It's that most wonderful time of the year.
No, not Christmas. It's that too, but everybody knows that. You can't watch 10 minutes of TV without five guys in boxer shorts reminding you.
It's the stretch run of the NFL season. Teams across the NFL are jockeying for playoff position, with no margin for error. Many games are mini-playoffs all their own.
So, as the Seattle Seahawks look to lock up home field in the NFC and Peyton Manning continues his assault on the record books, here's a look at how NFL experts from around cyberspace expect this crucial week of football action to play out.
Before we move on to Week 16's games, let's take a look at our panel of experts.
ESPN: ESPN's picks are a combination of the selections of 13 experts. Those experts include writers like Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, as well as former players such as Tom Jackson and Mike Golic.
CBS Sports: The CBS Sports picks feature eight writers, including senior NFL columnist Pete Prisco and NFL insider Jason La Canfora.
NFL Network: Melissa Stark, Shaun O'Hara and Sterling Sharpe of NFL Gameday First join this week's panel as late-season injury replacements.
USA Today: As with the other sites on our panel, USA Today uses a committee approach, with seven writers offering their picks for this week's games.
Bleacher Report: I would be remiss not to include the prognostications of my esteemed colleagues here at Bleacher Report. This year's starting lineup for Bleacher Report's picks team features each of the national lead writers as well as the lead writers covering the NFL's divisions.
There you have it: more than 40 NFL experts (plus one computer) all offering their takes on this week's games.
Week 15 didn't go so well for the experts, who saw their streak of 10-win weeks ended by barely finishing over .500.
Last Week: 8-7
Final Verdict: Over the past several weeks, much has been written about Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill's maturation as a player in his second NFL season.
In one afternoon, all that progress was seemingly undone.
Tannehill was absolutely horrific against the Buffalo Bills in Week 16, completing only 10-of-27 passes for less than 100 yards while being sacked seven times.
The Bills rolled the Dolphins 19-0, and it appears the Fins will once again be watching the playoffs on TV this year.
ESPN: Dolphins (11-2)
CBS Sports: Dolphins (5-3)
NFL Network: Dolphins (3-0)
USA Today: Dolphins (6-1)
Bleacher Report: Dolphins (11-1)
Overall: Dolphins (36-7)
Given all they've gone through this season, it's quite a testimonial to the Miami Dolphins and head coach Joe Philbin that the team remains in the playoff hunt.
In fact, Miami's scenario for making the playoffs isn't complicated at all. Win their final two games, including this week in Buffalo, and the Dolphins will be postseason bound.
The Dolphins are the panel's pick here, but Bleacher Report AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz cautions that this is a game with some upset potential:
It would seem like the conditions are ripe for an upset. The Dolphins are coming off an emotional win. They couldn’t even beat the EJ Manuel-less Bills in their own house earlier this season. But this is a different Dolphins team than that group. That game was part of a four-game losing streak, but the Dolphins are 5-2 since that skid.
Ryan Tannehill is playing some of the most efficient football of any quarterback in the league right now, and the Bills haven’t earned a truly convincing win in a month.
Final Verdict: After faltering last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, quarterback Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals entered Week 16 facing a must-win situation against the Minnesota Vikings.
Dalton and the Bengals answered the bell and then some.
The third-year quarterback topped 350 yards and threw four touchdown passes in a 42-14 rout, and that win coupled with a Miami loss assures the Bengals of their third straight trip to the postseason.
ESPN: Bengals (13-0)
CBS Sports: Bengals (6-1)
NFL Network: Bengals (2-1)
USA Today: Bengals (7-0)
Bleacher Report: Bengals (12-0)
Overall: Bengals (41-2)
You'll notice a theme with more than a few teams on this week's list.
"Win and you're in."
That's the situation for the Cincinnati Bengals after they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers a week ago. The easiest way to ensure a third straight trip to the playoffs is for the Bengals to win their last two games.
This week, that means downing a Minnesota Vikings team that is riding high after upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles a week ago.
It's a win that the vast majority of the experts, including Bleacher Report AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen, think the Bengals will get:
The Bengals are a good team that can’t be losing to a team like the Vikings the week before a huge divisional game against the Ravens. The Bengals are playing at home and should use a balanced attack to get the win, but it won’t come easy.
Final Verdict: In many ways, the Colts and Chiefs are similar teams. Just when you're ready to write them off as a legitimate Super Bowl team, out comes a dominant effort.
Trust them too much, however, and out comes the egg.
It was the Colts who did the former while the Chiefs laid the latter in Week 16, and Indy's 23-7 shellacking of the Chiefs should shift some of the doubting Thomases from the Colts to KC.
ESPN: Chiefs (13-0)
CBS Sports: Chiefs (7-1)
NFL Network: Chiefs (3-0)
USA Today: Chiefs (6-1)
Bleacher Report: Chiefs (11-1)
Overall: Chiefs (40-3)
The Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs are among the lucky few—two of four teams in the NFL that have already secured playoff berths entering Week 16.
However, they still have plenty to play for, including postseason positioning and the quest for a first-round bye.
The Chiefs are the choice of the majority, including Bleacher Report NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen:
Since Indianapolis’ bye week the Colts have alternated each week with a win and a loss. Since we’re talking trends, last week’s win over Houston should mean a loss when Andrew Luck takes his team into Kansas City in Week 16. If you need proof that’s a little less abstract, consider the fact that Indianapolis hasn’t won against a playoff-bound team since Oct. 20.
However, NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman is part of a small group that is predicting an upset in Arrowhead on Sunday.
"I think Andrew Luck takes his beaten-up team and throws for 400 yards and four scores against the Chiefs," Freeman wrote. "Yeah, I said it."
Final Verdict: Maybe the St. Louis staff should tell the Rams' players they've been eliminated from playoff contention in Week 1.
Since the Rams were knocked from the postseason race they've been playing some of their best football of the season, following up last week's huge win over the New Orleans Saints with a 23-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
ESPN: Rams (13-0)
CBS Sports: Rams (8-0)
NFL Network: Rams (2-1)
USA Today: Rams (6-1)
Bleacher Report: Rams (12-0)
Overall: Rams (41-2)
The St. Louis Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention, but you wouldn't know it by the way they played a week ago.
The Rams played their best game of the season in Week 14, racing to a 24-3 lead over the New Orleans Saints and holding on to win 27-16.
This week, the Rams welcome a Tampa Bay team that is looking to finish the season strong after a disastrous start.
The panel went with the team with the momentum here, with a nearly unanimous vote forecasting the Rams' second straight win.
In the words of Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman, "The Rams have at times been a dumpster fire, but that defense has ability. They will also build off of an impressive win against the Saints."
Final Verdict: Week 16 kicked off with Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com reporting that New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan "expects to be fired" after the season.
Ryan implored the Jets to "Roll with me here for the last two weeks," and in Week 16 it appears the team listened.
Quarterback Geno Smith played his best game in weeks and running back Chris Ivory topped 100 yards on the ground, propelling Gang Green to a 24-13 win over the Cleveland Browns.
ESPN: Browns (8-5)
CBS Sports: Jets (6-2)
NFL Network: Browns (2-1)
USA Today: Browns (4-3)
Bleacher Report: Browns (10-2)
Overall: Browns (26-17)
For the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets, the present is about the future.
With both teams eliminated from the playoffs, the last two weeks of the season are all about finding early answers for next year's questions.
Can New York quarterback Geno Smith show signs of improvement at the tail end of an uneven rookie year?
How will the last two weeks of the season impact Rex Ryan's shaky job security as head coach for Gang Green?
It has all the makings of an ugly game, and Bleacher Report AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst is among the slight majority that is giving the edge to the visiting Browns:
This may not be all that pretty. The Browns likely won't have Joe Haden, which generally bodes poorly, but it's not like Geno Smith and the Jets are any type of passing powerhouse. Cleveland is a better 4-10 team than the Jets are a 6-8 team. Jason Campbell should feel a lot more comfortable this week on the way to the Browns' fifth win.
Final Verdict: Well folks, here we go again.
With rumors swirling about head coach Jason Garrett's job security, it looked like the Dallas Cowboys were done, down six to Washington with time winding down.
However, Tony Romo found running back DeMarco Murray from 10 yards out with just over a minute remaining, giving the Cowboys a 24-23 win that sets up a winner-take-all Week 17 game at home against the Philadelphia Eagles.
ESPN: Cowboys (8-5)
CBS Sports: Cowboys (7-1)
NFL Network: Cowboys (2-1)
USA Today: Cowboys (5-2)
Bleacher Report: Cowboys (11-1)
Overall: Cowboys (33-10)
Stop me if you've heard this before.
The Dallas Cowboys, seemingly in control of the NFC East, falter as the calendar turns to December, eventually backing themselves into a must-win situation.
That's where the Cowboys, who have dropped two straight including a backbreaking loss to the Packers last week, find themselves yet again heading into this week's matchup in the nation's capital.
A change at quarterback against the Atlanta Falcons last week didn't stop Washington's losing ways.
In the opinion of Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen, the Redskins look like a team ready for the season to end: "The Cowboys will bounce back after the brutal loss to the Packers," Bowen stated, "against a Redskins team that is ready to move on to the offseason."
Besides, if Dallas doesn't win here, it can't blow the season in the most spectacular way possible against the Eagles in Week 17.
Final Verdict: You know, it wasn't that long ago that the Carolina Panthers were a 1-3 football team that looked to be headed nowhere fast in 2013.
However, since that time the Panthers have won 10 of 11, and Sunday's huge comeback win over the New Orleans Saints not only clinched a playoff berth but also puts the Panthers in the driver's seat for the NFC South title and a first-round bye.
Riverboat Ron rides again!
ESPN: Panthers (11-2)
CBS Sports: Panthers (7-1)
NFL Network: Panthers (2-1)
USA Today: Panthers (6-1)
Bleacher Report: Panthers (8-4)
Overall: Panthers (34-9)
One of Week 15's biggest contests is a rematch of a game from only a couple of weeks ago.
In that matchup, the New Orleans Saints defeated the Carolina Panthers handily, taking sole possession of first place in the NFC South in the process.
However, both teams enter the rematch at 10-4, with first place again on the line.
A Saints win would sew up a division title, but the experts are soundly in the corner of the Panthers with this one.
Bleacher Report NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon explains:
New Orleans took care of Carolina at home, but the Saints are a completely different team away from the Superdome. Look for the Panthers to get to Drew Brees just enough in a close victory.
Final Verdict: For the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, the last two weeks of the season are about taking a look at young players and seeing what they have moving forward.
The Titans may have discovered their future at running back in Sunday's win over the Jags, at least in the short-term.
With David Climer of The Nashville Tennessean opining that Chris Johnson's days in Nashville are numbered, Shonn Greene turned in a solid outing for the Titans, averaging 4.8 yards a carry and scoring a touchdown in a 20-16 win.
ESPN: Titans (11-2)
CBS Sports: Titans (5-3)
NFL Network: Jaguars (2-1)
USA Today: Titans (4-3)
Bleacher Report: Titans (8-4)
Overall: Titans (29-14)
It hasn't been a good year for the AFC South.
Outside of the Colts, who have already clinched the division, no team in the South has a winning record. The division's overall record is a less-than-stellar 20-36.
This week, two of the South's bottom-feeders will continue playing out the string, as the Tennessee Titans journey south to meet the Jacksonville Jaguars.
For the first time in 15 weeks, the panel picked the Jags to win last week.
They lost, and NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland is among those who aren't going down that road again:
I would be more inclined to pick the Jaguars if wide receiver Cecil Shorts were suiting up, but he’s not. It won’t be an easy game for the Titans, yet they have a more talented roster from top to bottom. Kendall Wright will prove to be the difference maker when the clock strikes zero.
Final Verdict: There's a new sheriff in town, and his name is Peyton Manning.
With four touchdown passes in a rout of the Houston Texans Sunday, Manning became the single-season record holder for passing scores, with 51 and counting.
The 12-3 Broncos are the 2013 AFC West champions, while the Texans' losing streak has now reached a staggering 13 games in a row.
ESPN: Broncos (13-0)
CBS Sports: Broncos (8-0)
NFL Network: Broncos (3-0)
USA Today: Broncos (7-0)
Bleacher Report: Broncos (12-0)
Overall: Broncos (43-0)
OK, let's see.
On one hand, we have the Denver Broncos, the top seed in the AFC. They are an offensive juggernaut, led by a quarterback who is on the verge of rewriting the single-season record books at his position.
On the other hand, we have the Houston Texans. Houston's 2-12 record is the league's worst. The Texans have lost a staggering 12 games in a row, benching a quarterback and firing a coach along the way.
I wonder who the experts, including Bleacher Report AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz, picked to win this one?
The Texans somehow managed to take one of the most unimpressive AFC playoff teams, the Colts, and make them look like the bona fide No. 1 seed. That’s a spot the Broncos currently hold, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see Peyton Manning get the touchdown record in a blowout win.
Final Verdict: The thing about streaks is that eventually they all come to an end.
Granted, had you said before Sunday's game that Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer would throw four interceptions, approximately 104 percent of people polled would say it happened in a Seahawks rout.
Nope. The Cardinals played lights-out defense in the Emerald City, and the Redbirds got an assist from the zebras when a late one-hop by Russell Wilson was ruled an interception by Karlos Dansby.
The Cardinals prevail 17-10, keeping things interesting in the NFC West.
ESPN: Seahawks (12-1)
CBS Sports: Seahawks (8-0)
NFL Network: Seahawks (3-0)
USA Today: Seahawks (7-0)
Bleacher Report: Seahawks (12-0)
Overall: Seahawks (42-1)
The Arizona Cardinals are, by any objective measure, having a pretty good season. They are 9-5 and winners of six of their past seven games.
So why isn't anyone giving them much of a shot of making the playoffs?
Well, for one thing, the Cardinals' schedule to close the season is a nightmare, beginning this week in Seattle.
Not only have the Seahawks won every home game since Christmas Eve 2011, but with a win, they can clinch both the NFC West and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
In the eyes of Bleacher Report NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland (and nearly all the voters) the same home-field edge that may well propel Seattle to New York in February is just too much for the Cardinals to overcome:
The Arizona Cardinals are making their first postseason push since the 2009 season. All they have to do is win out over the course of the next two weeks to put themselves in prime playoff position. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they have to go on the road and play in Seattle.
That’s a death wish for any team looking to make a postseason run. It will be close all the way until the end, but the Seahawks will have the last laugh at home.
Final Verdict: Never let it be said that the Detroit Lions don't finish what they started.
A few weeks ago, with the Bears and Packers in shambles, the Lions appeared almost destined to win the NFC North by default.
Not these Lions, buddy. These Lions knew that all it took was a few turnovers, some stupid penalties and a little luck and they could choke away not only the division but the playoffs altogether.
With a 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants Sunday, the Lions accomplished that goal.
ESPN: Lions (13-0)
CBS Sports: Lions (8-0)
Fox Sports: Lions (3-0)
USA Today: Lions (7-0)
Bleacher Report: Lions (12-0)
Overall: Lions (43-0)
Not too long ago, the Detroit Lions seemed destined to win the NFC North this year, especially with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers wracked with injuries.
Well, the Lions spit in the eye of destiny, and after dropping four out of their past five games, they are now in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.
With their backs against the wall, the Lions can't afford another loss. Luckily, the experts don't see them getting one this week against the New York Giants, who have done plenty of stumbling of their own this season.
In the words of Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter, "The Lions are in a must-win situation, and only Eli Manning is tossing more picks than Matthew Stafford lately."
Final Verdict: By virtue of the Baltimore Ravens' recent winning streak, the defending Super Bowl champs had regained control of their playoff destiny heading into their Week 16 matchup with the Patriots.
They don't control it anymore.
New England destroyed the Ravens 41-7, setting up an all-important trip to Cincinnati next week. Even with a win there, the Ravens now need help if they're going to defend their title.
ESPN: Ravens (13-0)
CBS Sports: Tied (4-4)
NFL Network: Ravens (3-0)
USA Today: Ravens (6-1)
Bleacher Report: Tied (6-6)
Overall: Ravens (32-11)
It wasn't that long ago that the New England Patriots looked like the class of the AFC, while the Baltimore Ravens looked dead in the water.
However, the Ravens have won four straight, and with wins in their last two games, they can clinch the AFC North.
The Patriots can also wrap up the AFC East with one more win, but last week's loss to the Miami Dolphins served to underscore the impact of tight end Rob Gronkowski's absence on the offense.
The panel tilts in the Ravens' favor this week, but here at Bleacher Report, the writers were split right down the middle.
AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst likes the home team:
The Ravens in Baltimore, hosting their newest and biggest rivals, the New England Patriots. The Ravens swept the Patriots last year, first besting them in the regular season and then again in the AFC title game. The Patriots might be out for revenge, but the Ravens have the home-field advantage and wild-card playoff hopes to fight for. They are the most dangerous dog in this race and the Patriots won't be able to make enough plays to win.
However, AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz thinks the Pats will leave town with a win:
The Gronkowski-less Patriots are not doomed if they can find their secret sauce in the red zone. Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels should be able to find a way to turn those red-zone possessions into touchdowns. They’re not going far, however, unless they find their defense, too. If the Patriots can’t get it right against a Ravens offense that has scored more than 22 points just once in the past nine games, their postseason hopes are grim. Bill Belichick finds a way to keep Joe Flacco and the Ravens grounded.
Final Verdict: On a snowy field in Titletown Sunday, two of the NFL's most storied franchises did battle with their lagging playoff hopes hanging in the balance.
It was the Steelers who came away with a 38-31 win, turning the Packers away from the goal line in the game's waning moments.
The loss left Green Bay rooting for the Eagles to force a winner-take-all Week 17 tilt with the Bears, while keeping Pittsburgh's Hail Mary chances of making the playoffs alive.
ESPN: Steelers (7-6)
CBS Sports: Packers (5-3)
NFL Network: Packers (3-0)
USA Today: Steelers (4-3)
Bleacher Report: Packers (11-1)
Overall: Packers (28-15)
After they saved their season with a miraculous comeback against the Dallas Cowboys last week, there was hope that this would finally be the game when injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers returned for the Green Bay Packers.
However, despite this week's tilt with the Pittsburgh Steelers being a must-win game, the Packers ruled Rodgers and his bum collarbone out on Friday, setting the stage for a fourth start by Matt Flynn.
Nearly two-thirds of the experts believe that even without Rodgers the Packers will hold on at home, setting up a huge Week 17 showdown between them and the Chicago Bears.
However, Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen disagrees: "The Steelers will show some balance on offense and work the ball to Antonio Brown versus a Packers secondary that still makes too many mistakes within Dom Capers' scheme."
Final Verdict: Speaking of long-shot playoff teams, how about those San Diego Chargers?
By virtue of their 26-13 win over the Oakland Raiders Sunday, the Chargers won their fourth game in five weeks, and while the Bolts still need quite a bit of help San Diego remains in the hunt heading into next week's showdown with the Chiefs.
ESPN: Chargers (13-0)
CBS Sports: Chargers (8-0)
NFL Network: Chargers (3-0)
USA Today: Chargers (7-0)
Bleacher Report: Chargers (12-0)
Overall: Chargers (43-0)
The San Diego Chargers need more than a little help, but a surprising win over the Broncos in Denver last week got them back to .500 and into the race for the last Wild Card in the AFC.
The first step in making the playoffs includes winning their last two games, including this week's home game against the Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders travel to San Diego as losers of four straight, and not a single expert picked Oakland to pull off an upset.
In fact, Bleacher Report NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland doesn't expect it to be close:
Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen or Matt McGloin and Andre Holmes? Rivers and Allen are forming one of the best quarterback/wide-receiver duos in the league, which means the Raiders defense won’t have an answer for the pair. In blowout fashion, San Diego gets its third win in a row.
Final Verdict: Given how this game played out, one would think that it was the Chicago Bears who had nothing to play for, while the Philadelphia Eagles were fighting to clinch a division crown.
Instead it was the Bears who could have sewn up the NFC North, but after being shelled by the Eagles 54-11 (yes, 54-11) both teams will play division rivals next week with a trip to the playoffs on the line.
ESPN: Eagles (10-3)
CBS Sports: Eagles (5-3)
NFL Network: Bears (2-1)
USA Today: Eagles (5-2)
Bleacher Report: Eagles (8-4)
Overall: Eagles (29-14)
This week's Sunday night game is one of the week's best—a contest so important that it was hand-picked by NBC for prime time.
Granted, there's a chance that circumstances earlier on Sunday could rob this game of some of its postseason impact, but as things stand right now, the Eagles or Bears could lock up a division title with a win on Sunday night.
The Eagles stumbled last week against the Minnesota Vikings, but Bleacher Report NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon thinks Philly will get back on track this week:
This Eagles team is mentally tough, and I believe last week's hiccup in Minnesota was just that. They'll rebound in a big way at home against a Bears team that is still pretty terrible defensively and has only capitalized on a favorable schedule the last couple of weeks. Philly clinches the NFC East in overtime on Sunday night.
ESPN: 49ers (13-0)
CBS Sports: 49ers (8-0)
NFL Network: 49ers (3-0)
USA Today: 49ers (7-0)
Bleacher Report: 49ers (12-0)
Overall: 49ers (43-0)
When the season began, this rematch of last year's NFC Championship Game looked like one of the highlights of this year's Monday night slate.
The San Francisco 49ers have held up their end of the deal, reeling off 10 wins this season and four straight victories.
The Falcons, on the other hand, have not. Granted, Atlanta has won two of its last three, but the team that many expected to make the Super Bowl this year will miss the playoffs after lurching its way to a 4-10 mark.
The 49ers are the unanimous pick this week, with Bleacher Report NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen among those lamenting what could have been:
What schedule-makers billed as an opportunity for Atlanta to get some sort of revenge on the 49ers for ousting the Falcons from the playoffs last season now looks like a hot garbage kind of game. The only thing that will save Monday Night Football ratings is the fact that this will be the last game ever played in Candlestick Park.
Don’t forget that it’ll be the next-to-last game ever played by tight end, and future Hall of Famer, Tony Gonzalez, either. Just remember those bits of nostalgia and don’t watch the 49ers run up the score.