Top 10 storylines for NFL Week 16

Ezekiel Elliott Dak Prescott

Week 16 of the NFL season offers several teams playoff-clinching scenarios. Other squads are teetering on the brink of irrevlance as the season draws to a conclusion.

Will the defending champion Denver Broncos miss out on the playoffs after finding themselves in an unattainable situation following a recent stretch of bad performances? They’ll need to beat Kansas City and get some help in order to avoid this unfortunate reality.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys are looking to clinch the NFC East and the No. 1 seed in the conference. A win over the Detroit Lions or a Giants loss to Philadelphia would accomplish this feat. It’s an amazing realization to come to after Dallas finished last season with four wins.

These are among the top-1o storylines for NFL Week 16.

1. The defending champs last stand 

NFL Week 15, Trevor Siemian

Super Bowl champions might not find a way to repeat in the NFL, but they usually tend to make the playoffs the next season. This might not be the case for a Denver Broncos squad that’s one game out of the final postseason spot after losing three of their past four games.

In fact, there’s a scenario in play here that could eliminate Denver from playoff contention altogether in Week 16. Should the Broncos watch the Miami Dolphins beat Buffalo on Saturday and then fall to the division-rival Chiefs on Christmas night, they will not earn a trip to the second season.

More than anything else, the biggest key here has to be on offense. Simply put, Denver has sputtered in this aspect of the game all season. Though, it’s become more prevalent recently. The team is averaging 6.5 points and just over 325 yards of offense during its two-game losing streak. In fact, Denver has compiled 76 rushing yards on 26 attempts during this span.

Trevor Siemian may be playing bad football, but he’s surely going to need some help from the rushing attack in order for his team to compete against Kansas City. Should that not happen, a season that started 4-0 will end with a whimper.

2. Huge game with playoff implications in Oakland

The math is rather simple here. Should the Indianapolis Colts fall to the first-place Raiders in Oakland on Saturday, Andrew Luck and Co. will be eliminated from playoff contention. A win here, and the team will fight to live another day (barring a wonky set of scenarios).

As it is, we’re pretty much at the point where the Colts need to win and get some help from their AFC foes in order to even be mentioned as a playoff contender heading into Week 17.

The Raiders are a completely different story. They can clinch the AFC West and a first-round playoff bye with a win over Indianapolis and a Chiefs loss to Denver. Yes, Raiders fans will be rooting for the hated Broncos. Taking it one step further, a Raiders win coupled with New England falling to the New York Jets would give Jack Del Rio’s squad the advantage in the  battle for the No. 1 seed.

The matchup itself is interesting that it pits a Colts passing attack that dominated Minnesota last week against an Oakland defense that ranks in the bottom eight of the NFL against the pass. This should at least give Indy a fighting chance on Christmas Eve.

3. Eagles look to play spoiler

Carson Wentz

Losers of nine out of 11, the Philadelphia Eagles are simply playing out the stretch. The only real drama here is whether Carson Wentz shows anything of substance in the final two games and just how much of an impact Philly has on the NFC Playoff race. Outside of that, there’s really nothing to look at here.

Though, Thursday’s home game against the New York Giants should give Doug Pederson’s team reason enough to put up a good performance. If Philadelphia were to pull off a win here, it would hand the Dallas Cowboys the NFC East title and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Philadelphia put up a good fight against these Giants back in Week 6, losing by the score of 28-23 after finding itself down 21-10 at the half. Also important to note, four of the Eagles’ five wins have come at home this season. In those five games, Wentz is completing 66 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and four interceptions.

On the other hand, the Giants — winners of eight of their past nine games — boast an even 3-3 record on the road. This should give Eagles and Cowboys fans some hope that Eli Manning and Co. will be thrown off their pedestal to start the NFL’s Week 16 slate.

4. Deciding the AFC North

Unlike a lot of playoff scenarios during NFL Week 16, this one is rather clear-cut. The Pittsburgh Steelers can clinch the AFC North title with a win over the division-rival Baltimore Ravens on Christmas. If Baltimore were to come out on top here, it would then control its own destiny. Talk about having a lot on the line at Heinz Field in what has been a tremendous rivalry in the past.

Unlike previous seasons, it’s unlikely the AFC North will find a way to squeeze two teams into the playoffs. Baltimore currently finds itself one game behind Miami for the final wild card spot in the AFC. Should the Ravens lose and the Dolphins win, John Harbaugh’s squad would be eliminated from playoff contention. Having already lost to Miami this season, Pittsburgh would also fall back in the wild card race with a loss and a Dolphins win.

The backstory here is what promises to be a tremendous on-field matchup. Under-the-radar MVP candidate Le’Veon Bell will be in for his stiffest test of the season, going up against a No.2-ranked Ravens run defense. Meanwhile, Antonio Brown has a tremendous matchup against a corner in Jimmy Smith who has held him in check recently.

So after we all partake in our gift exchanges and prepare for Christmas dinner, we’ll have an opportunity to watch these two bitter division rivals go up against one another with a lot more than holiday bragging rights on the line. It should be a blast.

5. Bills look to rain on Dolphins’ parade. 

Rex Ryan, Rob Ryan

It seems to be pretty obvious that the Buffalo Bills will fire Rex Ryan at the end of the season. The writing has been on the wall for some time here. And short of the team somehow inching into the playoffs, the Monday after Buffalo’s final regular season game will likely be when Ryan gets his walking papers.

The interesting dynamic here is that Buffalo is still thinking playoffs for the first time since 1999. Though, that would require a set of scenarios less likely than yours truly bunking up with Carrie Underwood. Even then, there’s definitely going to be some added incentive here. Currently with the longest playoff drought in the NFL, Buffalo surely doesn’t want to help the division-rival Dolphins clinch a playoff spot.

For Miami, it really has been a long time coming. Here’s a team that’s failed to finish over .500 since last making the playoffs back in 2008. And after a 1-4 start to the season, most figured Adam Gase’s first season as its head coach would be no different. Now, with wins in nine of their past 11 games, the Dolphins and backup quarterback Matt Moore can see the finish line.

The scenario seems to be rather simple. If Miami wins out, it is in the playoffs. A win Sunday coupled with a Broncos loss to Kansas City would also do the trick. Should that happen, there will definitely be some holiday partying on the streets of South Beach.

6. Questions aplenty as 49ers-Rams renew rivalry in Los Angeles

This is one of those games most NFL fans are not going to be paying attention to. Christmas Eve. Two bottom-feeding teams playing against one another with almost nothing on the line. Those who find themselves at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum are truly diehards. There’s no other way to go about it.

Though, it must be noted that this is a renewal of one of the greatest rivalries in west coast football history. For a large portion of the 1980s, it was the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams doing battle in the old NFC West division. And while San Francisco came out on top more times than not, it was always a fun rivalry to watch.

Tempers flared. The fan bases hated one another. The passion was obvious on the field. This all took a hit when the Rams moved to St. Louis some 20 years ago. Now, in the first game back in Southern California between these two teams, look for a renewed energy here.

The backdrop of this game has to be just how uncertain the futures are for these two teams. Los Angeles just recently fired head coach Jeff Fisher. And in the midst of a 13-game losing streak, there’s no telling whether first-year 49ers head coach Chip Kelly will be back. At the very least, there’s going to be a front office shake up in San Francisco.

None of this will be decided Saturday in Los Angeles. After all, these are two miserable teams simply playing out the string. But it most definitely is a noteworthy story in an otherwise meaningless football game.

7.  The danger of Aaron Rodgers’ Packers

When Rodgers is playing at the top of his game, there’s not a quarterback in this league that’s better. This includes Tom Brady. It also makes the Green Bay Packers extremely dangerous when he’s playing at this level. That’s the issue the rest of the NFC field might have to grapple with should Green Bay earn a trip to the postseason.

If the Packers were to win out, this will become a reality. They’ll then be the NFC North champions and host a home playoff game. That’s a nightmare scenario for the rest of the NFC. And it starts this upcoming week against a desperate Minnesota Vikings squad.

The dangerous dynamic here isn’t just Rodgers. Sure he’s been absolutely stellar recently, tossing 22 touchdowns and just three picks over the past nine games.

But it’s important to note that Rodgers himself put up 12 scores and three interceptions in the team’s four-game losing streak earlier this season. Instead, it’s all about a renewed run game on offense and an improved performance on defense.

Seeing his first full-time action as a running back in the NFL, Ty Montgomery recorded an absurd 162 yards and two touchdowns in 16 attempts last week. How important was this performance, exactly? Green Bay had failed to put up that many rushing yards in a single game dating all the way back to Week 14 of the 2015 season. Give Rodgers balance on offense, and he’ll absolutely destroy opposing defenses.

Speaking of defenses, the Packers were absolutely atrocious on this side of the ball during their lengthy losing streak. In fact, it gave up over 38 points per outing in that four-game stretch. Now, in the midst of a four-game winning streak, the Packers have yielded just over 15 points per game.

It will definitely be interesting to see if the Packers somehow find a way to win the next two games and earn a playoff spot. Though, it won’t be easy sledding against a Vikings squad that’s also in a must-win situation. That’s what makes late-season inter-division games so awesome.

8. Can the Browns win a stinking game?

We’re a little over a week away from this question being answered in full. It’s sure to be haunting the Browns’ organization. And in reality, it’s the only real drama left in the team’s season. Of course, that’s unless you still care about the job status of Robert Griffin III under center. Apparently, Hue Jackson will have a quick hook with RGIII. What the reasoning is there, we’re not too sure.

As it is, Cleveland has now lost six consecutive games by double digits after a narrow 31-28 defeat at the hands of the New York Jets back in Week 8. That very same span has seen this downtrodden franchise lose by an average of 18 points per outing.

It seems Saturday’s game against the San Diego Chargers might be Cleveland’s only real opportunity to avoid joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only 0-16 teams in league history. After all, it closes out the season against the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in Week 17.

9. Tight playoff race forming in the AFC

NFL Playoff, Derek Carr

There’s very little settled in the AFC heading into Week 16. Only Oakland and New England have clinched playoff spots.

Though, Pittsburgh, Houston, Miami and Kansas City can all clinch this week. Of that group, only Pittsburgh can clinch a postseason berth outright with a win.

This is interesting to consider, primarily due to the fact that the Chiefs were one late Titans field goal away from clinching last week.

Speaking of the Titans, a win on Christmas Eve against the Jacksonville Jaguars would guarantee that their Week 17 matchup with the Houston Texans will be for the AFC South title. That same scenario would round into form should both Houston and Jacksonville lose this weekend.

On the outside looking in, Indianapolis will be completely eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Oakland. Denver, Baltimore and Tennessee wouldn’t necessarily be eliminated with losses, but they’d find themselves on the verge of irrelevance heading into Week 17.

As it relates to seeding, the top-two seeds and a first-round playoff bye is between three teams (New England , Oakland and Kansas City). Tom Brady and the Patriots already has a first-round bye and can clinch the No. 1 seed with a win over the Jets and a Raiders loss to Indianapolis. On the other hand, Oakland can clinch the AFC West with a win over the Colts and a Chiefs loss to Denver.

If that weren’t enough, the Raiders could find themselves in position to grab the No. 1 seed should they win and both the Patriots and Chiefs lose. Yeah, this is definitely a fun time of the year for those hooked on playoff scenarios.

10. Dallas looks to capture NFC’s No. 1 seed

One season after finishing with a 4-12 record, the Cowboys can clinch the No. 1 overall seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs in Week 16. It could come in the form of either a Giants loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night or a Cowboys win over Detroit on Monday night. In fact, any combination of one New York loss or Cowboys win would clinch the top spot for Jerry Jones and Co.

It really is astonishing to look at how far the Cowboys have come. It was just a few short months ago that this team looked to be dead in the water. Tony Romo suffered a serious back injury. Ezekiel Elliott was facing off-field questions. Myriad of defenders were facing long suspensions. In reality, the Cowboys looked to be a last-place team.

Now, months later, they are the odds-on-favorites to come out of the NFC and play in Super Bowl 51 in February. This has been in no small part due to the performances of rookie Pro Bowlers Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in the offensive backfield.

Prescott heads into Week 16’s tilt with Detroit having accounted for 26 touchdowns and just for interceptions. Meanwhile, Elliott could be on the verge of breaking both the NFL rookie rushing record and the Cowboys single-season rushing record. The MVP candidate has gained over 1,900 total yards in 14 games this season.

It won’t be an easy task against a Lions squad that remains in the playoff hunt. But the Cowboys have expectations here. And those expectations don’t include throwing away the NFC East as well as the top seed in the conference.