As the 2014 NFL playoffs approach, the focus for football fans has shifted to which teams are the hottest heading into the final week of the regular season.
Week 17 features several marquee matchups and potential playoff previews, but many teams have already secured their spots in the postseason.
Whether these teams rest their starters this Sunday or go all-in building momentum, all of the following franchises will enter the playoffs with confidence and momentum.
Denver Broncos (12-3)
After beating the Houston Texans in lopsided fashion in Week 16, the Denver Broncos have won the AFC West and secured a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Denver needed the victory over Houston. The Broncos had been a dominant force for most of the season, but a heartbreaking loss to the San Diego Chargers in Week 15 raised doubts about the team’s ability to contend for a championship.
The Texans have been awful this season, and the victory helped Peyton Manning and the entire roster build confidence heading into the final week of the season. As if the victory wasn’t momentous enough, the fact that Manning broke the single-season touchdown record (51) was even more reason to celebrate.
Peyton Manning's TD record is fantastic but if he fails to reach Super Bowl, history won't care: http://t.co/f5Q27FMN9x— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) December 22, 2013
Denver defensive end Shaun Phillips told Gray Caldwell of DenverBroncos.com about the win:
You celebrate every victory you get in this league for 24 hours. A win or a loss, you celebrate or you mope for 24 hours. Then you move on and get ready for the next game. I mean, we played a good football team. Their record isn’t indicative of how good that team is. But that is a good football team. They were 12-4 last year or something. But that just goes to show you that you have to be on it week-in and week-out, and year-in and year-out.
With Manning playing his best right now and momentum on the team’s side once again, the Broncos travel to Oakland in the final week of the season to play the Raiders. It remains to be seen how long the starters stay out in Week 17—if they play at all—but Denver is the hottest team in the NFL regardless.
The knee injury to linebacker Von Miller could be a major concern if it’s as severe as Mike Klis of The Denver Post is reporting. With an offense that racks up a league-best 340.7 yards passing per game, though, the Broncos should still be a legitimate Super Bowl threat.
Carolina Panthers (11-4)
The Carolina Panthers have already secured their spot in the playoffs, but the team can lock up so much more in Week 17. Carolina plays the lowly Atlanta Falcons and needs a victory or a New Orleans Saints loss to win the NFC South and secure a first-round bye.
The key to the team’s success is the defense. The Panthers boast the league’s second-best run stopping unit, allowing just 87.7 yards per game, and the seventh-best pass defense, allowing 213.2 yards per game.
While the Saints are unquestionably one of the most explosive offensive teams in the NFL, Carolina was able to hold quarterback Drew Brees to just 281 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
There have been questions about the consistency of the Panthers offensive attack led by Cam Newton, and those are warranted. As shown Sunday against New Orleans, Newton and the offense do have the ability to march the ball down the field and win a game on a late drive.
With a strong defense and a run-first mentality, the Panthers are serious contenders.
New England Patriots (11-4)
The New England Patriots have won the NFC East once again and will now be looking to clinch a first-round bye. The team can secure the week off with a victory or losses from Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
While New England controls its own fate, the team is preparing for a matchup against a Buffalo Bills team that is coming off a shutout win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 16.
Which team has the most momentum heading into the postseason?
Buffalo may have confidence in itself, but the Patriots are the far more talented team and will secure a huge home victory to end the season. It was an anomaly that the Dolphins beat New England on Dec. 15, and the four wins over the last five games further proves the Patriots possess more momentum.
Losing a star like tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending knee injury is a devastating blow to a team desperate to find weapons for Tom Brady to utilize, but the veteran-laden squad knows what it takes to win in key moments.
As long as Brady stays healthy and head coach Bill Belichick is on the sidelines calling the shots, New England will be a force in the AFC. Buffalo doesn’t stand a chance in Week 17.