With the Bears flexed into a prime time showdown with Philadelphia, the afternoon is cleared up for other viewing. Here’s a look at what I consider to be the tastiest matchups.
Colts (9-5) at Chiefs (11-3) 1 P.M. ET (CBS)
- The Colts have an impressive resume of wins; they’ve beaten the Broncos, 49ers, and Seahawks, after all. But all of those wins came at home, and all of them came before Reggie Wayne tore his ACL. Living in Indiana, I’ve caught a few of their games, and the offense hasn’t looked the same since Wayne went down. (Some coaching flaws could be to blame. O.C. Pep Hamilton has not exactly won rave reviews from my knowledgeable Indy buddies, nor from analysts including ESPN’s Matt Williamson, who referred to the Colts offense as “one of the worst-coordinated in the league.”) The Chiefs opened up 9-0, and plenty of people penciled them in for a potential playoff run. Their schedule was quite soft, though; they’ve still only played two teams who are currently above .500. (Kansas City is 1-2 in those games, losing twice to Denver. The lone victory? The Eagles.) I think Alex Smith can do enough for the Chiefs to win at home. I also think we’ll see a rematch of this game in Indianapolis on Wild Card weekend. (I also also think that if Andrew Luck could be transplanted to Kansas City to play for Andy Reid and with that young defense, the Chiefs might not lose another game. Ever.)
Saints (10-4) at Panthers (10-4) 1 P.M. ET (FOX)
- In a game that could (and likely will) determine the champion of the NFC South, the Saints travel to Carolina in a rematch of their contest from two weeks ago. The Saints won that game handily, but they’re a different team outside the Superdome (3-4 on the road this season.) Carolina, meanwhile, has an excellent 6-1 home record, although their best win was a squeaker over a not-all-that-great New England team. Beyond the divisional aspect, this game goes a long way toward cementing the NFC playoff picture, as one of these two teams is likely to get a bye and a home game; that is obviously a big motivator for New Orleans. I think both of these teams are very good, but I still trust the Saints more. The Saints have played a tougher schedule, and I guess I’m still evaluating the Panthers; I haven’t had the chance to see them often, so I think it might be more of a case of observational bias than any sort of brilliant insight on my part. Of course, the fact that the Saints just won 31-13 two weeks ago is factoring into this as well. Hard to go against that result, even though I know rationally that it has very little bearing on the outcome of today’s game.
Cardinals (9-5) at Seahawks (12-2) 4:05 P.M. ET (FOX)
- The Cardinals are still hanging around, but if they’re going to make the playoffs, it might very well take them doing something that has been impossible since 2011: defeating the Seahawks in Seattle. Speaking of observational bias, I’ve not caught a Cardinals game either (Sunday Ticket is going to have to be a consideration for me next season) so I’m not sure how qualified I am to analyze their abilities. They’re 9-5, with wins over Detroit (yay!), Carolina, and Indianapolis. But this game and a Week 17 game against San Francisco (their Wild Card competitor) loom large. If they win both, they have a chance. But I don’t think there’s any chance that the Seahawks are losing tomorrow. A win for Seattle clinches home field advantage throughout the playoffs, and that’s one of the most important advantages in sports. I think it will be in full force, and I think Seattle wins. (Arizona might still be alive heading into their showdown with San Francisco, but only if the 49ers lose to Atlanta on Monday Night Football in what will likely be the last game played at Candlestick Park. Certainly the last regular season game. If Arizona loses and the 49ers win, I believe that would clinch a playoff spot for San Francisco.)
Patriots (10-4) at Ravens (8-6) 4:25 P.M. ET (CBS)
- This was originally scheduled for Sunday Night Football, but now it sits as a very intriguing late-window game. The Ravens are locked in a battle with Miami for the final AFC playoff spot (with San Diego lurking but requiring quite a bit of help to get back into the race.) The Patriots are trying to hold off both Cincinnati and Indianapolis for the #2 seed and the all-important bye. The Pats are 3-4 on the road, while Baltimore is 6-1 at home; the Ravens are also coming off of an inspired performance on Monday. Well, I use inspired loosely; they didn’t score a touchdown all night, and their offense looked quite shaky. The Patriots, meanwhile, are dealing with quite a few offensive problems of their own. Tom Brady’s weapons have been taken away from him, seemingly weekly. As a result, his numbers are, well, pedestrian; his QBR of 62.2 ranks 11th in the NFL, but it would be his lowest mark dating back to 2006 (as far back as the stat goes.) His yards-per-attempt is 7.0, his lowest number since 2008. (It’s almost as if quarterbacks struggle with below-average receivers. We Chicago fans saw that proven for three straight seasons. Also, I’d like to mention how glad I am that the Bears traded for Brandon Marshall and not the Patriots. Or any other team, of course, but still.) I actually like New England in this game. I’m as far from a Patriot fan as you can get, and I’m quite grateful to the Ravens for beating Detroit on Monday. But watching that game, it felt much more like Detroit beating themselves; I don’t think Brady is going to give the Ravens as many chances as Matt Stafford did. I think a close, low-scoring game ends with New England on top.
You may have noticed that I skipped the NFC North entirely; that was by design. We know about those games, and we’ve already discussed their potential impacts. For what it’s worth, I think the Lions win (as bad as Detroit/Stafford have been, New York/Eli have been worse) while Green Bay loses (Rodgers is just too much to overcome against any real, competent defense), but I’m necessarily confident in either of those choices. I think any number of things could happen, but here’s my final prediction: the Bears will have something beyond seeding to play for against Philadelphia.