1. It’s Week 17.
The last game before the playoffs. The final weekend of the regular season. A chance to make a statement going into the coldest winter months, or an opportunity to continue limboing toward that lowest possible draft pick. Either way, Week 17 means something even in an NFL where every game means something. Here’s what to know about each game, and which ones you should focus your limited time on, based on whether they determine nothing, have seeding implications, or mean everything for the teams involved.
2. THE GAMES YOU CAN IGNORE
Jets at Bills: Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mark Sanchez square off to 1) determine who will come in last in the AFC East, and 2) provide an audition tape for other suitors next year, because they’ve both pretty much worn out their welcome on their respective teams.
Buccaneers at Falcons: Atlanta has the #1 seed in the NFC, along with home-field advantage, locked up, and since the Bucs are both well clear of the playoffs and no longer relevant thanks to the end of fantasy leagues — we had a good run, Doug Martin — there’s nothing to see here. That is, unless you’d like to continue rubbernecking at the implosion of Josh Freeman.
Panthers at Saints: If you’d like to watch two mediocre, underachieving football teams complete the last stage of dragging down their supremely talented quarterbacks, than boy, do I have the game for you!
Browns at Steelers: As a normal human being capable of love and emotion, you probably hate the Steelers. Therefore, you probably rejoiced last week when Pittsburgh tripped and fell down the sluggish, semi-operational escalator that is the Cincinnati Bengals. (As a metaphor, I will also accept that the Bengals are like those moving walkways in airports.) And this week, you’ll probably pull for the Browns to beat the Steelers and make them feel bad. Or maybe you’re a Steelers fan, in which case, ah, well, you can’t win the Super Bowl every year.
Raiders at Chargers: Whichever team wins this game should get to move to Los Angeles so they can be relevant again.
4. THE GAMES THAT MEAN SOMETHING BUT NOT EVERYTHING
Ravens at Bengals: Both of these teams are playoff-bound, with the Bengals locked into a wild-card spot and the Ravens having won the AFC North title. There are small seeding issues at risk with this game, but neither team can hope for a first-round bye; fortunately, the Ravens and Bengals hate each other, so expect this game to be entertaining solely on the basis of mutual enmity.
Jaguars at Titans: OH YEAH. This game represents the most engaging contest in all of professional sports: The Race To The Bottom, i.e. The Quest For The #1 Overall Pick. Right now, the Jags and Chiefs, both at 2-13, are neck-and-neck. The Jags have the tougher road to the first overall selection, considering that the Titans are one of the few teams in the NFL arguably as bad as they are, while the Chiefs get to be luxuriously destroyed by a Broncos team invested in winning that game. Expect the Jags to bust out all sorts of ingenuity in attempting to lose to the Titans, who literally do not give a damn either way.
Texans at Colts: So, the top of the AFC is confusing: right now, the Texans and Broncos are 12-3 and the Patriots are 11-4, meaning all three teams are in play for the #1- through #3-seeds. Why does this matter, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you! The #1 seed gets home-field advantage through the playoffs as well as a first-round bye, and the #2 seed gets a first-round bye. The #3 seed has to play an extra game against the #6-seed wild-card team. That means, you really want one of those first two seeds, and all the Texans need to do is win to clinch the top spot. Considering that Indianapolis is locked into one of those two wild-card slots, the Colts have no real motivation here, aside from Andrew Luck trying to pad his stats; Houston has all the motivation you could possibly need.
Chiefs at Broncos: “Ha ha ha!” you might say, while eating a soft pretzel. (I did say “might.”) “Why would I watch the AFC’s worst team against its best? Why would I do that? God, why?” Calm down, friend: there are two very important narratives at hand int his game. The first and least significant is the Broncos’ quest for seeding: if they win and the Texans lose, that’s home-field advantage; if they win and the Texans win, that’s a first-round bye; if they lose, uh, it gets messy, but that’s not going to happen, since the Chiefs will be going out of their way to make sure they get wrecked so as to increase their chances at the first overall pick.
Dolphins at Patriots: As Jay Cutler would say, the Dolphins “DOOOOOOON’T CAAAAAAAAARE.” Patriots get AFC’s #1 seed and home-field advantage if they win and Houston + Denver lose; if either of those teams lose and they win, they clinch a first-round bye. If they lose, it’s the #3 gulag for them.
Cardinals at 49ers: The Niners are currently in the driver’s seat for the #2 spot and a first-round bye; if they win and the Packers lose, they’re in. If the Pack also wins, things get messy. And if they lose and Seattle wins, the 49ers could drop all the way to a wild-card spot. Luckily for San Francisco, the Cardinals’ only motivation in this game will be trying to avoid playing their fifth different quarterback of the season.
Seahawks at Rams: This is Seattle’s chance to capitalize on their tremendous recent momentum, which includes 150 points for and only 30 points against in their last three games. If they win and San Francisco loses, they’ll secure the NFC West; if they win and SF and Green Bay lose, they’ll get a first-round bye. A loss would mean the wild card, which isn’t the end of the world but would also have to be seen as a disappointment based on how well they’ve been playing lately. At 7-7-1, the Rams’ only motivation is to be be dicks, but that Sam Bradford sure is an asshole. (Just kidding! I have no idea if Sam Bradford is an asshole. Jeff Fisher definitely is, though.)
6. THE MUST-WATCH ALL-IMPORTANT EVERYTHING-MATTERS GAMES
Bears at Lions: For Chicago to miss the playoffs this year would be a huge disappointment: they started the season 7-1 before losing five of their next six games. A win last week put them back in the running for the wild card, but the damage wrought by that huge drought in the middle of the season means that they still need help to make the extra games — namely, a loss by division rivals the Minnesota Vikings. If they lose — and the Detroit Lions, pissed off by their own highly disappointing year, would like no more than to make the hated Bears as miserable as they are — Chicago can kiss any hope goodbye.
Eagles at Giants: God, the Giants do not deserve to make the playoffs in any way. None. Did you watch them last week? Eli’s throwing the ball like Papa John at this point, and Corey Webster couldn’t play any slower if they made him wear an astronaut suit. But, but, but: if Mike Vick, making his glorious return to (and almost definitely final appearance with) the Eagles, doesn’t manage to knock off New York, and then, somehow, the Vikings, Cowboys, and Bears ALL LOSE, then the Giants could reach the postseason, where, based on historical precedent, they’d likely catch fire and win the Super Bowl.
Packers at Vikings: The ramifications of this game are stark. If Green Bay wins, they secure a first-round bye and send the Vikings home with only Adrian Peterson’s remarkable season to feel good about. If the Vikings win, the Packers still have a shot at a first-round bye — the Seahawks and 49ers would both have to lose — and, at the very worst, would fall to the #3 seed. Meanwhile, the Vikings would be in regardless of other teams’ performances, and, if the game includes a transcendent Peterson yardage total, it could be enough to make him MVP.
8. THE GAME OF THE SEASON
Cowboys at Redskins: RGIII vs. Tony Romo. Dez Bryant vs. his own broken, beaten hand. The Cowboys defense vs. the overwhelming specter of failure. This is one of the most legendary rivalries in professional sports, featuring two of the NFL’s greatest franchises, its most exciting player, and a long-maligned quarterback seeking redemption, with the NFC East title at risk — this could not be any better of a match-up. For the Cowboys, following their shameful disintegration against the Saints last week that included giving up 562 yards of offense, the scenario is simple: win and they’re in as the #4 seed; lose, and the only thing left to face is the wrath of Jerry Jones. If the ‘Skins win, they’re in, and if they lose, they could still slip into a wild card with Vikings and Bears losses, but that’s hardly something to count on. The idea that Robert Griffin’s tremendous inaugural campaign could possibly end without a shot at the Super Bowl is a horrifying one, yet very realistic, and a loss could mean an opening for Russell Wilson to unseat RGIII in the Rookie of the Year race. Frankly, it all comes down to Sunday night.