Game could decide Packers' fate

The Packers might need another heroic effort from QB Brett Favre against Denver to make the playoffs.

Updated: January 8, 2004, 3:50 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 17.

First ... Denver Broncos at Green Bay Packers: Brett Favre put on an amazing show Monday night.

A day after the tragic death of his father, Favre completed 22 of 30 passes for 399 yards and four touchdowns, one of the greatest days of his career. His long throws were blessed. His teammates were focused. It was a special night in blowing out the Raiders, 41-7.

Still, the effort may last in everybody's memory but it would be wasted if the Packers don't make the playoffs. And therein lies the problem. Favre might have to be asked to carry the team for one more game against the Broncos on Sunday at Lambeau Field in order for the Packers to qualify.

Brett Favre
Favre might have to recover from an emotionally draining week to lead the Packers on Sunday.
Favre will spend the holidays with his family and return for Friday's practice, giving him a short couple of days to prepare for the Broncos. Emotionally, it will be hard for him to recapture the adrenalin that enabled him to heave those long completions.

A Seahawks win on Saturday means that the Packers have to win to make the playoffs.

For the Broncos, the game is meaningless. Thanks to their upset win in Indianapolis last Sunday night, the Broncos made the playoffs as a wild card. Whether it's as the fifth seed or sixth seed, it really doesn't matter. The Broncos are banged up and may rest some of their injured players.

For example, why risk halfback Clinton Portis for three hours when the extra week could help him be fresh for the playoffs coming off his ankle and knee injuries? Maybe Portis could play a little bit as a tune-up if he feels right, but Mike Shanahan doesn't need him to play the entire game to make the playoffs. The Broncos are already in.

The Colts game was costly because the Broncos lost half of their starting secondary. Safety Nick Ferguson broke a wrist and is lost for the season. Cornerback Kelly Herndon broke two bones in a hand and won't play. Does that mean that Deltha O'Neal, the former starting cornerback, will reemerge after numerous bad plays this season that at one point forced Shanahan to make him a wide receiver?

Nope.

Shanahan is leaning toward using coach/player Jimmy Spencer.

And 10. Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers: How fate plays tricks? Dennis Erickson lost his Seahawks job because he couldn't make the playoffs in his fourth year. Mike Holmgren replaced him and using most of Erickson's players, put together a 9-7 playoff season in 1999. Now, Erickson, head coach of the 49ers, stands in between the Seahawks and the playoffs. The Seahawks' inability to win on the road leaves them a tie-breaker or so shy of making the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. Overall, the Seahawks are 1-6 on the road, and the 49ers are one of the better home teams in football. What this game comes down to is whether the Seahawks can stop the 49ers running offense. Kevan Barlow is a hot runner who could cross the 1,000-yard mark with 16 yards. Jeff Garcia has completed 60 of 90 passes this month and has the best December quarterback rating since Kurt Warner in 2001. Showing he's healthy again, Garcia has thrown for eight touchdowns and run for four. He has to throw to an inexperienced receiving corps. Terrell Owens is out for the season with a broken shoulder. That means that rookie Brandon Lloyd needs to step up. The 49ers defense will try to blitz banged up Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who is playing with a torn left labrum and a sore ankle.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: This game looks more like a celebration than a game. For one, the teams play Sunday night in the last game of the entire NFL regular season schedule. All scenarios will have been played out. If the Bengals lose, the Ravens clinch the AFC North and can rest some players. If the Bengals beat the Browns, the Ravens know they will have to win the game to clinch the division. The other celebration involves halfback Jamal Lewis, who is 48 yards shy of 2,000 and could challenge Eric Dickerson's all-time rushing record. That's where Brian Billick faces some interesting decisions. He wants Lewis to cross 2,000 yards as a reward to the blockers and team along with Lewis. But he can't risk getting Lewis banged up too much if the game isn't going to be too meaningful. Lewis is going to be needed for the playoffs next week and he already has 360 carries. Because this is a rivalry game, the Steelers will be motivated to spoil the party. Their defense has fallen to ninth, giving up 300 yards a game. But this 3-4 is still hard to run against. Bill Cowher may put in some extra run blitzes to contain Lewis. And if the game is meaningful, the Steelers would love nothing more than knocking the Ravens out of the playoffs. There will be a lot of changes for the Steelers after the season, so those players who may be salary cap casualties will be looking to impress other teams needing players.

8. Minnesota Vikings at Arizona Cardinals: For whatever reason, the Vikings aren't too good playing on grass fields of late. Even though they started the season beating the Packers in Lambeau, the Vikings have lost on grass fields in San Diego and Oakland. If they lose to the woeful Cardinals on Sunday, owner Red McCombs may bury the team under the grass in the stadium. The Vikings have no reason to lose to the Cardinals. They need a win to clinch the NFC North. The Cardinals don't present the type of pass rush that should throw Daunte Culpepper off his game. Which cornerback can cover Randy Moss, who needs 24 yards to become the first receiver in NFL history to average 100 receiving yards a game and a touchdown a game? Still, this is a dangerous game. Good teams have come to Phoenix and played horrible games. Part of the problem is the lack of a crowd. Only 23,000 people are expected. It has the feel of an exhibition game. At home, Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis motivates his team for some good performances and close games. The Cardinals have beaten Green Bay, Cincinnati and San Francisco at home. They lost to the Rams and Panthers by three points. This could be a dangerous game for the Vikings.

7. Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: Dom Capers is making life miserable for teams in the AFC South. Last Sunday, Steve McNair, hobbled with ankle problems, had to throw a last-minute touchdown pass to beat the Texans and lock up a playoff spot. Now, the Texans return home to try to spoil the Colts bid to win the AFC South. A loss could put the Colts into the wild-card round, and the Texans know that. On paper, the Colts are heavy favorites. Peyton Manning is having an MVP year and the Texans rank 31st on defense, giving up 377.6 yards a game, including 233 through the air. Capers has lost his starting defensive line with injuries and the secondary has been banged up all season. The pressure is on the Colts for this game. They lost last Sunday night against the Broncos because they couldn't stop the run. Texans halfback Domanick Davis needs 68 yards for a 1,000-yard season, and Andre Johnson needs 75 yards receiving to break 1,000. Capers wants them to reach those rookie milestones. But the Colts need a victory. They can't afford to make turnovers and mistakes and let the Texans hang around and make it a tough game. Manning has the ability to bring the Colts from behind and win a last-minute game like McNair, but that would drain the team too much. The Colts have to play in the wild-card weekend, so they need three victories to reach the Super Bowl. What they don't need is a tough game against the Texans to further drain them.

Corey Dillon
Dillon might be playing his last home game as a Bengal.
6. Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: Even if the Bengals don't make the playoffs, it's been a wonderful year for Marvin Lewis' crew. Even if they don't make the playoffs, it's important to win on Sunday to establish the Bengals' first winning season since 1990. Fortunately, they are playing a Browns team that appears to have packed it in for the season. Jamal Lewis ran through the Browns for 205 yards in a way too easy 35-0 win last week. Of course, Tim Couch usually plays better on the road, so he should do a little better playing in the lower part of the state. It was no surprise the Bengals offense committed three turnovers against the Rams. The Bengals knew they would be challenged to score points and that usually leads to forced passes that are often intercepted. Jon Kitna should bounce back with a better game. Kitna knows he needs this victory because the franchise will be grooming Carson Palmer to take over for him next season. Kitna isn't going anywhere, though. He's under contract for next year. This could be the final game for Corey Dillon in a Bengals uniform. The strong running of Rudi Johnson will give the Bengals the ability to trade Dillon in the offseason.

5. Chicago Bears at Kansas City Chiefs: Dick Vermeil has a crisis on defense. He diffused the post-game locker room problem involving defensive linemen Eric Hicks and Ryan Sims by sitting them down after Saturday's loss to the Vikings and having a quick team meeting to put the incident behind them. Sims and Hicks were frustrated with botched assignments along the defensive line. In the past six games, the Chiefs are 3-3, allowing 413 yards of total offense and 190 yards a game rushing. They are giving up almost 30 points a game in the past six. Vermeil needs this game against the Bears to regain some confidence stopping the run before heading into the playoffs. Stopping the run is the biggest challenge. The Chiefs upgraded their defense with the additions of defensive end Vonnie Holliday and linebacker Shawn Barber and those additions worked against the run in the first half of the season. The Bears aren't much of a passing threat, so Vermeil can focus on stopping the run. For Dick Jauron, though, this is expected to be his final game. Though he has done a remarkable job of bringing this team back to 7-8, the Bears are expected to make a coaching change.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans: Jeff Fisher isn't resting any starters. He knows the Titans have an outside chance to win the AFC South if they beat the Bucs and the Colts lose to the Texans. He plans on playing everybody, including quarterback Steve McNair. McNair limped around and won another gutsy game last Sunday in leading the Titans from behind to beat the Texans. He knows the Bucs will be physical because of their defense, but Bucs coach Jon Gruden may take the opportunity to look at some young players. The Bucs are out of the playoffs. But they'd like to finish the season at 8-8, and there could be the emotion of having Warren Sapp play in perhaps his last game as a Buc. It would be nice if the Titans could finish the regular season with a strong running presence. Their running offense has struggled all season. A 100-yard game by Eddie George would be a big boost for the Titans as they enter the playoffs.

3. Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints: How 'bout them Cowboys? They have a chance to be an 11-win team with a victory. Sure, they've haven't had a tough schedule. Bill Parcells has the chance to flip around three consecutive 5-11 seasons with an 11-5 record, an incredible accomplishment for a team that didn't hit free agency hard to improve. Parcells did it with coaching. The coach will use this game as a tune-up for their first road playoff game. The Cowboys have struggled on the road unless they play a fallen NFC team such as the Redskins or Lions. The Saints present a good challenge. Even though Joe Horn won't play at wide receiver, Aaron Brooks is having one of his best Decembers and wants to finish his strong. The Cowboys will also have to contain halfback Deuce McAllister, who has 1,592 yards and is one of the toughest backs to stop.

2. Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: Bill Belichick still needs to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, so he can't rest all of his starters. Because he plays on Saturday, he won't have the luxury of monitoring other games and seeing what's happening. Of course, he has the break of knowing the Patriots have a first-round bye and an extra day to prepare for the playoffs. For the Bills, they are expected to let coach Gregg Williams go after three seasons. He's in the last season of his three-year contract, and the season has been frustrating. The offense has been one of the most underachieving in the NFL. Drew Bledsoe is generating only 167 passing yards a game. Even though Travis Henry is one of the league's best runners, the Bills keep throwing and throwing and throwing and going nowhere. The Bills rank 30th on offense and are averaging only 16.2 points a game. The only motivation for the Bills is trying to be the No. 1 ranked defense, but they trail the Cowboys by 15 yards per game. Even that goal is out of reach. It's been that kind of year for the Bills.

1. Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins: Well, the Ol' ball coach can hit the golf courses starting Sunday. After two disappointing seasons, Steve Spurrier ends this season with even more frustration than his first season in the NFL. Dan Snyder tried to buy him better offensive talent, but the Fun 'n Gun is averaging only 18.7 points a game. There is no running game. The passing game is in the hands of Tim Hasselbeck. Believe it or not, this is an important game for the Eagles. They still need a win -- or Dallas loss on Sunday -- to clinch the NFC East. Andy Reid is worried about a run-defense that is getting gashed each week. No worry here with the Redskins. If Rock Cartwright burns the Eagles for 150 yards, Eagles defenders may be asked to forfeit their paychecks. This is the type of game in which Donovan McNabb needs to be efficient and sneak out quietly with a victory. For the Redskins, expect a lot of changes on Spurrier's coaching staff.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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