NFL Week 17 Preview: The NFC North Title Game Could Be Win-or-Go-Home
The last game of the 2016 NFL season could be an elimination game. Here’s a preview of what to expect in the final week of the NFL season:
Sunday, January 1
The Redskins Should Be an NFC Wild Card Team
Carolina at Tampa Bay | Raymond James Stadium, Tampa; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
N.Y. Giants at Washington | FedEx Field, Landover, Md.; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on Fox
The NFC playoff picture is nearly set, but it could be a real mess figuring out which team joins the Giants as the conference’s other wild card. Washington (8–6–1) can solve all the “if-then” football math problems if they simply beat New York (10–5) on Sunday. The game means nothing to the Giants, who are locked into the five seed. Yet, Eli Manning and other New York first-stringers reportedly will play. Regardless, the Redskins have more motivation; they’re in the playoffs with a win, provided the Green Bay-Detroit contest doesn’t end in a tie. Kirk Cousins needs to be in "You like that" mode.
The road to the playoffs is more difficult for Tampa Bay (8–7). The Buccaneers need to beat Carolina (6–9) and hope that the Redskins tie (!) and the Packers lose. Tampa will also have to beat the Panthers without much of a running game. Lead back Doug Martin was hit with a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. Bottom line: expect to see a lot of Buccaneers on the golf course next weekend.
The Patriots May Not Need Home-Field Advantage
New England at Miami | Hard Rock Stadium, Miami; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
New England (13–2) has looked downright super for weeks. The Patriots have won six consecutive games, and they seem to be peaking heading into the postseason. The Pats visit playoff-bound Miami (10–5) this week in a game between teams that would be delighted to simply avoid injuries. New England may start its A-team against the Dolphins. If they win, they’ll clinch home-field throughout the AFC playoffs.
Of course, the reality is that even if the Patriots lose and Oakland beats an apathetic Denver squad to clinch home-field advantage, there is little chance Tom Brady, Bill Belichick & Co. will have to travel to the West Coast. Not many pundits believe the Raiders can win an AFC semifinal without Derek Carr. The Pats should not want to find out if they can win without Brady or any other key personnel.
The AFC Playoff Picture Will Be Determined by Matt McGloin ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Oakland at Denver | Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Kansas City at San Diego | Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Though other teams have been hotter recently, Oakland (12–3) was a potential Super Bowl contender with Derek Carr at quarterback. The broken leg Carr suffered last week against the Colts means reserve Matt McGloin will have to lead the Raiders' high-powered offense. A competent but unspectacular backup, McGloin has thrown four passes this year and figures to shift the offense into a run-first, ball-control mode. He’ll do well to avoid turnovers.
Before he can win a playoff game, McGloin will have to stay upright against Denver (8–7). The Broncos lead the AFC in sacks with 40, and Von Miller and the defense would love to stick it to their rivals, especially since the defending Super Bowl champs aren’t headed to the postseason this year. Oakland will clinch the AFC West title with a win or a Chiefs loss. They can clinch home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs with a win and a Patriots loss.
Save for a hiccup against the Titans two weeks ago, Kansas City (11–4) has played some of the best football in the NFL over the past eight weeks. The Chiefs will travel to San Diego (5–10) for what could be the Chargers last game in the Southern California city. After losing to the Browns last week, a humiliating defeat allowing the Chiefs to clinch the AFC West title may seem like a step-up. Kansas City wins the division with a victory and a Raiders loss.
The Browns or 49ers Will Soon Be On the NFL Draft Clock
Cleveland at Pittsburgh | Heinz Field, Pittsburgh; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Seattle at San Francisco | Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Come Monday, fans of the 20 teams that didn’t make the postseason this year will start focusing on next spring’s NFL draft. Browns and 49ers fans are way ahead of them. One of those teams will get the top draft pick in 2017. Sunday’s games will decide which.
Cleveland (1–14) won its first game last week and avoided joining the 2008 Lions as 0–16 teams. Though they’ve seemingly used everyone but Brian Sipe at quarterback, Hue Jackson’s Browns have been more competitive this season than their horrifying record suggests. If Cleveland wants an idea of how good they’ll have to be to avoid talking draft instead of playoffs in Week 17, they should check out Pittsburgh (10–5). The Steelers have won six consecutive games and stand with the Patriots and Chiefs as the teams most likely to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. If Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown avoid injury, this game is a win for Pittsburgh.
San Francisco (2–14) is truly terrible. Other than two surprising wins over the punchless Rams, the 49ers have been dreadful this season, ranking last in total defense and 29th in total offense. Even worse, running back Carlos Hyde suffered a torn MCL in his knee in last week’s meaningless win. San Francisco coach Chip Kelly can’t feel good about next Monday morning. Seattle (9–5–1) has something to play for this week, too: if the Seahawks win and the Falcons lose, they’ll clinch a first-round bye.
The NFC North Title Game Could Be Dramatic
Green Bay at Detroit | Ford Field, Detroit; 8:30 p.m. (ET) on NBC
After a midseason swoon, Green Bay (9–6) has rebounded with a five-game winning streak. The Packers can prove they are once again the class of the NFC North by beating Detroit (9–6) on Sunday night. But wait, there’s more: if the Redskins lose to the Giants earlier in the day, both the Packers and the Lions make the playoffs and this game will decide which team plays at home as division champ in the wild-card round next weekend. If Washington wins, however, this becomes an elimination game. DRAMA ALERT! Loser stays home.
It’s easy to envision Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers carving up the Detroit defense the same way the Cowboys did on Monday night. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford could turn this into a shootout, but he looked off his game in Dallas. This contest, the last of the 2016 regular season, could come down to turnovers, something Rodgers rarely seems to commit in big games.
Sunday, January 1
Baltimore at Cincinnati | Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Houston at Tennessee | Nissan Stadium, Nashville ; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Jacksonville at Indianapolis | Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Chicago at Minnesota | U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Buffalo at N.Y. Jets | MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.; 1 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Dallas at Philadelphia | Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia; 1 p.m. (ET) on Fox
New Orleans at Atlanta | Georgia Dome, Atlanta; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on Fox
Arizona at Los Angeles | Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles; 4:25 p.m. (ET) on Fox