As the calendar turns to 2021, the NFL is experiencing pretty much what it covets. Try two division races, and five wild-card berths out of six still undecided.
Not to go unnoticed, naturally, is that the league is about to finish an entire schedule on time, with a few postponements but not nearly the disruptions plaguing the other major sports organizations in 2020.
The focus in Week 17 will range from coast to coast. Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland, Tennessee and Indianapolis are chasing postseason qualification in the AFC, while the Cardinals, Rams, Bears, Giants, Cowboys and Washington seek NFC spots.
Both contenders for this division face NFL tailenders. The Titans have everything in their control, while the Colts need assistance.
Tennessee (10-5) at Houston (4-11)
“It doesn’t get any more clear than it is for us right now,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tanneill says. “We win this game, find a way to win, win the division. That’s one of the things we set out to do this year. It’s pretty clear what we need to do. We just have to go out and make it happen.”
To do so, and take the AFC South for the first time since 2008, they'll certainly rely on Derrick Henry. He's assured of repeating as NFL rushing champ, the first since Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006-07. Henry has a career-high 1,777 yards rushing and ran for 212 yards in his most recent game against the Texans. He had 211 yards rushing last year in Houston, so reaching the elusive 2,000-yard level is possible
Jacksonville (1-14) at Indianapolis (10-5)
Indy lost a direct path to the postseason by falling at Pittsburgh last week. So the Colts need to handle the league's worst team, then get help.
Indianapolis needs a win and a loss by Baltimore, Cleveland, Miami or Tennessee to make it. But Colts veterans claim they won't be watching the scoreboards.
“Me personally, it will be real easy," linebacker Justin Houston says. "I have a job to do and that’s playing against the Jags. I can’t focus on anything else. If you do focus on anything else, it will become a distraction from what you really have to do. I can’t let that be a distraction.”
Jacksonville owns the top overall selection in April's draft, and could carry a 15-game slide into an offseason when Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence figures to be that pick.
It's quite simple, really — at least in this woeful division. A Washington victory gives it the division crown. Otherwise, the winner of the game at the Meadowlands gets in; we're not getting into any scenarios with ties.
Washington (6-9) at Philadelphia (4-10-1)
Washington blew its first shot to clinch a playoff spot by losing at home to Carolina. It tries again, hoping veteran quarterback Alex Smith has recovered enough from a calf injury to go. Otherwise, it's journeyman Taylor Heinicke.
“We understand the situation,” running back J.D. McKissic said. “You can just tell guys are laser-focused out there (at practice). There’s not much talking and when there is, it’s about football. Guys are just ready to play.”
Dallas (6-9) at New York Giants (5-10)
An atrocious defense has made a bit of a turnaround in Big D: The Cowboys have 10 takeaways in their three-game winning streak. They had 11 in the first 12 games.
Andy Dalton has settled in nicely at quarterback, too. Ezekiel Elliott, despite a mediocre performance in 2020, needs 63 yards rushing for 1,000 this season, his fourth such output in five seasons.
New York has a somewhat-hobbled Daniel Jones at quarterback and has dropped three straight. LB Blake Martinez has 140 tackles, his fourth straight season with at least that many.
The Steelers broke an ugly three-game skid with a massive second half to beat Indianapolis and earn the division title. Cleveland gets a wild card with a win, would need help should it fail.
Baltimore also heads to the postseason by beating the Bengals.
Pittsburgh (12-3) at Cleveland (10-5)
Despite the juicy prospect of possibly extending their despised rivals' postseason exclusion, now at 17 seasons, the Steelers will rest a bunch of regulars, including Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh’s 52 sacks lead the NFL, putting the Steelers in a position to top the league a fourth straight season.
Several COVID-19 issues remain for Cleveland, but it should have its dynamic backfield combo of Nick Chubb, who's 41 yards short of 1,000 rushing, and Kareem Hunt. Chubb's got 11 touchdowns despite missing four games, including the earlier loss against Pittsburgh, with a sprained knee.
Baltimore (10-5) at Cincinnati (4-10-1)
During their four-game winning streak, the Ravens have averaged 37 points and 233.3 yards rushing per game. QB Lamar Jackson has thrown eight TD passes and run for four scores during that stretch.
The Seahawks own the division crown and could get the top overall seed. In LA, the winner of Cardinals-Rams advances.
Arizona (8-7) at Los Angeles Rams (9-6)
The Cardinals need a win to get a wild-card spot, while the Rams require a win or a loss by the Bears. Normally, with Rams coach Sean McVay 7-0 against Arizona — six wins by double digits and a 233-84 aggregate score — that would not seem too challenging. But quarterback Jared Goff, as inconsistent as he has been, could be severely missed after thumb surgery. His replacement, John Wolford, would make his first NFL start.
Arizona's defense has come around. Over the past three games, it has 17 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles and 24 quarterback hits. LB Haason Reddick has 7½ sacks and six forced fumbles over the past three games, and a career-high 12½ sacks this season.
Seattle (11-4) at San Francisco (6-9)
The high-scoring Seahawks have won 12 of the past 14 in the series. They will be no worse than the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs, can move up to No. 2 with a win and loss by Green Bay, and could be the No. 1 seed with a win and losses by both the Packers and Saints. With 20 points on Sunday, the Seahawks would set a franchise record for a season with 453.
The Niners are playing their third “home” game in Arizona after being relocated because of coronavirus protocols. They lost the first two, but won at this stadium as the road team last week vs. the Cardinals.
No, not the Patriots on top. For the first time since 1995, Buffalo won this division, snapping New England's 11-year run. Of course, the Patriots had Tom Brady for those seasons.
Miami (10-5) at Buffalo (12-3)
The Bills have won the past four meetings to match their longest win streak over the Dolphins since a team-best six-game run spanning the 1987-89 seasons. But with a victory, Miami would clinch only its third postseason berth since 2001. It can even get in with a loss and help elsewhere.
Miami will play at Buffalo in January for the first time since 1991. In December, it has lost three in a row there by a combined score of 85-33. But the Dolphins have allowed the NFL's fewest points at 18.8 per game, and could lead that category for a full season for the first time since 1998.
New York Jets (2-13) at New England (6-9)
Can the Jets, already guaranteed the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, finish by winning three straight games in what likely is Adam Gase's last outing as coach?
The Patriots have won the past nine meetings. The Jets haven’t won in Foxborough in the regular season since 2008.
Should the Packers beat their biggest rivals, they secure the NFC's only bye, ensuring the path to the Super Bowl goes through Lambeau Field. SHIVER!!!!
A Chicago win puts the Bears into the postseason and eliminates the loser of Cardinals-Rams.
Green Bay (12-3) at Chicago (8-7)
Although the Packers clinched the division a while ago, they need to go full-out because a loss could sink them to the third seed.
“We both have something to play for,” says Aaron Rodgers, who's led Green Bay to five consecutive victories. “We’re playing for the (No.) 1 seed, they’re playing for their playoff lives, so there’s a lot at stake for both squads. We got after them a few weeks ago; they’ve been playing a lot better since then. We know what kind of game it’s going to be.”
Minnesota (6-9) at Detroit (5-10)
And we know what kind of game this will be: worth ignoring.
The Saints clinched even if they finish with the same record as the Bucs because they swept Tampa Bay.
New Orleans (11-4) at Carolina (5-10)
The Saints get the No. 1 seed with a win, a Packers loss and a Seahawks win. New Orleans is seeking to become the first team to finish 6-0 in the NFC South since the division was formed in 2002. And Alvin Kamara comes off a game for the ages: an NFL record-tying six TDs (all rushing) against the Vikings. He leads the NFL with a franchise-record 21 touchdowns,
Carolina has a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson.
Atlanta (4-11) at Tampa Bay (10-5)
Brady helped the Bucs smash their playoff drought dating to the 2008 season, and has been in postseason form the past few weeks. The old man (43) might get some time off in this one before a likely wild-card game at the NFC East “winner.”
Not much suspense here.
Los Angeles Chargers (6-9) at Kansas City (14-1)
The reigning Super Bowl champio n Chiefs can match the 2011 Packers for the best record by a Super Bowl champion with a win. They already have set a club record for victories in a season and have won 10 straight games. One more would break the franchise record, but coach Andy Reid will be resting a bunch of regulars.
LA has won three in a row and seemingly found a franchise quarterback in rookie Justin Herbert.
Las Vegas (7-8) at Denver (5-10)
If finishing .500 in their first season in Sin City means anything to the Raiders, then there's some significance here. Otherwise, well, there's plenty of other NFL action to pay attention to.
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker and Sports Writer Michael Marot contributed.
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