NFL Week 17 Primer Early Games

Here are snapshot previews of the early games with playoff implications on Sunday.

Jake DelhommePanthers (11-4) at Saints (8-7), 1:00PM ET FOX
The Panthers’ playoff seeding rests solely in their own hands. If they beat the Saints, they’ll win the NFC South and clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC. If they lose, they’ll need the Rams to beat the Falcons in order to win the division and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. This is a dangerous game for the Panthers because it’ll be the second straight road game for them and they’re coming off a stinging overtime loss to the Giants. The Saints are also incredibly tough to beat at home and Drew Brees is attempting to break Dan Marino’s record for most passing yards in a single season. With a chance for Brees to break the record and his team to finish with a winning season, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton isn’t going to take it easy on a division foe. But can the Saints stop the run? The Panthers have relied on their running game all season and they’re not going to change their philosophy now. The Saints are going to score points, but if Carolina can keep the ball moving on the ground and keep Brees and Co. on the sidelines, the Panthers should come away with a win and a NFC South title. One damning stat that goes against Carolina, however, is the one that reads that NFC South teams are 0-11 on the road this year against NFC South opponents. Ouch.

Rams (2-13) at Falcons (10-5), 1:00PM ET FOX
With their 24-17 win over the Vikings last Sunday, the Falcons secured a spot in the playoffs but their seeding is still undetermined at this point. With a victory over the Rams coupled with a Panthers’ loss to the Saints, Atlanta will win the NFC South and clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC. If both the Falcons and Panthers win, Atlanta clinches the fifth seed in the NFC and will play at Arizona Wild Card weekend. A loss to the Rams would drop the Falcons to the sixth seed, which means they would have to play on the road throughout the playoffs. St. Louis played San Francisco to the wire last week, but they’ve got to be mentally checked out at this point. And the Falcons don’t seem like a team to be caught looking ahead – especially considering nobody expected them to be in this position at the start of the season. They should soundly beat the Rams, but their seeding fate is in the hands of the Saints.

Patriots (10-5) at Bills (7-8), 1:00PM ET CBS
New England has looked absolutely dominant the past two weeks, scoring over 40 points in two impressive wins over the Raiders and Cardinals. The Bills have been a major disappointment after getting off to a hot start, but they’re coming off a huge upset win over the Broncos in Denver and have a chance to finish a respectable 8-8. In other words, this isn’t going to be a walk in the park for the Patriots, even though this is a game they should win. The Pats need a victory in Buffalo, coupled with a Dolphins’ loss to the Jets in order to win the AFC East title. The key will be whether or not the Bills can slow down Matt Cassel and the New England offense, which has lit up the scoreboard in bad weather the past two weeks. Buffalo might be a tough place to play, but the Pats won big in a driving rainstorm two weeks ago and then again in a blizzard last Sunday. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not the New England defense can keep Marshawn Lynch in check, though. Denver could last week and it opened things up for Trent Edwards in the passing game. If the Pats load up against the run and force Edwards to beat them through the air, they should be successful. But unfortunately for them, everything rides on the Jets beating the Dolphins at the Meadowlands.

Adrian PetersonGiants (12-3) at Vikings (9-6), 1:00PM ET FOX
Even though they can still win the division with a Bears loss in Houston, the Vikings put themselves in an inopportune situation by losing to the Falcons last week – a game in which they lost four fumbles in an otherwise dominant performance. The Giants will start their regulars, although Eli Manning and company will be pulled early in order to avoid injury. Even though they’ll have the pressure to win on their shoulders, this is a great situation for the Vikings. Since there’s a possibility they might face Minnesota again in the playoffs, the Giants are likely to dramatically scale back their game plan in efforts not to show the Vikings too much film. So not only will Minnesota play a bunch of scrubs for three and a half quarters, but they’ll also play a bunch of scrubs with a thin game plan. Unless they’re feeling ultra gracious again like they were last week, there’s no excuse for the Vikings to lose this game and thus, the NFC North crown.

Raiders (4-11) at Buccaneers (9-6), 1:00PM ET FOX
Although a win would go a long way in helping them clinch a Wild Card berth, the Buccaneers are heading in the wrong direction this time of year. Tampa has lost three in a row and outside of an overtime loss to the Falcons two weeks ago, the Bucs have looked as bad as a team could look in the midst of a losing streak. They’re having major issues stopping the run, although they might be getting healthy again along the defensive line, which would help. The Raiders haven’t been able to do much offensively this season, but they’ve had success running the ball. They’re averaging close to 120 yards per game on the ground this year and if they can get the run game working, they could pull off a huge upset. But chances are, Monte Kiffin is going to figure things out and put a defensive plan together to stifle a Raiders’ offense that is barely averaging over 15 points per game this season. I doubt Tampa loses two in a row at home, but anything can happen when a team is in the middle of a losing streak. They need a win over the Raiders, coupled with a Dallas loss at Philadelphia in order to secure the sixth and final playoff spot.

Bears (9-6) at Texans (7-8), 1:00PM ET FOX
The Bears’ playoff fate rests in the hands of the Vikings, who must lose at home against the Giants in order for Chicago to win the NFC North and clinch a postseason berth. The Bears still need to take care of their own business in Houston, or else Minnesota gets in via tiebreakers. Chicago is lucky its still in the race after having to rally late to beat Green Bay on Monday night, although it’s better to be lucky than good this time of year. The Bears need to figure out a way slow down Steve Slaton and Andre Johnson, two players that have played a major role in Houston’s resurgence over the past month. It would help if quarterback Kyle Orton could limit all the mistakes he’s been making, too. Orton has thrown eight interceptions in his last four games, but the Bears have somehow been able to overcome those mistakes and win three of those contests. Best-case scenario for the Bears this Sunday is to get a lead and rely on their defense and special teams to eek out a victory. But in order to do that, Orton better play mistake-free or else it won’t matter what the Vikings do on Sunday against the Giants.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

Top 10 Pro Bowl snubs

With the rosters being released Tuesday, decided to compile a list of 10 Pro Bowl snubs of 2008.

Philip RiversChargers QB Philip Rivers. Help me out here. With the running game sagging, Rivers became the NFL’s top-rated passer, throwing for 3,515 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions at a 64.6 percent completion rate. And he is not on the list? He’s had a better year than the Jets’ Brett Favre or the Broncos’ Jay Cutler, for sure.

Falcons DE John Abraham. One of the tough ones, since competition at end was fierce. But no one with 15 1/2 sacks should be left off a Pro Bowl roster, especially considering the wide-ranging affect his play has had on the revitalized Atlanta defense. Take him over the Panthers’ Julius Peppers.

Texans RB Steve Slaton. With all due respect to the Dolphins’ Ronnie Brown, who has been productive as a running back and an option quarterback, Slaton should be going to Hawaii instead. Like Clady, perhaps Slaton was hurt by his rookie status. But there’s no question he has been a perfect fit in Houston’s zone system, and he has improved dramatically over the course of the season: He has 350 yards in his last three games, part of a season that projects to nearly 1,300 yards on a 4.9-per-carry average.

Broncos LT Ryan Clady. He’s a rookie, and that probably plays into it. But Clady hasn’t looked like any kind of neophyte, being every bit the player No. 1-overall pick Jake Long has been. Clady swiftly picked up the Broncos’ zone-blocking scheme and has yielded just a half-sack through 14 games. He, not doubt, should be in instead of the Bills’ Jason Peters, who struggled after his training camp holdout.

Colts TE Dallas Clark. Give Clark the nod over the Chargers’ Antonio Gates because he has 10 more catches and 72 more yards, although he has one fewer touchdown. And do it not for the numbers, but because as the Colts fought a plague of injuries on offense early in the season, the versatile Clark was invaluable as Peyton Manning’s security blanket.

Every player on this list deserves to go to the Pro Bowl this year. Clady has been outstanding as a rookie and as the writer notes, without Rivers the Chargers wouldn’t even be 6-8 at this point. (Rivers is the league’s top rated passer for cribbs’ sake.)

I was shocked that Abraham didn’t make it, although ironically the thing that has made him most productive is the thing that eventually cost him a trip to Hawaii: he doesn’t play on all downs. When Mike Smith took over in Atlanta, he decided to rotate Abraham out as much as he can on running downs in efforts to keep him fresh and healthy throughout the year. Obviously the plan has worked because not only has Abraham been disruptive in amassing 15.5 sacks, but he’s also stayed healthy. Playing only on passing downs hurts him when it comes time to do the Pro Bowl voting, however.

Who the hell are these Houston Texans?

Steve SlatonThe Tennessee Titans might have the AFC’s best record, but they’re currently not the hottest team in the conference. That title can be bestowed on the Houston Texans, who have now won four straight games after beating the Titans 13-12 on Sunday.

Many NFL purists (some of which write for ESPN the Magazine) expected the Texans to be one of the surprises in the AFC this season. But after getting out to a dismal 0-4 start, it appeared as though nothing had changed for the Texans.

Granted at 7-7 they still won’t make the playoffs, but at least they have a lot to build off of heading into next season. They found a great young running back in rookie Steve Slaton, their defense has the makings of maturing unit and as long as he can avoid injury and be more consistent, quarterback Matt Schaub is starting to come around.

This wasn’t a critical loss for the Titans because they clinched the AFC South last week, but building momentum heading into the playoffs is vital. And considering they have two tough games left in the Steelers and Colts, it would have been nice to see them throttle a team in the Texans that they’re superior to – especially with the Steelers and Colts still left on the schedule. Either way, no harm, no foul. But this loss to Houston leaves a little to be desired.

NFL Week 14 Primer

Marion BarberSunday’s Best: Cowboys (8-4) at Steelers (9-3), 4:15 PM ET FOX
The Cowboys are fighting for their playoff lives while the Steelers are trying to stay ahead of the surprising Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. Dallas could be without running back Marion Barber (toe injury), which would be a massive blow going against the best defenses in the league. If the ‘Boys can’t run the ball, expect Dick Lebeau to dial up plenty of blitzes to force quarterback Tony Romo into mistakes. This essentially is a must-win for the Cowboys, who would be left on the outside looking in if the playoffs started today. A loss coupled with a Falcons win over the Saints and the Cowboys would need some help the rest of the way, with a remaining schedule that looks like this: vs. Giants, vs. Ravens, at Eagles. The Steelers, meanwhile, should be at full strength as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker are expected to play. We’ll see what the Cowboys are made of come 4:00 o’clock on Sunday. Steelers are a currently a 3-point favorite.

Upset Watch: Texans (5-7) at Packers (5-7), 1:00 PM ET CBS
Houston welcomes back quarterback Matt Schaub this week but he’s not the reason they could pull off a decent-sized upset in Week 14. Rookie running back Steve Slaton is. Slaton is coming off a 130-yard effort against the Jaguars on Monday night and racked up 156 yards three weeks ago against the Colts. Considering the Packers are allowing a whopping 141.2 yards a game on the ground this year, Slaton could be set up for another huge day. The Texans will need to find a way to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, however, or else it’s going to be tough to win at Lambeau. The Texans’ pass defense is improving, but Rodgers and company are averaging 228.9 passing yards a game and could find success against a young Houston secondary. If the Texans don’t win outright, I say they cover the 6-point spread.

Gus FrerotteIntriguing Matchup: Vikings (7-5) at Lions (0-12), 1:00 PM ET FOX
There’s nothing intriguing about the winless Detroit Lions, but what is interesting is whether or not Kevin and Pat Williams will play for the Vikings. Minnesota needs a victory to stay at least one-game ahead of the Bears and Packers in the division, but without their interior defensive line, even the Lions are capable of finding some running room. The league suspended the Williamses on Tuesday morning, but a court ruling could change all that and allow the two mammoth d-tackles to play. If they don’t, could Detroit get its first win and turn the NFC North upside down yet again? Can Gus Frerotte keep this team afloat if the defense loses two key players?

Other notable games:

Eagles (6-5-1) at Giants (11-1), 1:00 PM ET FOX
Philly will try and keep its slim playoff hopes alive, while a win would crown the G-Men as NFC East champions and get them one step closer to claiming home field advantage throughout the postseason.

Redskins (7-5) at Ravens (8-4), 8:15 PM ET FOX
This Sunday night matchup is a great one. Both teams desperately need a win to stay within reach of a playoff berth. A loss for the ‘Skins could essentially knock them out of the postseason race.

Buccaneers (9-3) at Panthers (9-3), 8:30 PM ET ESPN
Finally a great Monday Night Football matchup after weeks of utter crap. The winner takes a one-game lead in the NFC South and holds an edge for the second spot in the NFC playoff picture, while the loser gets tossed into the Wild Card mix.

Falcons (8-4) at Saints (6-6), 1:00 PM ET FOX
Atlanta has been a nice story this year, but it can’t relax now. A win would go a long way in securing a playoff spot for the Falcons, who finish with a possibly depleted Vikings and a hapless Rams team in their final two games.

What happened to the Jaguars?

Jacksonville JaguarsMany football fans have been asking this question since Week 2 when they fell to 0-2, but what in the hell happened to the Jacksonville Jaguars this season? This was a team that not only was supposed to push the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South once again, but possibly compete for a Super Bowl, too.

For three quarters Monday night in Houston (a 30-17 Texans’ victory), they were absolutely unbearable to watch. They couldn’t run the ball (their staple over the years), their defense couldn’t stop Sage Rosenfels and rookie Steve Slaton, and David Garrard couldn’t even drop back to pass without having his center step on his feet and falling down.

The Jags are a perfect example of what happens when a good team (or any team for that matter) doesn’t have an offensive line. Their line has been riddled with injuries this season and everything has fallen apart. Last year the o-line was opening up MAC-truck-sized holes for Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor. This year you couldn’t fit mail between those slots.

Another piece of the puzzle missing this year is Mike Smith – the Jags’ former defensive coordinator who is now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Many people noted that Smith essentially just ran Jack Del Rio’s defense over the years, but maybe “Smitty” had a bigger impact than people think because Jacksonville’s defense just isn’t the same nasty unit this year as they were in year’s past.

With all that, it’s still amazing how far they’ve fallen. Again, they were rough to watch last night and that was easily the worst Monday Night Football Game of the year. (Although Slaton was fun to watch and I think the Texans’ found a solid running back in last April’s draft.)

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