Big games ahead through Christmas in NFL
The accepted mantra throughout the NFL that stretches to its fandom is that each game in the schedule is equally important.
Then we get to late November and all of December and forget that bromide.
It’s happening again, and there’s nothing wrong with it.
Think about how huge Kansas City’s stunning win at New England to kick off the season seemed to be. Doesn’t look so momentous right now with the Chiefs nose-diving in the AFC West while the Patriots do their usual tsunami over the AFC East.
The league and many of the pundits who follow it couldn’t find enough hyperbole for the first Sunday nighter, the Giants at Dallas.
Well, the Giants are in range for a top-three draft choice — and just benched Eli Manning, if you can imagine — and the Cowboys are plummeting out of contention.
So while there are games throughout September and October, it’s not until Thanksgiving hits that we can truly define what the BIG games are.
And beginning last week, they’ve arrived.
The Vikings are involved in a bunch of them, even though coach Mike Zimmer keeps espousing the company line.
“Go out and win as many games as you can and try to get in (the playoffs) and play as many games as you can at home,” Zimmer says. “But we have to win and we have to take one game at a time. Talking about it doesn’t do anything.”
Actually, talking about it is all kinds of fun. So here are the games that should really matter and are worth getting excited about through Christmas.
Carolina at New Orleans; Minnesota at Atlanta; Philadelphia at Seattle; Detroit at Baltimore.
Mostly NFC matchups; the conference has been the far more interesting, with a slew of top teams as opposed to the top-heavy AFC (New England, Pittsburgh).
The NFC South, clearly the best division in football, gets the spotlight in the Big Easy and the ATL. The Panthers-Saints game is for the lead in that sector and matches a pair of squads showing the kind of balance that works deep into January. For once, this isn’t just about Cam Newton and Drew Brees, but about the running games and the defenses.
“We know what is at stake,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn says. “We took it personal last time because they beat us in our house. We have a chance to play them in their house and take the lead in our division. I’m back this week and I’m excited.”
Atlanta is showing signs of finding its 2016 form, and will be severely tested by Minnesota’s marvelous defense. Watch for how Falcons star receiver Julio Jones and Vikings under-the-radar pass catcher Adam Thielen perform. Both are on fire.
While the Seahawks are banged-up, penalty-riddled and not-so fearsome at home anymore, the Eagles can take another major step atop the conference.
Both the Lions and Ravens have wild-card aspirations and can’t afford a stumble.
New Orleans at Atlanta; Minnesota at Carolina; Seattle at Jacksonville; Oakland at Kansas City; Philadelphia at Los Angeles Rams; Baltimore at Pittsburgh.
The nastiest rivalry in the NFL, Ravens-Steelers, in the Sunday night game, possibly Baltimore’s last chance to make any headway in the AFC North. Another road go-round for the Vikings in the NFC South, where that division’s most-heated rivalry has the Saints at the Falcons. We’ll know a whole lot more about that sector after these games — and perhaps a whole lot more about how strong the Vikings are.
While both the Raiders and Chiefs have hit mediocrity, their matchups always are noteworthy for intensity. AFC South leadership will still be in question.
The Seahawks and Jaguars both will need this game, whether for division title hopes or wild-card chances. And the Eagles are staying out west after the Seattle contest for a matchup of the top two selections in the 2016 draft: No. 1 Jared Goff vs. No. 2 Carson Wentz.
New England at Pittsburgh; Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City; Los Angeles Rams at Seattle.
Very possible division deciders in KC and Seattle. Plus, by far, the AFC’s most intriguing confrontation, most likely with home-field advantage for the conference championship game on the line.
Minnesota at Green Bay; Atlanta at New Orleans; Los Angeles Rams at Tennessee.
OK, the Vikings probably will be playoff-bound and the Packers won’t, but hopefully we’ll get a glimpse of Aaron Rodgers again, back from his broken collarbone.
Falcons-Saints for the second time in three weeks, with lots on the line. And maybe a playoff-relevant home contest for the Titans against a Rams team headed to the postseason.
And these don’t even consider the final weekend of all divisional matchups.
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