SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

NFL Week 17 preview: The NFL has gotten the end games right

The scheduling decision two years ago to make all Week 17 games intra-divisional is paying dividends, with meaningful matchups filling the menu on final Sunday.

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Three years ago, the 14-0 Indianapolis Colts pulled Peyton Manning in the middle of their 15th game, and, instead of trying for a perfect season, coasted into the postseason with back-to-back losses.

It was a prime example of the mail-it-in attitude the NFL didn’t want, and helped prompt the league to make a change. Beginning the following season, every Week 17 game was a divisional matchup, increasing the likelihood those games would be meaningful in the playoff picture.

In that respect, this season scarcely could have worked out better.

The NFC East, for instance, will be decided Sunday by a classic rivalry: the Dallas Cowboys versus the Washington Redskins, winner take all. The game has been flexed to Sunday night.

“Pandemonium at FedEx Field,” Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. “The way you like it. It’s definitely going to be a playoff atmosphere.”

In the NFC West, San Francisco has the inside track on the division crown, as the 49ers can claim it — and a home playoff game — by beating Arizona on Sunday.

Since starting 4-0, the Cardinals have lost 10 of 11, including a 24-3 loss to the 49ers at home in October. Alex Smith was San Francisco’s quarterback in that game; this time, the Cardinals will get their first look at Colin Kaepernick.

But the 49ers also are smarting from the 42-13 pounding they absorbed at Seattle on Sunday night, a rout in which tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Mario Manningham were knocked out with injuries.

The Seahawks have made the playoffs as a wild-card team. To win the division, they need to beat St. Louis on Sunday, and have the 49ers lose to the Cardinals. If the Seahawks lose Sunday, the 49ers win the division.

According to Mike Silver of Yahoo Sports, the Seahawks were motivated Sunday by something that allegedly happened to them when they lost to the 49ers at Candlestick Park in October. Players said 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh honked his car horn at their bus as they were leaving and mockingly saluted them.

On Monday, Harbaugh called that account “a fabrication.” No one denies, though, that the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry is growing increasingly emotional and heated.

With San Francisco’s loss, Green Bay is in position for the No. 2 NFC seeding and a first-round bye. The Packers can clinch that by winning at Minnesota.

The Vikings, meanwhile, can clinch a playoff berth by beating the Packers.

“I think this is exactly the way you’d want it going into the playoffs, especially with this year’s team,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “I still feel that we have the ability to be even better. ...

“And that’s what I’m excited about — having the opportunity to play a playoff-type game, a playoff-game atmosphere, on the road with the crowd noise and both teams have a lot on the line.”

Chicago still has a chance to reach the playoffs, but the Bears need help. They have to win at Detroit, and hope that the Packers beat the Vikings. If that happens, the Bears get the last wild-card spot.

As for the New York Giants, who are coming off consecutive ugly losses in which they were outscored by a combined 67-14, their playoff pulse is faint. They need to beat Philadelphia, and hope that Dallas, Chicago and Minnesota lose.

“I’m obviously disappointed that this is what we have to rely on now, but that’s the position we’re in,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said Monday. “If anything, you want to try to play, if the season is going to end, you want to try to end it on the highest note possible. At least go out there and play better football than we have over the last two weeks.”

Whereas the NFC picture is still coming into focus, the AFC playoff participants are set, and Week 17 is all about seeding.

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