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?

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