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NFL 2011 Season – Week 16 Preview

Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress
Jim McIsaac, Getty Images

The Christmas holiday necessitates a schedule tweak for the NFL. Most games will be held on Saturday, with the exception of the Texans-Colts contest on Thursday, the Bears-Packers game on Sunday night and the Falcons and Saints, who will meet on ‘Monday Night Football.’

Here’s a preview of the NFL games scheduled for this weekend.

Saturday, Dec. 24

New York Giants at New York Jets – 1:00 PM

The Giants (7-7) can eliminate Philadelphia from playoff contention with a win, but they also want to keep pace with Dallas in the NFC East. Coach Tom Coughlin’s team needs the rest of the offense to rise to the level that quarterback Eli Manning has played this season. He’s third in the NFL with 4,362 passing yards. Manning faces a Jets’ defense ranked seventh overall and seventh against the pass. Giants receivers must work to get open against the talented Jets secondary. The Jets (8-6) were awful while getting blown out by the Eagles last week, yet they still currently hold one of the two AFC wild card spots. They’ll need to better protect quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was sacked four times in last week’s loss. Giants defensive lineman Jason Pierre-Paul is fourth in the league in sacks with 14. The Giants have the NFL’s 29th-ranked overall defense and a suspect secondary, which former Giant and current Jet Plaxico Burress hopes to exploit.

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs – 1:00 PM

This game could be crucial in deciding the AFC West race. Oakland (7-7) is nearly in a must-win situation for the final two games of the regular season. Quarterback Carson Palmer directs an inconsistent Raiders offense that has struggled often since running back Darren McFadden suffered a sprained foot when these teams met Oct. 23, a 28-0 Chiefs romp. Oakland must avoid the turnovers that have plagued the team during the current three-game losing streak. Keeping Chiefs defensive lineman Tamba Hali away from Palmer would help, too. Kansas City (6-8) still has a chance at the playoffs, but it needs help. The team looked much more capable on offense with Kyle Orton at quarterback in the upset win over the previously undefeated Packers last week. The Chiefs managed only one touchdown, but they moved the ball well on the ground and through the air. They’ll look to exploit the Raiders’ 27th-ranked defense, which gave up a 13-point lead in the final five minutes against the Lions last week.

Arizona Cardinals at Cincinnati Bengals – 1:00 PM

Arizona (7-7) chases its slim playoff hopes despite being uncertain whether Kevin Kolb or John Skelton will start at quarterback this week. Kolb is still suffering from post-concussion syndrome. Skelton is 4-1 as a starter. The Cardinals’ offensive game plan must account for the Bengals strong pass rush, tied for fourth in the NFL with 39 sacks. Cincinnati (8-6) hopes to maintain its position as one of the two AFC wild card teams. Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green should play despite spraining his right shoulder in last week’s win over the Rams. If active, he’ll be a key weapon against the inconsistent Cardinals’ pass defense. Running back Cedric Benson is only 52 yards from his third straight 1,000-yard season.

Denver Broncos at Buffalo Bills – 1:00 PM

Despite last week’s home loss to New England, Denver (8-6) remains in first place in the AFC West by one game. The Broncos will look to use the league’s top-ranked rushing attack, averaging 163.1 yards per game, against a Bills’ defense ranked 29th against the run and last in sacks with 21. Quarterback Tim Tebow threw for 194 yards and rushed for another 93 and two touchdowns last week. He’ll look to continue to create havoc with defensive containment strategies. Buffalo (5-9) has lost seven games in a row. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown a league-high 19 interceptions. He may be without Buffalo’s leading receiver, Stevie Johnson, who is nursing a groin injury. Expect the Broncos to pressure Fitzpatrick often. Denver wants to get back to playing the type of defense it did prior to last week’s loss. The team had not allowed more than 13 points in four of the previous five games.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans – 1:00 PM

Jacksonville (4-10) heads to Tennessee with very little to play for except pride, which the team didn’t show much of while being humiliated by the Falcons, 41-14, on Dec. 15. Maurice Jones-Drew, who leads the league with 1,334 rushing yards, is the only true threat on a Jaguars offense that is last in the league in total yards at 256.3 yards per game. Jacksonville ran 47 times for 163 yards in a 16-14 win over the Titans in week one. Still a playoff hopeful, Tennessee (7-7) often seems tied to the performance of star running back Chris Johnson, who is just 70 yards from his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. He sprained an ankle in last week’s loss to previously winless Indianapolis, but is expected to play. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is still the Titans starter despite his uneven play. He faces a Jaguars defense that is fourth-best in the league in total defense, yielding an average of 307.4 yards per game.

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots – 1:00 PM

Miami (5-9) has improved greatly since its 0-7 start. One of the keys to the turnaround has been running back Reggie Bush, who comes off a career-high 203 rushing yards last week against the Bills. Bush only ran for 38 yards in the Dolphins first meeting with the Patriots, a 38-24 loss in week one. The Patriots defense still allows a league-high average of 414.4 yards per game, but most of that comes through the air. New England (11-3) can assure itself of home-field advantage through the AFC title game by winning the next two weeks. Quarterback Tom Brady leads the AFC’s highest-scoring offense, averaging 31.2 points per game, against a Dolphins pass defense ranked 25th in the league. Brady had 517 yards passing and four TD passes in the Patriots season-opening win.

Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens – 1:00 PM

Cleveland (4-10) expects to start backup quarterback Seneca Wallace again in place of the injured Colt McCoy, who still is not recovered from a concussion suffered against the Steelers on Dec. 8. The Browns offense ranks 30th in the league in scoring at 13.9 points per game. Unless Cleveland can get running back Peyton Hillis to challenge the Ravens second-ranked rushing defense, it may struggle to move the ball. Baltimore (10-4) can win the AFC North with two more victories. The Ravens dominated the Browns 24-10 in week 13 by using running back Ray Rice, who ran for 204 yards. Expect more of the same from Baltimore, who’d like to run Rice often against a Cleveland defense that gives up an average of 145.4 rushing yards per game, next-to-worst in the NFL.

St. Louis Rams at Pittsburgh Steelers – 1:00 PM

St. Louis (2-12) plans to start Kellen Clemens at quarterback in place of injured Sam Bradford. Clemens passed for 229 yards and a score in last week’s loss to Cincinnati, his first NFL start since 2007. The Rams will use Steven Jackson, just 34 yards away from his seventh straight 1,000-yard rushing season, to control the ball and help the league’s lowest scoring offense, scoring just 11.9 points per game. The Steelers’ top-ranked overall defense will welcome back the bruising hits of suspended linebacker James Harrison. Pittsburgh (10-4) wants to stay in contention for an AFC North title and first-round playoff bye. The Steelers may rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was hampered by a sprained left ankle in Monday’s loss to San Francisco. Backup QB Charlie Batch would start in place of Roethlisberger. Running back Rashard Mendenhall will be a key weapon against a Rams defense that ranks last in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of 153.4 yards per game.

Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins –1:00 PM

Minnesota (2-12) has lost six games in a row, but thanks to running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings do have the league’s fourth-best rushing offense. They’ll use the running game to control the ball and take pressure off rookie quarterback Christian Ponder, who has been ineffective at times. The Redskins defense was very solid against the Giants last week. Washington (5-9) hopes to victimize a Vikings defense that allows 29 points per game, the most in the NFL. The Redskins need quarterback Rex Grossman to take advantage of a Minnesota secondary that gives up 260.4 passing yards a game, 30th in the league. Washington must account for Vikings defensive lineman Jared Allen, who is tied for the league lead in sacks with 18.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers – 1:00 PM

Losers of eight straight games, including a 38-19 loss to the Panthers in week 13, Tampa Bay (4-10) has been dreadful on offense for weeks. The Buccaneers hope to sustain drives behind the running of LeGarrette Blount, but they have struggled on third downs, converting just 35.5 percent of them. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman, tied for second in the league with 18 interceptions, missed the earlier contest against the Panthers with an injury. Carolina (5-9) is coming off a big win against a playoff-bound Texans team. Quarterback Cam Newton ran for three touchdowns in the earlier meeting with Tampa. He leads an offense ranked fifth in the NFL in yards gained. The Buccaneers defense ranks 31st in points allowed and 30th in total defense, giving up 389.3 yards per contest. They must slow down the Panthers rushing attack and force Newton into some turnovers. He has had 16 passes picked off, the fifth-highest total in the league.

San Diego Chargers at Detroit Lions – 4:05 PM

San Diego (7-7) has won three games in a row and can still make the playoffs by winning and getting some additional help from other teams. When quarterback Philip Rivers doesn’t force throws and running back Ryan Mathews is effective, the Chargers can be difficult to stop. They score 25.6 points per game, fifth-highest in the league. Mathews should fare well against the Lions, who have the 27th-ranked run defense in the league. Detroit (9-5) can secure an NFC wild-card spot with a victory. The Lions pass offense is ranked fifth in the NFL, with 282.8 yards a game. The combination of quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson, which has accounted for 14 touchdowns, can be lethal to opponents. The Chargers pass defense, ranked sixth in the league, hopes to rise to the challenge.

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys – 4:15 PM

Philadelphia (6-8) can still make the playoffs, but much has to go the Eagles way. Almost everything worked well in Philadelphia’s 34-7 trouncing of the Cowboys in week eight. Quarterback Michael Vick is the director of the league’s third-best overall offense, averaging 400.7 yards per game, but running back LeSean McCoy is its most dangerous weapon. His 20 touchdowns lead the league and his 1,274 rushing yards are second-best. The Cowboys run defense, ranked seventh in the league, will be tested. Dallas (8-6) can eliminate the Eagles with a win, which coupled with a Giants loss would give the Cowboys the NFC East crown. Quarterback Tony Romo must do better than the 66.7 passer rating he had against Philadelphia in the teams’ previous meeting.  He’ll need to watch Eagles defensive end Jason Babin, who is tied for the league lead in sacks with 18. Dallas may be without running back Felix Jones, who has an injured hamstring, so reserve back Sammy Morris may start in his place.

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks – 4:15 PM

The win over Pittsburgh on Monday kept San Francisco (11-3) tied with New Orleans for a first-round playoff bye. The NFC West champion 49ers used two Ted Ginn Jr. return touchdowns to beat Seattle 33-17 when they met in week one. Look for quarterback Alex Smith to throw safe passes to tight end Vernon Davis to assist the league’s 29th-ranked pass offense against a Seahawks defense ranked sixth in points allowed. Seattle (7-7) still has an outside chance at the playoffs, but it must win and get help from other teams. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has been more effective recently than the 33-yard rushing performance he had against San Francisco in the season opener, having scored a touchdown in 10 straight games. It may be difficult for Lynch to continue that streak against a 49ers defense that has allowed zero rushing touchdowns this season and the fewest points in the league.

Sunday, Dec. 25

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers – 8:20 PM

After a devastating four-game losing streak jeopardized its playoff hopes, Chicago (7-7) will finally move quarterback Caleb Hanie out of the starting lineup in favor of backup Josh McCown. McCown almost has to play better than the 41.8 passer rating and 0-4 record of Hanie, who was given the job after Jay Cutler broke his thumb. With Bears running back Marion Barber nursing a calf injury and Matt Forte still out with a sprained knee ligament, Kahlil Bell may be called on to establish the ground game against a Packers defense ranked 31st overall in the league. NFC North champion Green Bay (13-1) can clinch home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs with a win. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed less than half of his passes in last week’s loss to the Chiefs. The Bears defense will look to take advantage of a Green Bay offensive line depleted by injuries. Rodgers may be taken out of the lineup, if the Packers get a lead. Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings remains out with a knee injury, but the league’s highest-scoring offense still has Jermichael Finley, who scored three touchdowns in the first meeting of these teams, a 27-17 Packers’ win in week three.

Monday, Dec. 26

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints – 8:30 PM

Atlanta (9-5) can clinch an NFC wild-card spot with a victory, but a win will also keep the Falcons alive in the NFC South race with the Saints. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past two games. He had 351 yards passing in the Falcons’ 26-23 overtime loss to the Saints in week 10. Atlanta running back Michael Turner, the league’s third-leading rusher, will help Ryan with the attack. New Orleans (11-3) can win the NFC South with a victory. Saints quarterback Drew Brees guides the NFL’s best overall offense, averaging 456.7 yards per game. New Orleans ranks eighth in rushing, while Atlanta’s run defense is fourth-best in the league. Still, with Brees just 304 yards away from tying Dan Marino’s NFL record for passing yards in a season (5,084), the Saints offense figures to try to win this game through the air.

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