At Shutdown Corner, we're here to provide clarity whenever possible. To that end, and with the help of the handy-dandy Yahoo! Sports Playoff Scenario generator, it's time to lay out which games are most important today, and why. By our count, four of the eight early games include key scenarios for teams looking for playoff appearances and seeds.
When we know how the early games have gone, we'll be back with another post detailing which afternoon and evening games mean what for the teams involved. (Note: We're not including New England's battle with Miami because the Pats have already grabbed the AFC's top seed.)
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons - The Falcons are in the catbird seat for home field through the NFC playoffs; all they have to do is to beat a Panthers team needing two touchdowns just to bust 200 points for the season. If Carolina's surprising defense steps up enough to stop Matt Ryan(notes) and Company, the Saints (with a win) would jump up to the one-seed, and there isn't anyone in the NFL who wants that right now; the Saints may be the most dangerous team in the conference.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns - This game could very well upset the balance of power under the Pats in the AFC. The Browns beat the Steelers last December, and if Pittsburgh manages to get upset in the new Dawg Pound, Pittsburgh could go from the two-seed to the sixth with alarming ease.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints - This game could have lasting ramifications beyond Sunday. If the Bucs lose, they're out of the playoffs despite the fact that they'd still have a better record than both NFC West teams looking for a four-seed, and they beat the the Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams in the regular season. Such a scenario would most certainly lead to the league discussing a different level of seeding for the playoffs. But if the Bucs can beat the Saints, AND the Packers and Giants lose, there will be three playoff teams from the NFC South, which is probably as it should have been all along. That scenario would push Chicago up to the one-seed, with the Falcons second, the Saints fifth, and the Bucs sixth.
Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens - If the Steelers lose and Baltimore wins or ties, the Ravens take the AFC North and get a first-round bye. If the Ravens lose and the Steelers win or tie, the order is reversed. In either case, we're looking at the AFC North winner with the two-seed. My only hope is that we get another Ravens-Steelers game in the playoffs, because that's become the best rivalry in the NFL.