Week 16 NFL schedule: Top storylines and rooting guide

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We break down the big story lines in Week 16, and what to make of Sunday's schedule. New to Niners Nation? Sign up here and join the discussion!

Week 16 is upon us, and with no Thursday Night Football this week, we have a very full slate of Sunday games. Our San Francisco 49ers do not play until Monday Night Football, but in the meantime, we have plenty of interesting matchups to enjoy.

The 49ers can clinch a playoff berth today OR tomorrow. They need a win of their own, OR a loss by the Arizona Cardinals. Additionally, they can maneuver up the food chain with a win. The rest of the pertinent matchups don't have a ton of impact, but they are noteworthy as the NFC playoff picture settles. Here are the pertinent games for Sunday, ranked again in order of importance as I see them.

1. Arizona Cardinals @ Seattle Seahawks

It's the top-ranked game for the playoff picture, and it's not even close. If the Cardinals lose, the 49ers clinch their playoff spot. The 49ers will still have things to accomplish with a win, but it will be nice to get that playoff berth locked up. Of course, on the other hand, a Cardinals win over the Seahawks drops Seattle to one game up on the 49ers with only a game remaining. The Seahawks finish with a home game against St. Louis, so I'm not holding my breath for back-to-back home losses, but maybe?

Rooting interest: The 49ers can clinch the playoff berth on their own with a win over Atlanta, so yes, I'm getting greedy and rooting for Arizona to beat Seattle. I'm not holding my breath, but why not?

2. New Orleans Saints @ Carolina Panthers

The 49ers control their own playoff potential thanks to the Saints loss to St. Louis last week. With that loss, the Saints dropped into a three-way tie with the Panthers and 49ers. That also means, the loser of this game drops a game back of both teams, assuming the 49ers win. If the 49ers win, they climb into the fifth seed, and can claim it for their own by closing the season with a win over the Cardinals next week.

Rooting interest: I'm actually pulling for the Saints. If the 49ers grab that five seed, a win in the wildcard round would get them the No. 2 seed if the No. 6 seed also wins. That means, assuming Seattle clinches home field, the 49ers could avoid them until the NFC Championship Game. I think the 49ers will have to win in Seattle at some point to get to the Super Bowl, but why not throw an obstacle in Seattle's way before that matchup? I think the Panthers have a much better chance of going on the road and beating the Seahawks in the playoffs. The Saints are 3-4 on the road, and very inconsistent. That does not bode well for Sunday against the Panthers, but maybe they can do it.

3. Dallas Cowboys @ Washington

The Cowboys sit a game back of the Eagles in the NFC East, with one game remaining between the two at Dallas. The Cowboys could need this game to keep pace with the Eagles. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams are rooting for Washington to lose so their 2014 first round pick (from the RG3 trade) remains a top two pick.

Rooting interest: Normally, rooting against the Cowboys is the easy call. But with St. Louis holding the Washington pick, a pair of Washington wins to close out the season could drop that pick from No. 2 to the back end of the top 10. I assume it's a great pick either way, but why help the Rams? Or just root against the Cowboys and be done with it.

4. Chicago Bears @ Philadelphia Eagles

The Bears can clinch the NFC North with a win and losses by the Packers and Giants. The Eagles can clinch the NFC East with a win and a Cowboys loss. How do we want this to play out? The winner will hold the tiebreaker in potential seeding, but the loser would be right back in the thick of their own playoff race. And neither is even guaranteed to clinch anything with a win.

Rooting interest: I'm going with the Bears. If the Eagles lose but still win the division with a win over Dallas next week, and the 49ers claim the five seed, the 49ers would travel to Philly in the wildcard round. That means I could take the train up from D.C. for the game. Consider this a particularly selfish rooting interest.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers @ Green Bay Packers

The Packers travel to Chicago to close out the season, which could be with the division on the line. If the Packers win or the Bears lose, the Packers remain alive. It's safe to say if that's the case, this game or Cowboys-Eagles will get flexed into Sunday Night Football to close out the season. I think I'd prefer Packers-Bears in that slot.

Rooting interest: I don't want to see the 49ers travel to Lambeau Field in a wildcard matchup. The Packers defense is not particularly good, and their run game can be shut down by the 49ers defense, but if Aaron Rodgers is around, it leaves me just a little concerned. I think the 49ers could win in Lambeau, but it's still not exactly an ideal opening playoff matchup.

6. New York Giants @ Detroit Lions

The Lions blew a huge chance with their late loss to the Baltimore Ravens. They now sit a game back, with the Packers in between them and the Bears. The Lions have the tiebreaker over the Bears, but at this point, it may not matter.

Rooting interest: I'm pulling for the Giants. I would be entertained seeing one nemesis stick a fork in the playoff hopes of another nemesis.

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