A couple of years ago, Roger Goodell and the NFL came up with a plan to maintain better competition in the final weeks of the season.
The plan was to schedule more divisional games at the end of the season. Too many coaches who had clinched playoff spots turned final games into mere exhibitions, sitting starters and rolling out the backups. As the NFL heads into Week 17, the system might be working -- but we'll see.
Ten of the 12 playoff spots are clinched, including all six spots in the AFC. Still, only the Atlanta Falcons have the luxury of sitting everyone; they clinched the No. 1 seed last week. But Falcons coach Mike Smith says his starters will play.
The question facing most of these teams is how long to leave the starters in. The worst thing that could happen to a team that has clinched would be losing a starter or two in the second half of a game in which those players could be rested.
In some ways, some of these games will be like training camp, where coaches and general managers cross their fingers and hope not to lose players to serious injuries.
In most cases, teams have something at stake. The Houston Texans must play everyone against the Indianapolis Colts if they want to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. A loss could drop them to the No. 3 seed and force them to play next week in the wild-card round.
Peyton Manning knows resting isn't a good option for the Broncos. If the Broncos beat the Kansas City Chiefs, they could lock up the No. 2 seed and not have to go to New England, which could get the No. 3 seed. Manning has been through enough battles with Tom Brady to know it's better to have the home crowd.
It appears most head coaches will go into Week 17 with the idea of playing their starters. How long they will be on the field is another question.
Here are the 10 top trends for the week:
1. Justice, to a certain degree: The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys felt handcuffed when the NFL took away $46 million of cap room for alleged cap violations in an uncapped year. If that sounds weird, it is weird. In the uncapped year before the NFL lockout in 2011, there weren't supposed to be any cap rules. But owners wanted teams to operate as if there were going to be a cap in the future. The Redskins and Cowboys reworked some deals that would free up cap room for the future. New York Giants ownership believed both teams needed sanctions. The penalties prevented the Cowboys from signing guard Carl Nicks. The Redskins couldn't bid for wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Both teams had to do more with less money. As it turns out, the Redskins and Cowboys survived the penalty and face each other for the NFC East title. The winner is in. The loser is probably out. The Giants can only make it as a wild card, and even those chances are remote. The Cowboys are a more experienced team but seem more prone to make the mistake that might cost them a chance at winning the division. The Cowboys have 26 turnovers. The Redskins, despite starting a rookie quarterback and a rookie halfback, have only 14. Over the past 12 years, the Cowboys have the worst Week 17 record in the NFL, 2-10. This is the third time since 2008 the Cowboys have faced a "win-and-you're-in'' scenario. They not only lost twice in this situation, they lost by 37 points in 2008 and 17 points last year.
2. Justice, to a degree, again: The Green Bay Packers believed they were robbed of a victory in Seattle earlier in the season. The "Fail Mary'' play may have ended the officials' lockout, but the call cost the Packers a victory. Since then, the Packers have battled back. If they can beat the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, they can finish 12-4 and secure the No. 2 seed, which would give them a much-needed bye week. No team can benefit from a bye week more than the Packers. It would give them time to get back injured safety Charles Woodson and wide receiver Jordy Nelson completely healthy. It gives them time to figure out their running back situation. More than anything else, it would give the Packers a chance to refresh their bodies and their minds. Coach Mike McCarthy has done a great job of fighting through adversity this season. The Packers have been overloaded with injuries. They've struggled along the offensive line. They've tried to get younger on defense. A refreshed Packers team after a bye week could be a dangerous team.
3. The "2K'' challenge: History will be on the line this weekend in two NFC North games. Adrian Peterson is eying Eric Dickerson's all-time rushing record of 2,105 yards. He has 1,898 yards. Topping 2,000 yards is within reach, because rushing for 102 yards is almost routine for the Vikings' running back. Getting the 208 yards needed for the record might be tough, but Peterson did put up 210 on the Packers earlier this season. Still, you wonder how much Peterson has left. He's a year and a week past blowing out a knee. This week he missed practice because of an abdominal injury. The game itself is more important. If the Vikings can beat the Packers, they can clinch a wild-card spot. If they lose, they are probably out unless all the other wild-card contenders in the NFC lose, too. Even more amazing than Peterson's exploits is the idea Detroit's Calvin Johnson will go over 2,000 yards receiving. That was a number no one ever considered. Jerry Rice had the record with 1,848. Johnson needs only 108 yards to reach 2,000. The way he's playing, he might be able to do that in the first half.
4. Playing the role of the spoiler: The Detroit Lions have had a horrible season. The defense has struggled. Injuries have destroyed the secondary. Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton calls the Lions a dirty team, and the Lions have been taking verbal shots at him. Bears defenders are saying Matthew Stafford fades at critical moments of games. The Lions would love nothing better than to eliminate the Bears from the playoffs. The Lions understand the stakes. Lovie Smith is battling to keep his job. Falling from a 7-1 start to 9-7 and out of the playoffs would not help him. That would be two late-season meltdowns in two years and falling short of the playoffs five times in the past six years. For a coach who is entering the final year of his contract in 2013, that's not good. The Bears have dominated this series, though. They've won eight of the past nine games against the Lions. Smith is 12-5 overall against the Lions and 6-1 against Jim Schwartz.
5. Return of Michael Vick: Nick Foles' hand injury has opened the door for Michael Vick to return to the starting lineup for one final time in Philadelphia. Because the Eagles would have to guarantee $47 million of his contract if he's on the roster late next week, the Eagles are expected to release Vick and let him become a free agent. Vick is obviously auditioning for possible jobs in Buffalo, Arizona, Jacksonville and other places looking for a quarterback. His return couldn't be good news for the New York Giants. For the past couple of weeks, the Giants have looked like a team content with its two Super Bowl rings. The secondary has struggled. The defensive line has underachieved. Vick will want to put on a show. The Giants need a win to stay in the playoff race, but it appears their defense of the Super Bowl title will officially end Sunday whether they win or lose.
6. On the eve of "Black Monday:" Lovie Smith is battling to get another year as head coach of the Chicago Bears. Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers can't afford a horrible game against the New Orleans Saints if he wants to get a third year. The Panthers' six wins may be enough for Rivera to stay on as coach. Jerry Richardson, the Panthers' owner, likes him. So do the players. Nevertheless, a bad game could go against him. Monday is expected to be crazy. The Eagles could fire Andy Reid. The Chargers will fire Norv Turner. His final game is against the Oakland Raiders. Pat Shurmur of the Cleveland Browns could be let go. The Kansas City Chiefs, who finish against the Denver Broncos, could fire head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli. Two more coaches are battling to keep their jobs. Chan Gailey's three losing seasons might persuade Buffalo Bills ownership to let him go. Gailey needs a good game against the New York Jets. Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak can't afford a bad game against the Jacksonville Jaguars if he wants to get a third year as head coach. Owner Bud Adams likes Munchak, but he hasn't liked the blowouts and bad games this season. Munchak is going against Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey, who also can't afford to have a bad game.
7. Seeding atop the AFC: A loss last week to the Minnesota Vikings jeopardized the Houston Texans' chances of getting the No. 1 seed. Most people thought their season finale in Indianapolis was going to be a game in which the Colts would be playing for a lot and the Texans would be resting starters after clinching home field in Week 16. The opposite has happened. The Colts are the No. 5 seed and will be looking forward to playing Baltimore next week. A Texans' loss could drop Houston to the No. 3 seed and a game against Cincinnati if the Broncos and Patriots win. A lot is at stake. The Broncos shouldn't have much of a problem beating Kansas City. The Patriots play the Miami Dolphins and expect to win. Sunday won't be easy for the Texans. The Colts can play the spoiler and can win a game for Chuck Pagano, who returns to the sideline after recovering from treatments for leukemia.
8. Quarterback shuffle: Several teams will be using different quarterbacks for various reasons. Carson Palmer's season with the Oakland Raiders is over because of cracked ribs. The Raiders will use Matt Leinart and Terrelle Pryor in the season finale against the San Diego Chargers. Shoulder injuries to Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy could vault Browns practice squad quarterback Thaddeus Lewis into the starting lineup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Shurmur is trying to get a sweep against the Steelers, but those chances might not be good if Lewis is the starter. Ken Whisenhunt elected to go with Brian Hoyer as his fourth quarterback this season. Hoyer will face the wrath of a San Francisco 49ers defense that was blown out by Seattle last week. And then we have the Jets. Greg McElroy suffered a concussion, so the Jets are going back to Mark Sanchez against the Bills.
9. Sorting out the AFC North: The Cincinnati Bengals finally jumped the Steelers to make the playoffs. It's their second straight trip to the playoffs. They close the season against Baltimore and want to see how they match up against the defending divisional champ. Little else is at stake. The Bengals are the No. 6 seed. The Ravens are trying to sort out their offense in their third week under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. Caldwell got plays to quarterback Joe Flacco quicker, and that brought a better tempo to the offense. The Bengals are developing Marvin Jones as a receiver on the other side of A.J. Green, and he looks promising. Sunday will be a good chance for both teams to experiment.
10. From championship contention to shambles: After Sunday's game against the Bills, the Jets go into a rebuilding mode. Owner Woody Johnson first must figure whether he wants to keep Rex Ryan as head coach. Changes are expected at general manager, quarterback and offensive coordinator. Two years ago, the Jets were slugging it out in championship games. Now, they will be lucky to finish 7-9. The Tim Tebow trade was a disaster. The team is expected to get rid of him during the offseason. The Jets have been a circus this season. The circus ends Sunday, but the offseason drama begins Monday.