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Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Three Best Must See NFL Matchups In Week 17

Matchup No. 3 - Carolina Panthers Cam Newton vs. the Atlanta Falcons’ defense.

It’s amazing what a difference a few weeks can make in the NFL. Three weeks ago the Philadelphia Eagles were 9-3 and the NFC East division leaders. Currently the Eagles are eliminated from playoff contention. Just three weeks ago the Panthers were 3-8-1 and contention for a top NFL draft pick. Now the Panthers at 6-8-1 can clinch not only a playoff spot but clinch the division and host a playoff game!  The only thing standing in the Panthers way is the Atlanta Falcons. These division rivals face off in a winner take all battle. The Falcons have dominated their division matchups this season. The Falcons are 5-0 in the division and the Panthers are 3-2.  The Falcons have a dynamic offense with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones but this team can only go as far as the defense takes them.

This week Cam Newton gets to return to his birthplace Atlanta, Georgia for this key NFC matchup. In Cam’s rookie year in 2011 he struggled against Atlanta as the Panthers got swept by the Falcons. Since 2012 Newton has played his best football against the Falcons. In every major category including passing attempts, completions, interceptions, passing attempt, passing touchdowns, passing yards, rushing yards, rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns he has increased his production against the Falcons. Since 2012 Newton is 3-2 vs. the Falcons. Newton at 6’ 5” and 245 lbs. has prototypical size for a quarterback. In fact if you could go into a lab and create a physical specimen to play quarterback he would look a lot like Newton. He has tremendous size and strength, elusive, fast, along with excellent arm strength. There is no questioning his athletic ability. Newton must improve in a few areas to elevate himself as a premier quarterback, improved accuracy and improved attitude. His accuracy has regressed from last season’s breakout year. He will need to complete a much higher % to lead his team to victory this week. Newton in the past has often been seen on sidelines with a towel over his head. He also has come across whinny during certain press conferences. Critics will point out he isn’t a leader maybe they were right, but Newton has time to prove the critics wrong. Newton has vowed to be a better man after recovering from his recent car accident. He says he won’t take life and football for granted anymore. This could be a great opportunity, snapshot on Newton’s ability to take his game to the next level.

The Atlanta Falcons defense leaves much to be desired. They rank 18th in rushing yards and dead last in passing yards allowed. The Falcons have only won one game this season when they scored fewer than 27 points. The Falcons defense is 32nd in total yards allowed, and allowing over 25 points a game on defense. The Falcons also have the worst 3rd down conversion % allowed on defense. Atlanta has forced a meager 25 sacks. Atlanta is actually very good at forcing turnovers. They rank 4th overall and have forced 28 turnovers. With that being said I have a hard time believing the Falcons can shut down Newton this week. The x factor for this matchup will be the turnover margin. The Falcons must win the turnover battle. If the Falcons can force several turnovers the Falcons will win. If not I predict the Panthers will advance to the playoffs. Falcons’ safety Kemal Ishmael is the player to watch on defense. He is 2nd on the team in tackles, 1st in interceptions, forced the team’s only defense touchdown, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble. Ishmael must be a major playmaker for the Falcons in this matchup. 

Matchup No. 2 - Detroit Lions Matthew Stafford vs. the Green Bay Packers defense.

Matthew Stafford was drafted 1st overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2009 draft. The previous year the Lions went an unthinkable 0-16. Stafford has brought the team to the playoffs and brought the city a lot of hope and excitement. Even with his accomplishments Stafford has his own dubious record. He is 0-16 in road games when he faces a team that finishes the season with a winning record. This week the Lions travel to Green Bay with the division title on the line. If the Lions lose they will likely play road games through the remainder of their playoff run. If Stafford can break the streak they have an opportunity for a 1st round bye and at least one round at home. The Green Bay Packers are undefeated at home this season. Rodgers is dominating in the friendly confines of Lambeau field. Rodgers has 23 passing touchdowns and 0 interceptions in the Packers seven home contests. It will take a near perfect performance for Stafford and Lions to defeat the Packers.

First of all there is a lot to like about Stafford. He has got a powerful arm and has the ability to make difficult throws in tight windows. When Stafford is on top of his game there are few quarterbacks better. In years past Stafford ability to perform was directly correlated with the protection he received. After watching many Lions games on NFL Game Rewind his improvisational ability has improved. Stafford is more effective eluding the pass rush and still finding receivers down the field. In the NFL every player is talented but what separates the good from the great is their ability to overcome adversity and perform with the game on the line. Stafford is underrated at leading his team back from deficits. Stafford in his 6th season already has fifteen 4th quarter comebacks. This season he already has five 4th quarter comebacks. In back to back weeks, the Lions have overcome 4th quarter deficits against division rivals the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears. How impressive would it be, if he could, have three consecutive 4th comebacks against division rivals? I imagine that would put him in select company.

Stafford is not without his faults, his mechanics and accuracy comes and it goes. For a starting quarterback his interceptions and fumbles are typically among the highest. This season his interceptions have dropped from 19 to 12. He has fumbled 7 times but fortunately only lost 2 fumbles. Right now the Lions playmakers are the deepest they have been in Stafford’s career. Calvin Johnson is the headliner, he is on pace to be the best receiver of his era. His size, speed, hands and leaping ability allows his to dominate the opposition. Golden Tate is a reliable receiver who can make plays down the field and move the chains when needed. He rarely drops passes and breaks a surprising amount of tackles. The Lions backs are a three header monster who all excel as a receiver. Joique Bell, Reggie Bush and Theo Riddick they are playmakers as receivers.

The Packers had a four game stretch of dominance at home in October and November. The average margin of victory was over 31 points per game. In the Packers last two home victories the margin of victory was only by five and six points. Overall the Packers defense is 10th best against the pass and 12th in points allowed. This season the Packers defense has allowed the most 4th down attempts and conversions. Surprisingly, they have allowed a much higher 4th down conversion % than 3rd down conversion %. The defense is at its best when playing with a lead, their pass rush and ability for force turnovers can overwhelm opponents. The Packers rank inside the top ten in sacks and turnovers forced. Clay Matthews has been dominating since he moved to an inside linebacker. Matthews’s ten sacks lead the team. 7.5 of the sacks Matthews has forced has been since he switched to inside linebacker in Week 10. He is also coming off back to back games with at least two sacks. His ability to bring pressure and sack Stafford will be much needed against the Lions. Matthews is questionable with a bicep injury, I believe given the importance he will play and play well. Packers’ Linebacker Julius Pepper is another candidate to force sacks, fumbles and potentially interceptions. It will be great theatre to see if Stafford can knock off the Packers in Lambeau Field with the division crown on the line.

Matchup No. 1 – Cincinnati Bengals vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

Speaking of division crowns what about the AFC North? The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers face off in another winner take all divisional battle. The Steelers team is peaking at the right time. They are winners of three straight and just defeated the Bengals three weeks ago. The Steelers have the AFC leader in passing, rushing and receiving yards. What’s the best way to stop an explosive offense, keep them on the sidelines! The Bengals have an opportunity to do to that with the emergence of Jeremy Hill and the talented Giovani Bernard. Hill provides a big power back while Bernard gives speed and quickness and is a dynamic open field player.

Last week I introduced Jeremy Hill to my weekly article. After last Monday Night, Hill wanted to reintroduce himself. The Bengals scored 37 points in their victory over the Denver Broncos. Yes, the Bengals defense forced four interceptions and had a pick six. Let’s look at the Bengals offense against the Broncos. Amazingly, Hill had more rushing yards than Andy Dalton had passing yards. Dalton started off with an early pick six that put the Bengals in a 7-0 hole. Hill’s 85 yard touchdown run, tied the score and most importantly gave the team the confidence and momentum to defeat the Broncos. Hill’s performance when he has been the featured back is among the league best. This season Hill has had six games with at least 15 total carries. In those games he has 131 carries, 762 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns. Those numbers over a sixteen game season would equal, 349 carries, 2032 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. These numbers would rank him 2nd in carries and 1st in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. If Hill can have another encore performance then the Bengals will roll into Pittsburgh with the victory. If the Steelers contain Hill they will overwhelm the Bengals.

The 2014 Steelers are not to be confused with Steel Curtain defense of the 1970’s. The Pittsburgh Steelers “Steel Curtain” defense of 1970’s was a dominating unit with four Hall of Famers defenders including Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Joe Greene and Jack Lambert. In the 1976 season they allowed only 9.8 points per game! For comparison sake the Seahawks are the #1 scoring defense and they are still allowing 16.5 points per game. The 2014 Steelers run defense is playing very well. They allow fewer than 100 rushing yards on average and are 6th best in run defense. The strength of the Steelers defense is their linebackers. Lawrence Timmons, and Jason Worilds are consistent producers for the Steelers. Timmons leads the team in tackles where Worilds is tied for team lead in sacks. Defensive end Cameron Heyward is a distributive force he has the ability to blow up running plays. In this matchup I predict the Steelers will continue their winning ways for the 24-20 victory.


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