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NFL: Playoff Race Heats Up

football

The NFL slate of fixtures is getting more and more impressive every week. As we head into week eleven of the regular season, opportunities for wins over rivals are getting more and more precious, with a victory over either a divisional or conference challenger a serious blow to their hopes of overtaking you. With seemingly every team in and around .500 still in with a serious shot of making the post-season, there are plenty of battles between contenders ahead. This weekend sees five contests between sides with winning records. There is some great football coming up, so lets preview it here.

New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts

The Indianapolis Colts come into this Monday Night Football encounter without having played a football game in exactly two weeks, having had their bye week after a Monday Night Football blowout win over the New York Giants. The 6-3 Colts can make a monumental leap up the AFC seedings table with a win on Monday night. They have been putting up huge points all season long, after recovering from an early 0-2 record. The depth of weapons available to Andrew Luck and the Colts is staggering, meaning a player like Hakeem Nicks is arguably not in their top six receiving options. The run game is plodding along enough to keep some of the heat off Luck, but the defense is very hit and miss. The one thing Indy have struggled against this year? Top tier passers. Tom Brady is not someone they want to see entering Lucas Oil Stadium.

The New England Patriots are the top seeds in the AFC at the moment, and can take another big step towards home field advantage in the playoffs by winning in Indy. The Patriots schedule down the stretch is not easy, especially with a couple of teams still challenging in the division. So a win here would be huge. Tom Brady has been in inspired form since being ravaged by the Kansas City Chiefs earlier in the year. The Pats have lost two road games already, which will be a concern going into this one. But Andrew Luck has given up eight turnovers in two games against Bill Belichick’s side before, and the old master will likely have a plan to confound the young gunslinger once again.

Verdict: New England

Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals

Arguably the most fascinating encounter of the weekend. First seed meets second in the NFC, with the 8-1 Arizona Cardinals playing host. The Cardinals, as has been their story this season, lost another high calibre starting player last weekend, as Carson Palmer was ruled out for the season with a torn ACL. This is a crushing blow for both the player and the franchise. How many more players can this team cope with losing? The Cardinals have already won games this season with Drew Stanton at quarterback, and he is a fine replacement to have. With Arizona’s many wide receivers to target, they may actually survive without Palmer. If they can win big against that secondary, they should take this one. But they are in for a dog fight here, and this could be the game where there season begins to slip away.

The Detroit Lions have put themselves in a strong position in both division and conference, but yet only lead the Green Bay Packers by a solitary victory. There is big pressure on the Lions not to fall away like they did last year when in a similar position. They also appear to be in win-now mode, with a number of starters likely to leave in free agency next season, most notably the leader of their ferocious defense, Ndamukong Suh.  Arizona’s offensive line has stepped it up this year, but the Lions dominant front is a huge test for them. Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are a tremendous wide receiver pair, but can Matt Stafford cut out the turnovers and put points on the board?

Verdict: Arizona

Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs are rolling, having staged a dramatic comeback against the Buffalo Bills last weekend to clinch a huge win. The Chiefs only scored three points in the first three quarters, but were able to put up two rushing touchdowns in the fourth to steal the win. The Chiefs resilience is impressive, as is their pass rushing from the edge through Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Andy Reid has the Chiefs playing classic old-school ball – run the football, kill the clock, don’t give up big plays on defense. They run a very sharp short passing and running game, but don’t really have field-strecthing options. They haven’t needed it so far, but it would make a big difference if Dwayne Bowe could make one or two big gains every weekend.

Twelve months ago, the Seattle Seahawks would have certainly won this game. Their ferocious defense would have been perfectly set up to shut down the short slants and runs that the Chiefs are thriving on. Now though, it is hard to be certain what the Seahawks do well. The offense has been a mess really, even though they put up 350 rushing yards on the New York Giants last weekend. If they pound the ball on the ground, they could make serious hay against a less-than-stellar Chiefs run defense. But can the offensive line hold up against the rushers? Brandon Mebane is out, but Kam Chancellor and Malcolm Smith may well play, which could be crucial.

Verdict: Seattle

Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers

Just sit back and enjoy this one, because if it lives up to expectations it could be the game of the season. The Green Bay Packers have been blowing past all comers of late, and sit just one game behind the Lions in the NFC North. Aaron Rodgers is on his way to an MVP crown if he continues in his recent vein of form, and Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have eighteen touchdowns between them. The Packers defense has arguably shown the most in-season improvement of any NFL unit this year, having been a stuttering joke for the first few weeks. You would think the better defense wins out on Sunday.

The Philadelphia Eagles have Mark Sanchez under center following Nick Foles’ damaged collarbone. It didn’t hold them back in his first start against the Carolina Panthers, where he averaged nine yards per throw, landed two touchdowns and didn’t turn it over. If he can keep that form going, Philly will be a threat to every team they play. LeSean McCoy has struggled compared to last year, but Darren Sproles is still excelling to counteract it. The Eagles are another team loaded to the brim with offensive weapons, meaning a new guy can step up most weeks, because you can’t cover everybody. Even if Green Bay can stop Jeremy Maclin, can they cope one on one against the other guys? This game is the one to watch this weekend, and not just because of the fascinating playoff implications.

Verdict: Green Bay

Cincinnati Bengals at New Orleans Saints

There is no doubt about it – this is a clash between two faltering sides. The New Orleans Saints have a 4-5 record after last weekend’s giveaway defeat to the San Francisco Forty-Niners. Mercifully for them, none of the other NFC South teams have proven to be as good as they looked on paper, so 4-5 sees them top the division. But where is this Saints team going? Sean Payton and Drew Brees look so much more fallible than in previous years, and Rob Ryan’s defense has been typically hit and miss. The Saints are probably going to the post-season, but if they don’t find some offensive players not named Mark Ingram to step up, then they won’t get far. It’s time to start building momentum.

The Cincinnati Bengals have been a mess this year. Perhaps losing both offensive and defensive co-ordinators in the same off-season should have tipped people off that this might be the case, but the talent on Cincinnati’s roster had people thinking Super Bowl more than heading for the bottom of the AFC North. They actually sit second in the division, but another loss could easily see them propping up this ultra-competitive division. Andy Dalton’s play has been a joke in recent weeks, most notably during the embarrassing blowout loss to the Cleveland Browns. As above, Cincinnati need to start winning football games.

Verdict: New Orleans

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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