2011 NFL Week 16 Primer

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett smiles on the sideline while playing against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

MARQUE MATCHUP: Falcons vs. Saints, 8:30PM ET, Monday
From Giants-Jets to Chargers-Lions, there is no shortage of solid matchups on the Week 16 schedule. But it doesn’t get any bigger than Atlanta-New Orleans on Monday night. With a victory, the Saints will clinch the NFC South and keep themselves in contention for the No. 2 seed in the conference playoff picture. With a victory, the Falcons would clinch a playoff berth and remain in contention with the Saints for the NFC South crown. But for Atlanta, this game means much more than clinching a spot in the postseason. If they lose, they could accomplish the same thing next week at home against the hapless Buccaneers. No, a victory over the Saints in New Orleans would prove that the Falcons have the pieces in place to take down one of the elite teams in the conference. A win would also go a long way in instilling confidence in a Falcons team that has been inconsistent all season. Beat the seemingly unbeatable Saints on their home turf and the sky is the limit when it comes to the playoffs. Lose and have doubts remain about whether or not you can beat any of the top teams in the NFC. With cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) expected to return this Monday, the Falcons should be at full-strength defensively. And given how good Matt Ryan has looked running Atlanta’s no-huddle attack recently, the Falcons certainly have the weapons to pull off the upset in New Orleans. But whether or not they can do it is another question, especially considering the Saints are averaging nearly 40 points a game at home this season.

THE POTENITAL (NOTEWORTHY) UPSET: Eagles over Cowboys, 1:00PM ET, Saturday
Three weeks ago the Cowboys had a golden opportunity to take a two-game lead over the Giants in the NFC East and they went out and lost to the Cardinals in overtime. The following week, they blew their one-game lead over the Giants when they lost to New York at home, 37-34. My point is that the Cowboys have been in these positions before, when they’ve had chances to improve their standing in the division only to choke the opportunity away. They now have a one-game lead over the Giants again after New York inexcusably lost to the Redskins at home (a game in which I highlighted in this section last week). Now Dallas has a chance to either hold onto its one-game lead or win the division outright with a victory and a New York loss to the Jets. But something tells me Jason Garrett’s squad could choke on applesauce again. Philadelphia has been the most inconsistent team in the league this year but Andy Reid’s team is certainly capable of going into Dallas and knocking off the Cowboys in grand fashion. And if the Giants beat the Jets earlier in the day, the ‘Boys are even more likely to succumb to the pressure.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Packers to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC. All they have to do is beat the rudderless Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on Christmas night and then they can rest their starters for two weeks if they choose to. Of course, they just lost to a rudderless Kansas City team a week ago so it’ll be interesting to see how Green Bay responds on Sunday. The Bears have looked completely inept offensively since Jay Cutler and Matt Forte went down with injuries (and justifiably so), but their defense has be known to keep Green Bay’s offense in check. Just last year, the Bears held the Packers to 10 points in Green Bay on a cold January afternoon at Lambeau and if Josh McCown can somehow revive Chicago’s dead offense, the Bears could pull off the upset. (Hey, crazier things have happened.) That said, this is a game the Pack should win. Again, it doesn’t get any easier for them to clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference.

PUT UP OR SHUT UP: DETROIT LIONS (vs. Chargers, 4:15PM ET, Saturday)
It’s been over a decade since the Lions made an appearance in the playoffs and it’s been nearly two decades since they won a postseason game. But they have a chance this Saturday to do something they haven’t done since 1999: Play past Week 17. All they have to do is beat the suddenly surging San Diego Chargers at Ford Field. Granted, even if the Lions lose they can still win next week and clinch a playoff spot. But next week they play at Green Bay and there’s no telling what the Packers will do in terms of resting starters. Thus, it’s best if Detroit handles its own business this weekend by knocking off San Diego, but it won’t be easy. Over the past three weeks the Bolts have played like everyone expected them to at the start of the year. Suddenly Philip Rivers has stopped turning the ball over, Ryan Mathews is running like a man possessed, and the defense has been lights out. Not that they would but if the Lions think the Chargers are going to waltz into Ford Field and lie down, than Detroit has another thing coming. Keep in mind that the Lions’ secondary is still banged up, which obviously plays into the hands of Norv Turner and his vertical passing attack. It’ll be interesting to see if Jim Schwartz’s squad can rise to the challenge and play with a little composure for once. If not, the Lions will put a ton of pressure on themselves to beat the Packers next week and end their horrific playoff drought.

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Thanks to defense and special teams, Packers clinch playoff berth

Chicago Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler (bottom) is sacked by Green Bay Packers’ Erik Walden (93) and Clay Matthews (52) in the second half during their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are three quick-hit observations from the Packers’ playoff-clinching 10-3 win over the Bears.

1. Packers’ defense and special teams comes up huge.
With their playoff hopes on the line, Dom Capers’ defense was outstanding. The Packers held the Bears to a lone field goal while limiting their offense to just 227 total yards, which includes 117 through the air. They also forced two turnovers (which was big because their offense also turned the ball over twice) and picked off Jay Cutler in the closing seconds to preserve victory. Green Bay’s special teams were excellent as well. Tim Masthay and the Packers’ punt coverage team held Devin Hester to just two returns for 35 yards and a couple of Masthay’s punts backed Chicago up inside the 10. Tramon Williams also broke off a 41-yard punt return in the third quarter that put the ball at the Bears’ 44-yard line. Up to that point, Green Bay was held scoreless and its offense had been completely shut down. The Packers blew an opportunity to score a touchdown on that drive, but they did walk away with a field goal to tie the game at 3-all. On a day when Aaron Rodgers was largely held in check outside of one enormous completion to Greg Jennings in the second half, the Packers needed a big effort from their defense and special teams and that’s exactly what they got.

2. Did Smith do the right thing by playing his starters?
It doesn’t matter now because the Bears escaped without suffering any injuries, but how risky was it for Lovie Smith to keep his starters in the game even though the outcome didn’t matter? Chicago clinched a first round bye on Tuesday night when the Vikings beat the Eagles, and after the Falcons defeated the Panthers earlier in the day the Bears were locked into the No. 2 seed. But Smith decided to start players like Cutler and also never took them out. Again, the proposed question is moot because the Bears left Green Bay injury-free but Smith’s decision will be a topic of discussion on Monday’s sports radio shows in Chicago. I guess you kind of have to hand it to Smith and the Bears for trying to stick it to their biggest rivals.

3. What’s next?
With the win, the Packers knocked the Giants and Bucs and will now play at Philadelphia next weekend. The Packers have already beaten the Eagles on the road but that was in Week 1 when Kevin Kolb started and was a disaster in the first quarter and a half. The Packers may have caught a break because Michael Vick was injured on the first play against Minnesota on Tuesday night. By the time he’s ready for the Wildcard game, he will have had two weeks of rest but it’ll be interesting to see if his injured quad limits him as a runner. The Eagles are also coming off two-straight losses, so they’re reeling a little bit. If Green Bay’s defense plays as well next week as it did against Chicago, it may set up a return trip to Atlanta in two weeks. (The Packers lost to the Falcons earlier this season.)

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