A lot on the line for about half the league’s teams
The final two weeks of the 2018 NFL regular season are going to be as compelling as all get out. Only five teams have clinched a playoff appearance with a total of less than a dozen squads eliminated from postseason contention.
In what is a huge Week 16 slate, a lot is on the line for about half the league’s teams.
Here are the most interesting storylines for the second-to-final week of regular season action around the NFL.
Last NFL game in Oakland?
We’ve read the stories and heard the reports. After the city of Oakland decided to sue the Raiders, there’s now a good chance that Jon Gruden and Co. will be playing its last game in Northern California come Christmas Eve. In fact, it’s almost seemingly a foregone conclusion that this will be the Oakland Raiders’ final game in the city they have called home for the past quarter-century.
If that is indeed the case, we’re expecting a combination of a festive environment and the realization that this is the end of the line. In a bit of happenstance, said game will come against the bitter division rival Denver Broncos. The Raiders have really nothing to play for here. But sending the Black Hole into the night with a win would be a great holiday gift.
Battling for their playoff lives in Nashville
Shockingly, the Washington Redskins and quarterback Josh Johnson control their destiny in the NFC Playoff race. If Washington were to win out, it would earn the final wild-card spot in the conference. That was made possible with a win over the hapless Jaguars this past weekend. Set to take on Philadelphia to close the season, a victory here could make that Week 17 outing a do-or-die battle for both teams.
Over in the AFC, it’s pretty simple for the Titans. They’ll most likely need to win out in order to earn a wild-card spot. Given that they’re coming off a shutout win over the Giants and will be facing a third-string quarterback Saturday, it could lead to a huge Week 17 showdown with Indianapolis. Of course, that’s reliant on the Titans actually coming out on top this weekend.
Getting back on track in Seattle
The Seahawks’ surprising loss to San Francisco this past weekend at Levi’s Stadium puts the team in a somewhat precarious position. Sure Seattle will earn a playoff spot with a win in one of its final two games. It also helps that its Week 17 outing is against the last-place Cardinals. Even then, Russell Wilson and Co. don’t want to head into the season finale without having clinched a playoff spot.
It’s most certainly going to be a tall task to take out Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs this coming Sunday night. Given that the game is in Seattle, they have the upper hand here. Even then, another loss Week 16 would put Pete Carroll’s squad in an unenviable position heading into the season finale.
Yes, the Browns are still alive in the AFC Playoff race
Following their Week 15 road win over Denver, the Browns have come out on top in four of their past five games. No matter how remote the chances are, this means that Cleveland (6-7-1) still has an outside shot of earning a playoff spot in the AFC. A lot will have to go right for this to happen, but the onus is on Cleveland to keep pressure on other teams vying for that final playoff spot. That starts Sunday against former head coach Hue Jackson and the Bengals.
What would need to happen? First off, the Browns themselves must win out. After that, they’d have to hope for a Titans and Colts tie in Week 17. That would have all three teams at 8-7-1 with Cleveland winning the tiebreaker. It would also have to include both Tennessee and Indianapolis losing this weekend. Still, there’s a chance. That’s something most figured to be impossible just a few short weeks ago.
Get right game for Jared Goff and the Rams
If Los Angeles is to earn a first-round bye, it will have to either win one of the final two games or hope Chicago drops to either San Francisco or Minnesota to conclude the season. That’s the situation this team finds itself in after losing two consecutive games. For his part, Goff has now turned the ball over six times during the Rams’ two game losing streak. That’s the bad news.
More troublesome, star running back Todd Gurley is banged up with a left knee injury. One has to wonder whether the Rams peaked too early this season. The good news is that this week brings a get-right game against the last-place Cardinals. The bad news? Any further struggles against a bad opponent could doom Los Angeles heading into the playoffs.
Getting it right in Big D
We’re not too sure what went wrong for the Cowboys in their shutout loss to the Indianapolis Colts last week. Winners of five consecutive heading into that game, the Cowboys had an opportunity to clinch the NFC East. Instead, this loss coupled with wins by Washington and Philadelphia has the division very much in play heading into Week 16.
For the Cowboys, last week’s loss pretty much only means that they didn’t clinch the NFC East and will not be the No. 3 seed in the conference. Everything else is just noise. This week’s game against a bad Buccaneers defense should help the Cowboys rebound from last Sunday’s debacle in Indianapolis. If not, we’ll end up knowing everything we need to know about this squad.
Can the Vikings avoid a letdown?
Minnesota might very well currently hold the No. 6 seed in the NFC Playoffs after last week’s blowout win over Miami. In no way does this mean the team is guaranteed a playoff spot. In fact, the Vikings actually need some help in order to play meaningful January football. None of that will matter if Kirk Cousins and Co. lay an egg on the road against the last-place Lions this weekend.
This is a game Minnesota should win handily — setting the stage for a huge Week 17 matchup with the NFC North champion Chicago Bears. Even then, the Vikings’ playoff aspirations depend heavily on what happens in D.C. and Seattle. Should both the Redskins and Seahawks take care of their own business, it won’t matter what the Vikes do.
Chargers look to keep pressure on the Chiefs
By virtue of their dramatic comeback win last week over Kansas City, the Chargers head into Week 16 tied with the Chiefs for first place in the AFC West. They also have a decent shot of earning the No. 1 overall seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs.
It’s pretty simple what needs to happen here. Los Angeles must win out and hope Kansas City loses one of its final two games. Given that the Chiefs take on a bad Raiders squad in Week 17, it could all come down to this week. The good news? Los Angeles plays at home Saturday evening. The bad news? Philip Rivers and Co. will be taking on a red-hot Ravens squad that has won four of five games with rookie Lamar Jackson under center.
It’s Nick Foles world, we just exist in it
In pretty much the most-shocking development around the NFL this season, Foles and his defending champion Eagles went into Los Angeles and defeated the Rams on Sunday night. It was a huge and potentially season-saving win for the Eagles. We’re now left wondering if Foles’ magic will continue through the final two weeks of the season — leading Philadelphia to inch into the postseason.
Philadelphia has another major test at home this week against a Texans squad that is still battling for a first-round bye in the playoffs and have come out victorious in 10 of their past 11 games. At 7-7, Philadelphia is a half of game behind Minnesota for the final wildcard spot in the NFC. It’s also still in running for the No. 5 seed — one game back of Seattle. But the team must win out in order to have a chance.
Indy looks to take care of business against lesser team
Fresh off their shutout win over the Dallas Cowboys last week, the Colts head into the final two weeks of the season with a favorable schedule. That includes taking on a struggling Eli Manning and the New York Giants at home in Week 16. Following that game, Indianapolis will head to Nashville to take on the Titans in a game that could very well decide who earns one of the two wild-card spots in the AFC.
Given the Colts started this season 1-4, it’s shocking to realize that they are still very much in the hunt for a wildcard spot. The goal here is to take care of business on their end and pressure the Steelers and Ravens in the final two weeks of the season. While Indy takes on a bad Giants team this week, Pittsburgh must go up against the Saints in New Orleans and the Ravens head to Los Angeles for a prime-time match against the red-hot Chargers. Things are set up pretty darn nice for Andrew Luck and Co.
The Patriots could very well be in trouble
Losers of two consecutive games, the Patriots have to win out and get some help from Houston in order to earn a first-round playoff bye. Given that all eight of their Super Bowl appearances in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era have come after the team skipped Wildcard Weekend, this is no small thing.
It’s a strange situation for the Patriots to be in. They no longer seem to be favorites in the AFC with Kansas City, Los Angeles and Houston all playing better football. None of that should really matter come January if the Patriots are able to earn a first-round bye. For too long, skeptics have continued to predict the end of the dynasty. And the Patriots just continue to dominate the AFC’s landscape. A loss to what has to be considered a surprisingly competitive Bills team this week would add more fuel for the naysayers.
Don’t sleep on the 49ers at Levi’s
On the surface, it’s unrealistic to believe that the 49ers (4-10) will be able to even hang with a first-place Bears team this coming Sunday. Winners of 10 games this season, Chicago just wrapped up the NFC North title. It’s also very much alive for the No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye.
That’s just on the surface. Following their surprising win over Seattle last week, the 49ers have an opportunity to be major players in the NFC Playoff race. That starts this coming Sunday at Levi’s, where San Francisco has won seven of its past 11 games. Meanwhile, the Bears are a pedestrian 3-3 away from Soldier Field on the season. A loss here, and Chicago’s hopes of earning a first-round playoff bye would be thrown out the window.
Absolutely huge road game for Pittsburgh in New Orleans
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers were able to avoid a four-game losing streak with a hard-fought win over New England last week. Even then, Pittsburgh remains just a half game ahead of Baltimore in the AFC North and isn’t even guaranteed a playoff spot.
New Orleans might have struggled offensively in last week’s win over Carolina. But its defense is playing some tremendous football. Playing in the Bayou is also going to be an issue for a Steelers team that performs much better at home. At 8-5-1, Pittsburgh is only a half game up on multiple teams for the final wildcard spot. Realistically, the team could lose to New Orleans and come out on top against Cincinnati in Week 17 — only to miss out on the playoffs in the process. Yeah, this is a huge game for Mike Tomlin’s squad.
Chiefs need a statement game in Emerald City
Following their disastrous late-game meltdown last week against the Chargers, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs head into Week 16 tied with Los Angeles in the AFC West. There’s a real chance that this team could be playing a wild-card game on the road despite winning 12 regular season games. That’s just how top heavy the division has been through 15 weeks.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they now have to head to Seattle to take on a Seahawks team that’s still battling for a playoff spot itself. Russell Wilson and Co. will be fired up to go on prime-time television in one of the most-hostile environments the NFL has to offer. That’s especially true given that Seattle dropped the ball big time in a loss to San Francisco last week. This is almost a must-win game for Kansas City. Lose here, and there’s a chance Los Angeles will win the division.