NFL Week 17 storylines: High drama as season comes to a close
Week 17 provides us with the one and only day all season when all 32 NFL teams are in action. That alone makes the final Sunday of the regular season special on a yearly basis, but as is so often the case, there is also a lot to be decided in the remaining 16 games.
From the No. 1 pick in April's draft to division titles to a wild-card spot, Week 17 has it all. What better way to kick off 2012?
Here's a look at the biggest storylines of a huge Sunday in the NFL:
• Final AFC wild-card spot goes down to the wire
Will it be Cincinnati? Oakland? Tennessee? The Jets? All four of those teams are still alive for the AFC's final playoff spot, though the tiebreakers get a little kooky if Cincinnati can't beat Baltimore.
The Jets and Titans take the field in Sunday's early time slot -- the former at Miami; the latter in Houston. Amazingly, there are scenarios where a win by the 8-7 Jets actually helps the 8-7 Titans get into the playoffs. Either way, we'll know a lot more about where things stand heading into the afternoon's late games.
Oh yea, and Oakland still has a shot at the AFC West title, but current division leader Denver cannot drop down and take a wild-card spot.
• Which teams will rest their starters?
This is always a big question come Week 17, and at least one or two teams end up impacting the playoff race by clearing the bench.
Any team that's already secured a postseason spot has reason to play it safe, especially those like Green Bay and Houston, which already know their specific positioning (No. 1 in the NFC and No. 3 in the AFC, respectively). But the Texans sitting their starters could help Tennessee into the playoffs, while Green Bay doing so might allow Detroit, which hasn't won at Lambeau Field since 1991, to lock down the NFC's No. 5 spot over Atlanta.
• No. 1 pick up for grabs ...
Two weeks ago, the Colts, then 0-13, looked like a lock to land the No. 1 pick in April's draft. But as we head into Week 17, Indianapolis is riding a two-game win streak. If the Colts stretch that to three by beating Jacksonville, and reeling St. Louis falls to 2-14 with a loss against San Francisco, it would be the Rams atop the draft order.
The ramifications are huge. Indianapolis seems a safe bet to take Stanford QB Andrew Luck if it lands the top spot. But the Rams already have Sam Bradford, meaning that there could be a bidding war for the top pick involving any quarterback-needy team in the league.
• ... And so are first-round byes
The NFC playoffs will go through Green Bay, but the coveted No. 2 seed, which comes with a first-round bye of its own, is still on the line. It's the 49ers, if they win in St. Louis. Otherwise, the door would be open for New Orleans to jump up by beating Carolina.
Meanwhile, in the AFC, New England can clamp down the top spot and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs by beating Buffalo. Either Baltimore or Pittsburgh will rest in the playoffs first week (see below item), either as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Detroit hasn't won in Green Bay since 1991. With the Packers possibly resting their starters, the Lions may not get a better chance to break that streak than Sunday.
However, it won't happen if the Lions lose their cool, as they did in that Thanksgiving Day meltdown against Green Bay. Highlighting the collapse that afternoon was Ndamukong Suh's stomp of Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. Those two figure to see plenty of each other again this week, with Dietrich-Smith earning increased minutes lately on a banged-up Green Bay line.
Dietrich-Smith said this week that the stomping incident is in the past and that Suh called him to apologize, but we'll have to see if any lingering animosity sparks.
• Baltimore, Pittsburgh still have plenty to play for
The Ravens and Steelers would love to be in that group of teams able to rest some people Sunday. Instead, the two teams will lay it all on the line in an effort to claim the AFC North and a playoff bye.
If Baltimore beats Cincinnati, the Ravens will take the division and one of the top two AFC seeds (the exact spot depends on New England's outcome), while Pittsburgh needs a win at Cleveland and a Baltimore loss to steal the crown.
• Can Kyle Orton ruin Denver's season?
When the Broncos waived Kyle Orton in November, the doomsday scenario was that an AFC West team would claim him, then use him to keep Denver out of the playoffs. Well, here we are ...
Denver can clinch the AFC West with a win over Kansas City on Sunday, but Orton and the Chiefs would love nothing more than to play spoiler. If they pull off the upset in Denver, the door would be wide open for Oakland to take the division title.
• Will Tom Brady steal the passing record from Drew Brees?
There was a lot of hoopla surrounding Brees leapfrogging Dan Marino for the single-season passing yardage record, but Brady could ruin some of the fun. New England's QB enters Week 17 just 190 yards back of Brees.
If the Saints decide to rest Brees for some or all of Sunday's game vs. Carolina, and Brady's throwing shoulder is healthy enough to play four quarters against Buffalo -- remember, New England needs a win to clinch the AFC's No. 1 seed -- then the record could change hands for the second time in two weeks.
• NFC East sets up for an epic finish
It all comes down to this. The last game of the last day of the NFL's regular season will decide the NFC East race, as Dallas visits the Giants in New York. No division in football has been as thoroughly disappointing as the NFC East, which has four teams at 8-7 or worse. Still, the do-or-die nature of this matchup brings a lot of luster back.