How quickly things can change in the NFL.

Remember when the Giants and Tennessee looked like the dominant teams in the NFC and AFC, respectively?

Suddenly, they appear vulnerable because the Giants no longer have Plaxico Burress and the Titans are hoping defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth recovers in time for the playoffs.

Remember when 37-year-old Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner was the leading candidate for MVP and the Cardinals were one of the season's biggest surprises?

Now, Warner has slipped behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson for MVP and the Cardinals are redefining what it means to back in to the playoffs.

Remember when Vikings coach Brad Childress was on the hot seat? Now Minnesota is on the cusp of an NFC North title and Childress is earning praise for inserting Gus Frerotte at quarterback in Week 3, a move that could have saved his job.

Now for a look at the top games of Week 16:

A friend in Brad

Former Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress, coach of the Vikings, will be more popular than ever among Eagles fans if his team knocks off Atlanta in a duel between 9-5 teams. A Falcons loss, coupled with an Eagles win over the Redskins, would greatly enhance the Eagles' chance of grabbing a wild-card berth.

The Vikings have plenty of incentive, as well as the home crowd, going for them. They're trying to hold on to a one-game lead over the Bears in the NFC North.

Childress announced Thursday that Tarvaris Jackson will start at quarterback in place of Gus Frerotte. Jackson, who was benched in Week 3, reclaimed the job with a four-TD performance last week in an easy win over Arizona. Frerotte, 37, had won seven of 10 starts before injuring his back two weeks ago.

The Falcons are No. 1 in the NFL in rushing, the Vikings No. 1 in rushing defense.

The noisy Metrodome will test the cool of Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who won't have many Eagles fans rooting for him, even though he's a Penn Charter alumnus.

Big stakes

Both 11-3, the Giants and Carolina Panthers go at it tonight for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. By winning all road games en route to the Super Bowl last season, the Giants showed home-field advantage is not always, well, an advantage.

The wintry conditions at Giants Stadium should lend an old-school feel to what promises to be a duel of power running games. The Panthers have 33 runs of 15 or more yards.

There's a notion these are teams heading in opposite directions. The Giants have lost their last two, and it's apparent they miss suspended receiver Plaxico Burress. Meantime, running back Brandon Jacobs, who sat out last week's loss to Dallas with a knee injury, is expected to play.

On the other hand, Carolina is at the top of its well-rounded game. The Panthers have won seven of their last eight and they won all eight home games, so there's no doubt they have plenty of motivation to ensure their playoff games are at home.

Never a breather

Apparently, the Steelers have no friends among the schedule-makers. After going against the Patriots, Cowboys and Ravens in successive weeks, 11-3 Pittsburgh visits 12-2 Tennessee in what should be the best game of the week.

The Titans can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win. The Steelers will get the home-field advantage with wins today and next week against Cleveland.

The Steelers have won five straight and have pulled out four come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter. Their defense ranks No. 1 in the NFL against both the run and pass, and their suspect offensive line gets a break, because the Titans will be without Albert Haynesworth, who has been the most dominant defensive lineman in the AFC. Since 2004, Tennessee is 3-13 without Haynesworth.

Here's hoping

Any impartial fan with a sense for drama will be hoping the Jets beat Seattle and the Dolphins defeat Kansas City.

If so, the Jets and Miami will meet next week for the AFC East title. Both have the tie-breaker edge on New England.

And a Jets-Dolphins showdown on the final weekend of the regular season would be stocked with story lines. Discarded when the Jets signed Brett Favre, Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington would have a sweet chance at vengeance. A Jets win would prove to their fans Favre was worth the signing.

First things first, though. The Jets and Dolphins have to take care of business on the road to set up that dramatic scenario.

Also of interest

Tampa Bay is one of three teams that started Week 16 a half-game ahead of the Eagles for the second wild-card spot, so the Chargers can count on some local backing when they go against the Buccaneers.

Despite a 6-8 record and its tag as the NFL's most underachieving team this season, San Diego still has a chance to claim the AFC West. The Chargers are 4-0 at Tampa Bay and can win their 13th straight December game.

The Bucs expect to get a boost from the return of Jeff Garcia from a calf injury and veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks from a rib injury.

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743

or rparrillo@phillynews.com.