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The one-on-one battle to watch closely in Week 17:
49ers WR Michael Crabtree vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson
You have to think Peterson will be out for revenge in this one since Crabtree has averaged seven catches for 107 yards and a touchdown in four career games against him. The Niners wideout especially made Peterson look bad last year at Arizona on a 9-yard touchdown in which Crabtree faked Peterson out of his drawers. On the other side of the coin, Crabtree has heard all week from the Cardinals about how he doesn’t look the same after Achilles surgery. He’d probably admit that, but that still doesn’t mean he likes to hear it.
Last week’s verdict:
Texans DT J.J. Watt vs. Broncos RG Louis Vasquez
For most players, getting two quarterback hits and three hurries in a game is a very good effort. For Watt, it’s a quiet game, so you have to tip your hat to Vasquez. He did a tremendous job when lined up on Watt (who lines up all over the place), allowing just one hurry. Vasquez also stood out in run blocking.
FIVE BOLD PREDICTIONS FOR WEEK 17
1. The defenses will determine Packers-Bears. It surely does not hurt the Packers’ chances of winning the NFC North title game that quarterback Aaron Rodgers is back—he’s the best offensive weapon in the game when healthy, although he’s sure to curtail his running coming back from a fractured collarbone. But this one will be decided by two subpar defenses. If the Bears can’t find a way to stop the run—they’re allowing a league-worst 161.5 yards per game and 5.4 yards per attempt—Rodgers might not even need to throw a pass. The Packers aren’t much better (26th and 27th respectively), and have to figure out a way to deal with Bears receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall. Which defense will force the big turnover?
2. Jason Witten will draw the most attention from the Eagles. Aside from slowing down running back DeMarco Murray, the Eagles will be most worried about Cowboys tight end Jason Witten in the NFC East title game. While receiver Dez Bryant is a good matchup against anyone, including Eagles cornerback Cary Williams, we can’t see Kyle Orton being comfortable airing it out outside the numbers. Orton is at his best when he can dink and dunk it, and Witten is the guy who makes it go for the Cowboys in that type of game. If the Eagles don’t clamp down on him, it could be a long day.
3. The Jets will win for Rex. The Jets haven’t won on the road since beating the Falcons on Oct. 7, but they’ll find a way to end the Dolphins’ playoff hopes in what could be Rex Ryan’s final game as head coach. Few coaches are more loved by his players than Ryan—that’s neither a positive nor a negative—so there won’t be any shortage of emotion from the Jets players. This game will be won or lost up front. Can the Dolphins block the Jets’ defensive line? Miami couldn’t last week against Buffalo.
4. Robert Mathis will pass Robert Quinn for the sack title. Thanks to a scoring change this week that gave the Colts outside linebacker a sack/fumble on a play that was originally scored an interception, Mathis (17.5) trails Rams end Robert Quinn (18) by a half-sack entering the final game. Quinn has to go up against Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung, who has looked very sharp the past few weeks. Mathis faces Jaguars left tackle Cameron Bradfield, who has given up one sack in four of his past six games, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
5. The Patriots will be tested by the Bills. Buffalo’s defense surged to the top of our Pressure Points rankings for the season with a dominant performance last week against the Dolphins (see below for all of Week 16′s pressure rankings). The Patriots have a much better line, but the Bills are just that good under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who knows a few tricks for slowing Tom Brady down from his time with the Jets. Still, expect the Patriots’ defense to come up with a few key plays to give the offense some short fields and New England to win an important game for seeding.
With the Christmas holiday breaking up the week, here’s an abbreviated update on who brought the most pass-rush heat in Week 16, and who’s leading the way throughout the season.
Top Edge Rusher for Week 16
Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers
He doesn’t get the attention running mate Charles Johnson receives, but Hardy is putting the finishing touches on an All Pro-type season. In a huge division victory against the Saints, Hardy had three sacks (half were unassisted), a sack assist and six other pressures for 6.5 Pressure Points—his highest total since posting 5.75 in Week 3 against the Giants.
For the season, Hardy ranks 12th in our Pressure Points Rate (8.9 percent), which is four spots better than Johnson (8.0). Hardy also helps his teammates as much as any other. His 5.5 sack assists—causing an eventual sack for another—is the best among edge rushers and tied with J.J. Watt for tops among all pass rushers.
Unsung Edge Rusher for Week 16
Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
He didn’t have a sack against the Falcons, but his sack assist, four hurries and two hits were good enough to tie for seventh among edge rushers this week. Since returning to a full-time role in Week 11, Smith has 19.75 Pressure Points and has started to regain his form from before checking into a treatment facility. Smith’s Pressure Points Rate of 11.8 since Week 11 is just off his 12.2 from Weeks 1-3.
Top Interior Rusher for Week 16
Kyle Williams, Buffalo Bills
This category has basically become the Gerald McCoy and Williams show. McCoy, Tampa’s stellar tackle, took the top spot in four of the previous five weeks. Williams is the only player to edge him out in Week 13 and now 16. Williams also took the unsung honors in Week 9.
With 4.0 Pressure Points against the Dolphins, Williams bumped Denver’s Malik Jackson out of the third spot in our rankings for the season. That’s the way it should be. The best interior rushers this season have been, in order, Watt, McCoy and Williams. His rise has been emblematic of his team: this week Buffalo jumped from third in our team rushing ranks for the season to first, ahead of Seattle and Houston.
Unsung Interior Rusher for Week 16
Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers
Like teammate Greg Hardy has been overshadowed by Charles Johnson, Short (second round) hasn’t received the spotlight as much as fellow rookie tackle Star Lotulelei (first), but they’re comparable in production (Lotulelei is the run stuffer).
With a sack assist and four hurries against the Saints, Short posted his best pass-rush game of the season and was tied for sixth among interior rushers.
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