Last week, 26 teams were still technically in contention for an N.F.L. playoff spot. This week, that number is 19, and it should fall even further by Sunday evening. There are some exciting races ahead, especially for the N.F.C. East and the A.F.C. wild card, and all but two games this week feature at least one team still in the hunt.
Here’s a look at N.F.L. Week 16, with all picks made against the point spread.
Last week’s record: 5-11
Overall record: 121-98-4
Sunday’s Best Games
Steelers at Saints, 4:25 p.m., CBS
The Saints (12-2) have slowed in recent weeks. Three consecutive road games resulted in two wins and a loss, but their offense, which had been outrageous (in a good way) all season, averaged only 16.7 points a game.
A win will give the Saints home-field advantage throughout the N.F.C. playoffs, and the question now becomes whether the offensive downturn is just a blip or a sign that quarterback Drew Brees and his offense are running out of steam.
Playing at home should help get them back on track, especially when a win means they can rest players in Week 17. Standing in the way are the Steelers (8-5-1), who have alternately looked like a Super Bowl contender and a laughingstock this season.
It is hard to ignore Pittsburgh’s win over New England last week. But of the Steelers’ eight wins, it is one of two that came against a team that currently has a winning record. Both of those wins have an asterisk: New England is in a deep rut, and the win over Baltimore came before the team reinvented itself with Lamar Jackson at quarterback.
With good recent play by its defense and an offense that is likely to rebound, New Orleans should take care of business. Pick: Saints -6
Chiefs at Seahawks, 8:20 p.m., NBC
There have been few recent upsets more surprising than Seattle (8-6) going into San Francisco last week and losing to the 49ers in overtime. The Seahawks can quibble about calls, but the fact remains that they lost to one of the worst teams in football just a few weeks after beating that same team by 27 points.
Going home to Seattle helps, but the Chiefs (11-3) are about as tough of a test as any defense can endure. You will hear plenty of comparisons between the quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, and while Wilson has won a Super Bowl, his offense produces more than 100 fewer passing yards and over 10 fewer points a game than Kansas City’s.
Seattle has various possibilities for clinching a playoff spot this week. All but the most remote one requires it to beat Kansas City. The Chiefs, however, can clinch the A.F.C. West with a combination of a win by them and a loss by the Chargers — and they can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they win and both the Chargers and the Texans lose. Pick: Chiefs -2.5
Buccaneers at Cowboys, 1 p.m., Fox
It was not outrageous for the Cowboys (8-6) to lose last week in Indianapolis, but the way they lost was certainly discouraging for anyone entertaining thoughts that Dallas was one of the league’s top contenders. You can lose to a good team on the road and save face, but you cannot lose, 21-0, while looking absolutely incapable of moving the ball or stopping the run.
Going home to Dallas to face the Buccaneers (5-9) is just what the Cowboys need. Tampa Bay loves to throw the deep ball, which would play into the Cowboys’ hands, as a superb secondary would undoubtedly like to increase its interception total for the season.
A win would give the Cowboys the N.F.C. East title for the second time in three seasons. A loss, combined with a win by Philadelphia or Washington — or worse, both — could plunge Dallas into chaos. Pick: Cowboys -7
Texans at Eagles, 1 p.m., CBS
Nick Foles did not seem inclined to entertain the comparisons to last season, when he replaced an injured Carson Wentz in the lineup and led the team to a Super Bowl win. But when he replaced an injured Wentz in the lineup last week, and proceeded to beat the 11-win Rams, plenty of his teammates seemed to connect the dots.
It is a nice story, and it would get far more traction if he could lead his resurgent team to a win over the Texans (10-4), but Houston is competing for a first-round bye and potentially even home-field advantage in the A.F.C. playoffs. Expecting a letdown from the Texans similar to the one Los Angeles delivered last week seems highly unlikely. Pick: Texans +2.5
Redskins at Titans, 4:30 p.m., NFL Network
The Redskins (7-7) kept their (not at all realistic) playoff hopes alive by beating Jacksonville last week, but they face a much more motivated, and much better opponent, in the Titans (8-6) this week. A Tennessee win seems all but assured — and would keep the Titans in the A.F.C. wild-card race — and the biggest questions are how Derrick Henry will follow up a two-game stretch in which he ran for 408 yards and six touchdowns, and whether the Titans, who tend to grind out games, can justify a double-digit point spread. Pick: Redskins +10
Ravens at Chargers, 8:20 p.m., NFL Network
With Lamar Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens (8-6) have run for at least 190 yards in five consecutive games, a feat last accomplished in 1976. They have not, however, passed for even 200 yards in any of those games. Those statistics become fairly relevant in a game against the Chargers (11-3) in which Baltimore will face a defense that has done a good job defending the run, other than in a few aberrant weeks.
Both teams have plenty of motivation to win. The Chargers are a tiebreaker behind Kansas City for the top seeding in the A.F.C. playoffs. The Ravens enter the game leading Tennessee and Indianapolis, by a tiebreaker, for the conference’s second wild card.
Baltimore’s unusual style under Jackson actually makes this game a tossup — the Ravens can grind out an ugly win if Los Angeles falters. Pick: Ravens +4.5
Sunday’s Other Games
Bears at 49ers, 4:05 p.m., Fox
The Bears (10-4) have really put things together. The team’s defense is outrageously talented, especially in takeaways, and its offense has steadily improved. The change was notable on a red zone play last week when Mitchell Trubisky, who previously would have run the ball or handed off to Jordan Howard or Tarik Cohen, threw a laser of a touchdown pass to Trey Burton.
That being said, the combination of Trubisky’s struggles to pass on the road and the poor run defense of the 49ers (4-10) could lead to a lot of Howard and Cohen this week. This is a game Chicago should win, even with Eddie Jackson, the team’s standout safety, unlikely to play. Pick: Bears -4
Rams at Cardinals, 4:05 p.m., Fox
Remember when the Rams (11-3) looked unstoppable? They followed their thrilling 54-51 win over the Chiefs in Week 11 — a game that was called a Super Bowl preview by many — by beating the Lions and then losing to the Bears and the Eagles. Of most concern is the team’s offense, which is suffering from Jared Goff’s growing pains.
The good news is that the Cardinals (3-11) are terrible, and if Los Angeles beats them and Chicago loses or ties, the Rams will secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. The bad news is that will hardly be an indication that the Rams’ problems are fixed. Pick: Rams -14
Giants at Colts, 1 p.m. CBS
The Colts (8-6) made a dramatic statement last week with their crushing defeat of Dallas. They smothered the Cowboys’ offense and then ran their defense into the ground. Add to that the fact that the team is engaged in the most exciting of the remaining playoff races and that the team’s star quarterback, Andrew Luck, and its breakout rookie linebacker, Darius Leonard, were snubbed from the Pro Bowl, and you have a recipe for a huge win at home. The Giants (5-9) have little reason to try hard and should probably cover Saquon Barkley in Bubble Wrap and hope they have more pieces to put around him next season. Pick: Colts -9.5
Bills at Patriots, 1 p.m., CBS
The Patriots (9-5) are having issues. They somehow went from competing with Kansas City for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs to not having secured a playoff spot of any kind heading into Week 16. They have lost two games in a row, receiver Josh Gordon has stepped away from football and they haven’t lived up to their typical standards all season.
A home game against the Bills (5-9) should help, especially since a win would give the Patriots an A.F.C. East title for the 16th time in 18 seasons. But will they win by 13? Buffalo has the perfect garbage time quarterback in Josh Allen, as he loves to throw deep (regardless of coverage or the quality of his wide receivers) and he can break off huge runs in the rare event he decides not to throw. So even a huge early lead could dissipate as New England goes into “don’t get anyone injured” mode. Pick: Bills +13
Bengals at Browns, 1 p.m., CBS
The Browns (6-7-1) are not going to make the playoffs. They have not been eliminated yet, but that is only a matter of time — four teams are ahead of them for the A.F.C.’s second wild-card and they are two games behind Pittsburgh in the A.F.C. North with two games remaining. The Upshot rates their chances at any playoff spot at less than 1 percent.
Once you put to rest the playoff pipe dream, however, Cleveland still has plenty of reasons to keep pushing. Chiefly, if the Browns (6-7-1) can win their final two games, they will finish with a winning record for just the third time since being reincarnated in 1999. That would be quite a feather in Baker Mayfield’s cap (or, in Mayfield’s case, his headband).
Getting the first of those wins seems highly likely. Cleveland beat the Bengals (6-8) by 15 points in Cincinnati a few weeks ago, and according to the N.F.L.’s Next Gen statistics, Mayfield has morphed into the league’s most accurate deep passer since Cleveland made the switch to Freddie Kitchens at offensive coordinator before Week 9. That is horrible news for the Bengals (6-8), who allow more than 280 passing yards a game. Pick: Browns -9
Vikings at Lions, 1 p.m., Fox
The Lions (5-9) are always going to give a good effort against a division rival, especially with the game in Detroit, but the Vikings (7-6-1) should have all the motivation they need by way of their percentage point lead over Philadelphia and Washington for the N.F.C.’s second wild card.
Minnesota has been disappointing in its first season under quarterback Kirk Cousins, with the team’s offense not being quite as explosive as some predicted and its defense taking a step backward from last year. But with a road win this week, the team will clinch a winning record for the year. If a Vikings win happened in combination with a loss or a tie by Philadelphia and a loss by Washington, Minnesota would clinch a playoff spot.
The problem? It’s a road game. Minnesota is 2-4-1 on the road, and even if it is rightly a favorite to win, covering the point spread seems unlikely. Pick: Lions +5.5
Jaguars at Dolphins, 1 p.m., CBS
This game narrowly avoided the “No Real Playoff Implications” section of this article by way of Miami’s 7 percent chance of making the playoffs. But that mathematical possibility relies on either the Patriots losing out (and the Dolphins winning out) or all three teams ahead of Miami in the race for the A.F.C.’s second wild card collapsing.
Assessing the motivation in such a game is difficult. The Jaguars (4-10), in a season in which everything went wrong, have a mild incentive to lose in terms of draft position, while the Dolphins (7-7) are at home and probably have their coaching staff reminding them that they haven’t been eliminated yet. But after last week’s loss, the chances that the Dolphins’ collective spirit is a bit crushed makes Jacksonville a safer pick. Pick: Jaguars +4
No Real Playoff Implications
Packers at Jets, 1 p.m., Fox; Falcons at Panthers, 1 p.m. Fox
The Packers (5-8-1), the Jets (4-10) and the Falcons (5-9) have been eliminated from playoff contention, and while the Panthers have a 2 percent chance of earning a wild-card spot, they also have shut down Cam Newton for the season.
Picks: Jets +2.5; Falcons -3.5
Broncos at Raiders, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
A pair of eliminated teams playing in what may be the final N.F.L. game in a decrepit old stadium in Oakland is not exactly the typical “Monday Night Football” experience. It may also feel like a letdown after the games on Saturday and Sunday, many of which have huge consequences for postseason play.
The Broncos (6-8) have certainly been far more relevant than Oakland (3-11) this season, but the Raiders keep getting themselves in the news with weird personnel moves. First, they traded Khalil Mack, then Amari Cooper, and now, weirdest of all, they signed Nathan Peterman, a young quarterback who showed repeatedly in Buffalo that he was not N.F.L.-ready.
Provided both teams give a reasonable effort, there is no reason to believe the Raiders have a chance, but there is a scenario in which Denver is checked out and Oakland tries hard in a nod to the fans who show up to (potentially) say goodbye. Pick: Broncos -2.5.
All times are Eastern.
Benjamin Hoffman is a senior staff editor and regular contributor to the Keeping Score column in sports. He joined The Times in 2005. @BenHoffmanNYT • Facebook
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