This time last season, we weren't really running down playoff scenarios. We were still ripping the Colts for their forsaking a run at a perfect season in order to rest players for the playoffs -- and, at the same time, opening the door for the Jets to back into the postseason. Most of the playoff script was written anyway, with the Saints, Vikings, Colts, Chargers and Bengals all set.
With one week left in the 2010 regular season -- one in which mediocrity was more the norm and unexpected teams like Kansas City, St. Louis and Tampa Bay threw themselves into playoff contention -- uncertainty abounds.
We know who five of the AFC playoff teams are and Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago have locked up spots in the NFC; but seeding, wild cards and home-field advantage are as unclear as the roads in New Jersey after Mother Nature's weekend snow purge. The Rams and Seahawks also have a do-or-die meeting to see if the NFC West's representative in the postseason will be .500 -- or worse.
In reaction to reaction over the Colts' season-ending kneel down, the NFL decided to pit divisional rivals against one another in Week 17 for the foreseeable future to make the close of the regular season as meaningful as possible. The rationale was that more would be on the line and key players would have to compete. The theory has proven true as the only team really talking about resting players at this point is the Jets, who will go into the playoffs as a wild card.
Having longstanding rivalry games also adds intrigue. The Raiders are out of it, but beating the AFC West champion Chiefs would get them to .500 and possibly damage Kansas City's playoff seeding, although playing host to the Jets, Ravens or Steelers in the wild-card round won't be a reward, regardless. The Browns and Bengals could dictate who wins the AFC North. NFC East floor mats Washington and Dallas could damage hated Philadelphia's or the equally despised Giants' playoff hopes.
Let's take a look at some other key matchups:
St. Louis (7-8) at Seattle (6-9)
This is the only head-to-head matchup where a division winner will be determined. The victor takes the woeful NFC West and will host a heavily favored wild-card foe the following weekend. Seattle has lost three straight and four of five but the Rams are shaky on the road. St. Louis beat Seattle earlier this season, but the Seahawks have the edge in a tie-breaker. Rams rookie QB Sam Bradford will finally get a national platform on Sunday night to seal the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Tampa Bay's Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount will play early in the day in a game with playoff implications to threaten him for the hardware, but this honor is all but Bradford's.
Chicago (11-4) at Green Bay (9-6)
While the Bears have clinched the NFC North and could rest players, they won't unless the Eagles lose to Minnesota on Tuesday night. Chicago could get the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. The Packers, meanwhile, are playing for their playoff existence. They win and they're in. There's double-edged intrigue here. The Bears and Packers are longtime rivals who aren't going to concede a thing. Also, if Green Bay wins, there is a chance the Packers would travel to Soldier Field the following week in the wild-card round. These teams are very different now than they were when Chicago defeated Green Bay, 20-17, earlier this season. The Bears are much better and the Packers are playing very inspired.
Tennessee (6-9) at Indianapolis (9-6)
The Colts defeat the already-packed-up-for-the-offseason Titans and they win the once-respectable AFC South. They lose and frankly, they don't deserve to get the division title; but they could if Jacksonville falls at Houston. The Titans have nothing to play for except to be a spoiler and they showed how into that role they were when they traveled to Kansas City this weekend and got hammered. Indy could be playing host to Baltimore, Pittsburgh or the Jets in the wild-card round if they win the division. This could be Jeff Fisher's last game coaching Tennessee.
Jacksonville (8-7) at Houston (5-10)
The Jaguars have to win and have Indianapolis lose to get into the playoffs. They have not performed like a team that wants to be in the postseason and that has put coach Jack Del Rio back on the warm seat. Meanwhile, Texans coach Gary Kubiak appears to be a goner after this season of regression. The Texans don't have nearly as many excuses as other teams do for their failures. Beating Jacksonville could be some consolation, but really? Really?
New York Giants (9-6) at Washington (6-9)
The Giants ceded the division to the Eagles by getting waxed at Green Bay. They also ceded assurance of a playoff spot. With the way they finished against Philadelphia and had it negatively carry over against the Packers, this is a very dangerous game for them. Washington is still playing hard despite being out of the playoffs and coach Mike Shanahan is out to prove that his questioned methods have a purpose. Knocking off the Giants would be a positive way to cap his tumultuous first season. A Washington victory could also cost Giants coach Tom Coughlin his job.
Tampa Bay (9-6) at New Orleans (11-4)
A New Orleans victory would earn it its second straight NFC South title if Atlanta slips against Carolina. Even if the Falcons defeat the Panthers, the Saints would own a wild-card spot and have a chance to repeat as Super Bowl champs. This won't be an easy game for the Saints, because the Buccaneers are hungry. A lot of things have to fall in place for Tampa Bay to advance to the playoffs, including beating New Orleans, but counting out the Buccaneers is a mistake.
Pittsburgh (11-4) at Cleveland (5-10)
These franchises have no love for one another and the Browns are a much more dangerous team than the one the Steelers pounded earlier this season. Though Pittsburgh has clinched a playoff berth, it is going to go all out so it can win the AFC North over Baltimore and get a first-round bye. The Steelers are hoping to buy defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) and safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles/ankle) an additional week to heal so the defense could be at full strength for a Super Bowl run. Cleveland could care less about Pittsburgh's issues, though. The Browns are a young team trying to end a three-game losing streak. Eric Mangini is probably coaching his last game for Cleveland and he might be able to get his players to give him a strong send off.
Cincinnati (4-11) at Baltimore (11-4)
The Ravens also will be in the playoffs but a victory over the Bengals could earn them the AFC North title -- if the Steelers lose. These scenarios cause the Steelers and Ravens to use their starters at a point of the season they'd rather not. The Ravens are catching a break because the Bengals are 1-6 on the road, whereas Baltimore is 6-1 at home. The Bengals looked great eliminating San Diego from playoff contention but the stakes aren't as high for them this game. Playing well in what could be coach Marvin Lewis' last game could be motivation.
Minnesota (5-10/6-9) at Detroit (5-10)
Clearly, there are no playoff implications here, but one way or another this likely will be Brett Favre's final game in the NFL, even if he doesn't suit up. How grisly would it be for Favre and Minnesota, depending on what happens Tuesday, to fall to the Lions and finish last in the NFC North behind Detroit?