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2011 NFL Week 17 Primer

Baltimore Ravens’ Terrell Suggs has his helmet taken off by Cincinnati Bengals’ Andrew Whitworth during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on January 2, 2011. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

MARQUE MATCHUP: It’s the final week – pick one.
Some will argue that the Cowboys-Giants Sunday night matchup is the biggest game of the week, but it’s no bigger than Ravens-Bengals. While Dallas-New York will finally settle the NFC East race, Baltimore needs a victory to win the AFC North and secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC, while Cincinnati needs to beat the Ravens just to clinch a playoff berth. There is no shortage of important games on the schedule this week, including Kansas City-Denver and San Diego-Oakland. (If the Broncos beat the Chiefs they’ll win the AFC West, or if they lose and the Raiders beat the Chargers, then Oakland will win the division.) In fact, out of the 16 games on the Week 17 schedule, only five contests have absolutely no barring on the playoff races in either conference. It figures to be a wild Sunday in the NFL, with postseason implications galore.

THE POTENTIAL (NOTEWORTHY) UPSET: Packers over Lions
Some of you may be thinking, “This wouldn’t be an upset, you clown.” But the Packers have nothing to play for and thus, will likely rest their starters this weekend. Considering they’re a 3.5-point home underdog, technically this would be considered an upset, so shove it. Wait…what?…You’d have to go back to December 15, 1991, for the last time the Lions won at Lambeau Field. That’s a massive drought; an even bigger drought than the Lions’ 11-year span of not making the postseason. Granted, the rest of Green Bay’s starters played that night but Matt Flynn nearly willed the Packers to a victory last season at New England when Aaron Rodgers was sidelined with a concussion. With nothing to play for, Mike McCarthy may let it all hang loose against a Detroit team that must win in order to secure the fifth seed in the NFC (and therefore avoid playing at New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs). It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Detroit will win this Sunday versus Green Bay’s backups, but in case you haven’t been paying attention: Green Bay’s backups are pretty freaking good, too. We’ll see if the ghosts of Lambeau Field haunt the Lions one more time this Sunday.

THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY: DENVER BRONCOS
The Broncos have one mission and one mission only: Beat Kansas City at home on Sunday and win the AFC West. That’s it. That’s all they have to do. They don’t have to win and then hope for another team to lose like the Raiders, Titans and Jets do. All they have to do is take care of their own business at home against a 6-9 Chiefs team and they’ll be headed to the playoffs. That said, this is the same Chiefs that knocked off the defending (and undefeated) Packers a few weeks ago in Kansas City. Romeo Crennel is likely auditioning for a head-coaching job so he’ll have his defense ready to shut down Tim Tebow on Sunday, and let’s not forget that the discarded Kyle Orton is now Kansas City’s starting quarterback. This game is a writer’s dream because there are plenty of storylines to choose from. Still, Denver is the better overall team and has a chance to wrap up the division while clinching what was an improbable playoff berth at the start of the season. All those goofy horse heads have to do is win.

PUT UP OR SHUT UP: CINCINNATI BENGALS
The Broncos, Cowboys and Giants are all candidates for the “Put up or shut up” section this week, but if I’m only choosing one team then it’s the Cincinnati Bengals. Look, the Bengals have had a tremendous season. Nobody expected them to win more than five games this year, let alone nine and have a chance to clinch a playoff berth with a win in the final game of the season. Thus, this year is already a success in most people’s eyes. But they’re here, so they might as well finish the job and storm into the playoffs with a head full of steam instead of backing in because other teams (i.e. the Raiders, Titans and Jets) lost. Cincinnati obviously still has a lot to prove but if it can beat Baltimore at home this Sunday, it’ll give the Bengals confidence that they can win next week in Houston. If they get drubbed, then their season is likely over or they’ll back into the playoffs having lost to Pittsburgh (twice), Baltimore (twice) and Houston during the regular season. So strap ‘em up Bengals, and prove to the NFL that you’re one of the six best teams in the AFC.

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 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?

Updated NFL playoff scenarios

Dec 26, 2010; Oakland, CA, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (18) reacts at the end of the game against the Oakland Raiders at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The Colts defeated the Raiders 31-26.  Photo via Newscom

There are two games remaining on the Week 16 schedule (Saints vs. Falcons on Monday and Vikings vs. Eagles on Tuesday), but we know what teams have to do to clinch playoff berths, divisions, sixth seeds and everything else that’s clinchable. (Clinchable?)

Here’s a breakdown for each of the two conferences.

AFC

Steelers
Pittsburgh can clinch the AFC North and a first-round bye with a win or tie and Baltimore loss or tie. They also accomplish the same feat with a Baltimore loss this Sunday.

Ravens
Baltimore clinches the AFC North and a first-round bye with a win and a Pittsburgh loss or tie. They can also clinch with a tie and a Pittsburgh loss.

Colts
Indy can clinch the AFC South with a win or tie against the Titans, or a Jaguars’ loss or tie.

Jaguars
Jacksonville clinches the AFC South with a win and an Indianapolis loss to Tennessee at home.

NFC

Eagles
Philadelphia has clinched the NFC East and still ha sa chance to earn a first-round bye and homefield advantage next week depending on what happens Monday night in the Falcons-Saints game, as well as the Bears-Packers matchup on Sunday. As of right now, there are too many scenarios to list, so I’ll have another update next Monday.

Bears
Chicago clinched the NFC North and much like the Eagles, can earn a first-round bye and homefield advantage next week.

Falcons
If Atlanta beats the Saints on Monday night, it’ll win the NFC South and clinch the top seed in the playoffs. If the Falcons lose to the Saints but beat the Panthers on Sunday, they’ll accomplish the same feat.

Saints
The Saints can clinch a playoff spot with a win or tie against the Falcons on Monday and still has a chance to win the NFC South, a first-round bye and homefield advantage next week.

Packers
Green Bay just has to beat the Bears on Sunday and it’ll earn a playoff spot. They can also clinch a playoff berth with a tie and a Giants’ loss or tie to the Redskins, as well as a Bucs loss or tie to the Saints on Sunday. If all three teams lose this Sunday, the Packers would get it.

Giants
New York can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Redskins and a Packers’ loss or tie to the Bears. They can also clinch with a win and two New Orleans losses, or with a tie against the Redskins and a loss by both the Packers and Bucs.

Bucs
Tampa Bay can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a Saints’ loss to the Falcons, as well as a Giants’ loss or tie to the Redskins. They can also clinch with a win, a Saints loss to the Falcons and a Packers loss to the Bears. Or…a win and a Giants’ loss or tie, plus a Packers’ loss or tie. Or…with a tie, and losses by the Giants and Packers. Or…wait, no – that was it.

Rams & Seahawks
Which ever team wins this Sunday in Seattle will win the NFC West (also known as the greatest division known to man).

Sorry, if your team is not mentioned above, they have been eliminated. You may begin crying………………now.

Steelers closing in on AFC North title

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 23: Ben Roethlisberger  of the Pittsburgh Steelers hands the ball off to teammate Rashard Mendenhall  during the game against the Carolina Panthers on December 23, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

When a team suffers a loss and needs a good pick-me-up, the Carolina Panthers often offer the perfect remedy.

A week after losing at home against the Jets, the Steelers rebounded on Thursday night to beat the Panthers 27-3. Ben Roethlisberger completed 22-of-32 passes for 320 yards and one touchdown, while also adding a second score on the ground. On his lone passing touchdown of the night, he read blitz and quickly hit Mike Wallace for a 43-yard score to give Pittsburgh an early 10-0 lead. Thanks to the Panthers’ brutalness, the Steelers went on to collect their easiest win of the year.

With the win, Pittsburgh is now in position to wrap up the AFC North and clinch a bye in the first round of the playoffs if it can beat Cleveland on January 2. And actually, the Browns could help the Steelers well in advance if they can knock off the Ravens this Sunday in Cleveland.

As for the Panthers, the season couldn’t end fast enough for them and John Fox. Their roster is so devoid of talent and it’s tough to evaluate young players like Jimmy Clausen when he has no support around him. Carolina’s running game isn’t bad, but who does Clausen have to throw to? Defenses double-team Steve Smith, leaving Clausen to throw to fellow rookies who are trying to learn the game along with him. And forget protection – Clausen doesn’t have any.

Of course, by this time one would think he would look a little better than he has. He has little to no pocket presence and his accuracy is suspect at best. His decision-making might be coming along a little, but he still does some things that make you want to pull your hair out (like taking a sack on a 4th and 5 in the second quarter instead of just heaving one in the direction of a receiver). Maybe he’ll develop into a solid starter one day but as of right now, he’s showed zero signs of developing. (Again, that’s not all his fault either.)

The Panthers will have an awfully different look to them next season, that’s for sure.

Playoffs nearly set

Per NFL.com…

* New Orleans and Minnesota captured the top two seeds, respectively, and the first-round byes that come with them. In the divisional round of the playoffs on Jan. 16-17, the Saints will host the lowest remaining seed from the wild-card round and the Vikings will host the highest remaining seed.

* Dallas won the NFC East and clinched the conference’s No. 3 seed by beating Philadelphia, and will host the sixth-seeded Eagles in the wild-card round next weekend.

* Despite losing to Green Bay, Arizona finished as the No. 4 seed and, in a rematch from Week 17, will play host to the fifth-seeded Packers in the wild-card round.

In the AFC, if the Jets win, they’re in. If they lose, Houston will get the postseason berth. New England and Baltimore will play in the first round no matter what, with the Bengals taking on the Jets (if the Jets win tonight) or the Texans (if Cincy wins).

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