Eight in the Box: Best games remaining on the NFL schedule
Each Friday, Eight in the Box will highlight a list of eight players, teams or moments and their impact on the 2013 season.
Courtesy of the NFL's never-ending push for parity, nearly 70 of the league's teams (22 of 32) will enter this weekend's action within one loss of a playoff spot. Count that as exciting news, football fans, because it means plenty of drama down the stretch.
This week's Eight in the Box takes a glance at the most intriguing games left on the 2013 NFL schedule.
8. Indianapolis at Cincinnati, Week 14: Perhaps not as high-profile a game as some of the others on this list, but it should be a doozy nonetheless. That it could hold major significance in the race for AFC playoff seeding only raises the stakes on the Dec. 8 showdown in Cincinnati. The difference between the No. 3 seed (where Indianapolis currently sits) and No. 4 (Cincinnati's present spot)? The 3-seed draws the last team into the playoff field; the four likely has to play the second-place finisher in the Kansas City/Denver AFC West race.
7. Carolina at San Francisco, Week 10: Are the Panthers legit? We'll learn that answer over the season's second half, starting Sunday in San Francisco. The Panthers will carry a four-game win streak and the league's second-ranked defense to Candlestick, where the 49ers will be in search of their sixth consecutive victory.
Both offenses in this matchup have been magnificent of late -- neither team has scored fewer than 30 points during its current win streak. Cam Newton versus Colin Kaepernick should be worth the price of admission.
6. Green Bay at Chicago, Week 17: Two other NFC North games drew consideration -- Detroit at Chicago this week, and the Lions hosting the Packers on Thanksgiving Day. This one got the nod because the prospect of a division title being decided in a final week Green Bay-Chicago game is too exciting a notion to ignore.
If that's the case, don't be surprised if NBC flexes this game into the Sunday night slot (which has been reserved for the NFC East over the past two Week 17s). Those early clashes involving Detroit will go a long way toward determining what's on the line here. Jay Cutler is expected back on the field Sunday when his team hosts the Lions. Aaron Rodgers probably will not be ready in time for the holiday get-together at Ford Field.
5. Carolina at New Orleans, Week 14/New Orleans at Carolina, Week 16: Still two games left between the first- and second-place teams in the NFC South. And if Carolina can keep its upstart season together until Week 14, these could be special. The Panthers swept the Saints last season: 35-27 in Carolina in Week 2, 44-38 at New Orleans in Week 17.
4. Seattle at San Francisco, Week 14: How much will be up for grabs in this game? Seattle not only leads the NFC West at the moment, but also has the best record in the entire conference. Included in its 8-1 start is a convincing 29-3 victory over the 49ers way back in Week 2. Another victory here almost certainly would seal the division, and it may send the NFC playoffs through Seattle.
San Francisco, though, could upset the apple cart. The 49ers have to navigate a tough stretch between now and then (Carolina, at New Orleans, at Washington, St. Louis), but even if the NFC West gap opens a bit, the 49ers could damage Seattle's claim to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
3. Denver at New England, Week 12: Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady. Not much more needs to be said. But just to make sure this game gets its fair due ...
Brady's Patriots downed Manning's Broncos last season, 31-21, in their first matchup post-Peyton's move to Denver. If the Broncos can take down Kansas City in Week 11 (more on that game in a minute), the AFC's No. 1 seed eventually may come down to which team emerges victorious here.
2. New Orleans at Seattle, Week 13: The pass-happy Saints offense takes aim at the Pacific Northwest ... and who knows what the weather will be like on the first Monday night in December.
Right now, these are the top two squads in the NFC (Seattle in first at 8-1, New Orleans behind at 6-2). So as with that Broncos-Patriots game, the result of the Saints-Seahawks showdown could play a major role in forming the playoff bracket.
The Seahawks have not lost at home since Week 16 of the 2011 season. Their only Qwest Field contest before this one is against 2-7 Minnesota, so that run of domination ought to be alive and well when the Saints arrive.
1. Kansas City at Denver, Week 11: Assuming Denver can navigate a possible trap game at San Diego this weekend, the Chiefs and Broncos will enter this game with a combined one loss between them. That setback belongs to the Broncos, who stumbled in Indianapolis -- a result that handed Kansas City sole possession of first place in the AFC.
These teams play twice in three weeks, starting here, so Kansas City will have a shot to clamp down its stranglehold on the division. But the Broncos obviously have other plans, such as taking that potential crown from the Chiefs and ascending to No. 1 overall in the conference.
An additional subplot is Kansas City's run toward 16-0. The Chiefs have a mountainous road between them and that unblemished mark -- four road games, the two matchups with Denver, a visit from the Colts -- but they're the only ones still with a shot to run the table. BURKE: Kansas City's 16-0 quest; more NFL second-half storylines to watch