This week sees the pressure ramped up not just on our pickers, but also on the teams themselves and for different reasons. Some will scrap it out for playoff seeding, others for the chance to make it in, while those at the foot of the standings put forward their cases for being kept on into next season.
Toby's Game of the Week: Houston Texans (11-1) @ New England Patriots (9-3), Monday 8.30pm ET
This is a game that both teams will have had circled for a while now. New England have feasted on the soft part of their schedule, being on pace (until last week) to break the single season scoring record they set in 2007. Houston meanwhile have battled their way through 2 overtime games in a matter of days over the thanksgiving period, while nursing key injuries on their defense but rediscovering Andre Johnson's talents. For me, this game comes down to two main matchups, so I'm going to deal with these straight away:
- 1: Andre Johnson & Owen Daniels vs. Patriots Defense
Johnson has averaged 134 yards a game over the last 5 games, but it's had a wide variance. From just 35 yards on a wet night in Chicago and 56 last week against Tennessee to a massive 273 in the comeback against Jacksonville. He finally looks healthy and back towards his old self however, while Owen Daniels has been a very reliable number 2 target, and one of the big reasons that Houston's play-action game is so strong. Since Talib's arrival in New England, the pass defense has looked a lot better, 7th round pick Alfonzo Dennard has grown stronger and stronger at the right cornerback position, meaning the disaster that is Devin McCourty can play safety now. The key battle should come over the middle, with New England's linebackers selling out to stop the run, and being weak in coverage, Daniels could have a field day against the rotation of safeties the Patriots have been putting out this season.
- 2: JJ Watt vs. Patriots Guards
JJ Watt has been ridiculously good, 16.5 sacks for a 3-4 DE is incredible, not to mention his other backfield tackles and all those bat downs. New England has struggled with injuries along the offensive line this year, right guard Dan Connolly has made 10 starts this year, but had to come out almost right away last week against Miami, All Pro left guard Logan Mankins has made just 6 starts. And while stand-ins Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald have done well, they've not faced anyone with the kind of talent that JJ Watt possesses. New England has made it's living on offense by being a balanced attack, and with Julian Edelman now joining Rob Gronkowski on the sidelines they're going to need to establish a ground game against an injury-hit Texans front. Watt is going to have to play at his very best to try and slow down the best offense in the NFL.
So who comes away with the win? As I said, Houston are dealing with a lot of injuries on defense, from star cornerback Jonathan Joseph to defensive linemen Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith, all hav unsure status for monday's game. Because of this I think New England, with their strong run defense and superior special teams, and home field advantage, will get the job done in this one.
Guest Game of the Week: Baltimore Ravens (9-3) @ Washington Redskins (6-6), Sunday 1pm ET
By Olly Dawes, 2nd City Fantatics (@2ndCityFanatics)
The world has gone Robert Griffin III mad it would seem, as even his fumbles are classed as “magic” by Jon Gruden.
Nevertheless, the Redskins are still 6-6 and have a chance of making the playoffs, so Sunday's matchup with the Baltimore Ravens poses a real challenge of their credentials.
Coming off that close 17-16 win over the Giants on Monday Night Football, the Redskins have some momentum behind them and now Griffin has a number of weapons available to him in their search of a playoff run.
Rookie running back Alfred Morris has now rushed for over 1,000 yards, an incredible achievement for a 6th round draft pick. Meanwhile, the return of wide receiver Pierre Garcon is a huge boost to this offense and it showed on Monday. The former Indianapolis Colt had 8 catches for 106 yards and 1 touchdown in the win, and he's going to be crucial on Sunday against a Ravens defense that has struggled to overcome the loss of key players Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis.
A team notorious for having a tough defense is struggling to stop opposing teams on the ground and in the air, shown by their capitulation at the hands of Steelers' third string quarterback Charlie Batch last weekend.
But the problems for the Ravens stem further than their defense. The offense is stalling under the leadership of much-maligned offensive co-ordinator Cam Cameron. Cameron's reluctance to use Ray Rice, one of the best running backs in the league, is bemusing.
Quarterback Joe Flacco struggled against the Steelers in Week 13 and the Ravens will now have a decision to make regarding his future. With his contract up in 2013, will they pay him the money he wants? Can they put the game on his shoulders and take them where they need to be? So far, Flacco has shown flashes of 'elite' play, but still suffers from terrible inconsistencies that could hold the Ravens back in their playoff charge.
The game this weekend is placed on a knife edge – win or defeat for either team will transform the feeling around the team as we head into the latter stages of the season. Can the Ravens spluttering defense halt Griffin and co? Can the Redskins defense stop 'hot and cold' Ravens offense?
All these questions will be answered on Sunday as the Ravens travel to Landover, needing a win to keep a firm grasp on the AFC North.
|DEN @ OAK||DEN||DEN||DEN||DEN|
|STL @ BUF||STL||STL||STL||STL||BUF||STL|
|DAL @ CIN||CIN||CIN||CIN||CIN|
|TEN @ IND||IND||IND||TEN||IND|
|CHI @ MIN||MIN||CHI||CHI||CHI|
|PHI @ TB||TB||TB||TB||TB|
|BAL @ WAS||WAS||WAS||BAL||WAS|
|ATL @ CAR||ATL||ATL||ATL||ATL||ATL|
|NYJ @ JAX||JAX||JAX||NYJ||NYJ|
|SD @ PIT||PIT||PIT||PIT||PIT||PIT|
|MIA @ SF||SF||SF||SF||SF|
|ARI @ SEA||SEA||SEA||SEA||SEA||SEA|
|NO @ NYG||NO||NYG||NYG||NYG|
|DET @ GB||GB||GB||GB||GB||GB||GB||GB|