Long gone is the wiggle room.
With just three weeks left in the regular season, teams no longer have the luxurious opportunity to figure themselves out as December withers away.
If you're not in the playoff picture by now, you're set up for some serious couch time come January. It's Week 15 and butt-cold outside, but the heat is turned way up on a handful of pro football luminaries with the world on their shoulders.
So, who matters most this weekend?
That's subjective. A Patriots fan will argue Tom Brady, while a Packers loyalist will quickly list Green Bay's roster and toss the rest of Earth in a blender. Totally understandable, but our move is to look wider at a league brimming with drama and subplots, a league ready to burst into January based on what the following key figures accomplish in Week 15:
1) Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers: Let's label this pass-catching wonder for what he is: the most valuable player in the National Football League. Full disclosure: I roam the dark hallways of life as a Browns fan, staring up at the Steelers for the past two-plus decades as something entirely alien to Cleveland watchers. Pittsburgh's roster is filled with starry talents and athletes, but nobody comes close to Brown. On pace to become the first player in NFL history with multiple seasons of 1,800-plus receiving yards, Brown has operated as a scathing destroyer of the opposition. In four straight prime-time games, this comprehensive magician has romped over the enemy with 39 catches for 627 yards and six scores. It's much more than his numbers, though, with Brown bailing out the offense with ultra-clutch fourth-quarter catches week after week. He's so reliable, he's predictable. We know it's about to happen -- that insane down-the-sideline catch for mega-yardage with the game on the line -- and so does the defense, but nobody can stop it. That's the definition of an MVP. You know he must be squelched, you put all your resources in that direction, and Brown still plasters secondaries every Sunday with rare physical gifts saved for the game's most unusual treasures. New England's shot at home-field advantage rests on doing to Brown what nobody else has been able to do. Good luck with that.
2) Aaron Rodgers, back-from-the-dead quarterback, Green Bay Packers: We've lost so many heroes this season, especially under center. The Texans became a neutered afterthought with the loss of Deshaun Watson, while the Eagles are forced to battle on minus Carson Wentz, the most exciting signal caller of 2017. The football gods are angry and twisting in the night, but some good witch from afar has blessed us with the return of Aaron Rodgers. Brett Hundley was an up-and-down understudy, often forgetting his lines but delivering a memorable performance when it mattered most. Thanks to him, Green Bay remains in the playoff picture and now has Rodgers back in the mix in time for Sunday's season-defining clash with Carolina. The story writes itself. From the wilderness comes a team with the chance to author total revolt. The Eagles, Saints and Rams have dominated headlines, but Rodgers suddenly turns the Packers into a viable bomb-dropping nemesis with a legitimate chance at the Super Bowl, thanks to their returning hero of old.
3) Nick Foles, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles: With games left against the Giants, Raiders and Cowboys, the Eagles have a serious chance to finish 14-2 with home-field command of the NFC playoffs. Nobody can replace Wentz, who morphed Philly into a yardage- and points-generating beast with a glowing Super Bowl aura. Foles arrives as one of the league's top backups, though, offering a 20-16 career record under center and enough upside to give the Eagles a shot. The NFL no longer offers scenarios where Steve Young steps in for Joe Montana. Too many teams in a watered-down league can't even find a starter who passes the eye test. Foles is a drastic step down from Wentz, and Eagles fans have suffered more than their share of letdowns over the years. Still, the quality of this roster gives Foles a chance to play the role of a latter-day Jeff Hostetler if he can keep the mistakes to a minimum.
4) Mike Tomlin, head coach, Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh's figurehead deserves Coach of the Year consideration for what he's accomplished. Eight straight wins -- many of them pulled out of the fire -- while keeping his team together through the intense emotional loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier. The Steelers aren't perfect like New England tends to be; they drop the occasional head-scratching contest to the random ham-and-egger. But Pittsburgh can beat anyone on the right day. The Patriots, though, have doubled as Tomlin's kryptonite. He's 2-6 against New England all-time with an 0-1 record in the playoffs against Tom Brady and friends. Without a win against the Patriots since 2011, the Steelers have teased us for years, coming close to bashing the Throne of Ease but failing to pull it off. The coup can wait no longer if we're to take Pittsburgh seriously. Sunday's showdown with Bill Belichick marks the biggest bout in Tomlin's career since his Super Bowl loss to the Packers many moons ago. Time to slay the ghost.
5) Earl Thomas, safety, Seattle Seahawks:Sunday's showdown between the Seahawks and Rams lines up as a doozy, with the NFC West crown on the line. After knocking off Los Angeles in Week 5, Seattle can take command of the division and ownership of the tie-breaker over the Rams with a victory on Sunday. With Legion of Boom stars Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor out for the year, pressure falls on Thomas to lift up a defense that might be without linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The Rams have rained down points all season, while the 'Hawks are fresh off a discouraging defeat to Jacksonville that saw Seattle lose its cool in the game's final minutes. With Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboysup next in Week 16, Sunday looms as a pivotal turning point for Pete Carroll's roster. Against the NFL's juiciest offense, Thomas must carry the day.
6) Keenan Allen, wide receiver, Los Angeles Chargers: We're a million miles away from the winless days of the 0-4 Bolts, who march into Kansas City with hopes of stealing away the AFC West. Los Angeles boasts game-changing talent on both sides of the ball, but the turnaround on offense begins with Allen. Nobody can touch Antonio Brown, but Allen's past month is nothing short of a fever dream, with the reliable wideout averaging 9.8 catches and 136.8 yards per game over the last four weeks. This is the squad nobody wants to play -- not now, and not in the playoffs -- largely because of a high-energy passing game that has Philip Rivers surging at MVP levels as Santa hovers in the skies above. Kansas City's wanting secondary is on high alert heading into Sunday.
7) Sean McDermott, head coach, Buffalo Bills: Speaking of Saint Nick, the Bills deserve credit for winning ugly in North Pole conditions last weekend against the Colts. Bouncing through the frigid snowfields of the East, Buffalo kept its playoff hopes alive, adding another successful chapter to the first-year reign of Sean McDermott. It's a foreign concept for humans from Foxborough or Green Bay, but Buffalo's playoff drought dates back to 1999, a pre-9/11 civilization that knew nothing of hanging chads or the "Shahs of Sunset." A more innocent time when the Bills were a thing and Bill Belichick was praying for a second chance to direct a football team. McDermott lost points for his awkward benching of Tyrod Taylor, but he's regained momentum with the Bills clinging to the sixth seed in the AFC and holding the tie-breaker over Baltimore based on strength of victory. With two games left against Miami -- sandwiched around a road tilt with New England -- anything is possible.
8) Harrison Smith, safety, Minnesota Vikings: You are the Minnesota Vikings. Your task is to detonate the hapless Bengalson Sunday before facing the Rodgers-led Packersin Week 16. Your defense is littered with battle-tested warriors, none having a finer season than Smith, the bone-crushing, versatile safety who finds a way weekly to make a difference. Your offensive line is plagued with injuries, meaning the defense must do its part to secure a bye -- maybe home-field advantage -- and knock the suddenly dangerous Packers out of the picture after kicking Cincy into oblivion. Go.
9) Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, running backs, Dallas Cowboys: Like the Packers waiting on Rodgers, the 7-6 Cowboys are still alive in the NFC playoff picture with one clear task: sink the Raiders and welcome back Ezekiel Elliott for season-wrapping tilts with the Seahawks and Eagles. The playoffs begin now for Dallas, but the task doesn't change for Alf and Rod. Against a Raiders team that feels tangibly fraudulent, the running back duo must continue to outpace Zeke's numbers, having topped his early-season work in terms of rushing yardage (101.8 to 97.9) and yards per carry (4.3 to 4.1) since Week 10. Neither is the equal of Elliott, but together, the twosome has admirably kept the offense humming. Get past the floating Silver & Black and Dallas suddenly becomes a scary factor in the NFC.
10) Kylo Ren, emotionally tangled dark-side Jedi: What will become of the turncoat Ben Solo, who murdered his father and prays to the memory of Darth Vader? We will find out in mere hours as Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" washes over the land. Instead of falling into the typical villain role, Kylo Ren has the feel of a confused, abused, mismanaged lost soul who sees something vital and hopeful in Rey. I predict their connection will be dangerous and magnetic, leaving Luke Skywalker to ponder all things as star systems churn. Prepare yourself for the most beautifully written film in franchise history, shot in a way that separates this chapter from everything we thought we knew.
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And before we zoom into Week 15, I leave you with this message authored by the young poet, Jacqueline Suskin, who was hired by NFL Media to dream up words on her typewriter during this week's holiday bash in Santa Monica: