It all comes down to this. This week’s NFL schedule features 16 games but only six have any bearing on the playoff picture. With their flexible scheduling, the league placed most of these games in a time slot guaranteed to encourage channel-flipping between games – the 4:15 time slot has four huge games that impact the playoff picture, not to mention Sunday’s capper. But we’ll begin with tonight’s flirtation with history.
New England (15-0) at New York Giants (10-5), 8:15 p.m. (NBC, CBS, NFL Network)
The game’s already making history because it will be simulcast on three networks. Most likely it will be the highest-rated regular season game in NFL history. As far as playoff position, neither team can improve its standing with a win so the importance factor comes in with the Patriots’ bid for perfection.
Moving to Sunday’s early game…
New Orleans (7-8) at Chicago (6-9), 1 p.m. (FOX locally)
Like dominoes, the NFC wild card contenders play in sequence. New Orleans plays the Bears in a 2006 NFC Championship rematch – unfortunately the bloom is off the rose for this one as neither team is likely to claim a playoff spot. The Saints also lose one key weapon in the contest as running back Reggie Bush is out. For the Saints to sneak in as an 8-8 wild card, they need to beat Chicago and hope both Washington and Minnesota lose later games. Then they’ll win the tiebreaker based on a 7-5 conference record (vs. 6-6 for both the Redskins and Vikings.)
Next in sequence the 4:15 NFC game we won’t see…
Minnesota (8-7) at Denver (6-9), 4:15 p.m. (FOX)
After losing to Washington last Sunday night, the Vikings were kicked out of the playoff driver’s seat and now face a team who also looked bad in primetime this past week. But a win over Jay Cutler and company at least gives the Vikings a glimmer of hope by eliminating New Orleans. Minnesota does need a hand in the other key late NFC game though…
Dallas (13-2) at Washington (8-7), 4:15 p.m. (FOX locally)
From all indications the Redskins get a break because Dallas will rely heavily on its reserves to get them through this game. Since the Cowboys have some banged-up players (including Terrell Owens and Tony Romo) they’ll take advantage of the extra week off and lack of travel they’ll get as the highest seed to rest key personnel. On the other hand, the Redskins know the score and they’ll go all-out to win this one over their hated arch-rival. A win by Washington and they’ll earn a trip to Seattle to begin the playoffs regardless of what Minnesota does at Denver (because of their recent Sunday night win in the Metrodome over the Vikings.)
Now turning to the AFC…
Pittsburgh (10-5) at Baltimore (4-11), 4:15 p.m. (CBS locally)
I seem to recall these two teams met about this time last season and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers spent a lot of the game on his back. I’m not sure the Ravens’ defense will make that same statement this time around as the tables are turned and Pittsburgh is heading into the playoffs while the Ravens stagger toward season’s end. If the Steelers win as expected, they still need a equally bad Oakland team to knock off San Diego to secure the #3 seed and avoid a rematch with Jacksonville in the first round.
San Diego (10-5) at Oakland (4-11), 4:15 p.m. (CBS)
After the 49-11 tattooing Oakland received in Jacksonville last week, expect to see the Chargers’ starters run up a nice first half lead and sit most of the second half. A win by San Diego means they get either Tennessee or Cleveland in their house to open their playoff run as the #3 seed and they avoid playing New England until the AFC title game. They would have a 9-3 conference record against Pittsburgh’s 8-4 mark to win the tiebreaker.
Lastly, we have what’s in essence the first playoff game…
Tennessee (9-6) at Indianapolis (13-2), 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
This is do-or-die for Tennessee. A scheduling quirk by the NFL means that, even though Tennessee and Cleveland have identical records going into Week 17, Cleveland’s game with San Francisco is meaningless to the playoff picture while the Titans have everything at stake. If they win, they gain the playoff berth by being better against common opponents than Cleveland was (Tennessee finished 4-1 against Houston, Cincinnati, Oakland, and the New York Jets while Cleveland was 3-2 against those four teams.) If the Titans lose, Cleveland takes the tiebreaker based on conference record (7-5 vs. Tennessee’s 6-6.) Like Washington, Tennessee gets some advantage in playing against the Colts’ reserves as Indianapolis is locked into their playoff position. So Browns fans need to hope Peyton Manning has a big quarter or so before turning the game over to backup Jim Sorgi.
Just for fun, here’s my prediction of the matchups we’ll see on the first weekend of the New Year as the playoffs begin.
#6 Tennessee (10-6) at #3 San Diego (11-5), #5 Jacksonville (12-4) at #4 Pittsburgh (11-5)
#6 Washington (9-7) at #3 Seattle (11-5), #5 New York Giants (11-5) at #4 Tampa Bay (10-6)
You can guess what the key prediction for the weekend is if you read the projected playoff matchups closely.