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Week 16 Game Rankings: Saints at Panthers tops feast of huge games

We've reached the portion of the schedule where, to qualify as a footlong, I need to see two teams with legit playoff chances playing with very real stakes. I want, at the very least, seeding at stake, and, ideally, one of the clubs fighting for its playoff life.

These games should look and feel like playoff games, in every way and shape. While some of them might turn out to be duds, more than half of this week's schedule looks like it will have major postseason ramifications, which is all you can hope for. Even some of the divisional games that feature struggling teams will be interesting (Dolphins at Bills; Cowboys at Redskins; Raiders at Chargers). And with so much at stake, and no Thursday game in the mix, we should expect high-caliber football heading into Christmas.

I'm pretty pumped up about these games. In what has been a wild and unpredictable season filled with close contests and ridiculous finishes, I suspect we have more of the same in Week 16.

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers


New Orleans at Carolina
Sunday, Dec. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The NFC South is at stake. The Saints have been a little bit schizophrenic lately, and for all of their claims they aren't a different team away from home, well, they have a funny way of showing it. They got dominated by the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday and got dominated by the Seahawks in Seattle in their last road game before that (no shame in that), and Rob Ryan's defense continues to look vulnerable. Meanwhile, the Panthers have won nine of their past 10 games. Of course, Carolina's only loss in that span came two weeks ago in New Orleans, where it was totally outclassed by the Saints. So, yeah, plenty to mull over before these two take the field. A Panthers win would put them in the driver's seat for the No. 2 seed in the NFC -- pretty shocking considering Ron Rivera's job security was a hot topic for some back in October. If the Saints don't win they could be looking at a playoff path checkered with road games, which wouldn't bode well. Of course, they win and they clinch a first-round bye.

What to watch for: How does Riverboat Ron play this one? His penchant for going for it on fourth down early backfired last week; instead of kicking a mundane field goal to make it 19-3, his team was stuffed and the Jets marched down the field to score a touchdown. Carolina pulled away later in the game, but does that stick in RRR's head with so much at stake Sunday? ... How does Rob Ryan play this one? The cameras caught him rolling his eyes a time or two in discussions with his assistants on the sideline Sunday, and he has been burned blitzing lately. ... Expect to see plenty of Mike Tolbert in the run game, again, and especially in short yardage. He has taken on an even bigger role with injuries in the run game. ... Charles Johnson is rounding into form coming back from injury; I expect him to be a big factor here, especially after the Saints struggled with the Rams' edge players Sunday. ... Will Sean Payton go a little more conservative with a ball-control approach early on? ... How much autonomy will Cam Newton have in the biggest game of his pro career? Can he get more going outside the pocket against this defense than he did two weeks ago? ... Brees at home the past two seasons: 49 TD, 11 INT, 112 rating; on the road: 28 TD, 18 INT, 88 rating; 15 games each.

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs


Indianapolis at Kansas City
Sunday, Dec. 22, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Kansas City was throwing screen passes up about 30 points in Oakland last week, and was flirting with scoring 60. They have already clinched a playoff spot a year after having the first overall pick, and have done so getting minimal production from that pick -- pretty remarkable. Andy Reid will want to continue this momentum into the postseason, and the reality still exists the Chiefs get past Denver for the AFC West crown and No. 1 seed despite getting swept by Denver in a three-week span. Now, it will take the Chiefs winning out and the Broncos losing to either the hapless Texans or the hapless Raiders, but in this league you never know. The Colts, meantime, might be pulling out of their midseason funk -- but haven't bested a quality opponent in quite some time -- and this very well could be a preview of the first round of the playoffs. We'll see how they respond, and whether either tries to hold something back for a rematch.

What to watch for: Jamaal Charles is absolutely taking games over and the Colts have not been stout against the run the past six weeks or so in particular. They've allowed 14 runs of 10 yards or more in the past four weeks alone, and few can hit the crease and stretch the field in the game like Charles can. ... Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith continues to look sharper and more free getting rid of the ball, cutting loose more than early in the season. ... Kansas City's pass rush is still a concern; it has produced one sack or zero in six of the past seven games and has been blanked entirely four times in that span. ... Trent Richardson, with 19 carries in a blowout win over the lowly Texans, still could produce almost nothing, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. ... Colts quiet pass rush ace Robert Mathis has a shot to break 20 sacks (he has an NFL-best 16½ now), and only six players have more than his 32 combined quarterback hurries and knockdowns. ... In seven games since WR Reggie Wayne was lost for the season, Colts WR Darrius Heyward-Bey has just 11 catches for 119 yards. He wasn't even targeted last week.

New England Patriots at Baltimore Ravens


New England at Baltimore
Sunday, Dec. 22, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: It doesn't get too much better than this. These two teams have met in the AFC title game each of the past two seasons, and both could really use a win here. The Pats have been stumbling around and could end up losing a bye if they aren't careful. Baltimore could still end up winning its division and even nabbing the No. 2 seed -- but will need to win out to do that. The Ravens, who have won four in a row, could also end up missing out on the postseason entirely. These two teams played a heck of a game in Baltimore in the regular season in 2012, and the results of this one could have a major ripple effect on the rest of the AFC playoff picture.

What to watch for: The Ravens have generally done a nice job against Tom Brady, but that was always with future Hall of Famer Ed Reed running their secondary. They are a lot younger on the back end now. Rookie safety Matt Elam is capable of being very, very good, or a liability. Expect Brady to test him early. ... Baltimore is strong at slot corner, particularly Lardarius Webb, and with so much of New England's offense now going through small Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, that could be a problem for the Pats, sans TE Rob Gronkowski. ... When the Pats have shut down Baltimore's run game in the past, it has often been through huge performances by NT Vince Wilfork, who is on IR. New England took away the run last week against Miami, but that hasn't been the case for much of the past two months, and this might be a week where Ray Rice finally gets it going for Baltimore. ... How bad is Joe Flacco's knee really feeling after that shot below the joint he took Monday night? He's a horse and won't concede a thing, but you have to think it may limit him some. ... DT Arthur Jones is playing the best football of his career for the Ravens. His brother, Chandler Jones, has been a handful coming off the edge leading New England's pass rush. The play of both could go a long way to determining the outcome here. ... The return of Elvis Dumervil lifted Baltimore's pass rush last week, opening things up in the interior; you get A gap heat and Brady will go down quickly. ... If T Nate Solder is out for the Pats, and it's looking that way, it should help Terrell Suggs snap his six-game sack drought.

Chicago Bears at Philadelphia Eagles


Chicago at Philadelphia
Sunday, Dec. 22, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC)

Why to watch: Another playoff brawl, an essential game for both teams. If the Bears win out, they win the NFC North. If they lose, it could very well be Green Bay or Detroit that wins the division crown, with Chicago out entirely. If the Eagles win and Dallas loses, they clinch the NFC East. Otherwise they face the Cowboys in Week 17 with the division title on the line. Could both of these iconoclastic rookie coaches end up in the playoffs? Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman have been guilty of outsmarting themselves at times this season, and recently in particular. Will either blink or do it again with the playoffs oh so near? Will they veer too far from the run game -- which is a staple of both offenses with Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy having career seasons -- or get a little too cute for their own good (paging: Jason Garrett). Regardless, there is a ton of offensive talent on display here, and well, a few guys who can play defense, too. It wouldn't shock me if both teams scored into the high 30s.

What to watch for: Jay Cutler got better as last week's game went on, his first action since suffering an ankle injury, but his penchant for turning the ball over could still loom large. ... The Bears cannot stop the run. Period. They can't come close. The Eagles are built to gash them running out of spread formations. Nick Foles is still a work in progress at quarterback and he hasn't played in games like this. This might not be a gaudy fantasy game for him, as winning the actual game will be best done on the ground. Chicago allows 5.29 yards per first-down rushing attempt -- a full yard above the league average -- and they allow 5.51 yards per rush on second down. I'm no math whiz but I believe that's more than 10 yards right there alone. ... Riley Cooper, even when not catching balls, has to draw attention from deep safeties -- yet another factor in the Philly run game's favor. ... The Eagles' secondary is going to have big problems here, and the big play will be Chicago's biggest weapon. Was last week's defensive abomination in Minnesota an anomaly, or could Philly's D end up undermining the team after all? ... The Eagles could use a big play out of Fletcher Cox from the interior, forcing Cutler to run around on that ankle.

Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals


Minnesota at Cincinnati
Sunday, Dec. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Just when you want to believe the Bengals are a viable Super Bowl team, and that they might be positioned to tear into the playoffs as one of the hotter teams in the league, they go ahead and get steamrolled by the Steelers on Sunday night and look relatively clueless in the process. There will be questions continually asked of them down the stretch, and, again, without some playoff success this season will be deemed a failure. The Vikings may be just a few days from a full-scale coaching search, but if you don't take them seriously, they can derail your season. They tied the Packers, had the Cowboys beat before they let them off the hook, beat the Bears, damn-near beat the Ravens in that crazy snow game and then dropped 48 points on the Eagles last week with Philly in position to pull away in the NFC East. So it wouldn't be shocking if they gave the Bengals a run here.

What to watch for: With nothing to lose, the Vikings have suddenly become a big-play offense, airing it out with Matt Cassel at the helm. They have seven completions of 25 yards or longer in the past two games after having just 16 in the previous 12 games. ... Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart are expected back for this one, but will there be any work for Matt Asiata after averaging 5 yards per carry and scoring three times against the Eagles? ... The Steelers have managed to negate Bengals WR A.J. Green this season, but the rest of the league has more issues with him and he's facing a weak secondary here. In a pressure situation like this, Andy Dalton will target him a ton. ... One thing the Bengals have been is very good at home -- perfect in fact. Are they due for a loss, and will the fact they know Baltimore comes to town in Week 17, in what could be a crucial game, impact their psyche at all Sunday? ... Brian Robison is a force for the Vikings coming off the edge without too many people seeming to notice. With the Bengals reshuffling their offensive line, he and Jared Allen could be the difference in the game. Only J.J. Watt has more combined QB hurries and knockdowns than Robison. ... You never want to have to go shopping for a punter in Week 16, which is what the Bengals had to do on Tuesday. Special teams could be critical.

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills


Miami at Buffalo
Sunday, Dec. 22, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Dolphins have already gone out and won some big games on the road, including a recent victory at Heinz Field that effectively ended Pittsburgh's season. So going to Buffalo shouldn't be that big a deal, right? Except the Dolphins, a team with virtually no big-game experience in recent years, now has to keep from overlooking a struggling division rival, lest they ruin all this momentum they've built in the second half of the season. This is no time for a letdown, and they can't afford it with the race for the sixth spot in the AFC in full swing. Ryan Tannehill has produced like a top-10 quarterback in his second season, and could top 4,000 yards and 25 TDs -- not too shabby at all. The Bills haven't been good lately but will relish playing spoiler here if nothing else.

What to watch for: Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman was under a lot of fire a while back, with Tannehill seeming stalled, protection and protection schemes a big issue and the offense lacking any vertical punch and unable to run the ball. You don't hear much about that anymore, that's for sure. Mike Wallace has much more fully evolved into this offense and Miami has more of a run game now, though New England held it in check Sunday. ... Bills LB Kiko Alonso continues to make a case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. QB EJ Manuel, the first passer taken and only one in the first round, has his lost season continue with him being ruled out with a knee injury. Don't forget, Thad Lewis sparked this offense before he got hurt, and played well against the Bengals, forcing OT. ... Olivier Vernon has seven sacks in his past five games for the Dolphins. ... Miami has done a good job bottling Bills RB C.J. Spiller up; the explosive back has just 4.4 yards per carry in seven games against the Dolphins, with just one touchdown. ... Miami's tackles have stabilized a leaky line the past few weeks, but Mario Williams could be a problem Sunday. ... Expect Miami TE Charles Clay to be more of a contributor Sunday after being barely targeted until very late in the win over the Pats. ... Look for Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle to cross Lewis up in the red zone, with mixed coverages throwing a lot of different looks his way. ... The Dolphins' depleted secondary stepped up big last week; can it do so again?

Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins


Dallas at Washington
Sunday, Dec. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Well, the Redskins found a team with enough of a bizarre collapse to take some of the attention away from the sideshow in Washington. What a week for this rivalry. The Cowboys are deadset on a free fall, again, after leading the NFC Least for most of the year, and the never-ending Tony Romo narrative -- the one where he plays great but Dallas blows a lead and the play-calling and game management are awful and then Romo forces a pick at the end -- is back in full force. It might not be over for the Cowboys, as they are 4-0 within their division and have a rematch with the Eagles still looming. But if they were going to flame out wouldn't it be so them to do it in spectacular fashion here against a Redskins team with a coach seemingly daring his owner to fire him in a lost season at 3-11 in what many Skins fans hope will be his final game on the FedEx Field sidelines? This is what Cowboys-Redskins week has devolved into, where it was only Week 17 last season when they played to settle the division title. Oh, and Jerry Jones isn't giving out vacant votes of confidence to his coach, Jason Garrett, anymore, either.

What to watch for: The camera shots of the respective owners figures to be better than the game itself. The camera loves Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder -- well, it does when they are going through the various degrees of agony that come with losing in glorious fashion. These two know it very well. ... How long before Jones just starts calling plays himself and eliminates Garrett, that pesky middle man, and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan? Regardless of who is responsible for Dallas getting pass happy with a big lead on Sunday, on a day when DeMarco Murray was rolling, it won't bode well for Garrett, especially if he follows it up with a loss. ... Any chance Dez Bryant just decides to leave the field for this one after the third quarter? We seem to be trending in that direction. ... New Redskins starting QB Kirk Cousins is likely to test the Cowboys' horrendous secondary right away; they will come out firing and looking for big chunks against the stagnant zone defense. This is a perfect chance for the Skins to boost his trade value against one of the worst defenses in history. ... Skins pass rusher Brian Orakpo, in a contract year, after a slow start, looks like a man who wants to get paid. That could be a problem for Cowboys T Doug Free, who has bounced back from a brutal 2012. ... Does London Fletcher announcing his retirement this week -- ending his outstanding career after this season -- fire his teammates up in any way for this game? Maybe he inspires them with words and deeds, in an otherwise rough season for the franchise.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers


Pittsburgh at Green Bay
Sunday, Dec. 22, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: All of Green Bay is hoping that Aaron Rodgers is back to sweep the team into the playoffs in the final two weeks. And Rodgers very much wants to play, but it is likely Matt Flynn again. The margin for error, of course, is scant to nil, but with consecutive wins by Flynn filling in for Rodgers, they are still alive. And, if they can play the Bears in Week 17 with something on the line, considering how long they were without the best player in football, then that's not a bad Christmas gift to Cheesehead Nation. You have to think the energy and passion the Packers showed in a wild comeback win over Dallas should have some carryover, while the Steelers, basically playing out the string, may have reached their plateau by trouncing the Bengals on Sunday night.

What to watch for: If he does play, how comfortable is Rodgers? Is he showing any noticeable signs of pain? Is he able to hand off normally and move to his non-throwing side without it appearing cumbersome or making that broken collarbone more vulnerable? ... If the Steelers throw the house at Rodgers -- and they just might given his absence -- then it could be a long day for their older safeties. ... Still expect coach Mike McCarthy to lean heavily on rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who has been a battering ram. ... Steelers rookie RB Le'Veon Bell is playing his best football of the season as well. ... Steelers TE Heath Miller is in line for a lot of targets. ... Steelers WR Antonio Brown is playing with extreme confidence and could take this game over. In Green Bay's favor, its corners had one of their better halves of football in Dallas on Sunday. ... Ben Roethlisberger has only been sacked four times in the past four games, about as good as it gets for him given he has been sacked 40 times on the season. The Packers need a big game from Clay Matthews to try to force Big Ben into something careless because he is protecting the football well lately.

Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks


Arizona at Seattle
Sunday, Dec. 22, 4:05 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The Seahawks never lose at home, as we know. A win here would cement the first overall seed and put them in position to rest anyone they see fit in Week 17 should Pete Carroll go that route (I doubt he does). Arizona is playing to remain in the playoff equation and the thing most working against the Cardinals is their 1-3 record in the NFC West and their 5-5 conference record overall. That leaves them with no room to slip up -- as they almost did last week -- with another NFC West foe, San Francisco, scheduled for the final weekend of the season. Their first meeting, back in October, was very competitive for three quarters (17-13 Seattle) before the Seahawks went on a 17-point surge in an eight-minute span. The Cardinals' offense has greatly improved since then, however, and this is the most meaningful game Arizona has played in quite some time.

What to watch for: Carson Palmer's ankle is far from 100 percent. While he can play through it, he wasn't very mobile to begin with and he is playing in the loudest stadium in the league against a defense that will attack him like crazy. And, with Larry Fitzgerald trying to make it back from a concussion and the Cardinals still not a potent rushing team, this could be a bad set of circumstances for Arizona's quarterback. ... I don't expect to see Percy Harvin for this one, as the Seahawks are focused on having him active in the playoffs. If he somehow was active, it would be in a minimal role. ... Seattle's secondary, the best in the league, is playing as well as ever. Opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 65.5 against them, with a league-best 22 picks. Only the Titans (13) have allowed fewer passing touchdowns than Seattle's 14. ... Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch, who has carried a heavy load in recent years, has slowed down in the last month. He has 69 carries for just 218 yards (3.16 yards per carry). With the playoff spot almost locked in, I wonder if we see more of Robert Turbin down the stretch to try to keep Lynch as fresh as possible. ... Love what Doug Baldwin keeps providing for Russell Wilson. He could well end up leading the Seahawks in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns; smart of GM John Schneider to rebuff trade overtures for him after Schneider had acquired Harvin.

Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers


Oakland at San Diego
Sunday, Dec. 22, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: San Diego badly wants back its early season loss at Oakland, where the Chargers seemed to take their foe lightly and got jumped on from the get-go. Can't imagine they make that mistake twice, now, with the Chargers still in the hunt for the sixth seed in the AFC and coming off their most impressive performance of the season -- winning at Denver on a short week. Now, San Diego is even better rested for a stretch run, against a team it should beat (reeling Oakland) and a team it already beat on the road (Kansas City). It still might not be enough to get the Chargers into the playoffs, but it has been a better season than many could have hoped for in San Diego already. Oakland is pretty much in the same situation it has been in for 10 years, but knocking San Diego out of the playoffs brings a unique spark with it, and Dennis Allen certainly appears to be coaching for his job in Oakland.

What to watch for: The Raiders' QB situation is pretty messy, with Matt McGloin and Terrelle Pryor still sharing the load and neither one really in position to succeed. It's hard to see much good coming from that setup. ... Chargers do-everything back Danny Woodhead has taken a backseat to Ryan Mathews in the past few weeks and that's not going to change here. His role has been minimized with Mathews winning over the trust of the coaching staff after a series of injury-prone and unproductive seasons in San Diego. ... Pryor gave the Chargers fits at times in the first meeting, so he could end up getting a more consistent look Sunday. ... Especially after some recent injuries, the Raiders' secondary is ripe for the picking. Philip Rivers could have some fun here. Alex Smith pretty much had a perfect game against the Raiders last week, Geno Smith looked viable against them the week before, Tony Romo completed 72 percent of his passes against them with a 101.7 rating and the week before that Ryan Fitzpatrick(!) completed 71 percent of his passes with a rating of 109. That pretty much explains Oakland's four-game losing streak. Oakland is allowing a league-worst 103.5 rating to opposing quarterbacks, 67 percent completions (fourth worst in the NFL), with 28 TDs allowed (third worst) and just eight INTs (second worst).

Denver Broncos at Houston Texans


Denver at Houston
Sunday, Dec. 22, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Peyton Manning is going to set all kinds of records and there's a good chance he reaches a few by halftime given the opponent this week. The Texans' defense stinks, Houston has the fewest interceptions in the league and Manning should be able to pick apart the fairly vanilla schemes. Both the single-season yardage and TD records are within reach, and while John Fox won't go crazy letting Manning set them -- he has to rest this guy in the second half of games, if possible, no? -- Peyton can make the case that benching him in the past hasn't always worked out so well. Either way, the Texans look like an outfit pretty comfortable with ending the season with 14 straight losses, and this should be No. 13 right here.

What to watch for: Do the Texans try to pretend they are into this game? Maybe give it the ol' college try? Because lately they have the distinct air of a team mailing it in, no matter who they are playing. They could be behind 28-0 after the first quarter if they come out the way they did last week against the Colts. ... If I'm Fox I want to get Brock Osweiler in some real game action, just in case. Is the season instantly over if Manning goes down? Maybe it's a moot point, but I want to get my backup QB a little confidence in the event I need him next month, heaven forbid. ... I don't imagine the Broncos have to throw the ball much in the fourth quarter here, and, heck Manning might be out of the game by then entirely, but he is among the NFL leaders with five fourth-quarter INTs. Only four players have thrown more (Geno Smith, Matt Ryan, Chad Henne, and, you guessed it, Eli Manning, who leads the NFL with 11). Peyton also leads the NFL with 11 passing TDs in the fourth quarter. ... Seems like Montee Ball keeps getting more work, in some bigger spots, for the Broncos. With their defense struggling, sustaining a ground attack and killing clock will be big come the postseason. ... Looks like Case Keenum is going to have a hard time making the case to be anything but a potential backup QB for the Texans in 2014. ... I think we see some max protection with J.J. Watt still capable of taking over a game for the Texans.

Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars


Tennessee at Jacksonville
Sunday, Dec. 22, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Other than a high propensity for some truly baffling quarterback play with regards to turnovers, I'm coming up fairly blank. The Titans' playoffs hopes of a month ago have faded and now press conferences are filled with job security questions for Mike Munchak. Without a late surge, we could be looking at some major changes here. In addition, the Jags might be back in the market for a quarterback and the Titans are likely close to ending the tenure of former Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson. So, man, maybe some people out there will be getting misty-eyed for sitting through three hours of this ballgame. Meantime, the Jags if nothing else have played engaging football in the second half of the season.

What to watch for: The Jags seem pretty intent on trying to move up the standings if at all possible. They can pull into second in the AFC South with a win. I tend to think always-upbeat rookie coach Gus Bradley will have his group aware of that, especially after that 0-8 start. ... Will Maurice Jones-Drew get a chance to put on a Jags uniform one last time this year -- and possibly for good -- as he battles back from injuries? ... Add TE Maurcedes Lewis to the list of those in this game to sign recent big-money extensions now destined to be elsewhere next season. ... Titans DL Jurrell Casey and CB Alterraun Verner have a chance to put an exclamation point on All-Pro-type seasons that have gone largely overlooked.

Cleveland Browns at New York Jets


Cleveland at NY Jets
Sunday, Dec. 22, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: If Geno Smith doesn't give the Jets some reasons not to seek out another quarterback, then you have to suspect they will do just that. The reality is both of these teams are likely to be looking to boost their quarterback room in 2014, with the draft a particularly compelling option for the Browns. The cold reality is the meaningful portion of both of these schedules has long passed, and other than trying to savor the individual brilliance of a few guys playing in this one, well, I don't have a lot I can sell you here.

What to watch for: Josh Gordon is having a truly remarkable season, especially when you consider how raw he was and that he was suspended for the first two games. Imagine what he will be like as the team gets more stable play from other critical skill positions. ... Sheldon Richardson has been a dominant defensive lineman, as a rookie, being asked to do a ton in a 3-4 scheme. And outside of Watt, you find me someone better than fellow Jets DL Muhammad Wilkerson. Watch these two for the final two games of the year, and you'll be seeing plenty of the youngsters for years to come. ... Yet still it feels like the Jets defense has slipped some the past six weeks or so. Whether it's a lack of any scoring support from the offense or just the inevitability of getting by without little talent in the secondary, or their great youth at certain key spots, it isn't as dominant as in the first half of the season. ... Will Santonio Holmes flash enough down the stretch to move the meter at all in terms of free-agent interest next season?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams


Tampa Bay at St. Louis
Sunday, Dec. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Well, these two teams have surprised a few opponents a time or two over the course of this season, most recently the Rams slapping around the Saints last week. There are a few individuals worth watching whenever they play -- ditto from the last game -- and many of them reside on the defensive lines of these two groups. So, yeah, maybe spend more time watching what's going on away from the ball than you do watching the ball itself. Outside of seeing guys like Gerald McCoy and Robert Quinn and Chris Long do their thing, well, this one kind of is what it is. Could be the end of the Greg Schiano era as well, with the Bucs' brief stretch of winning play falling deeper into the past.

What to watch for: I want to see young Rams corner Jannoris Jenkins finish on a high note. Getting a chance to battle with Vincent Jackson here will provide quite a forum to show what he can do. ... Zac Stacy continues to display a punishing style for the Rams. The rookie running back's physical approach has clearly endeared him to coach Jeff Fisher. ... Fisher just might have his eyes on seeing exactly how far Greg the Leg can crush a long field goal. He once told me he thinks the kid could be good from 70. At this point in the season, it could be considered. ... Not enough has been made of how well Darrelle Revis has bounced back from a torn ACL to play a position as demanding on the knees as corner at the level he does. He has plenty of momentum to ride in 2014.

Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers


Atlanta at San Francisco
Monday, Dec. 23, 8:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Why to watch: The 49ers are still looking to secure the best playoff spot possible and they can clinch this week. Ample incentive there. Even if they take the Falcons lightly, I'm not sure they can take them as lightly as they would have to to actually lose this game at home. After losing more at Candlestick than coach Jim Harbaugh would like, going out strong here is imperative. With this being the last regular-season game at Candlestick (and barring some upsets in the playoffs the last ever), all the more important. So many 49ers greats are coming back for this one, and it's impossible to think about the NFL in the 1980s and 1990s without recalling so many 49ers players and this old stadium.

What to watch for: I would think the 49ers might watch Frank Gore's workload some here, especially after he took a shot last week that looked, if even briefly, like it might knock this rock of a man out for a while. ... Should be a feel-good game for Aldon Smith coming off the edge for the 49ers. Do his snaps get ramped up now with the playoffs approaching? ... Steven Jackson is running hard as heck, give him that much, after enduring another rut of injuries this season. ... Tony Gonzalez plays his penultimate football game in what was truly a legendary career and he will see a ton of action and all kind of passes from Matt Ryan. He won't go out a champion but the Falcons will give him every chance to shine individually right until the end.

New York Giants at Detroit Lions


NY Giants at Detroit
Sunday, Dec. 22, 4:05 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The questions will begin, anew, about Tom Coughlin's future with the Giants, especially after they were shut out at home last week. He is a Hall of Fame coach and will be given the chance to go out on his own terms, in all likelihood. Will his players find a way to give him something to feel optimistic about for 2014? There hasn't been much of that lately. And ditto for the questions about Jim Schwartz's job in Detroit after four losses in the past five games -- all those defeats punctuated by at least three turnovers -- have taken them from control of the NFC North to needing help just to be alive in Week 17. Can the Lions rally and force themselves into the playoff equation after another heart-breaking loss Monday night?

What to watch for: The Lions aren't getting the kind of consistent push I expected against some weaker offensive lines, and, man, do they get an opportunity to change that against this group with the punchless Giants offensive line in town. Maybe Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley really get it cranked up this week. ... The Lions' reserve corners held up well last week when forced into duty. Eli Manning has been making life easy on defensive backs all season. Matthew Stafford is doing the same in the second half of the season. In their past five games, Manning leads the NFL with 10 INTs while Stafford is second with nine. How many pick-sixes do we get in this one? ... I figure we see more of Reggie Bush as the central cog in this offense, and keeping things a little more conservative in the game plan. ... It was weird watching Calvin Johnson drop two key passes last week, and I hope that stupid "age" bit has run its course but, egads, maybe it pops up on this broadcast.

 
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