The great Sam Seaborn, one of Aaron Sorkin's dream team in the utopian vision of American politics that was The West Wing, once remarked:
There are 162 games in a major league baseball season and the players have a saying. Every team's going to win 54 games, every team's going to lose 54, it's what you do with the other 54 games that counts.
Seaborn/Sorkin could have been readily applied the same logic to one of America's other great sporting loves, the NFL, and specifically the month of December. It's the time when playoff places are won or lost, homefield advantage in the post season secured or blown, last minute injuries derailing an otherwise promising challenge (step forward the 2016 Raiders) and careers changed indelibly, in particular for head coaches battling to save their necks and hot shot coordinators playing their way into contention for a top job.
This season is no exception. The schedule features a host of compelling match ups, not least these five to look out for:
San Francisco 49ers @ Baltimore Ravens - Dec. 1, 6p GMT
Starting this weekend with the two hottest teams in football at the moment, as the Baltimore Ravens (9-2) hosting the San Francisco 49ers (10-1). The venerable Earl Thomas, buoyed by the recent dismantling of the LA Rams and the manner in which they brushed aside the New England Patriots earlier in the season, has guaranteed a Ravens Super Bowl spot. The Ravens and the Pats are almost certainly going to be the top two seeds in the AFC, barring an extraordinary capitulation from either, so the next few weeks looks set to determine which has homefield advantage in the AFC Championship game should they both make it. New England has a mixed run in, with a couple of theoretical gimmes mixed in with some dangerous teams to play including the Chiefs, the Bills and the Texans, while Baltimore will look at its run in (including the Bills, Jets, the Browns and the Steelers) and will feel it can run the table, starting this Sunday.
The Niners have done well to weather key injuries on their offensive line, to some of their key receivers and to the highly effective George Kittle, who's return impacts the Kyle Shanahan's playbook dramatically with his blocking capabilities underpinning his all-round productivity.
Running back Matt Breida has been missed and could return Sunday to bolster the No. 2 ranked rushing offense in the NFL Of course, the Ravens possess the most potent, and it's not even close, producing over 700 more yards than the 49ers and over three times as many rushing yards as the No. 32 ranked Miami Dolphins.
With Lamar Jackson spinning and whirring at the centre of this dynamic offense, the 49ers impressive, playmaking defense (league leading in sacks, second in points allowed and third down conversions) will face it's sternest test yet, and like Baltimore, has a keen eye on the playoff seedings, with New Orleans and a red hot Vikings side challenging for homefield.
New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs - Dec. 8, 9:25p GMT
Week 14 sees another round of Mahomes vs Brady, as the Kansas City Chiefs head to Foxborough for a rematch of last season's thrilling AFC Championship game.
Much has been made of this iteration of the Patriots -- defensively dominant, offensively suspect -- and while there is a tangible regression in the range of elite playmakers around Tom Brady compared to last year with the addition of veteran Mohamed Sanu, the emergence of rookie N'Keal Harry, and the innovation of Josh McDaniels, there's every chance New England will be chiming fluently enough come January.
Their schedule has been kind -- once again the AFC East is comparatively weak, as is the NFC East, who the Pats have been matched with -- and invariably, we'll learn more about just good this team is in games like this one against the Chiefs, as opposed to a gentle stroll to the 43 point shut out against Miami. Kansas City's season has been wildly indifferent -- not least affected by Mahomes injury - and as with last year, they're a team capable of landing major blows offensively but are deeply fallible defensively. Unlike the Pats, the Chiefs have had a fairly tough fixture list and are now involved in a real fight to win the division, something no-one saw coming, certainly not the Raiders being the team to throw down the gauntlet. Kansas City should make the playoffs, and no-one will want to face them if they do, but their pre-season billing as the most likely challengers to New England has been usurped by Baltimore.
Los Angeles Rams @ Dallas Cowboys - Dec. 15, 9:25p GMT
In Week 15 two of the league's most disappointing big hitters square off in Texas, both quite probably with their seasons on the line. Dallas are benefiting from being in a poor division, but by contrast under fire Jason Garrett is being compared not with the Eagles, Redskins or Giants but with the major players in the NFC -- of which there are fair few -- and over in the AFC. Jerry Jones is expecting a title. The personnel is there for the Cowboys to go deep in the playoffs, with Dak Prescott leading an offense with an elite running back in Zeke Elliot and one of the stronger receiving corps in the NFL, with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. If Garrett doesn't work it out, and the Cowboys go down in an early round, that will almost certainly be the end of the road for him.
Sean McVay is obviously not facing the same predicament in L.A., but the shine of last year's Super Bowl run is dimming fast. Changes to the offensive line have been hugely significant, affecting most significantly Jared Goff, who has regressed drastically, and also the running game, where Todd Gurley is a shadow of last season's player -- though rumours persist that this is as much physical deterioration as it is play calling and execution around him. Brandin Cooks is often absent through injury which further dilutes what was one of the most potent offenses in the league. There's a very real chance they miss out on the playoffs with the 49ers and the Seahawks as part of their run in. With a lot of big-name salaries to manage, and the sense that the window is very much now, it'll be an interesting few months in the City of Angels.
Cleveland Browns @ Baltimore Ravens - Dec. 22, 6p GMT
Week 16 may be the making of Baker Mayfield, as the Cleveland Browns who have improbably forced their way back into the playoff race despite a 2-6 start to the season, meet Baltimore, in what will be by far the toughest test of their final month. The pre-season hype was invariably going to be hard to live up to. A talented, outspoken, young QB talking a big game but still learning his trade and the high-profile acquisition of Odell Beckham Jr., added to an already dangerous offense all being held together by a head coach in his first full season sent the hype train into overdrive, but their dismal start was accentuated further by the ugly scenes involving Myles Garrett. His self-inflicted absence may yet be the difference as to whether they make the post season or not, but if they can push to a 10-6 record, they have a great shot. Even if they drop this game, 9-7 may just do it in a wide-open AFC wild card race.
Houston Texans @ Tennessee Titans - Dec. 29, 6p GMT
The Week 17 finale sees the Titans and the Texans matched up in what may well be a win and in game, either for the AFC South division or a wild card playoff spot. It's the hardest division in football to call and a case can be made for each of the 3 contenders -- assuming the Jags have fallen too far behind. Mike Vrabel has his critics, but he's overseeing another competitive Tennessee side with real identity, while Ryan Tannehill has been a revelation since he won the starting QB job. His counterpart in this game, Deshaun Watson, is having a terrific season undermined by his offensive line, which is allowing 3 sacks per game on average, and not faring much better in terms of QB hits allowed. Still, he's delivering despite this, and with playmakers like DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller around him, if the Texans make it, they will possess a sucker punch component teams will be wary of.