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NFL Week 17 Preview — Packers & Vikings Battle for NFC North Title

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings
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Just two playoff spots remain open as the 2015 NFL regular season concludes this Sunday. Here’s a preview of this week’s games:

Sunday, January 3

The Jets Playoff Chances Hinge on Rex Ryan (Again)
Houston Texans v Buffalo Bills
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N.Y. Jets at Buffalo | Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Pittsburgh at Cleveland | FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS

Just like when he was on the Jets’ sideline for the past six seasons, Rex Ryan will once again help determine whether New York (10-5) makes the playoffs. Coaching the final game of his disappointing first season for Buffalo (7-8), Ryan will certainly motivate his underachieving team to play the Jets at least as tough as they did in a 22-17 Bills win on Nov. 12. Expect lots of blitzes, some trickery and plenty of bluster from the sideline.

New York’s stingy defense and the competent play of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick have delivered the Jets a surprisingly good season. Both will need to play well to close out the Bills on the road and clinch the AFC’s final wild card spot. Or…

The Steelers will make the playoff field with a win over hapless Cleveland (3-12) and a Jets loss. If Pittsburgh (9-6) somehow loses to the Browns, New York gets an AFC playoff berth even if Rex beats his old team again. It’s hard to imagine Ben Roethlisberger and Co. suffering another letdown like last Sunday’s debacle in Baltimore.

The Colts Need a Miracle to Win the AFC South Title; the Texans Don’t
Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts
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Jacksonville at Houston | NRG Stadium, Houston; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Tennessee at Indianapolis | Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS

The Colts are only one game behind the Texans in the AFC South, but it’s a much bigger chasm when the NFL playoff scenario machine does its calculations. To make the playoffs, Indianapolis (7-8) needs to beat Tennessee (3-12) and have the following teams win: Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Denver and Miami. And the Raiders and Steelers have to win or tie.

Oh, and the Jaguars have to beat the Texans. In short, Indy needs a lot of Luck (and they won’t have him either).

Houston (8-7) simply needs to beat Jacksonville (5-10) or wait for one of the many teams listed above to win (or lose). The 2015 Texans are thisclose to serving as a lasting inspiration to bad NFL teams. After a 2-5 start, they’ve won six of eight games — and kept winning after the absolutely terrible Brandon Weeden arrived to play quarterback. If Houston wins the AFC South, the press should not only give Bill O’Brien the Coach of the Year trophy, but they should also name the award after him for this effort. (Unless they lose, and the Colts get their miracle. Then he’ll probably get canned.)

Home Sweet Home-Field
Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers
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New England at Miami | Sun Life Stadium, Miami; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
San Diego at Denver | Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Tampa Bay at Carolina | Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Seattle at Arizona | U of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on Fox

The Patriots and Panthers have been the best teams in their respective conferences all season. However, neither New England (12-3) nor Carolina (14-1) have clinched home-field advantage through the playoffs yet. Both teams have very winnable games against Miami (5-10) and Tampa Bay (6-9) respectively, but will players like Tom Brady and Cam Newton play — and risk injury? If they don’t, the teams risk having to travel to Denver and Arizona respectively, for the championship games. The coaches can hope to get a big lead and rest their stars, but the Dolphins and Bucs will be looking to spoil their hopes.

The Broncos and Cardinals have also looked like Super Bowl contenders this season. Denver (11-4) will already know the result of the Patriots game when they take the field against San Diego (4-11). However, the Broncos may still need to win to hold off Kansas City in the AFC West and stay ahead of Cincinnati as the No. 2 seed. Arizona (13-2) will have to watch the scoreboard and figure out how to beat Seattle (9-6), who looked to be peaking until last week’s dreadful loss to the Rams.

The Chiefs Are the AFC’s Hottest Team
Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens
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Oakland at Kansas City | Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on CBS

Riding a franchise record-tying nine game win streak, Kansas City (10-5) has gone from a team with a top five NFL Draft slot to the hottest team in the AFC. Only the Cardinals, who have also won nine straight games, can match the Chiefs amazing run. If quarterback Alex Smith can manage the team through one more win while the Broncos lose to the Chargers, KC will host a playoff game.

Oakland (7-8) has other ideas, namely finishing with a non-losing record for just the third time in the last 13 years. Raider offensive stars Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Latavius Murray will test the Chiefs eighth-ranked defense. Carr threw three interceptions in a 34-20 loss to KC on Dec. 6.

Title Game on the ‘Tundra’
Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings
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Minnesota at Green Bay | Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisc.; 8:30 p.m. (ET) on NBC

The NFL’s marquee match-up for the last week of the 2015 regular season happens on its most hallowed ground: Lambeau Field. Green Bay (10-5) must knock off upstart Minnesota (10-5) to guarantee itself a home playoff game during wild card weekend — perhaps against the very same Vikings, depending on what Seattle does in its game against Arizona on Sunday.

The Packers defense was stout in a 30-13 win over Minnesota on Nov. 22, holding Adrian Peterson to just 45 yards. More importantly, Green Bay’s offense didn’t commit any turnovers and Eddie Lacy ran for 100 yards to help take the load off the arm of Aaron Rodgers. They’ll need a similar effort against the ever-improving Vikings.

Other Games

Sunday, January 3
Baltimore at Cincinnati | Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
New Orleans at Atlanta | Georgia Dome, Atlanta; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Washington at Dallas | AT&T Stadium, Arlington; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants | MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Detroit at Chicago | Soldier Field, Chicago; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
St. Louis at San Francisco | Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on Fox

NFL Standings
NFL Playoff Scenarios

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