The NFL has finally reached its regular-season finale, and the Week 17 sendoff features several high-profile games that will cause a ripple effect on the playoff picture—just as the league intended when it made the schedule.
What we do know is which teams won the AFC divisions and which are a lock for the postseason. The Denver Broncos (AFC West champions), Kansas City Chiefs (AFC Wild Card), Indianapolis Colts (AFC South champions), New England Patriots (AFC East champions), Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North Champions), Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers have all secured playoff berths.
But the No. 6 seed in the AFC is up for grabs, with the 8-7 Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8) still in play.
Flip to the NFC, where every division crown is still up for grabs and two Week 17 contests act as division-title games. The wild-card picture is murkiest of all, with the two wild-card teams coming from this group of five—Seattle (12-3), Carolina (11-4), New Orleans (10-5), San Francisco (10-4) and Arizona (10-5).
So kick back and enjoy the show—the regular-season finale is going to be wild. Here are some early predictions for all 16 games this week.
|Carolina Panthers 30, Atlanta Falcons 17||These two met in Week 9, when Carolina notched a huge 34-10 win. The locale is different this time around, but Cam Newton and the Panthers are playing for the NFC South title. No upset here.|
|Cincinnati Bengals 23, Baltimore Ravens 20||Cincinnati gifted Baltimore a shot at the AFC North title. Joe Flacco and Co. responded with a 41-7 loss to New England last week. The Ravens are playing for a wild card, but the Bengals have the No. 2 seed in sight and are 7-0 at home.|
|Tennessee Titans 24, Houston Texans 10||The quest for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft is complete. Houston loses its 14th straight via a depleted roster, despite Tennessee being one of the Texans' two wins this year.|
|Jacksonville Jaguars 24, Indianapolis Colts 23||Indianapolis is known for playing up and down to competition this year. After a 23-7 win over Kansas City, the Colts are primed for a letdown against a Jacksonville team that has played much better in the home stretch of the season. This is the Super Bowl for Jacksonville.|
|Miami Dolphins 20, New York Jets 7||The Miami Dolphins laid a goose egg in Buffalo in Week 16 with a 19-0 loss, but they remain in the conversation for the No. 6 seed. It will require a win and help, but the Dolphins get some help against a miserable New York Jets squad it already beat once this year, 23-3.|
|Minnesota Vikings 24, Detroit Lions 17||Week 16 saw Detroit eliminated from playoff contention with a miserable 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants, also known as a Jim Schwartz special—they have lost nine straight regular-season games in the months of December and January.|
|New York Giants 30, Washington Redskins 23||Leave it to New York to keep winning meaningless games. Washington has not won since the beginning of November and now has to hit the road with a backup quarterback under center. Not the best recipe for success in the closing week.|
|Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Cleveland Browns 14||Cleveland has won just a single game on the road this year, while Pittsburgh has won five of its last seven overall and can still make the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger in December is bad news for a sinking Browns team.|
|Green Bay Packers 28, Chicago Bears 27||See Below|
|Denver Broncos 45, Oakland Raiders 21||Denver travels to the Black Hole for what will surely be the worst contest of the week—the Broncos beat the Raiders 37-21 in Week 3. Not much has changed since. Denver needs a win to lock up the No. 1 seed.|
|New England Patriots 33, Buffalo Bills 20||Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are back to form after a 41-7 victory in Baltimore in Week 16. The AFC East champions still have reason to play starters for seeding purposes, so expect this one to get out of hand early in Foxborough.|
|New Orleans Saints 24, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20||See Below|
|Arizona Cardinals 20, San Francisco 49ers 17||There will be plenty on the line from the desert, where the Cardinals have lost just once this year. Bruce Arians and his team went to Seattle last week and got a win—the first for any team there since December of 2011—and can now smell the playoffs. Taking down inconsistent San Francisco is up next.|
|San Diego Chargers 31, Kansas City Chiefs 28||San Diego upset Kansas City on the road in Week 12, 41-38. Now things shift to the final week of the season, and the Chargers can still make the playoffs with a win and help. Desperation will propel Philip Rivers and the Chargers to a win at home.|
|Seattle Seahawks 35, St. Louis Rams 14||Poor St. Louis. The Rams have had strong showings in recent weeks, including a win over New Orleans in Week 15. But now they must travel to Seattle, where the Seahawks are seething after a rare home loss. This was a 14-9 outcome in favor of the Seahawks back in Week 8, but the Rams were healthy then and at home.|
|Philadelphia Eagles 34, Dallas Cowboys 24||See Below|
Green Bay Packers Over Chicago Bears
Thanks to Week 16 outcomes, including the Green Bay Packers' loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears' huge defeat by the Philadelphia Eagles, these two meet from Soldier Field to crown an NFC North champion.
Which team will win the NFC North?
Chicago has the most work to do after a torrid showing in a 54-11 loss in which the Eagles racked up 514 total yards. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw for just 222 yards with a touchdown and interception.
The signal-caller's mediocre performance against a horrible defense will cause some to call for Josh McCown, who played extremely well in Cutler's absence this year. However, coach Marc Trestman told ESPN, via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, that Cutler is still the starter:
We lost the line of scrimmage. We didn't do as good a job as obviously we've done at protecting Jay. He got hit probably more in this game than he's been hit at any time during the season.
Green Bay has quarterback woes of its own, and speculation about Aaron Rodgers' status will surely run rampant all week. But Bleacher Report's Michelle Noyer-Granacki brings up a great point:
The Bears rank dead last against the rush, and while Green Bay does not tout an offense comparable to Chip Kelly's without Rodgers, backup Matt Flynn can do more than enough damage to win the game.
Flynn has come on in recent weeks, tossing five touchdowns to two interceptions in his last two games. He will be able to consistently move the ball, and rookie back Eddie Lacy (1,112 rushing yards and 10 scores and the owner of the single-season record for rushing yards by rookie in Green Bay) will simply shred Chicago's putrid defense.
New Orleans Saints Over Tampa Bay Buccaneers
At first glance, this does not appear to be one of the week's better matchups.
But a New Orleans 17-13 loss to Carolina in Week 16 means the Saints are now in serious danger—they can finish anywhere as high as the No. 2 seed (beat Tampa Bay and Carolina loses at Atlanta) or miss the playoffs outright (lose to Tampa, San Francisco wins Monday night in Week 16 and Arizona beats San Francisco next week).
New Orleans has been perfect at home this year, but fans are hardly a week removed from seeing Seattle, a team that had not lost at home since December of 2011, lose in shocking fashion. Remember, this is a Tampa Bay team that almost upset the Saints in Week 2 via a 16-14 outcome.
But Tampa Bay has lost two straight, ranks dead last through the air with an average of 173.7 yards per game and is not wildly better on the ground (average of 102.5 yards per game).
Led by coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints' stellar defense (No. 2 against the pass, No. 19 against the rush) paired with the noisy Mercedes-Benz Superdome will keep the Buccaneers in check en route to a much-needed win.
Philadelphia Eagles Over Dallas Cowboys
The final edition of Sunday Night Football this season features Philadelphia and Dallas.
Cowboys-Eagles will be flexed to prime time next Sunday night, per NFL official.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 23, 2013
Perfect, because the winner takes home the NFC East crown, while the loser misses the postseason.
Again, no pressure.
Which team will win the NFC East?
Dallas went out and snapped a two-game skid last week with a one-point victory over Washington with time dwindling. As mentioned, Philadelphia erupted for 54 points in a victory over Chicago.
While this appears like a heavyweight bout, Dallas is sure to disappoint fans. The Cowboys have not defeated anyone of merit since a Week 7, 17-3 win over these Eagles. They have won four games since, with none coming against a team with more than six wins. Losses have come against teams with either winning records or in the playoff hunt entering Week 16.
Perhaps LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher at 1,476 yards, put it best, via Reuben Frank of CSN Philadelphia:
I can tell you they didn't see the best of the Eagles. They didn't see the best of Nick Foles or LeSean McCoy. They didn't see the best of us, but they will this Sunday, so it'll be a different story. I can’t even remember that far back.
The Dallas defense, which ranks No. 31 against the pass, No. 27 against the rush and allows a league-worst 418.6 yards per game, simply does not stack up with Chip Kelly's offense.
Expect an ugly affair as the Eagles get whatever they want offensively in a big win.