This is exactly what the NFL envisioned when they expanded the playoff format, realigned the divisions, and made it easier for players to change teams.
Playoff spots are still there to be had on the last week of the season, parity abounds, and there are great story lines. This is what separates the NFL brand from the other major sports. Every game is immensely important because the season is short, and division games count twice as much.
Let’s take a look at some of the key games this weekend.
Miami has all the momentum coming into this game knowing that if they win, they are in the playoffs, and would tie them with the 1999 Colts for the biggest turnaround in NFL history.
Chad Pennington was jettisoned out of New York and thrown on the scrap heap when the Jets signed Brett Favre. Now Pennington has a chance to put drive the stake in the Jet’s heart by eliminating them from the playoffs and getting his team in.
Pennington has been more clutch than Brett Favre, as he has been making more plays in the last four games. We would have thought that Favre would be the one to will the Jets across the finish line, but that hasn’t happened.
To be fair, the Jets' defense has been bad the last four games against sub par competition. They haven’t put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and can’t consistently stop the run.
Pennington has managed the games well and hasn’t made the big mistakes. The Dolphin s' defense was victimized by the Chiefs last week for almost 500 yards, and they have a couple of injury issues as well, but they have been the better team the last month.
With all the money the Jets spent in the offseason expectations were high. You can’t help but feel that this game has the same feel as the New York Mets’ final games the last two years—that choking feeling. If they don’t at least win this last game at home, in all probability someone (players, coaches) will pay the price.
New York will have to run the ball effectively using Thomas Jones and Favre will have to make a couple of plays off of that. It is obvious they can’t depend on Favre to win the game by himself. He is not that quarterback anymore.
Miami should be able to run the ball, and they need to force Favre into making critical errors. The obvious choice here would be to think Pennington gets his revenge and Miami makes the playoffs, right?
Jets 24 - Miami 23
The Baltimore Ravens may be in the best spot of any team trying to get to the playoffs. All they have to do is beat a disappointing and demoralized Jacksonville team that hasn’t met expectations this year.
Jacksonville will try to run the ball against a Ravens defense that won’t let you run it effectively, and Gerrard won’t be good enough in the passing game to overcome a group that is hungry for a playoff spot.
Flacco and the Ravens should be able to secure this game relatively easily, as long as they don’t get sloppy and turn the ball over.
Jacksonville has been so disappointing that they may have to start over again and gut the team after the season.
Ravens 20 - Jaguars 9
Both of these teams had lofty aspirations at the beginning of the season, especially the Cowboys. They were supposed to contend for the Super Bowl, but it is possible for both teams to miss the playoffs if Philadelphia wins.
Dallas just has to win to get in, but they have been so inconsistent the last four games you don’t know which team will show up. Tony Romo has struggled and made bad throws under pressure against the Steelers and Ravens. He has a history of playing his worst football in December, and hasn’t done enough this year to dispel that notion.
The Cowboys' defense has played well for the most part lately, with the exception of the last quarter of the Ravens game. They will need to make the Eagles into a one dimensional team by taking away their running game and then attack Donovan McNabb. The Eagles chances of getting in are slim, and they will know by the time they play if they have a chance or not.
They need for Tampa Bay to lose and either Minnesota or Chicago to lose for them to have a shot. They could have controlled their own destiny by beating the Redskins, but their offense struggled and they lost.
If the Eagles don’t make it, speculation begins immediately concerning Andy Reid’s and McNabb’s future with the team. Even if Philladelphia knows they are going home for the new year, they will have enough motivation knowing they can send the Cowboys home as well, so they won’t roll over.
I believe Romo’s December swoons will continue.
Eagles 27 - Cowboys 24
Giants at Vikings
The Vikings will try again to clinch a playoff spot after they stumbled against the Falcons at home in their last game. The big advantage they have is that New York has wrapped up home field field advantage through out the playoffs, so the question is how long will they go with their starters?
The Vikings need to have the right answer to their own question. How many times will Adrian Peterson fumble on Sunday. The answer better be none if they want to play the following week. Minnesota has had four chances at play-in games in recent history and have failed each time.
Even without Brandon Jacobs, the Giants still have a potent running game, and they will need it against the stingy Viking run defense. I wouln’t put my faith in Minnesota in anything called a play-in game.
Giants 24 - Vikings 17
This game will be heated and hotly contested. The two young gun quarterbacks don’t like each other, the teams don’t like each other, and the Broncos are on the verge of completing one of the worst collapses in NFL history. No one would have thought the Chargers would be in a position to punch their ticket to the playoffs with a win over Denver this week, but Denver has helped make it possible for them.
The Broncos led by three games with just three to go and have not been able to close the deal, while the Chargers continue to play inspired football and defy the odds by coming from behind, fighting, and clawing their way to victories. San Diego is playing now like many anticipated they would play all year.
Phillip Rivers has been clutch as he has led his team on this run. He leads the NFL in passer rating and touchdown passes. Jay Cutler has been impressive this year as well, but the Bronco defense has been sub-par all season and can’t be relied on the get consistent stops.
I look for the Chargers to pressure Cutler and force a couple of mistakes. San Diego is hoping for vintage performances from L.T., Rivers, and Antonio Gates. They will be at home, they have the momentum, and they have the will. I don’t think they will be denied.
It will take a herculean effort from Cutler to get this win on the road. Denver will have to put up a lot of points and get some turnovers to avert disaster in this game.
The Chargers will win this one and be a very dangerous team in the tournament.
Chargers 31 - Broncos 21
This game will be watched because of its historical significance. The Lions will mercifully end their season on Sunday, and will end it without a win.
Green Bay, who hasn’t had much to cheer about this year, doesn’t want to be the only team to lose to Detroit, so they will play hard and try to finish on a good note.
Their defense has been non-existent, and even though Aaron Rodgers has been OK, they can’t seem to put everything together for a whole game. At least they are better then Detroit, who has no quarterback, an ineffective running attack, a defense that scares no one, and a front office that should have been broken up years ago. Move over Tampa Bay, you will have company after Sunday.
Packers 28 - Lions 17
Raiders at Buccaneers
Tampa Bay will win this one because they have to, and they are playing a team that is ready for the season to end. The Bucs have been a hard team to figure out. Their once strong defense has been vulnerable, and they have not looked like the same team they were earlier in the season. If they do manage to get into the playoffs I don't expect them to go far.
The Raiders have been playing better of late and they won't roll over. They have some talent, but they have many front office and coaching issues.
Buccaneers 17 - Raiders 13