As we enter the penultimate weekend of the NFL regular season, our most sincere holiday wish is that you managed to stay far away from any TV that was showing the Titans vs. Jaguars game on Thursday night. If not, shame on you. Between holiday parties, holiday shopping, Hanukkah candle-lighting, and Serial podcast binging, you need not have looked far to find for your football aversion strategy on Thursday. It was also a perfect night to play the is-there-anything-I-can-help-with-around-the-house card to your significant other.


Those who did employ such alternative tactics were rewarded with a Saturday double-header (we’ll try to ignore the fact that Washington was involved), as well as a Sunday slate of intrigue. While it is true that many playoff fortunes will be broken on Sunday, the real moment of truth may take place Monday night in Cincinnati. Not only are the Bengals and Broncos the only teams that can wrestle home field advantage away from the Patriots, but we have also officially reached the legitimate worry stage regarding Peyton Manning’s health.


The first rule of the Peyton Manning Injury Club is that you don’t talk about Peyton Manning’s injuries; but he is clearly battling through something, and he is just as clearly not able to throw the ball in great volume or with great effectiveness. Having recognized this, the Broncos have developed a formidable running attack, which has essentially pre-empted any deep analysis about Manning’s prognosis.


Despite all of the shuffling at the bottom of the playoff bracket, it is largely assumed that the ultimate final four this year will be New England, Denver, Seattle, and Green Bay. Now, however, it is time to confront the Denver question. Do we believe in the Broncos with a compromised Manning at the helm?


While a contrarian case could be made that Denver is actually more dangerous due to the renewed focus on the run, we have never known that to be a winning formula for Manning. We will have to watch him closely on Monday, as this will be our last chance to truly size him up before the post-season. At this point, something flattering about the Bengals could be mentioned — who still have an outside shot at the top seed in the AFC — but they have lost the right to receive any benefit of the doubt in a big game.


Here’s what else will undoubtedly provide us intrigue on Sunday:


Dallas Delivery?:
We can’t make up the drama in Dallas, and, thankfully, we don’t have to. With their entire season on the line, their best player, DeMarco Murray, is a question mark, and the offensive line will not be whole? After posting their biggest win of the decade last week, they can’t possibly have a let down…right?


Farewell to Rex?:
All signs point to this being Rex Ryan’s final home game, which should be combustible, comical, and tragic. In other words, it’s a typical Sunday of Jets football. There seems to be a rumbling that suggests the Jets can shock the Patriots, but New England won’t waste the opportunity to ruin everything about Rex’s last stand.


Santa Clausen?:
If Jimmy Clausen is anything like Santa Claus — and Jay Cutler — he will plenty of gifts for the other team on Sunday. It is hard to understate just how humiliating and embarrassing this moment is for the once-proud Bears franchise. That said, the only thing better than psychoanalyzing Cutler’s body language while he’s playing is doing the same thing when he’s on the bench. That’s a full three hours of disinterested Jay Cutler face magic!


Changing of the Guard?:
We know the Seahawks and Cardinals will both make the playoffs, but this could be the beginning of the end for the Cardinals. Or perhaps the opposite. Arizona must show the nation — and themselves — that they can handle their division foes. If not, the NFC West title will slip away, and they will likely face a crisis of confidence heading into the post-season. On the flip side, a Seattle victory could launch the Seahawks into full juggernaut mode.


Who do you think will make it to the final four this season? Let’s chat here, or find me on Twitter @endbadly