The stakes have never been higher than they are in Week 17, when teams are fighting for more than the right to keep playing. The Packers must defend the wisdom of playing it safe with Aaron Rodgers. The Bengals hope to win one not just for their fans, but for the concept of slow-and-steady roster development. Three AFC wild-card hopefuls are trying to avoid an 8-8 logjam, while a fourth is counting on one. The Chargers and Cardinals have a chance to prove that peaking at the right time is better than bumbling away a golden opportunity, but the Saints, Dolphins and Ravens (unlike the Lions) have not fully bumbled yet. But all eyes are on Dallas, where the Kyle Orton Revolution will be televised, and none of us are safe from the Romo Bashing Robespierres. Week 17 may mean the end of the world for some coaches, but if Orton leads an upset, they won't be alone.

Eagles at Cowboys

8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Eagles by 6 ½

Any scenario in which Kyle Orton leads the Cowboys to the Super Bowl also involves the downfall of Western Civilization.

Scenario One has Western Civilization falling in the next two weeks, leaving the Cowboys as the only team to capitalize. The Cowboys survive because Jerry Jones is actually responsible for the downfall of Western Civilization. He built a Hadron Collider under Cowboys Stadium with the help of a team of scientists he personally selected. Next week, he will try to find the Higgs Boson by splitting the atoms of a lap dancer's bustier with subatomic barbecue sauce particles, and -- whammo! -- the Earth's gravitational field starts doing the wobble. The Cowboys are spared because Jason Garrett's meeting room is an anti-apocalypse shelter: surviving and shouldering the blame for the near-demolition of the Earth is actually written into his contract.

Scenario Two has Orton leading the Cowboys through a gauntlet that includes this week's Eagles, some other playoff teams, and presumably Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, despite a defense that could allow 35 points to an aquatic Pilates class. Orton's success leads directly to the Armed Uprising of the Romo Trolls.

So there's a slim chance that the "justify Romo's existence" existentialism has quieted down for the year, but a slightly slimmer chance that it is about to become a turbocharged weapon of planetary annihilation. Suffering a back injury while leading two fourth-quarter scoring drives to keep your team's playoff hopes alive is the ultimate form of choking if you think about it, but please don't: I may just be endearing myself to our soon-to-arrive Romo Troll Overlords.

(Double-deluxe worst case scenario: Orton defeats Josh McCown in the playoffs and Alex Smith in the Super Bowl. All pesky cast-aside veterans are declared better than super-talented starters, and all positions of power and influence in our nation are taken over by try-hard types with firm handshakes, if they haven't been already. Also, if Orton outplays Romo, and Tim Tebow once replaced Orton … the conclusions to be drawn are too horrible to consider.)

If all of this post-apocalyptic talk doesn't make you an Eagles fan for one week, nothing will. But here is the terrifying part: the only quarterback to make the Cowboys defense look good this year was Nick Foles (with an assist from Matt Barkley after Foles suffered a concussion), and the only defense that made Foles look truly terrible this year was the Cowboys. If Chip Kelly has an Admiral Akbar moment and Foles has another poor outing against the Cowboys, the year-long feebleness of the Cowboys defense will be attributed to Romo's remote-control anti-leadership. The fabric of modern society will crumble, and in six months all standard spelling, capitalization and punctuation will be outlawed except RANDOM ALL CAPS to EMPHASIEZ that ROMO CHOAKZ,.,,!

The only force defending human culture right now is the Cowboys defense, which is still bad enough to collapse before the Kelly steamroller and render any Orton heroics moot. Relying on the unreliable to be unreliable is usually a safe bet, but this time there's an awful lot riding on it.

Prediction: Eagles 31, Cowboys 20

* * *

Packers at Bears

4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Haven't seen a midweek Packers line since the Halloween decorations came down.

If Matt Flynn had been slightly worse, we would not be thinking much about Aaron Rodgers right now. The Packers season would have been a lost cause three weeks ago. Franchise quarterbacks get hurt. Unnecessary risks are foolish. Let Rodgers heal. Better luck next year.

If Matt Flynn had been slightly better, we would not be thinking much about Aaron Rodgers right now. A handful of extra completions or non-fumbles and the Packers would have won the close Steelers loss and Vikings tie. The Packers would be 9-6, with a 4-1 record since Flynn took over. Flynn could be trusted to continue his hot streak against an opponent with its own quarterback uncertainty issues, plus a defense that turns every off-tackle run into Must-See TV. Come the all-but-certain playoffs, Rodgers' risk-benefit calculus would be simple arithmetic.

If Josh McCown were slightly worse, we would not be thinking much about Aaron Rodgers right now. The Bears would have likely lost to the Packers in October, then to the Ravens during monsoon season. They would be 6-9, the Packers 8-6-1, and Sunday's game would be meaningless.

If Josh McCown were slightly better, the Bears would have beaten the Redskins and the Vikings in their second meeting. They would be division champs, the Packers season would have become a lost cause, and we would not be thinking much about Aaron Rodgers right now.

If the Lions -- heaven help us all -- possessed the professionalism and determination that can usually be found in a fast food kitchen at midnight, they would have clinched the division three weeks ago, and this would have been one of the capsules that got pre-written before Christmas week (shhh, don't tell my editors). We would not be thinking much about Aaron Rodgers right now.

Instead, Flynn was just good enough to keep the Packers hanging around, McCown was just good enough to keep the Bears hanging around, and the Lions hanged themselves. The 187th game between the Packers and Bears is one of the most significant meetings in history, because it is a de facto playoff game. It's also strangely insignificant, because it is a stinker between two one-and-done playoff weaklings unless Rodgers really does jog out of the tunnel on Sunday as his coach has assured us he will.

The Goldilocks zone in which the Rodgers decision remained significant became a limbo which we may have finally escaped. Thursday brought word that Rodgers would play, though after getting the Gronkowski treatment from the Patriots for the first half of the season, we won't believe it until midway through the first quarter. Even if Rodgers is rusty, the Packers should have little trouble, because the Bears run defense cannot stop a toy remote-control dune buggy in a driveway. 

It was not supposed to take this long: the Bears were supposed to be better, or worse; Flynn better, or worse; the Lions less clueless. The Packers organization looked at their choices for 2013 and chose Aaron Rodgers for 2014. It seemed wise, but fate just worked overtime to make it look controversial.

Prediction: Packers 28, Bears 24

* * *

Chiefs at Chargers

4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chargers by 9 ½

The Chargers make the playoffs if they win (or tie; let's not rule out anything at this point) and both the Ravens and Dolphins lose. Not only is it a tidy scenario, but a fairly likely one. The Dolphins and Ravens lost by a combined score of 60-7 last week and would have a hard time building a championship-caliber offense if you combined both squads, while the Chargers are facing the only 100% slotted (and therefore capable of resting starters) playoff team on the schedule, hence the gonzo spread.

If the Chargers reach the playoffs, good for them, and good for us. They are far more watchable than the Ravens or Dolphins, and they have not kicked up a lick of drama or controversy all year. In fact, no one has paid much attention at all as Phillip Rivers revived his career, Keenan Allen developed from mid-tier prospect into superstar and Mike McCoy restored excitement and creativity to an offense stuck for years in Norv Neutral. The Chargers pass defense is awful (though improving) and the team still sometimes gets a mental block around the goal line, but no one claimed they were the 1962 Packers. At least they aren't closing in on 60 sacks allowed or naming their kicker the MVP. Go, Chargers, go.

In the event that the Chargers, Dolphins and Ravens all lose, the Steelers make the playoffs. Adding Todd Haley to our Orton Apocalypse scenarios takes us into some seriously dark territory.

Prediction: Chiefs 27, Chargers 21

* * *

49ers at Cardinals

4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Even

We all know that the Seahawks have the best defense in the NFL. There have been several contenders for second best throughout the year. The Chiefs exerted themselves for a while, though it turned out that a succession of third-string quarterbacks all had four fingers on the football and a thumb on the statistical scales. The 49ers have impressive second-best credentials (as impressive as second-best credentials can be, anyway) but some noticeable vulnerabilities as well: their sack totals and interior run defense are not-so-excitingly average.

The Cardinals are the latest contenders for second-best, and they are peaking at the right time. Football Outsiders ranks them second (to the Jets) in run defense and third (behind the Seahawks and Bills) in pass defense. The raw numbers are impressive, particularly when you factor in the competition level: 3.7 yards per rush allowed despite facing Marshawn Lynch twice among others, a 78.5 passer rating allowed against a strong slate of quarterbacks. The Cardinals defense is full of familiar veteran faces having excellent seasons, from Karlos Dansby and John Abraham through Darnell Dockett, Patrick Peterson and Calais Campbell. The Cardinals defense would be better than advertised if anyone had advertised the Cardinals defense. It is playoff caliber, and probably championship caliber.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals defense will probably not appear in any playoffs or championships. It has improved since the 49ers grinded down a 32-20 win in the teams' first meeting, but it must still cope with its biggest problem: the turnover-prone Cardinals offense. Eight of the 49ers' points in the last meeting came on a safety and two shadow-of-the-goalpost interceptions; a lesser defense would have allowed 16 points. Four Carson Palmer interceptions forced the Cardinals defense to operate at peak capacity until Palmer finally uncorked a game-changing bomb. The Cardinals cannot keep beating good opponents this way, and good opponents are all that are left.

The Saints are hosting the Buccaneers, so even a Cardinals upset will probably be rendered moot. If the Cardinals fail to make the playoffs, remember their defense. It truly belonged, and it will be poised to upset the balance of power next year.

Prediction: 49ers 23, Cardinals 16

* * *

Buccaneers at Saints

4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Saints by 12 ½

The Saints faced third-and-16, third-and-17, third-and-15, third-and-12, and third-and-19 situations during last week's loss to the Panthers. They converted none of those third downs, though Drew Brees completed passes short of the sticks on most of them.

The causes of the third-and-longs were a combination of sacks, unproductive runs and penalties. The template for the failed Saints drive starts with no gain on a first down run, a sack or holding penalty on second down, then a seven-yard completion to a running back on third-and-long.

The underlying cause of those sacks and stuffs (and some of the penalties) is a porous offensive line. There is not much home-road magic at work in New Orleans. If they are facing Robert Quinn and Chris Long, they are vulnerable. If they are facing Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, everything had better work perfectly. If they are facing the 47 Ronin of Seattle, well, everyone is vulnerable in that situation. Brees and the other Saints stars can be equalizers if their line gives them a chance, but sometimes the mismatch in the trenches just tilts the game.

Brees threw two interceptions and was sacked four times in his first meeting with the Buccaneers, a team with a very solid front seven. The Saints won because the Buccaneers offense is terrible and Greg Schiano was in full Dark Tyrant mode at that point. The Saints have one more fight on their hands, this time at home. They must win it in the trenches, because they aren't going to win it on third-and-19.

Prediction: Saints 28, Buccaneers 14

* * *

Jets at Dolphins

1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Dolphins by 5 ½

From 2009 through 2012, Rex Ryan's Jets rescued us from boring mediocrity. They were often mediocre, but never boring, and there is something to be said for delivering .500-caliber seasons with a twinkle in the eye and a boast on the lips. The NFL is an entertainment industry, and Ryan managed to entertain even when his product wasn't good, a kind of Roger Corman or Sherwood Schwartz of football.

Ryan discovered professionalism this year, and professionalism does not always lessen the symptoms of mediocrity but includes such side effects as blandness and irrelevance. His bluster and wisecracks were often counterproductive, but they came closer to the patterns of real human speech and behavior than the automated coachbot doublespeak that he chafed against as he became re-assimilated into the collective. Ryan enjoyed playing to the crowd; many of his colleagues seem to resent the existence of a crowd.

It would be fitting for Ryan to strike down the Dolphins in his last act (probably) as the Jets head coach. No team better exemplifies noisy, busy, expensive mediocrity than an opponent that spent five seasons and tens of millions of dollars climbing from 7-9 to the dizzying heights of 8-7. The Dolphins aimed the bar medium-high this year, and huzzah, they have practically reached it. Ryan set his bar across the Grand Canyon each year and face-flopped his share of times, but he also provided some signature moments that the Dolphins would give Mike Wallace's signing bonus to claim for themselves.

A great coach is better than an interesting one, but at least Ryan put the Jets a notch above the many teams that have neither.

Prediction: Jets 19, Dolphins 17

* * *

Bills at Patriots

4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 9

This has been Tom Brady's most impressive season, more impressive than the Super Bowl years or 2007. (Within Tom Brady's breast beats the rippling heart of an eternal champion.) If his stats are low, and if he has looked shaky and snarly at times, it is because he has done more with less than ever before. (The platelets in Brady's bloodstream thrum to the universal frequency of transcendent triumph.) He no longer has Wes Welker reading his mind over the middle, Randy Moss out-leaping double coverage, or superstar tight ends embarrassing linebackers down the hashmarks. (His marrow and sinew are permeated with the pulsating, glorious, minty-tasting essence of the victorious warrior-demigod.) He has demonstrated adaptability and resiliency. (His Midi-chlorian readings are high.) His leadership had a clear influence on a young, ever-changing receiving corps. (Insert barely-sublimated homoeroticism here.) It has been a fine season, and it ain't over. (Future generations will refer to Gisele as First Mother.)

Brady's fine season will not clinch home field advantage, because the Broncos get to fool around with Terrelle Pryor on Sunday. The Patriots also look very mortal, despite last Sunday's beating of the Ravens, though they could just be setting the stage for one more storyline. (Winner victor champion hero paladin samurai unvanquished ideal of manhood Bradybradybradybradybrady …)  

Prediction: Patriots 41, Bills 14

* * *

Ravens at Bengals

1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bengals by 6

The Bengals deserve to win a playoff game one of these days, if not for football reasons (they are what they are) but for philosophical, theoretical ones. The Bengals have done things "the right way" for three years: they professionalized their front office, drafted prudently, developed talent patiently, managed the cap well, gave the coaching staff a long leash. These business practices should be rewarded in an industry where trading a sampler platter of first-round picks for one playoff appearance is sometimes hailed as brilliance.

To maximize their chances of winning a playoff game, the Bengals must win on Sunday. They can clinch a first round bye with a win and a Patriots loss, but assuming that the Patriots will beat the Bills in a game they need (throbbing, rippling corpuscles of an eternal champion), the Bengals should prepare to settle for a No. 3 seed and a chance to avoid the Chiefs in favor of the postseason-by-technicality No. 6 seed.

Of course, the Bengals lost to the Dolphins, Ravens and Steelers (a split) this year, and their Chargers victory was a too-close-for-comfort affair. Perhaps the Chiefs are their best bet. A loss to the Ravens, plus the right combination of Colts and Dolphins losses, would trigger a Ravens-Bengals rematch: a worst-case scenario for Bengals optimism.

The Bengals deserve to win a playoff game one of these days, if only to spare us from having to write pessimistic previews like this one about them again.

Prediction: Bengals 23, Ravens 20

* * *

Browns at Steelers

1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Steelers by 7

A future history of Cleveland Browns quarterbacks:

May, 2014: Confident that Brian Hoyer will be their starter of the immediate future, the Browns decide not to draft a quarterback with their first of two first-round picks. Late in the first round, with the pick they acquired from the Colts, they select Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

December, 2014: Garoppolo earns his first start in relief of Hoyer (who has thrown 13 touchdowns and 17 interceptions) in a snowstorm in Pittsburgh. He completes 12 passes before separating his shoulder when Jason Worilds slams him into a sideline snowplow.

May, 2015: The Browns draft Nick Montana in the seventh round of the draft. Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi stress that Montana is just a developmental flyer and that fans should not read too much into his famous family name, though Lombardi has his fingers crossed the whole time.

September, 2015: Montana named opening day Browns starter.

December, 2015: Garoppolo, Hoyer and Montana combine for 13 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Banner and Lombardi are fired by the government-appointed Browns ownership board, which is chaired by Todd Park. They are replaced by Mack Brown and some kid you have never heard of who has a killer blog and sometimes plays Words With Friends with Chip Kelly.

March, 2016: Browns sign Kirk Cousins, release Hoyer and Garopollo.

October, 2016: Cousins throws five touchdowns in a three-game winning streak before tearing his ACL. The Browns trade Josh Gordon to the Jets for a first round pick. Jordan Rodgers and Jordan Palmer are signed to back up Nick Montana. Russell Wilson's wife names their newborn baby Jordan, and Wilson places him in a basket and floats him away on the Puget Sound so the Browns can never find him.

January, 2017: Rob Chudzinski fired, replaced by head coach David Cutcliffe, with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Kubiak gives a major vote of confidence to Kirk Cousins.

May, 2017: Despite two first-round picks, the Browns pass on Jameis Winston but select a 6-foot-2 kid with moxie in the fifth round. Kirk Cousins gears up for a 13-touchdown, 17-interception season.

October 2017: President Cranston orders the Browns to disband forever, sending his approval rating through the roof.

Prediction: Steelers 27, Browns five more years of this

* * *

Panthers at Falcons

1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Panthers by 5 ½

It's fun to read the names of the Falcons rookie defenders and pretend you are reading a novel set in Colonial Africa.

Zeke Motta arrived in the tiny nation of Joplo Bartu seeking adventure and fortune. He found only misery. "Not what you bargained for, Monsieur?" asked Trufant, the jaded con artist/mercenary, as they drifted down the Maponga River in search of a lost missionary named Malliciah Goodman. A merchant named Alford had staked claims to the region after the Belgians departed, and Lord Worrilow sent Trufant and Motta up the river to find both Goodman and the rumored untapped diamond veins. Yet fear of the ruthless local warlord -- or was he a freedom fighter? -- dogged our every step. "Kemal Ishmael does not trust Europeans, with good reason, Mr. Motta. He will take a notched bayonet to your couilles if he does not like you," Trufant said with a nervous cackle.

Like novels set in Colonial Africa, the Falcons season has ended terribly. The Panthers are nearly as dependent on rookie defenders as the Falcons, but they are gearing up for the playoffs because those rookies are supported by stars like Luke Kuechly and Charles Johnson, plus capable veterans like Thomas Davis and Captain Munnerlyn. Hmmm … Captain Munnerlyn shook off his gin hangover and coaxed the engine of the Congo Queen to a grunting, reluctant start. The rickety old boat was his only chance to run jerry's blockade and journey upriver in search of the legendary Star Lotulelei …

Prediction: Panthers 24, Falcons 20

* * *

Redskins at Giants

1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Giants by 4

Bitter and demoralized, the Redskins and Giants faced each other with no interest in fighting, and no one in the crowd wanted to watch them either. Suddenly, spontaneously, they left their sideline foxholes and crossed the windswept Meadowlands field, shaking hands and offering gifts of nachos locos and cotton candy-flavored vodka.

"A Christmas truce!" Justin Tuck declared, and the players made merry for hours at the 50-yard line. Both generals were enraged, and when Robert Griffin dared to climb through the razor wire surrounding his makeshift brig and nibble on a mozzarella stick offered by Mark Herzlich, Mike Shanahan flew into a rage and drove a jeep directly into the crowd of players.

That's how the Great Christmas NFC East Ceasefire of 2013 turned into the Tragic Lunatic Driving Spree of 2013, and it's the reason Giants and Redskins fans celebrated Week 17 from that year onward by watching an Eagles-Cowboys game.

Prediction: Giants 27, Redskins 26

* * *

Jaguars at Colts

1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Colts by 11 ½

After the smoke cleared on this tilt-a-whirl of a Colts season, after they beat all the best opponents and struggled with some of the worst, the Colts arrive at the playoffs as a slightly above average football team. Football Outsiders ranks them 11th overall: 12th on offense, 17th on defense, 19th on special teams. Their pass offense ranks 17th; their run offense a shocking 7th due to Donald Brown's decency, Andrew Luck's scrambling and a schedule full of nasty run defenses that deflated their numbers. Their defense ranks 13th against the pass and 24th against the run. Their pass protection ranks 6th, their pass rush 11th, and if you are reading all these rankings carefully you can see that the relative strengths balance the relative weaknesses. The Colts spent the season with one arm in lava and the other in liquid nitrogen. They have averaged out to be surprisingly comfortable.

Having gotten the bipolarity out of their system, the Colts join the Chiefs and Bengals to form an AFC playoff middle class. It's hard to find a contender in the bunch, but perhaps the Colts held on to a little of their early-season dragon-slaying unpredictability. If they lose to the Jaguars, it may be a sign that they are gearing up for one last mood swing.

Prediction: Jaguars 24, Colts 16

* * *

Lions at Vikings

1:00 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Vikings by 3

When you cover the NFL from a stats-and-scouting perspective, all of the talk about courage, leadership and "knowing how to win" makes you want to grab the emergency brake cord and derail the runaway narrative train every single week. They lost because the quarterback is inaccurate on sideline passes, not because he's an uninspiring coward.  

Then you encounter a team whose leaders include: a temperamental defender who expects kudos for not spearing an opponent; a quarterback who is sick of hearing about his throwing mechanics, though not sick enough to improve them; an irascible coach who does not appear to have the self-discipline to instill discipline in his players; and a running back who is Reggie Bush. They all work for a franchise that has gone 0-1 in the playoffs for the millennium and has played perhaps a half-dozen meaningful December games since their current players were in elementary school. Bush is among the few Lions players with any deep playoff experience, and he practically had to climb out of a pile of reality television starlets to collect his ring. Maybe no one on the payroll understands the specifics of playoff preparation, sustaining focus and making the late-season course corrections that better teams make during Super Bowl runs. Maybe, just maybe, the Lions don't know how to win.

Jim Schwartz and Leslie Frazier can call a joint farewell press conference and walk into the sunset together. Frazier's successor inherits a very manageable cap situation, a roster full of up-and-comers and one of the NFL's best players, who also happens to be an excellent quarterback-development multi-tool. Schwartz's successor inherits a cap nightmare and a veteran corps with exceptional talent but ingrained shortcomings, plus a few standout rookies. Guess which job is more appealing.

Prediction: Vikings 24, Lions 13

* * *

Broncos at Raiders

4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Broncos by 12

Terrelle Pryor is an extreme early-detection system for pass rush, making him a useful barometer for the Von Miller-less Broncos. Pryor flees the pocket as soon as he suspects that defenders might eventually break free of their blockers, and he detects blitzes which are invisible to the naked eye. If Pryor stands comfortably in the pocket -- as he did for much of his September meeting with the Miller-less Broncos -- then the Broncos defense is in real playoff trouble. If he outruns pass rushers for big gains, it's a cause for concern if the Broncos face a fast quarterback in the playoffs. (Only Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill qualify in the AFC, but come the Super Bowl … ) If Pryor scampers around like an eight-point buck on the opening day of Uzi season, it will only tell us a little about the playoff-readiness of the Broncos pass rush, but it will bring the Raiders draft strategy into focus.

Prediction: Broncos 38, Raiders 22

* * *

Rams at Seahawks

4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 10 ½

The greatest Seahawks teams ever:

  1. 2005 Seahawks. 13-3 record. Won the Super Bowl in a strange parallel dimension where touchdowns are scored by crossing the plane of the goal line. Matt Hasselbeck. Shaun Alexander. Walter Jones.
  2. 2013 Seahawks. Record and playoff performance to be determined.
  3. 2012 Seahawks. 11-5 record. Lost in the playoffs because no matter how hard Falcons defenders tried to not tackle opponents, Tony Gonzalez eventually gritted his teeth and said "enough's enough." Russell Wilson. Marshawn Lynch. Richard Sherman.
  4. 1984 Seahawks. 12-4 record. Lost in the playoffs because running the ball 495 times per year when your star running back blew out his knee in the season opener is not going to get you past Dan Marino, no matter how great your defense is. Kenny Easley. Steve Largent. Ground Chuck Knox. Dave Krieg and his seven-headed backfield.
  5. 2007 Seahawks: 10-6 record. Lost in playoffs because when the Brett Favre Packers spotted you two first-quarter turnovers, you had to find a way to convert them into 35 points. Otherwise, they got the stupid out of their system and dropped 42 on you. Hasselbeck. Alexander. Patrick Kerney and Julian Peterson.

Nothing the Seahawks do this week can move them up or down this list, of course. It's sometimes fun to take a moment to appreciate just how magical and rare seasons like this are, and how strange playoff scenarios often turn out.

Prediction: Seahawks 27, Rams 17

* * *

Texans at Titans

1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Titans by 7

The last Game Riff of the regular season is about new beginnings, not endings. The Texans will have a new coach next year, plus the first or second pick in the draft. They got a jump on the coach-selection process by interviewing Lovie Smith, and watched their quarterback-of-the-future choices sort themselves out when Case Keenum flatlined before getting injured. The Titans are also teetering on the brink of a regime change, with a new owner preparing to define his tenure, but the Texans made themselves a bigger story this year.

The dark days of Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub are over. The dark days of 10-6 and 12-4 seasons and home playoff victories.

Eighty-three coaches in NFL history have won two postseason games, including Kubiak. A total of 352 men have coached at least 12 NFL games (a full season for much of NFL history), so Kubiak achieved something in 2011 and 2012 that only the top 25% of all full-time coaches ever accomplish.

Granted, playoff games -- and therefore playoff wins -- were much rarer before the modern wild-card systems were established. Here's a list of some modern coaches who have not won two playoff games: Wayne Fontes, Jack Pardee, Dom Capers, Wade Phillips, Mike Smith, Marvin Lewis, Dan Henning, Buddy Ryan, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, and Jim Mora the Elder and Younger combined. Also, Jason Garrett, Jim Schwartz, Leslie Frazier, and Titans coach Mike Munchak, all of whom are likely to join Kubiak at the diner for a commiseration breakfast by Tuesday morning.

Kubiak's time had come, of course, and not all head coaches with multiple playoff wins are masterminds. It's just important to remember that the majority of coaching eras rise and fall in the course of two or three seasons with little to show for them. Home playoff games are special, as fans who have waited 20 years for one in Detroit will tell you. Back-to-back playoff appearances, with wins, are rare enough that a generation of Browns fans cannot remember the last time it happened. A two-year run of playoff parties in the home parking lot should not be cast off as "mediocrity." By doing so, a fanbase runs the risk of becoming permanently dissatisfied.

It's exciting to anticipate that the new coach (quarterback, top pick) will bring Super Bowl glory. There's a better-than-75% chance that he will not accomplish as much as the last coach. Demanding the best is part of fandom. Treating something less than the best as if failing to outsmart Bill Belichick was some sort of personal insult that wounded an entire city will make a fanbase crazy.

I know what I am talking about. I am from Philadelphia.

Prediction: Titans 21, Texans 17