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Milt Northrop’s Sunday Playbook: Division titles on the line at three sites Sunday

A few years ago the NFL set up the regular season schedule to load up the final week with divisional matchups. Look what they’ve come up with in Week 17 of the 2014 season:

Three games on Sunday’s schedule will decide division titles in the AFC North between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the NFC North between Detroit and Green Bay and NFC South between Carolina and Atlanta.

Those games and a combination of others will determine the final wild-card position in the AFC and the seeding for each conference.

It has the making of an interesting day right up to the Sunday Night clash between the Bengals and Steelers in Pittsburgh.

A capsule look at the Week 17 games:

Game of the day

Bengals (10-4-1) at Steelers (10-5)

TV: Ch. 2, 8:30 p.m.

The line: Steelers (-3½).

The scoop: The final game of the 2014 regular season will decide the AFC North division. The Bengals are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season but they are 0-3 in first-round games. ... The Steelers lead the league in offense at 415.4 yards per game. They are second to Indianapolis with a 300.5 passing average. ... The Steelers routed Cinci, 42-21, only three weeks ago at Paul Brown Stadium.

Outlook: Playing at home with Ben Roethlisberger leading the show, the Steelers will be more tough-minded. Pittsburgh, 31-17.

Top attractions

Lions (11-4) at Packers (11-4)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Packers (-7½).

The scoop: The winner will claim the NFC North title and also earn a first-round bye. Also, the winner can secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC with some help – Green Bay would need a Seattle loss and Detroit would need both Seattle and Arizona to lose. Detroit humbled the Pack, 19-7, at Ford Field, but that was back on Sept. 21. ... Quarterback Aaron Rodgers of Packers will play but he was hobbled a bit by a calf injury in last week’s win at Tampa Bay.

Outlook: Looking for Rodgers to lead a comeback victory, 20-17.

Panthers (6-8-1) at Falcons (6-9)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Falcons (-3).

The scoop: The winner will take the NFC South title, the final NFC playoff berth and the notoriety of being only the second team with a losing record to make the playoffs in a nonstrike year. The loser’s season comes to an end. The winner also will host a wild-card round playoff next week against an opponent with double-digit wins. “We’re excited about our chances,” says Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, whose team once stood at 2-6 and is only 1-9 outside the division. ... Cam Newton came back from a back injury and led Carolina to a 17-13 win over Cleveland last week.

Outlook: Neither of these underachievers deserves to make the playoffs. Atlanta has a way of disappointing its home fans. Carolina, 23-21.

Rams (6-9) at Seahawks (11-4)

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.

The line: Seahawks (-12½).

The scoop: With a win, the Seahawks will lock up the NFC West and a first-round bye no matter what Arizona does. In addition to a Seattle victory, if the Detroit-Green Bay game does not end in a tie or Dallas loses, the Seahawks will secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs for the second year in a row. ... Since a loss at Kansas City, the Seahawks have rounded nicely into Super Bowl form with five wins in a row, and their defensive yield of only 268.6 ypg leads the league.

Outlook: As well as Seattle is playing, you still have to respect the Rams’ defensive front and the chance they can keep Russell Wilson in the pocket and nervous. Seahawks, 19-12.

Cardinals (11-4) at 49ers (7-8)

TV: Ch. 29, 4:25 p.m.

The line: 49ers (-6½).

The scoop: Arizona has secured a playoff berth and can still win the NFC West, earn a first-round bye and claim home-field advantage in the NFC. With a win and a Seattle loss, the Cardinals will win the division and lock up a bye. If Green Bay also loses, Arizona will be the No. 1 seed in the NFC. ... The problem is the Cardinals have virtually no offense at all with Ryan Lindley starting at quarterback.

Outlook: The Niners have lost their last four and are only 3-4 in their new stadium, but they are due. San Francisco, 17-9.

Raiders (3-12) at Broncos (11-4)

TV: Ch. 4, 4:25 p.m.

The line: Broncos (-14).

The scoop: Denver has already clinched the AFC West and can earn a first-round bye with a win. The Broncos can also secure a first-round bye with a Cincinnati loss. ... Raiders have been a terrible road team but they ambushed overconfident, uninspired and unprepared Bills last week in Oakland. They are improving week by week under interim coach Tony Sparano. With little to play for, the Broncos were handled at Cincinnati last Monday night. ... Denver won first meeting, 41-17, in Oakland.

Outlook: Figuring the Broncos will play it cozy, bench Peyton Manning early and hang on to 20-10 win over pesky Raiders.

Best of the rest

Chargers (9-6) at Chiefs (8-7)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Chiefs (-1).

The scoop: Both are alive for the final playoff berth in the AFC. San Diego will advance to the postseason with a win. Kansas City can qualify with a win along with losses by both Baltimore and Houston. However, the Chiefs suffered a severe blow to their chance late in the week when starting QB Alex Smith was sidelined with a lacerated spleen. Chase Daniel, a former Missouri star, who has started just one NFL game in six seasons, will get the start in his place. ... Chiefs won first meeting, 23-20, in San Diego. ... Chiefs’ only win since five-game midseason win streak ended was over Raiders. ... Chargers are 4-2 since 37-0 loss at Miami with the losses to New England and Denver in successive weeks.

Outlook: Defense and Jamaal Charles will have to come through for Chiefs. Kansas City, 20-14.

Cowboys (11-4) at Redskins (4-11)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Cowboys (-5½).

The scoop: The Cowboys are the NFC East champions and will attempt to earn a first-round bye and home-field advantage with either a win combined with the Detroit-Green Bay game ending in a tie or losses by both Seattle and Arizona. If the Cowboys win, Detroit-Green Bay ends in a tie and either Arizona loses or Seattle wins, Dallas will clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC. ... Cowboys are only NFL team without a loss away from home.

Outlook: As Eagles learned last week, count on the Redskins to play over their heads in a return game with divisional opponent, especially the hated ’Boys. Dallas, 31-28.

Eagles (9-6) at Giants (6-9)

TV: Ch. 29, 1 p.m.

The line: Giants (-2½).

The scoop: Philly fell out of playoff picture with three straight losses after big Thanksgiving win in Dallas. Before Redskins last week, their losses had come against 49ers, then playoff-bound Cards, Packers, Seahawks and Cowboys. ... Big news for Giants is sensational rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who has 79 receptions for 1,120 yards and 11 TDs despite missing some early games.

Outlook: Eagles have cashed it in while Giants have salvaged some respect after seven-game losing streak. Giants, 33-20.

Saints (6-9) at Buccaneers (2-13)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Saints (-4).

The scoop: Are Saints and their fans still crying about Bountygate suspensions? Who dey? Easily most disappointing team in NFL. ... Bills are an offensive powerhouse compared to punchless Buccaneers (292.8 ypg), 79.5 rushing ypg.

Outlook: Sourpuss Saints finally have somebody to beat up. New Orleans, 35-9.

Jaguars (2-13) at Texans (8-7)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Texans (-9½).

The scoop: The Texans can clinch a playoff spot with a win, a San Diego loss and a Baltimore loss. ... If they get there, Texans won’t go far in postseason with Case Keenum at QB, but they might be able to handle Jags with him calling the shots. Rookie QB Blake Bortles leads Jacksonville with 358 rushing yards. Not a good sign.

Outlook: Looking for huge game by NFL’s No. 4 rushing leader Arian Foster of Texans. Houston, 27-10.

Browns (7-8) at Ravens (9-6)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Ravens (-13½).

The scoop: The Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a San Diego loss. ... Baltimore edged Browns, 23-21, in first meeting in Cleveland. Ravens QB Joe Flacco has 12-1 career mark against Browns. ... QB Brian Hoyer’s late-season flameout and Johnny Manziel’s brutal start killed the Browns, who played over their heads for three-quarters of the season.

Outlook: Don’t see the Ravens 9 points better than gutty Browns. Baltimore, 17-10.

Bills (8-7) at Patriots (12-3)

TV: Ch. 4, 1 p.m.

The line: Patriots (-5).

The scoop: Bills, a notorious run-for-the-bus team throughout their history, are 10-24 in season finales since 1980 and 4-10 since 2000. ... Also, they never have won at Gillette Stadium and have lost 21 of 22 against Patriots, including 37-22 romp in Orchard Park on Oct. 12.

Outlook: Big question: Which Patriots you never heard of will have huge day against Buffalo? Unless Belichick calls off dogs (not likely), Patriots, 31-13.

Colts (10-5) at Titans (2-13)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Colts (-7).

The scoop: Since entering NFL in 2012, Colts’ Andrew Luck has 12,797 passing yards, most of any Super Bowl-era QB in first three seasons, but he has been a bit ordinary lately. He leads NFL with 38 TD passes ... Indy has won last six in division rivalry with Tennessee, including 41-17 rout at home Sept. 18. Titans have lost their last nine games.

Outlook: A nice playoff warmup for Colts, 35-17.

Jets (3-12) at Dolphins (8-7)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Dolphins (-6½).

The scoop: Ryan Tannehill of Dolphins has 26 TD passes and 93.2 passer rating. Wouldn’t some of those Bills experts snickering about him early in season like to have him now. ... Miami rookie Jarvis Landry has 79 catches for 703 yards. ... Dolphins struggled to 16-13 win over Jets at MetLife on Dec. 1. ... Geno Smith of Jets has his TD pass-INT ratio up to 10-13.

Outlook: Gang Green almost always give Patriots and Dolphins their best. Dolphins, 20-17.

Dog of the day

Bears (5-10) at Vikings (6-9)

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

The line: Vikings (-6½).

The scoop: Bears won first meeting in Windy City, 21-13, in November. ... Vikings rookie Teddy Bridgewater had 114.1 passer rating in 37-35 loss at Miami last week. Blocked punt for winning TD in last minute not his fault.

Outlook: Loser will be last in NFC North. Vikings, 17-13.

Last week’s results: 10-3 straight up; 7-5-1 versus spread.

Season’s record: 140-79-1 straight up; 99-118-3 versus spread.


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