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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.

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.

NFL Week 16 Primer Late Games

Here’s a quick Week 16 preview for all of the late games with playoff implications in the NFL this week:

Tarvaris JacksonFalcons at Vikings, 4:15PM ET
Who would have thought this game would have so much meaning when the season started? Minnesota needs just one more victory to win the NFC North and put the Chicago Bears out of their misery. They’ll start Tarvaris Jackson again at quarterback this week as Gus Frerotte continues to recovery from a back injury. With a lot of help from Adrian Peterson and the running game, Jackson has been absolutely outstanding since subbing for Frerotte two weeks ago and has thrown five touchdown passes in the last six quarters. The Vikings’ defense took a hit this week when it was discovered that run-stuffer Pat Williams would miss the next 2-6 weeks due to injury. That should help Michael Turner and the Falcons’ dynamic running game stay on track, although they’ll still need a huge contribution from rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who struggled last week against Tampa. Atlanta needs to win out and hope Dallas or Tampa lose one of their two remaining games. And considering they host the Rams next week, their playoff hopes may reside in beating the Vikings. Can the Falcons’ defense contain Peterson and force Jackson to beat them through the air? Or will the Vikings continue to build momentum as they make a playoff push?

Jets at Seahawks, 4:05PM ET CBS
The Jets are clinging to a slim lead in the AFC East as they currently hold tie-breakers over the Dolphins and Patriots in the division. However, they’re 0-3 on the West Coast this year and a trip to Seattle is never fun for any team come December. This game will also mark Mike Holmgren’s final home game, so you can expect the Seahawks to be ready to play. Still, this is a team the Jets should beat, especially if they consider themselves a legit playoff squad. Seattle’s defense has been brutal this year and as long as Brett Favre can keep from turning the ball over, NY should come up with a big road win.

Bills at Broncos, 4:05PM ET CBS
All the Broncos have to do is win and they clinch the AFC West crown. They won’t have the fortune of facing J.P. Losman, though, as Trent Edwards will resume his starting quarterback duties after missing the past couple weeks due to injury. Denver has been consistently inconsistent this season, especially at home where they currently post a 4-3 record. Buffalo is a disaster, but they did give the Jets a game last week at the Meadowlands and Edwards might (emphasis on might) give the offense a boost. But as long as Denver’s run defense can contain Marshawn Lynch, they should (emphasis on should) be fine.

Eagles at Redskins, 4:15PM ET FOX
The Redskins were officially eliminated from playoff contention last week after an embarrassing loss to the Bengals but you’re crazy if you don’t think they would love to play spoiler. Led by quarterback Donovan McNabb and a stingy defense, the Eagles have played inspired football over the past month and proved two weeks ago in New York that they could win a huge road game. Philly needs to win their final two games to have a shot at a postseason berth and it won’t come easy. After playing in Washington this Sunday, they host the Cowboys next week, who will also be fighting for their playoff lives. If Jim Zorn continues to play things tight to the vest with his play calling, Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson might have a field day calling blitzes and confusing quarterback Jason Campbell. But first and foremost, the Eagles have to stop the run or else the passing game will open up and it might allow Zorn to get more creative than he has been of late. Washington’s defense has been solid all year but can anyone slow down McNabb and Brian Westbrook? As long as the Redskins are motivated to ruin the Eagles’ postseason dreams, this should be a great game.

Panthers at Giants, 8:15PM NBC
The battle for the No. 1 seed in the NFC is on the line this week in East Rutherford as the G-Men host the suddenly Super Bowl-caliber Panthers. These are two teams heading in opposite directions as the Giants have lost two straight while Carolina is winners of two in a row. The Panthers have been dominating opponents with their running game over the past two weeks, but they’ll get a huge test this Sunday against a stingy New York front seven. Still, the Giants’ offense has struggled without Plaxico Burress and a healthy Brandon Jacobs, so losing three in a row isn’t out of the question. They need to do a better job of protecting Eli Manning or else the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will run through Carolina this year. Jacobs is expected to play so that should help, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be. And can anyone stop the Panthers’ Steve Smith?

NFL Week 16 Primer Early Games

Here’s a quick Week 16 preview for all of the early games with playoff implications in the NFL this week:

Joe FlaccoRavens at Cowboys, 8:15PM ET Saturday NFL Network
It’s a shame that only four people will have the opportunity to see this game Saturday night due to the broadcast being on NFL Network. It appears that Marion Barber will play again this week but he doesn’t have a great matchup against a stout Baltimore defense. The Ravens will continue to pound the ball on the ground and keep rookie quarterback Joe Flacco protected, which was one thing the Giants failed to do last week for Eli Manning when they gave up eight sacks in a loss to Dallas. The Cowboys are playing their best defense of the season right now but will all of their off-field issues eventually catch up to them? Can Terrell Owens behave? Will Tony Romo hold this team together?

Steelers at Titans, 1:00PM ET, CBS
Home field advantage in the AFC is on the line in this game, but Tennessee is in trouble. Not only are the Titans coming off a loss, but they also lost DT Albert Haynesworth for the season and managed to score just 12 points on the suddenly hot Houston Texans last Sunday. The Steelers, meanwhile, continue to play the best defense of any team in the NFL and while they still have of a fair amount of issues on the offensive side of the ball, they appear to be the team to beat in the NFL right now. We’ll find out a lot about both teams this Sunday in a game that should be a massive defensive struggle.

Cardinals at Patriots, 1:00PM ET FOX
New England is currently locked in a three-way tie in the AFC East although a win over Arizona would go a long way in earning a division crown because they wrap up the season against the hapless Bills next week. The Cardinals might have won the NFC West two weeks ago, but at 8-6 they don’t look like a team ready for the postseason. They have yet to beat a quality opponent on the road and their defense looked disastrous last week in allowing the Vikings’ Tarvaris Jackson to throw four touchdown passes and Adrian Peterson to do whatever he wanted on the ground. If they hope to get any momentum before the playoffs, the Cards might want to start with a win this Sunday in Foxboro. But that might be tough to do against a Patriots team on a mission.

Chargers at Buccaneers, 1:00PM ET CBS
The Broncos have kept the Chargers in the playoff mix but San Diego’s hopes are hanging by a thread. One more loss or a Denver win and they would officially be eliminated. Tampa Bay is coming off two straight losses to divisional opponents and injuries are mounting along the defensive line. The Buccaneers’ once stout run defense has been gashed for over 450 yards the past two weeks and if LaDainain Tomlinson can get going, the Chargers might be the next opponent to run amuck on Tampa. Still, the Bucs are in good shape for the playoffs if they can muster a win Sunday and they should have a huge advantage this week with wideout Antonio Bryant going against a spotty San Diego secondary. If the Bucs win out, they’ll secure one of the Wild Card seeds in the NFC and after hosting the Chargers this week, they wrap up the season against the Raiders at Raymond James.

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