By Don Banks
December 27, 2013
Bears coach Marc Trestman could become one of as many as five new coaches to make the playoffs.
Michael Thomas/Getty Images
Last week: 9-7; Season: 155-84
Sunday, Dec. 29
1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) Carolina Panthers (11-4) at Atlanta Falcons (4-11)
Carolina 24, Atlanta 20 -- Much respect is due the Panthers, who are an NFL-best 10-1 from Week 6 on. We've seen them display mental toughness and win close, hard-fought road games at San Francisco and Miami in the season's second half, and its dramatic Week 16 last-minute comeback at home against the Saints sends Carolina's confidence level to a season high. You'd feel even better about their chances to beat the Falcons and wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye if receiver Steve Smith was healthy, but at least Smith's sprained left knee has a chance to be ready in the playoffs. Atlanta will make the Panthers work for it all game long, but I think Ron Rivera's upstart team has come too far now to not seize every bit of its opportunity.
1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) Baltimore Ravens (8-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-5)
That just didn't look like a John Harbaugh-coached Ravens team last week at home against New England. Baltimore came out flat and never showed the kind of fight we've come to expect from the Ravens. Still, with a win against the Bengals and a loss by either Miami or San Diego, Baltimore will be playoff-bound for a league-best sixth consecutive year, a remarkable accomplishment in today's NFL. But the more likely scenario is the Ravens become the fourth defending Super Bowl champion in the past eight years to not even make it back to the playoffs. The Bengals, Patriots and Saints are the only three teams with a shot to finish a perfect 8-0 at home this season.
1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) Houston Texans (2-13) at Tennessee Titans (6-9)
I don't buy any part of the notion that NFL teams think about tanking for draft-order purposes. That only happens in the NBA, right? But if you were to ever let that be your motivation, you'd never get a more tempting situation than the one the quarterback-needy Texans face this week. Another loss and Houston wraps up the No. 1 pick in the draft, putting it in the pole position to take Teddy Bridgewater or whomever it has as its highest-rated passer. You can't let that opportunity slip between your fingers, just for the glory of finishing 3-13 and snapping a 13-game losing streak. This game has implications for the Titans as well. If Mike Munchak hopes to coach a fourth season in Tennessee, he best put a 7-9, second-place showing on the table for new team president/CEO Tommy Smith to consider.
1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11) at Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
The Colts just keep throwing head fakes, all season long. Just when I had chalked them up as a likely one-and-done playoff qualifier, they go to Kansas City and cool off a Chiefs team they're probably going to see again next week in the first round. Now Indy looks fairly dangerous once again, kind of like the club that knocked off San Francisco, Seattle and Denver in a five-week span of September and October.
1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) New York Jets (7-8) at Miami Dolphins (8-7)
I give the Jets a great shot to upset the Dolphins and fight their way to a very respectable 8-8, perhaps saving Rex Ryan's job and winning him a short contract extension. But New York is a ghastly 1-6 on the road this season, with its only win coming at Atlanta in Week 5. Miami has the most plausible road to the playoffs of any of the AFC wild-card hopefuls, needing only a win and a Baltimore loss, or a win and San Diego win, to break its five-year postseason drought. If the Dolphins can't out-score Geno Smith and the Jets offense at home with that much on the line, then they just weren't playoff material after all.
1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) Detroit Lions (7-8) at Minnesota Vikings (4-10-1)
Lots of potential finality in the air in this one. It's the last game for the Vikings under the big top in the Metrodome, where they have played since 1982. And it's entirely possible both Detroit's Jim Schwartz and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier will be coaching their final games for these NFC North rivals. Detroit let its season swirl down the drain the past three weeks, so there's little reason to think the Lions will rise up and go out with their heads held high. The Vikings have shown they will play hard for Frazier, and the stadium farewell gives them another intangible in their favor. I spent a lot of my NFL Sundays in the Metrodome in the late '90s, chronicling the exploits of Dennis Green's playoff-bound clubs, and I still hear that guy blowing the Vikings horn in my sleep.
1:00 p.m. ET (FOX) Washington Redskins (3-12) at New York Giants (6-9)
A tip of the hat to Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who is a very Tony Gonzalez-like "99 percent" sure he's going to hang 'em up after 16 stellar seasons in the NFL. Fletcher has been one of the league's more underrated stars in my opinion, and while this was not the season-finale he was hoping to play in at MetLife Stadium this season (that game will be in five-plus weeks), he won a Super Bowl ring with the Rams in 1999 and always played the game the right way. While the Eagles and Cowboys square off in Dallas for the NFC East title, the Giants and Redskins play for the chance to finally be put out of their respective miseries.
1:00 p.m. ET (CBS) Cleveland Browns (4-11) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8)
Can you imagine if it happens? If the Steelers some how find themselves in the playoffs at 8-8, after a 2-6 start and those killer back-to-back losses at Baltimore and at home against Miami in Weeks 13-14? Is it implausible to get a win over the Browns in combination with losses by Miami, Baltimore and San Diego? Yes. But definitely not impossible. It would be the most ridiculous late-developing playoff charge in recent NFL history, and you get the feeling the rest of the AFC postseason field would not consider it a welcomed development.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) Green Bay Packers (7-7-1) at Chicago Bears (8-7)
NFL fans I meet like to ask which team I root for, and I always tell them the same thing: When I was a kid growing up in the Tampa Bay area, it was the Super Bowl-era Dolphins, followed by those sad-sack expansion-team Bucs. I like to think I lived both sides of the NFL fan's experience in those years. But once you start covering the league for a living, you root for just good storylines (and warm-weather travel itineraries in the winter). Aaron Rodgers coming back after missing almost eight games, trying to win a division title for the 7-7-1 Packers, is a ridiculously good story line. And besides, Green Bay was my NFC Super Bowl pick, way back in early September. Can't really bail on that choice in Week 17, with the playoffs on the line, even if the season played out nothing like I foresaw.
4:25 p.m. ET (CBS) Denver Broncos (12-3) at Oakland Raiders (4-11)
The Broncos need 18 points to break the 2007 Patriots' league scoring record of 589, and they shouldn't have to play Peyton Manning the whole way to get that one safely tucked away. Unless, of course, Manning is still shy of the 266 passing yards he needs to break Drew Brees' 2011 single-season record of 5,476. So many records. All of which will mean so little if Denver doesn't get the job done and take the big confetti shower in New Jersey on the night of Feb. 2. That's just the hard, cold reality of it, Broncos fans.
4:25 p.m. ET (CBS) Buffalo Bills (6-9) at New England Patriots (11-4)
The Bills lead the NFL in sacks with 56 and can really get after the passer, and most of New England's offensive struggles this season have come against teams that bring the heat. But the Patriots need the game to lock up the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, and that means they'll find a way to post yet another narrow victory over Buffalo, a team they have beaten 19 times in 20 tries. At the end of the day, a first-place New England at 12-4 and a last -place Bills at 6-10 will feel like the NFL universe has again found its natural order of existence.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) at New Orleans Saints (10-5)
With Carolina playing at Atlanta in a 1 p.m. game, the Saints should know by the time they take the Superdome field if they're gunning for the NFC South crown or just a wild-card berth. It'll take some of the air out of the building if it's a wild-card shot because that forces New Orleans to hit the road, and we know what that has meant for Sean Payton's club in the season's second half. But with Arizona playing simultaneously at home against the 49ers and trying to steal that wild-card berth from the Saints, I look for New Orleans to snap out of any doldrums in the second half and pull away from a Bucs team that just can't match scores with Drew Brees and Co.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) San Francisco 49ers (11-4) at Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
The Cardinals aren't going to make the playoffs unless the Saints stumble at home against the Bucs, but I think they're a better team these days than at least five clubs that will be in the 12-team postseason field. At 11-5, Arizona would be just the third club to win that many and miss the playoffs since the advent of the 16-game season in 1978 (joining the 1985 Broncos and 2008 Patriots). Look for the Cardinals to become an example of why the NFL wants to expand the playoffs to 14 teams, although the better conversation to have is why the league doesn't just seed by records and advance the six best teams in each conference, regardless of divisions.
4:25 p.m. ET (CBS) Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-7)
Tricky game to pick because the two teams that San Diego needs to lose in order for the Chargers to make the playoffs with a win -- Miami and Baltimore -- play an early game, and thus Mike McCoy's club could be eliminated by the time kickoff rolls around. On the other hand, the Chiefs are locked into their No. 5 wild-card slot, and Andy Reid has said he won't play some starters the whole game. But the Chargers have already beaten Kansas City in Arrowhead Stadium this year, so it's hard to go against them in a game that would assure them a winning record and stamp McCoy's first season as a definite success.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) St. Louis Rams (7-8) at Seattle Seahawks (12-3)
That home loss to the Cardinals last week should serve as smelling salts under the nose of the Seahawks as they take the last step in setting up what they hope is a long playoff run. Seattle is very good, but not so good it can coast on its reputation alone. With the No. 1 seed in the NFC still unspoken for, Pete Carroll's club needs to send a message that the road to the Super Bowl leads through Seattle narrative is still operative. The Rams can be plucky, but they can only pull the upset if the Seahawks aren't fully engaged with eyes on the prize.
8:30 p.m. ET (NBC) Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) at Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
Kyle Orton is no Curtis Painter or Caleb Hanie, so the Cowboys have a chance with their backup quarterback starting in place of the hobbled Tony Romo. But even if Romo were available, the Eagles have too much offense and Dallas too little defense for the Cowboys to hang for four quarters with Chip Kelly's Gang Green. And the .500 trend continues for yet another mind-boggling year for the Cowboys, as does their abysmal failures in Week 17 NFC East title games. It would be the definition of insanity if Dallas stays status quo after this year's instant replay-like finish to the season.
BURKE: Benglas rapidly rising in Week 16 Power Rankings
THE PLAYBOOK: Previewing Packers-Bears, Eagles-Cowboys, more Week 17 games
BANKS: Your guide to Black Monday and the 2014 coaching carousel
KING: Can Kyle Orton do the unthinkable and win for the Cowboys?
BENOIT: Taking a deeper dive into every Week 17 matchup

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