This is a huge weekend in the NFL, with 10 games that involve the top playoff contenders. There are another 7 teams in the NFC at 5-9 who still have a shot, but with Carolina, New Orleans, and St. Louis tied for the last spot at 6-8 with 2 weeks to go, the tie-breaker scenarios are dizzying.
Can you imagine if this was the Monday night game this week? FOX must be jubilant that they draw Green Bay at Minnesota on Christmas Eve afternoon. The Packers have already clinched a playoff spot but the Vikings have not; the winner of this game wins the division so the stakes are high. Neither team was impressive last week, as the Packers lost to the Jaguars thanks to Brett Favre's 3 interceptions and the Vikings barely held on against the Lions. Favre never plays well in the Metrodome, but I'm not sold on the Vikings in a big game (remember their collapse against Arizona that knocked them out of the playoffs last year?). Green Bay won the game in Lambeau earlier this year 34-31, and this game should also be high-scoring and entertaining.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) you'll have plenty of time to spend with your family on Christmas Day. The first game is at 5pm Eastern as Oakland travels to Kansas City for a great rivalry game that has no playoff implications at all. The nightcap isn't much better, as Denver tries to bounce back against Tennessee. The Broncos somehow have allowed themselves to fall into a dangerous 4-team tie for the last AFC wild-card spot. They finish up at home against the Colts in a game that could be very meaningful in terms of playoff seeding. Here are the remaining schedules for the "gang of four" in the AFC:
Jacksonville 8-6 Houston, at Oakland
Buffalo 8-6 at SF, Pitt
Baltimore 8-6 at Pitt, Miami
Denver 8-6 at Tenn, Indianapolis
Denver's 7-6 loss to Jacksonville in Week 2 looms large...
While we're on the subject of the AFC wild-card race, we'll start in Jacksonville on Sunday as they host Houston. The Jaguars hold tie-breakers over Denver and Buffalo with wins over both teams. Of the four teams at 8-6, Jacksonville is the only team that can clinch a playoff spot this weekend, but don't count on it. Oh, the Jaguars should win, but they need the other 3 teams to all lose PLUS they need to clinch the strength of schedule tiebreaker against all them. Unlikely, since Buffalo is playing woeful San Francisco.
When the Patriots threw away their game in Miami, the stakes for San Diego and Indianapolis went up considerably. Instead of fighting for the third seed, now there's a chance to get a bye. New England doesn't play until 4pm, so expect a great effort by both teams. Peyton Manning needs 2 TDs to break Marino's record, and he should do it this week - there's no way he wants to risk it on a trip to Denver, where there is always the possibility of snow.
Baltimore is in a more dire position after losing to Indy last week, while Pittsburgh got an early gift from Tom Brady. The Steelers need just one win in their final two games to clinch home field, and I think they'll finish the job.
Finally, New Orleans hosts Atlanta, who will probably not play Michael Vick since they're locked into the #2 seed. It's a great break for the Saints, who could control their own destiny with a win. New Orleans plays in Carolina next week, and even though they lost 32-21 in their last game, anything is possible.
All of a sudden, the Patriots have a must-win game against the Jets. A win locks up a bye, a loss makes it possible for them to slip all the way to the fourth seed and a first round playoff game against - probably the Jets. New York has a two game lead for the wild card, but has not officially clinched yet. They need a win or a combination of losses by 2 or 3 of the other wild card contenders. Of course, New England plays San Francisco next week and New York plays at St. Louis (what kind of wacky scheduling is that?), so both teams will have a chance at redemption regardless of the outcome.
I hate to say that Arizona at Seattle is interesting, but it is. Arizona can still win their division if things break right, starting with a win this week. I have no faith in the Seahawks, but even less in the Cardinals. Seattle cliches a playoff spot with a win, and needs a St. Louis loss to win the division.
Then there's Carolina, which took a big step back last week with an overtime loss to Atlanta. Now they have to beat Tampa Bay, who is still marginally alive, and possibly face a winner-take-all showdown with New Orleans last week. Maybe their playoff run has run out of gas at the wrong time.
The final Monday night game of the year means nothing for Philadelphia, except that they'll try to find a replacement for Terrell Owens contributions in the passing game. I know it's a minor point, but I guess Andy Reid won't have to wear the tights after all - Owens never did catch TD number 15. St. Louis got smoked by Arizona last week but is still in the thick of the race. St. Louis needs Seattle to help, but if the Jets win this week, then they have no motivation to play hard against the Rams next week.