The calendar has officially flipped to December. That means the NFL's stretch run is officially underway. And anytime you get to use the expression "playoff implications" in a sentence, color me excited!
But which games matter the most?
Here's our list of the most important contests on the remaining regular-season slate, presented in chronological order:
I think Seattle is going to make the playoffs -- not because I've been particularly impressed with the Seahawks, but because nobody else in the NFC is capable of stepping up and grabbing the No. 6 slot. That said, if Seattle can storm TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday and come away with a road win over the Vikings -- who, by the way, have won six of their last seven -- that'll give this battle-tested team a ton of swagger and confidence going forward.
Meanwhile, the Vikes are trying to hold off the Packers in a tight NFC North race. With a tough schedule over the final four weeks of the season (at Cardinals, vs. Bears, vs. Giants, at Packers), Sunday's game looms large for Minnesota.
And I love the old guard-vs.-new guard clash that this showdown represents.
I just can't wait for this game. Minnesota and Arizona have been two of my favorite teams to watch all season long. And how great is it that we get it on NFL Network, in the window of exclusivity that is "Thursday Night Football"? Can't wait to see Mike Zimmer and Bruce Arians match wits.
On Monday, I ranked the nine teams most likely to win Super Bowl 50. The Cardinals and Vikings both made my top four.
Carson Palmer and the Cardinals have enjoyed a sensational year, and anytime Arizona's on national television, it's worthy of major attention. The Cards are as complete a team as any in the NFL. Buckle up!
Both teams are in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick -- through Week 12, Cleveland (2-9) is slotted at No. 2 in the updated draft order, while San Francisco (3-8) holds the No. 5 selection -- and a tie-breaking loss could make the difference in the hotly contested race to get on the clock!
This game could decide the division, though hope might not be lost for the loser, with a wild-card spot still a possibility.
DeSean Jackson would surely like nothing more than to dazzle and dominate for a first-place Washington team with Chip Kelly, the man who jettisoned him from Philly, on the opposing sideline. Yes, this contest, in the awful NFC East, should be loaded with meaning, both in the standings and emotionally for Jackson.
If Washington has designs on the division, this is the kind of road game the Redskinsmust win, going up against a Philly team that has been one of the season's biggest disappointments.
The Schein Nine's current favorite quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) vs. the Schein Nine's current favorite organization (Arizona)? Yeah, I've had this game circled since the NFL released the schedule.
The reigning NFL MVP vs. Arizona's ferocious, ball-hawking defense? Palmer and the game's No. 1 scoring offense vs. the Packers' stingy defense? Sign. Me. Up.
And this game is on "Monday Night Football," which means we get another prime-time test for Andy Dalton!
I operate under the premise that the Patriots, despite facing tricky upcoming road games against the Texansand Jets, will be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. But who's No. 2? Who'll get a free pass into the second round of the playoffs? Kind of a big deal ...
After all, the best way for Cincinnati to avoid its annual first-round loss is to avoid the first round altogether. And if the Bengals, specifically Dalton and Marvin Lewis, melt down again under the lights, negativity will be omnipresent.
Then you have the Broncos' quarterback situation. As I've written many times, Brock Osweiler has to take the field. He gives the Broncos the best chance to win. But between now and Week 16, there's a lot of football to be played. While I think Osweiler will handle it -- especially after what we've seen against Chicago and most especially New England -- there's intrigue here. What if Peyton Manning's healthy? Will Broncos brass have trouble keeping him on the bench?
I love the fact that this old-school rivalry is back en vogue. I'm pumped for the game between these two this weekend. Come Week 17, the playoffs and seeding could be at stake for both teams.
And even if the suddenly fading Raiders are out -- though I don't think they will be -- how sweet would it be for an upstart Oakland team to rattle and rock Kansas City's season?
Also, there will be some good old-fashioned pure hatred. Oh, and plenty of star power, as Adrian Peterson could be trying to stamp Minnesota's first playoff ticket since 2012 -- and Rodgers could be trying to keep Green Bay from missing the postseason party for the first time since 2008.