In the AFC, we already know that Indianapolis has clinched its division, and the Colts all but have home field wrapped up. New England and Cincinnati have opened up two–game leads in their divisions. Barring a near total collapse, it looks likely that they will be in the playoffs. So, too, should San Diego be en route to the postseason, even though the Chargers have a one–game lead over Denver.
And, if the season ended today, one of the AFC's wild card slots would go to Denver. The other wild card would go to Pittsburgh, Baltimore or Jacksonville.
In the NFC, no team has clinched its division yet, but the Saints and Vikings look like sure things. Arizona has a two–game lead over San Francisco in the West, and Dallas holds a one–game lead over Philadelphia in the East.
As for the wild cards, Philadelphia and Green Bay would be on their way to the playoffs if the season ended today.
- New York Jets (5–6) at Buffalo (4–7) — It seems to me that the loser of this game is out of the playoff race. It will be a longshot for the Bills, even if they beat the Jets — and the Bills did win their first game with the Jets this season. Recent history has shown that one team sweeps the other; the Jets won both games last year, the Bills won both games in 2007. But the teams split in 2006, 2005, 2004 and 2003. The Bills only won by a field goal earlier this year, and their defense is questionable, to say the least. I think the Jets will win and remain in the playoff race.
- St. Louis (1–10) at Chicago (4–7) — There are five weeks remaining in the regular season, counting this one. I can practically guarantee that almost no one cares what happens in this game. I'll pick the Bears to win, not necessarily because they're good but because the Rams are bad.
- New England (7–4) at Miami (5–6) — Miami holds the tiebreaker over the Jets, having won both of their encounters, so if the teams tie for a wild–card slot, the Dolphins have the edge. But they have to get past the Patriots, who are likely to be in a foul mood after losing to New Orleans on Monday. I'm guessing they won't — and the Dolphins can start making plans for next season.
- Philadelphia (7–4) at Atlanta (6–5) — The Eagles haven't lost to the Falcons since the opening weekend of 2005. If the Falcons win, they're in the wild–card race. If they lose, they're probably out of the running, with a game against New Orleans coming up next week and too many other teams to overcome in the final month of the season. In this decade, the Patriots and Steelers have been regarded as the most successful NFL franchises because of their Super Bowl victories, but a good case can be made for the Eagles, who were fixtures in the NFC Championship game for several years. Even when they haven't been one of the finalists in the NFC, the Eagles have been consistent contenders who know how to turn up the heat in the cold of December. I pick the Eagles to win.
- New Orleans (11–0) at Washington (3–8) — New Orleans looked unbeatable in its 38–17 win over New England on Monday night, writes Don Banks of Sports Illustrated. And I won't argue the point. Considering that the Patriots have won three Super Bowls in this decade, it was clearly a signature win for the Saints, who have yet to play in their first Super Bowl. The Saints may not finish the regular season undefeated, and, if they do, they may not get through the playoffs. But I don't believe Washington will hand New Orleans its first loss of this season.
- Tennessee (5–6) at Indianapolis (11–0) — Last weekend, the Colts became the first NFL team to punch their ticket for the playoffs. The Titans are still entertaining hopes of being in the playoffs as a wild card team. Unlike the Saints, who have the 10–1 Vikings breathing down their necks in the race for homefield advantage in the NFC, the Colts have some wiggle room, and I expect them to rest their starters as much as possible until such time as the homefield race tightens up in the AFC. I expect the Titans to go all out, and I'll take Tennessee as an upset special.
- Oakland (3–8) at Pittsburgh (6–5) — As much as I'd like to see some real drama, like the "Immaculate Reception," in this game, I figure the Steelers are going to win fairly easily and improve their chances of being in the playoffs.
- Denver (7–4) at Kansas City (3–8) — Honestly, I don't think this will affect the outcome at all, but Kansas City is going to retire Derrick Thomas' number at halftime on Sunday. It is definitely the thing to do, but I have to wonder if it isn't several years too late. Thomas has been dead nearly 10 years. I don't think anyone who plays for the Chiefs today was his teammate. How much of a motivator can it be? Denver, on the other hand, is coming off an impressive win over the Giants. The Broncos have a legitimate shot at the playoffs, and I expect them to handle the Chiefs.
- Tampa Bay (1–10) at Carolina (4–7) — This game matches the St. Louis–Chicago game in the "who cares?" category. Carolina has beaten Tampa Bay in their last two meetings, and the Panthers haven't lost at home to the Bucs since Sept. 30, 2007. I pick the Panthers to win.
- Detroit (2–9) at Cincinnati (8–3) — This is a mismatch. The Lions are ready for the season to be over. The Bengals are looking ahead to the playoffs. Detroit has given up more points than any other team in the NFL, and the Lions are winless on the road. It's not much of a reach to pick the Bengals to win.
- Houston (5–6) at Jacksonville (6–5) — The Texans have been competing since 2002. They haven't qualified for the playoffs, but they have finished at .500 each of the last two seasons. Can they do it a third straight year? They might — they have Seattle, St. Louis and Miami left on their schedule — but it's hard for me to see how they can snap a three–game losing streak in a trip to Jacksonville. Besides, as I already pointed out, the Jaguars are in the playoff chase, and they need this win with Indianapolis and New England remaining on their schedule. I pick Jacksonville.
- San Diego (8–3) at Cleveland (1–10) — The Browns are winless at home and they are only averaging about 11 points per game. Meanwhile, no team in the AFC — not even the unbeaten Colts — has scored more than the Chargers, who are 4–1 at home and riding a six–game winning streak. I pick the Chargers.
- Dallas (8–3) at New York Giants (6–5) — The Cowboys lost to the Giants earlier this season in Dallas' first regular–season game in the new Cowboys Stadium, and now they have the opportunity to virtually eliminate New York from the playoff picture. The history of the series at New York has been mostly close, although you couldn't tell it from the results of the last couple of meetings at the Meadowlands. The last time Dallas played at New York, the Giants romped to a 35–14 victory. In 2007, the Cowboys broke a halftime tie at the Meadowlands and went on to claim a 31–20 win. In 2006, the Cowboys won at New York on a last–second field goal. The year before, the Giants topped the visiting Cowboys, 17–10. In 2004, the Giants won, 28–24. In 2003, the Cowboys emerged with a 35–32 win. Tim Smith of the New York Daily News says this will be an opportunity to see if the Giants have a pulse. I think it will be close again, but, given Dallas' dismal record in December, I'm going to say the Giants will win by a single point.
- San Francisco (5–6) at Seattle (4–7) — The 49ers started the season with a 3–2 record (including a home win over Seattle), but they've been staggering since their bye week, winning two of six contests. They still have a shot at the playoffs, with Detroit and St. Louis on their schedule in the final two weeks, but even with wins against the Seahawks, Lions and Rams, the 49ers will need to beat either Arizona or Philadelphia to finish above .500. I don't know if they will be able to do that. Can they win at Seattle? Well, they've struggled on the road, while home has been fairly kind to the Seahawks. This may be a modest upset, but I'll pick Seattle to win.
- Minnesota (10–1) at Arizona (7–4) — This may be a preview of the playoffs. Of course, the only way the two could meet in Arizona in the postseason would be if the Vikings go on an unexpected losing skid while the Cardinals win practically every game remaining on their schedule. Last year, the teams played in Arizona in December, and the Vikings cruised to a 35–14 win over the eventual NFC champs. In 2006, the Vikings won a much closer contest in Minneapolis, 31–26. The Vikings' last loss to the Cardinals came in the 2003 season finale — a defeat that cost the Vikings a slot in the playoffs. This season, Arizona has struggled at home (2–3). With Minnesota's potent offense, I pick the Vikings to win.
- Baltimore (6–5) at Green Bay (7–4) — As nonconference opponents, these teams seldom face each other. This will be their first meeting since 2005, when the Ravens pounded the Packers, 48–3. But it should be noted that the Packers went 4–12 that year — and the game was played in Baltimore. The last time the teams played in Green Bay was Oct. 14, 2001, and the Packers prevailed, 31–23. Prior to that, the Packers beat the Ravens at Lambeau Field on Oct. 25, 1998. History indicates, therefore, that the home team should win, and, with Aaron Rodgers, one of the NFC's top quarterbacks running the Green Bay offense, I'm inclined to think that will be the case on Monday night. I'll take Green Bay.