When the stakes are at their absolute highest, you find out what a team is made of. The stakes don't get any higher than Week 17 in the NFL, as there are a handful of teams trying to punch their tickets to the postseason.
As the games and drama unfold, there are going to be a lot of stories written about what went wrong with one team, or what went right for the other. But heading into this weekend, we already think we have some idea where things will stand by Sunday night.
Here are the most critical games with playoff implications in Week 17 that look like they are clearly in favor of one team.
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
On the surface this doesn't appear to be a high-stakes matchup, as the Ravens already clinched the AFC North, and the Bengals are locked into the No. 6 seed after last week's emotional win against Pittsburgh.
Looks can be deceiving, as the Bengals need to win this game for their own psyche. They have been a playoff team in each of the last two seasons, but the one thing they haven't been able to do is take down the beasts of the division.
All that changed last week, when Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception, allowing A.J. Green to catch a pass from Andy Dalton that set up the game-winning field goal.
The Ravens are the final hurdle they must conquer to establish themselves as true contenders. Even if the Ravens aren't playing well, there is a psychological element that will give the Bengals all the confidence they need.
On the other side, the Ravens are a team that is impossible to figure out. For better or worse, this team lives and breathes based on what Joe Flacco does. They still have a shot at the No. 3 seed with a win and New England loss, which would set up a rematch with the Bengals next week.
None of that will matter, as the Bengals are just a better team right now. They are healthier, the offense is more dynamic with Dalton and Green and the defense is more consistent than Baltimore's.
It is time for the Bengals to take that next step.
Bengals 24, Ravens 17
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Look, it is impossible to disparage the Vikings for what they have done this season. They came into 2012 with no expectations whatsoever after finishing 3-13 last year. So for them to even have a chance at a wild-card berth entering Week 17 is remarkable.
Speaking of remarkable, Adrian Peterson has been nothing short of that. He is carrying an offense that ranks 12th in the NFC in points scored and last in the league in passing.
But at some point the magic runs out. It becomes especially hard to keep the dream alive when Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who have won nine of their last 10 games, stand in your way. Christian Ponder needs to make a lot of plays to keep up with the red-hot Packers.
Plus, the defense for the Packers has been outstanding lately. Even with all their injuries, they haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game since Week 6 against Houston.
If that's not enough, the Packers have plenty to play for themselves. They are in a battle with San Francisco for the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. The allure of a home playoff game in two weeks will be too much for the Vikings to contain.
Packers 31, Vikings 20
Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins
Here is the game of the weekend. The unofficial start of the playoffs, if you will, as the winner will be crowned NFC East champions and the loser, in all probability, will be spending January at home.
The Redskins still have a shot to make the playoffs even with a loss in this game, but tiebreakers come into play. The easiest way for them to get in will be to, as Al Davis would say, "just win, baby."
The Cowboys have no other path into the postseason. They are in do-or-die mode after last week's crushing overtime loss against New Orleans.
It doesn't get much more marquee than a matchup between two of the oldest rivals in the NFL with Tony Romo and Robert Griffin III under center for their respective teams. Both have had stellar seasons and can end them in spectacular fashion.
Romo, in particular, has put the Cowboys on his back and brought them back from the brink. Since losing to the Redskins on Thanksgiving, he has thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception.
Griffin is still coming back from a knee injury that kept him out in Week 15. He looked effective enough against Philadelphia last week, but you could tell that he was not at full strength because he wasn't able to create plays outside the pocket the way he normally does.
So who do you go with in a game like this?
Neither defense is playing well. There are holes in both secondaries that these quarterbacks can, and will, exploit to no end. Therefore, it comes down to which offense you trust more.
As much as you like where Romo is at right now, the Redskins are more balanced and complete with the ball. They can open things up down the field with play-action passes because you have to respect their ability to run the ball.
It is going to be fun and exciting, but in the end, the Redskins are just a little better than the Cowboys right now.
Redskins 34, Cowboys 31
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