AFC has its 6 playoff teams; who will fill out NFC bracket?
Bad form for the AFC, which has all six of its playoff qualifiers determined heading into the final Sunday of the schedule.
While there are still some things to be decided there (seeding, matchups), the drama is center stage in the NFC. The sharpest spotlights will be in the nation’s capital in the afternoon, then in the Motor City at night.
If the Redskins beat the Giants, then the loser between the Packers and Lions won’t get into the postseason.
If New York prevails, both Green Bay and Detroit are in — same thing if they tie regardless of what the Redskins do — and will be playing for who earns the NFC North title and who becomes a wild card.
“Obviously, the last game of the regular season you can look at it for what it is, it’s a big game,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell says. “But nothing changes between those white lines, you’re still going to have to be effective.
“Still going to play the same and not adding different rules to the game because of the magnitude of the game or anything of that nature. You’ve still got to play and we’ve got to play well.”
Ditto for Green Bay (9-5), which has played very well in winning five straight to tie Detroit for the division lead.
“It’s just an extra playoff game to play, and those are the best,” says Packers receiver Jordy Nelson, who has had a spectacular return season after missing 2015 with an injured knee.
“The atmosphere will be incredible. The energy of the game, the speed of the game, everything will be full tilt. These are the games that you enjoy, you want to play in. You want to experience these and these are the ones you’ll remember.”
Tampa Bay remains on the fringes, but needs a ridiculous combination that includes a win against Carolina, a Giants-Redskins tie and a strength of victory tiebreaker over the Packers, who must lose.
New York Giants (10-5) at Washington (8-6-1)
Owning a wild card, the Giants could relax, except that their offense, other than Odell Beckham Jr., has been in a funk. So look for them to play hard and with the starters against up-and-down Washington.
Big and potentially inflammatory matchup between Beckham and Redskins cornerback Josh Norman could determine this one. So could New York finding a way to slow Washington’s second-ranked passing offense.
“We understand what’s at stake, we’re all professionals,” Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins says. “We want to be a mature football team and we know to do that we’ve just got to focus and take care of our business and let the chips fall where they may.”
New Orleans (7-8) at Atlanta (10-5)
The Falcons’ reward for a victory is a bye in the wild-card round. They could earn it with Detroit and Seattle losses, and with some ties involved.
This could be a shootout; Atlanta won 45-32 in September, the Falcons lead the NFL in scoring and are second in total yards. The Saints lead in yards and rank second in scoring. Saints RB Mark Ingram (940) and Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (983) can reach 1,000 yards rushing.
Carolina (6-9) at Tampa Bay (8-7)
Regardless of what happens Sunday, the Buccaneers have had a nice turnaround under new coach Dirk Koetter. Jameis Winston is 112 yards shy of throwing for 4,000 yards in consecutive seasons. He has 27 TD passes, tied for a club single-season record, but he also has thrown an NFC-leading 17 interceptions.
It has been the wrong kind of turnaround for 2015 NFC champion Carolina. But with 1,051 yards receiving, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is the first at the position in league history with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
New England (13-2) at Miami (10-5)
Both are in the playoffs, with the Patriots needing a win or an Oakland loss to get AFC home-field advantage yet again. But they have lost three straight at Miami.
Both also have gotten huge contributions from running backs. LeGarrette Blount could have a big game against the Dolphins’ shaky run defense; he already leads the NFL with 17 TDs rushing and has 1,110 yards rushing. The Dolphins have given up 5,726 yards and could break the franchise record of 6,050 set in 1986.
But they also have highly productive Jay Ajayi, who last week became the fourth NFL player to have three 200-yard rushing games in a season. Ajayi is averaging 7.1 yards per carry after third quarter, best in league.
Oakland (12-3) at Denver (8-7)
An Oakland victory over the spiraling defending Super Bowl champs gives the Raiders the AFC West. A loss opens a chance for Kansas City, which would drop the Raiders to the fifth seed.
With Derek Carr (broken leg) sidelined, Matt McGloin steps in at QB. McGloin’s last start came in 2013 as a rookie.
Denver’s defense has stagnated, leading to its slump despite another strong defense. LB Von Miller is second in the league with 13 1-2 sacks.
Kansas City (11-4) at San Diego (5-10)
Already in the playoffs, the Chiefs must take care of the Chargers in what could be the last NFL game at Qualcomm Stadium. Then Kansas City needs a Broncos win. The Chiefs lead the NFL with 31 takeaways and San Diego has 33 turnovers.
Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos is threatening to relocate to Los Angeles and has until Jan. 15 to decide to join the Rams as a tenant in a new stadium being built in Inglewood.
Houston (9-6) at Tennessee (8-7)
What could have been a faceoff for the AFC South fizzled when the Titans saw quarterback Marcus Mariota break his leg in last week’s upset loss to Jacksonville.
Houston, the site of the Super Bowl, won three in a row to take the division. Its defense is ranked No. 1 in yardage allowed, which it probably needs with the inconsistent offense. That’s now in the hands of QB Tom Savage after expensive free agent Brock Osweiler was benched.
Dallas (13-2) at Philadelphia (6-9)
Of note in this one as the top-seeded Cowboys head toward a bye, QB Dak Prescott’s 13 wins are tied for most by a rookie in NFL history set by Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. Fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads the NFL with 1,631 yards rushing and is third with 15 TDs on the ground. He needs 178 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s rookie record (1,808).
Eagles kicker Caleb Sturgis (33 for 38) needs one field goal to set a single-season team record.
Seattle (9-5-1) at San Francisco (2-13)
In losing three of the past five, the Seahawks might have blown a first-round playoff bye. The NFC West winners must win and have Atlanta lose for the easiest way to grab that week off.
The Seahawks have won six straight in the series, including the 2013 NFC title game. San Francisco, which snapped a 13-game slide last week, can only dream of title games right now.
Cleveland (1-14) at Pittsburgh (10-5)
Pittsburgh clinched the AFC North with a win over Baltimore last week. Settled in as the No. 3 seed, the Steelers will rest Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
They still might have too much for Cleveland, though the Browns are hot: They avoided a winless season by holding off San Diego last weekend.
Baltimore (8-7) at Cincinnati (5-9-1)
Personal achievements are all the Ravens have left. Justin Tucker needs one more 50-yard field goal to move ahead of Blair Walsh for an NFL seasonal record with 11. Tucker has 37 FGs overall, one shy of his club record, and needs three to become the third kicker in NFL history with 40. Mike Wallace (984 yards, 68 catches) needs 16 yards for a third career 1,000-yard season. Entering what could be his finale, WR Steve Smith has 51 games with at least 100 yards, tied with Andre Johnson and Terrell Owens for fourth in NFL history.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton needs 314 yards passing to top his club season record of 4,293 in 2013.
Jacksonville (3-12) at Indianapolis (7-8)
Can interim coach Doug Marrone finish 2-0? He led the Jags to a win over Tennessee in his first game replacing the fired Gus Bradley. Jacksonville has lost nine of its past 10 road games, but seeks three straight wins over the Colts.
Colts RB Frank Gore, 33, needs 36 yards to become Indy’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007 and the oldest NFL player to achieve it since 35-year-old John Riggins in 1984. Gore would join Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith (11), Curtis Martin (10), Walter Payton (10) and Barry Sanders (10) as the only NFL players with nine or more 1,000-yard seasons.
Chicago (3-12) at Minnesota (7-8)
The Vikings began 5-0 and look where they are now. But Sam Bradford leads the league with a 71.3 percent completion rate, which would be an all-time NFL record. Unheralded WR Adam Thielen has 960 yards receiving, seeking to become first Vikings player with 1,000 yards through the air since Sidney Rice in 2009.
This will be the worst finish by the Bears since 2002, when they went 4-12.
Arizona (6-8-1) at Los Angeles (4-11)
Few teams were more disappointing this season than Arizona, an NFC championship game loser last January.
Cardinals QB Carson Palmer returns to LA Coliseum, where he won Heisman Trophy for Southern California.
The Rams have lost six straight and 10 of 11 in their homecoming season. They are 1-5 at the Coliseum, losing five straight.
Buffalo (7-8) at New York Jets (4-11)
With the Rex Ryan revenge factor gone because he was fired on Tuesday, not much to recommend in this one. Jets coach Todd Bowles, the guy who succeeded Ryan in 2015 and went 10-6, could be on the hot seat because his team has seemed to lack effort in several recent losses.
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