Ben Roethlisberger, QB (Steelers)

BAL 38 at PIT 39

One of the reasons I picked the Steelers to win the Super Bowl this year was because I thought Big Ben would be extra motivated. Right after Pittsburgh lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship last season, the 35-year-old QB threatened retirement.  But he ultimately decided to come back for 1 more season because he still loves the game.  He said he planned to “give it everything I have this year”. And, while the 14-year veteran looked inconsistent (and downright awful) at times earlier in the season, since Week 5’s loss to the Jaguars and his infamous realization that “Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” he has been playing excellent football.  Week 14 was one of his best when he went 44 for 66 (66.7% completion), threw for 506 yards, 2 TDs, 0 Interceptions and had a passer rating of 99.7.  He was also named AFC Offensive Player of the Week.  Hopefully Roethlisberger takes this momentum into Week 15 when he will need it.  His Steelers face the Patriots on Sunday for what head coach Mike Tomlin referred to as this season’s “Part One.” Roethlisberger is 3-7 against New England overall during his career and winning this next one could help the Steelers clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

LeSean McCoy, RB (Bills)

IND 7 at BUF 13

Pro Football Focus proclaimed this 9-year veteran as a “wizard in the blizzard” during Week 14’s snowy matchup when the Bills defeated the Colts in Buffalo.  McCoy rushed 32 times for 156 yards and his TD in overtime kept his team in the AFC Wild Card race.  He now has 1,007 yards on the year, making it 6 times in his career he’s surpassed the 1,000 mark.  More importantly, the 29-year-old now has 9,961 career rushing yards, just 39 shy of a 10,000 yard milestone.  Only 29 other players have done it, but “Shady” says he wants more.  His aim is for 12,000. Only 16 players have topped that amount of rushing yardage in the history of the game.  14 of those players are in the Hall of Fame.  And, the other 2 (Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson) are still active… Right now, however, McCoy also wants to win.  At 7-6 with three games to play (2 against the Dolphins, 1 against the Patriots), the rest of the Bills need to step up and keep pace.  At least McCoy’s performance inspires Buffalo’s Offensive Line which will help his cause.  Guard Richie Incognito said this week, “Anytime your running back is racking up stats like that, it’s like cub scouts who get those little patches… It’s fun blocking for a guy like that because any play can be a home run.”

Antonio Brown, WR (Steelers)

BAL 38 at PIT 39

It’s strange to think that a wide receiver has never won the league’s MVP award.  But this Steelers elite wideout may be very close to that historical breakthrough this season.  After Brown’s Week 14 performance, when he caught for 213 yards on 11 receptions, he now leads the NFL with 99 catches and 1,509 yards (with the potential to finish with over 1,800). Also, Brown’s amazing play this season has been instrumental in the Steelers pulling off last minute wins in 4 of their last 5 games.  Future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald summed up Brown’s chances of getting the MVP award this year perfectly, “[He] has had the best year out of any player in the league right now. He has been the most dominant. I don’t even think it’s close right now. I just don’t understand why receivers aren’t valued the same way that other players are, even when they have a considerable impact like he does on a week-to-week basis. I know at least two to three games, I wouldn’t say he won it individually, but his effort has pretty much propelled his team to victories. That’s legendary type stuff.”   In my mind, if the Steelers make it to the Super Bowl this year, Brown’s toughest competition for the MVP award may be his QB, Ben Roethlisberger.

Jurell Casey, DT (Titans)

TEN 7 at ARI 12

To many Tennessee fans, this 305 lbs., 6’1 defensive tackle is an unsung hero.  For 5 straight years, the 28-year-old former Trojan and career Titan has logged at least 5.0 sacks and 30+ tackles five years straight which has helped his team stay afloat despite offensive struggles.  Also known for being an “impact defender”, Casey’s stats in assisted tackles, sacks and pass deflections have been amongst the best in the league for the position.  During Week 14, the three-time team captain and Pro Bowler had his best game of the season with 2.0 sacks for 15.0 sack yards, 2 QB hits and 5 tackles.  Off the field, Casey is known for his charity work and was 2016’s Walter Payton Man of the Year.  He and his wife, Ryann, established the Casey fund, a nonprofit entity designed to help people in need through re-entry programs, inner-city youth programs and provide help for those incarcerated.  Casey has even been known to volunteer at a local Dunkin Donuts despite becoming an avid vegan in the off-season (along with 10 other Titans).  He claims that following a vegan meal plan has helped his performance, stopped his body from aching, and he heals “10 times faster”.  The idea came about by fellow Titan linebacker Derrick Morgan when his plant-based chef wife (Charity Morgan) introduced the diet to him.  For those interested, her recipes can be found on Instagram.

Xavien Howard, CB (Dolphins)

NE 20 at MIA 27

On Monday morning, just hours before his Dolphins would go up against Tom Brady and the Patriots, this second year 24-year-old CB started to feel ill.  Then the real sickness began.  Howard would go on to throw up all day and through the game – even between defensive series.  Fellow players were starting to get worried like defensive back Walt Aikens who said he thought the kid “was going to die” and “it was kind of scary.”  But, despite having the flu, Howard put on a show and earned the AFC defensive player of the week award for allowing only 1 reception to WR Brandin Cook for 38 yards, intercepting Brady twice, and defending another pass.  It was the second straight week he logged a pair of interceptions and earned an elite grade of 92.0.  Howard also became the first player in Dolphins history to pick off 2 passes in 2 consecutive games.  Other players like safety Reshad Jones wasn’t surprised by Howard’s ability to play through the pain. “He’s a baller,” Jones said.  “That’s what he does man – I wasn’t shocked at all.”

Oakland Raiders

OAK 15 at KC 26

Speaking of shock… Anyone out there also bewildered by the Raiders entering Week 15 with a 6-7 record?  While I did not think Oakland would make it to the SB when the season started, I anticipated the team would compete in the post season.  What we have here now is kind of a messy team with little to no hope of moving past Week 16.  In most categories on both offense and defense, the Raiders are ranked statistically average or way below average.  They also didn’t get their first interception until Week 12, their wide receiving corps has more misses than any other team (by far), their QB Derek Carr has regressed and word is that the locker room is facing a crisis of “identity”.   Some conspiracy theorists also blame the national league protests and verbal skirmishes between RB Marshawn Lynch and the President earlier this year as a culprit to the losing season.

But, I think the trouble stemmed mostly from overprotection of Carr which filtered to the rest of the team.  Since the young QB broke his leg last season and then suffered a spinal fracture in his back during Week 4 this season, he has been tenuous and it has been holding this team back.  Head coach Jack Del Rio nailed it when he told the team to “let it rip” in October, but they haven’t followed his advice.  He reiterated this sentiment this past week when he said, “I think that there have been many examples throughout the season where we have not played boldly to go make the playsI would really like to see that … if you go halfway, it’s not good enough anyway. So I’d love to just see us just let it rip, OK, and go play. Talked about hair on fire, talked about the kind of effort and energy, playing fast, that’s what I believe in — and I’d love to see it more often.”  Sound advice from their leader.  But, will the Raiders finally, ‘let it rip’ and finish above .500?


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