NFL This Week: Cowboys, Eagles chase East title at .500 mark

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Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott speaks during a news conference following an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

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Complaints about the NFL’s playoff structure have rarely carried more clout than down the stretch of this season, given the glaring weakness of the NFC East.

Though there are currently no teams in this quagmire of a quartet with a winning record, yes, either Dallas or Philadelphia will still get to host a first-round game against a wild-card team already guaranteed to have a better record. The difference could be by as many as four games.

Neither the Cowboys (7-7) nor the Eagles (7-7) are concerned about the imbalance, of course. They’re simply aiming to close the year strong after so many puzzling struggles. They’ll play in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, one of the most meaningful games on the Week 16 schedule even if this is hardly a matchup of Super Bowl-caliber competitors.

The Cowboys, who started the season 3-0, beat the Los Angeles Rams 44-21 last week for a badly needed spark. The Eagles, who recovered from a 37-10 loss at Dallas on Oct. 20 to improve to 5-4 entering their bye, beat Washington 37-27 last week to keep pace.

The Cowboys can clinch the division with a win. The Eagles need two more victories to claim their spot, with their final game at the New York Giants. Dallas wraps up 2019 against the Redskins. Assuming no ties, then, the NFC East will finish with a total of 24 wins. Last season, the only one of the NFL’s eight divisions with fewer than 30 victories was the AFC East with 28. Houston, which went 9-7 in 2016, was the last team to win a division with nine wins or fewer.

Denver coach Vic Fangio went so far last week as to informally present to reporters his preferred format, which would eliminate divisions altogether and have each team play every other conference opponent on an annual basis to ensure the top six squads from each side qualify for the playoffs.

That’s just one man’s outside-the-box idea for enacting change, though. The Cowboys and Eagles are both still fully entitled to the division championship that almost every team states as a goal when training camps convene in the summer.

Here’s a closer look at the other games this weekend:

HOUSTON (9-5) at TAMPA BAY (7-7)

The Texans and Buccaneers kick off a tripleheader on Saturday for the NFL Network, with Houston in position to clinch a second consecutive AFC South title after overtaking the division with a win over second-place Tennessee last week. The Texans have a rematch waiting with the Titans in Week 17, but that won’t matter if they beat a Tampa Bay team that is surging too late. Even if the Texans lose, they would wrap up at least a wild-card spot if Pittsburgh loses to the New York Jets.

The Buccaneers have won four straight games, but they’ll be absent from the playoffs for a 12th straight year. They’ll also likely be missing both of their Pro Bowl wide receivers, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, with hamstring injuries.

The Texans, if they win, would join New England and Kansas City as the only teams with at least four division titles in the past five seasons.

BUFFALO (10-4) at NEW ENGLAND (11-3)

Rare is the year for the Patriots under coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady when they haven’t already wrapped up the AFC East on the weekend before Christmas Day, but they host a Buffalo team that still has a chance to end their peerless streak of 10 straight division crowns. The Bills haven’t had one of those since 1995.

For that to happen, the upstart Bills must not only win at New England but beat the Jets in Week 17 and have the Patriots lose at home to the lowly Dolphins.

Both the Bills and Patriots are safely in the playoffs, but that’s hardly satisfying for Belichick, Brady and their cohorts. The Patriots, who can also clinch a first-round bye with a win and a loss by the Chiefs at Chicago, would match San Francisco for the most 12-win seasons since the 1970 merger. The 49ers have 13, and the Patriots and Cowboys have 12 each.

LOS ANGELES RAMS (8-6) at SAN FRANCISCO (11-3)

Though they were set back by a 29-22 loss at home to an Atlanta team that’s long been eliminated from playoff contention, the 49ers can still seize the top seed in the NFC. They wouldn’t even need to beat the Rams for that to happen, but it would clearly be the best way to go, with the de facto division title game at Seattle waiting in Week 17.

The 49ers, who haven’t swept the Rams since 2016, could still fall as far as the No. 6 seed, too. The defending NFC champion Rams, who have been one of the league’s biggest letdowns this year, can only return to the playoffs if they beat San Francisco and Arizona in Week 17 and have Minnesota lose to both Green Bay and Chicago over the final two games.

JACKSONVILLE (5-9) at ATLANTA (5-9)

The 2019 highlight film for the Falcons will start and end with road wins over NFC powers New Orleans and San Francisco, because the rest of the story has been about the continued steady decline for the 2016 NFC champions who were oh, so close to beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl that year. They’ll finish with their second straight losing record. Matt Ryan needs 231 passing yards to hit the 4,000-yard mark for a ninth straight time.

This is one of four games out of 11 contests on Sunday afternoon pitting two teams eliminated from the postseason race, playing only for pride, development and, naturally, draft pick positioning. The Jaguars are 10-20 since losing the AFC championship game at New England after the 2017 season.

BALTIMORE (12-2) at CLEVELAND (6-8)

Baltimore can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs by beating the Browns, with a second straight AFC North title already secured. Lamar Jackson can pad his MVP credentials, already leading the NFL with 33 touchdown passes and owning the single-season quarterback record with 1,103 rushing yards.

The Ravens can also exact some revenge for their 40-25 loss at home on Sept. 29 to Cleveland. The Browns have not done much well at all since that eye-raising performance, though they remain mathematically alive for a wild-card spot.

NEW ORLEANS (11-3) at TENNESSEE (8-6)

With the NFL career record for touchdown passes in hand for now, Drew Brees has the NFC South champion Saints in position to do some damage in January and return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 10 years. They’ll need some help to secure a first-round bye, though, and road games at Tennessee and Carolina await. The Saints are one of four 11-3 teams in the NFC, marking this just the second time since the 16-game schedule was initiated in 1978 that four NFC teams were tied for the top record with two or fewer weeks remaining.

The Titans squandered their inside track to the AFC South title, now needing the Buccaneers to beat Houston before they can be concerned about the Week 17 rematch with the Texans. There’s a wild-card spot well within reach, though, with Pittsburgh the primary competitor and both teams sporting the same record. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has quietly been one of the league’s best comeback performers, trails only Brees for the NFL’s best passer rating and completion percentage.

CAROLINA (5-9) at INDIANAPOLIS (6-8)

The Colts are left with only long-shot scenarios for returning to the playoffs, having dropped four straight games. The greatest intrigue in this contest, then, is which team can end a long losing streak. The Panthers have the longest current skid in the league with six consecutive defeats. They’re expected to give rookie quarterback Will Grier his first start.

CINCINNATI (1-13) at MIAMI (3-11)

Being a Bengals fan has been a hobby of infrequent reward, but this weekend could bring one of them. Losing to the Dolphins would ensure the Bengals have the first overall draft pick in 2020, a useful first step toward rebuilding the franchise. The Dolphins will be somewhere right behind them on the board on April 23. Hey, they’re favored to win this one, the first time oddsmakers have sided with them all season.

PITTSBURGH (8-6) at NEW YORK JETS (5-9)

The Steelers can continue their remarkable resilience since losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and enduring so many other setbacks by securing a wild-card spot with wins in their final two games. Their primary competitor is the Titans, who entered Week 16 with the same record.

The running back on the other side will look awfully familiar, with Le’Veon Bell facing his former team for the first time. The three-time Pro Bowl pick, who sat out the 2018 season in a contract dispute, has an average of 3.3 yards per rush that is the lowest of his six-season career.

NEW YORK GIANTS (3-11) at WASHINGTON (3-11)

This game will play a significant role in the order of the top five spots in the draft next spring. Neither team will likely use that pick on a quarterback, because they did that in 2019. Daniel Jones has missed the past two games with an ankle injury but could return for the Giants. Dwayne Haskins had his best game as a pro last week for the Redskins in a loss to the Eagles.

DETROIT (3-10-1) at DENVER (5-9)

The Lions have lost seven straight games. The Broncos have ensured their third consecutive losing season, their first such streak since 1972. One reason to watch? Budding stars at wide receiver for each team. Detroit’s Kenny Golladay leads the NFL with 10 touchdown catches. Denver’s Courtland Sutton has set career highs in yards and touchdowns.

OAKLAND (6-8) at LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (5-9)

The soccer venue the Chargers have used since moving to the Los Angeles area in 2017 will be used for the final time, with the club set to move into the most expensive stadium in NFL history with the Rams next fall. The Raiders have lost four straight games to all but ruin their playoff bid, though they remain mathematically alive for a wild-card spot. The Chargers have lost four of their past five games.

ARIZONA (4-9-1) at SEATTLE (11-3)

The Seahawks have their sights set on home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, though they must beat the 49ers in Week 17 to secure that.

The Cardinals have actually won three of their past four games at deafening CenturyLink Field, so the Seahawks sure won’t take this one lightly. They have won 10 games by one score this season, becoming the first team since the Houston Oilers in 1978 to do so.

KANSAS CITY (10-4) at CHICAGO (7-7)

Though their fourth straight AFC West title has already been clinched, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have only an outside chance to get a first-round bye. They’ve won four consecutive games behind a vastly improved defense, with an average of 11.3 points allowed.

The Bears will miss the playoffs, an obvious disappointment after winning their division last year. Coach Matt Nagy, after going 12-4 in his rookie season, will face his longtime mentor, Chiefs coach Andy Reid.

GREEN BAY (11-3) at MINNESOTA (10-4)

The NFC North is undecided, with the Packers poised to win it in coach Matt LaFleur’s rookie year. They can lose to the Vikings on Monday night and still do so, as long as they beat the sputtering Lions on the road in Week 17.

The Vikings can at least secure a wild-card spot with a win, though the 49ers could handle that for them by beating the Rams two days before kickoff. The Vikings have never lost to the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened in 2016.

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