Since the launch of September, we've gone about our business of listing players and coaches from all 32 teams who matter most heading into Sunday's fare. Rinse and repeat.
This Sunday is different, though, marking the finite end for a rash of clunky clubs and outside-looking-in wannabees not listed on the invite list to this season's playoff party. Coaching dismissals and front-office overhauls loom as the next bit of business for much of that bunch -- but not everyone is swirling toward a dirt nap.
We still spy a handful of squads harboring hopes for a journey that leads all the way to Atlanta and Super Bowl LIII. Here's who still matters most in that world of dreams:
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook: The Vikings are overtly imperfect, yet all they need is a win over the Bears at home to clinch a wild-card invite. That alone would cover many sins, but taking out Chicago will require another money performance from Cook. He's playing his best football of the season, with 209 yards and a pair of scores on the ground over his past two outings -- and 536 total yards from scrimmage over his last five. This is the player we were advertised, running with speed and power and helping Kirk Cousins out of jams in the screen game. Cook singlehandedly detonated the Dolphins two weeks ago, but managed just 10 yards off 12 touches when the Vikings fell to the Bears in Week 11.
Newly anointed play-caller Kevin Stefanski has given coach Mike Zimmer what he wants in a run-heavy attack that channels through Cook. Sunday's tilt against one of the finest defensive units league-wide will serve as Minnesota's season-defining acid test.
Chicago's front five: That juicy NFC North showdown will also ask the Bears to fend off a Vikings pass rush that leads the NFL with 50 sacks. Twelve of those have come over the past two weeks, headlined by a gang of chaos-spinners who took down Miami's Ryan Tannehill an outrageous nine times two Sundays ago. Unlike the Dolphins, Chicago rolls into the finale with one of the league's better pass-protection units. Despite losing Kyle Long to injured reserve in early November, the Bears have allowed Mitch Trubisky to absorb just 24 sacks. His next-level mobility is a plus in this area, but center Cody Whitehair and right tackle Bobby Massie have graded out as reliable pass-blockers all year, per Pro Football Focus. Still, Trubisky's passer rating tumbles from 100.7 to 80.9 when facing five-plus rushers -- and nobody floods the quarterback at a higher rate than the Vikings.
It's a tough ask to contain quarterback-erasers Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen -- with a combined 20 sacks -- inside Minnesota's dome. Balmy temperatures and a fast surface won't help, but Chicago must strive for the win and pray the Niners do a number on the Rams, which would suddenly propel the Bears into a playoff bye in the NFC.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin: The Steelers feel like a team that could knock out any opponent in either conference on the right day. For me, this is also the club I'd quickly nominate to fall flat on its face in a big spot with the season on the line. Once resting in high places with a mark of 7-2-1, Pittsburgh has fallen to the Broncos, Chargers, Raiders and Saints over the past five weeks.
The Chargers and Saints are rough-and-tumble opponents, but questions abound over crumbling on the road against Denver and Oakland. Questions of a pressing nature attached to Tomlin, whose Steelers always seem to stumble and bumble against lesser competition once or twice a campaign. The hideous November-into-December has left Pittsburgh in a wildly awkward place: rooting for their natural rival, the upstart Browns, to take out the division-leading Ravens come Sunday afternoon in Baltimore. If this season ends with Pittsburgh at home shoveling snow while six other AFC teams soar into the postseason, Steelers fans will be laser focused on Tomlin's future in a way we've never experienced.
Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery: With Nick Foles sliding back into his magic-man act for the Eagles, it's worth noting that Philly's offense is beginning to look like the attack we expected. Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood have helped on the ground, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert are the best tight end duo around and long-lost wideout Nelson Agholor is coming off his first 100-yard outing of the campaign. Foles has also found immediate chemistry with Jeffery, whose 242 yards over the past two tilts have included a swath of big-play grabs led by a 52-yard catch-and-run against the Texans and a 50-yard leaping haul in Week 15's win over the Rams. Jeffery also failed to pull down what would have been a 50-yard score against Houston, making it clear he's the go-to guy for Foles.
Colts rookie wonder Darius Leonard: Few teams have evolved in more stunning fashion than the Indianapolis Colts. During their tumbling 1-5 start under first-year coach Frank Reich, the club's largely no-name defense was manhandled en route to allowing 34-plus points in four of those five defeats. With an 8-1 record since, Indy has not allowed a 30-pointer while holding a rash of victims to zero, 5, 6 and 10 points. Oft-overlooked defenders such as Jabaal Sheard, Denico Autry and Margus Hunt have burned bright for talented coordinator Matt Eberflus, but the happiest surprise is Leonard, the rookie inside linebacker and glaring Pro Bowl snub whose league-leading 155 tackles is a whopping 23 more than the next-closest challenger.
Sunday night's win-and-in showdown with the Titans pits Leonard against a Tennessee offense determined to run over opponents with a reborn ground game engined by Derrick Henry. The Titans back has posted more ground yards (492) and rushing scores (7) over his last three games than he had in the first 12. Henry's late-season surge has pushed him into second place league-wide with 4.2 yards after contact and fourth overall with 41 missed tackles.
When these two teams met in Week 11, Leonard and friends held the Titans to 87 yards on 25 carries (3.5 a pop). Repeat those results on Sunday and the pass-averse Titans -- with or without Marcus Mariota -- will live in a world of hurt. Leonard is one of the most important defenders around in Week 17.