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Regular-season finales promise to be unpredictable

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Week 17 is the strangest weekend of the NFL season. Let's take a look at all the factors that make this weekend unpredictable.

This year, there are 17 teams eliminated from the playoff hunt, but at least five of them feature young quarterbacks looking to gain valuable experience. How many of the eliminated teams have already packed up the U-Haul and have the offseason on their minds? The Dolphins know Bill Parcells is watching and I would be very surprised if they don't play a tough game. But there are other teams that appear to have lost the will to win (or don't want to spend the offseason rehabbing a major injury in a meaningless game).

Rick Stewart / Getty Images
Willie Parker should be the poster boy for coaches who have clinched playoff seeding and are thinking about starting their regulars this weekend.

Five teams are in must-win situations with playoff hopes still alive. Because of the varied starting times, some will not know their fate at kickoff. As one of the five coaches told me this morning, "We have to play like we are in if we win, and that means all hands on deck."

Vikings coach Brad Childress said his injured players were taking treatment all day on Christmas Day just trying to get ready. Cleveland and New Orleans both have games at 1 p.m. ET, so they still won't know their fate even when their games end. Minnesota plays at the same time as Washington, so there might be scoreboard-watching there. And Tennessee plays the Colts at night. No one will be eliminated before those two teams take the field.

Last year, the Rams were eliminated when the Giants beat Washington in the Saturday night game; this year, the Saturday night game will not affect any playoff hopefuls.

The four teams that earned the right to a bye in the first round -- New England, Indianapolis, Dallas and Green Bay -- have little to play for and just need to get through this weekend healthy ... unless you factor in the Patriots' quest for an undefeated season.

The injuries to Willie Parker in Pittsburgh and Terrell Owens in Dallas will ring loud and clear in the minds of the head coaches of the top playoff teams. As one head coach said to me, "Every playoff-bound coach has already thought about what an injury like (the ones to) Parker and Owens would do to their team and will be quick to pull starters this weekend no matter what they say publicly."

Then you have players chasing personal goals -- how much does a team let that factor into playing time?

LaDainian Tomlinson appears to be the 2007 rushing champion, but Brian Westbrook and Adrian Peterson are in close pursuit. Westbrook plays at 1 p.m. ET and needs 128 yards to take the lead. What if he gets 148 yards like he did against the Dolphins earlier this season, and he takes the lead before San Diego takes the field against the Raiders?

Is getting Tomlinson the title worth the risk, especially when the Chargers' playoff record has been the problem in years past?

Let's say Westbrook doesn't take the lead but the Vikings, in a must-win situation, feed the ball to Peterson at the same time the Chargers are playing, and the scoreboard keeps indicating Peterson is on a tear like the game he had earlier in the year against San Diego, when he rushed for an NFL-record 296 yards?

Peterson only needs 114 yards to pass Tomlinson. Should the Chargers keep LT in the game if AP is rolling?

With the sack title on the line, how much playing time will be given to Seattle's Patrick Kerney's, the Giants' Osi Umenyiora, DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis of the Cowboys, or Green Bay's Aaron Kampman? Do they have big incentives tied to the sack title? What good would the title be if any of these guys aren't "full go" for the playoffs?

Week 17 of last season had all kinds of suspense. The Giants, Jets and Chiefs all clinched wild-card spots. The Broncos, Bengals and Jaguars were all eliminated from playoff contention in the finale, while the Bears and Saints shut down their starters and lost meaningless games to the Packers and Panthers, respectively. Teams out of the playoff race like San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Detroit all came into Week 17 last year with a winning attitude and finished the season on a high note.

This year has a chance for all the same elements. San Francisco, Denver and Chicago can play the spoiler. The Colts and Cowboys both have nothing to play for but do control the fate of the leading wild-card hopefuls, Tennessee and Washington.

Something strange is likely to happen this weekend, just like it did last year when the Chiefs entered the weekend with an 8-7 record and needed to beat Jacksonville to eliminate the Jags and keep their hopes alive. They also needed the Broncos, Titans and Bengals to lose -- which all three did as the day came to an end.

Sounds a bit like what the Saints need to happen this year. Get ready for a day of the unexpected!

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