There’s been plenty of complaining about the NFL schedule this season. Not for Week 16, when those three gems and a few other strong matchups with postseason implications provide some extra gleam to this time of year.
Pittsburgh can ruin Baltimore’s January plans with a win that would clinch the AFC North. Kansas City can eliminate defending champion Denver from contention by winning; both of those games are Sunday.
And while Minnesota has virtually no shot at making the playoffs, it could damage Green Bay’s chances by knocking off the Packers.
“Most definitely,” Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn says. “If we can’t go, they can’t go. That’s how we’re going to look at it. We’re going to try to spoil their parade and put them in a bad situation. Try to go out there and play hard for each other in this locker room and go out and play hard for ourselves.”
The penultimate week of the regular season began Thursday night when the Philadelphia Eagles snapped a five-game slide by beating the visiting New York Giants 24-19.
Malcolm Jenkins had the second two-interception game of his eight-year career, returning one for a touchdown for the Eagles (6-9). The loss put the Giants (10-5) in a more difficult spot for ending their four-season playoff drought. They still own the top wild-card position heading into their finale at Washington, and can still get in this weekend if Detroit, Green Bay, Tampa Bay or Atlanta loses.
Baltimore (8-6) at Pittsburgh (9-5)
Only the Steelers can reach the postseason in this one. But a Ravens win would give them a sweep of Pittsburgh and the tiebreaker with one week remaining.
This one, kicking off late Sunday afternoon, figures to be a brutal, give-no-quarter match.
“It’s what you play for. It’s an AFC North championship game for us. It’s big,” Steelers safety Mike Mitchell says. “I would have took it against little sisters of the poor. It really didn’t matter.
“When I got here it was just you don’t like Baltimore. It was like growing up in the Cold War, you don’t like Russia.”
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is a bit more, uh, diplomatic.
“It might be a little bit illogical, but I think people are going to love it,” he says. “I think people are going to be sitting at home on Christmas and loving the fact that they get to watch Ravens-Steelers.”
Denver (8-6) at Kansas City (10-4)
The nightcap on Christmas night can’t possibly match the first meeting in Week 12, perhaps the game of the year, a 30-27 overtime classic.
KC is in with a win or a Ravens loss or tie. Denver’s chore is much more difficult; it can’t win the AFC West and is in a tight race for a wild card. A loss would be devastating for the champs .
“They’re the division rival,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce says. “We know what we’re going to get out of them. We’re both in a place where we’re fighting for our lives, our playoff lives. It’s late in the season where it’s that type of grind. It’s going to be a heck of a challenge for us; they know us well, we know them well.”
Minnesota (7-7) at Green Bay (8-6)
A defeat eliminates the Vikings from playoff contention. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson was ruled out Friday because of knee and groin injuries.
A Packers victory would set up a Week 17 game at the Lions for NFC North title. They climbed back into contention because Aaron Rodgers has 22 TD passes and six games with a 100-plus passer rating since Week 7.
They also can get in with a win and a combination of other results too complicated for Mike McCarthy and Co. to contemplate right now.
Detroit (9-5) at Dallas (12-2), Monday night
The Cowboys won the NFC East and secured home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs when the Giants lost at Philadelphia.
Detroit, riding a superb season by quarterback Matthew Stafford and some clutch performances in the fourth quarter and overtime, takes the division with a win and a Packers loss or tie.
A playoff berth is there for the taking with a victory and a Buccaneers loss, or several other scenarios that Jim Caldwell and Co. are too busy to contemplate right now.
San Diego (5-9) at Cleveland (0-14)
The only team to go 0-16, the 2008 Lions, also are the only one to go 0-15. Cleveland is on the verge …
Robert Griffin III gets another start to try and show the Browns he has a future with them. But rookie QB Cody Kessler figures to get a look at some point in the final two games.
The Chargers are the only NFL team with a takeaway in every game this season. San Diego has at least one takeaway in 20 straight games.
Tennessee (8-6) at Jacksonville (2-12)
After victories over Denver and Kansas City, this should be easy for the Titans, right? But with the Jaguars changing coaches from the fired Gus Bradley to interim Doug Marrone, many jobs are on the line in the final two weeks.
The Titans have won three straight and seven of 10, and need a victory to make next week’s game against Houston for the AFC South title. Their strong running game could dictate matters.
Jacksonville has lost nine in a row and is winless in six games at EverBank Field.
Tampa Bay (8-6) at New Orleans (6-8)
Despite trailing Atlanta in the NFC South, the Bucs can make playoff plans with a win and losses by Green Bay, Detroit and Washington. For now, Tampa Bay will concentrate on a securing a rare winning record.
This has the elements of a potential shootout, but the Bucs’ defense seems more capable of keeping down the score than does the Saints’.
However, Drew Brees emerged from a two-game slump in style last week, passing for 389 yards and four TDs at Arizona. Despite his monster numbers this season, Brees somehow didn’t make the Pro Bowl.
Atlanta (9-5) at Carolina (6-8)
Atlanta moves into the postseason with a win and a Tampa Bay loss, owning the division. There are a few scenarios that give the Falcons at least a wild card if the Bucs also win, with Detroit, Green Bay and Washington involved.
The Panthers are eager to reach 8-8 and not have a completely lost season, and they showed their gumption in Washington on Monday night. They’ll need to protect Cam Newton from Vic Beasley, who has five sacks and two forced fumbles in his past two road games, and rookie LB Deion Jones, who has become a force for the Falcons.
Carolina’s Greg Olsen needs 8 yards receiving to become the first tight end with three straight 1,000-yard seasons.
Miami (9-5) at Buffalo (7-7)
A Dolphins victory and a Denver loss puts Miami into the postseason. That’s due to Miami winning eight of nine while Denver has swooned.
Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi had a career-best 214 yards rushing in an earlier win over the Bills. QB Matt Moore makes his second consecutive start in place of Ryan Tannehill (strained left knee). Moore had a career-best four TD passes last week.
Buffalo is closing in on extending the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to 17 seasons. It probably needs a big performance from RB LeSean McCoy, who has 1,462 yards from scrimmage, 30 percent of the team’s 4,847 yards on offense.
Washington (7-6-1) at Chicago (3-11)
Barely breathing in the wild-card race, Washington needs lots of help this weekend. The Redskins have won six straight against Chicago.
The Bears have been competitive recently despite their record, and RB Jordan Howard is second among rookies with 1,059 yards rushing. The Redskins are allowing 4.5 yards per carry — 28th in the league.
New York Jets (4-10) at New England (12-2)
The road to the AFC crown once again will run through Gillette Stadium if the Patriots handle the Jets. The Patriots have won four of the past five meetings, while the Jets have lost five of their past six games overall.
Tom Brady has 22 regular-season wins against the Jets as a starter. One more and he would join Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks with at least 23 wins against two opponents; Brady has 26 wins vs. Buffalo.
With New York’s secondary so vulnerable, Brady figures to continue his mastery.
Indianapolis (7-7) at Oakland (11-3)
Already earning its first playoff spot since making the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, the Raiders get the AFC West with a win and a Chiefs defeat. But the Colts have won four straight in this series and need to win out to have any chance for the playoffs.
Frank Gore needs 109 yards to become the first Colts runner to reach 1,000 yards in a season since Joseph Addai in 2007. Gore would join Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith (11), Curtis Martin (10), Walter Payton (10) and Barry Sanders (10) as the only players with at least nine 1,000-yard seasons.
Arizona (5-8-1) at Seattle (9-4-1)
With the NFC West in their pocket, the Seahawks earned a first-round bye by winning and having the Lions and Falcons fall. The league’s only undefeated team at home, Seattle is seeking the fourth perfect home record in franchise history. It also was done in 2003, 2005 and 2012.
But Arizona has won two of its past three visits, and it dominated Seattle in the teams’ 6-6 tie in October.
RB David Johnson has more than 100 yards from scrimmage in all 14 games, the longest streak to start a season in NFL history.
Cincinnati (5-8-1) at Houston (8-6)
If the Texans win out, they take the AFC South. Coach Bill O’Brien benched the inefficient Brock Osweiler and his $72 million contract for untested Tom Savage last week. Savage led Houston to victory against Jacksonville and now gets the start.
Houston catches a break with Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert ruled out for the Christmas Eve night game with a back injury. Eifert had four TD receptions in his past four games and leads all NFL tight ends with 18 TD catches since 2015. However, wide receiver A.J. Green, listed as questionable, could play for the first time since injuring a hamstring in Week 11.
San Francisco (1-13) at Los Angeles (4-10)
Not much to recommend in this one. San Francisco opened with a win over the Rams in their first game back in Los Angeles. The Niners haven’t won since.
LA at one point was 3-1, fell apart, and Jeff Fisher was canned as coach. That didn’t help at all in a lopsided loss at Seattle in interim coach John Fassel’s first game at the helm.
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