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What to watch for in Sunday's Christmas Day games

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A very Merry Christmas is coming for 12 pro football teams burning toward the NFL postseason.

If you root for one of these winners, you've already been handed a juicy holiday gift. A cherry on top of your fantastic autumn.

For 20 other fan bases, the holidays offer a chance to peer back on a sports campaign gone utterly awry.

"Osweiler will turn the key in Houston," you told your cadre of naive pals over light beers back in August.

"Definitely," says one friend. "But the Jaguars are rising in the South. Bortles is the next Big Ben."

"Maybe," you reply with a healthy dose of suspicion while waving down the waitress to fetch your preordained pack of bros another round of domestic brews. "You keep talking about the Jags, but let's cut to the chase, gentlemen: The Cardinals and Panthers are on a collision course in the NFC."

Those were better days.

Four months later, if you root for one of these suck-fest squads, your job is to get in line like a good little boy and show excitement for the games and teams that still matter.

Two of those tilts -- involving four of those teams -- are set to unfold on Christmas Day. For all the flak NFL schedule-makers took this season, they cracked a pair of home runs with Sunday's slate.

Here's what we'll be watching for -- AND YOU'LL BE WATCHING FOR -- from both holiday clashes:

Please note: As an extra gift to anyone who roots for a rotten team, NFL Media's Conor Orr has penned specialized food and spirits recommendations for both games. Bon Appétit!

Ravens (8-6) at Steelers (9-5), 4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network


1. The Ravens have beaten Pittsburgh four straight times, but the Steelers march into Sunday with everything to play for. They clinch the AFC North with a win, while a loss would threaten to keep Baltimore out of the playoffs for the second straight season. If they lose to the Steelers -- and Miami knocks off Buffalo -- the Ravens are done. On the flipside, a win would let Baltimore take over the AFC North and the conference's No. 3 seed heading into Week 17.

2. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome deserves Executive of the Year consideration for quietly restocking Baltimore's defense since winning Super Bowl XLVII. The past four drafts have brought linemen Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Matt Judon, Za'Darius Smith and Brent Urban, linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback Tavon Young. Ozzie also nabbed emergent 'backer Zach Orr off the college free-agent pile and wisely signed sensational veteran safety Eric Weddle in the offseason. The result is an evolving unit with the ideal mix of experience and youth, a defense that ranks second in the NFL against the run, third in takeaways and fifth overall. These rankings often operate as a mirage, but the Ravens have earned any praise that comes their way. After watching edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil cause all sorts of problems for the Eagles last week, it's fair to ask if this defense has a weakness.

3. Baltimore's defense will be asked to do what few have accomplished: Slow down Le'Veon Bell. The dazzling Steelers running back rolls into Week 16 averaging the third-most scrimmage yards per game in a season by an NFL player (158.8), ranking just behind Priest Holmes (163.4 with the Chiefs in 2002) and O.J. Simpson (160.2 with the Bills in 1975). Bell is averaging an outrageous 190.8 yards per game over his last five starts -- all wins for Pittsburgh -- but it's worth noting that his only sub-100-yard effort came against the Ravens in Week 9. No player in the league has seen a higher percentage of his team's touches since Week 4, but if Baltimore succeeds, look for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to focus on All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown.

4. It was encouraging to see the Ravens find balance on offense against the Eagles in Week 15. Baltimore's 151 yards on the ground marked a season high, with both Terrance West and rookie Kenneth Dixon running well against Philly's frisky front seven. The Ravens must plow on with another strong showing against Pittsburgh's increasingly formidable Ryan Shazier-led defense for a chance at victory. Putting everything on the shoulders of quarterback Joe Flacco -- whose road splits are concerning -- will lead to disaster.

5. Game-time food-and-drink recommendations via writer/spaceman Conor Orr: You've done it. Presents are strewn across the floor. Your dog is quietly chewing on wrapping paper. Everyone you love pretended to enjoy the SELF-STIRRING COFFEE MUGS you purchased them on Amazon a day before Christmas. Success. Now, it is time to focus your savvy in the kitchen in preparation for this most magnanimous football game. Open the refrigerator and remove everything that was created for dinner the night before. Turkey and ham. Hopefully some leftover potatoes. Dig deeper and find a little milk. In the cupboard, you have some vegetable oil. You are making a hash. Real professionals will gussy this up with fried Brussels sprouts and Goose Jowl bacon -- and you might, too -- but it's snowing outside and you have a headache. So mix all those ingredients together, blast it in an iron skillet and tell everyone THIS IS WHAT THEY MAKE ON CHOPPED. Pair it with a Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout, a 9 percent ABV that includes roughly one shot of espresso per every 22 oz. you consume. Drink two -- you still have one more game to watch.

Broncos (8-6) at Chiefs (10-4), 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC


1. The stakes are just as high for Sunday's late action. As the AFC's ninth seed, the Broncos need help. Sitting one game behind the Dolphins, Denver entered Saturday tied with the Ravens and Titans in the playoff race, but would lose tie-breakers to both teams. If the Broncos fall to Kansas City, they'd be eliminated if Miami or Baltimore win in Week 16. The Chiefs, meanwhile, can clinch a playoff berth with a win on Christmas Day or a Ravens loss or tie -- meaning Kansas City could be playoff-bound by kickoff.

2. These two teams played into overtime in Week 12, with Kansas City taking the game 30-27. That tilt saw Chiefs pass rusher Justin Houston explode for three sacks on quarterback Trevor Siemian. Houston has been a dominant performer during his five-game return to the team, but coach Andy Reid told reporters Wednesday that his star defender is dealing with swelling on his surgically repaired knee. Houston, officially questionable for the game, didn't practice all week and isn't expected to play, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Saturday.

3. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith takes plenty of undeserved heat. Still, Kansas City is far from an offensive juggernaut with 48 percent of the team's points coming from defense and special teams -- third-most in the NFL. Kansas City has succeeded this season by winning the turnover battle, but the Chiefs have five giveaways over their past three games after committing just three turnovers in their previous seven. While wideout Jeremy Maclin has just one 100-yard performance in his last 21 outings, Kansas City has unearthed a gem in Tyreek Hill. The speedy pass catcher has lit up opponents with two return scores this season, while leading all rookies in targets and receptions since Week 10.

4. The Broncos have issues of their own on offense, but the defense has been outstanding. Denver's top-ranked secondary has held signal-callers to a league-low 67.5 passer rating. Fascinating edge rusher Von Miller and his quarterback-crushing teammates also lead the NFL in sacks (40) and quarterback hits (105). The Broncos have held their past three opponents to fewer than 17 points, but Denver's offense -- a struggling operation lacking a core ground game -- hasn't done its job as the Broncos lost two of those three tilts. Look for another low-scoring, white-knuckle brawl on Christmas night.

5. Game-time food-and-drink recommendation via counterinsurgent revolutionary Conor Orr: You've had at least two 22 oz. Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout bombers in an effort to create a boozy Christmas caffeine rush. Please do not go anywhere for the rest of the evening. By now, everyone else in your house will be clamoring for more of your rustic cooking genius. DID MY SON SOMEHOW MANAGE TO GRADUATE FROM LE CORDON BLEU IN BETWEEN BLOGGING SHIFTS? No. But his DVR is packed with Barefoot Contessa reruns. For the night cap, you will again rummage through the refrigerator to repurpose some holiday favorites. There is one strange neighbor who brings by expensive Italian deli meats on Christmas morning because different things make different people feel useful and important in this world and you should accept it. Take the Prosciutto and wrap it around the leftover cubed Cantaloupe from last night's Christmas eve party and serve with toothpicks. Should you desire one more drink before bed, make it a Lambic -- Fruit-style Framboise. The cannon blast of raspberry flavor will pair nicely with the B1, B3 and B6 vitamins packed inside the Cantaloupe. Your body is regenerating as you watch Alex Smith. Maybe, just maybe, you will not have an insane hangover on Monday.

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