So here we are, at the doorstep of the final weekend of the regular season. Months ago, you started a season with optimism, excitement and hope. If you are a fan of 17 NFL teams like the Steelers, Saints, Dolphins or others, this final weekend is a sad goodbye to your team until the preseason begins in late July. But if you are a fan of any of the other 15 teams that enter this final weekend with playoff hopes, then you are more than excited for this final regular season weekend. Here’s a great game plan. Visit your nearby Buffalo Wild Wings to take in the last full Sunday of games. Eat, drink and enjoy. Because next weekend, while there will be football, it won’t be the volume that we have for this final weekend.
Now for the important stuff… what’s at stake going into this final weekend? Let’s start in the AFC, where all six spots have been claimed, and Sunday is just a battle for seeding. We know that the Colts are the 5th seed. We know that the Bengals are the 6th seed. Baltimore is the 4th seed right now, but they can jump to the 3rd seed if they beat the Bengals at home and the Patriots lose at home to Miami. Speaking of New England, they can still finish anywhere from 1st to 4th in the AFC. They get home-field advantage if they win and both Denver and Houston would lose. They get a #2 seed and a first-round bye if they win and EITHER Denver or Houston lose. Houston controls its own fate in the AFC. A win, and they clinch home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs. Denver can grab that other first-round bye with a win or a Patriots loss, and can still get home-field if they win against the Chiefs, and Houston loses to the Colts.
The NFC? Not nearly as cut and dried. Four teams are locked in to NFC playoff berths, while 5 other teams are still alive for the two remaining spots. Atlanta? They have everything locked up, and play Tampa knowing that they have home-field in the NFC regardless of the outcome. The second seed is still up in the air. Green Bay can claim it simply by beating the Vikings on Sunday in Minneapolis. If they lose to the Vikings, Minnesota gets into the playoffs and San Francisco can grab the #2 seed, provided they also beat the Arizona Cardinals. Seattle needs to beat the Rams and see a 49ers loss to win the NFC West, and if the Seahawks win and both the Niners and Packers lose, Seattle can still finish as high as a #2 seed in the NFC. The Bears are still alive in the North for a Wild Card, but they need to beat the Lions and need Green Bay to beat the Vikings. If that happens, the Bears are in.
Now for the NFC East, where three teams are still alive for postseason play. Sunday night in Washington, the division title is at stake. Whoever wins between the Cowboys and the Redskins on Sunday night is the division champ. Dallas must win, or they aren’t getting into the playoffs. Washington has a little more flexibility. Even if they lose, they still can clinch a playoff spot if both the Bears and Vikings lose on Sunday. As far as the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants are concerned, it’s a tough climb. They must beat the Eagles, then hope for losses from the Cowboys, Vikings and Bears to punch a ticket to the playoffs.
As far as I’m concerned, the two most important games of the weekend are right here on Westwood One Sports. First, it’s the Packers and Vikings kicking off at 4:25 Eastern on Sunday, followed by the Cowboys and Redskins on Sunday Night Football. I’ll get the chance to be in Minnesota, calling the action with my partner Mark Malone. Last week, I was fortunate enough to witness Calvin Johnson break Jerry Rice’s 17-year-old single-season receiving yards record. Can I be lucky enough to see another record fall on Sunday? Adrian Peterson is 207 yards away from Eric Dickerson’s 2,105-yard season in 1984, and is just 102 yards away from becoming just the sixth NFL running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. His team, the Vikings, have won three straight games and are among the hottest teams in the NFL. Even when there’s little at stake, this is one of the great rivalries in football. Now, with the stakes so high, this figures to be a stellar afternoon in the Twin Cities. Peterson will have to face a Packers defense that has quietly gotten better and better as the season has gone along, despite missing several key cogs for weeks at a time. Green Bay is now 10th overall in total defense in the league, and has allowed only two running backs over 100 yards this year… Frank Gore in the 1st week of the season, and Adrian Peterson, who had 210 yards against the Packers just four weeks ago. The Packers haven’t lost a divisional game since late in 2010, a streak of 12 straight division wins, and if they keep that streak alive, they will earn a bye next week and a home game in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Sunday night’s matchup of the Cowboys and Redskins is the kind of high-stakes affair that you love to see associated with another great NFL rivalry. Winner takes all for the NFC East title, and the Cowboys will have to buck a little weather history to win the division on Sunday night. According to the forecast, kickoff temperature in Washington should be hovering somewhere in the 30s. Why is that important? In the past 20 years, the Cowboys are 4-11 in games where the temperature was below 40 degrees. Their last win in the cold? 2009, when they beat Washington in Washington. If they can handle the cold, they’ll still have to handle rookie sensation Robert Griffin III, who torched the Cowboys for 304 yards and four touchdowns in the first meeting on Thanksgiving in Dallas. His return last week from a knee injury was efficient, posting a QB rating over 100 for the eighth time this season, and for the fifth straight game that he’s played. Add to his performance the running of Alfred Morris, who posted 113 yards rushing against Dallas in Week 12, and the Redskins are a potent offense indeed.
Dallas is still in contention thanks to Tony Romo. The much-maligned Cowboys quarterback has been great down the stretch, having tossed 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions in his last eight games. His 441 yards against the Redskins on Thanksgiving were a season high, but just one of three games over 400 yards this year. With the red-hot Dez Bryant playing the best football of his career right now, the Cowboys aren’t out of any game. They’ll need both of those guys at optimum effectiveness if they are to win in the cold, on the road, and claim the NFC East title for the first time since 2009.
Whoever you are rooting for, enjoy the last full week of the regular season. Enjoy one last Sunday with friends at Buffalo Wild Wings, and Happy New Year from all of us at Westwood One Sports!
– Kevin Kugler
Westwood One NFL play-by-play announcer Kevin Kugler tackles subjects that are interesting to him each week in his blog. The Football Insider Report is brought to you by Buffalo Wild Wings. Protect the Football. This weekend, Kevin and Mark Malone will be in Minneapolis to see if the Vikings can snag a playoff spot or if Green Bay will wrap up a first-round bye. Coverage begins Sunday at 3:45 PM Eastern on Westwood One Sports.