“The way the schedule is put together with all the division teams playing one another, it makes for a great finish to the regular season,” says Atlanta head coach MIKE SMITH. “You want to be playing your best football in December. One of the things that we talk about as an organization and as a football team is we want to be relevant in December. To be relevant, you have to be playing good football. The playing field has shrunk in terms of teams still in contention, so it’s very important that you win the games down the stretch.”
While seven postseason berths have been clinched – Baltimore, Green Bay, Houston, New England, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and San Francisco – there are still 22 teams overall in contention for a trip to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. That is tied for the third-most teams in Super Bowl contention with two weeks to play in a 16-game regular season (26 in 2004, 24 in 2006, 22 in 1994).
Four of the divisions – AFC North, AFC West, NFC East, NFC South – are going down to the wire.
“One thing that stays true in all scenarios is that we have to win our next two games,” says Chargers quarterback PHILIP RIVERS, whose team is one-game behind Denver for first place in the AFC West. “Let’s just worry about what we can control and if that’s not enough, we’re going to go down fighting.”
And with two weeks to go, the only thing left to expect is the unpredictable.
For instance…this past Sunday marked just the third time in NFL history in which a team without a loss (Green Bay) was defeated and a team without a win (Indianapolis) was victorious on the same day at least 11 games into a season (December 13, 1953 and November 18, 1984)…the Detroit Lions erased a 27-14 deficit to defeat Oakland 28-27, the fourth time this season that the Lions won a game in which they trailed by at least 13 points; that’s the most such victories in a season in NFL history…and the Arizona Cardinals overcame a 17-7 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Cleveland 20-17 in overtime, the sixth time this season the Cardinals trailed in the fourth quarter and came back to win; that’s tied for the second-most such wins in a season since 1970.
Week 16 kicks off on Thursday when the AFC South champion Houston Texans travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts (NFL Network, 8:00 PM ET). The action continues with 13 games on Saturday, a Christmas night showdown between NFC North rivals Chicago and Green Bay on Sunday (NBC, 8:20 PM ET) and a Monday night matchup featuring the top two teams in the NFC South – Atlanta and New Orleans (ESPN, 8:30 PM ET). Some of the headline games in Week 16:
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (7-7) at DETROIT LIONS (9-5) (Saturday, CBS, 4:05 PM ET)
The Chargers, who defeated Baltimore 34-14 in Week 15, have won three in a row and are in the middle of the AFC West race. All four teams in the division are separated by just two games – Denver 8-6, Oakland 7-7, San Diego 7-7 and Kansas City 6-8. In the win over the Ravens, quarterback PHILIP RIVERS passed for 270 yards and surpassed 4,000 yards (4,015) for the fourth consecutive season. He joins PEYTON MANNING and DREW BREES as the only QBs in NFL history to pass for 4,000+ yards in at least four consecutive seasons.
The Lions drove 98 yards in the final minutes of their game at Oakland last week and scored a touchdown with 39 seconds remaining to cap the comeback victory. Detroit quarterback MATTHEW STAFFORD passed for 391 yards and four touchdowns and wide receiver CALVIN JOHNSON had nine catches for 214 yards and two touchdowns. The two connected on the game-winning play from six yards out.
“We’ve had a couple games when we had to come back from deficits larger than this one,” says Johnson of the Lions, who set a single-season NFL record with four comeback wins after trailing by at least 13 points. “I knew we had it in us.”
Stafford (23 years, 10 months) has passed for 4,145 yards and a team-record 33 touchdowns and is the second youngest quarterback in NFL history with at least 4,000 passing yards and 30 TD passes in a season (Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO, 1984).
“They’re an awfully explosive offensive football team,” says Chargers head coach NORV TURNER about Detroit. “They’re very talented defensively. They play very fast in their dome. It’s going to be another real big challenge for us.”
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (6-8) at DALLAS COWBOYS (8-6) (Saturday, FOX, 4:15 PM ET)
It’s a three-team race in the NFC East with two weeks to play. The Cowboys lead the New York Giants by a game and finish the regular season with back-to-back division contests against the Eagles and Giants. Philadelphia trails Dallas by two games and plays the Cowboys and Washington Redskins in the next two weeks. So the division remains up for grabs.
Eagles running back LE SEAN MC COY rushed for three touchdowns in last week’s 45-19 victory over the New York Jets. McCoy leads the NFL with 20 touchdowns (17 rushing, three receiving) and passed Pro Football Hall of Famer STEVE VAN BUREN (18 in 1945) for the most in a season in franchise history. That had been the longest-standing single-season club TD mark in the NFL. The current record now belongs to JOHN DAVID CROW of the Cardinals (1962).
“We’re still alive,” says McCoy about the team’s playoff hopes. “It shows the type of fight this team has. We’re fighting to get in. We have to win these last two games to even have a shot.”
The Cowboys defeated Tampa Bay 31-15 last Saturday night as quarterback TONY ROMO became the first quarterback in team history to throw for three touchdowns and run for another in the first half of a game. Romo, who made his 75th career start, passed for 249 yards and his 20,283 passing yards are the third-most for any player in NFL history through his first 75 starts (Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO, 20,492 and KURT WARNER, 20,305).
CHICAGO BEARS (7-7) at GREEN BAY PACKERS (13-1) (Sunday, NBC, 8:20 PM ET, PULS 4, 2:20 AM)
It will be an NFC North showdown on Christmas night when the Packers host the Bears. It marks the 184th overall meeting between the two clubs, the most in NFL history. Green Bay has already clinched the division and a first-round bye and can claim homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a victory.
“We still have everything we want to accomplish in front of us,” says Packers defensive tackle B.J. RAJI. “We obviously are blessed to have the opportunity to play in the postseason and play at home.”
The Bears remain in the hunt for one of the NFC’s two Wild Card spots.
“I’m focused on trying to get a win,” says Chicago defensive end JULIUS PEPPERS, who had a sack and forced fumble in the end zone last week that resulted in ISRAEL IDONIJE’stouchdown. “I want to beat Green Bay.”
Chicago’s defense will try to shut down Packers quarterback AARON RODGERS, who last week became the first Packer and fifth quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 40 touchdowns in a season.
ATLANTA FALCONS (9-5) at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-3) (Monday, ESPN, 8:30 PM ET)
The Saints lead the Falcons by two games with two weeks left in the season. Both teams can still win the NFC South. Atlanta has won four of its past five games and New Orleans is currently riding a six-game winning streak.
“It’s a rivalry game so the energy and effort will be there,” says Falcons running back MICHAEL TURNER.
In Week 15, quarterback MATT RYAN threw two touchdown passes to wide receiver RODDY WHITE in Atlanta’s 41-14 win over Jacksonville. The duo has combined for 34 passing touchdowns, the most by a Falcons tandem all-time.
The Saints defeated Minnesota 42-20 last week as DREW BREES became the first player in NFL history to complete 80+ percent of his passes (32 of 40, 80 percent) and throw for at least 400 yards (412) and five touchdowns with no interceptions in a game. It marked his 11th 300-yard passing game of 2011, the most in a single season all-time. Brees has 4,780 yards – joining PEYTON MANNING as the only QBs to pass for at least 4,500 yards in three different seasons – and needs 305 yards to set the single-season passing record (Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO, 5,084).
Kansas City defeated Green Bay 19-14 – handing the Packers their first loss of the season (13-1) – in ROMEO CRENNEL’s first game as the Chiefs’ head coach. That ended Green Bay’s 15-game regular-season winning streak, the longest streak ended by a head coach in his NFL debut for a team. The previous mark was held by Pro Football Hall of Famer PAUL BROWN, whose Browns defeated the Philadelphia Eagles – winners of their past eight contests in 1949 – in Cleveland’s first game in the NFL on September 16, 1950.