The final quarter of the NFL season is upon us -- and the drama's layered extra thick.
Six NFC teams are thinking about a potential playoff bye. 6-6 NFC teams are thinking about running the table and making the playoffs. 6-6 AFC teams are dreaming of winning the West.
Stars are returning to lineups. Certain teams are beginning to really hit their stride. And division titles -- as well as wild-card slots -- are up in the air. It's not hyperbole to say this could be one of the most fascinating finishes ever to an NFL regular season, especially given all the marquee matchups on tap.
There are a ton of games loaded with playoff implications. Here's my Schein Nine look at the most crucial showdowns remaining in the 2017 regular season.
This was an instant headliner when the schedule was initially released in April. In the months since, anticipation has only grown. Pittsburgh is 10-2. New England is 10-2. The No. 1 seed hangs in the balance. And this matchup does something in between the ears for the Steelers.
Mike Tomlin confessed to Tony Dungy before Pittsburgh's Week 12 game in Green Bay that the Steelers think about New England. Since that interview aired on NBC, Pittsburgh has been forced to sneak past the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers and eradicate a 17-0 deficit to nip Cincy. In other words, Pittsburgh has looked like a team focused on the Patriots.
Honestly, it's not hard to imagine why the Steelers could be looking ahead, given the stakes involved in the Week 15 game. If Pittsburgh knocks off New England, it's everything. It shows that Tomlin's group can finally beat Tom Brady in a spot like this. If Pittsburgh loses -- as I predict -- it carries a "Here we go again ..." domino effect into the playoffs.
The matchup between Pittsburgh's dynamic offensive weapons and New England's revamped defense will be spicy. And you have to outscore Brady. New England has a major advantage with the head coach; Bill Belichick's 6-2 against Tomlin and currently riding a four-game win streak in the matchup.
This game will decide who hosts the AFC title bout, and who has a major edge in it, too. (Yep, I see a rematch in late January.) I cannot wait. The winner of this game could be considered the Super Bowl favorite.
Feels like the winner of this game will have a major leg up in winning the division. Yes, the contest is at Arrowhead, but Kansas City has completely lost its mojo, inexplicably dropping six of its last seven after starting the season at 5-0.
Near the end of last month, I predicted the Chargers would run the table, and I'm staying with that. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn has done a great job getting his team to bounce back from an unfortunate 0-4 start that was plagued by missed kicks. Now, with a future Hall of Famer playing great ball at quarterback in Philip Rivers, with Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon making plays, and with an elite pass-rush combination in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, I expect L.A. to sweep the remaining slate:
So, yes, I expect the Bolts to win this Week 15 AFC West clash. The Chiefs' defense has been dreadful. The offense has been very inconsistent of late. In theory, you never want to rule out Andy Reid. Which makes this final quarter for K.C. -- and particularly, this game against the Chargers -- quite juicy. In reality, you can't find reasons to believe.
I still think the Eagles are going to the Super Bowl. I believe Sunday night's loss in Seattle was just a bump in the road. But we are going to learn a lot about these Eagles from how they respond against the Rams this Sunday. They are staying out in L.A. all week. No jet-setting back and forth across the country prior to this dandy showdown between the first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft. This goes way beyond Jared Goff vs. Carson Wentz, too ...
This game's also pretty huge for L.A. -- and it comes a week before the Rams hit Seattle for a crucial NFC West showdown. If the Rams beat the Eagles, a playoff bye is within their grasp. If the Rams lose, they need to make sure they beat the Seahawks in Seattle -- which is possible, though anything but easy. Just ask the Eagles.
I'm picking the Week 16 clash over this Thursday's showdown between these two teams in Atlanta. The result from this week will magnify the intensity for the loser.
The powerful Saints will have the edge in Week 16, playing at home, but Atlanta might be playing for its season -- in which case, this becomes a pseudo playoff game. The Saints and Falcons hate each other. So do the fans. It's always fantastic. I'm obsessed with the fact that these clubs battle twice in the final month of action.
I give Seattle so much credit for beating the Eagles this past Sunday night, but that was just the beginning of a brutal four-game stretch for the Seahawks. Now Pete Carroll's team travels to face the upstart Jags, with games against the Rams and Ezekiel Elliott-reinfused Cowboys coming right down the pike. Godspeed, 'Hawks.
Still, Seattle is used to performing well on big stages. This is uncharted territory for most members of the 8-4 Jaguars. It's a prove-it game. Jacksonville's defense is sensational. The Jaguars' ferocious front could give Seattle's suspect O-line absolute fits. I believe in the Jags' defense, run game, toughness and coaching -- and this is a game where Jacksonville can show it's a true contender. The good folks of Duval County are always seeking respect -- here's where they can earn it.
This game can shift the AFC South, NFC West and wild-card pictures in both conferences. So it's kind of a big deal.
It's a little lower on the list because we need to get there with legit implications still on the line. I think we will. I predict the Packers will run the table and finish 10-6. I see Aaron Rodgers coming back in Week 15, and if he beats the Panthers in Carolina, it sets up a must-see showdown with the rival Vikings.
If this seems low, re-read the above comments on the Rams and Seahawks. Both teams have tough games in addition to this battle. I know Seattle won the first matchup, but Jared Goff and Cooper Kupp were SO close to connecting on a would-be game-winning score. And I believe the Rams are just better at this point. But it's Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner in Seattle, in front of those amazing fans.
It'll be fascinating to see how both squads fare in their respective games this week -- both of which are listed above.
Ezekiel Elliott will be back. And it's not crazy to think Dallas can beat the Giants, Raiders and Seahawks (Elliott's first game back) before heading into Philly. OK, I'm not a big fan of this year's Cowboys squad, but the upside is there. Meanwhile, the Eagles are in the thick of a highly competitive race for the No. 1 seed, to ensure the NFC goes through Philly en route to the Super Bowl (which remains my prediction).
It's easy to temporarily forget, but Elliott is one of the most unstoppable players in the sport. Philly will have its work cut out.