Less than half the games on the Week 17 schedule have playoff implications. We'll look at some of the key matchups in the pivotal games, but first we'll tackle that other game that some people will be paying attention to -- New England's quest for the perfect season as it looks to go 16-0 when it faces the giants on Saturday night.
Word is that a large number of Giants fans are putting their tickets up for sale, figuring that a) the Giants might not play many of their starters seeing as they are locked into the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs and want to get some players healthy; and b) Patriots fans will pony up to see their team cap off the undefeated season. That could make this more of a New England home game - which might work out well for the Giants, who are 7-1 on the road this season.
Here are the key matchups for this week:
Patriots OT Matt Light vs. Giants DE Osi Umenyiora
It's No. 72 against No. 72 - a matchup that will be reprised in the Pro Bowl, as both players will be there. Even with a rejuvenated passing game the last two weeks, New England has passed the ball 56 percent of the time this season -- 544 passes to 425 runs -- and allowed 19 sacks. Umenyioya has 13 sacks in 15 games. As a team, the Giants have 52 sacks for 339 yards. New England is the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL and the Giants are 11th in passing yards allowed, but it's hard to throw deep in the Meadowlands in December because of the wind. Of the Patriots' 63 touchdowns, 48 have been passes. This matchup pits the speed of Umenyiora against the sound technique of Light. It should be a very good battle to watch, with the winner having a great deal to do with deciding the final score.
Patriots WR Randy Moss vs. Giants CB Aaron Ross
Moss has 92 receptions for 1,393 yards and 21 TDs this season. Ross is a rookie who has started half the season and has three interceptions. Like everybody that has played the Patriots, the Giants will double-team Moss on most plays -- but Ross, who is good in man coverage, will most likely be on Moss for much of the game. Moss, whose height and speed make him such a tough matchup for anyone, needs one TD catch to tie Jerry Rice's single-season NFL record. Tom Brady, meanwhile, needs one TD pass to tie Peyton Manning's single-season record, so expect the Patriots to attempt to give Moss and Brady a chance to break those records. They won't do so at the expense of a victory, though.
Cowboys DE DeMarcus Ware vs. Redskins OT Chris Samuels
Ware leads the Cowboys with 13 sacks, while Samuels is the Redskins' best lineman. Both players will represent their teams in the Pro Bowl. On Dec. 2, Washington was 5-7 facing back-to-back road games against the Giants and Vikings, with a backup quarterback starting for the first time in 10 years. Todd Collins has completed 60 percent of his passes with four TDs since then -- and most importantly, Washington is 3-0 since then.
The 'Skins will be the final NFC playoff team if they can win this game. To be successful, they need to block Ware, who has great first-step quickness off the edge. Samuels is strong and very athletic, and he does not make many mistakes.
Titans DE Kyle Vanden Bosch vs. Colts LT Tony Ugoh
Tennessee needs to win to earn the final playoff spot in the AFC, and one of the keys to their success will be this matchup of a seventh-year vet against a rookie. Vanden Bosch, who was voted to the Pro Bowl, leads the Titans with 12 sacks. Indications from Indianapolis are that Peyton Manning likely will not play more than two series in this game; no matter who is at quarterback for the Colts, they need to pass the ball to beat Tennessee, which allows just 95 rushing yards per game and has given up 11 rushing TDs in 15 games (most when DT Albert Haynesworth was out). Vanden Bosch never stops attacking. The Colts allowed 21 sacks this season -- high for them -- but many of those came when Ugoh was injured. He has been outstanding at left tackle -- he has very good feet and long arms. Going against Vanden Bosch is a good test for him. Even though Dungy will rest most of his starters, I would keep Ugoh in there the entire game to get him good experience for the playoffs.
Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Bears LB Brian Urlacher
Of the three NFC teams with a chance for the final playoff spot, New Orleans is the long shot. The Saints play the early game -- they have to win and then hope both Minnesota and Washington both lose.
Brees has 408 completions for the year -- he needs 11 more to break the NFL single-season record set in 2002 by Rich Gannon. Knowing Brees, he doesn't care about the individual records; he cares about getting back to the payoffs. Urlacher, who was not selected to Pro Bowl, will do everything possible to help the Bears win and play spoiler. He has been outstanding in his last two games.
Vikings RB Adrian Peterson vs. Broncos LB D.J. Williams
Minnesota fans become Cowboys fans on Sunday -- to make the playoffs, the Vikings need to win in Denver and then hope the Cowboys beat Washington. To beat Denver, the Vikings need to run the ball. Despite being slowed a bit the last two weeks, Peterson has 1,305 yards for the season. Williams is playing middle linebacker for the first time in his NFL career and has to be the player who stops Peterson when he runs to the left, which he does about 70 percent of the time. Peterson needs a big game for the Vikings to win; it's doubtful that QB Tarvaris Jackson can do much against the good Denver cornerbacks.
Seahawks DE Patrick Kerney vs. Falcons QB Chris Redman
Kerney can win the NFL sack title -- he leads the NFL with 14.5 sacks, and there are six players within two sacks of Kerney heading into the final week of the season. Redman, who attempted 42 passes last week for over 300 yards, is Altanta's offensive hope. The big question here is how long Kerney will play. Seattle is locked into the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs, so it will be important to keep Kerney rested.