There's a lot on the line for a sizable portion of NFL teams in Week 17, and fans could not have asked for a better finale of regular season games.
The playoff picture for each conference includes nine teams at this point, but only six teams will have the privilege of playing in the postseason following the events of Week 17. Teams in the hunt for the final playoff seed in both the AFC and NFC will need some help to clinch a playoff berth, but the fact that so many teams are still in the hunt speaks to the competitiveness of the 2013 season.
NFL schedule-makers treated the fans this week with a slew of high-quality divisional matchups—most of which have playoff implications. This might just be the most important Week 17 in recent memory.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
The battle for the NFC East comes down to the NFL's game of the week on Sunday night, when the 9-6 Philadelphia Eagles battle it out against the 8-7 Dallas Cowboys.
Tony Romo-less, the Cowboys will be leaning on Kyle Orton to be a game-manager.
Tony Romo diagnosed with herniated disc. Surgery necessary, per sources— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) December 23, 2013
Orton is much less mobile than Romo, though, and the Eagles should have a field day throwing a variety of blitz packages his way. If the offensive line doesn't step up, then it's going to be a long night for Orton.
Orton last started a game in 2011, but he threw nine picks and nine touchdowns in nine games. He was far from a game-manager, and his teams were 3-5 in his eight starts that season.
Dallas will win the division outright with a victory despite matching records with the Eagles because of a perfect divisional record. That leaves no room for error in Philadelphia, and Nick Foles will look to torch one of the worst defenses in NFL history early and often.
With a turnover-free game from Foles, it's hard to imagine a scenario that sees the Eagles losing against Orton and the Cowboys.
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that Aaron Rodgers will play on Sunday against the Chicago Bears in the fight for the NFC North crown, and that drastically changes the outlook for the game.
Aaron Rodgers will start Sunday.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 26, 2013
Matt Flynn didn't do a horrible job in Rodgers' stead, but it's hard to argue against starting the former NFL MVP over a lifetime backup quarterback. Rodgers may be rusty given the fact that he hasn't played since November, but even a less-than-100-percent Rodgers is an upgrade over the team's other options.
Aaron Rodgers' return: good for Packers, good for NFL, not good for Bears. Consider how Packers running game has evolved with Eddie Lacy.— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) December 26, 2013
Bringing Rodgers back for this matchup adds even more excitement to what already figured to be a hard-fought game. The Bears will certainly turn it up a notch defensively as a result of the news, and head coach Mike McCarthy can be confident knowing that he can open up the playbook again with Rodgers under center.
"Aaron just knows everything so well; he can get us into the best situation possible," guard Josh Sitton said. "He can make plays with his feet. He can make throws that most quarterbacks in this league can't make."
There are no guarantees in the NFL, but it's hard to pick against the Packers in this game with one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL back in action.
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
To say this game has major implications would be a huge understatement. This matchup can literally shake up a majority of the AFC playoff picture.
A win would give the Cincinnati Bengals the chance to sneak into the No. 2 seed in the AFC. That, of course, is contingent on the New England Patriots losing to the Buffalo Bills. A loss could potentially drop the Bengals to the No. 4 seed and force them to play a tougher game against the No. 5 seed in the divisional round.
Who wins this one?
The Baltimore Ravens are 8-7 and are on the outside looking in for the final AFC playoff spot. The 8-7 Miami Dolphins currently hold that spot, but a loss against the New York Jets this week would open the door for Baltimore.
This divisional matchup will be a close game given the past history of these two teams, and there really isn't a clear winner in the days leading up to the game.
The Ravens won the first matchup between the two teams this season by a score of 20-17, and this one will surely be similarly competitive. There's too much on the line for both teams for it to be a one-sided affair.