Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 16

Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 16
December 20, 2013, 2:45 pm
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Week 16 is here, and the time is now for teams to make that final push into the playoffs. But before that, the time is now for you to read this week’s Alphabet NFL Preview.
 
Enjoy —
 
A1: “Patriots at Ravens” was flexed out of primetime this week, but the Alphabet will not submit to being another pawn in Roger Goodell’s evil chess match. So Pats/Ravens still holds the top spot in this week’s preview.
 
The Pats (10-4) can clinch the AFC East title with a win (or a Miami loss in Buffalo). They can clinch a first round bye with a win, plus a Bengals loss to Minnesota and a Colts loss to the Chiefs.
 
We call that fun with scenarios, but truthfully, the Pats are only focused on the Ravens. Baltimore’s in the midst of another That’s So Ravens season, in which they’ve been up and down, written off for dead, on the right side of a few incredibly unlikely wins, and now, seemingly at their best exactly when they need to be. They’re in line to once again enter the postseason with the familiar title of “the team nobody wants to play.”
 
But the Pats have no choice on Sunday. While it’s not a must-win, a loss will potentially make next week’s visit from the Bills a must win. And as the old saying goes, when the season’s on the line, you don’t want to see EJ Manuel on the other side of the ball.
 
BACK-TO-BACK DOGS: The Patriots are two-and-a-half-point underdogs in Baltimore, which is interesting because they took the field last week as two and a half point underdogs in Miami. Add it all up, and this marks the first time that the Patriots have been underdogs in consecutive regular season games since December of 2006.
 
COVERAGE KEY: With Anquan Boldin in San Francisco and Ray Rice now the Artist Formerly Known As, the Ravens biggest offensive threat is receiver Torrey Smith. In fact, Smith’s on pace to break the franchise record for most receiving yards in a season. Michael Jackson (yes, that Michael Jackson) is the current leader with 1,201. Torrey has 1,032. So he needs 170 yards over the last two games to do it.
 
It’s up to Aqib Talib to make sure that Smith doesn’t get it all on Sunday, and his level of success in doing so will go a long way towards determining the outcome. At this point, the Patriots defense can only really compete when Talib is at his best.
 
On that note: Anyone know if Ray Lewis’ doctor has experience working on hips?
 
DIVISION DUEL: Patriots bias aside, the best game of the week takes place on Sunday in Carolina, where the Panthers (10-4) will host the Saints (10-4).
 
With a win, the Saints will clinch the NFC South and a first round bye, but that seems somewhat unlikely given their record on the road (3-4) and Carolina’s record at home (6-1), not to mention the last time we saw the Saints they were getting run off the field by Kellen Clemens and the Rams.
 
EVEN STEVEN: The Panthers are favored by three, which, when you factor in home field, is Vegas’ why of saying that these two teams are extremely evenly matched.
 
That said, this just smells like a Panthers victory. They’ve been playing their whole season for this game. And the embarrassment they experienced a few weeks back ion national TV will just fuel the fire.
 
With a win, only a Week 17 visit to Atlanta will stand between Riverboat Ron and the NFC South title.
 
FOREGONE CONCLUSION: The Seahawks host the Cardinals on Sunday (4:05) and with a win, Seattle will clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and emerge (even more so) as the odds on favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
 
Not only that, but Seattle will follow up Sunday’s game against Arizona with another home game next week against the Rams. That means they’ll have five straight weeks in the comfort of their own home before potentially packing up for the Super Bowl. Doesn’t seem fair. Although, I guess when Pete Carroll is putting together your playoff game plan, you need every advantage you can get.
 
GONNA NEED SOME HELP: The path to the No. 1 seed isn’t quite as easy for the Broncos, but it’s entirely reasonable to believe they’ll have it wrapped up by Sunday night. First, they need to beat the Texans, which would be a safe bet even with 53-year-old John Elway under center.
 
On top of that, Denver needs the Patriots to lose in Baltimore (possible) and the Chiefs to fall against Indy (less likely, but still) to clinch it all before next week. But even if it doesn’t happen now, it will most certainly happen then.
 
In Week 17, only the Raiders will stand between Denver and the No. 1 seed . . . and a divisional round loss to Baltimore.
 
HELL ON EARTH: That’s life for Cowboys fan. Not just now but pretty much every year for the last 20. And you know the worst part is? The Cowboys never die. They’ll never do the valiant thing and just put fans out of their misery. Instead, there’s always something to hold on to. Take this year. The Cowboys are currently 7-7 after a pair of horrendous losses. The first, a Monday night blowout in Chicago. The second, last week’s absolute disaster against MATT FLYNN and the Packers. You’d think the season’s over. But no. The Cowboys are not only still alive. They somehow control their own destiny. All they need to do is win on the road in Washington on Sunday, and they’ll come home to play the Eagles in Week 17 for the NFC East title.
 
And ultimately lose in a fashion more devastating than you can ever imagine.
 
IT COULD BE WORSE: I think? I don’t know. Which would you rather be right now: A Cowboys fan, holding on to a dream that will almost certainly come crashing down on your head, or a ‘Skins fan, who watched the season go down the drain months ago, and has long since moved on? I might go with the latter, if only because Mike Shanahan is on the way out, and things can only get better. Assuming Daniel Snyder doesn’t name himself head coach.
 
JAMAAAAAL: Not sure how Jamaal Charles could ever top what he did last week against the Raiders. It would probably take scoring another five touchdowns . . . maybe throwing another two or three himself . . . then maybe making a diving catch of a baby that falls off a balcony in the nosebleeds? Yes. That should do it.
 
Either way, the Chiefs (11-3) host the Colts (9-5) this week, and stopping Charles — not only as a runner, but as a pass catcher — is number 1, 2 and 3 on Indy’s list of priorities.
 
KEEP IN MIND: The way it looks now, there’s a very good chance that the Colts and Chiefs will meet again in the first round of the playoffs. This time in Indianapolis. And it’s fair to wonder how much that might come into play this week.
 
Do the teams hold back? Keep a few secret plays in the holster and then unleash them when it matters most?
 
Or do they empty out the playbook and leave the other team scrambling to prepare for everything under the sun?
 
OK, enough questions. I can already see Andy Reid getting light-headed.
 
LAST HURRAH: It’s the end of an era on Monday night, as the 49ers host the Falcons in the last regular season game at Candlestick Park.
 
On a personal note, I’m sad to see The Stick go. Such a great name, and a classic stadium. Today, they’d have to call it something like “Candlestick Park presented by Huggies.”
 
Anyway, San Francisco (10-4) will win because they are a good football team while the Falcons (4-10) are not. Sometimes it’s just that simple. And in this case, the 13.5-point spread makes it even simpler.
 
Said win is all that the Niners need to clinch a playoff spot.
 
MARC MY WORDS: The decision to bench Josh McCown in favor of Jay Cutler will haunt Marc Trestman for the extent of his tenure with the Bears. It wasn’t the right move. McCown is the guy that team believes in and wants to go to war with. Cutler’s the guy who’s just as likely to bolt this spring in free agency.
 
The Bears got lucky last week, overcoming Cutler’s two interceptions at Cleveland, but that won’t be the case this week in Philadelphia.
 
NEW TIME, NEW STAKES: Bears at Eagles is the game that was flexed into Sunday night instead of Pats/Ravens, and the delayed start will have an unbelievable impact on what’s at stake.
 
For instance, if the Cowboys beat the ‘Skins on Sunday afternoon, this game no longer matters for the Eagles. Win or lose, they’ll be playing Dallas next week with the division on the line. However, if Dallas loses to Washington, the Eagles will take the field on Sunday night with an opportunity to clinch the NFC East.
 
Meanwhile, if both the Lions (vs. Giants) and Packers (vs. Steelers) lose on Sunday afternoon, then the Bears will have an opportunity to clinch the NFC North. BUT, if the Lions lose and the Packers win, it’s meaningless. In that case, regardless of what happens against Philly, the Bears will play Green Bay in Week 17 for the NFC North title.
 
And one more thi—*head explodes*
 
OBVIOUSLY, LIONS: The Lions gonna be the Lions. Man, what a horrible loss last Monday night. Even if it took a ridiculous last second field goal, Detroit put themselves in that position. They shot themselves in the foot the same way they have for the better part of the last 20 years.
 
The Lions had the division this year. They were up a game, with Jay Cutler hurt and Aaron Rodgers hurt and the Vikings out of commission. And they blew it. They blew in Pittsburgh. They blew it at home against Tampa. They blew it on Monday against the Ravens. Now even if they win out, there’s no guarantee that Detroit makes the playoffs. And in that case, no chance Jim Schwartz keeps his job.
 
They’ll be at home against the Giants on Sunday, needing a win to keep their dwindling postseason hopes alive.
 
Jim Schwartz’s job has to be on the line.
 
PROBLEM CHILD: That’s you, Matt Flynn. If not for your silly heroics last week in Dallas, the Packers could have put the Aaron Rodgers craziness to bed. If not for that comeback, which saved Green Bay’s season, they probably could have convinced Rodgerto sit back and only worry about getting better, instead of frantically rushing to get back on the field. But as it turns out, the Packers are still alive. They win their last two games, and they win the division. And Rodgers is chomping at the bit to risk his health in the name of making it to the playoff and most likely losing in the first round. Not a good idea.
 
Adam Schefter is reporting that Rodgers will be out again, and he’s basically the word of God, so it looks like the Packers have dodged a bullet for now. But if Matt Flynn can do it again this Sunday against Pittsburgh, Green Bay will need some heavy chains and a boatload of sedatives to keep Rodgers on the sidelines.
                              
QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Is Rex Ryan coaching for his job?
 
The Jets (6-8) host the Browns (4-10) this week, having lost five of their last six games and falling out of the playoffs for the third straight year. As a result, especially with his contract up, many people think that Rex is about to get the ax.
 
Personally, I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, how is any coach expected to succeed when he loses his starting quarterback for the season? Mark Sanchez’s don’t grow on trees.
 
RETURN OF THE BACK: Last week, Adrian Peterson missed only his eighth game in seven years, and his first since returning from the torn ACL that cut his 2011 campaign short.
 
So, heading into this week’s Vikings/Bengals game, Cincy probably thought they were about to catch a break. Especially when Minnesota held Peterson out of practice on Thursday to get treatment on his sprained right foot.
 
But not so fast, Marvin! AP is on track to play and that’s bad news for the Bengals.
 
Cincinnati can clinch the AFC North with a win plus a Baltimore loss, and clinch a playoff spot with a win plus a Dolphins loss.
 
Minnesota can clinch nothing at all.
 
SLIM CHANCE: The final AFC playoff spot is essentially a battle between the Ravens and Dolphins, but the Chargers are still alive. Just barely. They need to win out their last two, and hope Miami and Baltimore both lose their last two and — OK, let’s be honest, there’s no chance this happens. It’s another lost season in San Diego, and their fourth straight without a trip to the playoffs. However, unlike the previously three, “lost” doesn’t mean they lack direction. Amazing what can happen when you commit to a Norv-free life.
 
Anyway, the Chargers (7-7) are in Oakland this week to take on the 4-10 Raiders. Weeee!
 
TOO SOON?: There was a strange vibe in and around Sun Life Stadium after the Dolphins beat the Pats last week. It was just a little too festive. A little too jubilant. As if the home team had just won the Super Bowl, as opposed to simply having beaten a team they trailed by three games in the standings, to improve their record to 8-6 and keep pace for the sixth in final playoff spot.
 
I don’t know. Just seems like the Dolphins were a little too high after that win, which might spell trouble moving forward . . .   
 
UPSET OF THE WEEK: Buffalo over Miami! There it is. From the highest of Miami highs to the lowest of the lows: Buffalo in December. And in this case, a Bills team that already beat Miami once this year. And back-up Thad Lewis, who will be under center on Sunday, was the QB on that day too.
 
Final Score: Buffalo 19, Miami 16
 
VERY BAD THINGS: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams.
 
Very, very bad.
 
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN: Last week, I was all hopped up on the chance that the Jaguars might run the table and finish the year on a six-game win streak. One of the best stories of the year I said. But last week they came back to Earth against Buffalo, and this Sunday, will host the Titans in a game that’s now more meaningless than it would have been anyway.
 
X-FACTOR: Weather is supposed to be a major factor at this point in the season. And it has been at various points over the last few weeks. But the NFL world will be unseasonably warm this week. It might be 70 degrees in Philadelphia!
 
In related news: Roger Goodell just announced that he’s changing the date of this year’s Super Bowl to this Sunday.
 
YESTERDAY’S NEWS: There was no Thursday game last night, so there’s nothing to report. I just hope the NFL can survive the financial hardships associated with not having a super dangerous and irresponsible midweek game.
 
ZEE YA LATER: That’s all I got. Enjoy the games.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine