- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Much of the drama was removed from the NFL playoff race over the weekend.
The list of playoff contenders shrunk from 17 to 14. Five of the six AFC playoff spots have been nailed down. The top two seeds in each conference are established. Only two teams currently on the outside looking in -- Dallas in the NFC and Kansas City in the AFC -- have a chance of making the playoffs, but their fates are dependent on other teams losing.
The Falcons, Vikings and Chargers were eliminated over the weekend by their losses. Eight of the 12 playoff seeds are established, leaving four to be resolved by Sunday afternoon. With the exception of the Panthers' critical game against the Falcons and the Bengals' visit to the Chiefs, the contenders or those playing for better seeding are going up against losing teams.
As has been the case for years, the AFC has the most clarity. Three of the teams with certain playoff spots -- the Colts, Broncos and Patriots -- are making return trips to the postseason. The Steelers can be the fourth returning playoff squad if they win at home against Detroit. Jacksonville and Cincinnati, considered playoff contenders entering this season, are the AFC's new postseason teams.
Regardless of what happens this weekend, the NFC will have five new playoff teams. The Seahawks, who clinched the top seed with a 28-13 victory over the Colts, are the only returning playoff squad.
Here is how Week 17 is set to unfold:
1. Indianapolis Colts: The last thing on the minds of the Colts will be their home finale against the Cardinals. The entire organization will fly on a chartered plane to Tampa, Fla., to attend the funeral of James Dungy, the son of head coach Tony Dungy. James Dungy died of an apparent suicide last week. Reuniting with their coach will be the hardest experience for a distracted team. The players dearly love Dungy and grieve for him and his family. No one knows when Dungy will be back to coach. He considered coming back for Saturday's game against the Seahawks, but he was told by general manager Bill Polian to concentrate on taking as much time as he needs. Most people believe he will be back after the Cardinals game and begin preparations for the playoffs. Jim Caldwell, who took over as coach on Thursday, will likely stay in that role against the Cardinals. How much he plays the starters is very much in question. Peyton Manning played only two series against the Seahawks and might just do the same against Arizona. Jim Sorgi came off the bench and showed he has a chance to be a pretty good backup. The Colts rested six key defensive players, wide receiver Marvin Harrison and offensive tackle Ryan Diem last week and might do the same thing this weekend. Still, Sorgi showed enough of an arm and the defense played well enough against the Seahawks that it's not out of the question for the Colts to beat the Cardinals and finish 14-2. The biggest incentive for the Colts in preparing for the playoffs is that they could face the Patriots. They want to make sure they have everyone healthy for that game. The only player who potentially could be questionable is Diem, who has a medial collateral knee sprain.
2. Denver Broncos: Clinching the No. 2 spot gives Mike Shanahan a chance to rest a few players against the Chargers Saturday. The Broncos know they have to regain their health in the secondary because their passing defense faces the toughest challenge. They could play the Bengals, so getting cornerback Darrent Williams healthy is important. Given that Denver has a bye week prior to its first playoff game, Williams has a chance to be ready for the postseason. For the season finale against the Chargers, Shanahan will probably use Tatum Bell more than Mike Anderson. Anderson has 1,016 yards. It would be nice to get Bell to the 1,000-yard plateau, but he would have to gain 131 yards against a tough Chargers run defense. Jake Plummer could sit out the finale, but if he does play, it probably won't be the entire game. The good news for the Broncos is two-fold. After making it as a wild card for a couple of years, the Broncos finally have a playoff home game thanks to winning the AFC West. Secondly, they aren't playing the Colts, who have blown them out the past two years. If the Broncos play the Colts, it would be in the AFC title game in Indianapolis.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have locked up the AFC North title, but might need to beat the Chiefs on the road to lock up the third seed -- depending on if the Patriots beat the Dolphins. In some ways, that might not be much of a big deal. The third seed means a possible rematch against the rival Steelers, who beat them in Cincinnati in the regular season. The Steelers will be looking for payback from their 38-31 loss in Pittsburgh three weeks ago. Since then, the Steelers have been blowing out teams. For a team making its first playoff trip since 1990, the Bengals might be better off drawing Jacksonville, a franchise making its first playoff appearance since 1999. Cincy coach Marvin Lewis will be tempted to rest some of his starters because it's not out of the question for the Bengals to have to play the following Saturday. The three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots might draw the more influential Sunday television slot in the playoffs.
4. New England Patriots: The Pats still can move into the No. 3 seed in the AFC with a victory over the Dolphins on Sunday. It's a good thing for coach Bill Belichick that the game is at home. If the NFL makes them play on the first Saturday of the playoffs, that would be three games in 12 days. Fortunately for New England, Belichick's injury list is relatively. He's had as many as 17 players listed on the injury report as questionable. Last week, only Tom Brady's name was on the list, but it's understandable that Belichick would sit him, Richard Seymour and other top players against a hot Miami team that's won five straight games. Nick Saban wants a winning season desperately. He's 8-7 and trying to establish his impact on the AFC East. That's nice for next year, but Belichick has to worry about this season. He has to get through the Jets game and hopefully get through it with no injuries. In some ways, the Patriots might be better off finishing with the fourth seed. They would play the Jaguars instead of the Steelers or the Chiefs. The Jaguars may be heading toward a 12-win season, but their starting quarterback, Byron Leftwich, is trying to rush back from a broken ankle and their offense hasn't done well against some of the worst teams in the league. A first-round matchup against the Jags might not be all that bad for the Patriots, so they can move on and possibly play the Colts. Conversely, if the Patriots do finish with the third seed, they wouldn't face the Colts until the AFC title game. New England's second-round matchup, if it advances, would be at Denver, where the Patriots lost 28-20 this season.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars: It was easy to determine by midseason the Jaguars were going to be the top wild-card team, making them the AFC's fifth seed. The Colts were the only team with a winning record the Jaguars played in the second half of the season. The Jaguars weren't going to catch the Colts, so coach Jack Del Rio had to just keep his team focused on winning games against bad teams. The Jaguars have won ugly. Until their 18-point victory over the Texans Saturday, the Jaguars were eking out victories over losing teams by a touchdown or less. This should be an interesting week. Leftwich says he's ready to play coming off his broken ankle. Maybe he's rushing things, but it wouldn't hurt to get him into Sunday's game against the Titans. Their chances to advance in the playoffs rests on Leftwich. Because Leftwich isn't the most mobile quarterback, it would be a good test to see how mobile he would be in the season finale. Like so many of the playoff teams in the AFC, Del Rio has the luxury of resting players. A loss isn't going to change things. Because the Jaguars beat the Steelers, they would get the No. 5 seed even if they are tied at 11-5. Del Rio would like to get that 12th win, though. It would be a good momentum builder going into a tough playoff field.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers have bounced back in a big way. If they beat the Lions at home Sunday, and Pittsburgh is already a heavy favorite, they would make the playoffs as the second wild card. Bill Cowher would like to get an early lead and give Ben Roethlisberger a little rest. Roethlisberger is playing with a bad thumb and a sore knee, and he might have to make a quick turnaround to play again Saturday, possibly against the Bengals. Since the loss to the Bengals at the beginning of December, the Steelers have been on fire. They've outscored three teams by a combined 80-12. They would love to play the Bengals in the first round. If New England moves to the third seed it could be tougher because the Steelers won't have the same confidence heading into Foxboro, Mass., as they would Cincinnati. The Steelers have won in Cincinnati. It's a rivalry against the Bengals.
7. Kansas City Chiefs: There was some hugging along the sidelines Saturday when the Chiefs beat the Chargers. Everyone pretty much knows this is Dick Vermeil's last fling in coaching. Though he hasn't made any decision or announcement, Vermeil will probably retire. Not making the playoffs would seal the deal, and the Chiefs aren't going to make the playoffs if the Steelers beat the Lions. Of course, the Chiefs would have to beat the Bengals to have a chance. Vermeil's position is that he wants to give Lamar Hunt and Carl Peterson a Super Bowl trophy. The Chiefs are one of the oldest teams in football. This could be the last game for guard Will Shields and maybe left tackle Willie Roaf. Priest Holmes isn't sure about his future and is seeing doctors about his neck and back. Vermeil has always said he'd move aside for a younger man if he can't do his job. Vermeil did a great job, but the schedule didn't help. He's had to play so many winning teams. The Chiefs are 5-4 against winning teams, and the Bengals come to Kansas City with a winning record. Vermeil will do everything to win this game against the Bengals. During the Vermeil years, the Chiefs have never lost in December in Kansas City. The players would like to win this one for him because they want him back.
1. Seattle Seahawks: Coach Mike Holmgren returns to Green Bay with his best team since he left the Packers. The Seahawks are 13-2 and on an 11-game winning streak. The Packers are at their absolute lowest. Holmgren will be resting starters, but has to handle one touchy situation. Shaun Alexander would like to surpass Priest Holmes' touchdown record. Alexander wouldn't mind getting the final 193 yards to get to 2,000, but that isn't happening. He's got a big enough lead that he should win the rushing title. But the touchdown record is within reach, so Holmgren has to see if he wants to risk Alexander for a play or two for a record. He let Alexander go into Saturday's game against the Colts to tie the record. He told him he had one play to score a 1-yard touchdown, but if he had to go to the hospital with an injury because of that run, he wouldn't visit him. This could be an emotional game for Holmgren and Packers fans. No one knows about Brett Favre's future. This could be his last game.
2. Chicago Bears: What an amazing story. The defense carried the Bears to a division title, and now Rex Grossman, with only one start under his belt, is making them a dangerous Super Bowl contender. This is the best of both worlds for Lovie Smith. He gets a home game in Soldier Field, where he has a huge edge. He now has two weeks to work with Grossman and continue to improve his timing with the offense. The Bears even have time to get three injured safeties to recover from injury. Maybe he can get Cedric Benson healthy for the playoffs to back up Thomas Jones. The Bears finish the season in the Metrodome against the Vikings. Smith has to decide how much he wants to play Grossman. Grossman gives the Bears a more potent offense. He has a quick release and a strong arm. He has a better working relationship in the passing game with Muhsin Muhammad. But he's also injury prone. The Bears have a better chance of advancing in the playoffs with Grossman at quarterback instead of Kyle Orton. Smith can't afford to get Grossman hurt against the Vikings, but Grossman still needs playing time. Maybe that means he'll play a half against the Vikings.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Even though the Giants officially earned a playoff spot over the weekend, the Bucs have the better chance of securing the third seed. They need only to beat the Saints Sunday to get their 11th win. They are 13-point favorites in that game and the Saints aren't as potent on offense with Todd Bouman at quarterback. The Bucs need to win against the Saints to get a 5-1 record in the NFC South and stay ahead of the Panthers for the division title. The Bucs don't have a playoff spot yet, but the Saints, a team that normally does well against the Bucs, shouldn't be too tough. First, the game is in Tampa. The Saints gave them a tough game in Baton Rouge, La., a few weeks ago, but the Bucs won 10-3. Jon Gruden has done a great job with this team. He's made the offense work with Chris Simms at quarterback. Cadillac Williams should be a lock for offensive rookie of the year. For the playoffs, Gruden doesn't care what team he plays. He's going to run his offense. They will run the ball with Williams and provide max protection around Simms. Joey Galloway is Simms' main threat. The Bucs will run their plays, but they need to beat the Saints to make sure they will run them in the playoffs. If the Bucs lose and the Panthers win, they could miss out on the playoffs in a three-way tie at 10-6 with Washington and Dallas based on strength of victory. They would have the tiebreaker in a two-way with Washington because they beat the Skins 36-35. If they end up in a two-way tie with the Cowboys, they could lose because of strength of victory. That number is pretty close. The Cowboys have a .467 strength of victory percentage, while the Bucs' is .447. All of that wouldn't mean much if the Bucs beat the Saints. Beating the Saints sets up a likely game against the Redskins.
4. New York Giants: The Vikings' loss to the Ravens put the Giants in the playoffs, but they still haven't locked up the division. The Giants' problems on the road continued in a loss to the Redskins on Saturday. Now the Giants have to prove something on the road. They have to beat the Raiders on the road Saturday to win the NFC East title, and they better win that game. If not, they could be a wild card and forced to play on the road the first week of the playoffs. If that happens, they might be one and out. Because the Giants were credited with a road win against the Saints in Giants Stadium in Week 2, New York plays away from home only seven times this season. They are 2-4 so far. This shouldn't be that tough. They play on Saturday with no other distraction. They won't be worried about the scoreboard. If the Giants win, they are in as the NFC East champ. Of course, former Giants quarterback Kerry Collins is standing in their way and would love to deny them a division title. The Giants are already established as a 7½ point favorite.
5. Carolina Panthers: Their loss to the Cowboys could kill them on two accounts. It could have cost them a chance at the NFC South title, losing the tiebreaker to the Bucs. They could fall out of the playoffs if they end up in a 10-6 tie with the Cowboys because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. Even worse, the Panthers close their season against Michael Vick and the Falcons. Until this year, the Falcons held the edge on the Panthers. Vick won his first five starts and his first six games against the Panthers. The Falcons will gear their whole week to ruin the Panthers' season. Coach Jim Mora is mad, Vick is mad and going up against Carolina is a good way to release some frustration. Of all the teams playing Sunday for playoff spots, the Panthers have the most on the line. They still could make the playoffs if they lose, but they better not lose.
6. Washington Redskins: The Redskins control their own destiny. If they beat the Eagles Sunday, they clinch a wild-card spot. If the Giants lose Saturday to the Raiders, the Redskins can win the NFC East title and have a playoff home game if they win. The big news this week will be the health of quarterback Mark Brunell, who sprained a medial collateral ligament in his knee. It's not out of the question for this to be an injury that could cost Brunell playoff games. If that's the case, Joe Gibbs will have to use Patrick Ramsey, who will start in Philly on Sunday. The initial thought is that the Brunell injury isn't that bad. He was scheduled for an MRI Monday. The Redskins have made an amazing rise to the playoffs. They had no margin of error. They've won the past four games and need that fifth win to make the playoffs. What helps them is their success in the NFC. They are 9-2 against NFC teams. That tops any other team in the wild-card hunt.
7. Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys' win over the Panthers Saturday was huge, but it might not be enough. Even at 10-6, the Cowboys would be out of the playoffs if the Panthers and Bucs are 11-5 and the Redskins win their 10th game. The bad news is that the Cowboys will have to sit around all day Sunday waiting for those results to see if their Sunday night game is meaningful. They play the Rams in Dallas, and that should be a winnable game. The Rams are on a four-game losing streak and should be an easy mark. It will be a weird weekend for Bill Parcells. He could be playing for everything or nothing and there is nothing he can do about it.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
While the Week 16 action took some of the suspense out of next weekend's season finales, there are still playoff scenarios to be sorted out.