PHI (8-7) @ WAS (6-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The Eagles have gone 6-2 since a 2-5 start, and running the football has been a big reason for their emergence—which is surprising based on the pass-happy philosophy of the front office and ownership. You need to play to the strengths of your team, though, so Nick Sirianni deserves credit for finding a formula that works behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. Miles Sanders (hand) might not be back until the playoffs, but Jordan Howard (stinger) has arguably been the team’s best runner, and don’t overlook Kerryon Johnson (who was just signed to the practice squad) as a potential contributor in the postseason if he gets a chance; we’ve seen guys emerge late in the season before (C.J. Anderson with the Rams comes to mind), and Johnson is a talented player despite no offensive action this year. Taylor Heinicke has actually never faced Philadelphia, but Ron Rivera said Kyle Allen will play this week, too, and I don’t understand this sudden trend of two quarterbacks seeing action. At least the Eagles aren’t at all considering such a move with ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reporting that Sirianni told Gardner Minshew it’s “not going to happen” when the backup asked what it’d take for him to be the starter.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles
LAR (11-4) @ BAL (8-7) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Looking ahead at the schedule a few weeks ago, I essentially chalked this up as a win for the Ravens because of how “soft”—as ESPN’s Booger McFarland put it—the Rams were playing. But committing to Sony Michel has changed the makeup of the team (resulting in a four-game winning streak), and the remarkable return of Cam Akers (Achilles) will only add to their newfound toughness. That being said, Matthew Stafford simply has to play better if Los Angeles is going to make a run, and the bar set by Jared Goff is reaching a Super Bowl. For this week, Baltimore needs to overcome their COVID-19 issues to get a pass rush going, as injuries on the backend will make it difficult to stop Cooper Kupp’s pursuit of history, and Stafford might be slower with the trigger if last week’s three-interception game leads to hesitation for a team that won’t be able to overcome those mistakes versus top opponents. Right now, I’m not sure Baltimore falls in that category with Lamar Jackson (ankle) either out again or playing at less than 100%.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
TB (11-4) @ NYJ (4-11) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
One of the top opponents Los Angeles could run into for the playoffs is Tampa Bay, and it was encouraging to see them come out with a complete performance against Carolina in their first game without many key players. Of course, Tom Brady can make up for a lot of issues, and the passing attack will lean on Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski until Mike Evans (hamstring) is able to return—and it’s notable that everyone else (aside from Chris Godwin) is also expected to be back for the playoffs. Plus, it’s a great sign that the run defense has stiffened up at the right time with opposing running backs combing for 42 scoreless yards on 29 carries over the past two weeks, and the group as a whole will try to build momentum this week by making it a long day for Zach Wilson.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
MIA (8-7) @ TEN (10-5) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Quarterbacks either get too much credit or not enough credit for team success depending on whether they are favored by the media, but Tua Tagovailoa is 12-7 as a starter—better than both Joe Burrow (11-13-1) and Justin Herbert (14-16) from the 2020 class—and he seems to get no credit because he doesn’t put up gaudy numbers. That is not to argue Tagovailoa is the best Year 2 quarterback, but as said numerous times, his game was expected to have a steeper transition at the next level, and Miami has a below-average offensive line that Tua has played behind. The concern for Sunday is Tennessee’s defensive front taking advantage of that weakness, so quick passes to Jaylen Waddle will be key, and the Titans did notably just struggle to contain Deebo Samuel (nine receptions for 159 yards). On the other side of the ball, the status of Julio Jones (COVID-19) is important if only to keep the pressure off A.J. Brown—who I’d expect will get plenty of looks from the slot to hopefully avoid Xavien Howard and Byron Jones. In a projected slugfest, I like Tennessee to clinch the AFC South at home.
Winner: Tennessee Titans
JAX (2-13) @ NE (9-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Jaguars keeping general manager Trent Baalke is a mind-numbing decision for a franchise that can’t waste anymore of Trevor Lawrence’s career, and the No. 1 overall pick might need to think about wielding some influence to create change—even if it means demanding a trade, he needs to do what’s best for himself; there is no reset button for NFL players, and Baalke (9-44 record as a GM since 2015) being in charge of a rebuild feels more destined to fail than the Urban Meyer experiment did. New England is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum in terms of organizational competence, and Mac Jones is the beneficiary of that. Running the ball will remain the focus, but I’d expect Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to get Jones back on track ahead of the playoffs to put a couple of two-interception performances in a row behind him.
Winner: New England Patriots
LV (8-7) @ IND (9-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
If you didn’t get a chance to watch on Christmas Day, the All-Madden documentary will re-air tonight at 8 PM ET on FOX, and I would guess the Raiders will do something special for the legendary head coach and broadcaster as the entire NFL honors Madden with a moment of silence before every game in Week 17. On the field, the Raiders will hope to set themselves up to sneak into the postseason by upsetting the Colts, and Carson Wentz potentially being out with COVID-19 would certainly increase their chances (the line swung from -9 to -5 before the news even broke). However, I bet Jonathan Taylor would be an All-Madden Team mainstay if he played 30 years ago, and Indy has been absolutely rolling behind the running game with a 6-1 record over the past two months; a performance similar to last season when he rushed 20 times for 150 yards and two touchdowns against Las Vegas could be in store for Taylor as he makes an MVP case.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
KC (11-4) @ CIN (9-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The confidence and clutch play of Joe Burrow dating back to his time at LSU is reason to believe playoff football won’t be too big for him, and the former Heisman winner will get a taste of it this weekend as Cincinnati has a chance to win the AFC North by taking down the back-to-back conference champs. Kansas City’s improved play on defense will make things difficult on the Bengals, but the Chiefs haven’t faced a group of playmakers—from superstar runner Joe Mixon to the exceptional trio at wide receiver—like they will this week, so a shootout is expected if cold weather doesn’t impact things too much (Burrow has notably never played a game below 43 degrees). To prevent Patrick Mahomes from going off, the Bengals need to get to him with Trey Hendrickson (2.0 sacks and five quarterback hits in a 32-29 loss to Kansas City with the Saints last year), and they could have an edge if Travis Kelce isn’t quite himself following a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list, which Tyreek Hill said impacted him in Week 16. Still, this is also a huge game for the Chiefs as they try to stay in position for homefield advantage in the AFC, and the offense has come alive with 39.3 points per game over the past three weeks.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
NYG (4-11) @ CHI (5-10) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
I was excited to watch Jake Fromm in his first career start last week, but he was bombarded by pass rushers on pretty much every play, and he’s a quarterback that needs help around him to thrive. It’d obviously be great for every passer to have the mobility of someone like Josh Allen to make things happen on his own, but I don’t believe lacking that playmaking ability is a crushing negative; it’s the job of the front office and coaching staff to have a good enough supporting cast around the quarterback for it to not be necessary, which is an area where New York has failed. Joe Judge indicating he will jump on the two-quarterback trend combined with Justin Fields (ankle) missing another game for Chicago would end the chances of a Fromm versus Fields game (something a lot of college football fans would have liked to see), but this is an expected slugfest anyway.
Winner: Chicago Bears
ATL (7-8) @ BUF (9-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Josh Allen’s case for NFL MVP (+1200) has seemed to take a hit because of Buffalo’s 9-6 loss to the Jaguars last month, but are people forgetting that Aaron Rodgers (the favorite at -175) lost 38-3 against the Saints to open the season? Unfortunately, the pre-draft hate and blue-collar style of Allen will likely never get sportswriters that vote for awards to be in his corner, but he does everything for Buffalo, and the only reason to not put him on the same level as Tom Brady or Rodgers is that he hasn’t yet won a championship. This week, there should be more offensive fireworks as the Bills get Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis back from the reserve/COVID-19 list, and it’s difficult to imagine Matt Ryan being able to match Allen on the road with Sean McDermott’s defense not allowing rookie tight end Kyle Pitts to beat them.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
HOU (4-11) @ SF (8-7) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | CBS
This has somehow flown under the radar, but a six-part documentary about Joe Montana’s career should certainly be worth the watch when it premieres next month:
Thankful to everyone that has helped me throughout my football journey.
— Joseph Montana (@JoeMontana) December 27, 2021
Winner: San Francisco 49ers
DEN (7-8) @ LAC (8-7) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | CBS
While the Chargers appeared safe for a playoff spot at 8-6 because of a matchup versus Houston in Week 16, the game obviously didn’t go as planned, and now they’ll need to fight with a host of other clubs (including Denver) to make the playoffs. Although it’s a different defensive scheme for Los Angeles this year, it’s notable that Drew Lock—who played well last week despite just 40 offensive plays run—outdueled Justin Herbert last season in a 31-30 shootout with a last-second touchdown to cap a 21-point fourth quarter; the Chargers will be in danger of another upset if they don’t defend the pass better than they did versus Davis Mills last Sunday, and Lock is someone that can catch fire. For the defense of Denver, they limited Herbert to 13 points in the first matchup this season, and Vic Fangio’s defensive game plan will try to force him into mistakes. However, the return of Austin Ekeler (COVID-19), Mike Williams (COVID-19) and hopefully Derwin James (hamstring) should be impactful, and I like LA to take the rematch at home.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
CAR (5-10) @ NO (7-8) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Injuries combined with a COVID-19 outbreak put New Orleans in a very difficult spot last week, and it’s sad that playoff spots/seeding could be decided by a particular team’s misfortune (or fortune) compared to another; it really might take news of a star quarterback testing positive the morning of a playoff game to get the league to decide the pandemic can’t be controlled. New Orleans now must beat a Carolina squad that dominated the first matchup, 26-7, and they need to do a better job containing D.J. Moore—who has gone for lines of 4/81, 6/126/2, 4/93/2, 5/101, and 8/79/1 over the past five meetings—than they did Jaylen Waddle on Monday night. On offense, Taysom Hill will at least return to provide a boost with his legs, and this is a time for Alvin Kamara to go back to the early-season workloads after modest touch totals of 13 and 15 over the past two weeks.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
DET (2-12-1) @ SEA (5-10) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
D.K. Metcalf finally snapped his touchdown drought with his first score since Halloween last week, but he was again held in check for the most part (60 or fewer yards in each of the past eight games), and you almost have to believe the foot injury that’s had him on the injury report is fairly significant. Making matters worse heading into a big offseason, Seattle is set to give a high first-round pick away to the Jets from the Jamal Adams trade, and the NFC West being perhaps the toughest division in football makes it unlikely Russell Wilson can get healthier and carry the Seahawks into the playoffs without management hitting on some signings and/or draft picks. The way Detroit has competed for most of the season and improved on offense in particular could push Seattle to 2-6 at home (which, already at 2-5, is a surprise with fans back in the stadium), but I’ll go with them assuming D’Andre Swift (shoulder) won’t be fed in his return for the Lions.
Winner: Seattle Seahawks
ARI (10-5) @ DAL (11-4) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Kyler Murray struggling down the stretch in back-to-back seasons is a concern for the Cardinals, and they are now running into the Cowboys at the wrong time—at least if Dallas isn’t overconfident following a 56-14 victory on Sunday Night Football. The loss of DeAndre Hopkins (knee) has been brought up as the reason for the struggles, but Arizona still has enough weapons to put up points without him, and I’d like to see more vertical opportunities for A.J. Green (three targets on Christmas). Also, Christian Kirk caught an 80-yard touchdown against the Cowboys last season, and Dan Quinn’s unit is an average pass defense that shadows their flaws by forcing turnovers and getting to the quarterback. It should be a close game with Murray using his legs to get the offense going, but the Cowboys have impact players all over the field to slow him down, and Dak Prescott is already back on track after throwing for four touchdowns in the first half of last week’s win.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
MIN (7-8) @ GB (12-3) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
The forecast has jumped from three-degree temperatures to six-degree temperatures for kickoff, but nonetheless, it’s going to be cold at Lambeau Field for a primetime game—and the winter advantage is exactly why I’d never want my favorite team to have a dome. Kirk Cousins had already been cooling off in recent weeks, and losing Adam Thielen (ankle) after his first game back won’t make the passing attack spark any easier, so Sunday night will be all about feeding Dalvin Cook (four total touchdowns over the past two matchups against Green Bay, both of which were won by Minnesota). That is only half the battle, though, and weather might not matter at all for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense (300.6 yards per game and a 16:0 touchdown-interception ratio for the reigning NFL MVP over his past five outings). As the only team in the league still undefeated at home, the Packers shouldn’t waste their opportunity to make sure that remains the case ahead of the playoffs.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
CLE (7-8) @ PIT (7-7-1) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN/ESPN2
Slow starts have become the norm for Pittsburgh in recent weeks, and the results have been mixed with two wins where the offense has found a way to score just enough, two losses where coming alive in the second half has led to them falling just short, and two straight-up blowout losses. But if there was ever a team for Ben Roethlisberger to close his career at Heinz Field on a high note against, it’s the Cleveland Browns (25-2-1 record in the regular season), and starting fast—or at least not falling behind by multiple scores—is extremely important so that Nick Chubb can’t take over the game. On Christmas, I think Kevin Stefanski made a mistake by not trying to run with Chubb on the final drive (there was plenty of time left), and hopefully the humble superstar eventually has his faith rewarded for never demanding the ball. Maybe it will come on Monday night to essentially end Big Ben’s career, but I believe in Mike Tomlin finding a way to position Pittsburgh for a chance to earn a playoff spot heading into Week 18.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers