The Once-Over: Week 17
The Early Games
Atlanta (8-7) at Tampa Bay (3-12): Here's something you may not know about the Atlanta Falcons: they have never had back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. If the Falcons win on Sunday in Tampa, they'll finish the season 9-7 and finish off this horrid streak that dates back to 1966.
I'm uncertain about which of the following story lines Buccaneers fans are following more intensely this weekend. Is it the further development -- or lack thereof -- of Josh Freeman, the whispers of Bill Cowher's name as a head coaching replacement for Raheem Morris, or 2010 NFL Draft thoughts about Tennessee's Eric Berry?
San Francisco (7-8) at St. Louis (1-14): Vernon Davis is tied with Larry Fitzgerald with 12 touchdown receptions, one behind Randy Moss. If Davis is able to overtake Moss, he'll be the first tight end in NFL history to lead the league in touchdown receptions.
The Rams need a win on Sunday to stop a 12-game losing streak and avoid their worst season ever as a franchise. To have even a chance at a win, Steven Jackson has to be able to play. Jackson is dealing with a herniated disc and hasn't practiced all week. He'll be a game-time decision.
Pick: San Francisco
New York Giants (8-7) at Minnesota (11-4): Giants head coach Tom Coughlin spent time this week apologizing to fans for the Giants' lackluster play and the fact they'll come up short in their playoff run. The apologies likely meant as much to the fans as this game will to the Giants. With injuries on both sides of the ball, the only thing to look forward to on Sunday is evaluating young talent in hope for a better 2010 season.
The rough end to Minnesota's season can be pinned, in part, on two portions of the Vikings' play. Adrian Peterson hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game in six weeks, and the defensive pass rush that turned out sacks at an alarming rate to start the season has only registered four sacks in the last four weeks. Both areas will need improvement if the Vikings will make a long playoff run.
Pittsburgh (8-7) at Miami (7-8): A win is only one piece to the puzzle that needs to be assembled for Pittsburgh to make the playoffs this season. It's a good thing Ben Roethlisberger will be throwing into a young secondary and against a pass defense that ranks 23rd in the league.
If Pittsburgh's playoff puzzle was difficult to assemble, Miami's is next to impossible to figure. There is a small chance that the Dolphins can do it; they'll just need Chad Henne to come up in a big, big way on Sunday -- especially if Ricky Williams' shoulder is too banged up for him to play.
New England (10-5) at Houston (8-7): Tom Brady wants to play and Bill Belichick says he's going to let the starters go. I just don't figure that the big guns will be out on the field for New England for very long.
Houston's incredible passing attack has a good chance of wreaking havoc on a Patriots defense that can surrender points to top-notch passers. But it'll be the defense -- in particular, the Texans' pass rush, that determines how long Brady will be in. If Houston can get some big hits on Brady, he'll be on the bench quickly.
Chicago (6-9) at Detroit (2-13): If Jay Cutler finishes the season with two lights-out performances, do you think he'll be heralded this offseason as he was prior to 2009? Cutler tore up Minnesota's secondary and should do even better against the Lions. All these touchdown passes he'll throw in the final two weeks might make everyone forget he leads the league in interceptions, too.
Did you know that there is still a way for Detroit to finish with the league's worst record and grab the top pick in the 2010 draft? Yes, it's been that bad again in Detroit.
Jacksonville (7-8) at Cleveland (4-11): Jacksonville didn't fare well in New England last week, getting thrashed 35-7. They'll travel to another cold-weather spot on Sunday, but won't have to face the same caliber of team. Cleveland's run defense ranks 28th in the league, which is good news to the ears of Maurice Jones-Drew.
Prior to December, the only feature Jerome Harrison had in common with Jones-Drew was the fact that he was a short, (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) stocky runner. Since Harrison has scored four rushing touchdowns in December and averaged 5.3 yards per carry, he's looking more and more like the skilled back in Jacksonville.
New Orleans (13-2) at Carolina (7-8): Streaky is a perfect adjective for this New Orleans team. They won their first 13 games and have since lost two in a row. Looking at this final week during mid-season, it looked like a minor speed bump for a Saints team that should roll into the playoffs. Now, it's almost a must-win to regain some lost momentum.
Carolina looked incredible last week in New York, and quite frankly, they've looked good since Matt Moore took over as quarterback. The real talent lies in the backfield as Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams might be the finest running-back tandem in the NFL. The Panthers could very well extend the Saints' losing streak.
Indianapolis (14-1) at Buffalo (5-10): We've spoken ad nauseam about the Colts' decision to pull their starters in Week 16 against the Jets, ending their perfect season. Is there anyone who thinks the starters will be out there in the Buffalo freezing temperatures any longer than a series or two?
Buffalo can't stop the run, and with their depleted secondary, can't defend against a passing attack, either. You might think it's fortunate that the Colts won't be using their starters much, and it is. This way, Buffalo only loses by a tiny margin instead of being blown out.
The Late Games
Tennessee (7-8) at Seattle (5-10): Chris Johnson needs 128 yards to reach 2,000 rushing yards on the season. He also needs 75 yards to reach Marshall Faulk's NFL record of 2,429 yards from scrimmage. The Seahawks have vowed to stop him, but I've seen Johnson run this season -- he can't be stopped.
The Titans lost out on the playoffs last week, and seemingly have nothing but personal goals to play for. The Seahawks have been out of it for a long time, and instead of personal goals, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck may be playing for a job next season.
Washington (4-11) at San Diego (12-3): Take a good look at Jim Zorn on the Washington sideline -- it will likely be the last time he steps foot out there. After the season wraps, the Redskins' new brass will retool the team, starting from the top down. Zorn isn't the reason the Redskins failed in 2009, but he'll take most of the blame.
While Norv Turner isn't going anywhere, Phillip Rivers surely is. He's only going to be on the field for a half -- not enough time to overtake Peyton Manning in the MVP hunt, even though Rivers would like to try. Chargers fans, let me introduce you to Billy Volek.
Pick: San Diego
Baltimore (8-7) at Oakland (5-10): Ray Rice must be salivating right about now. Not only is Oakland the 29th-ranked run defense in the league, but they've allowed 21 rushing touchdowns -- the worst showing in the NFL. Nnamdi Asomugha should slow down Joe Flacco a bit, but Flacco's thrown seven touchdowns and only one interception over his last three games. Rice's success will open up the passing game for Flacco to have some fun, too.
Oakland stands in the way of Baltimore making the playoffs. The Raiders will try and play spoiler, but it will be tough as the Raiders don't have a leg up in any facet of the game. At least their kicker, Sebastian Janikowski, is just as good as Billy Cundiff.
Kansas City (3-12) at Denver (8-7): The best news Kansas City has received all week came from the Denver front office when it announced that Brandon Marshall will be benched. With only three wins, there isn't anything the Chiefs can do on the field on Sunday to make things better in 2010. It's going to be a long and busy offseason.
Not only will the Broncos be without Marshall, but Eddie Royal will also miss Week 17. Knowshon Moreno should see lots of work on Sunday, which is good since he needs 103 yards to reach 1,000 rushing yards on the season.
Green Bay (10-5) at Arizona (10-5): The playoff picture may change slightly, but both of these teams are in, no matter what the outcome on Sunday. Green bay may keep it vanilla this week as there is a chance the Packers will meet these same Cardinals in the first week of the playoffs.
The Cardinals will be looking for some offensive rhythm heading into the playoffs, but most importantly they'll be scoreboard watching. If the Vikings wins, watch the Cardinals pull their starters as they have nothing left to play for. If Minnesota loses and Dallas beats the Eagles, Arizona could come away with a first-round bye.
Philadelphia (11-4) at Dallas (10-5): One of the main areas the Eagles can do serious damage to the Cowboys is in their passing attack. It's not likely that Dallas can stop DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and tight end Brent Celek. And now that Brian Westbrook looks to be back, the passing game could open up further.
Fortunately for Dallas, the Philadelphia passing game is the only matchup where the Eagles dominate. Felix Jones is really starting to shine in the rushing game and Dallas has rushed for over 100 yards as a team in three consecutive weeks. This makes Tony Romo's job much easier, and he's already proven there is no longer a December monkey on his back.
Sunday Night Football
Cincinnati (10-5) at New York Jets (8-7): Cincinnati has wrapped up the AFC North, but no one knows if the Bengals will rest starters on Sunday night or play all out to try and build momentum heading into the playoffs. If Chad Ochocinco gets his way, he'll be out on the field trying to back up a whole lot of talking.
The Jets don't really know how to prepare for the Bengals, and this is the second week in a row they've dealt with this now-familiar scenario. Will they get another gift of benching starters, like Indianapolis gave them last week? About the only certainty is Cincinnati will run the ball on Sunday, and that's something the the Jets are pretty good at defending.
Pick: New York Jets