When the NFL opted for nothing but intradivision matchups to conclude the schedule, it envisioned classic rivalry games to decide a bunch of playoff berths.
It did get one of those Sunday, the 180th regular-season renewal of the Bears and Packers, with Chicago owning the NFC North crown and a first-round playoff bye, while Green Bay gets a wild card with a victory.
And it got an, ahem, bonus with St. Louis at Seattle for the NFC West title, a game that was flexed to prime time because of its importance. Of course, it’s wise to ignore that the Rams are 7-8, the Seahawks 6-9, and a Seattle victory makes it the first division winner with a losing record since, well, forever.
Pittsburgh goes to Cleveland needing a victory to grab the AFC North title. While the Browns are 5-10, preventing the Steelers from taking the division would provide some solace — and an opening for Baltimore to beat Cincinnati and move in front of Pittsburgh.
Atlanta captures the NFC South and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by beating Carolina. Defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans is ready to pounce if the Falcons falter. The Saints already have at least a wild card and can snuff out any postseason shot for Tampa Bay by beating the Buccaneers.
The Colts take the AFC South by beating nose-diving Tennessee, but a loss opens the door for Jacksonville, which is at Houston. But that game lost star power when Jaguars quarterback David Garrard underwent hand surgery.
The Giants can squeeze into the playoffs by beating Washington and having Green Bay lose.
Some other rivalries are duds. Oakland visits Kansas City in the renewal of the NFL’s nastiest series, but the Chiefs already own the AFC West title and the Raiders aren’t going to the playoffs.
Dallas is at Philadelphia with none of the drama of a year ago, when they met in the season finale AND in the opening round of the playoffs. This time, the Eagles have won the NFC East and the Cowboys have gotten their coach fired on the way to a flop of a year.
Other often juicy matchups also lack oomph: Miami at New England, Buffalo at the New York Jets, and San Diego at Denver.
Also, Minnesota finishes at Detroit and Arizona is at San Francisco.
Chicago at Green Bay: The 180th regular-season meeting has lots of juice to it because Green Bay is the front-runner for the remaining NFC wild-card berth. Chicago could rest some regulars if Atlanta and New Orleans don’t lose in early games, but also salivates at the chance of keeping its biggest rival out of the playoffs.
“For us, we’re playing to win the football game,” coach Lovie Smith says. “We want to continue to grow, continue to improve the way we’ve been doing here lately. We have a chance to sweep the division and that’s important for us.”
Green Bay has done a nice job overcoming more injuries than most contenders can handle. QB Aaron Rodgers was sensational in the rout of the Giants last week, and the Packers are 6-1 at home.
“Lovie said he’s going to play his guys,” Rodgers says. “I trust him, believe him, I’m sure they want to go to the playoffs on a high note, and they still have a chance to be the top seed … so we’re expecting their best shot.”
St. Louis at Seattle: If everyone in the league office is rooting for St. Louis, they can be excused. Other than Seattleites, who wants to see a losing team win a division?
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, the first overall pick in the draft, can put an exclamation point on his rookie season with a win.
“Over the 15 games that we’ve all been together, I think all the guys, myself included, realize that Sam is a competitor. He enjoys playing,” coach Steve Spagnuolo says. “We’re glad we have him as a quarterback, but I think he proved early that he could go out there and do the things you need to do as a quarterback in the NFL.”
Pittsburgh at Cleveland: The Steelers get the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a bye with a victory over a team they normally dominate. Lose and they could fall to the sixth spot.
The Browns went 5-11 in Eric Mangini’s first year as coach and another loss means a repeat record — and possibly the unemployment line.
Cincinnati at Baltimore: Baltimore figures to be the No. 5 seed, but would leap to No. 2 with a victory and Pittsburgh loss. The Ravens have only one home defeat, to the Steelers, and Cincinnati’s only road win was at Carolina.
Shoring up its pass defense is a must for Baltimore before starting the playoffs.
Carolina at Atlanta: John Fox pretty much has acknowledged this is his last game coaching the Panthers, for whom he has a 78-73 record — this being, by far, the worst season — and got them to one Super Bowl and another NFC championship game.
The end doesn’t figure to be pretty as Atlanta seeks home-field advantage in the NFC and comes off a bitter home loss to the Saints.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans: One of only two games matching teams with winning records on the final weekend, and both have something to play for. New Orleans could get the NFC’s overall top seed with a victory and a Falcons loss. The Buccaneers, the youngest team in the league, get a wild card if they win and both the Packers and Giants lose.
“The only thing for us that we’re proud of is to be playing meaningful games in December,” Bucs coach Raheem Morris says. “When you grow up as a coach and as a player, you don’t dream about April, the offseason and all those things. You dream about playing in January. You dream about playing in February, hopefully.”
Tennessee at Indianapolis: From the precipice of a lost season at 6-6, the Colts have won three straight and taken control of their division once more. Peyton Manning has reversed a wicked string of mistakes with the kind of pinpoint passing everyone expects, and both the running game and run defense is coming alive.
Beating the Titans doesn’t appear a huge chore considering the turmoil and disappointment this season has brought to Music City. Indeed, this could be the last game of coach Jeff Fisher’s 16-year tenure with the franchise.
Jacksonville at Houston: An 8-8 record might have been considered real progress in Jacksonville when the season began. Then the Jaguars went 8-5 and with a win at Indy would have clinched the division. Instead, they’ve slid and now Garrard is sidelined. Last week, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville’s best player, was out and the Redskins upset the Jags.
Even so, things have been much worse for the Texans, who were projected as an AFC South contender after posting their first winning record a year ago. Coach Gary Kubiak’s job security is shaky.
Oakland at Kansas City: The NFL’s two most improved teams live in Missouri, the Rams and the Chiefs. KC might be a bit raw to cause much postseason damage, but the rapid development of a dangerous offense and a good defense bodes well down the line.
Considering the history of this rivalry, look for the Chiefs to sit quite a few regulars rather than risk injury against the physical Raiders, another improved squad. This is the first season since the Raiders won the AFC championship in 2002 that they haven’t lost at least 11 times. They would sweep their division games by beating KC.
Dallas at Philadelphia: Michael Vick has quad problems, DeSean Jackson’s foot is bothering him, Asante Samuel has a sore knee. That means rest for key Eagles, who will host the No. 6 seed in the wild-card round. Philly needs to solve some defensive problems before the playoffs.
Another Dallas victory might ensure interim coach Jason Garrett getting the full-time job in 2011.
Buffalo at N.Y. Jet: The Jets have lost three of four, but a 9-2 start gave them a cushion and they can use Sunday to prepare for the wild-card round. Coach Rex Ryan is considered a defensive master, but that unit has been ridden with holes recently.
Buffalo has the AFC’s most giveaways, 33. The Jets lead the league with 16 fumbles recoveries.
San Diego at Denver: The Chargers’ four-year reign in the AFC West is over, torn apart by poor special teams, unwise personnel decisions and lots of injuries. Yet, their season has been much more productive than Denver’s, which at least is thinking about the future by playing rookie quarterback Tim Tebow.
Minnesota at Detroit: Last time the Vikings were in Ford Field, they were hosting the Giants after the Metrodome roof collapsed. They come back on a short week after an East Coast blizzard forced their game in Philadelphia to be switched to Tuesday night — a contest they won.
Detroit, hardly a contender, has upgraded its roster and its results. The Lions have won three straight, and if you can’t remember the last time they took four in a row, neither can anybody else in Motor City.
Arizona at San Francisco: Two teams that can’t wait to start rebuilding. The Niners will do so with a new coach after Mike Singletary was fired following a loss at St. Louis.