In a week when 13 of the 16 games on the NFL schedule could potentially have playoff implications, deciding which games are the most important takes some doing. But let's try to narrow it down anyway.
For starters, the game has to have implications for both teams involved. And having at least one team fighting for its playoff life is a must.
With that in mind, I've narrowed down my list of the most important games to four intriguing matchups. Let's go through my predictions for every game before taking a closer look at the top matchups this week.
|Atlanta Falcons||Carolina Panthers||Panthers|
|Cincinnati Bengals||Baltimore Ravens||Bengals|
|Tennessee Titans||Houston Texans||Titans|
|Indianapolis Colts||Jacksonville Jaguars||Colts|
|Miami Dolphins||New York Jets||Dolphins|
|Minnesota Vikings||Detroit Lions||Lions|
|New York Giants||Washington||Giants|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Cleveland Browns||Steelers|
|Chicago Bears||Green Bay Packers||Bears|
|Oakland Raiders||Denver Broncos||Broncos|
|New England Patriots||Buffalo Bills||Patriots|
|New Orleans Saints||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Saints|
|Arizona Cardinals||San Francisco 49ers||49ers|
|San Diego Chargers||Kansas City Chiefs||Chargers|
|Seattle Seahawks||St. Louis Rams||Seahawks|
|Dallas Cowboys||Philadelphia Eagles||Eagles|
Philadelphia Eagles over Dallas Cowboys
Kyle Orton is starting in place of Tony Romo. End of story.
I could probably end my analysis of this game with those two sentences, and that would satisfy most folks, but let's dig a little deeper. After all, the Cowboys did win the first meeting between these two teams. And they are at home. And, well, this is the NFL, and you just never know what is about to come next.
But even if Romo was starting, you could make a very strong case for the Eagles as the favorites.
While the Eagles only trail the Denver Broncos in both yards and points per game, the Cowboys are absolutely atrocious on defense, allowing an NFL-worst 418.6 yards per game and 27.2 points per contest, 25th in the league.
Which team wins?
The Cowboys have also lost what has essentially been the NFC East championship game in Week 17 the past two years. They're 5-8 in December in the past three seasons. Jason Garrett might just be coaching for his job, and the pressure in this contest seems to be squarely on Dallas.
Oh, and arguably Dallas' most important player on defense, Sean Lee, is also out of this game due to an injury.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have won six of seven and are a far better team than the one that lost to the Cowboys 17-3 in Week 7. It's just hard to imagine Dallas winning this game.
Chicago Bears over Green Bay Packers
Yes, even with Aaron Rodgers returning to action I still like the Bears to prevail. Why?
Well, for one thing I expect to see a bit of rust with Rodgers. He obviously makes this offense much better, but it's hard to miss eight games in a regular season (we'll count the Bears game where he was hurt in the first quarter) and come back in top form. Rodgers is an amazing quarterback, but he's human.
As well, there is the advantage of being at home for Chicago. The Bears are 5-2 at Soldier Field this season, while even with Rodgers in the lineup the Packers were just 2-2 on the road (as opposed to 3-0 at home with him playing).
But in the end, Chicago and Green Bay are both solid offensive teams with pretty poor defenses, and in a game that seems destined to be a shootout, give me the home team with the quarterback who already has two games under his belt after returning from injury.
San Francisco 49ers over Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals look likely to be the best team to miss the playoffs this season. Even if they win, a New Orleans Saints win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at home and thus the likely outcome) would prevent them from reaching the postseason.
Meanwhile, the 49ers might be the best team in football, period. They've won five in a row and 10 of 12. Defensively, they allow the third-fewest yards and points per game. They are third in rushing yards per game. They have postseason experience. And they could still conceivably be the top seed in the postseason, giving them plenty of motivation to win.
The Cardinals are hot too, winning seven of their last eight—including upsetting the Seahawks in Seattle—but in a huge game against a stingy defense, how much do you trust Carson Palmer? Or, this Cardinals offense altogether, which has been streaky this season?
The Cardinals are a very good football team, but the Niners are a better one. In a knockdown, drag-out affair, the Niners won't knock the Cardinals out, but they will win a majority decision.
Cincinnati Bengals over Baltimore Ravens
Cincy is 7-0 at home this season; Baltimore is 2-5 on the road. End of story.
Again, I could probably end my analysis with those stats, but let's take a closer look at this one.
After first glance, this game would seem to matter more for Baltimore. After all, the Ravens are fighting for their playoff lives, while the Bengals have already clinched the NFC North. But, with a win and a Patriots loss, the Bengals would earn the No. 2 seed, guaranteeing themselves a bye week and a divisional round home game.
That would be huge.
Meanwhile, if they were to lose and the Colts won, the Bengals would drop to the No. 5 seed and have to face the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round. That's a far tougher matchup and plenty of motivation for the Bengals to take this game very, very seriously.
But the bigger issue for Baltimore is an offense that has scored just 25 points in the past two weeks. It only managed six field goals against the Detroit Lions—albeit in a win—while scoring just a touchdown against the New England Patriots.
Meanwhile, in five of seven home games, the Bengals have held opponents to 20 points or less. And they've scored 41 or more in four straight home contests. Unless the Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers also lose, the Ravens will miss the playoffs this season.