As it turns out, the penultimate week of the NFL's 2018 regular season is shaping up as the most meaningful yet. Twelve of Week 16's games feature a least one team that's legitimately still alive in the playoff picture, and five games are head-to-head matchups where both clubs remain in the hunt.
Saturday night's Ravens at Chargers showdown in Carson has postseason implications galore, and Sunday's slate of games are highlighted by Houston at resurgent Philadelphia in the early window, Pittsburgh at top-seeded New Orleans in the late-afternoon time slot, and Kansas City at Seattle in another glamor pairing on NBC's Sunday Night Football.
And don't forget the boxes that finally get a break in Foxboro, courtesy of a home game. After dragging their AFC East champion hats and T-shirts with them on the road to both Miami and Pittsburgh the past two weeks, the Patriots should at last have the chance to break open the swag and celebrate their latest division title at Gillette, providing they first vanquish the plucky Bills.
In this season of gift-giving, it appears the NFL schedule-makers remembered the nation's football fans and were generous this holiday season. Only five of the league's 12 playoff spots have been locked up so far, and nine different teams have clinching scenarios in Week 16, be it for a seed, a division title or a postseason berth. The entire AFC remains undecided to a degree, with no teams having clinched a division or a particular seed. No seeds have been nailed down in the NFC as well, with the NFC East crown remaining unspoken for, and a three-team battle for the No. 6 seed still being waged.
There's a lot on the line this weekend, and with no Thursday night game to get things started, it makes the anticipation for Saturday and Sunday's drama all the more. Here's hoping the best is yet to come.
Last week: 9-7 (.563); Season: 138–84 (.622)
Washington (7-7) at Tennessee (8-6)
The Titans only need the combination of a Baltimore loss and them taking care of business in their final two games and they're in the playoffs as a wild-card qualifier for the second year in a row, under two different head coaches, no less. This is the far easier half of their two-game home-stand, with a visit from red-hot Indianapolis looming next week. Washington somehow won last week in Jacksonville with Josh Johnson at quarterback, but the Jaguars punched out on the season long ago and Tennessee has everything to play for. If the Titans keep giving the ball to the beast that is Derrick Henry they'll have this one all but in the win column before the start of the fourth quarter.
Baltimore (8-6) at Los Angeles Chargers (11-3)
John Harbaugh's run-first Ravens have hung in there admirably in recent weeks, but here's where they lose their grip on the AFC's No. 6 seed, not to mention miss a chance to move into first place in the AFC North once the Steelers lose at the Saints. Lamar Jackson has helped Baltimore get past losing teams in the Bengals, Raiders, Falcons and Bucs in the past five games, falling only narrowly in overtime at Kansas City. But this will be the rookie's toughest test yet, and the Men of Carson will be up for it in their home regular-season finale. With the Ravens traveling cross-country on a slightly shorter week, and the banged-up Chargers coming off nine days of rest, advantage, Bolts.
Winner: Los Angeles
Cincinnati (6-8) at Cleveland (6-7-1)
And Hue Jackson loses yet another game in Cleveland, with the perfect symmetry of his former Browns team surging its way to .500 with yet another win. Baker Mayfield is going to have a big game, you can just feel it. And I wouldn't try to give the Browns rookie quarterback a post-game hug this time if I were Jackson, the ex-Cleveland coach. Karma is undefeated so far in this renaissance season by the Browns.
Tampa Bay (5-9) at Dallas (8-6)
When I covered the Bucs as a newspaper beat writer in the first half of the 1990s, I always waited to see if their record slipped to 5-10 after 15 games, because then I could label them a dime store team. (Get it? Five and 10?) Tampa Bay is on that familiar losing threshold once more, and the Bucs will encounter a Cowboys team that's a little embarrassed about last week's 23-0 egg-laying in Indy and eager to clinch the NFC East title once and for all.
Minnesota (7-6-1) at Detroit (5-9)
The Vikings running game and offense roared to life against Miami under newly elevated offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, so for a week at least head coach Mike Zimmer is a contented man. Minnesota's measly 2-4-1 road record scares me, but this is the game the Vikings need to win to set up next week's win-and-they're-in home game against NFC North champion Chicago, and by golly Kirk Cousins and Co. better get 'er done.
New York Giants (5-9) at Indianapolis (8-6)
If the Giants couldn't even show up last week at home against the inconsistent Titans, they're not pulling the upset against the red-hot and confident Colts, winners of seven of their past eight games. Andrew Luck is having a remarkable season and with apologies to J.J. Watt, No. 12 is my slam-dunk NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Jacksonville (4-10) at Miami (7-7)
Another frustrating football season is about to come to an end for the NFL's three Florida teams. The Jaguars made the playoffs last year, and the Dolphins the year before, but nothing really ever changes for long when it comes to the losing in the Sunshine State. The Dolphins are still at least alive in the playoff chase, but they're not going to the postseason and they probably know it by now.
Buffalo (5-9) at New England (9-5)
As bad as it has been the past two weeks for the Patriots — and we don't even recognize them at this point — they're still ridiculously close to earning the AFC's No. 2 seed. It'll take beating the Bills and Jets at home, something they're quite adept at, and getting Houston to lose at Philadelphia this week, as Vegas expects the Texans to do. That's it. Not so hard, really. The Bills will battle them for a good bit of the game, but the Men of Belichick will clean up their act and prevail, even without the enigmatic Josh Gordon.
Winner: New England
Green Bay (5-8-1) at New York Jets (4-10)
At 0-7, the Packers still haven't won a road game this season, a feat matched only by the 49ers. This is Green Bay's final chance to avoid that embarrassing footnote, but the Jets aren't going to roll over and they gave playoff-bound Houston a battle last Saturday in the Meadowlands. Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold is hoping to end New York's home schedule on a high note, and he'd love to out-duel Aaron Rodgers, who is playing despite a reported groin injury.
Winner: New York
Houston (10-4) at Philadelphia (7-7)
Sorry, but the best thing that has happened to the Eagles of late was seeing Nick Foles return to the lineup. Carson Wentz simply hasn't been right this season and Foles brings a steady, veteran presence to the job, and seems to imbue his teammates with confidence and a belief that all will work out well in the end. Houston needs this game to protect its No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, but Philadelphia is starting to feel it after upsetting the Rams on the road and will stay alive in the NFC wild-card chase.
Atlanta (5-9) at Carolina (6-8)
The Panthers finally conceded the obvious this week and shut down the ailing Cam Newton, whose shoulder simply can't make all the necessary throws at this point. Both these clubs were double-digit winners and NFC wild-card qualifiers a year ago, but a year can change everything in the NFL. I'll take Matt Ryan and the Falcons to squeak out a win against Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke in his first NFL start.
Los Angeles Rams (11-3) at Arizona (3-11)
Either Jared Goff really misses injured receiver Cooper Kupp or he has simply hit the wall toward the end of his third NFL season. Goff has looked both lost and skittish in losses to the Bears and Eagles, and he desperately needs a strong bounce-back game to get his mojo flowing as the playoffs approach. He'll regroup against a bad Cardinals team that appears ready to end the Steve Wilks coaching era after just one disastrous season.
Winner: Los Angeles
Chicago (10-4) at San Francisco (4-10)
The Bears still have a shot at the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye if the Rams keep losing, but with Los Angeles finishing at Arizona and home against San Francisco, Chicago is probably locked into the NFC's No. 3 seed no matter what. Will that bring a first-round playoff visit by the Vikings or Eagles to Soldier Field? Bears fans will likely be rooting to see Minnesota, which Chicago coincidentally plays next week on the road in the regular-season finale that might only have meaning for the Vikings.
Pittsburgh (8-5-1) at New Orleans (11-3)
For the second week in a row, the Steelers will take the field already knowing the outcome of Baltimore's game and whether or not this is a must-win in terms of protecting their slim half-game lead in the AFC North. The Saints offense hasn't been its usual high-octane self of late, but the underrated storyline is how lights out New Orleans defense has been recently. I'm predicting the Ravens will lose Saturday to the Chargers, and that will lessen Pittsburgh's sense of urgency just enough to absorb another loss and still maintain its No. 4 seed.
Winner: New Orleans
Kansas City (11-3) at Seattle (8-6)
The way the Chiefs melted down late in their home loss to the Chargers would shake my faith if I rooted for Kansas City. It far too closely resembled a playoff atmosphere at Arrowhead, with the Chiefs responding as they historically have in that setting: with a fold job. Patrick Mahomes against Russell Wilson should be fun in a battle of improvisational quarterbacking, but my hunch is the Seahawks will show the Chiefs the power of their own insanely loud and intimidating home-field advantage.
Denver (6-8) at Oakland (3-11)
The Raiders saying farewell to the Oakland Coliseum on Christmas eve is one of those sub-plots you just can't make up. It should provide Oakland with some sort of emotional energy to use against the Broncos, but the Raiders being the Raiders, they could squander it and go out a loser in the past-its-prime stadium they have called home for much of their existence. For the sake of history, I hope not.