By Sam Farmer
Los Angeles Times
Overcrowding, procrastination, people pushing and shoving for that one remaining item on the shelf…
Just the way the NFL had hoped the end of the season would go.
The league that once writhed when teams that had clinched early coasted into the postseason now has the most eventful Week 17 in memory, with eight of the 12 playoff tickets claimed, and 10 teams elbowing for the remaining four.
Three teams in the mix are dealing with fresh injuries to pivotal players.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, whose team faces a do-or-die home game against Philadelphia, could sit out the game because of a back injury suffered in the Cowboys’ victory at Washington on Sunday. According to an ESPN report, he will not play, although Coach Jason Garrett said Monday that Romo’s status has yet to be determined.
Denver All-Pro linebacker Von Miller is done for the season because of a torn knee ligament. He is key to the pass rush of the Broncos, who have won the AFC West and secured a first-round bye but are playing for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
New Orleans rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro also is done for the season, because of a broken ankle suffered in the Saints’ loss at Carolina. The spectrum of possibilities remains on the table for the Saints, who play host to Tampa Bay, ranging from earning a first-round bye to not reaching the playoffs at all.
Only one team knows its playoff seeding, the Kansas City Chiefs, who have the AFC’s No. 5 spot, regardless. The four AFC division winners have been determined, but their seedings are still in flux, although Denver is assured a first-round bye, either as a No. 1 or 2. The No. 6 spot remains up for grabs.\
In the NFC, no team has won its division, although Seattle, Carolina and San Francisco have clinched playoff spots.
“It sure makes for great football,” Hall of Fame coach John Madden said Monday in a phone interview. “We don’t have 14 games, then two games of blah, and then playoffs. That’s what I used to hate about it. Instead of blasting into the playoffs, we’d limp into the playoffs.
“And some stuff that wasn’t good for football was happening. Guys weren’t playing. They were resting guys. Teams had a chance for an undefeated season, and they gave it up. You were controlling the outcome by how you played it. Something’s really wrong with that.”
A key change came in 2010, on the heels of undefeated Indianapolis and New Orleans passing on the chance for undefeated seasons in 2009 and instead resting their stars down the stretch. The NFL scheduled division games for the final week of the season, reasoning that it improved the chances of meaningful matchups. Now that’s standard procedure.
Two division match-ups Sunday are winner-take-all finales, with the victors earning a home playoff game and the losers shutting it down for the season: Green Bay at Chicago and Philadelphia at Dallas. The Eagles-Cowboys game has been flexed to Sunday night, a fitting culmination of the most meaningful week of the season.
The Eagles played host to the Cowboys in October and were embarrassed, 17-3. Quarterback Nick Foles was knocked out of the game in the third quarter because of a concussion but couldn’t move the offense before that.
Since, the Eagles have won six of their last seven games. Foles leads the league with a 118.7 passer rating, with 25 touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He’s gotten a lot more reps and he’s more comfortable in understanding the situation,” Coach Chip Kelly said. “The experience factor is a lot different from when we played [the Cowboys] earlier in the season.”
The Green Bay-Chicago game could mark the return of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has sat out the last seven games recovering from a broken collarbone. He practiced with the team the last two weeks.
Coach Mike McCarthy said he intends to make a quicker decision on Rodgers’ status this week, so his team isn’t dogged by quarterback questions and drama in the days leading up to the finale.
“Aaron wants to play,” McCarthy said. “He fully accepts and understands everything that is going on with his injury. This is clearly a decision for [General Manager] Ted Thompson and I. I think it’s important for us to make a quicker decision.”
Sunday will be all about quick decisions. Among them:
If Denver wins at Oakland, the Broncos clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
If New England wins at Buffalo, the Patriots are guaranteed a first-round bye.
If Seattle wins at home against St. Louis, the Seahawks clinch the NFC West and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
If Carolina wins at Atlanta, the Panthers clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye.
If New Orleans wins at home against Tampa Bay, the Saints clinch a playoff spot.
There are other permutations, some of them complex, that could open the door to the playoffs to Arizona, Miami, Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh.
A typical Rubik’s Cube: the Steelers, who stayed alive Sunday with a 38-31 victory at Green Bay, need to win at Cleveland and need losses by Miami (against the New York Jets), Baltimore (at Cincinnati), and San Diego (against Kansas City).
“Now we can enjoy Christmas,” Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said after Sunday’s victory. “We’re cooking right now. All we can worry about is winning our game and letting the chips fall where they may. If they give us a chance to get into this tournament, I think we can do something very special.”