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NFL: The Race To The Playoffs

football

The final chances to impress for the best and brightest in the NFL in 2014 is here. Yes, we enter the final week of the regular season, with a handful of teams still in the shakeup to make the post-season. Division titles and wild card slots are still very much up for grabs. Beyond that, coaches and players at less successful organisations want to go away leaving their organisations with a good taste in their mouths, to hopefully ensure they return in 2015. With so much to play for, let’s look ahead to week 17.

Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers

The NFC North is on the line in this one, as is home field advantage in the playoffs, for at least one playoff game. The Green Bay Packers have lost control over the first overall seed in the NFC, but if they can beat their divisional rivals here then they still could nab it. Green Bay are a very different team at home, overwhelming all comers with Aaron Rodgers seemingly impervious to mistakes. They suffered a bad case of the drops in their recent loss in Buffalo, but overall Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have given Rodgers the varying dependable targets he needs, with no one apparently capable of shutting both down on one day. The defense has been good, if not great, with a lot of the mid-season shuffling around, including moving Clay Matthews into middle linebacker, making the unit good enough to not get beaten. With Aaron Rodgers around, that’s all you need.

With Lambeau Field seemingly transforming Green Bay from a good team into an other-worldly all-conquering brigade, you would think this was a walkover. The Detroit Lions comfortably won the early-season game between these two, with the tremendous defensive line led by Ndomakung Suh simply overwhelming the offensive line.  Their secondary has also played surprisingly well, but the pressure on quarterbacks has a lot to do with that. The problems come on the other side of the ball, where Matthew Stafford appears even more erratic this year, throwing for his lowest yards per game since his rookie season. Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson are both playing well, while the return of Reggie Bush helped enormously last week against the Chicago Bears, but Stafford needs to play perfect football in Lambeau.

Verdict: Green Bay

Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a divisional title within their grasp, and all they have to do is knock off their divisional rivals to clinch it. The Steelers of 2014 seem to beat very good teams and stumble against the bottom-dwellers, which theoretically bodes well for this week and the playoffs.  The Steelers have transformed into an offensive juggernaut with a defense just good enough to keep them in games. Can they continue to depend on James Harrison to make plays? The outside linebacker appears evergreen now, but he did retire not so long ago. The Steelers run defense is going to need to show up on Sunday.  Ben Roethlisberger, LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown are the reason the Steelers have the record they do, and all three will need to contribute again if they are to sweep their opponents and clinch the division.

The Cincinnati Bengals come into this game fresh off the back of tormenting the future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning in a huge victory over the Denver Broncos, keeping their slender advantage atop the AFC North. The Bengals defense showed up for the first time in a long time, and they will be called upon again in this one. Nobody is saying Big Ben is a better quarterback than Peyton Manning, but he may be playing better this year and, paradoxically, it might be harder to confuse him and/or bring the big guy down. As for Andy Dalton, he isn’t blowing anyone away yet, but credit him with a strong rebound from an early pick six in the Broncos game. But it’s hard to trust him to play mistake-free football when it counts, especially with AJ Green obviously hurt.

Verdict: Pittsburgh

San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs will be missing Alex Smith for this one, which dampens hopes of playoff football in Kansas even further. While the Chiefs offense does revolve around Jamaal Charles more than the guy under center, Smith has been playing very well with minimal weapons this year. With no game changers at wide receiver, the Chiefs rely heavily on Charles and tight end Travis Kelce, as well as a stout defense to keep them in games. With Chase Daniel at quarterback, the margins are likely stretched too far for Andy Reid’s team. The Chiefs have been the NFL’s best fourth quarter team this season, and if they can keep it tight until late on, then they have a shot. Expect them to ride Jamaal Charles hard, and hope that Arrowhead’s famous crowd gives Philip Rivers trouble.

The San Diego Chargers are making a habit of coming good down the stretch under Mike McCoy, elevating themselves to the head of the wild card race in week seventeen for the second year in a row. They simply have to beat the Chiefs, and they will be playing in January. Epic rallying wins against the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco Forty-Niners now appear invaluable, and they have to fancy their chances. Philip Rivers has been hurt all year, and the bulging disc in his back is likely complicating matters further. But they won’t penetrate the Chiefs defense by playing a checkdown game, so Rivers is going to have to battle through once more. With no run game and a less than stellar offensive line, does any team put more on one player than San Diego with their quarterback?

Verdict: San Diego

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons have six wins this season, and five of them have come against divisional opposition. Sweep the NFC South with a win this weekend and they claim the division title and elevate to the playoffs. Julio Jones is questionable to play, but he was in the same condition last week and still had a huge role in rotational play against the New Orleans Saints. The winning of that game came on the other side of the ball, rather surprisingly. The Falcons brought a lot of pressure to Drew Brees, punishing him throughout the game. If the defensive line can get to Cam Newton and control the edges to give him no room to run, then the home team should pick up a somewhat unlikely divisional title here.

The Carolina Panthers are threatening to be the first team to ever retain the NFC South divisional title since its reformation, and avoiding a loss in Georgia will accomplish that. Cam Newton looked really good last week in their win over the Cleveland Browns, considering just the week before he had narrowly avoided death in a car crash. But he is very dependent on Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin to get open, with few other options in the passing game. Both are having outstanding seasons, but the Panthers need someone else to step up. The defense has been getting back to 2013 form lately, and that was good enough to get them to the playoffs last year.

Verdict: Atlanta

Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco Forty-Niners

The San Francisco Forty-Niners have nothing but pride to play for here, but expect at least a few guys to come out hard for Jim Harbaugh, sending him off with a big performance. The Niners have given up a few bad home losses in their new stadium, which will be something to look at next year. With a lot of talent on this roster, a lot of players need to show they can still do it if they want to be back in the Bay Area next season. Frank Gore is one of them, and the impending free agent will be playing hard on Sunday.

The Arizona Cardinals are still in with a shout of getting a playoff bye week, which they could use more than any other team headed to the post-season. Logan Thomas was due to start, but was given a quick hook by Bruce Arians this week, meaning Ryan Lindley can try to record his first ever touchdown pass in the NFL. That Cardinals defense deserves so much better than this.

Verdict: San Francisco

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