December 21, 2018 / 9:14 PM / 5 months ago

NFL: Playoff spots on the line in bumper weekend schedule

(Reuters) - The penultimate weekend of the National Football League regular season serves up a bumper crop of games that should clarify a cloudy playoff picture and seal the fate of several teams.

Dec 15, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) signals to his sidelines during the second half against the Denver Broncos at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

U.S. television ratings were up over the last two seasons and league executives will be salivating at a fixture list that has several unmissable match-ups on the pre-Christmas weekend.

Even the 6-7-1 Cleveland Browns — yes, the Browns — have a mathematical, albeit extremely slight, chance of seeing January action as do the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles (7-7).

The Browns face the Cincinnati Bengals and the Eagles play the play the visiting Houston Texans on Sunday.

Three teams have already clinched divisional titles - Chicago Bears (NFC North), New Orleans Saints (NFC South) and Los Angeles Rams (NFC West) - with two more assured of playoff spots - the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers.

The weekend schedule kicks off with two Saturday games, both with playoff implications.

The Tennessee Titans (8-6), winners of three consecutive games, are heavy favorites against the injury-depleted Washington Redskins (7-7), whose season will almost certainly be over with a loss.

The Baltimore Ravens (8-6) visit the Los Angeles Chargers (11-3) in a mouthwatering Saturday night special with major playoff implications for both teams.

The Ravens, winners of four of their past five games, are half a game behind first-place Pittsburgh Steelers in the tight AFC North.

Baltimore’s recent success has been largely due to an old-fashioned style of running football in a league dominated by flashy passing teams.

The Ravens have averaged more than 230 rushing yards per game since rookie Lamar ‘Action’ Jackson took over as quarterback, the first team in more than 40 years to post such numbers in five straight games.

STUNNING COMEBACK

Baltimore are slight underdogs against the Chargers, who are on a league-leading four-game winning streak, thanks to a stunning comeback and last-gasp 29-28 victory against division rival Kansas City Chiefs last week.

The result left the Chargers and Chiefs tied atop the AFC West, both assured of making the playoffs but still with much to play for.

While the division winner will almost certainly get a first-round playoff bye, the runner-up will face a precarious post-season fate, relegated to a wildcard berth.

The Chiefs are slight favorites against the Seattle Seahawks in a prime time Sunday night clash. The Seahawks (8-6) could secure a wildcard berth with a win, though the division-leading Los Angeles Rams (11-3) are out of reach.

The Rams are big favorites to beat the lowly Arizona Cardinals, while the pick of the Sunday afternoon contests might be the league-leading New Orleans Saints (12-2) against the Steelers in a battle of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.

Ben Roethlisberger guided Pittsburgh to victory over Tom Brady and the AFC East-leading New England Patriots last Sunday, and now he faces off against Drew Brees.

While ‘Big Ben’ is the star of the Steelers show, their mean defense is equal second in the league in sacks, and they do it primarily with straightforward one-on-one match-ups.

Brees has struggled at times against the blitz recently, but he and his Saints have plenty to play for as a win would earn them home field playoff advantage until the Super Bowl.

The Saints have won six consecutive playoff home games in their deafening indoor Superdome where the crowd is so loud that visiting teams often have trouble communicating.

Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Ken Ferris and Martyn Herman

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