Thirteen NFL games have playoff implications

Dec 21, 2013 9:42 PM

Thirteen of the games on Week 16’s menu have playoff implications, but how important largely depends on how some of the early games play out this weekend. 

In the cases of the Steelers and Chargers in the late-afternoon battles, they could be eliminated before their kickoff, which could easily cause a leak in their adrenaline reservoir.

A harder game to figure in advance is Chicago at Philadelphia, which was flexed to Sunday night. Both teams stand in first place in their division entering the season’s penultimate week. Neither team can clinch a title before kickoff or be eliminated even after the game, but there’s still a chance neither will be gung-ho to fight for a victory. 

Stories even circulated that the Bears could rest key starters in a certain scenario. It’s a head scratcher, to be sure. More on that below.

On the weather front, it’s going to be unseasonably mild across the East, but wet. Cincinnati’s forecast indicated rain could be heavy. Only in Green Bay and Kansas City are temps expected to be below freezing. 

Now for a closer look at this week’s games. Lines are provided by the Las Vegas Hotel SuperBook. Times are PST.

NFL FOOTBALL – SUNDAY, Dec. 22

Miami Dolphins (8-6) at Buffalo Bills (5-9)

Time: 10 a.m.

Weather: Mid-50s.

Line: Dolphins by 2½ (43)

Facts: In Week 7 at Miami, the Bills beat the Dolphins 23-21 as a 7-point underdog behind backup QB Thad Lewis. He’s back again this week after starter EJ Manuel injured a knee (out)… This marks the 11th time Miami has played in Buffalo in December/January since 1990, going 4-6 (5-5 ATS), but the temps are going to be unseasonably mild so it’s no big deal. In the Dolphins’ first 24 years, they never played in Upstate NY past November… The league’s best sacking team, Buffalo (49), goes against one that’s yielded the most in Miami (51). Since 1980, teams that finished the season with the most sacks yielded had a 5-21-1 ATS mark against the sackmasters, 4-23 overall. ... If Miami wins out, it’s in the postseason as a division winner or wild card.

Analysis: The Bills have had a rough-and-tumble year with QB injuries but played with great resolve last week in their second of back-to-back Florida trip, knocking off a mildly hot Jacksonville team. The Dolphins, meanwhile, did indeed beat the Patriots last week in a tense game down to the wire. But if New England had any receiver taller than a 6-2, maybe it’s a different story and some of those last-second floaters in the end zone are caught from Brady. Two of them should have been TDs. As the analysts said, Rob Gronkowski gets those with ease. Anyway, it’s time for the Miami bubble to burst in face of the Bills’ gaudy pass rush. One more thing, Miami was coming off a bye when it lost to Buffalo earlier. Now the scenario is much less friendly.

Forecast: Bills 28, Dolphins 17

New Orleans Saints (10-4) at Carolina Panthers (10-4)

Time: 10 a.m.

Weather: Mid-70s, 80 percent chance of rain

Line: Panthers by 3 (46½)

Facts: New Orleans no longer can beat out Seattle for the top seed in the NFC, but can clinch No. 2 here with an NFC South-securing victory. But if they can’t knock off Carolina for the second time in three weeks, they will wind up a wild card if they win at home next week vs. Tampa Bay. ... Carolina can win the division with a victory Sunday and a win or tie next week in Atlanta. ... In the preseason, the Panthers were listed as having the league’s toughest schedule (based on last year’s records of their foes) at .543. But through 14 games, that mark is .495… Saints PK Shayne Graham replaces fired Garrett Hartley. Last season for Houston, Graham was perfect inside the 40 but missed seven times from beyond… During New Orleans’ 1-4 road plunge it hasn’t had a single drive start inside enemy territory.

Analysis: Saints coach Sean Payton has hit the panic button with a railroad tie this week, ousting Hartley and changing left tackles in Week 16 before their biggest game of the year, bringing in Terron Armstead, a rookie from Arkansas-Pine Bluff. That happens to be the hometown of Saints Hall of Fame tackle Willie Roaf. Carolina could further contribute to New Orleans’ woes by playing press coverage against the Saints wideouts, which was a largely successful ploy by Seattle three weeks ago. 

Forecast: Panthers 34, Saints 24

Dallas Cowboys (7-7) at Washington Redskins (3-11)

Time: 10 a.m.

Weather: Low 70s, 60 percent chance of rain, 28 mph gusts

Line: Cowboys by 3 (54)

Facts: In Week 6 in Dallas, the Cowboys beat the Redskins 31-16 as a 5½-point choice… Dallas has the league’s worst-rated defense, but Washington is giving up the most point per game at 31.0…. In 2011, Green Bay had the dishonor of having the worst-rated offense, yet finished 15-1… Washington RB Alfred Morris and QB Kirk Cousins lost two fumbles apiece last week in Atlanta, the first time teammates did that in a game this season… The Redskins have yielded an NFL-high 54 TDs, which is 11 more than all last season in their run to the NFC East title… Dallas has gone 0-5 the past two seasons when gaining 450-plus yards of total offense, including last week’s 37-36 meltdown vs. Green Bay and fourth-string QB Matt Flynn. Yet the Cowboys beat Redskins despite getting only 213 early on this year. 

Analysis: Dallas gets to play its fourth straight backup QB, with No. 5 technically coming next week against Philly’s Nick Foles, who has elevated to the top of the passer chart. But first things first. Although Redskins fans have largely left the building, there should be enough leather-lunged rooters to help make life miserable for Dallas QB Tony Romo if things turn sour for the Cowboys at any point. Since a Cowboys loss could result in their playoff elimination, provided the Eagles beat or tie Chicago later in the night, the collar could get tight. Real tight.

Forecast: Redskins 34, Cowboys 27

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) at St. Louis Rams (6-8)

Time: 10 a.m.

Line: Rams by 4 (43)

Facts: Last season during the Bucs’ late-season free fall, they were 28-13 losers to St. Louis in Week 16 as a 3-point choice… St. Louis rookie RB Zac Stacy, who had a season-best 133 rushing yards last week in the Rams’ 27-16 win over the Saints, is the most productive rusher this year without a fumble – 854 yards… During one extended second-half stretch last week, the Rams ran six offensive plays to the Saints’ 38, but still hung on…Tampa Bay had a season-low 183 yards of offense last week in its 33-14 home loss to San Francisco, pushing coach Greg Schiano closer to getting the heave-ho after the season.

Analysis: Tampa Bay’s offense, which kicked into a higher gear with the arrival of scrap-heap RB Bobby Rainey and rookie backup QB Mike Glennon, has atrophied the past four games with its lowest four yardage totals of the season. And with St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher getting the best out of his men, as its 27-16 victory over New Orleans would indicate, the Rams will have no let-up this week. Even without Rams RB/kick returner Tavon Austin (questionable, ankle), the Rams showed more than enough to be a winner. Against the Bucs, they can do less and still prevail.

Forecast: Rams 27, Buccaneers 13

Cleveland Browns (4-10) at New York Jets (6-8)

Time: 10 a.m.

Weather: Mid-60s, 50 percent chance of rain

Line: Jets by 2 (40½)

Facts: The Jets’ playoff hopes died Monday night when Baltimore beat Detroit, which renders this one of three games on the docket without playoff implications… Browns receiving sensation Josh Gordon has taken over the league lead in average yards per catch at 19.8… NYJ quarterback Geno Smith has only the 19th most passes, but is second in sacks with 43… Cleveland will be without its leading receiver, TE Cameron Jordan, who has 75 catches and a concussion. ... The Browns are on a five-game losing streak. Through five weeks, though, they were 3-2 and atop the AFC North.

Analysis: All the pressure is off the Jets these days, and as usual that means Smith should have a stellar day (for him), even against the league’s No. 8-ranked defense, which is a step down in class after taking on Carolina’s second-rated unit last week and falling only 30-20. The pressure is off coach Rex Ryan, too, more or less. No more sweating out making the playoffs. If his team can climb to 8-8 that’s not a bad ledger to have considering what he’s had to work with. As for the Browns, if they couldn’t muster a win in front of the home folks last week vs. Chicago after holding a late lead, chances are their energy meter won’t be red-lining this week. 

Forecast: Jets 24, Browns 16

Indianapolis Colts (9-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)

Time: 10 a.m.

Weather: Mid-20s, 30 percent chance of rain

Line: Chiefs by 6½ (45)

Facts: This could well could be a first-round playoff matchup in two weeks, with the Colts currently holding the fourth seed and KC fifth. That game, though, would be at Indy unless the Chiefs miraculously slip past Denver in the AFC West standings and get the top seed… Indy is 6-1 in Kansas City since 1995… In the Chiefs’ 56-31 rout in Oakland last week, they had a 49-20 edge in average starting field position. The last time anyone beat that 29-yard edge was NYG vs. visiting New Orleans last year (49-19) in a 52-27 win… KC’s four scores off KOs/punts and seven on defense are both tops in the league. But that total of 11 is one short of Arizona’s achievement in 2011… Indy QB Andrew Luck is the league’s 28th most accurate passer at 58.7 percent and will be facing a defense that allows a league-low 54.8 rate. 

Analysis: The Chiefs’ offense benefited from a league-high seven drives that started in Raiders’ territory last week and shouldn’t expect such good fortune against this week against a team that stuffed Houston last Sunday 25-3. As for the Colts, since their 38-8 home beatdown by the Rams, when they committed five turnovers, it hasn’t been the same. In their next five games they have totaled only three giveaways and had their third-best rushing output last week (152 yards) vs. a still-ornery Texans team. And considering KC is only 2-5 ATS at home this season, it seems like too many points to spot.

Forecast: Chiefs 21, Colts 20

Minnesota Vikings (4-9-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-5)

Time: 10 a.m.

Weather: High 50s, heavy rain late, 34 mph gusts

Line: Bengals by 8½ (48)

Facts: The home team is 10-1 in this series, with the Bengals 4-1… Cincinnati needs a victory and a Baltimore loss or tie to ensure an AFC North title Sunday. Or else it’s a winner-take-all finale in Week 17 vs. the Ravens in Ohio with the loser possibly left out of the postseason mix… Vikings RB Adrian Peterson (questionable), who sat out last week’s 48-30 win over Philadelphia, missed midweek drills again this week to rest his sprained foot… Third-string RB Matt Asiata had three TD runs in the absence of Peterson and Toby Gerhart (hamstring, probable), but had only 51 yards on 30 carries… Last season Andy Dalton’s Bengals were 0-8 against playoff teams. This year they’re 6-4 vs. teams still alive for the postseason… Cincinnati has scored 49, 41 and 41 points its past three home games. Not even Denver has had 40-plus in three straight at home this season. 

Analysis: The Bengals had to break in a new punter this week in ex-Bill Shaun Powell for Kevin Huber (mangled, out). But perhaps even more importantly Powell is the placement holder, too. That could come to haunt Cincinnati, especially with such volatile weather expected. Meanwhile, Minnesota QB Matt Cassel, who threw for 382 yards and two TDs in last week’s stunner against Philadelphia, appears to be in a comfort zone after being dropped to third string at midseason. What’s to lose for this longtime journeyman who’s helping the Vikings enjoy life as a spoiler.

Forecast: Vikings 27, Bengals 24

Denver Broncos (11-3) at Houston Texans (2-12)

Time: 10 a.m.

Line: Broncos by 10 (54)

Facts: Hard to believe: No team has a better differential of offensive snaps to defensive snaps than Houston at +127. But that’s what can happen when a team yields seven defensive TDs and gets the ball right back… Last season, the Texans won at Denver 31-25 as a 1-point choice, the only time Peyton Manning’s Broncos have ever been a home underdog… The Broncos are on pace to shatter the Patriots’ season scoring record of 589 points, being just 54 shy, but their norm of 38.2 a game falls short of the Rams’ per-game record of 38.8 in 1950… Although Houston stands 11th in yards per game (359.1), the Texans are only 29th in points per outing (18.1)… Hmm: Denver foes have gained first downs 39 times on penalties this year, which is eight more than all of last year and tied for most in the league.

Analysis: With Texans QB Case Keenum out (thumb), maligned Matt Schaub makes his first start since Week 6. A lot like Geno Smith with the Jets, so little is expected of Schaub at this point he can go in free-wheeling and perhaps make himself desirable for a team looking for a scatter-armed passer next season. And he’ll no doubt be throwing toward WR Andre Johnson, the most targeted receiver in the game. But then again, he’ll have to throw and throw considering that not only is Arian Foster on IR but also now his sidekick, Ben Tate (ribs). That leaves undrafted midseason pickup Dennis Johnson to carry the load against a Broncos team that will be looking to run up the score in an effort to help Manning get the four TD throws he needs to set an NFL record.

Forecast: Broncos 35, Texans 17

Tennessee Titans (5-9) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10)

Time: 10 a.m.

Weather: Lows 80s, partly cloudy

Line: Titans by 5½ (44)

Facts: Hard to believe Tennessee started the season 3-1, but then came the buzz-saw portion of the schedule when it fell to Kansas City, Seattle and San Francisco, who are a combined 33-9… The Jaguars and Titans have helped the AFC South achieve the worst overall division mark in the league this season at 16 games below .500. The lousiest in history is 20 under by the NFC West in 2008, but that’s mathematically out of reach this year… The Jaguars came out of their bye 0-8 by beating the Titans in Tennessee 29-27 in Week 10 as a 12½-point underdog, the biggest upset of the season… In that loss to Jacksonville, the Titans committed four turnovers, including a fumble return for a late score. Otherwise, Tennessee is 4-0 as a favorite (3-0-1 ATS). 

Analysis: If Titans RB Chris Johnson doesn’t already have enough money, he might consider ramping up his production to avoid being dropped in the offseason. Actually, he’s not doing too awful, with seven TDs his past seven games, but is averaging only 69.1 yards a game. And if he wants to have his sixth straight 1,000-yard season, he’d finish two yards short at that rate. Not to mention Tennessee surely must have enough pride not to want to lose to the Jaguars a second time. Houston did it and wound up seeing its coach fired afterward. On the other side, don’t hold your break waiting on Jags RB Maurice Jones-Drew (doubtful, hamstring).

Forecast: Titans 24, Jaguars 13 

Arizona Cardinals (9-5) at Seattle Seahawks (12-2)

Time: 1:05 p.m.

Weather: High 40s, 60 percent chance of rain

Line: Seahawks by 10½ (43½)

Facts: The Seahawks have the best record in the league despite having the third-most penalty yards marched off against at 1,016 – 16 shy of league-leading Tampa Bay. The last time a team led the NFL in penalty yards and won the title was Baltimore last year… The Cardinals and Seahawks are both 10-4 ATS, the best marks in the league. ... The Seahawks clinch the top NFC seed with a victory or tie or a San Francisco loss or tie. Arizona can’t clinch anything, but probably would be on life support if it lost here… Last year in Seattle, the Seahawks beat the Cardinals 58-0, which is the tenth most lopsided shutout in league history. Arizona responded the next week with its most best win of the season, 38-10 over Detroit as a 5½-point underdog.

Analysis: Seattle is in the comfy position of likely not having to leave home until the week of the Super Bowl, but it’s going to take one more victory in their final two home games, vs. Arizona or St. Louis, to make that happen for sure. What’s likely to occur here is that Cardinals QB Carson Palmer (questionable, ankle) is going to be under siege. He was sacked a career-high seven times in their Week 7 confrontation in the desert, with Seattle winning 34-22. Plus, with Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald (questionable, concussion) not likely being a full go, the Cardinals will be hard-pressed to do much better than the Giants last week, who were shut out by Seattle.

Forecast: Seahawks 31, Cardinals 7

New York Giants (5-9) at Detroit Lions (7-7)

Time: 1:05 p.m.

Line: Lions by 9½ (49½)

Facts: These teams are Nos. 1 and 2 in giveaways this seasons, the Giants with 39 and Lions with 31… Since 1995, visitors in this series are 6-1, but the Giants won at home in 2010, 28-20… Detroit QB Matt Stafford has thrown 11 INTs in enemy territory this year, most in the league. Even three more than NYG’s Eli Manning, the league leader in INTs with 25… Detroit will be eliminated from playoff contention unless it wins, but can regain control of the NFC North with a victory and losses by Green Bay and Chicago. ... The Giants have given up nine return scores this season, the most in the league since the Vikings allowed 11 in 2008. 

Analysis: Tempers reportedly flared in the NYG locker room after last week’s 23-0 loss to Seattle. What took so long? The Giants have shown in the past to be among the first to start packing for the offseason when things turn sour, including their epic eight-game losing streak to end the 2003 season (0-8 ATS, too), which cost ex-LV Locomotive coach Jim Fassel his job in NY. Thus, little is expected from Tom Coughlin’s players, many of whom have Super Bowl rings and aren’t excited about the prospect of making this a 7-9 seasons. Detroit, meanwhile, has plenty to play for and needs only to be a little more careful with the ball. 

Forecast: Lions 24, Giants 10

Oakland Raiders (4-10) at San Diego Chargers (7-7)

Time: 1:25 p.m.

Weather: High 60s, clear

Line: Chargers by 10 (51)

Facts: If Miami wins earlier in the day, the Chargers will be eliminated from playoff contention before kickoff… In Week 5, the Raiders beat the visiting Chargers 27-17 as a 5-poing ‘dog. Terrelle Pryor was Oakland’s QB then. These days it’s Matt McGloin, who had five turnovers last week vs. KC… San Diego had won 13 in a row in the series from 2003-09, but are 3-4 since… Three years ago, Oakland won at San Diego 28-13 as a 13-point underdog, tying for the second biggest upset of the year. ... The good news: San Diego is coming off a rejuvenating 27-20 victory in Denver last Thursday. The bad news is that teams are 0-8 ATS the past two weeks off extended weekend breaks.

Analysis: There have been two starting QBs to post perfect passer ratings this year – Philly’s Nick Foles and KC’s Alex Smith. Both came against a Raiders unit that allowed the Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles to score on four screens last week. Perhaps that’s why the Raiders have the league’s worst defensive passer rating and will be going against the league’s most accurate passer in Philip Rivers. And if Rivers runs into trouble, Ryan Mathews could well get his sixth 100-yard rushing game of the season. San Diego surely will play hard regardless of its playoff situation.

Forecast: Chargers 38, Raiders 21

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8) at Green Bay Packers (7-6-1)

Time: 1:25 p.m.

Weather: Mid-20s, 100 percents chance of precipitation

Line: Packers by 2½ (44)

Facts: News flash: It’s Matt Flynn at QB yet again for Aaron Rodgers. ... The last time these teams met, the Packers beat the Steelers 31-25 in the 2010 season Super Bowl … Green Bay controls its division destiny no matter what the Lions or Bears do this week. Next week the Packers finish at Chicago… Flashback: Vince Lombardi’s last home loss as Packers boss at Lambeau occurred in the 1967 finale when the Steelers beat the Super Bowl-bound Packers 24-17. Green Bay, though, had nothing at stake… Green Bay is 13-1 at home in December/January since 2009 (11-3 ATS), but that loss was in the 2011 divisional playoffs to the Giants… In Pittsburgh’s 30-20 win over Cincinnati on Sunday night, the Steelers had only two offense TDs, on drives of 1 yard and 47 yards.

Analysis: Flynn has shown magic form in rallying the Packers late in games, including a 16-point deficit against Minnesota four weeks ago in a game that ended in a tie, and then last week, as Green Bay set a franchise record by rallying from 23 down at halftime to beat Dallas 37-36. But why are the Packers trailing that badly to these teams in the first place? The vote here is for a free-wheeling QB Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champ, outdueling a fourth-stringer who can’t be trusted not to have a miserable outing. 

Forecast: Steelers 31, Packers 16

New England Patriots (10-4) at Baltimore Ravens (8-6)

Time: 1:25 p.m.

Weather: Low 70s, 60 percent chance of rain

Line: Ravens by 1½ (45)

Facts: The last two QBs the Patriots faced, Cleveland’s Jason Campbell and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, had their best passer ratings of the year in games against NE’s 24th-ranked defense… The Ravens’ best scoring output has been 30 points this year. In last year’s playoff run to the title, they had 38 against Denver and 34 in the Super Bowl vs. San Francisco. They also beat the Patriots 28-13 as an 8-point underdog… These teams have met in the past two AFC title games. The record is three in a row (Pittsburgh vs. Oakland 1974-76)… NE is seeking its fifth straight division title, two off the record held by the Rams (1973-79)… This is the first time in three years the Patriots face a team off a MNF game.

Analysis: Baltimore QB Joe Flacco hasn’t exactly been a marksman, especially last week when trying to find WR Torrey Smith, who caught only four of 12 targeted throws for 69 yards. Also, the Ravens continue to have by far the worst rushing norm per carry t 3.0, so even against the Patriots’ soft and short-handed defense there could be reason for New England optimism. No to mention, the Ravens haven’t been very opportunistic. The past 11 times they opened a drive in enemy territory, they wound up with a TD just once and totaled 36 yards on those possessions. A savvy Tom Brady and his smurf corps of wideouts should score enough to cause groans in Baltimore.

Forecast: Patriots 31, Ravens 24

Chicago Bears (8-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (8-6)

Time: 5:30 p.m.

Weather: Mid-50s, 40 percent chance of rain

Line: Eagles by 3 (56)

Facts: The Eagles’ top-rated rushing offense faces the league’s worst-rated rush defense. Since 1980, the top rushing team is 13-4-1 ATS in such matchups, 14-4 SU, including last year’s Washington’s upset 40-32 win at New Orleans. ... Philadelphia’s defense has been on the field for a league-high 1,023 plays, which is 98 more than Philly’s offense. Only Dallas has a bigger negative differential (-123)… In 2011, the Bears came off a bye and won in Philly 30-24 on MNF as a 7½-point underdog… Chicago is tied for the league high with five rushes of 40-plus yards. Philly hasn’t given up any, one of five teams that stubborn.

Analysis: As mentioned up high, it’s possible this game could be of great playoff interest or very little. For instance, if the Lions lose and Packers win earlier, no matter what the Bears do in this game their NFC North fate would hinge on the outcome of next week’s home game against Green Bay. So, as has been written, it might be wise for Chicago to rest a few key starters. For the Eagles, it’s much the same. If the Cowboys lose at Washington, well the Eagles and their fans would go bonkers at the chance to win the NFC East title in prime time. But if Dallas beats Washington, no matter what the Eagles do in this game the outcome of the NFC East would come down to next week’s showdown in Dallas. So, why not rest key folks? Anyway, considering it’s prime time and in Philly, the Eagles are most likely to bring at least their “B” game.

Forecast: Eagles 34, Bears 21

NFL FOOTBALL – MONDAY, DEC. 23

Atlanta Falcons (3-11) at San Francisco 49ers (10-4)

Time: 5:40 p.m.

Weather: Low 50s, clear

Line: 49ers by 12½ (46)

Facts: In last year’s NFC title game, the 49ers beat the Falcons 28-24 as a 4-point underdog, overcoming a 17-point deficit in the Georgia Dome… We should have seen it coming: Atlanta was one of two teams that went winless in the preseason… The Falcons gave up 476 yards to the Kirk Cousins-led Redskins last week in his first start of the year, the second highest yield by Atlanta this year. ... 49ers kicker Phil Dawson’s has hit 24 FGs in a row. His predecessor, David Akers, was 29-for-42 last regular season… In SF’s 33-14 victory in Tampa Bay last week, the 49ers had a 17-play, 77-yard drive to a FG that lasted 10:27. It’s the only drive by anyone this year that went 10-plus minutes.

Analysis: The 49ers are rounding into solid form, holding the Bucs to 183 yards last week and scoring 33 points, whereas on the surface the Falcons have been getting high-fives for playing the Saints and Packers tough on the road and beating Buffalo and Washington, it still is troublesome that it took a +5 turnover edge to get them over the top last week. It’s also bad news for the Falcons that it’s going to be a festive celebration of Candlestick’s last hurrah, with all the alums cheering on a big 49ers victory. 

Forecast: 49ers 38, Falcons 14

Last week: 7-9 ATS; 7-9 SU

Season total: 108-108-8 (.500) ATS; 129-94-1 (.579) SU

“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting NFL games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].

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