The cardboard boxes have a home game this week.
You just know the New England Patriots have dragged them down and up the Eastern Seaboard – boxes of AFC East champion T-shirts and hats – first hoping to break them out in Miami, then in Pittsburgh.
But the Patriots lost to the Dolphins in that wild ending two weeks ago, then at the Steelers on Sunday, so there was no occasion for locker-room festivities. That 10th consecutive AFC East title is still bound up in packing tape, to be liberated by a box cutter Sunday, presumably, when the Patriots play host to Buffalo.
Heading into Week 16, the plight of the Patriots is like the state of the NFL as a whole. So much is undecided. With two games to go, no one in the AFC has clinched a division or secured a particular seeding. All we know for sure is the Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs are in, but they could wind up the Nos. 1 or 5 seeds, two starkly different fates.
The NFC picture is clearer, but intrigue remains. The seedings are still up for grabs, as is the NFC East, although the Rams (West), New Orleans Saints (South), and Chicago Bears (North) have all clinched their divisions.
All that points to Week 16 being the most important and decisive slate of games this season, with several critical matchups that will help clear the fog shrouding the postseason picture.
Baltimore is playing at the Chargers on Saturday night, with the Ravens a half-game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. The game is critically important to both teams involved, as the Chargers have a chance to overtake Kansas City for the division crown and No. 1 seed at the slightest stumble by the Chiefs. (Kansas City plays at Seattle on Sunday night, and plenty of visitors have stumbled there over the years.)
Meanwhile, the Ravens could inch ahead of Pittsburgh if they were to win at StubHub Center, and the Steelers were to lose at New Orleans on Sunday.
The Rams clinched a playoff spot so early, it looked at the time as if they’d be coasting across the finish line by now, maybe even resting their starters and getting some snaps for their reserves. But losses to Chicago and Philadelphia – the first back-to-back defeats in Sean McVay’s two seasons – mean Los Angeles has to win out against the Cardinals and San Francisco to be assured of a first-round bye. More important, the Rams need to find their groove again after sleepwalking through the three games that followed their bye. That 54-51 win over Kansas City feels like half a lifetime ago.
Down goes Tannehill
Remember when Jacksonville was “Sacksonville”?
That was the nickname for the Jaguars defense last season when that unit rolled up 55 sacks, second only to Pittsburgh’s 56.
The Jaguars have come back to earth this season and have 28 through 14 games, 29th in the league. Still, they have to be licking their chops heading into Sunday’s game at Miami.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked a staggering nine times by the Vikings on Sunday.
“They sent a lot of blitzes we probably didn’t prepare as hard for,” Miami tackle Laremy Tunsil told reporters, according to the Palm Beach Post. “I mean, we knew it was coming. But every third down was a blitz or a twist. We can’t do nothing about it now. We’ll have to watch film. And prepare for the next game. And don’t allow nine sacks again.”
The record for most times sacked in a game is 12, held by five teams, most recently when the New York Giants sacked Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb a dozen times on Sept. 30, 2007. Linebacker Osi Umenyiora had six of those in that 16-3 Giants victory.
San Francisco, coming off a surprising win over Seattle, plays host to Chicago on Sunday. That means the 49ers will face defensive player-of-the-year candidate Khalil Mack, traded to the Bears by Oakland at the start of the season.
Chicago gave up two first-round picks for Mack, and they weren’t the only team in the bidding. The 49ers tried to get him too. Although the specifics of San Francisco’s offer are unclear, general manager John Lynch has said he was willing to give up even more for Mack.
“I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but we tried like heck to acquire Khalil Mack,” Lynch said in an interview with 95.7 The Game last month. “But it didn’t work out … Guys that are free, they never become free because they’re so coveted in this league.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer