Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
In an epoch hardly rife with opportunities to praise anything that the NFL does, just one quick glance at this week's schedule of games almost makes you want to write a letter to the league office thanking them for the awesome spate of games they've given us this weekend.
Christmas is coming two days late this year.
Credit the NFL's powers that be for manipulating the schedule in the best possible way. Key divisional matchups and games dripping with salacious storylines abound in Week 16. So without further ado, let's get into the five best games on the docket this weekend.
1. New England Patriots (12-2) @ New York Jets (9-5) - Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Either the Jets don't fully understand how 'trolling' works, or they're suffering from an acute case of amnesia by making Mo Lewis the honorary "pilot" of the Jets-Pats game on Sunday. In case you've somehow forgotten - and the Jets may have either willfully or otherwise - it was Lewis who laid the infamous sideline hit on Patriots starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe in 2001, which paved the way for Tom Brady to become the greatest quarterback of all time and lead the Patriots to four Super Bowl titles.
So are the Jets trying to rile up the Patriots here? If so, how exactly? By reminding them and their fans that their arch-rivals are actually to thank for almost two decades of football prosperity in New England? Or maybe the Jets are looking at this as a 'Bills bringing Norwood back to Buffalo' type moment where the fans cheer Lewis' name with reverence and forgiveness - even though he doesn't need it for making what was a perfectly acceptable football play. Then we watch with glee as the memory of his play is expunged by a rousing Jets win over a hated rival that brings them one step closer to a playoff berth? Maybe he's there to execute a hit on Brady and usher in the Jimmy Garropolo era?
Who knows. The Jets' strange decision to make this feel like "The Mo Lewis Game II" aside, it's going to be one for the ages between these two bitter rivals.
The Jets have to win. There's really no two ways about it. A loss at the hands of the Patriots all but ends their season. Meanwhile, the Patriots also have to win, but for an entirely different reason. The Pats have locked up the AFC East, but are still playing for home field advantage throughout the playoffs and still need to lock up a first round bye, which is more than vital for a team still reeling from a number of injuries.
So consider this a must win for both teams. Two teams that would love nothing more than to make the other teams' life that much more difficult and miserable at the most crucial of times. Their first matchup this season was decided by a last-second field goal, and this one should be no different.
2. Green Bay Packers (10-4) @ Arizona Cardinals (12-2) - Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
In the case of both of these Super Bowl contenders, you can't help but think about who they've lost and how much it affects their chances of winning it all this year. The Packers' offense has been a bit of an enigma this year but the reason that's been the case is anything but a mystery. They miss Jordy Nelson.
Now the Cardinals will need to find a way to adjust to their own critical injury after losing cornerback Tyrann Matthieu, who has been an integral part of a vicious Cardinals defense all year long.
Ultimately, the Packers cannot clinch the NFC North with just a win, they'll need the Vikings to lose to the Giants as well. Still, this is a huge litmus test game for the Pack against a team considered the cream of the NFC crop by many this year.
For the Cardinals, the NFC West is theirs. With a win over the Packers they can further bolster their credentials and can lock up, at worst, the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Big implications all around for two teams who have high aspirations.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (11-3) @ Denver Broncos (10-4) - Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET
It's the battle of the backups in Denver this Monday Night, and both No. 2 quarterbacks will be playing in the biggest game of their NFL lives. For A.J. McCarron and the Bengals, the playoffs are locked down, but the NFC North title is theirs with a win in Denver. Brock Osweiler and the Broncos, on the other hand, are virtually assured of nothing.
With two victories to end the season, the Broncos could find themselves with the No. 1 seed in the AFC if all of the cards fall in their favor. On the flip side, they could end up out of the playoffs with an 11-5 record if they lose just one of their final two games.
Talk about a wide range of possibilities.
It's gut check time for both of these teams. The Broncos' top-rated defense has been supporting what has been mostly lackluster quarterback play most of the year, while the Bengals might find themselves in a similar position if Andy Dalton doesn't return this season.
Oh yeah, and did I mention the Bengals are 0-9 lifetime in Denver? Either they're due, or they're screwed. We'll find out Monday.
4. Washington Redskins (7-7) @ Philadelphia Eagles (6-8) - Saturday, 8:25 p.m. ET
So, here we are. It's Week 16, and just as we all suspected, the Eagles and Redskins are battling for the NFC East crown with eight and seven losses to their names, respectively. The NFC East is a putrid, terrible, horrible, no good division. I know Giants fans are still living in 2011 and think if their team can somehow make the playoffs anything can happen, but here's a quick spoiler alert - it can't and it won't. Whichever team wins the NFC East is one and done, yet the division race is one of the most captivating ones we have left.
Can the Eagles, maligned as they are, overcome their terrible play and win their way into the playoffs? Fletcher Cox thinks so.
Can the Redskins, as inept as they may seem at every turn on and off the field, hold off the Eagles and virtually lock up the division?
I mean, it won't matter in the end, but it'll still be fun to watch.
5. Carolina Panthers (14-0) @ Atlanta Falcons (7-7) - 1:00 p.m. ET
The Falcons' season has been about the same as a 15-week spin on a tilt-o-whirl. From 5-0 and playoff certainty to 7-7 and near complete irrelevance, they've lived the lives of an elite NFL unit and a second-tier group all in one year. And after all of that, they still have an outside shot at the playoffs.
It'll take a Christmas miracle, but the possibility still exists.
The Panthers, on the other hand, are the NFL's alpha male this year. Despite what sleights people throw at them in the form of slanderous words and skewed point spreads, this team is 14-0.
There's a small part of me that can see the Falcons keeping this close early. It is, after all, a unique chance to dethrone a perfect squad and keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
Then I look back to Week 14, when the Panthers throttled the hapless Falcons 38-0. Then I remember, Christmas miracles happen, but not ones of this magnitude.
The only Christmas miracle this year came from the NFL schedule makers . So enjoy your holiday, enjoy your family, and enjoy watching your favorite football team for the final time in 2015.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.
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