Thanks to the NFL’s decision to pit division rivals against each other in week 17, we have a full slate of entertaining games today.
|17||Sun||December 29||Carolina Panthers||@||Atlanta Falcons||1:00 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Baltimore Ravens||@||Cincinnati Bengals||1:00 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||New York Jets||@||Miami Dolphins||1:00 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Cleveland Browns||@||Pittsburgh Steelers||1:00 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Jacksonville Jaguars||@||Indianapolis Colts||1:00 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Detroit Lions||@||Minnesota Vikings||1:00 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Washington Redskins||@||New York Giants||1:00 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Houston Texans||@||Tennessee Titans||1:00 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Buffalo Bills||@||New England Patriots||4:25 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||@||New Orleans Saints||4:25 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Green Bay Packers||@||Chicago Bears||4:25 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||San Francisco 49ers||@||Arizona Cardinals||4:25 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Denver Broncos||@||Oakland Raiders||4:25 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Kansas City Chiefs||@||San Diego Chargers||4:25 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||St. Louis Rams||@||Seattle Seahawks||4:25 PM|
|17||Sun||December 29||Philadelphia Eagles||@||Dallas Cowboys||8:30 PM|
Just three games — Detroit at Minnesota, Washington at New York, and Houston at Tennessee — don’t carry playoff implications. And even those three games have something to watch — a Texans loss gives Houston the number one pick, London Fletcher in his final NFL game, and a chance to see if either Jim Schwartz or Leslie Frazier is fired in the parking lot after the game. But now, some random thoughts on the other 13 games.
Carolina (-5.5) at Atlanta: The Panthers secure a bye with a win, and could even get the 1 seed if it comes with a Seahawks loss and a 49ers win. Falcons fans may want Jadeveon Clowney, but Atlanta will need help moving into the top five even with a loss. The Falcons are 3-4 at home, the Panthers 4-3 on the road, so this game should be closer than you think. It’s also the last chance we’ll get to watch Tony Gonzalez. A Carolina loss and a Saints win puts the Panthers on the road next week.
Baltimore at Cincinnati (-6.5)
New York Jets at Miami (-5.5)
Cleveland at Pittsburgh (-7.0)
The 6 seed in the AFC will be affected by these three games. A win by either Baltimore, Miami, or San Diego knocks out the Steelers, so putting Pittsburgh on at 1:00 makes sense. But unless both the Ravens and Dolphins lose, the Chargers game in the afternoon will be meaningless. Baltimore is a heavy underdog in Cincinnati, as the Bengals are still playing for a bye and/or the right to avoid Kansas City in the first round of the playoffs.
We would get a Baltimore/Cincinnati rematch in Cincinnati next week if (a) Baltimore wins, Miami OR San Diego loses, and the Colts lose, or (b) Cincinnati, New England, the Jets, the Steelers, and the Chiefs all win. So a rematch isn’t too likely, but is possible. Unless the Patriots lose, this game isn’t too important for Cincinnati, but the team would enjoy knocking the Ravens out of the postseason.
The Dolphins need to beat the Jets and have the Ravens lose OR the Chargers win. That’s because Miami would win a two way tiebreaker with San Diego at 9-7 based on the head to head win, win a three-way tiebreaker with Baltimore and San Diego based on having the best conference record (8-4), but lose a two team tiebreaker with only Baltimore at 9-7 because of the head to head loss. Jets-Dolphins games have a habit of being more exciting than they should be, and we’ll see if Geno Smith can add to the rivalry’s lore. The Jets may or may not be playing for Rex Ryan’s job, while Ryan Tannehill tries to bounce back from one of the most inefficient days ever. From 1972 to 1984, Miami swept the Jets 8 times – a win on Sunday would give the Dolphins just their second season sweep in the last ten years. New York currently leads the series with a 49-45-1 record.
Jaguars at Colts (-10.5): An Indianapolis loss, or wins by both the Patriots and Bengals, sets the Colts up for a rematch with the Chiefs next weekend. Jacksonville is likely in line for the 3rd pick in the draft with a loss, and presumably looks to find the team’s franchise quarterback with that pick. There’s a good chance that the four quarterbacks in the AFC South in 2014 are all former top ten picks: Andrew Luck, Jake Locker, Teddy Bridgewater in Houston, and Johnny Manziel/Derek Carr/Blake Bortles in Jacksonville.
This game marks the 28th straight game Jacksonville has been an underdog, the sixth longest streak since 1978. This year, the 4-11 Jaguars have been an underdog by, on average, 9.9 points. That’s the fifth worst average since 1978. Here’s how to read the table below. The 1999 Browns were underdogs in 16 games,with an average spread of 10.7 points, the worst in the last 36 years. The Browns had a 2-14 record that year, but went 7-8-1 against the spread.
|Team||Year||Under||Avg Spread||Record||ATS Rec|
Tampa Bay at New Orleans (-13.0): This is a huge line considering the way this game played out in Tampa Bay in week two. Of course, the Saints are 6-0-1 against the spread at home this year, and with an average margin of victory of 17.4 points (and the Saints have covered the spread by an average of 11.3 points). Will the Bucs give any effort in what should be Greg Schiano’s last game? The Saints need a win or a Arizona loss to make the postseason. New Orleans could play in Philadelphia, Chicago, Green Bay, or Dallas next week, or have a bye if the Panthers lose and the Saints win. Might this be the last game at the Superdome for Rob Ryan? He’s led a remarkable turnaround in New Orleans, as the Saints rank in the top five in both yards and points allowed, after ranking in the bottom two in both metrics last year. He probably has enjoyed that almost as much as watching the Dallas defense implode this season.
Buffalo at New England (-8.0): Does it seem like the Patriots always beat the Bills at home? Well, it should. New England has won 12 straight against Buffalo in Foxboro:
|Rk||Tm||Year||Date||Opp||W#||Result||PF||PA||PD||Spread||vs. Line||Over/Under||OU Result|
|1||NWE||2012||2012-11-11||BUF||10||W 37-31||37||31||6||-13.5||not covered||54.0||over|
|3||NWE||2010||2010-09-26||BUF||3||W 38-30||38||30||8||-14.5||not covered||43.0||over|
|4||NWE||2009||2009-09-14||BUF||1||W 25-24||25||24||1||-13.5||not covered||47.5||over|
|7||NWE||2006||2006-09-10||BUF||1||W 19-17||19||17||2||-10.0||not covered||41.0||under|
|8||NWE||2005||2005-10-30||BUF||8||W 21-16||21||16||5||-7.0||not covered||43.5||under|
The average spead has been 9.5 points, which the Pats have covered 7 of 12 times, thanks to an average margin of victory of 13.75 points. With EJ Manuel and Steve Johnson out, tune in for the Tom Brady/Thaddeus Lewis battle. Or watch one of the other six games at 4:25. The Patriots could still end up as the 1 (with a Broncos loss/Patriots win), 2 (with a Broncos win/Patriots win or Patriots loss combined with losses by the Bengals and Colts), 3 (with a loss and a win by only one of Cincinnati/Indianapolis) or 4 seed (with a loss and a win by both Cincinnati/Indianapolis).
The Bills are headed for a pick in the 8-12 range for the 8th time in 9 years. That’s a remarkable string of consistently not-terrible-but-below-average play. With those picks, they’ve drafted Donte Whitner (8th, 2006), Marshawn Lynch (12th, 2007), Leodis McKelvin (11th, 2008), Aaron Maybin (11th, 2009), C.J. Spiller (9th, 2010), Stephon Gilmore (10th, 2012), and Manuel (after trading out of the 8th spot (Tavon Austin) in 2013). The only exception was when the team landed Marcel Dareus with the third pick in 2012.
Green Bay (-3.0) at Chicago: In games between division opponents geographically close to each other who share similar climates, home field advantage is generally reduced. In fact, the Packers are 8-6 and have outscored the Bears by 46 points since 2000 at Lambeau Field, but are 10-4 and have outscored the Bears by 80 points in games in Chicago. The big story is the return of Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers seem like a Super Bowl contender as long as #12 is on the field. But I think the Bears pull the upset: Randall Cobb is going to make his return, but Clay Matthews is going to miss the game with a thumb injury and Eddie Lacy is dealing with an injured ankle. Green Bay has allowed 36+ points in three of the last four games, and the Bears have an offense good enough to make it four out of five. Even though home field may not matter, going into Chicago and stealing the NFC North crown won’t be easy.
San Francisco at Arizona (pk): It says a lot about the Cardinals recent rise that the team is not an underdog against the 49ers. San Francisco had been favored in 13 of its first 15 games, with the two exceptions being in games in Seattle and New Orleans. San Francisco wins the NFC West and a first round bye with a win and a Seahawks loss, while a win ensures them the 5 seed at a minimum. A loss combined with a Saints win puts the 49ers down to the 6 seed, and likely a first round trip to Philadelphia. A win and a Seahawks win ensures a trip to either Dallas, Green Bay, or Chicago next weekend.
Arizona needs a win and a Saints loss in order to make the playoffs. That means Arizona could become the 3rd team to go 11-5 and miss the playoffs, joining the 1985 Broncos and the Matt Cassel-led 2008 Patriots. That Denver team overachieved relative to its Pythagorean record and New England had a very easy schedule that year, which means one could argue that the Cardinals could be the best team to miss the playoffs in the modern era. Arizona has an SRS of +6.6, although a win against San Francisco (SRS of 10.0) would amost certainly bring that rating north of seven. That wouldn’t make them the best team to miss the playoffs since the NFL expanded the postseason in 1990, but it might put them in the top five:
Perhaps an 11-5 Cardinals missing the playoffs would just be karmic payback for the Jake Plummer Cardinals in 1998, one of the worst playoff teams of all time. According to the SRS, that Arizona squad was the second worst team since 1990 to make the postseason:
Two thoughts. Man, the NFC West has really turned around quickly – you know it’s a well-coached division when Jeff Fisher might be the worst head coach there. And I think the Cardinals might just wish they were back in the NFC East.
Denver (-11) at Oakland: Peyton Manning has already set the touchdown record, and the Broncos will become the first team to score 600 points with four touchdowns against the Raiders. Denver is favored to win for their 27th straight game, although that still leaves them 30 shy of the record. But the Broncos have been favored by, on average, 9.8 points per game this year, the fourth best rate since 1978:
|Team||Year||Under||Avg Spread||Record||ATS Rec|
Denver has already clinched a bye, and gets the 1 seed with either a win or a loss by the Patriots. Terrelle Pryor starts for the Raiders, who should get the pleasure of seeing Manning set the single-season touchdown record three or four times.
Kansas City at San Diego (-10.5): The Chiefs are the only team locked into a playoff seed entering week 17, leaving them with little to play for in San Diego. The Chargers would be eliminated from the playoffs with a win by either Baltimore or Miami at 1:00, which would eliminate all the drama in this game. Of course, losses by both teams would make this must-watch TV. Kansas City will rest some of their players, which would presumably include some of their 8 players selected for the Pro Bowl (tied for the league-lead with the 49ers). On the individual statistics side, Philip Rivers will try to lock up the league’s completion percentage crown while Keenan Allen is fighting Lacy for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. For Kansas City, Jamaal Charles could record his fourth season with 1,000 rushing yards and 5.0 yards per carry. Only Jim Brown and Barry Sanders (five each) have more than three such seasons, but Charles will need to improve on his current 4.97 YPC average for the season.
St. Louis at Seattle (-11.5): The Rams have gone .500 against the NFC West the last two years, bringing a 5-5-1 record in such game to Seattle. In three games against the Seahawks since 2012, the Rams have only been outscored 47-41, and the St. Louis defensive line is capable of giving any offense fits. Left tackle Russell Okung is probable with a left toe injury, but it’s a really bad time for him to be at less than 100 percent, as RDE Robert Quinn has an NFL-high 18 sacks. Is a 5-sack game out of the question to break Michael Strahan‘s record? Probably, but Quinn brought down Russell Wilson three times earlier this year.
For the Seahawks, the aura surrounding Qwest Field may be gone, but a win secures home field throughout the playoffs. Seattle could also enjoy that luxury with a 49ers loss, but wins by the 49ers and Rams would have Seattle on the road next week in either Chicago (site of one of Wilson’s breakout games), Green Bay (the Golden Tate revenge game), or Dallas (Tony Romo would probably not be the goat in this one, but you never know).
Philadelphia (-6.5) at Dallas: The Cowboys look to become the first team since the 2004 Eagles to go 6-0 against the NFC East. Five weeks ago, I guessed that the Cowboys would be 8-7 and the Eagles 9-6 heading into this showdown, which is conclusive evidence that I am not wrong 100% of the time. Kyle Orton becomes the fifth quarterback I could find to make his first start of the season in a “win-or-go-home” season finale. Surprisingly, the first four went 3-1:
- The most recent example was in 1990, when the Cowboys and Saints entered the final week of the season at 7-8. The Cowboys held the tiebreaker for the final spot by virtue of a head-to-head win, so Dallas needed a win in Atlanta to clinch a playoff spot. But Troy Aikman, who had started the first 15 games of the year, was out with an injury, leaving Babe Laufenberg in his stead. Sound familiar, Dallas fans? The Cowboys lost 26-7, but things would get better soon.
- The other team in Texas that year was in a similar situation. The Oilers were 8-7 but could steal the AFC’s final wildcard from the 9-6 Steelers with a win. Warren Moon, the starter for the first 15 games, was out, leaving Cody Carlson to pull off the victory. The host Oilers were two-point underdogs, but won 34-14.
- In 1965, the 9-3-1 Colts entered the final week of the season a half-game behind the 10-3 Packers (both teams played in the NFL’s West Division at the time, proving that geography has always been a blind spot for the league). The winner of the West would face East champion Cleveland for the title. Baltimore was down both Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo, leaving running back Tom Matte to start at quarterback (the Colts also signed 37-year-old Ed Brown, playing the role of Jon Kitna in this story). The Colts went into Los Angeles and won 20-17, with Matte going 0-2 through the air but rushing 16 times for 99 yards. The next day, the Packers tied the 49ers 24-24, leading to a one-game playoff between Green Bay and Baltimore. Matte started this game, too, which turned into a classic. The quarterback situation was evened up quickly when, on the Packers’ first play from scrimmage, disaster struck. Bart Starr hit Bill Anderson over the middle for ten yards, but Anderson fumbled, and Don Shinnick picked up the ball and returned it for a touchdown. On his way into the end zone, Shinnick ran over Starr, injuring the quarterback’s ribs and causing him to miss the rest of the game. The Packers forced overtime in the final minute of regulation, when Don Chandler hit perhaps the most controversial field goal in NFL history. Green Bay went on to win 13-10 in overtime.
- In 1957, both the 49ers and Lions entered the last week of the season at 7-4. San Francisco needed a win to ensure that their season would continue, but starter Y.A. Tittle was out. That left John Brodie to start the season finale against Green Bay. And while Brodie didn’t have a great game, the 49ers won thanks to Joe Perry’s 27 carries for 130 yards and two scores. A Lions win in Chicago set up a playoff game in San Francisco, with the winner having the right to face East champion Cleveland. In that game, the 49ers jumped out to a 27-7 lead behind a healthy Tittle, but the Lions mounted one of the first great comebacks in NFL history, and won the game 31-27.
As for this game? Kyle Orton may be one of the game’s better backups, but the Cowboys defense is going to be overmatched against the Eagles offense. Nick Foles will likely exit the day with the NFL’s passer rating crown, and LeSean McCoy should finish as the league leader in both rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. I expect this to be a high-scoring game, but can’t imagine Orton will be able to keep up in a shootout. With a win, the Eagles would win the NFC East and be the #3 seed in the NFC, making the Saints the most likely playoff opponent. That would cap an excellent inaugural season for Chip Kelly, which might silence some of the doubters. A Cowboys win would add another chapter in the team’s complicated drama, and set up the NFC North champion in Dallas next week.