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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