Seven most important games in pivotal NFL Week 17

Julius Peppers

A few things have been determined through the first 16 weeks of the NFL season. But seven games in NFL Week 17 will have a lot to say about what happens in the playoffs.

The Sunday night finale between the Packers and Lions could double as a play-in game. But what happens if it doesn’t? Do the Giants have anything to play for against the Redskins in a must win game for Washington? The Raiders and Chiefs are both going to the playoffs. So, why are their games still important? What about the Falcons and Giants?

Most of the playoff spots are set, but NFL Week 17 still has a lot to offer in terms of relevance. So, as we head into this final week of the regular season, which are the most important seven games?

Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions

Why it matters for the Packers?

This game loses some of its luster if the Giants beat the Redskins earlier in the day. That would secure a playoff spot for the Packers regardless of this game’s outcome.

Still, beating the Lions will be important.

It would make Green Bay the NFC North champs and would mean at least one playoff game at Lambeau Field. If the Packers make the playoffs as a Wild Card team, they’ll be done with home games until next September.

Should Green Bay make the playoffs, being healthy would also be important. Guys like Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and even Aaron Rodgers have been banged up. Being sure that they enter the postseason at full strength is a priority.

Of course, if Washington beats New York, then the Packers are starting their playoffs a week early. If the Redskins win earlier in the day, then the Green Bay will need to win or tie to make the playoffs.

Why it matters for the Lions?

The two teams will enter Sunday Night Football in nearly identical situations.

A Redskins win earlier in the day would make this game a must win (or tie) for the Lions. Should Washington lose, Detroit would be in, but would be playing for seeding.

Regardless of what happens with the Redskins, a win would give the Lions their first home playoff game since losing to the Packers in 1993.

Detroit has not won a playoff game since two years prior, when George H.W. Bush was in office. Before that, the Lions hadn’t won a playoff game since the Eisenhower administration. So, this could conceivably be Detroit’s best chance at a deep playoff run in a long time.

It could also be a rather epic choke. Following Week 14, the Lions were 9-4 and all but assured of a playoff spot. Going from that to a missed postseason appearance in only three games would be a massive collapse.

Detroit would certainly appreciate the security blanket that would come with a Washington loss. If that happened, the Lions could pull Matthew Stafford early, in the event that the game with Green Bay got lopsided in either direction. Given that he’s still nursing a finger injury, any bit of rest could help.

New York Giants vs. Washington Redskins

Why it matters for the Giants?

In truth, other games that will be played on Sunday are a lot more relevant to New York than this one. The Giants are locked into the five seed. As such, finding out who gets the No. 4 spot is a lot more relevant than finishing 11-5 or 10-6.

This is a rivalry game. Because of that, New York would certainly like to end Washington’s playoff hopes.

But the most important thing for the Giants is to escape this game healthy. It’s a perfect opportunity to rest Janoris Jenkins for the second week in a row. Anything beyond being relatively healthy is simply gravy for Big Blue.

Why it matters for the Redskins?

Josh Norman, Sterling Shepard

It’s quite simple, really.

If Washington loses this game, then the Redskins can head straight from FedEx Field to the airport to go on their offseason vacations.

Unless the Packers and Lions tie on Sunday Night Football, Washington would book a trip to the playoffs with a win. It’s as close to a play-in game for the Redskins as we could possibly get.

If this game is a loss, the Washington faithful should also be sure that they get a good look at Kirk Cousins. This game could be his last in a Redskins’ uniform.

Oakland Raiders vs. Denver Broncos

Why it matters for the Raiders?

The Patriots vs. Dolphins game will be final right around the time that this game starts. If New England loses, then Oakland will be playing for the top seed. Should the Patriots win, the Raiders will still be playing for a bye. That’s always important but for Oakland, the importance is even greater.

First of all, the failure to get a bye wouldn’t simply relegate the Raiders to the three or four seed. The failure to get a bye would also mean the failure to win the AFC West. That would knock Oakland down to a Wild Card spot. In all likelihood, the Raiders’ chances at making the Super Bowl would rest on their ability to win three road games.

A bye is also important given Oakland’s current situation. Derek Carr could make a Super Bowl appearance, but surgery will certainly keep him out of any games before that. The more time the Raiders get to adjust to Matt McGloin, the better off they’ll be.

Why it matters for the Broncos?

In terms of playoff standings, this game means absolutely nothing. Kansas City ended Denver’s title defense on Sunday night.

But this game still matters for the Broncos.

Paxton Lynch will play and may start, which you can read about here. Lynch has been underwhelming in his appearances for Denver this season. This will be the last chance for Lynch and possibly Trevor Siemian to show their skills heading into the offseason. It will be the Broncos’ last chance to see if the quarterback of the immediate future is on the roster or if they need to hunt for a replacement (Tony Romo?) in the offseason.

Denver is also a prideful team. The Broncos will certainly want to finish the season with a winning record. Even more than that, Denver can throw a wrench into Oakland’s seeding. These two teams have been rivals since the inception of the old AFL in 1960. The Broncos may not love the Chiefs, but they won’t roll over in an important game for the Raiders.

Kansas City Chiefs vs, San Diego Chargers

Why it matters for the Chiefs?

If Oakland loses, then Kansas City earns a bye week with a win. The Chiefs don’t have quite the same injury concerns as the Raiders, but they’re not exactly a healthy team. A bye week would bolster their chances greatly.

But half of that battle is out of Kansas City’s hands. If Oakland wins, does this game still matter to the Chiefs? Quite simply, yes.

A Kansas City win locks the Chiefs into the No. 5 seed and a first-round game against the Houston Texans. A loss, coupled with a Miami win, sends Kansas City into Western Pennsylvania to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Chiefs are 0-5 all time at Heinz Field. Included in that was a 43-14 drubbing early in the 2016 season.

They haven’t won anywhere in Pittsburgh since 1986. That’s not a desired game.

A trip to Texas is not as daunting, even though Texans did beat Kansas City in Houston earlier in the season. The Chiefs failed to score a touchdown and allowed four sacks to Alex Smith. Still, Kansas City lost by only seven points. A year ago, the Chiefs opened the playoffs in Houston with a 30-0 demolition of the Texans.

No playoff game can be taken for granted. The postseason wasn’t designed to be easy. But one would be hard pressed to find anyone associated with Kansas City that would prefer to go to Pittsburgh.

Why it matters for the Chargers?

Aside from maybe tripping up a division rival, this game is relevant to San Diego for only one reason. Nothing is official yet, but all signs point to this being the Chargers’ last game in San Diego, which you can read about here.

If this is the end of an era, why not give the loyal fans that remain a positive final memory?

New England Patriots vs, Miami Dolphins

Why it matters for the Patriots?

Martellus Bennett

A win makes New England the AFC’s top seed. In the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, the Pats have been the AFC’s top seed five times. Four of those times yielded a trip to the Super Bowl.

In the same time frame, only the Baltimore Ravens (twice) and New York Jets have gone into Foxborough and won in the playoffs. Neither of those teams will be competing in the postseason this January.

If the Patriots win on Sunday, one of the AFC’s other five playoff teams must become team No. 3 to win in New England, or Belichick and Brady will go to their seventh Super Bowl together.

Why it matters for the Dolphins?

A Miami win, coupled with a Kansas City loss, makes the Dolphins the No. 5 seed. They’ll be on the road during Wild Card Weekend as either the fifth or sixth. As we’ve detailed, No. 5 plays against the Texans and No. 6 will take on the Steelers.

One potential opponent has Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell.

The other has never beaten a quarterback not named Andy Dalton in a playoff game. Which one would you rather face?

But even if the Chiefs win and lock Miami into the No. 6 seed, this game still matters. The Dolphins have not been to the playoffs since just before President George W. Bush left office. They haven’t won a playoff game since President Bill Clinton’s final days in The White House. With that resume (or lack thereof), does Miami really want to head into the playoffs coming off of a drubbing from New England?

It’s important that the Dolphins at least be competitive here. Should they beat the Patriots, it will be a real boost of confidence heading into the postseason.

Seattle Seahawks vs. San Francisco 49ers

What it means for the Seahawks?

Even with a nice win in New England to its credit, Seattle’s 2016 home/road splits have been drastic.

With a win, the Seahawks could be the NFC’s No. 2 seed. In that case, they’d only need the top seeded Dallas Cowboys to be upset in the Divisional Round and the NFC playoffs would run through the Pacific Northwest. A win would also secure the No. 3 seed (at worst) for Seattle. That would mean a certain road game in the Divisional Round. But just like the No. 2 seed, the Seahawks would only have to win their game and have the Cowboys lose to host the NFC Championship Game.

Make no mistake, Dallas is a good team that does not seem likely to lose in the Divisional Round. But in a single-elimination format, anything can happen.

A loss, meanwhile, likely drops Seattle into the No. 4 spot. The Seahawks would get one home game against the New York Giants, but would only get a second home game if they advanced to the NFC Championship Game against the No. 6 seed.

Russell Wilson

Seattle’s home/road splits are eye-opening. Winning one road game will be tough enough. Winning two will be an awfully tough mountain to climb.

If that doesn’t convince you of this game’s relevance, maybe this will.

San Francisco is 2-13, with its only wins coming against the lowly Los Angeles Rams. The 49ers are arguably the worst organization in the league, maybe all of sports. If the Seahawks can’t go into Levi’s Stadium and blow the home team out in a game that means next to nothing for the 49ers, why would anyone believe that they can beat three playoff teams (regardless of location) to get back to the Super Bowl?

What it means for the 49ers?

Nobody associated with San Francisco can call this team a “rival” of Seattle’s with a straight face. But it wasn’t that long ago that these two teams were a part of the NFL’s fiercest rivalry. Most of the 49ers’ players and coaches from those days are gone, but the fans remain.

The fans don’t exactly pack Levi’s Stadium. But those who recover from their New Year’s Eve parties and make their way to Santa Clara will want to at least see a competitive effort.

Let’s assume for a second that the 49ers pull a massive upset and beat the Seahawks. Even if we overlook the fact that it may cost the team position in the draft, a victory wouldn’t give those associated with this franchise a big reason to smile.

This is a team that needs a massive overhaul. Would two wins against division rivals to finish the year bring that change about? Or, would the dysfunctional Jed York-led front office take those wins as a sign that the team is heading in the right direction? Those familiar with the pre-Jim Harbaugh era 49ers know that this front office can be susceptible to buying late-season winning streaks as false positives.

Whatever happens on Sunday, this teams needs a big change of direction in 2017 and beyond. Anything that prevents that from happening will be bad for the 49ers, even if it frustrates an old rival.

New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons

Why it matters for the Saints?

In 2010, the NFL made Week 17 nothing but divisional games. Contests like this are one of the reasons why that idea works so well.

This game means absolutely nothing for the Saints. But Atlanta is New Orleans’ biggest rival and the game means a lot to the Falcons.

Drew Brees and the Saints would love to be a pothole in Atlanta’s road to the Super Bowl.

Why it matters for the Falcons?

A win and Atlanta is the NFC’s No. 2 seed, no questions asked. A loss and the Falcons are almost certain to drop to at least the No. 3 spot and could fall down to the fourth spot.

We’ve been over what that means for Seattle. It would put Atlanta in the same situation. Now, road woes are not quite as drastic for the Falcons, who enter Week 17 with a 5-3 road record and a 4-3 record in Atlanta.

But in another respect, the bye week may be more meaningful for the Dirty Birds.

While Julio Jones played in Week 16, he missed the two previous games. Jones is Atlanta’s X-factor. He either takes over the game by catching passes, or he commands so much attention that the rest of the offense is opened up to Matt Ryan.

If Jones is not healthy, it’s awfully hard to see the Falcons winning three playoff games and getting to the Super Bowl. If they win in Week 17, they’d only need two wins to reach the Super Bowl, and Jones would get an extra week to heal up.