NFL WEEK 16: With only two weeks remaining in the regular season, it’s a good time to break down the various playoff scenarios:
Clinched division: Baltimore, Kansas City
Clinched playoff berth: Baltimore, Kansas City, New England, Buffalo
Still alive: Houston, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Oakland
The Ravens have the best record in the conference and will clinch top seed– meaning a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout– with a win over Cleveland on Sunday or Pittsburgh next week. Should they lose both of those games, New England can snag the top seen with two wins, or if Baltimore and New England both lose out, Kansas City could win out and take the 1-seed.
The race for the final Wild Card spot is essentially down to Pittsburgh and whoever doesn’t win the AFC South between Houston and Tennessee. The Texans can clinch the South by beating Tampa Bay this week or having Tennessee lose to New Orleans, but should the Bucs and Titans both win, next week’s Houston/Tennessee game would be for the division. The Steelers are 8-6– same record as Tennessee– and they currently hold the tiebreaker over the Titans, but they have to go on the road to face the Jets this week before finishing the season in Baltimore, so earning that Wild Card spot won’t be easy. Cleveland and Oakland are both still mathematically alive, but extreme craziness would have to occur for one of them to sneak in.
Clinched division: New Orleans
Clinched playoff berth: New Orleans, Green Bay, San Francisco, Seattle
Still alive: Dallas, Philadelphia, Minnesota, L.A. Rams
With four teams sitting at 11-3, there’s a lot to still be determined when it comes to first-round byes and home-field advantage in the NFC. Seattle would actually be the top seed if the season ended today, but after it all shakes out over these next two weeks the Seahawks might wind up as a Wild Card team. If San Francisco wins out– which would include a win over Seattle in Week 17– the Niners would clinch a first-round bye. Green Bay and New Orleans could also get there, but would need considerable help due to the tiebreaker situations.
The NFC East will come down to Dallas and Philadelphia, and neither team has a chance to get in as a Wild Card, so the stakes are as high as they come for Sunday’s Cowboys/Eagles game. The final Wild Card spot will come down to the Vikings and Rams, and Minnesota is in great position– for the Rams to sneak in, they need to win their last two games and have the Vikings lose both of theirs. So it’s backs-to-the-wall time in L.A., for sure.
Of course, Week 16 features plenty of games with no playoff implications that could still be very meaningful to you and me. And with only a handful of days remaining before Christmas, it’s a great time to make a little extra cash. With that in mind, here are my favorite games this week:
Buffalo Bills @ New England Patriots (NE -6.5, 37.5) (Sat.)
Recommendation: Buffalo +6.5 at 1.95
Considering the recent history between these two teams– and by “recent”, I mean the last 20 years– it’s certainly understandable if folks feel a bit uneasy about backing the Bills in Foxboro. But this New England offense is a shadow of what it’s been in years past– Tom Brady is surrounded by a pedestrian receiving corps whose only difference-maker, Julian Edelman, is nursing knee and shoulder injuries, and the Pats had scored 22 points or fewer in five consecutive games prior to facing the league-worst Cincinnati defense last week.
They won’t be facing the Bengals this week. Buffalo has one of the league’s finest defenses, a unit that ranks in the top-3 in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed and has held 6 of the team’s past 7 opponents to 20 points or fewer. When these teams met back in Week 4, the Bills held a New England offense that was better and healthier than it is today to just 16 points, limiting Tom Brady to 150 passing yards on 39 attempts. Based on what we’ve seen out of both of these teams lately, we know that yards, first downs, and points are going to be extremely hard to come by for the Patriots– and frankly, those things are going to be difficult for Buffalo as well. The Bills have had struggles of their own offensively, but they’ll be helped by the injury-related absence of New England cornerback Jonathan Jones, who may be the finest slot corner in the NFL, and a Pats front seven that has shown vulnerability against the run in recent weeks. This game should be a low-scoring bloodbath, and though the Patriots have the edge at quarterback, Buffalo might have an advantage everywhere else. I’m happy to take the points here.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Atlanta Falcons (ATL -7, 46.5)
Recommendation: Atlanta -7 at 1.89
Games like this between two teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention can be tricky for a variety of reasons, foremost among them the “motivation” issue– are certain teams or players still locked in and ready to give max effort, while others are more concerned about offseason vacations and making “business decisions” regarding their health and willingness to put themselves in harms way? Certainly, Jacksonville was looking like a team that had already folded the tent and quit on the season prior to a rousing come-from-behind win in Oakland last week, but after that dose of Minshew Magic in the Black Hole, can we expect a reinvigorated Jags team that’s ready to take the fight to the Falcons in Atlanta?
Color me skeptical. The Jags have been a slowly unfolding disaster for weeks now– the offense has been bad, the defense has been worse, the “leaks” and reports of locker room discord have popped up everywhere, and just a few days ago team president Tom Coughlin was fired for fostering a culture that prompted the NFLPA to send all players a letter essentially telling them to stay away from Jacksonville. The Jaguars had lost five straight prior to the win over Oakland, with all five losses coming by 17 points or more. A defense that was feared not too long ago has morphed into one of the league’s most generous units, allowing 190 combined points in the team’s past 6 games (31.6 ppg), and this week they’ll face an Atlanta offense that has produced 69 points over the past two weeks, including 29 against the elite San Francisco defense last Sunday. The Falcons have now won back-to-back games and 4 of 6, so whether it’s wanting to play for coach Dan Quinn’s job, finally finding a rhythm, or some other reason, it’s clear things have improved significantly in Atlanta over the course of the season. This is a prime opportunity for them to keep the good feelings going– at home, facing a bad defense and a rookie quarterback. This one feels like a blowout.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New York Jets (PIT -3, 37.5)
Recommendation: New York +3 at 2.04
Now, here we have a game that is hugely significant for one team, while being essentially meaningless for the other. This is one of the reasons why bettors have flocked to Pittsburgh as a short 3-point favorite in New York this week– the other probably being a general reluctance to back the Jets after years of futility. But I’ve got news for you: the Jets have been playing some good football in recent weeks. This has been obscured by a bad loss to Cincinnati and last week’s nationally-televised 42-21 loss to a Baltimore team that has been running roughshod over everybody, but if you zoom out and take a full account of this New York team, you realize that they’re 4-2 in their last six games and have a defense that has been dominant against the run, allowing the fewest rushing yards in the AFC and surrendering an NFL-best 3.3 yards per carry.
This last part– the part about the Jets front seven being nearly impossible to run against– is especially relevant this week, because the Steelers have leaned on the running game all season. This has been out of necessity, of course– Pittsburgh has been forced to deal with below-average quarterback play ever since losing Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending injury, and nothing about undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges’s most recent performance– a 4-interception nightmare in a 17-10 loss to Buffalo– would lead you to believe that he should be trusted, or asked to do more. Indeed, it seems like Hodges is regressing, and there was even talk this week of switching back to Mason Rudolph, who was dreadfully bad over 8 starts before being benched for Hodges. With star receiver Juju Smith-Schuster still very uncertain to play as he works his way back from a knee injury, there is simply nothing to like about this Pittsburgh offense at the moment. And though the defense has played well, they should have their hands full against a Jets offense that features a young QB who seems to be figuring things out and a Pro Bowl running back who is sure to be highly motivated facing his former team. This feels like a really dangerous spot for the Steelers, and I don’t like their chances of escaping with a victory.
Dallas Cowboys @ Philadelphia Eagles (DAL -2.5, 46.5)
Recommendation: Dallas -2.5 at 1.99
Though both of these teams have struggled with inconsistency in recent weeks, this is the marquee game of Week 16, only because of what’s at stake: these teams are tied atop the NFC East at 7-7, and Dallas can clinch the division and a playoff berth with a victory. Should the Eagles win, they can lock up the division with a win over the lowly Giants in Week 17. So a season’s worth of joy and frustration is on the line here, and both teams have reason for optimism after posting double-digit victories last week. Should be fun.
Inconsistency has been the theme of the season for the Cowboys– they followed their 3-game winning streak to open the season with a 3-game losing streak, and had dropped three straight prior to breaking through with a big 44-21 win over the Rams last Sunday (it’s not often that a team has two separate 3-game losing streaks in the same season and is still in the division lead, but here we are). But there are bright spots, for sure– surprisingly, Dallas currently leads the NFL in total offense, averaging 434 yards per game, and they’re extremely balanced on that side of the ball, as Dak Prescott ranks second in the NFL in passing yards and Ezekiel Elliott ranks fifth in rushing. When these teams met back in Week 7, the Cowboys had their way with the Philly defense, racking up 37 points and 402 total yards in a 27-point victory. And it’s not like the Eagles defense has made great strides since then– they gave up 37 points and over 400 yards to the lowly Dolphins just three weeks ago, after all– so if Philly is going to win this one, I think they’ll need a big performance out of the offense, and specifically QB Carson Wentz, who has had a subpar season while dealing with injuries to the line and receiving corps. At this point Wentz is starting to take on a David Carr-ish vibe– the hits and hard times might be permanently affecting his ability. He’ll be without his best offensive lineman, Lane Johnson, again this week, which certainly won’t make things any easier. Just about the only “consistent” thing about either one of these teams this season has been the play of the Philly offense– it’s been consistently underwhelming. I think Dallas is the better team here and should be able to pull off a tough road victory.