As fantasy football players prepare for Championship Week, there are still some important games on the Week 16 NFL schedule. That's important because the games in which there is no incentive for either team to win makes it difficult to put a lot of faith into a team's production.
To that end, games like Bengals-Steelers, Giants-Ravens, Vikings-Texans and 49ers-Seahawks are of primary interest, with playoff spots/positioning hanging in the balance.
On the other hand, it pays to be aware of teams playing without any pressure. Sometimes a player in that situation (say, Jacksonville WR Cecil Shorts or Bills RB C.J. Spiller) can put up big numbers, or at least enough to help a team in championship week.
Check out this week's Power Rankings for more of my takes on all 32 teams.
A look at the Week 16 matchups in the NFL:
ATLANTA (-3.5) at DETROIT
One team is coming off one of Week 15's most impressive wins (34-0 over the Giants), while the other is coming off one of the most disappointing performances of the season (losing 38-10 at Arizona).
Atlanta's high-powered offence should be able to move the ball and score against Detroit, and while wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White along with TE Tony Gonzalez are prime threats, even RB Michael Turner, who has exceeded 55 yards once in the last six games, should be able to grind out some yards against a Lions defence allowing 4.6 yards per carry and now missing injured DT Nick Fairley.
From the Lions' perspective, they have a chance to keep up with the Falcons as long as QB Matthew Stafford plays at a high level -- which he most definitely didn't at Arizona. WR Calvin Johnson gives them a puncher's chance, but these punchers have also dropped six straight games.
TENNESSEE (+12.5) at GREEN BAY
The Titans upended the New York Jets on Monday Night Football, but will find a distinctly different animal at Lambeau Field, where the Packers have a more than competent quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who will be able to take advantage against a Titans defence that has allowed 26 passing touchdowns.
With Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings and James Jones healthy (Jordy Nelson questionable), expect the Packers to throw, but they also may need to turn to veteran RB Ryan Grant because Alex Green has missed practice time this week due to a concussion.
If the Titans are going to upset the Packers, they will need a monstrous game from RB Chris Johnson, who has five 100-yard rushing games, including 122 against the Jets last week (94 of them on one long touchdown run. Kudos to Johnson, by the way, for honouring the Newtown victims by putting all of their names on his cleats.) Titans QB Jake Locker will have to use his mobility to get free from Green Bay's pass rush, especially now that OLB Clay Matthews is healthy.
OAKLAND (+8.5) at CAROLINA
The Raiders snapped a six-game losing streak last week when they shut out the hapless Chiefs, but they're going to find it rougher with a trip to Carolina this week. The Panthers have won three of their last four and QB Cam Newton has been among the most productive quarterbacks in the second half of the season, which makes the whole Panthers offence more effective.
That means not only WR Steve Smith, but WR Brandon LaFell, TE Greg Olsen and RB DeAngelo Williams hold some appeal going against a Raiders team that ranks 21st against the run and 27th against the pass.
Of some interest -- and reason to limit the appeal of Raiders QB Carson Palmer -- the Raiders have suggested that Terrelle Pryor, who has attempted one pass in two NFL seasons, will get some time at quarterback.
BUFFALO (+5) at MIAMI
After getting pasted by the Seahawks in Toronto, Buffalo heads to South Florida, where they can try to duplicate their Week 11 win over the Dolphins. The Bills don't have the passing game to take full advantage against Miami's secondary, so that means more pressure on RB C.J. Spiller, who will be happy to get the bulk of the carries for the Bills.
Miami could be shortstaffed at wide receiver, with Brian Hartline and Davone Bess both missing practice time with injuries this week, which leaves Marlon Moore, Armon Binns and Rishard Matthews as the next three wideouts. So, maybe this game will be Reggie Bush vs. C.J. Spiller for all the marbles.
CINCINNATI (+3) at PITTSBURGH
Winners of five of their last six games, the Bengals visit the Steelers in a crucial game for both teams' playoff hopes. Considering the Steelers own the league's best pass defence (180.6 yards allowed per game allowed) it's not an easy matchup for Bengals WR A.J. Green, but it might bode well for RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Steelers rank fourth against the run (92.7 yards allowed per game), but Green-Ellis has surpassed 100 yards in five of the last six games.
At 7-7, Pittsburgh is more desperate and doesn't have a real running game to speak of (no runner with more than 60 yards in any of the last five games), with all due respect to Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, bruising backs without much wiggle. However, the Steelers can chuck it when Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, so expect Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown to be featured prominently.
NEW ENGLAND (-14.5) at JACKSONVILLE
That the Patriots are more than two touchdown favourites on the road indicates how big a mismatch this is perceived to be. Even though the Patriots lost to San Francisco Sunday night, they showed an ability to march down the field, scoring four touchdowns on four consecutive drives (after falling behind 31-3), so if they can do that against the 49ers, there is little reason to think they will be held in check by Jacksonville. QB Tom Brady, TE Aaron Hernandez, WR Wes Welker and RB Stevan Ridley are all high-end plays, but WR Brandon Lloyd is worth a look too.
For what it's worth, out of the Patriots' five road wins this season, only one has been by a margin of less than 21 points and that was Week 14's seven-point win at Miami (where the Jags just lost by 21).
The Jaguars lost 24-3 at Miami last week, which doesn't bode well when playing a superior team the following week, but they can take some solace in the return of WR Cecil Shorts, who had six catches for 101 yards against the Dolphins. Shorts and Justin Blackmon will have to put pressure on the Patriots secondary if the Jaguars are to have any hope of staying in this game. Over the last couple games, Jaguars RB Montell Owens has run for 138 yards on 25 carries -- it could be worth giving him the rock a few more times.
INDIANAPOLIS (-7) at KANSAS CITY
The Colts are coming off a loss in Houston, but ought to find a game against the Chiefs (who were shut out by Oakland) more to their liking. The Indy running game has improved, with Vick Ballard running for 199 yards over the last two games and they still have a terrific trio of wide receivers -- Reggie Wayne, Donnie Avery, T.Y. Hilton -- for Andrew Luck to spread the ball around to, though that spreading has left Wayne as a bit of an afterthought in recent weeks, putting up 13 catches for 129 yards in the last three games.
After an inspiring effort a few weeks ago against Carolina, the Chiefs have reverted to form, losing by a combined 45-7 at Cleveland and Oakland. Returning home should help somewhat, but without WR Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs' already-meagre passing attack will be hard-pressed to keep pace with Luck & Co.
NEW ORLEANS (+2.5) at DALLAS
Just when it looked like the Saints were packing up for the season, they dropped a 41-0 bomb on Tampa Bay, making this week's matchup in Dallas more intriguing. When the Saints are on, they can score on anyone, as their committee of running backs is decent while TE Jimmy Graham and WR Marques Colston can be matchup problems.
Dallas, on the other hand, has miraculously stayed in the playoff hunt, winning five of the last six games, including two in OT and one by a single point. Facing a Saints defence that has been terrible (at least prior to Week 15) opens the vault for Cowboys appeal -- that means QB Tony Romo, RB DeMarco Murray, WR Miles Austin, WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten are all good plays. The Cowboys may pull out the win that they need to stay in the playoff hunt, but it won't be easy -- with Dallas, it never is.
WASHINGTON (-6.5) at PHILADELPHIA
With five straight wins and Robert Griffin III likely to return at quarterback, the Redskins are poised to land a playoff spot if they can win their last two games. The Eagles have been in free-fall for so long, losing nine of their last 10 games, that it's hard to imagine them summoning the resources to make a game of this, but the Eagles are due to get RB LeSean McCoy back in the lineup this week, so there is the chance that a healthy McCoy will be a difference maker.
While the Eagles are tough to back, it's not inconceivable that WR Jeremy Maclin (who has 13 catches for 177 yards in the last two games) could thrive against Washington's subpar pass defence
ST. LOUIS (+3) at TAMPA BAY
A pair of teams not quite good enough to be playoff teams, but not altogether awful either. The Rams have won three of their last four and QB Sam Bradford threw for a career-high 377 yards in last week's loss to Minnesota, so he may be prepared to take advantage of the Bucs' porous pass defence, which has allowed a league-high 311 yards per game. On the other hand, Tampa Bay's run defence has been the league's best, so Rams RB Steven Jackson will have his work cut out for him.
The Rams' pass defence has been decent (ranked 9th), but could be hampered this week since CB Cortland Finnegan has missed practice. If Finnegan can't play, the Bucs have the wide receivers, most notably Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson, to create a mismatch that benefits QB Josh Freeman.
N.Y. GIANTS (+2.5) at BALTIMORE
The defending champions are in a tough spot, needing a win at Baltimore to keep their playoff hopes alive (not officially, but it will get awfully difficult at 8-7). The good news for the Giants is that they rarely show up the same from one week to the next, so they aren't likely to lay an egg like they did in last week's 34-0 loss at Atlanta.
If they don't get RB Ahmad Bradshaw back, that leaves the Giants' running game in the hands of David Wilson and Kregg Lumpkin, who were fine against Atlanta. Wilson had 66 yards on 13 touches, suggesting that maybe he could handle a few more touches.
The Ravens have lost three straight, putting their own playoff status in peril. They still lead the AFC North, but if they lose to the G-Men, the Ravens could be caught. With WR Torrey Smith questionable, after suffering a concussion, look to veteran WR Anquan Boldin and TE Dennis Pitta to anchor the passing game and that should be Baltimore's plan of attack against the Giants' 28th-ranked pass defence.
MINNESOTA (+7.5) at HOUSTON
The Vikings are in playoff position right now, thanks largely to RB Adrian Peterson, who continues his pursuit of the single-season rushing record owned by Eric Dickerson. Peterson needs 294 yards in the last two games to set the mark and he's likely to get a lot of carries in an effort to make that happen, but it won't come easily against a Houston defence that ranks fifth against the run (93.2 yards per game) and a defence that knows they don't need to pay much attention to the Minnesota passing game.
The Texans, on the other hand, have the weapons to punish the Vikings. RB Arian Foster is as productive as any non-Peterson back in football, and if the Vikings sell out to stop the run, WR Andre Johnson has been a force over the last six weeks, gaining 916 yards.
CLEVELAND (+13) at DENVER
Before losing by 17 at home to Washington last week, the Browns had been a relatively competitive team, winning four of six (with one loss in OT), so they can't be entirely overlooked, but they're not nearly in the class of the Broncos, who have won nine in a row, by an average margin of 12.7 points.
While Browns RB Trent Richardson has scored a pair of touchdowns in each of the last two games, he's only run for 70 yards in those two games and is going up against the Broncos' second-ranked run defence.
Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas could have a more difficult matchup, facing Browns CB Joe Haden, so give more attention to WR Eric Decker, who has 16 catches for 221 yards over the last two weeks. Also, RB Knowshon Moreno has run for 237 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the last two weeks.
CHICAGO (-5.5) at ARIZONA
The Bears have dropped five of six, but they're not in complete disarray. Those five losses came against Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay, which is a tough stretch on the schedule.
In a shocking turn of events, the Cardinals won 38-10 last week against the Lions. With Ryan Lindley at quarterback, though, it's hard to figure they can duplicate that against a Bears defence that, while not as dominant as they were earlier in the year (in part due to injuries), is still likely to cause problems for the Cardinals. If the Bears can't rebound and win this one, they probably don't deserve a great claim to a postseason spot.
SAN FRANCISCO (-1) at SEATTLE
The Niners have won four of five and, after last week's win at New England, they have re-claimed top spot in the TSN.ca NFL Power Rankings. With Colin Kaepernick running the offence, the 49ers are more dangerous and it's helped free up WR Michael Crabtree, who has 301 receiving yards in the last three weeks.
However the Seahawks defence, with CB Richard Sherman, is capable of shutting down Crabtree and that could make for tough sledding in Seattle.
The Seahawks have won five of six, scoring 108 points in their last two games, so they're on a roll and after a 13-6 loss in San Francisco in Week Seven, it's fair to expect that the surging Seahawks could turn the tables at home this week, especially with QB Russell Wilson playing as well as anyone, throwing 11 touchdowns and one interception, over the last six weeks.
SAN DIEGO (+2.5) at N.Y. JETS
A game between teams playing out the string. The Chargers have lost eight of ten and have put RB Ryan Mathews and WR Malcom Floyd on IR. That leaves a committee of Ronnie Brown, Curtis Brinkley and Jackie Battle to run the ball, none of whom are easy to trust to get carries. WR Danario Alexander remains the top target for QB Philip Rivers, but has a tough matchup against Jets CB Antonio Cromartie.
After Mark Sanchez's latest meltdown, Greg McElroy will start at quarterback for the Jets, which doesn't offer much hope for the Jets' passing game.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.