By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The NFL’s plan of making Week 17 significant by scheduling 16 divisional games worked precisely as designed. The AFC is all set, with only the top four seeds to be determined. In the NFC, the East division title and the No. 6 seed are up for grabs. Here’s how I think the regular season finale will play out.
(Home team in all CAPS)
BILLS 20, NY Jets 17 – Noon
The Bills and Jets square off in one of the least significant games of the weekend. Buffalo’s free-agent defensive spending spree didn’t quite work out as planned. The $115 M they spent made only a nominal difference. The Jets? The only reason this team crept into mainstream consciousness is due to an east-coast hype manufacturer that masquerades as a news network. Both of these teams may be looking for new head coaches and quarterbacks this offseason. Since death isn’t an option, I’ll take the Bills at home.
BENGALS 24, Ravens 21 – Noon
If the Ravens win and Patriots lose, these two would do the reverse commute and play again next week in Baltimore. Having already won the division, the Ravens don’t have much incentive to play their starters, other than trying to shake off some late season rust. If I were John Harbaugh, I would kick my brother in the sack, and rest my starters on Sunday. As the Bengals are locked in at No. 6, and I would much rather play the Colts in the Wild Card round. That’s how it should play out, so give me the Bengals.
STEELERS 27, Browns 17 – Noon
The two non-playoff AFC North teams meet in Pittsburgh. For the Steelers, 2012 was marred by injuries, and an offense – particularly the running game – that never took shape. With an aging, yet productive defense, the Steelers face some difficult questions this offseason about whether to start rebuilding or refresh for another run. The Browns are in the 48th iteration of their rebuilding process. This season they’ve obtained a new owner, quarterback, and running back, but is it time for a new head coach? I think so. Give me the Steelers at home.
Houston 24, COLTS 20 – Noon
The Houston Texans should be embarrassed by last week’s performance against the Vikings. When Christian Ponder is the best quarterback on the field, your vaunted pass rush produces only one sack, and your ground game is held to 34 yards (2.1 yards per carry average), it’s panic time. Weeks ago, it was a foregone conclusion that the Texans would hold the No. 1 seed, but not anymore. All season, I’ve talked about how great a story they Colts are – which they are – but that’s all they are. Looking beyond the record, the Colts don’t impress me, and I expect the Texans to rebound on the road.
TITANS 20, Jaguars 13 – Noon
If you find yourself in Nashville this weekend with nothing to do, you can spend $5 for a ticket to the Titans-Jaguars game and expect change. That’s not a joke, but these two teams are. This was supposed to be a season for the Titans to evaluate what they had in Jake Locker, but that’s not how things have transpired. Locker was hurt for a large portion of the season, and otherwise ineffective. Quarterback questions aside, the Titans have learned about their leaky offensive line, and non-existent defense. The Jaguars? Biggest mess in the NFL. Have fun with Tebow in 2013.
GIANTS 31, Eagles 17 – Noon
I touted the Giants as the NFL’s best for the majority of this season, but they failed in several crucial moments, particularly within their own division. Now, all they can do is beat the awful Eagles at home, and hope Bears, Vikings, and Cowboys all lose. While the odds of that happening are slim, it is possible. The Giants secondary was one of their biggest question marks heading into the season, and it has plagued them all year. Michael Vick will start the final game of his forgettable stint in Philly. Giants will win, but there will be no playoffs in New York.
Bears 24, LIONS 20 – Noon
To all the Bears fans gnashing their teeth about the late-season nosedive, maybe this will brighten your spirits. Recall if you will, after a meaningless Week 17 win against the Vikings – you know, the game that cost them Brian Urlacher for 2012 – Lovie Smith declared the Bears 1-0 in 2012. So, in Lovieland, the lollipop and sunshine capital of the world, the Bears really have 10 wins in 2012. Boom. Playoff crisis averted. Unfortunately, in the real world, the Bears are fighting for their playoff lives against a team with nothing to lose. Bears by default in Detroit.
FALCONS 23, Bucs 20 – Noon
With the No. 1 seed locked up, the Falcons have nothing to play for. Thus, you can assume their starters will play no more than a half. Despite the top seed, the Falcons are the worst of all the NFC playoff teams, unless the Vikings make the playoffs. They don’t pressure the quarterback, and have no consistency with their running game. That combination won’t get it done in the playoffs. Tampa Bay is staring at their second straight winless December, as starters or not, the Falcons will beat them for the fifth straight time in Atlanta.
SAINTS 30, Panthers 27 – Noon
Certainly, expectations were not met in either of these cities. The Saints season had a dark cloud hovering above, that brought endless tumult. They stumbled out of the gates and were never able to recover. For Carolina, they’re not nearly as bad as their record indicates, they just made too many negative plays in crucial moments that cost them several games. The Panthers are riding a nice three-game winning streak, but Drew Brees has revenge on his mind and will lead the Saints to a close victory.
Green Bay 31, VIKINGS 23 – 3:25 PM
It’s hard to believe that this game has as much riding on it as it does. Bears fans are forced to cheer for the Packers, but is it guaranteed they will play this game to win? Given their injury situation, and the fact they don’t want to become a part of NFL history, I assume they will. If it wasn’t for the “Fail Mary” game in Seattle, the Packers would have no incentive to play their starters. Alas, what’s done is done. I think Adrian Peterson and the Vikings will come up short due to their Pop Warner-ish quarterback.
PATRIOTS 27, Dolphins 17 – 3:25 PM
So, we know this much about the Patriots, they can be the No. 1, 2, 3, or 4 seed. If the Chiefs beat the Broncos, and the Colts beat the Texans, and the Patriots beat the Dolphins, the Pats are the top seed. Confused yet? Good, so am I, per usual. I will make it simple, the Patriots will win this week and play in the playoffs.
BRONCOS 28, Chiefs 13 – 3:25 PM
Peyton Manning aims to make it 11 straight wins, with the craptastic Chiefs being the latest victim. The Broncos have the easiest path to securing the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but an early season loss to the Texans, gives Houston the tiebreaker. The Broncos other two losses came at the hands of the Falcons and Patriots. It’s a bit of a concern that the Broncos have come up short against the NFL “elite”, but they’ll get their shot against one of those two aforementioned AFC teams in the AFC Championship.
CHARGERS 24, Raiders 16 – 3:25 PM
Rejoice, San Diego, as you’re just days away from being able to refer to Norv Turner as the Chargers former head coach. Many of the Chargers woes have to do with bad personnel decisions, and that’s why general manager AJ Smith will be next to Norv in the unemployment line. Oakland is in no better shape, as their commitment to insignificance carries on. Neither of these teams are any good, but San Diego is less bad.
49ERS 34, Cardinals 6 – 3:25 PM
Clearly, the 49ers weren’t able to sustain any momentum from their impressive win against the Patriots. Sometimes, it’s more challenging for a coach to deal with the emotions after a big win than it is a big loss, and that was certainly the case for the 49ers, who were completely steamrolled by the Seahawks in every phase of the game. With the Cardinals in town, start manufacturing crappy San Francisco 2012 NFC West Champions swag.
SEAHAWKS 27, Rams 20 – 3:25 PM
After going winless in the division last season, the Rams have an opportunity to go undefeated this season. Shocking turnaround, and proof of what a real NFL coach can do for a team. However, there are a few small details that may prevent that from happening. Namely, a game on the road against the hottest team in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks have a chance to win the division and won’t take their foot off the gas now. The Rams will keep this game competitive for a while, but Seattle will put the only blemish on their division record.
REDSKINS 27, Cowboys 24 – 7:20 PM
What a way to wrap-up the 2012 regular season, with the Redskins-Cowboys playing for the NFC East Championship. This is exactly what the Redskins hoped for when they traded for Robert Griffin III, but I wonder if even the folks at Redskins Park are shocked by the team’s rapid ascension? RGIII has been all that and then some, leading the team to six straight wins, and has them in contention for a division crown. The Cowboys made a nice late-season surge, but losing to the Saints last weekend at home was so Dallas-like. I like the Redskins in a nail-biter.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.