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NFL drama going right to the end

By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Revenge is an overrated emotion in the NFL. Fans think about it, the media speculates about it, but for players — many of whom spend time with multiple franchises over the course of their career — the game is more about paychecks than payback.

The upcoming game in Denver could be an exception.

The Broncos will play host Sunday to Kansas City, a week after the Chiefs were eliminated from the playoff picture. This game is anything but meaningless to Chiefs quarterback Kyle Orton, though; he has an opportunity to spoil the party for a team that cut him five weeks ago.

“We knew it was a possibility,” Broncos executive John Elway told the Denver Post of running into Orton again. “So, here it is. We have to go out there and play well. It was best for the team, bottom line. We made that decision knowing this was a possibility. Now we have to do it.”

That’s but one of the dramatic story lines heading into the league’s regular-season finales. A few years ago, the league worried about how to make these Week 17 games more interesting — hence the decision to make each a division matchup — but that’s not a concern this season.

Even a game between two of the worst teams — Indianapolis at Jacksonville — has some intrigue.

The Colts, who have won two in a row, are in danger of falling behind St. Louis in positioning for the first draft pick. The Colts and Rams are tied with records of 2-13. Indianapolis has the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker so would get the No. 1 pick if the teams finish with the same record, but the Rams close the season against a tough San Francisco team.

Although it’s unlikely the Rams would select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck if they wind up with the top pick — they already have Sam Bradford — they could certainly trade away the right to draft Luck. The Colts would take Luck regardless of whether Peyton Manning is ready to return, reasoning Luck could learn at the elbow of Manning the way Aaron Rodgers was groomed behind Brett Favre in Green Bay.

So with the Colts-Jaguars game the question is, who really wants to win? Do the Colts want to win and possibly lose the Luck sweepstakes, or do the Jaguars want to win and deal with the possibility of facing Luck within the division for the next 10-plus years?

Back to the AFC West. If the Broncos win, or if Oakland loses to San Diego, Denver clinches the division.

But if both Denver and Oakland win, the Raiders can still grab the final wild-card spot if Cincinnati loses to Baltimore and Tennessee loses to Houston; or Cincinnati loses, and the Jets beat Miami.

If the Bengals win, they’re in as a wild card, meaning half of the conference’s playoff teams would be from the AFC North. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are already in.

Tennessee and the Jets are mathematically alive for the wild card, but they both need a lot of help.

The Chargers, who are out of the playoffs for the second consecutive year, are reduced to the role of potential spoiler in a game that could be the last for coach Norv Turner. They can end the season of the Raiders.

In the NFC, there’s one big game: Dallas at the New York Giants. The winner clinches the NFC East and plays host to a first-round game. The loser is out. The Giants advance with a tie.

In a radio interview Monday, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Tony Romo would play. The quarterback was injured early in Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia when the back of his right hand hit the helmet of Eagles defensive lineman Jason Babin.

Jones told 1310 The Ticket in Dallas that the club will not pursue a veteran quarterback. Stephen McGee is the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, and John Phillips is the third option.

That’s the night game Sunday. So, just as the NFL hoped, the regular-season drama will be stretched all the way to the last minute.

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