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Final Word: NFC North

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 17:

Minnesota could finish Sunday’s action seeded No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4 in the NFC playoff picture. You can refer to this chart from earlier this week, or read the condensed version: The Vikings need a victory over the New York Giants and a Philadelphia loss to Dallas to secure the No. 2 seed. If that’s the case, they won’t know their fate until Sunday at about 7:15 p.m. ET. Otherwise, they will host a wild-card team -- Dallas, Philadelphia or Green Bay -- in the first round of the playoffs. That fate would be a stunning fall for a team that was in the running most of this season for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Giants are struggling and decimated by injuries, but you don’t have to look any further than last Monday to recognize that no team is a lock to roll over. Few anticipated the Vikings having trouble at Soldier Field against the Bears, who had lost seven of their past eight games. The Giants have lost three of their past five, but they have played well at the Metrodome throughout this decade. They have won three of their past four in the building, and the Vikings needed a 50-yard field goal on the game’s final play to beat the Giants’ reserves in last year’s regular-season finale. The Vikings’ slow starts in the past four weeks have given underdog teams confidence they could win; in those games, the Vikings have a total of seven first-quarter points.

No matter how few implications the Green Bay-Arizona game ultimately carries, I’ll be watching to see how the Packers match up with Cardinals receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers might be tempted to play some mind games if a playoff rematch looms, but at some point the Packers are going to have to address the seeming mismatch between the Cardinals’ three-receiver set and the Packers’ nickel defense. Specifically, Packers nickelback Jarrett Bush is going to have to match up against one member of that receiver trio unless the Packers sit exclusively in a nickel zone.

Will Sunday be Lovie Smith’s last day as Chicago’s coach? The odds are against the Bears paying him an $11 million buyout. But it was curious, if nothing else, that no member of the team’s front office stepped forward this week to confirm his return. It’s hard to imagine that Sunday’s game against Detroit will determine Smith’s future. What is left to know about Smith that the Bears don’t already know? But if nothing else, the team’s silence suggests a change is under consideration. Either that, or the Bears simply haven’t begun the internal discussion. I lean toward the latter, but stranger things have happened.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz said earlier this week that a Week 17 victory wouldn’t spur a surge of momentum into the offseason. And it’s true: The difference is slim between 3-13 and 2-14. The Lions have a long way to go in either case. A victory Sunday would also end Detroit’s chances at securing the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But beating the Bears would be the Lions’ first NFC North victory since winning at Soldier Field on Oct. 28, 2007. It would add a tangible measure of progress to the first year of this building process.