NFL WEEK 17: The final week of the regular season is always a bittersweet time. It’s sad because we know that the interminable offseason is right around the corner, but we also know that before we get there, we get football at its best: playoff football.
Of course, the playoffs have effectively started already for some teams: the Colts and Titans meet on Sunday night with a playoff berth and possibly a division title on the line; the Steelers need a win to keep their season alive– and even a win may not be good enough, depending on what happens in the Cleveland/Baltimore game; and the final Wild Card spot in the NFC has come down to Minnesota and Philadelphia, with the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles needing to beat Washington on Sunday and have the Vikings lose to the Bears in order to sneak in. For the Vikes, it’s a “win and you’re in” scenario.
Our own luck has soured a bit over these past two weeks, and last week was notable in that regard: we had SF +4.5 and they lost by 5, NO -6 and they won by 3, and, most galling of all, we had CLE -9 and they won by 8 after leading 26-3 with six minutes remaining. Seattle’s victory over Kansas City was the only thing that saved us from the shutout, and by that time the self-pity had fully taken hold. But the holiday was rejuvenating, and optimism has returned after combing through the Sunday slate. Here’s what I’m thinking for the final NFL Sunday of 2018:
Dallas Cowboys @ New York Giants (NY -6, 41)
Recommendation: New York -6 at 2.0
The Cowboys have locked up the NFC East and they can’t improve their playoff seeding with a win this week, so this game is essentially meaningless for them. All indications are that the starters will play… for a while, anyway. When asked this week whether his starters would get a full workload on Sunday, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett was noncommittal, saying that those types of decisions are a “challenge you have” when you’ve clinched playoff seeding prior to Week 17. Based on what we’ve historically seen in similar situations, I would be stunned if players like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott saw a single snap in the 4th quarter, and that reality is reflected in the line, as the 5-10 Giants are a 6-point favorite here.
Frankly, I think this would be a tough one for the Cowboys even if they were playing to win— the Giants have quietly turned things around over the second half of the season, going 4-3 over their past seven games and mostly playing well even in defeat, as evidenced by last week’s 28-27 heartbreaker against an Indianapolis team that was playing at home and desperately needed a win. Rookie running back Saquon Barkley continues to be a difference-maker, and Eli Manning has found success even without the injured Odell Beckham, lighting up the Colts last week for 309 yards while throwing only eight incompletions in 33 attempts. This week, in what may be his final game in a Giants uniform, Manning will look to conquer a Dallas defense that just surrendered 336 yards to Jameis Winston last week and— again, because it needs to be emphasized— may or may not be playing its best players. Everything is set up perfectly for a feel-good final chapter to Eli’s storied career in New York. I expect the G-Men to win this one comfortably.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans (Hou -6.5, 40.5)
Recommendation: Jacksonville +6.5 at 2.02
It’s been a massively disappointing season in Jacksonville, as just about everything has gone wrong for a Jags team that was one win away from the Super Bowl last season. The offense stagnated without injured running back Leonard Fournette, QB Blake Borltes regressed behind a banged-up and ineffective o-line, and the defense couldn’t live up to 2017’s lofty standards. When adversity struck, the team collapsed— Bortles was benched, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was fired, defensive stars lashed out against both teammates and the fanbase, and the coaching staff couldn’t come up with any answers. After an egregious 30-9 loss to the Titans on a Thursday night in Week 14, the general consensus was that the Jags had laid down and ceased to give maximum effort. They were finished.
Over the last two weeks, however, we’ve seen a spark of life. The 16-13 loss to Washington in Week 15 wasn’t pretty, but the defense played hard, holding the Redskins to just 245 total yards. Then, last week, the Jags went down to Miami and manhandled a Dolphins team that was still alive in the playoff race, holding the Fins to just 7 points and 183 total yards. And we even saw some life out of the Jacksonville offense once Bortles replaced an ineffective Cody Kessler in the 2nd half, as the former 1st-round pick was 5/6 passing and led the Jags on their final scoring drive. Bortles will get the nod in Houston this week, and with no real pressure or expectations, it wouldn’t surprise me if he had some success against a Texans defense that is worse statistically than you’d think, ranking 29th in the NFL against the pass. The Texans need a win here, but they’ve lost 2 of 3 and will surely find the going tough against a Jacksonville defense that ranks in the top-5 in both yards allowed and points allowed. Something tells me this one will be closer than the “experts” think.
Cleveland Browns @ Baltimore Ravens (Bal -6, 40.5)
Recommendation: Cleveland +6 at 1.89
The Browns have been a playoff-caliber team since Gregg Williams replaced Hue Jackson as head coach in late October, and they’ve taken their bettors for a very profitable ride over these past six weeks. The offense has steadily improved behind rookie stars Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb, and the defense has turned it around, too— after surrendering 30+ points 4 times in the season’s first 9 games, the Browns have held 5 of their past 6 opponents to 20 points or fewer despite facing four Pro Bowl quarterbacks in that stretch. This week they get to play spoiler, as the Ravens would win the AFC North with a victory here but would likely miss the playoffs with a loss.
To pull off the upset, the Browns must find a way to crack a Ravens defense that has been the NFL’s best by almost any measure, leading the league in both yards allowed and points allowed. This won’t be a game where Mayfield slings it 40 times, and if it is, it’s not a good sign for Cleveland. The teams that have had success against the Baltimore defense this season have been able to run the ball— specifically, they’ve been able to run it between the tackles. Carolina, Pittsburgh, New Orleans… in all three of those teams’ victories against Baltimore, the QBs failed to reach 300 yards passing, but the running game produced 100+ yards and averaged better than 4 yards per carry. With Chubb, the Browns have that ability. On the other side of the ball, Baltimore has become one-dimensional on offense since handing the keys to rookie QB Lamar Jackson, so we can expect the Cleveland defense to crowd the box and attempt to force Jackson to put the ball in the air. This is going to be a real fight for the Ravens— I look for a close, hard-fought game here, the type of game where 6 points could really come in handy. Gimme the Browns.
Chicago Bears @ Minnesota Vikings (Min -5, 40.5)
Recommendation: Minnesota -5 at 1.92
After a long and tumultuous season, it’s all come down to this for the Vikings: beat division-rival Chicago at home on Sunday, and you’re in the playoffs. Lose, and you’re likely out. Of course, beating the Bears is no easy task— only one team, the New York Giants, has accomplished the feat since October, and the Vikings themselves tried and failed back in Week 11, going to Chicago and falling 25-20 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate. But despite their gaudy record, the Bears have shown signs of slippage in recent weeks, particularly on offense, as they’ve averaged fewer than 20 points per game over their last four victories and haven’t topped 25 points since Week 10. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is a mediocre pocket passer whose effectiveness has been greatly limited since opposing defenses became aware of his scrambling ability, and the receiving corps certainly isn’t scaring anybody.
The Vikings have an excellent defense that ranks 3rd in the NFL in both total yards allowed and pass yards allowed, so they should make life difficult for Trubisky, just as they did in Week 11, when they held him to 165 passing yards and intercepted him twice. The question, then, is whether Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota offense will be able to get anything going against the fantastic Chicago defense. Cousins did throw for 262 yards the last time he met these Bears, but he was largely ineffective for the first 3 quarters and turned the ball over twice. He’s surrounded by terrific skill-position talent, however, and lately he’s finally been getting some help from a running game that has been dormant for much of the season. The Vikes have now won back-to-back games for the first time since October, and you get the feeling that they’re playing better than they were six weeks ago, while the Bears may be playing a bit worse. All things considered— the venue, the stakes, the quarterbacks— I think Minnesota is a good bet to cover the 5-point number.