NFL Top 5 Week 14 Matchups
With the start of the playoffs now just a little over a month away, these are the five most important matchups to keep an eye on. It's been a crazy season so far and I don't expect that to change this week.
5. Indianapolis (8-4) at Cincinnati (8-4)
Sunday's battle will be between two teams fighting for positioning in the playoffs and proving that they belong in the discussion of Super Bowl contenders. It's been the same story for both of these teams throughout the whole year. Both have impressive victories over top-notch teams and both have had head-scratching losses. While I expect both of these teams to clinch their respective divisions sometime in the next few weeks, the winner of this game will stay in the hunt for the #2 seed in the AFC, should New England falter. Both teams are coming off of close Week 13 victories.
I expect to see a close, fairly low-scoring battle in this one. Both teams have offenses capable of putting up a lot of points when running smoothly, but we haven't seen either offense show that consistency throughout the year. The loss of the Colts' Reggie Wayne is becoming more and more obvious each week. TY Hilton had a huge performance earlier in the year after Wayne went down, but hasn't been heard from much lately. The Colts will look to establish the run with Donald Brown and Trent Richardson coming off of the bench. If they can run the ball successfully it will help to set up the play action and keep the pass rush away from Colts' quarterback Andrew Luck, who has been under duress constantly this year.
The Bengals will have a similar game plan on offense, counting on BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovanni Bernard to do the heavy lifting on the ground. While Andy Dalton has had games this year that make people think he may be turning the corner, he's had others that make him look like Geno Smith. At this point he just can't be trusted to carry the offense. The difference in this one will be that Cincinnati has a great defense and Indy doesn't. That, plus home field advantage for the Bengals make me believe that they will pull this one out.
Prediction: Bengals 20 Colts 17
4. Dallas (7-5) at Chicago (6-6)
This Monday night showdown will have major implications on two different NFC divisions. Dallas is coming off of a Thanksgiving day come-from-behind victory over Oakland and the Bears are coming off of an overtime loss to Minnesota. The Cowboys are currently tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for first place in the NFC East and Chicago is currently a game behind the Detroit Lions for first place in the NFC North. The Bears have already announced that Josh McCown will start for Jay Cutler at quarterback, putting to rest any lingering hopes that Cutler may be ready to return.
McCown has taken care of the football in a way that Cutler can't even dream about. In his last four starts he has thrown 7 TDs and 1 INT, and has shown a great rapport with #2 receiver Alshon Jeffery. Couple that with #1 receiver Brandon Marshall and running back Matt Forte and the Bears have enough weapons to make defenses sweat. Plus, in McCown's last four starts, he has led the Bears to at least 20 points, something Cutler cannot say.
The Cowboys actually ran the ball in their victory over the Raiders, handing the ball off a combined 29 times between Demarco Murray and Lance Dunbar. Dunbar had more success on the day, gaining 19 more yards on five less carries. Unfortunately he suffered a knee injury during the game is out for the remainder of the season. Since Murray can't be trusted to stay healthy, expect to see Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle pick up the extra touches. The Bears defense is last in the league against the run, so I expect to see the Cowboys stick to a fairly balanced attack. The Cowboys will also have defensive captain MLB Sean Lee back for this game.
Since this game is in Chicago, the Cowboys will be out of their element in the cold. The calendar has also turned to December, the time of year when Tony Romo begins falling apart. I expect Romo to play a solid game, but the Bears defense will take advantage of a Romo mistake to seal the deal.
Prediction: Bears 24 Cowboys 23
3. Detroit (7-5) at Philadelphia (7-5)
Both teams are coming off of important wins, with the Lions destroying the Green Bay Packers and the Eagles edging by the Arizona Cardinals. The Eagles seem to be hitting their stride with Nick Foles at the helm in Chip Kelly's new offense and the defense has shown improvement over the last few weeks. The Lions currently lead the NFC North by a game, but should be running away with it at this point. After the Aaron Rodgers injury, Detroit lost back-to-back games to Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, failing to take advantage of the Packers woes without their star quarterback.
The Lions offense has the ability to be unstoppable every week. Young quarterback Matthew Stafford has two of the league's most dangerous weapons in WR Calvin Johnson and RB Reggie Bush, which will cause matchup nightmares for the Eagles. I'm not sure how Philly plans to cover either of these players. I would assume that they will have double coverage on Johnson all day, and will use a combination of linebackers and safeties on Bush, whether he is in the backfield or split out wide. A potential downfall for the Lions could be the gunslinger blood that courses through Stafford's veins. While he has 27 TDs on the year, he also has 14 INTs.
The Eagles have looked like a different team with Foles at quarterback, and he has embraced it. Although he has thrown 19 TDs and 0 INTs on the year, Foles has been equally impressive in the comfort with which he runs the offense, looking like a veteran in the system at times. The Lions are very strong against the run, so I expect to see Foles putting the ball in the air a lot. The Eagles defense has very few recognizable names to non-Philly fans, but they've stepped up to the challenge when necessary.
I think that Foles finally throws his first INT in this game (it's only a matter of time). I expect this to be a back and forth affair with both teams scoring in the mid to high 20s. In the end, I give the edge to the Eagles due to them being at home. Being in the building for their win over the Redskins, I think the fans cheer the Eagles on to a big stop late in the game to ice the victory.
Prediction: Eagles 27 Lions 24
2. Seattle (10-1) at San Francisco (8-4)
Seattle is coming off of a dominating victory over New Orleans on Monday Night Football and the Niners are coming off of a solid victory over St. Louis. With a win, Seattle will clinch the NFC West and keep their two game lead for the NFC's top seed. With a loss, the Niners' hold on the second wild card spot will be in jeopardy. The Seahawks defeated the Niners 29-3 in Week 2.
The Seahawks looked every bit the Super Bowl contender in their victory over the Saints, dominating every facet of the game and making Sean Payton and Drew Brees look like rookies in the league. The scary part about Seattle's victory was that they were missing their #2 and #3 cornerbacks, as well as offensive weapon Percy Harvin. Seattle could have their #2 cornerback, Brandon Browner back for this game, if his groin injury is healed enough.
The Niners want this one badly. All the national pundits have begun to question whether or not they are a contender, but they are also favored in this game. They are murky the waters of the NFC playoff picture and prove that their lopsided loss in Week 2 was a fluke. The Niners have struggled on offense this year, and have not run the ball like they are capable of doing.
This will be an entertaining game. Both teams are going to want to prove that they can play hard-nosed, smash-mouth football, so don't expect this to be a high-scoring affair. Both teams will look to run the ball and control the clock. I feel that the Seahawks are the better team and will be playing as the underdog for the first time all year, so they may have something to prove themselves. With that being said, the Niners will be at home and are fighting for their playoff lives against their hated rivals, so I wouldn't be surprised if they pull this one out. I just don't see it.
Prediction: Seahawks 20 49ers 13
1. Carolina (9-3) at New Orleans (9-3)
The Saints are coming off of a terrible loss at Seattle, while the Panthers have continued to roll with a victory over Tampa Bay, their eighth straight victory. The winner of this game will claim first place in the NFC South, foreign territory for the Panthers. The loser will be looking forward to the rematch in two weeks.
The Panthers have been one of the NFL's hottest teams over the past two months. They just find a way to win games, and it's never the prettiest thing to watch. Cam Newton is playing at an amazing level right now and has matured as the leader of this team. During their winning streak, the Panthers have won a game by scoring 35 points, and a game by scoring 10 points. They have the most unique running attack in the league, and they play suffocating defense. Their team is built for playoff football and built to win on the road.
The Saints cannot wait for this game to start so they can put Monday night's beatdown behind them. The Saints were embarrassed on national TV and they will be looking to make up for that in this game. I expect Drew Brees to come out throwing the ball early and often. The Saints aren't used to Carolina having such a tough defense, so their approach should be interesting. But with New Orleans' aerial attack grounded against Seattle, I expect Brees to throw the ball at least 40 times in this one, and I think he does a lot of damage.
The Panthers and Seahawks are built differently, but I expect to see the Panthers use similar looks on defense against the Saints offense. The Panthers don't have the names that the Seahawks do on that side of the ball, but they are very talented. The key will be which team is forced to play out of character more. The Saints are a different team at home; combine that the motivation from their blowout loss and I think that will give them the advantage that they need in this one.
Prediction: Saints 30 Panthers 23