Cowboys-Redskins, Vikings-Packers headline Week 17 schedule

They have each played 15 games, and none of that matters. The heart-breaking losses, the stirring comeback wins, the ones where they rolled over adversity like it was a mere speed bump -- all those contests are in the past and staying there.

For the Dallas Cowboys, hurdles came off the field, playing a day after the death of a teammate. And they came on the field, sparring while missing six starters on defense and tasked with overcoming countless deficits. The Washington Redskins, meanwhile, turned to a rookie backup quarterback to secure two monster wins. Kirk Cousins responded like a steely veteran in late-game rescue duty against the Baltimore Ravens and a complete-game win over the Cleveland Browns.

And yet, it's all in the rear-view mirror. There is one more game, and the chance to carry on is at stake. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett wasn't lying when, asked about games in the past, he responded, "We are a very forward-looking operation around here." At this point, it doesn't matter.

Cowboys vs. Redskins on Sunday night. One of the NFL's fiercest rivalries. On a national stage. And all that's hanging in the balance is the NFC East crown and a coveted playoff spot.

The chance is there, and for the Cowboys, winning is the only way to get in the playoffs. The Redskins can lose and have help, but earning a victory eliminates doubt. In this topsy-turvy conference, of course it came down to one like we will see on Sunday.

"You live for games like this," Garrett said.

Here is your Week 17 primer, with games ranked in order of intrigue, from 1 to 16:


Why this game is No. 1:

As a pure fan of football, it would be difficult to ask for anything more of the last game in the 2012 regular season. This one has everything. Emotions high on both sides in a historic rivalry. Win-or-go-home stakes for the Cowboys, though the Redskins can still squeak into the playoffs with a loss if certain things happen. And dynamic players who will no doubt find the brightest stage with the game on the line. For Washington, that means Robert Griffin III, who will attack a beleaguered Cowboys defense at less than 100 percent, thanks to his knee injury. Will that be enough? If he can replicate the performance last month in Dallas that left owner Jerry Jones in awe, it will be. For the Cowboys, receiver Dez Bryant and quarterback Tony Romo have been on a serious tear as a tandem, taking their flawed team to the brink of the playoffs. Do they have one more in them? Drama awaits. #DALvsWAS *

Why this game is No. 2:

Few players have received as much ink for personal accolades as Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. On the heels of an anterior cruciate ligament tear, with 1,898 yards and 11 touchdowns in 15 games, it's all warranted. His comeback has been amazing. Yet, the way he's willing his team to the doorstep of the postseason should be lauded even more. With an inconsistent quarterback, a young defense and a banged-up group of receivers, Minnesota can still win and make the playoffs. The Vikings have defied the odds all season during what should have been a rebuilding year. All that's left is to beat the Packers at home and make it official. Not so easy, though. There are few teams as hot as the Packers, and they can clinch a first-round bye with a win, so no one will be resting. If Minnesota is going to make the playoffs, the Vikings will have to earn it. #GBvsMIN *

Why this game is No. 3:

The offensively challenged Bears will need to rely on their still-nasty defense to take down the NFL's No. 2 passing offense in the Lions. And if they do, they keep open their chance of earning a playoff berth ... but only if the Vikings lose. The Bears snapped a three-game losing skid last week against the Cardinals, but their performance was uneven. Coach Lovie Smith is also on the hot seat following an inconsistent season, and a playoff spot might answer questions about his future. Either way, it will all be decided against one of the league's most disappointing teams. Yet, the Lions still have talent, including receiver Calvin Johnson. If Chicago's corners can corral him, their task will be far easier. #CHIvsDET *

Why this game is No. 4:

For most of the season, it's looked like this game would not matter. The Texans would roll into the final week prepared to rest players, while the Colts would eventually cool off and take their rightful postseason spot as spectators. Neither of those things happened. Houston went down in Week 16, and now the Texans need a victory to clinch a playoff bye and home-field advantage throughout. Perhaps more importantly, they need to find their mojo after being blown out in two of their past three games. On the other sideline is the stuff of Disney movies. With his cancer treatment finished, the Colts' Chuck Pagano will be back coaching. The playoff watch is nice. But when Pagano is introduced at Lucas Oil Stadium, no one will be thinking about football. Everyone will be reaching for a Kleenex. #HOUvsIND *

Why this game is No. 5:

As far as playoff seeding goes, this doesn't mean much. The Bengals are locked into the No. 6 spot, though their opponent is still up in the air. What they'd like to do is simply finish off a late-season sweep of their rivals, something coach Marvin Lewis recently pointed to as a goal after being asked when people will talk about the Bengals in the same breath as the Steelers and Ravens. Cincy handled one part by topping Pittsburgh last week. The Ravens might be next. It won't be easy, as Baltimore destroyed the Giants last week in a furious bounce-back game, reestablishing itself as a viable playoff contender. Quarterback Joe Flacco might have found his groove again, but is his defense tough enough? If the Ravens can stop Cincinnati from running the ball, we should have our answer. #BALvsCIN *

Why this game is No. 6:

What the 49ers hope is that this game is badly over-valued. That I've totally blown it. Because if this is a competitive, intense game, that likely means San Francisco will go limping into the playoffs. If the Niners have a tough time with the Cardinals, it might mean the cracks in their foundation are real. At home, in their final regular-season tune-up, with Arizona reeling, the 49ers should roll. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick should thrive, and the Niners' D should bounce back, whether or not Justin Smith plays. Oh, and if they want the NFC West crown and a crack at a first-round bye, a nice, easy victory is preferred. #ARIvsSF *

Why this game is No. 7:

The playoff ramifications are slight. The Giants have barely a prayer, and the Eagles, well, they have other things on their mind. But Michael Vick is back. And that fact is enough to make this otherwise meaningless game fairly fascinating. The electric quarterback will step in for injured Nick Foles and play what might well be his final game as an Eagle. Vick says he doesn't see it as an audition for 31 other teams, but assume everyone will be watching, just the same. A motivated Vick against a downtrodden Giants defense could play out in so many ways. It's a total wild card, which makes it one to watch. #PHIvsNYG *

Why this game is No. 8:

Which one of these ideas is more surprising: That the Seahawks and their rookie quarterback still have a chance at the NFC West title, or that the Rams are 7-7-1 and have no chance at the postseason? I'll take Seattle, but just by a hair. Thanks to Russell Wilson, a Skittles-eating running back and a beastly defense, the Seahawks have unloaded on the rest of the league in epic proportion. Over their past three games, they've scored 150 points -- averaging a 50-burger. If the Seahawks keep it rolling against a feisty St. Louis defense that is not lacking in physicality, Seattle might be tops on the list of teams you wouldn't want to play come the postseason. As for St. Louis, all they have to play for is a winning season, their first since 2003. That's enough. #STLvsSEA *


Why this game is No. 9:

A first-round bye is still possible for the Patriots, and a week off wouldn't be a bad thing for anyone. The Patriots have two goals with the regular season still ongoing -- 1) Find out what happened to cause them to nearly stumble against Jacksonville; 2) Get tight end Rob Gronkowski healthy again. If they accomplish both, whether they have a bye or not, they'll be in position to make another run at the Lombardi Trophy. The Dolphins are merely the vehicle to get there. #MIAvsNE *

Why this game is No. 10:

Two teams with lost seasons playing out their final games in meaningless fashion. Not even Tim Tebow can save this one, though the drama surrounding what is almost certainly his last outing with the Jets could. In reality, after so much hype from both during the offseason, it's slightly lame that they'll play this one with so little at stake. But, then again, there are a lot of reasons this finale leaves us wanting. So, they'll play, someone will win, and then Buffalo and Gang Green will face an offseason of serious reflection. Big decisions loom. #NYJvsBUF *

Why this game is No. 11:

There's nothing more for the Falcons to accomplish in this regular season. Home-field advantage is nice. Beating up some solid teams, like the Giants, on the way was nicer. So, with nothing to gain, don't be shocked if Atlanta rests some starters. For the Bucs, losers of five straight at the end of a season that began with so much promise under coach Greg Schiano, a victory might be meaningful heading into the offseason. #TBvsATL *

Why this game is No. 12:

This is another one with nothing at stake (catching the trend as we move toward the end of this list?). But the actual on-field product figures to be action-packed. Cam Newton and Drew Brees will come out firing, and there might be an aerial assault like we rarely get to see. The red-hot Saints will be trying to finish off a disappointing season on the right foot before heading into the offseason to try to retain their coach, Sean Payton. As for the Panthers, coach Ron Rivera's seat gets cooler and cooler, thanks in part to Cam Newton's re-emergence and three straight wins. Can they make it four? #CARvsNO *


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