The final week of the NFL regular season is upon us and with it comes plenty of intrigue.
Two playoff spots are still up for grabs in the NFC and seeding is still a mess beyond the top spot, and although the six AFC participants are set, seeding is far from it, with three teams in play for the top two spots and first round byes depending on Sunday’s results.
That creates excitement in at least half a dozen of Sunday’s games. But we’ve got a full slate of 16 contests on the agenda this coming Sunday afternoon and evening. Fortunately, there are plenty of other reasons to spend the first day of the New Year indulging in one more long football Sunday. Here’s one for each game:
BALTIMORE AT CINCINNATI, 1 PM ET, CBS – Both of these would be playoff teams are out of the picture this season, but there’s one big reason to watch this one and it’s because it is likely to be the last game in the great career of one of the league’s all-time heart and soul players, Steve Smith. It would be great if CBS could get a mic on Smith for the whole game, but they’d likely have to bleep about half of what he said. Still, it’s worth to watch a great competitor go at it one more time.
PANTHERS AT BUCCANEERS, 1 PM ET, FOX – Of the teams still fighting for a playoff spot, the Buccaneers need by far the most help, and because losses by the Redskins, who play in the later afternoon, and Packers who play Sunday night are part of the mix, they won’t know until long after they’re done playing if they’re in. But they can be knocked out with a loss and the conference champions, who won’t have an opportunity to defend their title, are a perfect foil. The battle between Cam Newton and Jameis Winston should be a fun one as well.
TEXANS AT TITANS, 1 PM ET, CBS – The Titans messed with what would have been a de-facto AFC South championship game by losing to the Jaguars last week, which combined with Houston’s win put the Texans in the playoff regardless of the outcome of this one. Marcus Mariota going down in the process took a lot of juice out of this game as well. But Houston has to be preparing for a first-round meeting with either the Chiefs or Raiders, and there are still plenty of kinks to work out with this flawed team that’s still breaking in a new quarterback in Tom Savage. That alone is worth a look.
COWBOYS AT EAGLES, 1 PM ET, FOX – The first meeting of the season between these two teams saw first place in the NFC East on the line in a Week 8 battle between rookie quarterbacks. The rematch doesn’t pack the same intrigue, as the Cowboys have since run away with the division and the top spot in the conference. But after it was revealed on Friday that Cowboys backup Tony Romo has requested some game action this week to shake off some rust, there suddenly became plenty to watch. Whatever snaps Romo gets Sunday are likely to be his last in a Dallas uniform and could also serve as an audition for quarterback-needy teams across the league. So all eyes will be on Romo on Sunday.
BROWNS AT STEELERS, 1 PM ET, CBS – The Steelers locked up the No. 3 seed in the AFC last week and the Browns clinched a season that wouldn’t end winless with a victory last Sunday, taking away some of the pop from this one. Instead, the game will likely see Pittsburgh rest some starters as an impromptu bye week. But Cleveland must be a little torn. If they manage to pull this one out over the second-team Steelers and the 49ers lose later in the day, the Browns will sacrifice the top pick in the draft, which they’re already reportedly eyeing Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett with. So who wants to win this one?
BILLS AT JETS, 1 PM ET, CBS – The Bills canned Rex Ryan this week, depriving us of Rex vs. the Jets IV, but this game became a huge audition for interim coach Anthony Lynn who has meteorically risen through the Buffalo coaching ranks from running backs coach to offensive coordinator to head coach over the course of this season. Lynn has also benched presumed franchise quarterback Tyrod Taylor to give EJ Manuel a look on Sunday. That’s something to watch. As for New York, it’s the QB move they’re not making, electing to start Ryan Fitzpatrick over rookie Christian Hackenberg. But if Fitz gets hurt, which has happened multiple times this season, with Bryce Petty now out, they’ll have no choice but to give Hack a shot.
BEARS AT VIKINGS, 1 PM ET, FOX – Last week, Minnesota Vikings defenders outright defied their coach’s game plan on the way to a blowout loss to the Packers. The team has tried to squelch that controversy over the last week, but what will they do for an encore. On the other side, the Matt Barkley Chicago redemption song has hit some sour notes over the past few weeks, with eight picks in his last two games. Against a talented Minnesota defense with some aggression to take out, what might he do for an encore in what could (should) be his last NFL start?
JAGUARS AT COLTS, 1 PM ET, CBS – Days after showing head coach Gus Bradley the door, the Jaguars came out with their best performance of the season, under interim head coach Doug Marrone, and it came against a Titans team with a lot on the line. Enter the Colts this week, a squad devoid of talent outside the quarterback position and maybe Jacksonville, a team that’s looked more talented on paper than the results indicated all season, can build some positive momentum heading into an offseason of intrigue in North Florida.
PATRIOTS AT DOLPHINS, 1 PM ET, CBS – It’s hard to imagine a more potentially lopsided affair between two playoff-bound than this one. New England has yet to clinch home-field advantage for the playoffs, so their foot will still be on the gas for this one, and we saw what that means last week, while Miami will be preparing for a likely meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round. This game does still hold some significance for the Dolphins, who with a win and a Chiefs loss can move up to the No. 5 seed, which would pit them against Houston instead of Pittsburgh. They just have to overcome a motivated Pats team and get some help to get there. Good luck with all that, Miami.
CARDINALS AT RAMS, 4:25 PM ET, FOX – One of the season’s biggest disappointments against one of the league’s biggest disappointments in total kicks off the late afternoon slate. But if there’s one reason to watch, it’s in the Arizona backfield, where likely NFL Offensive Player of the Year David Johnson has quietly been tearing it up all season. Johnson eclipsed 2,000 yards from scrimmage last week, giving him one of the Top 50 yardage seasons of all-time and against a Rams defense that has wavered as the season grinds to a halt, a 150-yard day could put him in the Top 20.
CHIEFS AT CHARGERS, 4:25 PM ET, CBS – Few teams have more to potentially gain on Sunday than the Chiefs. While their current position at No. 5 in the AFC, which would give them a first-round rematch with a Texans team they destroyed last year, is nice, it would also set them up to potentially head to New England again for the divisional round. But if KC beats San Diego on Sunday and Oakland loses to Denver, the Chiefs can move up to the two spot, which would keep them away from a New England matchup until the AFC Championship Game. That’s why KC will be playing full throttle this Sunday.
SEAHAWKS AT 49ERS, 4:25 PM ET, FOX – The Seahawks clinched their playoff spot weeks ago, but it’s been a struggle to lock down a first-round bye and now they’ve lost control of that possibility altogether. Fortunately for Seattle, they get to finish up with a 49ers team on a collision course with the worst season in franchise history and an outside shot at the No. 1 pick in the draft. Expect Seattle to show out early in this one (and that’s always worth watching) then cede the day to their reserves while waiting to see if they can get some help from New Orleans to back into a bye.
SAINTS AT FALCONS, 4:25 PM ET, FOX – After Seattle faltered last week, it became the Atlanta Falcons that took control of the No. 2 seed and a potential first-round bye in the NFC. All Atlanta needs to do to get it is beat the Saints who they thumped earlier this season 45-32. So expect all hands on deck for the Falcons and a fun offensive shootout at the Georgia Dome, because there’s nothing New Orleans would like to do more now, in what could be Sean Payton’s last game as coach, then to spoil the fun of their long-time division rival.
RAIDERS AT BRONCOS, 4:25 PM ET, CBS – There was a time just a few weeks ago, this looked like it could be the game of the year. Instead, the Broncos went in the tank and the Raiders pulled away. But Oakland has come back down to earth a bit with the loss of Derek Carr at quarterback and still needs one more win behind backup Matt McGloin to lock up the AFC West title and a first-round bye. On the other side, the Broncos will use their last game as defending Super Bowl champs to have a full-on quarterback audition between Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, while the QB who is probably the best fit to get them back to glory next year takes meaningless snaps across the country in Philadelphia.
REDSKINS AT GIANTS, 4:25 PM ET, FOX – What a weird scenario for the Redskins, all you have to do to make the playoffs is win…unless, in a 2016 season filled with chaos, the Packers and Lions happen to play to a Sunday night tie. Washington will be going all out for the win, and the Giants have nothing to play for but don’t plan to rest too many starters, which should make for an interesting and inherently watchable afternoon tilt. But if the Redskins do pull it out, they’ll have to sit on the champagne for a few hours…just in case.
PACKERS AT LIONS, 8:30 PM ET, NBC – It’s all about the NFC North title for these two teams. Winner take all, with the loser likely left out of the playoff picture altogether. That should make for quite a game to finish the season. Can a Lions defense that got ravaged by the Cowboys just six days earlier bounce back to hold off a red-hot Aaron Rodgers. And in his best season as a pro, does Matthew Stafford have one more trick up his sleeve to put Detroit over the top? This one is must see television and the perfect way to end the season while priming us all for the playoffs.