So, upsets will almost certainly happen tomorrow, throwing some team's best-laid plans out of whack. The only question now is pinpointing the most likely upsets and figuring out how they will alter the postseason picture.
With that in mind, here are the keys to victory for a pair of underdogs who appear most likely to throw a monkey wrench into the playoff picture as currently constituted.
Jets Over Dolphins
After a dismal midseason stretch submarined their playoff aspirations, Gang Green has turned things around lately. The Jets have scored at least 20 points in each of their past three games after failing to reach that threshold in four of their previous five contests. The pass defense has also tightened up, as New York has allowed just one 300-yard passer since their Week 10 bye.
That could spell trouble for a Miami Dolphins offense that struggled mightily to protect Ryan Tannehill and give their second-year quarterback time to throw. In fairness, the unit had been on an upward trend before last week's shutout in Buffalo, and Miami thoroughly dominated the Jets a month earlier in a 23-3 win.
Still, New York's fortunes have turned around in part because of Geno Smith's improved play. Smith is still an extremely raw prospect who does not show more than glimpses of promise. But he's cut down on the turnovers the past three games, throwing just two picks to four touchdowns en route to a respectable 83.5 quarterback rating, per Pro-Football-Focus. As Rich Cimini of ESPN New York indicates, his ability to hold onto the ball might be the game's most important factor:
Which Geno will show up?: Geno Smith was terrible against the Dolphins in Week 13, resulting in a halftime benching -- the lowpoint of his up-and-down rookie season. Since then, he has played reasonably well, producing six touchdowns (four passing, two rushing) and only two interceptions. The Dolphins' defense is always a tough matchup for the Jets, so this won't be easy. If Smith can finish with another encouraging performance, it could impact how the front office tackles the quarterback situation in the offseason. It certainly would reduce the need to pick a quarterback in the first or second round of the draft. It also would reinforce the belief that Smith is developing in Marty Mornhinweg's system.
Philbin on Jets' QB Geno Smith: "They're doing some smart things with their quarterback, he's playing better,"— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) December 26, 2013
The Dolphins might need a couple gifts from the Jets' rookie quarterback to jumpstart their inconsistent offense. But if they can't generate some extra opportunities, a young New York defense that has held up well all season could certainly hold the fort long enough to squeak out a close victory. If that happens, the Ravens, Chargers and Steelers would allow benefit from Miami's elimination, with Baltimore subsequently taking control of their own destiny.
Bears Over Packers
Admittedly, there aren't a whole lot of reasons to love the Bears in this matchup. Aaron Rodgers is back, and Chicago has had arguably the worst defense in the league since the halfway point of the season. The Bears are coming off an ignominious 54-11 clubbing at the hands of the Eagles and are underdogs by a full touchdown at Soldier Field.
And yet, recency bias might be looming too large over the Bears as circumstances change quickly in the NFL. Yes, the Bears defense has been terrible, but Green Bay's is nearly as bad. In fact, according to Pro-Football-Focus, while Chicago has conceded 400 or more yards in five games, ninth-most in the league, the Packers are tied for third-most with seven such games.
In a game where defensive stops figure to occur rarely, big special teams plays could be crippling to a defense's already meager chances of generating a stop. Jeff Joniak of CBS Chicago believes poor field position was an underrated factor in the Bears' blowout Week 16 loss, but that they should have the advantage over a subpar Packers return unit:
Green Bay for much of the season has had one of the worst kick return units in terms of average now at 20.3 good for 30th, but Micah Hyde slipped free in the final moments of last week’s loss to Pittsburgh with a 70-yard return that gave the Packers a chance to tie the game.
He had the three longest returns of the season for the Packers in that one game. Green Bay’s kick coverage ranks 29th giving up nearly 27 yards per return, with a league worst five returns more than 50 yards. Field position was not good for the Bears in Philadelphia – it has to improve against the Packers, in a game where every yard could make the difference in being a division champion or missing the playoffs.
So long as the Bears offensive line can protect Jay Cutler against a Packers pass rush sans Clay Matthews, Chicago should find success with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery against the Green Bay secondary. For his part, Cutler was his comically aloof self in summing up Chicago's challenge this week:
Jay Cutler’s response to Aaron Rodgers playing this Sunday: “(Shrugs) I play offense. So Lance and those guys will worry about it.” Classic.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 26, 2013
Chicago can keep up in a track meet with their oldest rivals, and the NFC North title bout is much closer to a coin flip than most people believe.