By John McMullen, NFL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The NFC East's third annual play-in game is set for Sunday night in "Jerry World," and for the first time Tony Romo is unlikely to be involved.
A day after the Cowboys' quarterback saved the team's season, Dallas was forced to contemplate life without him when news surfaced that the three-time Pro Bowl selection had a herniated disk in his back which could require surgery.
Trying to play the competitive advantage card, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and general manager/owner Jerry Jones are still claiming Romo could make it back for the winner-take-all showdown with the surprising Philadelphia Eagles.
"We'll evaluate him on a day-by-day basis and make the best decision for our team," said Garrett.
Jones added on his radio show Tuesday that his quarterback has proven he can play with pain but footnoted that with one important caveat.
"Tony will play with all the pain," Jones said. "But his doctor has to clear him."
Ask Aaron Rodgers about that particular hurdle.
For what it's worth Romo has already received an epidural injection to relieve pain and reduce inflammation in the back, an indication he is doing whatever is necessary to get back on the field for Sunday's game. The reality, however, is that Romo is an extreme long shot to play and the team is moving on like he will not be available.
"If you know Tony, you can't imagine what a competitor he is, and he doesn't want to miss a snap," Jones said. "He was very disappointed, particularly disappointed for his team, repeated over and over again, 'Jerry, I can't tell you how badly I feel relative to you and relative to my teammates.'"
Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis understands he still needs to prepare for both Romo and Kyle Orton but the see-saw has tipped dramatically toward the veteran backup.
"It does more when the quarterbacks are vastly different," Davis said when asked about Dallas trying to create the illusion Romo could still give it a go. "When there is one athletic runner that wants to run instead of throw. But I think these two quarterbacks are similar (pass-first)."
Romo, of course, rallied Dallas to a 24-23 victory over the Washington Redskins last Sunday after tweaking the back, throwing a touchdown pass to DeMarco Murray with 1:08 remaining to keep the Cowboys' playoff hopes alive after they trailed by nine points in the fourth quarter.
"I thought he did an amazing job fighting through the injury and giving us a chance to win the game," Garrett understated.
The Cowboys (8-7) beat the Eagles (9-6) on Oct. 20 and now must do so again with Orton to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 season.
Dallas, thanks in large part to its dismal defense, was installed as 2 1/2- point underdogs with Romo, a number that swelled to 7 1/2 when news of the injury broke.
The 31-year-old Orton is no typical backup, however. He is an accurate passer with the reputation of a good decision-maker.
Orton has authored plenty of success over the years and been around the block a time or two, passing for 14,661 yards with 81 touchdowns and 57 interceptions with 69 career starts over his nine seasons. That said, Orton hasn't seen significant playing time since 2011 so he needs all the repetitions he can get in practice.
"We paid a lot of money several years ago for just this very circumstance," Jones said. "Kyle has a very strong arm, he's very experienced. If required, he'll be able to step in and do as good under the circumstances as you could expect."
And Davis expects it.
"I know Kyle Orton is a highly efficient quarterback," the Eagles' defensive chief said. "He has a great presence and sees the field well. He's always distributed the ball equally to the open guys. I think some guys have favorites, some don't. Kyle Orton is a great system quarterback in that he understands the coverage and what position in the routes, and he does a great job of getting the ball out of his hands and accurately throwing to the open guy."
A possible silver lining for the Cowboys is Romo's history of troubles in December and his inability to beat the New York Giants in Week 17 two years ago, and the Redskins last season with the NFC East on the line, a cross which could have been too heavy to bear.
With Romo under center all the pressure of this game would be squarely on the shoulders of the Cowboys. Now, it all shifts to the Eagles, who are expected to dispose of a banged-up team without its QB, but need to understand this change could help Dallas in some ways.
You can't compare Romo and Orton as players but the backup's lack of mobility and his inability to extend plays and make something out of nothing like Romo could force Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to temper their pass-happy default settings and regress to a more conservative plan better suited to attack Philadelphia's weaknesses.
"Tony Romo probably extends the play more than most in the NFL," Davis said. "That is one of the talents that he has is when the initial play is broken down to improvise. If he's healthy, we're ready for his best. And if Orton is the quarterback, then we're ready for their best. We'll give them ours."
That best has limited opponents to 21 points-or-less in 10 of the past 11 games with the one hiccup coming in Minneapolis against the Vikings on Dec. 15 when Davis' unit allowed 48 points to a team playing without Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart while relying on Matt Cassel at QB, a veteran with similar attributes to Orton.
"We prepared," Davis said when addressing the Minnesota debacle. "We didn't execute at the highest level we could have on that day. It wasn't because of lack of preparation or poor preparation. It was somehow on some level, we just didn't step up that night or that afternoon and get it done."
The obvious explanation is the Eagles took the limping Vikings for granted begging the question could the same thing happen against a Romo-less Cowboys team?
"We have Kyle Orton here for a reason," Garrett said. "He understands what his role is."
That role has morphed into what Romo hasn't been able to do the past two seasons -- win the NFC East. Orton will be asked to take care of the football with a heavy dose of Murray thrown in, a game plan that if successful would keep the ball out of the hands of Philadelphia's high-powered offense.
"They might," Davis said when queried about the Cowboys possibly giving Murray a bigger workload. "I believe they were going to do that. We were anticipating them to do that anyway. But they might do more. Only they can answer that question. We've got to prepare equally for the run game and the pass game.
"Each game takes on its own life."
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THE GAMES (All Times Eastern) - WEEK 17
Carolina (11-4) at Atlanta (4-11), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Panthers by 7
THE SKINNY: The Panthers clinched a playoff berth with last week's 17-13 come- from-behind win over their NFL South rivals, the New Orleans Saints. Entering Week 17, Carolina is in control for the division crown and a first-round bye, needing only to beat Atlanta or a loss from the Saints at home against Tampa Bay, an unlikely occurrence because NOLA is 7-0 at the Superdome. Carolina can also secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win combined with a Seattle loss and a San Francisco win.
Panthers QB Cam Newton is set to finish his third NFL season as the only player in history with 50-or-more passing TDs (62) and 25-plus rushing scores (28) over that span. Meanwhile, MLB Luke Kuechly had a record 24 tackles last week against NOLA and has an NFL-high 310 since entering the NFL in 2012.
Atlanta signal caller Matt Ryan has performed well despite a disappointing season overall for the Falcons and has 4,235 passing yards, his third consecutive 4,000-yard season. Ryan is also 5-0 as a starter versus Carolina at the Georgia Dome.
PREDICTION: Panthers 23, Falcons 14
Baltimore (8-7) at Cincinnati (10-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bengals by 6
THE SKINNY: The Bengals have captured the AFC North for the first time since 2009 while the Ravens are desperately hoping for a chance to defend their Super Bowl championship by earning a wild-card spot. Baltimore, which has made the postseason five consecutive years, is in with a win and a loss by either San Diego or Miami. The Ravens can also clinch a playoff berth with losses by Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati is 7-0 at Paul Brown Stadium and playing for a chance to earn a first-round bye, which it will get with a win combined with a New England loss.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco needs 280 passing yards to join Vinny Testaverde (4,177 in 1996) as the only players in franchise history to reach 4,000 in season. His counterpart with the Bengals, Andy Dalton, has (4,015 passing yards and 31 TD passes and needs 117 more yards and two TD passes to set new team records in both categories.
PREDICTION: Bengals 27, Ravens 20
Jacksonville (4-11) at Indianapolis (10-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Colts by 11 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Colts have won the AFC South and can still earn a first-round bye with a win and losses by both New England and Cincinnati.
Indy's Andrew Luck registered his 21st career win over two seasons last week, matching Dan Marino for the third-most wins by a starting QB over that span during the Super Bowl era. Luck (7,914) also has the second-most passing yards by a player in his first two seasons and needs only seven yards to pass Cam Newton. Jacksonville started 0-8 but has won three consecutive on the road.
PREDICTION: Colts 23, Jaguars 13
NY Jets (7-8) at Miami (8-7), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Dolphins by 6 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Dolphins are fighting for the AFC's final playoff spot and their first postseason berth since 2008. Miami can qualify for the postseason with a win and a Baltimore loss or with a win and a San Diego win.
Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill (3,709) needs 291 passing yards to join Dan Marino as the only players to register 4,000-yard seasons in franchise history. Jets' pilot Geno Smith (2,856) has the most passing yards by any rookie in Jets' lore.
PREDICTION: Dolphins 21, Jets 18
Detroit (7-8) at Minnesota (4-10-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Vikings by 3
THE SKINNY: The Vikings will close Mall of America Field with a meaningless game against Detroit, which could serve as the swan song for both coaches, Minnesota's Leslie Frazier and the Lions' Jim Schwartz. Superstars Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson are both banged-up and could be shelved.
PREDICTION: Vikings 24, Lions 17
Washington (3-12) at NY Giants (6-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Giants by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: This could be the last game for embattled Redskins' coach Mike Shanahan and likely will be the final contest for Washington linebacker London Fletcher, who announced last Wednesday that this season is "99 percent" likely to be his last. In 16 NFL seasons, Fletcher has transformed from an undersized college free agent with the St. Louis Rams in 1998 to the league's record holder for consecutive starts by a linebacker. Sunday is expected to be Fletcher's 215th consecutive regular season start and his 256th consecutive regular season game played.
PREDICTION: Giants 20, Redskins 14
Cleveland (4-11) at Pittsburgh (7-8), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Steelers by 7
THE SKINNY: The Steelers, who defeated Green Bay 38-31 last week, are looking for their fifth postseason berth in seven seasons under Mike Tomlin. Pittsburgh can clinch a playoff berth with a win combined with losses by Miami, Baltimore and San Diego.
During his career Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is 16-1 versus Cleveland, including an 8-0 mark at Heinz Field.
PREDICTION: Steelers 24, Browns 13
Houston (2-13) at Tennessee (6-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Titans by 6 1/2
THE SKINNY: Houston is in the midst of a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak and will lock up the No.1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft with another setback. The Titans conclude their season with the futures of head coach Mike Munchak and injured quarterback Jake Locker in doubt.
PREDICTION: Titans 30, Texans 17
San Francisco (11-4) at Arizona (10-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: 49ers by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY: The 49ers, who clinched a playoff berth with Monday's dramatic win over Atlanta, can win the NFC West with a win and a Seattle loss. If Carolina also loses in that scenario, San Francisco will earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The Cardinals stayed alive in the postseason chase with last week's 17-10 victory at Seattle. Arizona, which has won seven of its past eight games, can secure a Wild Card berth with a win and a New Orleans loss.
Colin Kaepernick is 2-0 in his career versus Arizona with a 103.5 passer rating, a key figure because San Fran is 12-0 when Kaepernick is over the century mark.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 23, 49ers 21
Green Bay (7-7-1) at Chicago (8-7), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
THE SKINNY: Win and you're in. The NFC North is at stake when the Packers visit the Bears. The winner will take home the division crown and advance to the postseason. The loser will be eliminated.
Green Bay won't have star pass rusher Clay Matthews, who re-injured his thumb, and will likely be without All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers again but the Packers still feel good about facing the Bears, who are coming off a 54-11 implosion against Philadelphia in Week 16.
PREDICTION: Packers 28, Bears 17
Buffalo (6-9) at New England (11-4), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Patriots by 9
THE SKINNY: The Patriots clinched the AFC East last week and can secure a first-round bye with a win or losses by both Cincinnati and Indianapolis. With a New England win and a Denver loss, the Patriots will earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
New England has won 18 of its past 20 in December and Tom Brady is 44-7 as a starter in the month. Brady, who has 11 division titles as the Pats' QB, the most ever, is also attempting to surpass Dan Marino on the all-time wins list among starting QBs (147).
PREDICTION: Patriots 24, Bills 16
Tampa Bay (4-11) at New Orleans (10-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Saints by 12 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Saints will earn a playoff berth with a win or an Arizona loss. With a win and a Carolina loss, New Orleans will win the NFC South and secure a first-round bye.
Saints QB Drew Brees has won four in a row versus Tampa Bay and needs 219 passing yards for his fourth career 5,000-yard season.
PREDICTION: Saints 34, Buccaneers 17
Denver (12-3) at Oakland (4-11), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 12
THE SKINNY: Denver has already clinched the AFC West and a first-round bye. With a win or a New England loss, the Broncos will lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC and secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
The Broncos (572) need to score just 18 points against the Raiders to set a new single-season NFL record. QB Peyton Manning is already the first player in NFL history to pass for 5,000 yards and 50 TDs in same season.
PREDICTION: Broncos 34, Raiders 14
Kansas City (11-4) at San Diego (8-7), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Chargers by 9 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Chiefs have secured a wild-card spot and are locked into the No. 5 seed in the AFC. The Chargers, who have won three in a row, will join Kansas City in the postseason with a win combined with losses by both Miami and Baltimore.
San Diego has won three consecutive games, the longest active streak in AFC and is seeking its first postseason berth since 2009. The Chiefs have tied the 2008 Dolphins and the 2012 Colts for the most wins by team that won two or fewer games in previous season and could rest some of their starters.
PREDICTION: Chargers 27, Chiefs 17
St. Louis (7-8) at Seattle (12-3), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Seahawks by 10 1/2
THE SKINNY: Seattle has the NFC's best record at 12-3 and can clinch the NFC West, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win or a San Francisco loss. The Rams are headlined by the game's best pass rusher Robert Quinn, who had three sacks last week and has 18 overall.
PREDICTION: Seahawks 24, Rams 14
Philadelphia (9-6) at Dallas (8-7), Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Eagles by 7
THE SKINNY: The final game of the 2013 regular season will be the "third annual NFC East play-in game." The Eagles will visit the Cowboys with the NFC East division title on the line. The winner advances to the postseason while the loser's season comes to an end.
"The playoffs just start a week early for both teams," said Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly. "If you win, you get an opportunity to keep playing. If you lose, you're going home. This is really just the first week of the playoffs."
PREDICTION: Eagles 28, Cowboys 17
12/26 13:54:49 ET