Top 10 storylines for NFL Week 17

Half the games on the Week 17 NFL slate have playoff implications. Each game pits one division rival against another. This is the way the NFL wanted it when it went to this specific format years back. It’s also going to present us with a ton of drama come the first day of the 2017 calendar year.

From the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers battling for the NFC North title, a potential playoff spot and a first-round bye to the Oakland Raiders looking to lock up a top-two seed in the AFC, a whole heck of a lot is happening here.

As it relates to teams currently without a possibility of earning a postseason spot, one has to wonder which head coaches will be fired on Black Monday. Other teams such as the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers are facing incredibly uncertain futures.

These are among the top-10 storylines for NFL Week 17.

1. Cowboys’ curious decision to play their starters

Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Jason Garrett

The Dallas Cowboys are going against the norm to end what has been a tremendous regular season for the Super Bowl favorites. They played their starters for the most part during a 42-21 win over the Detroit Lions this past weekend. They also intend to play the same starters Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Dallas is locked into the No. 1 seed in the NFC and is playing for nothing more than stats at this point.

Based on what we saw with both Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr in Week 16, this has brought the Cowboys’ decision to the forefront even more. Here’s a team that boasts a 13-2 record but doesn’t necessarily have a huge margin for error. It simply can’t afford to lose either Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott for a substantial amount of time and expect to hoist the Lombardi in February.

Despite this, it’s readily apparent that the Cowboys’ brass is willing to let some of their youngsters go for stats in lieu of preserving them for the postseason.

“We’ll see how it goes. He certainly will play and will play a lot, but you can never tell,” Jones said about Elliott on Tuesday. “He might find a good running situation up there and he may approach that record.”

On one hand this makes sense. Dallas is in an odd situation in that it will have a first-round bye while relying on two rookies to shoulder the burden come playoff time. It simply wants these youngsters as sharp as possible when all is said and done. Whether that leads to an unfortunate injury remains to be seen. As it is, Dallas is surely opening itself up to second guessing in a big way.

2. Raiders look to capture AFC West without Derek Carr

It’s going to be a monumental task for the Oakland Raiders to go into Denver and defeat the Broncos without their MVP candidate under center. But this is exactly what the team must do if it wants to capture the AFC West title and a first-round playoff bye.

Should that not happen, the Raiders will be relegated to the fifth seed and a road matchup with the Houston Texans in the wild card round. That’s a less-than-stellar situation, especially with the team now banking on a backup quarterback.

Carr’s recovery time is expect to be between six-to-eight weeks. This seems to suggest that he’ll miss the Super Bowl should Oakland make it out of the AFC. Though, there’s some growing optimism he might be able to return should that unlikely scenario unfold. It’s in this that Oakland’s easiest path has to be one fewer game and a home outing in the divisional round with Matt McGloin under enter.

Despite Denver being eliminated from playoff contention, we called this a monumental task for a reason. McGloin will be making his first NFL start since all the way back in 2013 when he was a rookie. He’ll be doing so on the road against the league’s best pass defense. He’ll also be doing so with the Broncos looking to spoil Oakland’s division championship aspirations.

You better believe Gary Kubiak will have the defending champs up for this one. In reality, Oakland’s hopes of advancing far in the playoffs pretty much rely on the team going into Denver and coming out with a win After all, there’s little reason to bank on the San Diego Chargers defeating Kansas City Sunday afternoon.

3. Black Monday looms

Rex Ryan and Gus Bradley have both already been fired by their respective teams. These moves were expected, especially after both the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars failed miserably under their watch this season. Though, we’re more than likely going to get a surprise or two when Black Monday, the day after the final Sunday of the regular season, comes calling.

Despite public words of confidence in head coach Chuck Pagano, could Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay decide to move on from his embattled head coach? At 7-8 on the season, Indy is going to fail to finish above .500 for the second consecutive season. Now that Pagano himself has taken responsibility, will the Colts hold him accountable?

Mike McCoy

In San Diego, the Chargers may be in store for a drama-filled offseason, one that will likely include a move to Los Angeles and a new head coaching search. Though, is it possible that San Diego takes a page from the Rams and retains their head coach coach during relocation? If last week’s humiliating loss to the previously winless Cleveland Browns is any indication, Mike McCoy shouldn’t count on it.

Remaining in California, there’s been some murmurs out of Santa Clara that the San Francisco 49ers might move on from Chip Kelly after just one season. It would be a rash decision, especially considering Kelly had very little to work with. But a 13-game losing streak surely isn’t making his seat any cooler. If San Francisco were to decide to part ways with Kelly, they’d then be on their fourth coach in as many seasons. Talk about the antithesis of continuity.

Speaking of continuity, that hasn’t been much of an issue for the Cincinnati Bengals. Marvin Lewis is the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL, having manned the team’s sideline for the past 14 seasons. Now coming off a lost campaign, it’s possible Lewis and the Bengals could depart ways.

There were conflicting reports on this situation earlier in the week, one suggesting Lewis will retire, and the other indicating he’ll return for the 2017 season. Lewis may have brought the Bengals back to relevance. But much like we saw with Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants last season, change is not always a bad thing.

These are the head coaches most people are talking about heading into the final week of the regular season. Though, we might also want to keep an eye on Ron Rivera in Carolina, New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles and the health backstory surrounding Bruce Arians in the desert. Either way, Black Monday promises to be gloomy for multiple teams around the league.

4. Chargers’ last game in San Diego

This doesn’t seem to be in question any more. At this point, it’s inevitable. The Chargers will play their final game in San Diego this upcoming Sunday when they host the division-rival Kansas City Chiefs.

It’s a big game for Kansas City, one that might dictate whether Andy Reid’s squad earns the AFC West title and a first-round playoff bye. Though, the league-wide ramifications here have more to do with the Chargers.

First off, what we saw in the Chargers’ last home game, back in Week 15 against the Oakland Raiders, was a major black eye for both the organization and the NFL as a whole. Even Philip Rivers himself touched on how dark of a scene it was for the city to see Raiders fans far outnumber Chargers fans at Qualcomm.

Could this repeat itself come Sunday? If so, will the scene be similar to what we saw from the Cleveland Browns’ fans when they departed for Baltimore more than two decades ago?

We know the NFL wants to avoid this at all cost.

Secondly, Sunday will mark the end of NFL football in San Diego while the league itself embarks on a two-team market in Los Angeles. Based on how we’ve seen 2016 turn out with the Rams, that might have some within the league office in New York City a bit concerned. Look at Christmas Eve as an example, when 49ers fans far outnumbered Rams fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Thirdly, the end of an era in San Diego could also be a prelude to the Raiders themselves deciding to move to Las Vegas. If the Chargers had decided to remain in California’s southernmost city, the Raiders, too, might have remained in California, opting to move to Los Angeles. Now that this is highly unlikely, how will the optics look here?

Finally, Sunday’s game would also mark the end of Mike McCoy’s tenure as the Chargers head coach. That’s already well known. Though, the larger question at hand here is whether Philip Rivers will decide to follow his team to Los Angeles. He has not spoken well about the move in the past and is considered a family man. Could a change in home city’s lead Rivers to retire or demand a trade?

More so than the Chiefs attempting to claim the AFC West, Sunday’s game in San Diego presents far more questions for an ever-evolving NFL. It also presents a ton of questions for the Chargers themselves.

5. Battle for the No. 1 pick

We focused on how San Francisco couldn’t even tank correctly after it came back and defeated the aforementioned Rams last week. That came immediately after Cleveland put up its first win of the season, also against the aforementioned Chargers. See how this all ties in together?

Now, Week 17 offers both teams an opportunity to lay claim to being the worst in the NFL, ultimately ending up with the No. 1 overall pick in the process.

With Cleveland set to take on Pittsburgh and the 49ers hosting the NFC West champion Seahawks, most figure the Browns will end up with the first pick. That’s until we realize Mike Tomlin’s Steelers will be resting most of their starters. It’s also until we realize the Seahawks have been about as inconsistent as it comes recently.

Seattle has lost three of its past five games, its most-recent defeat coming at home against Arizona. Though, Russell Wilson and Co. have been even more questionable away from CenturyLink. Over the course of the team’s past two road games, Wilson has led Seattle to 15 points while throwing a whopping seven interceptions compared to just one touchdown.

With the Seahawks playing for a potential first-round bye in the playoffs, we can expect Pete Caroll’s squad to come out and play like the game means something. Taking on a talent-stricken 49ers team, there’s every reason to believe Seattle will come out on top. Though, that’s a lot less certain than it was just a short month ago.

6. Tom Savage or Brock Osweiler?

Savage will once again get the start in Houston’s regular season finale against the Tennessee Titans. It’s a meaningless game for the AFC South champions, but a poor performance here could lead to questions about whether Savage will start over free-agent bust Brock Osweiler when the postseason starts.

For his part, Savage didn’t necessarily perform too well in his first start of the season last week. He completed just 18-of-29 passes for 176 yards and zero touchdowns. The former Pittsburgh standout also held on to the ball a bit too long throughout the game, leading to the Texans’ offensive line allowing a season-high four sacks. These are two glaring issues.

On the other hand, Savage once again went without throwing an interception. It’s the same end result he saw after replacing a turnover-prone Osweiler under center the previous week. Should that continue in Week 17, the Texans will likely go with Savage in the playoffs.

It’s definitely an interesting dynamic to look at in an otherwise meaningless game. Star running back Lamar Miller is unlikely to go, which will place some of the burden on Savage to open up the offense. And in reality, that’s likely what Bill O’Brien will do in attempting to get him ready for postseason football. Should he fail here, there will certainly be questions about the team’s quarterback situation heading into January.

7. Colin Kaepernick’s last stand in San Francisco

Colin Kaepernick

It’s not yet known whether Kaepernick will opt out of his contract and become a free agent in March. Also unknown is whether San Francisco will decide to cut ties with the embattled signal caller altogether. Both of these possibilities were made real when Kaepernick restructured his contract earlier in the season (more on that here).

In reality, this could be the former Super Bowl quarterback’s final start at Levi’s Stadium as a member of the 49ers. It’s an opportunity for him to prove himself to whoever is going to lead the 49ers’ ship in 2017. It’s also an opportunity for Kaepernick to display his talents to any potential suitors on the free-agent market.

For his part, the divisive figure has performed much better this season than in each of the past two years. He’s coming off a thrilling late-game comeback against the division-rival Rams in Los Angeles and has actually tallied 17 total touchdowns compared to four interceptions on the season.

More than this, Kaepernick seems to be fitting into Chip Kelly’s offense extremely well. After all, he’s also averaging a career high 248 total yards per start and has eclipsed the 400-yard total twice.

Set to take on a team he’s struggled with the most throughout an up-and-down career, Kaepernick can prove his worth to the 49ers in an otherwise meaningless game for the franchise. By virtue of an upset win here, he can also push the 49ers to the No. 2 overall pick, potentially eliminating quarterback as an option in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Yeah, there’s a lot in play here for Kaepernick personally.

8. NFL MVP race hits stretch run

It seems that the injury to Derek Carr and his one bad performance against the Kansas City Chiefs has put the Oakland Raiders’ quarterback out of the equation as it relates to the MVP race.

This pretty much means that it’s a three-horse race at this point, with Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott neck and neck as well as Matt Ryan hanging a bit further behind.

Will Week 17 play a major role in the outcome of the race? Outside of the perception that recency bias sure has something to do with the voting, we’re not too entirely sure. Both Brady and Elliott have had absolutely absurd seasons.

For his part, Brady has put up 25 touchdowns compared to two interceptions while averaging nearly 300 passing yards in his 11 starts this season. Another stellar outing against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday could cement his status as the MVP front runner. That would only be magnified by New England earning the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.

On the other hand, Elliott’s Boys are already the top seed in the NFC and will likely end up matching New England for the best record in the NFL. Unlike Brady, Elliott has been a major cog in what Dallas has done through the entirety of the first 15 games played this season. Whether that plays a role in the voting remains to be seen, but it’s surely something to think about.

Let’s not even mention the fact that Elliott is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, nearly 24 touches per game and an absurd 132.9 total yards per game. In fact, Elliott has put up 100-plus total yards in 11 of the past 13 games. The only two exceptions here were blowout wins over Cleveland and Detroit, games that saw Elliott combine for 189 total yards and four touchdowns on just 32 touches.

Short of Elliott dominating against Philadelphia or Brady putting up a season-best performance against Miami, Week 17 won’t play a huge role in the outcome of the race. However, recency bias and each players’ entire sample size will surely impact the race itself.

9. Redskins’ do-or-die game

Joe Theismann Kirk Cousins

This is pretty much it for the Redskins. No matter what happens between Green Bay and Detroit on Sunday Night Football, Washington will clinch a spot in the postseason with a win over the Giants. That’s what we’d call a huge game for Kirk Cousins and Co.

Interestingly enough, it comes against a Giants squad that really has nothing to play for here. Short of ruining the Redskins’ playoff hopes, New York’s only real concern here is coming out of the game healthy. It’s etched in stone as the fifth seed and will play next week in the wild card round.

Though, there’s definitely something interesting to note when looking at this game, even more so than the Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman matchup. New York won’t have any idea as to whether it’s playing Atlanta, Seattle, Green Bay or Detroit in the first round. That could help define what Ben McAdoo and Co. do here.

None of this should really matter to Washington. By virtue of its tie with Cincinnati earlier in the season, it simply needs to win here in order to play meaningful January football from here on out. A win would lock the team into the sixth seed with a matchup against one of the four teams mentioned above in the wild card round.

10. Playing for the NFC North title

Both Detroit and Green Bay will know whether they need to win in order to make it to the postseason by the time they kickoff at Ford Field on Sunday night. They’ll also know whether the winner will have a first-round playoff bye.

That’s an amazing realization to come to. The winner of this game could potentially earn a top-two seed with the loser missing out on the postseason altogether. Talk about a huge black and blue division battle.

The matchups here are by now well known. Will Green Bay’s surprisingly good offensive line hold up against a steady Lions pass rush? Can Detroit, likely without Darius Slay in this one, hold Aaron Rodgers and Co. in check? These are the two biggest questions heading in.

When it comes to the individual matchup between these two teams, the Packers have had Detroit’s number recently. They are also playing much better football than their NFC North counterparts. Green Bay defeated Detroit earlier in the season, 34-27, a game that saw Rodgers complete 15-of-24 passes with four touchdowns.

All said, the Pack have won the past two games against Detroit, a span that has seen Rodgers tally six touchdowns with just one interception. Recency bias also points in the Packers’ direction here. They’ve won five consecutive games and have seen Rodgers compile 12 total touchdowns with zero picks. On the other hand, the Lions have lost two consecutive after it seemed they were destined for the NFC North crown.

In the grand scheme of things, this might matter to pundits and fans. It, however, won’t matter much at all to Matthew Stafford and his squad. Detroit knows what it needs to do here. That includes taking down the beast of the north with the division crown and a potential playoff spot on the line.