Mark Sanchez led the New York Jets to an enormously important victory in Week 15 over the Pittsburgh Steelers, but New York must already be focused on their staunch Week 16 challenge—they can lock up a playoff berth with a win over Jay Cutler's Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
The Bears sewed up the NFC North with a victory Monday night over the Minnesota Vikings, but they, too, have plenty of motivation entering this match-up—winning out would give the Bears a first-round bye, a huge advantage for obvious reasons.
Yet these two teams are not the only ones playing with much on the line in Week 16.
By the end of the final game this week, odds are that most of the fog currently hanging over the playoff landscape will begin to lift.
Read on for previews and predictions on the five most critical games of the penultimate week of the regular season.
The Patriots dispatched both of these teams with about equal ease earlier this month, so the writing on the wall says this should be a tight match.
Both squads have some measure of momentum going, after big wins that solidified playoff placement for each.
The Jets have played a much more demanding schedule, perhaps better preparing them, but the Bears will thrive on the combination of potentially treacherous elements and a friendly, raucous home crowd.
Prediction: 21-15 Bears
One cannot help but wonder how the 49ers have remained on the fringe of the playoff picture for so long, but the Rams will likely put the football world out of its misery by beating San Francisco, Sunday.
The win would eliminate San Francisco and put the Rams on track to play the Seahawks with everything on the line in week 17.
The key to this contest will be the play of San Francisco quarterback Troy Smith, newly reinstated as the starter for this game.
Prediction: 23-14 Rams
This game features two teams on the very edge of realistic contention with two games to play.
The Bucs must win out and get help (i.e., the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers must lose) to have a shot, while Seattle can control its own destiny with a pair of wins to finish the season.
Pete Carroll's return to the NFL has not exactly been pretty or triumphant, but the rather lacking talent on the Seahawks roster makes even the job he has done fairly impressive.
The Bucs will win this one, though, because they are bigger and can physically punish a Seahawks defense that lacks the speed to make up for their disadvantage in muscle.
Prediction: 27-20 Buccaneers
The Packers owe the Giants a return for an old favor, after New York upset Green Bay at Lambeau Field in 2008 to advance to the Super Bowl.
Green Bay would grab the potential tie-breaker if they could beat New York this week, and would need just a win over the Bears or a Giants loss in week 17 to reach the post-season.
The return of a post-concussive Aaron Rodgers will go a long way toward making Green Bay a viable pick this week, and it will ultimately be his play—against a pass rush that assaulted and concussed Jay Cutler earlier this season—that will determine the winner.
Prediction: 24-23 Packers
The Falcons can lock up home-fielder advantage throughout the playoffs with just one win over their final two games, and since both are at home, where the team is 6-0, it's hard to imagine they won't get it done.
That said, the Saints should give them a serious run for their money this Monday night inside the Georgia Dome.
New Orleans' loss to Baltimore in Week 15 may have been discouraging, but the team still has a playoff berth all but assured thanks to a couple of key tie-breaker advantages.
This team, though technically still in the hunt for the NFC South crown, may almost be more dangerous as the unheralded defending champions, creeping in as a Wild Card contestant and then sweeping through the NFC.
They will still try to win Monday, but if they do lose to the hometown heroes, they might not feel too badly about it.
Prediction: 31-27 Falcons