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NFL Week 17 winners and losers: Bengals arrive as a force in the AFC. Mike McCarthy costs Cowboys.

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There's just one week left.

The NFL season will come to a close next Sunday and there are three playoff spots still open, two in the AFC and one in the NFC. Of course, seeding implications will also be on the line, though Week 17 already settled some of that.

The Green Bay Packers clinched the NFC's top seed and will enjoy a first-round bye after they destroyed the Minnesota Vikings, 37-10. In the AFC, the Chiefs losing to the Bengals means that the Titans are in position to be Green Bay's counterpart, though Tennessee will need to beat the Texans next week to do so.

Seven teams in both conferences, combined, that still are eligible for those three playoff spots.

CHAOS, THEN CLARITY: 32 things we learned from Week 17

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Ja'Marr Chase celebrates after a first down in the Bengals' win over the Chiefs.
Ja'Marr Chase celebrates after a first down in the Bengals' win over the Chiefs.

Here are the winners and losers from Week 17.


The Cincinnati Bengals (and Ja'Marr Chase) are a problem

With their division-clinching victory against the team that entered Sunday as the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Chiefs, the Bengals have not only become a competitor in the AFC North, they have arrived as a force in the power structure of the entire conference. And most of the credit goes to the team's explosive offense that has surged under the direction of coach Zac Taylor and through the play of quarterback Joe Burrow, record-setting receiver Ja'Marr Chase and running back Joe Mixon.

With 446 yards against the Chiefs, Burrow has now thrown for 971 yards over his last two games, second most in NFL history in consecutive games. That's just four yards behind the record, set by Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in October of last season. Chase set a team record for most receiving yards (266) in a single game and might already be one of the top wideouts in entire league. Consider that Cincy hung 34 against a Kansas City defense that had held opponents to just 12.9 points per game over an eight-game winning streak. Also notable is how the Bengals pulled out the victory after falling into an early 14-0 hole. And, with young star talent all over the offense, this could just be the beginning.

The NFC runs through Lambeau Field

The Green Bay Packers will finish the 2021 season with a perfect record at home, 8-0, after they pummeled the Vikings, 37-10. With the victory, they clinched the NFC's No. 1 seed, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That, along with the team's return to health and stellar recent play of both the offense and defense, makes the task of venturing into Lambeau Field, one of the toughest places to play in the NFL during the winter, quite daunting for the rest of the NFC field.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the betting favorite for the NFL's MVP award. Cornerback Jaire Alexander, one of the game's bright young players at the position, was activated off of injured reserve and should make his return for finale, if not for the playoffs. The same goes for All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari and outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith. Yet, an interesting recent trend of the Packers (13-3) is that the Packers have actually struggled at home in the postseason, going 7-6 since the 2002 season. Recent history aside, this team has been the most consistent and best in the NFL all season long.

Mike Vrabel and the Titans (with one big caveat)

The Tennessee Titans (11-5) faced one of the hottest teams in the NFL, the Dolphins, which entered Sunday having won seven in a row. All Tennessee did was demolish Miami, 34-3, to win the AFC South and put itself in position to claim the AFC's No. 1 seed (thanks to Cincinnati beating Kansas City). Considering that the Titans lost their best player, running back Derrick Henry, after Week 8 to a season-ending injury, the accomplishment Tennessee is on the cusp of attaining is remarkable. Since coach Mike Vrabel has been at the helm of this team, the Titans have run the ball well, stopped the rush and been successful in the red zone on both sides of the ball. That has continued this season.

All of that is great. However, the second half schedule that Tennessee has faced has been quite light. The Titans have faced only two teams that have clinched a playoff berth — the Rams and the Patriots — since Week 9, their first without Henry. Tennessee split those, beating L.A. in Week 9 and losing to New England Week 12. The first-round bye will help, assuming the Titans topple the hapless Houston Texans. But this team hasn't faced a powerhouse in months, which makes it difficult to gauge where Tennessee fits, exactly, in the power structure of the AFC.

The resilient New Orleans Saints

Sean Payton, the coach of the Saints, deserves a ton of credit for keeping this team in the playoff hunt, despite injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak. It may not always look pretty — the Saints actually had to snap a drought of offensive touchdowns that lasted 11 quarters in their 18-10 victory against the Panthers — but New Orleans (8-8) is finding ways to win and have taken three of their last four. The lone defeat came with third-string passer Ian Book starting.

Most impressive about New Orleans' recent play is that it has done it through a reinvention on defense. In fact, perhaps no other coach that is not named Belichick is better at adapting game plans on a week-to-week basis than Payton. Of course, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen deserves just as much credit here. The Saints sacked the Panthers' passers seven times. Cam Jordan notched 3.5 of those. In their last four games, the Saints allowed opposing passers to throw for 156.3 yards per game, including Tom Brady. So even with Jameis Winston out and the Saints turning to Taysom Hill at quarterback, they're managing just fine because of that defense. They'll need to beat the Falcons in the finale and need the 49ers to lose to the Rams to clinch a playoff berth. But no matter what happens, the job Payton, Allen and the rest of the team has done this season is commendable.


Bruce Arians

When a coach compromises the standards he touts in press conferences in order to enable a talented but problematic player, this is exactly what happens. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the New York Jets, 28-24, thanks to a game-winning drive in the final minute. No one is focused on that. Instead, everyone is talking about receiver Antonio Brown's meltdown, in which he took off his jersey and undershirt during the game, tossed the undershirt and his gloves into the crowd, and walked into the tunnel shirtless.

In December 2018, Antonio Brown quit on the Steelers, leaving a crucial game against the Bengals at halftime. In September 2019, he quit on the Raiders and asked for his release after a tumultuous stretch with the team without ever having played a game for them. And now, he has quit on Buccaneers (12-4), coach Bruce Arians and the rest of his teammates. Yet, it wasn't a civil lawsuit, which was settled in April, that alleged Brown committed sexual assault, or his trashing the NFL and the Raiders over his pursuit to wear an obsolete helmet, multiple other lawsuits against him, a reckless driving conviction in February 2019, or even his misrepresentation of his COVID-19 vaccination status (that Arians said "pisses him off") that got Brown out of Tampa Bay. It was his walking out, because this affected football and football is all that has ever mattered to those who have enabled Brown at every step of the way.

Arians lauded Brown last week to NBC Sports' Peter King over his being a "model citizen." But on Sunday, after Brown's episode, he wouldn't answer questions about Brown other than to say he was no longer with the team. Arians can't have it both ways. He needs to be accountable for his role in allowing Brown to be enabled — again — all because Brown is still good at football. Let's not give Arians credit for saying Brown "is no longer a Buc" when he shouldn't have been one in the first place.

Joe Judge

Despite a report that the job of Joe Judge was safe heading into the offseason, the play of the New York Giants (4-12) has deteriorated so much recently that owners John Mara and Steve Tisch might be better served to reconsider. The Giants were hopeless in a 29-3 loss to the Bears, a team that is facing its own struggles. First, let's focus on the field, where only two players recorded positive receiving yardage, as tight end Evan Engram and receiver David Sills each had one reception for 12 yards (running back Devontae Booker caught two passes for no yards).

Judge fired Jason Garrett on November 23. Since then, the offense hasn't been any better. But Judge isn't doing himself any favors, after he went on an 11:10 rant after the game in which he rambled, was defensive and painted a rosier picture than the results on the field indicate. Fans and players don't want to hear impassioned defenses of poor performance, especially if it can come off at times as unbelievable and self-serving. To be completely fair to Judge and his assistants, this roster has been decimated by injuries and questionable (and perhaps that's too kind) personnel decisions by general manager Dave Gettleman, whose job actually might be in a more precarious position than Judge's. New York has been outscored 141-49 during its five-game losing streak. Judge is still a young coach, at 40 years old. He has helped get players to keep fighting in games, despite the ugly results. But unless tangible and consistent progress can be seen on a week-to-week basis, his job will be in trouble.

Mike McCarthy

Long one of the criticisms he faced at his previous job, when he was the head coach of the Packers, Mike McCarthy showed that game management is still an issue with the Cowboys. In Dallas' 25-22 loss against the Cardinals, McCarthy's mismanagement of timeouts in the second half meant he was unable to challenge an apparent fumble that officials missed. In the middle of the third quarter, on a fourth-and-5 from the Dallas 8-yard line, Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury was determined to make McCarthy burn a timeout so he put quarterback Kyler Murray and kicker Matt Prater on the field at the same time to confuse Dallas. After the Cowboys (11-5) burned the timeout, Prater simply drilled the chip shot.

Another McCarthy issue is that he hasn't really corrected a problem that has faced this team for years, dating back to Jason Garrett's final seasons as coach: Dallas falls victim to seemingly inexplicable dud games that are marred by slow starts. In the four most recent Cowboy defeats, they have scored just 23 points in the first halves, combined. The loss dropped Dallas from the NFC's No. 2 seed, and — combined with Green Bay's victory Sunday night against the Vikings — eliminated it from contention for the conference's top seed. The Cowboys, on paper, might have the most talented roster in the entire NFL. That may not be enough if mistakes, game management issues and slow starts keep getting in the way.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 17 winners, losers: Bengals have arrived. Coach costs Cowboys