As the NFL season draws to a close and the league embarks on a holiday weekend of action, there are so many tremendous matchups to preview.
With his Pittsburgh Steelers a win away from clinching the AFC North, Le’Veon Bell takes his ridiculous talents and puts them to the test against the Baltimore Ravens and the league’s second-best run defense. That very same game will see Antonio Brown go up against long-time nemesis Jimmy Smith.
Over in the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings’ playoff hopes are hanging on by a thread. Can Mike Zimmer and Co. somehow find a way to overcome last week’s horrendous defensive performance against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers?
A lot of that will depend on Everson Griffen taking on underrated right tackle David Bakhtiari and Jordy Nelson looking to beat talented corner Xavier Rhodes on the outside.
These are among the top-10 matchups for NFL Week 16.
1. Le’Veon Bell vs Ravens run defense
With the AFC North on the line Christmas evening, this one matchup will play a huge role in who comes out on top. A Pittsburgh Steelers win would clinch them the division. Meanwhile, if Baltimore were able to come out on top, it would control its own destiny.
We couldn’t ask for much more in a holiday rivalry game. Bell heads into Week 16 as an under-the-radar candidate for the NFL MVP award. What he’s done has been nothing short of amazing. After missing the first three games to suspension, Bell has put up 1,747 total yards and seven touchdowns in just 11 games. Yes folks, that’s an average of 158.8 total yards per game.
What makes Bell’s performance so astonishing is that it’s coming under the guise of the Steelers relying on him at an absurd clip. He’s touched the ball over 42 percent of the time the team’s run a play since returning from suspension. All said, Bell is averaging 28.5 touches per game.
The fact that all this has come with Pittsburgh currently in the midst of a five-game winning streak tells us just how valuable Bell has been for Mike Tomlin’s squad.
It most definitely won’t be easy sledding Sunday night against the Ravens at Heinz Field. Baltimore heads into Week 16 with the second-best rush defense in the NFL, yielding an average of 82.1 yards per game. It’s also tops in the NFL in yards per carry allowed at 3.5.
With all that said, Baltimore did give up a season-high 169 rushing yards to the Philadelphia Eagles this past week. Should Bell be able to take advantage of that, the Steelers will more than likely give themselves a Christmas present in the form of a division title.
2. David Bakhtiari vs Everson Griffen
In order for the Minnesota Vikings to have any real chance of stopping a red-hot Aaron Rodgers, they must put some sort of a consistent pass rush on the two-time MVP.
This didn’t happen at all in last week’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts, which enabled Andrew Luck to pick apart an otherwise solid Vikings secondary. All said, Luck was not sacked a single time in the Colts’ blowout 34-6 win.
Given a lifeline due to the Redskins’ loss to Carolina on Monday night, the Vikings now have an opportunity to squeak into the playoffs, but the onus here has to be on the team’s pass rush.
That’s where Griffen and his eight sacks comes into play. The underrated defensive end has recorded 30.5 sacks since the start of the 2014 campaign and ranks among the top-five players at his position in quarterback hurries this season. Back in Minnesota’s Week 2 win over Green Bay, Griffen sacked Rodgers once and put pressure on him three other times.
Though, it must be noted that Bakhtiari is now playing at an elite level as Rodgers’ blindside protector. In fact, Pro Football Focus just recently graded him out as the third-best left tackle in the NFL.
If he’s able to dominate Griffen in the manner we’ve seen the tackle outperform other EDGE rushers in the past, Minnesota’s hopes of remaining in playoff contention will be all but dead. Meanwhile, the Packers’ division-championship aspirations will be alive and well.
3. Dez Bryant vs Darius Slay/Lions secondary
We’re not too sure whether Slay will play Monday night after re-injuring his hamstring early in the Lions’ Week 15 loss to the New York Giants. What we do know is that he’ll do everything possible to get back on the field. Slay has yielded less than 80 combined receiving yards in the past five games. This has him among the most-prolific cover corners in the NFL.
Should he be forced out of action here, the Lions themselves will be placed behind the proverbial eight-ball.
After struggling to the tune of one catch for 10 yards on nine targets against Janoris Jenkins in Week 14, Bryant bounced back big time in last Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He recorded eight catches for 82 yards on 10 targets, converting three third-down plays in the process.
The issue here for Bryant is that he’s struggled against some of the top corner he’s gone up against this season.
Since returning from injury, he’s put up a combined 16 catches in four games against the likes of Jimmy Smith, Josh Norman, Xavier Rhodes and the aforementioned Janoris Jenkins.
Should Bryant have to go up against Slay, it will definitely be tough sledding here. On the other hand, a matchup against Nevin Lawson would surely be favorable to Dallas in its attempt to clinch the NFC East and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
4. Jordy Nelson vs Xavier Rhodes
We focused on the Vikings’ pass rush before. Even with cornerbacks getting a ton of play in today’s NFL, it really does start upfront. That’s only magnified in Minnesota, where Rhodes proved himself to be among the best cover guys in the NFL earlier in the season. But once that pass rush became non-existent against Indianapolis, Minnesota’s secondary as a whole looked ineffective.
That said, Rhodes himself didn’t play a large role in the mishaps in the team’s secondary. Hilton caught three passes for 45 yards in the game. His big gainer, a 31-yard catch on third down, came with Hilton himself lined up away from Rhodes. That’s key in determining just how effective Rhodes has been on a consistent basis this season.
For his part, Nelson continues to display the game-breaking ability that made him a Pro Bowl performer prior to last year’s unfortunate ACL injury. He was held somewhat in check last week before setting up the game-winning field goal with a 60-yard catch against Chicago. All said, Nelson ended the day tallying seven receptions for 124 yards on 10 targets.
Fully recovered from the ACL tear, Nelson himself has been on a tear as of late. He’s caught 29-of-39 targets for 374 yards and three touchdowns during the Packers’ three-game winning streak. During this span, Rodgers boasts a 130.2 rating when targeting his favorite receiver.
While Minnesota’s pass rush will play a large role in what happens here, Rhodes himself needs to be on top of his game against Nelson. Equally as important, ageless wonder Terence Newman and Trae Waynes both must step up when Nelson and Rhodes are not lined up opposite one another.
5. Travis Kelce vs T.J. Ward
Kelce has been a man possessed over the past five games, catching 31 passes for 491 yards. Though, Alex Smith’s favorite target was held to just three receptions on five targets against a surprisingly good Titans defense this past week. That must change in order for the Chiefs to rebound from just their second loss since early October.
Really, the biggest key here for Kansas City will be making sure Smith doesn’t force it to the receivers on the outside. That has spelled doom for many a quarterback against the Denver Broncos over the past two seasons. In fact, Denver has yielded a 61.9 rating to quarterbacks when they target receivers this season.
The interestingly dynamic is that the middle of the Broncos’ defense has been somewhat vulnerable against the pass. It seems shocking, but tight ends have caught 63 percent of the passes thrown in their direction against Denver on the year.
This is going to be the biggest key in a game both these division rivals need. Kansas City can clinch a playoff spot and remain in the AFC West race with a win. Meanwhile, Denver now finds itself one game back of the final wild card spot. Needless to say, Gary Kubiak’s squad must win out here.
6. Joe Haeg vs Khalil Mack
For the first time in nine games, Mack failed to record a sack for his Oakland Raiders last week. He was still able to pressure Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers multiple times throughout the game.
And in reality, the pressure Oakland has seen from its front seven has played a major role in the team’s resurgence on the defensive side of the ball. After all, the Raiders have given up 21 points or less in five of their past eight games. With the league’s third-best scoring offense, that’s more than enough for the team to remain in Super Bowl contention.
Normally, we’d indicate that this Raiders pass rush would have a field day against an Indianapolis Colts offensive line that has in the past been disastrous protecting Andrew Luck.
Funny enough, that might not be the case here. Luck was sacked a grand total of zero times in last week’s blowout win against an elite-level Vikings defensive front. All said, the battered quarterback has seen himself sacked just twice in the past three games after going down a whopping 35 times in his first 10 starts.
Some of this has to do with a schematic change that has allowed him to get rid of the ball quicker. Though, the performance of Haeg cannot be ignored. He absolutely dominated the likes of Anthony Barr and Brian Robison, two darn good players, last week.
If Luck is able to find the time in the pocket, he’ll have an opportunity to destroy a lackluster Raiders secondary by tossing the rock to the likes of Phillip Dorsett and T.Y. Hilton. That could be the difference between Indianapolis remaining in the playoff race and the Raiders inching closer to a first-round bye in the playoffs.
7. Demaryius Thomas vs Marcus Peters
Despite the Broncos’ struggles of late, Thomas has been the one consistent in an otherwise horrendous passing attack. He’s coming off a seven-catch performance against Malcolm Butler and the New England Patriots last week.
Thus far this season, Thomas boasts a 64 percent catch rate and has tallied 1,000-plus yards for the for the fifth consecutive year. Any thought of him being nothing more than a product of Peyton Manning can definitely be thrown out the window, especially considering the lackluster performance we’ve seen from Trevor Siemian under center.
In order for the Broncos to remain alive in the AFC Playoff race and crush Kansas City’s division-title hopes, Thomas needs to come up big here.
Unfortunately, Thomas is now tasked with going up against a corner in Marcus Peters who is in the midst of a second consecutive Pro Bowl campaign to start his career. Sure Peters has allowed some big plays this season, but quarterbacks still boast a sub 70 rating when targeting him.
Look for Kansas City to go all out to stop a weak Broncos rushing attack. That’s magnified by the Chiefs’ No. 28 ranking against the run. They’re not going to respect Siemian and the passing game. It’s now up to Thomas to make Denver’s division rivals pay for that.
8. Antonio Brown vs Jimmy Smith
Smith did a bang-up job containing Brown in their first meeting. The Baltimore Ravens’ top corner held his counterpart to 85 receiving yards and a score on 11 targets. Not tremendous, but definitely something Baltimore can work with against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Though, when looking at the broader picture here, it’s obvious Smith and the Ravens have performed better against Brown than pretty much every other team.
Antonio Brown averages past two seasons.
Vs Ravens: 61% catch, 62.7 yards, 0.3 TD
Rest of NFL: 70 % catch, 104.9 yards, 0.76 TD pic.twitter.com/VqtuKAac3y
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 21, 2016
If Baltimore can shut down Le’Veon Bell on the ground, that would force Ben Roethlisberger to look in the direction of a matchup that hasn’t exactly been Steeler-friendly over the past season-plus. On the other hand, success from Bell on the ground could lead to more one-on-one matchups with Brown going up against Smith. And no matter how well Smith has performed against his rival in the past, that’s not a recipe for continued success.
This is one of the most-underrated matchups in a game that boasts wide-ranging playoff ramifications. And with two top-end players going at it, who could ask for more?
9. Larry Fitzgerald vs Richard Sherman
One player on the back end of his career. The other in the midst of his prime. The backdrop here potentially being one final matchup between the two future Hall of Famers.
Fitzgerald, a lifer with the Arizona Cardinals, just recently left open the possibility that he might depart the desert following this season. While seeing Fitz suit up for another team would be ugly, having him retire would be even more disheartening to NFL fans.
Even as a 33-year-old veteran hitting the twilight of his career, Fitzgerald continues to prove himself to be a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL. He heads into Week 16 leading the league with 98 receptions, the one lone bright spot for an otherwise disappointing Cardinals team.
On the other hand, Sherman and his Seattle Seahawks have wrapped up the NFC West title and are looking to clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs. That’s what is at stake here, but watching these two all-time great potentially go at it for one final time is the biggest key to a matchup that’s been among the NFL’s best for the better part of the past five-plus years.
10. Mitchell Schwartz vs Von Miller
We focused on this specific matchup in the lead up to the Kansas City Chiefs’ eventual win over the Denver Broncos prior to Week 12. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t just Miller’s pass-rushing prowess that was covered. Instead, Schwartz, in his first season with the Chiefs, had been playing at an elite level at right tackle.
Despite Kansas City’s overtime win, Miller proved that he was simply too much for Schwartz to handle. The reigning Super Bowl MVP recorded three sacks and a total of seven quarterback hurries in the game. It was yet another dominating performance from one of the best defensive players in the game.
With Denver now in need of a win in order to remain relevant in the AFC Playoff picture, it’s going to be key for Miller to repeat said performance. That’s magnified by the performances we’ve seen from both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce on offense in recent weeks. Should Alex Smith be given more time than we saw back in Week 12, he should be able to break through against an elite Denver defense, sending the Broncos to the brink of irrelevance.