Gut Check Time: Two key Week 16 divisional battles may decide AFC East, AFC North

With three weeks to go in the NFL season, the games, similar to the NBA, have become an afterthought to the sudden surging of COVID-19 cases across the country, giving the nation a March 2020 feel, when it comes to news of the virus.

Even with the 2020 NFL season being played with virtually no fans in the stands, and the 2020 NBA playoffs played entirely in a ‘bubble’ in Orlando, Florida, it feels as if the pandemic is affecting the sports world now, in December, 2020, more than ever.

There have been hundreds of players in both the NFL and NBA that have been put into health and safety protocols over the past 10-12 days.

Head coaches have been forced to miss games, as have stars of franchises, and more.

Washington was forced to start Patriots practice-squad quarterback Garrett Gilbert, whom they signed from New England days before, on Tuesday to face the Eagles in Philadelphia in a game that likely decided their season. (They lost, but Gilbert hung tough).

More and more cases, or news of players entering health and safety protocols, have happened this week, making it uncertain if any of them can play this weekend in an ever-important slate of Week 16 action, with the playoffs looming.

But controlling the spread of the virus is more important than the games themselves, or your fantasy football playoffs with your buddies and friends.

Still, both the NFL and NBA have stated, in so many words, that the show must go on, regardless of who can play or not.

Week 16 in the NFL has a slew of interesting matchups, but none bigger than two division-deciding (virtually) contests in the AFC East and AFC North. Let’s give a quick breakdown on those, before getting to our weekly power rankings.

Buffalo Bills (8-6) at New England Patriots (9-5), 1:00 PM ET, CBS

Needless to say, this contest between the two AFC East rivals should be much different than their Week 13 clash in Buffalo. It may be windy, and it should be cold, but more normal football should take place. That means the Bills will look to utilize Josh Allen again. Slot receiver Cole Beasley will miss the game due to COVID-19 protocol, so now the Patriots can key on Stefon Diggs, and containing Allen. The fourth-year QB will still make plays for Buffalo, though, putting more pressure on Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the New England offense. With rookie Rhamondre Stevenson iffy for Sunday, it’ll be Damien Harris who will get the brunt of the carries, probably regardless.

New England will certainly throw the ball more than three times in this contest, but establishing the run versus the Bills defense is once again top priority. Through the air, Nelson Agholor (head) and Kendrick Bourne (COVID-19/reserve list) may be no gos. Jones needs at least one to return by Sunday to have a formidable receiving duo. Being smart, and attacking the Bills underneath (Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds, specifically) should be the way to go through the air. This could be a big game for Jakobi Meyers.

Honestly, this sort of feels like Buffalo is primed to pull an upset, yet, I can’t go through with it. Not in a contest that features a head-coaching battle between Bill Belichick and Sean McDermott. Patriots fans have waited a long two years since their last AFC East title. They should get that much closer on Sunday, after another nail-biting win over Buffalo. Patriots 24, Bills 20. 

Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), 1:00 PM ET, CBS

Back in October, the Bengals surprisingly clobbered the Ravens, 41-17, in Baltimore. Rookie phenom receiver Ja’Marr Chase racked up 201 yards and a long score (82-yarder) on just eight catches, as Joe Burrow and Cincinnati destroyed Baltimore’s defense.

This time around, the Ravens may not even have Lamar Jackson at quarterback. If they don’t, it’ll be second-year man Tyler Huntley, who has been a pleasant surprise. He’s been solid in the clutch, and his improvisational ability gives Baltimore a semblance of QB-running ability, even if that’s not off designed runs, or to the ability that Jackson brings.

Baltimore is the more experienced team. They’re better coached. They’ve been here, but they are absolutely reeling from injuries.

This is the Bengals’ time to strike. Cincinnati should be able to lean both on Joe Mixon and the running game and Burrow and the passing game.

Even if Jackson misses the game, everything is telling me that Baltimore will pull this out with a display of mental and physical toughness. After all, both teams’ seasons are on the line. But I think the AFC North, at least this season, is susceptible to a take over via new blood. It’s been a wonky season. Give me the Bengals at home. Bengals 27, Ravens 24.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 1). With the competition doing less than treading water recently, Aaron Rodgers is in better position to win his fourth NFL MVP award (and second straight), than he’s been all season.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) (Last week: 3). As of Thursday, both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are on the COVID-19 reserve list. That will complicate things for Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense this Sunday at home versus the Steelers.

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4) (Last week: 5). Jonathan Taylor has been fantastic, but at this point in time, I lean toward Cooper Kupp (barely) as the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year. Kupp has put up insane numbers in what is surely one of the best single seasons in league history for a wide receiver. He’s more than just an underneath slot option. He’s expanded into a pass catcher who can play in any role, using his footwork and overall route-running ability to be virtually uncoverable. What a player.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-4) (Last week: 2). The injuries didn’t help (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin), but it’s clear the Saints have the Bucs’ number. Tampa Bay could be seeing New Orleans at home in a 2-seed vs. 7-seed matchup in the NFC wild card round in January, so Tom Brady and company better figure this out. Although, last season, Tampa lost twice to New Orleans in the regular season, then defeated them in the Superdome in January.

5. Dallas Cowboys (10-4) (Last week: 7). Cowboys have quietly made their way back into contender status. Dallas hosts Washington this week before a matchup with Arizona in Week 17. There’s no hiding from that one. The Cardinals should be desperate, too, considering their recent slump. We’ll learn a great deal about both teams then, but for now, Dallas has to take care of business at home on Sunday Night Football to lock up the NFC East.

6. Indianapolis Colts (8-6) (Last week: 9). They were the faster, and possibly more physical team in their 27-17 win over the Patriots on Saturday night. They have big-time 2019 Titans energy, meaning they could find themselves surprising many to reach the AFC Championship Game. But that is likely their ceiling, unless Carson Wentz flips the script entirely in January. Those 2019 Titans were even handicapped by Ryan Tannehill, who at the time was a better quarterback (and still is) than Wentz right now. But for the time being, let’s praise the Colts. This is a well-coached team and wonderfully-crafted roster. Well done, Frank Reich and Chris Ballard.

7. New England Patriots (9-5) (Last week: 4). It took three full quarters for the Patriots, who entered the fourth period down 20-0, to match Indianapolis’ energy. Mac Jones’ dreadful start and late-game heroics/magic was reminiscent of Brady, though. That’s a macro-level, big-picture (beyond this season) silver lining for a franchise that is tied to its hopeful young quarterback. Next up — Buffalo. The Patriots will basically clinch the AFC East with a win. This is a massive game.

8. Buffalo Bills (8-6) (Last week: 10). After all that has happened recently, the Bills have a chance to avenge their loss to New England by taking down the Patriots in their own house this weekend, and re-taking the AFC East lead with just two weeks to go. Buffalo plays Atlanta and the New York Jets after this, so this game should decide the division either way.

9. San Francisco 49ers (8-6) (Last week: 11). Like the Colts in the AFC, the 49ers are quickly becoming a team in the NFC that has come on strong as of late, and that no team would like to face in January. The combination of Deebo Samuel and George Kittle is up there with the best one-two punches on offense in the league.

10. Arizona Cardinals (10-4) (Last week: 6). For the second straight season, the Cardinals are sliding down the stretch. They’ll make the playoffs regardless this time around. But they’ll need to show some fight versus Indianapolis, Dallas and Seattle to be any sort of a factor in the playoffs.

11. Tennessee Titans (9-5) (Last week: 8). They just need to get healthy. Without Derrick Henry or A.J. Brown, they can’t do much of anything on offense. But if those two can come back (and be relatively healthy) for the playoffs, watch out.

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) (Last week: 12). Justin Herbert is phenomenal, but like their predecessors, there’s still a lot of ‘Chargers are gonna’ Charger’ energy with this team. Winning two of their final three games may be enough to get them into the playoffs.

13. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) (Last week: 13). Their sound coaching, and overall toughness/smarts have kept them afloat amidst a devastating season of injuries, but it’s starting to become too much. Their season is likely on the line in Cincinnati this week.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) (Last week: 15). A win at home over Baltimore on Sunday would give them a season sweep of the Ravens, and pull them extremely close to locking up the AFC North title. This is their shot. Biggest game of Joe Burrow’s NFL career thus far.

15. Minnesota Vikings (7-7) (Last week: 16). They’re hanging around, even if apathetically. They have talent, but no one should trust them.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1) (Last week: NR). The Steelers, a proud franchise, have been gutsy this season. They’re still in the mix. Sunday’s game in Kansas City is almost a must-win for them, though.

Next Up: New Orleans, Miami, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Philadelphia 

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