Entering week 14 of the season, the playoff race grows tighter. Recent standings have the four division leaders as New England (9-3), Denver (9-3), Cincinnati (8-3-1), and Indianapolis (8-4). The two wild card spots are held by San Diego (8-4) and Miami (7-5). This is a nail bitter, with six teams outside looking in. Waiting in the wings are Kansas City, Buffalo, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, all with 7-5 records, and Houston still lingering with a chance at 6-6.

As the season’s end draws near week 14 has more matchups with playoff implications.

New England @ San Diego: New England just snapped a seven game winning streak and looks to get back on track in California. In his first encounter with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, Tom Brady had an average game, finishing with 245 yards and two touchdowns. Brady should fare better in a matchup with the Chargers. The Patriots limited an explosive Green Bay offense to 26 points, and just three in the second half. The Packers were 0-4 in the red zone. Last week, San Diego had to orchestrate 21 fourth quarter points to rally and win. Their offense generated 31 first downs and over 400 yards against Baltimore, but don’t expect a repeat performance. Philip Rivers will not be able to duplicate his numbers (383 yards, three touchdowns) against New England’s cornerbacks. Although the Chargers are at home, look for the Patriots to strike fast, hard, and often.

Kansas City @ Arizona: Both teams are coming off tough losses. Arizona allowed Atlanta to rack up 29 points, the most they have allowed since a week five loss to Denver (41 points). In two straight losses, Drew Stanton has thrown three interceptions to just one touchdown. The Cardinals haven’t scored an offensive touchdown since the first quarter versus Detroit, week 11, until a junk time touchdown in Atlanta. Patrick Peterson allowed Julio Jones to have a career day, 189 yards. Peterson will have a better game as the Chiefs don’t possess a deep threat wide receiver. In fact, Alex Smith has yet to connect with a wide out for a touchdown. Kansas City’s big threat is Jamaal Charles, but limited to 10 carries versus Denver. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, taking away the run game. If the Cardinals force Alex Smith to beat them, Arizona stands a chance. Their defense is the key to winning, contain Charles and pressure Smith.

Buffalo @ Denver: Buffalo’s fifth ranked pass defense, surrendering 216.1 yards per game, should be able to slow Peyton Manning down. The Chiefs’ 196.8 yards per game, number one pass defense held Manning to 179 yards and two scores, both of which came in the first quarter. Despite a tough Buffalo run defense, a heavy workload for C.J. Anderson should spell success. In the past two weeks, the back produced 168 yards on 32 carries versus Kansas City, while against Miami, he rushed the ball 27 times for 167 yards. Expect the same trend this Sunday, especially with Denver playing at home. The Broncos should be able to control the tempo with their rushing attack. Additionally, Denver’s defense should contain Fred Jackson and Anthony Dixon, forcing Kyle Orton to win the game. Despite losing the game, Cleveland intercepted two passes from Orton. Turnovers will be the downfall of the Bills, allowing extra opportunities for Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

Houston @ Jacksonville: At 6-6, Houston still has the playoffs in sight. This is the first of two contests with Jacksonville, helping their chances. It should be two easy wins, although the Jaguars are coming off their second win of the season after a surprising 25-24 defeat of the New York Giants. Jacksonville’s offense may have some kinks to work out, but their defense is commendable. They made franchise history when they scored two defensive touchdowns (fumble recoveries) in the same game. The defense could get another score versus the Texans, as inconsistent as Ryan Fitzpatrick can be. Despite throwing for a franchise record six touchdowns against Tennessee, the defense forced four turnovers, allowing Fitzpatrick extra opportunities. I would expect Houston to win convincingly, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Jaguars defense keeps them in the game.

Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati: A key divisional matchup as Cincinnati sits alone in first place and Pittsburgh is tied with both Baltimore and Cleveland behind the Bengals. The Bengals’ victory in Tampa Bay wasn’t pretty by any means. They would have lost if it weren’t for a 12 men on the field penalty that took Tampa Bay out of field goal range. Despite the ugly win, Cincinnati overcame three Dalton interceptions and ten penalties. They wouldn’t be so lucky if they played a better team like the Steelers, who capitalize on extra chances. However, the Bengals play better at home and should produce more than 288 yards of total offense. Pittsburgh looks to bounce back after a tough home loss to the Saints. They surrendered 257 yards and five scores through the air and another 122 to Mark Ingram. Pittsburgh trailed 28-13 entering the fourth quarter. They scored 19 points, but couldn’t cap the rally, losing 35-32. Ben Roethlisberger should produce respectable numbers with Cincinnati’s defense struggling this year. Expect great games from running backs as both squads allow over 100 yards per game on the ground. Le’Veon Bell is a workhorse and will see plenty of touches, coming off a big game (254 total yards). Depending on the division of carries, both Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill could produce big games.

Baltimore @ Miami: Baltimore lost a tough one at home, getting torched by Philip Rivers for 383 yards and three touchdowns. They lost wide out Marlon Brown to a concussion and Torrey Smith wasn’t on the field their last series due to a knee injury. Steve Smith was a no show, catching only one pass for two yards. Despite a decent game by Joe Flacco, it was the Ravens defense that struggled, allowing 21 fourth quarter points. Baltimore is 31st against the pass, yet fourth versus the run. Justin Forsett registered another 100 yard game and may record another against Miami. Monday night, the Dolphins couldn’t stop the New York Jets run game, even when they knew it was coming. They surrendered 210 rushing yards at the half! In the second half, they slowed down the Jets. Miami came back to win the game 16-13 with the credit going to the defense. They came up with critical fourth quarter stops and a blocked punt. Ryan Tannehill didn’t play his best game, but came through in the end. The Texas A&M product should have a better game this Sunday. Expect Miami’s D to come up big, but Flacco will prove to be too much for the Dolphins to handle.

Indianapolis @ Cleveland: Indianapolis is coming off a dominating win against Washington. Andrew Luck made a career high five touchdown passes and set a franchise record ten 300 yard games this season. He also joined Peyton Manning and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to top 4,000 yards in two of his first three seasons. Needless to say the Colts have a tremendous passing attack (first in the league) with an average run game (15th). Trent Richardson still can’t secure the starting job, producing just 12 yards on eight carries versus the Redskins. Dan Herron (eight carries, 88 yards) will be the benefactor of Cleveland’s horrid run defense. Additionally, Cleveland just allowed former Brown, MarQueis Gray to rack up 71 yards on two catches. If the Browns can’t stop the tight end, they are in trouble. Andrew Luck checks down to his tight ends all the time. It doesn’t matter whether Coby Fleener or Dwayne Allen is the target, combined they have posted 61 receptions, 968 yards, and 13 touchdowns. T.Y. Hilton is Luck’s deep threat, but expect Joe Haden to limit his action. Indianapolis may have the number one total offense, but their defense is ranked 23rd. They are susceptible to the pass so Josh Gordon should have a big game and finally reach the end zone. Isaiah Crowell and Terrence West may have struggled against Buffalo, but I expect them to bounce back against a Colts defense that got gashed by Jonas Gray for 200 yards and four scores. If the Cleveland Browns can mimic that success, it will not matter who the quarterback is. Cleveland must score points, preferably touchdowns, in order to keep up with the Colts and stand a chance to win. One thing Cleveland has going for them, Andrew Luck has yet to face a top ten pass defense since week one at Denver. The Browns are currently ranked eighth against the pass, hoping to lock down Luck, and produce a win.

Anticipate every Cleveland player to give it 100% coming off a devastating loss to Buffalo. The Browns playoff chances took a hit, but the Chiefs, Steelers, and Ravens all lost, too. Six teams own 7-5 records, making this race a thriller. Come Sunday, the playoff picture will change once again.

-Max Gold

Image Credited to: www.theguardian.com

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