Well, this is it. Week 17 is here, and there is still much to be settled.
Who gets the sixth seed in the AFC? Who gets the byes in either conference? Is there an 11-win team -- one with some great wins and few real slip-ups -- that ends up on the outside looking in, in the NFC? How many records does Peyton Manning end the season with? And, well, despite all of that is there any way the Broncos end up not getting the first overall seed in the AFC after all?
So much remains to be settled.
Does a Bruce Arians or a Chip Kelly cement a Coach of the Year award should he nab a playoff spot in the final week? Does anyone want to win the NFC North? Can the Cowboys manage yet another spectacular fail with the season on the line? Will the Texans end the season with 14 straight losses? Will the Chiefs win 11 games yet still finish 2-4 within what most expected to be a mediocre-at-best AFC West?
Will there be a team -- Baltimore, Miami, San Francisco -- that lets a clear path to the postseason get away from it?
These questions will be answered with the entire league playing on Sunday, many of them with the biggest playoff ramifications kicking off at the same time to try to preserve competitive balance as best possible. Surely, we are in for some crazy finishes in a season that has been filled with them each week, and if nothing else we know that the entire playoff field won't be set until late Sunday night, when the NFC East is finally decided.
Why to watch: Try as they might, neither of these teams can lose their way into the playoffs. The entire NFC North lost in Week 16, most of the teams in spectacular fashion, which leaves us with this game to decide who represents the division in the postseason. Aaron Rodgers returns from injury, and the Bears are in big trouble, given the atrocity that is their defense. Eddie Lacy is banged up again, but he has bounced back quickly, and even without him James Starks could shred the Bears on the ground. It's hard to imagine Chicago has so much to overcome on both sides of the ball after they were taken to the woodshed by the Eagles in a 54-11 loss -- with the ability to clinch the NFC North while the Eagles had nothing to play for -- that wasn't even as close as that score would indicate.
What to watch for: Can the left side of the Bears' defensive line make a play, at all, ever? Can they get a hand on a running back and bring someone to the ground? ... How many pick-sixes can you pencil Jay Cutler in for, and if the Bears again self destruct, how does that work out for coach Marc Trestman, who will be probed about his decision to bench Josh McCown for Cutler for the next seven months? Cutler has thrown two interceptions for touchdowns in just two games back from his ankle injury despite a very limited number of attempts. ... The Packers are dealing with another Clay Mathews injury and their pass rush is very hit or miss. They cannot give Cutler time to find secondary receivers. ... After what was in essence a week off last weekend, you would expect RB Matt Forte to be the focal point of the Bears attack from the onset Sunday. ... No impact from Lance Briggs last week; can the just-healthy Bears LB get it going in the finale.
Why to watch: Kyle Orton plays for the first time in years with the Cowboys playoff hopes in the balance. They won't have Tony Romo to blame this time around, that's for sure. Is Jason Garrett coaching for his future? Would a win with Orton be even better for him than a win with Romo? Could Dallas go on any sort of playoff run even if they escaped the Eagles with Orton and Jon Kitna at quarterback? The final regular-season game will have more than enough intrigue and the final playoff spot on the line. Could be a coronation for Chip Kelly, and no matter who plays QB for the Cowboys, its not going to change the fact they can't play defense worth a darn.
What to watch for: How limited is Orton? Can he do anything outside the pocket? Is he a sitting target for the Eagles pass rush? How many times does he handoff? I'm guessing it better be 30 or more times. Does Garrett get more involved with playcalling? RB DeMarco Murray could be Dallas' best shot at sustaining a tempo and generating enough snaps of offense to keep this game close and keep Chip Kelly's offense off the field. ... But is there any way the Cowboys slow this group down? Does Nick Foles somehow turn the ball over or does Shady McCoy just start coughing the ball up out of nowhere? Because short of that, the Cowboys could be in a real spot here. ... DeSean Jackson flew totally under the radar in Week 16 and barely figured in the Eagles' offense. I suspect that changes Sunday night. ... Mychael Kendricks has been a pure playmaker for the Eagles. That linebacker will be in position to make a difference with the season on the line.
Why to watch: The Cardinals are getting jobbed. As well as they have played and with the teams they have already knocked off -- including the rare win at Seattle last week -- they deserve to already be in the postseason. And they will need an 11th victory here, and then some help with a Saints loss, to even have a chance to play in the postseason. That's too bad. Of course, the 49ers, depending on the outcome of the game between New Orleans and Tampa, could very much need this game as well. This is yet another wild divisional matchup, and both of these teams have put together a nice pedigree, but it will take something special for them both to actually reach the second season. If the Cards do get in, Bruce Arians needs to receive plenty of consideration for coach of the year.
What to watch for: Can a banged-up Carson Palmer gut out another game? Will he avoid the kind of interceptions that have plagued him at times, and can Arizona establish balance on offense? ... Michael Floyd keeps popping his head up in big spots for the Cards in the pass game. ... Andre Ellington could be a difference-maker. He should be targeted at least eight times catching balls out of the backfield. ... Patrick Peterson seems due for a big return for a touchdown. ... Peterson will also have his hands full trying to stay with 49ers TE Vernon Davis. ... Davis is the key. He had eight catches for 180 yards and two TDs in the 49ers win over Arizona earlier this season, on a day when Colin Kaepernick only threw for 252 total yards, and completed just 16 passes. So, um, you think the Cardinals defensive coordinator will have a scheme ready to try to take the huge tight end away? But the difference this time around is that the 49ers have an outside receiver who can separate now, with Michael Crabtree back.
Why to watch: Could the AFC West get three teams in the playoffs? It's hardly impossible and how much do the Chiefs risk here, now that they are locked into a wild-card spot? Andy Reid would generally play to win, especially after a less-than-inspiring outing last week against the Colts. If the Chargers, who beat Denver on the road recently, win here and get a little help from the Ravens and Dolphins, they can get in. And as much as the Chargers have been an up-and-down outfit, they generally rise to the occasion and play up to their opposition. Can they do it again here, with so much at stake? Will the Chiefs stumble into the playoffs after being the last team in the NFL to suffer a loss in 2013?
What to watch for: San Diego coughed the ball up a bunch in the first half against Oakland last week, and that could undermine them here if duplicated. ... Chargers RB Ryan Mathews is playing the best football of his career and has some big contract escalators at stake if he can surpass 1,250 yards this season. ... Can the Chiefs dial up a pass rush before it's too late? ... While I don't expect Reid to dial it back much, RB Jamaal Charles, in particular, could be in line for perhaps a lesser role, depending on how the game goes. ... Kansas City's offensive line has to be a concern and its health, in particular. ... The Chargers won a total shootout in the first meeting between these teams at Arrowhead; it should provide them with plenty of confidence to move the ball Sunday. ... Chargers S Eric Weddle, one of the true leaders of that team, tends to show up very big in situations like this.
Why to watch: The Ravens need a win to make sure they reach the playoffs a year after winning the Super Bowl, which would be six years in a row since coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco came to Baltimore. But they have struggled in Cincy over the years and Flacco's MCL sprain seemed to limit him greatly in a brutal game against New England last week. Can he get healthier in a week? Will Baltimore have some semblance of an offense, finally? And how do the Bengals play this one? A year ago it was Baltimore with the AFC North already wrapped up, traveling to the Bengals, and they pretty much yanked all their starters by halftime. Does Marvin Lewis do the same, with only some seeding possibilities at stake? Do they go all out to kill off Baltimore, potentially, and avoid having the face them in the first round? There's some interesting strategy to consider.
What to watch for: Flacco will be tested early to see if he can get outside the pocket and fire more fully through his throws. The Ravens will need him to be able to run for a first down here or there given the limitations of their offense, and maybe we see some wildcat with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. ... Expect to see plenty of the pistol from Baltimore -- one way it can kinda sorta get a run game going. ... TE Dennis Pitta didn't look explosive last week and you have to wonder if that hip is still really bothering him. ... Justin Tucker finally missed a kick last week; will getting that inevitable miss out of the way -- which wouldn't matter much -- set him up to get back on track for a season-saving kick if called upon to do that again this week? ... How much of A.J. Green do we see? ... Figure on a healthy, health dose of rookie RB Gio Bernard, who can be devastating in the screen game. ... Have a feeling Ravens rookie WR Marlon Brown gets called on in some big spots here.
Why to watch: Rex Ryan, coaching for his job, has a chance to crush Miami's playoff hopes and you have to think the Dolphins might be a little jittery here after that debacle in Buffalo last week. How do the Fins respond? Then again, if they win and get a little help, they get to the playoffs. And does Rex play the riverboat gambler role here and truly dial up crazy blitzes on non-blitzing downs after watching how the Dolphins' offense line was obliterated by the Bills last week? If the Fins finish with two straight losses and blow their playoff chances, is GM Jeff Ireland back on the hot seat? Say what you want about Rex but if they win this game they go 8-8 in a season with zero expectations, and 3-3 in the AFC East, which would tie them with the Dolphins on both counts. Considering he has been playing with a rookie project at quarterback all season, whom Rex didn't draft, firing him would seem pretty short-sighted to me.
What to watch for: Look out for corner and safety blitzes all over the place. Miami had no answer for them last week. ... What happened to the Dolphins nominal running game? Completely nonexistent a week ago. ... Ryan Tannehill was battered and bruised last week and might be a little gunshy against this fearsome Jets defensive line at less than 100 percent. ... Dolphins left tackle Bryant McKinnie, never much for conditioning, was totally running out of steam in Week 16. He will be attacked here until he shows he can man up. ... Look for a huge game for Mo Wilkerson, as he gets his last chance to add to his career year before he makes the case for a mammoth contract extension this offseason. ... Geno Smith has looked a little better this past month. Let's see if he can keep it going here.
Why to watch: Did the real New England Patriots stand up last week in Baltimore? Is that truly who they are, as presently constituted, or are they the bunch that seemed to be limping down the stretch? Their long-standing perch atop the pedestrian-at-best AFC East is secure again, but imagine how short Tom Brady might cut this postgame press conference if the Pats had blown this and had to go on the road for the postseason? The Pats don't lose to the Bills at home under Bill Belichick, but a week after throwing Miami for a loop the Bills will surely give it a shot here. New England is still hopeful of getting the top seed should the Broncos slip up.
What to watch for: Bit of a quandary here for Belichick, as usually he uses Week 17 to pad stats before the playoffs start. Getting some additional rest for a guy like beat up top tackle Nate Solder would make the most sense, but are those luxuries he cannot afford, especially with Brady's health tied to the protection he receives. ... Is this one of those three-sack games Mario Williams produces, which serve to (sort of) offset the weeks he goes by looking more invisible? ... It's been a strong second season from former Bills top pick Marcell Dareus, after a less-than-stellar start to the season by the defensive lineman. ... If the Bills can get the run game going early, this could be an upset. Consider how the Pats have struggled with teams like Cleveland and Houston lately, and maybe the law of averages catches up to them here and they can't pull off another wild (official-aided in some cases) comeback on a weak opponent. ... Julian Edelman comes in off his best game of the season. .... Are the Bills really in a rush to bring back first-round pick QB EJ Manuel for this? They once again got a spark from Thad Lewis last week and he has been a big part of some of their better performances this season.
Why to watch: This is Peyton Manning's last shot to rewrite the record books in 2013, and I'm sure that's not lost on him or his teammates. At some point before the final whistle he probably sits, but perhaps not before topping the all-time, single-season TD and yardage marks for a quarterback. He got the TD mark last week but the yardage is still before him. Everyone will be trying to make a play for him and Broncos coach John Fox will be dying a little bit on the inside, I figure, while the AFC's top seed tries to escape without another major injury. Regardless, this bunch will be judged on how far they go in the second season. Oh, and the Raiders are playing, too, and young coach Dennis Allen deserves more than two seasons to ply his trade but will owner Mark Davis provide him with it?
What to watch for: With Wes Welker's concussion issues, how much do we see of him? Will Fox go with reserve running backs more so than Knowshon Moreno, who has been a workhorse for the Broncos and a key to their season? ... Do we see much of Darren McFadden, another former Oakland top pick who hasn't amounted to much and is likely in his finale with the club? ... Broncos novice backup QB Brock Osweiler should get at least a half of football to try to get his feet under him lest he somehow find his way in playoff duty. ... Is there any chance to get a little run from Champ Bailey, seemingly out all season for the Broncos, before the playoffs start? They could certainly use help on the back end.
Why to watch: Can Jim Schwartz keep his job as Lions coach after this season has turned so poorly, so quickly, after a strong first half? What kind of effort does he get from his team in the finale -- and, more to the point, what kind of discipline and fundamentals (like holding on to the football) do we see as well? For Vikings coach Leslie Frazier this is the end of the line, with him all but certain to be gone next season. But, had Detroit's team played the kind of football Frazier's long-eliminated Vikings played the past five weeks, the Lions would have clinched the NFC North by now. And, in case you already thought it had been detonated or something, this is the last NFL game played in the Metrodome, with the Vikings moving outside for a few years while their new place is built.
What to watch for: Adrian Peterson wasn't able to recapture his historic glory from 2012, but he will no doubt want to go out with a bang here. ... Matt Cassel was making a case to be a part of a reworked Vikings quarterback equation with his play of late, although a total meltdown at the Bengals last week may have given the front office some pause. ... Can the Vikings special teams hold up against the return prowess of the Lions? ... Matthew Stafford would do well to take something from the end of this season besides throwing a ton of interceptions in the second half. ... This won't be a record setting season for Megatron, but this is a secondary in which he could post some massive stats (one week after the fantasy season concludes, however). That is, if the Lions don't just go ahead and shut him down after battling injuries all season and with nothing left to play for.
Why to watch: The Panthers have a chance to finish off their outstanding body of work the past three months with a win against a horrible division opponent to secure the second overall seed in the NFC and a first-round bye and at least one home game in the playoffs. That's heady stuff for a team few really expected to reach this point, and after all of their highly emotional wins down the stretch -- wins over New England, New Orleans and San Francisco -- it would be a shame for them to slip up here against a team jockeying for a top-five overall pick. They have handled every challenge with aplomb thus far, and now, with the postseason berth already secured, we'll see if they can close it out and get themselves some extra rest next week.
What to watch for: Panthers LB Luke Kuechly is in good shape here to add to his Defensive Player of the Year resume, and against this offensive line, will have a chance to make a few more big plays. ... Can't fathom the Falcons can move the ball at all on the ground, so how long do they even attempt to try? ... Then again, they better not get Matt Ryan hurt in the finale, and after a six-sack outing by the Panthers last week, that film will scare a few people in Atlanta. ... Panthers will need WR Steve Smith back for the playoffs, but no reason to risk anything at all here, even if they could have his services. ... Tony Gonzalez vows to end his Hall of Fame career after this game. The tight end will undoubtedly make a dent in the box score. ... Truly amazing to watch Thomas Davis fly all over the field after everything his knees have been through. The linebacker has been a game changer, never more so than last week.
Why to watch: Have to wonder how much the Seahawks choose to expose here, with them in good shape for the first-overall seed and with the best record in the NFL. Just to be safe, a win here would lock up that seed. The Rams are trying to carry something into 2014, knowing they have big questions looming over them in the offseason depending on whether or not they have two picks in the top 10 -- sure is looking that way -- and how high the pick they get from the Redskins turns out to be. Will Sam Bradford be their quarterback? In the meantime, the Rams have the kind of pass rushers who could do massive damage to a guy like Russell Wilson. Seattle won't want to lose two in a row after going almost two years without losing there, and the Rams will be trying to reach .500 and finish on a 5-2 tear.
What to watch for: Wouldn't be a bad thing for the Seahawks to get a pass rusher like Bruce Irvin ramped up for the playoffs. His early season suspension seems to have set him back, and he had just two sacks in his first 10 games back with the club. He had eight sacks as a rookie and seemed poised to take another step forward. If he can get cranked up to the level where Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are, this defense could be even more dominant. ... LB Bobby Wagner continues to pick up the slack with some injuries at the linebacker position. ... Rams rookie RB Zac Stacy continues to display a nose for the endzone. ... Seahawks still seem intent on saving Percy Harvin for the postseason, so don't look to see him do much of anything in this finale. ... Robert Quinn's presence will cause some rethinks in the Seahawks' protection schemes, given Wilson's relatively slight frame and how close they are to the postseason.
Why to watch: This is still a rivalry, and, as remote as it may seem, the Steelers remain alive for the playoffs and don't think for a minute Mike Tomlin won't have them believing they can get lucky and do it after a wild win at Green Bay. In the long term, all of the Browns' losses in the second half of the season should set them up better come this spring, when they have pawns to play all over the draft board. Things started taking a turn for the worse for the Browns right around a month ago, when losses to division foes Cincy and Pittsburgh pretty much killed any playoff hopes. Still, Cleveland could finish 3-3 within the division with a win, which, even in something of a down year for this historically tough division, would be an accomplishment. Consider, the Browns won just three games in the division, total, the previous three years (3-15; 5-25 over the past 5 years). They haven't gone .500 within the division since 2007.
What to watch for: Steelers WR Antonio Brown is in line to set some franchise records and that won't be lost on him or Big Ben, or often-embattled offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Expect plenty of stuff his way. ... Steelers TE Heath Miller continues to be a vital cog in this offense. It's a totally different look when he's healthy and if not for his ACL injury in week 17 of last year, this may have been a different start from the Steelers in 2013. ... Expect Le'Veon Bell to finish a strong rookie season for the Steelers since the running back has bounced back from his injury concerns. ... Browns WR Josh Gordon should get featured here as well as he completes one of the more remarkable pass-catching years in recent history given all the rotation at quarterback (and generally weak play from the position) the lack of a run game and the lack of other weapons in the pass game. He is literally it most weeks, yet he continues to confound defenses. The key now will be to keep him out of trouble in the offseason and avoid any failed drug tests, which would cost him his 2014 season (and doom the Browns in the process). Figure he spends plenty of time this offseason with whichever QB the team ends up drafting.
Why to watch: New Orleans could still mess up and miss out on the playoffs entirely. It's not a given they get in, and they have lost three of their last four games. Not to mention, the first time around against Tampa, at a time the Buccaneers were truly in a hole, the Saints would have lost if not for a missed late field goal. So might they be among the teams who get a little bit nervous here with an entire season now at stake? Should Arizona beat the 49ers and the Saints lose this game, New Orleans will have gone from fighting for the first overall seed to entirely out of the playoffs in a matter of a few short weeks. Fathom that. And, with Tampa in another slide, the end might be near for their coach, Greg Schiano.
What to watch for: Drew Brees took quite a pounding last week and Tampa can generate a pass rush without having to bring numbers. They can send four and beat you. And given how weak the Saints were in protection even when they brought in three tackles to help out, that could be a big problem Sunday. ... Would love to see Bucs CB Darrelle Revis get the chance to man up on Saints TE Jimmy Graham in this one. ... Speaking of Graham, he has definitely slowed some down the stretch -- just 16 catches for 198 yards the past four weeks -- an average of four for 50 yards per game, though he does have four touchdowns in that span. ... Bucs rookie QB Mike Glennon came back to earth the past four games, with four TDs and five INTs, and modest yardage totals. Could use a nice outing to take into the postseason and try to retain his clench on the starting job in 2014. ... Will miss watching Levonte David patrol the field for the Bucs this offseason. He had a truly superior season in a year in which so many young LBs (Kuechly, Burfect, Alonso) stood out.
Why to watch: Could the Jags cap their season with their biggest win yet, complete their reversal from their historically, all-time bad first half and send the AFC South champ Colts heading into the postseason with some questions? Crazy things have happened this season, for sure, and this doesn't feel like the plucky bunch the Colts were a year ago when they road a wave of emotion and late-game comebacks into an improbable playoff appearance. Even with not much to play for, it would behoove the Colts to try to outclass this opponent if at all possible. After a nice win over the Chiefs, it would be big for them to enter the postseason with a few wins.
What to watch for: Is Andrew Luck having to scramble all over the place for first downs? If his offensive line can't hold up here, things will only get worse with better opponents ahead. Luck having to tuck and run has been too big a part of this offense. ... Colts LB Robert Mathis has feasted on the Jags in the past and he has a chance to pad his NFL lead in sacks, though spelling him some makes sense as well. His 12 1/2 sacks against the Jags are second most against any team. ... Been a very strong campaign by Jags LB Paul Posluszny, whose sure tackling and leadership has helped the team reverse its course in November and December.
Why to watch: Well, this very well could be Kirk Cousins' final game in a Redskins uniform so, um, savor that fleeting era. But the reality is, if Cousins plays well his trade value will lead to him being dealt, and if he turns out to outperform Robert Griffin III in his new locale, well, I tend to think that will further color the way the Mike Shanahan regime is viewed historically in Washington. Either way, two coaches who could make an argument for Canton meet under inglorious circumstances with Shanahan at the very least looking at a major shake-up of his staff and Tom Coughlin perhaps ready to at least consider retirement. We'll see.
What to watch for: Any misty eyes on the sideline by Coughlin (who should, by the way, be a shoo-in for Canton)? Any indications he is leaning one way or the other after a season that ended well below expectations and began with a six-game losing streak. ... Can Eli Manning manage to end the season on something less than the horrible note with which he began it, throwing picks all over the place against the Cowboys in Week 1? ... I'd expect many players on both sides of the ball to take a moment to pass along their respect for Redskins LB London Fletcher, playing his final game, and another person who could at least attempt to build a case for the Hall of Fame. ... This could be the final game for former Giants Super Bowl winners Justin Tuck and Hakeem Nicks as well, as they head into free agency.
Why to watch: Yet another game with two coaches hanging in the balance. Can either side make a case for them stating in charge? Wade Phillips, who stepped in when the Texans fired Gary Kubiak, has gone public with his desire to stay on in Houston, but that's a tough sell with how this bunch has played. And Mike Munchak had the Titans as the front-runners for the No. 6 seed just over a month ago, but is now staring at another losing season and a change in ownership in Nashville. So, if uncomfortable coaching situations and camera shots of restless owners gets you going, well, plenty of that to glean here.
What to watch for: Very likely the end for Chris Johnson with the Titans. With his salary bloated and his production waning, can he muster something reminiscent of his 2,000-yard season on the way out? ... It's also the end for former Titans first-round pick Kenny Britt, with that receiver making no impact this year whatsoever. ... While we're at it, Texans fans can say goodbye to QB Matt Schaub, and the Titans, who have a $500,000 roster bonus due to Ryan Fitzpatrick next year -- could well be parting ways with him, too. Both could use some decent film to try to take into free agency. ... Would be something to see the Texans end the season with 14 straight losses, eh? They were pretty lucky to steal one of their two wins from the Titans the first time around in Week 2. Hell, they were lucky to beat the Chargers on the road in Week 1, FWIW.