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NFL 2011 Season – Week 17 Preview

Victor Cruz
Christopher Pasatieri, Getty Images

It’s the final week of the NFL’s 2011 regular season and only three playoff spots remain: the AFC West and NFC East titles and an AFC wild card berth. The AFC North is Baltimore’s to lose, but both the Ravens and the rival Pittsburgh Steelers have already qualified for the playoffs. Each game this week is a divisional rematch.

Here’s a preview of the week 17 action, with all games slated for Sunday:

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints 1:00 PM

Carolina (6-9) has won four of its last five games. The Panthers nearly upset the Saints in week five, falling 30-27 on a late touchdown pass. Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton has passed for 20 touchdowns and run for 14 more. He looks to complete his potential rookie-of-the-year-winning season by beating the Saints, whose 26th-ranked defense does allow 372.9 yards per game. NFC South champion New Orleans (12-3) can still clinch a first-round bye if they win and San Francisco loses. Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the new NFL record-holder for passing yards in a season, is just 190 yards ahead of New England’s Tom Brady. If New Orleans gets a big lead, Brees could be removed for the rest of the game. The Panthers defense ranks 26th in points allowed, giving up 25.6 points per game, while the Saints score a second-best 33.5 per contest.

N.Y. Jets at Miami Dolphins 1:00 PM

New York (8-7) must win to keep its faint playoff hopes alive. The Jets also need Cincinnati, Tennessee and either Oakland or Denver to lose, as well. New York quarterback Mark Sanchez has 24 touchdown passes, which ties him for the eighth-best total in the league. He also has 23 turnovers, but Sanchez committed none in New York’s 24-6 win over the Dolphins in week six. Miami (5-10) is a much better team than its record indicates. Dolphins running back Reggie Bush has run for over 1,000 yards on the season, including more than 100 yards in his last four games. He may be able to find holes in a Jets defense which, though ranked seventh overall in the NFL in total defense, has yielded several big plays over the past two weeks.

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots 1:00 PM

Buffalo (6-9) wraps up another losing season, one that had much more promise when the Bills defeated the Patriots, 34-31, in week three. Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller has gained 82.8 yards per game over his past four contests. He’ll face a Patriots defense that allows 412.1 yards per game, most in the NFL. New England (12-3) can guarantee itself home-field advantage through the AFC title game with a win or losses by both Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Quarterback Tom Brady needs 103 yards passing to hit the 5,000-yard mark on the season, and he starts the day just 190 yards away from New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who set the NFL season record last week. The Bills defense yields 25.7 points per game, 28th in the league.

San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams 1:00 PM

NFC West champion San Francisco (12-3) needs to win to lock up a first-round playoff bye. The 49ers have the league’s seventh-ranked rushing offense, with Frank Gore’s 1,202 yards leading the attack. Gore may have a reduced workload to rest him for the upcoming playoffs, but he could still have a big day against the Rams, who give up an average of 154.5 yards per game on the ground, the league’s worst rushing defense. St. Louis (2-13) has lost six games in a row, including a 26-0 week 13 loss to the 49ers. They score just 11.1 points per game. Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens looked awful in last week’s 27-0 shutout loss to Pittsburgh. Quarterback Sam Bradford could return from injury and retake his position from Clemens, but it may not matter as San Francisco gives up just 13.5 points per game, the lowest average in the NFL. The 49ers gave up their first, and only, rushing touchdown of the season last week.

Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers 1:00 PM

Detroit (10-5) clinched an NFC wild card spot last week. The Lions can secure a higher postseason seed than Atlanta with a victory, meaning they’d travel to play the NFC East champ on wild-card weekend rather than the Saints or 49ers. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford threw three interceptions in a 27-15 week 12 loss to the Packers. He’s been outstanding the past two games with seven touchdown passes and no interceptions. Stafford faces a Packers defense that is ranked 31st in total defense, giving up 400.7 yards per game. NFC North champion Green Bay (14-1) has home-field advantage through the NFC title game and a first-round bye. It’s unlikely that Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers will play the entire game, especially given the injuries along his offensive line and the Lions fierce pass rush. Other Green Bay starters many get some rest, as well.

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans 1:00 PM

To make the AFC playoffs as a wild card, Tennessee (8-7) needs a win and a loss by the Bengals and either a Jets win plus any of the following: a Jets win and a Raiders loss; a Jets win and a Broncos; or a Jets loss, plus a Raiders win and a Broncos win. Titans running back Chris Johnson needs only 14 yards for his fourth straight 1,000-yard season. Even with Johnson, Tennessee has only the 31st ranked rushing offense, gaining 90.1 yards per game. The Titans need to do better than that against the Texans, the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense against the run. AFC South champ Houston (10-5) has nothing to play for this week. The Texans will be the No. 3 seed in the AFC and host a postseason game next week, potentially against the Titans. Texans running back Arian Foster is unlikely to play long enough to rival the 234 yards from scrimmage he had in Houston’s 41-7 win over Tennessee in week seven.

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings 1:00 PM

Injury-riddled Chicago (7-8) looks to end the season by stopping its current five-game losing streak. The Bears defeated the Vikings, 39-10, in week six thanks to Devin Hester, Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, all of whom are expected to be sidelined this week. Josh McCown should get the start again at quarterback for Chicago. Bears running back Kahlil Bell ran for 121 yards last week and figures to get plenty of work against a Vikings defense that gives up 28.8 points per game, the second-worst average in the NFL. Minnesota (3-12) knows all about injuries. On consecutive plays last week, the Vikings lost star running back Adrian Peterson with torn knee ligaments and quarterback Christian Ponder to a possible concussion. Toby Gerhart will fill in for Peterson, while Joe Webb spells Ponder. The Chicago defense yields 256.2 yards passing per game, 28th in the league.

Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles 1:00 PM

Washington (5-10) has averaged 25 points per game over the past three weeks. Redskins rookie running back Evan Royster ran for 132 yards in place of injured fellow rookie Roy Helu last week. Royster may start again Sunday. Washington quarterback Rex Grossman threw four interceptions in the 20-13 loss to the Eagles in week six. The Eagles defense has given up just 12 points a game over the past three weeks. They lead the NFL in sacks with 49. Despite its three-game winning streak, Philadelphia (7-8) is no longer in playoff contention and Eagles running back LeSean McCoy is bothered by a sore ankle. He trails NFL rushing leader Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville by just 128 yards. Quarterback Michael Vick has had consecutive games of 100-plus passer ratings. The Redskins counter with the NFL’s 13th-ranked defense.

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars 1:00 PM

Indianapolis (2-13) has won two games in a row after losing its first 13. Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky threw two touchdowns and no interceptions in the victories. He will be challenged by the Jaguars’ fifth-ranked defense. With an NFL-high 1,437 rushing yards, Maurice Jones-Drew has carried Jacksonville (4-11) on offense all season. Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been sacked 37 times, tied for fourth-most in the league. The Colts defense gives up an average of 378.3 yards per game, 27th in the NFL. Indianapolis is especially weak against the run, as Jones-Drew showed when he ran for 114 yards in a 17-3 win over the Colts in week 10.

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals 4:15 PM

Having already clinched a playoff spot, Baltimore (11-4) can wrap up the AFC North title with a win or a Pittsburgh loss. Ravens running back Ray Rice has 1,173 yards rushing, including 104 in a 31-24 win over the Bengals in week 11. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco will be pressured by the sixth-ranked Cincinnati defense, which has 44 sacks, third-most in the NFL. With only its third winning season in 21 years, Cincinnati (9-6) can clinch an AFC wild card playoff spot with a win. The Bengals can still advance if the Jets and Raiders lose or the Jets and Broncos lose. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has 20 touchdown passes, but he faces a Ravens defense that is ranked third overall in the NFL and second in sacks with 47.

Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos 4:15 PM

Kansas City (6-9) was eliminated from playoff contention as a result of last week’s overtime loss to Oakland. Chiefs quarterback and former Bronco Kyle Orton has proven to be capable of leading the Kansas City offense, averaging almost 300 yards passing in his two starts. He’ll see a lot of pressure from his former teammates, who have 40 sacks, tied for seventh in the league. The Chiefs running game could be key, as the Broncos have given up an average of 150 yards rushing the past two weeks. Denver (8-7) clinches the AFC West title with a win. It can still get into the playoffs with a loss coupled with an Oakland loss. Despite only throwing eight passes, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow had a 102.6 passer rating in the 17-10 win over Kansas City in week 10. Denver is likely to try to grind down the Chiefs defense with its top-ranked rushing offense, rather than risk interceptions. Kansas City has nabbed 19 interceptions, tied for fifth-best in the NFL.

San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders 4:15 PM

San Diego (7-8) is out of playoff contention. The Chargers would still love to end the Raiders season by using quarterback Philip Rivers against the league’s 29th-ranked defense. Rivers has thrown touchdown passes, but he also has 24 turnovers, most in the NFL. He committed two in a 24-17 loss to the Raiders in week nine. Oakland (8-7) can win the AFC West with a win and a Denver loss. They can also qualify for a wild card spot if they win and the Bengals and Titans lose. They can also secure a wild card berth if they win, the Jets win and the Bengals lose. Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer has had 15 passes picked off in his nine games with Oakland. He’ll need to be careful against a San Diego defense ranked 10th in the league against the pass.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns 4:15 PM

Already assured of a playoff spot, Pittsburgh (11-4) can still win the AFC North with a win and a Baltimore loss. Injured Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may play, but reserve QB Charlie Batch was more than capable in last week’s shutout win over St. Louis. The Pittsburgh offense did just enough to win the week 14 meeting with Cleveland by a 14-3 score. Cleveland (4-11) may still be without quarterback Colt McCoy, who suffered a concussion as a result of a James Harrison hit in the earlier loss to the Steelers. Browns backup QB Seneca Wallace will most likely get the start and hopes for help from running back Peyton Hillis. Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense only gives up 273.9 yards per game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons 4:15 PM

Tampa Bay (4-11) has lost its last nine games. The Buccaneers have looked terrible on offense and need to play more like they did in a 16-13 win over Atlanta in week three. Tampa running backs Kregg Lumpkin and Mossis Madu could see an increased role against the Falcons eighth-ranked run defense. One of two NFC wild card teams, Atlanta (9-6) can move up to the number five seed with a win and a Detroit loss. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown for 4,071 yards. Both Julio Jones and Roddy White had more than 100 receiving yards for the Falcons last week. Atlanta coach Mike Smith figures to give his starters some rest to avoid potential injury. The Buccaneers defense gives up 29.9 points per game, the most in the NFL.

Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals 4:15 PM

Seattle (7-8) looks to go to .500 for the season, despite the fact it can’t make the playoffs. The Seahawks count on offense from Marshawn Lynch, who is the NFL’s seventh-leading rusher with 1,118 yards, including 100 or more in six of his last eight games. The Cardinals held Lynch to 73 yards, but still lost to Seattle 13-10 in week three. Out of playoff contention, Arizona (7-8) also wants to end the year at .500. It has won six of its past eight games. Running back Beanie Wells may struggle against the Seahawks solid run defense. Cardinals quarterback John Skelton is likely to step in again for Kevin Kolb, who is still suffering post-concussion symptoms

Dallas Cowboys at N.Y. Giants 8:20 PM

This matchup of division opponents is essentially the NFC East title game: the winner advances to the playoffs, while the loser’s season ends. New York advances in the event of a tie. Dallas (8-7) has lost three of four games, including a 37-34 defeat to the Giants in week 14. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo should play despite exiting early in last week’s loss to Philadelphia due to a bruised hand. Dallas will try to stop the Giants relentless pass rush, and its 42 sacks, fifth-best in the NFL. New York (8-7) is just 2-5 in its last seven games. Giants quarterback Eli Manning is fourth in the NFL in yards passing with 4,587. He’ll look to victimize a Dallas secondary that gave up two late passing touchdowns in the teams’ first meeting.

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