Marcus Mariota among seven people who matter most in Week 17

It feels like just yesterday we were drenched in the summer months. Gleaning gems from low-octane preseason tilts and angling to read the tea leaves about the autumn campaign ahead.

Suddenly, we're days away from the end of the regular season.

The NFL's final slate of games comes packed with meaning for the 12 teams who will move on to the season's annual playoff fiesta. For those shotgunned from contention, the work never ends, as coaching moves, front-office transitions and offseason plans come into focus.

From that angle, Week 17 is just the beginning -- and here's this week's list of who matters most:

1) Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers

He's on a five-win team far removed from the sound of furious playoff tabulations, but forget all that. Garoppolo is a top-five story this season and already looks like a top-five player under center. Watching him send the Jaguars into fits of in-house bickering and utter chaos last Sunday was a treat -- Garoppolo logged more pristine throws in the second half of that game alone than some quarterbacks have made all season. With Tom Brady's former backup at the helm, I give San Francisco a legitimate shot to beat the Ramson Sunday. Moreover, had Jimmy G been a starter since September, the Niners would be a playoff team today with one of the brightest futures of any squad league-wide. Plenty of credit goes to Kyle Shanahan, a treasure of a coach and one of the game's finest play callers. With the second-most cap space in the NFL and the quarterback question answered after general manager John Lynch pulled off the trade of the century, this Niners squad is the team nobody wants to play. Bright days flush with magic rest ahead for San Francisco.

2) Alex Collins, running back, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens simply need to knock off the Bengals to etch out a playoff spot in the AFC. Not a tall order on paper, but Cincinnati is likely playing its last game under longtime coach Marvin Lewis. Baltimore is superior in almost every fashion, but these AFC North tilts are unpredictable fares. If I'm the Ravens, I stick to a familiar script, hammering away at Cincy on the ground. Baltimore is 8-0 when running the ball 27-plus times -- and 1-6 otherwise. Collins has cooled off significantly over the past two weeks, but his tackle-breaking, hard-charging gallops are critical for the Ravens to operate as a genuine factor in the AFC. No better time to get right than Sunday, with the season on the line.

3) Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Carolina Panthers

They don't lead the league in style points, but the Panthers find a way to get it done. At 11-4, they can take the NFC South with a win over Atlanta combined with a Saints loss to the Bucs. They can even clinch a first-round bye if a rash of results go their way. First things first: Carolina must take care of business against the defending NFC champions in Atlanta on Sunday. The Falcons are an up-and-down squad in 2017, but they can play with anyone when Devonta Freeman takes over. His 200-plus yards of total offense against the Bucs in Week 15 served as a reminder that the versatile, powerful back can make up for a passing game that has fallen off since losing Shanahan to the Niners. Look for the Falcons -- desperately fighting for a playoff spot -- to dump the playbook come Sunday. After allowing 20-plus points in five of their last six games, Kuechly and the Panthers' defense better be ready for ultra-trickery and plenty of touches by Freeman. The most exciting division in football is coming right down to the end.

4) Todd Bowles, head coach, New York Jets

It's a desperate long-shot with milquetoast Bryce Petty under center on the road to close the campaign, but how's this for an exclamation point to this unexpected Jets season: Gang Green marches into Foxborough on Sunday and pulls off the impossible? A win over the Patriots would body rock the AFC playoff picture, leaving New England at 12-4 and presumably staring up at the 13-3 Steelers, who are all but guaranteed to beat Cleveland barring an angry alien contingent from the Pleiades System zapping the city of Pittsburgh into oblivion. Bowles hasn't been perfect, but the third-year coach walked into the season with a roster most had pegged for one win -- maybe two -- if everything went right. The tank job was a myth. Instead, these Jets have a chance (OK, a dangerously remote chance) to play above their heads one last time while hitting the Patriots where it counts.

5) Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Tennessee Titans

The Titans are endlessly picked on for falling short against better competition. It's a fair complaint, with Tennessee mired in a three-game skid following losses to the Cardinals, Niners and Rams. When the Titans faced a true AFC power, Pittsburgh in Week 11, they were scattered, 40-17. The coaching on offense is questionable and Marcus Mariota lacks for weapons. He's suffered through a frustrating campaign, but Tennessee's young quarterback can erase the bad vibes and author a playoff berth with one final win against Jacksonville's rough-and-tumble defense. This isn't a fun club to watch -- teams lacking any semblance of identity rarely are -- but it's not Mariota's job to care what we think. Win Sunday and all the dark moments become a memory.

6) Pat Shurmur, offensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings

Shurmur deserves credit for taking a long look in the mirror after flaming out as coach of the Browns in 2012. Instead of clinging to creature comforts, he ventured to Philadelphia, immersed himself in Chip Kelly's playbook and helped Nick Foles to a stellar 2013 season along the way. Now embedded with the Vikings, Shurmur has worked wonders with Case Keenum and successfully overcome the loss of star rookie runner Dalvin Cook. Minnesota's offense is thrilling to watch and often unpredictable, but also one of the league's most consistent attacks. The Vikes don't drift to sleep, which serves as a credit to their experienced coordinator. With a win over Chicago, Minnesota would nab the No. 2 seed and loom as a rational pick to become the first team in NFL lore to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Shurmur, meanwhile, remains a deserving candidate for Assistant Coach of the Year with an outside shot at a head-coaching gig. Quite a comeback story.

7) John Dorsey, newly minted general manager, Cleveland Browns

Despite claims from ownership that coach Hue Jackson will return for a third season, reality is begging for a place at the table: The lost-in-a-maze Browns are spiraling toward the franchise's lowest moment. A loss at Pittsburgh -- a near certainty -- leaves Cleveland at 0-16, an inglorious, horrid reality in a league where even the ugliest teams eke out a handful of wins. Dorsey was hired to overhaul a front office that failed to find a quarterback, yet left him with a massive draft haul. It's ridiculous to throw Sashi Brown under the bus alone for this disaster. Also ridiculous: Asking Dorsey to tie his fate to the coach he inherited, the man with a 1-30 record over two seasons. I'm not here to pile on Jackson, but Dorsey is about to oversee the most important offseason in team history. Unless he holds some sort of supernatural faith in Hue, Dorsey should begin this march out of hell with someone he can work with through thick and thin. Someone of his choosing. Any other route will put Cleveland right back in the mess.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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