The Saints' OL is a weakness. Last week against the Rams, head coach Sean Payton benched LT Charles Brown, and with good reason. Here's the first play in that game. Brown is circled, and he'll be trying to block standout Rams DE Robert Quinn:
The Saints knew this would be a tough matchup, so they tried to give Brown some help. The fullback (#45) is giving Brown blocking help to the outside. All Brown has to do here is not get beat inside, and Quinn will run himself right into a double team:
But... Uh oh... Brown gets overextended to the outside, is about to get beaten inside by the much quicker Quinn:
Brown is toast, and Quinn hits Drew Brees as he throws:
That's awful. Quinn's hit led to an interception, and the Rams took early control of this game.
In the 3rd quarter, after Brown was beaten to the inside again by Quinn for a sack fumble, Payton benched Brown, moved Zach Strief over to LT, and inserted Bryce Harris in at RT.
When you're shuffling the deck along the OL this late in the season, you are going to have issues, and there's a domino effect. If your line can't protect, you have to leave a RB in to help out. That likely means that Darren Sproles stays on the sidelines more than you'd like in favor of Pierre Thomas. It also means that you're probably going to ask your best weapon, TE Jimmy Graham, to chip at the line before he gets out into his route. The Saints' offense is far less effective when they can't trust their bookends to win one-on-one, and right now, they can't.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have a tremendous pass rush, and should continue to put the heat on this Saints offense. If the Eagles are to make the playoffs, of the 49ers, Panthers and Saints, the Saints are the team that is probably the most favorable matchup.
The Dolphins have rattled off 3 straight wins, and if they can take care of business against two bad divisional opponents (Bills and Jets) with a combined record of 11-17, they can finish 10-6. They would still need the Ravens to lose a game to make the playoffs, but clearly, Miami has more to play for and they come into Buffalo hot.
Update: As one of the commenters so politely pointed out, if the Dolphins win out they are in, since the Ravens would win the AFC North if they too won out.
The Vikings would be undefeated in the last four games if not for a wild finish against the Ravens. As the Eagles found out last week, the Vikings are no pushover. However, the Bengals are undefeated at home, and it'll stay that way.
The Colts are 5-0 within the horrendous AFC South, 4-5 otherwise. This could be a preview of the first round of the AFC playoffs, and I think the Chiefs will win them both.
The Rams feel like an ascending team to me, and I think this is a team motivated to finish strong. Getting to .500 this year could be a moral victory heading into the offseason.
The Browns have lost 5 straight, and have put themselves in the top 5 of the 2014 NFL draft order. I think they'll mess it up by hassling Geno Smith all day with their 8th ranked defense.
Both of these teams are an absolute mess right now. Here are the yardage totals the Cowboys have given up in 8 of their games this season: 428, 433, 433, 490, 506, 517, 623, 625.
I have little doubt the LolSkins will be able to move the ball on the Cowboys. I'm not so sure the Cowboys can move the ball as effectively as they can stop opposing offenses.
I'm going to go waaay out on a limb here... The LolSkins, right now, even with all of the ridiculousness going on behind the scenes, are a better football team than the Cowboys. I'll even take it one step further... I think they're going to smack the Cowboys around on Sunday.
The Jaguars' three game win streak was encouraging for Gus Bradley and Co, and it was fun to pick the Jags for a couple weeks, but let's get back to remembering that this is probably still the least talented roster in the NFL.
The Broncos are tied with the Chiefs at 11-3 atop the AFC West, so they still need this one. They'll finish their season against two cupcakes (Texans and Raiders) with a combined record of 6-22. The Chiefs' schedule is far more difficult, as they'll face the Colts at home, followed by a trip to San Diego to face a very underrated Chargers team who already beat them this season.
The Texans are one of just five teams to beat the Broncos since Peyton Manning got to Denver, so don't expect the Broncos to take this game lightly.
Eli Manning has 25 INTs, and has been brutal this season. No QB has thrown as many INTs as Eli since 2010, when 25 INTs were thrown by... Eli Manning! There have only been 7 times since 1990 in which a QB threw 25 INTs. Eli Manning has done it twice:
The Seahawks won't know if the 49ers are able to keep the NFC West race alive until Monday night, so the Seahawks still need this game. If they win, they'll clinch the division and a first round bye.
Ugh... The Packers are such a tough team to pick every week because of the uncertainty of Aaron Rodgers' status. Even with Matt Flynn, I think I like the Packers here since they have something to play for.
There's also an interesting scenario to watch for in this game that affects the Eagles. If the Lions lose, they're eliminated. If the Packers win, it doesn't matter what the Bears do Sunday night, as they'll have to play the Packers for the NFC North title in Week 17 in a scenario that could mirror the Eagles' situation with Dallas. Chip Kelly has already said he would play his starters if the Sunday night game had no meaning in terms of winning the division. It would interesting to see how Bears head coach Marc Trestman would play it under those same circumstances.
The Chargers have turned out to be a really good team this season, and a dangerous matchup for some of the big boys in the AFC, should they get into the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Raiders' defense is gross. They've given up an average of 41.3 points in their last 3 games to 3 offenses ranked 17th (Chiefs), 20th (Cowboys), and 30th (Jets) in total offense.
The Ravens are on a 4 game winning streak, which has largely been fueled by field goals. In those 4 games, kicker Justin Tucker is 15 of 15 on field goal attempts, 6 of which were from distances of 53, 45, 48, 49, 53, and 61. There's a strong argument to be made that Tucker has been the Ravens' MVP this season. (Side note - In case you missed my highly controversial Alex Henery post, you can find that here.)
The Ravens' last 4 opponents were the Jets, Steelers, Vikings and Lions, none of whom have a winning record. If the Ravens are going to keep their playoff push alive, they need to score more TDs, because 15 FGs vs 6 TDs isn't going to cut it against better competition.
Fortunately for the Ravens, they're catching a banged up Patriots team at the right time, at home, where they're 6-1.
Nick Foles has dropped back to pass 326 times this season. Jay Cutler has dropped back 337 times. In other words, they're about even. Cutler has thrown 10 INTs, Foles has thrown 2.
The Eagles' playmakers are going to make their share of plays. Conversely, the Bears' playmakers are going to make their share of plays. But which QB will do a better job of taking care of the football. I'll take Foles.
This is of course a rematch of the NFC Championship Game last season, in which the Falcons built an early 17-0 lead, only to be outscored 28-7 the rest of the way, squandering an outstanding opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.