The NFC is where the action is in NFL Week 17. While there are some important battles for the top three seed positions in the AFC, it’s the NFC that has two “win-or-go-home” games, a division title and bye still to settle, plus the prospect of two major market teams that looked home free as recently as three weeks ago needing help. On the season’s closing week, with all divisional games on the schedule and both CBS & Fox having doubleheaders, it’s an ideal day for all-day football and we begin with the NFC tripleheader that will sort out most of the playoff picture…
Can Dallas win a division without a running game? Can Minnesota make the playoffs without a quarterback? Can the Giants get a miracle? Can the Packers get some time off?
EARLY: Chicago-Detroit & Philadelphia-NY Giants (1 PM ET, Fox)—The Bears and Giants each have to win and get help. As long as Chicago wins, they stay alive into the late afternoon. New York would be eliminated if the Bears win.
I don’t see any reason to think the Giants won’t take care of business—yes, I do say that being fully aware of how poorly this team has played the last two weeks and give Philadelphia credit for the effort they brought against Washington last week. But Michael Vick is slated to start and I think you have to assume he’s got some rust on him and that means turnovers. A win means all New York needs is for Chicago, Minnesota and Dallas to all lose.
As for Chicago, I expect Detroit to bring full effort—they did last Saturday night in Atlanta. But the Lions are exactly the kind of talented team the Bears feast on—one that makes too many mistakes, both in terms of penalties and turnovers, while they stay disciplined. I expect Chicago fans to have to sweat this one on the road, but in the end Matthew Stafford gives them a couple interceptions, the Lions as a whole give them 10 penalties and the Bears knock out the Giants.
LATE: Green Bay-Minnesota (4:25 PM ET, Fox)—It’s the second-biggest game of Week 17. A Packer win secures a first-round bye. A Viking win puts them in the playoffs, and likely drags the Packers back into the first round—where these same two teams would probably play again.
Aaron Rodgers is playing his best football of the year right now and if he gets any time to throw, Minnesota has no way to keep up—how many 70-yard runs is Adrian Peterson really going to rip off? But what if Rodgers gets knocked around in the pocket? A patchwork offensive line trying to block Jared Allen and Brian Robison is a recipe for trouble and that’s what I think Green Bay’s offense faces.
There’s still the question of whether the Viking offense can go anywhere, given Christian Ponder’s incompetence and the likelihood that even a good 110-yard game from Peterson won’t be sufficient. On paper they don’t match up with Green Bay. But Minnesota indoors is a completely different team than the outdoor version. I know they’ll have to thread the needle offensively and do everything right, but I think they’ll sack Rodgers five or six times and make enough plays to steal a win and playoff berth.
PRIME-TIME: Washington-Dallas (8:20 PM ET, NBC)—For Dallas, its win-or-go-home. Washington will likely be in the same situation by kickoff, though losses by the Bears and Vikings would secure a playoff berth for the ‘Skins. In either case, this game is for the NFC East title and #4 seed.
Tony Romo is playing extremely well, but he doesn’t get any help from the running game and the Washington defense has somehow found itself since these teams last played on Thanksgiving. Well, “found itself” might be too strong a term—but the ‘Skins defense has at least been adequate. On Sunday night they need outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan to play the game of his life and force Romo into some bad throws.
RG3 gets the credit in the Washington offense and that’s fully justified—indeed, as a partisan Redskins fan I make no attempt at any kind of historical perspective and debate only RG3’s rank among the most important men in the history of Western civilization. But that aside, the ‘Skins running game has become a positive beast, with rookie Alfred Morris leading the way. He’s the latest example of Mike Shanahan turning a middle-round pick into a star. His ability to run between the tackles forces Cowboy outside linebackers Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to stay at home, as does RG3’s scrambling ability. And when Ware and Spencer can’t turn it loose, it neutralizes the best asset of the Cowboy defense.
I haven’t come this far with the Redskins to pick against them in the most important game in twenty years, including the three playoff years in that timeframe (1999, 2005, 2007). But I am nervous that the media bandwagon, which is often wrong, is running so heavily to RG3 on Sunday night.
NFC WEST ON THE LINE
Arizona-San Francisco and St. Louis-Seattle both go in the 4:25 PM ET window. A 49ers win will clinch the NFC West, while a loss opens the door for the Seahawks. In either case, the division champ is set to be the #3 seed and would move up to #2 and the bye in the event of a Packer loss.
There’s no rational reason to pick against San Francisco. The real question is going to be whether the Niners can blow out Arizona quickly and start getting some people rested. Jim Harbaugh’s team is getting nicked up across the defense, with defensive end Justin Smith being only the most notable. No team could use a bye right now more than the Niners and I think they’ll get it.
Its unfortunate the Rams-Seahawks game likely won’t matter for anything more than determining if Seattle is the 5th or 6th seed (a distinction that has never mattered since the league went to six teams per conference in 1990). Because St. Louis is 4-0-1 against the rest of the NFC West, they play hard every week and at 7-7-1 overall, they’re playing for a winning season in Jeff Fischer’s first year. I expect St. Louis to approach this game the way a young college football team would treat a bowl game—a chance to close a nice season on a good note and send a message for next year.
All that matters in the AFC is for Houston, Denver and New England to settle the 1-2-3 spots in the bracket. Houston-Indianapolis will go early (1 PM ET, CBS) to most of the country and the Texans will have the opportunity to clinch the top seed. Indianapolis is already locked into the 5-seed and you could quite reasonably argue that the motivation for this game would be all with Houston. Except for the fact that the return of Chuck Pagano to the sideline after his season-long fight with leukemia is the single greatest motivational tool that could possibly exists. There are no plans to rest the starters for next week’s playoff game.
Furthermore, Indianapolis is just a better team right now than Houston. The Texans’ incredibly flat showing against Minnesota last week—when they could have clinched homefield—spoke volumes to how badly they’re struggling. Houston is banged up defensively and struggling to get offensive production from tight end Owen Daniels, normally a key component of their offense. This team badly needs a week off to rest and re-set, but if they lose here, they’d need an upset somewhere else for that to happen. And I think the return of Pagano inspires the Colts to a win.
CBS will split its 4:25 ET coverage east and west, with Miami-New England and Kansas City-Denver. The Patriots-Dolphins is the nominally bigger game, by virtue of getting the #1 broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. It’s also the game more likely to be competitive. The Pats are another team with a banged up defense that could use some rest and it still doesn’t look like Rob Gronkowski is back.
Miami can cause some intermittent problems for the Pats with their pass rush, namely Cameron Wake and his 15 sacks. But on balance, this defense doesn’t cover well, which is kind of a flaw when Tom Brady is the opposing passer. They don’t throw the ball well themselves, ruining their chance to exploit New England’s biggest weakness. And the game is in Foxboro.
While New England was sluggish last week in beating Jacksonville, I would think Bill Belichick will have them focused for this one. New England starts the day in the #3 spot on the board, but if Houston loses they can move into bye position at #2.
Denver stands to move to the top seed with a Houston loss and I suppose we should acknowledge the Broncos could end up at #3 if they lose, but even considering the possibility that Kansas City can beat Denver on the road requires a colossal twisting of all forms of logic. I can’t even put this in the “anything can happen” category. If the Chiefs win this game I’m going to assume the Mayans were really right, the world actually did end and that we’re in some other form of existence.
I don’t take very seriously the argument that some teams are better off without a first-round bye, but if I were ever going to listen to it, it would be with Denver. They’ve won ten in a row, they could take it easy with starters and still win on Sunday and they’re reasonably healthy given the point in the year we’re at. You can never argue a team should face elimination in the first round rather than get a week off, but it’s worth wondering how the time off will impact Denver.
Baltimore and Cincinnati are each going to be in the playoffs and playing next week, so there’s no point in pushing anything in their game. The Ravens could move from #4 to # in the event of a New England loss—because of a head-to-head win—but given Baltimore’s an older team and the edge in this area is minimal—the #3 seed has only produced homefield in a conference championship twice (1987 Redskins & 2006 Colts), so there’s nothing to be gained by pushing. And Cincinnati will be the 6-seed win or lose.
Atlanta’s final tuneup is with Tampa Bay, and New Orleans, at 7-8 is playing for a little pride as they try to get to .500 at Carolina. The same goes for Pittsburgh when they visit Cleveland. I would say that San Diego’s home game with Oakland represents the final home game for the Norv Turner-A.J. Smith, but after they kept their jobs last year, I wouldn’t dare say for sure. And I could care less about the Jets’ quarterback situation when they play the Bills, in spite of the media’s persistent efforts to make a yearlong story about the fact the team had three substandard quarterbacks on its roster.
Here’s how the playoff matchups will look if the teams favored in Las Vegas win on Sunday…
NFC: (6)Chicago at (3)San Francisco, (5)Seattle at (4)Washington
Byes: (1) Atlanta, (2)Green Bay
AFC: (6)Cincinnati at (3)New England, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Baltimore
Byes: (1)Houston, (2)Denver
And here’s how the bracket would look if something really far-fetched happens, like my picks actually coming through…
NFC: (6)Minnesota at (3)Green Bay, (5)Seattle at (4)Washington
Byes: (1)Atlanta, (2)San Francisco
AFC: (6)Cincinnati at (3)Houston, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Baltimore
Byes: (1)Denver, (2)New England