Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First and 10" column takes you around the league, with a look at the best game of the week, followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 17.
The Panthers' up-and-down season comes to a climax Sunday. If they beat the Falcons, they're in the playoffs. If they lose, their offseason could be starting earlier than expected. And remember, for the Panthers to win, they have to beat a team that traditionally gives them fits: the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers are symbolic of how uncertain the order of power is in the NFC. Are they the third seed or are they not even a playoff team? After going to the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, the Panthers had to regroup last season and missed the playoffs. As has been the case since 2000, the Panthers suffered the dreaded Super Bowl loser lament. Since 2000, the last five Super Bowl losers have all finished with a losing record the next season.
For the Panthers, the problem was injuries. During a 1-7 start last year, they lost defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, wide receiver Steve Smith and numerous other starters. But this is a solid organization. John Fox held everything together and the Panthers finished strong with a 7-9 record.
After last season's strong finish, the Panthers entered this season with high expectations, with many experts picking them as Super Bowl contenders.
All seemed perfect when the Panthers ended a six-game losing streak against Michael Vick and beat the Falcons 24-6 on Dec. 4 to improve to 9-3. Three years of roster buildup finally resulted in a victory. The man-to-man ability of cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas -- additions to the team over the past two seasons -- freed up other defenders to blitz and keep the pressure on Vick. Vick couldn't slip out of the pocket. Rookie linebacker Thomas Davis did a great job of spying, and safety Mike Minter played near the line of scrimmage and prevented Vick from slipping past the back side of coverage.
At 9-3, the Panthers had seemingly rediscovered their running attack and appeared to be in control of the NFC South. But Foster hasn't had a 100-yard game since, and to be successful, the Panthers must have a consistent running attack to wear down defenses.
A week after beating the Falcons, the Panthers lost a home game to the Bucs, 20-10, letting Tampa Bay back into the NFC South race. Carolina again took control of the division following Week 15, beating the Saints while the Bucs lost to the Patriots. But once again, they fell flat, losing to the Cowboys Saturday, handing control of the division back to the Bucs.
Now they have to go on the road and try to beat an angry Falcons team.
That won't be easy. The Falcons have been waiting for revenge. They weren't happy with the way they lost in Carolina. They haven't been happy, period, after getting knocked out of the playoff race Saturday by the Bucs. Coach Jim Mora has been explosive on the sidelines and on postgame radios shows. Vick isn't happy about the constant critiques of his development as a quarterback. The Falcons plan to be a spoiler, and that would give them some satisfaction heading into the offseason.
The two themes Mora is talking about this week are the idea of finishing 9-7 and making sure they have a winning record at home. The Falcons have lost three home games this year, which shouldn't happen. The 9-7 record is important because it would mark the first time the Falcons posted back-to-back winning seasons in their history.
The Panthers have the athletes to contain Vick, and that should make for a great game. Plus, these teams really don't like each other. There was plenty of pushing and shoving in the last meeting. The Panthers' defensive linemen don't like the blocking style of the Falcons' offensive linemen because of the risk of serious injury.
Expect a few extra altercations. A lot is on the line.
And 10. Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles | Scouting report At 5-6, Joe Gibbs wasn't going to give up on the Redskins' season. His formula for winning still works. On offense, the Redskins run the ball well. On defense, they are aggressive. It could all pay off if the Redskins beat the Eagles Sunday because a victory will clinch a playoff spot and give Washington a five-game winning streak going into the playoffs. If the Giants lose to the Raiders Saturday, the Redskins could win the NFC East and end up the third or fourth seed and get a home playoff game. Still, there are worries. Mark Brunell's knee injury may keep him out of the game. He's trying to play with a sprained medial collateral ligament. They lost their best offensive lineman, guard Randy Thomas, two weeks ago against the Cowboys. But Gibbs knows he controls his own destiny and he plans to will this team into the playoffs. Patrick Ramsey came off the bench and sealed a victory Saturday over the Giants. The one-two punch of running back Clinton Portis and wide receiver Santana Moss is working to perfection. During the winning streak, Portis is averaging 115 yards a game. Gibbs calls Portis' number enough that defenses are moving a defender away from pass coverage to stop him. That frees up Moss for big plays and touchdowns. He scored three touchdowns against single coverage against the Giants. The Eagles would love to play the spoiler role, but injuries continue to kill them. They aren't the same offense with Mike McMahon at quarterback. He's a good enough athlete to make plays with his feet, but he's not an accurate thrower. Plus, the remaining Eagles receivers aren't good at catching the ball. They lead the league in dropped passes. Gibbs doesn't plan to let this chance at the playoffs slip away.
9. Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs | Scouting report This could be Dick Vermeil's last game, so the Bengals know they are going into an emotional, tough place to win. The Chiefs are a good football team that probably isn't going to make the playoffs. A Chargers win over the Broncos Saturday or a Steelers win over the Lions Sunday will knock the Chiefs out of the playoffs. So the Chiefs could be playing for their playoff lives or just for pride by the time this game rolls around Sunday. The Bengals would like to finish with the No. 3 seed in the AFC, so they will be playing to win. Carson Palmer is expected to play despite a slightly pulled groin muscle. How long he plays is a big question. He can't risk further injury. And really, is the third seed all that important? The third seed would likely mean another game against the Steelers, their archrival. There is some thought that it might be better to be the fourth seed and host Jacksonville. But Marvin Lewis won't hear any of these theories. The playoffs are new to the Bengals. They haven't been to the playoffs since 1990. He wants them to go into the playoffs on a winning note. Plus, he knows his defense is vulnerable. The Bengals rank 22nd defensively and are giving up 20.9 points a game. Their specialty is coming up with turnovers, but Lewis wants to tighten up a lot of things before the playoffs open.
8. New York Giants at Oakland Raiders | Scouting report (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Normally, a game as bad as this one wouldn't be up so high in First and 10. Of course, this isn't a normal week. Only six teams are fighting for the final four playoff spots, and there are too many games featuring a playoff team against a 10-loss team. What makes this game so intriguing is the problems the Giants have right now, especially at linebacker. Nick Greisen is the only healthy linebacker on the team. They've lost Carlos Emmons, Barrett Green and Chase Blackburn for the season. Their best linebacker, Antonio Pierce, is out with a high ankle sprain. Reggie Torbor has a hamstring injury. Over the past week, Tom Coughlin signed Roman Phifer, Jay Foreman and Kevin Lewis, and somebody from that group is going to start Saturday. Coughlin also made a change at cornerback, moving Corey Webster ahead of Curtis DeLoatch. That's a lot of change and a lot of worry for a coach trying to wrap up a division title. The nice thing is the Giants have already clinched a playoff spot, but they want the NFC East title and a home playoff game. They should win against the Raiders, but quarterback Kerry Collins would love to have a touch of revenge against his former team. He wasn't happy the Giants released him following the 2003 season and went with Kurt Warner last year after drafting Eli Manning. Collins has spent two miserable years on horrible Raiders teams, and there's a thought he might be run out of Oakland after the season. A victory over the Giants would mean a lot to him. A loss by the Giants could leave them a wild card and force them to scramble to win a road playoff game next week. Securing the division title is Coughlin's main mission. If he doesn't, the Giants will have a 2-5 road record (technically 3-5 because their Week 2 win against the Saints at the Meadowlands was officially a road game) and could be one-and-out in the playoffs.
7. Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers | Scouting report A week ago, this game looked like the Week 17 headliner. Now, it's basically meaningless. Well, maybe not to Marty Schottenheimer. Out of the playoffs, Schottenheimer is going full steam ahead playing all of his starters. The thought of giving Philip Rivers some playing time is the last of his worries. Schottenheimer wants his Chargers to win 10 games, even if it's not going to get them into the playoffs. So Drew Brees will start. That's a curious decision if you think about it. Let's say the Chargers franchise Brees and trade him after the season. Guess who Schottenheimer will have to turn to as the starter? You got it, Rivers, the guy he isn't going to play Sunday. Marty must be thinking general manager A.J. Smith is going to keep Brees because the smart move would be to give Rivers some playing time to see if he can run the offense. The Broncos have secured the AFC's No. 2 seed, so they will rest injured players such as Mike Anderson, Courtney Brown, Darrent Williams and Al Wilson. Coach Mike Shanahan may not let his starters go the entire game, either. The way this series usually goes, Jake Plummer is prone to get trapped in the pocket by the aggressive Chargers' 3-4 defense when he plays in San Diego. Shanahan isn't going to let his quarterback take too many hits, so he'll run the ball with Tatum Bell and try to get his starters off the field at some point. Bell needs 131 yards to join Anderson with 1,000 yards rushing. Denver would be the first team since the 1985 Browns and the fourth in NFL history to have two 1,000-yard backs. This game also does have some bearing on the other teams still in the playoff hunt. A win by the Chargers would knock the Chiefs out of the hunt, handing the final wild-card spot in the AFC to the Steelers before they even take the field Sunday.
6. St. Louis Rams at Dallas Cowboys | Scouting report (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
A lot has to take place for this game to be meaningful. A couple teams have to lose Sunday afternoon to keep the Cowboys' playoffs hopes alive. Because this is a Sunday night game, the Cowboys have to watch their fate be determined without their control. They will take the field knowing whether they have a chance to make the postseason, or can start planning their offseason. Bill Parcells says this should be a tough game, but he's just trying to keep his team focused. The Rams have been coached well by interim coach Joe Vitt, but they've run out of good defensive players. They've lost four games in a row. Their defense has dropped to 30th and they are giving up 141 rushing yards a game. Considering Julius Jones put up almost 200 yards on the Panthers last week, he shouldn't have too much trouble getting over 100 Sunday. The Cowboys hold the tiebreaker edge over the Panthers thanks to last week's victory, so they will be rooting for them to lose to Atlanta. They also could get past the Redskins if they lose to the Eagles. The Cowboys have some hope, but it could end up being a meaningless game if the Redskins and Panthers win. If that happens, all the thoughts will turn to whether Bill Parcells will be back next season after back-to-back non-playoff years. There is no doubt Jerry Jones wants him back. But Parcells would be entering the last year of his contract and with the recent death of his brother, he may not be interested in getting locked up in a longer deal. Parcells' focus would rather be on the playoffs than the future.
5. Arizona Cardinals at Indianapolis Colts | Scouting report It will be interesting to see whether the Colts can win this game with backups and no Tony Dungy. Don't count them out. They played pretty well last week against the Seahawks, giving them a game until the fourth quarter. Jim Sorgi did a decent job of moving the ball up and down the field. Peyton Manning will probably be on the field for only two possessions. If he can convert touchdown drives instead of field goal drives, he could give Sorgi a lead and a chance to win. The Colts would like to have a win going into the playoffs. While they are in the healing process from the death of Tony Dungy's son, James, they would like to finish 14-2. They don't want to go into the playoffs with a three-game losing streak. The Cardinals are playing mostly with backups because they've had so many injuries this year. The Colts' defense will have to come up with ways to stop wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, who could each end up with a 100-catch season.
4. Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers | Scouting report While the Steelers could actually clinch a playoff spot before they even step on the field Sunday if the Chargers beat the Broncos, their focus is on what they have to do. The mission is simple. Beat the Lions and the Steelers clinch the sixth seed in the playoffs. Does anyone give the Lions a chance? Joey Harrington could be playing his last game for the Lions at quarterback. Dick Jauron is holding the head coaching job for whoever Matt Millen wants to hire after the season. At 5-10, the Lions are going nowhere. Plus, they are 0-9 against winning teams. The Steelers will go in with a basic game plan and will try to take a big early lead. Bill Cowher would like to give Ben Roethlisberger some rest if possible. He can't afford to risk his quarterback to further injury knowing they could play the Bengals or Patriots as early as next Saturday. A simple game plan with 35 to 40 runs should be the ticket to the postseason.
3. Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots | Scouting report Nick Saban wants a winning season. Saban has had the best year of the three new coaches, taking a Dolphins team that seemed destined for six wins and turning it into a winner. Like his NFL mentor Bill Belichick, Saban is setting the stage for being a big player in future AFC East playoff races. He's gotten the best out of quarterback Gus Frerotte, who has thrown 17 touchdown passes and has led the team to five straight wins. Belichick is starting to get the Patriots into playoff mode. Next week, they'll either host Jacksonville or Pittsburgh (assuming the Steelers get into the playoffs). He'll start Tom Brady at quarterback, but Belichick can't afford to risk injury to his quarterback in a game that will determine only whether the Patriots are the third or fourth seed. The intrigue will involve linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a calf injury Monday night. Bruschi probably is going to miss this game, but everyone will be probing to see if he can be ready for the playoffs. Saban will try to test the Patriots' defense on the ground, an area that has been improving since Bruschi's return.
2. New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Scouting report The Bucs haven't locked up a playoff spot yet, so they are heading into this weekend thinking they have to win. Like the Panthers, they could end up as high as the third seed and could also finish out of the playoff race. Regardless, they have the easiest assignment. They just have to beat a 3-12 Saints team, and they'll have the home crowd behind them. This could be Jim Haslett's last game. Owner Tom Benson isn't going to fire Haslett, but the coach could push things to a point that he could be let go next week. Haslett knows the situation with the Saints is bleak. Because of Hurricane Katrina, the team is an orphan. The uncertainty over where the team will play will affect next year's budget. A loss by the Saints could even give them the first pick in the draft if the Texans lose. Jon Gruden has everything set. Win the game and he wins the NFC South, grabs the No. 3 seed and hosts a playoff game. If he doesn't win, things get complicated. There are scenarios involving strength of schedule that affect the Bucs' chances. The Bucs don't want to think about that, they just want to think about winning and taking care of it themselves.
1. Houston Texans at San Francisco 49ers | Scouting report The 49ers probably blew their chance of getting Reggie Bush by beating the Rams last week. Not only did they drop behind the Texans in the race for the top pick, they also fell behind the Saints, Jets and Packers based on strength of schedule. The Texans could also blow their chance of getting the top pick if they beat the 49ers, and they actually have a pretty good chance of doing that. The 49ers are down three cornerbacks and signed Kris Richard off the street just to get them through this game. David Carr is opening up the offense with long passes, which the 49ers are vulnerable to. Plus, the 49ers' offense is so bad, the Texans will be on the field the entire game. The 49ers are averaging only 52.4 offensive plays a game. The defense is on the field for 68.6 plays. That's 16 more plays for the opposition each week. Considering the 49ers are giving up 5.81 yards a play, that's 94.1 yards of additional offense for their opponent each week. This will be a "battle" between two quarterback who were No. 1 overall picks -- Carr and Alex Smith of the 49ers. Carr has been the league's most sacked quarterback since coming into the league. Smith still hasn't thrown his first touchdown pass and is completing only 50 percent of his passes. Texans fans are worried. They want Bush.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.