The Minnesota Vikings at the Green Bay Packers, for the NFC North championship, in the final game of the regular season. This is precisely why the NFL has moved to preserve the last week on the schedule for division games.
The Vikings and Packers will play late Sunday in the league’s most-watched television time slot, at Lambeau Field in the January cold. The winner gets the No. 3 seed for the NFC playoffs, plus a sense of satisfaction that will last in some form at least until next autumn.
The loser must go on the road to start the postseason as a wild-card team, with some inevitable bitterness about the rival team taking the division title.
This is old news for Green Bay, which is seeking a fifth straight division crown. The Packers are playing for the third consecutive season with the division on the line in the finale, having beaten Chicago two seasons ago and Detroit last season.
”There’s a reason we were moved to `Sunday Night Football,”’ Packers coach Mike McCarthy says. ”It’s a game that’s attractive. Winning the division is important, but getting into the playoffs is the ultimate. If you ever wanted a playoff-type game to prepare us for the playoffs, we’re going to play one on Sunday night.”
As always, a key will be how they handle Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who is closing in on his third rushing title. Also a factor could be how the Vikings deal with the pressure of the moment.
”You can’t let the game become too big,” Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater says. ”Don’t have to do anything extra, don’t have to put any `S’ on our chests, capes on our backs. We just have to do our job and do our job well.”
Peterson shrugs off the thought of pressure.
”We could play on a basketball court, and I’ll be ready to play for this one,” he says.
There are plenty of other games with playoff implications.
If the New York Jets can beat the Buffalo Bills and the coach they fired a year ago, they are in the postseason. If not and the Steelers win at Cleveland, Pittsburgh gets the spot.
The Jets lost to Buffalo on Nov. 12 when their offense sputtered in the red zone. But they’ve won their last five, and it’s the Bills who have spiralled – and had some issues off the field, too. They’ve missed the playoffs for the 16th successive season.
Bills coach Rex Ryan, fired by the Jets last year, would love nothing more than to ruin things for the Jets and his successor there, Todd Bowles.
If he can do so, the Steelers couldn’t find a better opponent than archrival Cleveland against which to take advantage of the opening.
Also simple: If the Houston Texans beat visiting Jacksonville, they take the AFC South. And they get back regular quarterback Brian Hoyer for this one.
Should they lose, the Indianapolis Colts need just about every game to go their way. Not so simple.
More intriguing are the coaching futures.
Chuck Pagano led Indianapolis to the postseason in each of his first three seasons, but this one has been problematic, and there already are reports he is out. Having star quarterback Andrew Luck injured for much of the schedule didn’t help his cause.
Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey has gone 2-6 since replacing Ken Whisenhunt, but also has missed his quarterback, rookie Marcus Mariota, for some games. The Titans have scored a total of 30 points in their three-game skid.
More simplicity: If the Carolina Panthers defeat Tampa Bay, they clinch the NFC’s best overall record. A second straight defeat after going 14-0 would allow the Arizona Cardinals to grab the top seed with a victory over visiting Seattle, which owns a wild card.
A Carolina loss also would place plenty of doubt about how good the Panthers really are despite their gaudy record.
Another strong performance by Arizona would enhance its status as a team to beat in the Super Bowl chase.