Remember a week ago, when I was putting the hoagies together and I told you guys I had peeked ahead, and, well Week 15 looked like a dud? Well, yeah, all of that was true. This isn't pretty.
At best -- at best -- we are looking at two games that feature teams likely to be playing in the postseason, and the sad reality is that we may not have a single one of such a contest, depending on how things shake out. We certainly don't have anything close to a game featuring, say, two teams that are both going to be division winners. Given how little has been settled in terms of the playoffs to this point I ain't exactly looking at much more being sorted out after these games are played.
So it's that kind of week. I'm sure a few of these games will turn out to be more entertaining than they appear, but in general this is a prologue to the playoffs in every way, sense and form.
Why to watch: In a week when there are almost no division games worth watching -- or even merely available to watch -- this is as good as it gets. The Dolphins have an easy schedule ahead and have a legit chance of beating out the Ravens for the sixth seed at this point. The Pats have been horrible in the first half recently, the offense has been beyond spotty and now they have to go back to trying to operate without Rob Gronkowski, the tight end who makes everything work for New England. The Pats are still playing for playoff positioning, with a one-game lead on Cincinnati for No. 2, though the Bengals own the head-to-head tiebreaker. But can they put together a full 60-minute game after coming damn close to losing to woeful teams the past two weeks?
What to watch for: How do the Pats adjust to no Gronk? We know the young receivers haven't really made a consistent impact and we saw plenty of angry Tom Brady early in the season. If teams clamp down on Danny Amendola now, and bracket him, can Julian Edelman and others make things happen? The simple fact is the Pats have no matchup problems now on offense other than the odd back like Shane Vereen coming out on wheel routes. ... Ryan Tannehill is starting to cut loose and let the ball fly and be less robotic the past few weeks. ... I haven't seen nearly as much suffocating defense from Aqib Talib since the Pats' top corner got hurt at midseason. ... I like Brian Hartline to have a game here for the Dolphins. ... Can Brady find a way to get anything going in the first half?
Why to watch: The Bucs are in position to make teams cringe and this is a prime opportunity to derail a playoff-bound opponent. This is a trap game supreme, after the 49ers held off the rival Seahawks at home and then unleashed a fair amount of trash talk afterward. Take Tampa lightly at your own peril. The 49ers have faced a ridiculous amount of travel already this season. Are they worn out and emotionally spent for this game, which is likely to be played before anything but a playoff-like environment? The Bucs seem to want Greg Schiano to remain their coach given their recent play, and if they keep this up that's likely to be the case.
What to watch for: Michael Crabtree is pretty much a full-time player for the 49ers now just a few weeks after his return from an Achilles injury. The receiver is stretching things and looks like his old self and is opening up everything for others. ... I finally saw some designed runs for Colin Kaepernick and read-option looks from the 49ers last week. I believe more is to come as the games take on increased importance. I have had the feeling all year that Jim Harbaugh was holding something back. ... Not sure how much success Frank Gore and the 49ers running backs will have going up against Gerald McCoy and the Bucs' defensive front. McCoy has come into his own and is performing at an All-Pro level. ... Is there a letdown by the 49ers after playing such a charged game against Seattle?
Why to watch: The Cowboys might allow 75 points here should Aaron Rodgers come back and play in this one. The way their defense is going, that's the track they're on. It could get really ugly here. Jason Garrett's job security, a topic that wavers in its intensity from week to week, is back on the front burner, lest anyone forget Jerry Jones' public support of him from a few weeks back (which amounts to very little). Could the Cowboys collapse in December yet again? Would Jones really stick with this coaching staff? What would defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin have to do to get let go himself? Show up in a Rob Ryan mask for work? As for the Packers, their playoff hopes are also still alive, although it could well be lights out for the loser of this game.
What to watch for: The Cowboys are more balanced on offense now than they have been all season, only no one is noticing with the defense among the worst in the modern game. DeMarco Murray could have another big game here and Green Bay's defense has done plenty of wilting itself the past six weeks. ... If Rodgers plays, expect huge dividends right away. It would boost confidence and morale on both sides of the ball. ... Jordy Nelson has been perhaps the biggest victim of Rodgers' absence. He had seven TDs in seven games before his QB got hurt, and has none since. In the past three games Nelson has just 10 catches for 157 yards -- that's a good day for him with Rodgers. Expect an immediate boost if Nelson gets the best passer in the game back. ... Eddie Lacy is accumulating more bumps and bruises and Green Bay's rushing game has slowed -- dating back to the end of October, the only decent rushing days (3.5 yards per carry or more) the Packers have had came against the woeful Bears and Vikings rush defenses. Of course, they get the Cowboys here. ... Teams are keying on Dez Bryant and forcing other Cowboys WRs to make plays; Miles Austin has been meeting the challenge the past few weeks.
Why to watch: The Steelers get to play spoiler, something they rarely do, while the Bengals have the chance to wrap up the AFC North relatively early, something they pretty much never do. It's the Bengals going for a third straight trip to the postseason now and the Steelers looking at successive years as spectators. Odd juxtaposition there. Cincy is going for the season sweep of this series -- another anomaly -- and the Bengals have the chance to show, after recent big wins over the Browns, Chargers and Colts, that they can sustain success into the playoffs. After last week's crippling loss to the Dolphins, does the Heinz Field crowd turn on the Steelers at all?
What to watch for: Sparks could fly between Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Big Ben is having a strong statistical season, but there have been some passive-aggressive shots about play calling and last week Pittsburgh seemed to get away from the run after pounding it at the Dolphins early. ... Kudos to Andy Dalton for protecting the football much better since the bye week, but the Bengals QB will be judged on what he does into January more than anything else. With nothing to lose now, the Steelers are likely to turn up the disguised blitzing even more, and S Troy Polamalu has been back in riverboat gambler form the past month. ... The Steelers' inability to keep together any sort of cohesive offensive line will be a big issue against Mike Zimmer's scheme.
Why to watch: Few teams are involved in as many wacky games as these two. Baltimore -- playing in a blackout, a lightning storm, a tornado and a blizzard since the Super Bowl -- won't have to worry about the weather in the dome, but another bizarre ending is entirely possible Monday night. Baltimore has had some crazy ones, nothing topping last week's back-and-forth final two minutes with the Vikings, while Detroit has had heartbreaking losses and also wild finishes like its comeback win over Dallas. Seems like every game either of these teams plays comes down to the final few plays, and with both clinging to playoff spots, we could be treated to another eventful contest in prime time.
What to watch for: Can the Ravens' defense remember how to tackle and remain in a gap this week? The wholesale defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter against the Vikings (who were playing without Adrian Peterson, for goodness sake) nearly ended their season in Week 14. ... The Lions have been battered mentally in recent weeks with troubling losses and need to rally here. Getting off to a fast start isn't always enough for them. ... The return of TE Dennis Pitta changed the dynamic of Baltimore's stagnant offense in the second half last Sunday, and he will remain a go-to target on third down and in the red zone. ... Joe Flacco's decision-making has been poor often this season, particularly on the road. ... How can Ravens C Gino Gradkowski hold up against Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley? Top guard Marshal Yanda will have to have a hell of a game to give Flacco time to operate. ... The Lions secondary will be tested; look for Flacco to take deep shots early. ... Can the Lions get enough out of Reggie Bush after his setback last week? ... This will be a battle of two of the most explosive return men (Jacoby Jones vs. Jeremy Ross) in the NFL on a big stage -- expect someone to break a big one.
Why to watch: Seattle can clinch a bunch with a win. That No. 1 seed remains a huge motivation. Bouncing back from a tough loss to the 49ers in a tough travel week would restore their swagger some. Quarterback Russell Wilson can improve on a season that would be generating more MVP talk if Peyton Manning wasn't rewriting the record books. Oh, and expect to hear plenty about this being a tuneup of sorts for the Seahawks, who have a very good chance of getting back to the Meadowlands in February with MetLife Stadium hosting the Super Bowl. As for the Giants, well, the season can't end quickly enough. It won't be long before their Tom Coughlin is peppered with questions about whether he's going to retire or be back for 2014.
What to watch for: Eli Manning, against this secondary, should be fun. He may be good for three pick-sixes given this matchup. ... At what point, if any, does Pete Carroll start to dial back some of his starters in the second half of games -- guys like Marshawn Lynch? Especially after losing two vital starters -- C Max Unger and LB KJ Wright -- last week (Wright is likely done for the season, while Unger could return this week). ... I like what Brandon Myers is giving the Giants out of the tight end position. ... Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin is one of the most underrated third-down guys in the NFL. Wilson looks for him first in so many critical situations.
Why to watch: This Colts season is starting to feel like the exact opposite of a year ago, when they defied odds and youth and rode a second-half wave to a surprising playoff berth. Now they feel like a team just playing out the string and staring at another first-round playoff ouster -- a team losing steam and running out of options. You would think they would maybe rally after getting slapped around by the Bengals last week, especially facing an opponent riding 11 straight losses that just fired its coach. But I'm not so sure. I don't think this will be an easy game for Indianapolis and the odds would say the Texans don't end the season with 14 straight defeats.
What to watch for: The Colts are usually sloppy in the first half. Their MO was to rely on Andrew Luck to bail them out in the fourth quarter, but with so few options to move the ball, that rookie-year magic hasn't returned. ... Texans QB Case Keenum should be boosted by the fact his owner spoke highly of him recently and basically mandated the kid remain the starter for the duration of this lost season. No reason to see any more of Matt Schaub. ... With Gary Kubiak fired and Wade Phillips the interim head coach, might that actually have a positive impact on the defense? With Phillips having so much else to focus on, could this unit maybe get a stop when it needs one with other eyes tending to it more directly?
Why to watch: The Panthers were humbled in the Superdome on Sunday night, their winning streak is over and some of the hype will slow down. They remain a talented and dangerous team, however, and need to continue stacking wins to retain their position in the competitive NFC playoff race. Getting back home against a pedestrian opponent should help. Meantime, Rex Ryan continues to coach for his job in New York, with his status still precarious for 2014 and every win a critical statement in his favor.
What to watch for: The Jets' defense has certainly slipped some. Even last week, in a comfortable win over the Raiders, it conceded more points than one would expect. Getting back to stuffing the run and forcing teams into third-and-long is imperative. ... Can Geno Smith string together back-to-back quality starts for the Jets after suffering through a brutal November? ... How does Cam Newton bounce back after Rob Ryan's defense shut him down on Sunday night and righted what had been a slumping Saints unit? ... The combination of Carolina receiver Steve Smith and Jets corner Antonio Cromartie -- if he is healthy enough to play -- could produce some fireworks. ... Does New York even activate WR Stephen Hill -- a second-round pick in 2012 who looks like a total bust already?
Why to watch: Arizona remains a factor in the NFC playoff picture, and Bruce Arians has to be generating some momentum for a second straight Coach of the Year award, this time with a different team after leading the Colts on an interim basis a year ago. If the Cards mess around and reach the postseason, I like his chances. The Titans, meantime, have a coaching staff that will be evaluated for possible changes for the duration of this season, with the playoffs no longer a realistic hope and a 6-10 season perhaps not enough to appease new ownership (even if it is within the same family). For my money, the Titans were one of the most surprising stories of the first half, and the Cards could end up being the most surprising story of the second half (along with the Panthers).
What to watch for: Will the Cardinals' secondary suffer a letdown now with star rookie corner Tyrann Mathieu out for the season? He brought a certain energy and dynamic to a group that was really coming into its own. ... Keep your appendages away from Cards defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, or you just might get stomped. You might see him mash a hand or two. ... Expect to see more of Shonn Greene in the power run game for the Titans down the stretch with starter Chris Johnson set to make $10M in 2014 and a possible cap casualty. It's never too soon to start to assess next year's budget, especially for a team like the Titans.
Why to watch: Wouldn't it be the most Dan Snyder thing ever to fire Mike Shanahan at halftime? That would be even more cutthroat than Southern California whacking Lane Kiffin on the team bus coming back from a game. I'm not sure it's entirely impossible given the state of the Redskins. Shanahan can't even deny that he almost quit last year or confirm if he wants to coach this mess in Washington in 2014. He then whips DC into a tizzy by making Robert Griffin III a healthy scratch for the rest of the season, allegedly, for the QB's own well-being, to protect him for the future -- one Shanahan has no desire to be a part of -- and going with Kirk Cousins. Redskins press conferences are better than their games -- Shanahan pretty much dared Snyder to fire him Sunday and Monday when meeting the media. But man, let them manage to beat the sad-sack Falcons in Atlanta this week, and Falcons coach Mike Smith will be feeling some heat, too. Yes, he got a vote of confidence from the owner in mid-November and all, but they're still flirting with the first overall pick themselves.
What to watch for: Shanahan and his son Kyle, the offensive coordinator, may make a few passive-aggressive decisions from the sidelines Sunday to further draw the owner's ire. ... Can the Redskins' horrendous special teams give up multiple return TDs on Sunday? I vote yes. ... The Falcons will try to feed TE Tony Gonzalez the ball as much as possible and give him something decent to salvage from this final year of his stellar career before he retires for real this time. ... Redskins CB DeAngelo Hall isn't all warm and fuzzy about his time spent with the Falcons, and, having a bounce-back season in his free-agent year, will be extra motivated on Sunday. Of course, that also tends to bring out the knucklehead in him as well.
Why to watch: Nick Foles finally got that first interception of 2013 out of his system. The Eagles figured out how to play in the snow and stormed to a win over Detroit that now has them in the driver's seat for the NFC East title. They have to take advantage of opportunities like this, vs. the reeling Vikings, who, while playing teams much closer in recent weeks still pretty much always find a way to lose -- last week being the most improbable yet. You have to appreciate the fight the Vikings have displayed as Leslie Frazier coaches out the string, and with Matt Cassel at quarterback they have at least been a more competitive team.
What to watch for: All of a sudden Riley Cooper has emerged as one of the premier deep threats in the NFL. Who saw that coming? The previously mundane pass catcher has exploded as a downfield weapon since Foles took over and will have the chance to latch onto several such throws against this weak secondary. ... Adrian Peterson has told teammates he is playing this week after being knocked out of the game at Baltimore on Sunday. He will be plenty motivated as he and the Eagles' LeSean McCoy are battling Washington's Alfred Morris for the rushing crown.
Why to watch: These two teams have pulled a total reversal. The Jags were historically bad in the first half of the season but now Gus Bradley has them winning games with regularity. The Bills showed an early pulse and rookie EJ Manuel was promising, but since then everything has fallen apart. You could make the case that of all the new head coaches, Doug Marrone has had by far the worst campaign, especially with Manuel, his surprising hand-picked top choice, regressing. Getting a win or two late might boost some confidence and give the Bills a chance to spin this season a little differently, but if they keep up their December form there are going to be some irate people in Western New York.
What to watch for: Bradley's energy remains infectious. Watch him rally players, spur them on, keep everyone around him upbeat and positive. There is no doubt he is a huge part of why the team didn't tank it the past month or so, and the way the players respond to him is real and visceral. ... Manuel is not handling pass rush pressure well and if not for Geno Smith's big-time struggles in November we would probably be hearing more about it. ... Jacksonville's linebackers have been very active. They are sound tacklers with good instincts, which will be tested by the Bills' run game. ... Do the fans in Jacksonville rally behind their team? It has been bad there for a while, but with Bradley getting the Jags winning some games, do we see a more-full stadium down the stretch?
Why to watch: I'm pretty much in the tank for Josh McCown at this point. He deserves to start for the Bears until his play indicates otherwise. But Jay Cutler will start after missing four games, though the Bears shouldn't be rushing him back. This is a must-win game for them as they try to fight for a playoff spot. Lucky for them, their most glaring deficiency -- they can't even pretend to be able to stop the run -- shouldn't be as big a factor here since the Browns have been scrambling to find healthy bodies to run the ball.
What to watch for: Browns starting QB Jason Campbell continues to make the best of a difficult situation, and gets to face his old team here. His knowledge of them will be limited by the fact Trestman has changed the offense greatly in his first year on the job. ... Bears RB Matt Forte is enjoying his best all-around season yet, which is saying something. He has been overshadowed by McCown and the receivers, but watch him closely. He is as elusive as ever. ... Browns CB Joe Haden might get a chance to match up on both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery this week, which would alone be worth watching.
Why to watch: It's rare you see teams alternating quarterbacks at this level, but that's the plan in Oakland. Matt McGloin starts and plays the bulk, but Terrelle Pryor gets a shot in certain situations as well. With another season slipping away, why not? Pryor does have a very different skill set to cull from when you need something outside the pocket. It makes the Raiders interesting, if nothing else, which for them in December is perhaps all you could hope for. The Chiefs, who halted their three-game losing streak, get a chance to restore some luster heading into the postseason by beating up on the kind of lesser teams they feasted on to reach 9-0 in the first place. Win the ones you are supposed to win, and you can be a factor. Can't fault them for their schedule.
What to watch for: Can the Chiefs keep up the pass rush they mustered against the hapless Redskins last week? They will need it for the postseason, without a doubt. ... Dexter McCluster comes in off one of the most dominant special teams games of the year. The speedy Chiefs specialist is in top form. ... Alex Smith is cutting it loose more, and seems to have a more aggressive approach in the second half of the season. ... Jamaal Charles will continue his charge to the AFC rushing crown, though the Raiders are in the top quarter of the NFL in yards-per-carry allowed. ... With so much attrition at running back, Raiders do-everything fullback Marcel Reece has a chance to continue to truly shine. He is very effective in all aspects of play. He's a fun player to watch (and I have an admitted soft spot for fullbacks).
Why to watch: The Saints certainly bounced back last week and got a big win to retain their position at the top of the NFC South. People can knock them for their road woes, but the fact they get to face a wounded team on the road in a dome should bode well for them as well. The more the Rams lose, the greater the possibility they end up with two picks in the top 10 of the draft (they get Washington's as well from the RG3 trade; consider it a parting gift by Shanahan). That will only increase the questioning of whether they should draft a quarterback, with Sam Bradford yet to come close to living up to his No. 1 overall draft position.
What to watch for: Will there be anyone on the Rams sidelines holding a smart phone covertly to follow the Redskins' score, and ensuing drama? I mean, the Rams get Washington's first-round pick this year. If the dumpster fire keeps raging there, there's a chance to Rams could get the first overall pick. Should they choose to, they could pull off another trade with a haul perhaps close to what they got from Washington in the RG3 deal. ... Drew Brees is great against the blitz but I wonder if the Rams sell out to try to rattle him anyway. They don't have much to lose at this point. ... Zac Stacy continues to have a nose for the end zone for St. Louis. No one there is regretting Steven Jackson's departure.