NFL: Tricky Games Ahead For Divisional Leaders


With just three weeks left in the NFL regular season, a lot of teams have been officially and unofficially ruled out of the race to the playoffs. The cream has risen to the top in both conferences, and some very good football teams with winning records are going to miss out on the post-season. With the margins for success so narrow, nobody can afford to lose right now, meaning there are going to be plenty of big games to come over the next few weeks, with heroes and villains aplenty. Let’s look ahead to week fifteen.

Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers

The AFC West is far from settled. The San Diego Chargers sit two games behind the division leaders at 8-5, but a win here could set us up for a shock at the end. The Chargers have played strong football in recent times, winning three of the last four. But that loss to the New England Patriots was pretty definitive, and if you look at the season as a whole, the Chargers have been very streaky. They also have a very tough run of games left, with the San Francisco Forty-Niners and Kansas City Chiefs still to come, so it is hard to envision San Diego winning all three games. Philip Rivers has been on song for the most part, as he has battled injuries. But the Chargers are very dependent on him to make things happen and, with Antonio Gates not putting up huge numbers, it becomes hard to manage every week. The Chargers have plenty of good receivers, but their defense will need a hell of a performance on Sunday.

The Denver Broncos offense has faced a series of questions this year, with the run game and pass game struggling at times. Despite John Fox’s declarations, Peyton Manning is clearly struggling of late. All the old Manning in the cold weather anecdotes are being trotted out, and it will be interesting to see how he rebounds this weekend. The run game is in great stead under breakout star C.J. Anderson, and the Broncos with a dual threat are near impossible to stop. Their defense will get a taste of dealing with a playoff calibre offense, and that could tell us a lot about Denver’s post-season chances.

Verdict: Denver

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots

The New England Patriots will be looking to exact revenge on their divisional rival here. The Patriots went down on the road against their old foes earlier in the year, but this is not the same team from the season’s first few weeks. The Patriots are dominant on both sides of the ball, with Tom Brady finding plenty of talent upfield in Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, while LeGarrette Blount has been an inspired pickup. Blount has already added 202 yards on the ground in just three games, and the Patriots offense looks primed to clinch home field advantage, and all this since they sorted out their offensive line configuration. The defense is one of the league’s best, with Darrell Revis routinely shutting down the league’s best receivers. Jamie Collins and Don’t’a Hightower have been very effective at linebacker, while Akeem Ayers was a phenomenal pickup at the cost of just a sixth round pick. The Patriots are primed for a Super Bowl run, and winning out secures them home field advantage.

It has been an up-and-down season for the Miami Dolphins, but last week’s loss to Baltimore has them on the outside looking in as regards the playoffs. Ryan Tannehill is a perfectly competent NFL quarterback, but his inability to throw deep means they under-utilize some of the better weapons at hand. Lamar Miller has found some good yards on the ground, but overall Miami’s attack needs a little tweaking. They haven’t swept the Patriots since the 2000 season and, although the defense is a solid unit despite missing a lot of bodies in the secondary, it’s hard to see them doing so here. Miami seems to be a tense camp, with Joe Philbin yet again seeming to be unpopular. They will surely be fired up for what is a must-win game, though.

Verdict: New England

San Francisco Forty-Niners at Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks are on a roll, and managed to nullify the fast-paced Philadelphia Eagles offense almost entirely. The Legion of Boom is back, but it is clearly not the same unit when players are absent. Bobby Wagner’s return has really sparked things in the backfield for the ‘Hawks, and they have been arguably even more impressive shutting down the run despite Brandon Mebane’s absence, with Kevin Williams having proven to be one of the best off-season pickups. On offense, Russell Wilson is displaying greater composure by the week, and his running prowess, alongside Marshawn Lynch, is difficult to defend. He has also been throwing more accurate strikes to Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse in recent weeks. Seattle is in very good stead, and will look to flex their muscles against their fiercest rivals in front of the twelfth man.

Things are very grim for the San Francisco Forty-Niners right now. An offense that, on paper, is loaded with playmakers has really struggled to score, with a young quarterback playing well below the level of contract he got in the off-season. The team has gone away from the run, with Frank Gore seemingly headed for the exit signs after being a stalwart for so many years. Michael Crabtree has regressed in a contract year, and may also be about to leave. The defense is keeping them in games, with more capable pass rushers than any team in the league. After going down at home to the Seahawks, the Niners have to summon a massive performance from somewhere if they are to have any hope of making the playoffs.

Verdict: Seattle

Pittsburgh Steelers at Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons put up a better showing than could reasonably have been expected in their narrow loss to the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. The Falcons still have a tremendous passing game, with Matt Ryan connecting with Roddy White, Devin Hester and, in particular, Julio Jones to great aplomb. But, with a sub-par offensive line and run game, the Falcons are one-dimensional. The defense is also devoid of any real playmakers, although Desmond Trufant’s return has boosted the secondary. Julio Jones is likely missing after suffering a hip injury during his superlative performance against the Packers. That could sink the Falcons.

The Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the fourth quarter of their win over the Cincinnati Bengals, sealing a crucial win to keep the division alive. It’s a non-traditional Steelers team, with all the playmakers on offense, and a defense that is hit or miss. Ben Roethlisberger has orchestrated many fine wins by utilizing the dynamism of Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell, two of the most effective offensive weapons in the league. Martavis Bryant has proven a fine third option, making the Steelers very hard to shut down. The ageing secondary is ripe to be taken advantage of, so this could be a shootout in Georgia. Another win keeps Pittsburgh right in the hunt in the AFC North.

Verdict: Pittsburgh

Green Bay Packers at Buffalo Bills

This is set up really nicely as a trap game. The Buffalo Bills are scrambling desperately to end the longest playoff drought in the NFL, and in many ways they will find favourable matchups here. Their defensive line is the NFL’s finest, and it could well swallow the protection whole as they head for Aaron Rodgers, who will need to have his scrambling boots on. If Kyle Orton can find some form, and the run game gets going, the Bills could pull off they biggest shock of the weekend. Big ifs, though.

The Green Bay Packers have beaten all and sundry in the last five weeks, but they are deceptively close to losing both the NFC North and conference leads down the stretch. This Packers team is not the same away from Lambeau Field, and Eddie Lacy will see a heavy dose of action, both with ball in hand and in pass protection, as Mario Williams and company come hunting. The Packers are only 3-3 on the road, and this one feels like a slip up waiting to happen. Nobody just cruises to the number one seeding in today’s NFL without a hiccup along the way.

Verdict: Buffalo

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