Intrigue abounds as we get set for three match ups that have playoff implications for both conferences. The outcome of these games could have a very large impact that affect the seeding in the AFC and NFC, particularly affecting which teams come away with the cherished playoff bye week. So, let’s get to it.
The Miami Dolphins vs. the Carolina Panthers
Miami is somehow in playoff contention at 5-5. I say ‘somehow’ because it’s surprising that they are merely .500 after a 3-0 start and it’s just as surprising that they aren’t 3-7 after a 4 game skid and one of the more controversial off-the-field stories to break in the last few years. Regardless, I’m sure they’re feeling pretty good about themselves after knocking the Chargers down a peg or two last weekend. This week they host a much more fearsome foe in a rolling Carolina team that just disposed of the Patriots on Monday Night Football. Carolina has won 6 straight and now boasts the lowest PPG Allowed in the NFL, the 3rd best passing defense, and the 3rd best run defense. They are a top 10 team when it comes to sacking the quarterback and they have one of the best turnover differentials in the NFL. All of this adds up to one big headache for the Miami Dolphins, a team that has struggled mightily when it comes to both pass protection and run blocking. We all know Tannehill is the most sacked QB in the NFL, but he also leads the league in hits taken. The Dolphins will need to play exceptionally clean, fast offense to protect Tannehill and produce against once of the best defenses in the NFL.
On the flip side, the Miami defense is no longer the fiercely effective, pass-rushing, run-stuffing beast it was as recently as last year. While they are by no means horrible, they have dropped from being a top 7 unit to a group that hovers around the bottom half of the league. This also spells trouble as Cam Newton has decided to stop being such an obnoxious child on the field (though he still takes time to show off whenever possible) and actually play solid football, a prime factor in the Panthers current winning streak. If the RB Committee of Carolina gets going early, the Panthers will have a lot of success on read option and deep pass plays.
Panthers – 27 (Cam Newton rushes for 1 TD, passes for another on a deep ball to Ted Ginn Jr, just to rub it in to Miami a little harder)
Dolphins – 23 (One key INT kills it for the Dolphins, despite playing a solid game against superior competition)
The New York Jets @ the Baltimore Ravens
As a writer, I do try to remain as objective as possible when putting these articles together. As a Buffalo Bills diehard, it is with great satisfaction that I say the Jets looked utterly pathetic in Orchard Park on Sunday as they continued their roller coaster ride of a season. Once again Geno Smith displayed why he fell to the second round of the draft by combining for more sacks, fumbles, and INTs than completed passes. It was a truly horrid display of quarterbacking, Sanchez-ian if you will, and it shows the true weakness of this otherwise surprising Jets team: they can’t play well on the road. The only road win they have this season is against 2/3 of the Atlanta Falcons. It doesn’t get easier as they face a Baltimore team looking to prove something after losing an OT game to the Bears on Sunday. The Ravens still have a talented pass rush and they will have seen a clinic on how to beat the Jets with the deep ball after watching the game film from Week 11. While they are not the typical smash mouth Ravens of old, they have a stout run defense, the aforementioned pass rush, and an overall top 12 defense. The Jets need to establish the run early to be an effective offense and the Ravens can deny them that ability and force Geno Smith to win in the air, something he has yet to do with any consistency.
The Jets defense was exposed last week. Do not get me wrong, they’re still exceptional and totally deserving of their top 3 status, but they do have one weakness: their secondary can’t survive if the front seven aren’t getting pressure. If the Ravens can protect Joe Flacco, he can use a weapon like Torrey Smith to go deep and despite whatever faults you may find in Flacco, he has a big arm. Ray Rice also showed up for practically the first time all season last week, it will be interesting to see if he can manage to get it going against a run defense that has smothered almost every other RB they’ve encountered. Look for the Ravens to test the Jets secondary early by establishing play action, then going deep.
Ravens – 23 (2 TDs from Flacco, one deep to Smith and one short to Rice on a dump off near the goal line)
Jets – 17 (Geno has another shaky game with 2 INTs, but has a little success early, getting on passing TD)
The New England Patriots vs. the Denver Broncos
Another match up for the ages between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The Broncos are fresh from knocking off the last remaining undefeated team against Kansas City on last Sunday night; the Patriots are reeling from a highly controversial loss on Monday Night Football. Neither of these teams has a great defense, so I don’t want to expend much time talking about defenses. Let’s face it, with these two quarterbacks, defenses don’t typically matter much. The biggest contrast in the match up is how Peyton Manning is facing the only true rival of his generation with arguably the best offensive weapons of his career in D. Thomas, Decker, Welker, and J. Thomas. Tom Brady has one of the least consistent, least effective units of his career. With the Denver defense giving up an average of 25.5 PPG, it will be interesting to see how effective Brady can be with Gronkowski and Amendola as his primary targets. This could be a shootout for the ages or it could be a blowout to send the Patriots packing.
The biggest thing working New England’s favor is the weather. Peyton Manning is historically terrible in cold weather games and it’s going to be in the 20s on Sunday night. However, I question how big of an effect this will have now, when the Denver offense is largely based on short, quick release throws and letting the talented receivers get chunks of yards after the catch. With the New England secondary depleted and the defensive line missing a lot of meat in the middle, it’s going to be a challenge to contain the receivers and pressure Manning. On the flip side, the New England O line has to contend with one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL in Von Miller and it’s widely accepted that the best way to beat Brady is to get him on the ground.
Broncos – 40 (Manning throws for 3 TDs, Moreno does the rest near the goal line)
Patriots – 27 (Brady hits Gronk for 3 TDs, but consistent pressure on him and drops from the young WRs kills drives and costs them the game)