You know the Week 17 rules for teams that have clinched playoff berths: Rest your starters. Play it safe. Bask in this year's success.
With plenty of playoff implications riding on this week's matchups, several NFC playoff teams want to throw those rules out the window as the 2011 NFL season comes to a close.
The Atlanta Falcons are battling the Detroit Lions for the No. 5 seed, the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints are fighting for the No. 2 seed, and the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants will be featured in a primetime, winner-take-all clash to determine the NFC Eastern division champion and the No. 4 seed.
Lions and Falcons better off with No. 5 Seed
The race for the NFC's No. 5 seed has plenty of playoff implications.
Should the Lions or Falcons fall to the No. 6 seed, they will play either New Orleans or San Francisco in next week’s opening round of the NFL playoffs.
New Orleans is 7-0 at home. San Francisco is 7-1 at home.
Atlanta has already lost twice to New Orleans, a 26-23 overtime loss at home—featuring the oft-debated fourth-and-one-call by Falcons head coach Mike Smith—and this week’s 45-16 beating on the road on Monday Night Football.
Atlanta didn’t play San Francisco this year.
Just as foreboding, Detroit lost 25-19 at home against the 49ers and 31-17 on the road vs. the Saints.
The NFC’s No. 5 seed will play the winner of the Cowboys-Giants game, and Atlanta and Detroit have to like their chances vs. Dallas or New York.
New York is 3-4 at home with all its home wins coming against teams under .500. Detroit already has a win at Dallas, 34-30 in Week 4.
Atlanta has a 9-6 record, Detroit is 10-5. Both teams have a 6-5 NFC record.
Detroit controls its own destiny and would have the better overall record with a win on the road vs. Green Bay.
Green Bay has already clinched the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and may not have much to play for this week. Still, the defending Super Bowl champions and this year’s best team want to finish the year on a high note and will be playing at home in front of some of the most loyal fans in the NFL.
Atlanta could get the fifth seed with a Detroit loss and a win at home Tampa Bay, which would give the Falcons a better NFC record.
Tampa Bay beat Atlanta 16-13 earlier this year and the Falcons will be playing for revenge at that least. However, Tampa Bay has long been eliminated from playoff contention and may want to maintain draft position.
Detroit suffered a 23-16 home loss against the Falcons in Week 7 and cold revenge would be to send the Falcons back to face their nemesis in New Orleans next week.
Is There Really a Big Difference between No. 2 and No. 3 seed?
The Saints (12-3) and 49ers (12-3) are fighting for playoff seeding, but are there really any big advantages of earning the No. 2 seed?
Well, there’s the bye week for the Wild Card round of the playoffs and the opportunity to host a game in the divisional round of the playoffs.
New Orleans had a bye and home-field advantage in the divisional round after the 2009 season when the team won the Super Bowl.
On the other hand, the Green Bay Packers didn’t need a bye or home-field advantage to win the Super Bowl last season. In fact, the Packers went on the road to blast the No. 1-seeded Falcons, 48-21.
The No. 2-seeded team will have a chance to rest its players and allow injuries to heal. Yet, the 2010 Packers, suffering an abundance of key injuries, defied the odds and overcame being the No. 6 seed.
If the No. 3-seeded team is triumphant in the wild-card round, the No. 2 seed will host the No. 3 seed in the divisional round.
So, San Francisco and New Orleans go into Week 17 jostling for playoff position, knowing they could meet as playoff opponents in two weeks with the team winning the second seed serving as host.
The 49ers travel to face the hapless St. Louis Rams and the Saints will be at home vs. the Carolina Panthers. Carolina doesn’t have much to play for, but the Rams recognize they have a chance at the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft if they lose this game.
All or Nothing at All for Cowboys and Giants
The NFL has saved its best for last as the New York Giants host the Dallas Cowboys in the final game of the NFL season.
The entire nation has watched the rollercoaster season for both 8-7 teams—this will be Dallas’ sixth primetime, nationally televised contest and New York’s fifth for the season—and this time it will be for all the marbles.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who injured his throwing hand in last week’s 20-7 home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, had his best game of the year in Week 14, a 37-34 home loss to the Giants—also in primetime.
Romo threw four touchdowns and no interceptions, but the Cowboys were victimized by a safety, penalties, poor secondary defense and a missed field goal. Crunch time in the fourth quarter has been problematic for the Cowboys all year long.
There have been three Sunday night matchups for Dallas. There have also been three Sunday night losses for Dallas.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning has had a strong season with plenty of passing yards, but the Giants have been streaky and unpredictable all season.
Some would point to a very tough schedule—the Giants played four of this season’s division winners in a span of five weeks. Others would point to bad losses at home against the Eagles, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks.
Both defenses should play better with so much on the line. Dallas will try to mix the pass and run while New York has relied on its passing game all year.