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NFL Playoff Picture: Week 17 Provides Maximum Drama

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

While many of the teams that will comprise the field for the 2015 NFL playoffs have been decided, there are still a couple of berths up for grabs. In addition, there are some seeding issues to be worked out, particularly in the NFC. The National Football League has set up the schedule for Week 17 so that teams really can't start resting players if they have something to play for.

We'll start in the NFC, where the only team in the post-season field that will be taking part in the early slate on Sunday is the Washington Redskins. Washington is locked into the #4 seed in the NFC and will host a game on Wild Card weekend, so their game against the Dallas Cowboys doesn't have any real intrigue to it. As a result, their game will be kicking off at noon Central time.

The late games, on the other hand, have plenty of storylines. With the Carolina Panthers losing to the Atlanta Falcons yesterday and the Arizona Cardinals trouncing the Green Bay Packers, the door is open for Arizona to sneak in and take the #1 overall seed from the Panthers. If the Cardinals defeat the Seattle Seahawks and the Panthers should fall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lose their second straight, the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC would run through Arizona. Both the Panthers and Cardinals have clinched first-round byes, so it's a matter of determining which team is the top seed and which team is the 2-seed.

In addition, as we've detailed, the Seahawks/Cardinals game has implications for the two NFC North playoff teams, as it will play a role in which team will be seeded where. So, both the Tampa Bay/Carolina and Seattle/Arizona games will be among those kicking off at 3:25 PM Central time on Sunday afternoon. To finish things off, the 256th game of the 2015 NFL regular season will be taking place at Lambeau Field, with the Vikings traveling to take on the Packers in what amounts to an NFC North title game. That game will start at 7:25 PM Central.

In the AFC, things are much more complex, though we could get a little more clarity after the Monday Night Football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Denver Broncos.

The top seed in the AFC, at the present time, rests with the New England Patriots. However, after their loss to the New York Jets on Sunday, there's a chance they could fall out of that spot. New England locks up the #1 seed if they can knock off the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, but if they don't, it could open the door for either Denver or Cincinnati.

If the Bengals should win in Denver for the first time since 1975, they would lock up a first-round bye and have an opportunity at home-field advantage. They would clinch that if they should beat the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17 and the Patriots lose to the Dolphins. If both the Bengals and Patriots finished 13-3, the Patriots would have the tiebreaker advantage, so the Bengals need a New England loss to get to the #1 spot.

On the other hand, the Broncos win their final two games, tonight against Cincinnati and in Week 17 at home against the San Diego Chargers, they would push themselves into the #2 spot at worst. They could also get the #1 seed and home-field advantage if they win out and the Patriots lost next week, putting both teams at 12-4, Denver would own the tiebreaker thanks to their head-to-head win over New England.

The Houston Texans could find themselves in the playoffs as early as this evening, as they will wrap up the AFC South with a Cincinnati win over Denver. Even if the Texans don't get in tonight, they need a lot of things to go wrong in order to not make the playoffs. How many things? According to the folks at PlayoffStatus.com, here's what has to happen in order for the Texans to not get into the playoffs as the AFC South winners, starting with a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

Case 1
Jaguars beats the Texans, and
Broncos beats the Bengals, and
Falcons beats the Saints, and
Bills beats the Jets, and
Colts beats the Titans, and
Steelers beats or ties the Browns, and
Raiders beats the Chiefs, and
Dolphins beats the Patriots, and
Ravens beats the Bengals, and
Broncos beats the Chargers

Case 2
Jaguars beats the Texans, and
Broncos beats the Bengals, and
Falcons beats the Saints, and
Bills beats the Jets, and
Colts beats the Titans, and
Steelers beats the Browns, and
Chiefs ties the Raiders, and
Dolphins beats the Patriots, and
Ravens beats the Bengals, and
Broncos beats the Chargers

So, yeah. . .the Texans are in.

The Kansas City Chiefs are in the post-season party, and they could conceivably jump over the Broncos and capture the AFC West crown. If the Bengals defeat the Broncos tonight, all the Chiefs need to do is knock off the Oakland Raiders on Sunday and they'll win the AFC West. They also win the West if the Broncos lose to both the Bengals and the Chargers.

The final spot in the AFC will be occupied by either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New York Jets. The Jets' scenario is simple. . .if they beat the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, they're in. If Rex Ryan can lead the Bills to a victory over his own team, the Steelers can jump into that spot with a victory over the Cleveland Browns. However, as it stands right now, the spot is New York's to lose.

With all of these scenarios, the early slate of NFL action on Sunday is going to be dominated by AFC teams. Of the ten early games on Sunday, six will feature AFC match-ups, which I assume means at least one game is going to get "cross-flexed" to FOX. (AFC games are generally shown on CBS.) Here's what the early schedule for Week 17 looks like:

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans
Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons
Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears

The late docket of NFL games looks like this:

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs
San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders
Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers

Vikings/Packers will be the Sunday night contest. There is no Monday night game in Week 17.

Week 17 scheduling is something that the NFL generally does a pretty good job with, and this year appears to be no exception. Teams with something to play for will have to go all-out in Week 17, and that's the way the NFL (and their fans) want to see it.