If the NFL had its way, every team would enter the final week of the regular season with a record of 8-7 or 7-8. In most seasons, they get close enough to that. There are typically numerous penultimate wild card games that force the scheduling of games to suit the same teams fighting for the same spots – early games resolve some playoff battles, the late-afternoon games would be clumped to make sure teams played hard and the Sunday night game would be the game with the most importance in terms of a division title and potentially a one-or-done scenario.
2016 has brought very little of that. The only questions for the most part have already been decided. The question marks come with seedings, not being on the outside looking in.
Of the 12 teams that will be whittled down to one champion, 10 of them are already in the playoffs. The six AFC teams are already known. Four of the six NFC teams have been decided already. Technically, it’s seven because either the Packers or the Lions have to earn the NFC North title spot.
So, as we enter the playoffs, Week 17, in many ways, may end up being tantamount to the fourth preseason game.
In the AFC, the Steelers and Texans are locked in as the 3 and 4 seeds, New England appears to be a lock as the No. 1 seed and the biggest change that could happen is Kansas City replaces Oakland as the No. 2 seed if the Chiefs win and the Raiders lose. In the NFC, Dallas has already secured the No. 1 seed, the Giants are the top wild card and both Atlanta and Seattle have clinched division titles. All that remains to be decided is the NFC North champion and the other wild card team, which is a battle between four teams fighting for two spots – Detroit, Green Bay, Washington and Tampa Bay.
As a result, half the games played Sunday will have absolutely no bearing on the playoffs, which will make for interesting decisions as to who plays and who doesn’t on Sunday. We’ve already heard that Buffalo is going to make quarterback Tyrod Taylor a healthy scratch because they don’t want to risk him getting hurt and the Bills potentially being on the hook to guarantee the $30.5 million that would kick in on his contract. The Steelers have already said that Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown won’t be playing because they want to rest them for their playoff game a week later.
For the teams that still have something to fight for, Week 17 is a time where the playoffs start early. For the 21 teams that won’t be impacted by the results of their games, it’s a strange time where competitive balance doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much.
Teams that have young players who have been part-time performers may give them a much longer audition Sunday so they can get tape on them in live-action situations. The Vikings say they won't be one of those teams. On the flip side, for teams that have injured veteran players, there will likely be the willingness to not risk further injuries to those players under contract.
The NFL prides itself on competitive balance and having the ability for teams to go from worst to first in their division and vice versa in a single season. But, in the week that becomes the end of the line for 20 of the league’s 32 teams, the lack of games having meaning outside of the individual fan bases and coaches and front offices means Week 17 could be the most disappointing week for fans since Week 4 of the preseason.
For those with something to fight for, the games will be intense. For the majority that don’t, you have no clue what to expect from them Sunday – which could produce dog games that are never good for the NFL.