Minnesota Vikings (6-9) at Detroit Lions (5-10)
Kickoff: Sunday, noon.
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, John Lynch, Jennifer Hammond
Keys to the game: Rookie QB Joe Webb is expected to make his second start for the Vikings, and is coming off an impressive victory at Philadelphia in which he made plays with his arm and legs. More important, he avoided turnovers and let RB Adrian Peterson shoulder a heavy load. If Peterson gets off to a strong start, the Vikings can move the pocket for Webb and set up high percentage passes. The Lions hope WR Calvin Johnson (ankle) can play and provide QB Shaun Hill with a vertical threat. Protection for Hill is key with Minnesota sacking Michael Vick six times Tuesday.
Fast facts: Brandon Pettigrew has set the Lions' single-season franchise records for tight ends with 68 catches for 703 yards. ... Minnesota has won 22 of the past 25 meetings.
Inside the Vikings
The Vikings will end a crazy and mostly disappointing season by returning to Detroit on Sunday to face the Lions at Ford Field.
The Vikings' last game in the building came on Dec. 13, when they lost 21-3 to the New York Giants a day after the roof of the Metrodome collapsed.
That was the most bizarre event in a season that has been filled with them.
This has included everything from Brett Favre's late arrival after three teammates were dispatched to convince him to return in mid-August, to the trade for Randy Moss that ended shortly thereafter with the release of the wide receiver, to the decision to fire Brad Childress after a 28-point loss to the Green Bay Packers.
And remember, the Vikings were a team that entered this season coming off an appearance in the NFC Championship Game and with the expectation that they could make a legitimate run to the Super Bowl.
Now the Vikings (6-9) simply will be hoping to stay out of last place in the NFC North. Minnesota has not finished in last since it went 6-10 in 1990 and the last time Minnesota sat alone in last place was 1984 when it was 3-13 under Les Steckel.
If the Lions beat the Vikings on Sunday both teams will be 6-10 but Detroit will have a better record in the NFC North.
While many with the Vikings' organization will be happy to see the season end, team executives will have plenty of work ahead of them. The Vikings, and every other franchise in the NFL, face uncertainty over the soon-to-expire Collective Bargaining Agreement.
That could impact how the team does business going forward for the short term, including whether owner Zygi Wilf looks outside the organization for a new coach or even someone to run the entire football operation.
Leslie Frazier took over for Childress on Dec. 22 as the interim coach and has handled himself very well, leading Minnesota to a 3-2 record. That includes an upset victory Tuesday over Philadelphia after the game was postponed two days because of snow.
It's known that Wilf likes Frazier and there is always a chance that the interim label could simply be removed from Frazier's title in the days after the Lions game.
Wilf also is going to have to make a decision about Rick Spielman, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel. Spielman could be in line for a promotion and if that happens he might decide on the coach.
Wilf also could decide to go in a different direction in this area. Wilf has yet to speak publicly about his plans so until he does there will be plenty of mystery about how he will approach the situation.
Inside the Lions
It's been a season of baby steps for the Lions. They have been competitive. They have ended long losing streaks within the division and on the road. They have won three straight games heading into the season-finale Sunday.
And, what do you know, they may have even garnered a positive reputation among their peers.
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen has never bothered to hide his contempt for the Lions. He has accused them in the past, specifically right tackle Gosder Cherilus, of taking cheap shots at him. But on Thursday, when he was asked if he agreed with Jets linebacker Bart Scott and others who have called the Lions a dirty team, he said:
"Nah, I wouldn't say they are a dirty team. They play hard. Honestly, they are a scrappy team. I'd say that about them, absolutely. They are a scrappy team. They are going to give it all they've got and a little extra.
"You go into a game against Detroit and you know you are in for a fist fight. I think that's a cool reputation to have. It's better than being known as a soft team or a pushover team."
The Lions, in the absence of a winning season or a playoff berth, will certainly take it.
"That's the kind of stuff we can control," said center Dominic Raiola, who turned 32 Thursday. "It's like (receiver) Nate Burleson said, we control our stamp on everything and our stamp is our film.
"You play to win and to be playing in January, but you also play for respect amongst your peers. That is part of the process. We're trying to be back in the league and not be seen as an awful team, a team that can be overlooked."
When told of Allen's comments, Lions coach Jim Schwartz joked that he hoped there weren't going to be any fist fights on Sunday, but he did seem to appreciate the sentiments.
"We don't want to be known as anything other than a team that plays hard, physical football," he said. "They are the same way and when you see somebody else playing that way you have respect for them. We have a lot of respect for Jared Allen and for the things that defense has done.
"But it's more about this being a division game. You play each other twice a year. We just played Miami and we won't see them again for three years. It's hard to carry anything over. But when you play a team twice a year, you think about them all the time. It's just going to accentuate anything that goes on."
And if there is any extra chatter on the field or if the intensity is a bit off the charts for a season-finale against two non-playoff teams Sunday, all the better.
"It doesn't say anything about what will happen next year," Raiola said, "but it does say the Lions are kind of turning that corner."
Carolina Panthers (2-13) at Atlanta Falcons (12-3)
At stake: If the Falcons win, they'll clinch homefield throughout the NFC playoffs.
Kickoff: Sunday, noon.
TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Charles Davis, Jamie Maggio
Keys to the game: Panthers rookie QB Jimmy Clausen hasn't thrown for more than 195 yards in nine starts, and is coming off a 72-yard outing at Pittsburgh. Atlanta doesn't pose quite the same challenge as the Steelers' 3-4, but the Falcons will play downhill in attacking RB Jonathan Stewart and daring Clausen to beat man coverage. Unfortunately for Carolina, the Falcons need to win to secure the division title and home-field advantage and will come out looking to put the game away early. Atlanta jumped to a 17-0 lead and then swarmed defensively in a 31-10 Week 14 win at Carolina.
Fast facts: The Panthers are the only winless team on the road this season. ... Falcons QB Matt Ryan has 32 victories, one shy of Dan Marino's NFL record for the most by a quarterback through his first three seasons.
Inside the Falcons
The Falcons just played the Carolina Panthers three weeks ago.
However, the NFC South title and the No. 1 seed for the playoffs will be on the line in the rematch on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead and then cruised on in for a 31-10 victory.
The Panthers have since won their second game, while still securing the top spot for the 2011 NFL draft.
The Panthers' defense, which is lead by linebacker Jon Beason and defensive end Charles Johnson, is still playing pretty hard.
"I've watched them on tape these last three games and the situation they are in, they are still playing with quite a high effort level," Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. "They are taking the ball away. They have 10 turnovers in the last five games. They are one of the top 10 teams in takeaways so we have to be very good with the ball."
The Falcons had two costly fumbles against New Orleans last Monday. Michael Turner fumbled on the 1-yard line and center Todd McClure skipped a shotgun snap back to Matt Ryan that was recovered by New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
The offense is coming off its least productive game of the season in which the Falcons were held to 215 yards and scored just one touchdown. They were a miserable 25 percent (3 of 12) on third downs.
All of the key weapons -- wide receiver Roddy White, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Michael Turner -- were held in check. Wide receiver Michael Jenkins stepped up at times, but the other weapons did not.
Look for the Falcons to attempt to get the running game rolling as they head into the playoffs. The Panthers are ranked 23rd against the run while giving up 125.5 yards per game.
"The guys are just unselfish," Mularkey said. "There is never any bickering about it. There's never anybody in Matt's ear about waiting the ball."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6) at New Orleans Saints (11-4)
At stake: Tampa Bay needs to win to keep its playoff hopes alive. The Saints, the fifth seed as it stands, could be the No. 1 with a victory and the Falcons getting upset by woeful Carolina.
Kickoff: Sunday, noon.
TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Charissa Thompson
Keys to the game: The Bucs need a win and plenty of help to keep their season alive, but keep chugging along despite a constant flow of injuries to key players. The latest is WR Arrelious Benn (knee), robbing QB Josh Freeman of his second most productive wideout. Like they did against Atlanta's Michael Turner (48 rushing yards) on Monday night, the Saints will focus on RB LeGarrette Blount and try to take away WR Mike Williams downfield. New Orleans racked up 475 yards in a 31-6 win in Tampa Week 6. Look for coach Sean Payton to get the ground game going more after QB Drew Brees was blitzed relentlessly Monday night and with the Saints likely to be without WR Marques Colston (knee).
Fast facts: The Bucs have eight starters on injured reserve. ... Brees is the first player in NFL history with 400-plus completions in three consecutive seasons.
Inside the Buccaneers
The Bucs need some help to reach the playoffs, but nobody would've believed that a winning season and a chance at the postseason in Week 17 was possible after Raheem Morris' first season ended with his team at 3-13.
But Tampa Bay players still aren't satisfied.
"It sucks that we're in the position we're in," Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman said. "You have to get some help. You want to be in the position where you have clinched and now you are playing for home-field advantage. Unfortunately, there were some games earlier in the year that we really should have won, but we weren't able to close it out.
"You look at the Detroit game. We couldn't punch it in in the red zone. The Atlanta game, we got the ball back and couldn't score. We still have a chance. It's a slim chance, but it's a chance. We won't have a chance if we can't take care of business this Sunday."
Linebacker Adam Hayward said the Bucs want to complete their Race for 10 (wins) and are only focused on the Saints.
"All we know is that we can control this game," Hayward said. "We just need to take the game. It's important. We began our playoff run last week, and every game we play is a playoff game. If we win, like we should do, well that's the only thing we can control. After that it's up to however else things fall out."
Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs still is a possibility for the Saints, who already have punched their ticket for the postseason.
In other words, there's no chance the Saints will rest their starters.
Coach Sean Payton says his team will go all out to get their 12th win in Sunday's game against Tampa Bay, regardless of whether the Atlanta Falcons take a big lead on Carolina and appear to be clinching the division.
New Orleans can win the NFC South - and become the No. 1 seed - if the Falcons fall to the 2-13 Panthers at the Georgia Dome. If Atlanta wins as expected, the Saints will be the No. 5 seed and on the road throughout the playoffs as a wildcard. Both games are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET.
"I was asked that question just a few minutes ago in our press conference and absolutely not," Payton said. "Our focus, with where we are as a team going into this last game of the regular season is strictly on doing everything we can to win this game and to get to 12 (wins). Clearly, as scores come up, the fans and everyone else pays attention. But that won't impact our approach one bit."
Inside the Saints
Quarterback Drew Brees may not have his top receiver for Sunday's regular-season finale with the Tampa Bay Bucs after wide receiver Marques Colston had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Tuesday.
Colston, who had a similar procedure on his left knee about a month before the start of training camp in July, was injured during Monday night's 17-14 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Colston, a five-year veteran, managed to get through the contest, however, and on Thursday coach Sean Payton said it appeared that no specific play caused the injury.
While not trying to diminish the injury, Payton said there's a chance Colston could play Sunday against the Bucs because the injury didn't appear to be significant. Colston tops the Saints with 84 catches and 1,023 receiving yards and also has seven touchdowns.
He had the procedure done Tuesday, the first of two straight off days for the Saints following their 17-14 win over the Falcons.
"There's not a specific play (where it happened), and honestly, I don't want to diminish the fact he had the scope," Payton said, "but they just cleaned up some loose bodies. So fortunately, it was encouraging and it was one of those decisions we made knowing it wasn't going to be significant."
Colston is listed as questionable for Sunday but said he could definitely play in the wild-card round next weekend. Because of Colston's injury, the Saints signed third-year wide receiver Adrian Arrington off their practice squad and put wide receiver/kick returner Courtney Roby on injured reserve.
Payton noted that Roby, who suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams on Dec. 12 but returned to practice last week, was put on IR because a roster spot was needed to add depth in case Colston can't go Sunday.
Dallas Cowboys (5-10) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-5)
At stake: Nothing, with the Eagles locked into the third seed. They would host the Packers next weekend of Green Bay qualifies. With nothing to play for, Michael Vick will not play with a knee bruise and should be well-rested for the playoffs.
Kickoff: Sunday, 3:15 p.m.
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
Keys to the game: As Week 17 games go, this won't likely become a classic, not after the Eagles laid an egg on Tuesday. To avoid burying his already-weary team, Eagles coach Andy Reid is unlikely to risk many of his first-team players. The Eagles can't change their playoff position and could opt to rest WR DeSean Jackson and select others along with Vick. Vick took many hits after failed blitz pickups the past two weeks and the Cowboys battered him in a 30-27 loss at home Dec. 12. Dallas follows the Vikings into Philadelphia possibly with a first-time starting quarterback of its own, Stephen McGee, with Jon Kitna (hip) ailing. The Eagles' poor red-zone defense and coverage breakdowns last week invite plenty of looks to TE Jason Witten.
Fast facts: Only Carolina (2-9) is worse than Dallas (3-8) in conference play this season. ... The Eagles have allowed 24-plus points in five consecutive games (3-2).
Inside the Eagles
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
One of the Eagles' biggest defensive concerns heading into the playoffs last season was the inability to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. A year later, that same concern is real.
The Eagles, who head into Sunday's final regular-season game against Dallas locked in as the NFC's No. 3 playoff seed after capturing their sixth division title in the last 10 years, have 37 sacks and are 10th in the league in sacks per pass play.
But they've got just 11 sacks in their last six games. They've only had more than three sacks in a game once the entire season.
"We've got to get to the quarterback on a consistent basis, whether it's from blitzing or from a four-man front," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said.
The Eagles have gotten just five sacks from their defensive ends in the last six games, including two in Tuesday night's 24-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
The team addressed the issue in the April draft, using its first-round pick on pass-rushing defensive end Brandon Graham. But Graham is out for the season with a torn ACL.
That has essentially starting left end Juqua Parker without any legitimate backup. Darryl Tapp, acquired in an offseason trade, can play there. But the Eagles mainly use him as an inside rusher in their nickel package.
The Eagles signed out-of-work former Pro Bowler Derrick Burgess three weeks ago, hoping he might be able to give Parker some relief. He finally got on the field Tuesday night for one play, was quickly removed and was released Thursday.
The Eagles replaced him with another out-of-work veteran who hadn't played a down this season, former Jacksonville Jaguar Bobby McCray.
Asked about why his team's sack numbers have dropped the second half of the season, McDermott said, "When you look at it from a pressure standpoint, the teams are getting the ball out. Any time you face a team that gets the ball out, you've got to make a decision whether you want to pressure or not. If you do pressure, you've got to have good coverage behind it. So those things go hand-in-hand really."
The problem is, the Eagles haven't had good coverage. They've given up a franchise-record 30 touchdown passes.
Starting right corner Ellis Hobbs is out for the season with a career-threatening neck injury. His replacement, Dimitri Patterson, gave up three touchdown passes against the Giants two weeks ago and was benched in the second half Tuesday night after picking up two penalties on one drive. Middle linebacker Jamar Chaney and free safety Kurt Coleman both are rookies who were thrust into starting roles because of injuries.
The fact that he's got such a young defense has limited the amount of blitzing McDermott can do.
"I come from Jim Johnson's system," he said. "With so many new players, you can't just say, 'Hey, we've always run this blitz - (so) run this blitz,' because those players don't know those blitzes. There's a period of acclimation that comes into play.
"And the execution. It's great to come up with all of these different schemes and everything. But what can these players execute? A lot of these players are in their first games in the NFL. If you had veteran players, you can bank on them being comfortable in an NFL game and then they can execute whatever you draw up."
New York Giants (9-6) at Washington Redskins (6-9)
At stake: The Giants can get into the playoffs with a win and a Packers loss.
Kickoff: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Tim Ryan, Laura Okmin
Keys to the game: The Giants are coming off a six-turnover game and have been their own worst enemy in consecutive losses. RBs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw will be given an opportunity to attack a run defense allowing 130.6 yards per game. QB Eli Manning has thrown a league-high 24 interceptions and while the Redskins have the league's 31st-ranked pass defense, he must avoid poor decisions under pressure. Redskins QB Rex Grossman isn't putting up big numbers, but he is working efficiently along with a ground game that has stabilized with the return of RB Ryan Torain.
Fast facts: The Giants are 1-3 this season when Manning throws for 300-plus yards. ... The Redskins' past three games have been decided by a combined seven points.
Inside the Giants
Giants safety Antrel Rolle has never been shy when it comes to speaking his mind. Yet, like so many of his coaches and teammates have had to do lately, the brash Giants defender, who has repeatedly opined that the Giants are a playoff team, was left searching for answers to a season that over the last two weeks, has gone astray.
"Honestly it's not playing consistent football," he said when asked what's been the biggest factor in the Giants' two-week tailspin. "The talent here is out of the roof. I don't know what has taken place, but we need to ground ourselves and get back to playing dominant, physical football which is something we've done throughout the season but we've failed to do the last two weeks."
Rolle, one of four Giants voted to the Pro Bowl, said he spent a lot of time earlier this week reflecting on ways to improve his game to help fix what's wrong with the defense.
"I just don't feel like we've been clicking at all, and the desire and the passion just seems like it's been escaping us a little bit," he said. "I know guys want it -- we practice good and we practice hard. Everyone is mentally ready for it, but for some reason, it hasn't been transferring to the field."
Rolle was then quick to clarify that the lack of desire hasn't been coming from anyone in particular, but added that what's particularly frustrating is that the Giants have the talent and have shown that they can be dominating before, yet that hasn't been there of late.
Because of that two-game slide, the Giants now find themselves not only needing to win this weekend against Washington, but also having to rely on the Chicago Bears to help them get into the playoffs.
"It's devastating," Rolle said of the Giants' predicament. "But at the same time, no one put us in this position but us, so we can't fault anyone but ourselves. We had it in the palm of our hands, but we didn't take advantage of the opportunity so now we have to leave it in the hands of someone else, which is something in this league you never, ever want to do."
Despite the issues they've had, Rolle is confident that the Giants will regroup and finish the regular season strong.
"We're going to find our way back," he said. "No one's hanging their heads. We're not discouraged by anything going on right now. We're going to come and play with a lot of pride on Sunday."
St. Louis Rams (7-8) at Seattle Seahawks (6-9)
At stake: The winner earns the NFC West title.
Kickoff: Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Andrea Kremer
Keys to the game: QB Sam Bradford is coming off his third game of the season with a 100-plus passer rating and has already proven to Seattle that he can hurt defenses that overplay to stop RB Steven Jackson. But this winner-takes-all game for the NFC West title will also be played in primetime at Qwest Field, which is known as one of the league's loudest venues and will test the ability of a young Rams offense to avoid pre-snap penalties and get off the ball quickly.
QB Matt Hasselbeck (hip) will be a game-time decision, and Charlie Whitehurst practiced with the first team all week. But considering Seattle has the league's 32nd-ranked ground game, Hasselbeck or Whitehurst will have to move the ball through the air. While Hasselbeck takes more shots downfield, Whitehurst does bring more mobility behind a shaky offensive line.
Fast facts: Seattle has won the past five meetings at home by an average of 19.2 points. ... Bradford has set an NFL rookie record with 335 completions. ... The Seahawks have been outscored by 58 points during their three-game losing streak.
Inside the Rams
When wide receiver Danario Alexander was signed late in training camp, the Rams' intentions were simple: Bring him along slowly, preferably spending the entire season on the practice squad, and then get him really ready to play in 2011.
After all, Alexander had three ACL surgeries on his left knee during his collegiate career at Missouri, and he then suffered a different injury to the same knee last January at the Senior Bowl. He wasn't able to run until early July.
But Alexander's dogged determination and the Rams' situation at receiver changed dramatically when Mark Clayton suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 10 at Detroit. Two days later, Alexander was signed to the active roster from the practice squad. No one could predict what impact he would have on the offense.
So it was that five days after being signed, Alexander caught four passes for 72 yards and a 38-yard touchdown in the first quarter that gave the Rams a 10-0 lead and propelled them to a 20-17 victory over San Diego. He was on the field for 17 of the team's 66 offensive plays.
Alexander missed three games after having a minor procedure done on his left knee Oct. 29, and since coming back has again had a major hand in the team's important wins.
At Denver on Nov. 28, in what turned out to be the Rams' first road victory this season, Alexander had four catches for 95 yards, including a 45-yard play. Sunday against San Francisco, his workload increased to 43 plays, and Alexander had six receptions for 99 yards with a 46-yard reception that led to the Rams' final touchdown in a 25-17 win.
In three of the team's seven wins, Alexander has 14 catches for 266 yards (19.0-yard average) and those three plays of 38 yards or more. He has three of the team's six longest pass plays of the season. In Alexander's other four games, the Rams are 1-3, and he has just three receptions for 26 yards.
When asked how Alexander's presence helps the offense, quarterback Sam Bradford said, "I think you guys see it. When he's out there, he just gives us the ability to stretch the field a little bit more. It seems like when he's showed up and had big games for us, we've been able to create some explosive plays with him, and I think that's one of the big reasons that our offense seems to click a little bit better when he's on."
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Alexander, "He's got downfield stuff. He's got the ability to make catches with people around him. They like him, you can tell. He's kind of caught on and obviously they believe in him. So that just makes them that much more of a threat. They've got some nice guys to go to already, but he's obviously jumped up there and we've got some problems with him."
With one game left in the regular season and the division title on the line Sunday night, Alexander wants the team to throw caution to the wind.
After Sunday's performance, coach Steve Spagnuolo was asked about Alexander having the ability to play more. He said, "There's a thought process to that. Again, there are other things to consider with Danario in terms of health. ... Sometimes with all these guys, because we're got some competitors here, you have to protect them from themselves. So we're going to be careful."
Said Alexander, "I want to be in there every play. I feel like I can play at a high level, and I feel this is a great opportunity to make some plays. I just go out and work every week.
"The coaches do a good job of trying to come up with different plays. They were being kind of cautious with me, giving 20-30 plays. ... It felt good to get out there, play in and play out."
Said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, "We feel good when he's on the field. He's as healthy now as we've seen him."
Inside the Seahawks
Whitehurst appears the favorite to get his second career start against St. Louis in a nationally televised game on Sunday for the NFC West division crown and a home playoff game.
No pressure, right?
"They really get after it," Whitehurst said about the Rams' defense. "They play hard and put pressure on you as an offense. So we're going to have to be on top of it. And we'll try to run it, try to throw it and score points."
Whitehurst said having a full week of practice to work with the first unit has helped him get ready this week should he start.
"That's why you practice," joked Whitehurst. "It's important, and I feel better out there every day."
Whitehurst also evaluated his performance so far this season, which has been nothing to brag about. Whitehurst has thrown for 315 yards, completed 55.6 percent of his passes and has one touchdown and three interceptions in spot duty.
"When you go in there you expect to play well, and play to a very high level," he said. "I think there's times I have done that, and times I haven't. And I know it takes time. This is a competitive league, but you want to be good. And you want to be good now. And I think I could have played better this year, but I've got another opportunity. And I want to go out there and play well."
Seattle offensive players like running back Justin Forsett understand that they have to play well in order to take some pressure off of Whitehurst, so look for the Seahawks to try and get the running game going against St. Louis.
"The playbook is open for him just like it is for Matt (Hasselbeck), so it's no different," Forsett said. "In a game of this magnitude you definitely have to be able to run the ball, so I think it would be great for us to go out there and get the running game going, and make him feel more comfortable back there. When we're producing, it just lights a spark for everybody."
Seahawks offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said that Whitehurst has looked good in practice so far, and it helps that he's getting first-unit reps this week in anticipation of playing on Sunday.
"He's playing well right now," Bates said. "He's throwing the ball hard. He's moving around in the pocket. The tough thing about our offense is if you're the starting quarterback you get every rep, and that's what I've always believed. That's what we did in Tampa, it's what we did in Denver, New York. ... and the backup quarterback doesn't really get any reps - it has to be mental reps."