NFL Playoff Picture: 10 Games That Will Decide Playoff Teams
The NFL playoff picture is nearing its completion, but there are still some fine lines to be drawn and blank areas to be filled in. And there’s only two weeks left with which to work.
Luckily, these 10 games should do some of both, particularly in the case of those teams looking to be slotted Nos. 3-6.
[Note: Check out this cool feature at ESPN.com to create your own playoff scenarios.]
New York Jets at Chicago Bears (Dec. 26, 1:00 PM ET, CBS)
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Breakdown: As they did last postseason, the Jets proved in Pittsburgh on Sunday that they can beat elite-caliber competition on the road, and quarterback Mark Sanchez was the driving force behind the win.
He completed 68 percent of his passes against the Steelers and did not turn the ball over. He’ll be less effective against the Bears, whose second-ranked rush defense will force the second-year starter to throw more than he wants.
Prediction: Bears slop their way to another win, 17-10.
Implications: Assuming Chicago takes care of business in Minnesota beforehand, a win would move the Bears to 11-4 and clinch the NFC North before the second-place Packers even take the field later that day.
A Jets loss wouldn’t be altogether catastrophic, but it would significantly close the gap between New York and Wild Card hopefuls San Diego and Jacksonville and spawn a must-win situation against Buffalo in the season finale.
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 26, 1:00 PM ET, CBS)
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Breakdown: The Chiefs were impressive in their dismantling of the Rams, piling up more than 200 yards on the ground and getting steady play from an appendix-less Matt Cassel, but this is a scary game for the home team.
The Titans have nothing to lose, and the combo of Kerry Collins and Chris Johnson is clicking, having combined for 722 total yards and seven scores in the past two weeks.
Prediction: Titans put the Chiefs’ postseason celebration on hold, 21-18.
Implications: For the Titans, the win means nothing other than fulfilling the role of spoiler. For the Chiefs, a loss allows San Diego to enter the driver’s seat in the AFC West with only a game to play, setting up a scenario in which Kansas City would no longer dictate its playoff future.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers (Dec. 26, 4:15 PM ET, FOX)
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Breakdown: If my crystal ball is functioning properly, the Packers will be eliminated from contention for the division title before this game even begins. This leaves Green Bay scrambling for a Wild Card berth against the Giants, who currently lead the Packers by a game for the No. 6 seed.
As impressive as Matt Flynn was against New England, no Aaron Rodgers means no win for Green Bay. Which means no playoff appearance. As of Monday afternoon, Rodgers’ status for this week was still uncertain.
Prediction: Giants recover from the Philly disaster, 23-14.
Implications: With a solid road victory, the Giants all but sew up a Wild Card spot, leaving Green Bay on the outside looking in and Tampa Bay as the last remaining threat, albeit a distant one.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta (Dec. 27, 8:30 PM ET, ESPN)
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Breakdown: Way back in Week 3, the Falcons battled for what may end up being their most crucial victory of the season, coming from behind to beat the Saints on the road in overtime. Of course, at the time, few people had any inkling of just how good this Atlanta team could be.
Eleven games and 10 wins later, the Falcons again hook up with New Orleans, this time with a chance to reaffirm their status as the division king and secure home field throughout the playoffs.
Prediction: Falcons clinch first-round bye, 30-21.
Implications: The NFC road to the Super Bowl takes a detour through Atlanta, where the Falcons are yet to lose this season. Meanwhile, the Saints stay stationary in the playoff jumble, but in the process allow the Giants to move into position to overtake the No. 5 seed.
Why does this matter? The No. 5 seed is guaranteed to play the winner of the weak NFC West, while the No. 6 will have to travel, presumably, to Chicago.
Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers (Jan. 2, 1:00 PM ET, FOX)
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Breakdown: The Packers summon what little resolve they have after losing to the Giants the previous week, but the victory in the finale is of no consequence. This equates to nothing more than a week of healing for the Bears before hosting a game at Soldier Field in the opening round.
On a side note, if you want to get really crazy, just contemplate the scenarios that would ensue if Green Bay were to beat New York the week before. Just know the possibilities include the Packers and Bears playing each other in the first round, no matter who wins the season finale.
Prediction: Packers win as Bears rest, 30-14.
Implications: Under my model, absolutely none. If anything, all this win does is make the NFC North race appear closer than it really was.
Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs (Jan. 2, 1:00 PM ET, CBS)
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Breakdown: This could potentially get really hairy. Coming off a key loss to the Titans, the Chiefs are essentially at the mercy of the Chargers and need a victory over the Raiders to have at least a shot of landing a postseason berth as AFC West champions.
But the Chiefs bumble away two consecutive games at home, losing to Oakland behind a big day from Darren McFadden, who rushes for nearly 150 yards in the victory. Kansas City's season comes to sudden, crashing halt, while Oakland's may be just beginning.
Prediction: Raiders stun Chiefs, 24-17.
Implications: Well, for one, the Chiefs are eliminated. As for the Raiders, who created a stir with a victory over the Colts the previous week, sit and wait. If the Broncos upset the Chargers, then it's Oakland who will claim the division title and the AFC's No. 3 seed.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans (Jan. 2, 1:00 PM ET, CBS)
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Breakdown: The last time these two played, the Jags enjoyed their most fruitful day of the season on offense, getting 342 yards passing from David Garrard and 100 yards rushing from Maurice Jones-Drew. It wasn’t enough, as Jacksonville needed a tipped Hail Mary as time expired to get the win.
Revenge could be a strong factor, but the Texans appeared to have packed it in, losing seven of their last eight, including a lackluster performance last week against Tennessee. The Jaguars will beat Houston again, but won’t need nearly as many theatrics.
Prediction: Jaguars, 27-10.
Implications: If the playoffs were to begin today, Indianapolis would represent the AFC South by virtue of a better record than Jacksonville in games against common opponents. But since they don’t, the Jags take advantage of a Colts loss at Oakland in Week 16, win their final two games, and clinch a postseason berth outright.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints (Jan. 2, 1:00 PM ET, FOX)
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Breakdown: Currently behind both the Giants and Packers in the race for the No. 6 seed in the NFC, the Bucs perhaps have the steepest hill to climb out of any playoff contender. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Assuming the Buccaneers take care of business at home against Seattle on Sunday, and the Saints fall on the road to Atlanta, Tampa Bay need only win the finale in New Orleans to steal a spot away from their divisional rivals and book a trip to Chicago to face the Bears.
But it won’t happen. Whatever shot the Bucs had, they blew it by losing to Detroit in overtime at home. A week after helping the Falcons secure the No. 1 seed, the Saints grasp firmly onto the No. 5 seed with a breezy walkthrough at home.
Prediction: Saints clinch wild card berth, 34-13.
Implications: Tampa Bay is left to lament what could have been while the Saints prepare for the winner between St. Louis and Seattle.
St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks (Jan. 2, 4:15 PM ET, FOX)
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Breakdown: Each having recorded crucial victories the week prior, the Rams and Seahawks play for the division and a home playoff game. Of course, that spells trouble for Seattle, which has won consecutive games only once all season.
St. Louis, which has composed a winning streak just twice, receives enough from rookie quarterback Sam Bradford and leans heavily on Steven Jackson, who gets his fifth 100-yard rushing day in a tight win.
Prediction: Rams clinch first playoff berth in six seasons, 24-21.
Implications: The Rams complete the final piece of the NFC postseason puzzle, securing the conference’s No. 4 seed and a home game against New Orleans, a team that demolished St. Louis by 18 in Week 13.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos (Jan. 2, 4:15 PM ET, CBS)
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Breakdown: With the Chiefs going down against Tennessee in Week 16, the Chargers are afforded the luxury of not needing to rely on help to get into the playoffs. A win over the lowly Broncos and they’re guaranteed a postseason home game, regardless of what Kansas City does in Oakland.
There’s too much at stake here for Norv Turner’s team, which is nearly invincible in December. Philip Rivers puts up 350 yards easy on Denver’s sorry defense, and the Chargers cruise on the road.
Prediction: Chargers waltz into the postseason, 35-7.
Implications: The Chargers squash any drama surrounding who will be crowned AFC West champion with the easy victory.