Will the Packers or Bears take the NFC North title?
Week 17 of the NFL season is typically one of the most exciting days on the sports calendar. The only week of the season with all 32 teams playing on the same day, the do-or-die nature of many games offers fans a preview of the playoff action to come.
This year is no different, as 13 of the week's 16 games have playoff implications. That includes two de facto division championship games and four playoff berths still available.
Here's your last-minute preview of three of today's most crucial contests, with analysis of what each team needs to do to pull out the victory and predictions.
Ravens at Bengals
There are no win-and-in scenarios in the AFC, but the top matchup highlights the defending Super Bowl champs making their last stand. The Ravens laid an egg last week against the Patriots and now need help to make it to the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
Will the Ravens make the playoffs?
Beating Cincy at Paul Brown Stadium will be a tall task. The Bengals are 7-0 at home this season and have scored at least 40 points in four of their past five home victories.
The Ravens did a solid job of stifling A.J. Green within the flow of the game in their first meeting, as most of Green's yardage came on two long catches. Andy Dalton has had difficulty his whole career against the Ravens, with four touchdowns to seven picks.
The game will come down to whether or not Joe Flacco can provide a better showing with his gimpy knee. Flacco was clearly hobbled against New England, failing to step into throws throughout the game. Even if the Ravens defense can limit Cincy's explosive home offense, Flacco will almost certainly need some big throws in crunch time.
The guess here is that he delivers, as the Ravens have always played well with their backs against the wall. Baltimore will pull out a victory at 1 p.m. ET, then wait and pray that the Dolphins or Chargers stumble and give it a chance to defend its title.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Bengals 21
Packers at Bears
Aaron Rodgers' return has infused this game with new intrigue, as the Bears defense will face an even tougher task for an already stumbling unit. Lance Briggs' return provided some hope, but the veteran linebacker looked extremely rusty in Chicago's 54-11 blowout defeat at Philadelphia. For what it's worth, Packers coach Mike McCarthy appears to have his attention on neutralizing Briggs:
#Packers coach Mike McCarthy calls Lance Briggs "great player" in addressing a difference from initial Week 9 meeting. Briggs missed that gm— Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) December 26, 2013
Who will win the NFC North?
If there's hope for Chicago, it's that it is hard to imagine Green Bay's defense having much success either. The Bears offensive line struggled mightily against the Eagles, but the Packers will be without Clay Matthews, who has nearly a fifth of Green Bay's sacks this year.
A Green Bay win is certainly no given, and it's tough to ask Rodgers to step back in and immediately recapture a sustainable offensive rhythm.
Chicago should put forth a much stronger effort at home, but if Rodgers is even a reasonable facsimile of his typical form, the Packers are the better of two flawed teams.
Prediction: Packers 35, Bears 31
Eagles at Cowboys
NBC executives cannot be happy about Tony Romo's season-ending back surgery, as the Cowboys are now full touchdown underdogs at home to the Eagles. Philadelphia has been on an upward trend in the season's second half, with the league's best point differential since the midway point, per Pro-Football-Reference.
Who will win the NFC East?
A potential Cowboys upset starts with DeMarco Murray. Dallas cannot realistically hope to consistently stifle Philly's hyperefficient offense, so its best defense is to keep LeSean McCoy and Co. off the field. Unfortunately, the Eagles have conceded just 3.8 yards per carry, the fourth-best mark in the league.
At the very least, Kyle Orton should not embarrass himself on prime time. Orton is one of the league's most capable backups; while he is not an improviser like Romo, the Cowboys can rely on him to make the correct reads. Look for Dallas to run lots of quick timing routes for Jason Witten and Dez Bryant in an effort to let its talented skill-position players take over the game.
And yet, a Dallas victory seems unlikely, especially given the roll the Eagles are on. Philly is not only a threat to win the NFC East, but a dark horse capable of making a deep playoff run.
Prediction: Eagles 41, Cowboys 30