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  • After their Week 16 win against the Jets, a number of Chargers players remained glued to Philip Rivers's phone, watching the end of the Rams-Titans game in Nashville—a preview of the significant amount of scoreboard-watching that's to come as the NFL playoff sorts itself out in Week 17.
By Jenny Vrentas
December 27, 2017

On Christmas Eve, a small crowd assembled around Philip Rivers’s cell phone in the locker room—his backup quarterback stood to his left, while general manager Tom Telesco peered over his right shoulder. The Chargers had just beaten the Jets 14–7 to keep their playoff hopes alive, but the game being played in Nashville, Tenn., was just as important.

This was after the players had filed off the cold MetLife Stadium turf, and taken off their pads, and coach Anthony Lynn had told his players they had “another week to protect their season.” Meanwhile, the Titans had the ball at midfield against the Rams, trying to sustain a game-winning touchdown drive. The locker-room TVs flickered on just in time for a fourth-and-four from the Rams 43-yard-line, but Rivers still held court around his phone. If you are analyzing late-game scenarios, it’s not a bad move to stand next to the quarterback.

“This is it,” Rivers declared. “If they don’t get it, it’s over. [The Rams] can run it out.”

As Rams outside linebacker Connor Barwin pressured Titans QB Marcus Mariota on fourth down, forcing him to the sideline and to throw the ball away, half the locker room erupted in cheers. Rivers kept watching, as the Rams, indeed, ran out the clock. Standing next to his top receiver, Keenan Allen, the veteran quarterback remarked, “We’re still alive.”

This is a snapshot of what the final weeks of the season are like for teams jockeying for the final playoff positions. In the AFC, the four division winners are already decided and the Patriots and Steelers have already secured first-round byes, but four teams are still alive for the two wild-card spots. The Ravens and Titans have win-and-in scenarios, but the Chargers and the Bills could get in with help. In the NFC, the Eagles have locked up home-field advantage, and five of six playoff berths are already clinched. But the Saints need a win at Tampa Bay or a Carolina loss in Week 17 to win the NFC South. And, the Falcons will nab the last wild-card spot if they win against the Panthers or if the Seahawks lose next week; but Seattle gets in with a win against Arizona and a Falcons loss.

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The scenarios for the final week of the season are so intertwined that the NFL made the unusual decision not to have a Sunday night game for Week 17. (There’s also the matter of it being New Year’s Eve.) There was no good option for a night game in which both teams were certain to have something to play for after the results of the earlier afternoon games. The best choice might have been Panthers at Falcons, but if New Orleans won earlier in the day, the Panthers would already be locked into the No. 5 seed before kickoff. And, depending on whether Seattle won or lost, the Falcons would have either everything or nothing to play for. Jaguars-Titans looked like it might be an appealing Week 17 matchup, but the Titans loss to the Rams clinched the AFC South for the Jaguars, who are now locked into the No. 3 seed.

The 4:25 p.m. ET window on Dec. 31 will sort out all the remaining playoff chips (the mundane matter of the Patriots having to beat the Jets at home to lock up home-field advantage in the AFC was kept at 1 p.m.), and that means … a lot of scoreboard-watching. It was already happening last week. Antonio Gates, the veteran Chargers tight end, admits to peeking up at scores from Titans-Rams and Bills-Patriots on the MetLife Stadium scoreboard amid his six-catch, 81-yard, one-touchdown day.

“I ain’t going to fabricate anything,” Gates said. “I was watching. I was looking every time I could get. I was like, did Buffalo lose? They went up, and I was like, ah, dang. But at the same time, I knew we had to win this game.”

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They’ll face a similar scenario next week. The Chargers need to win at home against the Raiders, but they also need a Titans loss/tie and either a Ravens win/tie or a Bills loss/tie. The Bills need to win at Miami, in addition to either a Baltimore loss or a Chargers loss/tie plus a Titans loss/tie. Record in the AFC is the first tiebreaker for the wild card among three or more teams with the same record that have not all played each other. But let’s say the Ravens win to go to 10–6, the Titans lose and drop to 8–8, and both the Bills and Chargers win their games to end with 9–7 records. The No. 6 seed in the AFC would be decided by the head-to-head 54–24 Chargers win against Buffalo in Week 11, more aptly remembered as the game in which brief Bills starter Nathan Peterman threw five interceptions before halftime. Now that would really be something.

By about 8 p.m. ET on New Year’s Eve, it will all be decided, giving fans plenty of time to ring in 2018 with a toast to the playoffs … or, by drowning their sorrows.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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