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 we’re only a few weeks away from having no football at all for upwards of 7 months. 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 struggling 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.
While most of the playoff field is already set, there are still a few Wild Card spots up for grabs— in the AFC, four teams are still alive for the conference’s two Wild Card berths, and in the NFC it’s down to Atlanta and Seattle for the final spot in what Bill Parcells used to call “the Tournament”. There’s still seeding to sort out, of course, so a handful of games this week have some real meaning attached to them, and it should also be mentioned that the week is chock-full of division rivalry games, which is something that the NFL intentionally does with scheduling to increase the chances that teams will put forth maximum effort. Also, Week 17 is the only time we get all 32 teams in action on the same day— no Thursday, Saturday, or Monday games— so clear your schedule for Sunday, the final day of wall-to-wall football we’ll get until next September.
Here are my thoughts on a few Week 17 matchups:
HOUSTON TEXANS @ INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (Ind -5, 40.5)
Recommendation: Indianapolis -5.5 at 1.91
This game is certainly flying under the radar, as I’m not sure many folks outside the home markets will care much about two losing teams fighting it out for last place in the AFC South. But I see an opportunity here– though both teams enter this game riding long losing streaks (the Colts have dropped six in a row, while Houston’s streak of futility now stands at five games), there has been a clear difference in the way they have performed over the past couple of weeks, and I believe the Colts are well-positioned for a season-ending home win.
Chuck Pagano may be fired after Sunday’s game, but there’s no sign that the Colts players have quit on him, as the team has been competitive throughout the current losing streak– five of their last seven losses have come by 7 points or fewer, and in two of the past three weeks they’ve gone on the road and nearly beaten potential playoff teams in Buffalo and Baltimore. Journeyman quarterback Jacoby Brissett has performed admirably in what may be his only shot as an NFL starter, and on Sunday he’ll be facing a Houston defense that ranks last in the league in points allowed. The last time Brissett faced these Texans, back in Week 9– not coincidentally, Indianapolis’s last victory– he threw for 308 yards and two touchdowns. And after seeing the Houston defense surrender 79 combined points over the past two weeks, many observers have understandably begun to wonder whether they’re still putting forth maximum effort, or whether they’re the classic example of a veteran team that has “checked out” as the season winds down.
Whatever the case, there’s no denying that the Texans have totally fallen apart over the past few weeks. Each of their past four losses have come by double-digits, and the last two– a 45-7 shellacking at the hands of Jacksonville and a 28-point loss to Pittsburgh– have been particularly brutal. And there’s no sign of it turning around, as the offense is now down to third-string QB T.J. Yates and will be without star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, easily the unit’s best player, on Sunday. It’s just difficult to imagine a Houston offense with Yates under center and Hopkins on the sideline having any success at all, and when you factor in the Texans’ sieve-like defense… well, that’s how you lose two games by a a combined score of 79-13 (and Hopkins played in those games!). This is all set up for a Colts blowout win, a feel-good sendoff for a coach that seems well-liked. I know it’s difficult to trust a 3-12 team to cover a number like 5.5, but I believe it’s the right call in this situation.
CAROLINA PANTHERS @ ATLANTA FALCONS (Atl -4, 45)
Recommendation: Carolina +4 at 1.89
This is a big game: Carolina needs a win here and a New Orleans loss to clinch the NFC South and earn a home playoff game, and for the Falcons the situation is considerably more dire, as they need a win to lock up a playoff berth. Should Atlanta lose and Seattle beat Arizona (a game in which the Seahawks are favored), the Falcons would miss the playoffs a year after nearly winning the Super Bowl.
And the reason behind Atlanta’s regression is no secret: it’s the offense, a unit that led the NFL with 33.8 points per game last season but now struggles to consistently move the ball. These Falcons are producing just 22.1 ppg, a nearly 12-point drop-off from 2016 (!), despite there being no significant personnel changes and relatively few major injuries. It’s always more complicated than just blaming one person, but this sure isn’t a good look for first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who assumed the role after Kyle Shanahan left to become head coach of the 49ers. The greatest indictment of Sarkisian’s leadership and play-calling is the fact that the Atlanta offense has actually regressed over the course of the season— they’re averaging a mere 16.5 ppg in the team’s past four contests, and Matt Ryan has thrown for 221 yards or fewer in 5 of the past 7 games after topping the 230-yard mark in each of the first eight games of the season. It hasn’t been good, it’s getting worse, and this week the Carolina Panthers and their top-10 defense are coming to town.
The last time these teams met, back in Week 9, the Panthers held the Falcons to 17 points and erased a double-digit deficit to pick up a 3-point win. They rolled right over a pretty good Atlanta defense, rushing for 201 yards, and stopping the run is surely priority No. 1 for the Falcons D this week. But can they do it? Despite the gains they’ve made on defense this season, the Falcons haven’t been great against the run, surrendering 4.2 yards per carry (19th in the NFL), and only three teams average more rushing yards per game than Carolina. The Panthers have been playing great football lately, winning 7 of their past 8 games, and as previously mentioned they need this game to have a shot at the division title. I know the Falcons are at home here and facing a must-win situation, but if they could “turn it on”, they would’ve turned it on already. Carolina is the better team and a great value as 4-point ‘dogs.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS @ TENNESSEE TITANS (Ten -3, 42)
Recommendation: Jacksonville +3 at 1.9; Jacksonville moneyline at 2.32
The Titans need a win here to lock up a playoff berth, while the Jags have already clinched the division and will host a playoff game next week. That means this game is much more meaningful for Tennessee than it is for Jacksonville.
That, in a nutshell, is your argument for a Titans play here. If you go beyond that– if you start getting into the numbers, the matchups, the trends… it becomes difficult to make a solid case for the home team. There’s no denying that Jacksonville has been much better than Tennessee over the past couple of months; the Jags have won 7 of their past 9 games, with five of those wins coming by double-digits, while the Titans have lost three straight and haven’t beaten a winning team since October.
The main problem for Tennessee has been the regression quarterback Marcus Mariota, and by extension the offense as a whole– Mariota has thrown 11 interceptions (compared to just 8 touchdowns) in his last eight games, and the Titans have scored 24 points or fewer in each of their past nine games after putting up 33 or more in three of their first five contests. The Tennessee offense has become predictable, it lacks any difference-making receivers, and DeMarco Murray, the team’s top running back, is out this week with an MCL tear. The Jacksonville defense, meanwhile, is positively fierce– the Jags rank second in the NFL in points allowed (16.9 ppg), third in yards allowed, and first in sacks. They’ve held eight teams this season to 10 points or fewer.
But as good as the Jaguars are on defense, it’s been the improvement of the offense that has keyed the team’s 9-week run of dominance. Once viewed as an obvious Achilles heel, the Jacksonville offense has found a formula for success and now ranks fifth in the league in points scored (27.1 ppg) and first in rushing. When these teams met way back in Week 2– before the Jags had found their footing and before Mariota began his (injury-related??) struggles– the Titans won easily, 37-16. But things are very different now for both teams, and I fully expect the Jacksonville defense to put the clamps on the stumbling Tennessee offense and control this game. And as for the “Tennessee needs this one, but Jacksonville doesn’t” line of thinking… Doug Marrone has made repeated assurances this week that the Jags will play their starters and play to win, and I believe him. This is a heated rivalry– these teams don’t like each other– and I’m sure Marrone doesn’t want his team, which hasn’t experienced any success in a decade, entering the playoffs on a 2-game losing streak. I believe the Jags will put their best foot forward here and end their arch-rival’s season.
OAKLAND RAIDERS @ L.A. CHARGERS (LA -8, 42)
Recommendation: Los Angeles -8 at 1.91
The Chargers have been one of the AFC’s better teams over the second half of the season but they’re still likely to miss the playoffs, as they need a win here and plenty of help in order to sneak in (specifically, they need either Tennessee and Buffalo to both lose, or Tennessee to lose and Baltimore to win). The Raiders, meanwhile, have been mathematically eliminated after their latest 3-game losing streak, and something tells me that some of their tenured vets are a little more excited about next week’s trip to Vegas than Sunday’s game against Los Angeles. The loss to Philadelphia last week was gut-wrenching to any players who are still invested in the outcome— Oakland controlled much of the game, only to totally melt down in the 4th quarter and lose 19-10. I believe that was the last, best effort we’ll see out of these Raiders this season. Call it an educated guess.
Of course, “effort” has been the least of Oakland’s problems lately. The offense, once regarded as an elite unit, has faded badly down the stretch, producing 17 points or fewer in each of the team’s past three games. It’s a pass-first attack— the Raiders rank 25th in rushing offense— but the passing game has been inconsistent as Derek Carr has dealt with injuries, poor play, and a possible loss of confidence (it sure looks that way, at least. Probably injury-related). Carr had a rough go of it the last time he faced these Chargers, throwing two interceptions and totaling just 171 yards through the air, and he’s not the only quarterback who has struggled against the L.A. defense— the Chargers rank 3rd in the league against the pass thanks to some excellent young defensive backs and a fearsome pass rush.
The defense has been a major catalyst in L.A.’s recent run of five wins in six games, limiting the opposition to 13 points or fewer in 4 of the team’s past 5 contests. Combine a defense like that with a balanced, explosive offense led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback, and you have a recipe for success— not only have the Chargers been winning lately, they’ve been winning big, with an average margin of victory of 17 points in their past five wins. They’re the type of team that nobody wants to see in the playoffs, and if Tennessee takes care of business on Sunday then the rest of the AFC will have dodged that bullet. But if everything falls into place this week, look out— the Chargers could be a legitimate Super Bowl threat. I think they’re going to absolutely hammer Oakland this week. Lay the points with confidence.