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Week 17 Power Rankings

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1. Patriots (13-2; last week No. 1): Just like last year, the Patriots need to beat the Dolphins to nail down the No. 1 seed. Unlike last year, the Patriots hope to actually win this one.

2. Cowboys (13-2; No. 2): Yes, Dez Bryant has thrown more touchdown passes this year than Tony Romo.

3. Chiefs (11-4; No. 5): Yes, Dontari Poe has thrown more touchdown passes this year than Tony Romo.

4. Steelers (10-5; No. 9): If the Steelers win the Super Bowl, maybe Terry Bradshaw should get a ring.

5. Giants (10-5; No. 3): On Thursday night, Eli Manning was dressed like Phil Simms. And, unfortunately, played like eem.

6. Raiders (12-3; No. 4): “I like quarterbacks who don’t break their legs,” a certain politician possibly would say if commenting on whether Derek Carr is the MVP.

7. Falcons (10-5; No. 8): In the Chiefs, the AFC has a playoff team no one pays much attention to. In the NFC, that team is the Falcons.

8. Dolphins (10-5; No. 10): In the same year that Dak Prescott Drew Bledsoe’d Tony Romo, maybe Matt Moore will Romo Ryan Tannehill.

9. Packers (9-6; No. 14): They’ll be the most dangerous team in the NFC playoff field, if they can avoid losing at Lambeau Field to the Giants in the postseason for the third time in 10 years.

10. Seahawks (9-5-1; No. 6): When the losses over the last five games outnumber the wins, it’s hard to call any defeat an aberration.

11. Lions (9-6; No. 7): With only one win against a team with a non-losing record and a blowout loss against a Dallas team with nothing to play for, it’s possible that the Lions are should be renamed the Lyin’s.

12. Texans (9-6; No. 16): Another year, another ugly loss coming at home in the wild-card round.

13. Washington (8-6-1; No. 17): For the team, the playoffs are riding on Sunday’s game against the Giants. For the quarterback, millions are riding on it.

14. Titans (8-7; No. 11): Before trashing the AFC South, consider this — the Titans are 1-4 in the division this year and 7-3 outside of it.

15. Buccaneers (8-7; No. 12): The Bucs are still alive, but they have a better chance of catching lightning in a milk bottle in one hand and holding the winning Powerball ticket in the other.

16. Broncos (8-7; No. 13): Maybe Peyton Manning will finally get the credit he deserves for last year’s Super Bowl run.

17. Ravens (8-7; No. 15): Making their playoff exit even more painful is the fact that the Ravens could have made it to the Super Bowl.

18. Saints (7-8; No. 22): The role of spoiler is suiting them well; they can next knock the Falcons out of the No. 2 seed.

19. Colts (7-8; No. 18): Chuck Pagano deserves full responsibility for another lost season only if he also has been secretly working as the team’s G.M.

20. Vikings (7-8; No. 19): The mutiny-unless-it-wasn’t that lasted a full half unless it didn’t becomes one of the weirdest moments in one of the weirdest seasons the Vikings have ever had.

21. Eagles (6-9; No. 25): Carson Wentz has a degree of elusiveness and escapability that we’ve rarely seen at the quarterback position. If his passing skills ever match that, he’ll be headed for the Hall of Fame.

22. Cardinals (6-8-1; No. 24): How bad would this team be if it didn’t have David Johnson?

23. Bills (7-8; No. 20): The over-under on ugly sniping and unsavory leaks in the firing of Rex and Rob Ryan is Thursday at 1:30 p.m. ET.

24. Panthers (6-9; No. 21): Write it down now — the Panthers will be back in contention for a Super Bowl next season.

25. Bengals (5-9-1; No. 23): Write it down now — the Bengals will be back in contention to lose in the wild-card round next season.

26. Jaguars (3-12; No. 30): Blake Bortles is on notice, which coincidentally caused him to have one of the best games of his career.

27. Chargers (5-10; No. 26): Losing to the Browns is the final nail in a coffin that was already nailed shut.

28. Jets (4-11; No. 27): At least they don’t have to worry about losing to Rex Ryan in Week 17 again.

29. Bears (3-12; No. 29): Counting the days until Jim Harbaugh is the coach.

30. 49ers (2-13; No. 31): Counting the days since Jim Harbaugh was the coach.

31. Browns (1-14; No. 32): Counting the days since Jim Harbaugh nearly was the coach.

32. Rams (4-11; No. 28): Counting the amount of money it would take to make Jim Harbaugh the coach.

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NFC playoff picture: All eyes on Detroit, Washington

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Though Lions-Packers Sunday night will decide the NFC North title, it is not the only Week 17 game that matters.

Washington can apply extra pressure to that Sunday night game with a win over the Giants. The Falcons can clinch the No. 2 seed with a win, but what else might happen requires a lot of calculating.

Here is how the NFC playoff race looks heading into the final week of the season:

LEADERS

1. Cowboys (13-2): Clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

2. Falcons (10-5): Clinched the NFC South. Can clinch the No. 2 seed with a win Sunday vs. the Saints, or a Seahawks loss or tie and a Lions loss or tie.

3. Seahawks (9-5-1): Clinched the NFC West. The Seahawks will be the No. 2 seed if they beat the 49ers Sunday and the Falcons lose to or tie the Saints.

4. Packers (9-6): They win the NFC North with a win at Detroit. The Packers would be eliminated from the playoffs if they lose and if Washington beats the Giants.

5. Giants (10-5): The Giants are in, and locked into the No. 5 slot. Their opponent might not be known until late next Sunday.

6. Lions (9-6): Like the Packers, the Lions win the division with a win and are eliminated from the playoffs if they lose and if Washington beats the Giants. The Lions could still be the No. 2 seed if they win and the Falcons and the Seahawks both lose.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

7. Washington (8-6-1): Makes the playoffs with a win against the Giants Sunday unless Lions/Packers ends in a tie. If the Giants win Sunday, Washington is eliminated.

8. Buccaneers (8-7): The longest of longshots. The Bucs need to win next week and need seven games to go their way. In addition to beating the Panthers Sunday, the Bucs would need the Colts, Cowboys, Titans, 49ers and Lions to win, and for the Redskins-Giants game to end in a tie. Stranger things have not happened.

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AFC playoff picture: All six teams decided, only seeds to play for

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There’s not a lot of suspense in the AFC playoff picture heading into Week 17.

The six playoff teams will be the Patriots, Raiders, Steelers, Texans, Chiefs and Dolphins. All that’s left to be determined is the seeding of those six teams.

Here’s how it looks right now:

1. Patriots (13-2): Have clinched a first-round bye and will clinch home-field advantage with a win or a Raiders loss.

2. Raiders (12-3): Need to win or have the Chiefs lose next week to clinch the AFC West.

3. Steelers: (10-5): Locked into the No. 3 seed, based on the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Texans.

4. Texans (9-6): Locked into the No. 4 seed.

5. Chiefs (11-4): Can still catch the Raiders in the AFC West, with a win and an Oakland loss.

6. Dolphins (10-5): Would move up to the No. 5 seed with a win and a Chiefs loss. Otherwise Miami is the No. 6 seed.

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Packers-Lions flexed to Sunday night

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The NFL has officially moved the NFC North championship game to prime time.

Green Bay’s visit to Detroit in Week 17 will be on NBC’s Sunday Night Football on January 1, the league announced today. As we previously noted, that was really the only game that made sense for the time slot, as it’s the one game that is guaranteed to have playoff implications for both teams, regardless of the outcome of any other games.

The NFL has also announced that Saints at Falcons and Giants at Washington will both kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET, and Patriots at Dolphins will move to 4:25 as well unless both the Steelers and Chiefs win today. If the Steelers and Chiefs both win, Patriots-Dolphins will remain at 1 p.m. ET.

Here’s the full Week 17 schedule, with all 32 teams playing on Sunday, January 1, 2017:

Ravens at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS;
Jaguars at Colts, 1 p.m., CBS;
Bears at Vikings, 1 p.m., FOX;
Bills at Jets, 1 p.m., CBS;
Cowboys at Eagles, 1 p.m., FOX;
Browns at Steelers, 1 p.m., CBS;
Panthers at Buccaneers, 1 p.m., FOX;
Texans at Titans, 1 p.m., CBS;
Patriots at Dolphins, 1 p.m. or 4:25 p.m., CBS;
Saints at Falcons, 4:25 p.m., FOX;
Raiders at Broncos, 4:25 p.m., CBS;
Cardinals at Rams, 4:25 p.m., FOX;
Chiefs at Chargers, 4:25 p.m., CBS;
Seahawks at 49ers, 4:25 p.m., FOX;
Giants at Washington, 4:25 p.m., FOX;
Packers at Lions, 8:30 p.m., NBC.

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Vikings’ DBs defied Zimmer, ignored plan for covering Jordy Nelson

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Packers receiver Jordy Nelson had a huge first half against the Vikings today, catching seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns before halftime. And he did it against a Minnesota secondary that was defying the orders of head coach Mike Zimmer to have cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadow Nelson.

At halftime, Zimmer ordered the players to go back to the game plan of Rhodes shadowing Nelson, and it worked: Nelson managed just two catches for nine yards in the second half. But the damage was done in the first half. After the game, Zimmer acknowledged that the players hadn’t followed the game plan until he told them they had to at halftime.

“That’s what he was supposed to do the whole game,” Zimmer said, via the Star-Tribune. “Someone decided they wouldn’t do that.”

So who decided to go against the coach’s orders?

“To be honest, I really don’t want to answer that,” Rhodes said.

But as reporters asked him to explain, Rhodes did: He said the defensive backs decided on their own that he shouldn’t shadow Nelson because he hadn’t shadowed Nelson when they had faced the Packers in the past.

“We felt as a team, as players, we came together and we felt like we’d never done that when we played against the Packers,” Rhodes said. “Us as DBs felt like we could handle him. That’s how we felt as DBs that we could stay on our side and cover him. In the beginning, we’d always played against them and played our sides, so that’s what we as DBs went with.”

Zimmer confirmed that he exchanged words with cornerback Terence Newman about it in the first half.

“In the first half when Terence Newman came over and said something to me like ‘I can cover this guy, let me have him,’” Zimmer said. “I said, ‘do what you’re supposed to do.’”

It wasn’t until the second half that the Vikings’ defensive backs did what they were supposed to do. By that point, Nelson had done his damage. For the players to defy their coach like that is stunning.

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Week 16 early inactives

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Every week we bring you all the inactives from the early games in one post, constantly updated with the latest information. That usually happens on Sunday, but Christmas has caused a schedule change and Saturday will be the busiest day of the football week. Check back to see the full list as it becomes available a little more than an hour ahead of the 1 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Dolphins at Bills

Dolphins: QB Ryan Tannehill, CB Byron Maxwell, LB Jelani Jenkins, WR Leonte Carroo, DB Jordan Lucas, TE Thomas Duarte, TE Dominique Jones

Bills: LB Lerentee McCray, QB Cardale Jones, WR Dez Lewis, T Cordy Glenn, TE Logan Thomas, TE Gerald Christian, DT Jerel Worthy

Falcons at Panthers

Falcons: LB De’Vondre Campbell, TE Austin Hooper, WR Nick Williams, RB Terron Ward, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, S Dashon Goldson, OL Wes Schweitzer

Panthers: DE Ryan Delaire, LB Luke Kuechly, LB Jeremy Cash, RB Cameron Artis-Payne, DT Kyle Love, WR Brenton Bersin, T Dan France

Redskins at Bears

Redskins: S Su’a Cravens, CB Quinton Dunbar, QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Matt Jones, C Kory Lichtensteiger, OL Vinston Painter, TE Jordan Reed

Bears: G Eric Kush, CB Cre’von LeBlanc, RB Ka’Deem Carey, S DeAndre Houston-Carson, FB Paul Lasike, LB Jonathan Anderson, WR Daniel Braverman

Chargers at Browns

Chargers: RB Melvin Gordon, T King Dunlap, CB Craig Mager, C Max Tuerk, TE Asante Cleveland, WR Jeremy Butler, DL Kaleb Eulls

Browns: QB Kevin Hogan, QB Josh McCown, RB Darius Jackson, OL Gabe Ikard, DL Tyrone Holmes, DL Stephen Paea, DL Gabe Wright

Vikings at Packers

Vikings: RB Adrian Peterson, FB Zach Line, G Brandon Fusco, WR Laquon Treadwell, QB Taylor Heinicke, G Willie Beavers, DE Stephen Weatherly

Packers: LB Jayrone Elliott, RB James Starks, WR Randall Cobb, QB Joe Callahan, CB Josh Hawkins, C J.C. Tretter, T Kyle Murphy

Titans at Jaguars

Titans: CB Jason McCourty, WR Tre McBride, CB D’Joun Smith, DB Curtis Riley, LB David Bass, G Sebastian Tretola, TE Jace Amaro

Jaguars: WR Allen Hurns, DT Jordan Hill, WR Arrelious Benn, RB Denard Robinson, LB Sean Porter, WR Neal Sterling

Jets at Patriots

Jets: LB Lorenzo Mauldin, DT Steve McLendon, QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Matt Forte, T Donald Hawkins, WR Jalin Marshall, DT Brandin Bryant

Patriots: WR Danny Amendola, LB Dont’a Hightower, RB D.J. Foster, WR Matthew Slater, QB Jacoby Brissett, T LaAdrian Waddle, CB Justin Coleman

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Week 16 injury report roundup

Week 15 kicked off on Thursday with an Eagles win and it continues with 12 more games on Saturday as most of the league plays a day earlier than normal because of Christmas. There will be two games on Christmas day as well, which means 28 teams turned in their final injury reports of the week on Friday.

Questionable players are uncertain to play, doubtful players are unlikely to play and out should be self-explanatory. Players who are on active rosters and don’t appear below should be considered in the lineup barring any announcements on Saturday. The teams playing on Monday night won’t release their injury reports until Saturday and are not listed here.

With that housekeeping out of the way, here are all the injury reports for Sunday.

Dolphins at Bills (Saturday)

The Dolphins listed LB Jelani Jenkins (knee, hand) and CB Byron Maxwell (ankle) as doubtful to play and QB Ryan Tannehill (knee) remains out. S Isa Abdul-Quddus (ankle), LB Kiko Alonso (hamstring, hand), T Jermon Bushrod (shoulder), CB Bobby McCain (knee, hand) and DE Mario Williams (ankle) are listed as questionable.

Bills LB Lerentee McCray (concussion) is out and T Cordy Glenn (back) will likely join him after drawing a doubtful tag. LB Preston Brown (foot), TE Charles Clay (knee), RB Jerome Felton (foot), G John Miller (hip), WR Sammy Watkins (foot), DT Kyle Williams (back) and DT Jerel Worthy (shoulder) are listed as questionable.

Falcons at Panthers (Saturday)

Falcons WR Julio Jones (toe) is set to return after avoiding an injury designation on Friday. DT De’Vondre Campbell (concussion) and TE Austin Hooper (knee) will not play, however.

DE Ryan Delaire (knee) is the only Panthers player ruled out and the only one with an injury designation this week. It’s not been announced whether LB Luke Kuechly (concussion) will play at this point.

Redskins at Bears (Saturday)

Redskins TE Jordan Reed (shoulder) is questionable after missing practice all week. DE Chris Baker (ankle), LB Will Compton (knee), LB Terence Garvin (illness), LB Ryan Kerrigan (elbow), QB Colt McCoy (illness) and LB Martrell Spaight (shoulder) got the same designation. S Su’a Cravens (upper arm) and CB Quinton Dunbar (concussion) have been ruled out.

G Eric Kush (concussion) is out for the Bears. Chicago listed CB Bryce Callahan (knee), RB Ka’Deem Carey (shoulder), QB David Fales (right thumb), CB Cre’von LeBlanc (knee), DE Cornelius Washington (back) and LB Willie Young (knee) as questionable to play.

Chargers at Browns (Saturday)

The Chargers will play without RB Melvin Gordon (hip, knee) again this week. CB Craig Mager (shoulder) is listed as doubtful while WR Jeremy Butler (ankle), T King Dunlap (knee) and G Orlando Franklin (illness) are questionable to play in Cleveland.

Browns LB Dominique Alexander (abdomen, groin) and TE Randall Telfer (ankle, knee) are questionable as the team tries for its first win of the year.

Vikings at Packers (Saturday)

The return of Vikings RB Adrian Peterson (knee, groin) hit a snag and he’s been ruled out along with G Brandon Fusco (concussion), RB Zach Line (concussion) and WR Laquon Treadwell (ankle). WR Stefon Diggs (hip) and S Harrison Smith (ankle) are listed as questionable.

QB Aaron Rodgers (calf) and LB Clay Matthews (shoulder) are off the injury report for the Packers. WR Randall Cobb (ankle), LB Nick Perry (hand), CB Damarious Randall (shoulder) and C J.C. Tretter (knee) are listed as questionable while LB Jayrone Elliott (hand) and RB James Starks (concussion) have been ruled out.

Titans at Jaguars (Saturday)

CB Jason McCourty (chest) will be missing from the Titans secondary. LB Sean Spence (ankle) is listed as questionable.

The Jaguars ruled out WR Arrelious Benn (concussion), DT Jordan Hill (calf), WR Allen Hurns (hamstring), LB Sean Porter (hamstring), RB Denard Robinson (ankle) and WR Neal Sterling (concussion).

Jets at Patriots (Saturday)

Jets LB Lorenzo Mauldin (ankle) and DT Steve McLendon (hamstring) will not play in New England. RB Matt Forte (knee, shoulder) is unlikely to play after getting a doubtful tag. WR Brandon Marshall (shoulder, back), RB Khiry Robinson (lower leg) and DE Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle) are listed as questionable.

QB Tom Brady (thigh) was limited in practice all week and listed as questionable, but is expected to be in the Patriots lineup. TE Martellus Bennett (ankle, shoulder), LB Dont’a Hightower (knee), S Jordan Richards (knee) and WR Matt Slater (foot) are also listed as questionable while WR Danny Amendola (knee) is out.

Colts at Raiders (Saturday)

Colts LB Chris Carter (shoulder) has been ruled out for Christmas Eve. CB Rashaan Melvin (knee) and T Joe Reitz (back) are listed as questionable.

Wide receivers Amari Cooper (shoulder) and Michael Crabtree (finger) are listed as questionable, but are expected to play. S Karl Joseph (toe) and DT Stacy McGee (ankle) will not play. G Kelechi Osemele (ankle), LB Perry Riley (hamstring), LB Malcolm Smith (hamstring) and DT Dan Williams (foot) have also been listed as questionable.

49ers at Rams (Saturday)

The 49ers listed CB Dontae Johnson (groin) and T Joe Staley (hamstring) as doubtful, leaving them unlikely to play in L.A. DT Glenn Dorsey (knee, ribs) and C Marcus Martin (ankle) are questionable.

S Maurice Alexander (concussion), CB Lamarcus Joyner (ankle) and WR Mike Thomas (hip) are doubtful for the Rams, so they’ll probably have time to practice their carols during the game. WR Bradley Marquez (knee) is listed as questionable.

Buccaneers at Saints (Saturday)

Tackles Gosder Cherilus (groin, ankle) and Demar Dotson (concussion) will not play for the Bucs, which leaves undrafted rookie Leonard Wester in line to start at right tackle. DE William Gholston (elbow) is also out while DT Gerald McCoy (foot) is questionable.

Saints CB Delvin Breaux (shoulder) is out for Saturday’s game. LB Dannell Ellerbe (foot), RB John Kuhn (hip), LB Craig Robertson (shoulder) and C Max Unger (foot) are listed as questionable.

Cardinals at Seahawks (Saturday)

The Cardinals ruled out CB Marcus Cooper (back, calf) and T D.J. Humphries (concussion). WR John Brown (illness) and CB Brandon Williams (back) are both listed as questionable.

A brief Seahawks injury report has RB C.J. Prosise (shoulder) ruled out and no one else given an injury designation.

Bengals at Texans (Saturday)

The Bengals will have G Clint Boling (shoulder), LB Vontaze Burfict (knee, concussion), TE Tyler Eifert (back) and  TE Tyler Kroft (knee, ankle) on Santa watch after ruling them out Saturday night’s game. WR A.J. Green (hamstring), RB Jeremy Hill (knee) and DE Michael Johnson (shoulder) are listed as questionable.

CB Johnathan Joseph (ribs) and RB Lamar Miller (ankle) are listed as questionable for the Texans and make up the entire injury report.

Ravens at Steelers (Sunday)

CB Jimmy Smith (ankle) is out again for the Ravens and LB Kamalei Correa (ribs) will join him on the inactive list. LB Anthony Levine (toe), T Alex Lewis (ankle), WR Steve Smith (thigh) and DE Brent Urban (illness) are all listed as questionable.

Steelers S Shamarko Thomas (concussion) will miss the game. The team hasn’t ruled out WR Sammie Coates (hamstring) or TE Ladarius Green (concussion), but their doubtful tags make it unlikely that they’ll play. LB Anthony Chickillo (ankle), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot), DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle) and DE Stephon Tuitt (knee) are listed as questionable.

Broncos at Chiefs (Sunday)

The Broncos have ruled out TE A.J. Derby (concussion), TE Virgil Green (concussion), LB Brandon Marshall (hamstring) and S T.J. Ward (concussion). DE Derek Wolfe (neck) is questionable after leaving last week’s game.

LB Justin Houston (knee) didn’t practice at all this week and the Chiefs have listed him as questionable. CB Phillip Gaines (knee) also didn’t practice, but he’s been ruled out.

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PFT’s Week 16 picks

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We’re finding out groove as the season moves toward a conclusion; in Week 15, MDS and yours truly each went 12-4.

He still leads by one game with 32 to go, and we disagree on two for Week 16.

For all picks on all Week 16 games, I think you know what to do by now.

Giants at Eagles

MDS’s take: The Giants are still in contention for the NFC East and are fighting for playoff positioning, while the Eagles have nothing to play for. Hard to go against the Giants here.

MDS’s pick: Giants 23, Eagles 17.

Florio’s take: Bitter rivals moving in different directions meet for the final Thursday night poopfest game of the year. The Giants’ offseason changes have paid off, the Eagles’ haven’t (yet), and New York have every incentive to continue to put the heat on their mutual enemy in Dallas.

Florio’s pick: Giants 24, Eagles 17.

Dolphins at Bills

MDS’s take: This is a tricky one. The Dolphins are still competing for a wild card berth while the Bills, though mathematically still alive, are really just playing out the string. And yet I think the Dolphins, without Ryan Tannehill, may struggle on a cold day in Buffalo. I like the Bills in a close, defensive struggle.

MDS’s pick: Bills 17, Dolphins 16.

Florio’s take: Miami is closing in on a playoff berth with their new coach, and the Bills are closing in on another new coach. If Rex is going to go, he’s going to go out swinging — and that could be bad news for the Dolphins.

Florio’s pick: Bills 23, Dolphins 17.

Jets at Patriots

MDS’s take: The Patriots struggled to beat the Jets last time. They won’t struggle this time.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 33, Jets 14.

Florio’s take: Last year, a pair of losses to the Jets and Dolphins kept the Patriots from securing the No. 1 seed and, in turn, making it to the Super Bowl. They won’t let it happen again.

Florio’s pick: Patriots 40, Jets 17.

Titans at Jaguars

MDS’s take: This Titans team has been hard to pick all season, but I can’t see them struggling with the Jaguars on Sunday.

MDS’s pick: Titans 24, Jaguars 13.

Florio’s take: It’s a trap game for the Titans. Which is a major improvement; not long ago, the Titans were the trap game.

Florio’s pick: Titans 23, Jaguars 10.

Vikings at Packers

MDS’s take: The Vikings’ fall from the last undefeated team has been extraordinary, and the fall will finish when the Packers officially eliminate the Vikings on Saturday at Lambeau Field.

MDS’s pick: Packers 23, Vikings 9.

Florio’s take: The Packers are surging, the Vikings are stinking. And Green Bay is moving closer to a playoff appearance that a month ago seemed like a long shot at best.

Florio’s pick: Packers 31, Vikings 13.

Chargers at Browns

MDS’s take: The Browns’ march to the first overall pick in the draft and the second 0-16 season in NFL history continues.

MDS’s pick: Chargers 21, Browns 14.

Florio’s take: Two chances remain for the Browns to avoid 0-16. The Chargers, good but far from great, could be vulnerable. But with the Browns losing 14 in a row, why assume the trend will end now?

Florio’s pick: Chargers 27, Browns 21.

Washington at Bears

MDS’s take: I like the way the Bears are still competing with Matt Barkley running the offense and rookie Jordan Howard showing once again that you can find great value with a late-round running back. But as hard as the Bears fight, they usually fall short, and they’re going to again on Sunday.

MDS’s pick: Washington 21, Bears 20.

Florio’s take: Washington is 1-3 since Kirk Cousins’ “how you like me now?” moment. The Bears have more punch than they get credit for. Chicago screws up its draft position with a morale-building win led by Matt Barkley.

Florio’s pick: Bears 24, Washington 20.

Falcons at Panthers

MDS’s take: The Falcons’ offense has played great for the last two weeks without Julio Jones. Now they face a tougher test against the Panthers, but I see Atlanta keeping it going.

MDS’s pick: Falcons 28, Panthers 20.

Florio’s take: The Panthers relish the spoiler role, and Cam Newton has a track record of success in December. But the even-shorter week, Newton’s busted shoulder, and the ongoing absence of Luke Kuechly could make it hard for the Panthers to take a chunk out of Atlanta’s chances of winning the division.

Florio’s pick: Falcons 27, Panthers 20.

Colts at Raiders

MDS’s take: The Colts are clinging to their slim playoff hopes, but those hopes will come to an end as the Raiders take another step toward a first-round bye.

MDS’s pick: Raiders 24, Colts 17.

Florio’s take: If the Colts team that beat the Vikings shows up in Oakland, that could be trouble for the Raiders. But they surely can’t put it all togetherr in two straight weeks, can they?

Florio’s pick: Raiders 23, Colts 20.

Buccaneers at Saints

MDS’s take: The Bucs’ defense shut the Saints’ offense down last time, but this time I think Drew Brees has a big game and the Buccaneers are dealt a big loss.

MDS’s pick: Saints 30, Buccaneers 23.

Florio’s take: The Saints get a couple of chances to play spoiler against NFC South rivals who are contending for the division title. Unfortunately for the home team, the Bucs continue to be the real deal.

Florio’s pick: Buccaneers 27, Saints 24.

Cardinals at Seahawks

MDS’s take: This should be an easy win for Seattle as it marches toward a first-round playoff bye.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 34, Cardinals 20.

Florio’s take: After five quarters that resolved nothing earlier this year, the Seahawks will more than make up for a sluggish Sunday night in Arizona. As long as they don’t throw from the one.

Florio’s pick: Seahawks 31, Cardinals 17.

49ers at Rams

MDS’s take: In their last 18 games, the 49ers are 2-0 against the Rams and 0-16 against the rest of the NFL. Can the 49ers make it 3-0? I don’t think so. The Rams’ defense should shut Colin Kaepernick down.

MDS’s pick: Rams 13, 49ers 10.

Florio’s take: If two NFL teams play a game and no one gives a crap, does it make a sound?

Florio’s pick: Rams 16, 49ers 13.

Bengals at Texans

MDS’s take: Tom Savage gets the start in place of Brock Osweiler, which should be an upgrade for the Texans. I think Houston will win a Christmas Eve night game that most of America will ignore.

MDS’s pick: Texans 23, Bengals 20.

Florio’s take: The last time a team benched Brock Osweiler it won the Super Bowl. That’s not likely to happen a second time.

Florio’s pick: Texans 22, Bengals 16.

Ravens at Steelers

MDS’s take: The Steelers can clinch the AFC North with a win, and I think they’ll do just that, on the strength of their defense shutting down Joe Flacco.

MDS’s pick: Steelers 17, Ravens 9.

Florio’s take: If you’re dreaming of a Black Christmas, tune in on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET and you’ll get one.

Florio’s pick: Steelers 15, Ravens 13.

Broncos at Chiefs

MDS’s take: With the Raiders likely winning on Christmas Eve, the Chiefs will have to win on Christmas Day to keep pace in the AFC West. I think they’ll do just that.

MDS’s pick: Chiefs 24, Broncos 16.

Florio’s take: The Chiefs deliver the dagger to Denver in prime time.

Florio’s pick: Chiefs 24, Broncos 13.

Lions at Cowboys

MDS’s take: Dallas clinches home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win, while the Lions will have to move on to a Week 17 NFC North title game with a loss.

MDS’s pick: Cowboys 27, Lions 17.

Florio’s take: The last Monday night game of the year could be one of the best, with plenty of playoff implications and a Texas native trying to avenge a playoff loss in Dallas from two years ago. For the Lions to earn a rematch in January, they’ll need to beat Green Bay six days later.

Florio’s pick: Cowboys 27, Lions 17.

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2017 Pro Bowl rosters announced

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The NFL on Tuesday announced 88 players who have been selected to play in the Pro Bowl.

The 2017 Pro Bowl will be played Jan. 29 in Orlando. After three years the game returns to the traditional AFC vs. NFC format.

Below is a list, by position, of players selected for the game…

QUARTERBACKS

AFC
Tom Brady, Patriots
Derek Carr, Raiders
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

NFC
Dak Prescott, Cowboys
Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Matt Ryan, Falcons

RUNNING BACKS

AFC
Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
LeSean McCoy, Bills
DeMarco Murray, Titans
Kyle Juszczyk, Ravens

NFC
Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
Devonta Freeman, Falcons
David Johnson, Cardinals
Mike Tolbert, Panthers

WIDE RECEIVERS

AFC
Antonio Brown, Steelers
Amari Cooper, Raiders
A.J. Green, Bengals
T.Y. Hilton, Colts

NFC
Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
Julio Jones, Falcons
Mike Evans, Buccaneers

TIGHT ENDS

AFC
Travis Kelce, Chiefs
Delanie Walker, Titans

NFC
Greg Olsen, Panthers
Jordan Reed, Redskins

OFFENSIVE LINE

AFC
Joe Thomas, Browns
Donald Penn Raiders
Taylor Lewan, Titans
Marshal Yanda, Ravens
Kelechi Osemele, Raiders
David DeCastro, Steelers
Rodney Hudson, Raiders
Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers

NFC
Tyron Smith, Cowboys
Trent Williams, Redskins
Jason Peters, Eagles
Zack Martin, Cowboys
Brandon Scherff, Redskins
T.J. Lang, Packers
Travis Frederick, Cowboys
Alex Mack, Falcons

DEFENSIVE LINE

AFC
Khalil Mack, Raiders
Cameron Wake, Dolphins
Jadeveon Clowney, Texans
Geno Atkins, Bengals
Ndamukong Suh, Dolphins
Jurrell Casey, Titans

NFC
Everson Griffen, Vikings
Cliff Avril, Seahawks
Michael Bennett, Seahawks
Aaron Donald, Rams
Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers
Fletcher Cox, Eagles

LINEBACKERS

AFC
Von Miller, Broncos
Lorenzo Alexander, Bills
Brian Orakpo, Titans
Dont’a Hightower, Patriots
C.J. Mosley, Ravens

NFC
Vic Beasley, Falcons
Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins
Thomas Davis, Panthers
Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
Luke Kuechly, Panthers

CORNERBACKS

AFC
Chris Harris, Broncos
Aqib Talib, Broncos
Marcus Peters, Chiefs
Casey Hayward, Chargers

NFC
Janoris Jenkins, Giants
Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
Richard Sherman, Seahawks
Xavier Rhodes, Vikings

SAFETIES

AFC
Devin McCourty, Patriots
Reggie Nelson, Raiders
Eric Berry, Chiefs

NFC
Landon Collins, Giants
Harrison Smith, Vikings
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Packers

SPECIALISTS

AFC
Colts punter Pat McAfee
Ravens kicker Justin Tucker
Chiefs return specialist Tyreek Hill
Patriots kick coverage specialist Matthew Slater

NFC
Rams punter Johnny Hekker
Falcons kicker Matt Bryant
Vikings return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson
Giants kick coverage specialist Dwayne Harris

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Week 16 playoff scenarios

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The time left in the regular season is growing short and that could leave several teams around the league celebrating playoff berths along with Christmas this weekend.

The Cowboys and Seahawks have already clinched playoff berths in the NFC. Dallas can clinch the NFC East title and the top seed in the conference with a win or a Giants loss while the Seahawks, who have won the NFC West, can clinch a bye with a win, a Lions loss and a Falcons loss or tie.

In the AFC, the Patriots and Raiders are in the playoffs. The Patriots have won the AFC East and clinched a bye, leaving them to try for the No. 1 overall seed in the conference. They’ll get it with a win and a Raiders loss/tie and can also clinch the top seed with a tie and an Oakland loss. The Raiders, meanwhile, can sew up the AFC West with a win and a Chiefs loss/tie or with a tie and a Chiefs loss.

The scenarios for the rest of the teams with playoff berths on the line this weekend are below:

GIANTS

The Giants book passage to the playoffs with a win, but have other routes available. They’ll also get in with a Packers loss/tie, a Lions loss/tie, a Buccaneers loss/tie or a Falcons loss.

LIONS

The NFC North will belong to the Lions if they win and the Packers lose/tie or if they tie and the Packers lose. If they don’t win it, the division title will be up for grabs when the two teams face off in Week 17.

Detroit can also punch its ticket with a win and a Buccaneers loss/tie, with a tie and a Buccaneers loss or by tying while the Bucs tie and the Falcons win. They will also get in should the Buccaneers lose while the Redskins lose/tie and the Falcons win.

FALCONS

Atlanta will win the NFC South with a win and a Buccaneers loss/tie or with a tie and a Bucs loss.

A win plus a loss or tie by either the Lions or Packers will clinch at least a Wild Card. They could also wrap up a playoff spot if they tie and the Lions tie, with a Packers loss and Redskins loss/tie on Saturday or by winning and clinching the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Lions.

PACKERS

The Packers have one path to clinching a playoff spot this weekend and it’s a convoluted one. It calls for them to win while clinching the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Buccaneers and for the Redskins and Falcons to lose/tie their games.

BUCCANEERS

The Bucs are in the playoffs if they win while the Packers, Lions and Redskins all lose. If the Lions and Packers lose and the Redskins tie, they can also get in by clinching the strength of victory tiebreaker over Detroit.

STEELERS

If the Steelers beat the Ravens, they win the AFC North.

CHIEFS

The Chiefs missed their first chance to clinch a berth, but will get in with a win or tie against the Broncos on Sunday night. A Ravens loss or tie also gets them in.

TEXANS

A Texans win coupled with a Titans loss makes Houston the AFC South champs for the second straight year.

DOLPHINS

The Dolphins will be a Wild Card team if they win and the Broncos lose or tie against Kansas City. Should the Dolphins tie the Bills, they can also get in if the Ravens and Broncos lose and either the Texans or Titans lose or tie their games.

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Week 16 Power Rankings

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1. Patriots (12-2; last week No. 1): The defense may not be as bad as believed, but it still needs plenty of work.

2. Cowboys (12-2; No. 3): “We need to bench Dak Prescott” once again yields to “we need to rest Dak Prescott.”

3. Giants (10-4; No. 4): It’ll be time to apply an asterisk to Super Bowl XLII if it turns out someone was shouting “throw it to Tyree!” into a walkie-talkie.

4. Raiders (11-3; No. 5): Based on Sunday’s crowd, maybe the Raiders should be moving to San Diego.

5. Chiefs (10-4; No. 2): As it stands, the Chiefs could be getting a chance to lose to the Titans again in the wild-card round.

6. Seahawks (9-4-1; No. 8): “Poopfest” accurately describes the involuntarily bodily reaction from punter Jon Ryan once the ball started to slip from his grasp during his run.

7. Lions (9-5; No. 6): The Lions fans who were shouting down a likely Week 17 NFC North title game have suddenly gotten very quiet.

8. Falcons (9-5; No. 10): Matt Ryan is on the fairly short list of MVP candidates, even as the Falcons are on the fairly long list of teams that aren’t viewed as legitimate Super Bowl candidates.

9. Steelers (9-5; No. 11): All I want for Christmas is to see Mike Tomlin trip a Ravens player during a kickoff return.

10. Dolphins (9-5; No. 12): The Broncos didn’t want Adam Gase to coach the team, and in his first year as a head coach he may keep the Broncos out of the playoffs.

11. Titans (8-6; No. 17): They’re the best team people go out of their way to not pay attention to.

12. Buccaneers (8-6; No. 7): As poorly as Sunday night went, the Bucs still had a chance to win the game.

13. Broncos (8-6; No. 9): That “sub-optimal, near replacement-level” quarterbacking from 2015 is suddenly looking pretty good.

14. Packers (8-6; No. 13): Before Week One, I picked the Packers to make it to the Super Bowl. I’m suddenly feeling a lot better about that.

15. Ravens (8-6; No. 15): Before Week One, I picked the Ravens to make it to the Super Bowl. I’ve been feeling ambivalent about that for most of the year.

16. Texans (8-6; No. 16): So who’s the next quarterback the Texans will give a big pile of money to without even meeting?

17. Washington (7-6-1; No. 14): “How you like me now?” Not too much.

18. Colts (7-7; No. 20): Sunday’s win over the Vikings is the kind of win that Jim Irsay envisioned when drafting Andrew Luck and hiring Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano.

19. Vikings (7-7; No. 18): Sunday’s loss to the Colts is the last thing the organization envisioned. Ever.

20. Bills (7-7; No. 19): Rex Ryan is the only person in Western New York who doesn’t know he’s getting fired.

21. Panthers (6-8; No. 24): Happy Holidays, Josh Norman.

22. Saints (6-8; No. 26): It took a while, but the annual “Sean Payton may be leaving” story finally arrived.

23. Bengals (5-8-1; No. 21): The Steelers continue to treat the Bengals like an orange-headed stepchild.

24. Cardinals (5-8-1; No. 22): Carson Palmer should quit on the Cardinals before the Cardinals quit on Carson Palmer.

25. Eagles (5-9; No. 23): “Hey, we’ve won four more games that Chip Kelly.”

26. Chargers (5-9; No. 25): Stay classy, San Diego security guard.

27. Jets (4-10; No. 27): Maybe Woody Johnson and Rex Ryan will become the new George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.

28. Rams (4-10; No. 28): Jeff Fisher wants to coach against the Rams. The Rams also want that to happen please.

29. Bears (3-11; No. 29): How many moral victories does it take to qualify for the moral playoffs?

30. Jaguars (2-12; No. 30): It would be a good idea for players to get used to showing up at least five minutes early for meetings.

31. 49ers (1-13; No. 31): It would be a good idea for players to get used to fans not showing up for games.

32. Browns (0-14; No. 32): As it turns out, Hue Jackson’s challenge flag was in Jeff Fisher’s coat.

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NFC playoff picture: Packers rise as Lions drop

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The same four teams that were in the lead in NFC divisional races after Week 14 remain there in Week 15, but there’s been a change in fortunes for the Lions.

Losing to the Giants didn’t knock the Lions out of the lead in the NFC North, but the loss along with wins for the Seahawks and Falcons dropped them from the No. 2 seed to the No. 4 seed. Their drop could become more severe in the next couple of weeks.

The Lions will be in Dallas next Monday night and then they’ll close out the regular season by hosting the surging Packers. Four straight wins have left the Packers just outside the playoff picture and two more will make them the division champs. They will host the Vikings on Christmas Eve and a win in that game could also vault them into a Wild Card spot as much remains up for grabs in the NFC.

LEADERS
1. Cowboys (12-2): A win next Monday night seals the deal on the division and home field throughout the playoffs.

2. Seahawks (9-4-1): They’ve won the division and can’t gain the top seed, so they’ll be trying to nail down a bye week.

3. Falcons (9-5): They’re a game up on the Buccaneers after a second straight win without Julio Jones‘ help.

4. Lions (9-5): Further stumbles would put making the playoffs in doubt.

5. Giants (10-4): They’d lose a three-way tiebreaker to the Lions and Buccaneers, but can avoid such a nightmare by winning one more game.

6.Packers (8-6): Slightly ahead of Bucs thanks to strength of schedule tiebreaker, but two wins and the Packers know they’re in as NFC North champs.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
7. Buccaneers (8-6): The Redskins loss pushed them back up a bit, but they’ll need to take care of their own business to stay in the playoff mix.

8. Redskins (7-6-1): They aren’t out of it, but Monday night’s loss was a big blow.

9. Vikings (7-7): The team that got ransacked by the Colts looked nothing like a playoff squad.

10. Saints (6-8): With the Buccaneers and Falcons on tap, the Saints can still impact the playoff race.

11. Panthers (6-8): With the Falcons and Buccaneers on tap, the Panthers can still impact the playoff race.

12. Cardinals (5-8-1): It will be Bruce Arians’ first losing season in Arizona.

13. Eagles (5-9): The Cowboys would love it if Philadelphia can get a win against the Giants on Thursday night.

14. Rams (4-10): By closing with the 49ers and Cardinals, the Rams will at least avoid a lot of attention to close out a dismal season.

15. Bears (3-11): Matt Barkley’s been more fun to watch than his predecessors at quarterback this season.

16. 49ers (1-13): The first draft pick remains in play for the 49ers.

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NFL morning after: Credit the bad teams that keep competing

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If you watched the Dolphins-Jets game on Saturday night, you saw a team that had quit: The Jets simply didn’t look like they were competing, didn’t look like they cared, didn’t look like professional football players.

I hate watching games like that. It feels like such a waste. If you’re a Jets fan, and you pay a small fortune for season tickets, and that was one of the eight home games your team gave you, you should be furious. Especially considering the previous home game, a Monday night loss to the Colts, was just as ugly. It’s one thing to pay your hard-earned money to watch your favorite team lose. It’s quite another to watch your favorite team fail to even compete, which is what the Jets are doing.

But the Jets aren’t the team I want to talk about today. I’m more interested in the teams that aren’t very good, don’t have anything to play for and are still playing hard. Those are teams I find myself feeling a lot of respect for at the end of the season.

I’m talking about a team like the Bears. They’re not a good team, by any stretch of the imagination. They weren’t even a good team when they had their starting quarterback, Jay Cutler. They’re certainly not a good team now that they’re down to their fourth-string quarterback, Matt Barkley. But they played very hard in yesterday’s loss to the Packers, with seemingly nothing to play for. They took a good Packers team down to the wire, kicking a game-tying field goal in the final minutes before ultimately losing on a Packers field goal as time expired. The Bears easily could have quit on this season, but in their last five games they’ve played hard every week: They’re just 1-4 in their last five games, but the four losses were all one-possession games against teams competing for a playoff spot. And the win was a 20-point beatdown of a terrible 49ers team (a team that really has quit on the season). The Bears are not a good football team, but they are a competitive football team.

And I’m talking about a team like the Jaguars. I’ve said plenty about what a bad coach I think Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley is, and I think he deserved to be fired after the game, but he had his last-place team coming out playing hard yesterday against the first-place Texans. Jacksonville jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the second quarter before falling to earth and ultimately losing 21-20. Bradley was saddled with a bad quarterback in Blake Bortles, and he didn’t do enough to build a defense that can win despite the bad offense, and for those reasons firing him was appropriate. But I respect that his team is still treating these games like they matter.

It gets a little sad at this time of year to think about how little football we have left: In two weeks, the regular season will be over. We should enjoy every one of these remaining games. But there’s nothing enjoyable about watching the teams that look like they’re not really trying anymore, the way the Jets looked Saturday night or the way the Rams looked Thursday night. I can’t say the Bears and the Jaguars have been particularly fun to watch this season, but I can say they made their games yesterday more fun than I was expecting. I give them credit for that.

Here are my other thoughts from Sunday:

Randy Moss is still bitter toward Colin Kaepernick. The most interesting thing I heard during the hours of Sunday morning pregame shows was Moss, on ESPN, talking about how he still resents Kaepernick, his teammate on the 49ers in 2012. Moss pointed out that on the 49ers’ last drive of their Super Bowl XLVII loss to the Ravens, he got open in the end zone for what could have been a game-winning touchdown — except that Kaepernick never looked in Moss’s direction. “That was my dad gum Super Bowl ring!” Moss shouted. I had forgotten about that play, but Moss will never forget that play. It was fascinating to hear an all-time great player talk about how bitterly he resents a missed opportunity. For all the great moments of Moss’s career, that’s a low moment he’ll never get over.

Tucker is terrific. On a rainy day in Baltimore, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker didn’t just make a 53-yard field goal, he made it with several yards to spare and dead center between the uprights. He later drilled a 47-yarder and went 3-for-3 on extra points. For the season, Tucker is now Tucker has missed just one of his 59 kicks, and that one came when New England’s Shea McClellin leaped over the line to block his field goal. Tucker is a perfect 10-for-10 on field goals 50 yards or longer, and not only does he make those kicks but he makes them look easy: I don’t think I’ve seen a single Tucker kick this year that wouldn’t have been good on the narrower goal posts they use in arena football. With 10 field goals beyond 50 yards this year, Tucker is tied for an NFL single-season record. What Tucker is doing is extraordinary.

A big year for LeGarrette Blount. On Sunday Blount scored his 15th rushing touchdown of the season, making him the first player since Arian Foster in 2012 to score 15 rushing touchdowns in a year. It’s hard to remember this now, but before the season there were reports that Blount was in danger of getting cut. Instead, he’s been a very important player on a Patriots team that’s competing for a championship.

Jordan Howard looks like a special player. Howard, the Bears’ rookie running back, had 90 yards rushing and 23 yards receiving yesterday. It was his eighth game this season with at least 100 yards from scrimmage. No one expected this kind of performance from Howard when he was selected in the fifth round out of Indiana in this year’s draft, but he’s been excellent. In fact, for as great as Ezekiel Elliott has been in Dallas, I think Howard would be having the same kind of year if he were playing in a good offense like the Cowboys’, instead of like a bad offense like the Bears’.

The Packers’ secret weapon. Ty Montgomery was a wide receiver until a few weeks ago. Yesterday, at his new position of running back, he had 16 carries for 162 yards and two touchdowns. It’s incredible what Montgomery is doing at a new position. The Packers could still miss the playoffs, but they could also be one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC if they make it, and Montgomery’s addition to the offense is a big part of the reason.

Texans should admit their mistake. Houston coach Bill O’Brien did the right thing by benching Brock Osweiler during Sunday’s win over the Jaguars. But after backup Tom Savage led the Texans to a come-from-behind win, O’Brien said he hasn’t decided who his starter will be going forward. That’s ridiculous. It’s obvious that the Texans made a mistake when they signed Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract this offseason, and the sooner they admit that mistake, the sooner they can move on. Savage should start the rest of the season, and in the offseason the Texans need to decide whether Savage is the man to lead their team, or whether they need to acquire yet another quarterback. Osweiler is not the answer.

Credit Pederson for a gutsy call. With the Eagles trailing 27-20 and four seconds remaining, Carson Wentz scored a touchdown to bring the Eagles to within a point of the Ravens. Instead of kicking the extra point and playing for overtime, Eagles coach Doug Pederson went for the two-point conversion and the win. It didn’t work, the Eagles failed to convert and the Ravens won 27-26, but I liked the decision anyway. Entering Sunday’s games, two-point conversions were successful 48.9 percent of the time this season, while extra points were successful 93.7 percent of the time. So a two-point conversion gave the Eagles a 48.9 percent chance of winning, while an extra point gave them just a 46.9 percent chance of winning, if you assume they’d have a 50-50 chance of winning in overtime. Mathematically the move made sense, and it also made sense from the simple perspective of an Eagles team that had no realistic chance of making the playoffs: If your team isn’t going anywhere, take some chances and play for the win. The coaches who do that are the coaches I respect.

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AFC playoff picture: Patriots clinch a bye, again

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The AFC East belongs to the Patriots, again.

For the eight consecutive year, the Patriots have won their division, and for the seventh consecutive year, the Patriots have earned a first-round playoff bye. That’s an extraordinary run of dominance, something unmatched in NFL history. Although the Patriots won three of their four Super Bowls from 2001 to 2004, they’ve actually been a more consistently great team over the last seven years than they were early in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.

So the Patriots will be major players in the AFC playoffs again. Here’s how the rest of the playoff picture shapes up:

LEADERS
1. Patriots (12-2): The clear favorites to get to the Super Bowl again.

2. Raiders (11-3): Clinched a playoff berth today.

3. Steelers (9-5): Pittsburgh leads the AFC North heading into the big Christmas game against Baltimore.

4. Texans (8-6): Despite Brock Osweiler playing so badly he was benched, Houston remains atop the AFC South.

5. Chiefs (10-4): The loss to the Titans was costly, dropping Kansas City from a first-round bye to a wild card team.

6. Dolphins (9-5): Miami is looking like a playoff team, even without Ryan Tannehill.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
7. Ravens (8-6): If they beat the Steelers on Christmas Day, the Ravens own the head-to-head tiebreaker and would lead the AFC North.

8. Titans (8-6): Tennessee still controls its destiny, thanks to a Week 17 meeting with Houston.

9. Broncos (8-6): The defending champions now look like long shots to make the playoffs.

10. Bills (7-7): Buffalo isn’t totally out of it, but it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Bills make the playoffs.

11. Colts (7-7): They looked good in a beatdown of the Vikings, but it will be hard to catch the Titans and Texans.

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Walkie-talkie scandal further undermines #DeflateGate outcome

The Giants unwittingly, and ironically, have done plenty in the past two Sundays to exonerate the Patriots for #DeflateGate. Yes, Giants co-owner John Mara is believed to have lobbied (along with others) for unreasonably stiff punishment of the Patriots. And, yes, the conduct of the team Mara owns in consecutive games has helped the punishment seem even more unreasonable than it was.

As to #DeflateGate II, the Giants forced the NFL into a clumsy, awkward spot by complaining about Pittsburgh footballs under circumstances that could have been easily explained by natural deflation on a cold day. The NFL couldn’t say that without indirectly clearing the Patriots, so the NFL initially circled the wagons — and then eventually veered off script with a comment that later had to be described as the product of a misstatement.

As to the walkie-talkie scandal, the looming decision to give the Giants a relative slap on the wrist for a blatant and brazen violation of a known rule shows how bizarre it was to hammer the Patriots for a rule that was, essentially, the exact opposite.

Regarding the Giants, coach Ben McAdoo broke a rule that is clear and known and obvious. Every year, all 32 teams are reminded of it. There is no ambiguity or confusion or lack of clarity. The walkie-talkie is present on the sideline, it can be used only by the backup quarterback, it can be used only for listening not speaking, and the coach can never, ever touch it.

Badly breaking this bright-line rule clearly undermines the integrity of the game; if not, all 32 teams wouldn’t get a reminder of the rule every single year. The violation gives the coach a chance to talk to the quarterback under circumstances that would permit the communications to occur beyond the cutoff when the play clock hits 15 seconds.

As to #DeflateGate, there was nothing clear or known or obvious. The rule book contains a permitted range of inflation (12.5 PSI to 13.5 PSI) because it always has. It’s been in the rule book for so long that no one really knows where it came from or how it got there.

Before January 2015, the NFL never paid any attention to the question of whether teams intentionally or accidentally were using footballs that deviated from the acceptable range. Former NFL official and supervisor of officials Jim Daopoulos explained in the early days of #DeflateGate on PFT Live that football inflation had never before been an issue or a consideration. The use during the AFC championship game of two gauges that varied by 0.4 PSI underscored the fact that football air pressure was regarded as anything but a laboratory science.

Speaking of science, the fact that the NFL didn’t know that air pressure drops in footballs on cold days further highlights the reality that the entire subject resided in one of the league’s various blind spots, with no specific procedures or warnings or memoranda or anything else aimed at sealing off an avenue for chicanery and clearly and plainly explaining to teams what is and isn’t permitted on a regular basis.

Coupled with the fact that the evidence of tampering with the footballs was inconclusive at best, the decision to hammer the Patriots while not hammering the Giants becomes even more glaring and more obviously the result not of a genuine desire to protect and promote the integrity of the league but to find a way to justify punishing a team that has consistently excelled, that is repeatedly suspected of cheating (because how else can other coaches explain to their owners the dominance of the Patriots?), and that has a coach who lacks the people skills to make others inclined to give him a break or the benefit of the doubt.

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