It's Week 16 and you'll be hard-pressed to find a game that doesn't have major playoff implications. There is a lot of fun to be had, with matchups like Indianapolis-Kansas City, New Orleans-Carolina, Arizona-Seattle, New England-Baltimore and Chicago-Philadelphia on tap. Let's dive in.
Dolphins vs. Bills (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Miami Dolphins are one of a few teams scrapping for the final wild card spot in the AFC. Unfortunately for them, and other contenders, the runner-up in the AFC West is assured a spot, leaving several teams trying to crawl on top of one another. Fortunately for the Dolphins, an upset win over the New England Patriots put them in good position. They are currently just out of the playoff picture, but they have the same record as the 6-seed Baltimore Ravens with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets yet to play. In a season filled with turmoil, the Dolphins are on the verge of a highly-encouraging playoff berth.
The Bills, meanwhile, are out of the playoff hunt and will be E.J. Manuel-less for Sunday's matchup. The good news is that Thad Lewis played well earlier in the season, and the Bills will have it in mind to ruin the postseason chances of their division rivals.
Vikings vs. Bengals (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Another non-contender vs. playoff hopeful ... except across conferences and with even lower stakes! At 9-5 overall, the Cincinnati Bengals have a one-game cushion in both the AFC North and wild card races. Beating the Minnesota Vikings wouldn't secure them a playoff spot, but it would inch them closer to the finish line.
Can the Vikings pull off the upset? Well, they're 2-1-1 in their last four games, which counts as progress in Minnesota, and are coming off a strong win over the Philadelphia Eagles, who had been one of the NFL's hottest teams. The out-of-nowhere emergence of Matt Asiata, Matt Cassel and Greg Jennings may have given the team a breath of life to close the season.
Among the early slate of games involving AFC teams, Colts-Chiefs is easily the best pairing. The impact on the playoffs will be minimal, however. Both teams have already secured their ticket to the postseason, and the Colts have even already won their division. The Chiefs are vying for a first-round bye, however, so don't expect them to lay down, especially at home.
Do yourself a favor and watch Jamaal Charles. He made his case as arguably the best multidimensional running back in the league last week after racking up 215 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage against the Oakland Raiders. He's playing at his season-peak (which is saying a lot) and with the Chiefs still jockeying for position, he should be at his best once again against a porous run defense.
Buccaneers vs. Rams (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The St. Louis Rams have hung in surprisingly tough this season. Playing in perhaps the toughest division in the NFL without their starting quarterback for most of the season, they have still managed a 6-8 record that, with a bounce or two, could have been better. Last week, they shocked the New Orleans Saints behind more hard running from Zac Stacy and more mayhem at the hands of Robert Quinn.
Last week's throttling courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers aside, the Buccaneers are also enjoying a mild late season resurgence. Bobby Rainey has rejuvenated the running game somewhat, and though the Rams' pass rush is fierce, their front seven is not as strong against the run.
Both teams are out of the playoffs, but they are still grasping for silver lining. The line between desperation and apathy is surprisingly thin, and either one of these teams could fall on either side depending on how the ball breaks Sunday.
Browns vs. Jets (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Cleveland Browns have lost their last five games. The New York Jets have lost four of their last five. Unlike the Bucs-Rams matchup, this game features two teams that have already wrapped up their 2013 efforts.
But you know what's fun? Watching Josh Gordon snag deep ball after deep ball. The Jets' pass defense has not been nearly as strong as its counterpart run stoppers. The NFL's leading receiver (and that's after missing two games due to suspension) could have a field day against a secondary that has given up 25 passing touchdowns with just eight interceptions this season.
Late-season contests between NFC East teams are must-watches. Period. The zaniness seems to ratchet up year after year. With Tony Romo coming off one of his greatest career Twitter-busting performances and the Redskins in organizational freefall, this game may have the highest schadenfreude factor of any this season.
Here's a scenario: The Cowboys lead by four points with the clock ticking down in regulation. A Romo interception gives the Redskins the ball with two minutes to go. Kirk Cousins leads a 70-yard touchdown drive for the win to cap off a 350-yard, four-touchdown passing performance that had announcers using the phrase "quarterback controversy" in the third quarter. Cut to camera shots of Robert Griffin III staring into nothingness on the sideline.
Are you grinning? Shut up, you're grinning.
(Side note: Cowboys and Redskins fans, please don't watch. Doing so may inflict real, tangible mental damage.)
Saints vs. Panthers (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
And now we come to what is easily the marquee matchup of the early slate of Sunday games (with respect to the Colts-Chiefs undercard). The Saints fell to 10-4 with a surprising loss to the Rams last week, and the Panthers beat the Jets to tie the race for the NFC South title. The winner of this game will become the new No. 2 seed in the NFC. The loser could drop down to the 6 seed and the edge of playoff elimination. Expect some Grade A drama.
The Saints looked like perhaps the most complete team in the NFL when they beat the Panthers at home in Week 14. They'll be on the road this week, however, where they have looked downright ugly lately. The Saints have lost four of their last five away from the Superdome, and the one game they won was a 17-13 squeaker over the flailing Atlanta Falcons. Cam Newton and Co. should be licking their chops.
Titans-Jaguars can stake the claim of perhaps the worst matchup Sunday (with respect to Bucs-Rams and Browns-Jets). The Titans have lost four of their last five, with one win coming against the Raiders. The Jaguars have won four of their last six, but three of those wins were against downtrodden division-mates Tennessee and Houston, and the fourth came against the Browns.
But poorly played football isn't necessarily bad in itself. There are still some intriguing aspects to this game, including an oddly compelling quarterback duel. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns to send the Titans' game against the Arizona Cardinals into overtime late last week. Chad Henne, meanwhile, has been playing better of late, throwing six touchdowns to three interceptions over his last three games.
Neither is expected to hold a starting job next year, and it's unclear when they may get another chance to play extensively. Their teams may be out of the playoffs, but you can expect spirited efforts from the veteran quarterbacks.
Case Keenum is out for the game. Ben Tate is done for the season. The game section at Battle Red Blog is subtitled "Like Lambs to Slaughter." It's the NFL's worst team against arguably the league's best. It takes a certain type of person to want to watch this game, and by now you should know whether or not you are that type person.
Giants vs. Lions (4:05 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Detroit Lions were in prime position to win the NFC North for the first time ... well, ever. The Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers were without their starting quarterbacks for several weeks, but over the same period, the Lions have lost in kind. They have lost four of their last five, with a blowout win over the Packers on Thanksgiving their only saving grace. After seemingly taking a stranglehold on the division race, the Lions now sit third following their loss at the foot of Justin Tucker on Monday night.
The Lions need to win. At 7-7 overall, only a division title will get them into the playoffs, and a loss to the New York Giants coupled with a Bears win later in the day will officially eliminate them from the playoff race. Against a bad Giants secondary, Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson should be able to get back on track, but that's assuming that late-game collapses aren't simply in the Lions' DNA at this point.
Cardinals vs. Seahawks (4:05 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Seattle Seahawks can't hit cruise control just yet. At 12-2 overall, it would take several bad breaks to lose the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but the 49ers and the winner of Saints-Panthers will still be in striking distance of home-field advantage if the Seahawks drop a difficult game against a Cardinals squad that will have little hope of making the playoffs if it loses.
At 9-5, the Cardinals are the first team out of the NFC wild card race, behind the conference's three 10-4 teams. Lose again, and the race is likely over. Last week's overtime win over the Titans, which saw the Cardinals blow a 17-point lead with just over three minutes remaining in regulation, was hardly encouraging, but that may just give them a chip on their shoulders for a matchup against the Seahawks that few are expecting them to win.
Steelers vs. Packers (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Pittsburgh Steelers, at 6-8, have just the faintest whisper of a hope of making the playoffs, but a 30-20 win over the Bengals last week proved that the team isn't ready to roll over just yet. Unfortunately for them, they'll be taking on an equally playoff-minded Packers squad which may (FINALLY) have the use of Aaron Rodgers.
At press time, no decision had been made on who the starting quarterback will be. Rodgers is very dangerous if he returns, though Matt Flynn may have turned a corner when he led the Packers to a scintillating comeback win over the Cowboys last week. Either quarterback should be happy with a matchup against a traditionally stout defense that has been anything but this season.
Raiders vs. Chargers (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
Is there a more inconsistent team than the San Diego Chargers? At least they appear to be peaking at the right time. Prior to Week 12, the Chargers had losses to the Texans, Titans, Raiders and Redskins on their resume, but since they have added wins over the Chiefs and Broncos. They have won three of their last four to thrust themselves back into the wild card race alongside the Dolphins and the Ravens.
The Raiders ought to be pushovers, heading into Sunday with four straight losses. They were torched by Jamaal Charles for 215 total yards and five touchdowns last week, giving a resurgent Ryan Mathews reason to be confident. The quarterback situation is murky at best, with neither Terrelle Pryor nor Matt McGloin seemingly capable of stringing together two strong performances (and in Pryor's case, staying healthy may be the bigger obstacle).
Patriots vs. Ravens (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Patriots could have swiped the No. 1 seed in the AFC away from the Broncos with a win over the Dolphins on Sunday. Instead, Tom Brady struggled in what was a much-needed win for their division rivals.
The Ravens will be just as hungry as the Dolphins to knock the Pats down a peg. At 8-6, the Ravens must keep winning to hold on to their playoff spot. They barely squeaked by the Lions last week, thanks to a 61-yard game winning field goal by Justin Tucker.
If the game is competitive, the Ravens may have the advantage. Five of their last six games have been decided by three points or less, four of them being wins. They are also 6-1 at home this season. All four of New England's losses this season have come on the road.
Bears vs. Eagles (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
The Bears and the Eagles both hold tentative leads over their respective divisions. Neither team will have much of a chance of a wild card spot should they fall to second place. Of any two teams playing in Week 16, they have the most to lose, and it's only fitting that they be pitted against each other on Sunday Night Football.
If you like offense, get ready for some fun. Chicago and Philadelphia both rank among the top seven teams in the NFL in total offense, and among the bottom six teams in total defense.
Chip Kelly's offense was the talk of the league during the five-game winning streak leading into Sunday's loss to the Vikings. Then Kelly's defense gave up big performances to Matt Cassel, Matt Asiata and Greg Jennings. Jay Cutler showed little rust last week against the Browns, and he should be looking forward to the matchup with Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in tow. Of course, Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson can say the same.