The doubters of the decision to start Colin Kaepernick have quieted down. All the second-year player has done is go 4-1 since taking over for Alex Smith as the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback, showcasing a near-perfect mix of efficiency and explosiveness.
It was all on display for the nation last Sunday night, when the former Nevada star out-dueled Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a thrilling 41-34 win, establishing his team as a physically dominant force in the NFC.
The only problem?
The 49ers have unfinished business in their own division. The feisty Seattle Seahawks have won three in a row, thanks to an oppressive defense and the guts of Russell Wilson on offense. Seattle can still swipe the NFC West crown out from under the Niners' noses.
And the Seahawks will be playing in a place where they are undefeated (CenturyLink Field), in an atmosphere that's as big a test for Kaepernick as any he's seen on a professional level.
Even disregarding the immense implications, you'd expect the fireworks to come early and often. Two versatile, exhilarating quarterbacks who run around and make plays. Two sturdy, aggressive defenses that display anger at any yard gained. And two running backs (San Francisco's Frank Gore and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch) who try to hurt defenders.
What better way to decide division supremacy than in a street fight? Oh, yes: This is the best game of the week.
Here is your Week 16 primer, with games ranked in order of intrigue, from 1 to 16:
Why this game is No. 1:
Defense might win championships, but that will be the case for only one of these teams in this division race. It'll still be fun to watch them slug it out. The 49ers are ranked first in scoring defense, allowing a paltry 15.6 points per game. In second place? The Seahawks, having given up one more point on the season. Still wondering why these two teams top the NFC West? Me neither. Hard to block up front, stingy against the run, able to rely on hard-nosed players instead of scheme -- both teams seem to be in position to push others around in the postseason like they have in the regular season. What makes this showdown unbelievably enticing is that neither offense is a slouch. Not by a longshot. Seattle boasts the tough-minded Wilson and "Beast Mode" Lynch. San Francisco has the multi-talented Kaepernick and bruising Gore. The 49ers and Seahawks can attack teams from so many places, quietly morphing into complete teams out West. The NFC West race takes center stage on Sunday night. #SFvsSEA *
Why this game is No. 2:
One of the NFL's hottest teams vs. just the opposite. Winners of five of six, the Cincinnati Bengals can clinch a playoff spot with a win. Cincy can also knock the Pittsburgh Steelers out of the hunt, triggering a de facto end to an injury-played, trying season for Mike Tomlin's squad. There will be few hugs on the field in this one, which features two teams that don't care for each other. Making matters more interesting are the matchups. An aggressive Cincinnati defensive front against a makeshift Steelers offensive line. Receiver A.J. Green against a Pittsburgh secondary that seriously struggled to cover last Sunday. The fast-twitch Steelers receivers against a Bengals defense that allows few teams the opportunity to go deep. Can Cincy ruin Pittsburgh's season? #CINvsPIT *
Why this game is No. 3:
That this is such a highly anticipated game this late in the season is a testament to the stunning run by the Minnesota Vikings. Too young and inexperienced on defense, too limited on offense, with the face of the franchise recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. All signs pointed to this being a rebuilding year. Instead, the Vikes have all of their playoff goals available. Oh, and Adrian Peterson is eyeing the single-season rushing record as he takes the field against one of seven teams allowing fewer than 100 rushing yards per game. Can A.D. excel against J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans' multi-faceted defense, or will quarterback Christian Ponder have to throw to loosen things up? As for the Texans, all they have in front of them in a methodically dominating season is a first-round playoff bye they can clinch with a win. Ho hum. #MINvsHOU *
Why this game is No. 4:
Which New York Giants team will arrive in Baltimore? And which Ravens team will face off against them? Intrigue abounds for two of the NFL's most mercurial teams. Any kind of win hands Baltimore the AFC North title, but a convincing one would answer the questions swirling around a team that just fired its offensive coordinator and has struggled to stop anyone with its injury-plagued defense. Already in the playoffs, the Ravens are hoping to snap a three-game losing streak and find solid footing. The Giants, meanwhile, are coming off an ugly skunking at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons. With just two wins in their past six games, they've allowed the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys to even things up in the NFC East race. Big Blue's charge is to regain the late magic from last season. #NYGvsBAL *
Why this game is No. 5:
Injuries on defense, off-the-field tragedies, late-game adversity ... The Dallas Cowboys have dealt with it all. Yet suddenly, they've won five of their past six and control their own destiny in the playoff hunt. Who would have thought that when they were 3-5? But the 'Boys have a real challenge on their hands: The New Orleans Saints just dropped 41 on Tampa Bay's head, while their lowly defense pitched a shutout. Can Dallas' banged-up defense cover enough to limit New Orleans on offense? Sure, the Saints almost certainly won't make the playoffs. But they can make some noise at the tail end of a wacky season. #NOvsDAL *
DON'T SLEEP ON (OR DURING) THESE GAMES
Why this game is No. 6:
In a Monday Night Football game that's actually on Saturday night, what was supposed to be a prime-time battle with real playoff implications only matters for one team. The disappointing Detroit Lions host an Atlanta Falcons team that is one victory away from a playoff bye. Will Detroit's talented-but-flawed defense come together to stop one of the NFL's most explosive units just once? The Falcons proved their credentials by tormenting the Giants last week -- a statement win before the playoffs. If they can properly close it out, the Falcons will be in the best possible position for the postseason. #ATLvsDET *
Why this game is No. 7:
The euphoria that filled Chicago early in the season is long gone. That went out the door with three straight losses -- a stumble that was eerily reminiscent of what happened last year (except Jay Cutler is playing this time). The Bears' remaining schedule does feature a pair of highly winnable games, though, starting with this trip to Arizona. But the Cardinals might be playing for head coach Ken Whisenhunt's job, too. And they did just blow out the Lions at home last week. What should be an easy win to get the Bears back on track might not be so simple against a defense that still has some life left. Prepare for ugliness on both sides of the ball. #CHIvsAZ *
Why this game is No. 8:
The Washington Redskins have proved that, with or without Robert Griffin III, they are playoff-ready. With a five-game win streak that spans two quarterbacks -- RG3 and Kirk Cousins -- the 'Skins are as dangerous as anyone. They just need to get into the tournament first. And yet, a road game against the woeful Philadelphia Eagles might not be as easy as it seems, even if there is little fight left in Philly. The Eagles' defensive line, following the departure of coach Jim Washburn, has come alive. Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins and even Brandon Graham are finally playing as they should have been all season long -- they're truly an active, menacing bunch these days. These are the guys RG3 must evade, should he decide to tuck and run. That just makes an otherwise dreary matchup a little intriguing. #WASvsPHI *
Why this game is No. 9:
There are no playoff implications to be found in this one. These young, rebuilding programs under first-year coaches have both taken turns showing promise this year, only to find the stage too big and bright. Both upstarts would be well-served to look to 2013, with an eye toward player development. Finishing the year right, though, would emphasize that things are headed in the right direction. And for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it would also rid their mouths of the taste of a four-game losing streak under coach Greg Schiano. #STLvsTB *
Why this game is No. 10:
Already winners of the NFC North, the Green Bay Packers can still earn a playoff bye if they win out and the 49ers stumble in prime time. It's possible. But maybe more importantly, they are still trying to find themselves. Greg Jennings is back on offense, Clay Matthews is back on defense and Charles Woodson might be next. The Packers' fate might not be determined in the next two games, but they can use this stretch to refocus on playing together with all of their pieces. Green Bay could arrive in the postseason as undercover as a team with double-digit wins can be. Fresh off a prime-time win over the Jets, the Tennessee Titans are still looking to prove that coach Mike Munchak deserves another year to try to make it happen. #TENvsGB *
Why this game is No. 11:
A game without playoff implications got a lot spicier when New York Jets coach Rex Ryan named second-year pro Greg McElroy the starting quarterback, benching Mark Sanchez. In a flash, we had a reason to watch Gang Green against a San Diego Chargers team that's lazily playing out the string for lame duck coach Norv Turner. The Jets have guaranteed Sanchez more than $8 million for next season, but two strong games from McElroy could make them think twice about who their starter will be. In fact, McElroy's performance could go a long way toward deciding the Jets' health at this all-important position. If there is one reason to watch this woeful game, that's it. #SDvsNYJ *
Why this game is No. 12:
The feel-good Indianapolis Colts hit a road block last week, running into a buzzsaw in Houston. No matter. A simple win over the hapless Kansas City Chiefs, who long ago ran out of gas, is all it will take for Indy to clinch a playoff berth. And doing so would cement one of the more remarkable seasons in recent memory. That this game will take place in Arrowhead doesn't figure to matter much, with lackluster support expected for the lowly Chiefs. Not that Andrew Luck would crumble against a hostile crowd anyway. The Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate has waded through all challenges, and a victory would open the door to more of them. #INDvsKC *