Dick Clark used to say music is the soundtrack of our lives.
And as New Year’s Eve approaches, the soundtrack of life in the National Football League is nearing a crescendo. The quest for division crowns, homefield advantage, Wild Card berths and playoff seeding will become much clearer this week.
Only 32 regular-season games remain and 23 of those are battles between teams in the same division. All told, 14 teams finish their regular-season schedules with two straight division games, and several of those teams control their own destinies.
AARON RODGERS and the GREEN BAY PACKERS (7-8) have earned their way back into the playoff conversation. The CAROLINA PANTHERS (6-9), NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (6-9) and TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (7-8) are all playing for the NFC South division title. And a division championship for the JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (7-8), who have won five of their last seven, is well within reach.
Meanwhile, the MIAMI DOLPHINS (8-7) and NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (7-8) square off on Sunday (1:00 PM ET, CBS) and each team controls its own path to the postseason.
This week, after an interconference showdown between DALLAS (11-4) and TENNESSEE (7-8) in the season’s final Thursday Night Football game (8:15 PM ET, Prime Video), the NFL kicks off only 13 hours after the ball drops at Times Square. So raise your glass, sing Auld Lang Syne and then get to sleep. It’s the NFL’s first full slate of New Year’s Day games since the 2016 season.
And Super Bowl LVII in Arizona is only 47 days away.
The Starting 11 entering Week 17…
1. MANDATORY MONDAY VIEWING: Monday Night Football, the longest running series in television history, is in its 53rd season. And since the series kicked off in 1970, this week could be among its most anticipated matchup ever. Not only will the BUFFALO BILLS (12-3) meet the CINCINNATI BENGALS (11-4) at Paycor Stadium (8:30 PM ET, ESPN/ABC) with the AFC’s No. 1 seed potentially on the line, the game also will mark just the third in Monday Night Football history to involve two teams with 11-or-more wins. In 1997, San Francisco (12-2) defeated Denver (11-3), the Broncos’ last loss of that season en route to a Super Bowl XXXII victory. And in 1985, the Los Angeles Raiders (11-4) won the league’s final regular-season game, at the Los Angeles Rams (11-4). …Cincinnati with a win, coupled with a Baltimore loss on Sunday, would clinch the AFC North division title.
2. NUMBER OF THE WEEK – 8: The number of wins by the MINNESOTA VIKINGS this season after trailing in the fourth quarter, tied for the NFL’s single-season record with the 2016 Detroit Lions. Overall this season, 76 NFL games have been won or tied by teams that trailed in the fourth quarter, more than any season in league annals through 16 weeks. The Vikings (12-3) face a road test at GREEN BAY (7-8) on Sunday (4:25 PM ET, CBS).
- Packers head coach MATT LAFLEUR is 17-1 in regular-season games played in December and January, including 15 consecutive December wins.
- And since Dec. 1 of their last Super Bowl season, 2010, the Packers own the league’s best regular-season record in December and January: 46-15 (.754).
3. WORST-TO-FIRST: Competitive balance, one of the hallmarks of the NFL, gives fans hope entering each season. In 17 of the past 19 years (2003-21), at least one team has finished first in its division the season after finishing last or tied for last place.
- In fact, of the 50 teams in league history to go from “worst-to-first,” 27 of them have done so since 2003, including an NFL-record three teams in 2005 and 2006.
- Entering Week 17 this year, three clubs – BALTIMORE (10-5), CAROLINA (6-9) and JACKSONVILLE (7-8) – have an opportunity to continue that remarkable trend.
- Two teams during that 19-year span, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, won the Super Bowl after finishing last in their division the season before. Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals advanced to Super Bowl LVI after finishing last in the AFC North in 2020. The Bengals became the fifth team since 2000 to advance to the Super Bowl the season after finishing in last place.
- The MINNESOTA VIKINGS (12-3) have clinched the NFC North division title after missing the postseason in 2021. In 18 of the past 19 years (2003-21), at least two teams have won their divisions the season after missing the playoffs.
4. SPOTLIGHT – ROOKIE STANDOUTS: When the NEW YORK JETS (7-8) meet the SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-8) on Sunday at Lumen Field (4:05 PM ET, FOX), exceptional rookies will be on the field for both teams. When the Jets have the ball, expect to see Seahawks cornerback TARIQ WOOLEN lined up in coverage against Jets wide receiver GARRETT WILSON on several snaps. Woolen is a rookie Pro Bowler who is tied for the league lead with six interceptions. Wilson, meanwhile, leads all rookies in receptions (71) and receiving yards (996). Meanwhile, Seattle running back KENNETH WALKER leads all rookies with nine rushing touchdowns and Jets rookie Pro Bowl cornerback SAUCE GARDNER leads all NFL players with 16 passes defensed.
- Gardner and Woolen represent only the second pair of rookie cornerbacks voted to a Pro Bowl, joining EVERSON WALLS and Pro Football Hall of Famer RONNIE LOTT in the 1981 season.
5. SPOTLIGHT – TEAM MATCHUP: SAN FRANCISCO (11-4) visits LAS VEGAS (6-9) on Sunday (4:05 PM ET, FOX) in an intriguing contest, especially when the 49ers have the ball. Niners tackle TRENT WILLIAMS, who earned his 10th Pro Bowl selection, leads an offensive line that squares off with MAXX CROSBY and the Raiders’ front seven. Crosby leads the NFL this season with 19 tackles for loss and is tied for fifth in the league with 56 quarterback pressures, while teammate CHANDLER JONES ranks third among active players with 112 career sacks. Meanwhile, since entering the NFL in 2017, 49ers running back CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY leads the league with 112.5 scrimmage yards per game.
- The 49ers’ BROCK PURDY could become just the fifth quarterback ever to win each of his first four starts in a rookie season. The others: BEN ROETHLISBERGER (won first 13 starts in 2004), MIKE KRUCZEK (first six in 1968), VIRGIL CARTER (first four in 1968) and PHIL SIMMS (first four in 1979).
6. STREAK SPEAK: The JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (7-8) are aiming for their first four-game winning streak since 2017, when they advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Quarterback TREVOR LAWRENCE leads the NFL in passer rating (108.2) over his last seven starts. Their foes this week, the HOUSTON TEXANS (2-12-1), have won nine consecutive meetings with the Jaguars entering Sunday’s game at NRG Stadium (1:00 PM ET, CBS), Jacksonville’s last win over Houston was Dec. 17, 2017.
7. DID YOU KNOW?: At least nine league records over the next two weeks are in danger of falling:
- Tampa Bay quarterback TOM BRADY (671) needs 57 pass attempts to break the single-season record (MATTHEW STAFFORD, 727 in 2012).
- Brady, who has 443 completions entering this week, needs 43 more to break his own single-season record, 485 in 2021.
- Kansas City quarterback PATRICK MAHOMES (4,720) needs 758 passing yards to capture the single-season record (Pro Football Hall of Famer PEYTON MANNING, 5,477 in 2013).
- Minnesota wide receiver JUSTIN JEFFERSON (1,756) needs 209 receiving yards to secure the single-season record (Pro Football Hall of Famer CALVIN JOHNSON, 1,964 in 2012).
- Tennessee punter RYAN STONEHOUSE (53.37) leads the NFL in gross punting average and has an opportunity to break the single-season NFL record (Pro Football Hall of Famer SAMMY BAUGH, 51.40 in 1940). The rookie record is 48.19 (MICHAEL DICKSON, 2018).
- Kansas City punter TOMMY TOWNSEND (45.50) leads the NFL in net punting average and has an opportunity to break the single-season NFL record (JOHNNY HEKKER, 46.00 in 2016).
- The PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (31) need six rushing touchdowns to break the single-season record, held by the 1962 Green Bay Packers (36).
- The Eagles (61) also need 12 sacks to break the single-season record, held by the 1984 Chicago Bears (72).
- As a league, the NFL is averaging 4.46 yards per carry and could break the single-season league record, 4.42, established in 2018.
8. UNDER-THE-RADAR STORYLINE: One of the NFL’s most consistent players, running back AUSTIN EKELER, has helped the LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (9-6) earn their first postseason berth since 2018. Ekeler now has two seasons with at least 10 rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns. The only other player in league history with more than one such season is Pro Football Hall of Famer MARSHALL FAULK, who also did it twice. Ekeler and the Chargers are the designated home team against the LOS ANGELES RAMS (5-10) on Sunday at SoFi Stadium (4:25 PM ET, CBS). Since the Chargers moved back to Los Angeles in 2017, the teams have met just once during the regular season, in 2018 at the Memorial Coliseum. They did not play in 1960, the only other year in which each club called Los Angeles its home. The Rams relocated to Los Angeles in 2016.
9. TREND TIME: The CAROLINA PANTHERS (6-9) are 3-1 since quarterback SAM DARNOLD became the starter on Thanksgiving weekend in Week 12. Since Thanksgiving, Darnold and the Panthers lead the NFL in passing yards per attempt (8.63) and have committed the fewest turnovers (one) in the league over that span. Carolina travels to TAMPA BAY (7-8) in a key NFC South matchup Sunday (1:00 PM ET, FOX). The Buccaneers will clinch the division with a win against the Panthers.
10. THIS WEEK IN NFL HISTORY: Dec. 28, 1958 (64 years ago) – In the NFL Championship Game against the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium, JOHNNY UNITAS leads the Baltimore Colts on a last-minute, game-tying drive to force the first sudden-death overtime in league history. After the Giants win the toss, Baltimore gets the ball back on a punt, setting up another Unitas masterpiece, a 13-play, 80-yard march that ends with a 1-yard touchdown plunge by ALAN AMECHE to give the Colts a 23-17 triumph. In what many have called “the Greatest Game Ever Played,” the contest features 17 future Hall of Famers and is widely credited with launching professional football’s popularity. Played in front of a national television audience, a novel concept in the late 1950s, the game goes off the air for a few minutes when an NBC employee accidentally unplugs a cable. …This week, the INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (4-10-1) travel to meet the NEW YORK GIANTS (8-6-1) on Sunday at MetLife Stadium (1:00 PM ET, CBS). With a win, the Giants would clinch their first postseason berth since 2016.
11. AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST: The PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (13-2) could become the first team since 1982, when the individual sack became an official statistic, to have four players reach double digits in sacks. HAASON REDDICK (career-high 14), JOSH SWEAT (career-high 11) and JAVON HARGRAVE (career-high 10) have already reached 10 sacks, while BRANDON GRAHAM (nine) is just one shy. The Eagles host the NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (6-9) on Sunday (1:00 PM ET, FOX). With a win, the Eagles would clinch both the NFC East division title and the only first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.