With just one week left in the regular season, the team sit down for another five questions.
This week, as well as looking at the best performances from the penultimate week of games, they look at the keys to the de facto playoff game in New York to decide the NFC East winner, as well as the chances of the two teams in control of their own destiny in the AFC.
They then move on to an area in which it’s been a big year and choose the pass rushers they’d put in with the game on the line and finish off the discussion by looking at the most improved players of the year.
1) Top performance of the week?
Nathan: I’ll go back to Thursday, and Reggie Wayne’s performance in what could be his last home game in Indianapolis. I fully expected the Texans to put Joseph on Wayne, and when they didn’t, Wayne had 106 yards and the game winning touchdown. I’m not sure if there is a better way he could’ve gone out given the season the Colts have had.
Ben: It came when the game was already closed out for the Lions but Cliff Avril’s pick six at 2:33 in the fourth quarter of their game with the Chargers was an astonishing individual effort.
Sam: Trent Cole has had a relatively quiet season by his standards, but he took the Dallas O-line to task and was a constant irritant for them when they played the Eagles.
Khaled: That’s the first time I’ve watched Matt Stafford and thought, ‘this guy could dominate and could do it without Calvin Johnson’.
Neil: Didn’t see that many games this week so I’ll probably go with Chris Kelsay’s dominant display against the Broncos.
2) It’s all about the playoffs now and in a perfect set-up, Dallas will travel to New York to settle the NFC East crown and the NFC’s final playoff berth. From what you’ve seen of them, what’s the likely key to winning that game?
Nathan: I think it simply will come down to the quarterbacks. Eli Manning has had the better season, but has been average recently, while Tony Romo has been above average on the season, and playing well recently. Both teams have strengths in run defense, rushing the passer, and in receivers. It will be who can make the plays on offense, and that will come down to these two.
Ben: Can the Cowboys come up with a big performance in the clutch? I think that’s basically what it boils down to, I think they’re a better team than the Giants but where as the Giants have proven themselves able to elevate themselves in the big situation there are still doubts about the Cowboys. Can Romo get some support from his team on a big occasion and if not can he drag his team through as Eli has done on a couple of occasions this season. Both teams have been good on occasion and both teams have been bad on occasion this year. The other 15 games of this season will be largely forgotten and this game will define their year, the team that gets more from its running game I think will have an edge in this game but I’m expecting this game to come down to the last five minutes, possibly the last possession.
Sam: Probably the quarterback play. Eli has a well earned clutch reputation, but he’s also perfectly capable of poor games, especially with Hakeem Nicks working on his dropsies recently. Tony Romo on the other hand is still the darling of plenty of Cowboys fans but has a reputation as something of a choker and is well capable of losing a game all by himself. The Cowboys kept him out of the Eagles game once they realized the Giants had won, and the talk is his hand will be OK, so it’ll be down to him to play well and lead the Cowboys offense.
Khaled: Scoring more points that the opposition always helps. How do they do that you ask? It’s how the Cowboys secondary holds up against the Giants receivers? They can get pressure on Eli Manning all they want, as they did in the first game, but it will matter for naught if they can’t get a handle on Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
Neil: It will probably come down to which Eli Manning turns up. Sub-optimal may be good enough to beat the deteriorating Mark Sanchez but unlikely to prevail over the recently rejuvenated Romo.
3) In the AFC, Denver and Cincinnati are in control of the last two spots, but each may need to win to secure them. Thoughts on Denver hosting Kansas City and Cincinnati at home against Baltimore-will they nail down their playoff entries or leave the door open to be overtaken?
Nathan: I think Denver win the division as they were able to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, and it should be easier as a home game. On the other hand, I don’t see the Bengals winning. With a win, the Ravens could possibly get home field advantage, and with a loss they could be the fifth seed. Baltimore has a lot to play for, and are a better team. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Cincinnati made it in anyway even if they do lose.
Ben: Cincinnati have the luxury but also the pressure of knowing what they have to do before they kickoff and I think of the two they’re more likely to slip up if the Jets can win in South Beach, which isn’t guaranteed, during the early kickoff. The Bengals have not matched up well with the best teams so far this year and after going to sleep and nearly getting bitten by the Cardinals last week I think they’ll struggle to beat a Ravens team playing for a bye week and potentially homefield advantage. The Broncos I think will nail it down against the Chiefs, Kyle Orton will be motivated, but as much as anything I think they’ll be safe based on the Chargers beating the inconsistent Raiders.
Sam: Denver vs KC is interesting. KC showed signs of life with Orton at QB (beating the Packers no less), and Tebow finally played the poor game his detractors have been waiting for. Can he rebound, or is this the moment the tide goes out on his time at quarterback? I’d like to see Cincinnati get in. They’ve lost a few key people to injury and have done this with a rookie QB, but I’m not sure I can see them beating the Ravens, they just seem to be a half step behind the class of that division. Baltimore still has something to play for (a bye) and they’ll play hard.
Khaled: Baltimore need that win and I just don’t think the Bengals offense is good enough right now to put up enough points on the Ravens D. The Tebow bubble has well and truly burst and teams have figured out how to beat him. The Chiefs have as mean a defense as any and could really get after him. How annoying will it be if Kyle Orton leads the Chiefs to eliminating the Broncos?
Neil: I doubt the Bengals will beat the Ravens who have something of their own to secure and also see Kyle Orton wanting to show the Broncos what they gave up. I think both fall at the last hurdle.
4) It’s been a fun season to watch pass rushers and- having seen so much of them-I’m curious as to your preference if you needed just one big play. So, say it’s 3rd-and-long and you’re up by a score in the final moments of a playoff game. Which edge rusher are you putting your faith in to reach the QB and seal the win?
Nathan: I’ll go with someone who has been on fire recently, and that’s Aldon Smith. I don’t think any pass rusher has been better in December with 7 sacks in the last four games, and plenty of pressure to go along with it.
Ben: For a third and long I’m going to see a deep drop so I want a rusher with the speed to frighten an offensive tackle but the inside move that he can’t overcompensate to the outside. One man alone fills that recipe perfectly and in spite of his down season the pass rusher I want on the field is Dwight Freeney. His down year is as much down to the Colts inability to give him a lead to pass rush with as much as anything but his outside speed along with his phenomenal inside spin move is still the most devastating pass rush combination of any rusher in the NFL, for my money.
Sam: If all I want is one play I still want Dwight Freeney. OK he’s had a pretty poor season by his standards, along with all Colts, but his inside spin move is still devastating to all offensive tackles. His centre of gravity and ability to scare them with upfield burst before breaking back inside is fantastic to watch and for a one off play I think it’s the best pass-rushing move in football.
Khaled: Right now I’m probably looking at someone like Jason Babin. He’s got this arsenal of moves that really has tackles overcompensating and second guessing themselves.
Neil: I’ll go with my favourite; Trent Cole. Injury robbed us of another incredible year (well actually it was remarkable regardless) but he’s a guy who can beat any tackle in the league.
5) With the regular season nearly complete, who is the player that has made you think, “I didn’t know he had that in him”? Could be an aspect of his game that hadn’t shown well in the past or an overall level of production that has seen a major bump.
Nathan: Bryan Bulaga of the Packers has looked like a completely different player. During last year’s Super Bowl run, he looked like the biggest liability on the Green Bay offense, and this year when healthy he has made the right side of the line amazing. He has stepped up significantly in both pass protection and run blocking.
Ben: Two AFC South left tackles I think have been the most pleasant surprises for me this year in the shape of Duane Brown and Eugene Monroe. Coming into the league a year apart they have both struggled until this year with Brown showing at least marginal improvement through his career but this year they have both been amongst the best in the league. Two players who have been so noticeable, not in a good way, so far in their career have really raised their game this season and kept things quiet on the left side.
Sam: Minnesota’s center John Sullivan. He had been nicked up in the past but had never shown anything to suggest he could even be an average starting center in the NFL and this season he’s arguably an All-Pro and certainly the best center in the NFC. Anyone that tells you they knew that was coming is either high or lying.
Khaled: I’ve always thought Leroy Harris was pretty poor, but this year he’s done a good job for a Titans line that has struggled. He’s done well with his in line blocking and showed a real aptitude to pull to either side and create some holes.
Neil: The obvious one is John Sullivan but I’m as Sam has gone into that one I’ll say Levi Brown’s late season displays have left me shocked. I actually thought he was incapable of holding out anybody but seven hurries in the last five weeks is unbelievable. When you say this included Dallas and San Francisco it becomes almost surreal.