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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.

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 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.

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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NFL Week 17 Primer Late Games

Here are snapshot previews of the late games with playoff implications on Sunday.

Chad Pennington
Dolphins (10-5) at Jets (9-6), 4:15PM ET CBS
Things got hairy last week for the Dolphins in Kansas City, but their win over the Chiefs put them in position to make the playoffs (not to mention win the AFC East) with a win over the Jets. The problem is that they haven’t had much success in the Meadowlands this decade and the conditions are going to be cold and nasty. Still, they’re playing a Jets team that has lacked fire over the past couple of weeks, while quarterback Brett Favre has recently admitted that he’s at less than perfect health. A win would be the ultimate revenge for Chad Pennington, who has a bad taste in his mouth from the way the team pitched him in the dumpster right after they traded for Favre. Pennington felt that he gave a lot to a Jets’ fan base and organization that didn’t return the favor. So expect a very motivated Chad to show up in Jersey on Sunday and one with revenge on his mind. Miami’s offense got back on track last week in Kansas City, but their defense took a step back after allowing the Chiefs to rack up 31 points. Before last week, the Dolphins had limited their three previous opponents to 9, 3 and 12 points, respectively. Hurt or not, Favre is going to come out fired up considering this might be his final game. This should be a great battle.

Broncos (8-7) at Chargers (7-8), 8:15PM ET NBC
The Broncos have completely crapped the bed the past two weeks, losing to both Carolina and Buffalo to set up a must-win situation in San Diego to win the AFC West. The problem is that the Chargers have won three in a row to put themselves in position to win the division with a victory. San Diego’s offense is seemingly back on track, racking up 41, 22 and 34 points respectively in their last three games. Phillip Rivers is having an MVP-like season and should have no problem moving the ball against a Denver defense that has been shredded for most of the season. But the Chargers need LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles to be effective in order to keep the offense balanced. The defense, which has played dramatically better since Ron Rivera took over at coordinator, also needs to step up against a Broncos’ offense that is averaging almost 280 passing yards per game. Winner takes all in this matchup, although it appears that Denver has already blown its chance. A Charger win would be sweet justice after they lost to the Broncos earlier this season thanks in part to Ed Hochuli’s blown call.

Wade Phillips
Cowboys (9-6) at Eagles (8-6-1), 4:15PM ET FOX
There’s a bit of a stink surrendering this game because by kickoff, the Eagles will already know whether or not they’re playing for a playoff spot. Philly needs Tampa Bay, Chicago and Minnesota all to lose in order to have a shot at the postseason. Since it’s unlikely that all three teams lose, the Eagles will have to settle for the role of spoiler in this game. The Cowboys control their own destiny. If they win, they’ll clinch the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. If they lose, they’re done. According to Jerry Jones, Wade Phillips’ job is not on the line this Sunday. But things could change if the Cowboys are embarrassed by a division rival with the postseason on the line. Despite what Jones says, Phillips better come up with a way to slow down Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook they way Washington did last Sunday, or else he could be heading to the unemployment line.

Jaguars (5-10) at Ravens (10-5), 4:15PM ET CBS
The Ravens need just one more victory to put a cap on an amazing year. They should get that victory, too, because they’re playing a Jacksonville Jaguars team that has lost four of their last five games. Although they showed spunk in almost beating the Colts last Thursday night, they won’t be able to move the ball on a motivated Baltimore defense. As long as rookie quarterback Joe Flacco doesn’t succumb to the pressures of facing a must-win situation, the Ravens should be fine. The Jaguars can’t run the ball behind a depleted offensive line and if Baltimore can beat the Cowboys on the road and in the final game at Texas Stadium, they should have no issues with a hapless Jacksonville squad.

NFL Week 17 Primer Early Games

Here are snapshot previews of the early games with playoff implications on Sunday.

Jake DelhommePanthers (11-4) at Saints (8-7), 1:00PM ET FOX
The Panthers’ playoff seeding rests solely in their own hands. If they beat the Saints, they’ll win the NFC South and clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC. If they lose, they’ll need the Rams to beat the Falcons in order to win the division and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. This is a dangerous game for the Panthers because it’ll be the second straight road game for them and they’re coming off a stinging overtime loss to the Giants. The Saints are also incredibly tough to beat at home and Drew Brees is attempting to break Dan Marino’s record for most passing yards in a single season. With a chance for Brees to break the record and his team to finish with a winning season, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton isn’t going to take it easy on a division foe. But can the Saints stop the run? The Panthers have relied on their running game all season and they’re not going to change their philosophy now. The Saints are going to score points, but if Carolina can keep the ball moving on the ground and keep Brees and Co. on the sidelines, the Panthers should come away with a win and a NFC South title. One damning stat that goes against Carolina, however, is the one that reads that NFC South teams are 0-11 on the road this year against NFC South opponents. Ouch.

Rams (2-13) at Falcons (10-5), 1:00PM ET FOX
With their 24-17 win over the Vikings last Sunday, the Falcons secured a spot in the playoffs but their seeding is still undetermined at this point. With a victory over the Rams coupled with a Panthers’ loss to the Saints, Atlanta will win the NFC South and clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC. If both the Falcons and Panthers win, Atlanta clinches the fifth seed in the NFC and will play at Arizona Wild Card weekend. A loss to the Rams would drop the Falcons to the sixth seed, which means they would have to play on the road throughout the playoffs. St. Louis played San Francisco to the wire last week, but they’ve got to be mentally checked out at this point. And the Falcons don’t seem like a team to be caught looking ahead – especially considering nobody expected them to be in this position at the start of the season. They should soundly beat the Rams, but their seeding fate is in the hands of the Saints.

Patriots (10-5) at Bills (7-8), 1:00PM ET CBS
New England has looked absolutely dominant the past two weeks, scoring over 40 points in two impressive wins over the Raiders and Cardinals. The Bills have been a major disappointment after getting off to a hot start, but they’re coming off a huge upset win over the Broncos in Denver and have a chance to finish a respectable 8-8. In other words, this isn’t going to be a walk in the park for the Patriots, even though this is a game they should win. The Pats need a victory in Buffalo, coupled with a Dolphins’ loss to the Jets in order to win the AFC East title. The key will be whether or not the Bills can slow down Matt Cassel and the New England offense, which has lit up the scoreboard in bad weather the past two weeks. Buffalo might be a tough place to play, but the Pats won big in a driving rainstorm two weeks ago and then again in a blizzard last Sunday. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not the New England defense can keep Marshawn Lynch in check, though. Denver could last week and it opened things up for Trent Edwards in the passing game. If the Pats load up against the run and force Edwards to beat them through the air, they should be successful. But unfortunately for them, everything rides on the Jets beating the Dolphins at the Meadowlands.

Adrian PetersonGiants (12-3) at Vikings (9-6), 1:00PM ET FOX
Even though they can still win the division with a Bears loss in Houston, the Vikings put themselves in an inopportune situation by losing to the Falcons last week – a game in which they lost four fumbles in an otherwise dominant performance. The Giants will start their regulars, although Eli Manning and company will be pulled early in order to avoid injury. Even though they’ll have the pressure to win on their shoulders, this is a great situation for the Vikings. Since there’s a possibility they might face Minnesota again in the playoffs, the Giants are likely to dramatically scale back their game plan in efforts not to show the Vikings too much film. So not only will Minnesota play a bunch of scrubs for three and a half quarters, but they’ll also play a bunch of scrubs with a thin game plan. Unless they’re feeling ultra gracious again like they were last week, there’s no excuse for the Vikings to lose this game and thus, the NFC North crown.

Raiders (4-11) at Buccaneers (9-6), 1:00PM ET FOX
Although a win would go a long way in helping them clinch a Wild Card berth, the Buccaneers are heading in the wrong direction this time of year. Tampa has lost three in a row and outside of an overtime loss to the Falcons two weeks ago, the Bucs have looked as bad as a team could look in the midst of a losing streak. They’re having major issues stopping the run, although they might be getting healthy again along the defensive line, which would help. The Raiders haven’t been able to do much offensively this season, but they’ve had success running the ball. They’re averaging close to 120 yards per game on the ground this year and if they can get the run game working, they could pull off a huge upset. But chances are, Monte Kiffin is going to figure things out and put a defensive plan together to stifle a Raiders’ offense that is barely averaging over 15 points per game this season. I doubt Tampa loses two in a row at home, but anything can happen when a team is in the middle of a losing streak. They need a win over the Raiders, coupled with a Dallas loss at Philadelphia in order to secure the sixth and final playoff spot.

Bears (9-6) at Texans (7-8), 1:00PM ET FOX
The Bears’ playoff fate rests in the hands of the Vikings, who must lose at home against the Giants in order for Chicago to win the NFC North and clinch a postseason berth. The Bears still need to take care of their own business in Houston, or else Minnesota gets in via tiebreakers. Chicago is lucky its still in the race after having to rally late to beat Green Bay on Monday night, although it’s better to be lucky than good this time of year. The Bears need to figure out a way slow down Steve Slaton and Andre Johnson, two players that have played a major role in Houston’s resurgence over the past month. It would help if quarterback Kyle Orton could limit all the mistakes he’s been making, too. Orton has thrown eight interceptions in his last four games, but the Bears have somehow been able to overcome those mistakes and win three of those contests. Best-case scenario for the Bears this Sunday is to get a lead and rely on their defense and special teams to eek out a victory. But in order to do that, Orton better play mistake-free or else it won’t matter what the Vikings do on Sunday against the Giants.

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