THE STORY: With their dreams of a perfect season snuffed out, it's no secret what the Green Bay Packers want for Christmas - home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Packers can achieve that goal by snuffing out the reeling Chicago Bears on Sunday night - or it already may be settled by the time they wake up Christmas morning if the Seattle Seahawks can knock off the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday. Should the Niners lose, Green Bay will secure the No. 1 overall seed and Packers coach Mike McCarthy will have the luxury of resting some of his key players. That's an option McCarthy would love to have after watching top wide receiver Greg Jennings and starting RT Bryan Bulaga sidelined the past two weeks with knee injuries.
TV: NBC, 8:20 p.m. ET. LINE: Packers -13.4, O/U 45
ABOUT THE BEARS (7-7): Chicago has gone belly up since QB Jay Cutler suffered a broken thumb, absorbing four consecutive losses to put its postseason hopes on life support. The Bears finally pulled the plug on Caleb Hanie, who looked overmatched in his four-game stint. He had two interceptions returned for TDs last week as Seattle scored 31 unanswered points in a 38-14 win. In a desperate measure, the Bears will start Josh McCown, who was coaching at the high school level last month and last started in the United Football League last year. McCown hasn't started an NFL game since 2007, and his task won't be any easier with RB Matt Forte sitting out a third straight game.
ABOUT THE PACKERS (13-1): With Jennings out of the lineup, Aaron Rodgers had his roughest game of the season in Sunday's 19-14 loss at Kansas City. He failed to throw multiple TD passes for the first time this season, completed fewer than half his passes and his 235 passing yards were a season low. It also represented the fewest points scored by Green Bay since a 10-3 victory over Chicago in the 2010 regular-season finale. The running game should get a boost with the expected turn of James Starks, who has sat out the last two games with an ankle injury. Ryan Grant rushed for 151 yards while Starks was out, but he had a total of only 22 carries in the two games.
1. The Packers have beaten the Bears three straight, including a 21-14 win in last season's NFC title game and a 27-17 victory earlier this season. The last two have been in Chicago.
2. McCown has appeared in 48 games with five different teams. He has thrown 35 TD passes and 41 interceptions in his career.
3. Rodgers broke the franchise record with his 40th TD pass last week, becoming the fifth player in NFL history to reach that milestone.
PREDICTION: Packers 27, Bears 13. Green Bay sews up the No. 1 seed by beating Chicago at home for the fourth straight time.
THE STORY: The San Francisco 49ers have already wrapped up the NFC West title, but they have a tenuous hold on the No. 2 seed in the conference and an outside shot at the top seed. That being said, the Niners have plenty of reasons to be wary as they head to Seattle for a divisional matchup with the resurgent Seahawks on Saturday. Not only does San Francisco have to worry about a letdown after an emotional home win against Pittsburgh on Monday night, it is facing an opponent that has won five of its last six games and had the 49ers on the ropes in Week 1 until Ted Ginn Jr. returned a kickoff and punt for touchdowns in the final four minutes.
TV: FOX, 4:15 p.m. ET. LINE: 49ers -2, O/U 38
ABOUT THE 49ERS (11-3): San Francisco's defense, which has allowed a league-low 185 points, flexed its muscles again in a 20-3 victory over the Steelers. The 49ers forced four turnovers by Ben Roethlisberger and extended their streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 36 games, the longest active streak in the league. Rookie DE Aldon Smith was an imposing presence with 2.5 sacks, giving him 13.0 on the season. QB Alex Smith threw for only 187 yards but was not sacked and did not commit a turnover. He found TE Vernon Davis six times for 72 yards and a TD.
ABOUT THE SEAHAWKS (7-7): Seattle has won three straight to keep its faint playoff hopes alive. Predominantly a running team, the Seahawks are averaging 33 points per game in their three-game winning streak and have outscored opponents 99-41. Marshawn Lynch has sparked Seattle's revival, rushing for over 100 yards in five of the last seven games and scoring a touchdown in a franchise-record 10 straight contests. He will be facing the league's top-ranked defense, one which limited him to 33 yards in Week 1. QB Tarvaris Jackson is not putting up huge numbers, but hasn't been picked off in the last three games.
1. San Francisco is the first team in league history to not allow a rushing TD in the first 14 games of a season.
2. The Seahawks are tied for second in the league with 21 interceptions. They returned two for TDs in last week's 38-14 win at Chicago.
3. Niners RB Frank Gore has the two highest rushing games in franchise history and both have come against Seattle - 212 yards in November 2006 and 207 in September 2009.
PREDICTION: Seahawks 16, 49ers 13. Desperate - and revenge-minded - Seattle upends San Francisco in a battle of field goals.
THE STORY: Even in the NFL, having fun can make a big difference and that could be evident Saturday when the Carolina Panthers host the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite being four games under .500, the Panthers are clearly having fun on the field. Case in point: the Panthers' hidden-ball trickery in last week's 28-13 win over the Houston Texans. With a clearly confused defense, quarterback Cam Newton subtly took a snap, sidestepped behind TE Richie Brockel before sliding him the ball between his legs, then darted toward the right side of the end zone. Brockel waited a second, calmly stood up and darted the opposite way for his memorable first career touchdown. Meanwhile, no one is having fun in Tampa, losers of eight straight games, the last three by at least 16 points. The Bucs lost 31-15 last week to the Dallas Cowboys.
TV: FOX, 1 p.m. ET. LINE: Panthers -7, O/U 48
ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS (4-10): Tampa Bay will pull even with the Panthers in the NFC South with a win. Quarterback Josh Freeman will have to lead the way. In his last two starts against the Panthers he is 30 of 48 for 419 yards with four TDs and a QB rating of 118.3. Freeman has 3,044 passing yards this season, his second consecutive season surpassing 3,000. Freeman, who missed the earlier matchup due to injury, has thrown 18 interceptions after getting picked off only six times last season.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (5-9): Carolina has won four of the last six meetings against the Buccaneers, including 38-19 in Week 13 in Tampa. Newton set the NFL record for rushing TDs (13) by a quarterback in that contest with three. The QB has also set an NFL rookie record with 30 (17 pass, 13 rush) total touchdowns this season. Also in the first meeting, Newton became the third player - and first QB - in NFL history with three or more rushing TDs, a passing TD and a reception in a single game.
1. Newton has 3,722 passing yards this season. He needs 18 more to surpass Peyton Manning for most by a rookie quarterback.
2. Carolina WR Steve Smith is second in the NFC with 1,299 receiving yards. He leads the NFL with 27 catches of 20-plus yards.
3. Tampa Bay second-year receiver Mike Williams was held without a catch last week against Dallas. It was the first time in 30 games.
PREDICTION: Panthers 31, Bucs 10. No trick plays needed, just pure domination.
THE STORY: Division titles are nice, but the New England Patriots have loftier expectations. Sure, winning the AFC East for the ninth time in 11 years (presumably) put a smile on the face of coach Bill Belichick, but New England has its eyes on the top seed in the conference. To strengthen their position, the Patriots will vie for their seventh straight victory on Saturday when the division rival Miami Dolphins come to town. In the season opener against Miami, Tom Brady threw for a team-record 517 yards and four touchdowns - including a 99-yarder to former Dolphin Wes Welker. Last week, New England snapped the six-game winning streak of the Denver Broncos with a 41-23 triumph. For its part, Miami made a winner out of interim coach Todd Bowles in his debut with a 30-23 victory over the AFC East rival Buffalo.
TV: CBS, 1 p.m. ET. LINE: Patriots -9.5, O/U 48.5
ABOUT THE DOLPHINS (5-9): RB Reggie Bush rushed for a career-high 203 yards and scored his sixth rushing touchdown of the season on Sunday. He sits just 27 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season of his career. After recording just one 100-yard game with New Orleans, Bush has accomplished the feat in three successive weeks with Miami. WR Brandon Marshall recorded consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons - a rare feat in South Florida. The last Dolphin to do so was former Patriot Irving Fryar (1993, 1994). Marshall could have a field day against New England's 32nd-ranked pass defense.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (11-3): New England's biggest victory in Week 15 may have come from the losses of its closest contenders. Houston (10-4) and Baltimore (10-4) tasted defeat on Sunday and Pittsburgh (10-4) met with the same fate one day later. As a result, the Patriots now control their own destiny with home tilts remaining versus the Dolphins and Bills (5-9). Brady collected his 13th multi-touchdown game of the season after throwing for two scores against the Broncos. He can tie Miami legend Dan Marino's record of 15 (set in 1984) by continuing the trend in the team's final two contests.
1. New England TE Rob Gronkowski needs only 34 yards to break Ben Coates' single-season franchise record of 1,174 yards. Kellen Winslow of the San Diego Chargers holds the NFL's tight end record with 1,290 yards, set in 1980.
2. While no one is confusing QB Matt Moore with Marino, the former has thrown for 11 touchdowns against two interceptions over the last seven games.
3. For all the pomp and circumstance of the victories, New England suffered a significant loss on Sunday. DE Andre Carter, who leads the team with 10 sacks, injured his left quadriceps and was placed on IR on Tuesday.
PREDICTION: Patriots 31, Dolphins 10. Brady had his way with Miami in the season opener and he'll find similar success on Sunday.
THE STORY: The Dream (Team) was dead, or so was the prevailing thought spinning around the City of Brotherly Love and throughout the NFL in general. Well, not so fast. The Philadelphia Eagles are still entertaining visions of winning the NFC East, but they must first take care of business against the division rival Dallas Cowboys on Saturday. With convincing victories in their last two games, the Eagles have remained mathematically alive for the postseason - a thought that bordered on ridiculous after both their 1-4 and 4-8 starts. A loss on Saturday, however, will effectively end their postseason aspirations while putting coach Andy Reid on an already hot seat. For its part, Dallas can clinch the division with a victory over Philadelphia and a loss by the New York Giants this weekend.
TV: FOX, 4:15 p.m. ET. LINE: Cowboys -1, O/U 50.5
ABOUT THE EAGLES (6-8): Philadelphia must win its last two games - and receive some help - in order to claim division laurels. In the Eagles' view, the New York Jets will need to upend the Giants on Saturday, with the latter rebounding to defeat the Cowboys in the regular-season finale. Last week, RB LeSean McCoy scored three times in a 45-19 victory over the Jets to break Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren's 1945 franchise mark for touchdowns. McCoy, who has an NFL-best 20 touchdowns this season, rushed 30 times for 185 yards and two scores in a 34-7 victory over the Cowboys on Oct. 30.
ABOUT THE COWBOYS (8-6): QB Tony Romo spread the wealth last Saturday, throwing touchdowns to three different receivers in a 31-15 triumph over the reeling Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since losing to the Eagles, Romo has torched his opponents for 18 touchdowns against two interceptions. RB Felix Jones recorded his second straight 100-yard game since taking over for injured rookie DeMarco Murray. Jones missed practice on both Tuesday and Wednesday with a hamstring injury, but expects to play Saturday.
1. Eagles DE Jason Babin has collected three sacks in each of the last two weeks to record a league-high 18 this season. He sits three shy of the 21 set by Hall of Famer Reggie White (1987).
2. Cowboys LB DeMarcus Ware recorded four sacks against the Eagles in Week 8. He has 13.5 in his career versus Philadelphia, the most against any one team.
3. Eagles CB Asante Samuel is dealing with a mild hamstring strain, but expects to take the field on Saturday.
PREDICTION: Eagles 27, Cowboys 13. McCoy continues his sizzling season to dominate Dallas again.
THE STORY: After suffering atrocious losses last week, New York rivals meet on Saturday battling for their playoff lives at MetLife Stadium. The Jets, who are deemed the home team in the contest, were routed at Philadelphia last week and need wins in their final two games to clinch a playoff berth. Meanwhile, Eli Manning's hot hand fizzled out in an embarrassing setback against the Washington Redskins a week ago. Manning threw three interceptions in the loss, forcing the Giants to sweep their final two games to earn their spot in the playoffs. The Giants have won the past four games in the series.
TV: FOX, 1 p.m. ET. LINE: Jets -3, O/U 46
ABOUT THE GIANTS (7-7): Despite last week's loss the Giants still control their own fate. A win against the Jets and in the season finale against the Cowboys would give the Giants the NFC East title. Since starting the season 6-2, the Giants have lost five of their last six games and needed a late rally to beat Dallas for their only win in the terrible stretch. Despite last week's dismal performance, Manning has already set the franchise mark for passing yards in a season and is one of four quarterbacks on pace to break Dan Marino's all-time mark. He also needs one TD pass in the fourth quarter to break the NFL mark. The Giants have a long list of injuries, including DE Osi Umenyiora (doubtful, ankle) but DE Justin Tuck hopes to return.
ABOUT THE JETS (8-6): While the Giants bank on a powerful offense hoping to offset its defensive woes, the opposite is true for the Jets. Rex Ryan's defense is ranked seventh in the NFL but its enigmatic offense is 26th. Shonn Greene has turned things around to pace the running game and needs 59 yards to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. Santonio Holmes has scored a TD in five straight games but the passing game is inconsistent at best. QB Mark Sanchez suffered a neck injury against the Eagles but will play. RB-KR Joe McKnight is doubtful and safety Jim Leonhard was placed on IR two weeks ago. The Jets are 6-1 at home on the season and, despite Ryan's claims as a defensive guru, they've scored at least 24 points in every win this season.
1. The Giants are ranked eighth in total offense but 28th in defense.
2. Because this is a Jet home game, their fans were awarded the tickets.
3. The Jets beat the Giants 17-3 in the preseason.
PREDICTION: Giants 24, Jets 21. The only thing that could make this matchup better would be if it was the last game of the season.
THE STORY: After beating the Washington Redskins as interim coach late last season, Leslie Frazier said the win was "hopefully; the start of great things to come." This certainly isn't what he had in mind. The woeful Minnesota Vikings will try to avoid a franchise-record seventh straight loss Saturday on the road against the Redskins, who are wrapping up another disappointing season. Frazier went 3-3 down the stretch in 2010 to earn the full-time job, but he could be looking for work soon. Minnesota needs to win its final two games to avoid the worst season in the franchise's 51-year history. Minnesota has won four of the last six meetings. Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart each ran for a touchdown in last season's 17-13 victory in Washington.
TV: FOX, 1 p.m. ET. LINE: Redskins -6.5, O/U 44
ABOUT THE VIKINGS (2-12): Minnesota was torched for an astonishing 573 yards, including 412 through the air, in a 42-20 loss to New Orleans last week. The Vikings are now allowing a league-worst 29 points per game and the third-most passing yards (260.4 ypg). Minnesota eased Peterson back into the game plan against the Saints after he missed three weeks with a high ankle sprain. Peterson ran for 60 yards on 10 carries and is 68 yards shy of his fifth straight 1,000-yard season. Rookie QB Christian Ponder has regressed in recent weeks, but he has also been dealing with a hip pointer. Ponder was just 14 of 31 for just 120 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
ABOUT THE REDSKINS (5-9): Washington is wrapping up a third straight losing season, but you wouldn't know it by its performance the last two weeks. The Redskins nearly upset New England before rolling to a 23-10 victory over a New York Giants team that had everything to play for. Rex Grossman threw a 20-yard touchdown, Graham Gano kicked three field goals and the defense intercepted Eli Manning three times. The most telling stat of the Redskins' season: That was the first game in which they won the turnover battle. Washington's minus-14 turnover margin is the worst in the NFL.
1. The Redskins have committed at least one turnover in 27 straight games - the longest streak in the NFL.
2. “We might be down and out of it, but we still got something to play for. We're building something that will last longer than just this season." - Redskins safety O.J. Atogwe.
3. The worst season in Vikings' history came in 1984, when Minnesota finished 3-13 in Les Steckel's only season as head coach.
PREDICTION: Redskins 23, Vikings 17. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Grossman, yes Grossman, lights up the Vikings' secondary.
THE STORY: Four losses in six games have taken the shine off one of the league's best stories, but the Cincinnati Bengals still have a shot at reaching the postseason for just the third time in the last 21 years. The Arizona Cardinals, on the other hand, need the equivalent of a Christmas miracle to reach the playoffs despite having won four straight and six of their last seven. Two teams heading in opposite directions clash on Christmas Eve in Cincinnati, when the Bengals try to keep their postseason hopes alive by cooling off the Cardinals. Cincinnati is tied with the New York Jets for the AFC's final wild card spot. It needs to win its final two games and hope the Jets lose one of their final two to clinch its first playoff berth since 2009.
TV: CBS, 1 p.m. ET. LINE: Bengals -4, O/U 40.5
ABOUT THE CARDINALS (7-7): Who saw this coming? The Cardinals have risen from the ashes of University of Phoenix Stadium. All seven of their wins have come after trailing at halftime - including the last three in overtime. Arizona rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit for a 20-17 win over Cleveland last week. Rookie Patrick Peterson had a 32-yard punt return prior to John Skelton's 32-yard completion to Larry Fitzgerald, which set up Jay Feely's game-winning field goal. Skelton finished 28 of 46 for a career-high 313 yards with one touchdown and one interception in place of Kevin Kolb (concussion). Kolb was limited in practice Wednesday and split repetitions with Skelton. Coach Ken Whisenhunt hasn't announced a starter. Skelton is 4-1 in place of Kolb this season. The Cardinals' defense has been a big reason for the turnaround. Arizona has allowed just eight touchdowns in the last seven games.
ABOUT THE BENGALS (8-6): Cincinnati has exceeded expectations behind the outstanding rookie QB-WR combination of Andy Dalton (3,012 yards, 18 TDs, 13 INTs) and A.J. Green (61 catches, 1,006 yards, 7 TDs). But the Bengals have sputtered down the stretch with their only two wins coming against teams with a combined record of 6-22. Their 20-13 win over a woeful two-win St. Louis team didn't do much to inspire hope. Dalton was 15 of 26 for 179 yards and had a streak of 107 passes without an interception snapped. He also failed to throw a touchdown for the first time in 11 games. Green, who finished with six catches for 115 yards, suffered a separated shoulder in the game but is expected to play this week. Cincinnati's biggest problem lately is red zone efficiency. The Bengals are 22nd in that category (48.8 percent) and even worse in the last three games (44.4).
1. Green, the fourth overall pick of April's draft, is four yards and seven catches shy of breaking Chris Collinsworth's franchise rookie receiving records set in 1981.
2. If both teams win out, New York would win the fourth tiebreaker over Cincinnati based on strength of victory. The teams the Jets have beaten are currently a combined 45-69 compared to the 34-79 mark of teams the Bengals have defeated.
3. Arizona is in the midst of its longest winning streak since 1999.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 24, Bengals 19. Cincinnati hasn't shown it can beat a good team, and Arizona is rolling right now.
THE STORY: If they're going to make a deep run in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers need quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be healthy. But they're not willing to give up on winning the AFC North yet, so Roethlisberger will try to endure a sprained left ankle when the Steelers host the St. Louis Rams on Saturday at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh's hopes of winning the division took a hit with Monday's 20-3 loss at San Francisco, a game in which Roethlisberger threw three interceptions and was sacked three times while clearly hobbled by the high ankle sprain. The Steelers remain tied with Baltimore atop the division, but the Ravens hold the tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping the season series.
TV: FOX, 1 p.m. ET. LINE: Steelers, -15.5, O/U 37.5
ABOUT THE RAMS (2-12): St. Louis has lost five straight, and the last four have come without QB Sam Bradford, who is sidelined with a left high ankle sprain. Kellen Clemens made his first start in two seasons and the 10th of his six-year career last week, throwing for 229 yards and a touchdown on 25-of-36 passing, and he is expected to get the nod again this week. No matter who has started under center, the Rams have struggled on offense. They rank 30th in total yards (285.3 per game) and last in scoring (11.9 points per game), and their luck isn't likely to change against one of the league's top defenses.
ABOUT THE STEELERS (10-4): Pittsburgh leads the league in total defense (276.9 yards per game) and pass defense (179.6 yards per game) and ranks second in scoring defense (15.6 points per game). But a solid defensive effort wasn't enough Monday, as the offense was unable to cash in on opportunities. Roethlisberger has put up big numbers - he needs only 144 passing yards to reach 4,000 for the second time in his career - but he was not himself against the 49ers, throwing a season-high three interceptions. The loss knocked the Steelers from the potential No. 1 seed in the AFC to the No. 5 seed if the playoffs started this week.
1. Pittsburgh is 6-1 at home this season and averages 24.7 points and 11.4 points allowed at Heinz Field, significantly better than its overall average of 20.4 points and 15.6 points allowed.
2. Rams RB Steven Jackson needs 34 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the seventh consecutive season, the longest streak in team history.
3. Pittsburgh WR Hines Ward needs nine catches to become the eighth player in NFL history with 1,000 receptions.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 23, St. Louis 6. With the Steelers' stingy defense against the Rams' woeful offense, Pittsburgh should win easily even if Roethlisberger can't play - or can't finish.
THE STORY: The San Diego Chargers are embarking on their annual December push toward a playoff spot after spending the past two months looking like a team that would be drafting in the top five. The Detroit Lions have scratched off the stink of back-to-back losses with back-to-back wins and came within a game of achieving their wild card dreams with a last-second victory over the Oakland Raiders - one of the teams the Chargers are trying to track down. San Diego still has a chance to save its season and end up with the AFC West title, but it needs to win out and get a lot of help. The Lions, who sit in the No. 6 spot in the NFC, are in control of their own destiny. While the Chargers have been a perennial playoff contender during the Philip Rivers years, Detroit will be looking to lock down its first trip to the postseason since 1999.
TV: CBS, 4:05 p.m. ET. LINE: Lions -1.5, O/U 52.5
ABOUT THE CHARGERS (7-7): Once again San Diego was left for dead after a horrible start and once again it has risen up just in time to make a late charge for a playoff spot and possibly save coach Norv Turner's job. The Chargers secured their most impressive win last week, dismantling the Baltimore Ravens 34-14 for their third straight win following a six-game losing streak. Rivers has been at the top of his game during the winning streak, throwing seven touchdowns and no interceptions after serving up 17 picks in San Diego's first 11 contests.
ABOUT THE LIONS (9-5): Detroit has shown its resiliency of late, beating Minnesota without Ndamukong Suh on Dec. 11 and pulling within a game of the playoffs at the last second against the Raiders. Suh blocked a game-winning field goal attempt by Oakland after the Lions had rallied to take the lead. Matthew Stafford engineered two long drives in the final seven minutes, capping the comeback with his second touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson. Detroit is two games ahead of a group of teams at 7-7.
1. Johnson's 214 yards last week were the third-most in a game in Detroit history.
2. San Diego RB Ryan Mathews has 453 yards over the last four games and went over 1,000 (1,033) in the win over Baltimore.
3. Rivers joined Peyton Manning and Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks in history with at least four consecutive 4,000-yard seasons.
PREDICTION: Chargers 38, Lions 31. San Diego just needs it more and Rivers is at the top of his game.