Packers-Giants, 49ers-Saints, Falcons-Bucs top Week 12 slate

Back in July, Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk sat in a sponsor's tent alongside the practice range prior to the American Heritage Celebrity Golf Tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nev. The 2011 season was behind him, the new season was set to begin in a matter of days -- and golf was on everyone's mind.

Yet Hawk couldn't rid himself of the memory of losing to the New York Giants at Lambeau Field in the playoffs, describing the mistake-filled 37-20 defeat at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champs as an experience he'll "never forget." Can you blame him?

"It definitely reminded us how tough it really is to go to the Super Bowl and win," Hawk told me. "It was so hard. We realized how much tougher it really was."

On Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, the Packers and Giants meet again. A chance for revenge. Perhaps it won't be the last time this season.

If Green Bay's players have any lingering feelings about how they were dispatched by the G-Men, this is the time to let them know. If the Packers would like to show the Giants that being the defending Super Bowl champions puts a new sort of target on your back, they can do that, too.

Besides all that, the NFC playoff race is still wide open, particularly with the Chicago Bears losing to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 11, dropping them into a tie for first with the Packers in the NFC North. Sunday night's result matters.

Here is your Week 12 primer, with games ranked in order of intrigue, from 1 to 16:

MUST-SEE GAMES

Why this game is No. 1:

Two of the NFL's marquee franchises, in power positions for the playoffs (yet with so much still undecided), meet in a rematch of last season's epic postseason showdown. Yeah, we'll be tuned in to Sunday Night Football. And the fact that the outcome might affect postseason seeding is just one of many reasons. The storylines abound. Will the "tired arm" belonging to Giants quarterback Eli Manning be able to attack a beleaguered Green Bay pass defense still missing Charles Woodson? Can the Giants emerge from their recent funk and halt their November swoon? The Packers, meanwhile, are simply rollin', having earned five Ws in a row, beginning with their Week 6 takedown of the Houston Texans. This is how you take control of a division. #GBvsNYG *

Why this game is No. 2:

Even before Colin Kaepernick threw the Bay Area into flux by performing so well that coach Jim Harbaugh was forced to consider him a possible starter, this one caught our eye. Even before a concussion threatened to turn Alex Smith into Alex Pipp, this was high on our radar. And then Kaepernick went 16-of-23 for 243 yards with two touchdowns against the vaunted Chicago Bears defense, adding serious intrigue to what was already one of the NFL's best-stocked teams. As if the Niners needed a dynamic, play-making quarterback to go with their stout run game and tough-as-nails defense. The simple question of who starts under center for San Francisco makes this a must-see. Oh, and did we mention that the Saints are playing as well as anyone right now? That they have long since drop-kicked that 0-4 start to win five of their last six, nosing themselves into the playoff hunt and flashing the possibility of a stunning turnaround? Never mind that this is also a rematch of last year's roller coaster of a divisional-round playoff game -- that storyline barely merits a mention, because the others are so enticing. #SFvsNO *

Why this game is No. 3:

If Raymond James Stadium doesn't sell 7,400 non-premium seats (as of Tuesday), this game will be blacked out on television in the Tampa area. And with that news, I will shake my head. The hot-as-fire Bucs, winners of four straight, are taking on the best team in their division, the 9-1 Falcons. Tough to imagine a juicier matchup for Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman and his balanced offense. And it would be difficult to find a more intriguing clash of styles. You have the Bucs, who run and run and then stop the run. Contrast that with the high-flying Falcons, who run only when necessary, and you have a dichotomy. Can Tampa Bay cover the Falcons? Can the Bucs secondary force Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan into more interceptions after he coughed up five against the Arizona Cardinals in last week's near-disaster? Here's hoping the city gets to see the answers to these questions. #ATLvsTB *

DON'T SLEEP ON (OR DURING) THESE GAMES

Why this game is No. 4:

Even with this AFC North rivalry in full swing, this would normally be way down on the list. The vaunted Steelers vs. the lowly Browns? That's what this matchup would have been, except for two important things that have happened. One development: Steelers signal-callers Ben Roethlisberger AND Byron Leftwich are injured, necessitating a start by 745-year-old quarterback Charlie Batch. Yikes. That's a lot to handle, even for Pittsburgh, which seems to shrug off every injury. The second? Cleveland is slowly making strides. The wins haven't stacked up, but the Browns have been taking teams like the Cowboys and Ravens to the wire. This could be a fun one. #PITvsCLE *

Why this game is No. 5:

It's slowly becoming difficult to count the Bears among the NFL's dangerous teams, given the way they're playing. A home loss to the Texans, a road blowout loss to the 49ers -- and just 13 total points to show for it. Perhaps injured Bears quarterback Jay Cutler will be back, but it feels like the stirring 51-point beat-down Chicago put on the Tennessee Titans in Week 9 happened 85 years ago. Which makes this interesting for the Vikings, a too-young, too-talent-starved team that should have faded long before this week. What happened to the flash in the pan we were all expecting? A win for Minnesota will make for a furious race down the stretch in the NFC North. #MINvsCHI *

Why this game is No. 6:

After Houston blew their wings off in Week 7, the Ravens vowed to take a bye week, get together, and figure out how to deal with the losses of Ray Lewis and others to injury. Not surprisingly, that's exactly what they did. Three games, three wins, one of which was a street fight against the Steelers. All the Ravens have to do on Sunday is take down a nose-diving Chargers team that's trying to stave off an implosion. Does that make San Diego desperate? Perhaps. Maybe this is where the last stand of the Norv Turner regime comes. If so, it will depend on the somewhat mercurial right arm of quarterback Philip Rivers, who can attack a Ravens secondary playing without Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith. Of course, the way those Ravens safeties are hitting, will the Chargers receivers even want to make the tough catches? #BALvsSD *

Why this game is No. 7:

The Colts had put themselves in the position of solid playoff contenders, even boasting a two-game lead over the seventh-place team. Then New England dropped 59 on their heads. Back to reality. Now they have to hold on to their spot in the wild-card race with their fingertips against a Bills team that might get veteran ball-carrier Fred Jackson back. The battle to watch here? Bills defensive end Mario Williams has slowly rounded into shape, with his wrist healing. He looked almost like his old self against the Dolphins in Week 11, and his cast might come off this time. If Williams can attack left tackle Anthony Castonzo and corral Andrew Luck -- and Super Mario is athletic enough to do so -- the matchup could turn favorable for the Bills. These kinds of games shape playoff pushes. #BUFvsIND *

Why this game is No. 8:

This is not what Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill wants to see. In the midst of his first lull in the NFL, having thrown five interceptions against one touchdown in his past two games, Tannehill has to face the Legion of Boom? Not promising. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is probably preparing his trash-talking Twitpic right now. This nasty front won't make things any easier for slipping and sliding Dolphins back Reggie Bush. The only positive for Miami? The game is in Miami. A loss almost certainly takes the Dolphins out of the AFC playoff picture, while the Seahawks can keep pace in the NFC with a win. #SEAvsMIA *

WORTH A PEEK

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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