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2011 NFL Week 17 Primer

Baltimore Ravens’ Terrell Suggs has his helmet taken off by Cincinnati Bengals’ Andrew Whitworth during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on January 2, 2011. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

MARQUE MATCHUP: It’s the final week – pick one.
Some will argue that the Cowboys-Giants Sunday night matchup is the biggest game of the week, but it’s no bigger than Ravens-Bengals. While Dallas-New York will finally settle the NFC East race, Baltimore needs a victory to win the AFC North and secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC, while Cincinnati needs to beat the Ravens just to clinch a playoff berth. There is no shortage of important games on the schedule this week, including Kansas City-Denver and San Diego-Oakland. (If the Broncos beat the Chiefs they’ll win the AFC West, or if they lose and the Raiders beat the Chargers, then Oakland will win the division.) In fact, out of the 16 games on the Week 17 schedule, only five contests have absolutely no barring on the playoff races in either conference. It figures to be a wild Sunday in the NFL, with postseason implications galore.

THE POTENTIAL (NOTEWORTHY) UPSET: Packers over Lions
Some of you may be thinking, “This wouldn’t be an upset, you clown.” But the Packers have nothing to play for and thus, will likely rest their starters this weekend. Considering they’re a 3.5-point home underdog, technically this would be considered an upset, so shove it. Wait…what?…You’d have to go back to December 15, 1991, for the last time the Lions won at Lambeau Field. That’s a massive drought; an even bigger drought than the Lions’ 11-year span of not making the postseason. Granted, the rest of Green Bay’s starters played that night but Matt Flynn nearly willed the Packers to a victory last season at New England when Aaron Rodgers was sidelined with a concussion. With nothing to play for, Mike McCarthy may let it all hang loose against a Detroit team that must win in order to secure the fifth seed in the NFC (and therefore avoid playing at New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs). It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Detroit will win this Sunday versus Green Bay’s backups, but in case you haven’t been paying attention: Green Bay’s backups are pretty freaking good, too. We’ll see if the ghosts of Lambeau Field haunt the Lions one more time this Sunday.

THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY: DENVER BRONCOS
The Broncos have one mission and one mission only: Beat Kansas City at home on Sunday and win the AFC West. That’s it. That’s all they have to do. They don’t have to win and then hope for another team to lose like the Raiders, Titans and Jets do. All they have to do is take care of their own business at home against a 6-9 Chiefs team and they’ll be headed to the playoffs. That said, this is the same Chiefs that knocked off the defending (and undefeated) Packers a few weeks ago in Kansas City. Romeo Crennel is likely auditioning for a head-coaching job so he’ll have his defense ready to shut down Tim Tebow on Sunday, and let’s not forget that the discarded Kyle Orton is now Kansas City’s starting quarterback. This game is a writer’s dream because there are plenty of storylines to choose from. Still, Denver is the better overall team and has a chance to wrap up the division while clinching what was an improbable playoff berth at the start of the season. All those goofy horse heads have to do is win.

PUT UP OR SHUT UP: CINCINNATI BENGALS
The Broncos, Cowboys and Giants are all candidates for the “Put up or shut up” section this week, but if I’m only choosing one team then it’s the Cincinnati Bengals. Look, the Bengals have had a tremendous season. Nobody expected them to win more than five games this year, let alone nine and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth with a win in the final game of the season. Thus, this year is already a success in most people’s eyes. But they’re here, so they might as well finish the job and storm into the playoffs with a head full of steam instead of backing in because other teams (i.e. the Raiders, Titans and Jets) lost. Cincinnati obviously still has a lot to prove but if it can beat Baltimore at home this Sunday, it’ll give the Bengals confidence that they can win next week in Houston. If they get drubbed, then their season is likely over or they’ll back into the playoffs having lost to Pittsburgh (twice), Baltimore (twice) and Houston during the regular season. So strap ‘em up Bengals, and prove to the NFL that you’re one of the six best teams in the AFC.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Five Questions for Week 16 in the NFL

Every Tuesday I’ll take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding NFL teams for that week. This week I take a look at the huge Monday night matchup in the NFC South, the “Battle for New York” and the late-pushing Chargers.

Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan throws in the second half of their NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in Atlanta, Georgia November 13, 2011. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

1. Can the Falcons be the team to slow the Saints?
The Saints have looked unbeatable the past six weeks. If there’s one team that could knock off the Packers in the playoffs, it’s universally believed to be New Orleans . While they’ve been inconsistent and conservative on the road at times, they’ve been unstoppable on their home turf. Considering they already knocked off the Falcons in Atlanta earlier this year, what makes anyone think the Saints will lose on Monday night when they host their biggest rivals on primetime? For starters, the Falcons have looked like a completely different team since they faced a 23-7 deficit in Carolina two weeks ago. They scored 24 unanswered points to beat the Panthers and then turned around four days later and humiliated the Jaguars in every facet of the game last Thursday. Granted, beating Carolina and Jacksonville is a little less daunting than bringing down the Saints in New Orleans . But if Matt Ryan and the Falcons have finally found some consistency offensively thanks to their no-huddle attack, then there’s no reason to believe Atlanta can’t go score-for-score with the Saints on Monday. Remember, this isn’t the same opportunistic defense that the Saints had in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl. The Falcons should be able to move the ball with their assortment of weapons. But again, beating Brees on his home turf will be Atlanta ’s toughest task of the year. If they can pull it off, the Falcons won’t just have a shot to win the NFC South – they’ll have confidence that they can beat anyone.

2. Which New York team will rise to the challenge?
Despite their epic fail in Philadelphia over the weekend, the Jets are still in good shape in the AFC (where they’re currently the sixth seed in the conference). But considering Rex Ryan’s defense just allowed 45 points to the Eagles and Mark Sanchez is still their quarterback, the Jets can’t feel too good about their present situation. The same can be said for the Giants, who failed to show up last Sunday against the Redskins. Their 23-10 loss to Washington came just seven days after their huge 37-34 win over the Cowboys (a win that allowed them to temporarily claim first place in the NFC East), so it was more than a little surprising that the G-Men didn’t bother to get up for Rex Grossman and Co. Searching for answers, the Giants will now put their playoff hopes on the line against a Jet team in a similar boat. At this point, it’s hard to figure out which team has an advantage, or if there’s even one to be had. If Eli Manning takes care of the football and the Giant defense shuts down Shonn Greene, then the G-Men shouldn’t have any problems collecting a huge victory. But the Giants never make anything easy, so flip a coin when it comes to which team will show up on Saturday. Whichever one does is going to have a shot at playing beyond next week, while the loser is potentially looking at a long offseason.

3. Can the Chargers make things really interesting in the AFC West?
The Chargers, those sand-bagging sons of bitches, are now just one game behind the Broncos in the AFC West after rattling off three consecutive wins. Just a few weeks ago Norv Turner looked like he was heading for the unemployment line and now San Diego has a legitimate shot of catching Denver in the division. That said, the Bolts have a tough task this Saturday. They play a Lions team with playoff aspirations of its own, and even if the Bolts can take care of their own business they still need Denver to lose in Buffalo. But we’ve seen a run like this before out of San Diego. In 2008 they were sitting at 4-8 before rattling off four straight wins to sneak into the playoffs and wound up upsetting the Colts in the Wild Card round before losing to the Steelers the following week. Thus, if there’s a team that could make things interesting not only in the AFC West but in the entire conference, it’s the Bolts. So strap in tight: Turner’s boys still have life.

4. Will the AFC North crown be decided in the final week?
To answer my own question, I’m sure it will. The Steelers host the hapless Rams this Saturday while the Ravens host the punchless Browns. Neither Pittsburgh nor Baltimore are expected to lose, so first place in the division will come down to the final week. But something of note is how inept the Steelers looked offensively on Monday night. Granted, San Francisco has one of the top defenses in the league but Pittsburgh continues to struggle on the offensive side of the ball. Outside of a 35-point effort against the Bengals in Week 13, the Steelers have managed just 13, 35, 14 and 3 points in their last four games. Ben Roethlisberger didn’t look right against the Niners on that bad ankle, which could severely affect the Steelers’ chances of repeating as AFC champions. While their defense is still solid, there’s no denying that Pittsburgh’s offense is in a funk. And if they can’t wrangle home field advantage away from the Ravens these next two weeks then Pittsburgh has a tough roe to hoe come playoff time.

5. Will the top seeds in both conferences be decided after this week?
All the Packers need to do to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC is beat the Bears on Sunday night, which they should. But there could be some jockeying for the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the conference these next two weeks as the Niners and Saints are each tied at 11-3. While the Saints have a tough game against the Falcons on Monday night, the Niners play a rejuvenated Seahawks team in Seattle on Saturday. Thus, it’s possible that we could see a one-game separation between San Fran and New Orleans for the right to have home field advantage and a first round bye. In the AFC, the Patriots have moved ahead of the Ravens and Texans for the moment, but they still need to win out or have Baltimore or Houston lose. The Patriots host the Dolphins and Bills these next two weeks, so it’s very likely that New England will be the top seed. Baltimore hosts Cleveland and Houston plays at Indy so there may not be a change between the Ravens (who are the No. 2 seed by virtue of tiebreakers) and the Texans (who are the No. 3 seed) this week.

Quick-Hit Reactions from Week 15 in the NFL

Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

- It’s ironic really. Three weeks ago every NFL talking head said that if the Packers could get past the Lions in Detroit and the Giants in New York that they’d probably go undefeated. And after Green Bay mopped the floor with Oakland last Sunday, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Pack would finish 16-0. Then the Chiefs, led by a chewed up and spit out Kyle Orton, go out and pull off the upset of the year by knocking off Green Bay, 19-14. Everyone will analyze this game to death but there’s not much to dissect. The strength of Kansas City, its defense, once again stepped up and played incredibly well. Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, did not as the usually explosive Green Bay offense fizzled for the first time all year. Romeo Crennel didn’t pan out as a head coach but there’s no doubt the man knows how to run a defense. He put together a scheme today that will be studied, picked apart and emulated by every defensive coordinator that may face the Packers down the road. To hold Rodgers and Green Bay to just 14 points is truly remarkable.

- When you think about it, it makes more sense that an inferior team like the Chiefs were the ones to knock off the Packers instead of a playoff contender like the Lions or Giants. The Packers will always see Detroit or New York coming, so theoretically they should play their best football. A team like Kansas City, however, has a better chance of sneaking up on Green Bay (again, theoretically). Still, the Chiefs have nothing offensively so for them to pull off an upset like this was almost flabbergasting.

- The talk this week leading up to the Patriots’ clash with the Broncos was how Tim Tebow needed to step up in order to match Tom Brady. But in the end, Brady essentially made Tebow a non-factor by craving up a Denver defense that has the biggest reason for the Broncos’ success these past six weeks. One of the many things that make Brady so great is that he usually doesn’t force his hand when he doesn’t need to. For example, with Deion Branch out with an injury and Wes Welker and Rob Gronkwski drawing double teams, Brady simply keyed on Aaron Hernandez, who shredded the Broncos for 129 yards on nine catches. Even though New England’s defense was shaky at times (especially in the first quarter), the Pats proved how difficult it’ll be for Denver to match up with the elite teams in the AFC come playoff time.

- There’s no reason to devote 150 words to how the Saints beat the Vikings today in Minnesota. The Vikings’ secondary resembles a revolving door to the end zone, so it wasn’t surprising to see Drew Brees throw for 700 yards and 19 touchdowns versus a bad Minnesota defense. But it must be a little unnerving to fellow NFC contenders that the Saints finally looked good on the road. They haven’t played well away from the Superdome this season and quite frankly, they’ve developed a reputation of being more conservative on the road than at home. But today they went out and made it look easy. With the Packers falling for the first time all season, maybe the power structure in the NFC has shifted ever so slightly in New Orleans’ favor. If you were to pick one team and one team only to beat Green Bay, it has to be the Saints, who are the only NFC team that can match up with Green Bay in a shootout.

- If I’m a team like the Falcons or Lions, I’m praying that the Giants make it into the playoffs. Because right now they’re about as dangerous as a roll of Tollhouse cookie batter. In the last six weeks the Giants have wilted against good competition (San Francisco, New Orleans and Green Bay) and floundered against inferior division rivals (Philadelphia and Washington). The only reason they’re still alive in the NFC East is because the Cowboys crap themselves whenever they’ve expected to rise to the challenge and make a stand. As I noted in my predictions piece this week, I expected Washington to hang with the Giants. But I even wrote that I didn’t expect the Skins to win. Instead, they absolutely dominated the Giants from the opening kickoff and somehow managed to sweep New York for the first time since 1999. Given how Dallas had already won, how first place was on the line in the division, and how they were at home, it was inexcusable for the Giants to lose to the Skins. But why be shocked given how poorly New York has played the past month and a half? We should be long past expecting this team to dominate an opponent just because it’s better on paper, especially considering how the Giants have played down to their competition all season long.

- Between the Jets, Titans and Bengals, I don’t know which team I want to see in the postseason less. The Jets were absolutely manhandled by the Eagles from start to finish in Philadelphia, the Titans couldn’t muster more than 13 points in a loss to the previously-winless Colts, and the Bengals were in a 6-6 deadlock with the powerhouse Rams before finally shaking loose in the second half. At this point the NFL should just give the No. 3 seed in the AFC a bye and save itself the embarrassment of a Mark Sanchez v. T.J. Yates battle royale.

- I shudder to think how good the Detroit Lions could be if they had even an ounce of discipline and/or composure. As they showed today in Oakland, the Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson connection is electrifying, the front four will give most offensive line fits and the linebacker corps continues to overachieve. That was a great come-from-behind win for Jim Schwartz’s squad but this is a team that lacks the fundamentals (see tackling and not committing stupid penalties). Still, at 9-5 the Lions look like a lock for one of the two Wild Card spots in the NFC and after a decade of miserable football, it’s all smiles right now in Detroit…

- …of course, the Raiders really handed the Lions that game today. Had Oakland stuck with Michael Bush and the running game instead of getting cute with shotgun formations late in the fourth quarter, the Raiders probably win today and make things interesting again in the AFC West. (It also didn’t help that Carson Palmer missed a wide open Chaz Schilens on a third-and-three that could have sealed the game for Oakland.) For all intents and purposes Hue Jackson has done a great job for the Raiders this season, especially considering all the injuries Oakland has suffered through. But he could have managed the fourth quarter better today.

- The Texans were due for a game like they had today against the Panthers. They deserve all the credit in the world for persevering through injury after injury after injury, but T.J. Yates is their starting quarterback. At some point he was going to turn in an ugly performance and he certainly did today. Even with Arian Foster and that powerful rushing attack, it was only a matter of time that the defense would falter and Yates would stumble trying to make plays. That said, seeing as how they’re already in the playoffs this loss will actually serve Yates and the Texans well in the end. It’ll be a good learning experience for the rookie.

Chicago Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie celebrates a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers during the fourth quarter of the NFL NFC Championship football game in Chicago, January 23, 2011. REUTERS/John Gress (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Why again did the Bears not reach out to Donovan McNabb a few weeks ago? Because Mike Martz’s offense is too complicated to learn in a short period of time? That makes sense. Far be it for me to question Jerry Angelo but the odds were rather high that Hanie would struggle as a full-time starter. I would have rather given McNabb a shot to learn a scaled back version of Martz’s offense than allow Hanie to piss away a potential Wild Card spot. Granted, McNabb has shown nothing in two years that would make you think he could have saved Chicago’s season but at least with him there was a chance to catch lightning in a bottle.

- The Seahawks have been pretty fun to watch these past few weeks. Disagree with me and I’ll remind you that they had a fat guy score a touchdown today. Fat guy + touchdown = fun. It’s science.

- I would hate to play the Panthers if I were a team fighting for a playoff berth right now. They pulled off a “fumblerooski” with Richie Brockel in their 28-13 win over the Texans today. There’s no telling what else they’re capable of.

- Next Monday night in New Orleans is going to be f.u.n. – fun. The Falcons have finally found some consistency on offense and if they’re firing on all cylinders out of their no-huddle attack, they can hang with the Saints. New Orleans has been unstoppable at home this year but if the Falcons can get Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) back from injuries then the Atlanta defense is capable of slowing Brees and Co. down. The defense has quietly been the strength of the Falcons team this season.

- Hello, George Wilson? Yes, this is the grounds crew at Ralph Wilson Stadium. One of our employees retrieved your jockstrap following today’s game. We went back and watched the film and we can pinpoint the moment you lost it. Do you remember when Reggie Bush did that spin move on you in the second quarter? Right, well he spun you right out of them. You can come pick it up at lost and found at your earliest convenience.

- I would love to be a fly on the wall whenever Buffalo’s front office gets together to watch Ryan Fitzpatrick play. There must be a ton of, “Dear God what…were…we…thinking!” after they handed him that seven-year, $62 million contract back in late October. Dude has been brutal ever since. Don’t be fooled by his stat line (31-of-47, 316 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs) from today’s loss to the Dolphins. He was awful, posting his two touchdowns and the majority of his yards when the game was pretty much out of reach in the fourth quarter.

Rams offense fails to execute, Seahawks first losing team to make playoffs

St. Louis Rams starting quarterback Sam Bradford (8) is pressured by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock during the second quarter of their NFL football game in Seattle, Washington, January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Robert Sorbo (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are five quick-hit thoughts on the Seahawks’ playoff-clinching 16-6 win over the Rams on Sunday night.

1. Did a losing team really just make the playoffs?
I know Seattle fans are excited that their team just made the playoffs. They should be. I would be excited too if the Seahawks were my team. But it’s disgusting that a 7-9 team just qualified for the postseason and will host a game next weekend. The Giants and Bucs each won 10 games this year and they’ll be watching the playoffs from their couches next week. The Seahawks finished with only one more win than the Lions, Cowboys, Redskins, Vikings and 49ers. Think about that for a second. Think about how bad the 49ers, Vikings and Redskins were at times this season and they finished with just one fewer win than Seattle. In terms of competitiveness, this can’t be what the NFL wants. Regardless, the Seahawks are in and that’s all that matters. When they play the Saints next weekend, the regular season records won’t matter.

2. One team played to win tonight and the other didn’t.
Criticize the Seahawks and their record all you want but at least Pete Carroll’s squad went for it on Sunday night. They started their backup quarterback but as Al Michaels and Cris Colinsworth said throughout the broadcast, Jeremy Bates removed the shackles from Charlie Whitehurst and let him play. Granted, Michaels and Colinsworth made him out to be Dan Marino but there’s no denying Whitehurst stepped up with the playoffs on the line. The Rams, on the other hand, played true to Steve Spagnuolo’s conservative nature and tried not to lose. I don’t know if it was him or it was by design, but Sam Bradford threw most of his passes under 10 yards and rarely tested Seattle’s shaky secondary. Not much separated these two teams at kickoff, yet one made plays when it had to and the other one didn’t. The Seahawks aren’t very good but they approached this game as if it was the last one they would play this season. As it turns out, it won’t be.

3. Rams’ offense fails to execute.
The Rams’ offense was putrid tonight. Bradford and Pat Shurmur played things way too conservatively and the results were disastrous. On a night when two touchdowns and a field goal would have won the game for St. Louis, the Rams produced seven three-and-outs and racked up just 184 yards of total offense. Michaels noted how Steven Jackson only had seven carries at halftime but the Rams only ran about eight plays in the first half. The Rams never got into a rhythm and therefore, could never get Jackson rolling. Bradford wasn’t very accurate and even when he delivered a catchable ball, his receivers would drop it. How many first downs did the Rams fail to pick up because their receivers couldn’t make a play? You could see the wideouts’ confidence shrink as the night wore on and after Bradford threw that horrible pick midway through the fourth quarter, the entire team shut down. Their defense played well enough to win, but the offense never gave them a chance. This team also settled for field goals when it got inside the red zone all season long and what happened against Seattle? They settled for field goals on their two trips inside the red zone. How frustrating.

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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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