Looking Ahead to NFL Week 17: Playoff Picture and Games to Watch

Bryan Hollister@too_old_4stupidAnalyst IDecember 23, 2008

With a game-saving block at the end of regulation and a game-winning field goal to seal a 20-17 victory in overtime, the Chicago Bears kept their hopes alive for a playoff berth and set the stage for a wild final weekend of the regular season.

Five playoff spots are still up for grabs. In the AFC, the East and West divisions still have not crowned a champion; in the NFC, the North and South divisions have yet to be determined.

In the AFC, both undecided divisions feature games in which the two teams vying for the championship are going head-to-head: Miami plays the Jets for bragging rights in the AFC East, and Denver faces San Diego in a game which could send an 8-8 team to the playoffs and freeze out the Patriots, who hold a better overall record than both Denver and San Diego.

No doubt about it; if the Dolphins beat the Jets, New England must win and Baltimore must lose if New England is going to avoid sitting the playoffs out with an 11-win season. With the earlier game, New England must take care of business in Buffalo, then put on their Jaguar jerseys and hope for a Christmas miracle.

But the way the Ravens are playing of late, and being in a must-win situation to get the sixth seed, I think Matt Cassel gets an early offseason to start considering offers.

In the Dolphins-Jets game, last year's 13-3 Jets quarterback Chad Pennington goes head to head with the guy who replaced him, the 9-6 Pro Bowl-bound Brett Favre. Miami is on a four-game winning streak, while the Jets have dropped three of their last four, including a dismal performance against Seattle.

With Favre having one touchdown and four interceptions over his last six games, it's a pretty safe bet that the Fins will be gunning for him from the opening whistle.

Even the seeding is not certain. In the NFC, Carolina holds a one-game edge over surging Atlanta. Winners of three out of their last four, Atlanta is poised to take over the No. 2 seed if Carolina is unable to take care of the Saints in the Superdome.

With Drew Brees within earshot of Dan Marino's season yardage record, expect the Saints to pass early and often against the Panthers, who are giving up better than 200 yards/game through the air.

The saving grace for Carolina is that while the Saints have shown they can score, they also have trouble keeping the opponent out of the end zone as well. Carolina could capitalize on the Saints smaller and slower defensive line to run the ball well.

Atlanta has to get by the already eliminated and hapless Rams at home, and hope for a Saints victory. They're guaranteed a spot, but a week one bye would be icing on the cake.

Besides, no one expected the Falcons to amount to much this year; how sweet would it be for them to host a playoff game?

And then there's the Bears. Their end-of-the-game stand and overtime win puts them in position to lay claim to the battered NFC North. The biggest glitch in the plan is that Minnesota is facing the Giants; New York has already locked up it's division and the No. 1 seed, so they have the option of resting their starters for an extra week.

If Minnesota plays for the championship against the backups, it's a no-brainer to think that they win out over Chicago and keep the Bears out of the post season.

Tampa sits in the sixth seed at the moment, but Dallas is peeking around the corner. With the 'Boys having the late game, there is sure to be a lot of cheering for Oakland to somehow overcome the bumblings of its owner and pull out a win over the Bucs.

This is a must-win scenario for both Dallas and Tampa Bay; the difference is that Tampa needs the win and a Dallas loss to make it based on Dallas' victory in their head-to-head matchup earlier this year. All Dallas has to do is win and they're in.

Hey, what about Philadelphia, you ask?

Well, what about them? NFL games just don't end in a tie. Period. And they especially don't end in a tie when you play Cincinnati. If you can't find a way to win, even in overtime, against the Bungles, them you get to go home when the regular season ends, as far as I'm concerned.

Unfortunately, a scenario exists that puts the Eagles in the playoffs. If they are able to squeak out a victory over the Cowboys, and both Tampa AND Chicago lose their contests, Philly gets in.

With all four teams fighting for the last seat on the bus, those are the three biggest games to watch next week. Philly and Dallas square off at 4:15 p.m., while Tampa and Chicago get the ball rolling early against Oakland and Houston.

And don't forget the Minnesota game. The result of that game decides whether Chicago is even in the division mix.

No matter what happens, fans will be on the edge of their seats until the last tick of the clock.