NFL WEEK 17: The final week of the regular season is always unique due to the utter meaninglessness of many of the games, and playoff teams with seeding locked in will generally sit most if not all of their starters for health preservation purposes. Teams in that boat this week include the Ravens, who have locked up the 1-seed in the AFC and will be trotting out a bunch of backups to face division-rival Pittsburgh; the Bills, who will be the 5-seed in the AFC regardless of what happens on Sunday and, despite what their head coach Sean McDermott has been saying publicly this week, will likely sit most of their key players; and the Vikings, who clinched the 6-seed in the NFC and will play backups against a Bears team that probably still won’t be able to score.
The 6-seed in the AFC is still up for grabs, and three teams are mathematically alive: the Titans, Steelers, and Raiders. For Tennessee, it’s pretty straightforward: win and they’re in (they would also get in if both Pittsburgh and Indianapolis were to lose). The Steelers need a win and a Titans loss (or losses by the Titans and Raiders and a Colts victory), and Oakland can sneak in with a win plus the following occurrences: losses by the Titans and Steelers, a Colts win over Jacksonville, and a win by either the Bears, Lions, Chargers, or Patriots. It may be a longshot, but stranger things have happened, and it’s probably more of a shot than the Raiders deserve after a late-season collapse that includes losses in 4 of their past 5 games.
The game of the week is the Sunday nighter, as the 49ers travel to Seattle with the NFC West title on the line. Both teams are still alive for the 1-seed in the NFC and the accompanying first-round bye, but whoever loses this week will be playing a road game on Wildcard Weekend. It may not be quite as dramatic as a postseason play-in game, which this season’s Week 17 lacks, but it should be pretty intense nonetheless.
Here are a few recommendations for the final full-slate Sunday of the year:
Green Bay Packers @ Detroit Lions (GB -12.5, 43)
Recommendation: Green Bay -12.5 at 1.97
And here we have the perfect storm for a blowout: the Packers, winners of four straight, need a win here to lock up a first-round postseason bye, and they’re facing a Lions team that has utterly disintegrated, dropping seven straight games, the last three by 44 combined points. The Lions have been rolling with third-stringer David Blough at quarterback after injuries to starter Matt Stafford and backup Jeff Driskel, and after a promising debut against Chicago on Thanksgiving day, Blough has looked like the undrafted rookie that he is. In last week’s loss to Denver, for instance, he completed just 12 of 24 passes for 117 yards. With Blough at the helm, the Detroit offense is utterly nonthreatening– 15.2 ppg in his four starts.
Meanwhile, the underreported story of this year’s Packers team has been the play of their defense, a unit that has allowed just 11.8 points per game and 4.4 yards per play during the team’s current 4-game win streak, numbers that place them among the league’s elite. This week they have a chance to become the first Green Bay team since 2010 to hold five consecutive opponents below 20 points, and considering the opposition, I wouldn’t bet against them. On the other side of the ball, Aaron Rodgers has enjoyed the support of a strong running game, and the Pack have scored 20 or more in each of their last 9 victories, posting six double-digit wins. Rodgers & Co. are likely to carve up a Detroit defense that ranks 29th in the league in yards allowed and has been getting progressively worse over the course of the season. This game will not be close– the Packers should open up a double-digit lead by halftime and cruise to their 13th win.
New York Jets @ Buffalo Bills (BUF -1.5, 36.5)
Recommendation: New York moneyline at 2.05
Regardless of what happens in this game, the Bills will be the 5-seed in the AFC playoffs and have a road game next week. The opponent will either be Houston or Kansas City, but it’s entirely out of their hands and dependent on what the Chiefs and Texans do on Sunday. Buffalo coach Sean McDermott has said that “most” of the regular starters will see the field in this utterly meaningless game, including QB Josh Allen, but he concedes that playing time might be limited. Based on experience and common sense, I have a strong feeling that McDermott is soft-pedaling the situation and will likely do what just about every coach does: sit all of his key players for most if not all of the game. He has said that backup quarterback Matt Barkley will see time, and I’m betting that “time” means the majority of the game– 3+ quarters.
Of course, Barkley could play well and the Bills backups could still beat a Jets team looking for an easy way out on a frigid Buffalo day. But the inverse is also true– even if Allen and the Bills starters were to play the whole game (which they won’t), there’s no guarantee that Buffalo would beat a Jets team that has improved tremendously over the course of the season and has been playing some really good football over the past couple of months, going 5-2 in their last 7 games. And New York’s strength defensively– stopping the run, where these Jets rank 2nd in the NFL and allow just 3.3 yards per carry– should make this a tough matchup for the run-first Buffalo offense. When these teams met in Week 1, the Bills rallied from a 16-point 2nd-half deficit to eke out a 17-16 win, and they’ll have considerably less firepower this time around due to the expected playing time restrictions. The Jets should be favored in this game and are a great value on the moneyline at better than even money.
Cleveland Browns @ Cincinnati Bengals (CLE -3, 43)
Recommendation: Cincinnati +3 at 1.89
Referencing the “character” of the team is somewhat cliched, because after all, reading the minds and emotions of 46 individual players on any given Sunday is impossible, and attempting to do so is a fool’s errand. That being said, we can examine available evidence and make some assumptions about various players’ competitive nature and ability to execute, and if you’re taking an honest look at the Cleveland Browns, you’d have to concede that the possibility of a Week 17 disaster certainly exists. The Browns have been playing poorly, losing 3 of their last 4 games, and there is a rot from within– both in the literal sense with the poor play of the offensive and defensive lines, and in the more figurative sense with the sideline outburts, leaked trade requests, rumors about the coach’s job status, etc.
How is this team going to respond to a Week 17 road game– a game that is likely to be played in the rain, based on all available weather forecasts– against a division opponent that has won just 1 game all season? If things begin to go poorly, will the Browns players want to put themselves in harms way and fight, what with the end-of-season vacation just hours (or minutes) away? I mean, the defense is allowing 5 yards per rush on the season, so it’s not like they’ve had much “fight” anyway, but this week’s game, potentially the final one for Freddie Kitchens as coach, could get ugly. The Bengals put up 35 points in Miami last week, with Andy Dalton throwing for 396 yards and 4 touchdowns. Had Dalton played all season, there’s little doubt that the Bengals would have won more than 1 game, though that probably would’ve been viewed by ownership as a bad outcome, as Cincinnati has now locked up the first overall pick in April’s draft. Facing a Browns defense that can’t stop the run, I expect a healthy dose of Joe Mixon in this one, with some Dalton and Tyler Boyd sprinkled in. The Bengals feel like the right side here, and I think a big win– a win of the double-digit variety– is a definite possibility.
Oakland Raiders @ Denver Broncos (DEN -3.5, 41)
Recommendation: Oakland +3.5 at 1.9
Denver’s late-season surge has been one of the NFL’s under-the-radar stories, and the emergence of rookie quarterback Drew Lock over the past few weeks has given the franchise reason for optimism– better days are ahead, and they might not be too far off. Oakland’s trajectory has been different– the Raiders won 6 of their first 10 games before coming unraveled, and they now sit at 7-8. But they snapped a 4-game losing streak with a win over the Chargers last week as a 7-point road ‘dog, and they could still sneak into the playoffs with a win here and a little craziness in the other games, so I expect them to be ready to play. Prior to beating L.A. last week they played 3 quarters of good football against Jacksonville before collapsing in the 4th, so their mini-turnaround has sort of been a 2-week thing, if viewed optimistically.
But the primary reason I like Oakland here is because of the current state of the Denver offense, and more specifically, the offensive line. After losing Elijah Wilkinson to an ankle injury last week, the Broncos are now down to their 3rd-string right tackle– journeyman Jake Rodgers. And “journeyman” is probably putting it kindly, because though Rodgers has been a member of several teams in his 4-year NFL career, he has never started a game. So… “career benchwarmer” would probably be a more accurate description. With Ron Leary and Ju’Wuan James also injured and out, Denver will go with an offensive line this week in which 3 of 5 starters made their first career NFL start at some point this season. That does not bode well for Drew Lock’s chances against an Oakland defense with some very capable pass-rushers in guys like Clelin Ferrell, Dion Jordan, and Maxx Crosby. Lock’s counterpart, Oakland’s Derek Carr, has completed 70 of his 84 pass attempts against these Broncos over the past two seasons, so he certainly understands what they’re trying to do on defense, and how best to attack it. I think Carr outplays the rookie in this one and carries the Raiders to a season-ending victory over their division rival.