The NFL season is 16 games long. Most teams have just three games remaining.
In baseball, it’s like being in late August. In the NBA, it’s similar to early March.
It’s unusual for baseball and basketball to have critical or "must win" games with so much time remaining in their seasons, but it’s different in the NFL because so few games are played.
The league practically guarantees itself that there’ll always be meaningful games, or "elimination" games, with a quarter of their season remaining because each game is such a significant percentage of the overall schedule.
Only Minnesota has clinched a playoff spot. Only a handful of teams have been mathematically eliminated. Both numbers will increase this week. Playoff requirements are dramatically different in each conference.
In the AFC, the playoff picture can be almost entirely set this weekend.
Three teams are 10-3. Another three are 9-4. Miami, Tennessee and Oakland each lead their respective divisions by a game over the New York Jets, Baltimore and Denver. If these second place teams all win this weekend, only the winner of Monday night’s Buffalo at Indianapolis game (and, if they defeat the Giants on the road, Pittsburgh) can make the playoffs by winning out and getting help.
It’s very rare in the playoff scenario for either conference to be this simple with two weeks left. A 10-6 record is likely to make the playoffs in the AFC, but more than one such team could be left out.
Not so in the NFC. After years of domination in the Super Bowl, the NFC has suffered an overall decline, reflected in the fact that a team that finishes 9-7 is likely to make the playoffs.
Only Minnesota has clinched a playoff spot. The Vikes are on course to have the NFL’s best overall record. Ten of the NFC’s 15 teams still have playoff hopes. That number won’t diminish by much this weekend. But they should become much clearer. At 6-7, Carolina can still win the NFC West without resorting to tiebreakers by winning their final three games and getting some help. The Giants are in great shape in the NFC East and hold the tiebreaker’s edge over second place Philadelphia.
Most games this week have playoff implications, with many losers eliminated from contention. Six games match division rivals. Five pair up teams with winning records.
The most significant game this week might be Monday night’s contest between Buffalo and Indianapolis. Sunday’s events should make this game an elimination game. That means spirited play, marked by risk-taking and aggressiveness.
Here’s a look at this week’s schedule.
Minnesota (+3) at St Louis (Total 58Â½) : What was once considered a preview of a potential NFC title game becomes a game desperately needed by St. Louis to just keep alive their chance to make the playoffs. Their final three foes are a combined 27-12.
Kurt Warner looked very rusty on his return last week in the loss to Carolina. He was picked off four times. The Rams were held to just three points. Yet the defense did not allow an offensive TD to the Panthers.
Minnesota received extra rest after a pair of Thursday games. The Vikes are on the verge of wrapping up home-field advantage. They clinched a playoff spot last week.
Expect a better effort from Warner as the Rams rebound from their recent woes in this week’s track meet. The play is on ST. LOUIS.
Arizona (+15) at Jacksonville (42): Arizona continues to be ill-prepared to play first halves. Jacksonville maintains the slimmest of playoff hopes.
The Jags could be officially eliminated later in the day, but they’ll take the field knowing they must continue to win. RB Fred Taylor puts up impressive numbers now that he’s healthy. Cardinals QB Jake Plummer continues to throw interceptions at key times as they try to rally.
The Jags’ have been struggling, but both units returned to their sharp form of last season. It’s hard to imagine Arizona wanting to take much of Jacksonville’s physical punishment. The play is on JACKSONVILLE.
Cincinnati (+14) at Tennessee (36Â½): Tennessee K Al del Greco broke out of his slump by providing all of Tennessee’s scoring in last week’s 15-13 win at Philadelphia.
The Titans are closing in on the AFC Central title and have a chance to secure AFC home-field advantage in the playoffs. But they don’t generally win by big margins. Their largest margin of victory has been 14 points, which they’ve done three times. So this line is at the limit of their demonstrated capabilities. They won the earlier meeting 23-14. In fact, the last three in the series have been competitively played.
Cincy RB Corey Dillon gives the Bengals a chance to hang close if they don’t make too many early mistakes and fall behind by too much, too quick. The play is on CINCINNATI.
Detroit (+4) at Green Bay (41): The Packers got a solid win over Chicago last week despite being outgained by Chicago. The defense made enough big plays to keep the Bears from finding the end zone.
Detroit has the benefit of extra rest. They match up well physically against the Pack. At 8-5, the Lions are in the thick of the NFC Wild Card race, while the 6-7 Packers still have some faint hopes.
The teams have split the series in six of the last seven seasons, with the straight up winner going 13-1-1 against the line. The play is on GREEN BAY.
Tampa Bay (plus 2) at Miami (34): Miami controls its own fate and can earn the home field throughout the AFC playoffs by winning out.
Tampa Bay (8-5) probably needs to win just two of their last three games for an NFC Wild Card. In last year’s playoff run, the Bucs played their best ball down the stretch. They’ve won five of six entering this season’s final three games.
Both teams have rather ordinary offenses, but highly ranked defenses keep them in most games. Both offenses don’t commit many turnovers. Both defenses have been adept at causing them.
The low total indicates a defensive battle, but that makes sense. Neither defense allows many big plays. The play is on the UNDER.
New England (No Line) at Chicago: The Pats hosted Kansas City on Monday night. The Bears played a poor game in losing at home to Green Bay on Sunday night.
Neither has been able to develop much of a passing game, although the Bears have a legitimate excuse with injuries to their starting quarterbacks all season.
Chicago has put up the better rushing statistics. Both defenses have struggled to force turnovers. Let’s hope this game is not nationally telecast. The play is on the UNDER.
Philadelphia (-14) at Cleveland (35Â½): Evidently, the energy expended by the Cleveland Browns’ offense over the last two weeks (they managed just five first downs in each game) took its toll. They managed just two first downs in last week’s 48-0 loss at Jacksonville.
Philadelphia’s not a "blow out" kind of team. They don’t gain yards or score points easily. The play is on the UNDER.
Pittsburgh (+3Â½) at N Y Giants (35Â½): The Steelers kept their very slim playoff hopes alive with their upset of Oakland last week. The Giants’ upset of Washington, combined with Philly’s loss, gives the G-men control of the NFC East. In fact, because of their sweep of the Eagles, the Giants can still afford a loss and win the division title.
Both teams have done well avoiding mistakes this season, especially the Steelers. Both are much better at running the ball than at tossing the pigskin, which suggests the run will be the preferred plan of attack. The play is on the UNDER.
San Diego (+13Â½) at Baltimore (37): The Chargers’ era of prosperity ended at one game with their lopsided loss to San Francisco.
The Ravens were perhaps the NFL’s hottest team before their bye week. Their offense struggled mightily for more than a month, but has picked up, much as it did last season when they fell just short of the playoffs.
The Ravens have averaged over 30 points per game over their last four games, scoring a total of just 42 points in five prior contests. Baltimore’s top rated defense (by more than 30 yards per game) should feast on a San Diego offense that is barely one-dimensional. The Chargers can’t run the ball at all. Their QB play has been erratic at best. The play is on BALTIMORE.
Carolina (No Line) at Kansas City: Carolina remains barely alive in the playoff chase, but will have to run the table and get some help.
The defense has twice shut down the potent St Louis offense. The Panthers are allowing just 17 points per game despite ranking in the bottom third of the league in yards allowed. This "bend but don’t break" defense suggests a unit capable of making the big play or key stop when needed.
Kansas City’s defense is below that of recent seasons, not making enough big plays at critical points.
Both teams have below average running games and above average passing attacks. Both defenses are vulnerable to the pass. The play is on the OVER.
Seattle (+9Â½) at Denver (48): Seattle looked sharp against a disinterested Atlanta team last week, taking control early and not letting the Falcons back in the game. Denver continues to play well and controls their playoff destiny.
These teams met just two weeks ago. Denver rushed for over 300 yards, gaining over 500 yards overall, in a 38-31 win in which Seattle scored twice defensively on fumble returns. Denver clearly dominated and should do so once again vs. the league’s lowest-rated defense. The play is on DENVER.
Washington (-6) at Dallas (39): The ax over coach Norv Turner’s head finally fell Monday. Despite numerous injuries all season, the Redskins have clearly underachieved. Their playoff hopes are in severe jeopardy.
Expect a focused effort here from the 'Skins'. They should have success against a porous Dallas rush defense that ranks last in the league and has already allowed three different players to rush for over 200 yards this season. The play is on WASHINGTON.
New Orleans (+2Â½) at San Francisco (47Â½): New Orleans ran into a red-hot Denver team last week. The defense was torched by what has been a strong Broncos running game, despite alternating running backs keying the Denver attack due to injury.
New Orleans QB Aaron Brooks put up some astounding passing stats in defeat, mostly in playing from behind. San Francisco returned from their bye with a strong offensive effort in routing San Diego, reversing their recent offensive lethargy.
The Saints won the earlier meeting, 31-15. They’re playing for the NFC West lead. The 49ers are playing with enthusiasm and looking forward to next season. The play is on the OVER.
N.Y. Jets (+3Â½) at Oakland (47): The Jets continue to confound the experts, playing their best football when they appear headed into a slump, then struggling just as they seem to be building momentum.
Both teams appear headed to the playoffs, with Oakland in contention for AFC home field advantage, although last week’s loss to Pittsburgh shifted control to Miami.
Oakland has been more impressive at home this season. The Jets have played well on the road, including four straight up wins as underdogs. The play is on the JETS.
Monday, Dec. 11
Buffalo (+5Â½) at Indianapolis (44Â½): Both teams cling to faint playoff hopes. The loser here is almost certain to be eliminated. Buffalo played its poorest game in recent memory in falling 33-6 at home last week to Miami.
The Colts trailed 20-0 at the Jets last week before deciding to participate in the scoring, but their second-half rally fell short.
The Colts won earlier this year in Buffalo, 18-16, on a late FG. This game should be similarly decided late. The Colts show an inability to play two complete halves of football. The play is on BUFFALO.