The 2013 NFL season has reached its final week, where a ludicrous 13 of the 16 games on the schedule have an impact on the playoff race in some form.
The AFC is both weaker and easier to understand than the NFC. All division titles are decided, with just four teams vying for the No. 6 seed. The NFC features two division title games to close the season, two more have yet to be decided and both wild-card spots are up for grabs—not to mention a 10-5 team appears to be set to miss the postseason.
While all games will have an impact on the race, three teams stick out as squads that will pick up major wins to help further either their playoff hopes in general or their overall seeding.
|Carolina Panthers 30, Atlanta Falcons 17||These two met in Week 9, when Carolina notched a huge 34-10 win. The locale is different this time around, but Cam Newton and the Panthers are playing for the NFC South title. No upset here.|
|Cincinnati Bengals 23, Baltimore Ravens 20||See Below|
|Tennessee Titans 24, Houston Texans 10||The quest for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft is complete. Houston loses its 14th straight via a depleted roster, despite Tennessee being one of the Texans' two wins this year.|
|Jacksonville Jaguars 24, Indianapolis Colts 23||Indianapolis is known for playing up and down to competition this year. After a 23-7 win over Kansas City, the Colts are primed for a letdown against a Jacksonville team that has played much better in the home stretch of the season. This is the Super Bowl for Jacksonville.|
|Miami Dolphins 20, New York Jets 7||The Miami Dolphins laid a goose egg in Buffalo in Week 16 with a 19-0 loss, but they remain in the conversation for the No. 6 seed. It will require a win and help, but the Dolphins get some help against a miserable New York Jets squad it already beat once this year, 23-3.|
|Minnesota Vikings 24, Detroit Lions 17||Week 16 saw Detroit eliminated from playoff contention with a miserable 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants, also known as a Jim Schwartz special—they have lost nine straight regular-season games in the months of December and January.|
|New York Giants 30, Washington Redskins 23||Leave it to New York to keep winning meaningless games. Washington has not won since the beginning of November and now has to hit the road with a backup quarterback under center. Not the best recipe for success in the closing week.|
|Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Cleveland Browns 14||Cleveland has won just a single game on the road this year, while Pittsburgh has won five of its last seven overall and can still make the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger in December is bad news for a sinking Browns team.|
|Green Bay Packers 28, Chicago Bears 27||Jay Cutler is 1-7 in his career vs. Green Bay. Eddie Lacy can exploit the NFL's worst run defense en route to an NFC North crown.|
|Denver Broncos 45, Oakland Raiders 21||Denver travels to the Black Hole for what will surely be the worst contest of the week—the Broncos beat the Raiders 37-21 in Week 3. Not much has changed since. Denver needs a win to lock up the No. 1 seed.|
|New England Patriots 33, Buffalo Bills 20||Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are back to form after a 41-7 victory in Baltimore in Week 16. The AFC East champions still have reason to play starters for seeding purposes, so expect this one to get out of hand early in Foxborough.|
|New Orleans Saints 24, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20||See Below|
|Arizona Cardinals 20, San Francisco 49ers 17||See Below|
|San Diego Chargers 31, Kansas City Chiefs 28||San Diego upset Kansas City on the road in Week 12, 41-38. Now things shift to the final week of the season, and the Chargers can still make the playoffs with a win and help. Desperation will propel Philip Rivers and the Chargers to a win at home.|
|Seattle Seahawks 35, St. Louis Rams 14||Poor St. Louis. The Rams have had strong showings in recent weeks, including a win over New Orleans in Week 15. But now they must travel to Seattle, where the Seahawks are seething after a rare home loss. This was a 14-9 outcome in favor of the Seahawks back in Week 8, but the Rams were healthy then and at home.|
|Philadelphia Eagles 34, Dallas Cowboys 24||With the status of Tony Romo suddenly up in the air, Dallas simply does not have the firepower to keep up with Chip Kelly's offense. They didn't before the quarterback woes, either.|
Cincinnati Bengals Over Baltimore Ravens
This AFC North showdown between rivals well-versed with one another could have been for the division title.
Instead, the implications are less significant because the defending champions laid a gargantuan egg in the form of a 41-7 home loss to the New England Patriots in Week 16.
Do not be confused—this is still a very important game. Baltimore desperately needs this win, paired with a Miami Dolphins or San Diego Chargers loss to secure the No. 6 seed in the AFC.
But as Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun illustrates, the Bengals are going to be gunning for the win here, too:
Bengals, who haven't lost at home all year, have plenty to play for next Sunday. They can still get the No.2 seed and a first-round bye.— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiecsun) December 23, 2013
As Zrebiec hints, the Bengals have been unstoppable at home, going 7-0 on the year and scoring more than 40 points in each of the last four. Quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown 15 touchdowns in the same span.
Baltimore is talented but has lost five games on the road this year and is coming off arguably its worst performance of the season. The Cincinnati offense will not be as potent as the past few weeks, but it will still be better than what the Ravens bring to the table.
New Orleans Saints Over Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay obviously has nothing to play for here—except to be an epic spoiler to a rival's playoff hopes.
The New Orleans Saints need a win to secure the No. 6 seed in the NFC. But, pair that with a Carolina Panthers loss in Week 17, and the Saints get a first-round bye. Katherine Terrell of The Times-Picayune puts it best:
Sorry, that tweet came across poorly worded. Dallas is still in the mix. SAINTS would get a bye with win + Panthers loss.— Katherine Terrell (@Kat_Terrell) December 23, 2013
All that matters, despite what has happened over the last few weeks, and all that stuff – the fact of the matter is that we go on the road this week, we get a win, we win the division and we secure the 2 seed. That’s all that matters
No kidding. All five losses for the Saints have come on the road this year. The team remains undefeated at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, meaning the Saints could very well be a one-and-done team in the playoffs if forced to hit the road.
Luckily, the Saints will hold up their end of the bargain, because the four-win Buccaneers are not much competition—not that most teams are in New Orleans.
Brees and the offense will find it simple to move the ball, and an unheralded defense will shut down what has been a miserable offensive unit in Tampa Bay lately (14 or fewer points in three of its last four).
Arizona Cardinals Over San Francisco 49ers
Arizona is the aforementioned 10-win team that may be on the cusp of missing the playoffs despite a stellar, Coach of the Year-worthy performance from Bruce Arians.
The Cardinals do not even fully control their own fate. Arizona must defeat the San Francisco 49ers and also pray that the Saints lose for the first time at home this year just to steal the last wild-card spot.
Which playoff hopeful is most likely to win?
Things are wild for San Francisco, too. The 49ers hold the No. 5 seed but can seize the NFC West with a win and a Seattle Seahawks loss. Add a Carolina loss to that equation, and the 49ers are the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
But the Cardinals are not losing this game. Arizona quietly has one of the NFL's best home-field advantages this year with just one loss coming at University of Phoenix Stadium.
To make matters worse for San Francisco, Arizona went on the road in Week 16 and notched a win in Seattle—something that has not been done since December of 2011.
Both teams are on a roll, but Arizona has been more impressive as of late and has a huge advantage at home. The Cardinals get the win and have to hope the Saints take a loss at the same time.