It doesn't take a genius to realize that Week 16 is a pretty big deal in the NFL—and I don't just mean for fantasy football owners. The last two games of the season will determine which teams head for the playoffs and which squads can begin to point all their focus toward the draft and free agency.
All won't be settled this weekend—that's almost a given. There will be crucial games played on the final Sunday of the season. As for Week 16's most pivotal matchups, here are my predictions for every game on the schedule. There is a closer look at a few of the most pivotal contests just below the chart.
|Sunday, Dec. 22||Time (ET)||Location||Picks|
|Miami at Buffalo||1 p.m||Ralph Wilson Stadium||Miami|
|Minnesota at Cincinnati||1 p.m||Paul Brown Stadium||Cincinnati|
|Indianapolis at Kansas City||1 p.m||Arrowhead Stadium||Kansas City|
|Tampa Bay at St. Louis||1 p.m||Edward Jones Dome||St. Louis|
|Cleveland at N.Y. Jets||1 p.m||MetLife Stadium||N.Y.|
|Dallas at Washington||1 p.m||FedEx Field||Washington|
|New Orleans at Carolina||1 p.m||Bank of America Stadium||Carolina|
|Tennessee at Jacksonville||1 p.m||EverBank Field||Jacksonville|
|Denver at Houston||1 p.m||Reliant Stadium||Denver|
|N.Y. Giants at Detroit||4:05 PM||Ford Field||N.Y.|
|Arizona at Seattle||4:05 PM||CenturyLink Field||Seattle|
|Pittsburgh at Green Bay||4:25 PM||Lambeau Field||Pittsburgh|
|Oakland at San Diego||4:25 PM||Qualcomm Stadium||San Diego|
|New England at Baltimore||4:25 PM||M&T Bank Stadium||Baltimore|
|Chicago at Philadelphia||8:30 PM||Lincoln Financial Field||Chicago|
|Monday, Dec. 23||Time (ET)||Location|
|Atlanta at San Francisco||8:30 PM||Candlestick Park||San Francisco|
Chicago Bears at Philadelphia Eagles
Why It's a Big Game
Chicago needs a win to ensure it stays in first place in the division. If the Bears lose, it will open the door for Detroit to pull even with a win at home over the hapless New York Giants. If the Packers also win at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they would have a half-game lead.
The Lions own the tiebreaker over the Bears, so Chicago must finish with a better record to win the division. A showdown with the hated Packers in the season finale could decide the division title if both teams win on Sunday.
The Eagles are also in a quagmire if they lose. Philly is up one game on the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, but a loss would allow Dallas to pull even if it beats the Washington Redskins on the road.
If Philly wins and the Cowboys lose, the Eagles will clinch the NFC East. The two teams are set to face each other in the season finale. Staying ahead of Dallas is essential for Philly heading into the final week.
If the two teams finish with the same record, Dallas will win the division. The Cowboys already won the first meeting 17-3 in Week 7. The best the Eagles can do in the head-to-head series is a split, and Dallas owns the next level of the tie-breaker procedure with a 4-0 record in the division.
In recent years, a Bears-Eagles late-season matchup would have been anything but a shootout, but with both teams sporting explosive offenses and problematic defenses, a high-scoring affair seems inevitable.
Matchups like this come down to the defense that makes big plays and comes up with the one or two third-down holds that give its offense the ball. The Bears aren't the turnover-forcing team they were early in the season or under Lovie Smith, but they could get a boost from a returning star.
Perennial Pro Bowler Lance Briggs seems set to return from a shoulder injury that has kept him out for eight weeks, per Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com.
In Week 15, the Bears defense produced its best performance in weeks. It held the Cleveland Browns under 100 yards rushing and picked off former Bear Jason Campbell twice.
Assuming Chicago builds on that momentum and brings Briggs back into the lineup, it could continue to improve.
The Eagles offense is potent. Nick Foles has taken great care of the ball. He's been picked off just twice this season, though both times have come in the last two weeks.
All-world running back LeSean McCoy is leading the NFL in rushing, and he could definitely be a problem for the Bears. Chicago's run defense is ranked dead last in the league.
Truth is, McCoy probably will have a big game, but I believe the Bears defense will make more plays than the Eagles. With Martellus Bennett, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, the Bears have the best skill players in the league.
If a Minnesota Vikings team without Adrian Peterson puts up 48 points against the Eagles, what will the Bears do?
Chicago will win a close and wild one to remain in first place in the NFC North.
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
Why It's a Big Game
There are some stakes for the Seahawks here. At 12-2, the team has already clinched a playoff spot, and it would have to fall apart not to win its division. That said, the home-field advantage is huge for Seattle.
It wants the road to the Super Bowl to run through CenturyLink Field. Capturing a win over Arizona would lock down the top record in the NFC.
The Cardinals' situation is much more serious. Even at 9-5, Arizona is on the outside looking into the playoff picture. Just winning out won't get it done; the Cards need some help from other teams.
Obviously, the task isn't easy facing the league's best team on its home field. Should Arizona win, it will have to pull off another upset in the final week over the 49ers just to have a shot.
All year long, the Cardinals defense hasn't gotten the respect it deserves. It is No. 1 against the run and a decent 17th against the pass. Through the first 15 weeks of the season, only the Niners' Frank Gore has rushed for 100 yards against Arizona.
In the first meeting, Seattle's defense simply shut Arizona's attack down. The score was close at 17-10, and a Jay Feely field goal made it even closer in the third quarter at 17-13.
From there, the Seahawks outscored the Cardinals 17-9 to take the game 34-22. The fact that this happened in Arizona has to be disheartening to Cardinals fans. The Seahawks have won 14 straight games at home.
If Arizona couldn't get it done at home, there's no way it wins in Seattle. The Seahawks will clinch the conference, and the Cardinals will need the Carolina Panthers to lose to keep its dim playoff hopes alive.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers
Why it's a Big Game
Not only are the Packers potentially fighting for their playoff lives, but if Aaron Rodgers isn't cleared to play, the outcome of this game will likely dictate whether we see him again at all this season.
As of Thursday evening, Rodgers still hadn't been cleared by the Packers' medical staff, per Mike Spofford of Packers.com. Rodgers is recovering from a broken collarbone he suffered in Week 9 against the Bears.
With a record of 7-6-1, the Packers are a half-game behind the Bears in the NFC North. Quite simply, if the Pack win out, they will claim the division title because they visit the Bears in the season finale.
If the Pack lose without Rodgers and the Bears beat the Eagles, there's almost no way the team brings its franchise player back for a somewhat meaningless season finale.
If Rodgers plays, the prediction here shifts, but it doesn't look as though he'll be cleared to take the field.
Green Bay is just 2-4-1 since he went down, though it has won two nail-biters in a row.
Against a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that is playing its best football since Week 10, the Packers need their star on the field to win—even at home.
The Steelers have forced 10 turnovers in the last six weeks and have allowed just two opponents to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark. Matt Flynn torched a bad Cowboys defense in Week 15, but Pittsburgh won't be so generous.
Without Rodgers, the Steelers win and push the Pack to the brink of elimination.
Follow me for news and musings on sports.