Week 17 is the busiest NFL Sunday of the season. For the first and only time this year, all 16 games will be played in one day — there are no Thursday, Saturday, or Monday games to balance the schedule. The typically busy morning slate features seven games, the afternoon slate features eight, and then the Colts and Titans are competing on Sunday Night Football for what is effectively a play-in game.
This packed day of games provides a chance for serious chaos. Only two playoff seeds are locked: The Saints have snagged the no. 1 seed in the NFC while the Cowboys have the fourth slot. Everything else is up for grabs. Hell, the Titans could actually finish the day as the no. 2 seed in the AFC if things break just right. With all that in mind, here is a viewing guide to get you through the final week of the season:
1 P.M. ET
New York Jets (4-11) at New England Patriots (10-5)
It’s happening again. After a few weeks when it looked like the Patriots could be playing on wild-card weekend for the first time in nine seasons, last week’s Texans loss means that New England is now on track to once again claim a first-round bye. To secure the no. 2 seed, the Pats need to beat the Jets, who have been in a series of close games in the past month. Since returning from a foot injury in Week 14, Jets quarterback Sam Darnold has never looked better, completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 764 yards, six touchdowns, and one interception over his last three games -- good for a 106.2 passer rating. Knocking off the Pats in Foxborough would be one hell of a way for Darnold to finish his up-and-down rookie season.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) at Houston Texans (10-5)
Should the Patriots fall to the Jets, the Texans will have a chance at the no. 2 seed — or even the no. 1 seed, if the Chiefs and Chargers also lose. But the Texans’ primary focus on Sunday will be holding on to the third seed; a loss would lock them into the sixth spot. No matter their seeding, Houston will likely face off against the Colts or Titans in the wild-card round — but I’m sure the Texans would prefer to knock off the one team from the AFC South that isn’t in the postseason running to ensure they’d host that matchup.
Carolina Panthers (6-9) at New Orleans Saints (13-2)
Through nine weeks of this season, as the Saints stood at 7-1 and the Panthers at 6-2, it looked like the clustered Week 15 and Week 17 games between these two teams was a stroke of scheduling genius. But the Panthers have cratered since then and are already eliminated from the playoffs, while the Saints have clinched the no. 1 seed. New Orleans has every reason to rest their starters, while the Panthers will start Kyle Allen over the injured Cam Newton.
If there is any reason to watch this matchup, it’s to see whether the Panthers can avoid the ignominious honor of the worst collapse in NFL history. Should Carolina lose, it’ll become the first team ever to finish 6-10 after starting 6-2.
Miami Dolphins (7-8) at Buffalo Bills (5-10)
Both of these teams are already eliminated from playoff contention, and while Adam Gase may be coaching for his job in Miami, I’m more interested in watching the Bills. This will be our last chance to see rookie quarterback Josh Allen compete this year, and his season has been fascinating. Allen struggled mightily for the first six weeks, completing just 54.0 percent of his passes for 138.7 yards per game with two touchdowns and five interceptions. But then he injured his elbow in Week 6 and sat out until Week 12, and in the five games since he’s … well, he still hasn’t been great as a passer (49.7 completion percentage, 203.6 yards per game, five touchdowns, and six interceptions), but he’s somehow become the best rushing quarterback in the NFL, running for more than 76 yards per game in that span. While that’s probably not the kind of yardage the Bills envisioned him racking up when they took the Wyoming passer with the no. 7 pick in the draft, it is one way to keep the offense moving.
Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-10)
This may be the least interesting matchup of the early slate. Both teams have been eliminated from the playoff race, and neither is in a spot where a win or loss would wildly affect their draft positioning. On the Tampa Bay side, this is Dirk Koetter’s last chance to prove himself before the offseason. Koetter has a 19-28 record in three seasons with the Bucs, and his seat is hot. But it’s also a tough year for teams to be in the head coaching market. With openings on squads like the Packers, Browns, and likely the Jets by the end of the season, the Bucs could find themselves far down the pecking order for head coaching candidates. That reality, combined with a strong showing Sunday, could be enough for Koetter to keep his job for one more season.
Dallas Cowboys (9-6) at New York Giants (5-10)
The Cowboys have already won the NFC East and cannot leap the Bears to take the no. 3 seed in the conference, so they essentially have nothing to play for. And the Giants have been out of the postseason hunt for quite a while. The one interesting wrinkle to this game is that it may be Eli Manning’s swan song in New York. Manning has been below average this season (and that’s being generous), and the Giants could cut him in the offseason to save $17 million in cap space. Some of his teammates reportedly want Manning to come back in 2019, but nothing is certain. If you were running a team, think about what you’d rather have this offseason: Eli Manning, or $17 million. This shouldn’t be a hard choice for New York.
Detroit Lions (5-10) at Green Bay Packers (6-8-1)
There’s not much to say about this matchup. Both teams are eliminated from the playoffs, and Green Bay’s interim head coach Joe Philbin doesn’t even seem to be in the running for the full-time job, given that the Packers are interviewing coaching candidates left and right.
The Packers have actually conducted at least two interviews so far: Chuck Pagano in addition to Jim Caldwell well, a source confirmed. Expect Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst to talk to many candidates before they settle on their guy. https://t.co/b9r1sqo2rZ— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) December 27, 2018
As for the coach on the other sideline, let’s just hope he shows up to the game on time:
Patricia’s first season in Detroit has been so miserable that there are quiet rumblings he could be a one-and-done coach. He’ll likely get at least one more season, but a win in Green Bay would remove all doubt.
4:25 P.M. ET
Cincinnati Bengals (6-9) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6-1)
The Steelers may be the most frustrating team in football. They beat the Patriots in Week 15 and played the Saints close last Sunday in New Orleans, but they also lost to both the Raiders and Broncos and tied the Hue Jackson–led Browns. They’re as good as any team in the NFL when they’re playing their best, yet they’ll be spending Week 17 fighting for their playoff lives. To make the postseason, the Steelers need to win against the Jeff Driskel–led Bengals, and they need the Browns to beat the Ravens. That would give Pittsburgh the AFC North title and the no. 4 seed in the AFC. Of course, given how the Steelers’ season has gone, the most fitting result would probably be that the Browns take care of business and the Steelers find a way to lose to the Bengals. In that case, the Ravens would win the division. Speaking of Baltimore …
Cleveland Browns (7-7-1) at Baltimore Ravens (9-6)
The Browns won’t let this one be a cakewalk for Baltimore. With a win, Cleveland can secure its first winning season since 2007, and interim head coach Gregg Williams has said that the Browns are treating this like a playoff game. Cleveland has won five of its last six behind Baker Mayfield’s awesome play and even better trash talk:
Baker Mayfield stared down Hue for 30 mins lmao pic.twitter.com/I8EKQss5Oj— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 23, 2018
The Ravens are the team no one wants to face in the playoffs, but they still need one last win to secure their spot. The Browns won’t make it easy.
Philadelphia Eagles (8-7) at Washington Redskins (7-8)
The playoffs would certainly be more fun if the defending champs make it in. Nick Foles is adding what could be another magical run to his bizarre career, and a resurgent Eagles team is a hell of a lot more interesting than a Vikings squad that is 0-5 against teams that have already clinched playoff berths. And while most people agree that Carson Wentz is the only long-term option for the Eagles under center, it would be very compelling to watch Doug Pederson and his staff juggle Wentz and Foles in the playoffs. But for Philly to make it back to the postseason, it’ll need some help from the Bears, which sets up an interesting dilemma for Chicago …
Chicago Bears (11-4) at Minnesota Vikings (8-6-1)
The path to the postseason couldn’t be simpler for the Vikings: win, and they’re in. But this matchup presents a trickier conundrum for the Bears. Assuming the Seahawks beat the lowly Cardinals and the Rams beat the mediocre 49ers, Chicago has a chance to influence its first-round matchup. If the Bears lose to Minnesota, they’ll play the Vikings on wild-card weekend. But if they win and the Eagles win, they’ll face Philly. Would you rather play the Vikings or the Eagles? Vegas says the Bears should prefer the Eagles …
Chicago would be a 3.5-point home favorite vs Minnesota in the playoffs and a 5.5-point favorite vs Philadelphia, per @SuperBookUSA. So, Vegas thinks the Bears would be better off playing to win Sunday and taking their chances with the Eagles next weekend.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 27, 2018
... but I suspect they’d rather play the team they’re more familiar with — plus, that option allows Chicago to rest its starters and go into the playoffs healthy. Of course, that path is fraught with risk. If the Bears lose, they surrender any chance of gaining the 2-seed in the NFC, which they would get with a win and a Rams loss. They’d also have a chance of playing Seattle in the first round — if the Seahawks and Bears both lose, Seattle will travel to Chicago on wild-card weekend. The Bears may prefer playing the Vikings to the Eagles, but they should also try to avoid the surging Seahawks at all costs. This is all very complicated, and the Bears will likely just aim for a win on Sunday regardless of the implications. But the coaching staff is at least thinking about the different scenarios:
Matt Nagy reiterates that #Bears are going to Minnesota to win the game, not play their backups. If the #Rams are up huuuuge at halftime, maybe they'll considering pulling their starters. Coach Matt Nagy said the halftime #Rams score would have to be extraordinary.— Patrick Finley (@patrickfinley) December 26, 2018
Los Angeles Chargers (11-4) at Denver Broncos (6-9)
If the Chargers beat the Broncos and the Chiefs lose to the Raiders, L.A. could move up to the no. 1 seed. But a loss in Denver wouldn’t hurt them much — it’d simply guarantee their current spot as the fifth seed in the AFC. It’s easy to imagine that if the Chiefs have a massive lead on the Raiders at halftime, the Chargers would consider pulling their starters and prioritize entering the postseason at full strength.
San Francisco 49ers (4-11) at Los Angeles Rams (12-3)
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald had 4.0 sacks the last time these two teams played, and he needs 3.5 to break Michael Strahan’s all-time record of 22.5 set in 2002. But this game is about more than the record books for the Rams. First off, Los Angeles needs to win to secure the no. 2 seed in the NFC. Should the Rams lose and Chicago win, they’d be bounced back to no. 3 and would play on wild-card weekend. The Rams also need to focus on getting their offense back on track after it was thrown out of sync in games against the Bears and Eagles. That unit looked solid against the Cardinals last weekend, putting up 31 points and 461 yards of offense, but another impressive outing would surely calm some nerves around L.A. as the Rams head to the postseason.
Of note: Todd Gurley may not play in this matchup as he deals with a knee injury, but that didn’t slow down the Rams offense in Arizona. If anything, last-minute replacement C.J. Anderson was even better than Gurley.
Interesting: 105 of CJ Anderson's 167 rushing yards came after contact, more than Todd Gurley has ever gained in a game and the most by a Rams rusher in the last 10 seasons, per @ESPNStatsInfo.— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) December 24, 2018
If Anderson has a second big game, he’ll be another example of the season-long trend of understudy running backs making a big impact on NFL offenses.
Arizona Cardinals (3-12) at Seattle Seahawks (9-6)
The Seahawks have already clinched a playoff spot, though a loss to the Cardinals could drop them from the fifth seed to the sixth seed in the NFC. That positioning is important — the fifth seed will travel to Dallas, while the sixth seed will likely go to Chicago. It’s a no-brainer which spot the Seahawks want.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, should just be happy the season’s almost over. At 3-12, they have the worst record in the league, so a loss on Sunday would guarantee them the no. 1 pick in the draft. But a win could drop them all the way back to no. 4, depending on the results of the Raiders, Jets, and 49ers games.
Oakland Raiders (4-11) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
The 2018 Raiders season was a mess. The team hired Jon Gruden, the front office traded away Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, Derek Carr cried on the field, and the organization might be getting booted out of Oakland. The Raiders were a living, breathing meme. But on Sunday, Oakland has a chance to notch a monumental upset that would throw the AFC into chaos. The Raiders are 13.5-point underdogs as they head to Arrowhead, but an Oakland win would could push the Chiefs all the way down to the fifth seed if the Chargers also dispatch the Broncos. This would be the ultimate Andy Reid collapse — tumbling down from the driver’s seat in the AFC to a road game on wild-card weekend. If Oakland pulls this off, NFL fans can finally laugh with the Raiders instead of at them.
8:20 P.M. ET
Indianapolis Colts (9-6) at Tennessee Titans (9-6)
Somehow, the Titans can still get the no. 2 seed in the AFC. They need a lot of help, of course, but if the Ravens, Texans, and Patriots all lose on Sunday, then Tennessee will be playing for a postseason bye week. Can you imagine how bizarre it would be to have the Titans hosting the Patriots in the divisional round? Blaine Gabbert, of all people, could lead the Titans to a top-two seed. This season has truly shone a light on how wonky the NFL’s playoff structure can be.
But three of the AFC’s best teams all losing in one day is highly unlikely, and the Colts and Titans will almost assuredly be playing for the conference’s sixth and final seed. That in itself is interesting, as neither team was expected to be in this situation entering the season. Frank Reich was the Colts’ second choice as head coach this offseason, and he inherited a depleted roster and a seemingly broken quarterback. The team started 1-5, but the Colts have clawed their way to eight wins in their last nine games, including victories over playoff squads in the Texans and Cowboys. They nailed their 2018 draft with Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson, have exciting playmakers in T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack, and a QB who has looked like the Andrew Luck of old over the second half of the season.
The Titans are also unlikely playoff candidates: They have a first-year head coach in Mike Vrabel and spent most of the season managing injuries to QB Marcus Mariota. Mariota is injured once again, and it doesn’t sound promising:
#Titans QB Marcus Mariota tells WGFX-FM in Tennessee that “basically sent my whole right side numb and tingly” after his injury. He describes it as a nerve injury and the team added a QB. This all doesn’t sound great for his availability this Sunday vs #Colts.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 26, 2018
Mariota’s status for Sunday is uncertain, though he has said he’ll try to play. That’s made the Titans 3.5-point underdogs even though they’re playing in Tennessee and have won four straight. The Titans could lean on their run game — Derrick Henry has been outstanding the last few weeks — to help Mariota or Gabbert, but the Colts will be well prepared for that: They rank fifth in the league in rushing defense DVOA.
Regardless, we essentially get a playoff game a week early. Merry belated Christmas.