(Philadelphia, Pa) — Hard to believe, but the final week of the 2008 NFL season is upon us. With cries of “Where did the time go?” all around the NFL — except for places like St. Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit – the most exciting time in sports, the NFL playoffs, is almost upon us. For the 13th consecutive season, five or more teams will qualify for the playoffs that were not in the postseason the year before – already in are Arizona, Atlanta and Carolina, who all did not make the playoffs last year. This Sunday, that number will definitely jump to four teams with either Minnesota or Chicago winning the NFC North and with other scenarios it could get larger — the fifth (and potentially sixth) teams will come from the pool of Baltimore, Miami and the New York Jets, who are competing with New England (2007 AFC East champion) for two AFC playoff berths. The number of new playoff teams could explode as high as eight if Denver emerges as the AFC West champion and Philadelphia or Chicago takes the final NFC wild card spot.
The holidays have brought gifts for some (Titans, Giants, Steelers, and Falcons) and letters not answered by Santa for some others (Browns, Chiefs, Rams, and Lions). But there are still more storylines to be written and told in Week 17 as 11 teams scramble for the last five available playoff berths, postseason awards are waiting to be claimed, possible records to be broken, and draft slotting is finalized. Though some teams (Colts, Steelers, Giants, and Titans) have already clinched playoff spots, first round byes or home field advantage and may have the option of resting selected players, the overwhelming majority of games in Week 17 have playoff implications. Being selfish for a moment, I like that playoff scenarios are involved in the last week of the NFL season as it gives more credence to the “Every Game Counts” mantra of the league. Teams only need to look at last year’s magical Super Bowl championship run by the wildcard New Giants (10-6 record in 2007) to see how playing hard in Week 17 can ignite a team’s fire in the playoffs – lost to the then undefeated Patriots 38-35. But the Giants’ effort was not in vain as the team learned that they could play with the “Super Patriots” and beat the 18-0 monster as we learned in Super Bowl XLII.
The most important aspect of NFL Week 17 is getting your card punched for January’s playoff dance by any means necessary — getting help from other teams losing, winning yourself, and key tiebreakers (head to head, conference record, common opponents, etc). Chicago Bears defensive end Alex Brown summed up NFL Week 17 best when he said, “You win, you keep playing”. Brown and his Bears (9-6) teammates should take his comments to heart as the “Monsters of the Midway” need to take care of business in Houston against a gritty Texans (7-8) team with the hope that the Giants don’t rest their veterans against the Vikings. Speaking of the Vikings, I am sure that NFC North leading squad (9-6) will lean heavily on NFL leading rusher Adrian Peterson (1,657 yards) — needs only two yards to join Eric Dickerson, Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, and Earl Campbell as the only players who have rushed for at least 3,000 yards in their first two seasons — against the Giants staunch defense (currently ranked 5th in the NFL) as they attempt to clinch their first division crown since 2000 when former head coach Mike Tice was patrolling the sidelines.
The Giants-Vikings is not the only game on tap that should keep everyone glued to their seats from 1:00 PM to 11:30 PM EST on Sunday to find out “Who is in and Who is out”. A programming note all NFL games in Week 17 are played on Sunday December 28th — no Monday Night Football — meaning all playoff destinations will be known in time for Sunday’s ESPN SportsCenter.
- Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles – One of the biggest rivalries in professional football will have greater significance as the Cowboys will “get-in” the playoffs with a win at hostile Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa. Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones has spent a lot of time and money on this year’s team, so expect urgency to be high for on the “hot seat” head coach Wade Phillips, end of season swooner quarterback Tony Romo (record of 5-10 lifetime in Dec and Jan) and the rest of the drama-filled Cowboys. The Eagles on the other hand need a win plus help from Bucs and Vikings losing to keep playing plus who knows this could be the last time in green for safety Brian Dawkins, quarterback Donovan McNabb, and possibly head coach Andy Reid. The unfortunate part for the Eagles, is that this game has been “flexed” from a 1:00 PM start to 4:00 PM and the Birds probably will know they have been eliminated from playoff contention with an expected Bucs win over the Raiders at 1PM. LV‘s Pick: The Cowboys win as they need this game much more than the Birds. Look for T.O and Romo to pour it on as the in-for-some-changes-in ’09 Eagles start making off-season plans after watching the Bucs trounce the Raiders
- St. Louis Rams at Atlanta Falcons – This 1:00 PM starting game features a team rising from the ashes (Falcons) against a team falling to the lowest of NFL depths (Rams). The Falcons led by surefire rookie of the year quarterback Matt Ryan need a win and a Panthers loss (against the Saints) to become the sixth NFC South champion to go from last to first in one season since the division was established in 2002. LV‘s Pick: Falcons win and they claim the NFC North as the Panthers tumble to the 5th spot.
- New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills – Everyone’s pick for breakout player of the year, Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, leads his team against the spoiler happy Bills. Everyone knows about the mess that AFC East currently is with the Patriots and Dolphins tied at the top and the Jets not far behind. The Patriots should take care of business at 1PM then they will turn their attentions to the huge Jets-Dolphins showdown. If the Dolphins lose then the Patriots win the division. LV‘s Pick: Patriots
- Miami Dolphins at New York Jets – With the ghosts of Doug Betters, AJ Duhe, Mark Gastineau, Richard Todd, and Nat Moore running around the Meadowlands, the game has huge AFC East title implications will take place at 4:15 PM EST. The weather in New York is expected to be around 50 to 60 degrees at kickoff, so we won’t see the ‘Phins buttoned up as they typically have been in late season trips up North. The Dolphins if you can believe it have a chance to clinch the division after going 1-15 in 2007. The J-E-T-S were in the drivers seat of the division race a couple of weeks ago, but have recently struggled – lost 3 of their last 4 games with quarterback Brett Favre producing 1 TD and 6 INTs during this stretch. LV‘s Pick: I like the Jets to bounce back by winning by a very small margin (field goal game) thus sending the AFC East champion Patriots to the playoffs.
In Week 17 of the NFL, history will be relived (1958 Championship Game) and unfortunately might be negatively created (Lions finishing 0-16).
The Greatest Game Ever Celebrated — How many professional sports leagues can pinpoint the exact spot, the exact day, even the exact time they “arrived?” The National Football League can: Yankee Stadium, December 28, 1958, 4:51 PM EST. Fifty years ago this Sunday (December 28th), will mark the 50th Anniversary of the legendary 1958 Championship Game between the Colts and Giants called “The Greatest Game Ever”. The Colts won when fullback Alan Ameche burst through a hole for a one-yard touchdown with 6:45 left in overtime taking the National Football League with him into a new era. The NFL would never be the same again as football was discovered by American pop-culture and started roots that have made it the nation’s new passion over baseball.
During Week 17 around the NFL, “The Greatest Game Ever” will be celebrated everywhere with stories regaling football legends like John Unitas, Raymond Berry, John Mackey, Gino Marchetti, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Emlen Tunnel and Lenny Moore, who were all part of the black-white television spectacular. Pro Football Hall of Fame head Joe Horrigan said of the 1958 Championship Game, “The Greatest Game Ever moniker has stood the test of time. We can look back historically and see that this game not only played a significant role in the development of television, which it’s often cited for, but beyond that, it was a great catalyst for expansion in the National Football League and the emergence of the American Football League. It was also putting a game in the city of New York, which was of critical importance to the league in terms of the growth of its popularity”.
Sure there are other games that could be debated as the “Greatest” — The Ice Bowl, Super Bowl III’s Namath predicted Jets upset over the Colts, my favorite the classic Chargers-Dolphins playoff in 1982, the one-yard short Rams-Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV, and Super Bowl XLII with the Giants overcoming the Goliath 18-0 Patriots. But the perfection of the 1958 Championship game was the explosive collision of time, place, and history that will probably never be seen again in sports. Just think about it….the game had marquee players (Gifford, Unitas, and others), a compelling finish (overtime for the first time ever), was played out on national television for the first time (most NFL games were blacked out back then), was held in the United States’ focal point (New York City), and in the nation’s most revered stadium (Yankee Stadium). Long live the “The Greatest Game Ever” and here is hoping more historic NFL memories can be made in the near future.
Detroit Lions trying to avoid NFL (0-16) Infamy — It has become overwhelming apparent throughout the 2008 NFL season that this season’s Detroit Lions may absolutely be the NFL’s all-time worst franchise for one season. Last week, the Lions became the NFL’s first 0-15 team with a 42-7 home loss to the Saints — eclipsed the previous marks of futility set by two teams (1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14 and the 1980 New Orleans Saints also started the 1980 season 0-14). So the stage is set this Sunday for the Lions to become the NFL’s first 0-16 squad playing against old-time rival the Green Bay Packers on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The final game of the season couldn’t have come sooner for embattled head coach Rod Marinelli, who currently sports a 10-25 record in two-plus seasons with the Lions including losing 22 of their last 23 games. The Packers at (5-10) are not much better than the Lions, but do you really believe that the Pack can lose to the woeful Lions in their own stadium — legendary coach Vince Lombardi would rollover in his grave. Maybe former Packers nemesis from his days with the Vikings, Lions backup quarterback Daunte Culpepper, can come off the bench to save his team’s season, but I doubt it. LV‘s Pick: Move over 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14) as there is a new pathetic team in NFL history.
New Leadership in NFL Divisions – Heading into Week 17, there are already five divisions guaranteed to have a different champion from last year. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the only repeat division winner at this point. The potential seven new division winners would set a record since realignment in 2002, topping the six new division winners of 2003.
Rookie RB’s Shining — With 10 and 12 yards, respectively, running backs Steve Slaton (1,190) of Houston and Matt Forte’ (1,188) of Chicago can join Tennessee’s Chris Johnson (1,228) as the first trio of rookie backs in history to each rush for 1,200 yards since 1983.
Giants Dynamic Duo looking for history — The New York Giants’ Brandon Jacobs (1,089) and Derrick Ward (948) seek to become only the fourth set of running-back teammates to rush for 1,000 yards each in the same season in 23 years (Browns’ Mack and Byner).
Saints quarterback Drew Brees needs 402 passing yards in week 17versus the Panthers to tie Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 set in 1984.
The Indianapolis Colts need a home win over the Titans to continue their NFL record streak of 12-win seasons (currently five years).
DENVER BRONCOS (8-7) at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (7-8) NBC, 8:15 PM
Broadcast Team: John Madden, Al Michaels, and Andrea Kremer (Field reporter).
It’s either the AFC West division title or nothing. There’s no in-between in this crucial Week 17 battle, where the winner wins the awfully weak AFC West division and the loser goes home, missing the playoffs. A couple of weeks ago with the Broncos having a comfy 3-game lead (Denver was 8-5 to the Chargers 5-8) and the Chargers struggling due to injuries and failed expectation, you never would have suspected a showdown game of this magnitude – this game is so big that NBC “flexed” its scheduling muscles to move the battle to Sunday Night primetime. But after the Broncos came up short against the Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills, while the red-hot Chargers led by maybe soon to be fired head coach Norv Turner have rattled off a three game winning streak including a 41-24 shellacking of the Bucs last week, the stage is set for this old-time AFL grudge match.
The struggling Broncos are trying to keep their composure about this tense game with their Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler (4,210 yards passing) saying, “If you told us at the beginning of the year that it was a one-game series with us down in San Diego to go to the playoffs, we probably would have taken it, we’ve got to keep our heads up.” But you have to wonder if the Broncos and their embattled head coach Mike Shanahan believe that their luck may have run out. I talk about luck in this game, because in their week two meeting, beleaguered NFL referee Ed Hochuli was part of a huge officiating gaffe that clearly benefited the Broncos. In the final minute of the September game, Hochuli ruled that an apparent Chargers recovered fumble that had slipped from Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler’s grasp was an incomplete pass instead of a fumble and the Broncos went on to win 39-38 after converting an improbable game-ending two point conversion. Of course replay could do nothing as usual and on the Monday after the game, Hochuli admitted his incorrect call followed by an avalanche of borderline fan harassment. Luckily the AFC West title game will be free of another Hochuli blunder as he will be in frigid Green Bay, Wisconsin refereeing the Lions-Packers game — Hopefully the Lions will get a fair shot from Hochuli’s unit. The NFL has assigned referee John Parry to the AFC West showdown – for the record per league policy, officiating crews do not do two games between the same teams in any season.
Ever since the Week 2 fiasco, the Chargers have been waiting for their chance for revenge. The Chargers volatile quarterback Philip Rivers — NFL’s passer rating of 104.6 with 3,802 passing yards – looked like a fortune teller when he said after the Week 2 loss, “We’ll get another shot at them later in the year. Hopefully, it’ll be for all the marbles.” Rivers and Cutler seem to have a rivalry that goes back to their college days in the South (Rivers at NC State and Cutler at Vanderbilt), so this should be a pass-happy game especially with the anticipated great weather conditions and both team weak passing defenses – both allow over 300 total yards a game with the Broncos averaging a whopping 366.8 yards and the Chargers not far behind at 346.2 yards.
The Chargers have won five of the past eight matchups to trim the Broncos’ overall series lead to 53-43-1, so it will be fun to watch these two evenly teams matched for their automatic ticket while Madden describes every “BOOM” on the field. Make sure you watch for Denver receiver Brandon Marshall in this game as the player described as “Baby T.O” needs two catches to reach 100 reception despite missing a couple of games due to suspension.
LV‘s Pick: Moment and Karma are tough things to beat, so I believe the Chargers this time turn the tables on the Broncos. Their home crowd should be in the game and the excitement of the playoffs should push the Chargers passed the reeling Broncos 31-21. After entering the playoffs, the real fun will start as the Chargers try to be the only 8-8 playoff team to win a game in the postseason.
Sun, Dec 28
STL @ ATL 1:00 PM (FOX)
NE @ BUF 1:00 PM (CBS)
KC @ CIN 1:00 PM (CBS)
DET @ GB 1:00 PM (FOX)
CHI @ HOU 1:00 PM (FOX)
TEN @ IND 1:00 PM (CBS)
NYG @ MIN 1:00 PM (FOX)
CAR @ NO 1:00 PM (FOX)
CLE @ PIT 1:00 PM (CBS)
OAK @ TB 1:00 PM (CBS)
SEA @ ARI 4:15 PM (FOX)
WAS @ SF 4:15 PM (FOX)
DAL @ PHI 4:15 PM (FOX)
MIA @ NYJ 4:15 PM (CBS)
JAC @ BAL 4:15 PM (CBS)
DEN @ SD 8:15 PM (NBC)
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)