There’s no question the NFC has been the dominant conference this season, with the South being the top division.
The NFC won 41 of the 64 head-to-head matchups against the AFC; that .641 winning percentage is the best for the NFC since going 27-12-1 in 1970, the year of the merger.
New Orleans (11-4) and Carolina (11-4) already are in the playoffs and the division championship will be decided Sunday. Atlanta, which lost the Super Bowl with a colossal collapse in February, also could qualify.
All three are capable of going deep into January, or maybe even to the big game.
“Our situation is if we win, we’re in and if we don’t, you go home,” said Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. “It’s as clear as it gets.”
Well, not exactly. Should Seattle also lose, Atlanta (9-6) would advance.
You can be sure the Panthers would enjoy sending the Falcons home early, and they could take the division with a victory and a New Orleans defeat at Tampa Bay (4-11).
“We don’t want three teams from the NFC South in the playoffs,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We want two. We got to go down there and spoil their parade.”
The Panthers are 5-2 on the road while Atlanta is only 4-3 in its new home. Carolina’s defense has really come on, including 15 sacks and 10 takeaways in the last three games.
No team has a more balanced offense than the Saints, who rank fifth in both passing, thanks to Drew Brees throwing to Michael Thomas, and in rushing behind Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. Ingram (1,486 yards from scrimmage, 12 TDs) and Kamara (1,426 yards, 12 TDs) are the only teammates in league history with at least 1,300 scrimmage yards and 10 TDs in the same season.
Slumping Tampa has dropped five in a row and QB Jameis Winston has lost eight consecutive starts. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick started the only games the team won during a stretch in which it dropped 10 of 12.
Arizona (7-8) at Seattle (9-6)
It would be a sixth straight playoff appearance for Seattle if it manages to advance, but the Seahawks have struggled with penalties, injuries and undisciplined play much of the season.
Russell Wilson is the first quarterback to have a winning record in each of his first six seasons. He really lights it up against Arizona, too: Wilson has thrown for nine touchdowns with no interceptions in the past four meetings.
Still, the Cardinals have won the past two meetings in Seattle, and the Seahawks uncharacteristically have three home losses this year.
Oakland (6-9) at Los Angeles Chargers (8-7)
There figure to be plenty of Raiders fans on hand – remember, the franchise once called LA home – in a game the Chargers must win for a shot at the postseason. LA began the schedule 0-4, yet it could replicate what it did in 1992 with a win and Tennessee loss or tie and Buffalo loss or tie; or a win and Tennessee loss or tie and Baltimore win or tie; or a tie and Tennessee loss and Buffalo loss or tie.
“We’re not going to scoreboard-watch, because if we don’t win, none of that matters,” Chargers pass rusher Melvin Ingram said. “Rivalry game. End of the year. No matter if we were both 0-15, the atmosphere is going to be amazing.”
Cincinnati (6-9) at Baltimore (9-6)
Baltimore has won five of six and the one defeat was by a point at Pittsburgh. The defense is fierce, with the Ravens leading the league with 33 takeaways and ranking first with a plus-17 turnover differential. Baltimore has won four straight at home and is 59-20 at M&T Bank Stadium under coach John Harbaugh, who took over in 2008. The Ravens have won 13 of their last 14 home finales.
This could be the final game for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who has done well against the Ravens, going 17-12. His legacy would be never winning a postseason game.
Buffalo (8-7) at Miami (6-9)
The Bills could end an almost unfathomable 17-year playoff drought – the longest active streak in North America’s four major professional sports. Buffalo clinches with a win and a Baltimore loss; a win and a loss or tie by Tennessee and the Chargers; a tie and losses by Los Angeles and Tennessee.
Look for star RB LeSean McCoy to carry the brunt of the offense; McCoy’s 1,554 yards from scrimmage account for 34 percent of the Bills’ net yards.
Miami WR Jarvis Landry leads the NFL with 103 catches but ranks 108th at 8.7 yards per catch. He needs eight receptions to break the team record of 110 he set in 2015. He needs 105 yards to become the first Miami player with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Jacksonville (10-5) at Tennessee (8-7)
Jacksonville’s turnaround brought it an AFC South title for the first time since 1999, and now the Jaguars can see to it that their division rivals, the Titans, fall short of a wild card. But the Jags are settled as the No. 3 seed and have nothing to gain in this one.
Tennessee has slumped down the stretch, losing three straight. Still, the Titans have won nine of the last 11 home games, and three of the last four overall against Jacksonville. Losses by Buffalo and the LA Chargers get Tennessee in.
Dallas (8-7) at Philadelphia (13-2)
It has been a special season for the Eagles, who have the NFL’s best record. But they’ll need to pursue a Super Bowl berth with backup quarterback Nick Foles, and their defense occasionally has sprung leaks.
Philly probably will rest a bunch of starters, which could mean a huge day for Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who returned from his six-game suspension last week. One slumping Cowboy is usually precise placekicker Dan Bailey. He is 15 for 19 for a career-low 78.9 field-goal percentage. The four misses have come in the past three games.
New York Jets (5-10) at New England (12-3)
New England has won nine consecutive AFC East crowns, an NFL record.
Tom Brady can tie Brett Favre (13 wins) for most victories for a starting quarterback at age 40 or older. Brady leads the NFL with 4,387 yards passing, his ninth season with 4,000-plus. He also tears up the Jets at home.
New York will miss the postseason for a seventh straight season, but winning five games with such a weak roster is somewhat impressive.
Cleveland (0-15) at Pittsburgh (12-3)
The Browns avoided a winless season in 2016 by winning in their 15th game. That didn’t happen this year, and now they face one of the AFC’s powers. So matching Detroit’s 0-16 of 2008 seems a cinch.
Pittsburgh probably blew its chance to be the AFC’s top seed when it lost at home to New England two weeks ago. The Steelers need a Jets upset in Foxborough and their own win to get it. Regardless, they have a first-week bye in the playoffs.
Chicago (5-10) at Minnesota (12-3)
A Minnesota victory gives it a wild-card round bye. The Vikings lead the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 16.1 points per game. The defense has allowed 17 rushes of 10-plus yards, fewest in the league.
One thing Chicago can do is run. Jordan Howard is fifth in rushing with 1,113 yards; in three career games vs. the Vikings, Howard has 364 rushing yards.
This could be final game for John Fox as Bears coach. His 14-33 mark over three years (.424) is the second-lowest winning percentage in franchise history. Abe Gibron was 11-30-1 (.274) from 1972-74.
San Francisco (5-10) at Los Angeles Rams (11-4)
Two tailenders from last year that have found their dynamic franchise QBs.
Jared Goff might be the NFL’s most improved player this season under the guidance of new coach Sean McVay. It hasn’t hurt to have Todd Gurley turning in an MVP-caliber season.
The Niners gambled by sending a second-round pick in a deal with the Patriots in late October, bringing Jimmy Garoppolo to the Bay Area. It was a steal for San Francisco, which has won his four starts.
Kansas City (9-6) at Denver (5-10)
In a game devoid of meaning – the Chiefs are ensconced as the fourth seed in the playoffs – KC’s first-round draft pick Patrick Mahomes II will make his NFL debut at quarterback. Coach Andy Reid declined to say who else might sit out, but he indicated enough starters will play that his young quarterback will get a fair chance to succeed.
Denver has been one of the NFL’s biggest failures this year, particularly on offense, betraying a strong defense.
Green Bay (7-8) at Detroit (8-7)
A disappointing fade in Detroit could mean the end of Jim Caldwell’s coaching tenure, even though the Lions might win nine games, which would give him a 36-30 record in charge. The Lions were 3-1 and 6-4, then flopped down the stretch.
Green Bay’s chances pretty much ended when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on Oct. 15. The Packers got a lengthy look at Brett Hundley, who had some solid moments and plenty of weak ones, emphasizing how good A-Rod is.
Washington (7-8) at New York Giants (2-13)
The Redskins are looking for their first sweep of the Giants since 2011. A victory gives them a .500 or better record for the third consecutive season, last accomplished 1999-2001.
The Giants are wrapping up the worst season in franchise history in terms of losses. Interim coach Steve Spagnuolo is 0-3 since replacing Ben McAdoo this month. At least they have a new GM in Dave Gettleman, hired Thursday.
Houston (4-11) at Indianapolis (3-12)
Two teams glad to get out of 2017 and start the rebuild.
Two main questions for the Colts: Will Chuck Pagano remain the coach? When will Andrew Luck (shoulder) be healthy enough to play after missing the entire season? For Houston, getting back J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Deshaun Watson will be a good start for ’18.
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