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On Fridays during each week of the NFL season, Tiebreaker.com will take a look at what we believe to be the five most interesting storylines for that weekend’s games.
It could be about a player, a team, maybe a trend that’s developed over time that might impact a matchup. In other words, we’ll be fluid, reacting to what has happened in the league and what might be coming next.
To Be Determined
After 16 weeks of toil and trouble, the NFL’s regular season concludes with a crescendo Sunday with all of its most important games flexed into the late afternoon and Sunday night slots.
With the exception of the AFC, where one wild card is still in play, and the NFC, where the Eagles and Cowboys are still in contention for their division title, most of the drama will center on playoff seeding.
To help keep things straight, we turn to the league for a user-friendly explanation of what’s at stake.
In the AFC, five teams are already in the playoffs: Baltimore (13-2, AFC North champion and homefield advantage), Buffalo (10-5, playoff berth), Houston (10-5, AFC South champion), Kansas City (11-4, AFC West champion) and New England (12-3, AFC East champion).
It’s Oakland (7-8), Pittsburgh (8-7) and Tennessee (8-7) grappling for the final wild card and the Chiefs and Patriots for the AFC’s lone remaining first-round bye.
In the NFC, five teams are already in position: Green Bay (12-3, NFC North champion), Minneasota (10-5, playoff berth), New Orleans (12-3, NFC South champion), San Francisco (12-3, playoff berth) and Seattle (11-4, playoff berth).
San Francisco and Seattle play Sunday night for the NFC West title and possible homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The loser gets in as a wild card.
Green Bay, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle all have an opportunity to earn the conference’s top seed.
Philadelphia needs a win at the New York Giants to wrap up the NFC East and the fourth seed. If the Giants win, Dallas, which would slip by with a home win over the Redskins.
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This could be the final game for a few coaches who have spent the latter part of the season teetering on the edge of a slippery slope.
One who will not lose his job is Atlanta’s Dan Quinn. After a slow start, the Falcons have rebounded nicely and the organization announced Friday he will return in 2020.
Similar announcements have been made in Detroit and Jacksonville, where Matt Patricia and Doug Marrone apparently will be spared despite the lackluster performances of their teams.
But what about Jason Garrett in Dallas, Pat Shurmur with the Giants, Freddie Kitchens in Cleveland and Anthony Lynn with the Los Angeles Chargers?
All season long there’s been speculation Garrett’s future with the Cowboys was dependent on their reaching the NFC Championship Game. After a 3-0 start, they might not even make the playoffs.
Shurmur and Lynn have led unspectacular and underperforming teams. And the Browns have been an a dysfunctional disaster after being hyped as one of the most promising teams of the season.
Finally, its very likely both Perry Fewell (Carolina) and Bill Callahan (Washington) will not be retained after being named interim head coaches.
What’s certain is Monday might be a transactional day in the league.
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With their playoff seeding guaranteed, some teams are faced with the vexing situation of whether to play their starters or rest them for the postseason.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said immediately after last week’s win against the Browns that he would sit quarterback Lamar Jackson on Sunday at Cincinnati.
Other coaches do not agree, opting to play through the finish line to guarantee the best possible position.
Earlier this week, Saints coach Sean Payton was asked if he planned to rest any of his starters at Carolina.
“No, no, no, no, no, no. Absolutely no,” Payton said. “We’re still playing for the 1-, 2- or 3-seed.”
The Saints can finish with any of the top three seeds, but is locked no lower than the No. 3 because of the Eagles-Cowboys scenario in the NFC East.
New Orleans must beat the Panthers to have a shot at the No. 1 seed. But both the Packers and 49ers need to lose for that to happen.
Meanwhile, former Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III will make his first NFL start since 2016 in place of Jackson, the top candidate for this season’s MVP.
“I’m healthy, and I’ve learned a lot,” Griffin said on the Ravens official website. “To be in the position I’ve been in the past two years, you can either be upset about it and don’t work or you’re upset about it and you work. And I worked through it.”
Baltimore will also rest running back Mark Ingram, safety Earl Thomas, guard Marshal Yanda and defensive end Brandon Williams.
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Prescott’s not in top shape
One player would likely would be rested on Sunday, if it was at all possible, is Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
It was apparent during last week’s loss to the Eagles that his right throwing shoulder was not right. He seemed limited in what he could do as the Cowboys offense stagnated once again.
As late as Christmas Day – yes, the Cowboys practiced – Prescott did not work out with his team
“Last week, we really took it day by day, and this week we’ll do the same thing,” Garrett said. “Obviously, he was able to play in the ballgame. Hopefully, we can get him on the same path where he’s able to go on Sunday.”
In the 17-9 loss in Philadelphia, Prescott struggled to the tune of a 74.5 quarterback rating. He went 25-for-44 for 265 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
“Guys, to be honest with you, no disrespect, but I don’t want to get into all that right now,” said Garrett when asked if Prescott’s health had anything to do with it. “We talked about the Philly game on Monday and now we’re on to getting ourselves ready for the Washington game. I understand that Dak’s a big story, and I understand why you’re asking the question, but we’ll take them day by day and hopefully he’ll be ready to practice at some point this week and ready to play on Sunday.”
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Seattle’s Russell Wilson has led the Seahawks to the playoffs in seven of his eight seasons at quarterback. If Seattle beats the 49ers, Wilson will win his 87th career regular season game, surpassing Tom Brady for the most by any quarterback in their first eight seasons.
If Drew Brees of the Saints throws for at least three touchdowns with no interceptions, he will become only the fourth player to do so in four consecutive games in league history joining Aaron Rodgers (2014), Wilson (2015) and Brady (2007). Brees also has a chance to surpass his own league record for completion percentage (74.4) set in 2018. He currently sits at 75.3.
Michael Thomas of the Saints and DeAndre Hopkins of the Texans have at least five receptions in each of the first 15 games this season. If they both do it again on Sunday, they’ll be just the fifth and sixth to accomplish it in every regular season game. By the way, Antonio Brown did it twice (2013-14).
If Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers has at least 150 yards from scrimmage on Sunday, he’ll tie Chris Johnson of the Titans for the most times in a regular season (10). McCaffrey needs 216 yards to pass Johnson (2,509 in 2009) for the most scrimmage yards in a single season. What’s more, both McCaffrey and Aaron Ekeler of the Chargers have a chance to gain 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving this season.
Finally, the much maligned Jameis Winston has 4,908 passing yards, including at least 375 in five different games. If he does it again, he’ll tie Peyton Manning (six in 2013) for the most games with at least 375 in one season.