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Panthers just might have what it takes to be Giant-killers

  • By Pat Kirwan
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10 hot topics for Week 16

It's Week 16, and there's so much left to decide. Six playoff spots are still available, playoff positioning has yet to be determined, and two new front-office executives are evaluating their new teams. Can the hot teams stay hot? Can teams with nothing to play for demonstrate their professionalism and play the spoiler role? Oh, and one team still in pursuit of a perfect season.

1. Spoiler in the house?

There are seven games this weekend in which a team out of the playoff picture can strike a blow against one of the contenders still in the hunt. Is there a spoiler in the house?

The Seahawks visit the Packers and they don't look like a candidate. … The Chiefs visit the Bengals, and after the way Cleveland ran all over K.C. last week, they don't look up for the challenge. … The Saints want to lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the division rival Bucs are in town. Tampa Bay will compete, but they already lost 38-7 to the Saints at home, so they don't get my vote. … The Rams played hard last week but ran out of gas and now travel to Arizona, which doesn't look good even though they played the Cardinals to a 21-13 loss in the first meeting. … The Redskins always consider themselves capable of beating the Cowboys, especially after a 7-6 loss in Dallas earlier this year, but last week they gave up 45 points to the Giants. … The Bears would like nothing more than to keep the Vikings' struggles going, but that means Jay Cutler has to play error-free football. The Vikings pass rush should prevent Cutler from settling into a groove.

The one team set up to be a spoiler is the Panthers. They visit the Giants with a good running game and Julius Peppers rushing Eli Manning. New York has to play this game with the intensity they showed last week against the Redskins, and not the effort that delivered six losses in their previous nine games.

Associated Press
In addition to having a shot at immortality, Peyton Manning and the Colts need to keep their feet on the gas peddle to maintain momentum going into the playoffs.

2. Go for it, Peyton

Finish 16-0, win a world championship and go down as the greatest team ever. It is still attainable for the Colts. Peyton Manning knows how to beat a blitz and if the Jets stay true to form and blitz him all game long, he will make short work of New York. I think it is important the Colts go into the playoffs playing great football, and I hope the club lets the players play.

3. Evaluation time

Washington's Bruce Allen got a one-week head start on Cleveland's Mike Holmgren when it comes to evaluating the coaches, players and structure of their new organizations. After the Redskins played so poorly Monday night against the Giants, I think Allen found out that there is a lot to do in Washington. The Redskins get another chance to redeem themselves Sunday night, and they all better understand Allen is forming permanent opinions. Holmgren will not get a chance to see Brady Quinn for the rest of the season, which is unfortunate. But he does get a look at Derek Anderson, who has what amounts to a two-game audition.

4. Can they stay hot?

No teams are hotter than the Chargers, Cowboys and Eagles. It has been established over the years that teams entering the playoffs with momentum can go far. I would not be surprised to see these three teams roll this weekend and keep the pressure on the No. 1 seeds.

5. Not so cold in Minnesota

There was so much written and said this week about the sideline issues between Brad Childress and Brett Favre, and now they take to the field against the Bears. If you have ever been on the sideline for an NFL game, there are coach-player arguments in every game. Last year, Kurt Warner and Todd Haley had disagreements all the time with the Cardinals. Warner told me he had to "cool off" and then get back to work. I think things were blown out of proportion this past week in Minnesota, but I also think they will go a long way to strengthen the team and air out the minor differences between the coach and player.

Favre knows what a great situation he has with the Vikings -- the best experience he's had in years -- and he will not mess it up trying to take too many risks with the ball. Look for Minnesota to really click on Monday night.

Associated Press
After a 503-yard effort in last week's win over Green Bay, Ben Roethlisberger could put up more big numbers against Baltimore.

6. How do you top 503?

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards last week against the No. 2 defense in the NFL and now he is in a must-win situation at home against Baltimore's fourth-ranked defense. The best way to beat the Ravens is through the air, even though the Steelers almost beat them a few weeks ago running the ball 38 times when Roethlisberger was injured. Roethlisberger should have a big day against a defense that has injuries in the secondary.

7. Sanchez, Freeman look to improve

Mark Sanchez of the Jets and Josh Freeman of the Bucs both have struggled, as rookies usually do. But in order to keep media and fan pressure off them during the offseason, they need to play well over the final two weeks. Sanchez has thrown 20 interceptions to just 12 touchdowns and has been sacked 24 times. Freeman has thrown just nine touchdowns with 14 interceptions and taken 16 sacks in less game time than Sanchez. Look for Sanchez and Freeman to make better decisions, avoid turnovers, improve on third downs and hopefully win the time of possession battle.

8. What's left to learn

The 49ers host the Lions in what some would call a meaningless game -- but there still is a lot to determine for these teams. With rookie Matthew Stafford out, the Lions are going to take another look at Drew Stanton. If he plays well, it should go a long way to figuring out what to do with Daunte Culpepper and the backup QB spot. It is a critical decision for a team that will continue to struggle protecting its quarterback and can't afford to let Stafford get beat up. As for the 49ers, Alex Smith has played well recently but a strong finish could secure a big contract for him.

9. Throw or go home

Twenty years ago, the formula for a Super Bowl championship was to play great defense and run the ball. Don't get me wrong, defense and a ground attack are still critical. But if your team can't throw, it won't go very far. The New York Jets have the No. 1 defense and the playoffs are a long shot. The Jets, Titans and Panthers are the top three rushing teams and there's a good chance none of the three will be in the postseason. On the other hand, four of the top five passing offenses are division leaders.

10. Play Westbrook sparingly

It will be great to see Brian Westbrook back on the field for the Eagles, but with the playoffs around the corner it may be wise to ease him in slowly. With LeSean McCoy already up to 870 total yards of offense and Leonard Weaver playing well with an additional 441 yards, Andy Reid can be very cautious with Westbrook.

The Ravens used to be known for having a conservative offense, but Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Derrick Mason give Baltimore more options than they've had in a long time. Ravens spread it out

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Matchups to watch
Gil Brandt breaks down some interesting matchups to watch in Week 16:

Jets CB Darrelle Revis vs. Colts WR Reggie Wayne: Wayne is the leading receiver for the Colts, and is Manning's go-to guy on third downs. He makes every catch and he loves the double-move in the red zone. This is a matchup of the best vs. the best.

Houston DE Mario Williams vs. Miami OT Jake Long: This is a matchup between two very wealthy linemen -- both of whom were No. 1 overall draft picks.

Jacksonville RB Maurice Jones-Drew vs. New England LB Jerod Mayo: Mayo is the leading tackler on a defense that surprisingly ranks in the top 10. He had 9 tackles vs. Buffalo last week despite the fact New England was without outstanding defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. Mayo has good recognition and plays with power. He seems to be playing better the past few weeks.

Baltimore QB Joe Flacco vs. Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger: Roethlisberger is having his best statistical season since entering the NFL six years ago. He passed for a franchise record 503 yards last week, and his passer rating for the season is over 100, up 20 points from last year.
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Start 'Em & Sit 'Em
Start of the week: Matt Schaub -- Schaub has proved in the last two weeks that his injured left shoulder isn't an issue, throwing for a combined 732 yards and three touchdowns. His success should continue against the Dolphins, who have allowed an average of close to 20 fantasy points per game to quarterbacks this season.

QB to start: Alex Smith -- Smith has hit a bump in the road in terms of statistical success in recent weeks, but this week's game against the Lions should be good for what ails him.

QB to sit: Matt Ryan -- Ryan made a surprise return from his turf toe ailment in Week 15, but he mustered just 12 fantasy points in a win over the Jets.
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Week 16 games (all times ET)
Friday, Dec. 25
San Diego at Tennessee, 8 p.m. (NFLN)

Sunday, Dec. 27
Buffalo at Atlanta, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Kansas City at Cincinnati, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Oakland at Cleveland, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Seattle at Green Bay, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Houston at Miami, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Baltimore at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Carolina at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Jacksonville at New England, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Tampa Bay at New Orleans, 1 p.m. (CBS)
St. Louis at Arizona, 4:05 p.m. (FOX)
Detroit at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m. (FOX)
Denver at Philadelphia, 4:15 p.m. (CBS)
N.Y. Jets at Colts, 4:15 p.m. (CBS)
Dallas at Washington, 8:20 p.m. (NBC)

Monday, Dec. 28
Minnesota at Chicago, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

» Complete schedule



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