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The First Fifteen: Week 16

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Posted Dec. 20, 2011 @ 2:41 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

Here are the top 15 story lines heading into Week 16, which will eliminate some teams from the ever-closer playoffs:

1. Bah humbug. The Christmas Eve Bowl has become a cesspool of New York hatred. The Jets and Giants both squandered glorious chances in Week 15 to solidify their playoff standings, especially the Giants. They had the most to lose. But they also still control their own fate — two wins and they are in, simple as that — even though the wiggle room is gone. In tough situations this season, the Giants have leaned on Eli Manning, and for the most part, he has responded. This is where the Giants have the biggest edge; Manning has one or two bust games per season, but Mark Sanchez seems to have one every few weeks. And what is the story with the Jets' defense? Hearing Calvin Pace say he was glad the Eagles eased up at the end — and that was after having 45 points dropped on them — was near shocking. Hearing Rex Ryan say the Jets looked scared to go after Michael Vick was another bombshell. Of course, Rex doesn't back down for too long.

2. Snag a copy of Ryan's book. Or, better yet, allow your friends here at "The First Fifteen" to provide you the highlights, as they apply to Saturday's matchup. There's one line in particular that might peeve a few fans of the other team. "I know it's going to piss off every Giants fan to hear this, but here you go: We are the better team. We are the big brother. ... (We're) going to remain the better team for the next 10 years." The best part? Ryan did little to tone that discourse down on Monday. He repeatedly referred to the Giants as "the little brothers" in his 30-minute conference call with the media and did little to douse the flames in this World Cup-esque rivalry. The Jets and Giants might only play every four years in the regular season, but there are no Christmas cards the other three years between games. That doesn't mean Ryan is just flapping to get under the Giants' skin. When Rex talks, it has a purpose. Either he's superconfident because his team is so good or he's compensating and trying to take the pressure off of his group. Which Jets team do you think they are now? Hard to believe, but the Jets rank 21st in points allowed. Even harder to believe: The Giants are 28th in points allowed. When was the last time the two New York defenses were this bad the same season?

3. The No Love Lost Bowl, Part II. The Cowboys came to Philly the night before Halloween and were shocked at how badly they played in a 34-7 trashing. Coming into that game, the Cowboys were a game ahead of the Eagles. The Cowboys now lead by two games and control their fate (two wins and they take the NFC East), but the Eagles miraculously can still take the division and they are the hottest team in the division. They also have a measure of history in this matchup. The last time Andy Reid lost to the Cowboys in December was back in his first season as Eagles head coach, 1999. Granted, the Cowboys flattened the Eagles twice in 2009, once in Week 17 to win the division and then the next week in the wild-card round in Donovan McNabb's final game as an Eagle. If you're an Eagles fan coming into this game, you are beyond skeptical. This team is just teasing us, right? Hang on a minute. They feature the hottest running back in the NFL in LeSean McCoy (touchdowns in every game but one), a gutsy Vick at quarterback, a defense that is starting to get it and a hell-or-high-water attitude. Some teams just take a while to hit their stride. It's no "Dream Team," but these Eagles are not to be pushed aside. That is, unless they are just teasing us, which is completely possible.

4. The Cowboys took care of business in Tampa, even got a little second-half rest for DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff in the process. They have an extra day's rest, like a normal week coming off the Saturday game. Tony Romo has been on fire and he has four great pass catchers, all of whom can be featured any given game. Confidence is high again after two previous losses. So why does this feel like a huge let-down spot for Dallas? The Cowboys know they can clinch the NFC East with a win coupled with a Giants loss, and they are the only team that can do it this week. They know they can't take it to Week 17 and hope for good things. The pressure is squarely on them; the Eagles for once are up big and having a little fun with the house's money. The Cowboys might want to make this something of a revenge game and watch a lot of tape of the Week Eight thumping. It appears the bad feelings of that one have not gone away. "That was a humbling experience, there's no doubt," LB Keith Brooking told ESPN 103.3 in Dallas. "We watched that film a lot this week. We know the problems they pose for us defensively. They have a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball. We got to do our homework, we got to have our best week, no doubt. They're hot right now."

5. If there's a team bent on not letting up, it's the Saints, so don't expect too much creampuffery in this Monday-night game against the Falcons. The Saints have wrapped up a playoff spot and can clinch the NFC South with Week 16 win, but the next mission is salting away the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. The 49ers' big win over the Steelers keeps them tied with the Saints in the fight for the spot. The big national news with the Saints is Drew Brees passing Dan Marino's 5,084-yard season, and he's 305 yards away from the record. If Brees (who has an NFL-record 11 300-yard games this season) had his druthers, he'd break the mark in this game in blowing out the Falcons. Since the moment the Saints crushed the Vikings, Brees has tried to deflect the talk of Marino and put it on winning. The Saints turned in their best defensive performance in weeks on Sunday. The run "D" certainly can be better, but it's somewhere to start.

6. Did you forget about Falcons head coach Mike Smith going for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29-yard line in the first Saints game in Atlanta? Didn't think so. It was a season-changing and division-tilting game, and Smith's bravado didn't win him new fans in Fulton County. But his approach and Sean Payton's are the same: They go for the carotid. That's why this game has a chance to be terrific, especially now that Smith has assured us that his health scare in Charlotte is not heart-related and that he is healthy and able. Since the loss to the Saints, the Falcons have found a little rhythm. They stumbled against the Texans but otherwise are starting to find their offensive identity. That's 72 points they have dialed up the past two weeks against the Panthers and Jaguars, with both Roddy White and Julio Jones finding success, something that wasn't always happening early in the season. Defensively, there's only so much they can do to slow Brees, but DE John Abraham's dominant performance last week gives hope that the Falcons can at least supply some pressure. In the infamous first matchup, Brees wasn't sacked once. Some have said the lack of faith then in the Falcons' defense was why Smith went for it in the first place.

7. Records and streaks gone and out of the way, the Packers can settle down for a good old rivalry game on Christmas night against the hated Bears. You can have your NBA Opening Night; we at "TFF" know what we'll be watching. The Packers face a few problems they can use the final two games to work out: One, their offensive line, and two, their dropped passes (five in the first half). The defensive issues have been there all season and have not improved significantly, so no reason to think they will be much different. But the offense has a chance to right itself; one game is not going to derail this train completely, but the OL issues are the biggest concern right now. Derek Sherrod is out for the season, and Bryan Bulaga would be "challenged to play" Sunday (Mike McCarthy's words), so it likely means T.J. Lang slides from left guard again out to tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith (recipient of the head stomp heard round the league) kicks into Lang's vacated spot. That's the group that finished in Kansas City, and frankly it wasn't pretty. "It's next guy up," McCarthy said. "That's something that every football team goes through. We've had extensive experience (dealing with injuries) over the last year, so we're in a little bit of that mode right now." Marshall Newhouse has been subbing for OLT Chad Clifton, struggling badly in the loss to the Chiefs, but the hope is that Clifton might, just might, be able to give it a go. Facing Bears DE Julius Peppers means whoever is lined up there will have a busy night.

8. Might we see Nathan Enderle play for the Bears? Although that doesn't appear likely, maybe Mike Martz was right not to have fallen in love with Caleb Hanie, whose handful of decent plays since taking over for Jay Cutler have not compensated for the truckload of substandard ones. Lovie Smith would make no promises on Monday about his quarterback, but he hinted that it would be either Hanie or Josh McCown with Enderle strictly an emergency option. The Bears remain alive in the playoff race, albeit barely, and things have fallen apart since Cutler's injury, with Johnny Knox's frightening back injury the latest blow. But don't you dare count them out in this game, even with the Bears getting blasted (31-0 after halftime) by the then-6-7 Seahawks in Chicago and even where the effort looked a little suspect at times. The Bears fought the Packers to the bone in Week 17 a year ago, a game that finished 10-3, and they are completely against the wall. That and a lot appears stacked against them offensively. Kalil Bell is running well, but the wide receivers have been rendered mute the past three games and losing Knox is a killer.

9. Arizona at Cincinnati has playoff implications. For both teams. Ken Whisenhunt has a decision this week: Go back to Kevin Kolb, who has missed two games with a concussion, or stick with John Skelton, aka Mini Tebow, who has gone 4-1 as a starter despite looking not gorgeous in the process. Kid just wins. The defense has helped things out, too, as this group now is in the middle of the pack statistically and very good (fourth overall) on third downs. It seems that a young player such as O'Brien Schofield (sacks on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter) steps up every week. The Bengals, meanwhile, are making the Jets nervous. The teams are both 8-6, and we know who the pressure is on; it's not the team with the rookie quarterback. Andy Dalton should have A.J. Green, who says he'll play through a shoulder sprain, but how healthy will he really be? Three of the Cardinals' last seven games have gone to overtime, and seven of their past eight games have been decided by one score. Six of the Bengals' past seven games have been one-score deals, too. This one should be close.

10. Perhaps the wildest game of the weekend, Chargers-Lions features two teams riding high coming off emotional victories in Week 15. Matthew Stafford's 98-yard drive and Ndamukong Suh's blocked FG attempt ("Take that, world!") capped off a crazy game in Oakland. Things were far less dramatic down the coast eight or so hours as the Chargers took care of the Ravens, well, easily. The wild card is still a hope for them, but winning the AFC West (one game down with two to go) is the sure path into the playoffs. Could it be that this team has rallied around embattled coach Norv Turner? It sure looks that way. "I hope so," Turner said. "I'm not the issue. They're the guys that go out and play. They're the guys that lay it on the line physically. They're the guys that hang in there mentally. We have great leadership. We have some new guys that are great leaders, but we've had a group of guys that are outstanding leaders." The fast, explosive Lions are only 4-3 at home, but those losses came to the Packers, 49ers and Falcons, three of the NFC's best. If you like fireworks, this one is for you.

11. Thursday football, we hardly knew ya. The final Thursday game of the season has a little more intrigue now with the Colts' first victory and the Texans' surprising home loss to the Panthers. Both teams have something to play for: the Texans for playoff positioning and the Colts for draft position. But a Colts win in Indy means they could be losing the No. 1 pick in the draft. And you can bet that Jim Caldwell will be coaching his tail off to save his job. The great news is that some of his most criticized players stepped up in the team's first win of the season. As for the Texans, they'll have to find a way to rally around not having Wade Phillips again (he's said to be recovering nicely, though) and find ways to get T.J. Yates back on track after a game in which he looked like a fifth-round pick. He checked down too much against the Panthers and had two bad interceptions, one in his own territory and one in the Panthers' endzone. The Colts made their share of good defensive plays against the Titans, making Matt Hasselbeck look bad at times, and will try to tee off on Yates.

12. The Broncos now know what they must do to improve if they win the AFC West and host a playoff game against a team with a better record than they have. They lost early momentum and a two-possession lead over the Patriots with three critical turnovers in their own end of the field, and they were forced into a track-meet type of game they are ill-suited to play in. Luckily, the Bills are in bad shape, and Ryan Fitzpatrick's plight continues. In the first seven games — aka, the pre-contract era — Fitz had a 14-7 TD-INT ratio and averaged 7.6 yards per attempt. Since earning a new deal with $24 million guaranteed, he has an 8-12 ratio and is below six yards a throw. All of those seven games since then have been losses. Ouch. Asked if his confidence has wavered in Fitzpatrick, head coach Chan Gailey said: "Zero. I've lost zero confidence." The Bills have been competitive in home losses to the feisty Titans and Dolphins in December, and their final home game of the season here will be their Super Bowl against Tim Tebow and Co.

13. There is no word yet if the slightly improving Browns plan to play concussed QB Colt McCoy in either of the final two games. Seneca Wallace looked decent in the OT loss to the Cardinals, but he also had a crucial fumble and did nothing in the last five possessions of regulation and was unable to get the offense past his own 34-yard line in overtime. Perhaps the development of the passing game, with Greg Little logging the Browns' first 100-yard game of the season, gives the Browns a glimmer of hope heading into the game in Baltimore against the Ravens, who couldn't cover a downfield pass against the Chargers. The Ravens are 7-0 at home this season and are relieved to have seen the Steelers blow their chance to take the division lead, but the coverage issues are worrisome, especially with rookie CB Jimmy Smith likely to be a key figure in the playoff run. The return of Ray Lewis did nothing for the defense, which actually seemed to take a step backwards in the game in San Diego. Terrell Suggs also pulled a no-show, earning two key penalties. The Ravens know they must win the division given their troubles on the road. This game, at M&T Bank, is about as must-win as they get.

14. The chorus around the Seahawks' turnaround job has been imagine what this team could do with better quarterback play, but Tarvaris Jackson rallied from a poor first half at Chicago to complete 15-of-19 passes for 176 yards and a TD in leading the Seahawks to a 31-0 second-half score and a big win. The playoffs might be a little difficult at this point, but the simplest formula to get them in would be to win their final two games (against the 49ers and Cardinals) and have the Lions lose their final two (against the Chargers and Packers). Tough but possible. The Seahawks actually remain in the hunt for the No. 5 playoff seed, believe it or not. The 49ers are not about to let up, not after their lights-out win over the Steelers, as they fight for the No. 2 seed with the barnstorming Saints. The Pete Carroll-Jim Harbaugh spat now is old, old news, and it takes a backseat to what appears to be a pretty good football game. The Niners have a short week (four days) to prepare for the road game, and the last time they had that scenario they looked whipped in the fourth quarter on Thanksgiving night in a loss to the Ravens.

15. The Raiders are 7-7 and the Chiefs are 6-8, and yet after the Breakdown by the Bay (the Lions winning in Oakland) and Miracle in the Midwest (the Packers falling at K.C.), it feels like the home team in this contest is about three games ahead in the standings. Romeo Crennel received a hero's response from the Chiefs, who almost simultaneously showed their love for RAC and their distaste for ousted Todd Haley in the afterglow of the Packers game. Crennel's defensive game plan against the Packers was terrific (lot of single-high man coverage) and his decision to start Kyle Orton was clearly the right one. It's funny to think that the last time the Raiders and Chiefs played, in Week Seven, the starters were Jason Campbell and Matt Cassel and that Orton was a Bronco at the time and Palmer was a couch potato in San Diego. This is an interesting coaching game. Hue Jackson has ridden the Raiders rollercoaster this season, and Sunday was a wild ride of penalties (what's new?) and defensive mishaps (Rolando McClain covering Calvin Johnson?), and the missed wide-open deep pass to Chaz Schillens with 2:32 left would have ended the game. And Crennel, he has his team's ear. Chiefs fans already have bemoaned the future cronyism they expect from Pioli with rumors of Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels being a candidate for the job. But what about a Crennel-McDaniels combo where the elder, 65, keeps the seat warm 3-4 years for the younger, 35. That's stability. That can work.

 

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