When I picked up my Sunday morning newspaper off the porch, I had to immediately flip to the NFL standings in the sports section. Yep, there it was; that beautiful little “x-” prefix to Detroit. I’d been waiting so long to see “x-Detroit” in those most important football stats of all.
The Lions are in the playoffs.
I indulged myself, allowing that single sentence to swirl around in my consciousness for awhile. Every day I allow that once esoteric concept to reverberate through my head as reassurance that dreams do come true.
The Lions are in the playoffs. OK, now what? Well, we can look at how the NFC playoff brackets will shape up, and take a look at the Week 17 games that will determine the final seedings for six NFC playoff teams who will vie for a shot at the Super Bowl XLVI grand prize, the Lombardi Trophy.
First, let’s dispense with some Week 17 games where the outcome is—more, or less—a foregone conclusion. I know, on any given Sunday, and all that tripe, but the cream should rise to the top in the following games:
Carolina (6-10) at New Orleans (12-3)
The Saints do have an outside shot at that No. 2 seed (and a first-round bye) with a victory on a short week, coupled with a loss by San Francisco in St. Louis. But that 26 percent chance doesn’t outweigh the need to rest some starters and get ready for a bigger wild-card game against Detroit or Atlanta.
San Francisco (12-3) at St. Louis (2-13)
The real question here is who has more to lose by playing their starters? The 49ers look to be the prohibitive favorites for the No. 2 seed and first-round bye.
The Rams have few starters healthy enough to play, and are still in contention for the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
San Francisco will clear the bench in the second half and still pull away from the woeful Rams.
Tampa Bay (4-11) at Atlanta (9-6)
I have absolutely no reason to believe that the Bucs will do anything other than rollover for their NFC South rival in a game that the Falcons need in order to back into the No. 5 seed if Detroit loses in Green Bay.
At the beginning of the season, this matchup looked extremely attractive. Now, it looks more like a preseason exhibition game.
Key Week 17 Matchup No. 1: Dallas (8-7) vs. New York (8-7)
The Dallas Cowboys travel to the Big Apple to take on the Giants in what amounts to a play-in game where the loser will be left to contemplate a head coaching change. The winner will claim the NFC East along with the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs.
That No. 4 seed looks pretty humble in the face of the competition that will be a road favorite in the Wild Card Game: Detroit or Atlanta.
Key Week 17 Matchup No. 2: Detroit (10-6) vs. Green Bay (14-1)
It was Peter King of Sports Illustrated who first took notice of this game as a key matchup prior to the start of the 2011 season.
King envisioned some interesting scenarios where the Packers would either be fighting for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, or the Lions would be fighting for a wild-card berth with a 9-6 record.
Well, King almost nailed it. The Packers locked up the home-field advantage in Week 16. Green Bay, who has suffered a late season plague of injuries, needs to tend to its health in the playoffs. Having that first-round bye will help.
Detroit, on the other hand, can lock up the No. 5 seed with their first victory in the state of Wisconsin in 500 years. Uh…OK, since 1991.
The Lions have been in playoff mode for some time and need to keep their foot on the gas pedal. A win at Green Bay will secure the No. 5 seed and a date with the winner of the NFC East—a much more favorable matchup than going to New Orleans, where the Saints haven‘t lost in 200 years…Uh, OK, in 2011.
Who will the Lions play in the wild card round?
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has already stated that the Packers starters will see some action against Detroit, and the Packers run defense will have to play better in the playoffs than it did against Chicago.
If the Lions run offense can further expose Green Bay’s run defense, QB Matt Stafford will go off big time as those safeties will have to cheat their way into the box area.
In a game where foul weather could be a factor, it will be interesting to see if both teams can achieve their goals: the Packers' health and the Lions' NFC playoff seeding.
I’m looking forward to another great weekend of NFL action, and can’t wait to fill out those NFC playoff brackets.