An NFL team's fortunes can change abruptly over the course of a few hours. Just look at the Detroit Lions. They went into Week 15 leading the NFC North and seemingly in control of their playoff destiny, but came out of it in third place and needing help.
Victories by Chicago and Green Bay combined with Detroit's self implosion against Baltimore on Monday night have left the Lions in desperate straits. To win the division -- the only way they can get to the playoffs -- the Lions not only must win their final two games (vs. the Giants and at Minnesota), but also need the Bears and Packers to lose at least once.
With only two weeks left in the regular season, almost every touchdown pass, interception, missed field goal attempt or penalty can alter the playoff landscape. Here are the must-see games in Week 16.
New Orleans Saints (10-4) at Carolina Panthers (10-4)
The Saints gained the upper hand for the NFC South title and the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed when they smacked Carolina, 31-13, on Dec. 8, a victory that gave them a one-game lead over the Panthers. Although New Orleans then hurt its cause with a puzzling performance in a loss to St. Louis last week, it still would capture the division with another win over Carolina. If the Saints lose Sunday, the only scenario in which they would finish first would be to beat the Bucs at home and have the Panthers lose to the Falcons in Week 17.
A lot went awry for the Saints in a 27-16 loss to the Rams. Drew Brees was intercepted twice and fumbled once on a strip-sack, kicker Garrett Harley had one field-goal attempt blocked and hooked another one badly, and an offensive line penalty nullified a touchdown. It was a stinging slap in the face for the Saints, who just don't play with the same proficiency on the road as they do at home. New Orleans is 7-0 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome but has lost four of seven road games, including three outdoors.
Coach Sean Payton didn't waste any time reacting to what happened in St. Louis. First, he cut Hartley, who had been with the team for six seasons and played a key role in the Saints' march to a Super Bowl championship after the 2009 season, and signed Shayne Graham. Then, Payton replaced left offensive tackle Charles Brown, who was benched during the St. Louis game, with third-round rookie Terron Armstead. Armstead, who hasn't played a single snap on offense this season and has appeared in only four games (all on special teams) draws the challenge of going up against Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy (eight sacks) on Sunday.
You can bet that the Panthers coaches and players spent time studying tape of New Orleans' losses to St. Louis and Seattle (34-7 on Dec. 2) as they prepared for this rematch, a game that Carolina coach Ron Rivera labeled as a playoff contest. The Panthers had won eight games in a row before Brees carved up their defense with 313 passing yards and four touchdowns two weeks ago.
Carolina, which hasn't been to the playoffs since winning the division in 2008, has won six straight games at home since a season-opening loss to Seattle. While you can't overlook the performances of quarterback Cam Newton (21 touchdown passes, six rushing TDs) and running back DeAngelo Williams (186 total yards vs. the Jets last week), defense continues to be the straw that stirs the Panthers. They have allowed the second-fewest points per game (14.9) in the league and have the second-most sacks (45).
Chicago Bears (8-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (8-6)
That the Bears still are in position to win the NFC North is a testament to the job backup quarterback Josh McCown did filling in for injured starter Jay Cutler, who returned last week. Helped by 48 points scored on defense and special teams, Chicago is averaging 29 points per game, second in the league to Denver, and has put up at least 400 yards of offense in each of its last four games.
Whether the Bears can maintain their lead in the division, however, likely will depend on a run defense that ranks last in the league, allowing an average of 152.4 yards per game. Stopping Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy will be a huge task. McCoy (1,343 yards, seven touchdowns) leads the league in rushing and has had four games of at least 150 yards.
The Eagles come into the game with a one-game lead in the NFC East over the Cowboys, whom they will meet in the regular-season finale -- most likely with the division title on the line. They are trying to work a worst-to-first move after finishing last in the division in 2012, Andy Reid's last year as coach in Philadelphia.
New England Patriots (10-4) at Baltimore Ravens (8-6)
It's been a season of close calls for these teams. The Patriots have won four games by three points, one by two points, one by one point and also had a three-point loss. The Ravens are 3-3 in games decided by three points and 2-1 in two-point games.
Despite losing, 24-20, in Miami last week -- their fifth straight game decided by four or fewer points, the Patriots hold a two-game edge over the Dolphins in the AFC East and can clinch a fifth consecutive division title by beating Baltimore. Once 3-5, the Ravens have won four straight games and have moved within one game of first-place Cincinnati in the AFC North (those teams meet in Week 17).
Baltimore gained a one-legged victory over Detroit as second-year kicker Justin Tuck accounted for all of its points with six field goals, including a franchise-record 61-yarder that won the game. But if the Ravens expect to return to the playoffs and defend their Super Bowl title they will have to turn more scoring chances into touchdowns.
Arizona Cardinals (9-5) at Seattle Seahawks (12-2)
The NFL's coach of the year in 2012, when he filled in as the interim man in charge in Indianapolis while Chuck Pagano went through treatments for leukemia, Arizona's Bruce Arians has done a masterful job in his first season as a regular head coach. He has kept the Cardinals in playoff contention, and if they win out against the Seahawks and next week at home against San Francisco they will finish with their best record since relocating to the desert from St. Louis in 1988.
Strangely, even an 11-5 record may not be playoff worthy for Arizona, which would have to beat out either NFC West division rival San Francisco or the NFC South's Saints or Panthers for a wild card spot. Beating Seattle will be a big enough challenge, especially with several of the Cardinals players suffering from injuries, including quarterback Carson Palmer (sprained ankle) and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (concussion).
The Seahawks, who have suffered few hiccups this season, can clinch the NFC West, the NFC's No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs with a victory.
Dallas Cowboys (7-7) at Washington Redskins (3-11)
Despite a mediocre record and a colossal collapse last week against Green Bay, in which they blew a 26-3 halftime lead and lost 37-36 at home, the Cowboys remain in contention for the playoffs. If Dallas and Philadelphia win or lose this week, the NFC East title will come down to their regular-season finale in Dallas (the Cowboys have a tiebreaker edge, having beat the Eagles in Week 7. A loss by the Cowboys to Washington and a victory by the Eagles over Chicago would eliminate Dallas.