Eagles-Cowboys, Packers-Bears among Week 17 must attend games
The postseason doesn't officially start until next weekend, but one-and-done time has arrived a week early for four NFC teams with playoff aspirations. The Cowboys, Eagles, Bears and Packers will play winner-take-all games Sunday.
The Cowboys and Eagles will meet Sunday night in Arlington, where the winner will claim the NFC East division championship and the loser will be finished for the season. The Bears will meet the Packers in Chicago in a late afternoon game that will decide the NFC North title, with the victor capturing the division and the loser closing up shop.
Those two contests top the list of must-see games on the final weekend of the regular season.
Dallas faces a postseason play-in game in its regular season finale for the third year in a row. In 2011, the Cowboys lost 31-14 to the Giants. Last year they lost 28-18 to the Redskins. Both of those games were on the road. Will they have better luck playing at home?
It will depend largely on backup quarterback Kyle Orton. When starter Tony Romo underwent back surgery on Friday, it confirmed what most had suspected all week long: Romo is through for the season. Owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett tried to spin a hopeful prognosis during the week, claiming that Romo, who received an epidural as part of his treatment for a herniated disk he suffered in last week's game in Washington, was day-to-day. Instead, Orton will get the call in Sunday night's pivotal game.
Orton hasn't started an NFL game since New Year's Day 2012, when he played for Kansas City, and has played less than two dozen snaps over the last two seasons, but it's not as if he's new to the rodeo. This is the eighth season for Orton, who has started 69 NFL games with the Bears, Broncos and Chiefs, and has thrown 81 touchdowns. He has a strong arm, but isn't considered as mobile as Romo.
A Romo-less Cowboys offense needs a huge dose of DeMarco Murray, who has rushed for 1,073 yards and nine touchdowns this season and has been particularly effective in the last six games (105 carries for 614 yards and six TDs).
Dallas beat the Eagles 17-3 in Philadelphia on Oct. 20 in what was Philadelphia's most anemic offensive performance of the season. Nick Foles, starting at quarterback in place of an injured Michael Vick, completed only 11 of 29 passes for 80 yards before leaving the game with a concussion and giving way to Matt Barkley.
Since that first Dallas game, Foles has performed like a wunderkind in his second year in the NFL. For the season, he has completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 2,628 yards and 25 touchdowns, with only two interceptions, and he is the highest-rated quarterback (118.8) in the league. The much-maligned Dallas offense will face another challenge on Sunday night: trying to defend the league's No. 1 rushing offense (161.9 yards per game). The ground game features LeSean "Shady" McCoy, who leads the league with 1,476 yards on 287 carries (5.1 yards per attempt).
Another Eagles player who has come up big in recent games is outside linebacker Trent Cole. The former end has accounted for seven of Philadelphia's 17 sacks in the last five games, including three in last week's victory over Jay Cutler and the Bears. Defeating the Eagles and advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 shapes up as a huge challenge for Dallas.
Just in time for their biggest game of the season, the Packers will have franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers back under center for the first time since Nov. 4, when he suffered a broken collarbone early in the first quarter of the game against the Bears in Green Bay. Despite playing three other quarterbacks (Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn) and going 2-5-1 in Rodgers' absence, the Packers have a chance to win a division title for the third year in a row, earn the NFC's No. 4 playoff seed and host a wild-card game.
This is a late Christmas present for Packers Nation. Rodgers has won nine of his 12 career starts against Chicago, including the NFC championship game after the 2010 season. Green Bay's offense also could have rookie running back Eddie Lacy on the field Sunday, even though he aggravated a sprained ankle in last week's loss to Pittsburgh.
You can imagine how the news of Rodgers' return was greeted in the Bears locker room. Chicago is coming off a completely uninspiring game against the Eagles -- a 54-11 butt-kicking that left coach Marc Trestman describing his players performance as terrible in every phase (offense, defense and special teams). It was the fourth time that the Bears had allowed at least 40 points this season, although all four games were on the road.
Rodgers' return isn't the only factor that should furrow the brows of Chicago fans. The Bears rank last in the league in rushing defense, allowing an average of 161.5 yards per game and 5.4 yards per rush. Eleven running backs have cracked the 100-yard plateau against Chicago this season, including the Eagles' McCoy (133) and Bryce Brown (115) last week.
We're used to seeing the Ravens playing in January. They have qualified for the playoffs every year since coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco arrived in 2008. But the defending Super Bowl champions will need some help to get to the playoffs for an NFL-best sixth straight year.
First, Baltimore needs to beat the Bengals, who already have wrapped up first place in the AFC North. Then the Ravens need the Dolphins to lose at home to the Jets and the Chargers to lose at home to Kansas City. The Ravens still could get in with a loss to Cincinnati, but they would need Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh to all lose.
Although the odds look stacked against the Ravens -- they are coming off the worst home loss in franchise history (a 41-7 thrashing by New England that snapped their four-game winning streak); they are only 2-5 on the road this season; and they have lost three of their last four games in Cincinnati -- it's never a good idea to count them out prematurely. Even with Flacco wearing a brace on his left knee, the consequence of suffering an MCL sprain two weeks ago, Baltimore could surprise us.
The NFC West is best. There can be no argument about that. Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona and St. Louis have combined for a 30-10 record against non-division opponents, and the division possibly could produce three playoff teams.
The Seahawks and 49ers already have clinched postseason spots, although first place in the division is still to be determined. The Cardinals could make it a trio of NFC West teams if they beat the 49ers while Tampa Bay, a 12.5-point underdog, improbably defeats the Saints in New Orleans.
With victories in seven of its last eight games, Arizona is the second-hottest team to San Francisco (five wins in a row) going into the weekend. Last week, the Cardinals became the first team to beat the Seahawks in Seattle since Christmas Eve 2011 -- despite quarterback Carson Palmer's four interceptions. Yet the Cardinals still could win on Sunday and miss the postseason.
To get into the postseason for the first time since 2008, when it won the AFC East, Miami must beat the Jets, who haven't put two wins back-to-back all season, and have the Ravens lose or the Chargers win. A tie against New York coupled with losses by both Baltimore and San Diego also would get Miami the final AFC playoff seed.
Give coach Joe Philbin credit for holding the Dolphins together through the midseason Bully Gate controversy featuring Richie Incognito and Johnathan Martin that could have led to a team implosion. But Miami has no one to blame but itself for its current predicament. The Dolphins teased their fans by knocking off the Patriots 24-20 at home in Week 15, then they traveled to lowly Buffalo last week and laid a big egg in a 19-0 loss.