Week 16: Now or never for playoff hopefuls

Dec. 19, 2017

Good afternoon all, Merry Christmas and welcome to the festive season of the NFL. Plenty still to play for with playoff hopefuls pushing for seeding and a spot, while those at the other end are fighting for their NFL lives whether it be coaches, players or management. Plenty to discuss this week with tight divisional battles, Aaron Rodgers injury status and the impending sale of the Panthers all hot topics in this week's NFL. Without further ado let's dive in and look at the first key theme of week 16....

1) Jags on the verge of their first division title this century...

In a league where equality is meant to reign, the Jags streak of being annually abysmal is quite a rarity. Well no more is that the case, with a win over the 49ers the Jags will be able to secure their first divisional since 1999 and strangely enough their executive vice president Tom Coughlin was the coach at the time. How has this been achieved? My top three thoughts on the topic are outlined below:

Suffocating defense created by sound drafting and key free agent additions - The no1 defense in the NFL, is number one for a reason. GM David Caldwell has done a fantastic job of merging talent together with high draft picks like Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack, cleverly intermingled with free agent additions like Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and AJ Bouye. Through good coaching and a suffocating front seven the Jags have finally found the ingredient to winning and their defense has led the way generating turnovers, providing fantastic field position and winning games on their own.

Improved offensive line and QB play - There has been a notable improvement on this side of the ball too and this starts on the offensive line. With Leonard Fournette rushing behind them, the Jags line is much improved and has provided a relatively stable platform from which the Jags can build. Blake Bortles has finally caught fire in the second half of the season too, perhaps proving the talent he always had, but this is likely a function of improved protection along the offensive line and a cleaner pocket from which to throw. Either way the Jags are finding ways to move the football and that is all that is required given their strength on the other side of the ball.

Sound coaching and stability of thought - All this talent was largely here last year when Gus Bradley was still in charge. What Tom Coughlin, Doug Marrone and the rest of the Jags coaching staff have managed to do is bring out the best of the talent the Jags have accumulated. Through ball control, aggressive defense and effective clock management the Jags have been able to take the air out of opposition team’s sails and have proven much like the Seahawks and Bears before them, that good defense and coaching can also win games.

There is of course plenty else that has right for the Jags this season, but there is no denying that they are on the right path this year, with the points above being a key reason for what has been a much improved performance in 2017.

2) Key Game: Saints v Falcons

With this game likely to decide the fate of the NFC south let’s look at the key points of this match-up for both teams:

Key to Falcons victory: The ability of the Falcons offense to protect the football is likely to be vital for them in this game. No one can doubt the talent of this offense and their ability to move the ball, but turnovers have been an issue and in New Orleans you would expect the Saints to take advantage of a short field. Ultimately if they can protect the ball the Falcons are likely to put up some points in this one.

Key to Saints victory: The defensive front seven are the key for the Saints in this one. Facing a Falcons offense that has the ability to score points in a hurry, the one weakness a team can exploit is their offensive line. Generating pressure has forced the Falcons to make mistakes this season and this has been much improved aspect of the Saints play this season. If this continues on Sunday, it may have a huge impact on their ability to secure the division this weekend.

Most likely winner: At home in the Superdome most would likely back the Saints, especially given how good their offense has been this season, but the Patriots proved early this season that they can be beaten at home. The Falcons have the ability to replicate that success given they are somewhat similar in nature to their Superbowl opponents and with their recent history in this match-up on their side they may just edge this one.

3) Why is Aaron Rodgers back on IR?

Unsurprisingly with their tight loss to the Panthers at the weekend, the Packers announced that Aaron Rodgers was going back on IR with the same injury that had him there in the first place. This move makes plenty of sense for all involved although NFL fans may not appreciate one of the best players not playing over the next fortnight. With the Packers playoff chances finished in Carolina, this roster move allows the Packers to protect their prize asset, see what they have in Brett Hundley either as a backup or trade bait and is likely to improve their draft position in April. With hall of fame quality QB's like Aaron Rodgers hard to find, the Packers protecting their investment and looking to the near future is likely to put the team in prime position to be Superbowl contenders next season. Hence why this move is a no brainer for those at Lambeau Field.

4) Chiefs in prime position after two impressive wins

The Chiefs have finally proven to myself and all other doubters that they still mean business this season in the NFL. With consecutive victories over their division rival Raiders and Chargers, they have managed to right many of the ills of the last couple of months and proven that there is still plenty of ability on this Chiefs roster. The lessons learned from the past fortnight are as follows:

- The Chiefs firmly control their destiny: The AFC West is now theirs to lose. With a divisional tiebreaker over the Chargers, one win will see them in the playoffs. Expect them to see off the Dolphins this week and prepare to return to the form that made them the darlings of the NFL during the first half of the season.

- Hunt is the key to their offense: With the benefit of hindsight it should come as no surprise that Hunt's struggles coincided with the Chiefs struggles on offense. Against the Chargers, Hunt was back to his very best, renewing his bid for the rookie of the year award and more importantly relieving the pressure on the Kansas City offensive line and his QB Alex Smith.

- Reid still has their ear of his team: These last two games has proven a lot about this team and its coaching staff. Many rosters would have capitulated given their record in October and November, but Andy Reid has proven he still has the ear of key players in his team. Disciplining Marcus Peters last week proves he is not afraid of doing the right thing and adversity has shown the Chiefs are ready to bounce back at the vital moment. This could be a positive sign of things to come.

The Chiefs are certainly not out of the woods just yet, but they should now have the ability to exorcise the demons of the Reid era so far. With Smith and Reid both out to prove that they are more than just regular season darlings, Kansas City should have given themselves another opportunity to crack the Patriots supremacy in the AFC.

5) Update on the Jerry Richardson saga

What a sad state of affairs for the Panthers and NFL as a whole. Towards the end of last week following an in depth SI investigation, news came to light of the Carolina owner’s behaviour around the team and his staff. Needless to say in this day and age his actions are antiquated and clearly wrong, with the final outcome on Sunday night being inevitable given today's society. With the news that the Panthers founder will be selling the team, it is the end of an era in Carolina and for the NFL. Hopefully everyone will learn from this episode and Richardson, the Panthers, their staff and the NFL will learn from this experience in the future.

6) State of the Franchise: Arizona Cardinals

A disappointing season for a Cardinals franchise that would have been hoping to contend this year. The defense has certainly lived up to the bill this season, with a standout secondary causing problems for most teams they face. The issues have largely been on the offensive side of the ball with Carson Palmer's injuries and ineffectiveness, alongside David Johnson's week one injury hamstringing their ability to move the ball. This off-season is likely to see quite a lot of change in Arizona with rumours that Bruce Arians is likely to retire. With a looming QB controversy and a need to revamp the offense as a whole the Cardinals certainly have some issues to fix. However, with plenty of draft capital in this upcoming draft and a playoff calibre defense already in place, expect whoever takes over the team to have a chance to turn around the Cardinals fortunes in short order, should they improve their talent on the offensive side of the ball either through free agency or in the draft. If you are a Cardinals fan, the disappointment of this season could be short lived if general manager Steve Keim does what he has been hired to do this off-season.

7) State of the Franchise: Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins season has also been affected by the injury bug this year with Ryan Tannehill's injury in the pre-season largely killing their playoff chances before the season even began. Having said that, most would still argue the team has still even under-performed the modest expectations post the Tannehill injury with inconsistency largely affecting their performances. Playing in the AFC East certainly doesn't make life easy for any team not called the Patriots, but Miami will be looking to be more competitive next season. On their list of priorities this off-season will be revamping the offensive line and secondary. Adam Gase and company should be given another chance given how this season has unfolded, but 2018 is likely to be a make or break year for this Dolphins team and its current coaching and playing staff.

8) NFC South Division Update

With the other divisional races not quite as close as they once were, the NFC South still has everything to play for. All three teams (Saints, Falcons, and Panthers) control their own destiny at this point, with all teams in divisional match-ups this week. The Panthers should be favourites at home against the Bucs, with the Falcons-Saints game likely to be one of the games of the season. No matter what happens this week, the division title will not be wrapped up this week, leaving all to play for in the toughest division in football. The Falcons have had the toughest run and should they win their next two games, they would be repeat winners of the NFC South for the first time in their history.

9) Hot seat watch:

It is about time to bring back this feature with a fortnight left to go in the season. As always the coaching carousel is likely to take off in the off-season and with one coaching staff already sacked, here are my most obvious candidates for moving on as the year turns to January:

1) Dirk Koetter (Bucs) - The Bucs have flattered to deceive in the two years Koetter has been in charge in Tampa Bay. Having replaced Lovie Smith with the intention of harnessing the talents of Jamies Winston, Koetter has largely failed in his endeavour and is likely to be facing some severe heat come the off-season. With a team that was tipped as a dark horse playoff contender, the Bucs have flattered to deceive and much of that is likely to fall on Koetter's shoulders.

2) Bruce Arians (Cardinals) - Arians is perhaps unlikely to be fired by the Cardinals, but rumour has it he may retire at the end of the season. Having proven that he deserved to be a head coach during his time in Arizona, age finally caught up with his team as Carson Palmer's struggles and injury doomed their playoff chances this season. Failing to make the playoffs was certainly disappointing and he may decide it is time to go of his own volition.

3) Chuck Pagano (Colts) - There have been plenty of wonderful stories and wins during Pagano's tenure as Colts head coach, unfortunately for him the last 18 months have been devoid of those. Although his team has struggled with injuries and a general lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball, the Colts look like they are in need of change of direction and leadership in the locker room. With new GM Chris Ballard having had a year in the job, now would seem like the time for Colts owner Jim Irsay to make his move. Look for an offensive mastermind to replace Pagano, if indeed there is a job opening this winter.

Players of the week:

Offensive player of the Week: Kareem Hunt (RB, Chiefs) - No one had a larger impact on his team's offense last week than Kareem Hunt. In a game the Chiefs couldn't afford to lose, Hunt had 206 all-purpose yards and two key touchdowns in the Chiefs 30-13 win over the Chargers. For a man who seemed lost in the last six weeks or so, his re-emergence is vital to the Chiefs chances going forwards.

Defensive Player of the Week: Aaron Donald (DT, Rams) - Donald was the leader of a defense that caused Russel Wilson all sorts of problems on Sunday afternoon, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. He had three sacks attributed to him and led the onslaught that led to a thumping of the division rival Seahawk’s and seven sacks in total for an emerging defense that looks to be enjoying the spotlight.

Score predictions:

Last week’s record: 10-6

Overall winning percentage since week 1: 66%

[email protected]: 20-30; A key game to keep the Ravens playoff chances alive. With an Indy team that has struggled to compete from week 1 due to Andrew Luck's long term injury, the Ravens should have too much in the tank for the Colts to keep up.

[email protected]: 30-17; With playoff seeding and divisional pride up for grabs the Vikings still have a lot to play for in this game. With Aaron Rodgers back on IR, the Packers will potentially be looking to improve their draft position over the next fortnight. With that in mind I think the Vikings will sneak this one at Lambeau Field.

[email protected]: 28-24; Two teams that have been battling their own demons this season. With the Bengals already out of contention, I'd expect the Lions will want this one more. With two evenly matched rosters, the edge is likely to come in the form of Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense which on its day can be incredibly hard to slowdown. The Lions will need him as they push for a playoff spot alongside the NFC South contenders.

[email protected]: 20-27; What a turnaround a fortnight has given the Chiefs. Having looked off the pace during October and November, the Chiefs seem to have woken up just in time to rekindle their playoff hopes. Knowing one more win is likely to see them in, expect the Chiefs to prove why they should be an under the radar contender when the playoffs arrive.

[email protected]: 21-34; Key divisional rivalry game with the Bills playoff hopes hanging by a thread. Unfortunately for Buffalo, the Patriots still have much to play for (most obviously home-field) so expect Tom Brady and co to be firing on all cylinders. Barring terrible weather (which may suit Buffalo’s ground based attack) expect the Patriots to have too much firepower for the Bills to keep up.

[email protected]: 17-24; Definitely an opportunity for the Browns to end their win-less streak. Unfortunately for Hue Jackson and company, the Bears still have a strength in their two pronged rushing attack. Expect the Bears to pound the ball inside and suffocate the Browns chances of stealing this one on the road.

[email protected]: 20-30; A key divisional match-up for two teams under pressure for different reasons. The Bucs are likely playing for their jobs both on and off the field, so expect them to put up some fight in this one. Especially given the fact they should have beaten the Falcons last week. With the Panthers owner issues lighting up the headlines, this is an important game for the Panthers in more ways than one. At home and not being able to afford a loss, I expect the Panthers will edge this one.

[email protected]: 33-30; A massive game for two division rivals. With the winner of this game likely taking the division there is plenty at stake for the both teams. Although the Falcons have not been at their best this season, the Saints have struggled to beat them over the last three seasons or so. The Saints will be the bookies favourites in this one, but I think Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense may just sneak this one.

[email protected]: 21-30; A match-up between two teams who have flattered to deceive this season. Denver may have more talent on their roster, but with their current QB situation, the Redskins will be favourites for this one at home in Washington.

[email protected]: 31-27; A big game for a Titans squad looking to remain in the playoff hunt. Unfortunately for them, they are coming up against perhaps the hottest team in football, which is looking great on both sides of the football at the moment. The Titans certainly have a chance in this one, but they are likely to struggle to keep up with the hottest offense in the NFL at the moment.

[email protected]: 31-20; Key game for Phillip Rivers and company who are looking to remain in the edge of the playoff hunt. The Jets are certainly no pushovers this season, but the Chargers should have more ability on both sides of the ball in this one.

[email protected]: 30-20; The 49ers have looked much improved with Jimmy Garopollo under center and have certainly enjoyed playing playoff spoiler over the last few weeks. The Jags are likely a difficult match-up for them with their defense dominating the NFL so far this year. They are likely to test the 49ers offensive line a lot in this game and Garopollo may struggle to have the success he has had in the last few weeks.

[email protected]: 23-17; A vital game for both with a playoff spot on the line for both rosters. The Cowboys have Ezekiel Elliott back from suspension this week, but expect the Seahawks to be prepared for that option. If the Cowboys intend to win they are going to have to do it through the air and that is where I believe the Seahawks will have the advantage.

[email protected]: 17-27; With both teams struggling for different reasons, this is likely to not be the most spectacular of games. With a defense that is better than advertised, the Cardinals are likely to be able to sneak this one from the disappointing Giants.

[email protected]: 30-17; With the Steelers right on the heels of the Pats in the AFC playoff picture, I would expect Ben Roethlisberger and company to get back on track with this one. Against a full strength Texans roster this would be a fantastic match-up, as currently outfitted the Texans lack the ability to stick with the Steelers high-flying offense.

[email protected]: 14-30; Nick Foles proved last week that he is a decent game manager under center. Considering the Raiders are still struggling with consistency, penalties and protecting Derek Carr, I'd expect the Eagles to be too much for the Raiders in this game even though they have already secured their playoff spot.