NFL: Week 17 preview

A look ahead to the final week of the regular season

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The Independent Online

As the post-season approaches, some of Sunday’s contests are more a matter of pride than actual relevance.

The Chicago Bears’ trip to Minnesota, for example, will determine who finishes third and fourth in the NFC North. Even the New England Patriots’ game at home to the Buffalo Bills bears little importance due to the Patriots clinching the number one seed in the AFC in week 16.

There are, however, two play-off berths available, one in either conference. In the NFC it’s a simple win-and-in situation for the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, who will meet at the Georgia Dome to decide the NFC South.

It’s been a difficult season for the Panthers (6-8-1) and Falcons (6-9), but thanks to the dismal fortunes of the New Orleans Saints, who were tipped in the pre-season to make the Super Bowl, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both teams are in with a chance of extending their seasons.

The Falcons were victorious when the two met in week 11, but the Panthers won in the Georgia Dome lascalt year. With the season on the line for both teams, this division-decider should be a cracker.

Unlike in the AFC, the number one seed in the NFC is available to the five teams that have already guaranteed their appearance in the post-season. The Seattle Seahawks look most likely to grab the number one seed; if Pete Carroll’s team beat the St. Louis Rams at home and the game between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions fails to end in a tie, the play-offs will go through Seattle for the second straight year. As the Saints and the San Francisco 49ers will attest, no team wants to have a play-off game at CenturyLink Field, home of the rowdy Twelfth Man.

The Packers vs Lions game will decide the NFC North. If the Seahawks slip up against the Rams, Mike McCarthy’s Packers will clinch the number one seed with a win.

Running back Jeremy Hill helped the Cincinnati Bengals become the fifth team in the AFC to earn a play-off spot, rushing for 147 yards and one touchdown in the Bengals’ 37-28 win over the Denver Broncos on Monday night. Cincinnati face the Pittsburgh Steelers, themselves guaranteed a play-off berth, in a game to decide the AFC North.

The San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs are in the hunt for the AFC’s final play-off spot, but the Chargers are the only team in a win-and-in situation; the other three teams will need results to go their way.

The Chargers travel to Kansas City, where they have won on their past two visits. Another win on Sunday and the Chargers will be in the play-offs for the second consecutive season.

3) The Cardinals need another miracle from the Rams

The Arizona Cardinals were the first team in the NFC to clinch a play-off berth, yet there’s a strong possibility that Bruce Arians’ team will be the fifth-seeded team and will feature in the wild card round. If the Seattle Seahawks beat the St. Louis Rams at home, the Cardinals will be seeded no higher than fifth and their first play-off game will be away to the winners of the NFC South.

The Rams have already beaten the Seahawks this season, causing an upset in week 7 when they won 28-26. A repeat is unlikely, but it’s a small reason for Cardinals’ fans to be optimistic. 

2) Can the Texans or Chiefs sneak in?

With 8-7 records, the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs look like missing out on the play-offs. But both have a chance; the Texans need to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars and hope that the Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers lose to the Cleveland Browns and Chiefs respectively, while the Chiefs need to win and for the Ravens and Texans to lose their games

3) Is this Jim Harbaugh’s last game in the NFL (for a while, at least)?

It’s been a messy ending for Harbaugh in San Francisco. Despite reaching three successive NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl in his first three years as head coach of the 49ers, Harbaugh’s relationship with the front office has turned sour and he will be looking for pastures new. Talk is rife of a return to the University of Michigan, where Harbaugh played as a quarterback in his college days. It’s been reported Harbaugh has been offered a six-year deal worth $48 million.

We’ll miss that black shirt and those khakis if he does go.