We’re more than half way through the season, and the playoff discussion is heating up.
The Arizona Cardinals are surprisingly pulling away from the pack in the NFC West, as they own the best record (7-1) in the league.
The AFC North and NFC South races, meanwhile, are much tighter. Ironically, the last place AFC North team, the 5-4 Ravens, has a better record than the first place NFC South team, the 4-4 Saints.
While these standings will undoubtedly change over the next two months, Week 10 is where the conversations about divisional titles gain traction and relevance.
And now for three under-the-radar games that could affect the playoff picture come late December…
1. San Francisco 49ers @ New Orleans Saints – 1:00 p.m. EST on FOX
For two teams that entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations, the 2014 campaign has not gone as expected, as both the 49ers and Saints currently sit on a 4-4 record.
After a goal line fumble sealed the upset defeat to the Rams last Sunday, the Niners will be eager to get back in the win column, but I do not see that happening. The Saints are a powerful team in their Mercedes Benz Super Dome and are coming off a min-bye after last playing the Panthers on Thursday Night Football 10 days ago.
Though the 49ers defense ranks in the top five for most statistical categories, their offense has struggled, especially in rushing situations. The unit totaled just 80 yards on the ground against St. Louis. Expect New Orleans’ defense that has recorded 17 sacks to date, to take advantage of San Francisco’s porous offensive line that allowed Colin Kaepernick (22 of 33 for 237 yards and one touchdown) to be sacked eight times in Week 9.
The 49ers defense will have their hands full against Drew Brees (24 of 34 for 297 yards and one touchdown) and his arsenal of receiving weapons, but the X-factor on the Saints’ offense could be running back Mark Ingram. Ingram, in the final year of his contract, missed time earlier this season with a hand injury, but his 100-yard performance against the Panthers in Week 9 continued a string of impressive recent performances for the fourth-year back.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers @ New York Jets: 1:00 p.m. EST on CBS
If this game isn’t a showcase of two teams with polar opposite situations at the quarterback position, I don’t know what is.
Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger enters Sunday’s matchup having thrown six touchdowns in each of his previous two games, an unprecedented accomplishment in NFL history. His top receiver, Antonio Brown, hauled in 21 receptions for 277 yards and three touchdowns over the same span, establishing himself as one of the NFL’s premiere wideouts.
The Jets secondary, weakened by injuries and ranked 12th in average yards allowed through the air, would have a difficult time containing Pittsburgh’s offense at its current clip, but I do not see the Steelers sustaining their same pace in East Rutherford, N.J.
The Jets have the third best rushing attack (139.9 average yards per game) in the league, led by Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory, and the Steelers have struggled with containing back at points throughout the season. That should take some pressure off of newly anointed starting quarterback Michael Vick as he looks to guide the Jets to their second victory of the season.
3. Atlanta Falcons @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 1:00 p.m. EST on FOX
As they come off their bye, the last football game the Falcons played was one they lost in crippling fashion, blowing a 21-point lead in the final seconds to the Lions. Rumors of a discontent owner circulated throughout their off week, and I find it difficult to see the Falcons bouncing back against a tricky Buccaneers team.
The Bucs lost their seventh game of the season last week against the Browns but showed hints of promise, holding a one-point lead in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon was a serviceable 17 of 33 for 260 yards and two touchdowns, both to rookie wide receiver Mike Evans, against a stout Cleveland defense.
Josh McCown, out with a thumb injury since Week 3, is slated to regain his starting quarterback position this week. With little tape to study, Atlanta’s defense could have problems preparing for the returning signal-caller.
Bucs running back Bobby Rainey also took advantage of regular starter Doug Martin’s absence, totaling 87 yards on 19 carries. He and Evans could be in for big games against a poor Falcons defense that ranks last in the league in average total yards allowed per game (408.8).
The Falcons boast a strong wide receiving corps for Matt Ryan to utilize, but their proficiency tends to falter when away from their Georgia Dome home. Even against a 31st ranked Tampa Bay secondary, I do not believe the Falcons offense will be capable of compensating for the team’s own struggling defense. I predict the Buccaneers will grab their second win of the season, as the pressure on Atlanta’s front office and coaching staff mounts.
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