By Ray Hamill
With just seven weeks remaining in the regular season, the race for the NFL playoffs is heating up, as several teams position themselves for a high seed and others try to just hang in there while hoping to snag a late invite to the party.
One game that will no doubt have a huge impact on the AFC seeding is this Sunday when the undefeated Chiefs travel to Denver, although it’s certainly not the only big showdown between now and the New Year.
Here then are eight games that stand out as crucial in deciding who will make it to this year’s Super Bowl.
Chiefs (9-0) at Broncos (8-1), Sunday
Broncos at Chiefs, Dec. 1
The two heavyweights of the AFC will meet twice in three weeks, in a pair of games that could decide not just who wins the division but quite probably who gets home-field advantage for the playoffs.
The stakes are even higher when you consider that whoever finishes second in this race will likely fall from first seed to fifth for the playoffs, and that’s a substantial difference that could cost the loser a shot at the Super Bowl.
Broncos (8-1) at Patriots (7-2), Nov. 24
Sandwiched in between the two games with the Chiefs, the Broncos play the Patriots, another team in the hunt for a top seed and home-field advantage.
This matchup is worth watching not just for the potential playoff seeding impact, but also because it’s a chance to see two of the greatest quarterbacks of this (or any) generation – Tom Brady and Peyton Manning – go head-to-head one more time, and who knows how many more opportunities we’ll have for that.
Packers (5-4) at Lions (6-3), Thanksgiving
Traditionally, Thanksgiving has served up great turkey and lousy football, but that shouldn’t be the case this year, with the early game of the day a huge one in the race for the NFC North.
The Lions are beginning to build momentum, but Aaron Rodgers should be back in time for this game, which will add to the occasion.
Saints (7-2) at Seahawks (9-1), Dec. 2
This game between the two best teams in the NFC could be the biggest of the regular season in the conference.
The winner will be the frontrunner in the race for home-field in the playoffs, and that’s massive when you consider how much of an advantage each has at home, where they are a combined 9-0 this season.
Panthers (6-3) at Saints (7-2), Dec. 8
Saints at Panthers, Dec. 22
The Saints are in the hunt for the top seed in the NFC, but before they can think about that they must take care of business in their own division, and the schedule makers could not have planned this any better, matching the two best teams in the South twice in the final four weeks of the season.
The Saints have been on top of the division standings since the opening week, but the surprising Panthers are on a roll and primed to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, perhaps even as division winners.
Colts (6-3) at Chiefs (9-0), Dec. 22
For a team that has played a relatively easy schedule through the opening nine weeks of the season, the Chiefs will be tested a few times down the stretch, including this tricky matchup at home to the Colts, one of the surprising frontrunners in the AFC.
There are plenty of other intriguing matchups in the coming weeks, most notably a pair of games in the NFC East on the final weekend of the regular season, when the Eagles travel to the Cowboys and the Redskins travel to play the Giants, with all four teams still in contention and the division unlikely to be decided until the last day.
Also watch out for a pair of games between the Jaguars (1-8) and Texans (2-7) in the final six weeks, two fixtures that could go a long way toward deciding who gets the top pick in next year’s draft.