The final week of the regular season is here, but don't expect a parade of backups. No, there are 10 teams fighting for four final playoff spots. Even the teams that have already clinched a berth still need to lock up the best possible seeding.
Nearly every game is must-watch television. Nearly every game has playoff implications. It's going to be a weekend of hard-nosed, black-and-blue, rough-and-tumble football.
Below, we'll pick every game and then hone in on some of the most important games of the weekend.
|Baltimore Ravens||Cincinnati Bengals||CIN|
|Cleveland Browns||Pittsburgh Steelers||PIT|
|Carolina Panthers||Atlanta Falcons||CAR|
|Detroit Lions||Minnesota Vikings||DET|
|Houston Texans||Tennessee Titans||TEN|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Indianapolis Colts||IND|
|New York Jets||MIami Dolphins||MIA|
|Washington Redkins||New York Giants||NYG|
|Buffalo Bills||New England Patriots||NE|
|Green Bay Packers||Chicago Bears||GB|
|Denver Broncos||Oakland Raiders||DEN|
|Kansas City Chiefs||San Diego Chargers||SD|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||New Orleans Saints||NO|
|San Francisco 49ers||Arizona Cardinals||ARI|
|St. Louis Rams||Seattle Seahawks||SEA|
|Philadelphia Eagles||Dallas Cowboys||PHI|
New York Jets at Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
You have to take these two games together because the Dolphins' playoff hopes ride on the Ravens and vice versa.
The AFC wild-card situation is really complicated, but CBSSports.com's Will Brinson does a nice job of breaking it down:
Let's start with the Dolphins. They have the easier matchup, at home against the Jets, although the Dolphins had a chance to beat the lowly Buffalo Bills last week and barely showed up.
Who will grab the final AFC wild-card spot?
Luckily for the Dolphins, the Jets offense is a mess. Geno Smith is not yet a viable starting option and too often locks in on his primary receiver. He's thrown 21 interceptions this season. That's just unacceptable.
Cameron Wake and the defensive line should be able to get a good push against the mediocre Jets offensive line.
I like the Dolphins in this one, although their stinker against the Bills has to be in mind. If the Fins can't get up for this game, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs. I think they will have the requisite motivation to beat the vastly inferior team.
Final Score: Dolphins 21, Jets 10
Okay, so now that the Dolphins win, what about the Ravens? They have a really tough matchup in Cincinnati. The Bengals are just a solid football team, ranked sixth in rush and pass defense. Moreover, Andy Dalton is having his best season as a pro. The third-year signal-caller has 31 touchdowns this season.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are coming off an absolutely listless performance against New England. When speaking with Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, coach John Harbaugh chalked it up to a short week:
It did, we felt it. We fought through it all week as best we could. Our guys were excited to play, and I thought the effort was there. They fought like crazy, but we just didn’t have enough juice to pull it off. It’s a legitimate factor. Everybody has scheduling issues that they’ve got to deal with in the NFL, and that was one of ours.
Short weeks are tough, but the Ravens were simply manhandled. This is a team that is desperately missing the veteran leadership of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. No player has stepped up to fill the void.
The Bengals are just a better team and I think they will win this one easily.
Final Score: Bengals 24, Ravens 14
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
He's baaaack! After missing eight games, Aaron Rodgers will return for the season finale, a win-and-in situation for both teams. SportsCenter's Twitter account revealed the news.
BREAKING: Aaron Rodgers will start for the Packers this Sunday against Chicago. Winner will take the NFC North crown. pic.twitter.com/2ZGCmxOslC— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 26, 2013
It's hard to say just how effective Rodgers will be. In an interview with Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, coach Mike McCarthy sounded confident in Rodgers' ability to play:
Every football player that plays in this game Sunday will have risk, and I think we all understand that. We've done our due diligence, we've gone through all the evaluations, and we feel it's time Aaron is ready to play."
Even if he's a shell of himself, the return of Rodgers should provide an emotional lift for the entire team.
Even if Rodgers cannot complete passes that he normally does with ease, the Packers have a huge advantage in this game. Eddie Lacy has been fantastic at running back this season, rushing for 1,112 yards and 10 touchdowns.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, that's the best rushing performance by a Packers rookie in team history:
Eddie Lacy has broken the Packers single-season for rushing yards by a rookie (John Brockington, 1971)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 22, 2013
Lacy should have an easy time of it against the Bears. Chicago is ranked 29th in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed, boasting the league's worst rush defense by giving up an average of 161.5 yards per game.
Who will win the NFC North?
That sieve of a defense was on display last week against Philadelphia, as it allowed LeSean McCoy to rush for 133 yards and Bryce Brown to rush for 115 yards.
It doesn't matter what Jay Cutler does. The Packers are the better team. Lacy could rush for 150-plus yards and the return of Rodgers will be all the fuel the Pack need.
Final Score: Packers 27, Bears 17
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
It's another win-and-in scenario, with the winner of this game representing the NFC East in the playoffs.
The Cowboys will have to make do without quarterback Tony Romo, though. Calvin Watkins of ESPNDallas.com reports that Romo is out for the season after undergoing back surgery:
Tony Romo underwent back surgery this morning and is officially out for the season.— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) December 27, 2013
That leaves the job to Kyle Orton, whom Jason Garrett has full confidence in. Here's what the coach told Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News:
We have Kyle Orton here for a reason. He’s a veteran quarterback who has started  games in the NFL, so he understands what his role is each and every week in terms of preparation. Kyle knows that he has to be ready. Kyle prepares as if he’s the starting quarterback each week.
That's all well and good, but the reality is that the Eagles are the better team. They have won six of their last seven and should be able to tear up a porous Dallas defense.
Who will win the NFC East?
The Cowboys give up 127.9 yards per game on the ground and 290.7 yards per game through the air. The Eagles, meanwhile, have an electrifying offense, averaging 161.9 yards on the ground per game—best in the league—and 258.7 yards through the air, which is ninth in the league.
The Eagles put a beatdown on the Bears last week and they're going to do something similar against the Cowboys.
Look for this one to be lopsided.
Final Score: Eagles 31, Cowboys 10