Thanksgiving always takes the NFL focus this week, but the main course on the field comes Sunday.
Three games with heavy AFC playoff implications are on the docket this week, and it will help sort out what is becoming a very crowded wild-card field.
The New England Patriots (10-1) and Baltimore Ravens (9-2) sit comfortably in the top two spots, but after that, there is plenty of intrigue.
The third-seeded Houston Texans (7-4) have just a one-game lead in the AFC South over the Indianapolis Colts (6-5) and Tennessee Titans (6-5).
The latter teams meet in the first of Sunday’s three big games at 1 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium. Tennessee could be especially active in the playoff chase. Over the next three weeks the Titans face Indianapolis, the Oakland Raiders and Houston in that order.
Tennessee has turned its fortunes around since benching quarterback Marcus Mariota in favor of Ryan Tannehill, and the showdown with the Colts holds extreme importance.
Indianapolis won the first meeting between the teams 19-17 on Sept. 15 in Nashville, Tenn. A win this time around could provide a critical tie-breaking advantage. However, the teams are headed in opposite directions.
The Colts have lost three of their last four, while the Titans have won four of five.
The fact Houston hosts the Patriots on Sunday night only adds to the drama. There’s a good possibility the Indy-Tennessee winner will find itself tied for the best record in the division with four games remaining.
The Raiders (6-5) can take a more direct route to the top of the AFC West with a road win against the Kansas City Chiefs (7-4).
For Oakland, it’s a chance to bounce back from a horrific loss against the New York Jets and immediately get back into the division race. Kansas City, on the other hand, can come very close to wrapping up the division title.
A victory for the Chiefs would equate to a 2.5-game lead because Kansas City would have a sweep of the season series. With just four games remaining in the regular season, that would be a very steep deficit.
The Cleveland Browns (5-6) are looking for their fourth straight victory Sunday at the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) and are very nearly fighting for their playoff lives.
Cleveland is 10th in the playoff chase entering the weekend, trailing Oakland, Indianapolis and Tennessee in the line behind Pittsburgh, which currently holds the sixth and final playoff position. A loss would leave the Browns two games outside of the playoff picture with just four games remaining.
The Steelers also are in an interesting spot. They just made a change at quarterback — swapping in Devlin Hodges for a struggling Mason Rudolph.
Hodges rallied the team past the Cincinnati Bengals last week and now gets the start in the most important game of the season thus far.
With Baltimore in firm control of the AFC North, the Steelers and Browns likely only have the wild-card avenue available to them. That puts even more pressure on Sunday’s loser.
No matter how these three big games shake out, the playoff picture will look much different Monday than it does today. And the crowded nature of the race makes it almost certain one or more of these teams is going to look back on this weekend with great regret.
There are no true elimination games among playoff contenders just yet. However, these three games will have a huge say in how the deck is stacked entering the regular season’s final four weeks.