We’ve reached the stage of the NFL season where you need a degree in maths to know what the hell is going on.
Let’s take an example. The Cleveland Browns still have between a 0.2 and 2.3 per cent chance of making the playoffs, depending on who you believe. For that to happen though, they need: to win their remaining two games against the Bengals and Ravens; for the Dolphins to lose one of their two games; for the Ravens to lose to the Chargers this weekend; for the Colts and Titans to both lose this weekend; for those same two teams to tie in week 17. Easy!
With Thursday Night Football now history (a blessing for all of our sleep schedules), and a pair of Saturday night games taking its place, we have 15 games to get stuck into this weekend before the Raiders and Broncos’ irrelevant Monday night tilt. Twelve of those games will be live, as always, on NFL RedZone.
Here’s what to look out for on the penultimate Sunday of the regular season. Welp.
Five games to dial in on
Saints and Steelers headline Sunday night
This one isn’t quite as crucial as it would have been had the Steelers lost to the Patriots last week, but it’s still an Extremely Big Deal. The Saints can clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win – there aren’t many other teams in the NFL for whom this matters more. The Saints are a much better team inside their dome, where they get to control the (lack of) weather and their fans can keep it deathly silent for Drew Brees at the line of scrimmage.
Meanwhile defeat would see the Steelers slip below the Ravens in the AFC North if Baltimore can do the business on Saturday. Just one more win should put Pittsburgh in the playoffs, so they don’t have too much to worry about there, but losing in New Orleans could be the difference between playing at Heinz Field or on the road come wild card weekend.
Three weeks ago you would have felt comfortable taking the Saints at home in this one. Now it’s not so clear. New Orleans have stuttered down the stretch, their offense has been shut down the the Cowboys and even the Panthers, and they needed a fourth-quarter rally to avoid a second embarrassing defeat against the Bucs. The Steelers haven’t been a lot better – they lost three straight before pulling it out of the bag against New England last week, with Jaylen Samuels, their third choice running back heading into the season, ripping up the Pats defense for 142 yards.
He’ll struggle to repeat that against the Saints, whose 79.1 yards per game is the least allowed by any team in the league. The longest run they’ve given up all year was just 28 yards, also a league best, and their 3.7 yards allowed per carry is second only to the Texans. The good news for Pittsburgh is Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are exactly the type of receivers the Saints have struggled with all season. There’s room for Big Ben to attack through the air, but I have a feeling turnovers may be his undoing in this game. I’m going with the Saints.
Cowboys can clinch NFC East against Bucs
The Cowboys seal an NFC East title no one saw coming even six weeks ago with a win over the Bucs in Dallas. What this means is: if the Cowboys aren’t NFC East champions by about 9.30pm on Sunday they’ve really screwed something up. The Buccaneers look a perfect match-up for Dallas – they’re terrible at stopping the run (oh hey, Zeke!) and even worse at stopping the pass (yoo hoo, Amari!). They also have a whopping -16 turnover differential, second only to San Francisco (-22!!) for the worst record in the NFL.
Tampa Bay’s offense can be dangerous, but the Cowboys have the best defense in the NFL outside of Chicago and Baltimore right now. The Ravens limited Jameis Winston’s offense to just 12 points last week, and I think Dallas should be looking to keep them under 20. Even if the Bucs score 26 or 27 the Cowboys shouldn’t have a problem winning this game, but then they did get shut out by the Colts last week. That will be playing on their minds if they start slowly on Sunday, especially if the home crowd start getting on the team’s back.
The Colts won that game by making several huge stops in the first half, including an impressive shut-down of Ezekiel Elliott on the goal line. The Bucs defense doesn’t have anything like the same big play ability, so you know what, I’m calling it. Cowboys fans, book your playoff tickets right now. See you in January.
Can the Nick Foles fever dream continue vs Houston?
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice, but that’s nonsense. I have a friend who’s actually been struck six times by lightning. You wouldn’t know him though, he goes to another school. Anyway, football. What I’m saying is, an unlikely as Nick Foles leading the Eagles on another unlikely playoff run may be, it is possible, and I’m going to choose to believe in it until the dream is dead.
To even think about the postseason Philadelphia first have to beat the Texans, who have plenty to play for themselves. Houston’s week 15 win over the Jets and New England’s loss in Pittsburgh means they currently possess the number two seed in the AFC, but they’re probably going to need to win out to keep it. The Patriots only have the Bills and Jets left on their schedule, games history tells us we may not need bother playing.
I think Foles will struggle against the Texans. Aaron Donald had an uncharacteristically quiet night going up against him for the Rams last week, but the Eagles offensive line is going to have to play it’s best game of the season to keep JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus out – they have 26 sacks between them this season.
The Eagles’ O-line has been one of their biggest disappointments all year. The other issue has been the secondary, which isn’t good news when you have DeAndre Hopkins coming to town fresh off a 170-yard, two-touchdown display. Hopkins has been the best receiver in the NFL this season for my money, and has carried a passing game devoid of many other options. He doesn’t stand a chance in the MVP race, but few players have been as valuable for their teams.
No room for error for Vikes in Detroit
One more defeat for the Vikings will let the Eagles or, god forbid, the Redskins in (no offence Redskins fans, but does anyone really want to see Josh Johnson in the playoffs?). However, the can also clinch the sixth seed by beating the Vikings and hoping those two both slip up.
The schedule makers have been very kind on Minnesota. They desperately needed to get their run game sorted to stand any chance of making noise in January, and they get to follow up last week’s win over the Dolphins (a bad run defense) with this match-up with Detroit (an even worse one). New offensive coordinator might have fixed it – Dalvin Cook went off for 136 yards and two scores in the 41-17 win over Miami, and Latavius Murray also had a solid day. Repeat that again on Sunday and Mike Zimmer will deserve some credit for his cut-throat firing of John DeFilippo – it will have worked.
The Lions are playing like a team who have turned their attention to next April’s draft. Their week 14 clash with Arizona was one of the worst games of the year, and their defeat to the Bills last week wasn’t a lot better. Kenny Golladay was the only shining light. Yes this is a divisional game on the road, but if the Vikings don’t win this they don’t deserve to go to the playoffs. Ever again! Too far? OK fine.
Worried about the Rams? Here’s their chance to get right
Seemingly invincible just a few short weeks ago, the Rams have lost their last two and haven’t played well since that outrageous win over the Chiefs in week 11. Have they succumbed to the classic sporting trope of ‘peaking too early’? Have defenses worked out how to stop Sean McVay’s offense? Or are they simply having a bit of a blip? Well this week they get to play the Cardinals, so there’s no better way to find out.
If Los Angeles struggle again in Arizona then it’s absolutely fair to start doubting their Super Bowl credentials. Jared Goff’s quarterback rating over the last three weeks is the worst of anyone outside of Mark Sanchez, who was benched after about half a game. Todd Gurley has been quieter and the defense is still failing to make key stops. I want to see the Rams put up a 40-burger here, and win by at least three scores. Make a statement. Show the NFL you’re the best team in this damn league, and intend to prove it on 3 February in Atlanta.
Five players to keep an eye on
Taylor Heinicke (QB, Carolina Panthers)
Taylor Heinicke (pronunciation tip: pretend you’re saying hello to your friend Nicky) was one of the most unknown back-up quarterbacks in the NFL until this week, but on Sunday he’ll make his first career start as he steps in for Cam Newton against the Falcons. He has the Saints in New Orleans next week, by the way. Some baptism of fire.
Heinicke was undrafted out of Old Dominion University (no, you’re not supposed to have heard of it) in 2015, and signed with the Panthers before pre-season after being released by the Texans. His pre-season was solid, but who knows what to expect from him in Real Football this weekend.
Kalen Ballage (RB, Miami Dolphins)
Frank Gore’s injury means Kenyan Drake should be the Dolphins’ featured back this week, but Adam Gase seems intent on using him as a third-down running back despite the tape saying he can do it all. Mystifying.
Anyway, what that means is rookie Kalen Ballage should see the brunt of the work. He played well against the Vikings last week, finishing with 123 yards and a score from 12 carries. He’ll look to repeat against the Jaguars, whose run defense hasn’t been all that.
Antonio Callaway (WR, Cleveland Browns)
Antonio Callaway’s rookie season has been a bit of a disappointment, and plagued by poor drops. However, he has a chance to make a little late-season noise against the Bengals’ shocking pass defense, especially with Baker Mayfield on such great form.
The reverse fixture in Cincinnati was one of Callaway’s better games of the season – he caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. He’s a real wild card, but could be a rogue fantasy shout if you’re in real need of a third receiver.
Nick Mullens (QB, San Francisco 49ers)
Mullens was great against the Seahawks last week. In fact, he’s generally been very impressive deputising for CJ Beathard deputising for Jimmy Garoppolo. Now’s the real test, though: the Chicago Bears are coming to town.
As good as Mullens has been, this has the potential to be an absolute disaster. On the flip side, if he performs well again he mind find he draws some trade offers to be a full-time back-up next season. Good luck, Nick, Khalil Mack is coming for you.
Darius Leonard (LB, Indianapolis Colts)
Earlier this week I chose Leonard as my Defensive Rookie of the Year from an incredibly stacked class, and yet the league’s leading tackler has somehow missed out on the Pro Bowl.
Leonard is said to be ‘heartbroken’ by the snub. What’s the betting he funnels that heartbreak into a barnstorming performance against Eli Manning, Saquon Barkley and the rest of the Giants offense this week? Barkley vs Leonard is a match-up I can’t wait to see.
Titans beat Redskins, Chargers beat Ravens, Patriots beat Bills, Falcons beat Panthers, Dolphins beat Jaguars, Texans beat Eagles, Colts beat Giants, Vikings beat Lions, Cowboys beat Buccaneers, Browns beat Bengals, Packers beat Jets, Rams beat Cardinals, Bears beat 49ers, Saints beat Steelers, Chiefs beat Seahawks, Broncos beat Raiders.
Got some predictions of your own? Share them in the comments below.
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