We have reached the final week for the 2013 regular season, and it has been years since there has been such a decisive Week 17 in the NFL. Two divisions are up for grabs in the NFC, and four teams are competing over the final wild card spot in the AFC. Some teams will move on, while others will be spent home. It’s all or nothing this week, and here are the top five games to keep an eye on:
Only the Dolphins are playing for their lives in this game, but do not expect the Jets to just hand over a win. These teams are bitter rivals, and the Jets also have the chance to finish their season at .500. That might not seem like much, but this team was predicted to be much worse and many people within the organization are on the hot seat. But still, there is no doubt that this game is of more importance to the Dolphins. With a win and some help, Miami can grab the last wild card spot. And once you are in the playoffs, anything can happen. The Dolphins had a great opportunity to solidify their playoff case last week, but they laid a dud against the Bills and got shut out 19-0. The offense totaled barely over 100 yards of offense, making it one of the worst performances in the history of the organization. There is no denying Ryan Tannehill’s talent, but he gets almost no protection from his offensive line and still makes some crucial mistakes. Against the fearsome defensive line of the Jets, his job will not get any easier. But the issues of the Dolphins’ offense pale in comparison to those of the Jets’ offense. Geno Smith should be tortured all game by a strong Dolphins’ defense. This game means too much to lose for Miami, so I like the Dolphins to win in a low-scoring game.
Late in the fourth quarter of last Monday night’s 49ers-Falcons game, it appeared that this game between the 49ers and the Cardinals would be a win-or-go-home scenario. But then NaVorro Bowman made one of the plays of the season, returning an interception the length of the field to send San Francisco to the playoffs. They might have already clinched their place in the postseason, but the 49ers still have a lot to play for. With a win and a Seahawks loss, they can earn a first-round bye. For the Cardinals, their circumstances are a little more drastic. Despite having a surprising 10-5 record, the Cardinals need a win as well as a Saints loss to get the NFC’s final wild card spot. There is no more debate over if Arizona is for real, especially after they went into Seattle last week and grinded out a win. Carson Palmer might have thrown four interceptions in that game, but he found Michael Floyd late in the game for the winning touchdown. The defense was the far more impressive unit though, sacking Russell Wilson four times and holding him to just over 100 yards passing. The Cardinals boast the NFL’s top-ranked rush defense, so they are more than capable of slowing down the 49ers’ high-powered running game. Combine that with homefield advantage and a must-win situation, and I like the Cardinals to beat their division rivals.
This AFC North clash is important for both teams involved. The Bengals are playing for a higher seed, while the Ravens are playing for their lives. Cincinnati is already guaranteed to host a playoff game, but if they win and the Patriots lose then they can earn a first-round bye. And there might not be a team in the NFL who could use a bye more than the Bengals, because they lost in the first round in each of the past two seasons. Andy Dalton is a much more experienced quarterback now than he was then, but the bye would still be huge for the Bengals. The Ravens are playing for a lot more, because if they do not win and get some help from the Dolphins or Chargers then they are done. They are coming off of their worst performance of the Harbaugh-Flacco era, a 41-7 home loss to the Ravens. They have serious flaws on both sides of the ball and are fortunate just to have the chance to make the playoffs. They will play their hearts out in this game, but a road game against a much better Bengals team is bad news for Baltimore. I’m picking the Bengals to win and send the Ravens home packing.
The first of this week’s winner-take-all games will bring an end the tumultuous ride that has been this NFC East this season. The Cowboys and Eagles will meet on Sunday night to decide who earns a playoff spot, but this game has already been in the news all week. Tony Romo has been ruled out for the game after undergoing back surgery, so Kyle Orton will be under center for Dallas. Even with Romo, the Cowboys were barely able to sneak by the Redskins last week, so beating the Eagles on the road with Orton will be an extremely challenging task. On a positive note for Dallas, Orton is no slouch and he will get a lot of help from DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant. Still, the Eagles are the clear-cut favorite in this game. They are coming off of their most impressive win of the season, a 54-11 win over the Bears. Their offensive firepower was on full display, and LeSean McCoy has all but wrapped up the rushing title. The Bears defense was certainly not the best last week, but the Cowboys defense is even worse. This is a matchup made in heaven for the Eagles, and even a game of this weight might get out of hand fast. The Eagles should handle Dallas and clinch the NFC East crown.
This is not only the NFL’s oldest rivalry, but it is now the game of the week. This game already had a ton of appeal, but now that Aaron Rodgers has been cleared to play it has become a must-watch event. The Packers lost a heartbreaker last week to the Packers, but the Bears lost too so they still have a chance to win the NFC North. Matt Flynn was far from spectacular for Green Bay, but they cannot complain with the work he did now that are still in the playoff race. With Rodgers back and potentially Randall Cobb too, the Packers will be putting a completely different offense out on the field. Chicago’s offense is great in its own right, with the ability to beat defenses on the ground and through the air. Last week’s performance against the Eagles was horrendous for the Bears, but they are still as talented as anyone in the league. With Jay Cutler throwing the ball to both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey and Matt Forte pounding the rock, the Eagles defense will have to bring their A game. Neither of these defenses is among the NFL’s elite, so this game will probably come down to whoever has the ball last. Even Aaron Rodgers might be a little rusty in this one after missing several weeks, and the brutal Chicago environment will only make matters more difficult for him. I like Cutler to throw a late touchdown and win a playoff spot for the Bears.