Well, this is it folks. The final week of the regular season. No more Thursday or Monday games. Just 16 Sunday kickoffs, some with everything on the line and some, well not so much. But overall, this looks like a heck of a week. There are legit reasons to follow almost every contest. We have nearly all of the playoff picture locked in, and precious little in terms of division title battles, but plenty of intrigue and more than enough teams still jockeying for position.
Here is the rundown:
Eagles at Cowboys: Our lone division title up for grabs. Tony Romo threw for over 300 yards in Dallas’ win over the Eagles in November, and he’s been special this December for all the right reasons. Philadelphia has looked vulnerable on the back end, but so has Dallas. DeSean Jackson seems to rise to the big stage, and there could be some fireworks here. What we already know is that both of these clubs are going to the postseason.
Bengals at Jets: Kudos to the Bengals for wrapping up their division within days of having to bury teammate Chris Henry. I cannot pretend to fathom what that must be like. But this team is not exactly rolling right now. The passing attack is anemic and they can’t stretch the field. If they have to try to win a third straight game against Baltimore or Pittsburgh in the wild-card round, I don’t fancy their chances. I love the two-headed rushing monster, though. In the meantime, the Jets luck out by getting to play another team likely to sit every player. It’s all Thomas Jones and the defense with them. Mark Sanchez seems likely to struggle again in the playoffs, but rookie coach Rex Ryan has more than delivered on his preseason bluster. He creates elite defenses.
Ravens at Raiders: Baltimore, despite giving away games with mental gaffes and ridiculous penalties all season long, can clinch a wild-card spot with a win. For all that young coach John Harbaugh has accomplished, the culture of personal fouls and back-breaking penalties has to change. The Ravens haven’t made anything easy on themselves all season long, so I can’t imagine them doing so now. Baltimore has pounded inferior teams all season, but the Raiders have already knocked off Cincy, Philly, Pittsburgh and Denver. They’re capable of playing up to the competition and it’s a long way for the Ravens to travel. A Ravens team that has managed to stub its toe at every clutch moment has a final shot to step up when needed most.
Patriots at Texans: New England has wrapped up the AFC East, but is never satisfied. The Texans still have playoff life, and are also playing to cement coach Gary Kubiak’s job status. Houston had a big statement win against Miami, and we could be in store for a shootout here. You know Tom Brady and Randy Moss want to keep their recent momentum going into the postseason. The Texans have never finished above .500, and a win here does that, and potentially puts them in the playoffs.
Steelers at Dolphins: Pittsburgh is about a resilient a bunch as we have in this league. That miracle finish against Green Bay propelled the Steelers to a close win over Baltimore. This looked like it might be a playoff game in and of itself a few weeks back, but the Dolphins have stumbled and the loss of Ronnie Brown — and thus their Wildcat creativity — has taken a toll. It’s going to take a lot of help for either squad to get in, but with Baltimore not playing until 4:15 p.m. ET and the Jets going Sunday night, it’s going to be on in Miami. People in the Pittsburgh organization are hopeful safety Troy Polamalu will be back for this one after missing much of the season with knee injuries.
Chiefs at Broncos: We know how much fun it would be for Kansas City to possibly knock a rival out of the postseason. And this Broncos team, long ago 6-0, has not handled pressure well lately. That loss to Oakland is haunting them now, and it’s already probably too late. The defense has fallen off big time in the second half of the season, and the offense remains limited without a consistent vertical game. Could the Broncos collapse and blow not just the division, but the playoffs entirely, for the second straight year, with two different coaches? Looks like it.
Titans at Seahawks: Only one thing to watch for here, but man is it a big one. Chris Johnson gets to finish his magical season against a horrid defense and a Seattle club with nothing to play for. Johnson will top 2,000 yards rushing if he has a typical game. It will take 234 yards to beat Eric Dickerson’s single-season record, but I’m not ruling it out, especially with the Titans intent on trying to get him the mark if possible. No one in NFL history breaks off more 80-plus yard runs than this cat, and I have the feeling my boy Scott Hanson is going to be updating this situation throughout his final RedZone Channel broadcast of the season. Otherwise, Vince Young could use a bounce-back game.
Packers at Cardinals: We already know the Cards have won the NFC West and the Packers are a wild-card team. If both teams come out and play like it matters, this could be the most entertaining game of the week and a possible playoff preview. However, that may be unlikely given Kurt Warner’s age and concussion history. Sure, the Cards would like to get that bye, but they need some help to get it. For the Packers, their superior defensive line has been nursing all kinds of injuries. If I’m them, I’m resting some of those guys, because we know they won’t be getting a bye, no matter what.
Saints at Panthers: Another game with no huge playoff ramifications, but man will it be interesting. The Saints are spiraling some, dropping two in a row, including one to the lowly Bucs. Suddenly talk of 16-0 sounds played out — they could just use a decent win as a playoff springboard. They also need corners Randall Gay and Jabari Greer, as well as tight end Jeremy Shockey to get healthy, too. And the Panthers, sans Jake Delhomme, are playing quality football and are back to mauling people at the line of scrimmage. John Fox is entering a lame-duck year, and thus is on the hot seat. But man is his team playing hard, and if he would have gone to Matt Moore sooner they could be right in the playoff fight. They could still finish .500, and with three straight wins. Carolina came awful close to snapping New Orleans’ winning streak in early November. This is a good game and great test for the Saints.
Giants at Vikings: Another game with plenty of reasons to watch, beyond playoff stuff. New York’s abysmal showing last week killed its playoff hopes (and made me look foolish for sticking with the Giants all season and thinking they’d sneak in). The Vikings are looking like a wounded boxer down the stretch, and though they long ago wrapped up their division, the Brett Favre/Brad Childress dynamic is fascinating. Clearly there are issues there. You think any cameras will be fixed on those two on the sidelines? Um, yeah.
Redskins at Chargers: Jim Zorn’s future was pretty much sealed way back in September after losing to Detroit. In reality, from the moment he took the job, it was impossible to see him lasting more than two years given all the organizational decay, dysfunction and personnel follies he inherited. It’s a long way for him to go for what will be his final game coaching the Redskins. He’s handled a trying situation with class. But his team has failed to show up lately and the Chargers are playing the best football in the NFL, looking to enter the playoffs on an 11-game run. Even playing reserves, San Diego could do it here.
Falcons at Buccaneers: Atlanta has found itself some since Matt Ryan got back under center, but ultimately it was too late. The Falcons could still finish strong. The Bucs have a decision to make about rookie coach Raheem Morris and are considering other options, most notably Bill Cowher. But after a spirited win over the Saints last week, they too could send a message to management and ownership by knocking off another division rival.
Jaguars at Browns: Jacksonville has slim playoff hopes, but given its woeful scoring margin and string of losses down the stretch, it’s hard to envision the Jaguars in it. Still, it’s a nice rebound year for Jack Del Rio. Cleveland has strung together some wins, adding at least some question as to whether Mike Holmgren will keep Eric Mangini as coach. They’ve fought very hard despite losing a bunch of starters to injury. I still don’t see Mangini and Holmgren sharing enough philosophically to make this a marriage — they come from diametrically different coaching trees and in essence speak a different language — but another victory would give them four in a row.
Colts at Bills: They might have had a date with history, but the Colts pulled Peyton Manning in the third quarter when they could have defeated the Jets and focused instead on the Super Bowl. Can’t imagine key starters playing more than a quarter of here, if that, especially if Mother Nature is up to her usual tricks in Western New York this time of year.
Bears at Lions: We’ve reached the point where nothing is at stake. Chicago needs to show something with coach Lovie Smith on the hot seat. A loss to the lowly Lions might prove too much for the powers that be to overlook. Detroit is without a road win for a second straight season. The Lions are beaten and beat up.
49ers at Rams: St. Louis finally gave beat-up workhorse back Steven Jackson a week off, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he returned for the home finale. The Rams made it a two-team race for the first-overall pick last week when their loss was coupled with Tampa Bay’s win. Everyone else in the league has at least three victories, save for the Rams (one) and Lions (two).