Top storylines for NFL Week 16

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Week 16 of the NFL season brings us a whole lot of playoff clinching scenarios. Can the Philadelphia Eagles wrap up home-field advantage in the NFC with a win over Oakland on Christmas night? Will the Los Angeles Rams — already in the midst of a surprising season — clinch the NFC West title?

Over in the AFC, the Jacksonville Jaguars will look to claim the southern division title while Kansas City attempts to clinch it out west. Meanwhile, a red-hot quarterback in San Francisco will look to continue remaining the talk of the NFL.

These are among the top storylines for NFL’s Week 16 holiday slate.

Christmas coming early in Minnesota

With a win over the Packers on Saturday and a Carolina Panthers loss to Tampa Bay, these Vikings will clinch a first-round playoff bye. It’s an unlikely scenario given that the Buccaneers are 2-9 in their past 11 games and will be taking on a contending Panthers squad. Even then, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected thus far this season.

Minnesota’s job is made much easier by the fact that Green Bay was eliminated from playoff contention last week, promptly deciding at that point to place Aaron Rodgers on injured reserve. The team should be able to win in Lambeau rather easily Saturday.

That brings us to another scenario Mike Zimmer and Co. are surely focused on heading into the final two weeks of the season. At 11-3, Minnesota is still very much alive for home-field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs. If it can win out and watches the Eagles lose one of their final two games, Minnesota won’t have to leave its home stadium through February’s Super Bowl.

Todd Gurley’s MVP candidacy

At this point, we really need to start talking about Gurley as an MVP candidate. Sure Tom Brady will likely win the award. That’s fine. But what Gurley has done thus far this season has been absolutely extraordinary. He’s coming of a 152-yard, three-touchdown performance in a blowout 42-7 win over Seattle and has now racked up a league-leading 17 scores to go with 1,817 total yards.

It might not get easier for Gurely and the Rams this week against a Titans squad that’s No. 3 in the NFL stopping the run and is in desperate need for a win after falling to San Francisco last week. Should Gurley have a huge game en route to leading Los Angeles to a division-clinching win, his MVP candidacy will take a completely new turn.

Controlling your own destiny

A late-December game between New England and Buffalo with both teams controlling their own destiny. This is the type of late-season drama we have not come to expect in the AFC East. And while each of these two teams are in vastly different situations, it doesn’t make the game any less interesting.

Fresh off a dramatic late-game win last week against Pittsburgh, the defending champion Patriots will clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC should they win out. That’s made possible by the team winning nine of its past 10 games.

For the visiting Bills, a win in their final two games will clinch a wildcard spot and their first trip to postseason football since the Bill Clinton Administration (1999). Coming off an ugly 24-16 win against Miami, the Bills are in prime position to do just that. Taking everything else out of the equation, Buffalo’s confidence level heading into Gillette has to be rather high. The team has won two of its past three road games against the defending champs.

Epic NFC south tilt

Atlanta heads into Week 16 one game behind both Carolina and New Orleans in the NFC South race. It’s also a game head of Seattle, Dallas and Detroit for the final wildcard spot. Meanwhile, New Orleans can clinch the division title with a win over Atlanta and a Panthers loss to Tampa Bay.

This is why it’s so great that the NFL schedule late-season divisional games. In reality, the Falcons could find themselves in position to win the division with a road win over the Saints. They could also find themselves battling for their playoff lives in Week 17 with a loss this Sunday.

For the Saints, it’s rather simple. Win out, and they’ll earn the division title. And at the very least, a home-field game in the first round. A victory here also puts Drew Brees and Co. in position to earn a first-round bye should should they win out and the Vikings lose their final two games. Fun times, indeed.

Pride of the Bengals

See what we did there? Cincinnati is playing the Detroit Lions this weekend with absolutely nothing on the line for the Bengals outside of pride. Head coach Marvin Lewis has reportedly already decided this is his last season with the team. Meanwhile, Cincinnati has been outscored by a whopping 67-14 margin over the past two games — including a 33-7 home loss to the last-place Bears back in Week 14.

If the Bengals have any sense of pride here, they’ll come to play at home against a Lions team that is in a must-win situation. Detroit finds itself one game behind Atlanta for the final wildcard spot in the NFC and needs to win out with the Falcons losing out in order to make the playoffs.

Foles, Eagles look to clinch

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles

Philadelphia will know where it stands at kickoff Christmas night against the Oakland Raiders. Should Minnesota fall on the road Saturday night against Green Bay, the Eagles can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory over the Raiders. If not, this thing heads to Week 17.

It’s an interesting dynamic to look at for Philadelphia. The team has already clinched a first-round bye. Head coach Doug Pederson has also hinted that he’ll rest his starters should the team acquire home-field prior to Week 17. It’s in this that the team could very well play a role in who earns the No. 6 seed in the NFC, especially with its season finale at home against Dallas.

First things first. Coming off a four-touchdown performance in his first start of the season last week, Nick Foles will look to pick up where he left off. It’s yet another sexy matchup against a Raiders defense that’s yielded 20 touchdowns compared to four interceptions on the season. After losing MVP Carson Wentz to a torn ACL, the Eagles’ brass wants to make sure Foles heads into the playoffs on a high note. That will be important to look at here.

Unwrapping the west

The scenario is rather simple for a suddenly red-hot Kansas City Chiefs team in the AFC West. Should either Kansas City beat Miami at home on Sunday or the Chargers lose to the Jets on the road, Andy Reid’s squad will wrap up the division title.

This is a long time coming for a Chiefs squad that had lost six of seven prior to its current two-game winning streak. Kansas City also doesn’t have much more to play for when it comes to seeding. The team is pretty much entrenched in as the No. 4 seed should it win the division.

In the NFC West, it’s also rather simple for the Rams. They’ll take the division with a win over Tennessee or a Seahawks loss against Dallas. At 10-4 on the season, Los Angeles is also still alive for a first-round playoff bye. Though, that would require the team winning out with Minnesota losing out and the Saints taking the NFC South while also losing one of their final two games. Either way, both west coast divisions could be wrapped up this weekend.

Major test for both Jimmy and the Jags

Flush with a defense that ranks No. 1 in passing yards allowed, total yards allowed, points allowed and leads the league in sacks, most figure the 10-4 Jaguars should have an easy time of it against a four-win 49ers team Sunday.

While this might still be the case, there’s one player that changes the entire dynamic here. He goes by the name Jimmy Garoppolo, and has dominated in his first three starts as a member of the 49ers.

The numbers are surreal for the former Patriots backup. He’s the first 49ers quarterback to pass for 300-plus yards in consecutive games since Jeff Garcia back in 2000. He’s third in the NFL in passing yards since taking over as the team’s starter back in Week 13. San Francisco is coming off a Week 15 win that saw it punt one time, and the team has scored on 71 percent of its drives since he took over under center. Those are absurd numbers.

This is an under-the-radar great matchup in Week 16. Jacksonville can clinch the AFC South title with a win or a Titans loss. A win in Santa Clara will also potentially help the team remain alive for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. For the 49ers, it’s all about building off their current three-game winning streak and heading into the offseason on a high note.

Zeke’s return

Ezekiel Elliott returns from his six-game ban with a whole heck of a lot on the line for Dallas. The team won its final three games without Elliott in the lineup, keeping its remote playoff hopes alive.

Elliott returns with fresh legs and will take on a Seattle defense that has yielded 400 rushing yards in the past two games. Given that the youngster is averaging 130 total yards throughout his career, he should be able to have a huge game in this one. And with the Cowboys boasting an 18-5 record in games that Elliott has played in, there could be confidence that they’ll come out on top.

In the end, this might not mean a hill of beans. Dallas needs to win out with the Falcons losing their final two games and Detroit splitting its final two in order to make the playoffs. That’s a whole heck of a lot to ask for.

The end of an era in Seattle?

To say that the Seahawks were embarrassed last week would be an understatement. Unable to stop Todd Gurley in any way and struggling to do anything of on offense, Pete Carroll’s squad lost to the Rams at home, 42-7. That’s just a whole heck of a lot of ugly.

But it’s the optics we’ve seen in Seattle over the past couple weeks that should concern fans in the Pacific Northwest even more. Starting with that ugly scene in a loss to Jacksonville back in Week 14 and continuing with a feud between two of the team’s best players, things are ugly in Seattle right now.

One has to wonder how much that might be magnified should the team be eliminated from playoff contention this weekend. If the Falcons were to win Sunday against New Orleans, this would come to fruition no matter the outcome of Seattle’s game against Dallas. That in and of itself would lead to questions about whether this is the end of an era for a once-dominant Seahawks squad.