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Milt Northrop’s Sunday Playbook: Much at stake as season heads to climax

Some are playing out the string with their playoff hopes gone, but 10 of the 14 remaining games on the Week 16 National Football League schedule will have some bearing on what teams make the playoffs or where they will be seeded.

Only the Dallas-Buffalo, San Francisco-Detroit, Chicago-Tampa Bay and Jacksonville-New Orleans games will have little or no effect on the playoff picture.

New England and Cincinnati in the AFC and Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, Washington and Seattle in the NFC have clinched berths. The Redskins wrapped up the NFC East title by winning in Philadelphia on Saturday night.

Two monster games head the schedule – Green Bay at Arizona on Sunday and Cincinnati’s game at Denver on Monday night. Playoff byes and seeding are at stake for both sides in each game.

A capsule look at the remaining Week 16 games:

Game of the Week

Bengals (11-3) at Broncos (10-4)

TV: ESPN, Monday, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Broncos (-3½).

The scoop: A Bengals win or Steelers loss would clinch AFC North title for Cincinnati. Same with Broncos. If they win or Kansas City loses, it’s all over in AFC West. Bengals also clinch first-round bye with win.

Outlook: Broncos haven’t scored in second half of last two games, both losses, but this is at home against Cincy’s backup QB. Denver, 24-16.

Top attractions

Packers (10-4) at Cardinals (12-2)

TV: FOX, 4:25 p.m.

The line: Cardinals (-4½).

The scoop: Game that is equally as important as Bengals at Broncos. ... Packers will clinch NFC North with a win and a loss or tie by Vikings. Cardinals will clinch first-round bye with a win. Packers stay in contention for a bye if they win. ... Teams haven’t met since 2012 when Aaron Rodgers threw four TD passes in 31-17 Packers win. Last time Green Bay visited, Rodgers completed 21 of 26 passes for 235 yards in 33-7 rout. ... Cardinals rookie RB David Johnson has 12 rushing touchdowns, including three last week in rout of Eagles. ... Arizona will be without DB Tyrann Mathieu, who went on IR with knee injury. He was tied for team lead with five interceptions.

Outlook: Rodgers will keep ball out of hands of Cards’ defenders, but Arizona, 28-27.

Patriots (12-2) at Jets (9-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Patriots (-3).

The scoop: New England clinches home-field advantage throughout AFC playoffs with a win. Patriots already certain of first-round bye for sixth consecutive season. They’ve won last seven AFC East titles, equalling the mark of the Los Angeles Rams (1973-79). Rams’ streak began under Chuck Knox and ended with Ray Malavasi at helm. ... New England defeated Jets, 30-23, on Oct. 25 when Jets kicked a field goal in final minute to leave it a seven-point margin. Pats escaped with 17-16 road win over Rex Ryan and Jets on Dec. 21, 2014. ... Defense, No. 4 in league, has come through for New England with all the injuries on offense, especially to receivers and running backs. Patriots rank sixth in offense. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has 65 TD catches since 2010, most in NFL. ... Believe or not, Ryan Fitzpatrick needs just three TD passes to tie Vinny Testaverde’s Jets record of 29 set in 1998.

Outlook: Jets haven’t beaten a team with a better-than-.500 record and Pats were over .500 last time we looked. New England, 20-14.

Steelers (9-5) at Ravens (4-10)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Steelers (-10).

The scoop: Pittsburgh clinches playoff spot with a win and a loss by New York Jets. This used to be a battle royal between two physical AFC North teams. Ravens have suffered badly due to injuries (Joe Flacco, Steve Smith Sr. etc.) and various other reasons. However, one of Baltimore’s four wins was 23-20 overtime win at Heinz Field on Oct. 1. Remember, Michael Vick started in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger at QB for Steelers in that one. ... Antonio Brown of Steelers has 64 catches and 868 yards and seven TDs in last six games. Brown has 116 receptions for 1,586 yards for season.

Outlook: Games between division rivals often play closer than you’d expect. Steelers, though, are too committed to getting to postseason and they’re used to crowds in Balto. Steelers, 27-10.

Browns (3-11) at Chiefs (9-5)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Chiefs (-11).

The scoop: Chiefs living off turnovers and that could be big trouble for Browns with Johnny Manziel at QB. KC is plus-15 in turnovers, mainly because Alex Smith has thrown only four INTs. Also, Chiefs are third in sacks with 41, behind only Patriots and Broncos with 47 each.

Outlook: Browns seem capable of an upset for a half each week, then can’t finish the job. Assuming Johnny Football doesn’t turn it into a turnover fest, it’s Chiefs, 27-17.

Texans (7-7) at Titans (3-11)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Texans (-3½).

The scoop: Brandon Weeden starts for Houston at QB after leading win at Indianapolis last week in relief of TJ Yates. ... A win by Texans and loss by Colts at Miami would give Houston the AFC South title. ... Titans have lost Marcus Mariota for season so Zach Mettenberger will start. Delanie Walker, who had two TD catches in last week’s loss at Patriots, leads team with 76 receptions for 935 yards.

Outlook: J.J. Watt and Houston pass rush come through against Titans’ backup QB. Texans, 20-10.

Colts (6-8) at Dolphins (5-9)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Dolphins (-2½).

The scoop: Matt Hasselbeck will start again at QB for Indy, sore ribs and all. ... Colts, who have lost three in a row, need to win to stay alive in AFC South race. ... Last time Indy visited Dolphins, Peyton Manning led 27-23 win in 2009. ... Miami has lost last two home games and needs to win last two to finish 4-4 there.

Outlook: Outside of Falcons and Bills, Dolphins have been season’s biggest disappointment. However, they rise up against hurtin’ Hasselbeck. Dolphins, 30-24.

Panthers (14-0) at Falcons (7-7)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Carolina (-6½).

The scoop: It seems like ages when this game looked as if it would decide the NFC South race. Only thing not determined for Carolina is home-field advantage in NFC playoffs. A win over Falcons would clinch that. So would a loss by Cardinals. ... Cam Newton enhanced his MVP credentials with huge game against Giants, his third 5-TD pass game in the last five. ... Ted Ginn Jr., once considered a bust, looking for fourth game in a row with two TD catches. TE Greg Olsen leads team with 71 receptions for 1,048 yards. ... Jonathan Stewart, who sat out Giants game, will not play Sunday. ... Falcons snapped a five-game losing streak with 23-17 win at Jaguars last week, but not before blowing 17-3 lead.

Outlook: Watch for fireworks between Panthers’ CB Josh Norman and Atlanta WR Roddy White. Falcons have some pride and throw another scare into unbeaten Panthers, who are coasting. Carolina, 23-20.

Giants (6-8) at Vikings (9-5)

TV: NBC, 8:30 p.m,

The line: Vikings (-6).

The scoop: The Giants’ playoff hopes faded away Saturday night when the Redskins beat the Eagles to win the division. Vikings can clinch a playoff spot with a win or a loss by the Falcons or a win by Seahawks. Beckham’s meltdown versus Panthers reminded veteran baseball watchers of Jimmy Piersall’s breakdown with Red Sox back in the 1950s. Story became a movie, “Fear Strikes Out” with Anthony Perkins.

Outlook: Giants too distracted and lost their motivation with the Washington win. Vikings, 28-21.

Best of the rest

Cowboys (4-10) at Bills (6-8)

TV: FOX, 1 p.m.

The line: Bills (-6½).

The scoop: Kellen Moore starts at QB for Dallas in place of Matt Cassel. Moore performed well (16 for 22, 1 TD) for Lions against Buffalo in 17-10 Detroit win in preseason. Dallas 3-4 on road and only 1-6 in Arlington. ... Bills haven’t defeated Cowboys since 10-7 win in 1996. Dallas leads all-time series 8-3, including two Super Bowl routs. ... Cowboys will be without WR Dez Bryant, who would have figured to have big game against Buffalo secondary without Stephon Gilmore.

Outlook: Bills’ situation more discouraging than ever. First year of coaching regime should hold some promise of future, but team is fragmenting. Cowboys, 24-13.

Jaguars (5-9) at Saints (5-9)

TV: CBS, 4:05 p.m.

The line: Saints (-3).

The scoop: Will this be Sean Payton’s last home game as coach of Saints? Two teams going nowhere. Jaguars thought they were in hunt for AFC South title before losing home game to Atlanta last week. That followed 51-16 rout of Colts. ... Drew Brees of Saints (4,135) is second in NFC in passing yards while Blake Bortles of Jags is third in AFC with 3,821. Brees questionable with plantar fasciitis problem. ... Allen Robinson of Jaguars leads the league with 13 touchdown catches. Saints now 31st in league in total defense. Giants are last.

Outlook: If Brees plays, score could be in 40s. With Matt Flynn or Garrett Grayson at QB it’s New Orleans, 33-27.

Bears (5-9) at Buccaneers (6-8)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Bucs (-3½).

The scoop: Nothing at stake in this one. Bears lost last three. Bucs off the last 10 days since Thursday night loss at Rams, 31-23. ... Mike Evans of Bucs caught nine passes for 157 yards in that one to go over 1,000-yard mark, but he has only three TD catches. ... Jay Cutler of Bears is 3-0 in career starts at QB against Tampa Bay.

Outlook: Rout at Minnesota last week unusual for Bears who usually lose close. Bucs, very inconsistent on offense. Chicago, 20-17.

Rams (6-8) at Seahawks (9-5)

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.

The line: Seahawks (-12).

The scoop: Rams defeated Seahawks, 34-31, in overtime back in Week One. St. Louis has faded badly since mostly because of uneven production at quarterback. They had seven games when they scored one touchdown or less. Rams have won last two over Detroit and Tampa Bay. Faced with tough schedule, St. Louis has suffered but Rams also have losses to lowly Bears and Ravens.

Outlook: Rams have won four of last five against Seahawks when games are in St. Louis. Unfortunately, this one’s in Seattle. Seahawks, 20-10.

Dog of the day

49ers (4-10) at Lions (5-9)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Lions (-10).

The scoop: Niners can be dangerous at home, but not on road where they are only 1-6, with the win coming at Chicago. QB Blaine Gabbert completed 30 of 50 passes for 295 yards and a TD in Week 15 home loss to Bengals, but threw three interceptions and was sacked four times. San Francisco ranks last in league in total offense and 27th in defense. Lions rate in middle of pack in both, but are 31st in rushing offense.

Outlook: Lions’ last win over Niners was in 1995. They are 0-9 since, but only 0-2 in Motor City. Detroit, 24-14.

Last week’s results: 12-2 straight up; 9-5 versus line.

Season’s record: 129-76 straight up; 108-96-5 versus line.


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