Week 17 of the 2012 NFL season is imminent and the constantly fluctuating playoff picture is nearly settled.
With division championships and home-field advantage in the AFC and an NFC wild-card spot on the line, there are plenty of matchups with massive postseason stakes. Some teams control their own destinies, while others need considerable help to sneak in—including the defending Super Bowl champions.
Here is a look first at the playoff picture as it stands, then at the biggest games Sunday has to offer with final score predictions.
NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
|No. 1 Seed Atlanta Falcons (13-2) Clinched NFC South & Home-Field Advantage|
|No. 2 Seed Green Bay Packers (11-4) Clinched NFC North|
|No. 3 Seed San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) Lead NFC West; Clinched Playoff Berth|
|No. 4 Seed Washington Redskins (9-6) Lead NFC East|
|WILD CARD LEADERS|
|No. 5 Seed Seattle Seahawks (10-5); Clinched Playoff Berth|
|No. 6 Seed Minnesota Vikings (9-6)|
|IN THE HUNT|
|Chicago Bears (9-6)|
|Dallas Cowboys (8-7)|
|New York Giants (8-7)|
AFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
|No. 1 Seed Houston Texans (12-3) Clinched AFC South|
|No. 2 Seed Denver Broncos (12-3) Clinched AFC West|
|No. 3 Seed New England Patriots (11-4) Clinched AFC East|
| No. 4 Seed Baltimore Ravens (10-5) Clinched AFC North|
|WILD CARD LEADERS|
|No. 5 Seed Indianapolis Colts (10-5); Clinched Playoff Berth|
|No. 6 Seed Cincinnati Bengals (9-6); Clinched Playoff Berth|
Dallas Cowboys (8-7) at Washington Redskins (9-6)
Much of this game's outcome will hinge on the health of two players: Redskins rookie sensation Robert Griffin III and Dallas' All-Pro LB DeMarcus Ware.
Not having Jay Ratliff at nose tackle to stifle Washington's top-ranked rushing attack will be difficult enough on the Cowboys defense (h/t ESPN). But the task would be all the more difficult without Ware's dynamic pass-rushing ability and knack for making plays. He has a strained shoulder and elbow and is listed as questionable.
RGIII was clearly limited as far as mobility is concerned in a Week 16 victory in Philadelphia, carrying the ball just twice for four yards while wearing a knee brace. While he should be able to do more after another week to heal his sprained LCL ligament, it will be the most interesting development to watch.
The winner of this one snags the NFC East title and a home playoff game, likely against current No. 5 seed Seattle. The Redskins can still clinch a wild-card berth with losses by Minnesota and Chicago should they fall at home, but it's a win-or-go-home scenario for the Cowboys.
When these teams last met on Thanksgiving, Griffin put on a show in throwing four TD passes in Washington's 38-31 victory.
In spite of having hardly any running game all year, Dallas QB Tony Romo has cut back on the interceptions significantly and played like a franchise player, throwing 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions over his past seven contests.
Thanks to a leaky Dallas defense and a troubled Redskins secondary, this almost assuredly will be the most high-scoring, entertaining game of the week.
However, fewer teams are hotter than the Redskins, who are on a six-game winning streak after a 3-6 start. The FedEx Field crowd will be raucous and should be enough to push the home team to their biggest victory in years.
Final Score: Redskins 34, Cowboys 31
Green Bay Packers (11-4) at Minnesota Vikings (9-6)
The playoffs might as well have already begun for the Vikings.
In Week 17 in the Metrodome, the NFC's current No. 6 seed's chances to go to the official postseason are on the line. All they have to do is win—but that's much easier said than done against their division rivals.
For Adrian Peterson to break the single-season rushing yards record held by Eric Dickerson, he will need an absolutely extraordinary effort. Should the Vikings make the playoffs and win even one game, AP should garner serious consideration for NFL MVP.
As his ESPN profile points out, Peterson averages 113 yards per game against the Pack in 11 career matchups, scoring eight touchdowns in that span. Last time he squared off with Green Bay in Lambeau in Week 13, he ran for 210 yards on just 21 carries, including an electrifying 83-yard touchdown scamper.
Speaking of MVPs, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is the reigning winner of the award and is proving his worth once again in 2012. Rodgers leads the league in passer rating and is second with 35 touchdown passes.
Injuries to top targets Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson throughout the year didn't prevent Rodgers from leading the Packers to another NFC North title. The No. 2 seed and a playoff bye are still on the line, and Green Bay is on a mission to avenge a disappointing opening loss in last year's playoffs after a 15-1 regular season.
Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder ranks dead-last in the NFL in yards per attempt at 5.94, but plays better at home and has the luxury of handing the ball to Peterson.
Vast improvement to the Minnesota defense was on display in Week 16's huge 23-6 road victory in Houston, where Peterson's streak of eight 100-plus yard games was snapped. If the Vikings can keep that up for one more Sunday and get more than 100 yards out of Peterson, their chances of winning at home are strong.
Final Score: Vikings 26, Packers 21
Houston Texans (12-3) at Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
All the pressure is on the Texans to finish the year off on a high note and grab the top seed in the AFC. Meanwhile, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano returns to the sideline in the finale at Lucas Oil Stadium in what has simply been a magical and inspiring year for the Colts.
Indy has already locked up the fifth seed, but Pagano has indicated he won't rest his starters (h/t South Bend Tribune via AP):
From Day 1, we set goals for ourselves, and after watching what this team has done over the course of the season...it’s just not in our DNA. Our families deserve it, our fans deserve to see our best game regardless of the circumstances. They’re going to roll the ball out there and our job is to win a ballgame and that’s what we’re going to do.
Pagano is clearly not short on confidence either—and he shouldn't be. No matter how unaesthetic it has been at times, the fact that the Colts have won 10 games to this point is astonishing.
No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck has already asserted himself as a selfless leader and has developed an uncanny rapport with star WR Reggie Wayne to form one of the most dangerous combos in the league. Luck put together consecutive games without a turnover for the first time in his young career after last week's victory in Kansas City, orchestrating yet another game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
The Colts' defense has been making more plays lately and Luck has been more careful with the football while still slinging it downfield more often than any QB in the league.
Houston's pass defense has fallen toward mediocrity, but did sack Luck five times in Reliant Stadium two weeks ago. The combination of J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith should continue to allow the Texans to get pressure up front.
But other than a last-second loss to Jacksonville in Week 3, the Colts are perfect at home. Their improbable run will continue on Sunday thanks to a career game from Luck and the return of Pagano.
Final Score: Colts 31, Texans 20