In what could be a stranger-than-strange scenario, the outcomes of the final week of the regular season could result in all four wild-card games being rematches of regular-season finales this Sunday: Cardinals-Packers, Jets-Bengals, Eagles-Cowboys, and Texans-Patriots.
A whole lot of things have to happen for that to play out, but stranger things have transpired, especially on the final weekend (we'll get to that in a minute). That begs the question, for those teams in this mix already in the playoffs, how much of their hands do they show with the real stakes -- for the most part -- a weekend away in the wild-card round?
"We'll have to see because we still might have a chance to play for a No. 2 seed," Cardinals' coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We're preparing to try to win the game and to make sure we don't get out of rhythm."
Arizona will play host to Green Bay in a late-afternoon game Sunday and the timing of their game could determine whether either team plays their starters or treats us to a resemblance of a preseason game. Even if both teams play their starters, don't expect there to be an abundance of exorbitant personnel packages, exotic blitzes or plays that haven't already been shown on tape the previous 15 games.
While the drama of this game could end up being about as climactic as watching a leaf blow in the breeze, at least one team will have something to play for in most of the other double-dip scenarios, as well as other games around the league with playoff implications.
Philadelphia (11-4) at Dallas (10-5): Both teams are already in the playoffs, but the winner earns the NFC East title and at least one home playoff game. Think Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wouldn't love to play a home game in his spectacular new stadium? Regardless if these teams face each other in the wild-card round, there are no secrets here. They know each other well (Dallas won at Philly Nov. 8) and with so much on the line, there will be no need to try and save something for a potential playoff rematch. The starters will play until the final whistle unless the game is so out of whack that playing key guys down the stretch makes no sense.
If the Eagles win: Clinch the division; get No. 2 seed, first-round bye.
If the Cowboys win: Clinch the division and possibly a No. 2 seed, if the Vikings and Cardinals lose. Otherwise they will play host to a wild-card game. They will play the Eagles, if the Vikings and Packers win.
New England (10-5) at Houston (8-7): The Patriots have already clinched the AFC East title and will be either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed, which means they will host a wild-card game. Technically, this is a perfect time to rest starters. However, these are the Patriots and when they feel like it, they can be as cut-throat as anyone. Plus, they are on a sustained run and might not want to stop their momentum. Houston has to win to have any shot at a wild-card spot. The Texans have to have a bunch of things fall their way to get into the postseason. They also probably need to win for coach Gary Kubiak to keep his job.
If the Patriots win: Earn No. 3 or No. 4 seed, will host a team other than Houston in the wild-card round.
Bengals (10-5) at Jets (8-7): This game has been moved to prime time, which might be the best thing for the Jets, who control their own destiny. Win and they're in. Cincinnati will know whether it will be worth pushing for a No. 3 seed based on the results of earlier games. If coach Marvin Lewis feels he needs for the Bengals to try and win, he'll play his starters for some, if not most of the game. Plus, it might let them blow off some steam. The franchise is a little upset that despite its big season, no player was named to the Pro Bowl team.
Most importantly, almost every scenario in which the Jets win pits them against the Bengals in the wild-card round, so regardless of how long the Bengals' starters play, if at all, they're not going to show a whole lot on either side of the ball. That the Bengals might not go all out to win might infuriate purists and a lot of other teams, like Houston or Pittsburgh, that need the Jets to lose to keep their playoff hopes alive. Too bad. Those teams should have taken care of their own business.
If Cincinnati wins: It will host a wild-card game as the No. 3 or No. 4 seed.
If the New York Jets win: They most likely will play at Cincinnati.
Green Bay (10-5) at Arizona (10-5): The Cardinals have clinched the NFC West title but still have a shot at securing the No. 2 seed and a bye. The game doesn't start until the early games have been played, so they will know if the Vikings lost to the Giants, which could open the door to them getting the second seed.
"We're going to prepare to play to win the game and see how the game unfolds," Whisenhunt said. "We'll also be watching to see what's going on in the Philadelphia-Dallas game."
Green Bay, meanwhile, is the only team in the NFC locked into a wild-card spot because it lost the tie-breaker to the NFC North champion Vikings by getting swept. It has little to play for other than trying to spoil the Cardinals' chances. Green Bay is one of the hottest teams in the NFL and breaking up that rhythm could be dangerous. So could exposing quarterback Aaron Rodgers to fellow Pro Bowler, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett.
The spoiler is this: "There are eight possibilities and six out of those eight have us playing the Packers again," Whisenhunt said.
Things could be competitive to a point, but don't expect to see anything strategically brilliant or schematically radical since the sequel is very much a possibility.
If Packers win: They will play at Arizona.