|Kevin Terrell / Associated Press|
|The Rams failed to beat the 49ers in Week 10, but a win Sunday would help their NFC West title hopes.|
The playoffs are around the corner and so much is still left to be decided. Week 16 will serve as a precursor for what will come on the final Sunday of the regular season.
Here are the storylines to follow.
1. Now or never for Sam I am
It's pretty clear that Sam Bradford is the runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year. He has his team tied for first place in the NFC West with two divisional games to go and is playing a pivotal role, averaging 36.9 passes a game. But there are some signs he could be slowing down. Bradford has not thrown a touchdown in his last three games, a total of 104 passes, but does have five interceptions and eight sacks in the same time period. The Rams averaged 15 points a game during the stretch and lost two of three games.
It's time for Bradford to dig down deep and find the strength to finish strong. With the Rams in control of their own playoff destiny, I think he will step up to the occasion. Keep in mind, he went 30-42 for 251 yards and a touchdown in the first game against the 49ers. Bradford is a better quarterback now than he was in Week 10.
2. Bear in mind
The Bears have played well the whole season without many taking notice. The Jets come to town and the whole country has watched them since they appeared on "Hard Knocks." Did you realize that Mark Sanchez has thrown 102 more passes than Jay Cutler? Did you know the Bears have been 50-50 in their run-pass ratio over the past six games? Did you know the Bears are 4-1 when Devin Hester scores a touchdown? Did you know that Cutler was sacked 27 times in his first six games but only 17 times his past seven starts?
The defense gets all the positive attention, but Chicago's offense has come a long way in the last month and a half. A win this week puts the Bears a step closer to the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Quite the accomplishment for a team not many think of as elite.
3. Tough road to travel
Indianapolis won a big game against Jacksonville to take control of its own destiny but now has to travel to Oakland. The Colts have some real issues to worry about in this matchup. For starters, they are 3-4 on the road. Here are a few reasons they have a losing record away from Indy. Of the 26 sacks the defense has this season, only 10 have come on the road. The Colts only have four interceptions away from home. The Colts only have 532 yards rushing on the road (76 yards a game). The biggest problem they face is their run defense. The Colts allow 154 yards on the ground away from the Lucas Oil Stadium and the Raiders love to run the ball.
4. Hillis can make statement
The Ravens beat the Browns 24-17 in Week 3 and need a sweep to stay in the hunt for the AFC North title and the No. 2 seed. The mighty Baltimore defense didn't have an answer for Peyton Hillis (29 touches for 180 total yards and a touchdown) in the first game. Ravens coach John Harbaugh was quick to point out to me "Hillis ran all over us the first time and we didn't stop him." Even though this game is in Cleveland, it will be tough for Hillis to duplicate that performance. Any guy who can stick it to the Ravens a second time deserves to be in the Pro Bowl.
5. Step in right direction
I have the privilege of talking with Lions coach Jim Schwartz every week. I have always admired his gritty style with a refuse-to-lose attitude. A week ago, I asked him about the possibility of breaking the longest road losing streak in NFL history. He said it was tough to comprehend because it dated back to before his stint in Detroit and the same could be said for many players on the roster. Well, his team snapped the 26-game skid and they did it without Matthew Stafford or Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Now it's time to focus on the possibility of a three-game winning streak. That's right, three in a row! Detroit averages just 17.7 points a game on the road but Shaun Hill will be under center for the Lions and Miami is just 1-6 at home. The Dolphins are hoping Chad Henne will make a quantum leap in his development. He is just 1-5 at home with eight touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and 10 sacks. Something else in the Lions' favor, neither Ricky Williams nor Ronnie Brown has eclipsed 100-yards rushing in a game this year. Watch out for Ndamukong Suh.
6. Looking for real Mr. Smith
The 49ers finally came out and announced Troy Smith, not Alex Smith, would start against this week. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo told me very little will change in his team's defensive game plan because of the decision. Troy Smith is 3-2 as the starter and is averaging 5.2 yards per rush. However, he has been sacked 16 times or once every nine pass attempts. Both teams are fighting for the division title and it looks like seven wins could do it.
7. Sign of dominance
You don't win games if you don't outscore your opponent. The top two teams with wins and margin of victory happen to be the current No. 1 seed in each conference. Both the Patriots and Falcons have 12 victories. New England's' average margin of victory is 14.8 points a game and Atlanta's is 10.6 points. Both teams are trying to clinch home-field advantage this week.
8. Enough is enough
I don't think there is a more patient coach in the NFL than the Bengals' Marvin Lewis. But finally Chad Ochocinco appears to have driven the coach to the limit with his childish antics. Ochocinco is going to have a rude awakening when he finds out how most coaches deal with all the junk he brings to a team. It might be time to play the game without him, or as one player said to me, "We can lose without him."
9. Sweeping sensation
The last three weeks, I have forecasted that more teams that lost the game against a division foe would win the rematch and that has held true. The schedule makers have put another four rematch games on the schedule. The Saints visit the Falcons after losing in Week 3. The Bills host the Patriots after falling in the first meeting. The Ravens invade Cleveland looking for a sweep. Finally, St. Louis desperately needs to split with San Francisco to keep its playoff hopes alive. It could be hard to see, but count on two of the four losers the first time to win this weekend.
10. All kinds of streaks
Joe Flacco is 5-0 against the Browns. The Falcons and Chiefs are both 6-0 at home. Cardinals quarterback John Skelton hasn't thrown a touchdown in 76 passes. If the Bears give Matt forte the ball 15 or more times, they are 5-0 this season. The Chargers are 3-0 in the games Vincent Jackson has played.