KC (11-5) @ DEN (7-9) | SAT 4:30 PM ET | ESPN
It will be great to have Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit calling an NFL game this weekend (though it’s kind of odd for them to do it two days before the College Football Playoff National Championship), and Kansas City has a chance at the No. 1 seed if they can take care of business and get some help from the Texans on Sunday. Even if they don’t earn homefield advantage, the Chiefs would like to build offensive momentum against a Denver defense that’s held Patrick Mahomes in check (despite his 8-0 record against them), including zero games with multiple passing touchdowns on the road in the AFC West rivalry. Sticking to the running game with Darrel Williams and Derrick Gore—plus Clyde Edwards-Helaire (collarbone) leading the way in the postseason—is the best way to get Tyreek Hill going with the downfield opportunities that haven’t been there this season, so they should test the Broncos with early physicality to see if they’re up for the challenge.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
DAL (11-5) @ PHI (9-7) | SAT 8:15 PM ET | ESPN
Key players being added to the reserve/COVID-19 list and veterans like Jason Kelce potentially benefitting from the rest leads me to believe the Eagles will either sit their starters or give them limited playing time—but I prefer what Dallas is doing (“we plan to play to win” as Jerry Jones put it). The chances of Round 3 happening in the Wild Card Round seem very low based on the results needed this week, so Philadelphia could be sacrificing an opportunity to prove themselves versus a top opponent heading into the playoffs if that’s their concern; and either way, Roger Goodell actually made a good point on the ManningCast a few days ago about divisional games making it more likely teams play to win, so we can only hope the Eagles follow through for one of the best rivalries in the world. Not being able to stop Ezekiel Elliott (98.2 rushing yards per game and a 7-2 record against Philly) would make it difficult for the home team to ruin Dallas’ slight hopes for the No. 2 seed.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
GB (13-3) @ DET (2-13-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The immediate reaction is the best part, but Aaron Rodgers’ entire answer is worth listening to:
"His problem with me is that I'm not vaccinated."pic.twitter.com/h9XURmZgFE
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 5, 2022
Winner: Green Bay Packers
IND (9-7) @ JAX (2-14) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Many have penciled the Colts into the postseason as 15.5-point favorites this week against the Jaguars, but Indianapolis hasn’t won in Jacksonville since 2014, and for as disappointing as this season was for Shad Khan’s franchise, I’d bet the players will come out with some fire to end the season of a division rival on Sunday. In the first matchup between these teams, the Jags battled with a 23-17 loss after falling behind 17-0 in the first quarter, and star edge defender Josh Allen in particular is someone that can wreak havoc; the Colts seem to know it based on the Hard Knocks episode last month where a group of Indy players agreed to vote him into the Pro Bowl (I think they called him “a beast”), and Allen can impact the game without getting to the quarterback. Still, I would think the Colts have too big of a talent and coaching advantage to not win and get into the postseason… my main concern would be Frank Reich inexplicably throwing the ball around instead of featuring Jonathan Taylor.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
WAS (6-10) @ NYG (4-12) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Reports have suggested Joe Judge will return for 2022, but might he be fired if the Giants have another ugly result on Sunday? I don’t think the head coach’s 11-minute rant following last week’s loss—when listened to in its entirety—was quite as bad as the standalone comments appear, but the shot at the team quitting on Pat Shurmur didn’t seem fair considering New York ended Shurmur’s final season by winning two out of three games (also, Daniel Jones had 24 touchdowns in 12 starts for the previous coaching staff for what it’s worth). The worst comment, though, was Judge saying the Giants aren’t “a team that’s having fistfights on the sidelines” or “some clown show organization,” which is basically a direct shot at Ron Rivera and Washington. Judge claims it wasn’t about them, but the bottom line is that it was taken that way, and it’s something Bill Belichick would have never even thought about saying. I’ll go with the team that’s shown more fight down the stretch.
Winner: Washington Football Team
CHI (6-10) @ MIN (7-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Chicago will unfortunately be without Justin Fields (COVID-19) this week, and Sunday would have been a great opportunity for him to end his rookie campaign with a victory to build momentum into Year 2. Fields has shown flashes this season, but they often came late in games while trailing, and the former Ohio State star was never really the reason the Bears won (he went 2-8 as the starter, compared to 4-2 when Andy Dalton or Nick Foles starts), so it will be up to a new coach—assuming Matt Nagy is indeed fired—to unlock Fields’ potential next season. For the Vikings, Kirk Cousins saying he wants to be in Minnesota for the rest of his career is interesting, but the possibility of a new regime could make the decision for him if they want to start fresh. However, there are enough pieces on both sides of the ball—including a young offensive line and a veteran defense that can play at a championship level with Danielle Hunter (pectoral) back—to contend in 2022. This week, the back-to-back wins for the Bears and prideful players like Roquan Smith on defense has me leaning towards them to send off Nagy with a victory.
Winner: Chicago Bears
TEN (11-5) @ HOU (4-12) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
I don’t know why Mike Vrabel isn’t getting more attention as an NFL Coach of the Year candidate, but he has Tennessee one win away from the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and the team has played more than half of the season without their best player in Derrick Henry (foot)—who is set to return for the playoffs. D’Onta Foreman will lead the backfield for this week if Henry doesn’t suit up, though I expect A.J. Brown will be the offensive focus against a Houston team he’s destroyed for lines of 4/124/1 and 10/151/1 in both season finales to begin his career, and NRG Stadium’s roof will keep out the forecasted rain that impacted the first matchup when Ryan Tannehill threw four interceptions in a 22-13 loss. When Henry is back, the Titans can beat anyone if Tannehill gets hot versus the top teams in the conference.
Winner: Tennessee Titans
PIT (8-7-1) @ BAL (8-8) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Ben Roethlisberger ending his career at Heinz Field with a victory and getting a legend’s sendoff was awesome, but the postseason is still in play for both Pittsburgh and Baltimore this week, so the Steelers—on a short week—need to focus up and avoid the slow starts that cost them prior to Week 17. Although Diontae Johnson (COVID-19) would be a major loss if not cleared by Sunday, James Washington can come through with an expanded role, and it might lead to Najee Harris becoming re-involved as a pass-catcher with 20 or fewer receiving yards in six of the past seven games. On the other side of the ball, Tyler Huntley will be Big Ben’s likely counterpart with Lamar Jackson (ankle) still trying to get healthy, and Pittsburgh’s ability to stop Mark Andrews (37.8 yards per game with zero touchdowns in five matchups) is something teams around the league should attempt to replicate. I’m going with Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger to keep postseason hopes alive in their final regular season game together.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
CIN (10-6) @ CLE (7-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Peyton speaking for.. EVERY HUMAN WATCHING 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/RKiKOeMt9n
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) January 4, 2022
Winner: Cleveland Browns
SF (9-7) @ LAR (12-4) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers have had the Rams’ number recently, including a 31-10 beatdown earlier this year to extend their winning streak in the rivalry to five games. Both sides have a lot at stake this week (a playoff berth for San Francisco and the NFC West crown for Los Angeles), but the Niners are the more desperate team, and the trio of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle being healthy makes them a very difficult team to beat. Also, if Matthew Stafford continues to play like he has since the calendar turned to November—when great players/teams usually elevate their game—it won’t matter if the Rams are as high as the No. 2 seed or as low as the No. 5 seed, because they’ll be a likely one-and-done either way. Perhaps having not as much to play for as the Niners do on Sunday will lead to Stafford having a steady hand with Sean McVay relying on Sony Michel and Cam Akers, but I think Jimmy Garoppolo (thumb) will play and get his team into the playoffs with a huge road victory.
Winner: San Francisco 49ers
CAR (5-11) @ TB (12-4) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
I won’t get deep into the Antonio Brown situation, but in terms of what it means for the Buccaneers moving forward on the field, the path to a repeat is a lot more difficult with arguably a top-ten all-time receiver (talent wise) compounding the loss of Chris Godwin (knee)—whom I would make the case for as the most valuable player on the team aside from Tom Brady. That being said, when you have TB12, you can overcome a lot, so I’m feeling more optimistic about Tampa Bay’s playoff outlook after thinking about it more. The run defense needs to fix the holes they’ve shown, though, and the hopeful return of Lavonte David (foot) in the postseason is key to match run-heavy teams like the Eagles (their most likely Wild Card Round opponent). Last week’s close call should have the Bucs ready for Carolina on Sunday.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
SEA (6-10) @ ARI (11-5) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Arizona deserves a ton of credit for going on the road to pick up a win over Dallas last week, and even if it doesn’t lead to them winning the NFC West, their confidence should be high for the playoffs when they’ll need to get through three top opponents (like the Cowboys) to reach the Super Bowl. Kyler Murray didn’t play in the first matchup versus Seattle, but he appeared to be fully healthy last week when trying to escape from Micah Parsons, and A.J. Green—as predicated—was given more downfield chances to boost the offense. The seven-time Pro Bowl wideout is quietly up to 825 receiving yards a year removed from many claiming he was finished, and his 9.9 yards per target are a career-high heading into the finale. Now, I would like to see Rondale Moore (ankle) used more if he returns this weekend, and the rookie notably caught 11-of-11 targets for 51 yards with Colt McCoy under center against the Seahawks earlier this season. Losing in a shootout thanks to D.K. Metcalf catching fire, Rashaad Penny suddenly looking like one of the best running backs in the league, and Tyler Lockett always killing the Cardinals is a concern, but Murray has enough firepower of his own.
Winner: Arizona Cardinals
NE (10-6) @ MIA (8-8) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
Miami remaining in playoff contention would have made this a more exciting matchup, but New England can still win the AFC East with some help from the Jets, and Bill Belichick will want Mac Jones to string together another strong performance—even if it doesn’t result in big numbers—before the rookie’s first taste of postseason football. Defensively, the Patriots will try to slow down Jaylen Waddle like the Titans did in Week 17, and while there isn’t an obvious area to attack for Tua Tagovailoa, I’d like Mike Gesicki to be featured with some contested-catch opportunities down the seam; the athletic tight end is slated to be a free agent, so it’d be nice if he can showcase his downfield prowess with nothing to lose by dialing up the aggressiveness of the passing attack. New England, on the other hand, should mostly ride Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson to the ninth win in their past 11 games.
Winner: New England Patriots
NO (8-8) @ ATL (7-9) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Twitter decided that Taysom Hill isn’t a good quarterback, but he’s 3-1 this season after going 3-1 last year—with two of those 2020 wins coming against Atlanta. Although the rushing ability is mainly what comes to mind when discussing Hill’s play at quarterback, he also takes care of the ball (zero turnovers in three starts since throwing four interceptions—playing through a mallet finger injury—versus Dallas), and the Saints can be dangerous if they beat the Falcons and get help from the Rams to make the playoffs. An aggressive defense is reason that the rest of the NFC might be OK with New Orleans not playing beyond this week (the unit has allowed ten or fewer points in Hill’s last three starts), but Matt Ryan cracked them back in Week 9 with 343 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-25 win, and the former NFL MVP would love to end their season on Sunday. I expect a close game with Hill making enough plays as a runner and thrower to get to 9-8.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
NYJ (4-12) @ BUF (10-6) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
Buffalo destroyed the Jets on the road this season, 45-17, and that was during a significant slump for the offense. The group is in a much better spot heading into the season finale with Devin Singletary—who has averaged 94.7 total yards per game and totaled four touchdowns over the past three weeks—finally becoming a featured player to take the pressure off Josh Allen (something we’ve talked about since last season), and the offense should remain balanced to lock up the AFC East this weekend. Despite the results of the first matchup, the Jets again putting up a fight to close out the season after close losses to Miami and Tampa Bay sandwiching a win over Jacksonville would bode well for head coach Robert Saleh turning things around, and Zach Wilson will try to fare better than Mike White did against the Bills in Week 10.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
LAC (9-7) @ LV (9-7) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
You can’t beat a win-and-in game on Sunday Night Football to conclude the regular season, and the Raiders deserve a ton of credit for making it happen with three down-to-the-wire wins in a row since their 48-9 loss to Kansas City. The Chargers won the first meeting rather handily, but Las Vegas will have the homefield advantage at the Death Star, which shouldn’t be overlooked as a factor considering what’s at stake and how rowdy Raider Nation should be. Also, Derek Carr and the team as a whole have played well with their backs against the wall, and it sounds like Darren Waller (knee) could return—making it difficult for Los Angeles to defend both Waller and Hunter Renfrow while stopping Josh Jacobs on the ground. But can the Raiders keep Justin Herbert and the LA passing attack from catching fire? Herbert has thrown for 287.3 yards per game with a 7:0 touchdown-interception ratio in three career matchups, and the first meeting could have been a monster game for Mike Williams based on the one-on-one coverage he saw outside (he caught just one pass, but Herbert wasn’t looking his way multiple times when Williams won at the line of scrimmage to get vertical). In a game I’ve gone back and forth with, the Chargers get the slight edge with more high-end talent.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers