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Five Questions for Week 17 in the NFL

Every Tuesday I’ll take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding NFL teams for that week. With just one Sunday remaining in the 2011 regular season, this week I take a look at the “NFC East Championship Game,” as well as the other key matchups that could potentially affect the playoff picture.

New York Giants Eli Manning stands in the huddle in the second quarter against the Washington Redskins in week 15 of the NFL season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on December 18, 2011. UPI /John Angelillo

1. Cowboys or Giants?
As I’ve often written in my weekly predictions for the NFL: I wouldn’t bet this game with your money. You just don’t know what you’re going to get out of either of these teams. The Giants have the capabilities to march into New England and beat the Patriots, but they might be the worst home team in the NFL. The Cowboys are good when nobody is paying attention to them but choke when the spotlight is on. Dallas could have, and maybe should have, won the first meeting between these two teams but the Giants pulled off one of their patent 2011 fourth-quarter comebacks. When Eli Manning protects the football the G-Men usually win. But get him in one of his deer-caught-in-the-headlights modes and New York will be watching the playoffs from home next week. On the other side, Tony Romo can be just as toxic and come Sunday he’ll be playing with a bruised hand. Again, you just don’t know what you’re going to get when these teams collide. And while you might as well flip a coin when it comes to predicting who will win, at least we know this game will be highly entertaining. Strap ‘em up!

2. Ravens or Steelers?
Given the dynamics at play, this might be the most interesting question this week. Baltimore and Pittsburgh have identical 11-4 records but the Ravens have the edge because of two head-to-head wins over the Steelers. But Baltimore has also been a completely different team on the road this year than at home, and the Ravens play at Cincinnati this Sunday. The Steelers, meanwhile, will travel to Cleveland to play a sputtering Browns team that hasn’t won in five weeks. Considering the Bengals need a win to wrap up the sixth spot in the AFC, they’re going to give Baltimore everything they have. After all these weeks of Baltimore being in the driver’s seat, it would be interesting to watch the Ravens flip with the Steelers and become the No. 5 seed instead of the No. 2 seed. That would dramatically alter the playoff picture in the AFC because again, the Ravens are a much tougher team at home than they are on the road. Plus, if the Steelers clinch the No. 2 seed then Ben Roethlisberger would essentially have two weeks to rest his injured ankle before Pittsburgh played its first playoff game. This Sunday is absolutely huge for not only the top three teams in the AFC North, but also for the entire AFC playoff structure.

3. Raiders or Broncos?
The Raiders looked like they were headed for their fourth consecutive loss last Sunday before Richard Seymour got one of his big paws on Ryan Succop’s game-winning field goal attempt. Now Oakland has an opportunity to win the AFC West if it can find a way to beat San Diego and have Kansas City upset Denver. The Broncos have an “easier” path to the playoffs because the Chiefs are a more inferior team than the Chargers, but let’s not forget how indifferent San Diego can be at times. (Denver also could lose and still make the playoffs if Oakland falls as well.) With nothing to play for it wouldn’t be surprising if the Bolts rolled over and played dead for the Raiders, even though they could effectively end Oakland’s season. It wouldn’t be shocking if both Denver and Oakland won but then again, something crazy always seems to happen in the final week of the season. Thus, strap in and hang on tight…

4. Bengals, Raiders, Titans or Jets?
The sixth seed in the AFC has become the redheaded stepchild of this year’s playoffs. (My apologies to all redheaded stepchildren.) You get the sense that whichever team makes it in will be making a quick exit out of the playoffs come next week. But think about it, the Texans are the No. 3 seed and just lost to the Colts. On any given Sunday, the Bengals, Raiders, Titans or Jets could certainly upset Houston in the Wild Card round. Granted, none of those teams would fare well against the Patriots in the Divisional Round, but the key takeaway is that whoever clinches the sixth seed in the AFC has a legitimate shot of advancing to the second round. And let’s not forget how the Seahawks shocked the world by upsetting the Saints in last year’s playoffs when they were double-digit underdogs. Thus, the race for the sixth seed is more interesting then people may think. (Uh, you know, despite the fact that all of the teams competing for it are highly flawed.)

5. How will the final playoff picture look in the NFC?
Outside of the Packers, who are entrenched in the No. 1 spot, and the winner of the NFC East, which would be the No. 4 seed, the rest of the NFC playoff picture is completely unsettled. We know that it’ll be the 49ers or Saints that wrap up the No. 2 seed. Considering San Francisco is playing St. Louis this Sunday, it’ll probably be the Niners that will earn a bye week and home field advantage in the Divisional Round. But the two Wild Card spots are up for grabs, too. The Lions have a one-game edge over the Falcons, but Atlanta beat Detroit earlier this year so if the Lions lose to the Packers and the Falcons beat the Bucs then Atlanta would wrap up the No. 5 seed. That’s highly important to the Falcons, who were just crushed by the Saints on Monday night and probably aren’t ready to go back to the Superdome next week if they’re the sixth seed and New Orleans is the third seed. And then…ah, whatever. Who needs a drink after trying to figure all of this out?

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Five Questions for Week 14 in the NFL

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett (L) talks with quarterback Tony Romo in the second half of their NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Arlington, Texas November 6, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Every Tuesday I’ll take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding NFL teams for that week. In Week 14 I tackle the decimated Bears and their quarterback situation, the race in the NFC East and of course, the Tim Tebow-led Broncos.g

1. Which team will step up in the NFC East?
Last week I wrote that it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cowboys choke with a golden opportunity to take a two-game lead over the Giants in the NFC East. They were on their way to Arizona to play a very beatable Cardinals team while New York hosted the undefeated Packers, so naturally the Cowboys lost (when Jason Garrett essentially froze his own kicker) and didn’t create more separation between them and the Giants. That’s okay though, because the Sunday Night Football tilt this week becomes an even bigger affair because if the Giants win, then things will be tied again in the division. It’s tough to know what to make of either team. The Cowboys are healthier and have a slew of explosive weapons on offense to exploit a banged up New York defense. But Dallas always seems to kill itself with dumb mistakes and penalties. For all intents and purposes, they should beat the Giants at home this weekend and build a two-game cushion with just three games left to play. But it’s always a crapshoot when it comes to the ‘Boys.

2. What will the Bears do at quarterback?
Following Caleb Hanie’s brutal performance against the Chiefs on Sunday and the injury that will sideline Matt Forte for the next 2-3 weeks (if not the rest of the regular season), the Bears are now entertaining the idea of signing a free agent quarterback. Donovan McNabb is available and Brett Favre seems ready to whore himself out again, but will Chicago actually pull the trigger? The terminology in Mike Martz’s system is supposedly hard to grasp in a short amount of time so it would appear as though Hanie is still the Bears’ best option under center. But Chicago can’t keep rolling him out there every Sunday only to watch him produce a field goal worth of offense. It would, at the very least, make sense to sign McNabb and see how much he can learn in a week. Maybe he can produce just enough points to win while the defense and Devin Hester does the rest. Nobody is saying McNabb is a shoe-in to save Chicago’s season but if the playoffs started today the Bears would own the fifth seed in the NFC. GM Jerry Angelo owes it to his team to at least see if he can catch lightning in a bottle.

3. Will the Broncos take control of their own destiny?
As noted in question No. 2, the Bears are in serious trouble. Not only is Jay Cutler out for the rest of the year, but Matt Forte won’t play this Sunday and might miss the remainder of the season as well. Caleb Hanie couldn’t generate more than a field goal last week against Kansas City, which has an underrated defense but zero offense. Denver has an even better defensive unit and an offense that has made clutch plays with the game on the line for the past four weeks. Thus, the Broncos should win this week at home against Chicago. But there are many people that are still waiting for the wheels to fall off the Tim Tebow joy ride. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Detroit traveled to Denver and absolutely harassed Tebow into huge mistakes in a blowout victory. The Bears still own a relenting defensive unit that’s capable of putting its beleaguered offense in good field position, or scoring themselves with opportunistic plays. Thus, it’s important for Denver to continue to take things one game at a time. With Oakland in Green Bay this Sunday taking on the undefeated Packers, the Broncos have a massive opportunity to control their own destiny from here on out with a victory over the Bears.

4. Which Wild Card hopefuls will start to emerge from the pack?
Outside of the Steelers who seemingly have the fifth seed in the AFC sewn up, there are a lot of flaws when you look at the Wild Card contenders in each conference. In the AFC, the Bengals were just trounced by the Steelers and still have to play the Ravens one more time. Although the Titans have won two in a row, they nearly lost to the hapless Bucs two weeks ago and host powerhouse New Orleans this Sunday. Miami proved last week that Oakland has a couple of underlying issues, namely its run defense and lack of explosives offensively. The Jets have experience making late-season runs but it’s hard to trust Mark Sanchez not to muck things up over these next four weeks. In the NFC, the Bears’ issues are well documented and the Lions look like a team ready to implode thanks to a lack of composure and injuries. The Falcons have more than enough talent on both sides of the ball to secure a postseason berth but their offense has been stuck in mud all season and if the Giants can’t beat the Cowboys this Sunday, then it’s hard envisioning them playing past Week 17. Will somebody please step up?

5. Can the Chargers get back into the AFC West race?
The focus in the AFC West has largely been on the Broncos and Raiders, which makes sense given how their odds of winning the division are the best among the four teams. But while everyone continues to analyze, dissect, and agonize how Tim Tebow continues to win despite usually only playing one quarter of good football, I have a sinking suspicion that the Chargers aren’t finished quite yet. Maybe that’s because we’ve seen Norv Turner’s teams underachieve before, only to swoop in during the final weeks and pull a postseason berth right out from under someone. Granted, it came against a decimated Jacksonville secondary but Turner’s offense was firing on all cylinders Monday night. For the first time in over a month Philip Rivers played with confidence and was making throws that he used to make on a weekly basis in 2010. Winning breads confidence and when a team plays with confidence it becomes dangerous. Given how the Chargers still have to play Baltimore, Detroit, and Oakland to finish out the season, it’s probably too little too late for Rivers and Co. But if their defense overachieves and the offense finally starts playing with some consistency, you never know how things will play out down the stretch.

NFL Morning After Reactions: Patriots, Titans, Cowboys & more

Here’s a look at what local NFL beat writers and columnists have to say following their teams’ performance on Sunday.

- Steve Serby of the New York Post writes that Jets’ rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez “outswaggered” the Pats’ Tom Brady.

- Gil LeBreton of the Star-Telegram writes that the Cowboys’ offense spoiled Jerry Jones’ new stadium party.

- Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times says that Jay Cutler’s signature game saved the Bears from defeat on Sunday.

- Damon Hack of SI.com says that the Patriots showed a rare loss of composure in their defeat to the Jets.

- David Climer of the Tennessean compiles a list of troubling signs for the 0-2 Titans.

- Tim Sullivan of the San Diego Union-Tribune wonders if the Chargers can be fixed after their loss to the Ravens and their near-loss to the Raiders in Week 1.

- Tom Oates of Madison.com writes that the Packers’ offensive line (which struggled mightily on Sunday against the Bengals) could ruin the season for Green Bay.

- Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post can’t help but think that head coach Jim Zorn has low expectations for the Redskins.

- Never afraid to hand out criticism, Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star writes that the Chiefs coaching performance against the Raiders was embarrassing.

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