NFL

Packers face Ravens battle as they close in on NFC North title

By Sports Desk December 17, 2021

The Green Bay Packers will clinch the NFC North title if they avoid defeat against the wounded Baltimore Ravens, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could win the NFC South in Week 15.

AFC North leaders Baltimore will be striving to avoid a third consecutive defeat when they face the Packers but have this week been managing quarterback Lamar Jackson's ankle sprain.

Tampa Bay can seal the division title provided they are not beaten at home by the New Orleans Saints on Monday, while the New England Patriots are among the teams looking to book a playoff spot ahead of their showdown with the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday.

Stats Perform previews the standout games and the best of the rest.

Green Bay Packers (10-3) @ Baltimore Ravens (8-5)

The Ravens have lost back-to-back games for the first time this season, losing by one point against the Pittsburgh Steelers and by two at the Cleveland Browns. It is the first time in franchise history the Ravens have lost consecutive games by two points or fewer.

Green Bay scored 45 points in a win over the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field last week, their highest scoring output since 2014 against the Philadelphia Eagles (53-20 win). The Packers are averaging 30.7 points per game at home but 20.6 points on the road, the third-largest differential in the NFL.

Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdowns and no interceptions against the Bears. It was his 28th career game with at least four TD passes and no interceptions, tied with Tom Brady for the most such games in NFL history including the postseason.

Davante Adams is Rodgers' top target and has gone over 100 receiving yards in three straight games. He is now tied with James Lofton for the most 100-yard receiving games in Packers history with 33.

New England Patriots (9-4) @ Indianapolis Colts (7-6)

The Patriots have conceded 13 or fewer points in each of their past five games. That is the longest such streak in Patriots history and the longest by any NFL team since 2008 (Pittsburgh, five games). 

Mac Jones and the Patriots attempted only three passes last time out in their 14-10 Week 13 win at Buffalo. Since 1950, there have been only two other instances of an NFL team attempting no more than three passes in one game: the Kansas City Chiefs (three) in a 24-10 win against the Oakland Raiders in 1968, and the Buffalo Bills (two) in a 16-12 victory over the New York Jets in 1974.

But Indianapolis know how to run the ball, too. They have gained 996 yards rushing over their previous five games, their highest total over a five-game span since gaining 1,024 in 1976. The Colts have scored 12 rushing TDs in the stretch, matching their best five-game total in the past 30 seasons. 

Through the air, Carson Wentz has had five interceptions from his 420 pass attempts this season. His interception rate (1.2 per cent) is the third-lowest among the 32 qualifying NFL quarterbacks. 

New Orleans Saints (6-7) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-3)

The Bucs have won four consecutive games and are due a victory over the Saints, having lost the past six clashes between the two teams.

Brady reached yet another landmark last week, with his 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman taking his tally of touchdown passes in the NFL to 700. The only other quarterback with at least 600 is former Saint Drew Brees (608).

Taysom Hill had multiple rushing touchdowns for the fourth time in his career last week and added 73 rushing yards. The only other Saints quarterback to rush for at least 50 yards and multiple TDs is Archie Manning (52 yards, 2 TDs on October 17, 1971 against the Dallas Cowboys).

Expect a fast start from Tampa. The Bucs have outscored opponents by 70 points in the first half of games this season, behind only Indianapolis (73) for the best mark in the league.

Elsewhere...

The Los Angeles Rams (9-4) are closing in on the playoffs and will have home advantage when they face the Seattle Seahawks (9-4). The Rams have won six of the past eight matchups between these teams, including a 26-17 win in Seattle in Week 5 this year.

Heinz Field will stage a battle between the Steelers (6-6-1) and a Tennessee Titans (9-4) side scenting the AFC South title. The Titans shut out an opponent for the second time in 20 seasons with a 20-0 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars last week. 

The Cowboys (9-4) travel to lock horns with the New York Giants (4-9) with the NFC title within their grasp. Dak Prescott lost both of his starts against the Giants as a rookie in 2016 but is 8-0 in his starts against them since then. Ron Jaworksi, from 1977 to 1981, was the last QB to win nine starts in a row against the Giants.

Darrell Bevell has stepped in to take over as the Jaguars' interim head coach after Urban Meyer was fired on Wednesday. Jacksonville start life after Meyer attempting to avoid a record-breaking eighth consecutive loss to the Houston Texans, with both sides a dismal 2-11 this season.

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  • 'Close the votes' – Henry crowns Benzema Ballon d'Or winner after Champions League win 'Close the votes' – Henry crowns Benzema Ballon d'Or winner after Champions League win

    Thierry Henry declared the race for the Ballon d'Or over after Karim Benzema lifted the Champions League with Real Madrid on Saturday.

    Benzema became just the second French captain to lift the trophy, after Didier Deschamps with Marseille in 1993, following a 1-0 win over Liverpool at the Stade de France.

    Carlo Ancelotti's side were largely indebted to the heroics of Thibaut Courtois after the goalkeeper produced nine saves – a Champions League final record since Opta began recording data in 2003-04.

    Vinicius Junior may have scored the winner in Paris but a 14th European Cup for Madrid, which is double the tally of second-best Milan (seven), came down to Benzema's efforts throughout the knockout stages.

    The 34-year-old netted a hat-trick against Paris Saint-Germain, four goals across two legs with Chelsea and three in the tie with Manchester City, including an extra-time penalty to win the semi-final.

    Benzema has been involved in 59 goals this season (45 goals, 15 assists) in all competitions, with only France team-mate Kylian Mbappe (60) bettering that total across Europe's top five leagues.

    And Arsenal great Henry believes Benzema ended the debate for who should win the Ballon d'Or this year with his success in Paris.

    "I just wanted to say something for France Football or whoever is voting. Close the votes, Benzema won it. Bye," Henry said to CBS Sports after the final.

    France coach Didier Deschamps will hope Benzema can lead Les Bleus to more World Cup glory in November, and he echoed Henry's sentiments by suggesting the Madrid talisman should win the award.

    "The answer is simple: yes. This new title and the sporting season achieved with his team, and what he was able to do, he was so decisive," Deschamps told Telefoot.

    "Obviously, he was already one of the favourites and he deserves this reward."

    The Ballon d'Or has been won by Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in 13 of the past 14 seasons, barring when Benzema's team-mate Luka Modric was named the winner in 2018.

    While Benzema may believe his achievements on a personal and team level are enough to stave off Liverpool's Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, the Madrid forward insisted he will be satisfied either way.

    "Obviously, I finished my season, now I will join up with the national team," Benzema told Canal Plus.

    "I think at club level I can't do better. We'll see what happens but in any case I'm proud of what I've achieved."

  • 'A beautiful adventure' – Pele congratulates Vinicius and Marcelo after Madrid's Champions League triumph 'A beautiful adventure' – Pele congratulates Vinicius and Marcelo after Madrid's Champions League triumph

    Pele has congratulated fellow Brazilians Vinicius Junior and Marcelo for their contributions to Real Madrid's triumphant Champions League campaign, which he hailed as a "beautiful adventure". 

    Vinicius converted Federico Valverde's cross in the 59th minute to fire Madrid to a 1-0 final win over Liverpool at the Stade de France, as Los Blancos were crowned European champions for a 14th time - seven more occasions than any other team.

    With his decisive strike, Vinicius became the first Brazilian player to score the winning goal in a Champions League final since Juliano Belletti did so for Barcelona against Arsenal in 2006, also in Paris.

    The winger's sixth goal in the Champions League this season, combined with his previous four assists, made him the first South American aged 21 or younger to record 10 goal contributions in a single edition of the competition since Lionel Messi's 14 in 2008-09 (nine goals, five assists).

    Meanwhile, Marcelo lifted the trophy as club captain before announcing his departure from Madrid, having made more appearances for Los Blancos than any other non-Spanish player during his 15-year stay at the Santiago Bernabeu.

    Writing on Instagram after the final, Brazil great Pele hailed his compatriots for their roles in Madrid's success, also praising man-of-the-match Thibaut Courtois and Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti, who is the first coach to win the Champions League/European Cup four times.

    "That's why football is the most beautiful sport in the world. I got to see a dear friend, Vinicius, who overcame so many challenges to decide an epic game," Pele wrote.

    "I'm delighted to see Marcelo be the first Brazilian to lift a Champions League trophy as captain. 

    "I witnessed an impeccable goalkeeper, Courtois, make inexplicable saves, and a strategist coach, Ancelotti, who knew how to interpret the moment and use the best characteristics of his team. 

    "Congratulations Real Madrid. What a beautiful adventure!"

  • 'It is impossible for a goalkeeper to win it… even more with Benzema!' – Courtois casts doubt on Ballon d'Or hopes 'It is impossible for a goalkeeper to win it… even more with Benzema!' – Courtois casts doubt on Ballon d'Or hopes

    Thibaut Courtois believes he has little chance of winning the Ballon d'Or despite his incredible Champions League final performance for Real Madrid, noting the presence of team-mate Karim Benzema makes such an honour even more unlikely.

    Courtois was in imperious form as Madrid claimed their 14th European Cup/Champions League triumph in Paris, making nine saves as Carlo Ancelotti's team beat Liverpool 1-0.

    Liverpool managed 24 shots throughout the contest, the most a team has recorded without scoring in a Champions League final since Opta records began (in 2003-04).

    Courtois' tally of saves, meanwhile, is the highest on record in a single Champions League final, with his 59 across Madrid's dramatic European campaign also a single-season record (both since 2003-04).

    However, after being named man-of-the-match, Courtois cast doubt on his chances of winning the biggest individual prize in world football.

    The 30-year-old said goalkeepers have little chance of being named the best player in the world, particularly given the form of Benzema, who scored 44 goals and added 15 assists in all competitions as Madrid were crowned champions of both Spain and Europe.

    "It is impossible for a goalkeeper to win it, even more so if he plays in a team with Benzema," he told reporters, as quoted by Tuttomercato.

    "I can go far, but it is difficult to win this trophy. 

    "For me, what matters is the fact that when I returned to the locker room, all my team-mates were screaming my name. This is worth more than personal recognition."

    Lev Yashin is the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d'Or, doing so in 1963, while Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer came third in 2014.

    Courtois also topped the Champions League charts for save percentage (80.6, minimum five saves), and goals prevented according to expected goals on target data (4.7) this season, before capping his fine season in perfect fashion in Paris.

    While Courtois was keen to emphasise the collective nature of Madrid's success, he believed his saves from Mane in the first half and Salah after the break were crucial.

    "It is incredible for me to win the Champions League final like this. For me, it was not important to be a protagonist, it was important to win," he added

    "I was ready, I made an important save at 0-0 and one at 1-0. The one on Salah with my hand was beautiful, but also the one with my foot.

    "I'm here to help my teammates, to keep the clean sheet and win. I'm happy to have been MVP in the final."

    Meanwhile, Courtois also wished Liverpool supporters well after kick-off was twice delayed amid reports of heavy-handed policing in Paris.

    Writing on Twitter on Sunday, the former Chelsea man said: "I feel sorry for Liverpool fans and the way they were treated. I hope everyone got home safe!"

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