In the spirit of the Salute to Service campaign, former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks spotlights players who are poised to have hero-like performances for their respective teams in Week 16:
It's time to put Big Ben in the MVP conversation, based on his spectacular play from the pocket. The two-time Super Bowl winner has been on fire the past eight games, completing 68.4 percent of his passes with a 21:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 110.2. Roethlisberger has averaged 365.3 passing yards per game since Week 8, which leads the NFL by a significant margin (Aaron Rodgers is second, with 309.0). Of course, the Chiefs have allowed fewer than 270 passing yards in every game this season, meaning Roethlisberger will need to take his game up a notch to continue his torrid pace. Still, with Kansas City likely to focus on stopping Le'Veon Bell on the ground, Big Ben should have ample opportunity to attack a secondary that could struggle to contain a speedy receiving corps led by Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.
It is not a coincidence that the Panthers' offense has performed better since Stewart stepped into the starter's role in Week 14. The veteran runner has finished with 75-plus scrimmage yards in each of Carolina's last three games, exhibiting a hard-nosed running style that's set the tone for the offense. With coordinator Mike Shula ramping up his attempts to take advantage of Stewart's efficiency and production as a runner (he's averaging 5.8 yards a pop in his past three games), the Panthers have been able to get back to the ground-and-pound attack that sparked a playoff run in 2013. Facing a Browns defense that's allowing 137.6 rushing yards per game and coming off a dismal performance against the Bengals (Cleveland allowed a season-high 244 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns), the Panthers should make Stewart the focal point of a run-centric game plan. If Stewart notches 20-plus carries against the Browns, he should deliver a 100-yard game -- and a "W" for Carolina.
The NFL's stingiest defense might reside in Motown. Guided by new coordinator Teryl Austin, the Lions are leading the league in scoring defense and rushing defense while ranking second overall in total yards allowed. Naturally, most of the credit for this success has gone to a defensive line spearheaded by Ndamukong Suh, but the vastly improved play of the secondary has helped lift the unit to the next level. Quin and Ihedigbo, in particular, have eliminated the deep balls that plagued the Lions in the past. With the Bears trotting out Jimmy Clausen at quarterback, we can expect the safety duo to feast on errant throws. Against an erratic signal-caller playing behind a shaky offensive line, the tandem -- which has combined for 10 picks -- should help the Lions enjoy a turnover bonanza in this NFC North battle.
Jacksonville Jaguars' pass defense
It's hard to find many positives regarding the Jaguars' disappointing season, but credit coach Gus Bradley for getting his defense to play hard each week. The Jaguars have recorded 38 sacks (tied for sixth-most in the NFL) and allowed fewer than 275 pass yards in 10 straight games. Chris Clemons and Sen'Derrick Marks have led the way with their pass-rushing prowess, combining for 14.5 sacks (Clemons has seven; Marks has 7.5). Facing Charlie Whitehurst on Thursday, the Jaguars would be wise to rev up the pressure, to disrupt the veteran's timing and rhythm. Whitehurst is completing 56.6 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 5:2 on the season (with an 89.1 passer rating), and he is certainly capable of slinging the rock all over the yard when given time and opportunities. Bradley should unleash the hounds and let his veteran rushers protect a young, athletic secondary that's slowly rounding into form.
The Eagles' pass rush has wrecked shop on opposing offenses in recent weeks, collecting 28 sacks in the last seven games. The unit is on pace to notch 54 sacks on the season, which would be the most by Philadelphia since 2002 (when the Eagles had 56 sacks). Barwin has been the leader of the pack, racking up 14.5 sacks and a ton of pressures/QB hits. Given the struggles of the Redskins' offensive line (Washington has allowed five-plus sacks in each of the last six games), and particularly the offensive tackles, Barwin should have a field day off the edge. If the Redskins are forced to play without Trent Williams, expect to see a battered and bruised Robert Griffin III struggle against the Eagles' blitz-heavy tactics.