The Colts and Titans round off the NFL regular season in tonight's late kickoff, with the winner earning a playoff spot. Can Tennessee finally topple Andrew Luck on the 11th attempt? SIPA USA/PA Images

Understanding the universe, playoff permutations, and your NFL week 17 preview

There is more to play for than the three available playoff spots on the final day of the regular season, writes Steve O’Rourke.

THE STANDARD MODEL of Particle Physics describes the collection of fundamental particles currently thought to make up our universe.

It has successfully described all elementary particles and forces that we’ve observed in the laboratory to date — including the infamous Higgs Boson.

But no matter how often the planet’s best and brightest put their minds to it, the standard model has never been united with the theory of General Relativity and thus cannot describe gravity.

But the thing is, even if an equation can’t prove it, we know for sure that gravity is real. If it wasn’t, the sport of American football — and probably life as we know it to be fair — could not exist.

Another thing we know for sure is that, come 3 February 2019, one team will lift the Vince Lombardi trophy. But at kickoff in the final week of the regular season, 15 of them — almost half the league — remain in the hunt.

This is despite the fact that, in the NFC, all four divisional titles have been sewn up by the Saints (South), Rams (West), Bears (North) and Cowboys (East), while the Seahawks have also secured their spot in the postseason.

The Vikings are in control of their own destiny, as they know a win over the already qualified Bears will give them a place in the postseason over Philadelphia.

The defending champions are not out of it, however, as a Minnesota loss coupled with victory at Washington would keep their hopes of a repeat alive.

Things are far less clear in the AFC despite the fact that four teams (Chargers, Chiefs, Patriots, and Texans) have secured playoff spots.

All four could claim the number one seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with the Chiefs knowing a win over the Raiders will be enough while Houston needs to beat the Jaguars, and hope New England, LA, and Kansas City all lose.

A win over the Browns would give the Ravens the AFC North title but a loss, coupled with the Steelers beating the Bengals, would send Pittsburgh to the postseason in their place.

Finally, in the AFC South, the Titans and Colts play a win-and-you’re-in game but a tie — and we’ve had two this season already — would give the Steelers the spot if they win their game, or even the Ravens if they tie theirs as well.

Maybe theoretical physics is easier after all?

Week 17 picks (season record 151-87-2)

Sunday – 6pm

Miami Dolphins @ Buffalo Bills

The Dolphins somehow managed to beat the Bills in their first meeting this season despite being outgained by nearly 250 yards. Both teams have probably had better seasons than expected but Miami looked like a team already on their holidays last week.

Pick: Bills

Detroit Lions @ Green Bay Packers

The Packers and Aaron Rodgers waited until week 16 to have their best offensive game of the season but still needed overtime to beat the New York Jets. The Lions have won three straight against Green Bay but don’t expect them to make it four.

Pick: Packers

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans

NFL 2018: Texans vs Jaguars OCT 21 Deshaun Watson throws a pass against the Jags back in October. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

It would be peak Jacksonville for Blake Bortles to put in the best performance of his career, deny the Texans a bye, and the Jaguars to bring him back next season as their starting quarterback as they drop draft positions. But life is rarely that funny.

Pick: Texans

New York Jets @ New England Patriots

The Patriots need a win to ensure they don’t have to play during wild card weekend. And while they don’t look anything like the team that made the Super Bowl last year, beating the Jets at home shouldn’t require them to.

Pick: Patriots

Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints

With the number one seed in the NFC locked up, and the Panthers seemingly assuring Ron Rivera he’ll be back as head coach next season, there’s next to nothing on the line in the game except, perhaps, for Teddy Bridgewater who gets a chance to prove to QB-needy teams that he can be a starter next year.

Pick: Saints

Dallas Cowboys @ New York Giants

The Cowboys can’t improve on the fourth seed so will probably rest their starters ahead of the wild card game next weekend. They did the same thing two years ago and lost in week 17 and in the first round of the playoffs. Could history repeat itself?

Pick: Giants

Atlanta Falcons @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jameis Winston is playing to prove he should be his team’s starter in 2019 but, with Tampa losing two straight, a head coach unlikely to return, and the Falcons on something resembling a winning streak, that’s going to be easier said than done.

Pick: Falcons

Sunday – 9.25pm

Cleveland Browns @ Baltimore Ravens

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns Can the Ravens' D leave a dent once again? SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

The Browns have played really well since sacking Hue Jackson and while their offence is ranked second in the league by Football Outsiders since week 11, it doesn’t match-up well against a tough Ravens’ defence.

Pick: Ravens

Oakland Raiders @ Kansas City Chiefs

A divisional battle that sees the Chiefs aiming for the number one seed in the conference while their opposition may be playing their final game as the Oakland Raiders. Wherever they end up next year, Raiders fans will hope the final nine years of Jon Gruden’s contract are not as bad as the first.

Pick: Chiefs

Chicago Bears @ Minnesota Vikings

With a first-round bye still to play for should the Rams lose, there’s no reason for the Bears not to try and win this game. That’s bad news for a Vikings team with playoff hopes of their own.

Pick: Bears

Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Whatever your thoughts on Andy Dalton, the Bengals have passed for 202, 151, 123, and 107 yards over the last four weeks since Jeff Driskel took over as quarterback. The Steelers will feel hard done by if they don’t make the postseason but, with a loss to Oakland on their record, they’ll only have themselves to blame if they fall short.

Pick: Steelers

Philadelphia Eagles @ Washington

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Eagles offence has flourished since Nick Foles took over as starting quarterback, scoring 30-plus points in back-to-back games after reaching that point total just once all season with Carson Wentz. Even with nothing to play for, Washington is a tough out.

Pick: Eagles

LA Chargers @ Denver Broncos

Despite last week’s loss to the Ravens, the Chargers have the most rounded team in the NFL with a top-10 offence and defence according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Denver got the better of their divisional rival in the first encounter but have fallen off a cliff since.

Pick: Chargers

San Francisco 49ers @ LA Rams

The Rams need a win to guarantee they’ll have next week off but there’s no easier team to welcome to LA than the 49ers, the only team in football without a road win this season. This should be an easy afternoon for Sean McVay’s side.

Pick: Rams

Arizona Cardinals @ Seattle Seahawks

Rams Cardinals Football Larry Fitzgerald could play the final game of his career today. Ross D. Franklin Ross D. Franklin

On paper, it would seem like the Seahawks have little to play for but a win would ensure Seattle faces Dallas in the wild card round and not the Bears. With a loss, the Cardinals clinch the number one spot in next year’s draft so… Congratulations?

Pick: Seahawks

Monday – 1.20am

Indianapolis Colts @ Tennessee Titans

Theoretically, this is everything the NFL could want from the final game of the regular season. Two divisional rivals battling it out knowing only a win will secure a playoff spot. The trouble is that Andrew Luck has never lost to the Titans in 10 attempts, so it’s not really a contest.

Pick: Colts

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne look back on a memorable year for Irish rugby.

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