All games are intradivision, so there'll be nothing you haven't seen before in terms of matchups. This is a deliberate attempt by the NFL to make it so that more teams have something to play for, such as a higher playoff seed (and possibly even a first-round bye). There is a complex system of tiebreakers (ending in a coin toss, but it's extremely unlikely that it will ever come to that), and division record immediately follows head-to-head record.
So what's at stake and what games hold the greatest interest? Which should you follow? This guide will help you answer that.
A quick disclaimer: I am by no means a gridiron pundit. I also find a lot of games hard to watch. Among other things, a lot of the strategy of the American variety of the game is to eat up time over long and tedious drives that seem to move only a few yards per play. But when there's something at stake, it's great television.
See also: NFL.com's playoff picture, clinching scenarios on Wikipedia, NFL.com's standings.
WEEK 17 - January 2nd, 2010
All times Atlantic (GMT -4)
(Eastern Time starts are 1pm, 4:15pm, 8:20pm)
Key: In playoffs, Trying to clinch a playoff spot, Out of playoffs, something (potentially) to play for (however small)
GC - Link to NFL.com's Game Center page for the game, which will have live play-by-play updates
[Facebook readers can't see the coloured text necessary to distinguish the first two categories and may wish to read the source post instead.]
Miami Dolphins (7-8) at New England Patriots (13-2)
CBS, TSN2 - GC
The Patriots clinched first place in the AFC when they whupped the Bills in Buffalo 34-3. Since they're really only playing for stats now, they may rest their starters. The Dolphins have been out of contention since Week 15.
If they play Tom Brady, it might yet be worth checking in on, but I wouldn't make any plans around watching this game.
Buffalo Bills (4-11) at New York Jets (10-5)
CBS - GC
The Jets have the second wildcard spot in the AFC, and if they beat the pitiful Bills, they can move up to the first one, so they'd face the fourth-best division winner instead of the third-best. Yawn. This isn't much of an upgrade, especially since this probably means they'd face the Colts instead of the Chiefs. (Remember the Chiefs? Started 3-0? Last undefeated team this season? Me neither.)
The Bills have been out of it since Week 12. Actually, starting this season 0-7, they've been gasping for air since the season began. (This is "your" team, Toronto!) At any rate, there probably isn't much to watch here. Not that there's nothing at stake, just next-to-nothing.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-11) at Baltimore Ravens (11-4)
CBS - GC
I like how the win-loss records of these teams stack up. The Ravens should show up to play: They currently sit in a wildcard spot, but if they beat the visiting Bengals (out since Week 12), and get some help from Clev-
OK, never mind, they probably won't even play their starters. But if a miracle happens in Cleveland, this could be an interesting sideshow. They do have a chance for the NFC North title, the #2 AFC seed and the first-round bye, but they have to rely on Cleveland beating Pittsburgh. That's like relying on the scrawny kid who's never picked up a baseball bat to hit you a home run - it only works in the movies.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6) at New Orleans Saints (11-4)
FOX, CTV (Ontario and east, except Ottawa) - GC
Tampa is on life-support. They not only need to win here, but they also need Chicago to beat Green Bay (OK, sure) and the Redskins to beat the Giants (this might be a tall order). But stranger things have happened.
New Orleans would like to grab the NFC South title and get a home playoff game. But for this to happen the Atlanta Falcons would have to lose at home to the awful Carolina Panthers. Well, we'll be watching the scoreboard, I guess.
Carolina Panthers (2-13) at Atlanta Falcons (12-3)
FOX - GC
The Panthers have the distinction of being the undisputed Worst Team in the NFL, and also the first to have been eliminated from postseason contention, way back in Week 11. Carolina will be able to take their pick of the litter. One remark in Carolina's favor - they can go ahead and win this one if they find themselves, miraculously, ahead. No team has three wins, so the title of Worst Team in the NFL is still theirs win or lose.
The Falcons, meanwhile, are second only to the Patriots. If they win they'll get both the NFC South and first seed in the NFC. They'll come out to play, but will they run up the score? (Me hope so. Me like lot of scoring.) This could be a mismatch worth watching.
Minnesota Vikings (6-9) at Detroit Lions (5-10)
FOX - GC
Too bad the Vikings aren't in the NFC West with a healthy Brett Favre. As it is, they were eliminated in Week 14, and the Lions were eliminated in Week 12. Unless you're particularly attached to either team, this game is 100% meaningless - for them and also for everybody else.
Oakland Raiders (7-8) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-5)
CBS - GC
The Raiders fell off the wagon last week, but the Chiefs have the AFC West. They can win (or hope the Titans beat the Colts) to hang onto third place - else they slip to fourth. It's really no big deal, but you'd probably have to play the Ravens if you're in fourth. Does this matter to them? We'll find out on Sunday. I don't think this one is really going to capture anyone's attention, though.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) at Cleveland Browns (5-10)
CBS, CTV (Manitoba and west, plus Ottawa) - GC
Everyone has a soft spot for Cleveland, and people like to cheer for the underdog anyway, and since they're at home... well, worse upsets have happened. The Browns somehow beat the Patriots earlier this year, don't forget: 34-14. The Browns have been out of contention since Week 14, but the Steelers have the AFC North and a first-round bye up for grabs. That's too important to give up without a fight and the Steelers ought to come to play and will play hard. Could be interesting if the Browns show signs of life.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-7) at Houston Texans (5-10)
CBS - GC
Tragically for the Jaguars, they'll be playing concurrently with Indy. They need Indy to lose at home to Tennessee for this game to get them anywhere should they win it. If Indy tanks, the AFC South is up for grabs. But I wouldn't bet on Indy losing at home to what is probably an inferior team.
On the other hand, the Indy / Jacksonville thing is the only in-or-out question remaining in the AFC - all other present-non-playoff teams, besides Jacksonville, have already been eliminated. So there'll be at least a bit of interest. Might be worth flipping back and forth between this and the Indy game if you're fortunate enough to be able to do so.
Arizona Cardinals (5-10) at San Fransisco 49ers (5-10)
FOX - GC
With these teams eliminated in Weeks 15 and 16 respectively, this game means almost nothing to anyone. I say "almost": if Atlanta loses to Carolina earlier in the day, Atlanta can still clinch the NFC South and the #1 NFC seed if both the Eagles and Bears lose, or, if they both win, a victory by one of Arizona, Cleveland, Tennessee, or Washington. But based on Carolina's chances of beating Atlanta, I'll venture a guess that this game will end up meaning nothing to anyone.
Chicago Bears (11-4) at Green Bay Packers (9-6)
FOX, RSN (Ontario, West, Pacific) - GC
The Bears have the NFC North and at least the second seed in the conference, which gets them the valuable first-round bye. But if the Saints and Falcons both lose, beating Green Bay gets them the first seed in the NFC. Saints, maybe. Falcons? Fuhgeddaboudit. But those games are both early ones, and most likely will be wrapped up before this one kicksoff.
Meanwhile, for the Packers, this is pretty much a must-win, especially if Tampa wins in their early-afternoon slot. If the Packers don't win, they have to rely on both Tampa and the football Giants to lose.
So we've got at least the home team playing with some urgency, and that's probably all it's going to be. Should I be excited anyway? I'm not feeling it.
Tennessee Titans (6-9) at Indianapolis Colts (9-6)
CBS, RSN (East) - GC
The Titans were eliminated in the penultimate week, and Indianapolis, despite sitting in top spot in the AFC South, haven't clinched, and they either clinch or go home. Again, it's the only in-or-out question in the AFC. They need to win here, or hope for a concurrent Jaguars loss. Might be worth flipping back and forth between this and the Jaguars game if you're fortunate enough to be able to do so. And this just in: Peyton Manning is pretty good. But he hasn't dominated this year, and he plays conservatively compared to a rushable QB such as Michael Vick.
San Diego Chargers (8-7) at Denver Broncos (4-11)
CBS - GC
Chargers lasted until last week; Broncos have been out since Week 13. Nothing depends on the outcome of the game. NEXT!
Dallas Cowboys (5-10) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-5)
FOX - GC
The Dallas Cowboys have been officially out of the running to go to their own Super Bowl since Week 14. Unofficially, they were written off long before that, going into Week 10 with a bleak-looking 1-7 record. Curiously, nobody's yet to make it to their own Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, the Eagles are... uh, soaring, as Michael Vick has had a remarkable season. But he'd be forgiven for not putting on a tour de force in Week 17. The Eagles are inked-into third place in the NFC.
So, again, nothing depends on this game. If they play Vick, maybe check in on it. If not, skip it.
New York Giants (9-6) at Washington Redskins (6-9)
FOX - GC
Washington's been out since Week 14. If the Giants want to get in, they must win, and the Packers, hosting Chicago concurrent to this game, must lose.
If Eli Manning doesn't play compellingly enough to maintain your interest, you can at least follow the score in Green Bay, though you probably need a special TV package to flip between the two, as both will be carried by Fox.
St. Louis Rams (7-8) at Seattle Seahawks (6-9)
NBC - GC
Now this is more like it! Winner in, loser goes home! At stake: The NFC West, almost certainly the worst division in American gridiron, with an overall record of 23-37. Contesting it: Two mediocre sub-500 teams - that are still the best two teams in the division. Oh well.
Why do the Seahawks have a chance? Winning this game means both teams will sit 7-9, and the Seahawks lost to the Rams by a score of 20-3 in Week 4. But if they beat the Rams this week, they tie the season series at 1-1, necessitating the second tiebreaker: Best record in the division. Since both teams have a 3-2 division record going in, Seattle would climb to 4-2 intradivision and claim the NFC West and the season's final playoff spot on the basis of that second tiebreaker.
Anyway, I'm rooting for Seattle. I want to see them make the playoffs at 7-9, become the first team to make the playoffs in a 16-game season with a losing record, (16 games, but 17 weeks these days because each team gets one week off sometime mid-season) and basically make a mockery of the NFL playoffs in general. Sounds good to me. Go Seahawks!
Thanks to flexible scheduling, this game was decided to be the night game on only six day's notice. A flex-awarded Sunday night game is supposed to go to teams that play their way to the top and deserve the (inter)national attention. But this situation, compelling as it is (I think the right choice was made here), goes to show that it's not just the cream that rises to the top.
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Now that only leaves this: What games can you actually watch?
None of the games will be (officially) online, so if you're looking to watch on your computer, you'll need to find someone who's screensharing. Try here, it worked for me a few weeks ago when there were two Monday night games. Be wary of any feeds that want you to install a plugin - try another feed first.
For Atlantic Canadian cable subscribers, we get our Fox feed from Rochester, NY and our CBS from Boston. (NBC from Boston too, but the Sunday night game will be shown everywhere - except, in theory, Seattle if it weren't sold out, but given the situation it's impossible to imagine it not selling out. TSN usually rebroadcasts the NBC game,
NFL Week 17 from Atlantic Canada
CBS, TS2 - Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots
FOX, CTV - Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints
CBS, RSE - Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts
FOX - New York Giants at Washington Redskins
[Other Sportsnets will have Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers]
NBC, TSN - St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks
See you on Sunday! I may Tweet, but my observations might not be terribly original. We'll see!