NFL WEEK 16: This time of year brings out the best in some teams and the worst in others: for those fighting for their playoff lives or trying to lock up a first round bye and/or home-field advantage, there is an urgency and an importance to this week’s proceedings— these games are the culmination of a season’s worth of blood, sweat and tears. The best teams will use their successes this week and next as a springboard to the playoffs and a possible Super Bowl run.
Some other teams, however, have already folded the tent (ahem, Cincinnati) and will have zero motivation to play hard over these next two weeks. This is garbage time football, when coaches shut down banged-up vets, put young players out there for evaluation purposes, and, in some cases, quietly begin to send out resumes and look for other jobs. Not all losing teams fall into this category, of course— San Francisco, for instance, is clearly riding a wave of confidence and positivity now that Jimmy Garoppolo is under center, and the management situation is stable there— but it’s important to keep this dynamic in mind as we handicap the Week 16 slate.
Five teams have already clinched playoff berths, and six more— Kansas City, Tennessee, New Orleans, Carolina, Atlanta, and the L.A. Rams— can clinch with a win this week. The biggest game of the weekend is unquestionably the Saints/Falcons showdown that will lock up a playoff berth and possibly a division title for the winner and may put the loser in a must-win situation next week. But there are some other intriguing matchups as well, and a couple of games— Chiefs/Dolphins, perhaps?— that may not look so appealing at first glance, but could end up being more competitive and consequential than many are expecting.
The action will be spread out over three days, with two games on Saturday, twelve on Sunday, and two on Monday, which, of course, is Christmas Day. Happy holidays, everyone! Let’s hope we can bring a little Christmas cheer with these four selections:
ATLANTA FALCONS @ NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (NO -5.5, 52.5)
Recommendation: New Orleans -5.5 at 1.9
There’s a lot on the line here, as either team could clinch a playoff berth with a win and the Saints could clinch the division and lock up a home game Wild Card Weekend (at the very least). These teams met on a Thursday night just two weeks ago, if you recall, and the Falcons escaped with a 20-17 victory after Drew Brees was intercepted in the end zone with less than two minutes remaining in regulation. That game was notable for how low-scoring it was— normally when the Saints and Falcons get together it’s a shootout, but neither team could get the offense rolling and both finished with fewer than 350 total yards.
Such a performance is more unusual out of New Orleans than Atlanta, to be honest. The Falcons offense has struggled all season to recapture last year’s form under first-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian, and lately they actually seem to be regressing, at least in the passing game— Matt Ryan has thrown for 221 yards or fewer in five of his last six games after topping 230 yards in each of the team’s first eight contests. Ryan completed just 15 passes and was intercepted three times the last time he saw these Saints, and though he’ll probably play better than that this time around, it won’t be easy against a solid New Orleans defense that ranks 7th in the NFL against the pass.
The Atlanta defense has also been playing some decent football lately, but they’re by no means impenetrable— last week, for instance, they allowed James Winston to complete 27 of 35 passes for 299 yard and 3 touchdowns— and the New Orleans offense has been terrific this season, ranking first in the league in yards per game and third in points scored (28.6 ppg). The 17 points they put up against these Falcons two weeks ago was a season low, and they certainly weren’t helped by the fact that they lost talented rookie tailback Alvin Kamara, who has been tremendous this season and was just named to the Pro Bowl, to a concussion on the game’s opening drive. Kamara is good to go this week, and I’d be very surprised if the Falcons were able to hold this Saints offense in check once again. I just feel like New Orleans is the better team right now, and it’s always tough to beat the Saints in the Superdome, where they’re 6-1 this season and have notched four double-digit victories. Gimme the home team here.
NEW YORK GIANTS @ ARIZONA CARDINALS (Ari -4, 40)
Recommendation: New York +4 at 1.9; New York ML at 2.62
The Cardinals were officially eliminated from playoff contention with their loss to Washington last week, but let’s face it: they haven’t looked like a playoff team for quite a while. It’s been a struggle since losing quarterback Carson Palmer for the season, and his replacement, Drew Stanton, went down with a sprained knee after only two starts. That’s left Blaine Gabbert at the controls for the past few weeks, and it hasn’t been pretty, as the Cards have now produced 16 points or fewer in three consecutive games and haven’t scored a touchdown in over 10 quarters. So it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when Arizona coach Bruce Arians announced earlier this week that he was going back to Stanton as the starter, though he did mention that Stanton’s knee was still bothering him. A real vote of confidence in Blaine Gabbert, eh?
But if you’re hoping that Stanton is going to fix the ailing Arizona offense, you might be in for a disappointment– in two starts this season he completed just 48.4% of his passes and had a QB rating of 68.9, and for his career he’s a 52% passer who’s thrown 17 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions. He’s nobody’s savior.
This week the Giants come to town, a 2-12 team riding a 4-game losing streak. So of course the Cardinals are going to be favored here… how could they not be? But I’ll tell you what, the Giants have showed clear signs of life since head coach Ben McAdoo was fired a couple of weeks ago– in Week 14 they were locked in a 10-10 game with Dallas early in the 4th quarter before the wheels came off, and last week they came within one play of beating the 11-2 Philadelphia Eagles before falling 34-29. Eli Manning has been reborn since re-entering the starting lineup, throwing for 662 combined yards and 4 touchdowns in the last two games, and the offense hung 502 total yards on a good Philly defense last week, their highest yardage total since the 2015 season. That’s some solid evidence that the Giants are starting to play some pretty good football, at least on offense, and I have zero confidence in Arizona’s ability to put up points right now. That makes the Giants as an absolute steal as a 4-point ‘dog, and I think they have an excellent chance of winning this one outright.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS @ SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (Jax -4, 42)
Recommendation: San Francisco +4 at 1.98
The Jags have been the talk of the league lately, as their offense has exploded for 105 points in the team’s past three games and now looks capable of properly supporting a defense that has been one of the NFL’s best all season. But let’s not get too crazy about what Jacksonville has accomplished over the past few weeks— they blew out two terrible teams in Houston and Indianapolis, and sandwiched in-between was a 6-point win over a Seattle team that is ravaged by injuries and was beaten by 35 points the following week. Prior to that the Jags lost to a bad Arizona team, and prior to that they beat the winless Browns 19-7— but the final score in that game is deceiving, as Cleveland was driving for a potential game-winning score with less than two minutes remaining before Jacksonville forced a turnover and scored a defensive touchdown. Look, the Jags are good, no doubt, I’m just not sure they’re quite as good as they looked in last week’s 45-7 demolition of Houston.
The Niners, meanwhile, are playing their best football of the season. They’ve won 4 of 5 and are 3-0 since inserting Jimmy Garoppolo into the starting lineup, a remarkable turnaround for a team that lost its first nine games. Garoppolo has been brilliant, throwing for a career-high 334 yards in a win over the Texans two weeks ago and then topping that last week against Tennessee by throwing for 381 yards and engineering the game-winning drive.
In three games with Garoppolo under center, the once-moribund 49ers offense has averaged over 400 ypg and is beginning to resemble the devastating attacks that Kyle Shanahan directed in Atlanta, Washington, and elsewhere. And the San Francisco defense is playing solid football as well, holding six straight opponents to 24 points or fewer. They should be able to extend that streak against a Jacksonville offense that has been held to 24 or fewer seven times this season and may be without both top wideout Marquise Lee and star tailback Leonard Fournette. And remember, seven of San Francisco’s games this season have been decided by 3 points or fewer. I’m happy to back the Niners as 4-point ‘dogs in this situation.
OAKLAND RAIDERS @ PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (Phi -9, 47)
Recommendation: Oakland +9 at 1.95
Is it just me, or are people not making quite a big enough deal about the Carson Wentz injury? Many seem to believe that the Eagles will just roll right on without Wentz, and, in fairness, there’s no question that Nick Foles is one of the league’s better backups. But there were some alarming signs in Philly’s 34-29 win over the hapless New York Giants last week, not the least of which being the fact that the Eagles almost lost the game. More concerning— to me, anyway— was seeing the Eagles offense produce just 341 total yards, 45 fewer than they average on the season, against a Giants defense that ranks dead last in the NFL in yards allowed, surrendering 391.8 ypg.
The Oakland defense would never be mistaken for an elite unit, but they’ve been playing their best football of the season over the past month, limiting the opposition to just 19.2 ppg in their past four contests. The Raiders are coming off a gutting 20-17 loss to Dallas that likely eliminated them from playoff contention (they’re still mathematically alive, but A LOT would have to happen), but in a situation like this— a nationally-televised Christmas night game against one of the league’s better teams— I’d be very surprised if they gave anything less than maximum effort. I think Philly will get Oakland’s best shot.
For the Raiders to pull the upset, though, they’ll need a big game from quarterback Derek Carr, who has struggled with injuries in this disappointing 2017 campaign. Carr should have plenty of opportunities in this one, however, as the Eagles are vulnerable in the secondary, ranking 22nd against the pass and surrendering 434 yards to Eli Manning last week. Is Philly better than Oakland? Yes. Are they nine points better, even without Carson Wentz? Let’s just say I have my doubts. I’ll take my chances with the ‘dogs here.