The final weekend of NFL games features intra-divisional matchups across the board, a measure the league hopes will lead to more teams playing key players in the season finale because of potential playoff implications. Whether things unfold that way is too tough to call at this point because if a team has a playoff berth or a division title wrapped up, the opponent really wouldn't matter.
What this new wrinkle to the schedule could do, though, is set in motion the enhancement of rivalries, re-ignite old ones that have gone dormant or create some where none exist. Should the NFL scheduling gurus manage over the next few years to make the final two games of the regular season intra-divisional matchups, rivalries could further be fostered while more key players would take the field, as Week 16 games tend to have more bearing on playoff implications than Week 17.
The intra-divisional scheduling in an interesting tool to market the game, but it's also a way to keep fans tuned in all the way through the regular season. Will an Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn or Grambling-Southern series take hold? Who knows? Maybe.
Even if those teams aren't in the playoff hunt, the rancor and passion involved in watching the Chargers against the Broncos or even Oakland vs. its longtime rival Kansas City adds a little hot sauce to the mix. The only thing is, by starting this juncture off with just one weekend of intra-divisional games, some of the dream matchups -- at this point -- didn't come together.
Here's a look at the final week of the regular season and how these games rate on an impact scale (1 to 5 Ochocincos since it's all about drama).
Cowboys at Eagles
Aw, yeah. These two teams have taken it down to the final week the past three seasons, with Philly knocking the 'Boys out of the playoffs two years ago and Dallas setting the stage for its postseason beat-down of the Eagles with a pre-playoff beat-down in the 2009 season finale. Though Donovan McNabb was Philly's quarterback in those games and is now gone, there is no reason to believe one, if not both of these teams, will be facing playoff implications this go-round.
Chargers at Broncos
This is becoming one of the better rivalries in the NFL. Sure, Kyle Orton doesn't talk smack like Jay Cutler, but Philip Rivers still brings it. The Chargers put the late-season waxing on the Broncos in San Diego after Eddie Royal hit the Bolts with the two-returns-for-TDs-Freaky-Deke in Denver's early season victory in '09. This game should be for the AFC West title and could be the Game of the Day.
Bears at Packers
While it's not Favre vs. Rodgers, it is Rodgers vs. Cutler. This game could have playoff implications written all over it, and if Cutler is still involved in a playoff chase at this point, then Lovie Smith's future in Chicago would seem pretty safe. It's also is an old-school rivalry that is almost as bitter as the temps will be when this game is played at Lambeau.
Bengals at Ravens
What? No Pittsburgh and Baltimore? The rivalry between those teams is among the best in the NFL -- but they might not make the ideal opponents at this point of the season. Cincy has replaced the Steelers as the hard-hitting jawbreakers equal to the Ravens. The Bengals and Ravens could be back in the playoffs again and this could be the start of a new wave of AFC North bad blood. Chile Please.
Dolphins at Patriots
The finale is crying for Pats and Jets, but this game could be of equally high stakes. Both of these teams have something to prove and the Dolphins got WR Brandon Marshall for times like this. New England usually doesn't find itself in play-in games this late in the year but with the Jets on the rise and the Dolphins stacking up, and the Pats entering the season with a ton of questions, Tom Brady and Co. might be fighting for their playoff lives. Home-field helps them this time of the year.
Cardinals at 49ers
This could be the game of the weekend -- Matt Leinart vs. Alex Smith. Seriously. The 49ers look to be a team on the rise and the Cardinals will figure out before now if it can sustain without Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin. This could be for the division title, which, for San Francisco, could conjure up some serious nostalgia. A rivalry is semi-brewing between these teams and this could further water the seed for future clashes.
Titans at Colts
The Patriots are the Colts' arch-enemies, but the Titans have been the closest thing within the division. One of these teams could very well be resting players (Colts) to prep for the playoffs. Still, there is enough star power (Chris Johnson, Vince Young, Peyton Manning), so whichever team that is going all out to put on a show. Let's hope both teams go full bore.
Jaguars at Texans
The Jags have won three of the last four against the Texans entering the season. Will the edge grow in the first meeting of these teams in 2010? Houston needs to gain ownership of its division foes (1-5 in 2010) before it can be considered anyone's rival. The outcome of this game could have huge implications for both head coaches. It's a playoffs-or-bust season for both teams ... and their head coaches.
Giants at Redskins
Bills at Jets
Okay, the Jets had the Colts and Bengals sit key players at the end of last season to allow it to get into the playoffs. Now it gets to close against the Bills. Maybe it's the Jets whose players are taking a powder. You never know how things are going to play out and struggles during the prior 15 games might make this a must-win for the Jets.
Panthers at Falcons
Carolina and Atlanta have a quiet rivalry dating back to when the Panthers couldn't beat Michael Vick. Things are still as competitive between the teams, but will Carolina be competitive at all this season? The roster is in flux and this game looks as if it will be John Fox's last as head coach. Atlanta will try to drum up some excitement for this game to get its fan base back in the seats before the playoffs (maybe).
Buccaneers at Saints
Any game at the Superdome is off the chain, so regardless who the Saints are playing on Poydras Street, it's all good. Drew Brees and the first-time champs are going to have things a little tougher in 2010 so there might be the need for some urgency in this game. The Bucs were one of three teams to beat the Saints last season and doing it again might help them feel good about themselves.
Vikings at Lions
Raiders at Chiefs
This is old-school ugly. And there is a good chance both of these teams could be significantly improved to where this game has some meaning. The Raiders and Chiefs used to be the fiercest of enemies. Both might be laying it all out in the cold weather in Week 17. Maybe some of that long-lost venom can kick start what once was.
St. Louis at Seattle
Steelers at Browns
This is old-school acrimony. These neighborly teams and their fans used to get after it. The luster is off as the Steelers sustained success and won Super Bowls while the Browns moved to Baltimore then came back as half the franchise it used to be. Maybe Mike Holmgren can restore the bark and the bite with the Browns. Could this game be Jimmy Clausen or Colt McCoy vs. Dennis Dixon? Maybe, but the Steel Curtain could be back with a fury in 2010.