As the NFL regular season draws to a close, fewer and games around the league take on a ton of importance. But it’s those games that will define the remainder of the year and who matches up when the playoffs start in January.
From the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks battling it out in the NFC West to the New Orleans Saints hosting the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, there are also a ton of important inter-division matchups on the slate for Week 16 of the regular season.
As we have done each week this year, here is the top storyline for each NFL game set to take place on the second-to-last weekend of the regular season.
Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars: Nothing Outside of Draft Positioning
The NFL really hit the motherload here. Two teams with identical 2-12 records taking on one another in the final Thursday Night Football matchup of the season. Considering how poor these mid-week games have been, this is par for the course. The only thing to look forward to here is draft positioning. On that note, we can bet that both the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be paying attention to this one. As for the rest of the world? Big Bang Theory actually might be a good alternative here.
Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins: Eagles Attempt to Avoid Late-Season Meltdown
Losers of two consecutive and three of their last five after starting 7-2, Philadelphia is in a precarious position heading into a Week 16 matchup against a Redskins team that has nothing to lose. It’s currently one game behind Seattle and Green Bay, and loses the tiebreaker to both teams. Not only does Philadelphia need to win out, it’s going to need some help. In fact, a NFC East title is more likely than a wild card spot at this point. Chip Kelly’s squad would need to win out and have the Cowboys lose one of their final two in order for that to happen.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, it’s going to rest on the throwing shoulder of one Mark Sanchez, who is just 3-3 as a starter and has put up a quarterback rating of under 70 over the past two games.
San Diego Chargers at San Francisco 49ers: Must Win for Philip Rivers and Co.
This surely is a trap game for the Chargers. Going up against a 49ers team that was eliminated from postseason contention last week and might be playing pretty loose, San Diego will have to be at the top of its game to go into Levi’s Stadium and pull off a win. Since starting the season on a torrid pace, Rivers has struggled a great deal over the past eight games. He’s thrown 12 touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions during that span. And it’s not a coincidence that San Diego boasts a 3-5 record in those eight games.
At 8-6, the Chargers are tied with Kansas City and Buffalo, all one game behind Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the two wild card spots. The good news here is that San Diego does hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against Joe Flacco and the Ravens.
Baltimore Ravens at Houston Texans: Playoff Spot Potentially on the Line
Speaking of the Ravens, they control their own destiny in the AFC Playoff race. If they win out, they are in. It’s now all about maintaining that one game lead over the two teams that sit with eight wins and competing for the AFC North title. A win here coupled with a loss by Cincinnati to Denver, and the Ravens are in prime position (depending on Pittsburgh) to nab the division. A win here in addition to losses by Kansas City and San Diego, and the Ravens clinch a playoff spot. Heck, Baltimore is in a win-win position with the Chiefs taking on Pittsburgh.
As it relates to the Texans, they need to win out and get a ton of help in the process. At 7-7, Houston does hold the tiebreaker against the two other seven-win teams. But Bill O’Brien’s squad is also one game behind three teams currently at 8-6 and two games behind the two AFC North squads that hold the wild card spots. No matter what happens in the rest of the conference, Houston needs to pull of a win here to stay alive. Unfortunately, this means that Thaddeus Lewis (yes, that one) will have to play good football.
Cleveland Browns at Carolina Panthers: Two Teams Fighting for Their Playoff Lives
Cleveland is as good as done. It currently sits in 12th place in the AFC following a three-game losing streak at the worst possible time. Losers of the tiebreaker against every team above it in the race, Mike Pettine’s squad needs a whole heck of a lot to happen in order to make that rare postseason appearance. In fact, the remainder of the season has to be more about Johnny Manziel’s progression under center than making the playoffs.
For the Panthers, it’s rather simple. They need to win out and have New Orleans lose one of its final two games in order to win the NFC South with a losing record. Their success in these final two games may also depend on the potential return of Cam Newton from a back injury he suffered in a car accident earlier this month.
Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears: Detroit Attempts to Remain in First
If Detroit wins out, it will earn the NFC North title and a potential first-round bye in the playoffs. If not, that opens the door for the Green Bay Packers to win the division again. We have seen this story in the past…like last year. But no matter Detroit’s lack of success in the past, this is a completely different team.
The Lions now take on a Bears squad that is an absolute mess. Head coach Marc Trestman is as good as gone, while quarterback Jay Cutler is seemingly on his way out of town as well. Add in what has been a toxic environment at Soldier Field during games, and this sure does have the look of a blowout win for the Lions.
Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Rebound Game for Aaron Rodgers?
Rodgers is coming off the worst performance of his Hall of Fame worthy career. He completed just 17-of-42 passes for less than 200 yards with two interceptions in a dismal loss to the Buffalo Bills last week. It was a horrible performance in what has been a stellar season for the MVP candidate. The good news here for Green Bay is that it now takes on a Buccaneers team that is 2-12 on the season and hasn’t won a single game at home. If this isn’t “get right” time for Rodgers and Co., we aren’t entirely sure what is. A loss here, and the Packers division title hopes may be doomed. Heck, as the current sixth seed in the NFC, a playoff spot is not even locked up yet.
Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers: Near Playoff Game for Both Squads
By all accounts, this is a playoff game for both teams. Kansas City currently sits as the seventh seed in the AFC with, one game behind both Pittsburgh and Baltimore. And while it does hold the tiebreaker against the Ravens, a loss here would be a near playoff-killer. It wouldn’t only force the Chiefs into having to look at the five teams behind them in the standings, it would eliminate the team from being able to overtake Pittsburgh.
As it relates to the Steelers, everything seems to be working out for them. With a Week 17 matchup against Cincinnati in the cards, Mike Tomlin’s squad can earn the AFC North title if they win out. And while it will be tough sledding against two playoff teams from a season ago, the Steelers offense is more than capable of holding up its end of the bargain.
Minnesota Vikings at Miami Dolphins: Joe Philbin’s Job Security
Miami may still technically be alive for a playoff spot, but those hopes have dimmed considerably following recent struggles. In total, Miami has lost two consecutive and three of five. Its most recent loss, 41-13 to New England, may spell doom for the season and Philbin’s tenure as the team’s head coach. Recent reports suggest that he will be out of a job if the Dolphins don’t make the playoffs. Short of a miracle, that’s a strong likelihood at this point.
New England Patriots at New York Jets: Patriots Inch Closer to Home-Field Advantage
New England can cinch home-field advantage in the playoffs with a win here and a loss by the Broncos to Cincinnati on Monday Night Football. It can also clinch the top seed by winning its final two games. Needless to say, there is a strong chance that the AFC Playoffs will go through Gillette Stadium. As it relates to this specific game, the Jets have played New England well recently. They have won one of the last three matchups since the start of the 2013 campaign and have been outscored by just two points on those three games.
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: Battle for the Division
Here we go. The NFC South could very well be decided here. Depending on the outcome of Carolina’s matchup against Cleveland, the winner of this game could earn the division title. For the Saints, a win here and a Panthers loss would clinch the title. And as it relates to the Falcons, they will need some help even with a victory on the road against New Orleans.
Interestingly enough, the Saints are 2-4 on their last six games. All four losses during that span have come at home. Mike Smith’s falcons have lost 12 of their last 15 road games.
New York Giants at St. Louis Rams: Two Coaches Potentially on the Hot Seat
Recent reports suggest that Tom Coughlin’s job is safe in New York, but that’s a decision that the brass will likely make following Week 17. And while it seems that Jeff Fisher has righted the ship in St. Louis based on a strong team performance in the second half of the campaign, the Rams will also sit down and discuss his future to some extent following another season that has seen his squad fail to finish above .500. All that said, this game won’t have an impact on either coach’s standing with his team. As you might notice, some games simply don’t have many storylines this late in the year.
Buffalo Bills at Oakland Raiders: Yet Another Near Playoff Game
Okay. Not for the Raiders. But this most definitely is a do-or-die game for the road team. At 8-6 on the season, Buffalo is one game out of the two wild card spots in the AFC. It also has a huge opportunity to pull out a win against a horrendous opponent. In comparison, the two teams ahead of Buffalo (Pittsburgh and Baltimore) have much tougher outings. This doesn’t mean that Buffalo can take the Raiders, who have defeated Kansas City and San Francisco in the last month, lightly. A win would be par for the course for Buffalo, but a loss would be disastrous.
Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys: Can Dallas Inch Closer to NFC East Title?
DeMarco Murray. DeMarco Murray. DeMarco Murray. Do you need us to write that again? Unfortunately for the Cowboys, their season could come down to whether he plays in this game after undergoing surgery to repair a broken hand following the team’s win against Philadelphia on Sunday night. While the Cowboys may be confident he will go, that seems like a bit of a stretch. Accounting for 40 percent of Dallas’ yards through 14 games, you don’t need us to tell you how important he is to the team.
This is the scenario at play. Dallas holds a one-game lead over Philadelphia in the NFC East and can win the division with a victory over Indianapolis and an Eagles loss to Washington. Seems clear cut, right? Not so fast.
By some odd anomaly in the tiebreaker process, Dallas loses out in a three-way tie with Detroit and Seattle for the two wild card spots. This means that the Cowboys will need to win their final two games in order to not have to rely on other teams to lose. Magnifying this further is the fact that Dallas loses the tiebreaker to Philadelphia in the NFC East based on each team’s inter-division record.
Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals: Battle for the NFC West
Arizona wins and it is the division champs. The Seahawks win and they control their own destiny in the division. Arizona will go into this one with third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley under center. Lindley has zero touchdowns and in seven career games.
We figured it made sense just to point what is at stake in the desert when these two likely playoff teams square off Sunday night. And while Arizona has already clinched a playoff spot, the Seahawks aren’t quite there yet. If they lose out, there is a strong chance the defending champs will be sitting at home in January. Yeah, this is one of those huge late-season division matchups the NFL has done a great job scheduling.
Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals: First-Round Bye on the Line
That’s pretty much where we are at here. If Cincinnati wins this game, it stands a good chance of earning the No. 2 seed in the AFC, depending of course on its Week 17 matchup with Pittsburgh. If the Broncos win, they will remain alive for the top seed and home-field advantage and clinch a first-round bye.
As to where Denver is already guaranteed a home playoff game, the Bengals haven’t even clinched a playoff spot. This makes Monday night’s game absolutely huge for Marvin Lewis’ squad.