There are so many meaningful games in Week 16 as we inch closer to the postseason. Here are some of the key matchups to watch:
Pittsburgh LB James Farrior vs. Tennessee RB Chris Johnson
The two teams with the best records in the AFC collide as the Titans (12-2) host the Steelers (11-3). It should be a low-scoring game that goes down to the wire and don't be surprised to see this matchup again in the AFC Championship Game. These are the only teams in the NFL to allow less than 200 points through 14 games (Pittsbirgh has allowed 192, Tennessee, 197). The Titans have a plus-10 turnover margin; the Steelers are plus-7. Both defenses allow an average of less than 300 yards per game. They both have outstanding defensive coordinators -- Dick LeBeau for Pittsburgh, Jim Schwartz for Tennessee. The difference is that Pittsburgh plays a 3-4 scheme, while Tennessee plays a 4-3. One other similarity that shouldn't be overlooked: Both teams have had the same ownership for more than 48 years, a rarity in today's NFL.
The teams have met 66 times, with Pittsburgh winning 38 times. It's a rivalry that was pretty big when the Titans were the Houston Oilers. The 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the Steelers and Titans was a classic, with Tennessee winning in overtime, 34-31. Tennessee missed a 31-yard field goal in OT, but the Steelers were penalized on the play and Tennessee made the next attempt to win.
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Farrior is the left inside linebacker for Pittsburgh. He gets the defense lined up and plays on every down. A very productive player, Farrior leads the team with 112 tackles and he also has four sacks. He has very good awareness against the tight end on angle blocks. He is a very good run and pass blitzer who is more effective as an inside blitzer than an outside rusher. Farrior's nickname growing up was Potsie, because he had a pot-belly as a kid.
I'm sure Johnson never had a pot-belly. The speedy rookie recorded the fastest electronically-timed 40 ever at the NFL combine -- 4.24. He is a threat to make a big play any time he touches the ball -- and his versatility allows him to touch the ball often. He is the second-leading rusher in the AFC (1,159 yards) and he also returns kicks and catches passes. He can run inside or outside, and is the second-leading receiver on the Titans with 41 catches.
Carolina LT Jordan Gross vs. N.Y. Giants DE Mathias Kiwanuka
I doubt that many people thought this would be a marquee game when it was announced in April, yet here we are. The winner of this game clinches the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Carolina coach John Fox was the Giants' defensive coordinator from 1997-2001. Carolina loves to run the ball and ranks fourth overall in rushing offense, while the Giants rank fourth overall in run defense. Both teams have veteran kickers -- Carolina's John Kasay has been in the NFL for 18 years, the Giants' John Carney 20 years. Between the two of them, they have converted 53 of 56 field goal attempts this season. This is an old-school game, with coaches who like to run the ball, play defense, and create turnovers.
Gross, who has started every game this season at left tackle and has started every game for the Panthers since being a first-round pick in 2003, was selected to his first Pro Bowl this week as a starter. He is a very good run blocker and an above-average pass protector. He's very athletic and strong and does not make mistakes, which is very important because of all the different schemes he faces.
Kiwanuka is a very good pass rusher -- he has 8.5 sacks this season, including 1.5 last week against the Cowboys. Because of his size (6-foot-5, 265), you might think he wouldn't be as good against the run, but he'll fool you. He's played both linebacker and end for the Giants, and has good speed and quickness for both positions.
Baltimore S Ed Reed vs. Dallas QB Tony Romo
This game has great importance for both teams, as both of them are in line to earn wild-card spots, but have teams right on their tail. The Cowboys can't afford to lose because they play at Philadelphia in the regular-season finale. Baltimore has a little wiggle room because the Ravens host Jacksonville next week.
Both teams have very good run defenses, but look for Baltimore to try to pound the ball anyway in an attempt to control the time of possession. Look for Dallas to spread the field and throw quick passes. Baltimore will show every blitz known to mankind, and then at times they will only rush one player. Ravens coach John Harbaugh knows Dallas well from his years as an assistant with the Eagles.
Reed has great anticipation that enables him to make big plays. He fools quarterbacks as he freelances, making plays in the passing game by jumping routes. He will make tackles and surprise you with blitzes. Reed is a very smart player.
Romo missed three games earlier this season with a finger injury but still has thrown 24 TD passes and leads the NFC with a 98.3 rating. Romo has a very quick release and possesses the ability to escape the rush with his athletic ability and quick feet. He has a tendency, at times, to force plays. Romo has arm strength and accuracy, and is both mentally and physically tough. He'll see a lot of different defensive looks Saturday night.
Another matchup to watch in this game:Cowboys LBs Bradie James and Zach Thomas vs. Ravens RBs Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain. James and Thomas need to make plays against the run to keep Baltimore from controlling the clock. Also, look for Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to devise some gadget plays, as he usually does, for this game.
This will be the last regular-season game played at Texas Stadium and there will be a special ceremony for former players who have called this storied stadium home. The game will be shown on NFL Network, which will have plenty of historical highlights about the stadium and the team throughout the day.
Green Bay CB Charles Woodson vs. Chicago WR Devin Hester
Forget the fact that Green Bay is out of the playoff race. This game is for bragging rights in the Midwest. It is the 176th meeting in a rivalry that dates back to 1921.
Woodson played the last few games at safety due to injuries but should be back at the left corner spot here, and most likely will play Hester man-to-man on most plays, regardless of where he lines up. Woodson will play press coverage and engage him coming off the line to slow him down. He has a strong upper body and is a very good tackler and stripper of the ball.
Hester makes big plays with his outstanding speed (sub-4.4). When he doesn't make plays, it is hard for the Bears to generate much offense. Hester seems to get better each week as a route-runner, and will be used as a decoy to create opportunities for others on the offense.
Other keys matchups
Atlanta at Minnesota: This matchup of two 9-5 teams is also a battle of the top two rushers in the NFL -- the Vikings' Adrian Peterson is first and the Falcons' Michael Turner ranks second. And that is notable because neither team has ever had an NFL rushing champ. That could change this season. Atlanta's change-of-pace RB, Jerious Norwood, might also play a big role in this game -- and it will be up to Vikings LB Chad Greenway to keep Norwood in check.
Philadelphia at Washington:Eagles LB Stewart Bradley vs. Redskins RB Clinton Portis. This is another great rivalry game -- it's the 147th meeting in the series. Portis had 145 yards in the first meeting. Bradley is the Eagles' leading tackler with 96. The winner of this matchup will go a long way toward determining the winner of this game.