NFL-Falcons vie for playoff spot in regular season finale
Dec 29 (Reuters) - The Atlanta Falcons will clinch a playoff spot if they beat the Carolina Panthers in the final week of the NFL regular season on Sunday, an opportunity the team would love to have as it attempts to atone for last season's epic Super Bowl collapse.
The Falcons (9-6) would like nothing more than to bury the memory of their February defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots in a game where Atlanta led by 19 points in the fourth quarter before suffering an eventual 34-28 overtime loss.
But first they will have to get past NFC South division rival Panthers (11-4), who are riding a three game winning streak behind the outstanding all-around play of quarterback Cam Newton.
The 2015 MVP, who has been slicing up defenses using both his arm and his legs, assured Carolina a playoff spot after leading the team to a last-second win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 16.
Atlanta will hope their quarterback and last year's MVP Matt Ryan can improve on his recent play, during which he has struggled with interceptions and trouble finishing drives in the end zone.
The Falcons are assured of a playoff spot if they win on Sunday, but if they lose will nervously await the outcome of the Seattle Seahawks (9-6) game against the Arizona Cardinals (7-8).
The Russell Wilson-led Seattle squad need to beat the Cardinals and a Falcons loss to keep their season alive.
The Baltimore Ravens (9-6) are also in the hunt for a playoff spot and with a victory over the lowly Cincinnati Bengals would clinch their first postseason berth since 2014.
The Ravens will hope their stout defense can continue to generate turnovers while their offense steadily improves behind veteran quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Minnesota Vikings (12-3) could secure a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs when they battle the underdog Chicago Bears on Sunday.
With a win the Vikings would set up a scenario where, depending on other results, they could be the first NFL team to play all of their playoff games and the Super Bowl on their home field. The Super Bowl will be held on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.
The Philadephia Eagles (13-2) have already locked up a first-round bye, but will be without injured quarterback Carson Wentz throughout the playoffs.
While some teams are battling for postseason glory, the Cleveland Browns are just hoping to end their dismal 2017 campaign on a high note.
The winless Browns will look to avoid joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only 0-16 teams in league history when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
The bad news for the Browns is that the Steelers (12-3) need a win - and a Patriots loss - to take the top spot in the AFC and will be in no mood to help the Browns avoid making the wrong kind of NFL history on Sunday.
The good news for the Browns is that with their loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 16, they have already secured the first overall selection in next year's draft, giving them a shot to right the ship next season. (Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Andrew Both)
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