The following article will be published on Christmas Day, at the outset of Week 17 in the 2018 season.
It was destined to come down to a week like this in the loaded NFC. Three playoff spots are still available, with seven teams angling to snap them up. In an NFL designed to create parity, the uneven distribution of power between conferences this season has sparked a conversation about changing the NFL's seeding procedures -- a consideration that will be explored in earnest by NFL owners beginning in March. In the precarious present, teams with Super Bowl aspirations and double-digit wins like the Vikings and Eagles could be on the outside looking in when the tournament starts next week.
Below is an overview of where things stand in both conferences entering Week 17. The drama-resistant AFC goes second, with a straightforward final week wrapping up a season where the conference was clearly a supporting actor.
Will the road to Atlanta go through Atlanta?
Three NFC teams have already punched their playoff tickets: Atlanta, Los Angeles and Green Bay. The Falcons have the most at stake this Sunday, although all three teams will be compelled to play their starters with both byes still up for grabs. If Atlanta wins on the road against the surging Bucs, the Falcons will sew up the No. 1 seed and bolster Matt Ryan's dark-horse MVP chances. (And with that, a shockingly strong Hall of Fame resume.) But the Falcons could drop all the way to the No. 5 seed with the Saints lurking just behind them. Atlanta is 0-2 against New Orleans and 12-1 against the rest of the NFL, a fact that Saints Twitter has handled with typical class and restraint.
The Falcons can still get the last laugh in the dirty NFC South. They are just one road win away from a playoff schedule where they don't leave home. The Saints don't control their fate in the division and the team's 11 wins haven't yet clinched a playoff spot. A season mired in mediocrity by the Panthers and their deflated defense could still end on a high note if they can knock the Saints out of the playoffs entirely with a Week 17 win.
While the Rams and Packers both know they will host a home game to start the playoffs, Green Bay needs help to get a playoff bye. It's safe to assume Rams coach Sean McVay won't sit his starters again in the season finale against the 49ers, like he did a year ago. Rams wideout Robert Woods needs 72 yards to join teammates Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks with more than 1,000, which would make them only the sixth trio ever to crack quadruple-digits together. (And the first since the 2008 Cardinals.)
Green Bay faces the dispirited Lions, who were eliminated last week after their second straight loss. While Aaron Rodgers needs help to get a bye, it would take an uncharacteristic meltdown for him to lose his grip on a third MVP award. A top-10 Green Bay defense led by Mike Pettine's band of marauding young cornerbacks will make the Packers a brutal playoff opponent no matter where they play.
The NFC race for the rest
There are so many insane scenarios and permutations facing the rest of the NFC, so I'll try to simplify what we absolutely know in a list:
2) The Eagles, Saints and Seahawks have the clearest paths to the playoffs with win-and-in scenarios. NBC executives had to be thrilled when they realized Sunday night's Eagles-Redskins game would have playoff implications regardless of what happens earlier in the day. After a rocky initial return to the field, Carson Wentz has done a strong impression of 2017 Carson Wentz over the last month -- and is one win away from his first home playoff game.
3) The Cowboys can still win the NFC East with a victory against Kyle Lauletta's Giantsand a loss by the Eagles. There's also a delicious scenario -- based on what happens earlier in the day -- that the Redskins could be playing for a win-and-in wild-card scenario. Alex Smith will need a lot of results to go his way for a triumphant ride to the playoffs in Washington.
4) That would be a bitter pill in a season full of them for Minnesota. 9-6 doesn't sound so bad until it only leaves you eighth in a conference many believed the Vikings would win. They need a win against the gestating Bears and help with losses by the wild-card hopefuls in front of them -- starting with Seattle.
5)Seahawks coach Pete Carroll hasn't hosed down those retirement rumors, leaving open the chance that he goes out with a Coach of the Year nod. Few expected him to win with his remodeled crew so quickly and even fewer expected Brian Schottenheimer to make the Seahawks' offense efficient again. A win over the lackluster Cardinals would set the 12s aflame, although it's worth noting that Arizona rookie quarterback Josh Rosen has shown the ability to get hot enough in a given week to score on anyone. (Or barely move the ball. That's the life of a hotshot rookie quarterback playing behind a lackluster line.)
6) The final team in the mix for the final playoff spot is perhaps the most surprising. The high-flying Bucs have won four of five games, with an 8-4 overall record since Jameis Winston's return from suspension. The tiebreakers are mostly unkind for Tampa, and the Week 17 opponent (Atlanta) remains daunting, but the Buccaneers have been counted out plenty of times before this season.
That gets you up to date on the NFC. The AFC cleared up in the last few weeks, when the haves and the have nots started to separate ...
The Chargers are chilling
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn isn't the type to call off the dogs. Lynn announced immediately after the Chargers' 12th victory that his team would play to win in Week 17 despite clinching home-field advantage in thrilling fashion versus the Ravens. That previous sentence is extremely strange to write, and so is the next one. Los Angeles is the center of the professional football world, with Philip Rivers playing the role of LeBron in Cowboy boots.
The Patriots don't have a chance for the top seed because they lose the conference-record tiebreaker to the Chargers, but Bill Belichick's much-improved defense still has plenty to play for. A win against a feisty Jets squad would clinch New England's ninth straight top-two finish in the AFC, extending perhaps the most ridiculous streak from a franchise that has specialized in ridiculous streaks this century. The game is no gimme, with Gang Green's strong secondary doing its best to save Todd Bowles' job.
Only the Ravens could prevent the Patriots from hosting a game on Divisional Round weekend. The Ravens didn't exactly back into the division title last week, despite their loss in L.A. Coordinator Don Martindale's defense has been greater than the sum of its parts all season, and the unit's dominant Week 16 performance against the Chargers should only bolster the team's confidence it can win anywhere in the playoffs.
Maybe the AFC isn't so bad if it can field three teams that would hardly be massive underdogs in the Super Bowl. The lesser conference was undone, instead, by a wide, soft underbelly of disappointing teams stuck between four and six wins, including Oakland, Houston and Denver. Perhaps the most disappointing team has one final shot to get lucky ...
Three AFC teams, one spot
The Titans and the Jaguars have nothing to play for this week, as Tennessee clinched the division and Jacksonville secured a wild-card spot a week ago. The Jags could theoretically fall to the six seed, but avoiding the Titans again might not be such a bad thing, considering the current state of the rivalry.
That leaves three teams -- Cincinnati, Kansas City and Pittsburgh -- battling over one final playoff spot. Whispers about Mike Tomlin's job status have started up after the team's lifeless defensive performance in New Orleans last week, with ownership quick to voice support for the embattled head coach. A win over the Bengals this week would re-establish Cincinnati's little-brother status and perhaps make Marvin Lewis' head explode. But a Steelers victory won't necessarily mean they are dancing.
For middling teams like the Dolphins, the end of the season can't come soon enough. For sunken teams like the Bills and Colts, the season has felt over for a while. And for the feel-good Browns, an eighth win would feel halfway to heaven after what Hue Jackson's crew suffered through a year ago. Don't tell Baker Mayfield that a game needs a playoff spot on the line to mean something.
While there are some clunkers on the schedule this week, there are just 26 games left before Super Bowl LIII. Savor them all.