|Chad Pennington and Brett Favre both helped turn around the fortunes of teams that struggled mightily in 2007.|
Ten of the 16 games this weekend have playoff implications. Only one bye is still up for grabs -- Carolina and Atlanta both have a chance to lock up the second seed in the NFC. That's of particular importance, since the bye week has been a bigger advantage over the past 10 seasons in the NFC -- NFC teams with a bye are 16-4 in the divisional round during that stretch; AFC teams with a bye are 13-7.
Here are some key matchups to watch in the final week of the regular season:
Miami QB Chad Pennington vs. N.Y. Jets QB Brett Favre
Last year, these teams combined for five wins and they allowed 792 points. This year, they have already won 19 games and allowed 632 points. Everything is up in the air heading into this game: Either team can win the AFC East or miss the playoffs completely. Miami has a chance, with a victory, to tie the 1999 Colts for the biggest one-year turnaround in NFL history -- winning 10 games more than they did the previous year. This is the 96th game between these teams. In the season opener this year, the Jets won 20-14, thanks to outstanding plays late in the game from rookie cornerback Dwight Lowery and second-year CB Darrelle Revis to save the win. Miami is plus-14 in turnovers. Look for the Dolphins to try some type of gadget play in the second half, specifically when they cross into Jets territory.
Pennington has a career-high 3,453 yards passing this season to go along with 17 TD passes and a 96.4 passer rating. He is a rhythm and timing passer. He lacks arm strength and is not flashy, but he's a very good play-action quarterback and has great accuracy. He is smart, and he very seldom makes bad plays. He plays within himself.
Favre has not played well in the last three weeks and he needs to play a flawless game -- no interceptions -- if the Jets are to win this week. He needs the magic and flare that he has shown so many times in the past. He still has an outstanding arm.
Another matchup to watch in this game: The Jets' top offensive playmaker vs. the Dolphins' top defensive playmaker. Jets RB Leon Washington needs more than three touches on offense, both running and catching the ball. Miami LB Joey Porter needs a big game with sacks and turnovers.
N.Y. Giants RB Derrick Ward vs. Minnesota LB Chad Greenway
The Giants have clinched the top seed in the NFC, while Minnesota needs a win or a loss by the Bears to clinch the NFC North. Winning the division gives Minnesota the third seed and a home game in the first round of the playoffs.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin says his team will play its starters in this game -- with the exception of players who are injured and need rest. That means RB Brandon Jacobs will most likely not play. The Giants love to run -- they are the top-ranked rushing team in the NFL. The Vikings are No. 1 in stopping the run. Last year, the Vikings beat the Giants, 41-17. Neither Jacobs nor Ward played in that game, and Eli Manning threw a career-high four interceptions -- three of which were returned for TDs.
Ward is a matchup headache because of his speed and quickness. He is a very good receiver coming out of the backfield. He has 948 rushing yards (5.7 average) and is tied for third on the team with 39 receptions. If Ward rushes for 52 yards in this game, he and Jacobs will become just the fourth set of teammates in NFL history to each have 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
Greenway -- who had one of the interception scores in last year's game -- has very good speed for his position. He has outstanding ability to key and diagnose plays. He is a very active player, who is very good at covering backs that try to go vertical out of the backfield. He sheds tackles vs. the run, makes plays in space and is having an outstanding year.
Another matchup to watch in this game: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, who leads the NFL in rushing but has had fumbling issues, vs. LB Antonio Pierce and a very good Giants defense that allows just 289 yards per game. Pierce is the leading tackler, a search-and-flow linebacker, who is a very good tackler. Another key player on the Giants' defense is rookie safety Kenny Phillips, who has played very well against the run in the last three weeks.
Dallas LB DeMarcus Ware vs. Philadelphia OT William Thomas
Even though all the NFC East matchups are big grudge matches, I'm sure that if you took a poll of the players on both of these teams, both sides would cite this matchup as the biggest rivalry. Because this game was switched from an early start to a late-afternoon start, the Eagles will know by kickoff if they still are in the wild-card hunt (if Tampa Bay wins early, then the Eagles are out). Still, even if they are eliminated, you can bet they would like nothing better than to beat the Cowboys and keep them out of the playoffs, too.
In Week 1, we had Ware vs. Thomas as a matchup to watch -- only it was Joe Thomas of Cleveland. The matchup against this Thomas is all about Ware's speed and quickness against Thomas' bulk and long arms. Thomas has started 165 games in 11 years for Philadelphia. He is a long-legged, hand-to-hand combat player. He gets in the way of defenders and is very good against speed rushers.
Ware leads the NFL in sacks with 20. He is a dominating player with great speed for his position. He has unbelievable quickness, which prevents offensive tackles from getting their hands on him, which is what Thomas will try to do.
Another matchup to watch in this game: Eagles safety Brian Dawkins, who in my opinion is Canton-bound when his playing days are over, vs. Cowboys TE Jason Witten. Dawkins plays with great technique, and he has very good range and recognition. Witten is the Cowboys' leading receiver and an All-Pro. Word of caution for Tony Romo: Be aware of Eagles corner Asante Samuel.
Chicago DT Tommie Harris vs. Houston G Chester Pitts
This is only the second time these teams have ever played -- the Texans won the first meeting in 2004. Both teams feature superb rookie running backs. Chicago's Matt Forte has 1,188 rushing yards and eight TDs; Houston's Steve Slaton has 1,190 yards and eight TDs.
Houston is out of the playoffs, but the Bears need a win and a Vikings loss to the Giants in order to win the NFC North. Chicago could also earn the wild-card berth with a win if both the Bucs and Cowboys lose. Otherwise, the Bears are in danger of missing the playoffs for the second straight year after reaching the Super Bowl.
The Texans pass just over 56 percent of the time -- a little unusual considering coach Gary Kubiak runs the Denver offense. Pitts is the starting left guard for Houston and has started all 111 games in franchise history. He never played high school and was a walk-on at San Diego State, starting the last two years there at left tackle. He's a big, physical player (6-foot-3, 325 pounds), a very good pass protector with a good strong punch. He is asked to pull and trap a lot. Pitts is a deceptive athlete who moves well for his size.
Harris is the Bears' best defensive lineman, and he is very good at guessing the snap count and creating negative plays with his quickness. He has a very good club move and can knock back guards with his power and explosion. This is a very important matchup for both teams.
Another matchup to watch in this game: Texans TE Owen Daniels (a Chicago-area native), who creates major matchup problem for the defense, vs. Bears safety Kevin Payne, who leads Chicago with four interceptions and is one of their top tacklers.
Denver QB Jay Cutler vs. San Diego QB Philip Rivers
The winner-take-all battle Sunday night for the AFC West title features a battle between two young quarterbacks who have become big rivals. Cutler leads the AFC with 4,210 passing yards, while Rivers leads the AFC with 32 TD passes. The Chargers have won 13 consecutive games in December.