We hope Santa Claus will be good to you when opening presents post-Christmas Eve, because schedule-makers left you nothing but coal thanks to a Thursday night matchup featuring San Diego and Oakland.
Here’s an early look at the top 10 matchups that do make the cut as must-watch affairs in Week 16:
Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles fell to Arizona on Sunday night, but still control their own destiny as they look to claim the NFC East and avoid consecutive seasons without making the playoffs under head coach Chip Kelly. Washington won the first meeting between these teams at home 23-20 in Week 4 and has prevailed in the last two meetings by scoring on its last possession.
Kirk Cousins engineered a 15-play, 90-yard drive to play hero in that one and comes off his second four-touchdown game of the season in beating Buffalo 35-25 to give his team a 6-2 home record. The ‘Skins are just 1-5 on the road in large part because Cousins has thrown nine interceptions and just six TDs away from Landover this season.
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons snapped a six-game losing streak with a 23-17 win to keep their microscopic playoff hopes alive with a 23-17 win in Jacksonville, but will need the Seahawks and Vikings to both lose out and a strength of schedule tie-breaker to come into play just to have a shot at not squandering a 5-0 start. The Panthers are 14-0 and have a shot at perfection, but they’ve already clinched a playoff bye, leaving head coach Ron Rivera to make the decision of just how hard he intends to push key figures like Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman these final few games.
All are expected to start, but the team could continue to be cautious with Jonathan Stewart (foot), leaving Fozzy Whitaker and Mike Tolbert to carry the load in the backfield. Carolina won 38-0 on Dec. 13 an won 34-3 in Atlanta last December.
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs: Johnny Manziel had some nice moments in Sunday’s 30-13 loss in Seattle, but is now 2-3 as the Browns starting QB this season and still has yet to win on the road, falling to 0-7 in his appearances in opposing stadiums as a pro. Arrowhead is always a daunting venue, so he’ll be up against it as the Chiefs look to continue their postseason push.
After losing its first two home games, Kansas City has won three straight there, part of an incredible eight-game winning streak that was extended in a 34-14 win at Baltimore. The defense scored a pair of touchdowns, picked off two passes and added a fumble recovery despite playing without top pass-rusher Justin Houston, who isn’t likely to return from a knee injury this week.
New England Patriots at N.Y. Jets: The Patriots have clinched a bye, but are still playing meaningful football as they look to ensure the AFC playoffs go through Gillette Stadium and not Cincinnati. They lost WR Danny Amendola to a knee injury that may keep him out here and saw key defensive players Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung leave their win over Tennessee, which means the Jets could be facing a depleted group.
New York held off Dallas on Saturday night to move to 9-5, their largest win total since 2010. Bill Belichick has beaten the Jets in nine of the last 10 meetings, but got a great challenge from new head coach Todd Bowles in their first meeting, needing a Tom Brady-led fourth-quarter comeback to win 30-23 in Week 7.
Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: After ending a 13-year run of futility in Indianapolis, the Texans are now in the driver’s seat for an AFC South title and the playoff berth that comes with it. Brandon Weeden led a comeback after T.J. Yates suffered a torn ACL, but it’s likely that regular starter Brian Hoyer will clear concussion protocol and be available for this final road trip of the regular season.
J.J. Watt ranks second in the league with 13.5 sacks and will likely be getting after Titans backup Zach Mettenberger since Marcus Mariota injured his knee last week and is unlikely to play here. Mettenberger started the 20-6 Nov. 1 loss in Houston because Mariota was injured and was sacked seven times. The Texans have won six of seven in this series.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: One of the NFL’s best rivalries won’t pack the punch it usually has due to the Ravens falling off this season, but you can count on optimum effort from John Harbaugh’s group with the Steelers in town. Injuries have depleted Baltimore, which is expected to again start Jimmy Clausen over a banged-up Matt Schaub here to try and end a three-game losing streak in which they’ve been outscored 84-33.
Joe Flacco led the Ravens to a 23-20 win in Pittsburgh back in Week 4, a game that was started by Michael Vick. Ben Roethlisberger has returned to action and has led the Steelers to three straight wins, completing 40 passes in Sunday’s 34-27 win over Denver.
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals: The Packers, still in the hunt for the NFC’s No. 2 seed, would need to win this game and their season finale while hoping the Cardinals fall to the Seahawks in Week 17, an entirely plausible scenario.
Complicating matters for the home team is that key defensive back Tyrann Mathieu suffered a torn ACL in Sunday night’s win in Philadelphia, so they’ll have to find a way to replace someone who they plug into numerous roles. Aaron Rodgers has helped lead the Packers to three consecutive wins after the team dropped four of five, clinching a postseason berth with Sunday’s 30-20 win in Oakland.
St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks: The Rams beat the Seahawks 34-31 in the season opener, but have since fallen well off the pace and have been eliminated from the playoff chase. They have won consecutive games for only the second time all season and are hoping to play spoiler here, but haven’t won two straight in this series since 2004, falling in 17 of the last 21 meetings.
Russell Wilson has been brilliant during Seattle’s five-game winning streak (110-for-148, 1,420 yards, 19 TDs, 0 INTs), clicking most with Doug Baldwin, who joined Jerry Rice as the only receivers in league history to make 10 TD receptions in a four-game span with a pair of scores against Cleveland.
N.Y. Giants at Minnesota Vikings: After their comeback against Carolina fell short, the Giants have no room for error if they’re to make the playoffs by winning the NFC East. With Odell Beckham losing his mind against Norman and the Panthers, a team that has blown numerous fourth quarter leads, continue to look like an undisciplined mess. For his blowup, the league issued a one-game suspension to Beckham effective immediately.
The Giants travel to Minneapolis for a date with Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater, who comes off the best game of his career against Chicago, throwing four TD passes and running for another to inch his team closer to the playoffs. Adrian Peterson was limited by an ankle injury against the Bears but should play here.
Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos: The Broncos and Bengals are vying for the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the bye that goes with it, so this may also be a potential preview of a divisional playoff game next month. The Bengals are hoping to have QB Andy Dalton back from his thumb injury by then, but saw A.J. McCarron fill in nicely in a 24-14 win over San Francisco that gives them hope he’ll be able to solve perhaps the league’s top defense.
Coming off a rough second half in Pittsburgh, the Broncos elite secondary will be looking to rebound. Peyton Manning may return from his bout with plantar fasciitis, but Brock Osweiler is likely to remain the starter unless Manning can start getting in full practice work.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].