N.F.L. Playoff Races Entering the Final Week

A.F.C. East

WHAT HAPPENED It was a very, very good day for the New England Patriots, who showed resilience in a second-half comeback victory over the Miami Dolphins and saw their archrival, the Jets, pushed to the brink of elimination with a loss to the Giants. The Patriots’ defense and offensive line will be concerns going into the playoffs, but they secured a first-round bye, which will be critical for the health of left tackle Matt Light and safety Patrick Chung.

NOW WHAT? A Patriots victory next week secures the A.F.C.’s top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. To get the wild card, the Jets need to win, and need losses by Cincinnati and Tennessee combined with a loss by Oakland or Denver.

A.F.C. North

WHAT HAPPENED Big wins for the entire division. The Steelers won without Ben Roethlisberger. The Ravens and the Bengals won with everybody. The division title comes down to the final weekend, and the Bengals, with the victory over the Cardinals, combined with the Jets’ loss, are now in a wild-card spot.

NOW WHAT? Baltimore plays at Cincinnati next week. Pittsburgh plays at Cleveland. If the Steelers and the Ravens wind up with the same record, Baltimore wins the division and Pittsburgh is a wild card, because the Ravens swept the Steelers this season. Baltimore should have the tougher game, because the Bengals will grab a wild-card spot with a victory. Whoever wins the division has a first-round bye.

A.F.C. South

WHAT HAPPENED The Titans’ victory over the Jaguars keeps them in the wild-card race, but the more significant game happened Thursday. The Texans have already clinched the division, but they played their worst game of the season against the Colts.

NOW WHAT? The real intrigue will be at the game between the Jaguars and the Colts. If the Colts win, they could lose their shot at the first overall draft pick and Andrew Luck. There are multiple possibilities for the Titans to get a wild-card spot. The Texans are locked into the third seed even if they lose to the Titans, but after a bad loss to the Colts, they could use a victory to get some momentum going into the playoffs.

A.F.C. West

WHAT HAPPENED The wheels came off the Tim Tebow train. He was awful in Denver’s loss to Buffalo, blowing a chance to win the division. Oakland’s overtime victory over Kansas City eliminated the Chiefs and pulled the Raiders into a tie atop the division. The Chargers’ loss to the eliminated them from contention and probably doomed Norv Turner.

NOW WHAT? If the beat the Chiefs next Sunday, they win the division, no matter what else happens. But if they lose and the Raiders beat the Chargers, the Raiders win the division. If Denver and Oakland both lose, Denver wins the division.

N.F.C. East

WHAT HAPPENED The Giants’ victory over the Jets eliminated the Eagles from the playoff race, but set up a winner-take-all game against the next Sunday. The Eagles may have given the Giants a bit of help anyway. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo hurt his right hand when it smashed against Jason Babin’s helmet. He was ready to return, though, until the Cowboys realized the Giants had won and they did not need him.

NOW WHAT? The game of the year is next Sunday: Cowboys at Giants for the division. An ancillary consideration is whether Tom Coughlin’s job also hangs in the balance.

N.F.C. North

WHAT HAPPENED The Lions completed their renaissance by clinching a wild-card spot, their first playoff trip since 1999.

NOW WHAT If the Packers beat the Bears on Sunday night, they wrap up the top seed in the N.F.C. and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

N.F.C. South

WHAT HAPPENED Buccaneers Coach Raheem Morris took another step toward the unemployment line and Cam Newton served notice he was going to terrorize the league for the next decade in Tampa Bay’s 48-16 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons play the on Monday night.

NOW WHAT? A Saints victory Monday secures the N.F.C. South, but the Falcons are still in good position for the wild card.

N.F.C. West

WHAT HAPPENED Not a whole lot. San Francisco’s defeat of Seattle puts the 49ers in position to get a first-round bye, but their struggle to score touchdowns will give them a lot to think about heading into the playoffs.

NOW WHAT? If the Saints lose to the Falcons on Monday, San Francisco clinches a first-round bye.

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THE FIFTH DOWN; Personnel File: Falcons’ Ryan Is a Safe Bet Against the Saints

Jason and Justin Sablich are here to help you with your fantasy football team. The Sablich brothers will provide fantasy football advice throughout the season on this blog and on Twitter (@5thDownFantasy).

As if the holidays are not stressful enough, some of you will be trying to watch a full day of football with a fantasy football championship on the line. If you are one of those lucky fantasy owners, we wish you the best of luck and hope you find some guidance in the words that follow. If your team fell short this year, know that another fantasy football season is always just around the corner.

Complete Week 16 Rankings

Favorable/Unfavorable Quarterback Matchups


Matt Ryan (ATL) vs. New Orleans — Fantasy’s seventh-ranked quarterback threw a season-high 52 passes in his first meeting with New Orleans, completing 29 of them for 351 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’s been red hot of late, racking up seven touchdowns over his last two outings, and things should stay that way considering the Saints’ struggle to defend the pass (seventh-best quarterback matchup).

Tim Tebow (DEN) vs. Buffalo — Tom Brady won the game last week for the Patriots, but Tebow made strides as a passer, completing 7 of his 11 passes for 15 or more yards in route to a 27-point fantasy day. Expect another strong start against the lowly Bills defense, which has allowed 19 points a week to opposing quarterbacks (eighth-best matchup).

Kyle Orton (KC) vs. Oakland — Orton did not post monster numbers against the Packers, but he did lead his team to a stunning upset victory in his first start for the Chiefs, and that has to count for something. In five straight games, the Raiders have yielded at least 20 fantasy points to quarterbacks, including he likes of Caleb Hanie and Christian Ponder.

Rex Grossman (WAS) vs. Minnesota — Teams dealing with a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger might want to look Grossman’s way (if you’re really desperate). The Vikings makeshift secondary is truly that awful, allowing 24 points a week to the position on average, which is considered the best fantasy matchup a quarterback can have this season.


Eli Manning (NYG) vs. Jets — Congratulations to those of you who started Manning last week and are still alive this week. You’ll probably want to look elsewhere in your championship game. The Jets secondary has allowed just 13 points a week to opposing quarterbacks this season (fifth-worst matchup), and things only get worse as Manning appears to have lost another weapon with tight end Jake Ballard’s season in doubt.

Joe Flacco (BAL) vs. Cleveland — Do you really trust Flacco in your Week 16 championship game against fantasy’s third-worst quarterback matchup? He certainly did not do much the first time these two teams met, netting just four fantasy points on 156 yards and no touchdowns. There are likely some better options on your wire, like Orton.

Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) vs. St. Louis — The matchup isn’t a horrible one, although most teams choose to attack the Rams cellar-dwelling run defense. But Roethlisberger is clearly bothered by his ankle injury and might not even play, considering he’ll have just four days to get ready because of the holiday.

Josh Freeman (TB) vs. Carolina — The matchup isn’t the problem here, its Freeman, who has thrown just two touchdown passes in his last three games, with a 178-yard passing average and three fumbles.

Favorable/Unfavorable Running Back Matchups


Willis McGahee (DEN) vs. Buffalo — McGahee was well on his way to a big game (7 carries for 70 yards) before blowing a tire during Denver’s second offensive series against the Patriots. He would get just two carries the rest of the way. Denver Coach John Fox stated during Monday’s news conference that there were no major injuries to report, and McGahee did turn up for practice on Tuesday, but let’s hope you played it safe and tried to add Lance Ball (13 carries, 105 yards, 1 touchdown in Week 15) just in case. Whoever gets the start against Buffalo should produce, considering a running back has failed to top 10 fantasy points just twice this season against them (third-best running back matchup).

DeAngelo Williams (CAR) vs. Tampa Bay — After totaling just eight standard fantasy points against laughable run defenses (Indianapolis and Tampa Bay) in Weeks 12 and 13, Williams has now compiled 27 fantasy points in his last two games against the much stiffer Atlanta and Houston defensive fronts. How’s that for predictability? He gets another crack at fantasy’s best running back matchup in Week 16, and he should fare better than the 11-carry, 29-yard day he managed against the Buccaneers a few weeks ago.

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Brown Delivers as Steelers Beat Falcons 34-16

Brown scored on passes of 77 and 44 yards from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and set up another touchdown with a lengthy kickoff return as Pittsburgh’s starters looked sharp for the second straight week.

Roethlisberger finished 11 of 16 for 214 yards and the two touchdowns in one half.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan squeezed an entire game’s worth of action into two quarters, completing 22 of 42 for 210 yards with a touchdown and an interception against a banged-up Pittsburgh secondary missing starting cornerbacks Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor.

What the Steelers lacked in quantity of offensive plays they made up for in explosiveness, most of it provided by Brown.

The second-year wideout has been a revelation during training camp. Considered no higher than fourth on the depth chart when camp began, he has thrived while filling in for injured Emmanuel Sanders.

Brown scored a 29-yard touchdown against Philadelphia a week ago on a nifty double-move after Roethlisberger escaped pressure. He was so open when he caught the ball he needed to do little more than remain on his feet.

Against the defending NFC South champions, Brown — who occasionally wears a UPS vest given to him by his brother — delivered in more spectacular fashion.

He started the game with a 51-yard kickoff return that led to a 1-yard plunge Rashard Mendenhall, a mere warmup to what was to come.

After the Falcons tied the game at 10 early in the second quarter on a 10-yard pass from Ryan to Roddy White, the Steelers needed just three plays to get back in front.

Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket on third-and-6 from the Pittsburgh 23 and found Brown running down the seam at midfield. Brown split a pair of defenders and easily outran them to the end zone. He jogged the last 15 yards and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for pointing the ball their way as he crossed the goal line.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin gave the 23-year-old a mild talking to after the score. Brown didn’t waste time showing Tomlin he’d learned his lesson.

The Steelers were facing third-and-10 at the Atlanta 44 shortly before the half when Roethlisberger heaved the ball toward the end zone, where the 5-foot-10 Brown outjumped Atlanta’s Brent Grimes and Dominique Franks for the ball. There was no taunting this time, just a somewhat awkward jig that would make teammate and “Dancing With the Stars” champion Hines Ward either wince or be proud.

The three touchdowns scored by the starters matched the three Pittsburgh put up in the first half against the Eagles last week.

Pittsburgh’s defense, which harassed Philadelphia’s Michael Vick into three picks in the same game, wasn’t quite so dominant trying to contain Atlanta’s versatile and high-powered offense.

The Falcons spread the field to minimize the Steelers’ vaunted pass rush and Ryan tested Pittsburgh reserve cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and William Gay, who had trouble keeping up with one of the league’s best receiving corps.

White finished with eight receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown, Rookie Julio Jones hauled in five passes for 59 yards and had a potential 49-yard touchdown pass slip through his fingers.

Harry Douglas added three catches for 31 yards and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez caught for passes for 26 yards while engaging in an entertaining battle with Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who appeared in a hurry to start living up to the hefty six-year, $50 million contract he signed earlier in the week.

Timmons had six tackles and chased down Ryan’s pass that deflected off the helmet of tight end Michael Palmer, returning it 44 yards to set up Shaun Suisham’s field goal for a 10-0 lead.

Atlanta later tied it, yet could only answer Brown’s touchdowns with field goals. The Falcons rolled up 17 first downs in the half — but Pittsburgh’s defense dug in when it mattered in an entertaining half that is easily the closest both teams have come to mimicking the regular season.

There were no such fireworks in the second half save for a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown by Pittsburgh’s Crezdon Butler.

By then the starters on both sides already had their shoulder pads off, including defensive end Ray Edwards, who failed to make a tackle in his first preseason game after the Falcons lured him away from Minnesota.

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