Shout it from the top of Mount Washington: It’s the Game of the Year!
Perhaps the Game of the Decade!! Maybe the Game of the Millennium!!!
Or, very possibly, a big dud.
Until their flop in Miami on Monday night, the way the New England Patriots were performing was the way so many predicted they would heading into the season: a powerhouse. And how the Pittsburgh Steelers were squeezing past inferior foes brought into question whether they could slow down the Foxborough freight train.
Then the Dolphins did so one day after the Steelers needed another late rally to edge archrival Baltimore and clinch the AFC North.
So while Sunday’s contest at Heinz Field will almost certainly decide the top seed in the AFC, it’s not exactly Ali-Frazier, two undefeated heavyweights facing off.
“It’s good to be in big games than be in ones nobody’s watching,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says. “We better be appreciative of this spot and not resist it in any way. This is what we’ve been fighting for since March. Why would you fight that? It’s an awesome thing.”
Forget their ‘A’ game, which the Steelers (11-2) seem to have misplaced for much of the past two months despite winning eight straight, with a half-dozen of them close (decided by one, three, three, three, five and six points.
They will need their ‘AAA game’ against New England (10-3), which knows a loss eliminates it from topping the conference heading into the postseason.
“It’s all about us being prepared to play Pittsburgh,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty says, mimicking his coach. “All the extra stuff comes with it, but it’s just if we worry about the playoffs, we’ll go down there and we’ll get killed, honestly.”
The action got started Thursday night in a game with no playoff implications, the Denver Broncos’ 25-13 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Brock Osweiler threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in relief of the injured Trevor Siemian, and C.J. Anderson rushed for 158 yards on 30 carries as Denver (5-9) won its second straight and handed the Colts (3-11) their fifth consecutive loss. Siemian injured his left shoulder in the first quarter and did not return.
Green Bay (7-6) at Carolina (9-4)
Huge one for both sides, and this time the Packers head into it with Aaron Rodgers back at quarterback.
Recovered from his broken collarbone — Green Bay stayed relevant without him, going 3-4 — Rodgers might have some rust. Still, was there ever any doubt he would replace Brett Hundley when his wing was healed?
“Hopefully it gives a lift to some of the guys but I’m not coming back to save this team,” Rodgers said. “I’m coming back to play quarterback the way I know how to play it.”
Rodgers will face a formidable defense that includes end Julius Peppers, who left Green Bay for a return to Carolina this season and has 5½ sacks in the past four games against his former team, and LB Luke Kuechly (100 tackles in six straight seasons.)
New York Jets (5-8) at New Orleans (9-4)
New Orleans owns the tiebreaker over Carolina thanks to a season sweep, and gets fortunate here. Josh McCown, having the best season of his lengthy, vagabond pro career, has a broken hand, so untested Bryce Petty gets the start.
The Saints lost two of their past three, against top-level opponents, so they aren’t likely to fall into any traps. Their well-balanced and top-ranked offense could go wild against the inconsistent Jets, and no team has improved more on D than Nawlins.
Atlanta (8-5) at Tampa Bay (4-9), Monday night
While the Buccaneers spiral enough to put coach Dirk Koetter’s job security in question, it’s the defending NFC champ Falcons who have been maddeningly up and down. Get this: Atlanta is 4-3 in its new, billion dollar palace.
That means the Monday night spotlight should be fine, especially for WR Julio Jones. He had a season-best 12 receptions for 253 yards and two TDs against the Bucs three weeks ago — his NFL-record third game with 250-plus yards receiving. No other receiver in league history has more than one.
Cincinnati (5-8) at Minnesota (10-3)
Vikings will secure NFC North crown for second time in three seasons by winning, and the Bengals have never won in five trips to Minnesota. Cincinnati didn’t even show up at home last Sunday in being routed by the Bears. Yes, the Bears.
Minnesota’s defense had an off day at Carolina, but is formidable enough to win big. The combined record of teams the Vikings have lost to is 27-12. Combined record of teams the Bengals have beaten, counting the Browns twice, is 14-51.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals under current coach Marvin Lewis from 2008-2013. And here’s a strange stat: Lewis has never lost to any former assistant, going 6-0-1.
Philadelphia (11-2) at New York Giants (2-11)
An Eagles victory and a Vikings loss makes Philly the place to go through in the NFC playoffs. Of course, Eagles fans mostly are looking at the bleak side: Carson Wentz, the superb young quarterback who has engineered much of this year’s turnaround, tore his left ACL at the Rams and is done for the season.
Then again, Philly probably could suit up Ron Jaworski instead of Nick Foles and win this by letting its top-notch defense loose against the beleaguered Giants. The Eagles have won six of seven and 15 of the past 19 against the Giants.
Houston (4-9) at Jacksonville (9-4)
OK, take a deep breath and listen: Jacksonville clinches a playoff berth with a win. It can even get in with help in other cities despite a loss.
Not only that, the Jaguars, with their terrific pass rush and strong ground game, have a shot at a first-round playoff bye.
“To be at the bottom and to finally fight our way, work our way and get back up, just to be in the position that we’re at now, it’s great and it shows you that we’ve finally started to earn the right to win,” linebacker Paul Posluszny says. “Now we want more.”
Houston might have been in position for more in 2017 had the injury bug not ravaged the roster. The Texans, already minus brilliant DE J.J. Watt and excellent LB Whitney Mercilus, are down to their third quarterback, T.J. Yates.
Miami (6-7) at Buffalo (7-6)
After stunning New England, the Dolphins go to a place they don’t much like, particularly in December. RB Kenyan Drake has emerged and receiver Jarvis Landry remains steady. The defense befuddled Brady last Monday night, and expected starter Tyrod Taylor is no Brady.
Bills star LeSean McCoy probably has been doing a snow dance all week. He was dominant in last weekend’s 13-7 overtime win a blizzard against Indianapolis, the second time in his career the running back has dashed through the snow like that.
Baltimore (7-6) at Cleveland (0-13)
A sputtering offense came to life for the Ravens at Pittsburgh, where they should have won to make them a solid leader for a wild card. Even if that attack goes back to its previous ways, seeing Baltimore destroy much of its postseason chances in this one is unlikely. A 3-0 finish gets the Ravens in.
A 3-0 finish would be miraculous for the Browns, the first team in NFL history to start 0-13 in consecutive seasons.
Arizona (6-7) at Washington (5-8)
Of interest here — wait, we’ll find something — is Cardinals RB Adrian Peterson, who needs one rushing TD to reach 100 and 37 yards to pass the great Jim Brown (12,312) on the career rushing list. But Peterson is battling a neck problem that could sideline him for the final three games.