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Plenty of drama heading into final week of NFL's regular season

Peyton Barber of the Washington Football Team scores

Peyton Barber of the Washington Football Team scores a touchdown in the third quarter against the Eagles at FedExField on Sept. 13 in Landover, Md. Credit: Getty Images/Greg Fiume

You want to know why the NFL is the most popular league, year-in and year-out, decade-in and decade-out?

Sunday is why.

On the final weekend of a regular season filled with the usual assortment of surprises, upsets, epic comebacks and transformative moments — all in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic — the drama reaches a crescendo with playoff-deciding implications wherever you look.

Even in the NFC East’s worst collective performance in an otherwise rich history, the divisional title won’t be decided until Washington and Philadelphia do battle on Sunday night. Although this is a matchup of two teams with losing records, it’s still compelling enough for NBC to pick this as the final prime-time game of the regular season.

No matter that Washington has a 6-9 record. If Alex Smith — the best feel-good story of the year after his comeback from a leg injury that nearly cost him his life — can get back into the lineup to pull off a win-and-you’re-in result, it will be the kind of theatre this league has created for generations.

If there were any concerns that adding a wild-card team in each conference might water down the competition, never mind. It has only added to the sense of anticipation this weekend.

In all, 18 teams — more than half the league — are in contention for the Super Bowl. The last time there were that many was in 2006, when 20 teams had a shot at the playoffs or already had clinched a spot heading into Week 17.

Here’s how things shape up:

NFC

The Giants-Cowboys game at 1 p.m. is filled with potential playoff implications, but not until the Washington-Philly game is decided. The Giants-Cowboys winner will capture the division title if the Eagles beat Washington, which means it will be roughly 7 ½ hours before the NFC East is decided.

If the Cowboys and Eagles win, Dallas will capture its second division title in the last three years. If the Giants finish first, it will be their first divisional title since the 2011 season, the last time they won a Super Bowl. They also would become the first 6-10 team in NFL history to reach the playoffs — a bit of ignominious history, for sure, but one the Giants certainly will take.

It’s win-and-in when the Cardinals visit the Rams on Sunday. While Seattle has captured the NFC West title, the Cardinals and Rams are fighting for a wild-card spot. It won’t be easy for the Rams, who have lost starting quarterback Jared Goff to a fractured thumb and their top receiver, Cooper Kupp (COVID-19 list). Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray still is bothered by a knee injury, but it’s not enough to keep him out of the lineup.

The Bears, who started off 5-1 but then lost six straight games, have rallied to win their final three and can get into the tournament as a wild card by beating longtime rival Green Bay at Soldier Field.

A Packers win means they secure home-field advantage in the conference playoffs, which would earn them a bye week before the divisional round. But Green Bay suffered a major setback in practice this week when perennial Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari suffered a torn ACL.

Aaron Rodgers has dealt with bigger problems, and he’s currently on track to earn a third MVP award.

If the Packers (12-3) lose, the Saints (11-4) or Seahawks (11-4) would be in position to earn the No. 1 seed.

The ageless Tom Brady has Tampa Bay (10-5) in the playoffs for the first time since 2007 — the year they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants, who beat Brady’s previously unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. No one from that Giants team is in the NFL right now, but the 43-year-old Brady is still going strong.

AFC

Josh Allen’s spectacularly improved season has helped Buffalo to its first playoff berth since 1995, when Hall of Famer Jim Kelly was the Bills’ quarterback. Buffalo will host a first-round playoff game with a limited number of fans next weekend.

Kansas City has won the AFC West title and earned home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs for the second time in three seasons. The reigning Super Bowl champs, led by Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, will get that all-important first-round bye before beginning their title defense.

The Steelers, who started off 11-0 but then lost three straight, scored a dramatic second-half comeback win over Indianapolis last week to clinch the AFC North title. They’ll give Ben Roethlisberger a breather in the regular-season finale against the Browns.

Now here’s where it gets interesting:

The Ravens (10-5) will get into the tournament for the third straight time with a win at Cincinnati, earning a wild-card berth. Advantage Ravens, who have won four straight thanks to Lamar Jackson’s brilliance.

And if the Browns (10-5), who were without their top receivers because of COVID-19 issues in last week’s upset loss to the Jets, can beat Mason Rudolph and the Steelers on Sunday, they’ll be in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 — just their second postseason visit since the franchise was reinstated in 1999. It’s time for Baker Mayfield to see what he can do in the playoffs.

The Dolphins (10-5) also can earn a wild card by beating the Bills in Buffalo, a tall order for rookie Tua Tagovailoa. If Bills coach Sean McDermott decides to rest some starters, the path could be easier. But the Dolphins won’t have Ryan Fitzpatrick in the bullpen for this one; the veteran quarterback was diagnosed with COVID-19 this week and is ineligible to play.

And, finally, the AFC South still is up in the air. The Titans (10-5 ) can clinch their first division title since 2008 with a win over the Texans. The Colts can win the division by beating the Jaguars at home if Tennessee loses or ties. They also can get in as a wild card with a win and a loss by either Baltimore, Cleveland or Miami.

Advantage: Titans. The Colts? Hope for help.

Got all that?

Good. Now sit back and watch the best sports show unfold for yet another drama-filled NFL finale.

New York Sports