Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 17, beginning with what promises to be a relatively smooth conclusion to the 2014 season and continuing below with seven more things to watch.
After an unusually turbulent season off the field, the NFL appears to be in for a relatively placid final day of the regular season -- and even a not-quite-as-dark-as-usual Black Monday.
In the AFC, six of Sunday's eight games affect the playoffs, but three divisions have already been claimed and only one playoff spot remains available after the Bengals beat the Broncos on Monday night. And it can be grabbed simply: If the Chargers beat the Chiefs, they claim a wild-card berth. The lack of drama shouldn't be a surprise. The AFC has been marked this season by a wide gulf between the haves and have-nots -- this is the conference that has a 12-win team and an 11-win team, but also a two-win team and three three-win teams through Week 16. That disparity allowed the contenders to quickly separate themselves from the field and seize their playoff spots early. New England and Indianapolis have both essentially wrapped up their playoff seeding -- the Patriots are guaranteed the top spot while the Colts will likely own the fourth (they could move to No. 3 if they beat the Titans and Cincinnati-Pittsburgh ends in a tie) -- begging the question of whether Tom Brady and Andrew Luck should even play.
In the NFC, only one spot remains open, and it will be claimed by the winner of the Carolina-Atlanta game, which will crown the sub-.500 champion of the NFC South. Beyond that, Sunday's games are about seeding and hosting. It's nothing to sneeze at, considering two of the potential venues are Seattle and Green Bay, (and New England and Pittsburgh in the AFC), which offer their tenants a significant home-field advantage -- but it's also nothing like the hair-pulling drama of last season.
Entering the final week of that campaign, 18 teams still had a chance to win the Super Bowl -- they had either already wrapped up postseason berths or were still in the running. This year, two fewer teams are still alive.
Last year, no NFC division had been secured -- that was the first time since 2000 an entire conference had no division winners locked in entering the final day of games -- and the health and availability of two of the league's best players were being assessed into the final hours before kickoff of their play-in games. This year, both Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers are healthy (relatively) and their teams are safely into the postseason. Their races, then, are for seeding.
Winning the division remains important to teams. It is why owners are reluctant to approve reseeding for the playoffs, because they view hosting a playoff game as a suitable reward for accomplishing the first goal of every season: to win the division. It explains why, after his team secured a playoff spot Sunday afternoon, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin yelled to his team as they came off the field:
"Let's go get us the division."
The reality, though, is that in recent years, top seeding, or even winning the division, hasn't been as critical to postseason success as might be expected. Since 2005, six Super Bowl champions did not have a first-round bye -- meaning that in six of the last nine seasons, the eventual champion had to play on the first weekend of the playoffs. And three of those six were wild-card teams, so they had to go on the road to do it. Just two of the last 20 Super Bowls featured the teams that held the top seed in each conference.
The final day of the season provides a portrait of the NFL in its starkest emotional terms: the jubilation of the 12 teams that move on to the postseason, the disappointment of the 20 that don't, and the dread for the handful of teams that will begin extreme makeovers by firing their coaches or general managers.
There have been at least seven new head coaches in each of the last four seasons. While divorce appears imminent in several high-profile places -- the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Chicago Bears and New York Jets all seem poised to make big moves -- this could be a comparatively bloodless Black Monday, in part because the high amount of turnover in previous years has produced a crop of relative newbies in the head coach's seat. Just eight coaches -- 25 percent of the league -- have been with their teams for seven years or more. And 2015 is not expected to get anywhere near the high watermark of 11 new coaches in 2009.
Finally, the NFL could have a smooth landing after a very bumpy ride.
*But before it ends, here are seven things to watch in this weekend's most crucial games. *
1) The only game that features two teams playing for one playoff spot is for the championship of the woeful NFC South. The Falcons won their first meeting with the Panthers this season, although Carolina had the lead in the fourth after scoring two touchdowns in that quarter against Atlanta's defense, which ranked 31st at the time. The Falcons are 5-0 against the NFC South and 1-9 against the rest of the NFL. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has thrown 10 interceptions in his career against Atlanta, twice as many as he has against any other team in his career (he has thrown five against the Saints). But Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has 21 career touchdown passes against Carolina, the most he has thrown against any team.
2) The Lions can win their first division title in 21 years and secure a first-round bye if they beat the Packers, something they haven't done in Wisconsin since 1991.Aaron Rodgers has not thrown an interception at home this season, and he's won 75 percent (18 of 24) of his career starts when the temperature is 40 degrees or below. Matthew Stafford has gone 1-4 in such games -- and the temperature at Lambeau Field on Sunday is expected to be in the 20s. The Lions will be without suspended starting center Dominic Raiola, but the Packers have faced three top-five ranked defenses this season (the Lions are second), and they lost to all three.
3) Can the Steelers shut down another premier running back?Last week, Pittsburgh stopped Chiefs ball carrier Jamaal Charles. This week, the team faces Cincinnati rookie Jeremy Hill, who had an 85-yard touchdown run against the Broncos on Monday. The Steelers trounced the Bengalsin Week 14 in Cincinnati, with the Bengals yielding 543 total yards, but Andy Dalton passed for more than 300 yards in that game. The winner of this game is the AFC North champion, while the loser will get a wild-card berth.
4) Are the Bolts playoff-bound? The Chargers get the final AFC playoff spot if they beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. San Diego has won four of its last six games. With the Chargers' running game struggling, the performance of Philip Rivers -- who is 15-2 on the road in December -- will be key. The Chiefs will certainly have their work cut out for them now that Alex Smith has been ruled out due to a lacerated spleen. With Smith sidelined, Kansas City will likely return to leaning on Jamaal Charles, who has had fewer than 15 rushes in four straight games. But the Chargers, whose run defense is ranked 26th, allowed the 49ers to pile up 355 rushing yards last week. The Chiefs need a win and some help to get the final wild-card spot.
5) The Ravens need plenty of assistance to return to the playoffs -- but first, Joe Flacco has to play a lot better.Last week against the Texans, Flacco was 3-of-18 passing with two interceptions in the first half. Cleveland's defense leads the league in interceptions, but its offense has ground to a halt and -- with Johnny Manziel out and Brian Hoyer dealing with a shoulder injury -- will be led by undrafted rookie Connor Shaw at quarterback. Look for the Ravens to feed the ball to running back Justin Forsett, who has a career high in yards this season but has rushed for fewer than 75 yards in three straight games. The Browns' defense ranks last in the league in run defense.
6) Can the Cardinals' offense gain some momentum heading into the playoffs? Arizona's last 66 drives have resulted in just two touchdowns, and their running game is averaging a league-low 3.25 yards per rush. They have scored fewer than 20 points in six straight games. Arizona will start Ryan Lindleyagainst the 49ers. If the Cardinals win and the Seahawks lose, the Cardinals win the NFC West. Otherwise, the Cardinals are a wild-card team. Regardless, Arizona might have to forge on with Lindley at the reins, as the injured Drew Stanton -- whom Bruce Arians had hoped would be ready for the postseason -- might now be lost for the year with an infection that necessitated arthroscopic surgery.
7) The most overwhelming home-field advantage in the NFL is on the line when the Seahawks host the Rams. If the Seahawks win and the Detroit-Green Bay game does not end in a tie, Seattle has home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The 'Hawks have won five in a row, and in that span, their defense has allowed an average of 6.6 points per game.