The Pro Football Notebook

December 24, 2010 7:04 AM

The Rush Is On: AFC South, AFC West & NFC West

DwightFreeney.jpgThe division races in the AFC South & West, along with the NFC West, are red-hot setting up six big games on Sunday. Indianapolis, Kansas City along with both St. Louis and Seattle (who play each other next week) control their destiny to win these divisions, but Jacksonville, San Diego and San Francisco are very much alive and need only modest help. Here's a look at what's on tap for Week 16...

Indianapolis-Oakland: Last week the Colts miraculously found a ground game with Donald Brown and a rush defense that stopped Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew. They need to hope that it wasn't a one-time appearance, because Oakland can run the ball with Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, and the presence of McFadden means they can make big plays in the running game. The Raiders can also get after the quarterback, so Peyton Manning needs some help if he's going to lead the way to a must-win on the road. Reggie Wayne will also need to step it up, with Austin Collie out because of a concussion. Oakland matches up with Indy very well and they are playing at home. But like last week, I'm sticking with the formula that Manning and the outstanding Indy defensive ends, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, are veteran warriors and make enough plays to pull out a great game, 27-24.

Washington-Jacksonville: If nothing else, Washington's game rally in Dallas last week showed the Redskins aren't quite ready to call it a season. And Rex Grossman along with the Shanahans have a great deal of pressure on them to show they might the right decision in antagonizing Donovan McNabb. Defensively there are still a lot of problems though, and the Jaguars can run the ball with Maurice Jones-Drew and the Redskin secondary is vulnerable to exploitation. I see a shootout in the making and an upset in the works. Grossman has another good game, Ryan Torain runs the ball and the weakness of the Jacksonville defense finally costs them their season. The 'Skins pull out a 31-28 win.


San Diego-Cincinnati: The only thing that makes this game remotely interesting is the factor of a West Coast team playing in a cold-weather environment. Even the theory of "bad body clock" where a team from the west has to deal with 1 PM EST start won't apply, as this game will kickoff in the 4 PM window. The Chargers pressure the passer too well and Carson Palmer doesn't deal with the blitz well enough to win a shootout. Cincy's only help is to somehow contain Philip Rivers, turn it into a running battle and get something going with Cedric Benson...but even here, the Bengals' run defense is lousy. San Diego coasts home, 34-10.

KC-Tennessee: This is a danger spot for the Chiefs, coming off a big road win in St. Louis. The Titans beat the Texans last week in a battle to see which team had already mailed it in on the season. If nothing else, Tennessee is still coming to play. They can establish the run with Chris Johnson, work Kenny Britt into the offense for some big plays and cause problems defensively with Jason Babin rushing the passer. Veteran quarterback Kerry Collins is still capable of leading a road upset. Of course we put all the accolades on Tennessee, it does well to recall that the Chiefs are the one who have actually made it happen on the football field and with consistency. The problem they can face here is that the Titans are capable of winning a battle fought on KC's terms--with the running game, controlling the clock and grinding the yards out. I smell an upset in this spot, as Tennessee reshapes the AFC West race, 20-17.


Seattle-Tampa Bay: How will the Buccaneers respond to a devastating home loss against Detroit that may prove to cost them a playoff spot? Offensively they match up well with Seattle, as the running game of LeGarrette Blount and the mobility of Josh Freeman can keep the Seahawks' pass rush honest. Defensively, it's not as ideal--the Buc run defense can be had, and Seattle could get something going with Marshawn Lynch. And Tampa's inability to really pressure the pocket prevents them from taking advantage of a big Seattle weakness. Still, the Seahawks are the worst of the playoff contenders left and if Tampa Bay's head is in the right place they'll win this game at home, 21-10.

San Francisco-St. Louis: If San Francisco wins this game and Seattle loses, the NFC West will be a three-way tie of teams at 6-9. But I think the Rams will temporarily spare the division further embarrassment and keep the dream alive of an 8-8 champion. The 49er running game isn't good enough without Frank Gore and Alex Smith is way too unreliable on the road in an environment where Chris Long should be in his face most of the day. The St. Louis running attack with Stephen Jackson is reliable enough to be the difference at home.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball.  and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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