The Panthers and Falcons play a you-win-you’re-in game. The Steelers and Bengals battle for NFC North supremacy. The Chiefs play to keep the Chargers from playing on–and to keep their slim postseason hopes alive. The Ravens and Texans look to sneak into wildcard berths with help, and several coaches need a win in nothing games to win something–job security.
Let’s breakdown the action….
Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) at Atlanta Falcons (6-9)
The NFC South will be decided in this game.
Not only does the winner capture the division title, they get a home game in the first round of the playoffs, with a losing record. Expect the NFL to consider re-seeding playoff games based on record, to avoid this scenario in the future.
The Falcons have a slight edge, since they are home, and their passing offense plays on such a high-level.
Detroit Lions (11-4) at Green Bay Packers (11-4)
The Lions and Packers are both in the postseason, but the NFC North remains up for grabs. The winner will claim the division title and also a first-round bye.
Considering the Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers nurses a calf injury, Green Bay desperately wants next week off to rest him.
Expect the Packers to find away to beat a Lions team playing without their starting center and right tackle.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-4-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5)
The final game of the 2014 regular season, on Sunday night, will decide the AFC North. Both teams have already clinched a playoff berth.
Considering the Steelers host, with a red-hot passing offense, against a team that doesn’t rush quarterbacks well (NFL low in sacks), expect Pittsburgh to prevail.
St. Louis Rams (6-9) at Seattle Seahawks (11-4)
With a win, the Seahawks will lock up the NFC West and a first-round bye.
Considering what an amazing home field advantage they enjoy at Century Link Field, expect them to play their starters as long as they need to secure the win.
Since Week 12, the Seahawks defense allows less than seven points a game.
So expect Seattle to prevail against the offensively-challenged Rams.
San Diego Chargers (9-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (8-7)
Both the Chargers and Chiefs remain alive for the final playoff berth in the AFC.
San Diego holds the advantage and will advance to the postseason with a win. Kansas City can qualify for the playoffs with a win along with losses by both Baltimore and Houston.
This is a bad matchup for the Chargers because they don’t pass protect very well, and the Chiefs really get after quarterbacks, led by OLB Justin Houston who has 18 sacks.
But Kansas City will be without starting QB Alex Smith due to a ruptured spleen, so expect Phillip Rivers, with his indomitable will, to figure out a way to get his Chargers into the playoffs.
Oakland Raiders (3-12) at Denver Broncos (11-4)
The Broncos have already clinched the AFC West and can earn a first-round bye with a win. They can also secure a first-round bye with a Cincinnati loss.
They are probably going to have to play their starters to make sure they secure a first-round bye, since the Bengals don’t play until the evening.
Expect the Broncos to have little trouble out-scoring the NFL’s 32nd-ranked offense.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3-12) at Houston Texans (8-7)
The Texans can clinch a playoff spot with a win, a San Diego loss and a Baltimore loss.
Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has been sacked 50 times and thrown 17 interceptions this season. Expect a few more sacks and perhaps some interceptions against J.J. Watt and company in a likely loss to Houston.
Cleveland Browns (7-8) at Baltimore Ravens (9-6)
The Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a San Diego loss.
With injuries to quarterbacks Johnny Manziel (hamstring) and Brian Hoyer (shoulder), circumstances force the Browns to start rookie free agent Connor Shaw. But honestly, the South Carolina-product, who led the Gamecocks to a 27-5 record during his three years as a starter, isn’t a drop-off from his fellow rookie Manziel, who performed horribly in his two starts.
Expect the Ravens to beat the dysfunctional Browns, who just suspended their best receiver, the mercurial Josh Gordon, due to a violation of team rules.
Arizona Cardinals (11-4) at San Francisco 49ers (7-8)
Arizona has secured a playoff berth but can still win the NFC West, earn a first-round bye, and claim home-field advantage in the NFC. Wth a win and a Seattle loss, the Cardinals will win the division and lock up a bye. If Green Bay also loses, Arizona will be the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
But with Arizona’s top two quarterbacks out, and their third string quarterback struggling, expect the 49ers to send coach Jim Harbaugh out a winner in likely his final game as coach.
Buffalo Bills (8-7) at New England Patriots (12-3)
The Patriots have locked up home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, so don’t expect them to play their starters very long.
A win would give the Bills their first winning season in 10 years, and help coach Doug Marrone keep his job with a new owner in town. The Bills boast the NFL’s best pass rush (50 sacks), so don’t expect Tom Brady to hold on to the ball very long while in game. The last thing he needs is an injury entering the playoffs.
There is a good chance Buffalo wins this game.
Chicago Bears (5-10) at Minnesota Vikings (6-9)
The Bears have lost four in a row. Bears coach Mark Trestman wonders if this will be his final game. It’s possible he gets to stay, and the Bears fire the defensive coordinator. The Bears have allowed the most points in the league. And considering how well the Vikings’ offense has played over the last month, expect a lot more points to be scored, and a Minnesota home victory.
Dallas Cowboys (11-4) at Washington Redskins (4-11)
The Dallas Cowboys look to complete a rare task, going undefeated on the road. But the NFC East champions don’t have a lot to play for since they need a myriad of unlikely help in other games to get a first round bye. So expect them to rest some starters.
Since it’s hard to discern how long Cowboys coach Jason Garrett plays his starters, this is a tough game to predict.
Indianapolis Colts (10-5) at Tennessee Titans (2-13)
The AFC South champion Colts have locked up the 4th seed, and have little to play for against the Titans. And considering they are pretty banged-up right now, expect them to rest a lot of players. So don’t be surprised if the Titans pull the upset, even though they vie for the #1 pick in the draft, which means little to the current players, who fight for future jobs.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) at New York Giants (6-9)
The Giants look to end the season with four straight wins. The Eagles look to avoid ending the season with four straight losses. Since the Giants are at home, and have the much better quarterback, expect them to end the season with their fourth straight “W.”
New Orleans Saints (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-13)
The Saints have the NFLs #1-ranked offense, and 31st-ranked defense. Those stats basically tell the story of their season – they can score plenty, but they can’t stop anybody.
The Bucs have the NFL’s 31st ranked offense. This battle of teams with a lot of work to do in the off-season is a toss-up.
New York Jets (3-12) at Miami Dolphins (8-7)
Monday will be a bigger day for the Jets than Sunday, when this game kicks off.
The Monday after the regular season is called “Black Monday” in NFL circles because often embattled coaches and GMs are fired on that day. Jets owner Woody Johnson likely cleans house on Monday.
Expect the Dolphins to prevail over a distracted Jets club, with the winds of change blowing through their locker room.