Believe it or not, there are a few scenarios where the playoff lineups could be locked up after this weekend. That's unlikely, but still a possibility. There a few 8 - 6 teams in the AFC that are hanging on by the slimmest of statistical threads, but it's in the NFC where things are really strange, primarily due to the awful performance of the NFC South. It's possible for the Dallas Cowboys to finish as well as 11 - 5 and still miss the playoffs. They control their own destiny, but have the tougher road than their closest division pursuer, the Eagles. Both teams travel to Washington, but Dallas hosts Indianapolis this week, while Philadelphia travels, if you can call it that, up I-95 to close the season against the Giants.
Meanwhile, in the aforementioned NFC South, only Carolina among the contenders does not control it's own destiny. New Orleans could actually clinch the division with a win over Atlanta and a Carolina loss to Cleveland. Or the games could go the other way and all three would still be alive going into the final day of the season. All of this drama to pick a team that will finish 8 - 8 at best.
In addition, the NFC North, AFC North and NFC West are all still up for grabs. Taking the NFC North first, Detroit can clinch division with a win and a Packers loss. Any other combination of results and the two teams will play for the title in Lambeau Field next week. As for the wildcard, Detroit wins and they grab one of the spots. After that, it becomes a little more complicated, with a number of possible outcomes. In the AFC North, Cincinnati is the only team in a position to clinch the title with a win over Denver and losses by Pittsburgh and Baltimore. If all three win, Baltimore will be eliminated by virtue of the tiebreaking process. And finally, the game of the week could decide the NFC West and even homefield in the conference. An Arizona win over Seattle, as unlikely as that might be with the Cardinals on quarterback 3A, would clinch it all for the Cardinals as they own wins over Dallas, Detroit and Philadelphia, plus the conference tiebreaker over the Packers. Of course, if Seattle wins, there isn't enough room in this post to list all of the possibilities.
Tennessee (2 - 12) 17 @ Jacksonville (2 - 12) 20 (from an earlier post): The season is winding down for most teams, but it's been over for a
while for the Jaguars and Titan, who meet tonight with identically
terrible records. They are also pretty close in their stats, with both
giving up over 70 yards per game than they gain. That's really no way to
win football games. There hasn't been a game this late in the season
with teams with a combined record this bad since the Colts met the
Buccaneers in 1991. If it wasn't for gambling and fantasy leagues, this
game would probably go largely unnoticed, and for good reason. The only
thing these two teams are fighting for is a top draft pick. I could
suggest that the Jags are playing to stay in Jacksonville, but I think
that ship has sailed. When you have to resort to installing a glass
walled swimming pool to divert fans' attention from the calamity taking
place on the field, the I believe it's time to consider that inevitable
move to Los Angeles. Of course L.A. hasn't lost just one team in the
past, but two franchises over the years. But the NFL is adamant about
putting a team there, and with expansion out of the question, then it
puts Jacksonville on a very short list of candidates. If it appears that
I'm writing about anything but the actual game tonight, then I'm guilty
as charged. I mean, who really cares?
Philadelphia (9 - 5) 27 @ Washington (3 - 11) 20: The Eagles need to win this game or their playoff hopes are over. The Redskins, well, you know, like, maybe...Oh, forget it. RGIII will again be starting for Washington, which has lost seven in a row behind three different QB's. The 'Skins took the Eagles to the wire in a 37 - 34 loss in week three. This is not a particularly good matchup for Phialdelphia, facing a decent Washington run defense. But when it's all said and done, I just don't see the Eagles letting this one get away.
San Diego (8 - 6) 23 @ San Francisco (7 - 7) 17: In their last five games, the 'Niners are 2 -3 and averaging an anemic 11.2 points per game on offense. In a pass-happy, high scoring league, that's pathetic. I can understand two of those games, as they came against Seattle. But in wins over the now 5 - 9 Giants and 3 - 11 Redskins, they managed only 16 and 17 points respectively. With all of the turmoil surrounding coach Jim Harbaugh and add in the "week after the Seahawks" effect and I have to favor the Chargers.
Minnesota (6 - 8) 19 @ Miami (7 - 7) 24: The Dolphins, currently in the 11th spot in the AFC, need a lot to fall their way to qualify for the postseason. But no matter what, they need to win to stay alive and they face a decent team that has been eliminated from playoff consideration. Statistically, the Vikings and Dolphins are pretty close, but I'll give the nod to the home team.
Baltimore (9 - 5) 24 @ Houston (7 - 7) 17: The Ravens appear to be getting on one of their late-season defensive rolls heading into a possible playoff game. But to get there, they need to keep winning. The Texans are still alive, but like Miami, there isn't much margin for error as they enter the game in the 10th spot. Houston, now on their third starter at QB, likes to run the ball, but should have some problems against Baltimore's third rated rushing defense. This just isn't a good match-up for the home team.
Detroit (10 - 4) 27 @ Chicago (5 - 9) 19: I doubt many fans give Chicago much of a chance to derail the Lions as Jimmy Clausen replaces Jay Cutler as starting QB. In the first meeting in Detroit on Thanksgiving, the Bears were never in the game, eventually losing 34 - 17. Teams usually try to protect new or untested QB's by running the ball, but the Lions have league's top rushing defense. Also, a Lions' win puts them in the playoffs and could possibly give them the NFC North crown if the Bucs can pull a major upset over the Packers.
Cleveland (7 - 7) 16 @ Carolina (5 - 8 -1) 24:The Browns, despite a terrible effort in last week's first start by Johnny Manziel, are still hanging onto the slimmest of playoff hopes. Carolina will have to focus on the field instead of the scoreboard as a loss could eliminate them from the division race. Win, and they're still alive. If the Falcons beat the Saints as well, then the Panthers will travel to Atlanta to play for the title in the NFC South. On the field, the Panthers have rebounded from a seven game winless streak to put together back to back victories and stay in the division hunt. They expect to start still healing QB Cam Newton. I don't like the Browns' vibe right now.
Atlanta (5 - 9) 27 @ New Orleans (6 - 8) 30: Both of these teams control their own destinies in the worst division in football in recent memory. I think the Saints will try to come out and throw deep on the league's worst pass defense, hoping to end their four game home losing streak. The Falcons can eliminate the home team with win coupled with a Panthers' victory over the Browns. I've been burned by the Saints all season, but I'm a glutton for punishment.
Green Bay (10 - 4) 27 @ Tampa Bay (2 - 12) 17: The Packers are in the thick of the NFC playoff picture, needing a win to set up an NFC North title game against Detroit in Lambeau Field next week. But as good as the Packers have been at home, they've been just as sluggish on the road, including last week in a 21 - 13 loss at Buffalo. The Bucs are winless at home, but despite a 2 - 12 record can still play a significant role in a couple of division races, including their own. Unlike the Bills, however, their pass defense isn't in the top ten, or even the top twenty. I expect Aaron Rodgers to lead the Pack to a big late-season win.
Kansas City (8 - 6) 23 @ Pittsburgh (9 - 5) 28: The playoff picture, at least for this week, is pretty simple for these teams. Pittsburgh wins and they're in, the Chiefs lose and they're out. However, if the Chiefs win, they stay very alive, currently holding the seventh seed, just behind the three AFC North teams. The key to this game is most likely the ability of the Chiefs to stop the Steelers' decent running offense, something KC has had trouble doing in their losses. Pittsburgh is vulnerable through the air, but the Chiefs have had trouble moving the ball through the air.
New England (11 - 3) 27 @ New York Jets (3 - 11) 19:Over the years, Rex Ryan has been successful in giving the Patriots fits. Earlier in the season, the Jets lost a close one in Foxboro, but that was before New England started to really hit their stride. A Pats win and they get at least a first round bye and a home game in the playoffs. Combine that with a Denver loss, and New England would secure home field in the AFC. That's a lot more motivation than the Jets can muster.
New York Giants (5 - 9) 20 @ St. Louis (6 - 8) 28: This is one of the few games this week that has no impact on the playoffs. Despite their losing record, St. Louis is a pretty good football team and is looking to the future with considerable hope. The Giants, on the other hand, won't be making any late runs to a Super Bowl anytime soon. Two teams headed in different directions.
Buffalo (8 - 6) 23 @ Oakland (2 - 12) 20: By the time this game kicks off, there's a chance that the Bills, currently seeded ninth in the AFC playoff race, will have already been eliminated from postseason consideration. But after last week's big win over the Packers, I think Buffalo will look to build on that victory with a close win over an improving Raider team.
Indianapolis (10 - 4) 27 @ Dallas (10 - 4) 30: Although Dallas leads the NFC East and is currently seeded third, they are not in a good position in tiebreakers against other NFC teams and can't really afford a loss. The Colts have clinched their division, but can still grab a first round bye if they keep winning and have some help from Denver or New England. Indianapolis leads the league in passing yardage, while Dallas is third in rushing the ball. Can Indianapolis stop the Cowboy running game and can Dallas slow down the Colts passing game, preferably by keeping Andrew Luck off the field? I guess we'll see.
Seattle (10 - 4) 14 @ Arizona (11 - 3) 16: The Arizona Cardinals are the Florida State Seminoles of the NFL. It doesn't look like they should win, but they find a way to do it. Undefeated at home, but now playing with quarterback 3A, they can clinch the division and home field in the NFC with a win over favored Seattle. The Seahawks are unbelievable nine point favorites, primarily due to the QB situation for Arizona. Conventional wisdom would dictate that the outcome of this one won't be much different than Seattle's 19 - 3 win a month ago. I just think there's a destiny aspect to this Cardinals team, so here I go with a huge upset pick.
Denver (11 - 3) 27 @ Cincinnati (9 - 4 - 1) 24:Peyton Manning has looked fairly pedestrian on the road, but now he leads the Broncos into Cincinnati to play the Jeckyll and Hyde Bengals. Cincinnati likes to run the ball to take pressure off QB Andy Dalton, but Denver does a great job of stopping the run. I look for the Bengals to have some problems getting enough points to win, especially if the Broncos jump out to a quick lead.