Ranking the most important games remaining on the NFL schedule
With a mere four weeks left in the NFL regular season, playoff hopefuls can wait no longer for their final push. As Andy Dufresne would say, "I guess it comes down to a simple choice: Get busy living, or get busy dying."
The December schedule is absolutely loaded with important games, thanks in part to the NFL's strategy of stockpiling Week 17 with intra-divisional matchups.
To get you prepped for what's to come, we take a look at a baker's dozen (or so) of games that will have a profound impact on the playoff field and how it is seeded. Here they are, ranked in order of importance:
13. Cleveland at Baltimore (Week 17): This could be for all the AFC North marbles. It could be for, uh, no marbles. A Week 15 Cleveland win over Cincinnati certainly would figure to up the ante for the season finale in Baltimore. The Ravens won the first matchup between these two now 7-5 teams, which gives them a leg up down the stretch.
12. Miami at New England (Week 15); Buffalo at New England (Week 17): A pair of AFC East wild-card hopefuls face the daunting task of playing in Foxborough before the regular season ends, though Buffalo could catch a break if New England's seeding is locked in prior to Week 17.
The Patriots currently hold the No. 1 AFC seed, so they can ill-afford any slip-ups. Should they have one -- like, say, this Sunday in San Diego -- either the Dolphins or Bills may be able to steal the East title.
11. Denver at Cincinnati (Week 16): Pending New England's results over the final four weeks, there is a possibility that this game could be for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If nothing else, the two-seed ought to be there for the taking. Both Denver and Cincinnati lost to the Patriots earlier this season; both also could leapfrog the current AFC leader with a win and Patriots loss in San Diego this week.
10. Baltimore at Miami (Week 14): As things stand right now, the 7-5 Dolphins hold the AFC's second wild-card spot ahead of five other 7-5 teams, Baltimore among them. Because this matchup falls early in December, it may not be an elimination game ... but it's close. While head-to-head tiebreakers do not necessarily factor in when there is a wild-card tie, the loser of this one will be in a world of trouble.
9. Atlanta at New Orleans (Week 16): Included by default, as the winner probably claims the NFC South and a home playoff game. A couple of alternate possibilities are still on the table: A) Carolina somehow snaps out of its two-month-long funk, both Atlanta and New Orleans collapse, and the Panthers claim the division; or B) one of the Falcons or Saints goes 0-2 over the next two weeks as the other goes 2-0.
The odds favor New Orleans in the latter scenario. The Saints host Carolina in Week 14 and then hit Chicago two Sundays from now; the Falcons must deal with a trip to Green Bay and a home game with 7-5 Pittsburgh.
8. Seattle at Philadelphia (Week 14): Beyond the obvious intrigue of Chip Kelly's offense against the Seahawks defense, there is a boatload of postseason intrigue here. The Eagles are closing in on an NFC East title and have the No. 1 overall seed within their reach. The Seahawks still could wind up as the NFC West champs and No. 1 seed themselves ... or miss the playoffs entirely.
7. San Diego at Kansas City (Week 17): The AFC West's hopes for placing three teams in the postseason field -- as the division did a year ago -- probably vanished when the Chiefs lost back-to-back games to Oakland and Denver. Its chances to claim two playoff tickets could hinge on the outcome here. The Chiefs likely need a 3-0 run before this game to avoid falling into the role of spoiler.
6. San Francisco at Seattle (Week 15): The Seahawks put a substantial dent in their arch-rivals' playoff hopes with a road win on Thanksgiving. Could they send the 49ers packing in 2014 by completing the season sweep? A 49ers' win would put both teams in danger of missing out on the postseason -- Seattle already has four losses; San Francisco's sitting on five.
5. Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (Week 14); Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (Week 17): Doubling up here because the AFC North could swing based on these outcomes. Game 2 also could be meaningless if the Bengals win the first go-round -- they're threatening to pull away in the division, while the Steelers are fighting to hang in the wild-card race.
Both Baltimore and Cleveland will be in the odd position of rooting for Pittsburgh this Sunday. A win by the black and yellow there would swing the AFC North first-place door wide open again.
4. Dallas at Philadelphia (Week 15): If the Eagles can get past Seattle this week, they could clinch the NFC East with a win here. Dallas will have other ideas. Depending on how the Cowboys fare Thursday night in Chicago, they might be in must-win territory by the time their trip to Philly rolls around.
3. Detroit at Green Bay (Week 17): The Lions last won a division title in 1993. Their last victory at Lambeau Field came two years before that, in '91. If they take care of business against Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Chicago over the next three weeks, the Lions will have an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone on the season's final Sunday.
The Packers could be riding a seven-game win streak of their own by that point. And if that's the case, they will have their sights set on the NFC's No. 1 seed.
2. Seattle at Arizona (Week 16): Feeling those butterflies yet, Cardinals fans? The Seahawks are closing fast in the NFC West race, just a game back following their Week 13 win and Arizona's second straight loss.
Before this potentially huge contest arrives, Seattle visits Philadelphia and hosts San Francisco (both games also on our list); Arizona hosts K.C. and travels to St. Louis. No combination of outcomes from those four games would be shocking, so it's wait and see for what's actually on the line come Week 16.
1. Denver at San Diego (Week 15): Are the 8-4 Chargers a legitimate threat to the 9-3 Broncos' hold on first place? The schedule could have something to say about it -- San Diego plays New England this week, Denver in Week 15, then closes at Kansas City and San Francisco. So Philip Rivers and Co. will have to have this one, whether they're thinking division title or wild card.
Also at play: Denver's hope for a first-round bye or even home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Not only could the Broncos essentially nail down the division (and possibly even clinch it) with a win here, but also they could survive a dangerous land mine en route to 13-3 or 12-4.