Wednesday December 28th, 2011

A lot will be on the line when the Ravens take on the Bengals Sunday. (Mitch Stringer/US Presswire)

It has become an annual tradition in the college football world to rank the bowl games from worst to best -- check out how SI's Stewart Mandel ordered them this year (mark your calendars for the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 7).

This year, the NCAA bumped several bowl games from their traditional New Year's Day perch to Jan. 2, leaving pro football as the only game in town on the first day of 2012.

So, in honor of that power grab, here is how the NFL's Week 17 slate of games stacks up, starting from the bottom:

16. Chicago Bears (7-8) at Minnesota Vikings (3-12): With apologies to one of the NFL's longer-running rivalries, there's just nothing to be excited about here. Adrian Peterson won't play after blowing out his knee in Week 16, while Chicago is still without Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. Plus, Chicago's out of the playoff race, and Minnesota can no longer drop down and snatch the No. 1 pick in the draft.

15. Indianapolis Colts (2-13) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11): Of the four Week 17 games that have no playoff significance whatsoever, this is the only one with a legit backup storyline. The Colts, who looked headed for a winless season, are now one win away from coughing up the No. 1 draft pick and a shot at Andrew Luck. That's the lone reason there is any intrigue at all here.

14. Washington Redskins (5-10) at Philadelphia Eagles (7-8): Two more disappointing teams wrap up their seasons. There is at least some potential for this one to be entertaining, if for no other reason than Michael Vick's tendency to school the Redskins lately.

13. Seattle Seahawks (7-8) at Arizona Cardinals (7-8): This one had the potential to be a huge game, but neither team could complete late-season runs. Marshawn Lynch has been playing out of his mind lately, and it's possible both the Seahawks and Cardinals contend in 2012.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) at Atlanta Falcons (9-6): Atlanta has a playoff spot wrapped up already, while the Bucs hibernated in about mid-October and no one's bothered to wake them yet. The Falcons need a win and a Detroit loss to jump from No. 6 to No. 5 in the NFC, but they might be just as inclined to rest their starters.

11. San Francisco 49ers (12-3) at St. Louis Rams (2-13): A 49ers win is the best scenario for both teams -- it would provide San Francisco with a first-round playoff bye and give St. Louis a chance to claim the top pick in the 2012 draft. A Rams upset would shake up the NFC playoff picture, but it's hard to envision that happening.

10. Tennessee Titans (8-7) at Houston Texans (10-5): No matter what happens this week, the Texans will open the playoffs as the No. 3 seed -- meaning they're looking ahead to next week's home game already. Tennessee still has playoff life but needs a win and a host of other scenarios to play out.

9. Buffalo Bills (6-9) at New England Patriots (12-3): This doesn't qualify as a must-win for the Patriots, who can finish no worse than the second seed in the AFC. But a victory gives them home-field throughout the playoffs ... and they should get that 'W' against Buffalo.

8. Carolina Panthers (6-9) at New Orleans Saints (12-3): Had Drew Brees come up short in his Week 15 quest to top Dan Marino's single-season passing record, there would be a little more to see here. This game only matters for New Orleans if San Francisco loses Sunday -- the Saints could then claim a first-round bye. Otherwise, enjoy seeing Cam Newton one last time this season.

7. New York Jets (8-7) at Miami Dolphins (5-10): This feels a bit high given the matchup, but the Jets' mess of a season somehow stays interesting from week to week. New York needs a win plus losses by three other teams (Cincinnati, Tennessee and Oakland or Denver) to reach the postseason.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) at Cleveland Browns (4-11): Will Ben Roethlisberger return to the Pittsburgh lineup? He wants to, but we'll have to see if the Steelers put him at risk, since this is a winnable game either way. Of course, the outcome here only matters if Baltimore loses.

5. Detroit Lions (10-5) at Green Bay Packers (14-1): With Green Bay's run at an undefeated season in the past, some of the luster is off this one. Still, Detroit hasn't won at Lambeau since 1991 and, with a lot of the Packers' starters figuring to sit, this could be a chance. This game is so high, though, because it's a rematch of the Thanksgiving Day game that devolved thanks to Ndamukong Suh's stomp of Evan Dietrich-Smith. Those two will match up again Sunday.

4. San Diego Chargers (7-8) at Oakland Raiders (8-7): Will this be Norv Turner's last game as San Diego's coach? It looks that way, but the Raiders have bigger things to worry about. A win plus a Denver loss gives Oakland the AFC West title, and the Raiders still could sneak into a wild-card spot. The Chargers would love nothing more than to end their season by crushing the Raiders' playoff dreams.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (6-9) at Denver Broncos (8-7): The Broncos seemed set to complete a dramatic turnaround and clinch the AFC West. Now, they're one loss away from a potentially devastating conclusion. Does Tim Tebow have one more bit of magic left in the tank? If not, Kyle Orton -- waived by Denver and currently starting for K.C. -- could drive a dagger into the Broncos' hearts.

2. Baltimore Ravens (11-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-6): People in Cincinnati may not care about this one -- the franchise practically begged fans to show up -- but it's a hugely important game. The Bengals clinch a playoff spot with a win and could drop Baltimore from the No. 2 seed to No. 5 at the same time. The Ravens, meanwhile, can capture the AFC North, a first-round bye and possibly the conference's overall No. 1 seed with a victory. Plenty to play for all around. 1. Dallas Cowboys (8-7) at New York Giants (8-7): It's hard to feel like either of these teams is a Super Bowl contender at the moment, but the last game of the NFL's regular season will carry high drama as these two teams fight for the NFC East crown. This is essentially a playoff game -- and there's nothing better in sports than do-or-die situations.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.