Perhaps that is because the NFL will have the spotlight mostly to itself for the balance of December. And some NFL teams — and their fans — definitely have reason to be excited. For the first time in a long time.
Well, fans of the Saints and Colts already know they're headed for the playoffs, but lots of fans in lots of places will be keeping an eye on other teams' scores this weekend. It's looking like it might be a photo finish for some of the playoff spots.
- Pittsburgh (6–6) at Cleveland (1–11) — If you were going to put together a list of the most celebrated rivalries in the NFL, Pittsburgh–Cleveland might not make your Top 10. But the teams began playing each other in 1950 and, before the Browns were moved to Baltimore and renamed the Ravens, forcing the NFL to capitulate to the demands of irate Clevelanders and form a new Cleveland Browns franchise in 1999, it was a bitter, often competitive, series. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Browns beat the Steelers more than three–quarters of the time. But since the new Browns franchise was formed, Pittsburgh has thoroughly dominated things, winning 19 of the 22 times they have played, including the last 12. Bottom line: Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune–Review believes the Steelers' hopes are fading, but the defending Super Bowl champs still have a shot at the playoffs. The Browns do not. Historically, Cleveland has a 33–23 edge at home, but the Browns haven't beaten the Steelers there since 2000. I don't think they will win this time, either — but I didn't think the Steelers would lose to the Raiders last week.
- New Orleans (12–0) at Atlanta (6–6) — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was challenged by PolitiFact.com this week for asserting in a radio interview that New Orleans "will go not only undefeated, but all the way through the Super Bowl — something that's never been done before." Perhaps the governor meant that it hasn't been done since the NFL expanded the regular season to 16 games because the 1972 Miami Dolphins won every regular season game and then swept through the playoffs to complete a 17–0 season. The Saints have a two–game winning streak against the Falcons, but they lost the last time they played in the Georgia Dome, on Nov. 9, 2008. Only time will tell if Jindal is right about the Saints; for now, I will predict that they will defeat the Falcons on Sunday.
- Detroit (2–10) at Baltimore (6–6) — The Lions have no shot at the playoffs. Baltimore, however, has an accommodating schedule that might help it overtake one of the top contenders for a wild card in the AFC. The Ravens, whose offense ranks 15th in the NFL (compared to Detroit at 26th) and whose defense ranks 10th in the NFL (compared to Detroit at 30th), need to take advantage of this game, though, and I think they will.
- Green Bay (8–4) at Chicago (5–7) — Green Bay–Chicago is a legendary rivalry in the NFL, and, since 2000, the Packers have had the better end of the deal, winning 11 of 19 contests. But most of those wins came in the early part of the decade. The Bears have had the upper hand in recent years. But not this season. The Packers beat the Bears in the 2009 opener, 21–15, after going 2–6 against Chicago in the previous four seasons. They seem to be running on all cylinders, so I'll pick the Pack to prevail.
- Seattle (5–7) at Houston (5–7) — Since the loser of this game cannot possibly finish the season any better than .500, that team likely will have no chance at the playoffs. It's a little more dire for Seattle than it is for Houston because there are already more 8–4 teams in the NFC than AFC. But .500 teams seldom advance to the playoffs. In their brief history, the Texans have played Seattle once — a 42–10 loss in 2005. Historically, that isn't much to go on. Current statistics are probably a better barometer. The defenses are about the same, but Houston has a decisive edge on offense. The Seahawks are 1–5 on the road this year; the Texans aren't much better at home, with a 2–4 mark. I'll go with Houston — unenthusiastically.
- Denver (8–4) at Indianapolis (12–0) — There was a time, not too long ago, when the Broncos appeared to be spiraling downward and out of playoff contention. Denver now has won two in a row, prompting Jim Armstrong of the Denver Post to assert that Denver is in the driver's seat again — the same place the Broncos were believed to be before they lost four in a row. The Broncos' winning streak is in jeopardy this week, and Denver has to travel to Philadelphia on Christmas weekend, but their remaining home games are against Oakland and Kansas City, two teams Denver has beaten handily already this season. Even the most pessimistic observer must concede that the Broncos are likely to finish at least 10–6, which would leave few teams that might overtake them. But can they stop the Colts? They couldn't the last time these teams played in Indianapolis in 2007, even though Denver jumped out to a 10–0 lead. They couldn't the year before, when the teams met in Denver. In fact, you have to go back to 2003 to find the last time Denver won a regular–season game in Indianapolis. I don't think the Broncos will win this time.
- Miami (6–6) at Jacksonville (7–5) — This is a critical game in the AFC. If Jacksonville loses, several teams (including Miami) will be back in the chase. If Jacksonville loses, several teams will be on the brink of elimination. As odd as it may seem, the Jaguars actually hold the advantage over the Dolphins historically, 2–1, in the regular season (the Jags also won their only postseason encounter), but the teams haven't faced each other since 2006. This season, Jacksonville has been a good bet at home (5–1). The Dolphins, meanwhile, are 2–4 on the road. The Jaguars look like a solid choice in this game.
- Buffalo (4–8) at Kansas City (3–9) — This is a game that really has no bearing on the playoff picture. Can recent series history tell us anything useful? Well, the visiting team lost the last meeting. When these teams met in K.C. last year, Buffalo clobbered the Chiefs, 54–31. The three meetings before that went to the home team. In 2005, the Chiefs lost, 14–3, in Buffalo. Then, in 2002 and 2003, the Chiefs beat the Bills in Kansas City, 17–16 (in 2002) and 38–5, in 2003. I suppose that suggests that last year was the anomaly. But, statistically, it seems to me that the Bills have the advantage. It doesn't seem to be as pronounced on offense — Buffalo is 29th in the NFL and Kansas City is 30th in team offense. But, on team defense, the Bills are 23rd in the NFL while the Chiefs are 31st. On that basis, I pick the Bills to win.
- Cincinnati (9–3) at Minnesota (10–2) — In the aftermath of Sunday night's loss to Arizona, now Minnesota must take on another team that appears to be headed for the playoffs. The good news for the Vikings, though, is that this game will be played at home, where the Vikings are 6–0 this season. I'll take the Vikings to win, although I think the Bengals will give them a good fight.
- Carolina (5–7) at New England (7–5) — In the Boston Herald, Ron Borges writes that the Patriots "are dissolving in front of our eyes." That is a conclusion that must be hard not to reach after last weekend's loss to Miami, although Borges' premise is more long term. He contends the slide has been occurring for several years, thanks to poor choices in the draft. Nevertheless, the Dolphins are now a single game behind the Patriots in the AFC East, although that may change after this weekend. Even if it does, Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald believes the teams are going in opposite directions — and the Dolphins are the ones who are on the rise. He may be right, but I'll take New England over Carolina this Sunday.
- New York Jets (6–6) at Tampa Bay (1–11) — This is the kind of game the Jets must to remain in the playoff picture — especially with games against the Colts and Bengals left on the schedule. On the other hand, the Jets might well beat one or the other at this stage of the season — particularly the Colts, who will be understandably reluctant to put key players at risk before the playoffs begin. But the Jets need to take care of business against the Bucs and, with the highest–rated team defense in the AFC, I think they will.
- St. Louis (1–11) at Tennessee (5–7) — Unless the Titans can win their final four games — and even if they do — getting into the playoffs will be a tough assignment. And the Titans can expect to be challenged in their next two games — against Miami and San Diego. Both of those games, like Sunday's game with the woeful Rams, will be played in Tennessee, where the Titans are currently 3–2. Unfortunately for them, though, if they get into the playoffs, it will be as a wild card and they'll have to play on the road, where they are 2–5. Nevertheless, I'll pick the Titans — if only because it will make next week's game more interesting.
- Washington (3–9) at Oakland (4–8) — Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Twenty–five years ago, these two teams met in the Super Bowl, which turned into a showcase for Marcus Allen. Today, these teams are footnotes for the 2009 season. They're both probably better than their records indicate — the Raiders, for example, have beaten both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the last three weeks and the Redskins, in addition to beating Denver a month ago, have lost their last two games, against Philadelphia and undefeated New Orleans, by a pair of field goals. But close calls are still losses, and both teams will be watching the playoffs on TV. Who will win on Sunday? Neither team has been terribly impressive on offense, but the Redskins have been better on both sides of the ball. On that basis, I'll pick the visitors from Washington to record their first road win of the season.
- San Diego (9–3) at Dallas (8–4) — Randy Galloway writes, in the Fort Worth Star–Telegram, that Dallas' loss last Sunday to New York marked the re–emergence of Dallas' "December demons." That may be so. With the exception of one game (against Washington on Dec. 27), the remaining schedule looks pretty unforgiving, starting this Sunday with the game against the Chargers, followed by a trip to New Orleans on Dec. 19 and the regular–season finale against Philadelphia on Jan. 3. All in all, it is not inconceivable that the Cowboys, who were 6–2 midway through the season, could finish a hair over .500 — and, depending on how everything else plays out, could miss the playoffs again. In the Jerry Jones era, this will be the fifth meeting between these two teams, and the last three have gone to the visiting team. The Cowboys haven't beaten the Chargers in Dallas since Sept. 9, 1990. I don't think the Chargers, who have won seven in a row, seem to be healthy now and can clinch a playoff spot with some assistance this weekend, will lose this time.
- Philadelphia (8–4) at New York Giants (7–5) — By the time these two tee it up, the outcome of the San Diego–Dallas game should be known. If the Chargers win, the Eagles will have extra motivation, knowing they can take the lead in the NFC East with a victory. The Eagles hammered the Giants in their first meeting, and only two teams in the NFC have scored more than Philly. Even so, New York is eighth in team offense in the NFL while Philadelphia is 11th. Go figure. The Giants also may be more competitive at home than they were on the road, but I'll take Philadelphia to win. Call it a hunch.
- Arizona (8–4) at San Francisco (5–7) — Can San Francisco sweep Arizona? Maybe. The recent history of their series (well, since 2004) has been that one or the other wins both encounters, and the 49ers beat the Cardinals on Opening Day. Do the 49ers have a realistic shot at the playoffs? That's another matter. If they don't beat the Cardinals, they're definitely out of the running for the divisional title — and a wild card is a distinct longshot at best. Arizona has been surprisingly good on the road this season (5–1) so I'll give a slight edge to Arizona.