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NFL: Crucial Penultimate Fixtures For Playoff Chasers

football

We have reached the penultimate round of fixtures in the NFL season. This has been a season of big winners and bad losers, with few sides hovering around 7-7 mark. That will ensure some teams will miss the post-season, despite boasting significant winning records and great seasons. With five divisions left to be decided, as well as all four wild-card spots still up for grabs, the onus is on all contenders to win out and make sure they aren’t the most pitied team in football. Let’s look ahead to the week sixteen action.

Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals still take up top spot in the NFC West, despite the unfathomable number of star players of theirs who have gone down injured. The expectation is that, surely, this Cardinals team’s indefatigable spirit will finally be overcome now that even backup quarterback Drew Stanton is out. With Ryan Lindley not exactly a sure-fire winner, and a ferocious defense licking their lips waiting to face him, the Cardinals are expected to bow gracefully out of the top spot and settle for their wild-card place. But that is not the style of Bruce Arians’ side. Sure, there 12-6 win over the St Louis Rams wasn’t pretty, but they ground out the win. Todd Bowles’ defense keeps generating success on the blitz, and they have found a breakout running back in Kerwynn Williams, who has added 175 yards in the last two weeks. Put up similar numbers here, and Arizona will be right there. Easier said than done, however.

The Seattle Seahawks have peaked at the right time, getting key bodies back for the home stretch. Watching Bobby Wagner crush offensive lineman and Kam Chancellor racking up tackles in their win over the San Francisco Forty-Niners shows just how much they were missed. With Michael Bennett starting to make his presence felt on the outside in recent weeks, it looks ominous for any team looking to take shots down the field. Or run the ball. Or do anything other than going three-and-out. Seattle’s defense will need to maintain that presence this week, as Arizona’s defense is as stout as any, and Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch may find it hard to make ground. Possibly a lot of field goals here.

Verdict: Seattle

Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys are back in vogue and in season. In recent times, December has brought the death knell down upon Cowboys teams, with three consecutive week seventeen losses (one each against the other members  of the NFC East) locking them out of the playoffs. But this Dallas team just overcame the Philadelphia Eagles on the road, re-claiming top spot in the process. But can they win out to secure their playoff return? The defense has been doing enough to not get beat, while opposition sides struggle with the pick-your-poison selection of heavily covering Dez Bryant or loading the box for DeMarco Murray. Murray had hand surgery this week, and may well be out, so that could make it an easy choice. Next man up in the backfield, and hope Tony Romo finds Dez.

The Indianapolis Colts have been very unconvincing for a team that won its division with two weeks to play. The Colts have been second best in most of their bouts with winning teams, and playing in one of the weakest divisions in football has made them look better. With no run game and a lopsided offensive line, this team lives and dies with Andrew Luck each week. The Colts must win out to have any chance of a playoff bye and, although going blitz happy against a very strong offensive line is a special kind of madness, they will need their limited but cerebral defense to make plays.

Verdict: Dallas

Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals have been ticking along quietly, getting little press attention for a division leader that has won six of its last eight games. Their two losses were blowouts against divisional rivals which have cost them dearly, but the Bengals look primed for a strong finish to the season. They need one too, in a tightly packed AFC North where three teams could still win the division. The Bengals have regained some of their old defensive ferocity of late, at least in patches. With Jeremy Hill carrying the load in the backfield, with one of the best change of pace guys in football in Gio Bernard, the Bengals run hard. They will need to control time of possession, but if they can get the play action going and hit AJ Green for some big plays, the Bengals can pull out a strange “upset” win.

The Denver Broncos have also been oddly patchy at times this season. The defense struggled for a time. The run game struggled for a while. And now Peyton Manning even seems to be below-par. It bodes well that the other two units returned to form with great gusto, but Denver needs Manning now if they are to bid for the top seeding. It would be a stretch to expect Cincinnati to load the box and dare Manning to beat them, but with the Broncos ground game rolling hard with C.J. Anderson, attention will need to be paid in the trenches. The Broncos have been vulnerable when Demaryius Thomas and/or Emmanuel Sanders have been kept quiet, but those games are few and far between. If the run defense holds up, Denver should be able to roll on towards a first-round bye, at least.

Verdict:  Denver

Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers

What a big game for the Pittsburgh Steelers this is. A home tie against a fellow AFC contender, when two home wins to close out the season will guarantee them another AFC North title. The Steelers have been engaging in a lot of shootouts this season, a most non-traditional approach for them. They face an opposition this week who are unlikely to put big points up, but also unlikely to concede too many either. LeVeon Bell should continue to find some joy here though, and the sheer presence of Antonio Brown and his devastating after the catch ability automatically gets Bell room. Big Ben is capable of making enough plays here, and if the secondary gets gashed in this one, then they need to be sent to the bench.

The Kansas City Chiefs are in do-or-die mode themselves, with two wins their only realistic hope of making the playoffs. Alex Smith has been performing minor miracles, when you consider the Chiefs are the only team in the NFL without a touchdown for a wide receiver. In week sixteen, no less. Yet Smith has moved the chains and kept Kansas winning games. Jamaal Charles and Travis Kelce are bona fide stars, but their supporting cast is extremely limited. Their once-impervious run defense has wilted in recent weeks, and if they can’t return to form, it may be lights out for the Chiefs.

Verdict: Pittsburgh

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints

The NFC South has probably become the most talked about division in all of football, and for all the wrong reason. With the New Orleans Saints leading the way with a 6-8 record, it’s easy to see why. The Saints have been abysmal at home this year, dropping four straight games in the dome. They are no lock to either win this weekend or hold on to the division lead. They were dominant in the Monday Night Football win over the Chicago Bears, but this is one of the worst Bears teams in history. With players feeling Sean Payton’s wrath, can they put together sixty minutes of strong football when it matters most? How that offense could do with a Darren Sproles type of playmaker.

The Atlanta Falcons are like a flash car that blew a gasket after running out of water in the oil tank. Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Devin Hester, Harry Douglas and, above all, Julio Jones are exciting and dynamic players that win football games. But with no offensive line, running game, any semblance of a pass-rush and an overworked secondary, they are asked to conjure too much by themselves. The Falcons have only won five games, but yet are 4-0 in the division. Julio Jones’ fitness could well determine this one, but nobody could call this game with an ounce of assuredness.

Verdict: Atlanta

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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