By Eric Edholm, Pro Football Weekly
It's down to this for the regular season: win-and-in for some teams, win-and-wait for others and for the rest of the playoff wallflowers, it's Sunday and then a long wait until training camp. Check out all the major story lines for Week 17 as we get ready for the playoffs that follow:
1. Since the NFL has gone to the all-divisional format in Week 17 it has prevented some teams from pulling starters early and guaranteed that there will be meaningful final-week matchups that will determine division titles, playoff seeding and who will stay home in January. Ten of the 12 playoff teams are locked in, and six of the eight division champions have been determined. And yet, there are a lot of unknowns, especially in the NFC. The Redskins, Cowboys, Giants, Vikings and Bears are all in the picture to get into the final two spots. Seeding is all over the map, too: The Seahawks can be anywhere from the No. 2 seed (hosting at least one playoff game and earning a bye) to the fifth spot. In the AFC, the Patriots can be the No. 1 seed or the No. 4. A lot is on the line. There are a lot of teams that won’t even think of pulling starters.
2. The Cowboys traveled east for the first game of the regular season way back on Sept. 5, beating the Giants to kick off NFL 2012. Now they’ll be in Washington D.C. Sunday night with the NFC East title up for grabs in a matchup with the Redskins to close out the regular season. Game No. 256 — or, as Redskins CB DeAngelo Hall is calling it, “pandemonium at FedEx Field.” The Cowboys must win to get in. The Redskins can lose and still get in, but only if the Vikings and Bears will have lost already. On the outside looking in are the Giants, who need to beat the Eagles, have the Vikings and Bears both lose and then have the Cowboys beat or tie the Redskins. No biggie. “The way you like it,” Hall said. “It’s definitely going to be a playoff atmosphere. We want to be the only show on TV. That’s a good feeling. Prime time, baby.”
3. Interesting note: The Redskins are 4-3 at home with a point differential of plus-19. The Cowboys are 4-3 on the road with a point differential of zero. You can point to the Cowboys’ turnaround and chart their progress since early November based on their last three road games — battling hard but losing at Atlanta in Week Nine, blowing out the Eagles in Philly in Week 10 and then coming back from nine points down late at Cincinnati to beat the Bengals in Week 14. Even with the loss last week to the Saints, the Cowboys have improved to the point where team owner Jerry Jones thinks this squad is better equipped to handle a Week 17 elimination game than the one last season when the Giants knocked them out of the playoffs. "I think that where we are with a healthier Miles Austin and Dez Bryant where he is with his maturation and where Tony Romo is as I think Tony has continued to improve," Jones said. "I think we've got a better offensive line than what he had at this time last year. I think we are better at cornerback than last year. I think we are a better team." Bryant (two TDs in Week 16 and two when these teams met in Week 12 on Thanksgiving) is going to be a key for Hall and the Redskins' secondary. They must find a way to slow him down.
4. The NFC West will boil down to its two games — Arizona at San Francisco and St. Louis at Seattle. The Seahawks can win the division with a win and a 49ers loss. Throw in a Packers loss to the Vikings, and the Seahawks can get up to the NFC's No. 2 spot and earn a bye. But one part of that equation — the Cardinals winning a game — appears to be long odds at best. Arizona has dropped 10-of-11 games (including 24-3 at home to these same Niners in Week Eight) and has some unhappy players, some of whom will be in their final games with the team. They also will start Brian Hoyer, who has yet to face the 49ers’ defense, which likely is steaming mad after having 42 points hung on its head Sunday night. The Cardinals have scored fewer than 20 points in every game but one since September.
5. The Seahawks have had a banner season, notching 10 wins (so far) and earning a playoff berth with a rookie quarterback who is in the Rookie of the Year talk (finally) and a defense that has managed to keep getting better despite the lingering threat of possibly losing one of its best performers in CB Richard Sherman to suspension. But the odd part of their season has been the five losses — one to the 49ers in San Francisco, but the other four to teams with losing records. The Week One setback to the Cardinals looks downright inexcusable right now, and setbacks at St. Louis, Detroit and Miami all had some funny turns to them. A common denominator in all five L's: Russell Wilson struggling. He had only five TDs passes and six INTs in those games, compared to a 20-4 ratio in the other 10 wins. But he was dominant against the 49ers in Week 16 and has, along with the team, begun ascending at the right time. “It’s been coming together for us,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “We’re getting better and you can just feel it and see it. It’s coming to life for us.”
6. Little is coming together for the Cardinals, and it’s at the point where head coach Ken Whisenhunt is starting to ask questions (rhetorically) at his media sessions. "It's tough, isn't it?" he said. "We're not getting production out of that (QB) position and it's hard to win in this league if you don't do better from that standpoint." The 7-7-1 Rams are in far better shape and have the look and feel of a team that’s improving under Jeff Fisher to the point where you have to ask whether they can be next season’s Seahawks. They protected QB Sam Bradford well last week — finally — and will go into Seattle giving the Seahawks more of a test than the Cardinals will on the road at San Fran. That could be the difference in the division in Week 17.
7. The Vikings are in this position — a win over the Packers in Minnesota and they’re in the playoffs — because of their most dominant victory of the season, a 23-6 beatdown of the Texans in Houston that had an unfamiliar theme. Instead of Adrian Peterson having to do all of the heavy lifting, it was QB Christian Ponder and the defense setting the early tone and carrying that through four quarters. Knock Ponder all you want — Vikings fans do every game — but he has gotten in rhythm and executed well early on. In the past three games, he has completed all seven of his pass attempts on initial drives for 111 yards. All three drives ended in touchdowns. "That's been huge," he said. "Especially the past two games because we were on the road. We knew we had to quiet the crowd early, so the first drive means a lot for setting the tone."
8. The Packers won’t be laying down with a first-round bye at stake, and they know that Peterson — who roasted them for 210 rushing yards in Green Bay less than a month ago — needs 102 yards to reach the vaunted 2,000-yard mark and 208 to take down Eric Dickerson’s hallowed 1984 record. Peterson has a sore abdominal injury and was held out of the final few minutes of the victory last week. “We'll have to see how he does this week, how much work that we'll give him as we get ready for this ball game, which will be a huge ball game for our team,” Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said. His counterpart, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, knows not to get too content following a blowout win, which only means so much. "We obviously had a very decisive victory against the Titans (on Sunday), but this football team still has more in front of it," McCarthy said. "And, that's what I'm excited about: having the opportunity to play a playoff-type game, a playoff-game atmosphere on the road with the crowd noise (at the Metrodome) and both teams have a lot on the line."
9. Let’s, for argument’s sake, say the Bears beat the Lions in Detroit Sunday. That’s phase one. As they walk off and prepare to meet with the media, Vikings-Packers will just be getting under way. The Bears won’t know until hours later whether they have made the playoffs. Bears head coach Lovie Smith said he hasn’t decided if the team will delay its trip back to Chicago to allow the team to watch the Packers-Vikings game. "Hadn't gotten that far," Smith said. "There are a lot of other things that have priority before that. We're just going to concentrate on taking care of business. We haven't made any decisions like that." The decision they must make is to throw the ball better than they did against the Cardinals. Jay Cutler started 1-of-11 passing and Brandon Marshall had two bad dropped passes against a 5-10 football team with one victory since September. They can’t afford to do the same against a 4-11 Lions team that hasn’t won since Week Nine. “All we can do is control what we can control,” Marshall said. “We do need help (from the Packers). If we could get that, that would be good.”
10. Michael Vick will start in place of Nick Foles, who is on I.R., in a start that could help knock the Giants out of the postseason picture and perhaps serve as an audition for Vick, who might be moving on next season. He will be highly motivated to perform well and he did play well in a turnover-free effort against the Giants back in September when both teams were in contention. The Giants have had success sacking and pressuring him in the past, but their front four has looked dormant of late. Will the Eagles’ porous offensive line wake them from their slumber? The defending champs need a lot of things to happen (losses by Dallas, Minnesota and Chicago) to earn a wild-card spot, which means they might know their playoff fate (either by losing or scoreboard watching) in the early afternoon or have to wait until well into the night. That’s what losing 5-of-7 games has reduced them to. “I think everybody knows what the circumstances are and it’s obviously not the circumstances that you want, but at least you have a circumstance,” said Eli Manning in a most Eli-like way. We’re guessing that Andy Reid, Vick and the rest of the Eagles who might not be back next season most certainly would agree.
11. The Colts are locked in as the AFC's No. 5 seed. But in news that should please their fans as well as those of the Broncos and Patriots, they say they’ll play this week as if they are in need of a victory when facing the Texans in Indianapolis. And why wouldn’t they? With head coach Chuck Pagano back to work, did you think the Colts were going to take it easy this week? “This thing (the Colts' season) is rolling pretty good,” said Pagano in his re-introductory press conference after battling Leukemia. “So, again, (things will go well) if I don't just get in the way. I feel great. My weight's back. My energy's back. It's just a blessing to be back here. Our time and energy has got to go into moving forward and getting ready for the ball game on Sunday." The Colts have won 8-of-10 games and have gone 9-3 under interim coach and (now again) offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, but one of those losses was a 29-17 setback two weeks ago to the Texans in Houston.
12. In that game, the Texans’ offense started on fire but cooled off considerably after the opening two drives. They put together drives later in the game of 63, 49, 78 and 78 yards but came away with only nine points in those. The Colts gifted them 10 points in two other possessions — a blocked punt returned for a score and a fourth-quarter short field that started at the Houston 39. So why has the offense slowed down? The O-line hasn’t been at peak form. The Vikings pushed them around all game in Week 16. There are some concerns there," head coach Gary Kubiak admitted. "Didn't like our pocket in a lot of situations. The consistency of the pocket and some of the opportunities we're giving our quarterback (Matt Schaub) need to be better. When we do give it to him, obviously, we've got to be better back there playing that position, too." An amazing stat, even with years of Colts domination under Peyton Manning: The Texans have never won at game at Indianapolis. The good news is that RB Arian Foster (irregular heartbeat) and OLB Brooks Reed (groin) have been cleared for this game to help them do just that.
13. The Patriots had to fight to beat the Dolphins in Miami and had trouble with this team in Week 16 in Foxborough last season, overcoming a 17-0 deficit. A win and a loss by either the Broncos or Texans gives New England a bye, and the Patriots can earn the top overall seed in that scenario with both losing. Dolphins rookie QB Ryan Tannehill has played well the past two games (four TDs, no INTs) and has the most passing yards by a Dolphins rookie. But he struggled in the first matchup, completing only 44.8 percent of his passes, completing none longer than 28 yards and getting sacked three times. The Patriots’ secondary has undergone several chances since then, though, and was shorthanded in the win over the Jaguars. It will be interesting to see if they can get CBs Alfonzo Dennard, Aqib Talib and Marquice Cole back for this important game or if they’ll hold them out until the postseason — with or without a bye.
14. The Broncos are going for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Chiefs are in the gutter, currently in line to earn the No. 1 pick in the draft. If things get out of hand early, Peyton Manning probably won’t have the time to throw for 346 passing yards, which would set a career high (with 172 more, he’ll pass Jay Cutler for the club mark). But either way, it has been an incredible season for the Broncos (10 straight wins) and Manning, who most was voted to the Pro Bowl and has been one of the MVP favorites for the past two months. But the focus is on the lowly Chiefs, who battled them tough (17-9, Broncos) in Kansas City in Week 13. RB Jamaal Charles has 223 rushing yards in his past two games against the Broncos, but he had 226 against the Colts last week in a loss. He’s one of the few Chiefs capable of spoiling the Broncos’ paths to a first-round bye, which is accomplished with a win (or a Patriots loss).
15. The Chiefs and Jaguars will pick first and second, the order depending on what happens in Denver and Nashville, where the Jaguars take on the Titans, who were crushed 55-7 last week. The Jags and Titans are similar: They have QBs and head coaches who are less than cozy in their positions, and yet they have burgeoning rookie receivers (Justin Blackmon and Kendall Wright, respectively). Basically, Jacksonville-Tennessee is a bad game that will help determine the top draft picks for next April. The Chiefs and Jaguars have two wins apiece. The Eagles, Raiders and Lions each have four. The Titans, Browns, Bills and Cardinals each have five. Those teams will make up the majority of the top 10 picks.