Lots on the line next Sunday in Week 17. Nothing monumental, but there’s one win-and-you’re-in scenario and at least 22 teams have something to play for, as improbable as some of the scenarios are. The key games next Sunday as the league’s 99th regular season ends:
• For the sixth seed in the AFC: Indianapolis at Tennessee, 8:20 p.m. ET. The winner is the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. The loser is eliminated. Two hot teams: Indy’s 7-1 in its last eight, Tennessee 6-2. A bit of irony: When Colts GM Chris Ballard was choosing his next coach, he was down to Mike Vrabel and Josh McDaniels in mid-January. I thought he was leaning Vrabel. But he chose the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, and Vrabel went to Tennessee, and Ballard got jilted by McDaniels, and Ballard chose Frank Reich as his head coach. And now Reich has the Colts, stunningly, one win from the playoffs after a 4-12 season. (Watch it on NBC on on the NBC Sports app)
• For the AFC North title: Cleveland at 9-6 Baltimore, and Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, both 1:05 p.m. The Steelers, as crushed as they must be after the weird and slightly unjust loss at New Orleans, will beat the woebegone Bengals. Since only one team from the North can make the playoffs—Ravens or Steelers—that means the Ravens would have to beat Cleveland to win the division. A Steeler win would leave the division in the hands of the revolutionized Ravens, who are running at a pace we haven’t seen in more that 50 years. But here comes Baker Mayfield, who doesn’t give a crap about anything but playing great and winning. The Browns are 5-2 since whacking Hue Jackson for Gregg Williams/Freddie Kitchens, and I think they have a chance to pull off a crazy win.
Now … about the Ravens running game. This is the craziest factoid of a crazy season—and it certainly is crazy when the Cleveland Browns are 7-7-1 with a game to play: Since Lamar Jackson has taken over the quarterback job in Week 11, the Ravens are 5-1, and they have run the ball 63.6 percent of the offensive plays. The 1964 Browns, with steamrolling MVP Jim Brown dominating the ground game, ran it 53.9 percent of the offensive snaps. The 1966 Packers, the first team to win the Super Bowl, ran 57.6 percent of the time. It’s Lamar Jackson’s world, and we’re just living in it.
• For the final two NFC seeds: Arizona at Seattle, Philadelphia at Washington, Chicago at Minnesota, 4:25 p.m. Seattle clinched a playoff spot Sunday night, and now has to beat the worst team in football, the Cardinals, at home, to clinch the fifth seed. The Vikings (8-6-1) and Eagles (8-7) will battle for one spot. If Minnesota beats the Bears, the Vikings make the playoffs; if they lose and Philadelphia beats Washington, the Eagles are in.
Will the Bears play all-out to win, with only a whisper of a chance to pass the Rams for the second seed? Good question. “We need some help,” Zach Ertz told me after the dramatic Philly win over Houston, “but we’ve had the kind of year where you just don’t know anything.”
The Eagles have had the strangest of seasons; they’ve gone 4-1 since being embarrassed 48-7 by the Saints last month. I asked Ertz what he’s learned in 2018 after the Eagles stormed to a Super Bowl win last year. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “The NFL is really hard. It’s really had to win football games, any game. I cannot believe the Miami Dolphins went undefeated all the way through the Super Bowl. I cannot believe the Patriots went undefeated [in the 2007 regular season]. That sounds a little simplistic, but it’s what I think.”
• For AFC seeding: The Chiefs host Oakland (4:25 p.m. ET), and if the Chiefs beat the 3-11 Raiders, they win first seed and will play at home throughout the playoffs … The Patriots host the Jets (1:05 p.m.), and if the Pats beat New York, they win second seed in the playoffs … Houston has a nightmare scenario: losing to Jacksonville (1:05 p.m.) and falling to the number six seed, with the Colts-Titans winner advancing to first place in AFC South. The 11-4 Chargers are locked at five, unless Oakland beats KC and LA wins at Denver (4:25 p.m.)
• For NFC seeding: New Orleans (13-2) has clinched the top seed … The 12-3 Rams must beat the Niners (4:25 p.m.) to clinch the other first-round bye and will be heavily favored to do so … The 11-4 Bears are likely locked into the three seed; they can only move up with a win over Minnesota and loss by the Rams to San Francisco … Dallas (9-6) is locked in at the four seed, with a Seattle-at-Dallas rematch likely in wild-card weekend. Very attractive TV matchup there.
So … my very imprecise crystal ball shows:
1. Kansas City
2. New England
1. New Orleans
Under that scenario, all four wild-card games would be rematches of 2018 regular-season games, with three played at the same site, and all four games played in Eastern or Central time.