Philadelphia, PA – For those who'll be ringing in 2012 with the zeal and bravado of a gunner on special teams, the NFL has heard your pleas.
Sleeping in on New Year's Day shouldn't bring about any guilt as it helps heal the hangover for fans dealing with a case of playoff fever, thanks to the wonders of the flex-scheduling procedure that may rank as the league's best creation of the last decade. While there will be a few games at the early kickoff slot on this Sunday's final regular-season slate that will have a bearing on how the order gets sorted out for the upcoming postseason, the most significant and compelling ones won't be taking place until later in the day.
The main event of the Week 17 card is unquestionably the win-and-in clash between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, bitter NFC East rivals with no shortage of star power or firepower that will be going toe-to-toe in NBC's standalone primetime showcase with a division title at stake. If this marquee matchup comes anywhere close to providing the drama and nonstop action as when the two squared off in Arlington just three weeks back, when the Giants rallied from a 12-point deficit with under 3 1/2 minutes left to deliver a rousing 37-34 victory, it'll certainly be well worth the wait.
Though Cowboys-Giants, the only game on this week's schedule that's an elimination bout for both participants, has hogged all the hype when previewing this all-important final curtain on the 2011 regular season, there are a few warm-up acts that hold a wealth of prestige and allure in their own right.
The one contest that will have the most impact of unscrambling the brain- racking jumbled mess that is the AFC playoff picture at the moment resides in of all places, Cincinnati. No, seriously. Sunday's battle between the rising Bengals and powerhouse Baltimore Ravens will determine at least three of the four seeds in the conference, and maybe a fourth if New England somehow falls flat in its 1 p.m. (et) home date with far-less credentialed Buffalo.
Baltimore would claim both the AFC North and at least the No. 2 seed if it comes out on top in this 4:15 p.m. (et) showdown that's reportedly in danger of being blacked out in the Cincinnati market due to lagging ticket sales, while the Bengals grab an unforeseen final Wild Card berth if they can best the Ravens.
While the good folks of the Queen City may not care too much, you can bet backers of the Steelers, Titans, Jets and possibly the Raiders will have a vested interest in the outcome.
Pittsburgh, which has a playoff tune-up at doormat Cleveland at the same time as the Ravens-Bengals affair, needs a Cincinnati win to seize the AFC North assuming it takes care of business against the Browns. Tennessee and the Jets, on the other hand, would be eliminated if the Bengals prevail, provided those two don't knock themselves out in their earlier games against Houston and Miami, respectively.
And then there's perhaps the most captivating game of them all this week, the late-afternoon encounter between Kansas City and Denver at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Now, normally a tilt featuring one team a game over .500 and the other at 6-9 and out of the playoff mix wouldn't be worth any amount of buildup. But this is the AFC West, where the 8-7 Broncos are in first place and in control of their own destiny, and there's also this Tebow guy a few may have heard a thing or two about.
Denver clinches the division and the AFC's fourth seed with a win that would set up an opening-round playoff pairing that would be a television's executive's fantasy come to life, with the ratings-magnet Tebow making his first postseason start against one of the conference's established heavyweights, either Pittsburgh or Baltimore.
And standing in he and the Broncos' way? How about Kyle Orton, the recently- acquired Kansas City quarterback who was deposed from his former post as Denver's No. 1 signal-caller by Tebow-mania just a few months back?
How's that for a storyline?
Of course, if the Broncos wind up losing both the game and the division -- Oakland would seize the AFC West with a Chiefs victory and by downing San Diego -- that would inject some additional new old blood into this year's tournament. The Raiders haven't made the playoffs since 2002, while NFC Wild Card recipient Detroit will be in the fray for the first time since 1999.
Even the worst game on the schedule offers some measure of appeal, with Indianapolis having a chance to secure the highly-desired No. 1 overall pick in this April's draft with a loss to equally-moribund Jacksonville. If the Colts continue their mild late-year resurgence and take down the Jaguars, however, St. Louis may be the one fielding offers for teams with their hearts set on reeling in prized Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck -- or possibly even Sam Bradford.
Here's how the situation stands in both conferences heading into the weekend:
AFC 1) New England (12-3) -- clinched AFC East and first-round bye 2) Baltimore (11-4) -- clinched playoff spot 3) Houston (10-5) -- clinched AFC South and will be No. 3 seed 4) Denver (8-7) 5) Pittsburgh (11-4) -- clinched playoff spot 6) Cincinnati (9-6)
Still alive: 7) Oakland (8-7) 8) Tennessee (8-7) 9) N.Y. Jets (8-7)
NFC 1) Green Bay (14-1) -- clinched NFC North and No. 1 seed 2) San Francisco (12-3) -- clinched NFC West 3) New Orleans (12-3) -- clinched NFC South 4) N.Y. Giants (8-7) 5) Detroit (10-5) -- clinched Wild Card berth 6) Atlanta (9-6) -- clinched Wild Card berth
Still alive: 7) Dallas (8-7)
For a bonus, here's a blind stab of how it all may play out:
Byes: (1) New England, (2) Baltimore
Wild Card Round: (5) Pittsburgh at (4) Oakland (6) Cincinnati at (3) Houston
The Broncos have been one heck of a feel-good story, but the fairy tale could very well come to an end at the hands of a Kansas City team that'll be playing with a purpose with plenty of jobs on the line. The Raiders handle the disinterested Chargers to grab the West, while the Bengals still get in despite coming up short against Baltimore thanks to losses by the Broncos and Jets.
Byes: (1) Green Bay, (2) San Francisco
Wild Card Round: (5) Detroit at (4) N.Y. Giants (6) Atlanta at (3) New Orleans
The 49ers and Giants each take care of business to solidify their spots, while the charged-up Lions take down the disinterested Packers to nail down the fifth seed.
2012 DRAFT WATCH
1) Indianapolis (2-13); 2) St. Louis (2-13); 3) Minnesota (3-12); 4) Jacksonville (4-11); 5) Cleveland (4-11); 6) Tampa Bay (4-11); 7) Washington (5-10); 8) Miami (5-10); 9) Carolina (6-9); 10/11) Buffalo/Kansas City (6-9)
It's now a two-horse race for the coveted top choice, with the Vikings no longer in the equation after last week's win in Washington. The Colts would finish in front of the Rams if both teams end with identical records by virtue of a weaker overall schedule.
For those interested in doing a little pre-draft scouting, here are three games out of the slew of college bowls that will be spotlighting top-tier prospects in the coming days. Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, now the consensus No. 2 quarterback candidate behind Luck, leads Baylor into Thursday night's Alamo Bowl, where the Bears also have another potential first-rounder on hand in senior wide receiver Kendall Wright. The Champs Sports Bowl that will take place earlier on Thursday will be the final collegiate outing for Notre Dame wideout Michael Floyd, a possible top 10 pick, while Oklahoma junior quarterback Landry Jones will attempt to boost his sagging stock when the Sooners compete in Friday's Insight Bowl against an Iowa squad highlighted by promising junior offensive tackle Riley Reiff.
NFL POWER POLL
The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found at:
Find Fantasy Editor Steve Schwarz's latest analysis at:
SUICIDE POOL PIX
1. San Francisco (at St. Louis) -- 49ers will be going all out with an opening- round bye on the line, and a matchup of the NFL's top-ranked scoring defense against the league's lowest-scoring offense screams a one-sided outcome.
2. New England (vs. Buffalo) -- Though Patriots received a scare on their home turf from the Dolphins a week ago, they've got something to play for and the Bills haven't won in Foxborough since 2000.
3. Philadelphia (vs. Washington) -- There's a chance of the Eagles being uninspired after being knocked out of playoff contention, but they shouldn't have much of a problem with the error-prone Redskins if motivated.
Predicting the season's final week is never easy, though this very unpredictable year has been challenging enough for us in this line of work. I'll be entering Sunday's proceedings fielding a ho-hum 146-94 (.608) overall record in head-to-head selections along with a lackluster 112-120-8 (.483) season mark against the spread after going just 8-8 straight-up and 7-9 versus the line in Week 16.
Buffalo (6-9) at New England (12-3), Sunday, 1:00 (New England -11.5)
Storylines: AFC East champion Patriots can wrap up conference's No. 1 playoff seed for second straight season with victory over Bills, who ended 15-game series losing streak with thrilling 34-31 home triumph in Week 3 in which team intercepted quarterback Tom Brady four times...Buffalo also garnered four picks of Denver's Tim Tebow in 40-14 rout of contending Broncos last Saturday, which halted string of seven consecutive defeats, while New England recorded seventh win in a row with 27-24 decision over visiting Miami in Week 16 by rallying from 17-0 halftime deficit...Bills seeking first season sweep of Pats since 1999, but have lost 10 straight outings in Foxborough since 16-13 overtime verdict in 2000...New England guard Logan Mankins to sit out after spraining knee against Dolphins, while offensive tackles Matt Light (ankle) and Sebastian Vollmer (foot), linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee) and safety Patrick Chung (foot) all questionable...Offensive linemen Demetrius Bell and Kraig Urbik ruled out for Buffalo with knee injuries, while club placed kicker Dave Rayner (undisclosed) on injured reserve Wednesday while signing Brandon Coutu to fill spot...Brady 103 passing yards shy of first career 5,000-yard season and one of a conference-high eight selections to AFC Pro Bowl squad, along with Mankins, wide receiver Wes Welker, tight end Rob Gronkowski, guard Brian Waters, injured defensive end Andre Carter, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and special-teamer Matt Slater...Bills did not have a representative...Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller had career-best 111 rushing yards on only 16 attempts against Broncos last Sunday.
Fast Fact: Last week's comeback was the Patriots' largest since fighting out of a 21-point hole in a 33-30 win at Chicago on Nov. 10, 2002.
Prediction: Patriots won't have a slow start this time around, with Bills making the final result a bit closer than game will actually appear. Patriots 31, Bills 20.
Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (12-3), Sunday, 1:00 (New Orleans -8.5)
Storylines: Clash of red-hot teams from NFC South, with division champion Saints riding seven-game win streak extended with 45-16 domination of Atlanta on Monday and improving Panthers posting fourth victory in five games with 48-16 shellacking of fading Tampa Bay in Week 16...New Orleans can earn NFC's No. 2 playoff seed and opening-round bye by topping Carolina and San Francisco losing at St. Louis on Sunday...Saints have taken last three meetings in series and rallied for 30-27 decision over Panthers in Charlotte on Oct. 9...New Orleans 7-0 at the Superdome this year and averaging 40.6 points at home in 2011, while Carolina has prevailed in last three road outings...Saints quarterback Drew Brees has NFL-record 5,087 passing yards on season and broke Dan Marino's 27-year-old league mark with 307-yard, four-touchdown performance against Falcons...Panthers signal-caller Cam Newton (3,893 passing yards) shattered Peyton Manning's NFL rookie standard for passing yards in last week's rout and accounted for four touchdowns (3 passing, 1 rushing) against Buccaneers...Wide receiver Lance Moore (hamstring) and tight end John Gilmore (ankle) both doubtful for New Orleans, while running back Mark Ingram (toe) and linebacker Jonathan Casillas (knee) both question marks...Carolina wideout Legedu Naanee out after sustaining foot fracture in last week's win, while safety Charles Godfrey (shoulder) questionable...Brees one of five Saints players named to NFC Pro Bowl roster, along with tight end Jimmy Graham, guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod...Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith and center Ryan Kalil both received honors for Panthers.
Fast Fact: Saints running back Darren Sproles became the first player in NFL history with over 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 1,200 combined kickoff and punt return yards in a single season during Monday's triumph.
Prediction: Game may end up not mattering much to Saints, but hungry Panthers will be determined to set a tone for a 2012 season that should have great promise. Panthers 38, Saints 31.
Chicago (7-8) at Minnesota (3-12), Sunday, 1:00 (Minnesota -1)
Storylines: Rookie Christian Ponder in line to start at quarterback for Vikings despite exiting last week's 33-26 win at Washington early in second half with concussion, but star running back Adrian Peterson out after tearing ACL and MCL in left knee during contest...Journeyman Josh McCown to get second consecutive starting nod for reeling Bears, who placed regular triggerman Jay Cutler (broken thumb) and Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte (knee) on injured reserve Tuesday...Chicago dealt fifth straight loss with 35-21 setback at NFC front- runner Green Bay on Christmas Day, team's longest in-season skid since eight- game slide in 2002, while Minnesota halted string of six consecutive defeats by downing Redskins and will be attempting to avoid tying 1984 team for most losses in a campaign in franchise history...Vikings also put veteran guard Steve Hutchinson (concussion) on IR this week, while promoting rookie Caleb King from practice squad and signing fellow running back Jordan Todman off San Diego reserve roster...McCown threw for 242 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions against Packers in first NFL start since 2007, while running back Kahlil Bell gained career-best 121 yards on 23 carries...Minnesota running back Toby Gerhart had personal-best 109 yards on just 11 attempts after replacing Peterson last week...Chicago has won last four bouts with Vikings, including 39-10 rout at Soldier Field in Week 6 and 40-14 road triumph last season in game held at University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium due to collapse of Metrodome roof by snowstorm...Bears have lost in three straight trips to Metrodome, however...Forte among five Chicago players chosen to NFC Pro Bowl team, along with linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, cornerback Charles Tillman and special-teamer Corey Graham, while defensive end Jared Allen the Vikings' lone representative.
Fast Fact: In his only career start against the Vikings, McCown threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Arizona Cardinals to an 18-17 win on Dec. 28, 2003.
Prediction: Win-starved Bears get enough out of their replacement players to move the ball relatively effectively on porous and depleted Minnesota defense. Bears 23, Vikings 20.
Detroit (10-5) at Green Bay (14-1), Sunday, 1:00 (Detroit -3.5)
Storylines: Lions aim to end 19-game road losing streak to NFC top-seeded Packers dating back to 1991 and seized first postseason appearance since 1999 with 38-10 throttling of visiting San Diego last Saturday for team's third straight win...Detroit can lock up NFC's No. 5 seed with victory over Green Bay or Atlanta loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday...NFC North champion Packers secured home-field advantage throughout conference playoffs with 35-21 decision over rival Chicago on Christmas night, team's 12th consecutive win at Lambeau Field, and posted 13th triumph in last 15 tests against Lions with 27-15 verdict in Detroit on Thanksgiving...Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings to miss third consecutive week with knee sprain, while running back James Starks (ankle) doubtful and tight end Jermichael Finley (knee), offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) and defensive end Ryan Pickett (concussion) both questionable...Veteran offensive tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring) expected to return from 10-game absence for Packers, however...Detroit likely to rest safety Louis Delmas (knee) and nickel back Aaron Berry (shoulder), and status of running back Kevin Smith (ankle) uncertain...Lions signed running back Joique Bell off New Orleans' practice squad on Monday...Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers had career-high five touchdown passes against Bears and tops NFL in that category (45), and was one of seven Packers tabbed to NFC Pro Bowl roster along with Jennings, fullback John Kuhn, linebacker Clay Matthews, cornerback Charles Woodson, center Scott Wells and nose tackle B.J. Raji...Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson tied for league in touchdown catches (15) and was only Lions player named to team.
Fast Fact: Packers are the fifth defending Super Bowl champion since 1990 to claim a No. 1 playoff seed the following season, joining the 1990 San Francisco 49ers, 1993 Dallas Cowboys, 1998 Denver Broncos and 2008 New York Giants.
Prediction: Lions will be out to make a statement against the NFC's top dog, while Packers don't have much to gain with the No. 1 seed already solidified. Lions 28, Packers 17.
Indianapolis (2-13) at Jacksonville (4-11), Sunday, 1:00 (Jacksonville -3.5)
Storylines: Colts can obtain No. 1 overall pick in 2012 draft with loss in finale, but enter contest having won two straight after dreadful 0-13 start and came through with stunning 19-16 upset of AFC South champ Houston in Week 16 on quarterback Dan Orlovsky touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 19 seconds left...Jaguars held Indianapolis to 212 total yards in 17-3 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium on Nov. 13, but have since dropped two straight and five of six following 23-17 defeat at Tennessee this past Saturday...Jacksonville also recorded 31-28 win over Colts at EverBank Field last season, and Indianapolis 0-7 on road in 2011...Jaguars placed defensive end Matt Roth (concussion) and cornerback Ashton Youboty (hamstring) on injured reserve while signing corner Trumaine McBride this week, and safety Dwight Lowery questionable with shoulder problem...Tight end Dallas Clark (neck) and linebacker Phillip Wheeler (foot) both doubtful for Colts, while guard Joe Reitz (ankle) questionable...Jacksonville last in NFL in total offense (259.2 ypg) and passing yards (140.5 ypg), but running back Maurice Jones-Drew leads league with career-best 1,437 rushing yards and was named to Pro Bowl for third straight year on Tuesday...Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney received fourth consecutive All-AFC nod, while counterpart Robert Mathis selected conference's Defensive Player of Week after amassing two sacks and a forced fumble against Texans...Colts 27th in total defense (378.3 ypg) and 29th versus run (140.9), but allowed season-low 251 total yards in first meeting with Jags.
Fast Fact: Other than Peyton Manning, the last Colts quarterback to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback prior to Orlovsky was Paul Justin against Green Bay on Nov. 16, 1997.
Prediction: Don't expect the Colts to lay down to protect their draft status. They've been better since these teams last squared off, while Jaguars have gotten progressively worse. Colts 24, Jaguars 20.
N.Y. Jets (8-7) at Miami (5-10), Sunday, 1:00 (Miami -1.5)
Storylines: Jets in danger of ending two-year run of making playoffs after back-to-back costly losses, most recently a 29-14 setbacks to crosstown-rival Giants on Christmas Eve, and need to beat Dolphins while both Cincinnati, Tennessee and either Denver or Oakland lose this week to earn AFC's final Wild Card berth...Miami 5-3 after opening season with seven consecutive defeats and coming off tough 27-24 loss at AFC East winner New England this past Saturday, with Patriots storming back from 17-0 halftime deficit...Road team has won six of last eight matchups in series, including New York's 31-23 triumph at Sun Life Stadium last season, though Jets downed Dolphins by 24-6 count at MetLife Stadium in Week 6 and seek first home-and-home sweep of Miami since 2007...Dolphins placed Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jake Long on injured reserve Wednesday after tearing biceps against New England, while tight end Anthony Fasano (concussion) and cornerback Vontae Davis (elbow) questionable for Sunday's tilt...Safeties Eric Smith (knee) and Brodney Pool (head) both probable for New York...Cornerback Darrelle Revis, center Nick Mangold and offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson all chosen to AFC Pro Bowl roster for Jets, with Long and wide receiver Brandon Marshall making team for Miami...Dolphins running back Reggie Bush has produced first career season of 1,000 rushing yards and has eclipsed century mark in four straight games...Miami outside linebacker and onetime Jet Jason Taylor to retire after 15 seasons following Sunday's test.
Fast Fact: Taylor's 16 1/2 career sacks against the Jets are his second-highest total against any single opponent, having compiled 22 1/2 in 26 lifetime games against Buffalo.
Prediction: Jets could be deflated after having their playoff hopes essentially crushed with last week's loss, plus Dolphins have been the more consistent of these participants lately anyway. Dolphins 17, Jets 13.
San Francisco (12-3) at St. Louis (2-13), Sunday, 1:00 (San Francisco -10.5)
Storylines: Matchup of best and worst teams in NFC West, with division champion 49ers clinching conference's No. 2 playoff seed with win this week and lowly Rams capturing top overall pick in 2012 draft with loss if Indianapolis defeats Jacksonville on Sunday...St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford expected to miss third straight game with high ankle sprain, with reserve Kellen Clemens favored to start in his place...Clemens went just 9-for-24 for 91 yards in Rams' 27-0 setback at Pittsburgh last Saturday, team's sixth consecutive loss...San Francisco posted second straight victory with 19-17 road edging of Seattle in Week 16, and can reach 13-win mark in a season for first time since 1997...Niners have bested St. Louis in six of last seven meetings, including 26-0 whitewash in San Francisco on Dec. 4, but dropped 25-17 decision at Edward Jones Dome last season...Tight end Delanie Walker out for 49ers after breaking jaw against Seahawks, while wide receivers Kyle Williams (concussion) and Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) both doubtful and standout linebacker Patrick Willis (hamstring) uncertain to return from three-game absence...San Francisco also released wideout Braylon Edwards on Tuesday...Cornerback Justin King (shoulder) to miss for Rams...Willis one of conference-best eight Niners chosen to NFC Pro Bowl roster, with offensive tackle Joe Staley, defensive tackle Justin Smith, cornerback Carlos Rogers, running back Frank Gore, safety Dashon Goldson, kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee also making squad...St. Louis did not have a player named to team...San Francisco outside linebacker Aldon Smith one sack shy of tying Jevon Kearse's NFL rookie record of 15 set in 1999.
Fast Fact: The Rams' 68 net passing yards against the Steelers last week marked the team's lowest single-game total in that category since a 22-yard output in a 28-6 home loss to the 49ers on Jan. 3, 2010.
Prediction: 49ers won't reduce the intensity level with a first-round bye on the line, and Rams' inept offense won't have a sudden breakthrough against San Francisco's stifling stop unit. 49ers 23, Rams 3.
Tennessee (8-7) at Houston (10-5), Sunday, 1:00 (Tennessee -2.5)
Storylines: Titans enter Reliant Stadium still alive in AFC Wild Card race after ending two-game losing streak with 23-17 home win over struggling Jacksonville last Saturday, while AFC South title-holding Texans locked into No. 3 seed for upcoming playoffs after two straight defeats, most recently a 19-16 upset at cellar-dwelling Indianapolis in Week 16...Tennessee can earn final Wild Card spot by ousting Houston and Cincinnati loses to Baltimore on Sunday, but only if New York Jets beat Miami and either Denver or Oakland fall or if Jets lose and both Broncos and Raiders win...Texans shooting for second- ever season sweep of Titans and first since 2004 after recording 41-7 dismantling in Week 7 encounter between clubs in Nashville...Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson on track to play on limited basis after missing last three game with strained hamstring, while defensive coordinator Wade Phillips could return to post following two-week absence due to kidney surgery...Running back Chris Johnson and wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins both probable for Tennessee despite ankle injuries...Texans running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate both went over 100 rushing yards in team's easy win over Titans in October...Tennessee tight end Jared Cook established career highs of eight catches and 169 receiving yards with a touchdown against Jaguars last week...Foster and cornerback Johnathan Joseph both selected to AFC Pro Bowl team on Tuesday, while Titans did not have a representative.
Fast Fact: Titans head coach Mike Munchak spent all 12 seasons of his Hall of Fame playing career with the Houston Oilers and also served as a quality control coach for the team's final two years in the city before it relocated to Tennessee.
Prediction: Texans treat this like a meaningful game in hopes of regaining momentum for the playoffs, and Titans could be distracted with rumors flying that Munchak may be bound for the head job at alma mater Penn State. Texans 13, Titans 10.
Washington (5-10) at Philadelphia (7-8), Sunday, 1:00 (Philadelphia -9)
Storylines: Eagles try to continue strong finish to 2011 campaign and return home on season-long three-game win streak capped by consecutive victories over pair of playoff contenders in the New York Jets (45-19) and Dallas (20-7) by combined 65-26 margin...Sagging Redskins suffered ninth loss in last 11 games with 33-26 home ousting by also-ran Minnesota last Saturday, with 20-13 defeat to visiting Philadelphia in Week 6 beginning team's downturn...Washington has prevailed in three of last four trips to Lincoln Financial Field, however, including 17-12 decision there last season, and Eagles just 2-5 at home in 2011...Redskins running back Roy Helu questionable due to ankle and toe injuries that kept him out against Vikings, but fellow rookie Evan Royster ran for career-best 132 yards on 19 carries in his place...Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy leads NFC in rushing yards (1,309) and probable this week despite sustaining mild ankle sprain against Cowboys, but cornerback Asante Samuel (hamstring) likely out for second straight game and team placed safety Kurt Coleman (biceps) on injured reserve Wednesday...McCoy one of three Eagles tabbed to NFC Pro Bowl squad, along with offensive tackle Jason Peters and defensive end Jason Babin, while Washington was shut out in selection process...Philadelphia tops NFL with 49 sacks, with Babin second among individuals with 18 quarterback takedowns.
Fast Fact: The last time the Redskins did not have a member on the NFC Pro Bowl roster was 1993, a year in which the team finished 4-12 under Richie Petitbon.
Prediction: Eagles should be able to close out a disappointing year on a high note as long as they come out ready to play. Eagles 27, Redskins 13.
Baltimore (11-4) at Cincinnati (9-6), Sunday, 4:15 (Baltimore -2.5)
Storylines: Pivotal season-ending showdown between AFC North members, with Ravens able to clinch division title and first-round playoff bye with victory and upstart Bengals earning conference's last Wild Card entry with win...Baltimore also claims AFC North and No. 2 overall seed with Pittsburgh loss at Cleveland on Sunday, and would garner home-field advantage in tournament by downing Cincinnati and if New England falls to Buffalo...Bengals can also get No. 6 seed with losses by New York Jets and either Denver or Oakland this weekend...Ravens 5-0 against divisional foes this season and handed Cincinnati 31-24 defeat in Baltimore in Week 11, but have dropped five of last six bouts with Bengals held at Paul Brown Stadium and were 15-10 losers there in 2010...Ravens posted fifth win in last six outings with 20-14 home decision over Cleveland a week ago, but will be without leading receiver Anquan Boldin for second straight game due to recent knee surgery...Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda (ribs) and kick returner David Reed (torn ACL) also out for Baltimore, while cornerback Cary Williams (concussion) questionable...Cincinnati placed wide receiver Andre Caldwell (groin) on injured reserve Tuesday...Yanda among seven Ravens selected to AFC Pro Bowl squad, with running back Ray Rice, fullback Vonta Leach, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed also receiving citations...Bengals placed one player on team, rookie receiver A.J. Green.
Fast Fact: Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham is the team's first player at the position to record 50 or more receptions in two straight seasons since Dan Ross from 1980-81.
Prediction: In a game where sustaining drives will be a challenge, Baltimore's veteran defense and Rice's talents out of the backfield prove to be the difference. Ravens 24, Bengals 20.
Kansas City (6-9) at Denver (8-7), Sunday, 4:15 (Denver -3)
Storylines: Broncos attempt to seize first AFC West title and playoff appearance since 2005 while trying to bounce back from two straight losses, including 40-14 meltdown at previously-slumping Buffalo last Saturday in which young quarterback Tim Tebow threw four interceptions...Denver can clinch division and conference's No. 4 seed with victory over Chiefs or Oakland loss to San Diego on Sunday...Kansas City 1-1 under interim head coach Romeo Crennel after tough 16-13 overtime defeat to rival Oakland in Week 16, while ex-Bronco Kyle Orton to make third straight start at quarterback and faces former mates for first time since being waived by Denver on Nov. 22...Broncos came through with 17-10 road triumph over Chiefs in Week 10 in which team rushed for 244 yards, and aim for first season sweep of Kansas City since 2007...Denver has won nine of last 10 meetings between clubs at home, including 49-29 verdict in 2010 behind four touchdown passes from Orton in Broncos' uniform...Denver running back Willis McGahee probable despite hamstring issue, but veteran safety Brian Dawkins (neck) doubtful and secondary mates Quinton Carter (back) and Chris Harris (neck) both questionable...Chiefs leading rusher Jackie Battle unlikely to go with ailing foot, while safety Jon McGraw (ankle) also slated to sit out...Kansas City defense has recorded 14 sacks over past four games, while Tebow has been sacked 12 times and had four fumbles in last three outings...Rookie linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Champ Bailey and end Elvis Dumervil all selected to represent Broncos defense in this year's Pro Bowl, with Chiefs linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson also tabbed to AFC roster.
Fast Fact: McGahee eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in a season with his third different team last week, having also done so with Buffalo and Baltimore. He joins Ricky Watters (49ers, Eagles, Seahawks) as the only players in league history to reach that mark with three separate organizations.
Prediction: Orton's knowledge of the Broncos could give the Chiefs an inherent advantage, and Crennel comes up with a few wrinkles on defense to cause problems for the still-developing Tebow. Chiefs 19, Broncos 17.
Pittsburgh (11-4) at Cleveland (4-11), Sunday, 4:15 (Pittsburgh -7)
Storylines: Steelers currently seeded fifth in AFC playoff standings, but can capture second straight AFC North title as well as opening-round bye with win over Browns coupled with Baltimore loss at Cincinnati on Sunday...Pittsburgh would also be conference's top seed with victory combined with losses by both Ravens and New England this week...Ben Roethlisberger expected to draw start at quarterback for Steelers after missing team's 27-0 decision over St. Louis last Saturday with ankle sprain, an injury suffered in Steelers' 14-3 triumph over Browns on Dec. 8...Cleveland signal-caller Colt McCoy likely to miss third straight week with concussion as result of illegal hit by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison in Week 14 meeting, with backup Seneca Wallace in line to fill in once again...Steelers 15-1 in last 16 matchups with Browns and have won nine of 10 most recent games as the visitor in series, including 41-9 lambasting in 2010 regular season finale...Center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) and linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) also hopeful to return for Pittsburgh after sitting out last week's win, while wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (foot) probable but guard Doug Legursky (shoulder) and running back Mewelde Moore (knee) both ruled out...Wide receiver Jordan Norwood (concussion) doubtful for Cleveland, but linebacker Kaluka Maiava (broken hand) on track to play...Roethlisberger and Pouncey both named to AFC Pro Bowl team on Tuesday along with three other Steelers; wide receiver Mike Wallace, safety Troy Polamalu and return specialist Antonio Brown, with Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas landing spot for fifth consecutive year.
Fast Fact: The Steelers, who blanked Seattle by a 24-0 score on Sept. 18, have recorded two shutouts in a season for the first time since 2007 and the fifth time since 1960.
Prediction: Steelers have held four of their last five opponents under 10 points, and punchless Browns could be the next to feel the defense's wrath. Steelers 20, Browns 10.
San Diego (7-8) at Oakland (8-7), Saturday, 4:15 (Oakland -3)
Storylines: Raiders can earn first AFC West title and playoff berth since 2002 with a win along with a Denver loss to Kansas City on Sunday, and would obtain conference's final Wild Card position by defeating the Chargers and Cincinnati is defeated by Baltimore, as long as Tennessee also falls to Houston this weekend or the New York Jets top Miami...Oakland kept postseason hopes alive and snapped three-game losing streak with hard-earned 16-13 overtime decision at Kansas City this past Saturday, with defensive tackle Richard Seymour blocking potential deciding field goal attempt by Chiefs on final play of regulation...San Diego eliminated from playoff consideration with 38-10 setback at Detroit in Week 16, but had posted three victories in a row by 20 points or more prior to that loss...Raiders registered third consecutive win in series via a 24-17 triumph at San Diego on Nov. 10, with running back Michael Bush accumulating career-best 242 yards from scrimmage (157 rushing, 85 receiving) to lead way...Chargers had topped Oakland 13 straight times before suffering 35-27 loss at the Coliseum last season, however...Running backs Ryan Mathews (calf) and Mike Tolbert (hamstring) and top wide receiver Vincent Jackson (groin) all uncertain to suit up for San Diego, while Raiders running back Darren McFadden likely to remain sidelined with nagging foot sprain...Wide receiver Jacoby Ford (foot) expected to return from six-game absence for Oakland, however, and safety Michael Huff (hamstring) probable after missing last two weeks...Both teams had three players chosen to AFC Pro Bowl roster, with quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates and safety Eric Weddle all getting nod for Chargers and Seymour joined by kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler on Oakland side.
Fast Fact: Raiders have not beaten the Chargers four consecutive times since taking all four meetings between the teams over the course of the 2000 and 2001 seasons.
Prediction: Raiders clearly have more motivation here, and a pass rush that gave Rivers fits in the first meeting has an impact once again. Raiders 27, Chargers 20.
Seattle (7-8) at Arizona (7-8), Saturday, 4:15 (Arizona -3)
Storylines: Battle of NFC West inhabitants that have each put together strong second halves, with Cardinals having won six of eight tests since poor 1-6 start and Seahawks 5-2 over last seven games...Both come off tough losses last week that knocked them out of playoff consideration, however, with Seattle edged by division champion San Francisco by 19-17 count to halt three-game win streak and Arizona having string of four consecutive victories snapped with 23-16 defeat at Cincinnati...Seahawks have taken last three meetings between clubs, including narrow 13-10 home decision in Week 3 and 36-18 triumph at University of Phoenix Stadium last season for team's first road ousting of Cards since 2005...John Skelton projected to get call under center for third straight week for Arizona with regular quarterback Kevin Kolb still dealing with concussion symptoms, and owns 4-2 record as starter this season...Rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson questionable for Cardinals with sore Achilles tendon, while offensive tackle Brandon Keith (ankle) doubtful...Wide receiver Ben Obomanu likely to miss for Seattle with knee strain suffered against 49ers...Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch registered sixth 100-yard rushing effort in last eight tests by gaining 107 yards on San Francisco's top-ranked run defense last Saturday...Peterson named to NFC Pro Bowl roster as return specialist on Tuesday, while veteran teammate selected as starting safety...Safety Earl Thomas chosen as Seattle's first Pro Bowl honoree since 2008.
Fast Fact: Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is 4-0 lifetime against the Cardinals, having also directed the New England Patriots to a 27-3 win at Arizona in 1999 in addition to Seattle's three straight victories in the set.
Prediction: Skelton has had a tendency to turn the ball over, and not many teams have been as skilled at forcing mistakes in recent weeks than Seattle. Seahawks 20, Cardinals 13.
Tampa Bay (4-11) at Atlanta (9-6), Saturday, 4:15 (Atlanta -12)
Storylines: Falcons set to make third playoff appearance in four years and could become NFC's No. 5 seed by beating floundering Buccaneers and Detroit losing at Green Bay on Saturday...Tampa Bay heads to Georgia Dome with nine- game losing streak, franchise's longest in-season skid since 1985, and try to avoid dropping 10 in a row for first time since enduring 12 consecutive defeats in 1977...Bucs last in NFL in scoring defense (29.9 ppg) and allowing 36.1 points over past seven contests following 48-16 blowout loss at Carolina this past weekend...Atlanta had won two straight prior to 45-16 setback at NFC South champion New Orleans on Monday, in which defense gave up season highs of 463 total yards and 163 rushing...Tampa Bay did record 16-13 home win over Falcons in Week 3 to end five-game slide in series, and striving for first season sweep of Atlanta since 2007...Buccaneers have lost in three straight trips to Georgia Dome, however, including 27-21 result in 2010...Atlanta placed linebacker Mike Peterson (undisclosed) and nickel back Kelvin Hayden (toe) on injured reserve Wednesday, while linebacker Stephen Nicholas (toe) expected to sit out...Tampa Bay defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth doubtful with knee injury, while offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood and wide receiver Preston Parker both questionable after incurring concussions versus Panthers...Defensive linemen Brian Price (ankle) and Michael Bennett (toe) probable for Bucs, however...Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez named to 11th career Pro Bowl on Tuesday, while Tampa Bay guard Davin Joseph also made NFC squad.
Fast Fact: Buccaneers have committed 28 turnovers during their nine-game slide after having just eight giveaways during a 4-2 start to the season.
Prediction: Falcons may in a position to rest players depending on the outcome of earlier games, but it still won't matter much against a Tampa Bay outfit that packed it in a long time ago. Falcons 27, Buccaneers 16.
Dallas (8-7) at N.Y. Giants (8-7), Sunday, 8:20 (N.Y. Giants -3)
Storylines: Longtime NFC East rivals meet for second time in four weeks with both division title and conference's No. 4 playoff seed at stake...Giants rallied for dramatic 37-34 victory at Cowboys Stadium on Dec. 11, rallying from 12-point deficit in final 3 1/2 minutes and scoring go-ahead points on Eli Manning touchdown pass with 46 seconds left...Dallas quarterback Tony Romo to start despite exiting team's 20-7 loss to Philadelphia in first quarter with bruised throwing hand and threw for season-high four scores in teams' matchup last month...New York pulled even with Cowboys in standings with critical 29-14 win over fellow city resident Jets in Week 16 and have prevailed in four of five most recent bouts in series, though Dallas came through with 33-20 triumph at MetLife Stadium last season...Running back Felix Jones (hamstring) and linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) also probable for Cowboys, but club placed starting guard Montrae Holland on injured reserve Monday after tearing biceps against Eagles...Defensive end Osi Umenyiora may return this week for Giants after missing four straight games with sprained ankle and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) also probable, while wideout Mario Manningham questionable and tight end Jake Ballard doubtful with knee sprains...Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware tied for second in NFL with 18 sacks and Giants end Jason-Pierre Paul (15.5) fourth in that category after picking up two versus Jets...Both players selected to NFC Pro Bowl team on Tuesday, with Manning also representing Giants and nose tackle Jay Ratliff getting nod for Cowboys as well.
Fast Fact: Giants have now secured a non-losing season for the seventh consecutive year under head coach Tom Coughlin with last week's win, the franchise's longest streak since a 10-year run from 1954-63.
Prediction: Though both teams have been wildly inconsistent, Giants have shown up for every big game this season. And this one certainly qualifies as such. Giants 34, Cowboys 27.