredible fall for the Detroit Lions. Heading into Week 15, they were sitting atop an NFC North that was missing Cutler and Rodgers. But the Monday night loss to Baltimore put them on the verge of playoff elimination. If the Packers and Bears win Sunday, the Lions are out of the playoffs and head coach Jim Schwartz would probably be out of a job after the season. Matthew Stafford has hit a slump. Since Week 11, he's thrown 11 interceptions. Over the past five games, he's completing 51.1 percent of his passes and his yards-per-game average has dropped from 315.1 to 275. Sunday's assignment should be easy, though. The New York Giants come to town with an uninspired squad that was shut out at home last week by Seattle.
8. Could the Bengals bungle the AFC North? Since the middle of the season, the Cincinnati Bengals were the team to beat in the AFC North. The Steelers were down. The Ravens were struggling to win close games. The only argument for the Bengals appeared to be whether they would be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. As incredible as it might sound, the Bengals could find themselves out of the playoffs. At 9-5, they have a one-game lead over the Ravens, who are getting hot. The Bengals should beat the Minnesota Vikings Sunday and that would get them to 10 wins. But if the Ravens beat the Patriots, the Ravens could come to Cincinnati next week with a chance to win the division. If the Ravens win the division, the Bengals could lose a wild-card spot to the Miami Dolphins, who beat Cincinnati 22-20 on Oct. 31. The good news for Bengals fans is that their team is home to finish the season. On the road, the Bengals were 3-5 and averaged only 19.4 points a game. They have won all six home games and average 33.2 points a game.
9. Are the Broncos truly a top seed? The Broncos' statistically pleasing season suffered a setback in last week's 27-20 loss at home to the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers contained Peyton Manning after the first couple of offensive possessions. The defense has been looking shaky for weeks. The Broncos were fortunate because losses by New England and Cincinnati kept them as the AFC's No. 1 seed. Still, there isn't much panic in Denver. John Fox is back in charge after recovering from heart surgery and will do his best to fix the defense. The closing schedule doesn't hurt, either. Manning plays a Houston Texans team that is on a 12-game losing streak and then finishes the season in Oakland, which is also in a free fall. That schedule should allow the Broncos to pad their stats. The Broncos need 55 points over the next two weeks to be the highest-scoring team in NFL history. Manning needs four touchdown passes to beat Brady's 50-touchdown season in 2007. Manning needs 666 yards in two weeks to break Brees' single-season yardage record.
10. Quarterback changes: A few teams are trying out different quarterbacks in Week 16. Cousins gets his second start for the Redskins. Thad Lewis fills in for EJ Manuel in the Bills' home game against Miami. The switch could help the Dolphins' bid for a wild-card spot. An injury to Case Keenum gets Matt Schaub back in the Texans' lineup. Schaub is expected to be cut after the season by a Texans team that will be search of a new quarterback.