NFL WEEK 17: The end of the regular season is always a bittersweet time, as the excitement about the upcoming postseason is tempered by the realization that the long, tortuous offseason isn’t far behind. Week 17 is unusual in another regard, too— it’s the only week where there’s a lot of guesswork surrounding things like motivation and effort. Some teams badly need to win, others have locked up playoff position and will be resting players, and many bad teams are full of guys who have mentally checked out and are busy planning their offseason vacations. As a result, we usually see a few strange outcomes in Week 17, and our job is to figure out which teams can be relied upon to compete and which have already mailed it in.
It seems like there are fewer “do or die” games than usual this year, as all six AFC playoff spots and five of the six in the NFC have already been claimed. That being said, there are still several meaningful games on the slate, none more so than Sunday night’s clash between the Packers and Lions in Detroit. The Pack have come back from a 4-6 abyss with five straight wins and will be NFC North champs with a victory, while Detroit looks to snap a 2-game losing streak and hang on to the division that they’ve controlled for most of the season. Of course, both teams will make the playoffs if the Redskins happen to lose to the Giants, but seeing how I view that as a very unlikely outcome (see below), I think we’ll get a genuine win-or-go-home game to cap off the regular season. Should be fun.
Week 17 can be tricky, as we mentioned, but there’s gold in those hills if you know where to look. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Houston Texans @ Tennessee Titans (Ten -3.5, 40.5)
Recommendation: Tennessee -3.5 at 2.08
This game went from meaning everything to meaning nothing after Tennessee lost in Jacksonville last week, as Houston has now clinched the AFC South and will be the 4-seed in the AFC playoffs regardless of what happens on Sunday. I still expect a good effort out of the Titans, however— they exceeded expectations this year and have a chance to close the season in style, by beating a division rival in front of the home fans. Prior to last week’s game head coach Mike Mularkey was asked about the defining trait of this Tennessee team, and he said “resiliency.” Well, now they get a chance to prove him right.
Losing quarterback Marcus Mariota to a broken leg last week was bad luck, obviously, but the Titans are a run-first offense anyway (3rd in the NFL in rushing) and they have a veteran backup in Matt Cassel, so I don’t expect them to alter their game plan at all. They’ll run it right at the Texans, who have surrendered over 100 rushing yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry this season and allowed the Titans to run for 124 yards and two touchdowns back in Week 3. The defense isn’t the concern in Houston, however. The Texans have played fairly well on that side of the ball all year, but their offense has regressed over the course of the season and is now among the league’s worst.
The stats don’t tell the whole story, though they certainly aren’t pretty, as only four teams average fewer yards per game and only the Jets, Browns, and Rams have scored fewer points. That’s right, the playoff-bound Texans have an offense that ranks among the league’s worst in nearly every category and produces an anemic 17.5 ppg. But it’s even worse than it looks, because the keys have now been handed to career backup QB Tom Savage, who has been on the roster for 3 years but had never been deemed good enough to start until last week, when he threw for 179 yards and led his team to all of 12 points in a win over Cincinnati. It’s downright foolish to trust Savage on the road this week, and the Texans may decide to rest starting running back Lamar Miller because the game is meaningless for them. Everything points toward an easy Tennessee win here.
New York Giants @ Washington Redskins (Was -7.5, 44.5)
Recommendation: Washington -7.5 at 1.93
And here we have a typical Week 17 matchup— one team, New York in this case, has already locked up playoff position while the other team is fighting for its season. Now, I don’t expect the Giants to just lay down and let the Redskins win, but it would be unwise to expect “hair on fire” effort from them, and their best players may not see the field, anyway. As of the time of this writing nothing has been announced as far as who is playing and who is sitting, but I will be stunned— absolutely stunned— if someone like Odell Beckham sees the field in the second half. A more likely scenario involves Beckham, Eli Manning, and several key defensive players being held out of the game entirely, or only being allowed a series or two. After all, why would the Giants risk it? They’ll be the 5-seed in the NFC regardless of what happens this week.
For Washington, meanwhile, the playoffs have already started. The Skins will qualify for the postseason with a win (unless Detroit and Green Bay tie), and their season is over if they lose. Do you trust New York’s backups to go into Washington in a situation like this and win a game, or even keep it close? I sure don’t. And if you’re worried about the 7.5-point number, keep in mind that the Redskins can score with the best of them— they poured 41 on Chicago last week, and they now rank 3rd in the NFL in total offense. Kirk Cousins threw for 296 yards and 2 TDs in a 29-27 Washington win over the Giants back in Week 3, and that’s when the G-Men were playing their best players and putting forth full effort. Cousins would be in line for a big game here anyway— the Giants rank 22nd against the pass, so they’re certainly vulnerable— but in this situation a stat-stuffing performance seems like a sure thing.
And will the Giants be able to respond? Even at full force their offense has been very mediocre this season, ranking 24th in yards per game and 26th in points scored (19.4 ppg). It’s essentially become the Odell Beckham show, and as we mentioned, Beckham will almost surely be held out of part or all of this game. I simply can’t envision the Giants staying competitive in a situation like this, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the line approached the 10-point mark by the time kickoff rolls around. I’m getting on board now, and I suggest you do the same.
Oakland Raiders @ Denver Broncos (Den -2.5, 40.5)
Recommendation: Denver -2.5 at 1.93
It’s been a disappointing season for the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos, as they’ve now lost three straight games and have been eliminated from playoff contention. The Raiders, meanwhile, have won 7 of their last 8 games, locking up a playoff berth, and can clinch the AFC West with a win on Sunday. Do you think the proud, veteran Denver team wants to allow the hated Raiders to clinch the division on their home field? Me neither. That’s why I think we can put any effort concerns aside for this one— both teams will play hard and attempt to win the game. I think that’s a safe assumption.
These teams have already met, of course, and the Raiders controlled the action throughout in a 30-20 victory. That type of game is par for the course for this Oakland team— their defense has been unable to slow anybody down all season, ranking 28th in yards allowed and allowing 20+ points in seven of the team’s last 8 games, but the offense has been able to consistently respond and outscore the opposition. The Raiders average 27.3 points per game, the most since the Rich Gannon era, but any and all offensive stats now feel like the past tense, don’t they? When quarterback Derek Carr went down with a broken leg last week, everything changed dramatically.
To say Carr was the engine of the Oakland offense is probably an understatement. His right arm has absolutely carried the team all year, and it’s difficult to imagine what the offense will look like without him at the helm. Matt McGloin is the man who will be leading the charge now, and he’ll be entering the lion’s den on Sunday— for all their faults, the Broncos still have a championship-level defense, one that ranks 5th in points allowed and 6th in yards allowed. They’re especially good in the secondary— a group now dubbed the No Fly Zone— and over the past couple of seasons they’ve made a habit of eating quarterbacks like Matt McGloin for breakfast. I have no confidence— absolutely no confidence— in the McGloin-led Oakland offense in this situation, and so the question becomes whether the anemic Denver offense can squeeze out enough points to get the job done. Well, as we said, the Raiders have’t been able to hold anybody below 20 points lately, and 20 will be more than enough to get the job done for Denver here. And would anybody be surprised if the Broncos tacked on a defensive touchdown? This game won’t be pretty, but the outcome should leave the home fans smiling.