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The First Fifteen: Week 17

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By Eric Edholm

Here's an early look at the final regular-season week's worth of action, with plenty of meaningful games still left to play:

1. We start with game No. 256 of the regular season. It's down to one for the NFC East, Cowboys at Giants, win and in, simple as that. As PFW columnist Mike Beacom points out, Week 17 isn't always great, but there are a number of occasions where it really has mattered. This will be one of them. The Giants are 4-7 in the conference, suffered a four-game losing streak that lingered into December and have been outscored by 23 points this season. But they also have a clutch quarterback in Eli Manning (14 fourth-down TD passes, best in the NFL), a dominant, scheme-wrecking defender (Jason Pierre-Paul) and a head coach (Tom Coughlin) and staff that prepare for big games as well as anyone in the NFL. They might have to find ways to do it without WR Mario Manningham, TE Jake Ballard and DE Osi Umenyiora. But it has been the Giants' method of success in Coughlin's finest seasons: making do with what they have and defying the odds. We'll see if that pattern continues Sunday night on NBC at Met Life Stadium.

2. By all indications, Tony Romo's hand should be fine. He hit it on the top of an Eagles defender's helmet, but X-rays were negative, and every sign points towards Romo playing Sunday night. For the Cowboys, that is great news. Romo was spectacular against the Giants in Week 14, completing passes to eight different receivers, hitting four for TD passes and averaging more than 10 yards per attempt. But what about the rest of the team? It fell flat in the home loss Saturday against the Eagles with a division title for the taking, and there was a strange scene after Romo got hurt. Owner Jerry Jones (who was "scared" of the Eagles coming in) rushed down to have a conversation with head coach Jason Garrett, telling him the way to handle Romo. He was not let back in, and Stephen McGee struggled in the loss. (A quick aside: Could you ever picture John Mara telling Coughlin how to play his cards? OK, end aside.) Felix Jones also was pulled in the game to save his balky hamstring, and his status is up in the air for this contest. The Cowboys come in shaky, banged up (OLG Montrae Holland is out for the season) and — as some have suggested — in need of a win to ensure the safe returns of Romo and Garrett next season. Nothing like a little pressure, eh?

3. Is there concern with the Ravens' offense? Again? The temporary loss of Anquan Boldin has rendered them rather mute in the passing game, as the Ravens failed to reach 300 yards of offense for the game and stalled several times in the second half against the Browns. Lee Evans started in Boldin's place and had zero catches on four passes thrown his way. Now they get the plucky Bengals in a game that matters to both. The Ravens need the win to seal up the AFC North title, and with it would come a first-round bye. The Bengals are in with a win, although some combination of losses or ties from the Jets/Raiders/Broncos also can achieve that end. The good news for the Ravens is that the Bengals are especially adept at allowing teams to throw the ball, and Torrey Smith had 165 receiving yards in the first contest, a 31-24 Ravens win. It was Smith's TD catch in that game in Baltimore that made it a 31-14 Ravens game early in the fourth quarter. Another rookie receiver, Bengals WR A.J. Green, looked hobbled last week and likely will remain gimpy with a shoulder injury. All signs point to less offense in this game than the first meeting.

4. Marvin Lewis has the Bengals' attention. He has coached this team beautifully and has focused his young team's attention to the tasks at hand. Many thought they were dead after losses to the Steelers and Ravens, but this Bengals team has kept in the race and has an excellent chance to get in the playoffs. "We're playing for something special now," Lewis said. "It's all out in front of us." The question now: Are the people in Cincinnati paying attention? Paid attendance Saturday: 41,273. There will be more in the stands on Sunday, sure, as team officials are putting on the full-court press to sell tickets with a buy-one, get-one-free offer. But can the Bengals really count on a home-field advantage? The Ravens are vulnerable away from Baltimore (where they are 8-0), by going 3-4 away from home with losses to four teams that are likely to miss the playoffs. This game was flexed to 4:15 p.m. ET because it has big implications for both teams. You'd hope the atmosphere matches the importance of the game.

5. The Broncos have to be nervous with the way the past two weeks have gone, being outscored 81-37, and invoking memories of the late-season collapses in Denver of 2006, '08 and '09. Teams are sacking Tim Tebow more now and, at least in Buffalo, forcing him into bad throws. Turnovers have been the killer, and the special teams have broken down. And now they have to face their old quarterback, Kyle Orton, with revenge on his mind. When the Chiefs and Broncos faced in Week 10 (the infamous 2-for-8, 69-yard passing game from Tebow), Orton was the Broncos' backup. Now he returns to Denver to show his old team they made a mistake in releasing him and allowing him to go to a division opponent. "I think that it's a little bit more for you than for us," Tebow said of the matchup, meaning the story line means more to the media than the Broncos, apparently.

6. Orton is not just playing to beat the Broncos. He's trying to prove to the Chiefs that he should be a part of their future. It's a fascinating scenario, and you know the Chiefs will come out hard in this game. Romeo Crennel might be just as desperate as Orton. He's trying to prove the same thing; there's nothing meaningless about this game for the Chiefs, and that has to make the Broncos very concerned. "I said all along that at the end of the season a decision was going to be made, and I was going to do the best I could for the three games," Crennel said. "So the first game was a really good game, this game (the loss to the Raiders) wasn't as good, and now I have one more game." Crennel said the best players will play and that this game will not be an audition for young guys with starters resting. This one should be fun.

7. The Chargers might be toast now, but the Raiders remarkably have life. They need help from the Chiefs (see above), but the AFC West remains within Oakland's grasp. Hue Jackson has earned criticism for his team's penchant for penalties, which has led to a wild season. But you have to respect the guy's heart. Following the death of Al Davis, it was a shaky-voiced Jackson who delivered a postgame celebration speech and a eulogy to his team wrapped up in one. And Jackson made sure to invoke the ghost of Davis after his team's emotional overtime win over the Chiefs. "The man told me, 'Hue, we will win it in the end,'" Jackson said. "And I believe that. I don't know how it's going to happen, but I know this much: I truly believe in the guy who was my leader, who told me that before he passed. That's what he told me. He said, 'Hue, we will win in the end.' I've shared that with the football team, and they played like that (Saturday)." And wouldn't it just be like Davis, even in death, to spoil the AFC West party and have his fingerprints all over a Raiders division title? As for the Chargers, based on the stories that are circulating, you have a feeling that this will be the week (and game) before all heck breaks loose. The changes, they are a-comin'.

8. Has Rex Ryan talked this team into the ground? Is Mark Sanchez part of this team's future? Will Brian Schottenheimer be back? And, oh yeah, will the Jets make the playoffs? They play early, which is a good thing. That way, there won't be a lot of scoreboard watching, with only the Titans-Texans game coming early among the games that matter to the Jets' postseason hopes. Ryan admitted after Saturday's loss to the Giants that the plan coming in was not to throw the ball 59 times, but you wonder if the Jets can help themselves in this game. The Dolphins rank third in run defense but 26th versus the pass. There has been a clear disconnect in the holy trinity of Ryan, Sanchez and Schottenheimer, and the plan often goes out the window at some point during games it appears. The Dolphins would love nothing more than to end the Jets' season. It's the beauty of the Week 17 divisional matchups: Rivals get to make each other miserable in the final week of the season. There's also this story line to follow for down the line: Can't you just see both the Jets and Dolphins inquiring about Peyton Manning in the offseason? The Jets have a gutsy GM in Mike Tannenbaum and the Dolphins are bent on winning now. That's the kind of move you could envision each team wanting to explore.

9. The Steelers are playing for one thing: to win the division and the home game that comes with that honor. Ben Roethlisberger could return vs. the Browns after sitting out against the Rams, allowing him to have some action prior to the playoffs whether or not the team has a first-round bye. This game will be happening at the same time as the Ravens-Bengals matchup, so there will be a lot of scoreboard watching and computer refreshing happening around the country, namely in the mid-Atlantic states. The Browns are playing for ... pride? They battled hard against the Ravens and almost pulled it out. Peyton Hillis finished well and appears to be giving himself a little momentum heading into free agency. This is likely his final game as a Brown. But the biggest question is on Colt McCoy. Does he start this game? McCoy's concussion at the hands of Steelers LB James Harrison (one sack in his return to the lineup on Saturday) leaves the QB's status in doubt. And if you read Nolan Nawrocki's "Scouts Eye" column this week, there is scuttlebutt around the NFL that the Browns, armed with a bevy of draft picks, are at least kicking around the idea of trading up to get in position to draft Andrew Luck. McCoy needs all the big games he can put together to convince the team that would be a bad move.

10. The Texans have nothing to play for; they are locked into the three seed. The Titans need about four things to happen to get in. Head coach Mike Munchak is reminding his troops about hope this time of year. He mentioned to his Titans team that the Packers last season needed two wins just to get into the tournament and that as a six seed, Green Bay won it all. "I think that guys like to hear that people have been through similar circumstances and have come out of the other end in a positive way. It still comes down to how you handle the situation," Munchak said. "We talked last week about Green Bay and how they needed to win their last two games last year, plus they needed help. They didn't control their own destiny, and they went on to win about 20 games in a row or so." With a hot Jared Cook and a rising Derrick Morgan, they are receiving a little unexpected help on both sides of the ball. As for the Texans, they appear to be regressing, or at least plateauing. How much can they really gain from this one, short of better execution? Well, the return of Wade Phillips to the office has lifted the team, but you have to think they are saving Andre Johnson for the playoff game in Houston. Smart.

11. Mike McCarthy would like to remind you that there are only 46 active game-day players and that he still plans to play this impactless game against the Lions like it's a normal contest. We'll see. Does Aaron Rodgers need more than three series? Probably not. Against a Lions team that likes to, ahem, play through the whistle (must we bring up Thanksgiving again?), it makes little sense to have No. 12 out there too long, even with the bye-week rest coming up. The Lions, however, actually have a lot to play for in this one, even with the postseason bid clinched. First, they want to earn the No. 5 seed and a win does that; it would ensure a game against the NFC East champs, and that means avoiding a hot Saints team (that beat them down a few weeks back) in Round One. Also, the Lions have not won in Green Bay since 1991. Not that Jim Schwartz needs help in the local polls, but that would be a nice feather in his cap in a season in which the team's 11-year postseason drought has ended. Plus, the Lions are playing their best football the past few weeks and they'll want to keep that up. Plus plus: Schwartz secretly wants to see how his team matches up with the best prior to the playoffs, and until further notice we know who the best is by the records.

12. Knowing Bill Belichick, you can expect him to let Tom Brady let it rip about 75 times in this game, right? Drew Brees might have broken Dan Marino's single-season passing-yardage record Sunday night, but Brady isn't far behind: 190 yards back right now. Plus, Brady and Belichick have a history of sticking it late in the season to the Bills, who have not won in Foxborough since 2000. Remember '03? The Bills shocked the Patriots 31-0 in the Lawyer Milloy Bowl, and the Pats returned the favor in Week 17 with a harmonious 31-0 blanking (that included a goal-line stand in the final seconds with the starters in) of their own. Brady's revenge would come in wanting to make up for the Bills' shocking comeback in Buffalo in Week Three in which he threw four interceptions. The Bills ended their seven-game losing streak Sunday in bashing the Broncos in Buffalo, but this matchup looks foreboding, even with all of the Patriots' offensive line injuries.

13. Knowing Brees can't sit, there's a good chance Sean Payton plays his starting QB for most of this game against the Panthers in what could be a terrific offensive display. You figure Brees needs about 250 yards passsing to feel entirely comfortable about maintaining his record. Cam Newton has defied his doubters on the other sideline and looks to cap off a rookie season for the ages. Steve Smith has a history of torching the Saints, too, and he could end up with one of his finest seasons to date against a secondary that has allowed its fair share of busted coverages. The Panthers come in hot, winners of four of five games, and they will not back down from the steamrolling Saints, not even in New Orleans.

14. The Falcons are left to pick up the pieces of their Monday-night loss to the Saints, likely knowing they could face them again in one week. But first: a matchup with the faded Buccaneers in what could be Raheem Morris' final game as head coach. He says he should not go, but the powers that be might disagree. They have fallen hard, having been dissected by the Cowboys and Panthers the past two weeks and have little to build on in this one. The team appears to have thrown in the towel in a terribly disappointing season. "No question. Bingo. You got me. I can't even talk my way around this one," Morris said. "That is the most frustrating thing for me at this point, but it happens because people go outside the box and try to make plays that are just not there in order to get their football team or basketball team or hockey team to win. You've got to go play within the system and make the plays that technique and opportunity allow you to make. Once you do those things, it's just like the year before." The Falcons likely will hone their no-huddle offense and also get back to power running the ball, especially at a Bucs defense that is thin as heck at defensive tackle. This one smells like a blowout. The Falcons could use some defensive confidence.

15. The 49ers need to win to ensure they get the No. 2 seed, but that seems to be only a matter of showing up against the Rams. The bigger story in this game could come with draft position. Until recently, it appeared the Colts were locks for the No. 1 pick. Now, following wins over the Titans and Texans, the Colts might actually lose the No. 1 pick with a victory over the Jaguars, which would be their third straight. It would mean the Colts pick second if the Rams lose, and it would set up a fascinating story line with Luck, Robert Griffin III and the future of Manning in Indy.

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