By the time December rolls around, we know who the NFL's elite teams are. We've sorted out the disappointments, filtered through the flashes in the pan, excused the wannabes from the conversation.
And we wait.
Finally, in January, the best teams find themselves on the same field, and we get to watch them rumble to see who survives and advances. That's just the way it works in the NFL.
Except, that is, during rare situations like the one on tap Monday night at Gillette Stadium.
If the playoffs started today, the Houston Texans would be the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the New England Patriots No. 2. If those seeds hold, they'll square off in what will be an uber-hyped AFC Championship Game, with the world watching. While that might take place in the future, the two teams will meet on Monday night -- minus the hats, T-shirts and rings.
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But mostly, it'll just be nice to see a playoff preview before the real thing in January.
Here is your Week 14 primer, with games ranked in order of intrigue, from 1 to 16:
Why this game is No. 1:
What an individual matchup this game presents: A top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year trying to hunt down one of the leading contenders for Most Valuable Player. How often do you get to see two of the NFL's finest go head-to-head, with each going out of his way to game plan for the other? That's what it'll be when Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt lines up across from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. There are mind games to be played, just like when Brady squares off against elite secondary talents like Ed Reed or Darrelle Revis. Will he throw away from Watt's ever-swatting hands? Or try to go through them? In a broader sense, it's worth asking if the Patriots' suddenly balanced offense is the perfect machinery to toss at a Texans defense that has shown signs of faltering. On the other side, have the Patriots seen an offense as balanced as Houston's unit, starring running back Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson? A showdown of epic proportions, perfect for the spotlight game on Monday night. Week 14 certainly saves the best for last. #HOUvsNE *
Why this game is No. 2:
Roughly 38 miles separate the homes of the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins, but for years, it was so much more. There were the stacked and playoff-ready Ravens, who made the postseason in each of the last four campaigns: the upstarts of the area, laughing at their elder brethren. Then there was Washington, often futile in its postseason quest and not thrilled its kid brother was getting all the hype. Seems like things are on even footing now. Sure, Baltimore is its usual self, even amid injury issues. But with three straight wins -- thanks in large part to the brilliance of Robert Griffin III and his on-field rapport with receiver Pierre Garcon -- the Redskins might be playing better than their neighbors. A win would be big for both teams with regards to the playoffs, but the 'Skins need it just a bit more as they scrape and claw to sit at the cool table. Washington probably wouldn't mind some bragging rights, either. #BALvsWAS *
Why this game is No. 3:
There are a lot of on-field, in-game reasons to drool over New Orleans Saints at New York Giants, starting with the fireworks that both offenses can set off. Both teams are capable of running the ball, but these are downfield, high-flying offenses with fast receivers. The Saints see your Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz and raise you a Marques Colston or Jimmy Graham. For pure fun, I'd tune in to this afternoon game. I'll also be watching to see if Drew Brees can shake off a rare poor performance at Atlanta, and if the Giants' front four can knock him off his spot. But the postseason implications loom large, too. A loss ends an improbable playoff dash for New Orleans. If Big Blue loses, the NFC East is kicked wide open. #NOvsNYG *
Why this game is No. 4:
In the NFC North, which might be the NFL's best division, every game featuring the Packers, Bears or Vikings is important. And yes, it's head-spinning that we're still talking about young and inexperienced Minnesota this late in the season. But at 6-6, a win on Sunday keeps the Vikings in the thick of the playoff race. A loss, however, essentially ruins their chances while allowing the Bears to bounce back from last week's ugliness. Chicago just needs to right itself. What better way to do that than to ruin its rivals' season? The game is in Minnesota, where the Vikings are 5-1. And they still have Adrian Peterson, who will be running against a Bears defense missing Brian Urlacher. Can the Vikes continue their stunning 2012? #CHIvsMIN *
Why this game is No. 5:
On the surface, the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals seem to have nothing in common. Big market vs. small market. Different divisions. Big-money/spend at will vs. well, not. But look closer and there is more to bring them together than push them apart. They are both among the NFL's hottest teams -- really -- with Cincy winning four in a row and Dallas taking three of its last four. Both feature power running backs in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and DeMarco Murray, and both have young, electric receivers in A.J. Green and Dez Bryant. Devoid of drama and with no ulterior storylines, this should simply be a good game between two teams sitting just outside of the playoffs entering Week 14. Whoever wins takes a big step forward. #DALvsCIN *
Why this game is No. 6:
Don't laugh or click away. This isn't a mistake, putting a game between two teams with a combined record of 7-17 up here at No. 6. And no, it doesn't have anything to do with Tim Tebow. Jets-Jaguars sits in this this lofty perch because of the Gang Green drama. I'm not ashamed to say it. Rex Ryan told his players Wednesday morning that Mark Sanchez will retain his starting job, despite Sanchez getting yanked last Sunday in favor of Greg McElroy, who led the Jets to the game's only touchdown in a 7-6 win over the Arizona Cardinals. Still, it will be fascinating to watch the soap opera play out at the most important position in the biggest city (even if the game is actually in Jacksonville). How long a leash does Sanchez get? Oh, and if Tebow gets to play in front of his hometown fans? That'll only add to the madness. #NYJvsJAC *
Why this game is No. 7:
The Detroit Lions have underperformed their way out of playoff contention, making for a rare relative dud on Sunday night. The question of whether the Lions can play spoiler against the rival Green Bay Packers and knock them off the top perch in the NFC North doesn't seem very sexy. Still, the Packers are worth watching. They rebounded from a humbling performance against the Giants with an uneven win over the Vikings that saw Aaron Rodgers get hit too much. If that's a problem against Ndamukong Suh and the aggressive Lions front, life could get real interesting for the Pack. And not in a good way. That alone will keep us watching. #DETvsGB *
DON'T SLEEP ON (OR DURING) THESE GAMES
Why this game is No. 8:
Losers of four in a row, heading into the offseason abyss facing an institutional shakeup, the San Diego Chargers are simply hoping for any semblance of positivity. And all they have to deal with is a Pittsburgh Steelers team they've never beaten in Heinz Field, with the possibility of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger making his return. Is there any reason to believe San Diego will snap an 0-14 streak in the city of Pittsburgh? Whether Roethlisberger or the elderly Charlie Batch is taking snaps for the Steelers, it's not likely. #SDvsPIT *
Why this game is No. 9:
The last time these two teams played, a stirring game ended with Indianapolis Colts running back Vick Ballard flying through the air, landing on the pylon and securing an overtime win. It's a little different now. The Colts have taken off like Ballard did, all but securing their spot in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Titans have gone backwards, winning just one of four since. It's a young group with the Titans, but they might be playing for 2013. The Colts, though, have shown that highlights just happen when they take the field. At the least, it's another opportunity to check out Andrew Luck, one of the Rookie of the Year front-runners. #TENvsIND *
Why this game is No. 10:
This one should be more exciting than it appears it will be on the surface. The Buffalo Bills are coming off a blowout victory, one that saw them showcase both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. And the St. Louis Rams are on their way to proving they are legit after taking down the 49ers in overtime. And yet? Buzz-less. Sorry, Bills Mafia and Rams faithful (whose nickname isn't as cool). I'll happily tune in, ready to check out the rising Rams against the Bills, who have clung to their playoff hopes despite suffering multiple mind-numbing losses. But still, ho hum. #STLvsBUF *
Why this game is No. 11:
When you scoured the schedule at the beginning of the season, this one had so much promise. The Carolina Panthers were supposed to be better, and the Atlanta Falcons were supposed to be what they are; Cam Newton vs. Matt Ryan could have offered far-reaching implications. Now? Not so much. It might be a good game, though, with Newton always capable of making things interesting. But consider that Atlanta, which has taken on nearly all comers, is fresh off a big-time takedown of the Saints on Thursday, with extra rest to boot. Will this really be close? #ATLvsCAR *