The lineup for Week 17 in the NFL appears to be can’t-miss material in terms of drama. Last season the final weekend of the regular season was largely anti-climatic, with the exception of Baltimore’s last-minute loss at home putting Buffalo into the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
But this season, there are meaningful games galore, with 15 teams still alive in the battle to earn a slot in the 12-team playoff field, and only the NFC’s No. 1 New Orleans and No. 4 Dallas locked into definite slots in terms of playoff seeds.
In the AFC, four teams are fighting for the final two berths: Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, and Indianapolis and Tennessee in the AFC South. Two of those teams will have their seasons end abruptly, while the other two will celebrate the start of next week’s postseason. All six seeds will remain un-clinched at the start of play on Sunday.
In the NFC, the No. 6 seed remains open and it comes down to either the Vikings or last year’s champs, the hard-charging Eagles, with the order of seeding still unsettled in four of the conference’s six slots.
In the now-traditional all-division matchups Week 17 schedule, 12 teams have scenarios to clinch either a playoff berth, a division, a first-round bye or even in the case of the AFC, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The final pieces are about to fall into place in the playoff picture, and it should make for great, pressure-packed football as 2018 concludes.
Last week: 13-3 (.813); Season: 151–87 (.634).
Miami (7-8) at Buffalo (5-10)
In a game with nothing at stake, will we be watching Ryan Tannehill’s final start as the Dolphins quarterback? I believe so. The Bills at home will deal with the cold better and play harder than the warm-weather visitors.
Detroit (5-10) at Green Bay (6-8-1)
Packers players are lobbying on interim coach Joe Philbin’s behalf, and another win will make him 3-1 as Mike McCarthy’s replacement. That’s very solid, but hey, he’s no Gregg Williams.
Winner: Green Bay
New York Jets (4-11) at New England (10-5)
Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold has been getting it done of late, and he’ll keep New York in the game for a while. But the Patriots will find a little more rhythm in their struggling passing game and do what it takes to finish 11-5 and secure a mind-boggling ninth consecutive first-round bye.
Winner: New England
Atlanta (6-9) at Tampa Bay (5-10)
I’m not sure you can trust either one of these defenses to stop anyone all game long, but I’ll take the Bucs to win this meaningless game and most likely end coach Dirk Koetter’s Tampa Bay tenure on a positive note.
Winner: Tampa Bay
Dallas (9-6) at New York Giants (5-10)
The can’t foresee the Cowboys playing their “A’’ team for long when they’re locked into the NFC’s No. 4 and have little to gain other than logging a double-digit win season. That means the Giants will want it more and deliver a sixth win to cap coach Pat Shurmur’s first season on the job.
Winner: New York
Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (13-2)
The Saints have the No. 1 seed in the NFC locked away and plan to play Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback for a sizable portion of the game. But the Panthers are playing rookie Ryan Allen at quarterback, their third different starter in three weeks. He’ll make some plays, but advantage New Orleans, even without its full lineup.
Winner: New Orleans
Jacksonville (5-10) at Houston (10-5)
The Texans might be still be smarting from losing late in Philadelphia last week and letting the AFC’s No. 2 seed out of their control. But there’s no time to wallow, because with a win Houston can finally wrap up the AFC South title, their fifth in eight seasons. It’ll be a closer game than expected, but Deshaun Watson won’t let this one get away.
Oakland (4-11) at Kansas City (11-4)
The Chiefs have lost their share of glamor games this season, falling to the Patriots, Rams, Chargers and Seahawks. Alas, this is not a glamor game, and the AFC’s No. 1 seed is still theirs with a win. Patrick Mahomes will make a strong closing case for his MVP candidacy and Kansas City will celebrate at Arrowhead.
Winner: Kansas City
Arizona (3-12) at Seattle (9-6)
The Seahawks want that No. 5 seed and a trip to No. 4 Dallas next week, thus avoiding the potential challenge of winning in Chicago in the first round. Seattle wouldn’t be intimidated no matter where it goes, but the lowly Cardinals aren’t going to provide much competition or keep the Seahawks from reaching double digit wins for the sixth time in the past seven seasons.
Chicago (11-4) at Minnesota (8-6-1)
Okay, Kirk Cousins, your defining moment has arrived. Win this game and the Vikings will consider their centerpiece free-agent signing a success in 2018. Lose it and miss the playoffs and Cousins will be seen as largely a swing and a miss for now. The Bears would love to ruin Minnesota’s season and keep a division rival home in January, but if I was Chicago I’d re-think that strategy. Wouldn’t the Bears rather see the Viking returning to Soldier Field than the resurgent Eagles, with their recent magic touch, in next week’s first round of the playoffs? A Minnesota win likely brings the NFC North rematch to fruition.
Cincinnati (6-9) at Pittsburgh (8-6-1)
The Steelers passing game will bedevil the Bengals defense and build a comfortable lead, and then it’ll be a matter of watching the scoreboard to see what’s going on in Baltimore with the Browns-Ravens game. That’s the precarious situation Pittsburgh put itself in with recent losses at Denver and Oakland, and it could all result in a very painful, if-only type of finish to the 2018 season.
Cleveland (7-7-1) at Baltimore (9-6)
This is Cleveland’s playoff game and I give the surging Browns a great shot of going into M&T Bank Stadium and breaking Baltimore’s heart. The new Browns versus the old Browns angle is finally fascinating in this case, with Baker Mayfield and Co. capable of earning revenge against the franchise that left Cleveland high and dry in 1995. But after losing out on a playoff berth in excruciating fashion at home to a division rival from Ohio (the Bengals) in Week 17 last year, John Harbaugh’s Ravens will do just enough to avoid a cruel repeat, flipping the script and earning their first postseason trip since 2014.
Los Angeles Chargers (11-4) at Denver (6-9)
The Chargers let a golden opportunity to seize the AFC West and the top seed get away from them against last Saturday night at home against Baltimore. But they’ll rebound in Week 17, put the Broncos out of their misery and enter the playoffs as a ridiculously dangerous No. 5 seed.
Winner: Los Angeles
Philadelphia (8-7) at Washington (7-8)
The resurgent Eagles will take care of their part of the necessary equation, beating Washington on the road behind another impressive performance from quarterback Nick Foles. But will the Birds get the mandatory help from Chicago in the form of a Bears road win at Minnesota? I’d love to see the defending champion Eagles make the playoffs and maybe wreak some havoc in the NFC field, but it feels like it’s not to be.
San Francisco (4-11) at Los Angeles Rams (12-3)
The 49ers have been pesky of late and won’t no-show in the Coliseum. They’ll make the Rams work a bit to wrap up the NFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, and you know Aaron Donald would love to take a real run at Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record. But Los Angeles will prevail and send San Francisco home with a mirror opposite record to its 12-4 mark.
Winner: Los Angeles
Indianapolis (9-6) at Tennessee (9-6)
The Titans can be anything from the AFC’s No. 2 seed to out of the playoffs entirely, making Sunday a nerve-wracking from start to finish for anybody who roots for Tennessee. But the Colts have it all on the line as well and can earn their first trip to the playoffs since 2014, capping a remarkable comeback season for both Andrew Luck and the organization itself. Rookie head coach Frank Reich has had most of the right answers in Indianapolis this season, and with Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota perhaps not playing, or healthy enough to be effective, the Colts will be the club celebrating in Nashville come late Sunday night.