The playoff race is heating up and a few divisions may come down to the last game of the year to crown a champion.
The Green Bay Packers climbed their way back into the Al Dente Dozen after winning four games in a row. They face the Detroit Lions in Week 17 in what could decide the division.
The defending Super Bowl champion Broncos plummeted out of the dozen, consequently from a 3-point offensive letdown against the Patriots. They play the Chiefs in KC and the Raiders in Denver in must-win scenarios that will also require some help from around the league to get them back into the playoffs.
The Dolphins currently own the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC but find themselves outside the top 12. Can Matt Moore really get Miami into the playoffs? It will certainly help if the Patriots are resting starters in the Week 17 matchup.
Tennessee is playing great football and could crack the list next week with a fourth straight victory.
Without further ado: The Week 16 Al Dente Dozen
1. New England Patriots (12-2) ⇔
In many ways, the Denver Broncos have been the arch nemesis of Belichick, Brady, and Co. Well the Pats righted that ship on Sunday and did so by proving that they can win in a number of different ways. In a game where Brady struggled (16-32 for 188 yards) the running game stepped up gaining 136 yards on the ground. The defense was the real MVP of the game holding the Denver offense to only 3 points. Come playoffs it is extremely important to be able to win in numerous forms. The Patriots are the one team in the NFL that can do that. The victory gave the Pats its eighth consecutive division title, which has pretty much become a mere formality in the AFC East.
2. Dallas Cowboys (12-2) ⇔
After a dud of a game against the New York Giants and a lot of criticism, the Cowboys bounced back against a trending Buccaneers team. Prescott was unbelievably efficient throwing 32-36. That’s right, he only threw four incompletions! Zeke averaged 6.9 yards per carry as he scampered for 159 yards and a touchdown. On paper, this is an offensive formula good enough to compete for a Super Bowl. One more victory and the ‘Boys clinch the NFC East and home-field throughout the playoffs.
3. Oakland Raiders (11-3) ⇔
In 8 of Oakland’s 11 wins, they have won by a margin of seven points or less. Many of those games could have swung differently but the point is that the Raiders know how to close out games and make plays when they need them. Derek Carr’s gaudy numbers have been subdued a bit in recent weeks, but Oakland is getting good production out of the backfield and the defense has gotten better every week. Oakland could match up well against the Patriots if they meet in the playoffs, that is if they can get past Kansas City.
4. Seattle Seahawks (9-4-1) ⇑1
I moved the Seahawks back into the 4 spot because they looked a little more like themselves on Thursday night. Granted the victory was against the Rams, but surprisingly, the Rams have had great success over Pete Carroll and the Seahawks. As the playoffs approach, Seattle will have to get much better in the running game. On 21 carries, Rawls was only able to muster 34 yards, good for 1.6 yards per carry. That is just not gonna cut it against winning teams. Maybe someone should show Richard Sherman that stat-line before he throws a hissy fit on the sidelines again.
5. New York Giants (10-4) ⇑2
The 2016 New York Giants have proven one thing. Money can buy happiness. They spent a ton of money during the offseason to sure up the defense, and they have been rewarded with the play on the field. As far as points per game are concerned the Giants boast the third best defense allowing only 17.9 points per game. They are also the only team that has figured out the Dallas Cowboys as the have handed them each of their only two losses. This team is reminiscent of the ’07 and ’11 teams that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) ⇓2
The Chiefs were once almost unbeatable at Arrowhead Stadium. They now have two home losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans. In the latter loss, KC did not score a point in the second half and relinquished a 17-7 lead. The run game has struggled a bit of late, something they will need to sure up as they head into the home stretch. A home game in the playoffs is important to this team. I don’t love them on the road. The Chiefs welcome a desperate Denver team to Arrowhead on Christmas Day night.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) ⇑2
Pittsburgh is beginning to look like the team I thought they would be entering the season, and for one simple reason: they are finally healthy. Unlike 2015, the Steelers hope to enter the playoffs with their roster fully intact. If Pittsburgh takes care of business on Christmas Day at home against the Ravens they will clinch the AFC North and lock up at least one home game in the playoffs. Le’Veon Bell will have to gain more than the 32 yards he posted the first time these teams met if the Steelers want a Merry Christmas.
8. Atlanta Falcons (9-5) ⇔
Beating the Rams and 49ers in back-to-back weeks isn’t too much to gloat about, but the Falcons did score over 40 points in each of the two contests. Oh, and in both of those games, Julio Jones did not play. Vic Beasley has turned into one of the premier pass rushers as he leads the NFL in sacks with 14.5. I’m keeping them in the 8 spot strictly for the fact that the level of competition was so poor, but this team is playing very good football right now. We will see if the high-powered offense can continue its dominance in Charlotte on Christmas Eve.
9. Detroit Lions (9-5) ⇓3
The red-hot Lions hit a bit of road bump when they traveled to New York to face a very good Giants team. Detroit has been the comeback kings all season but they were unable to do so after going down 7-0 in the 1st quarter. In fact, they were unable to reach the end zone even once. The running game was non-existent and Matt Stafford did not have his best game. The 3-spot slide is mainly due to the fact that the offense has been very inconsistent throughout the year. The race in the NFC North is heating up and the Lions have to travel to Dallas to face the NFC-leading Cowboys on Monday Night.
10. Green Bay Packers (8-6) N/A
After a very poor midseason, the Packers are picking up steam at the perfect time. They have won four in a row and will face a dejected and lackluster Vikings team this Sunday. The running game has become surprisingly efficient with hybrid Ty Montgomery and waiver acquisition Christine Michael in the backfield. It’s another Pro Bowl year for Aaron Rodgers and this team will go as far as he wills them. Week 17 pits the Pack against the Lions, a probable division deciding game.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6) ⇓1
There is no shame in losing a close road game in Dallas to the powerhouse Cowboys, and it almost prevented me from moving the Buccaneers down one spot…almost. Winston is having a stellar second season and has the potential and work ethic to be one of the elite QBs in the game, however, he is still committing costly turnovers at critical moments. Against the Cowboys, Winston threw three interceptions and lost one fumble. The fumble led to a touchdown, one interception led to three points and another ended the game with the ‘Boys in victory formation. With how good the Bucs are playing defense, they just need the offense to hang onto the football.
12. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) ⇔
The big question mark in Baltimore: What Joe Flacco is going to show up on gameday? Some weeks, like against the Dolphins two weeks ago, he looks like a viable MVP candidate. While others, i.e. the last two weeks, he looks like a young quarterback that has happy feet and makes ill-timed decisions. The Ravens squeaked out a win against the Eagles, but they are going to have to play much better if they want to compete next week against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. If not, they will be watching the playoffs from the sofa for the second straight season.