While five of the six playoff spots have been wrapped up in both the NFC and the AFC, there’s sure to be drama in the final week of the NFL season.
Beyond the teams looking to secure the final two openings in the playoffs, the league’s top squads will be jockeying for position, all hoping to secure a better seed and home field advantage.
Whether it’s a West Coast barnburner between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers or an AFC South rivalry game with postseason implications, here are three things to watch for in the last week of the NFL regular season.
1. NFC East Division champion to be determined, will advance to the playoffs
Across the NFL, division titles have been wrapped up and postseason spots secured. That is, however, except for the NFC East, which will see its winner crowned on the final day of the season. The Philadelphia Eagles are firmly in the driver’s seat after defeating the Dallas Cowboys 17-9 last week, but America’s team still has a chance at the playoffs. If the Eagles lose to the New York Giants and the Cowboys defeat the Washington Redskins, Dallas will sneak into the postseason based on the league’s tiebreakers.
But whoever wins will be considered one of the weaker teams in the field, as every other division winner (both in the AFC and NFC) won at least 10 games. But when asked if Philly could do some damage in the playoffs, head coach Doug Pederson said, “We have a resilient group and I feel like they’re playing their best football down the stretch.”
The Eagles have a battle ahead of them, but according to Giants running back Saquon Barkley, it won’t be personal. When asked about the possibility of knocking Philadelphia out of the playoffs, Barkley said, “No one cares about that. At the end of the day, we don’t want anyone in the NFC East to make the playoffs besides ourselves, so it doesn’t matter to us.” The Giants are riding a two-game win streak, and if they take down the Eagles, the Cowboys control their own destiny.
That’s what Dallas head coach Jason Garrett is focused on: “One of the things we talk about every day is controlling what you can control. It’s a huge point of emphasis for us.”
That’s good for Dallas, but the Eagles want to make sure it’s out of the Cowboys’ hands. Said Philly defensive lineman Brandon Graham: “We want them hats and T-shirts (for winning the division). That’s what it’s all about. We don’t want Dallas getting theirs. We want ours.”
Watch: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX
Watch: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX
2. The Tennessee Titans are in control of the AFC’s final playoff spot
For the Tennessee Titans, it’s win and you’re in. It’s a little less simple when considering the Titans have to face the Houston Texans, a 10-5 squad who won the two team’s shared division. Tennessee also has the memory of Houston’s 24-21 victory against the Titans two weeks ago to contend with, but running back Derrick Henry isn’t concerned: “We’ve been locked in all week. We’re ready to go.”
Even if the Titans are locked in, the Texans will be, too. Despite clinching a playoff berth and division crown, Houston can still improve its postseason stock. With a win and loss by the Kansas City Chiefs, the Texans can move from the fourth seed to the third seed, all while keeping a familiar adversary out. Titans’ safety Kevin Byard says Tennessee is well aware of that fact: “They’re our divisional rival. I anticipate those guys trying to come here and beat us and try to spoil us getting in the playoffs.”
During practice this week, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson said Houston is focused on how it can translate two consecutive wins into continuous improvement: “You want to build on this week, to get you prepared for next week. Finding that momentum, finding that groove.”
One squad hoping the Texans find their groove is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite identical 8-7 records, the Titans are ahead of Pittsburgh due to a concept called “strength of victory,” which refers to the combined winning percentage of the opponents that a particular team has beaten.
The Steelers face the 13-2 Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, a game which would normally be an uphill battle, but the Ravens are sitting star quarterback Lamar Jackson after a Week 16 victory guaranteed Baltimore the top overall seed. But Pittsburgh isn’t about to get caught up in a “what if” game in regard to the playoffs. Quarterback Devlin Hodges emphasized that when speaking to reporters, “It’s a must-win game. We’ll see what other things happen, but we’re focused on us.”
Watch: Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS
Watch: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS
3. Seahawks and 49ers do battle for the NFC West crown
The San Francisco 49ers can already consider this season a success after tripling their win total from last year with one game still to play, but the team wants to accomplish more. When discussing what a win against the Seattle Seahawks would mean, San Francisco defensive tackle DeForest Buckner told reporters, “It’s a big deal. We could get this first round bye. And we haven’t beat Seattle in Seattle in a while.”
Beyond the thrill of beating a division opponent, the first round bye is crucial for a squad that has been dealing with injuries all season. Beyond that, it’s one less game to play en route to the Super Bowl. However, Seattle is also hoping to claim the division crown, and a win would improve their playoff seeding. With stakes this high, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo recognizes the challenge of facing the Seahawks: “These division games, whether you were born into this team, traded here, drafted here… the level of intensity is real.”
However, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan says his team is incredibly focused on their preparations: “It’s extremely fun to coach; no stone goes unturned by anyone and everyone is locked in.” But that sentiment was echoed by Seattle head man Pete Carroll, who told reporters, “It’s a very special week for us… last week of the season, and we’re playing for everything.”
With the stakes that high, Carroll and the Seahawks were looking for an advantage, especially with breakout running back Chris Carson out for the rest of the year. Cue the signing of Marshawn Lynch, a former Seahawk who had retired following the 2018 season. Lynch, known as Beast Mode, is one of the most colorful personalities in the league, but Seattle signed him for more than soundbites. Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson explained why Lynch was such an asset to the team. “More than anything, the fun part about playing with him is that he can make any play a great play.”
Wilson, in addition to being excited about Lynch’s return, is looking forward to the game. “Playing here in CenturyLink (the Seahawks’ stadium) under the lights, there’s nothing better. Had some great games, some great match-ups under the lights, and this is going to be one of them,” said Wilson. “They’re a great football team. We’re going to have to be ready to play a great 60 minutes of football, and maybe more.”
Watch: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC