The final week of the 2011 regular season is here and the league has really done it right when it comes to the schedule. The decision to make all 16 games divisional rematches has made 12 of the 16 games relevant to the playoff race.
No. 2 seed up for grabs
The Niners and Saints aren't playing each other this weekend, but they are playing for the same thing: the No. 2 seed, which brings a bye and at least one home game in the NFC playoffs. The Niners are an inexperienced playoff team that could really benefit from playing at home. San Francisco is 7-1 at home, giving up just a tick over 10 points per game. The Saints are also great at home and a bit less so on the road, averaging 41 points per game in the Superdome and 27 on the road. All San Francisco needs is a win over the 2-13 Rams to lock up No. 2. That would mean the Saints -- if they win a first-round playoff game at home -- would then have to play in San Francisco for the right to likely go to Green Bay for the NFC title game.
Playing for your coach
Following Week 17's Sunday games will be "Black Monday," and that means some coaches will get a pink slip. Veteran players on some teams are warning younger players that coaching changes mean roster changes and they better play hard. Can a win in the season's final game save a coach's job? That will be on the minds of players in San Diego, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Indianapolis as those teams go on the road. The Giants and Rams are at home and there are concerns for those head coaches as well.
There are already three openings in the NFL and some predict there will eventually be as many as eight, but I suspect there will be closer to five openings overall. As one GM said to me this week, "The replacement list isn't long and it will cause a few owners to retain their head coach for another year."
A dozen games count in the playoff picture
Twelve of the 16 games on the season's last day have playoff implications. With so many of the games being played at the same time on Sunday, coaches have to play to win with no idea of the outcome of other games.
At 1 p.m. ET, the 49ers have to beat the Rams to secure the No. 2 seed. The Saints have to beat the Panthers just in case the 49ers falter. The Lions head to Green Bay and want the No. 5 seed instead of No. 6. A Detroit loss would juice up the Tampa Bay-Atlanta game at 4:15 p.m., as it would put the Falcons in position to grab the No. 5 seed. Tennessee heads to Houston for a 1 p.m. game and needs to win and get help to make it in. The Jets are in the same position and will play to win down in Miami and pray for help in the Chiefs-Broncos and Chargers-Raiders games, which both start at 4:15 p.m. The two biggest games are Ravens-Bengals and Cowboys-Giants. The Ravens want to secure no worse than the No. 2 seed (but a loss and Steelers win could make Baltimore a No. 5 seed), while the Bengals want a wild-card spot. The final game of the year between the Cowboys and Giants with the division title on the line should be as exciting as the opening game of the year, when the Saints went toe-to-toe with the Packers.
How many 300-yard passing days this year?
The NFL record for most 300-yard passing games in a season was 104 set in 2009. It has already been broken in 2011, with 112 such games thus far. With another 16 games this weekend, I think we could see the record crest at 120. Keep an eye on Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer.
And the first pick belongs to ...
The Colts and Rams aren't playing each other this weekend, but they are playing for the same thing: The No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Don't buy the speculation that either team will try to lose, because NFL players know that game tape is their resume. Unfortunately for the Rams, they are up against it with all their injuries. As Steve Spagnuolo said to me this week, "When cornerback Justin King went on IR the other day, it completed the list of every cornerback that came to camp in August now on injured reserve." The Rams should lose to the 49ers, but it won't be for not trying.
As for the Colts, they are on a two-game winning streak and fighting to split with every division opponent this year. Indianapolis has already beaten Houston and Tennessee this season and a win over Jacksonville would serve notice to the AFC South that the Colts will be back. The Colts have been linked all season with the No. 1 pick -- causing speculation about what to do if Andrew Luck were to enter the NFL early -- but it's now a strong possibility that the Rams will have the first pick.
To play or not to play
Two years ago, the Patriots played Wes Welker in a regular-season finale and Welker's season came to an end with a torn ACL and MCL. Is it worth playing everyone when a playoff spot is locked up? That is always the question of the day in Week 17. I hear Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey are coming back this week, but I think the Steelers can beat the Browns without them and I would consider sitting them one more week. Suit them up and if things aren't going well, then consider playing them after halftime.
The Texans are trying to regain their early season momentum because they are struggling to score points since Matt Schaub was injured. Do they play Andre Johnson coming off a second hamstring injury this season? T.J. Yates needs to play better, but playing their star receiver with a third hamstring problem might not be worth it with a playoff spot already clinched.
Finally, it appears Packers left tackle Chad Clifton is ready to go. A veteran like him may want to break a sweat and get ready for the playoffs, but waiting might be the best idea. I will not be surprised if all of these guys play, but caution might be the best plan.