For inter-conference matchups in the penultimate week of the season, the NFL couldn’t have done much better. Pittsburgh at New Orleans, Houston at Philadelphia, Kansas City at Seattle, and Washington at Tennessee all have significant playoff implications.
Not a bad way to head into the final two weekends.
“I think the message for the whole team is we’re not satisfied with where we’re at,” says Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City can clinch the top seed in the AFC and win the AFC West under certain circumstances.
“We wanted to put ourselves in this position, but at the same time, we know we still have a long way to go. We’re going to keep in that mentality the rest of this season and into the playoffs (of) not being satisfied with just being here. We want to make sure we can go and win the big games whenever we need to.”
Well, there are a lot of big games on Saturday and Sunday.
Pittsburgh (8-5-1) at New Orleans (12-2)
NFC South champion New Orleans gets home-field edge for the conference playoffs by winning here, though it can happen in other ways, too. Pittsburgh’s situation is precarious: The Steelers snapped a three-game slide by beating New England, but has no postseason guarantee yet. There are scenarios for them to secure the division, and others, with two losses, that keep them from making the postseason.
Pittsburgh’s previous victory in New Orleans came in 1990. The Saints are 5-1 in the Superdome, averaging 38 points. Drew Brees’ 74.9 percent completion rate leads the NFL. He holds the single-season record at 72 percent. During their six home games, Brees has completed 77.7 percent (153 of 197) for 1,925 yards (320.8 per game) with 20 TDs and one interception.
Kansas City (11-3) at Seattle (8-6)
Although the Chiefs are safely into the postseason and in strong position, one loss could sink them to a wild card. Their prolific offense leads the league in points per game (35.6), yards per play (6.78) and yards per game (427.3). But it will be tested in Seattle, which had quite a misstep in a loss at lowly San Francisco last Sunday, but has a physical, aggressive defense and top-ranked running game.
Yet it’s KC defensive tackle Chris Jones who has the gaudiest numbers. He had 2½ sacks last week and has at least one sack in 10 straight games, an NFL record. Jones has 14 for the season.
The Seahawks must win and have some other things occur to secure an NFC wild-card spot.
Houston (10-4) at Philadelphia (7-7)
The defending Super Bowl champ Eagles must win out and it still might not be enough to get to January. Then again, 9-7 also could win the NFC East. That’s how jumbled things are.
“We’re fighting for our lives right now. It’s a little different for us, different feel,” says coach Doug Pederson, whose team had the NFC’s best record in 2017.
Houston has the AFC’s second seed behind Kansas City and will have a wild-card bye if it wins out. But the Texans don’t own the AFC South title yet, though it comes by beating Philly. Making the playoffs is very likely after a 0-3 start.
“It really doesn’t matter how you win, you just have to win,” says star DE J.J. Watt, in the midst of a sensational comeback season. “We’ve kind of heard it all year: ‘This. That. They didn’t.’ We won. I don’t care how we win, I just want to win. I don’t care if people think it’s pretty, I don’t care if they like it, if they don’t like it, I just want to win.”
Washington (7-7) at Tennessee (8-6), Saturday
After winning seven of eight, the Titans have gone from forgotten — similar to Houston — to a player. They almost certainly are aiming for a wild card and probably need to win out to get it.
The Redskins seemed done until they beat Jacksonville last week. They actually could win the NFC East by winning out and getting help, but they also are ravaged by injuries, including at quarterback, where journeyman Josh Johnson now has the job.
Tennessee is 5-1 at home and has swept three games with the NFC East.
Baltimore (8-6) at Los Angeles Chargers (11-3), Saturday
The Ravens own the second AFC wild card, but are tied with the Titans and Colts. Their eyes are on something bigger considering how close they are to the Steelers in the AFC North. The Ravens are 4-1 under rookie QB Lamar Jackson, and lead the NFL in total defense (290.2 yards per game) and fewest points allowed (18.1).
But beating the Chargers is a tall order. No team is playing more maturely or doing better in clutch situations. Los Angeles is 20-6 since starting last season 0-4 and hopes to get back featured RB Melvin Gordon (knee).
New York Giants (5-9) at Indianapolis (8-6)
Indy is another AFC wild-card contender that probably needs two victories, which would include the finale at Tennessee. Andrew Luck, like Watt, is having a monster return season from injury, and needs 49 yards passing for a fourth 4,000-yard season.
“I’ve been a part of teams where you sit and say, ‘We need this to happen with this.’ It doesn’t work like that,” Luck says. “You’ve got to handle your own business.”
That means trying to shut down RB Saquon Barkley, who needs seven catches to break Reggie Bush’s record for receptions (88) by a rookie. Barkley is tied with former Colts star Edgerrin James for second-most games with 100 yards from scrimmage by an NFL rookie (12). He also needs 191 scrimmage yards to join James and Eric Dickerson as the only rookies with 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
Buffalo (5-9) at New England (9-5)
For the third straight week, the Patriots can secure their 10th straight AFC East crown. Considering their success against Buffalo, well, here are the numbers:
—Patriots will be looking for their 26th season sweep over the Bills and 14th series sweep since 2000.
—Bill Belichick has an 86-30 (.741) all-time regular-season record against the AFC East as Patriots coach.
—Tom Brady owns a 29-3 record against the Bills. Brady’s 29 wins against Buffalo are the most by a quarterback against any single opponent.
—New England is 6-0 at home.
Los Angeles Rams (11-3) at Arizona (3-11)
Things have turned sour for the Rams, who for the first time under second-year coach Sean McVay have lost two in a row. Of course, their gaudy record already has earned them the NFC West championship and they get a wild-card round bye with two victories.
In what appears a mismatch, the Rams have gone 3-0 and outscored Arizona 99-16 under McVay. Still, in the past three games, Jared Goff has one TD pass and six interceptions.
Los Angeles DT Aaron Donald leads the NFL with 16½ sacks.
The Cardinals have lost eight games by 10 or more points and four by at least 20.
Chicago (10-4) at San Francisco (4-10)
Chicago’s turnaround season has brought its first playoff berth since 2010 as NFC North champs. With two victories, the Bears could find themselves with a first-round bye, but more likely will be seeded third.
Matt Nagy is Chicago’s first rookie coach with 10 wins since George Halas went 10-1-2 in 1920, the first year for the franchise then known as the Decatur Staleys. The Bears lead the NFL in takeaways (35), turnover margin (plus-13), interceptions (26) and points off turnovers (107).
Niners TE George Kittle has 1,154 yards receiving and needs 26 more to post the most for San Francisco since Terrell Owens had 1,300 in 2002.
Tampa Bay (5-9) at Dallas (8-6)
A win gives Dallas the NFC East. The Cowboys come off a shutout loss at Indy that ended a five-game winning streak. They are 9-1 at home in the regular season against Tampa.
Dallas has a 20-game streak of not allowing 30 or more points, its longest since a 26-game run in 1993-94. The key here might be slowing WR Mike Evans, who was overlooked for the Pro Bowl despite being second in the NFL to Julio Jones with 1,328 yards receiving. Evans needs 95 yards to break Mark Carrier’s club record of 1,422 from 1989.
Minnesota (7-6-1) at Detroit (5-9)
The Vikings can clinch a wild card with a win and help despite a stagnant offense. And Detroit’s offense is worse.
The Lions have not scored more than 22 points since Oct. 21, and Minnesota has an NFL-best 47 sacks. Minnesota sacked Matthew Stafford 10 times in their previous meeting, and had nine against Miami last week.
Atlanta (5-9) at Carolina (6-8)
No Cam Newton here thanks to a bad shoulder that has hampered his throwing; Taylor Heinicke makes his first career start.
The Panthers have dropped six in a row, but Atlanta is 1-5 on the road even though Matt Ryan has 12 TD passes and three interceptions in the past five away games.
Carolina RB Christian McCaffrey set the single-season franchise record last week for total yards from scrimmage. McCaffrey needs 21 yards rushing and 132 yards receiving to become the third NFL running back with 1,000 yards in both categories. McCaffrey needs six receptions for 100.
Cincinnati (6-8) at Cleveland (6-7-1)
Lots of excitement in Cleveland, with hopes the Browns will go from 0-16 to a winning record. The tide along Lake Erie certainly seems to have turned.
The Browns haven’t swept the Ohio season series since 2002. Former Browns coach Hue Jackson returns for the first time since being fired on Oct. 29, and can expect anything but open arms from Cleveland fans.
Running back Joe Mixon needs 5 yards to become the first Bengal to rush for 1,000 in a season since Jeremy Hill in 2014. Mixon leads the AFC with 995 yards rushing and 207 carries.
Jacksonville (4-10) at Miami (7-7)
Miami’s first game at home since the miracle play to beat New England . The inconsistent Dolphins probably need that kind of stuff to sneak into the postseason.
A year ago, the Jaguars were a Super Bowl contender. In 2018, they made the league’s biggest collapse. Look for a new QB and possible replacement for Doug Marrone as coach.
Denver (6-8) at Oakland (3-11), Monday night
Nice way to end Monday night this season, eh? The Broncos won 11 of the past 14 in this series. Oakland coach Jon Gruden is 1-10 in his career vs. Denver.
This could be the final game at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders have no lease for 2019 and could find a temporary home before moving to Las Vegas in 2020.
Green Bay (5-8-1) at New York Jets (4-10)
Aaron Rodgers plans to play for the Packers, saying sitting out the final two meaningless games would undermine his leadership.
Jets kicker Jason Myers and kick returner Andre Roberts made the Pro Bowl. At least they have that.