The return of Beast Mode. A division title on the line. Possible home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Those are the intriguing story lines of the juiciest matchup of the NFL's final week of the regular season as the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks square off in a Sunday night showdown that will have a postseason feel.
The 49ers (12-3) travel to Seattle to take on Russell Wilson and the Seahawks (11-4), with the winner capturing the NFC West. San Francisco would clinch home-field advantage throughout by winning, while Seattle could host until the Super Bowl with a victory and losses by both Green Bay and New Orleans.
“We know this is going to be a hostile environment, ‘Sunday Night Football,’ so, can't wait for it,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said.
The loser of this matchup would enter the playoffs with an NFC wild-card berth.
“It's a very special week for us," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “It's the last week of the season, playing for everything, for a division and all that. We're very fortunate to be in that situation. It is what we aim for. It's always what we look toward and we always wonder if the chance to do something like this is going to happen at home or on the road.
“We're thrilled we'll be here."
CenturyLink Field will have a familiar face coming back “home” in running back Marshawn Lynch, who re-signed with Seattle on Monday after injuries to Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny left a void in the Seahawks' backfield.
“It's a great feeling to be back," Lynch said in a 15-second news conference with reporters.
Never one to be chatty off the field, Lynch made his marks — literally — with his tough, physical “Beast Mode" style of running. The 33-year-old Lynch hasn't played since midway through last season with Oakland, but is expected to play for Seattle on Sunday in the team's biggest game of the season.
“Only one person can pull this off and that's No. 24," linebacker K.J. Wright said of Lynch, who played for the Seahawks from 2010-15. "Back in the building, it feels good. When I heard the news I was like, ‘Perfect.’ He's just the ultimate teammate, cool dude, just ballin'. I'm glad to have him back.”
GREEN BAY (12-3) at DETROIT (3-11-1)
The Packers will certainly keep an eye on the 49ers-Seahawks game, especially if they beat the lowly Lions and clinch a first-round bye. Aaron Rodgers and Co. would also wrap up home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs if San Francisco loses.
Rodgers will also be going for an individual milestone. He needs 321 yards passing to become the sixth player in NFL history with eight seasons of at 4,000.
Meanwhile, the Lions have lost eight straight games, the team's longest skid since finishing the 2012 season with eight consecutive losses. Detroit is 0-7 since losing quarterback Matthew Stafford and would finish with the second-worst record in the NFL with a loss and a win by Washington over Dallas.
NEW ORLEANS (12-3) at CAROLINA (5-10)
Drew Brees and the Saints are another team whose playoff travel plans could be affected by the game on Sunday night. New Orleans can clinch home-field advantage in the NFC with a win and losses or ties by either San Francisco or Green Bay. The Saints could also do it with a tie and losses by both the 49ers and Packers.
Speaking of Brees, he has completed an NFL-high 75.3% of his passes this season, which puts him on pace to eclipse his single-season record 74.4% from last year. He also enters as the career leader in yards passing with 77,163, and TD passes with 544 — five ahead of New England's Tom Brady.
The Panthers, who'll be looking for a new coach after Ron Rivera was fired, have lost seven straight and turn again to rookie quarterback Will Grier to make his second NFL start. Christian McCaffery, whose 109 receptions are an NFL record for a running back, needs 67 yards receiving to become only the third player in league history with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.
PHILADELPHIA (8-7) at NEW YORK GIANTS (4-11)
The soaring Eagles have won three straight and can clinch the NFC East with a win over the division-rival Giants.
Philadelphia has beaten New York six consecutive times, and 10 of 11, so it would make sense for the Eagles to be confident about their chances. Philly could still win the division with a loss — as long as Dallas also loses at home to Washington.
The Giants have won two in a row overall, and rookie Daniel Jones is coming throwing a career-best five touchdowns in an overtime win over the Redskins. Jones' 23 TD passes are a franchise record for a rookie despite him playing in only 12 games.
WASHINGTON (3-12) at DALLAS (7-8)
The Cowboys whiffed on a chance to control their playoff scenario with their clunker at Philadelphia. Dallas now needs to beat the Redskins at home — and hope the Eagles stumble on the road against the New York Giants.
Coach Jason Garrett enters the game with his future with the Cowboys uncertain after a 3-0 start with big expectations was overshadowed by a 4-8 stretch that featured two three-game skids.
Dallas has won eight of its last 10 against the Redskins, who'll have Case Keenum at quarterback after Dwayne Haskins was hurt last week. Keenum hasn't started since sustaining a concussion on Oct. 24 at Minnesota.
TENNESSEE (8-7) at HOUSTON (10-5)
The Texans have already wrapped up the AFC South, winning the division for the fourth time in five games. But they'll take on a Titans team trying to earn a second playoff berth in three seasons.
Tennessee is in if it wins — and would ensure the team's fourth straight winning season, its longest stretch since 1987-93 when the franchise was in Houston. The Titans, who have lost seven consecutive games at the Texans, could still make the postseason with a loss, but would also need Pittsburgh to lose and Indianapolis lose or tie.
A win for Deshaun Watson and the Texans would give them consecutive 11-victory seasons for the first time in franchise history.
PITTSBURGH (8-7) at BALTIMORE (13-2)
The Ravens have already clinched the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC and will rest several starters, including quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Mark Ingram.
That will put their franchise-best 11-game winning streak in jeopardy against a Steelers team still in the playoff hunt.
Pittsburgh, which will start Devlin “Duck" Hodges for the fifth straight game, has a few postseason scenarios, but the easiest has them beating the Ravens and having Tennessee lose at Houston. If they make it, the Steelers would become only the 15th team since 1970 to reach the playoffs after opening a season 1-4.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (5-10) at KANSAS CITY (11-4)
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs can still earn the AFC's No. 2 overall seed and a first-round playoff bye with a victory over the Chargers and a loss by New England to the Dolphins.
Kansas City, which has won four straight AFC West titles, is 10-1 in its last 11 against Los Angeles, the lone loss coming last season at Arrowhead Stadium.
There could be some extra motivation for the Chargers, who might have Philip Rivers under center for the final time. His contract expires after the season and he's having arguably the worst year of his career with 24 turnovers, including 18 interceptions that tie him for second most in the NFL.
MIAMI (4-11) at NEW ENGLAND (12-3)
Tom Brady and the Patriots have already clinched the AFC East for the 11th straight season, and a win over the division-rival Dolphins would give them a first-round playoff bye for the 10th year in a row.
A victory would also give New England eight 13-win seasons, one behind San Francisco in NFL history. But, wait ... there's more. The Patriots have a chance to sweep their division opponents (Dolphins, Bills and Jets) for the third time, joining the 2007 and '12 squads.
If you're looking for some intrigue in this one, there's maybe this: New England's top-ranked defense hasn't allowed a 300-yard passer in 24 straight games, but could be tested by Miami's Ryan Fitzpatrick. Last week, Fitzpatrick joined Dan Marino as the only players in franchise history to throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns in a game.
OAKLAND (7-8) at DENVER (6-9)
Jon Gruden's guys still have a long-shot chance at making the playoffs. No, really, they do. But the Raiders need a ton of help to make it to the postseason for the second time since 2002.
First off, Oakland needs to beat Denver, of course. Then the Raiders need losses by Tennessee and Pittsburgh; a victory by Indianapolis; and at least one win by New England, Chicago, Detroit or the Chargers.
Whew. Got at all that?
The Broncos' best defense — well, other than Von Miller — might be the weather. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has lost nine straight when the temperature is 50 degrees or below. The forecast in Denver on Sunday is expected to be a high of 36 degrees.
ARIZONA (5-9-1) at LOS ANGELES RAMS (8-7)
So long, Coliseum.
The Rams, who will wrap up a disappointing season, play their final game at the 96-year-old stadium before moving into SoFi Stadium in Inglewood next season.
The Rams are looking to secure a third consecutive winning season for the first time since 1999-2001 when the franchise was in St. Louis. But this one would be hollow considering the Rams were in the Super Bowl a year ago.
Arizona could be without rookie quarterback Kyler Murray (hamstring injury). The Cardinals will also have to contend with some matchup history: Rams coach Sean McVay has never lost to Arizona, going 5-0, and Los Angeles has scored at least 31 points and allowed no more than 16 in each of those games — which is unmatched in any five-game rivalry stretch in NFL history.
CHICAGO (7-8) at MINNESOTA (10-5)
The Vikings are locked into the sixth seed in the NFC after clinching a playoff berth for the third time in six seasons under coach Mike Zimmer.
Minnesota could reach some rare territory with a win, which would get the Vikings to 11 for just the fourth time in the last 19 seasons.
The Bears had a big-time letdown a year after winning the NFC North at 12-4, and will miss the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years. Despite that, Matt Nagy (19-12) can pass George Halas for the most wins by a Bears coach in his first two seasons with a victory Sunday.
NEW YORK JETS (6-9) at BUFFALO (10-5)
These teams finish the regular season together after beginning it together, with the Bills rallying from a 16-0 third-quarter deficit to win 17-16 in Week 1.
Buffalo has already clinched a playoff spot and coach Sean McDermott has said the starters will play, but they might not finish this one. A victory would give the Bills their most wins in a season since going 11-5 in 1999.
The revenge-minded Jets need a victory to avoid setting a franchise-worst streak of fourth straight seasons with double-digit losses. One sidenote: Sam Darnold's 35 TD passes are two shy of Joe Namath's franchise record for the most in a player's first two seasons.
INDIANAPOLIS (7-8) at JACKSONVILLE (5-10)
Jacoby Brissett and the Colts need a win to avoid their second losing season in three years. It appeared a lock just a few weeks ago, but Indianapolis lost four straight until beating Carolina last week.
The Colts have defeated the Jaguars in two of the last three meetings, but Jacksonville has won four straight at home against Indianapolis.
Jacksonville, which is likely in for big changes in the offseason, has lost six of its last seven — all by double digits.
CLEVELAND (6-9) at CINCINNATI (1-14)
The season began with huge expectations for Baker Mayfield and the Browns, but will finish in bitter disappointment as Cleveland extends the NFL's longest current postseason drought to 17 years.
The spotlight is on coach Freddie Kitchens, who could be done after just one season — and a loss to the lowly Bengals could seal his fate.
The Bengals have already clinched the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft in April, but could also make some dubious franchise history. A loss would leave Cincinnati with the worst record in the team's 52 years, surpassing the 2002 squad under Dick LeBeau that went 2-14.
ATLANTA (6-9) at TAMPA BAY (7-8)
A matchup of AFC South also-rans could quickly develop into a passing game clinic, with the Buccaneers ranking first in the NFL in yards passing and the Falcons third.
Not only that: The Falcons' Matt Ryan and Buccaneers' Jameis Winston are the only players with at least 10 300-yard passing games this season.
It has been a strange year for Winston, who leads the NFL with 4,908 yards passing and needs just 92 to become the first 5,000-yard passer in franchise history. His 31 TD throws are a single-season team record, but Winston also leads the league with an eye-popping 28 interceptions. Tampa Bay will have to make a tough decision in the offseason on Winston, who's due to become a free agent.
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