Updated, Jan. 1 @ 12:45 p.m.Previously updated, Dec. 31 @ 8:00 p.m.
Well, here we are. Our trek together began in the dog days of Summer: Aug. 3. The Pulpit opened for business, preaching to a lonely choir. Our congregation has grown, but many a heathen still reside in Pittsburgh, and in Cincinnati, and in Indianapolis, and in Denver. Yea, we're still approaching the depths of Winter. And in the Third Millennium, when the flakes are down, there has been the One true Team.
But before we can conduct our pilgrimage to the Promised Land, there remains one last bit of business to attend to, this matter of Week 17, the last in line, the most unpredictable of the predictable. It's unpredictable because there's no telling how teams will approach their games. Teams that have playoff seeds locked may half-step through this last weekend. Teams that are in the Reggie Bush sweeps may or may not put in their best efforts to win. All the teams in the middle that have nothing to play for may play like they have nothing to play for. You just won't know until gametime, and sometimes even then.Saturday, Dec. 31
Denver (12-3) at San Diego (9-6), 4:30 p.m.
Here's exactly what I'm talking about. Denver has already locked up a first-round bye and cannot gain home field advantage over Indianapolis, so this game doesn't mean much
. San Diego has been eliminated from the playoffs, so this game hardly means anything
. So will either team risk injury to their key players? Will either team put up a legitimate fight if the other team starts to impose its will? Denver will enter the playoffs on a 4-game winning streak if San Diego folds. Marty Schottenheimer teams usually don't fold until they get in
the playoffs. (No, no. That's not right. Put down the flamethrowers, Charger fans.) Actually, I think San Diego plays them tough, and in a close game entering the second half, Denver packs up, content with the No. 2 seed, and Schotties' boys win going away.
N.Y. Giants (10-5) at Oakland (4-11), 8 p.m.
New York needs a win to secure the NFC East and a first-round home game next week, so this game means something
to them. It means nothing except possibly Norv Turner's job to Oakland. The Black and Silver are in shambles. I think you'll see a new coach there next year. I bet Al Davis was wishing Baltimore would fire Brian Billick, and then they'd bring in Terrell Owens. Whatever. I doubt Oakland is going to do Turner any favors, and since they're all getting paid anyway ...
, 42-13.Sunday, Jan. 1
Arizona (5-10) at Indianapolis (13-2), 1 p.m.
Indy's defense is a little banked up. Star wideout Marvin Harrison is going to be wearing some kind of cast on his hand with a fractured bone. The game is meaningless in so many ways. Arizona has no reason even to show up. Marc Bulger is out, so Cade McCown will be calling signals. Indy will probably want to support coach Tony Dungy in the first game after his son's funeral, win this last home game and not enter the playoffs on an 0-3 run.
Baltimore (6-9) at Cleveland (5-10), 1 p.m.
Baltimore has been playing better than Cleveland as of late. Baltimore's owner already said he expects Billick back next season. The Cleveland fans may want this one more than the team. However, I think Romeo Crennel can convince his players that they're auditioning for their jobs, so they might show up to play. The only other thing possibly at stake is draft sequence and maybe a couple players' performance bonuses. No one else really cares.
Buffalo (5-10) at N.Y. Jets (3-12), 1 p.m.
Please, make it stop. New York (the state) ends up with only 1 of 3 winning teams. The green team has a shot at a really good draft pick, and I doubt either of these teams will alter that.
Carolina (10-5) at Atlanta (8-7), 1 p.m.
This one means a lot to Carolina. Win and they're in. It means a lot to Atlanta too. They can play spoiler to a division rival and regain a little pride. They're at home, and the fans will want revenge. Michael Vick is still trying fruitlessly to prove he's a legitimate quarterback. Carolina, a preseason favorite of many a talking head to win the Super Bowl, is in the verge of elimination. Desperation is a wonderful motivating factor.
Cincinnati (11-4) at Kansas City (9-6), 1 p.m.
This is the game of the week, if only for the fact that both teams have something riding on it. Cincinnati has less riding on it -- the difference between the No. 3 and No. 4 seed in the AFC. Kansas City is still hanging on to thin hopes that they beat Cincy and Pittsburgh loses to lowly Detroit. There are reports that KC coach Dick Vermeil will retire at the end of the season, which could be today. Does Kansas City have the horses to beat Cincy? Yes. Do they have the motivation to win a big one for Vermil? Yes. Can Cincy hold off Larry Johnson? No. Can they win in December in Arrowhead? No. Do they keep the No. 3 seed? No.
Detroit (5-10) at Pittsburgh (10-5), 1 p.m.
Does Kansas City make the playoffs? No.
Miami (8-7) at New England (10-5), 1 p.m.
On NFL Countdown, Steve Young noted that San Diego followed the blueprint laid out by New England how to pressure Peyton Manning and beat Indy -- not that San Diego designed the blueprint. Nice job, Steve.
New Orleans (3-12) at Tampa Bay (10-5), 1 p.m.
Tampa needs to win and they're at home. New Orleans just wants to go home, finally, wherever that is. It's the end to a horrible, heroic, empathetic season. By the way, Tampa already clinched a playoff spot, but a win earns the division crown and a home playoff game.
Seattle (13-2) at Green Bay (3-12), 1 p.m.
The only reason Seattle has reason to risk anyone is to get Shaun Alexander the touchdown record. Coach Mike Holmgren said the starters will be replaced "liberally," whatever that means. He also said he wants Alexander get the record. Alexander is now less than 50 yards behind
Tiki Barber for the season rushing title, after Barber reeled off another 203 yards last night against Oakland. Green Bay is better off staying put in the race for the No. 1 draft pick, but will they actually try to win for some reason? Can they even beat a really good team that's not trying?
Houston (2-13) at San Francisco (3-12), 4:05 p.m.
Next to the Cincy-KC matchup, this is probably the most intriguing game of the day because of the draft implications. Can Houston win a game they don't want to on the road? Can San Francisco play bad enough to lose at home to such a miserable team? As Homer would say, "They're the worst sucks of the suckiest sucks that ever sucked." Reminiscent of the New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Colts "Stuper Bowl" of the 1981.
Tennessee (4-11) at Jacksonville (11-4), 4:05 p.m.
Meaningless game for everyone. Byron Leftwich won't be playing, but David Garrard is 3-1 as a starter in relief. Steve McNair is not playing either. Has Tennessee done enough to save Jeff Fischer's job? Or is he saved by Tennessee's disastrous salary-cap problems?
Chicago (11-4) at Minnesota (8-7), 4:15 p.m.
You know what's funny? Minnesota made the playoffs last year with an 8-8 record. If they beat Chicago today in a meaningless game, they could end up 9-7 and miss the playoffs. That's funny, eh, Mike Tice? That would be a fitting end to this ludicrous season. I still say momentum is important, but I have a feeling Chicago, who has a boatload of injuries already, may not even put in an effort, which is why they'll lose their first playoff game and prove that Lovie Smith is not
the coach of the year, even though he'll win, much like Dick Jauron did with the Bears a couple years ago.
Washington (9-6) at Philadelphia (6-9), 4:15 p.m.
Win-and-in Washington should be able to beat a shambles of a team that lost to Arizona last week.
St. Louis (5-10) at Dallas (9-6), 8:30 p.m.
If Washington and Carolina win, which they should, it should be over for Dallas by the time this game starts. Still, they're playing St. Louis. Dallas could be 10-6 and out of the playoffs. You know, I remember when 8-8 was playoff contending in this conference.