With so many playoff spots still up for grabs, the stakes will be at their highest when the underdogs play spoiler in Week 17.
Of course, not all upsets are created equal in the final week of the regular season. The teams that are still fighting to make the postseason will go all out to win, but those that are jockeying for seeding or already locked into their spots might decide rest is best.
A couple of those desperation squads are in position to pull off upsets, while some worse-off teams have the right mix of talent and self-respect to keep playing to win when they have nothing left to play for—except pride, that is.
An also-ran gains nothing tangible by beating a playoff hopeful, but the ramifications of an upset win make it worth pursuing for coaches and players who are outside of the playoff picture.
|NFL Week 17 Schedule|
|Away Team||Home Team||Pick|
|Carolina Panthers||Atlanta Falcons||Falcons|
|Green Bay Packers||Chicago Bears||Bears|
|Houston Texans||Tennessee Titans||Titans|
|Washington Redskins||New York Giants||Giants|
|Cleveland Browns||Pittsburgh Steelers||Steelers|
|Baltimore Ravens||Cincinnati Bengals||Bengals|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Indianapolis Colts||Colts|
|Philadelphia Eagles||Dallas Cowboys||Eagles|
|New York Jets||Miami Dolphins||Jets|
|Detroit Lions||Minnesota Vikings||Vikings|
|Buffalo Bills||New England Patriots||Patriots|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||New Orleans Saints||Saints|
|Denver Broncos||Oakland Raiders||Broncos|
|San Francisco 49ers||Arizona Cardinals||Cardinals|
|Kansas City Chiefs||San Diego Chargers||Chargers|
|St. Louis Rams||Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks|
Atlanta Falcons (4-10) over Carolina Panthers (11-4)
Cam Newton and company have a lot to gain from a Week 17 win. A 12-4 finish would clinch the NFC South for the Carolina Panthers, earning them the second seed and a coveted first-round bye. With a loss and a win by the New Orleans Saints, Carolina would fall into the Wild Card and could drop to as low as the sixth seed.
All of that should motivate the Panthers to beat up the Atlanta Falcons, but with a playoff berth already secured, they could be better suited to play conservatively.
They'll very likely be without Steve Smith, who sprained his knee in the Week 16 win over the Saints.
If Smith sits, the Falcons will be able to stack the box to punish the Panthers rushing attack, which is not what Carolina needs leading up to the postseason. DeAngelo Williams fought through a quad injury midway through the season, Jonathan Stewart just missed Week 16 with a partial MCL tear, and Mike Tolbert loses value when he's an every-down back.
Newton especially can't afford to be battered in Atlanta. He's less effective when he's not a threat to run, but losing him in Week 17 would ruin the resurgent Panthers.
After starting 2-8, the Falcons are 2-2 since in four games decided by four points or less. Roddy White and Steven Jackson are both healthy, and the Falcons are not pushovers anymore. Atlanta will beat the protective Panthers and make them play in the Wild Card Round.
New York Jets (6-8) over Miami Dolphins (8-7)
If the Miami Dolphins win, they're in the playoffs with a win by the San Diego Chargers or Cincinnati Bengals, and if they lose, they're out. Regardless, the Dolphins won't be their best selves on offense against the New York Jets.
Despite exiting with a knee injury in Week 16, Ryan Tannehill will be under center in the regular-season finale. He got hurt when the Buffalo Bills sacked him for the sixth time, and he returned later to take one more, but he insists he's "fine" and will be ready for the Jets.
Unfortunately for him, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson will be ready for Miami's offensive line; Tannehill leads the league with 58 sacks taken this season—12 more than any other quarterback.
As the Bills just proved when they shut out Miami, an opponent can beat the Dolphins by getting to Tannehill and stopping the run. The Jets' 41.0 sacks are a solid 11th in the NFL, and they're good enough to exploit Miami's patchwork line. As for the ground game, no team allows fewer yards per rush than New York's 3.3.
If the Jets stifle Miami early, they'll win the field position battle and make life easier for their limited offense. As much as the Dolphins need to move the ball against New York, they're going to struggle.
Arizona Cardinals (10-5) over San Francisco (10-4)
The San Francisco 49ers were just 6-4 after Week 11, but by winning out and seeing losses from the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks, they can finish with the top seed in the NFC.
Neither New Orleans nor Seattle is going to give them that help, and the Arizona Cardinals won't roll over. The Cardinals also need a Saints loss to reach the Wild Card Round.
Arizona is a top-five defense against the yards per pass attempt and the yards per carry, and it is the only winning team that can make that claim. Like Newton and the Panthers, Colin Kaepernick and the Niners aren't the same when the QB can't be a dual threat, which makes Arizona's balanced defense a particularly difficult matchup.
After Vernon Davis torched Arizona for 180 yards and two scores when these teams met in Week 6, Patrick Peterson should be assigned to him on every play, which should help neutralize the threat.
It won't be much easier for the Cards to score on SF, but they'll be at home this time. Taking the Niners out of Candlestick Park swings this one in Arizona's favor, keeping the team's playoff pursuit alive a little while longer.
San Diego Chargers (8-7) over Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
The Kansas City Chiefs entered their bye undefeated but have lost four of their six games since. As much as they could benefit from entering the postseason on a high note, they have to contend with the San Diego Chargers offense.
San Diego has an outside chance at the sixth seed in the AFC, nabbing it if the Chargers win and the Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens lose. The Bolts are also hot right now as winners of four of their last five with 26-plus points in each victory. That stretch includes a season-high 41-point output in a win over the Chiefs.
That's the most points that KC has allowed this season, but it's distressingly representative of the Chiefs' play since the bye. After holding every opponent below 20 points in their first eight games, they have done so only once in the last six.
If Philip Rivers and the Chargers go up two scores and sustain that margin, the Chiefs should back off. The Denver Broncos have clinched the AFC West title, so KC is locked into the fifth seed. Rest before an inevitable first-round bout will be necessary, and San Diego could earn a backdoor wild-card spot because of it.
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