The playoffs are nigh in Week 16 as the holiday season approaches, and Sunday's slate provides plenty of gifts in the form of exciting NFL games loaded with playoff implications. All are possible to watch from the comfort of your own home, too.
Ah, the convenience of modern TV.
Two of the best contests are divisional showdowns between rivals who were separated by only seven points in each of their physical first respective meetings.
Here is the viewing information and breakdown of the best four games this coming weekend. Bundle up and kick back for some incredibly captivating NFL action, capped off with what could be the best game of the season on Sunday evening.
Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)
When: Sunday, December 23 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
TV: CBS, DirecTV 714 (NFL Sunday Ticket)
For the Cincinnati Bengals, it's simple: win and you're in. Against their AFC North division rival, who will be playing its most desperate ball in their recent history, that's much easier said than done.
But any notions of a sophomore slump from this resilient young bunch of Bengals has been put to rest in recent weeks. Since a disappointing home loss to Denver, Marvin Lewis' team has won five of six, and the one loss was by one point to the Dallas Cowboys as time expired.
After an early four-game slide, Cincinnati looked like the "Bungles" of the past. Now it is clear that this team is different. An improved defense and much more production from the running game have contributed to the continued success, as has more judicious decision-making from second-year QB Andy Dalton.
The Steelers have been slammed with a rash of injuries throughout 2012, and one could hardly blame them for having a down year.
Still, they have to be considered among the most dangerous teams in the league as long as Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu can function on the field. It's simply impossible to count Pittsburgh out, especially after their own disappointing loss in Dallas in Week 15.
It will be up to Big Ben to get the job done, and it's even conceivable that the Steelers could win the AFC North. If they win out, another loss by Cincinnati in Week 17 and two Baltimore Ravens losses would clinch the crown for Pittsburgh.
Crazier things have happened. This is also easily the toughest defense Dalton and Co. will have faced since the Bengals' their recent hot streak.
Winning at Heinz is tough, and it's hard to make the case that this Bengal team is ready to take the next step.
Prediction: Steelers 17, Bengals 10
Minnesota Vikings (8-6) at Houston Texans (12-2)
When: Sunday, December 23 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Where: Reliant Stadium, Houston, TX
TV: FOX, DirecTV 706 (NFL Sunday Ticket)
For the Vikings, it starts and ends with Adrian Peterson. The running back has the inside track for Comeback Player of the Year, and is even making a strong case for NFL MVP despite relatively incompetent quarterback play to support him.
It's been roughly a year since AP blew out his knee at the end of the 2011 season, but he has made a furious comeback and run for what is already a career high of 1812 yards on 6.3 yards per carry.
But the real mismatch here is under center, where second-year QB Christian Ponder has failed to build on the promise he showed in the first quarter of the season and has kept the governor on what could otherwise be an outstanding offense.
Although Ponder has exceptional mobility and may be able to stave off the Texans' devastating pass rush of J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith better than most, he will have to make several plays for the Vikings to have a chance in this one.
Head coach Leslie Frazier has finally improved the defense, which was to be expected. But this Houston offense has outstanding balance, and will be difficult to stop on the road.
Minnesota's best hope is to keep feeding Peterson, and he can hopefully get to the end zone several times and eat up enough clock to shorten the game for Houston.
With the AFC South division title already locked up, the Texans still have to battle for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Yielding ground and allowing Denver or New England to leapfrog them would be detrimental to a deep postseason run.
Equally surprising was the Vikings' hot start and apparent crumbling in the middle of the year, but after two straight victories, they're suddenly the No. 6 seed in the NFC.
In order to stay there, they must win here and beat Green Bay in Week 17.
This has all the makings of an upset special. If Minnesota is indeed meant to go to the playoffs, Ponder has to play better. Call this his "breakout" or "bounce-back" outing that will make the NFC playoff picture even more convoluted entering the final week.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Texans 20
New York Giants (8-6) at Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
When: Sunday, December 23 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, Md.
TV: FOX, DirecTV 717 (NFL Sunday Ticket)
The G-Men are reeling after a 34-0 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and the Ravens have to be wondering whether Joe Flacco is the long-term answer at quarterback after three consecutive losses down the stretch.
Here's the reality: the Giants are the most unpredictable team in the NFL. I always tell people that I would never have them as a mortal lock to win any game, but wouldn't ever count them out, either.
This is one of those occasions where the circumstances fall in their favor. No one will be picking the Giants despite the Ravens' struggles, especially on the road in a must-win scenario for Baltimore to retain the AFC North lead.
That's exactly when Tom Coughlin's team performs best, when their backs are against the wall. As spotty as the Giants' defense has been, Baltimore's is not nearly as good as in years past—and that unit has been more instrumental to their success than the Giants' defense has. Last year's championship run was essentially keyed by Eli Manning keeping them alive by pulling out game after game in the clutch during the regular season.
If the Ravens gave Ray Rice the ball much, much more, the offenses might have comparable explosiveness. Since it's often put in the hands of Flacco, the Giants have the clear edge here.
It will be a shootout, with Flacco forced to fling it to counter what should be a big day for Manning and the New York passing game. But if the game comes down to the wire, who do you want with the ball: Joe Cool or Eli?
I know my answer.
Prediction: Giants 34, Ravens 27
San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1) at Seattle Seahawks (9-5)
When: Sunday, December 23 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Wash.
This has "Game of the Year" potential written all over it. That's a pretty bold statement, too, after the Niners' roller coaster victory in Foxboro this past Sunday night. San Fran will return to the primetime stage, once again on the road, and once again in one of the hardest places to win in all of pro football.
Two NFC West foes. Two Super Bowl contenders. Two of the most physical teams in the league, with two of the most powerful running backs and most athletic, sound defenses. Two of the game's most exciting, dynamic young quarterbacks.
The list goes on and on as to why this game is exciting. Newly dubbed starting QB Colin Kaepernick handled himself well to say the least against the Patriots, despite a nearly historic comeback by the legendary Tom Brady.
But this Seattle defense is a different animal than Kaepernick encountered at New England. An incredibly deep front line led by Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch.
Lightning-fast first-rounder Bruce Irvin could be a huge x-factor in either getting to Kaepernick in a hurry, containing him in the pocket or chasing him down for a minimal gain when he breaks out on the perimeter.
Also looming large is Friday's suspension appeal hearing for Seahawks CB Richard Sherman. Without him and Brandon Browner, the Seattle secondary would have its work cut out.
Still, CenturyLink Field provides what has to be the biggest home advantage. The Seahawks will be looking to prove themselves against elite competition after beating up on their last two opponents by a combined score of 108-17.
Oh, and the Niners handed their division foe their worst loss of the season: seven points, a 13-6 slug fest in San Francisco.
Expect this to be slightly higher scoring due to Russell Wilson's improvement at QB for Seattle, the absence of Browner at corner and the explosiveness of Kaepernick.
In the end, Seattle will keep its NFC West hopes alive by improving to 7-0 at home while beating the team many analysts consider the best in the NFL right now.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, Niners 21
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