NFL Week 17 storylines: Adrian Peterson takes his shot at history
Adrian Peterson has a chance Sunday to deliver one of those performances that NFL fans will remember forever.
Not only are Peterson's Vikings a mere win away from clinching a playoff spot for the first time since 2009, but the superhuman running back finds himself just 102 yards shy of 2,000 for the season and 208 yards from breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record. The last four running backs to top the 2K hurdle (Chris Johnson, Jamal Lewis, Terrell Davis and Barry Sanders) all did so with big Week 17 performances.
Sanders was the only one of those four who found himself in a similar situation to Peterson's entering the final game. The 1997 Lions needed a win in Week 17 to make the playoffs, while Sanders sat 236 yards back of Dickerson's 2,105. Sanders reached 2,000 with a 184-yard day, and Detroit made the playoffs by beating the Jets, but Sanders left Dickerson's record intact.
Peterson, no doubt, would take just the playoff berth. Anything beyond that would be a well-deserved cherry on top.
Another NFC North star, Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, does not have the playoff carrot dangling out front of him right now. At 4-11, Detroit is long gone from the playoff race. So, Johnson's quest for 2,000 yards receiving is a singular goal for the team this week.
Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single-season receiving record last week, cruising past Rice's 1,848-yard mark and settling at 1,892. That leaves Johnson just 108 yards away from 2,000 yards himself -- an unthinkable accomplishment for a receiver.
Individual goals pale in comparison to team accomplishments, especially with a dramatic Week 17 upon us. But Peterson and Johnson could waltz side by side into history this Sunday.
Here's what else is on the table as the regular season concludes:
• An NFC East finale ... again
On the evening of Jan. 1, 2012, the Dallas Cowboys visited New York to battle the Giants for the NFC East crown and the league's final playoff spot. Less than a year later, the Cowboys are back in the Week 17 prime-time spotlight. And for the second straight season, they find themselves in a winner-takes-all showdown for the division -- this time, in Washington against Robert Griffin III and the Redskins.
The Redskins' last playoff berth came in 2007, courtesy of a Week 17 win over Dallas. The last time the Cowboys made the postseason field? In 2009, when they clinched a spot by beating Washington in Week 16.
Washington could sneak into a wild-card spot with a loss and some help, but the odds are that Sunday night's game will be a win-or-go-home proposition for both the Redskins and Cowboys. It's also a win-and-stay-home scenario, of course: The winner will claim the NFC's No. 4 seed and open the playoffs with a home game next weekend.
• Will Michael Vick end the Giants' hopes?
More NFC East drama ...
The defending Super Bowl champion Giants are on the ropes, needing a win over Philadelphia plus losses by Chicago, Minnesota and Dallas to return to the postseason.
Step one, that victory doesn't seem like it would be that hard to come by against the 4-11 Eagles. Except another record may supersede Philadelphia's current standing: Michael Vick's 9-0 combined record in road games against the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins.
With Nick Foles breaking his hand in Week 16, Vick will return to the Eagles' starting lineup Sunday (quite possibly for the last time). He already delivered one win over the Giants this year too, a 19-17 triumph way back in Week 4. The last time he visited the Meadowlands (Dec. 19, 2010), Vick racked up four touchdowns and nearly 350 total yards in a 38-31 Philadelphia win.
A repeat performance would help Vick's chances of landing another starting job for 2013 ... and would send the Giants packing.
• Can the NFC North claim a second playoff spot?
We touched on both Packers-Vikings and Bears-Lions above, but the NFC's current playoff picture makes those matchups worth revisiting. The Vikings and Bears have the first and second cracks, respectively, at the conference's second and final wild-card spot -- if Minnesota wins, it's in the playoffs; it the Vikings lose and Chicago wins, the Bears advance.
Green Bay, though, has plenty at stake as well. Namely, a first-round bye, which the Packers would secure by winning Sunday. Detroit, save for Megatron's 2,000-yard quest, will be playing only for pride. Knocking Chicago out of the playoff race, however, would be a decent way to close a disappointing season.
• Settling the AFC's top spot
The Texans have another opportunity to clinch the AFC's overall No. 1 seed, but they'll likely need a win in Indianapolis to get it done. A loss could drop the Texans all the way down to third place in the conference, one spot outside a first-round bye.
Houston rolled Indianapolis, 29-17, back in Week 15 and is favored to repeat Sunday. Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano, making his return to the sideline after battling leukemia, has said that he'll play his starters throughout in this one, despite the Colts being locked into the No. 5 seed.
But will he change his mind if an injury occurs or there's a lot of hard hitting early? That's a conundrum facing several teams this week. Which leads us to ...
• Will any teams rest their starters?
Atlanta is the obvious squad in the spotlight here -- the Falcons have the NFC's No. 1 seed clinched, so they will not play again for two weeks following Week 17. We've seen top seeds bitten by that layoff (and the decision to play it safe late in the regular season) repeatedly.
The Texans, Broncos, Patriots, Ravens, Packers and 49ers technically all have postseason seeding at stake Sunday, so it may be easier to keep everyone on the field. Still, weighing a team's overall health vs. potentially jumping up a spot or two in the conference standings always presents a challenge.
• The NFC West race rests on ... Brian Hoyer
Before San Francisco can think about leapfrogging Green Bay for the No. 2 spot in the NFC, the 49ers have to first clinch the West division. All that's standing between them and that goal is 5-10 Arizona, led by a quarterback that was not even on its roster three weeks ago.
The man in question: Brian Hoyer, Tom Brady's former backup in New England, who struggled to find a home this year before the desperate Cardinals came calling. Hoyer saw his first action last week, completing 11-of-19 passes in a loss to Chicago. Sunday, he will make his first NFL start.
He'll have no bigger fans than those in Seattle. The Seahawks need a 49ers loss to open the door in the NFC West -- if Arizona pulls the upset and Seattle drops St. Louis, the Seahawks would be crowned division champs.
• Hello again, Mark Sanchez
Never before in NFL history has the QB situation for a non-playoff contender been discussed as in-depth as with this year's Jets team. Yet, here we are again, casting a curious eye in Rex Ryan's direction, as he trots Mark Sanchez back out as his starter in Week 17.
Last week's starter, Greg McElroy, will not play due to a concussion and Ryan refuses to give Tim Tebow the starting role he so desires. So, it will be Sanchez under center again, perhaps trying to convince the Jets he's worth all the money they owe him in 2013.
• Race to the bottom
For the teams without any playoff hopes, draft positioning is front and center this weekend. Still up for grabs is the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, with the Chiefs and Jaguars scrapping for last place in the league. Right now, Kansas City holds the honor. Behind them, if the current standings hold, would be Jacksonville, Oakland, Philadelphia and Detroit rounding out the top five. An ill-timed win by any of those teams, however, could mix up the order again.