The Packers get Aaron Rodgers back just in time for their critical matchup with the Bears. (Morry Gash/AP)
Chris Burke and Doug Farrar get you ready for the weekend with The Playbook, a detailed weekly preview that gives you everything you need to know about the upcoming slate of games.
Green Bay (7-7-1) at Chicago (8-7) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Bears head coach Marc Trestman has said he and his team are prepared for the return of Aaron Rodgers, but they're probably more concerned about the status of Packers running back Eddie Lacy. On Thursday, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Lacy should be good to go despite an ankle injury, which is bad news for a Chicago front seven that can't seem to stop anyone in the run game. The Bears have allowed 161.5 yards per game on the ground, the worst total in the NFL, and they're coming off a 54-11 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in which they allowed 289 rushing yards on 36 carries. Lacy has 1,112 yards on 263 carries in his rookie season, and he's run for 290 of those yards and four touchdowns in his last three games. Even if he's not fully healthy, Lacy will have every opportunity to be as much a difference-maker in this game as Rodgers might be.
"I think we counted at least 20 missed tackles in the game, which is way, way too many," Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said Monday after reviewing the tape of Chicago' loss to the Eagles. "You're playing a good offense. They're going to have you spread out and get the ball to people in space, and you've got to get a tackle. We didn't do that."
The Packers are also hoping to get receiver Randall Cobb back sooner than later -- perhaps even for Sunday -- which would add even more weapons to Green Bay's offense. Of course, the Bears have their own studs in the passing game; receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery might be the league's best 1-2 combo, and tight end Martellus Bennett is especially effective when Trestman packages him in route combinations with Marshall and Jeffery. Green Bay's primary pass-rusher Clay Matthews will be out of this game with a thumb injury, which puts the burden on a Packers secondary that will be stretched to its limits against Jay Cutler's targets.
If the Packers can overcome that issue, they have a good shot at winning the NFC North -- just one week after they were unsure whether they'd even make the playoffs. -- Doug Farrar
Philadelphia (9-6) at Dallas (8-7) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Like the Bears they beat so decisively last Sunday, the Eagles are in a one-and-done playoff for their division. And like the Bears, the Eagles will battle a team with a quarterback situation that has been uncertain this week. Unlike the Bears, the Eagles will not face their opposition's regular starter as Cowboys coach Jason Garrett revealed Friday that Tony Romo underwent back surgery and is out for the season. With Romo out, it will be up to Kyle Orton, who's thrown just 15 regular-season passes since the Cowboys signed him as Romo's backup before the 2012 season. Backing Orton up will be the recently-signed Jon Kitna, who last played in the league in 2011.
How do you feel about Romo now, Cowboys fans? Miss him more just yet?
That said, Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said Thursday his team would not fall for the "banana in the tailpipe" trick, alluding to one of the better moments in Beverly Hills Cop, and insisted Philly would not slack off at all just because their opposing quarterback is not a superstar.
"I don't think this changes their offense much just because of who the backup is," Kelly said. " I think they are going to stick to what they do. They obviously have got playmakers in Dez Bryant and [Jason] Witten. They are going to run the ball with DeMarco Murray, who didn't play against us in the first game ... I don't anticipate Kyle [Orton] coming in and they are going to start running the option up‑and‑down the field. I think they will stick to their plan in terms of what they do."
BUKOWSKI: Eagles' Kelly emerging as late leader in Coach of the Year race
What the Eagles do should be of more concern to a Dallas defense that has been dismantled all season by the league's more effective passing games; the schemes put out by Kelly and run by quarterback Nick Foles certainly qualify. That said, when these teams faced off on Oct. 20., Foles was pressured ceaselessly and knocked out of the game in the third quarter. It was a rare sub-par start this season, and he's been ridiculously efficient since. His 118.8 passer rating this season is 5.8 points higher than that of Peyton Manning, who's in second place. -- DF
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Baltimore (8-7) at Cincinnati (10-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: How badly do the Bengals want to keep the Ravens out of the playoffs? Cincinnati still has an outside shot at a first-round bye, so it's not exactly a throwaway game for the AFC North champs. The difference between sitting in the No. 3 seed (and getting Miami, Baltimore, San Diego or Pittsburgh) or dropping to No. 4 (and hosting Kansas City) could be substantial, too.
But it's the Ravens with the real air of desperation here. They needed four wins in a row from Weeks 12-15 to scrap back into the wild-card race, but then laid an egg in Week 16 vs. New England. As a result, Baltimore does not control its own fate -- a win plus a loss by either Miami or San Diego presents the simplest path to the playoffs.
Baltimore snuck past Cincinnati a few weeks back with a 20-17 overtime win on the strength of (what else?) a Justin Tucker field goal. The Ravens actually led that game 17-0 at halftime before allowing the Bengals to storm back.
Cincinnati did so as it has accomplished most of its feats this season: with A.J. Green making big plays outside and the defense putting the clamps on its opposition.
The Bengals' defense has been particularly stout in front of its own fans, where it will be Sunday. Cincinnati has posted a 7-0 mark at home, thrice holding teams to 10 points or less. Despite their recent win streak, the Ravens have not exactly been scorching on offense either. They scored just seven against the Patriots last week and failed to reach the end zone in a Monday night win at Detroit the week before. The Bengals' run D (No. 6 in the NFL) might eliminate the Bernard Pierce-Ray Rice duo, putting the heat on a hobbled Joe Flacco in the pass game.
Baltimore must find a better way to deal with Green, if there is one. He went off for 151 yards in the earlier matchup and looks even more dangerous now that Andy Dalton has found a way to spread the ball around some.
A Cincinnati loss could set up a rematch next week, when the playoffs begin. -- Chris Burke
BURKE: NFL Power Rankings: Are Bengals legit Super Bowl-contenders?
San Francisco (11-4) at Arizona (10-5) -- 4:25 p.m ET, FOX: The Cardinals' official Twitter feed had but a one-word reaction to the 49ers' dramatic Week 16 win, saved by a late pick-six from NaVorro Bowman: "Ouch."
Had Matt Ryan and the Falcons punched the ball in the end zone there, the Cardinals could have headed to Week 17 in control of their own playoff destiny. Instead, San Francisco has a playoff spot clinched, and Arizona needs Tampa Bay to knock off the Saints just for a shot. That's a rough fate for a Cardinals team that has overachieved all season and yet may still miss out on the playoffs with 10 or 11 wins.
"It would be a shame, but that’s the way it is," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "I’m not about changing rules or anything. Just a bad year for that to happen. It’s only happened one other time, and we’re in a great division, so it could happen to us."
The 49ers could use a little help of their own in Week 17: If they win and St. Louis upsets Seattle, the 49ers would jump the Seahawks for the NFC West title. Should Carolina also lose, Jim Harbaugh's team would be the conference's top playoff seed.
With so much on the line, this could be one of Sunday's best games. The first meeting of the season between these division rivals wasn't half-bad either. San Francisco claimed victory in that back-and-forth affair, 32-20, putting up 10 unaswered points in the fourth quarter after Arizona had clawed within two.
That game occurred back in Week 6. Arizona lost the next week as well, against Seattle, to slip to 3-4. Since then, the Cardinals have evolved into one of the league's toughest outs -- they're 6-1 in their last seven games, the lone loss a three-pointer at Philadelphia. Only once (Week 15 at Tennessee) in that stretch has Arizona allowed more than 24 points, and the defense really cranked it up last Sunday in Seattle, limiting the Seahawks to 192 total yards.
Repeating their shutdown of Russell Wilson against San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick will be tough but not impossible. The Cardinals sacked Wilson four times, while their aggressive secondary kept his receivers in check.
San Francisco boasts its own stout defense -- currently ranked No. 3 in both points and yards allowed. That D forced the Cardinals into four turnovers back in that Week 6 matchup, including two interceptions from Carson Palmer. -- CB
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NY Jets (7-8) at Miami (8-7) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Jets may be playing for Rex Ryan's job (depending on who you believe), while the Dolphins are trying to sneak into the playoffs -- they don't control their own destiny at this point. Miami rolled over the Jets 23-3 on Dec. 1 in one of Ryan Tannehill's best NFL games. Tannehill will be looking to bounce back after the Bills thumped him to the tune of a 19-0 rout last Sunday. -- DF
Denver (12-3) at Oakland (4-11) -- 4:25 p.m ET, CBS: If the Broncos win or the Patriots lose on Sunday, Denver will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Raiders have no sign of postseason concerns, but they've got their own drama, with head coach Dennis Allen ripping Terrelle Pryor's agent. Pryor will start against the Broncos, and Denver's defense could struggle against his running ability. DF
Tampa Bay (4-11) at New Orleans (10-5) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: The Saints have lost three of their last four games, leaving them with possibilities that rank from the second seed to the fifth seed to missing out on the postseason altogether. The Bucs are just playing for a respectable end to their season, but this could be a problem for New Orleans because Greg Schiano's team is more formidable than the squad that lost by just two points to the Saints on Sept. 15. -- DF
St. Louis (7-8) at Seattle (12-3) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: The Seahawks will grab home-field throughout if they beat the Rams, but that's no sure thing. St. Louis' hyper-talented front seven has proven that it can dominate Seattle's iffy offensive line, and rookie Zac Stacy rocked the Seahawks for 134 rushing yards on 26 carries when these teams last met. That was a 14-9 win for Seattle; this game could easily go the other way. -- DF
Carolina (11-4) at Atlanta (4-11) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Carolina has clinched a playoff spot, but the implications in this one are huge. If the Panthers win their 12th game, they'll wrap up the NFC South and a top-two seed; if they lose, New Orleans could jump them for the division, sending Carolina on the road next week. They'll have to win without injured WR Steve Smith. And it might be tough, given how close Atlanta came to shocking San Francisco in Week 16. -- CB
Cleveland (4-11) at Pittsburgh (7-8) -- 1 ET, CBS: The Steelers, almost inconceivably, are still alive for a playoff spot, though they need everything to fall their way Sunday (win plus losses by Miami, Baltimore and San Dieg0). They already stomped Cleveland once this year, 27-11 -- loss No. 2 in the Browns' current six-game slide. Pittsburgh WR Antonio Brown will enter this one six catches back of the NFL lead. -- CB
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Buffalo (6-9) at New England (11-4) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: Buffalo played its spoiler role well last week, shutting out the Dolphins. Can the Bills repeat this Sunday in a place they haven't won in since 2000? The Patriots have the AFC East sewed up, but they're still aiming for a first-round bye (and possibly the No. 1 seed). They've had to prepare for two different QBs this week, EJ Manuel and Thad Lewis, though Lewis was announced as the starter Friday. The latter led that impressive Week 16 victory over the Dolphins. -- CB
Kansas City (11-4) at San Diego (8-7) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: It sounds as if this game could add fuel to the fire regarding how much responsibility, if any, teams have to try to win in Week 17. Chiefs coach Andy Reid has said he plans to rest his starters a great deal here, which could be a huge development in the AFC wild-card race. Miami, Baltimore and Pittsburgh all play in Sunday's early slot -- meaning that last playoff spot could hinge on the outcome here. -- CB
Only For The Faithful
Jacksonville (4-11) at Indianapolis (10-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Colts know they have a playoff spot sewn up, but they need to get their offense together sooner than later. Could be a tough task against a Jacksonville defense starting to play tougher under rookie head coach Gus Bradley. -- DF
Washington (3-12) at NY Giants (6-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Giants are hoping to finish the season 7-3 after their horrid 0-6 start, while Mike Shanahan is probably hoping that Dan Snyder doesn't fire him at halftime. The biggest suspense in this one might be what kind of trade scenario Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins can play himself into. -- DF
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Houston (2-13) at Tennessee (6-9) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Texans are one loss away from finishing the year on a 14-game skid ... and with the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. Ironically, they close the season against the last team they beat. Houston scored a dramatic Week 2 overtime win on the Titans, thanks to a terrific DeAndre Hopkins grab. -- CB
Detroit (7-8) at Minnesota (4-10) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Two teams out of the playoff race bid farewell to the Metrodome, which will be replaced as the Vikings' home next season. This also could be the final games for Detroit coach Jim Schwartz and Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier, both of whom find themselves planted firmly on the hot seat. -- CB
(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus.)
- Patriots rookie cornerback Logan Ryan, a third-rounder from Rutgers, has been a real star late in the season after a rocky start. He's picked off five passes this season (four in the last five games and two against the Ravens last Sunday), and only Seattle's Richard Sherman is allowing a lower passer rating than Ryan's 52.8 among qualifying cornerbacks (at least 50 percent of all defensive snaps).
"It’s not only ball skills but I’d say an awareness or an instinctiveness, if you will, in terms of when to look for the ball, having an awareness of the ball being thrown and near his location and anticipating routes and being able to react to those routes sometimes a little bit before the ball is thrown and in some cases, maybe if he’s reading the quarterback, a little bit before the receiver can get into his breaks," Bill Belichick said of Ryan on Monday.
- Of the remaining potential playoff quarterbacks, none has faced more pressure than Seattle's Russell Wilson -- he's been pressured on 43.5 percent of his 474 dropbacks. The good news is that he's tied with Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger for the most touchdowns thrown under pressure with 10. The bad news is that Wilson was sacked three times by Rams defensive end Robert Quinn when the two teams last met, and Quinn leads the league in total pressures with 90. Quinn lines up on the defensive right side 99.1 percent of the time, so it's all on Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung, who didn't play in the previous matchup.
- Only the Dallas Cowboys have allowed more total yards than the Kansas City Chiefs over the last eight weeks, which is certainly a surprise to those who remember when Kansas City's defense was lockdown all the way. One issue has been missed tackles, and linebacker Derrick Johnson leads the league in that category with 13. He didn't help himself by blowing six against the Colts on Sunday.
- While Tom Brady's targets are dropping all around him, receiver Julian Edelman has saved New England's offense at times in what has been his best season. The five-year veteran has been especially effective on seam routes from the slot -- he ranks third in the NFL with 50 slot receptions (behind Kendall Wright's 61 and Wes Welker's 57) despite just 284 slot targets. -- DF
Matchup to Watch: Sheldon Richardson and the Jets' D-line vs. Miami's offensive line.
Ryan Tannehill has been sacked more than any other QB in the NFL this season (58 times so far, to be exact). That's a problematic situation for the Dolphins, what with their depleted offensive line and all. The Bills took advantage of Miami in the trenches, chalking up seven sacks as part of a 19-0 win.
Miami must do a better job keeping Tannehill clean -- and finding some running lanes for Lamar Miller -- in Week 17. The Jets are tied for 11th in the league in sacks with 41, and their success up front often relies on how much push rookie DT Sheldon Richardson can create. If he's able to drive the Dolphins' guards and center back repeatedly, the outside lanes could be wide open for the likes of Muhammaed Wilkerson and Calvin Pace.
Pressure's On ...: Kyle Orton, QB, Cowboys.
The circumstances -- stepping in for Tony Romo with the division on the line -- dictate that the pressure is cranked up here. Reality might tell another story. With Orton taking the helm Sunday against an Eagles team that would be a prohibitive favorite, the Cowboys might find themselves in a somewhat-enviable "What do we have to lose?" sort of mindset.
This Week's Sleeper: Chase Daniel, QB, Chiefs.
As mentioned earlier, the Chiefs' Week 17 plan appears to involve clearing the bench early and often against San Diego. That strategy should afford Daniel, with 17 regular-season passes in four NFL seasons, a rare opportunity to see the field. He might be able to hang some yards on the Chargers' pass defense, too. Alex Smith threw for 294 yards and three touchdowns in an earlier loss to San Diego, which ranks 29th in defending the pass.
Rookie Spotlight: Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals.
It's been a rough couple of weeks on the ground for Bernard, who has been limited to 53 total yards rushing on 26 carries over Cincinnati's past two games. The Steelers shut both him and BenJarvus Green-Ellis down in Week 15, en route to a 30-20 win. Cincinnati needs its offensive balance in full effect Sunday against Baltimore. Finding some space for Bernard early would help further that cause. -- CB
Dallas Cowboys. There are all kinds of must-win scenarios around the NFL this Sunday, but if the Cowboys lose to the Eagles and miss the playoffs this season, it will be for the fourth straight year, which hasn't happened since Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989. That could lead to the end of the Jason Garrett era, a huge roster re-shuffle determined by the franchise's salary cap situation, and goodness knows what sort of moves made by Jones. Drama fans eagerly await the potential fallout to be sure, but Cowboys fans have to be shaking in their boots. -- DF
Miami: The Dolphins could be bounced from the postseason even with a win. But they'd long regret coughing their spot away by ending with back-to-back losses to Buffalo and the Jets. -- CB
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