We've hit the home stretch of the 2020 NFL season! With only four weeks left, here's a look at the key games the rest of the way:
Saying a lot has changed for both franchises since Super Bowl LIII is like saying 2020 has been an inconvenient year. Even the last month brought meaningful evolution for both squads.
The Rams' defense has risen to become one of the NFL’s top groups, reminiscent of the 2019 Patriots defense that was so good in the back end at mixing coverages and confusing quarterbacks behind a Defensive Player of the Year candidate cornerback. (Although I’d still vote for Aaron Donald.)
These Patriots, meanwhile, have won four of five games by turning it back to 1979, with special teams, situational football, a power running game and improved team defense helping to cover for a passing attack in which Cam Newton has set career lows in passing yards in successive starts.
At 8-4, the Rams can take a big step toward the NFC West title while extinguishing the Patriots’ slim playoff hopes. That wouldn’t make up for the Super Bowl loss, but it would be an important step for Sean McVay and Jared Goff. Too often, the right defensive game plan has buried Goff in a hole he couldn’t escape, just like it did back in Atlanta on Feb. 3, 2019. The Rams are far more talented, diverse and balanced than these Patriots. A loss here would open up some scabs that have yet to fully heal.
This game will tell us a lot about how the top of the AFC shapes up the rest of the way. If Buffalo wins, the path to a Dolphins AFC East title looks awfully slim. Another Steelers loss would also open the door for the 11-1 Chiefs to secure a bye in the playoffs, and for the 9-3 Browns to get right back into the AFC North race. A Steelers win would steady The Good Ship Tomlin.
Pittsburgh has played lately like a team carrying the weight of a long season. Thanks to Monday's loss to Washington, the burden of staying undefeated is now gone, and they could potentially get center Maurkice Pouncey, running back James Conner and cornerback Steven Nelson back on the field. The Steelers' running game has gone from bad to one of the league’s worst. The Bills, meanwhile, have played two of their most complete games all season since their Week 11 bye. Their defense finally looks comparable to the Bills defenses of 2017-19.
Another loss by Pittsburgh would hardly end the Steelers' title hopes -- we’ve seen December slumps by great teams before. But it would vault the Bills into a different stratosphere.
One of these teams is likely to have a very disappointing end to the season, and it will probably be the loser of this game. In an AFC where it looks like teams will need a minimum of 10 wins to make the dance, the Colts and Raiders enter the home stretch with plenty of questions and potholes on their upcoming schedules. The Colts also have a trip to Pittsburgh on the docket. The Raiders host the Dolphins in Week 16. With the Browns looking very safe to make the playoffs at 9-3, the last two spots in the AFC should come down to these head-to-heads.
This game means more to the Ravens' playoff hopes, but cosmically, it seems far more important to the Browns. This is the first December game between these teams with serious playoff implications for both squads since 2002. The post-expansion Browns haven't been in a game that mattered this much in more than a decade, much less against the franchise that left town and broke the city's collective heart.
Baltimore's convincing win over the Cowboys on Tuesday night steadied the Ravens' COVID-ravaged season, but Baker Mayfield and friends have a chance to put a serious dent into Baltimore's playoff chances while keeping alive Cleveland's shot at winning the AFC North. After the Ravens opened the season with a 38-6 win over the Browns, it would be awfully satisfying for the first overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft to out-play the last pick of the 2018 first round in a game that matters. If not, this Browns team will still feel like the little brother in this brutal division.
Five days before Christmas, one of the NFL’s superpowers will take a big hit to its bid for home-field advantage. This game will provide an excellent test of just how much better the Saints' defense is playing and how much better the Saints' offense is with Drew Brees under center, assuming he’s back. New Orleans' offensive line and Alvin Kamara will also provide a stern test for a Chiefs defensive front that has played softer than coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would surely like as of late. There’s no game on the schedule that is more likely to be a Super Bowl preview than this one.
The NFL only wanted us to pay so much attention to our families this Christmas, scheduling the Ghosts of Playoffs Past to show up in New Orleans for a Friday matinee. The Vikings will be fighting for their playoff lives after turning around a season that began with a 1-5 start. The Saints will either be riding high after beating the Chiefs in Week 15 or licking their wounds, hoping to salvage the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The fates of the terrific New Orleans teams of 2017 and '19, eliminated by Minnesota in the early rounds after landing the fourth and third seeds, respectively, are a testament to how much free advancement in the playoffs is worth (as is the fate of the 2018 Saints team, which reached the NFC title game as the No. 1 seed that year).
No game left on the schedule is more likely to decide a division winner. The Rams won the first meeting in Week 10, so they have more wiggle room entering the final quarter of the schedule. They also have the tougher remaining slate.
The NFC West has turned into this bizarre, fascinating merry-go-round where every team has a matchup inside the division they can’t seem to solve. The 49ers can’t figure out the Cardinals. The 49ers leave tread marks on the Rams. And Sean McVay has largely had Pete Carroll’s number.
It has to rankle Carroll that the Rams have the best defense in the division, and that the Rams are the team with the running game they can rely on when their pass protection breaks down. In a world where only one team in each conference gets a playoff bye and there’s little home-field advantage to speak of, this game between two playoff teams is likely about seeding. But this year has taught us to enjoy the moment, and beating your rival to win a division still has to mean something, even if it doesn’t mean that much when it comes to Super Bowl hopes.
Performances in prime-time games shouldn’t matter more when considering awards, yet this sure seems like a chance for Aaron Rodgers to make a closing argument to MVP voters. The matchup is favorable against a Titans defense that makes most mortal quarterbacks look like Aaron Rodgers.
With a Week 3 win over the Saints already in hand, the Packers figure to be playing meaningful games through Week 17 with a chance at home-field advantage. The Titans are a safe pick to make the playoffs, meanwhile, and a win at Lambeau could be enough to secure the AFC South, with the Colts having a trickier schedule overall down the stretch.
I’m excited to watch the other quarterback in this game too. Despite a lot of offseason organizational misfires, a terrible defense and a shaky offensive line, Ryan Tannehill has cemented himself as a top-10 quarterback since arriving in Nashville last year. Out-dueling Rodgers on a big stage would remind everyone just how well Tannehill has played this season.
The Dolphins don’t have a game left against a team that currently has a losing record. The Bills have one (at Denver in Week 15). The Bills, Dolphins and Patriots still have a round robin left inside the division.
The fact that all of those difficult games remain means the Bills and Dolphins could go on a variety of paths before their Week 17 tilt, but this is still my pick as the most likely to be flexed into the position of Sunday Night Football season finale. The AFC East could be on the line. If it's not, the Dolphins could be in a win-and-in situation against their rivals. Brian Flores is my favorite for Coach of the Year entering the home stretch, but he might have to make the playoffs to secure the honor. Can the Dolphins find two more wins on their challenging slate?
It’s possible this could be a dead game between two playoff teams with little to play for. It’s also possible that the Cleveland Freaking Browns will be hosting the final game of the season with a chance to win the AFC North. Let’s start 2021 in style!
- Minnesota Vikings at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Week 14: The Bucs will either go into full-on collapse mode or terrorize opponents down the stretch. This game will give us an early clue as to which way they are headed.
- Arizona Cardinals at New York Giants, Week 14: Two teams heading in opposite directions, with the Giants looking like the one far more likely to make the playoffs if they can win this one.
- Seattle Seahawks at Washington Football Team, Week 15: The Giants have the tiebreaker over The Football Team, so Ron Rivera's crew is probably going to need to pull off another big upset to win the NFC East. After all the consternation about the NFC East, at least it's probably going to take seven wins to secure the division.
- Miami Dolphins at Las Vegas Raiders, Week 16: As with Colts-Raiders in Week 14 above, it's very hard to imagine the loser of this game making the playoffs in a stacked AFC playoff field.
- Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots, Week 16 (Monday Night Football): Escaping with a three-point victory against the Patriots in Week 8 allowed the Bills to exhale. Sweeping Bill Belichick in prime time and ending the Patriots' season would make a much bigger statement.
- Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants, Week 17: If the Giants are in a win-and-in scenario, I fear the Scheduling Gods giving us this game to end the season on Sunday night, even if it's how the 2020 season deserves to go out.