NFL Week 17 is finally here. It is the final week of the NFL regular season—the week when dreams are dashed and others are realised, the week when 20 fanbases say their final goodbyes to that year's version of their franchises.
The final week of the regular season is melancholic. It signals the beginning of the playoffs, and it's typically full of drama and excitement, but it also signals the final day of the season when we get multiple games on at the same time.
With that in mind, it only seems right to bid adieu to the regular season with a matchup to watch from every single game this Sunday.
Joe Haden versus Antonio Brown
Cleveland Browns cornerback Haden made a strong start to this season that bloated his reputation among NFL analysts. However, as the season wore on, Haden began to struggle. He was first exposed by the Green Bay Packers' Jordy Nelson, before Cecil Shorts of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears had success against him.
Of the receivers who had success against Haden, maybe the best this season was Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Brown has had an all-pro-caliber season with 101 receptions, over 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns on offense entering the final week of the season. The 25-year-old receiver has excelled in Todd Haley's adjusted offense that focuses on shorter passes and yards after the catch.
While Brown is able to make plays underneath against any defensive back, he exposed Haden deep down the field during their last meeting. Brown finished the game with six receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown, but that scoring play came from 41 yards out.
With more than two minutes left in the second quarter, the Steelers line Brown wide left with Jerricho Cotchery in the slot alongside him. Initially, Haden lined up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, but he crept forward at the snap. The Browns appear to be playing zone coverage with a single-high safety in the middle third of the field between both cornerbacks.
At the snap, however, Haden presses Brown at the line of scrimmage and plays him with a man coverage assignment. He allows him a free release off the line of scrimmage but shows him towards the sideline immediately.
Haden isn't playing very aggressive coverage, though, so Brown is able to run down the sideline with ease.
When Haden turns to locate the ball, he slows down. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had already let go of the ball at that point so Haden is late to locate it in the air. By the time he does, he is too late because Brown has continued down the sideline at speed.
Even though the ball is badly underthrown from Roethlisberger, Brown does enough to reach back for it and protect it from the recovering Haden for a touchdown.
Primarily because of their offense, the Browns have been very inconsistent in recent weeks. Defensively, they have had their own issues, but they will need to be at their very best to win this game. The Steelers don't work the ball downfield a huge amount, but they do test the secondary in a variety of ways.
Emmanuel Sanders, Cotchery, Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell are all dangerous weapons for Roethlisberger, but stopping Brown is the top priority for any defense facing this Steelers offense.
Pierre Garcon versus the New York Giants Cornerbacks
Trumaine McBride and Prince Amukamara are set for a tough test this week against Washington. Pierre Garcon has had a record-breaking season for his franchise, racking up 107 receptions, 1,290 yards and five touchdowns. Garcon had 11 receptions for 114 yards last week against the Dallas Cowboys.
Kirk Cousins has completed 18 passes to his No. 1 receiver over the last two weeks, so it's clear where the focus of the passing game is.
Andy Dalton versus Dean Pees
The Baltimore Ravens couldn't slow down Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense last week. Their inability to pressure the quarterback was partially a result of the Patriots' game plan, but it also reflects the recent struggles of the defense's front seven.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to find pressure from somewhere to stop the Cincinnati Bengals and Dalton on offense.
Kendall Wright versus Ryan Fitzpatrick
Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Fitzpatrick is considered one of the better backups in the NFL. It's easy to fall for Fitzpatrick because he can be very impressive for a few drives. However, it's also easy to see why he was relegated to a backup for the Tennessee Titans.
Fitzpatrick has dramatically hurt his best wide receiver, Wright, in two of the past three weeks. Wright had one huge game in between two games that passed him by for the most part. If the Titans want to finish the season with a victory, their best route is to get Fitzpatrick back throwing to Wright.
Austin Pasztor versus Robert Mathis
Pasztor has actually played some impressive football since taking over the right tackle position from Luke Joeckel and Cameron Bradfield, who both moved to left tackle at the time. He isn't a superstar, but he also hasn't looked out of his depth. This week he faces his toughest test, with potential defensive player of the year winner Mathis playing across from him.
Mathis doesn't need much of an opportunity, and as Chad Henne proved last week, he's always capable of a game-changing mistake.
Miami Dolphins Offensive Line versus New York Jets Defensive Line
Last week, Ryan Tannehill was sacked an incredible seven times as his offense was shut out by the Buffalo Bills. Tannehill missed his first snaps of the season, but he is expected to return to the field for their Week 17 matchup against the New York Jets.
With the Dolphins' offensive line problems, the Jets are one of the last teams they want to see.
When the two teams met in Week 13, the Dolphins gave up just one sack, but the offense as a whole was functioning much better then. Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin weren't on the field then, but their replacements were playing better football.
Both offensive tackles in particular struggled against the Bills last week. Bills defensive ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes are having good seasons, but the complete lack of resistance that faced them last week was unacceptable for any professional opposition.
For Hughes' sack, both offensive tackles were beaten with ease.
Maybe fortunately for the Dolphins, the Jets' real strength upfront lies on the interior of their defensive line. Last week against the Cleveland Browns, the Jets had three total sacks. Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples, Calvin Pace and Leger Douzable combined for those sacks.
Any comfort the Dolphins feel from their potential matchup advantage should quickly disappear when it's viewed against the versatility and talent of the Jets' individual defensive players.
Wilkerson has been one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL over the past two seasons. He has 10.5 sacks this season, while playing a combination of different spots across the defensive line. Coples has only 4.5 sacks, but he has similarly impressive flexibility. Coples can stand up outside as a linebacker, but he can also put his hand in the ground as a defensive end or even a defensive tackle.
Pace is an ageing veteran, but he has managed 10 sacks so far this year, while Douzable only has 1.5 official sacks but got to the quarterback twice last week.
With all of those players threatening Tannehill, there is barely even time to consider Sheldon Richardson. At one point this season, Richardson looked set to be one of the best interior pass-rushers in the NFL. He is still only a rookie, though, so it's no real surprise that he has hit somewhat of a wall during the second half of the season.
Maybe the Dolphins will match up better to the Jets, and maybe Tannehill will be able to cover any cracks with his athleticism or intelligence. However, on paper, it appears that the Jets have a major talent advantage upfront, in spite of their poor output during the two sides' first meeting of the year.
Matthew Stafford versus the Minnesota Vikings Defense
With the Detroit Lions already eliminated from the playoffs, the team needs to give their fans hope for next season with a strong finish to the season. Head coach Jim Schwartz isn't certain to return, but quarterback Stafford is. For that reason, Stafford should be desperate to play well this week so he has some positive tape to show his new coach or win over his critics during the offseason.
It won't be enough, but he needs to take every opportunity to improve and impress moving forward.
Atlanta Falcons Defensive Line versus Cam Newton
Newton will make his first playoff appearance as the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers this season. That much is guaranteed. How the Panthers handle him in Week 17 isn't clear, but if they are fully committed to winning this game, they should be able to with relative ease.
If they do struggle, it will likely be because the Falcons' defensive line shows up to disrupt Newton's rhythm.
Terron Armstead versus Adrian Clayborn
Armstead replaced Charles Brown as the New Orleans Saints left tackle last week, but he was manhandled by Greg Hardy during his season debut. Hardy is a much better player than the Tampa Bay Buccanneers' Clayborn, but Clayborn has the talent to expose any frailties in Armstead's armour.
Clayborn has five sacks this season, and it will be hard for the Saints to push too much of their pass protection to him with Gerald McCoy playing inside of him.
Buffalo Bills Defensive Line versus Bill Belichick and Tom Brady
Belichick crafted the perfect game plan for the Patriots in Baltimore last week to beat the Ravens. He committed to running the ball and allowed Brady to quickly get rid of the football. Brady was very sharp, something he hasn't been throughout the season, so it was next to impossible for the Ravens to get to him.
The Bills are coming off a seven-sack game against the Dolphins, so their confidence should be sky high. Mike Pettine is a smart defensive coordinator who outwitted Mike Sherman last week. He needs to do the same with his defensive line against the Patriots this week.
Robert Quinn versus Russell Wilson
While the Arizona Cardinals were very impressive against the Seattle Seahawks last week, it's clear that Seahawks quarterback Wilson and his receivers underperformed. There were numerous plays that Wilson and his receivers regularly make that simply didn't come off because of timing, accuracy or bad hands.
Meanwhile, for the St. Louis Rams, defensive end Quinn is pursuing a defensive player of the year award for his consistently outstanding play throughout this season. When these two teams last faced off, Quinn had a huge impact on the game. He needs to again if the Rams are to have a chance of winning.
Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery versus Tramon Williams/Sam Shields
As tweeted by Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, head coach Mike McCarthy announced that Aaron Rodgers is set to start at quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. This means they should be able to put up points on the pitiful Chicago Bears defense. On the other side of the ball, the focus will be on Jay Cutler to see if he can carry the Bears offense. Cutler couldn't do much to stop the Philadelphia Eagles last week, but he also didn't get a huge amount of help from his receivers.
Jeffery and Marshall need to make the big plays they were routinely making for Josh McCown earlier this season if the Bears are to win in Week 17.
Bradley Sowell versus Aldon Smith
It's been a tumultuous season for the San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Smith. A stint in rehab disrupted his availability and seemingly his performance. He still has 8.5 sacks in 10 appearances, but he hasn't been as disruptive as he was last season.
Against Arizona Cardinals starting left tackle Sowell, Smith will feel that he can be a big difference-maker in this game. Sowell has improved in recent weeks, but he will still need to have a big day to counter Smith's talent.
Peyton Manning versus Brock Osweiler
Typically throughout his career, Manning has had to be dragged off of the field when his team was already assured of a playoff spot. He will presumably start and play versus the Oakland Raiders this weekend, but how long he stays on the field before Brock Osweiler comes in is unknown.
Osweiler is an intriguing option to watch because of his incredible height, and he would have a good opportunity to show off any potential ability against the Raiders defense.
Kansas City Chiefs' Motivation versus Apathy
The San Diego Chargers know that they need to win this game, but the Chiefs have no reason to risk their key starters. Depending on how motivated the Chiefs are, this could be a victory that the Chargers are not made to work for at all.
DeMarco Murray versus Philadelphia Eagles Run Defense
Tony Romo can't catch a break. After leading a fourth-quarter comeback against Washington last week, he was all set to feature in another NFC East decider in Week 17. Instead, Romo has a back injury that is set to rule him out for the final regular-season game and any potential playoff appearances that follow.
This puts Dallas Cowboys backup quarterback Kyle Orton into the spotlight.
Orton is a former starter for the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. He has more than enough ability to keep the Cowboys offense respectable, but his extended time on the sideline and limited practice time could have adverse effects on his play.
Even if Orton has the best game of his career, the Cowboys will still need to focus on running back Murray.
Running the ball has been a point of contention for the Cowboys all season long. Murray has thrived when he has been given the ball, but the Cowboys have ignored him too often in favour of an unbalanced offense focused around Romo.
Murray has 200 carries on the season for 1,073 yards and nine touchdowns. He had 22 carries for 96 yards last week, as well as the game-winning touchdown reception. The 25-year-old missed two games during the season, so he should be fresh considering his low work-load to this point in the year.
On the other hand, the Eagles defense has overachieved in the eyes of most this season. Their patchwork secondary has held up because the offense has been able to score so much that there is less pressure on them. The front seven has been impressive independent of the rest of the team, though.
According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles have the 12th-best run defense on the season. They are giving up just 107.5 rushing yards per game and have only given up 80 yards rushing combined to the last two starting running backs they faced.
Murray is a back who can consistently keep the offense on schedule in terms of down-and-distance, but he also provides a big play threat.
Even though the Cowboys are backed up against their own goal line, Washington comes out with two deep safeties to suggest a setup to stop the pass.
The Cowboys run a stretch play to the left with their line blocking zone. Murray takes the handoff, but the Cowboys have already lost the edge. This pushes Murray towards the first cutback lane up the middle of the defense.
Murray has a gap to attack and potentially gain three to four yards, but he turns it down. While Murray is able to escape outside through the red area, the smarter decision was to stick to the green area and run up the middle of the field. Often, big plays come from bad decisions, though, and Murray is able to make up for his bad decision with a big play.
With a strong arm, he pushes the first linebacker away to continue moving sideways. The deep safety arrives aggressively inside of the outside blocker, but Murray skips outside of him and arcs his path to get free outside.
From there, Murray uses his acceleration to gain 43 yards before being pushed out of bounds.
The Cowboys don't have a strong defense to ease the pressure on their backup quarterback, but they do have a very impressive running game. The question is whether that running game will be good enough to outscore Nick Foles and the Eagles offense.
The answer to that question will determine who wins the NFC East and earns that trip to the playoffs.
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