As the NFL world spins in its recent ways of turnarounds and worst-to-first finishes, the schedule is bound to find its pitfalls when the season reaches its final weeks.
That is hardly the case for Saturday, as an NFL triple-header -- with every game airing live on NFL Network -- offers up three games brimming with playoff implications and high-profile talent.
Then the day moves north to Gillette Stadium, where quarterback Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills (10-4) are looking to knock off Tom Brady and the host New England Patriots (11-3) at 4:30 p.m. ET. With both squads having already punched their advance tickets to the playoff dance, the Pats are attempting to win their 11th consecutive AFC East crown and a possible first-round bye.
Finally, we come to the NFL nightcap all the way out west at 8:15 p.m. ET, as the Aaron Donald-led Los Angeles Rams (8-6) bring their slimmest of playoff hopes to face the host San Francisco 49ers (11-3), who are currently the No. 5 seed in the NFC, but vying to win the NFC West and possibly become the conference No. 1 seed.
It's the only NFL Saturday of the regular season and it's filled with postseason implications and aspirations, more than a dozen Pro Bowl selections and three enticing matchups.
Get excited, here's six things to watch for:
- This has all the makings of an old-fashioned south Texas shootout. Granted, it's the NFL and anything can happen so a 6-3 final could surely happen. But Deshaun Watson (3,668 yards passing, 34 total touchdowns) is facing a Buccaneers defense that's 30th against the pass and first against the rush. Hence, Houston will likely want and need to pass. Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers offer up the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL, and the Texans will counter with the No. 28 passing defense. Leading the NFL with 4,573 yards passing, Winston is on pace over these final two games to surpass 5,000 yards passing this campaign, which has only been done 11 times previously by just seven quarterbacks. Winston, whose 2020 future remains in question as he leads the league with 24 interceptions, is coming off back-to-back 450-plus-yard passing games and he's the first in NFL history to accomplish that. Houston has high hopes going forward and though Tampa Bay has been eliminated from postseason contention, it owns a four-game winning streak and certainly has the firepower to spoil the Texans' aspirations of clinching the AFC South.
- A pair of first-season acquisitions have played huge roles for the Texans and Buccaneers and are likely to continue that trend on Saturday. Though the Texans still have issues keeping Watson upright (they've given up 40 sacks, which is 11th-most in the NFL), Laremy Tunsil has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and become a key contributor to Houston's success since it acquired him via trade. He'll likely have a chance or two to test himself against the NFL's sack leader Shaq Barrett, whose 16.5 sacks have tied him with Warren Sapp for the Bucs' single-season record. Signed on a one-year deal in the offseason, Barrett has amazingly tallied more sacks this season than he did in his previous five with the Broncos combined. Rolling into Saturday with a record to take all for himself and four straight games with sacks, Barrett is poised for a big matchup against Tunsil. And they might face each other again in the Pro Bowl.
- On three occasions this season, Tom Brady has gone without a touchdown pass. Surprisingly enough, the Patriots are 3-0 in those games, including a Week 4 16-10 win over the Bills. In that game, however, Buffalo QB Josh Allen had the worst outing of his second season, throwing three interceptions to total a 24.0 rating. Brady, at least in part, managed a win, while Allen was a big reason for the Bills' loss. While Brady keeps carrying on and Allen keeps improving, questions still abound about both. Are these signs that the end of Brady's career is coming soon? Though Allen's clearly getting better, how good is he when the games are big and the opponents formidable? Heading in, Allen has 27 total offensive touchdowns to Brady's 24, and this season is on the way to becoming the first since 2001 in which Brady doesn't lead AFC East QBs in total TDs (excluding Brady's 2008 injury season), per NFL Research. If the Patriots prevail and win their seventh straight in the rivalry, they'll also clinch their 11th consecutive AFC East crown. Brady's stats might not be what they once were or what Allen's are, but the Patriots are still winning. That storyline continues up to Saturday, though whether it carries through will be, indeed, something to watch.
- The Patriots have the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and the Bills have the No. 3. Therein lies the true reason behind both teams having advanced to the postseason. Upon the release of the Pro Bowl rosters, perhaps surprisingly only four players from the AFC heavyweights were included (Buffalo cornerback Tre'Davious White; New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and special teamer Matthew Slater). There's plenty of talent on each squad such as Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (105 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (9.5 sacks), among others, and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins (71 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions), Devin McCourty (five interceptions) and more. For the most part, the stars in the Bills-Patriots matchup are on offense, but the defenses, manned by unsung individual talent, are leading the way. It was a Slater return for a TD off a blocked punt that was the game-winning score in the teams' first meeting this season. Defense has led the day for the Patriots and Bills alike, and this Saturday should be no different.
- The Rams, just a season removed from advancing to the Super Bowl, will have a shot at getting back to the playoff dance when Saturday begins. Thereafter, fortunes are not in their favor. L.A. needs to win out and needs the Vikings to lose out to secure a spot. While the Rams are underwhelming in the shadow cast by last season's success, there are still positives to proclaim, such as the return of Cooper Kupp, weaving a comeback story from injury in which he's tallied his first 1,000-yard season with career-highs of 83 catches and eight touchdowns. Though his stats aren't what they were last year, Aaron Donald is still dominating with a league-best 19 tackles for a loss and leads all interior defensive linemen with 11 sacks and 22 quarterback hits. It's a testament to Donald's greatness that detractors point to this as a down season. It's likely the Rams will fall short of a playoff return and offseason quandaries will come quicker: Todd Gurley's future? The progress of Jared Goff? Does coach Sean McVay need to change things up? Just how much will change on the offensive line? Etc. But amid the mercurial season and all the questions, there are still diamonds in last season's NFC champs.
- Coming off a stunning loss to the Falcons, the 49ers have dropped two of their last three and though a return to the playoffs has been clinched, losses are always problematic. Each of the team's three losses have come in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime, per NFL Research. Close losses can be seen positively in the simplest form because they were close to wins. However, winning the close ones is also a necessity for a team looking to make a playoff run. At this point, wins aren't just important for NFC seeding, but also momentum going forward. No matter how the regular season ends, though, one aspect somewhat overlooked in an 8-0 start and the 3-3 following has been that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is producing at a consistently impressive rate in his first fully healthy season as a starter. He's completing 69 percent of his passes, tallying a 102.8 QB rating, 3,445 yards passing, 26 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions (just one over the last four games) -- numbers better than any Niners quarterback since the days of Jeff Garcia.