3-and-out: Critical matchups for playoffs

Three Week 17 matchups have significant NFL playoff ramifications on Sunday.

New York Jets (10-5) at Buffalo Bills (7-8)

Win and they’re in. It’s that simple for the New York Jets. If they beat the Buffalo Bills, the Jets will be in the playoffs. They can also get in with a loss by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but, of course, they’d much rather earn it and enter the postseason with momentum.

The Bills won the last meeting on Nov. 12, 22-17, with LeSean McCoy running for 112 yards and safety Duke Williams taking a 19-yard fumble return for a touchdown, but the Jets are coming off an impressive 26-20 overtime win over the New England Patriots and McCoy isn’t expected to play this time around.

Ryan Fitzpatrick has turned in a solid season at quarterback and needs 276 yards to crack 4,000 for the season. He’s been on a roll lately, winning his last five starts while passing for 1,525 yards with 13 touchdowns and only one interception for a 106.5 rating. He needs one more touchdown pass to set the franchise’s single-season record at 30 and needs 284 yards passing to surpass Joe Namath’s 4,007-yard franchise record.

Fitzpatrick has gotten great support from receiver Brandon Marshall, who already set the Jets record last week with his 101st catch of the season and now has 1,376 yards, third in the AFC, along with 13 touchdowns, also third in the conference. Chris Ivory helps balance the attack with 989 yards, second in the AFC, and needs just 11 yards for his first 1,000-yard season.

The Bills counter with Tyrod Taylor, who is shooting to become the second Bills quarterback to post a single-season rating above 100. He’s currently at 100.7, with only Jim Kelly’s 101.2 mark from 1990 in front of him. Unlike Fitzpatrick, Taylor also offers a legitimate running threat, leading AFC quarterbacks with 517 yards rushing, the most by any Bills quarterback in a season.

Like Fitzpatrick, Taylor is getting good support from his running backs. McCoy is averaging 108 scrimmage yards in his past eight games, but without him the Bills will rely on Karlos Williams, who has eight touchdowns in his 10 games. Receiver Sammy Watkins is also on a heater, catching 24 passes for 543 yards and six touchdowns in his last five games.

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6) at Cleveland Browns (3-12)

The Steelers had a chance to take care of business last week and failed against the depleted Baltimore Ravens in a 20-17 loss. That means they will need help from Bills. If Buffalo beats the Jets and the Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh is in the playoffs once again.

In November, the Steelers dismantled the Browns, 30-9, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 379 yards and three touchdowns and Antonio Brown catching 10 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. However, the last time they squared off in Cleveland, the Browns came away with a 31-10 win in 2014.

While Roethlisberger is having only an average season by his standards (3,589 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions), he still leads the NFL with six games of 350 yards or more.

Brown is still one of the best receivers in the league. He leads the AFC with 123 catches and 1,647 yards, adding nine touchdowns, and in his past seven games has 71 catches for 929 yards and touchdowns. That’s helped contribute to the Steelers have the top-ranked offense in the AFC with 396 yards a game.

Meanwhile, Johnny Manziel was trying to establish himself as the future in Cleveland, but he isn’t expected to play because of a concussion. In his past eight games, he had 1,318 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions while rushing for 195 yards, including 108 yards on 11 attempts last week. His injury opens up opportunity for Austin Davis, who will have to rely on favored target Gary Barnidge, who is fourth among NFL tight ends with nine touchdowns and 977 yards receiver.

Minnesota Vikings (10-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-5)

Only one other matchup in Week 17 pits two playoff teams against each other – Arizona and Seattle – but that’s not for the division title. The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers will determine the NFC North winner and which team gets a home playoff game and which is either the No. 5 or No. 6 seed. If Green Bay loses, it would be the No. 5 seed. If the Vikings lose, they would be the No. 5 seed if Arizona beats the Seahawks or would be the No. 6 seed if Seattle wins.

The Vikings haven’t fared well against the Packers lately. In their last 12 meetings, the Packers hold a 10-1-1 domination over Minnesota and Mike Zimmer is 0-3 against Green Bay since taking over as head coach of the Vikings. Last time, it was a 30-13 rout that embarrassed the Vikings in front of their home crowd, as Aaron Rodgers threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns and James Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown.

Despite Rodgers’ success against the Vikings, this hasn’t been his finest season. He has 3,530 yards, 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions for a 93.7 rating. But he has also taken 41 sacks on the season and has passer ratings below 70 in three of his last five games.

As dangerous as Rodgers is, the Vikings are also acutely aware of the success Eddie Lacy has had against them. In five meetings against Minnesota, Lacy has rushed for 534 yards and five touchdowns, including a 100-yard performance in the November outing. Without Jordy Nelson stretching the field, Jones and Randall Cobb have mostly split the receiving production. Cobb has 73 catches for 792 yards and six touchdowns and Jones has 46 catches for 788 yards and eight touchdowns.

As crazy as it sounds, Teddy Bridgewater has been better than Rodgers of late. In his past three games, Bridgewater has a 123.2 passer rating with six touchdowns and no interceptions.

The last time they faced each other, the Vikings had a season-high 110 yards in penalties with an offense that isn’t built to overcome bad down and distances, and Adrian Peterson, who averages 112 yards per game against the Packers, was held to 45 yards. If the Vikings want to end the Packers’ four-year reign of winning the NFC North, the penalties and Peterson will have to be better.


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