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Most interesting storylines for NFL Week 17

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

A ton of drama between rivals

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL was smart when it decided to go with all division games in the final week of the season. It leads to a ton of drama between rivals. It also leads to pretty much every game having playoff ramifications.

Week 17 of the 2018 season is no different. Only six of the 16 games this week have no playoff implications. The No. 2 seed in both the AFC and NFC is up in the air.

Meanwhile, the Colts and Texans will be doing battle Sunday night with the winner earning a postseason spot. Remaining in the AFC, Pittsburgh needs a win and some help from Cincinnati to be playing meaningful January football.

These are among the most interesting storylines for NFL Week 17.

 

Battle for the No. 2 seed in the AFC

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Their Week 16 win over Buffalo might not have been pretty. What it did was clinch the Patriots’ 10th consecutive AFC East title and inch them closer to a first-round playoff bye. Given that all eight of New England’s Super Bowl appearances in the Tom Brady era have come after the team had a first-round bye, this is no small thing. New England’s path to the divisional round includes a regular season finale against Sam Darnold and the New York Jets.

Should these Patriots falter, the Texans would then have an opportunity to steal the No. 2 seed. Deshaun Watson and Co. have a pretty easy go of it against Jacksonville. Interestingly, Houston still isn’t guaranteed the AFC South title. If it loses to the Jags and the Colts defeat Tennessee, Andrew Luck and Indy would earn the division title. If the Texans lose and Tennessee comes out on top against Indy, the Titans would win the division.

 

Is this it for Marvin Lewis?

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve asked this question numerous times over the past several years. Lewis was all but gone from Cincinnati after last season. Then, in shocking fashion, Cincinnati gave him a contract extension to start the 2018 calendar year. How much fun is that?

Now 6-9 on the season after a 5-3 start, Cincinnati is guaranteed a last-place finish in the AFC North. This should pretty much end Lewis’ 16-year tenure with the team, right? Only time will tell on that front. But the Bengals can give him a going-away present by defeating Pittsburgh in Week 17 and eliminating the Steelers from playoff contention. That would be a nice final act for the current version of these Bengals.

 

Eli Manning’s swan song in Jersey?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Much like Lewis before, this question has been asked multiple times over the past couple seasons. It now looks like Manning will indeed return to the Giants for a 16th season in the Meadowlands. Then again, circumstances can change. There’s going to be a whole plethora of starter-caliber quarterbacks hit the market this coming offseason. If so, the Giants might look at exterior options. And who would blame them?

New York heads into Week 17 against the Cowboys with a 5-10 record. For his part, Manning has thrown just 19 touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions on the season. He’s a shell of his former self. It’s that simple. How poetic would it be for Eli’s Giants career to come to an end against the division-rival Cowboys in a game that will be a precursor to Dallas playing meaningful January football? Think about that for a second.

 

Huge game in Minneapolis

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC North champion Bears are stuck between a rock and a hard place this week. They have yet to be eliminated from acquiring a first-round bye. Though, that would require the Los Angeles Rams losing to the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago coming out on top against Minnesota. While this seems like a long shot, it makes no sense for Matt Nagy to rest his starters.

On the other side, Minnesota’s road to the postseason is rather clear. If it is able to hand the Bears a loss on Sunday, Mike Zimmer’s squad will likely take on Chicago in the wildcard round. Even with a loss here, Minnesota can back into the playoffs if the Redskins defeat Philadelphia. That makes this game absolutely huge for both squads.

 

The end of the Steelers as we know them

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Short of Pittsburgh coming out on top over Cincinnati and the Browns handing Baltimore an upset loss, Mike Tomlin’s squad will not be playing playoff football for just the fourth time since he took over as head coach back in 2007. While the Steelers obviously have a shot at the postseason, a lot will have to work in their favor. And even if they do sneak into the second season, there’s no real belief that the Steelers are legitimate conference title contenders.

The question now becomes if Week 17 will be the final variation of these Steelers as we know them. Tomlin’s job appears to be safe. The same thing can’t be said about both coordinators. We also have to wonder if Pittsburgh moves on from the several veterans that appear to be tapped out at this point in their careers. Missing the playoffs would only magnify all of this further.

 

Browns look to finish above .500

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The objective sports mind wouldn’t have thought in 1,000 years that these Browns could finish over .500 just a couple short months ago. Hue Jackson was fired after an abysmal tenure as the team’s head coach. Having won three of their previous 40 games, these Browns were the laughingstock of the entire sports world. Something changed after defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was named interim head coach.

Following last week’s victory over the Bengals, Cleveland has won five of seven and has an opportunity to finish the season with a winning record. It would be just the second time since all the way back in 2003 that the Browns have accomplished this feat. What’s better is that a win here could also send the division-rival Baltimore Ravens packing for the winter. What a great New Year’s gift this would be for fans of the long-downtrodden team.

 

Head coaches on the hot seat

Dolphins head coach Adam Gase did a tremendous job in his first season.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Steve Wilks (Panthers), Vance Joseph (Broncos) and Marvin Lewis (Bengals) will all be on the unemployment line come Black Monday. But there’s a whole host of other coaches who might join them. While Week 17 won’t change a lot of what happens here, we’re certainly intrigued to see how it plays out for multiple teams.

Adam Gase of the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles come to mind first. If both teams were to be embarrassed Week 17, that could force a move hours after the conclusion of Week 17 action. Doug Marrone of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter and Jay Gruden in the nation’s capital are three other coaches to pay attention to during the final week of the season.

 

Crowning the AFC North champs

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It’s rather interesting to realize that both the Browns and Bengals are going to have a say in who wins this division. This is one of the primary reasons that the NFL decided to go with all divisional games in the final week of the season. It brings rivalries to a new level with a whole bunch on the line.

Let’s say Cincinnati gives Marvin Lewis a going-away present with a win over Pittsburgh. Under that scenario, it wouldn’t matter what the Browns do against Baltimore. On the other hand, the Ravens taking care of business against Cleveland would leave the door open for Mike Tomlin and the Steelers. We absolutely love how the final part of the regular season has played out in this division. Week 17 won’t be any different.

 

Looking to spoil the Rams’ fun

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Having played much better ball recently, it will be interesting to see how the San Francisco 49ers perform on the road in Los Angeles this coming Sunday. It’s well known that Rams head coach Sean McVay was not happy about being blown out by the 49ers in Week 17 of last season while resting his starters. Given that Los Angeles still needs a potential win to acquire a first-round bye, that won’t be much of an issue.

Even then, Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers have an incentive to show up big for this game. Should San Francisco pull off a monumental upset, it could force the Rams into having to play Wildcard Weekend. That’s certainly not something the Super Bowl contenders want to see happen.

 

Do-or-die game in Nashville

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Regardless of what happens earlier in the day between Houston and Jacksonville, this Sunday Night Football matchup is do or die for both the Colts and Titans. Should the Texans take out the Jaguars Sunday afternoon, the winner of this game will be the sixth and final playoff team in the AFC. If Jacksonville were to upset Houston, the winner would take home the AFC South title with the loser missing out on the playoffs altogether.

Having won eight of their past nine after a 1-5 start to the season, Andrew Luck and the Colts seem to have the upper hand here. That’s until we realize Tennessee is riding a four-game winning streak of its own and boasts the NFL’s second-best scoring defense. This should be an absolute blast.

 

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