The official Week 17 scenarios have been released, but let’s take a look at how each conference is shaping up.
1. New England: The Patriots have nothing to play for in their season finale. Bill Belichick has traditionally played to win in Week 17 regardless, especially when the team has a bye the following week. But it’s not a hard and fast rule. Matt Cassel (2005) and Brian Hoyer (2011) both played extra snaps in games that didn’t matter. (And who can forget Doug Flutie’s drop kick?)
With the Patriots’ offense struggling lately, we’d expect them to play to win even though they have locked up home-field advantage.
2. Denver: The Broncos need to beat Oakland on Sunday to ensure they get a playoff bye. If the Broncos lose to the Raiders, they could fall to the No. 3 seed if Cincinnati wins the AFC North.
3. AFC North winner: The Bengals could fall anywhere from the No. 2 to the No. 5 seed. But unless the Raiders pull off a huge upset in Denver, the winner of the AFC North will be the conference’s No. 3 seed. The Steelers and Bengals both know they are in the playoffs, but there is a huge difference between hosting a banged-up wild card squad and going on the road to face …
4. Indianapolis Colts: Barring ties, the Colts’ season finale against Tennessee is meaningless. They will host the loser of the Steelers-Bengals game, and the Colts are probably rooting for Cincinnati to come to town. Indianapolis gave up 51 points to Pittsburgh on the road, while they shut out the Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium in their earlier meeting.
5. AFC North runner up: This can’t be the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals should desperately want to win the division because otherwise they could be headed out on the road for a second straight week, potentially on a quick turnaround for a Saturday game.
6. Final wild card spot: The Chargers are first in line because of their ridiculous comeback in San Francisco. Baltimore also still has a strong chance to make the playoffs. San Diego needs to win a tough matchup at Kansas City to clinch. If not, all the Ravens have to do is beat a banged-up Browns team to get into the playoffs. Cleveland could be starting Connor Shaw at quarterback in the game. Then again, we assumed Baltimore would beat Case Keenum last week.
The teams alive below Baltimore are much longer shots to squeeze in. The Texans need to beat Jacksonville, and watch the Ravens and Chargers lose. The Chiefs are last in line, needing the Ravens and Texans to both lose significant upsets. We’ll know the AFC Wild Card by the end of the 1 p.m. ET games.
1. Seattle Seahawks: There are plenty of scenarios for first round byes, but here’s all you need to know about the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Shaun Hill has to win on the road against a historically great defense to prevent the Seahawks from having home-field advantage. Considering the Rams lost their last two games at home to the Giants and Ryan Lindley, we don’t give much chance of that happening.
2. NFC North winner: Barring a tie, the winner of Packers-Lions will get a playoff bye. Detroit and Green Bay could be anywhere from the No. 1 to the No. 6 seed in the playoffs based on Sunday’s results. (Yes, this is insane.) Unless Detroit pulls off a big upset in Lambeau Field, there’s a strong chance they will be headed to Dallas for the Divisional Round.
3. Dallas Cowboys: A first-round bye remains possible, but the Cowboys need a tie or they need the Rams to win in Seattle. Good luck with that.
4. NFC South winner: Make fun of them all you want, but the Falcons or Panthers could be favored in the first round of the playoffs. That’s because their most likely opponent will be …
5. Arizona Cardinals: Like every other team, they are hoping for a Rams miracle in Seattle. The Cardinals are looking to start Logan Thomas at quarterback Sunday in San Francisco, so a victory is hardly assured. It’s very likely that Arizona will be on the road to start the playoffs against the NFC South champion, which is certainly a soft landing.
6. NFC North runner up: As mentioned above, the winner of the NFC North could be as high as the No. 1 seed. The loser is likely falling down all the way to the final spot, and a matchup in Dallas is quite possible.
Then again, a lot of the thoughts above that we know anything about what will happen on Sunday. Perhaps the Lions will win in Lambeau. Or the Rams will win in Seattle. The NFL teaches us anew each week that we know absolutely nothing. We can’t wait.