The final week of the 2013 NFL season is upon us, but there is still plenty that needs to be sorted out today. Will the Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears win the NFC North? Can the Dallas Cowboys overcome Tony Romo‘s injury to punch in a playoff ticket by beating the Philadelphia Eagles? Who will be the AFC’s sixth seed? Can the Arizona Cardinals slip into the playoffs? Let’s take a little look around the NFL by previewing each of this week’s games and digest the final NFL Sunday.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers
The Falcons came agonizingly close to upsetting the San Francisco 49ers last week, so the Panthers definitely won’t be letting their guards down against their NFC South rivals. A win by the Panthers seals their playoff bye, and they should be relieved that their Week 17 matchup is against a weak pass defense following Steve Smith‘s PCL tear. A big key to the upset for the Falcons is getting Cam Newton uncomfortable, because the Panthers offense is based on giving Newton the easiest read possible. The offense has become more vanilla to allow Cam to best develop going forward, to avoid making mistakes, and to play damn efficient football. Newton is playing the best football of his life, and the Falcons absolutely have to find ways to put pressure on him today. Their pass rush is among the worst in the NFL, but they showed up big in the first half of the 49ers game. That clearly disrupted the timing of the 49ers offense and led Colin Kaepernick to struggle before bouncing back, and the Falcons have to find a way to get a repeat performance of that success.
By the way, Matt Ryan is 279 yards away from breaking the Falcons career record for passing yards, and it’s safe to say that he’s the best QB in this franchise’s history. Although he averages over 279 yards per game and has a healthy-again Roddy White in tote, I’m not banking on 279 against the Panthers defense.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Baltimore Ravens
This game isn’t meaningless for the Cincinnati Bengals, and it goes beyond the desire to knock out a rival from playoff contention. No, the Bengals are also playing for a shot at a playoff bye, so they are definitely going to try and play their best ball. It’s crazy how hot Andy Dalton has been lately, and the Ravens will be in big trouble if that continues. Of course, the Ravens defense is much, much better than the Minnesota Vikings defense, and Dalton had a horrendous game the first time these two teams squared off this year. I’m not expecting a repeat performance of last week’s decimation of the Vikings secondary, but I’m also not expecting a repeat performance of Dalton’s first performance against the Ravens.
A key to this game is the Ravens running game, because they can’t afford to continue their dreadful pace on the ground. The guys up front need to step up big-time, especially against a defense as good as the Bengals. They need to alleviate pressure off of Joe Flacco‘s back (well, knee), and a strong running game bodes well for Torrey Smith, who could really burn this defense if given the opportunity.
Tennessee Titans vs. Houston Texans
The Houston Texans haven’t committed to a starting quarterback for today’s game, and it’s a final opportunity for either Matt Schaub or Case Keenum to show their stuff. Both guys haven’t impressed enough this year, but the Texans drafting Teddy Bridgewater is not a foregone conclusion. Against top CB duo Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty, either Texans quarterback would have a big test ahead of them, especially with issues at RB. Ryan Griffin is an intriguing TE, so it will be interesting to see what he can do in the seam this week, and it will also be fun to watch the Texans talented WRs and Titans talented CBs go at it.
Could this be Chris Johnson‘s last game in Nashville? I’m sure he’ll want to make it a memorable one just in case.
New York Jets vs. Miami Dolphins
This AFC East rivalry really catches my eye, because this could either be a nail-biter or a blowout in favor of the Dolphins. Since the Jets players love to play for Rex Ryan and are still probably afraid of his potential firing tomorrow, it would be a huge surprise to see the Jets curl up and play flat given a big opportunity to knock their rivals out of the playoffs. Geno Smith played his best game as a pro last week against a solid Cleveland Browns defense, and he’ll have to face another pretty good defense today. Can he make it back-to-back solid performances?
One thing that the Dolphins need to worry about is the Jets defensive line, which might be the best in the league, even if Muhammad Wilkerson was snubbed from the Pro Bowl. Meanwhile, the Dolphins have the worst offensive line in the league, and they are going to be a one-dimensional band against the Jets defense. On the bright side, the Jets can’t cover.
Minnesota Vikings vs. Detroit Lions
This game doesn’t mean much for either team, and the only source of motivation is notching a win and defeating a rival. That’s motivation enough, but the Vikings were definitely wise for ruling Adrian Peterson out of this game. It will be interesting to see how the Vikings offense fares out against the Lions defense, and the matchup between the Lions elite DTs and Vikings solid center John Sullivan should be a very interesting one. I also want to watch the Vikings defensive line battle it out with the Lions offensive line, since the Lions OLs have been excellent this season. If offensive linemen received more plaudits, then Larry Warford would be widely recognized as a legitimate Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. The Lions would be wise to rule Calvin Johnson out, and it’s a tad concerning that they haven’t done so already.
I would be surprised if this isn’t the last game for both Leslie Frazier and Jim Schwartz on their respective teams.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
This should be a cakewalk for the Indianapolis Colts, but I’m not expecting the Jaguars to get obliterated. In fact, they have enough talent in the secondary to hold up with the Colts depleted wide receiver corps, and the likes of Alan Ball and Dwayne Gratz have been fun bright spots to watch on this Jaguars team. But at the end of the day, the Jaguars offense is dreadful without Cecil Shorts, and Chad Henne can’t be trusted despite his interesting flashes-in-the-pan.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns
My focus will be on the quarterbacks today, because Browns QB Jason Campbell no longer looks like the stable veteran. He was beyond awful last week against the New York Jets, and he desperately needs a bounce-back game. Josh Gordon vs. the Steelers corners should do just the trick, and so would another strong performance from intriguing RB Edwin Baker. It’s a bit concerning to see that the Browns actually want to play Jordan Cameron today, and I would have rested the breakout star at TE; you should always be cautious with concussions. Even though it would be nice to defeat the Steelers and crush their playoff hopes once-and-for-all, is it worth risking Cameron’s health?
It will be interesting to see how Ben Roethlisberger does against a very good Browns defense that features a strong safety tandem and a strong group of pass rushers, headlined by Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger. Roethlisberger has been solid all season, and it’s a bit sad to see that his steady play has largely escaped praise.
New York Giants vs. Washington Redskins
It’s been a tough year to be a New York Giants fan, but sunnier days are ahead soon, especially if the Giants can correctly fix their offensive line. That’s what ails the Giants offense the most, as the blocking up front has been anemic at best and simply hopeless at worst. Andre Brown had to work miracles in order to get some yardage, and Eli Manning simply has no chance and looks like a sitting duck out there at times. This line needs to be fixed, and a few tune-ups on defense would also help. This game could serve as a nice confidence booster to end the year for either team, and both sides could definitely use a boost in confidence. Kirk Cousins has been fun to watch over the last couple of games, and I hope he has a strong performance today.