NFL week 16: Preview

Only four teams have clinched play-off berths so far

Scott Wilson
Wednesday 17 December 2014 16:05 GMT
(Getty Images)

Usually the play-off picture has taken shape through 15 weeks of the NFL season, but so far only four teams have clinched play-off berths - the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals.

Since the play-off field increased to 12 teams in 1990, there has been only one season when fewer than four teams secured a play-off berth after 15 weeks, when just three teams had confirmed their place in the post-season at this point in 1995.

In the NFC Conference, all four divisional titles remain up for grabs. Two of the teams competing in the NFC South meet this weekend; the New Orleans Saints, who lead the division with a 6-8 record, welcome the Atlanta Falcons (5-9) to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints have lost their last four home games and were beaten by the Falcons in week 1.

The other NFC South team with a chance of making the post-season, the Carolina Panthers (5-8-1), host the Cleveland Browns.

With the Green Bay Packers shock loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Detroit Lions took charge of the NFC North when they beat the Minnesota Vikings. Both teams sit at 10-4, but the Lions’ triumph over the Packers in week 3 gives them the upper hand.

If the Packers and Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears respectively this Sunday, the division will be decided in week 17, when Detroit travel to face Aaron Rodgers and Co at Lambeau Field.

The Dallas Cowboys’ 38-27 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night put them in sole possession at the top of the NFC East, although it did come at a cost. Running back DeMarco Murray, who leads the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns, broke a bone in his left hand during the fourth quarter and his status for this weekend’s game at home to the Indianapolis Colts is unclear.

The Eagles’ penultimate game of the regular season is against the Washington Redskins at FedExField.

The Arizona Cardinals have the chance to wrap up the NFC West this weekend. The Seattle Seahawks (10-4) have been hunting down the Cardinals (11-3) ever since their week 12 win over Bruce Arians’ team, but Arizona will clinch the division and home-field advantage throughout the play-offs if they win. The Seahawks can confirm a play-off spot if they win and the Eagles, Lions or Packers lose.

The Broncos will clinch a first-round bye if they beat the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. A loss for Denver will enable the Patriots to grab the number one seed in the AFC, provided they beat the New York Jets.

If the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Kansas City Chiefs at home, they will secure their first play-off appearance since 2011.

Three things to look out for:

1) How will the Cardinals get the better of the Seahawks defence?

It’s fair to say the Arizona Cardinals haven't had the best of luck with quarterbacks this season. First-string quarterback Carson Palmer suffered a season-ending ACL injury in week 10 and his replacement, Drew Stanton, injured his right knee against the St. Louis Rams. The injury to Stanton means third-year quarterback Ryan Lindley will start for the Cardinals in their crunch match against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

Lindley’s stats are less than impressive. In 181 passing attempts, he has thrown zero touchdowns and seven interceptions, with a completion percentage of just 51.4 per cent. The Cardinals’ ground game doesn’t make for much better reading - Arizona rank twenty-eighth in the NFL, averaging just 84.4 yards per game.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Seahawks defence is in terrific form. Richard Sherman and Co have conceded just 27 points in their last four games.

2) Are the Cowboys over their December blues?

The Dallas Cowboys have had a winning record in December just twice in the past 17 seasons. It’s therefore no surprise that Dallas fans have come to loathe the year’s final month.

But Jason Garrett’s team are 2-0 this December, picking up wins in Chicago and Philadelphia. The Cowboys are in control of the NFC East; they will reach the play-offs with just two more wins. Surely not even the Cowboys can mess this up?

3) Can the Bengals hold on in the AFC North?

Despite sitting top of the AFC North with two games remaining, the Cincinnati Bengals are not the bookies’ favourites to win the division. In fact, they're not even second favourites. At 9-4-1, the Bengals are ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) and Baltimore Ravens (9-5), but Marvin Lewis’ team have a tougher schedule than their rivals.

A win against the Denver Broncos will see the Bengals clinch a play-off berth, but there-in lies the problem - the Broncos have lost just three games all season.

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