Tarvaris Jackson or Gus Frerotte – who will start for Vikes in playoffs?

Tarvaris JacksonThe Minnesota Vikings needed a last second 50-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell to beat the New York Giants’ scrubs 20-19 on Sunday, but nevertheless, they are the 2008 NFC North Champions.

With the win, the Vikings clinched the No. 3 seed in the NFC and will play either the Cowboys or Eagles. The question now becomes, who will line up under center for Minnesota come next week?

Tarvaris Jackson had another solid day, completing 16 of 26 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown. He did throw one interception, but outside of that solely turnover he protected the ball well. In four games since replacing the injured Gus Frerotte, Jackson has completed 57 of 89 passes for 740 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception.

Regardless of whether or not Frerotte will be healthy enough to play next week, Jackson has earned the right to start. There seems to be a notion in sports that players shouldn’t lose their jobs because of injury, but the only thing Brad Childress and the Vikings should be concerned with is which quarterback gives them the best chance to win.

As of right now, that player is Jackson. His teammates have gotten into a rhythm with him under center, he’s played well and most importantly, he hasn’t made a ton of mistakes. It also helps that Adrian Peterson (who better learn to hang onto the football) is running like a man possessed right now, and takes a lot of pressure off of Jackson’s shoulders.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to toss Frerotte back into the fire when he hasn’t played in over three weeks and his backup is playing quite well. Jackson should be the choice under center next week for Minnesota.

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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.

The race for the AFC West is a filthy mess of a situation

Mike ShanahanThat sound you just heard was the Denver Broncos’ season flushing down the toilet.

Following their embarrassing 30-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills at home on Sunday, the Broncos are now one loss away from losing their grip on the AFC West and sending the San Diego Chargers to the playoffs.

All the Broncos had to do was beat a struggling Bills team at home and they would win the AFC West. All they had to do was beat a quarterback in Trent Edwards that hadn’t played in three weeks and score more points on a team that was ready to get the season over weeks ago. And yet the Broncos couldn’t do it.

I guess a win for the Chargers next week would be justice served. The Ed Hochuli game sent San Diego into a massive tailspin and gave Denver momentum for what should have been a season in which they won the AFC West. But a win for the Chargers would be sweet revenge and with the way things have gone this year in the NFL, would anyone be surprised if San Diego beat Denver and went to the playoffs with an 8-8 record? It would be pathetic but so what? Maybe if Hochuli gets the call right in the first meeting between these two teams, the Chargers wouldn’t have collapsed.

The Chargers have all the momentum now, will be playing at home and have a bad taste in their mouths from their loss to Denver in Week 2. Personally, I think San Diego is a lock to win next week.

The Falcons are the best story in ‘08

Mike SmithIf you can’t appreciate the 2008 Atlanta Falcons season, than you probably won’t appreciate most sports stories.

Following a year in which they went 4-12, lost the face of their franchise to federal prison for dog fighting and their head coach to the University of Arkansas in the middle of the night, the Falcons are heading back to the playoffs for the first time since 2004 thanks to a 24-17 win over the Vikings on Sunday.

For everyone who said Arthur Blank was too involved as an owner for the Falcons to succeed, how do you feel now? Instead of throwing his hands up in the air and bailing like that gutless wonder Bobby Petrino did, Blank hung tough and got back to work this offseason. He hired general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who then hired Mike Smith, drafted Matt Ryan and signed free agent Michael Turner. Blank didn’t give up on his franchise and now he’s being rewarded for it.

The Falcons were very fortunate Sunday in Minnesota. The Vikings turned the ball over four times and when Atlanta tried to return the favor with a fumble of their own, they recovered it for a touchdown. Yes, Atlanta could have lost very easily. But so what? It’s about time the ball bounced the way of the Falcons and after a year of suffering one blow after another, they deserved what happened this season.

Who knows whether or not this great story will have a fairytale ending? And actually, it doesn’t matter because the Falcons have already won by showing up this season. They have a great young offensive core in Turner, Ryan and Roddy White, an improving defense, a general manager who gets how to build a winner and a solid football coach to keep everything running smoothly. More importantly, they have an owner that is willing to do anything to succeed.

Thanks in large part to Blank, the Falcons are the best story in the NFL this season and somehow, someway, are heading to the playoffs.

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