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.