With just four weeks left in the NFL regular season, the weight of each game is increasing. As any football fan knows, earning a first-round bye significantly improves a team’s likelihood of competing for a conference championship or even a Super Bowl.
This week, I’ll focus on the four most important remaining games this season that have the potential to shift the playoff picture.
Week 14: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints
Two heavyweights in the NFC are going head-to-head Sunday, and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs could be on the line. The 49ers dropped to 10-2 after losing a close game in Baltimore to the hottest team in football, and the Saints became the first team to clinch their division last Thursday.
However, the Saints could still see an edge — traveling halfway across the country for another early game will surely take a toll on the 49ers, and the Superdome is one of the toughest places to win in the NFL.
When San Francisco’s offense is on the field, the key matchup will be its dominant running game (No. 2 in the league) against the Saints’ sturdy run defense (No. 3 in the league). The Saints pass defense has been suspect at times, and Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s ability to exploit this advantage may be the deciding factor in this game.
When New Orleans’ offense is on the field, it will need to create big plays against a suffocating 49ers defense that has allowed the fewest yards per game and second-fewest points per game this season.
Left tackle Terron Armstead may return from his ankle injury, and his presence could make the difference against the 49ers’ dominant pass rush. Saints receiver Michael Thomas has been unstoppable; it’ll be interesting to see if the 49ers are able to slow him down.
The winner of this game controls its destiny in the race for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Week 14: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots
It’s been almost a full year since the Patriots went into Kansas City and won the AFC Championship en route to quarterback Tom Brady’s sixth Super Bowl victory. While neither of these teams has been as dominant as they were last season, this game still has the power to impact the AFC playoff seeding and, perhaps more importantly, gives the Chiefs a chance to prove they have the ability to compete with anyone in the AFC.
The vulnerability of the Patriots’ offense was exposed on national TV in last week’s loss to the Texans, and the question of whether Brady is washed is resurfacing. The Chiefs are coming off a blowout win over the Raiders, who seemingly had the potential to compete for the AFC West, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes is starting to find his rhythm after missing two games due to a dislocated kneecap.
The Patriots’ greatest strength is their defense, although it has been susceptible to mobile quarterbacks like Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Houston’s Deshaun Watson in recent weeks.
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs defense has been average at best, coming in at No. 25 in yards per game and No. 16 in points per game. Brady and the New England offense will need to bounce back after struggling against the mediocre Texans defense.
A Chiefs win would bring them one step closer to a highly sought-after first-round bye and increase Baltimore’s chances at home-field advantage in the AFC.
Week 16: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
The NFC North title will likely be on the line when Green Bay and Minnesota meet Monday, Dec. 23.
With the division title comes the right to host a playoff game rather than spend the playoffs on the road as a wild card team. Both teams have had their share of triumphs and struggles so far. The Packers’ offense looked elite in wins over the Cowboys and Raiders, but it faltered both times they traveled west, resulting in ugly losses to the Chargers and 49ers.
The Vikings lost the first time they faced the Packers back in Week 2, but quarterback Kirk Cousins has stepped up the last few weeks, and Dalvin Cook has been one of the league’s best running backs. If Cousins continues playing at a high level, it is difficult to fathom the Packers beating the Vikings in Minnesota, but if he collapses on the big stage as he is known to do, you can expect another wild card playoff appearance for the Vikings.
Week 17: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
This looks to be another division-deciding game, as the Seahawks have kept pace with the 49ers’ elite performance so far this season. These teams hold two of the best records in the NFC, meaning a bye week or even the No. 1 seed could be at stake come Week 17.
The first meeting between the two was an overtime thriller that came down to missed kicks and saw Seattle hand San Francisco its first loss of the season. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has arguably been the league MVP so far, pulling off one miraculous play after another to keep the Seahawks in nearly every game.
The 49ers’ elite defense must make adjustments to contain Wilson the second time around while remaining unfazed by the noise at CenturyLink Field. One can only hope for another fantastic battle between these two bitter rivals, who just might see each other a third time in the postseason.
Dario Offstein is a junior writing about sports. His column, “Deep Dive,” ran every other Tuesday.