IND (3-11) @ BAL (8-6) | SAT 4:30 PM ET | NFL Network
There are plenty of playoff scenarios for hopeful teams in both conferences over the next two weeks, but it’s pretty simple for the Ravens: win out and they’re in. Better yet for Baltimore, they have perhaps the easiest remaining schedule in the league with the Colts and Bengals—both of whom are playing their worst football of the year under lame-duck coaches—coming to town. A less-experienced squad might be at risk of a collapse in this situation, but I would be shocked if John Harbaugh allowed his guys to overlook either of their two remaining games. If they do make the postseason, not many teams will want to see playoff-edition Joe Flacco paired with the Ravens’ opportunistic defense (#1 in the league in takeaways, interceptions, and turnover differential). They should take care of business on Saturday.
Winner: Baltimore Ravens
MIN (11-3) @ GB (7-7) | SAT 8:30 PM ET | NBC
I was really looking forward to this game when the NFL schedule was released earlier this year, but unfortunately, Green Bay was eliminated from playoff contention and placed Aaron Rodgers on injured reserve following last week’s loss to Carolina, so they don’t have anything to play for other than pride. The Vikings, on the other hand, are looking to secure a first-round bye behind strong defense and a balanced-but-explosive offense led by Case Keenum. I think most football fans had anticipated this being Rodgers versus Sam Bradford in a potential shootout for the NFC North on the night before Christmas Eve, but Minnesota is still a fun team to watch, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of improvement Brett Hundley has made since his first appearance against Mike Zimmer’s defense in Week 6.
Winner: Minnesota Vikings
DET (8-6) @ CIN (5-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Detroit has a few ways to make the playoffs, but the simplest is winning their final two games and Atlanta losing their final two games, which is very possible against the Saints and Panthers. However, despite earning a wild-card berth in 2016, I just haven’t bought into the Lions as legitimate contenders over the past two years. Assuming Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Baltimore all make the postseason as I expect, the Lions would be 1-11 against playoff teams since 2016, with their only win coming this October in Minnesota when Case Keenum was still getting comfortable in the offense and Dalvin Cook tore his ACL. Jim Caldwell and Matthew Stafford just have to win out and get some help to prove me and the other doubters wrong, and they should be able to do their part on Sunday against a collapsing Bengals team that has been blown out in each of the past two weeks.
Winner: Detroit Lions
MIA (6-8) @ KC (8-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
A five-game losing streak for Miami will likely cause them to miss the postseason, but there’s still some longshot scenarios for them to make it. The path would have been a lot clearer if they could have defeated the Bills last week, but for his part, Adam Gase believes their season is “not quite over yet.” Miami will have to play a lot better than they have so far on the road this season, though, as they are 2-5 with a 22.4-point margin of defeat in the losses. If you’re a Dolphins fan looking to be optimistic, Jay Cutler is actually 4-1 against the Chiefs, and while four of those games came in 2007 and 2008 with Denver, the most recent matchup was a comeback win in Arrowhead two years ago with Gase as his offensive coordinator in Chicago. Also, Cutler is from a town named “Santa Claus” in Indiana, so he could have some magic on his side this Christmas Eve. That said, I’m picking the back-on-track Chiefs in a close game to clinch the AFC West.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
BUF (8-6) @ NE (11-3) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Pro Bowl selections are based on a combination of fan votes and player/coach ballots, but it’s pretty ridiculous that deserving players are left out every year because they either play in a smaller market or there’s someone else at their position who gets a lot of votes simply based off name or what city they play in. Tre’Davious White is the main example this year, as Denver’s Aqib Talib—leading one of the worst defenses (and teams) in the NFL—made the Pro Bowl over the Bills’ star rookie because many casual fans probably don’t even know who he is. White should be determined this week in New England after the snub, and he will look to shutdown Brandin Cooks like he did two weeks ago and has done all year to top receivers. However, I don’t see Tom Brady and Bill Belichick letting home-field advantage get away from them after a last-second win over the Steelers last Sunday.
Winner: New England Patriots
CLE (0-14) @ CHI (4-10) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
It might not be the way they want to do it, but the Browns have made history by becoming the first team in NFL history to have two seasons that started with 14-straight losses, and they’ve done it two years in a row. I’m not going to say who should and shouldn’t get fired around the holidays, but Hue Jackson is 1-29 with Cleveland, and I’d say there’s a pretty good chance they finish as the second winless team in NFL history this season. The Browns earned their first and only win of 2016 on Christmas Eve, and December 24th could be their last stand again with a trip to Pittsburgh next week. Despite having just four wins, Chicago has played almost everyone tough this year, and I would think Mitchell Trubisky has a chip on his shoulder after his hometown team passed on him in April’s draft. Look for the Bears to set up play-action for their rookie passer after pounding the ball with Jordan Howard, which is the best game plan to make sure Cleveland remains without a win.
Winner: Chicago Bears
TB (4-10) @ CAR (10-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Carolina held Tampa Bay to three points in an October win earlier this season, but poor play on the offensive side of the ball led to them trading Kelvin Benjamin and centering things around Christian McCaffrey, Devin Funchess, and Cam Newton’s running ability. Since then, the Panthers have gone 5-1, and they could lock up a playoff spot this Sunday by simply not losing (i.e. a win or tie). The Buccaneers will look to play spoiler again after nearly upsetting the Falcons on Monday Night Football, but this one will be on the road, and Carolina is playing better than they have all season right now. Jameis Winston will have to play lights out, turnover-free football in order to pull off an upset, and even that might not be enough to avoid 4-11.
Winner: Carolina Panthers
ATL (9-5) @ NO (10-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Atlanta and New Orleans had a heated battle on Thursday Night Football two weeks ago, and if things play out how I think they will, the division rivals will face each other three times over a six-week span, including the NFC Wild Card Round next month. That would be a treat to football fans, as some bad blood—including Sean Peyton and Devonta Freeman’s war of words during and after the game—just adds another dynamic between two really good teams. Deion Jones’ late-game heroics saved the Falcons in the first meeting, and them coming out on top despite three interceptions by Matt Ryan could bode well for them this Sunday, though the Saints should have Alvin Kamara all game this time. I think the outcome could come down to how the referees call the game, as if cornerback Marshon Lattimore isn’t allowed to be as hands-on as he was last time with Julio Jones, it will be difficult to contain him.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons
DEN (5-9) @ WAS (6-8) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Denver is still undecided on a starting quarterback for Week 16, and if Paxton Lynch is healthy enough to play, it really comes down to whether they want to win on Sunday or get a good look at Lynch for 2018. That’s not to say Lynch can’t win this week, but Brock Osweiler clearly gives them the best chance of going on the road and beating the Redskins. Either way, I’m picking Washington in this one, as they have a clear advantage at head coach and quarterback. As I’ve often said, the moves made on the offensive side of the ball in the offseason hurt the Redskins, but they could bounce back next year if they improve the receiving core and keep Kirk Cousins or find another capable passer from a loaded group next spring.
Winner: Washington Redskins
LAR (10-4) @ TEN (8-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
I thought Rams-Titans would be a matchup between two teams comfortably poised for a playoff spot, but that’s only the case for Los Angeles, as they’re a near lock to make the postseason, while Tennessee (barring some unlikely help to get in at 8-8) will probably need to pull off an upset this week or take down the Jags in the regular-season finale to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008. Jared Goff and Marcus Mariota are two of the best young quarterbacks in the league, so it’ll be fun to see them on the same field this Sunday. I think second-year back Derrick Henry needs to be fed for the Titans to keep Sean McVay’s rolling offense on the sidelines, but even a huge day from the running game might not be enough.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
LAC (7-7) @ NYJ (5-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
According to my projections (which is just a sophisticated way of saying the ESPN Playoff Machine), the Chargers will make the postseason as the six-seed. They need a lot to happen, but nothing crazy, and it starts with beating the Jets this week and the Raiders next Sunday. Besides that, they need the Titans to lose twice, the Ravens to win out, and the Bills to lose at least one game. Just looking ahead, I think that would be the worst-case scenario for New England, as all four of the Jags, Chiefs, Ravens, and Chargers can get after the quarterback, and that’s the only way to beat Tom Brady. This would be a better game if Josh McCown was healthy and starting for the Jets instead of Bryce Petty, but as we saw in 2016, Los Angeles (then San Diego) should be on alert for a Christmas Eve upset.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
JAC (10-4) @ SF (4-10) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | CBS
Can anyone stop Jimmy Garoppolo? The 49ers quarterback is 5-0 as a starter to begin his career, including 3-0 for a San Francisco team that was 1-10 before he took over three weeks ago, so a 19-0 season could be coming in 2018 for the Bay Area. In all seriousness, Garoppolo’s success shows how much the environment around a quarterback matters. Getting to learn behind Tom Brady for three-plus years in the Patriots system has prepared him better than any young quarterback could dream of, and the legend of Jimmy G will look to continue this week against arguably the best defense and secondary in the NFL. A win for the Niners would be extremely impressive, but with Blake Bortles playing the best football of his career and the speedy playmakers running wild even without Leonard Fournette (who should play this week) healthy, Jacksonville looks to be a Super Bowl contender.
Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars
SEA (8-6) @ DAL (8-6) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Fans of the Seahawks and Cowboys shouldn’t get too excited about their chances for the postseason, but at least they’re still alive with two weeks to go. The loser of this game will be eliminated, but the winner would just need to win in Week 17 and have the Falcons lose both of their tough matchups and the Lions lose once. There are also other scenarios, and stranger things have happened, but I would be surprised if the three NFC South teams didn’t do what needs to be done to play in January. All they can do is worry about themselves, though, and fresh off a six-game suspension, Ezekiel Elliott will return to give a spark to the entire Dallas team on Sunday against a finger-pointing Seattle team. Even so, something makes me think the Seahawks will figure it out and survive behind the playmaking ability of Russell Wilson.
Winner: Seattle Seahawks
NYG (2-12) @ ARI (6-8) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
The late slate of games on Christmas Eve isn’t very enticing, but Giants fans have reason to tune in because it’s possibly Eli Manning’s final start for New York if third-round pick Davis Webb starts in Week 17. Eli was able to bounce back from a disappointing loss to Dallas two weeks ago with 434 yards and three scores against the Eagles, but it was still a loss for the top-five-pick-bound Giants. Should this be it for the two-time Super Bowl champion, he will look to go out on a good note against the Cardinals, who are making a quarterback change of their own. Replaced by Drew Stanton after a poor performance, it doesn’t appear that Blaine Gabbert is an option to start any next year for Bruce Arians, and I think if Carson Palmer retires, Arizona would be a prime destination for any quarterback that hits the open market. I like the Cardinals at home on Sunday.
Winner: Arizona Cardinals
PIT (11-3) @ HOU (4-10) | MON 4:30 PM ET | NBC/NFL Network/Amazon
It’s a shame the NFL couldn’t flex a game from Sunday to Monday, as the Steelers probably won’t have much of a challenge against T.J. Yates and the injury-riddled Texans on Christmas Day. Big Ben won’t have Antonio Brown to throw to until the playoffs, but Le’Veon Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Martavis Bryant still give him plenty of firepower to make quick work of Houston and Cleveland over the next two weeks to lock up a first-round bye. There isn’t much to say about the Texans’ chances other than the game is at home, but hopefully they can keep it close.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
OAK (6-8) @ PHI (12-2) | MON 8:30 PM ET | ESPN
Eagles fans finally get a Christmas Night game, but it might not be much of a game after Oakland was all but eliminated from playoff contention after last week’s heartbreaking loss. The Raiders already had some motivation issues as far as I could tell, so Monday could really get ugly if the festive Philly fans come out fired up and the team gets off to a fast start. Perhaps Nick Foles will have a repeat performance of his only career matchup with Oakland in 2013 when he threw for seven touchdowns, as that would certainly be a Christmas to remember.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles