The final day of the NFL's regular season games is nearly upon us. While some teams have safely locked up playoff spots or have nothing to play for at this point, there are plenty of divisional matchups across the board, with several division titles and wild-card spots still to be clinched. In this week's Cover-Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss which teams will snag those wild-card spots, which players could cause the biggest stir in Week 17 and where Jim Harbaugh might land in 2015.
1. Who will be the wild-card teams in the AFC?
Chris Burke: Cincinnati and Baltimore. This scenario requires the Chiefs, with Chase Daniel making his second career start in place of an injured Alex Smith, to knock off the Chargers (1 p.m. ET, CBS). San Diego took advantage of a near-identical situation last year to clinch in Week 17.
Two factors to keep in mind, however: 1. That 2013 season finale was in San Diego; 2. Daniel actually played pretty well. The Chiefs' somewhat vanilla passing offense eases the transition to a backup, at least in the short-term, plus Daniel is a threat out of the pocket -- he rushed for 59 yards on seven attempts vs. San Diego last season, which is two yards better than Alex Smith's single-game career high.
In other words, Daniel should be just fine, even if it's a step down at quarterback. If all goes according to plan for the Chiefs, quarterback play falls behind the run game and defense on the keys-to-victory pecking order anyway.
That outcome would open the door for the Ravens -- they're next up in the wild-card pecking order behind San Diego. And even though Baltimore has struggled throughout the 2014 season, it would be an absolute nightmare for that franchise to lose to a Cleveland team starting rookie Connor Shaw at quarterback (1 p.m. ET, CBS). (Granted, the Ravens lost to the Case Keenum-led Texans last week, but that was on the road.) So if Baltimore claims the six-seed, that leaves either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati at No. 5. The Sunday nighter between the two ought to be an entertaining contest, both teams carrying 7-2 records over their past seven games.
But the Bengals' defense really had no answers for the Ben Roethlisberger-Le'Veon Bell combo in Week 14. Roethlisberger threw for 350 yards and Bell rushed for another 185 as the Steelers piled on 25 unanswered fourth-quarter points. While that same defense got the job done in Week 16 by frustrating Peyton Manning, repeating the effort for a second consecutive weekend against a Steelers team playing at home (and against a quarterback in Roethlisberger who's playing at a higher level than Manning right now) will be tough.
Doug Farrar: Pittsburgh and San Diego. The Steelers can take the AFC North with a win Sunday night over the Bengals (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC), and they look in fine form to do just that -- just as they did in early December to the tune of a 42-21 win at Paul Brown Stadium. While Cincinnati's defense is playing better of late, it's not set up well to stop a Steelers offense with threats at every level -- from Antonio Bryant deep, to Heath Miller with possession catches, to Le'Veon Bell ripping it up on the ground. And though Pittsburgh's defense has been atypically porous this season, they've got to like the matchup of an inconsistent (at best) Andy Dalton, with A.J. Green dealing with an arm injury.
As for the Chargers, they've been up and down all season, but they should be able to dispatch the Chiefs to wrap up the final seed, if Philip Rivers can find time in the pocket against Kansas City's venerable pass-rushers.
2. Which player will be the biggest x-factor in Week 17?
Burke: Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers. During Carolina's ongoing three-game win streak, Stewart has averaged 22 carries and 117.5 yards on the ground. Prior to that outburst Stewart had not topped the century mark in any single game since Week 14 of the 2010 season, so this has been an unexpected uptick.
The Panthers badly needed it, too. Keeping their backs healthy has been a challenge again this season, and even when Stewart and DeAngelo Williams suited up together, the results were negligible for extended periods. Stewart flipped the script and broke through with 155 yards and a touchdown in a crucial win over the Saints, then kept chugging in must-have wins over Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
"When he’s healthy, he’s as good as there is," tight end Greg Olson said of Stewart, via ESPN.com.
In an earlier 19-17 loss to Atlanta, Carolina managed just 86 yards on 27 carries -- Stewart ran the ball seven times for 24 yards, while Williams got 10 carries for 41 yards. The inability to carve out a fearsome rushing attack added pressure on Cam Newton, who fired a pair of interceptions. To balance out the offense Sunday (and to keep Matt Ryan's potent Atlanta passing attack off the field), the Panthers will ask Stewart to stay hot. If he does, the Panthers could be hosting a playoff game next weekend.
Farrar: Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb vs. Detroit's secondary. When the Lions and Packers last met, Detroit beat Green Bay 19-7, and shut Aaron Rodgers down pretty well. However, that was back when the Packers were in a formational malaise, going three-wide most of the time and allowing defenses to beat their receivers one-on-one. Since then, things have been better for the most part, though Rodgers' sub-par performance against the Bills in Week 15 had people wondering.
The rematch for all the marbles in the NFC North (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX) will feature Jordy Nelson as Rodgers' primary outside receiver, and Randall Cobb as a slot weapon with some unique characteristics. Rodgers, Nelson and Cobb will try to do their thing against a Detroit defense that currently ranks first overall in Football Outsiders' defensive metrics, and fifth against the pass. The Lions can clamp down outside with man coverage, and the safety duo of Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo is as good as any when it comes to defending against the pass. Oh, and linebacker DeAndre Levy might be the league's best at his position in pass coverage. The Packers are a different team now, but they'll have to earn a win against these Lions.
3. Where will Jim Harbaugh coach in 2015?
Burke: Michigan. Obviously, nothing is set in stone -- at least not publicly. All the signs at the moment, though, seem to be pointing toward Harbaugh leaving the NFL ranks for a shot at reviving his alma mater.
Perhaps the least talked-about factor and yet one as important as anything in all this: San Francisco may want this outcome, if they are resigned to Harbaugh no longer coaching there in 2015. Sure, the front office would be happy to accept outlandish compensation in the form of draft picks from the Raiders or the Bears or the Jets. But barring that, why would the 49ers want Harbaugh coaching elsewhere in the league, let alone still in the Bay area?
The 2014 season had fallen apart on the 49ers, but Harbaugh took them to three straight conference title games before that. How awful would it look for the 49ers if they now struggled for a couple seasons as Harbaugh brought Oakland back to life? Or if the 49ers lost a meaningful game in the coming year to Harbaugh's Chicago team? Never underestimate ego when it comes to professional sports. The last thing San Francisco would want is to give away Harbaugh, then have to meet up with him under difficult circumstances later.
Michigan cannot offer the 49ers draft picks. It can keep Harbaugh's shadow from hovering over the next San Francisco coach.
Farrar: Michigan. In the end, what Harbaugh wants is the same level of comfort and control that enjoyed by Seattle's Pete Carroll, his old Pac-12 rival. And while he's earned it through his time as an NFL head coach, I think Harbaugh will find a return to the college ranks as an easier sell for the level of control he wants.
Michigan is desperate for a return to relevance after the Brady Hoke fiasco, and they've already offered Harbaugh the opportunity to become the highest-paid coach in college football. With that, unquestionably, will come a level of organizational control. If Harbaugh remains in the NFL, he will not do so under the circumstances he had in San Francisco -- in a head-to-head battle with a general manager who possesses a similar intensity. That's what Carroll has in Seattle and what Bill Belichick has in Foxboro, and it's what Harbaugh likely wants in the NFL.