NFL GAME INSIGHTS

NFL Week 17: Keys to all regular-season finales

The Sports Xchange

December 25, 2014 at 10:43 am.

 

Aaron Rodgers is unbeaten in Lambeau this year. (Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports)

Buffalo Bills (8-7) at New England Patriots (12-3)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. – TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots

*Keys to the game: The Bills narrowly missed out on the playoffs largely due to struggles along the interior of their offensive line and the inability of QB Kyle Orton to lead a one-dimensional attack when the ground game is shut down. Buffalo averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in a 37-22 drubbing at the hands of New England in Week 6. Orton did throw for 299 yards that day, but the Patriots’ pass defense has steadily improved, and many Bills fans would like to see EJ Manuel at the helm to close out the season.

Coach Bill Belichick has not tipped his hand, but it’s a good bet the Patriots will play their starting units for at least a few quarters to keep them sharp before resting key veterans. Ideally, New England races out to an early lead and then turn the keys over to rookie QB Jimmy Garoppolo and a host of other youngsters. That may not be easy against a stout Buffalo defense that shut New England out for the first quarter in Week 6. But the Bills’ defense also appears to be tiring down the stretch and may not have the wherewithal to slow Tom Brady & Co. out of the gate.

*Matchup to watch – Bills WR Robert Woods vs. Patriots CB Brandon Browner: With Darrelle Revis shadowing Sammy Watkins, the rookie managed just two catches for 27 yards in the first meeting. But Woods enjoyed one of his best efforts, catching seven of 10 targets for 78 yards and a score. However, that came primarily against Alfonso Dennard as the physical Browner was inactive.

*Player spotlight – Bills TE Scott Chandler: While Belichick’s sentiment that Chandler has “killed” the Patriots in the past might be overkill (22 catches for 325 yards and three TDs over the past five meetings), he has been a solid underneath option to help extend drives.

*Fast facts: Buffalo leads the NFL with 50 sacks and is the only team with three players to each have at least 9.0. … Brady is 23-2 with 58 TDs and a 101.9 passer rating in his career against the Bills.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The drama was sapped when Buffalo stubbed its playoff toe at Oakland and New England wrapped up home-field advantage in Week 16. The Patriots don’t want to break their unblemished record against the Bills at Gillette Stadium (12-0) and won’t rest key players until the outcome is in hand.

*Our pick: Patriots 26-19

Chicago Bears (5-10) at Minnesota Vikings (6-9)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis – TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Dick Stockton, Brady Quinn, Kristina Pink

*Keys to the game: Jay Cutler is back at the controls for the Bears following an unsolicited week off to watch Jimmy Clausen move the offense against the Detroit Lions. Cutler’s success against the Vikings and last week’s benching should be the foundation for Chicago’s game plan.

Cutler, who has 20 touchdowns in eight games (7-1) against the Vikings, must focus on efficiency. TE Martellus Bennett and RB Matt Forte are dangerous options when used effectively — and not as last-second ripcords with the pocket melting. Forte leads the team with 94 receptions.

The Vikings are getting to the quarterback with regularity and will be on the attack hoping to capitalize on Cutler’s penchant for picks. He leads the NFL in turnovers.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is playing like a seasoned pro behind a protection scheme that is hit and miss. His passer rating in the last four games is 105.7.

The Vikings were 2 of 11 on third down in the first meeting with Chicago this season. More production from the running game against the Bears’ 30th-ranked rush defense should only boost Bridgewater’s chances.

*Matchup to watch – Bears DE Jared Allen vs. Vikings LT Matt Kalil: In what could be the final game of Allen’s career, the NFL leader in sacks since (2004) should get a warm sendoff from Vikings fans who cheered his six seasons with 10-plus sacks. Kalil is having a down year, and allowed a sack of Bridgewater in the first meeting.

*Player spotlight – Bears WR Alshon Jeffery: Jeffery is the lead option with Brandon Marshall on injured reserve. In the past two meetings, Jeffery has 23 catches for 384 yards (192 per game) and three touchdowns.

*Fast facts: The Vikings need a win to avoid their fourth 10-loss season since 2009. … The Bears missed the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

Teddy Bridgewater is more than competent, and Chicago’s defense has been user-friendly in a season packed with drama and punctuated with uncertainty, while the Vikings are banking on building for the future.

*Our pick: Vikings 25-17

Cleveland Browns (7-8) at Baltimore Ravens (9-6)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore – TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon, Jamie Erdahl

*Keys to the game: The Browns may not know until game day whether QB Brian Hoyer’s shoulder will be healthy enough to allow him to play, with rookie Connor Shaw getting the call if not. Whoever is behind center will be tasked with moving the ball against the Ravens’ 28th-ranked pass defense. Baltimore is fourth against the run, and rookie RBs Terrence West and Isaiah Crowell have struggled to gain their footing with teams daring Cleveland to beat them through the air.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco is coming off one of his worst career games at Houston, where he completed just 21 of 50 passes for 195 yards, most of which game after the outcome was decided, and three picks. RB Justin Forsett (10 carries, 19 yards) had nowhere to run, leaving the Texans free to get after the immobile Flacco and force mistakes. The problem for the Browns is they enter with the league’s worst run defense, including 160 yards in a home loss to the Ravens earlier this season.

*Matchup to watch – Browns C Ryan Seymour vs. Ravens NT Brandon Williams: Seymour is battling a hamstring injury, while Williams is replacing suspended Haloti Ngata. Inconsistent play at center has been at the heart of the Browns’ inability to run the ball effectively since Alex Mack’s injury.

*Player spotlight – Browns CB Justin Gilbert: Along with his game-day struggles, Gilbert and fellow rookie West were benched last week for multiple reasons, including poor practice habits, according to coach Rich Pettine. Both are in the doghouse, but are impact rookies the Browns need to evaluate more of on the field.

*Fast facts: The Browns’ offense was 3-for-12 on third-down conversations in last week’s loss to Carolina. … Flacco has a 12-1 career record against Cleveland with 16 TDs, 7 INTs and a 90.5 passer rating.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Ravens will be keeping one eye on the Browns and one eye on the scoreboard, needing a win coupled with a San Diego loss in Kansas City to reach the postseason. Hoyer keeps the Browns in a tight game. Shaw would equate to a walkover for the Ravens.

*Our pick: Ravens 20-16

Dallas Cowboys (11-4) at Washington Redskins (4-11)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at FedExField, Landover, Md. — TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver

*Keys to the game: With nothing to lose and little to gain unless the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers tie, the Cowboys might not use their lead charges for four quarters.

The Cowboys won 24-23 on this field last season but needed great efforts from RB DeMarco Murray and QB Tony Romo, who left the game with a back injury that required surgery. This season, Romo was re-injured against the Redskins in October, and resting him could be wise.

Murray, who has 11 100-yard games this season, needs just 29 yards to break Emmitt Smith’s single-season franchise record of 1,773, set in 1995. He could also stand a break as he approaches 400 carries in a contract year.

Washington is emboldened by last week’s win over the Eagles and the previous victory at Dallas. It might help sagging morale to put forth a strong showing and drop the division champs twice.

That means controlling the line of scrimmage, and the Redskins have not been able to master that aspect of the game. Too often QB Robert Griffin III is running for his life, unable to set and throw in a timing-based offense.

Griffin’s struggles don’t help Alfred Morris, but the running back does average 111 yards per game in five career meetings with the Cowboys.

*Matchup to watch — Cowboys CB Brandon Carr vs. Redskins WR DeSean Jackson: Jackson’s career-best effort (210 yards in 2010) and Redskins-best (6-136 in October) came against Dallas. Carr has been lit up when teams commit to attacking him.

*Player spotlight — Cowboys TE Jason Witten: One of two NFL tight ends with 10,000 career receiving yards, Witten is clicking with Romo at the right time, posting his only two seven-reception games of the season in the past two games.

*Fast facts: The Redskins (minus-9) and Cowboys (minus-8) are a combined minus-17 in turnover margin. … Romo has a passer rating of 110.2 or better in nine of 14 starts this season.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

If Jason Garrett doesn’t treat this game like a preseason contest, the Cowboys push into the playoffs with their sixth win in seven games, riding QB Tony Romo against Washington’s pliable defense.

*Our pick: Cowboys 24-20

Indianapolis Colts (10-5) at Tennessee Titans (2-13)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at LP Field, Nashville, Tenn. — TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Tom McCarthy, Adam Archuleta

*Keys to the game: The Titans have only draft position to gain, with Tennessee in the running for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft and the Colts headed to the playoffs as AFC South champs.

A Buccaneers loss to the New Orleans Saints would give Tampa Bay the top pick, but there is excitement in Nashville over the possibilities. Quarterback is among the most pressing needs for a Tennessee roster thinned by injuries and already light on difference-makers.

It must seem like moons ago since the Colts ripped apart the Titans 41-17 in Week 4. In that game, Titans quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, filling in for injured starter Jake Locker, was spelled by rookie Zach Mettenberger. Whitehurst will be the starter again Sunday, coming off a good game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Longing for their own franchise passer, the Titans get another spin at stopping one. However, Colts QB Andrew Luck has harpooned Tennessee since he entered the NFL. Four of his 38 touchdown passes this season in the September blowout.

The Colts want — and probably need — more from a rushing attack ranked 21st in the NFL with 103.2 yards per game.

*Matchup to watch — Colts defense vs. Titans TE Delanie Walker: Covering tight ends could be the No. 2 concern, right behind the running game, that keeps Colts coaches awake at night. Walker caught five passes for 84 yards and a score in the first meeting.

*Player spotlight — Titans RB Bishop Sankey: The rookie is getting every opportunity to prove he can carry the mail as a featured back, but he is coming up short — literally — by gaining less than 4 yards per carry in 10 of the past 11 games.

*Fast facts: With a win, Colts coach Chuck Pagano would become the second head coach in NFL history to post 11 or more wins in each of his first three seasons with a team.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Colts put a bow on a perfect division run (6-0) with their seventh consecutive win over the Titans. QB Andrew Luck will return to MVP form in a laugher.

*Our pick: Colts 38-16

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-12) at Houston Texans (8-7)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at NRG Stadium, Houston – TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale

*Keys to the game: Jaguars rookie QB Blake Bortles completed only 13 passes for 115 yards last week, but the backfield by committee provided the support he needed in the form of 177 yards on the ground. Jacksonville’s offensive line is a liability in protection but if it can be effective in the ground game, the Jaguars can again protect Bortles and allow him to manage the game.

With QB Case Keenum at the controls, the Texans’ offense flows through RB Arian Foster as normal. Keenum lacks the arm strength to scare defenses vertically, so expect the Jaguars to attack the line of scrimmage. Keenum completed less than 50 percent of his passes last week, but he did put it in the air 42 times in a game Houston led 16-0 at halftime, so the coaching staff isn’t afraid to let him test man coverage.

*Matchup to watch – Jaguars LT Luke Joeckel vs. Texans DE Jared Crick: Joeckel has been solid, but hardly elite in his second season. Crick is emerging as a solid bookend to J.J. Watt, including five tackles, two for losses, two quarterback hits, one pass deflection and a sack against Baltimore last week.

*Player spotlight – Jaguars DT Abry Jones: Starting in place of Roy Miller (knee), Jones plays an important role in limiting the Texans’ inside running game.

*Fast facts: Bortles has 2,791 passing yards, and needs 29 to break Byron Leftwich’s franchise rookie record. … Foster is averaging 101.9 rushing yards per game this season, second in the NFL to Dallas’ DeMarco Murray.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Jaguars are fighting tooth and nail to the end, with two wins in the past four weeks and generally being competitive for long stretches of most games. That said, Houston’s defense can control the line of scrimmage and put Bortles in tough down-and-distances that ultimately lead to turnovers.

*Our pick: Texans 16-13

New Orleans Saints (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-13)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. – TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Sam Rosen, Kirk Morrison, Peter Schrager

*Keys to the game: The Saints’ long-prolific offense has crumbled under the weight of an inconsistent offensive line. RB Mark Ingram is the catalyst and when he was stuffed by the league’s worst defense in Atlanta last week, the league’s weakest pass rush got to QB Drew Brees for five sacks. The sputtering offense through three quarters is similar to the struggles Brees had in Week 5 against the Bucs, but New Orleans was able to rally that day for a 37-31 victory.

If Tampa Bay can slow Ingram and get after Brees in an effort to create turnovers, the Bucs can be competitive. Problem is, their own O-line issues are far worse. The running game managed just 16 yards against Green Bay last week, and the brunt of constantly taking hits in third-and-long situations has clearly taken its toll on QB Josh McCown. The offense has really boiled down to whether he can hit on a few vertical shots to WRs Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Minus that, the Bucs have little chance of putting together extended drives.

*Matchup to watch – Saints DE Cam Jordan vs. Bucs LT Demar Dotson: Dotson makes his second career start at left tackle in place of free agent flop Anthony Collins. He was responsible in part for 2.5 sacks allowed to the Packers’ Clay Matthews last week, and Jordan is second on the Saints with 6.0 sacks.

*Player spotlight – Bucs SS Bradley McDougald: Coach Lovie Smith has praised the emergence of McDougald, who took over following the midseason trade of Mark Barron. McDougald is even covering receivers in the slot from time to time, a role Brees will no doubt attempt to test.

*Fast facts: Brees has a six-game winning streak against the Bucs with a 103.3 passer rating. … With a loss, the Bucs secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. They will select no lower than No. 2.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Saints’ season has been an unmitigated disaster in the league’s worst division. They still have more offense than the rudderless Bucs can match.

*Our pick: Saints win 30-15

New York Jets (3-12) at Miami Dolphins (8-7)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla. – TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein

*Keys to the game: The Jets are going to run with Chris Ivory and they’re going to run with Chris Johnson. And for a little wrinkle, they’re going to run with WR Percy Harvin and sprinkle in a few carries for Geno Smith. They pinballed their way through a sloppy-tackling Dolphins team for 277 yards on a whopping 49 carries in a 16-13 Monday night home loss to Miami in Week 13 in which Smith attempted just 13 passes.

To avoid a repeat, the Dolphins will commit eight defenders to the box, but must improve the poor tackling that has been rampant as Miami has slid down to 24th in run defense.

They may lose the time of possession battle, but the Dolphins’ offense is playing with increased confidence. RB Lamar Miller isn’t setting any rushing records, but he is contributing enough on the ground and as an outlet receiver to take some of the pressure off QB Ryan Tannehill, who is highly efficient working the short- to medium-range passing game. He targeted WRs Jarvis Landry and Mike Wallace a combined 22 times in the first meeting and should be able to move the ball against the Jets’ weak secondary.

*Matchup to watch – Jets CB Darrin Walls vs. Landry: Landry had a team-high eight catches for 68 yards in the first meeting, although Walls did have an interception. Landry has continued to grow throughout the season, and has been particularly dangerous of late on slants and routes testing the seam.

*Player spotlight -Dolphins LB Jelani Jenkins: The coaching staff is pleased with the development of the second-year player, who took over a starting job following Dannell Ellerbe’s season-ending injury in Week 2 and leads the team with 103 tackles.

*Fast facts: Jet WR Eric Decker has at least 60 receiving yards in six consecutive road games. … Wallace has tied a career high with 10 TDs (2010).

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

If not for a few late-game collapses, the Dolphins would be in playoff position right now. As long as the run defense doesn’t completely melt down, Miami’s emerging offense has the toolbox to close with a victory.

*Our pick: Dolphins 20-12

Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) at New York Giants (6-9)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. – TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Kenny Albert. Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa

*Keys to the game: The Eagles are sticking with QB Mark Sanchez and vowing to give their best effort to reach double-digit victories. They thumped the Giants in a 27-0 victory at home in Week 6, but New York has found a much better groove offensively down the stretch.

Philadelphia OTs Jason Peters and Lane Johnson struggled in last week’s crushing loss to Washington, but the Giants are 30th in the league defending the run and gave up 149 yards on the ground to LeSean McCoy in the first meeting. That makes it difficult for the Giants to get much going in rushing Sanchez, who is fully capable of making mistakes with or without defenders in his face as he continues to sail far too many passes out of the reach of receivers.

The Giants will give up points, but they are better equipped to keep pace in the rematch. WR Odell Beckham gives QB Eli Manning one of the league’s most dynamic young playmakers in the game and Philadelphia’s aggressive defensive philosophy continues to backfire in the form of big plays allowed in the passing game.

*Matchup to watch – Eagles OLB Connor Barwin vs. Giants OTs Justin Pugh and Will Beatty: Barwin was a one-man wrecking crew in the first meeting, racking up three sacks, two QB hits, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He can move around seeking mismatches, including stunts that send him up the middle.

*Player spotlight – Eagles TE Zach Ertz: He entered last week with a single-game career high of six catches, then set a franchise record with 15 against Washington. After being minimize much of the first half of the season, the second-year player has reemerged as a significant weapon down the seam.

*Fast facts: Sanchez and Nick Foles are the second pair of NFL teammates to each throw for over 2,000 yards in the same season, joining St. Louis’ Kurt Warner and Trent Green in 2000.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Eagles’ self-inflicted wounds as a defense finally caught up with them over the past three weeks and motivation is a big question mark as they close out a highly disappointing lost season.

*Our pick: Giants 30-26

San Diego Chargers (9-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (8-7)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo. – TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Jenny Dell

*Keys to the game: Chargers QB Philip Rivers added to his impressive resume of late-season heroics in last week’s comeback victory over the 49ers. However, he will be hard-pressed to repeat that magic against a Chiefs team that has not allowed 30 points in a game all season. WR Keenan Allen (collarbone) is not expected to play while RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) is uncertain.

Mathews missed the first meeting, a 23-20 Chiefs victory in San Diego in Week 7 in which the Chargers managed just 69 yards on the ground. Rivers was sacked twice and hit four times, and can’t expect another four quarters of constant pressure unless the ground game is able to muster some positive yardage on early downs.

While their defense continues to play well, the Chiefs’ last-season swoon can be attributed to their sputtering offense. K.C. Has scored an average of 15.5 points in its four losses over the past five weeks. San Diego struggled with the dual threat of San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick last week, but these teams know each other extremely well. The Chargers held the Chiefs to 3.9 yards in the first meeting, but QB Alex Smith will take a repeat of those numbers as it still sets him up to be highly efficient in third-and-medium.

*Matchup to watch – Chargers TE Antonio Gates vs. Chiefs safeties Husain Abdullah and Ron Parker: Gates has 25 catches for 263 yards and three TDs over the past four games, and has caught more career touchdown passes against the Chiefs (15) than any other team — including one in Week 7. Abdullah and Parker alternate between free and strong safety roles and both will see time against Gates in coverage.

*Player spotlight – Chiefs OLB Justin Houston: With 18 sacks, Houston holds the NFL lead by a half-sack over Houston’s J.J. Watt and is two shy of tying Derrick Thomas’ single-season franchise record.

*Fast facts: Rivers has 252 career TD passes, two shy of Hall of Famer Dan Fouts’ franchise record. … In two seasons under coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs are 13-3 in the first half of the season but just 6-9 during the second half of the schedule.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

For the Chargers, it’s win and they’re in the playoffs. For the Chiefs, it’s win while trying not to do too much scoreboard watching. The Chiefs are healthier and at home, and keep their hopes alive by dominating time of possession.

*Our pick: Chiefs 20-16

Arizona Cardinals (11-4) at San Francisco 49ers (7-8)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. – TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, David Diehl, Laura Okmin

*Keys to the game: Nothing like throwing a raw rookie into potentially vital regular-season finale. After saying QB Ryan Lindley “missed some throws” against Seattle last week in the understatement of the year, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is handing the reigns to Logan Thomas, who will become the fourth quarterback to start for the team this season.

Arians admitted he’ll have a quick hook if Thomas struggles, especially if he sees the Rams giving the Seahawks trouble in Seattle and opening the door for Arizona to potentially snatch the NFC west.

The 49ers are reeling on and off the field, but they’re still a heavy favorite due to the Cardinals’ quarterback situation along with Arizona being down to Stepfan Taylor and rookie Kerwynn Williams in the backfield.

Forced to be on the field far too long, Arizona’s defense can be worn down and San Francisco set a franchise record with 355 rushing yards last week with QB Colin Kaepernick utilizing his legs more. If the 49ers don’t force Kaepernick into a pocket QB role, San Francisco should control the field position and steadily wear Arizona into submission.

*Matchup to watch – Cardinals RT Bobbie Massie vs. 49ers DE Tony Jerod-Eddie: Jerod-Eddie and Tank Carradine are splitting the role vacated by the released Ray McDonald. Massie, who has been vastly improved this season, will also face impressive rookie OLB Aaron Lynch in pass protection.

*Player spotlight – Thomas: The fourth-round pick has completed one of his nine pass attempts this season, and it was a forced throw into double coverage that somehow resulted in an 81-yard touchdown. He otherwise looked ill equipped to handle the speed of the NFL game at this stage.

*Fast facts: With a win, Arizona would set a franchise record for victories in a regular season. … Kaepernick had 12 carries for 54 yards in the first meeting, a 23-14 Cardinals victory at home in Week 3, while RB Frank Gore had just six for 10 yards.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The resilient Cardinals have finally found their breaking point with a fourth-string QB and backup running backs. Despite all of the controversy swirling the 49ers, they almost can’t help but close with a victory against an Arizona team that simply can’t move the ball.

*Our pick: 49ers 24-9

Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) at Atlanta Falcons (6-9)

Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Georgia Dome, Atlanta — TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson

*Keys to the game: Win and you’re in, albeit as a seven-win team hosting what will, at worst, be a 11-win visitor in a first-round playoff game next week.

The Falcons are taking care of the ball, and QB Matt Ryan has only three interceptions in six home starts against the Panthers. The starting skill spots weren’t set as of mid-week with RB Steven Jackson sitting out Wednesday’s practice and WR Julio Jones (hip) likely to be a game-time call.

That could push the pendulum to the Panthers. QB Cam Newton (back) still isn’t fully healthy, but the Panthers’ mishmash blocking unit is jelling and RB Jonathan Stewart enters with an average of 117.9 rushing yards in his past three games.

If Jones does play, Atlanta can go to an aerial attack for which the Panthers have no real answer. WRs Roddy White and Jones had 14 catches for 133 yards in last month’s meeting, a 19-17 Atlanta win, but neither caught a pass of more than 19 yards.

*Matchup to watch — Panthers LB Luke Kuechly vs. Falcons running backs: Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman and Jackson are in the mix for carries. Kuechly, who had two passes defensed and 11 tackles in the first meeting, recorded 11 total tackles and an interception in the teams’ two games in 2013.

*Player spotlight — Falcons S Kemal Ishmael: Drafted with one of Atlanta’s three seventh-rounders, the rookie replaced former Pro Bowl S William Moore (injured reserve) and is more than holding up. Last week, he made the game-changing play against Saints TE Jimmy Graham, stripping the ball at the goal line. He intercepted Newton in the Week 11 game.

*Fast facts: Carolina won three of the past four meetings. … Ryan has four consecutive 300-yard games and owns four of the franchise’s five 4,000-yard passing seasons.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

Three total points decided the past two games between these closely matched division rivals. The game rests on the right foot of each team’s solid placekicker. Matt Bryant, who kicked four field goals in the Falcons’ win at Carolina, boots the Falcons into the NFC’s No. 4 seed.

*Our pick: Falcons 20-17

Detroit Lions (11-4) at Green Bay Packers (11-4)

Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis. — TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews

*Keys to the game: Detroit and Green Bay will battle for the NFC North title, and the winner could end up with a first-round playoff bye depending upon other results.

A season-low seven points and a fumble returned for a touchdown doomed the Packers at Detroit in Week 3.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers wants to pick up the Packers’ pace and make the Lions try to keep up. That shift could mitigate the impact of Green Bay RB Eddie Lacy, who was key in rushing for 99 yards in a 22-9 win at Lambeau over the Lions last season.

Green Bay is fishing for big plays. If Rodgers doesn’t get wide receivers Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb in single coverage, he instead could land on his back thanks to Detroit’s stout front four.

The Packers’ defense has turned in strong efforts in December, and the Lions cannot count on the takeaways anomaly that carried them Week 3. Green Bay is first in the NFL with a plus-15 turnover margin, and Rodgers hasn’t been intercepted at home all season.

Lions RBs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush are a solid one-two punch, though consistency is an issue. The Lions hope to get chunk plays from the running game to free up outside targets for QB Matt Stafford. The Packers picked off Stafford twice in the first meeting.

If the Packers can get Stafford off of his launch point, Green Bay’s speed in the secondary will stand out.

*Matchup to watch — Lions WR Calvin Johnson vs. Packers CBs Tramon Williams and Sam Shields: Shields is earning big-game credentials. To fully validate them, he will need to hold Megatron in check or at least keep him from running up the back of FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Johnson is averaging 137.5 yards in his past four games at Lambeau, amassing five touchdowns in those games.

*Player spotlight — Lions C Travis Swanson: The rookie from Arkansas started three games at guard but jumps to center, where suspended starter Dominic Raiola played all 1,024 snaps in the first 15 games. Swanson will need help with the Packers likely plotting to fire gaps on either side of the 312-pounder.

*Fast facts: The Lions last won their division in 1993. … Lions WRs Johnson and Golden Tate have combined for only four drops in 233 targets this season.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

Matthew Stafford is unproven in a playoff-like atmosphere, so it is too much to ask him to match Aaron Rodgers. Punch for punch, the Packers have more wallop than the Lions. However, Detroit’s skill players give the Lions a puncher’s chance at a knockout in the most important game of the year.

*Our pick: Packers 19-16

Oakland Raiders (3-12) at Denver Broncos (11-4)

Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver — TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Evan Washburn

*Keys to the game: Quarterback Peyton Manning had two interceptions in the first half of the teams’ Nov. 9 meeting, but he picked up his play in the second half and finished with five touchdown passes in a 41-17 Denver win.

Manning takes the field six days after throwing four interceptions at Cincinnati, looking to rebuild momentum going into the playoffs.

Turnovers are the only thing that could sink the Broncos in the regular-season finale. The Raiders are all too familiar with that refrain, with a minus-14 turnover margin. Optimism is high that rookie QB Derek Carr has lasting power, but much uncertainty surrounds the franchise from the top down.

Carr has 20 touchdown passes and is evolving with the help of a strong running game, similar to the Broncos’ scheme. RB Latavius Murray led the Raiders with 86 rushing yards last week, and he drives the game plan to wear down Denver’s defense. Murray averages 5.4 yards per carry, and given the Raiders’ woes on third down, he could be busy on first and second down.

The Broncos could get RB Ronnie Hillman (foot) back for the first time since he was injured at Oakland. Hillman and RB C.J. Anderson have a combined eight touchdowns and are averaging better than 4.3 yards per carry.

*Matchup to watch — Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders vs. Raiders CB D.J. Hayden: Hayden is showing some promise, but he primarily has played on the boundary. He will draw Sanders on occasion in Denver’s assortment of multi-receiver sets and must remain alert to the route combinations that helped Sanders score nine times in the past 10 games.

*Player spotlight — Broncos OLB Von Miller: Miller is second in the AFC with 48 sacks since entering the NFL as the No. 2 overall pick in 2011. His closing speed and burst make Miller a challenge on every snap.

*Fast facts: Anderson is averaging 135.7 yards from scrimmage in his past seven games. … Raiders S Charles Woodson reached 60 career interceptions last week to become the 11th player in NFL history to hit that mark.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

Denver grinds through drives and goes to the air as needed to exhibit how great the separation remains between the best and worst in the West.

*Our pick: Broncos 32-18

St. Louis Rams (6-9) at Seattle Seahawks (11-4)

Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at CenturyLink Field, Seattle – TV: FOX

*TV announcers: Gus Johnson, Charles Davis, Molly McGrath

*Keys to the game: The Seahawks have allowed a combined 33 points over their five-game winning streak and will clinch at least a first-round bye with a victory. But it won’t come easy against the Rams, whose defense has caused all kinds of trouble for Seattle over the past few seasons.

The Rams won the first meeting at home, 28-26, in Week 7, but it came on the strength of two trick plays on special teams and against a Seahawks defense that is now healthier and playing dominant football. St. Louis must have success running between the tackles because Seattle’s defense is extremely fast to the edges and QB Shaun Hill will face an uphill battle trying to work against the Legion of Boom on third-and-long.

St. Louis’ ability to push the game into the fourth quarter will depend on its defensive front. The Rams generally have done an excellent job of focusing on RB Marshawn Lynch and hemming Seahawks QB Russell Wilson in the pocket, where his small stature makes passing lanes difficult to find. However, they lost containment multiple times in the first meeting, with Wilson rushing for 106 yards on just seven carries. He also threw for 313 yards and a pair of touchdowns for a 110.1 passer rating despite being sacked three times and hit seven. The Rams can still push the Seahawks’ offensive line around and drag this into a field position grind.

*Matchup to watch – Rams DE Robert Quinn vs. Seahawks LT Russell Okung: Quinn entered the first meeting sackless on the season, but got to Wilson for a sack and two QB hits to kick-start his stretch of 10.5 sacks over an eight-game stretch. He has dominated this matchup the past two years, and Okung is expected to return from a bruised lung that sidelined him last week.

*Player spotlight – Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner: Wagner missed the first meeting, and his return has sparked the defense’s resurgence. Extremely fast sideline to sideline, Wagner will make it difficult for RB Tre Mason to have much consistent success.

*Fast facts: Quinn has a sack in five straight games against the Seahawks, with a total of seven in those games. … Seattle has won 23 of its past 25 home games, including playoffs. One of the two losses was to Arizona last season.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Seahawks’ defense was minus two key starters in the first meeting and Seattle still nearly won despite being outplayed much of the game and giving up two trick plays on special teams. At home, Seattle’s defense again dominates.

*Our pick: Seahawks 23-13

Cincinnati Bengals (10-4-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5)

Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh — TV: NBC

*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya

*Keys to the game: The Bengals and Steelers square off with the AFC North title going to the winner.

Seven of the past nine meetings in the series went to the Steelers, who pulled away at Cincinnati in a 42-21 decision Dec. 7 on the legs of Le’Veon Bell. The running back’s 235 yards and three touchdowns exposed a season-long flaw for the Bengals, who missed tackles and assignments in the open field.

The Bengals’ plan to protect QB Andy Dalton and their own run defense is to feed rookie RB Jeremy Hill, who gained at least 140 rushing yards for the fourth time this season in Monday’s win over the Broncos that put the team in the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. The Steelers neutralized Hill by building a big lead, forcing the Bengals to go to the air, but Hill averaged 5.8 yards per carry on his eight totes.

Dalton should have WR A.J. Green in the mix, but how healthy Green is will not be known until he takes the field. Green, who caught 11 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown in the Dec. 7 loss, sustained a bruised forearm Monday.

The Steelers now revolve around Bell. QB Ben Roethlisberger is better for it, and he posted a 118.5 passer rating with 350 passing yards and three TDs in the previous meeting.

Cincinnati uses bump coverage outside, a risk that backfires when the Bengals can’t bring down the quarterback.

*Matchup to watch — Steelers WRs Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown vs. Bengals CBs Terence Newman and Leon Hall: Bryant averaged 27.3 yards on four receptions with a 94-yard touchdown in Week 14. Brown has 20 receptions in the past three meetings.

*Player spotlight — Steelers OLB Jason Worilds: He is one of two Steelers with 6.5 sacks, but he is the only one making more than $10 million as the team’s designated franchise player. Worilds was dominated in the first meeting with the Bengals but had two sacks last week against the Chiefs.

*Fast facts: Roethlisberger needs 365 passing yards to reach 5,000 in 2014. … Curtis Martin (1995) was the last rookie with four games of 140-plus rushing yards before Hill. … Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 7-17 against the Steelers.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Bell tolls again. Cincinnati has had bouts of incompetence against the NFL’s best running games, and while improvement is noted, Bell’s history and the Steelers’ layered plan keeps Pittsburgh in the AFC North driver’s seat.

*Our pick: Steelers 23-20

–By Derek Harper and Jeff Reynolds

 

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