Week 16 in the NFL is a time for two things – fantasy football championships and exciting playoff races. Without those two events, most games this late in the season are not worth watching (honestly, who cares that the Cleveland Browns are hosting the Oakland Raiders?). Teams that have run away with their respective divisions shift into resting mode to get stars healthy and ready for the playoffs, while teams that have been out of the hunt for a while begin to shut down and regroup to rebuild. The problem when that happens is that the games just are not very interesting. There is nothing to me that could be worse than a collection of meaningless games being played just because they are scheduled. That is called the NFL preseason. Instead, this is supposed to be a time when playoff contenders are put into do-or-die situations, with postseason futures hanging in the balance.
Unfortunately, with five of the eight division champions having already been crowned, the NFL is quickly running out of meaningful games in the last two weeks of the season. There is some good news in the AFC Wild Card race, though, that just might make the rest of the 2009 regular season worth following. The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos currently own the rights to the two Wild Card spots at 8-6, but there are six teams sitting just one game behind them at 7-7, and any one of those teams would love more than anything to crash the playoff party.
Of those teams currently on the outside looking in, only the Pittsburgh Steelers have the opportunity to directly influence their chances of playing football in January as they take on the Baltimore Ravens this weekend, and the entire pool of playoff contenders will be paying very close attention to how this one plays out. If the Ravens play on to victory, they advance to 9-6 and will come very close to guaranteeing a postseason bid. If, however, the Steelers pull off the win, the playoff race will become a whole lot more interesting.
To begin with, the Steelers would pull to a tie with Baltimore at 8-7, getting right back in the thick of the playoff hunt despite having lost five games in a row late in the season. More important, though, is that it would also open the door to the Houston Texans, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, and yes, even the Tennessee Titans. This one game could become the first domino in what would be a very exciting dash to the finish line. Suddenly, matchups such as Miami versus Houston, Jacksonville versus New England, and Pittsburgh versus Miami (during week 17) become much more exciting!
The matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers is the best remaining game of the NFL season because it is one of the only games left with implications that extend beyond the participants within the contest. The seasons of eight different NFL franchises hang in the balance of this one single game. Greater postseason implications will not be found anywhere else as the NFL season draws to a close.