1. Three divisions — the AFC North, NFC East and NFC West — remain up for grabs. And it just so happens that there are a few head-to-head divisional matchups that will help shape those races occurring in Week 16. None are bigger than Bengals-Steelers in Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon and 49ers-Seahawks in Seattle Sunday night. Although the Eagles are out of it (like way, way out of it), for the second season in a row they can serve as Week 16 spoilers. Last season, they stunned the Cowboys in Dallas; this year, they have the first-place Redskins in D.C. It won’t match the lead-up hype of Week 15 — aka Showdown Sunday — but frankly, last week didn’t match the hype, save for a shocking 49ers-Patriots bout Sunday night. Maybe this can go down as Sneaky Good Sunday.
2. The Seahawks could be without their top four corners Sunday night. Brandon Browner will be serving the third game of his four-game suspension. Walter Thurmond, who replaced him previously, has a balky hamstring and might not play. Marcus Trufant also has a hammy, one that has kept him out three straight games. Richard Sherman, who is having an All-Pro kind of season, could hear about his appeal of his suspension late in the week. Sixth-rounder Jeremy Lane started in Week 15 and held up well, but is he ready for the biggest game of the season? It should be noted that the 49ers stretched the field last week with Michael Crabtree (38- and 27-yard catches), Randy Moss (24-yard TD) and even Delanie Walker (34-yard TD). The Seahawks might have to play more zone against 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick than they are used to.
3. There’s a difference between Tom Brady and Russell Wilson — although Wilson beat Brady this season — and the 49ers know that. They also know that Wilson has grown immensely since his last poor game, which happened to be against them in Week Seven: 9-of-23 passing, 122 yards, one pick. They kept him off balance with a pass rush (two sacks, countless flushouts) and yet still hemmed him in as a runner (3-10-0), which made for a fruitless offensive night in the Seahawks’ 13-6 loss at San Fran. This one is in Seattle, where Wilson has not lost this season. His TD-INT ratio there is 12-1; on the road it’s 7-7. The 49ers have lost twice on the road, both in domes, but neither was the fault of the defense.
4. Close games and the Steelers have had a hot-and-cold relationship this season. They have lost four of five games heading into the big matchup, and three of the losses have been by one score. Of course, the Steelers’ last three victories have been by three, three and four points. Doesn’t it just feel like Sunday’s home game against the Bengals will be a nail-biter? Eight of the team’s 14 games this season have been decided by an incredible four points or fewer. The first matchup in Cincy in Week Seven required the Steelers to come back from a 14-3 hole, turning it into a 24-17 Steelers win. The path for the Steelers to the playoffs is clear: Win two games and they’re in, as the No. 6 seed. Simple formula, but no easy task. Both are home games but both are against division foes.
5. Of course, the Bengals’ path into the postseason is quite similar. They get the Steelers this week, the Ravens next. If they win two, the North can be their's. Again, it looks easy on paper, but expect the task to be tough. Winning in Pittsburgh, first of all, is no cakewalk. And though the Bengals have extra rest coming off their Thursday win over the Eagles, they also had a lot to shape up after that. The passing game was off all night, the return game remained cold, the penalties were out of control and underrated FB Chris Pressley was hurt. “I think one good thing about having a Thursday game is the time that you have afterwards,” Bengals QB Andy Dalton said after the game. “We’re doing everything we can to get all the guys healthy and back ready to go.”
6. We have a real treat in Houston, featuring a true head-to-head battle for the MVP race. Coming off perhaps their respective best games of the season, Vikings RB Adrian Peterson and Texans DE J.J. Watt will be on a literal crash course in Week 16. Each man can make a serious claim for the award, even though it could end up in the hands of a quarterback. But we can’t wait for the impending collisions of these two tremendous football players. You can’t imagine them not meeting a few times in the hole. You also can’t imagine Peterson — in his hometown of Houston — not being extremely motivated, only 294 from passing Eric Dickerson’s rushing record. In addition to their individual campaigns, the two teams also just happen to be in playoff hunts. Although the Texans are fighting for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, this game likely means more to the Vikings, who currently hold the No. 6 seed in the NFC picture — but quite tentatively with three other teams breathing down their necks. Christian Ponder could use a turnover-free game like he had in Week 15. Only seven times in his 24 career starts has he not had at least one turnover, and the Vikings are 6-1 in those games. Coincidence? Er, no.
7. The Redskins are zeroing in on first place in the NFC East, winners of five straight games since their shocking pre-bye loss to the Panthers that left them dangling at 3-6. Ancient history. And now that they have proven that it’s not just the Robert Griffin III show, winning at Cleveland behind Kirk Cousins’ strong play, it has legitimized the Redskins as a threat to take the division. Several tiebreakers are in their favor heading into Sunday’s game at Philadelphia against an Eagles team they crushed, 31-6, not that long ago in Week 11. Griffin will practice Wednesday and apparently is in line to start, though, so the sighs of relief have been big in D.C. The Eagles have not given up amid a terrible season, and actually have won a game since their first meeting with the Skins. They too are getting healthier and could have LeSean McCoy back, who has been out since suffering a concussion in that previous Redskins game. He has been cleared by an independent neurologist — and just in time — as rookie RB Bryce Brown’s fumbling problems continue. Michael Vick, however, likely will keep sitting in favor of Nick Foles.
8. The Falcons bounced back in an important way Sunday against the Giants but will have little time to relish the 34-0 victory. They have a Thursday road trip against the Lions in Detroit, and if nothing else, you know the Lions will be chucking it. What’s left of a trainwreck season — from 10 wins to 10 losses — is Calvin Johnson chasing Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving-yards mark of 1,848, set back in 1995. Johnson is now at 1,667 (14 yards short of last season’s total) and will need to average 91 yards per game to break the record. But the importance of the game for the Falcons is that losing here not only could keep them from clinching home-field advantage in the playoffs, it also would undercut everything they accomplished last week.
9. The Cowboys, who once were 3-5 and later 5-6, now control their own destiny: win two games, starting with Sunday’s home game against the Saints, and they are NFC East champs. Talk of Jason Garrett’s next career move has been tabled, and the Cowboys' head coach said his team will be ready for the challenge the Saints will provide. "They had a great win (in Week 15) against Tampa, so we've got to get our preparation right,” he said. “We'll do it day by day and hopefully put our best foot forward on Sunday." That Saints victory, by the way, was 41-0, and it was led by a relentless passing game and the team’s first shutout on defense since Christmas Eve 1995. With talk that Sean Payton soon could rejoin the Saints, there has been a new ripple of life through the team lately. Oh, and Payton has been linked to Dallas once or twice.
10. So anybody figure out this Giants team? What about the Ravens? There will be answers — and perhaps more questions — when they meet Sunday in Baltimore with a good deal on the line. Two weeks ago, it appeared neither team was going to blow their division lead, the Ravens more so than the Giants, but still. Now here we are with the Giants in a three-way tie and the Ravens in the playoffs but not yet AFC North champs. They seal the deal with a victory here, but based on the meltdown against the Broncos, it doesn’t look like it will be easy. Then again, the way the Giants played against the Falcons, and how seemingly prone they are to their own head-shakers … "We have to come back from a devastating loss and shake it off somehow, someway," head coach Tom Coughlin said. "We have to come back as competitors and prepare ourselves for a very difficult game.”
11. A win this weekend gets the Colts in the playoffs, but it might cost the team. Consider: The Chiefs might be firing their head coach, Romeo Crennel, in a few weeks. One likely candidate is Colts interim head coach Bruce Arians. Consider: He’s a quarterback guru, has guided the Colts through tough times (Chuck Pagano’s Leukemia) and has them in line to make one of the biggest turnarounds in recent NFL history. The Chiefs could use a repeat of those things next season. They need a QB (Ricky Stanzi could be starting in place of a banged-up Brady Quinn this week). They have suffered through tragedy (Jovan Belcher). And they will have one of the worst records in the NFL. This might be a showcase game for Arians, but his team is quite banged up. Three starters — C Samson Satele (ankle), ILB Kavell Conner (hamstring) and SS Tom Zbikowski (knee) — are out and several others might not be able to play.
12. Ron Rivera might have lost to the Chiefs, but he has not lost his team, apparently. The late-season mini-flourish and the number of close losses this season could convince owner Jerry Richardson to give Rivera another shot. Of course, losing to the Raiders in Charlotte might change his mind just as quick. Rivera has admitted that the game-management part of things has been his Achilles heel, but he has been learning as he goes on. His Panthers have a chance to finish 7-9, one victory more than his 6-10 debut season in 2011. "I think we have to keep going," Rivera said. "This is not about a couple of good wins, emotional wins, but it's really about the whole body of work. I'd like to believe we are trending in the right direction, but we still have two football games to go and see where we are." The Raiders have had an equally disappointing season, but they are coming off a 15-0 shutout against those same Chiefs, which featured a strong run game (45 carries, 203 yards) and strong defense.
13. Greg McElroy will be starting for the New York Jets on Sunday. This perhaps spells the end for Tim Tebow in New York. As for Mark Sanchez, who knows? The Jets hurt themselves, cap flexibility-wise, by guaranteeing his salary for next season, but his benching following a four-pick, one-fumble debacle against the Titans can’t be a strong endorsement for the 2013 starting gig, either. But in the meanwhile, the team will see what it has with McElroy, facing a Chargers team that has its own QB questions. Yes, really. Philip Rivers most likely will return next season as the starter. But is he right? Will he ever return to form? A change in management or to the coaching staff won’t help, but a strong finish would. How far have these once-darling teams fallen? This was the original NBC Sunday-night game before being flexed out for 49ers-Seahawks. Smart move.
14. The Broncos have won nine games in a row and can make it 10 against the Browns on Sunday. With wins the next two weeks, they could be only the seventh NFL club to carry at least an 11-game win streak into the playoffs. (Worth noting: Of the prior six, only the 1972 Dolphins and 2003 Patriots ended up winning the Super Bowl those years.) Needless to say, the Broncos want to keep winning — a victory this week and a Patriots' loss at Jacksonville (heh) gives the Broncos a first-round bye. “If you want to play well in the playoffs, you need to finish the regular season on a high note,” said WR Brandon Stokley. Although the Browns’ defense had been playing well of late, it allowed a backup QB (Cousins) to throw for 329 yards after a slow start. Peyton Manning, coming off his lowest yardage totals of the season last week (204) and in the midst of playoff and MVP races, can smell blood. Count on it.
15. Few would have figured that Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and Bears head coach Lovie Smith would be in any employment trouble, especially with the Cardinals starting out 4-0 and the Bears jumping out to a 7-1 mark. Combined, the teams have won two games, one apiece, following those hot starts. They meet in Arizona this weekend fighting for their lives, but the Bears remain in the playoff throes. It might take two victories to get in. "We haven't gone over every scenario and how it happens," Smith said. "We just know that there's a lot of us in it. For us, it's about finishing 10-6. In order to get to 10-6, it's just about beating Arizona and getting to 9-6." The Cardinals’ 38-10 stunner over the Lions last week was their first victory since September. They had scored a mere 42 points in the previous four games, but a prolific pass defense — Patrick Peterson now has INTs in four straight games — helped reel them out of a long losing streak. "Our guys believe in what they are doing and they're playing hard, and it's nice to see them making plays," Whisenhunt said.