Hard to believe, but we have reached the end of the NFL’s 2012 regular season. Was it not that long ago that we had replacement referees and the Arizona Cardinals were 4-0? Yet here we are, days away from that last Sunday until next September in which all 32 teams will play a real game. Savor the moment.
Week 17 offers numerous playoff scenarios, the last two playoff berths, and one more attempt to rewrite the NFL record book. Here is your handy guide to what to watch for this Sunday. All 16 games are divisional rematches.
The Houston Texans (12-3) have been in the driver’s seat of the AFC all season, yet a loss in Indianapolis (10-5) will likely push them all the way to the No. 3 seed, which means no first-round bye.
It is a very important game for Houston, which just beat the Colts 29-17 in a Week 15 game dominated by J.J. Watt. He has 20.5 sacks, eyeing Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 sacks set in 2001.
For the Colts, Bruce Arians had one of the finest runs ever as an interim coach, leading the team to a 9-3 record. Chuck Pagano triumphantly returns to the sidelines this week as his battle with leukemia continues to inspire this team of underdogs.
Despite their -42 scoring differential, the Colts are 10-5. They have done so by going 9-1 in games decided by 1-7 points. Andrew Luck has already set the rookie passing record (4,183 yards), and has tied the regular season record with seven game-winning drives.
While the Colts are locked into the No. 5 seed, they are still a young team that can use the experience against a quality opponent. It is hard to imagine they will not go all out for the win with Pagano’s return. The Colts are 10-0 all time at home against Houston.
You can say Peyton Manning’s injury last year helped pave the way for drafting Luck. Now Manning will be looking for some help in return, as a Colts’ victory over Houston is the path for Manning’s Broncos to get the No. 1 seed this year.
Jacksonville (2-13) has a slight chance of securing the No. 1 pick in the draft with a loss to Tennessee (5-10). The only other need is a Kansas City win in Denver, so good luck there. Think of your imminent future with Tim Tebow as a consolation prize, Jacksonville fans.
With Baltimore (10-5) clinching the division last week, there is little on the line against playoff-bound Cincinnati (9-6), which is locked into the sixth seed. Ray Lewis is back, but he is not expected to play on Sunday. The Ravens have won four straight over the Bengals, who are making back-to-back playoff trips for the first time since 1981-1982.
A Baltimore win combined with a New England loss would give the Ravens the No. 3 seed, but that is not a likely scenario. Besides, that would mean the Ravens would host these very same Bengals a week later, and it is hard to beat a team twice in one week.
Only pride is on the line for Pittsburgh and Cleveland. The Steelers (7-8) will look to avoid their first losing season since 2003, while the Browns (5-10) have not swept the Steelers since 1988.
In a season full of inconsistent play, the Denver Broncos (12-3) are a glimmer of hope. They have won 10 straight games by at least seven points. All other AFC winning streaks combined add up to just eight games. Ranking top five on both offense and defense, Denver might be the most complete team in the league.
Peyton Manning will look to cap off his campaign for a fifth MVP award. His 12 consecutive games with a passer rating of at least 90.0 is the third longest streak in NFL history. Only Aaron Rodgers (13 games in 2011) and Manning again (15 games in 2004) had longer streaks.
Consistency is the name of the game, and that’s what Manning has brought to Denver as it looks towards a run at the Super Bowl. A win will give the Broncos a first-round bye.
The Chiefs (2-13) have consistently been bad this year, and will likely have the first pick in the draft. If they should fail to get a takeaway, they will tie the NFL record for fewest takeaways (12) in a 16-game season. The 2006 Washington Redskins also had 12 takeaways.
San Diego (6-9) plays Oakland (4-11), which should be the swansong for Norv Turner’s run there. Turner is 55-40 (.579) and 3-3 in the postseason as San Diego’s head coach.
With a home finale against Miami (7-8), New England (11-4) can be anywhere from the No. 1 to No. 4 seed depending on Sunday’s results. If the Patriots score at least 32 points, they will have the second-highest scoring season in NFL history. Miami is looking for its third non-losing season since 2004.
Buffalo (5-10) and the Jets (6-9) will play a Week 1 rematch. The season cannot possibly end any faster for these two teams.
Atlanta (13-2) can tie its 1998 Super Bowl team for the best record in franchise history with a win over reeling Tampa Bay (6-9), which has lost five straight games. The Falcons have already clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
New Orleans (7-8) can end its troubled season with a win over Carolina (6-9), which would give the Panthers a second straight 6-10 finish.
Cam Newton needs one touchdown pass to join Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and Andy Dalton as the only quarterbacks to throw at least 20 touchdowns in each of their first two seasons. Meanwhile, Drew Brees needs one touchdown pass to become the first player in NFL history with consecutive seasons of 40 or more touchdown passes.
Brees only needs 219 yards to reach 5,000 yards passing for the third time in his career. Matthew Stafford (305) and Tony Romo (315) also are in position to throw for 5,000 yards, which would match last season’s total of three quarterbacks hitting the milestone.
The NFC North will have a huge impact on the final playoff seeds as both games are involved with many of Sunday’s scenarios. They also will feature two of the league’s best players looking for a 2,000-yard milestone.
Green Bay (11-4) travels to Minnesota (9-6) in a late afternoon game. With a win, the Packers will clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The Vikings need a win just to make the playoffs, which is their best scenario.
A Minnesota win could very well mean these teams will meet again next week, but it will not be easy. The Packers are hot, winners in nine of their last 10 games, and have won five straight against the Vikings.
Minnesota just pulled off an upset in Houston, even without Adrian Peterson having his best game. Peterson needs 102 rushing yards to become the league’s seventh 2,000-yard rusher, and will need 208 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s all-time record (2,105 yards).
Peterson had 210 yards when these teams met in Week 13, but the Packers won. For the Vikings to make the playoffs, they are going to need Christian Ponder to step up.
The Chicago Bears (9-6) are still alive. They have to take care of the Lions (4-11), and hope for the Vikings to lose. Should Chicago falter, it will become just the fourth team to start 7-1 and fail to make the playoffs since 1978. The Bears would join the 1987 San Diego Chargers, 1988 New Orleans Saints and 1996 Washington Redskins.
Standing in their way is a pass-happy Detroit team. Matthew Stafford needs seven pass attempts to surpass Drew Bledsoe’s record of 691 passes in 1994. Unless he is injured, Stafford will become the first quarterback ever to throw 700 passes in a season. He can also break Bledsoe’s record for most drop backs in a season. Bledsoe had 757 while Stafford is currently at 745.
Detroit needs just 12 pass attempts to break the team record for a season, which is currently held by the 1981 Minnesota Vikings (709 attempts).
The beneficiary of all these attempts is Calvin Johnson, who now holds the record for most receiving yards in a season with 1,892 yards. He needs just 108 to become the first player ever with 2,000 receiving yards, and you figure Detroit will do all it can to get him there.
Despite their bad loss on Sunday night, the San Francisco 49ers (10-4-1) should have little trouble clinching the NFC West with a win at home over Arizona (5-10). The banged-up 49ers will just have to root for Minnesota to take care of the Packers in order to get the No. 2 seed and what appears to be some needed rest.
Seattle (10-5) is already in the playoffs, and will likely be the No. 5 seed. Though they lost to the Rams (7-7-1) way back in Week 4, this is a much stronger team now.
Not only is Seattle one of two teams (Atlanta) that are 7-0 at home this year, but their home scoring differential of 141 is easily the best in the league. Denver is a distant second at 94 points.
Russell Wilson needs two touchdown passes to break Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 26 touchdown passes set in 1998. Seattle has scored 150 points over the last three weeks, and is +11 in turnover differential since their bye week (4-1 record).
For the Ram, a win would give them their first winning season since 2003. That would be a strong way to end Jeff Fisher’s first season in St. Louis, but not a likely outcome.
Finally we have the media darlings of the NFC East. For the New York Giants (8-7) to make the playoffs and defend their championship, they need a lot of help.
Not only do the Giants need to beat the Eagles (4-11), but they need Chicago, Minnesota and Dallas to lose. Technically they can get in if Dallas ties, but that’s not going to happen. They will be extremely fortunate just to get all the other results to go their way.
While most probably expect the Vikings and Cowboys to lose this week, and for Chicago to potentially lose, there is no guarantee the Giants can take care of the Eagles, who will start Michael Vick this week.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Then there is the 256th and final regular season game of the 2012 season: Dallas Cowboys (8-7) at Washington Redskins (9-6) for the NFC East title on Sunday Night Football.
For the third time since 2008, the Cowboys go on the road in Week 17 for a "win and you’re in" playoff game against one of their NFC East rivals. The last two times have not gone well, but this Dallas team is different. It has been winning a lot of tough games in the second half of the season, and Tony Romo is playing very well.
Also playing well is Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who can clinch rookie records for completion percentage (66.4 percent) and passer rating (104.1) with a good performance. Griffin making the playoffs would mean three rookie quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson) in the postseason for the first time ever.
Not sure which buttons Mike Shanahan pressed during the team’s bye week, but Washington has turned a 3-6 season into a possible seven-game winning streak that will allow the Redskins to host a playoff game for the first time since the 1999 season.
While it is do-or-die for Dallas, the Redskins can still make the playoffs with losses by the Bears and Vikings, which they will know before the game starts. But if they want to do things the right way, they take care of this one at home.
Either way, let’s just hope for a competitive final game to close out this wild regular season.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
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