MIA (7-8) @ BUF (5-10) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Dolphins were eliminated from playoff contention after last week’s 17-7 loss to Jacksonville, and they will head into a crucial offseason as New England rolls to their tenth division crown in a row, while the Bills and Jets both have a franchise quarterback to build around. That basically leaves Miami in limbo, and I think they need to either hit on a developmental quarterback in the draft—which will have plenty of options but no top-tier prospects depending on what Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray does—or upgrade via trade/free agency in order to take the next step under Adam Gase. Buffalo, on the other hand, already has the signal-caller and defense in place, so they just need to add pieces around Josh Allen, who has lifted 23-year-old Zay Jones, 24-year-old Robert Foster, and 23-year-old Isaiah McKenzie to a breakout finishes since returning from his elbow injury. The rookie dual-threat ran for 135 yards against the Dolphins in Week 13, and he could again have a big day on the ground to potentially finish 5-6 as a starter; not bad for a guy who apparently needed years of polishing to even have a chance to be successful. This week, I think the Bills and Allen will make a strong closing statement.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
ATL (6-9) @ TB (5-10) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
There are still jobs on the line in games without playoff implications, as coaches are looking to make a final impression, and players—particularly those who are finally getting a chance as a recent signing or promotion from the practice squad—can put some standout play on film that leads to an opportunity next year. For Tampa Bay, I think there is more than enough tape on Jameis Winston to move on in the offseason, and a reigning Super Bowl MVP in Philadelphia would be the perfect fit with the current personnel in place, which includes downfield threats Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. The franchise could also go in the opposite direction by evaluating the trade market for Evans (26 next season), Gerald McCoy (31), Lavonte David (29), Demar Dotson (33), and others to accumulate draft picks in anticipation of the 2020 NFL Draft, which should include Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and Oregon’s Justin Herbert. In my opinion, a worst-case scenario for the Buccaneers to close out the year would be Winston lighting it up to inspire false hope, but a multi-turnover game is just as likely, and Atlanta should end their trying campaign on a high note with Matt Ryan (4,546 yards, 33 touchdowns, six interceptions) quietly coming close to matching his 2016 numbers.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons
DAL (9-6) @ NYG (5-10) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Dallas says they are going to play their starters this week despite being locked into the No. 4 seed, and I believe them because it makes sense to get as much momentum as possible heading into January, which outweighs the potential injury risk for a team that in no way qualifies as a powerhouse (and psychologically, a 10-6 team would probably have more confidence than a 9-7 team). That said, New York isn’t simply going to let the Cowboys get to double-digit wins, and Pat Shurmur’s offense is playing much better than it was back when these teams met in Week 2. They key for Dallas will obviously be stopping Saquon Barkley as he eyes 2,000 total yards (currently at 1,886), but they were able to hold him to 4.3 yards per touch and zero touchdowns earlier this year, including just 11 carries for 28 yards. Some of these Week 17 games are pretty much a toss up due to the unknown about playing time, but unless we hear something about players resting before Sunday, I think the Cowboys will take advantage of a road opportunity to prove they can win away from AT&T Stadium—which they will need to do in the postseason—despite their current record of 2-5 on the road.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
CAR (6-9) @ NO (13-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Speaking of the unknown, that’s the only way to describe a game that will likely feature more backups than any other this weekend. I would bet the Saints starters get some playing time for live reps and to bolster Drew Brees’ MVP case (he needs eight yards for 4,000 on the season), but he should quickly give way to Teddy Bridgewater and/or Taysom Hill against a Panthers team that is down to their No. 3 quarterback and has endured an epic collapse by losing seven games in a row following a 6-2 start. I think everyone is rightfully excited to see Teddy for an extended period of time, but it will also be fun to watch undrafted rookie Kyle Allen in his first NFL start. The 22-year-old was formerly the top recruit in the nation, and it’s worth listening to what former NFL quarterback Jordan Palmer had to say about Allen in the pre-draft process, including that he was “better on the board” than both Sam Darnold and Josh Allen. Even with Carolina’s starter set to surprise people, though, the Saints will have the clear edge at quarterback, and offensive centerpiece Christian McCaffrey might finally get some rest this week.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
NYJ (4-11) @ NE (10-5) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
In a year that has led many to proclaim New England is finished, the Patriots still have a chance to get the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and they will at least get a first-round bye if they simply take care of business against the Jets on Sunday. Sam Darnold has played his best football over the past couple weeks—throwing for 297.0 yards per game and a 5:0 touchdown-interception ratio in two close losses—but Bill Belichick has never lost at home to a rookie quarterback, and I would be shocked if that changed in Week 17. To win in what could be Todd Bowles’ final game, the Jets need to stop the run and contain Julian Edelman and James White, as Tom Brady doesn’t seem to fully trust his other options. On the other side of the ball, New York should stay committed to the running game despite just 2.8 yards per carry on 49 attempts for Elijah McGuire over the past three weeks, and Darnold can’t be tricked into any rookie mistakes. New England hasn’t really blown an opponent out since September, so maybe everything will click right before another potential championship run.
Winner: New England Patriots
JAX (5-10) @ HOU (10-5) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Jaguars might be the most unpredictable team in the league, but the talent on the roster makes them a very dangerous squad to face off against for the Texans as they attempt to win the AFC South. And while I’m a fan of Cody Kessler, the team as currently constructed probably has more upside with Blake Bortles under center due to his athleticism. Of course, Jacksonville’s calling card is defense, and they’ve allowed just 13.3 points per game this month—compared to 16.8 points per game last year when they were on the brink of a Super Bowl appearance. Also, unlike the first meeting which Houston won 20-7, the Jags will have Leonard Fournette in the lineup barring a healthy inactive to avoid injury, and the Texans will be without Will Fuller (knee), veteran replacement Demaryius Thomas (Achilles), and potentially rookie Keke Coutee (hamstring). If Bortles plays mistake-free football and Jalen Ramsey comes out determined to stop DeAndre Hopkins, I think Jacksonville will push their division rival down to the No. 6 seed.
Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars
DET (5-10) @ GB (6-8-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
We will probably see Green Bay come out determined to avenge their early-season loss to the Lions, and they likely would have overcome a 24-0 halftime deficit if not for a career-worst kicking performance (one-for-five on field goals and zero-for-one on extra points) by Mason Crosby. Aaron Rodgers ended up throwing for 442 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions in a 31-23 defeat, but he also lost a couple fumbles in the first half that led to ten points for Detroit. The superstar passer hasn’t played his best football this season, but he probably still has the NFL record for touchdown-interception ratio (28:2 by Tom Brady in 2016) in his sights, as he needs three scores to tie and four to break it. The Lions need to add a bunch of talent to compete in 2019, but perhaps all the cold-weather practices will have them ready to give the Packers at game at Lambeau Field. Either way, it wouldn’t be surprising to see offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter—in a bad year for previously up-and-coming coaches—get fired so Matt Patricia can bring in his own guy despite all the injuries and a trade wiping out Matthew Stafford’s supporting cast this season.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
PHI (8-7) @ WAS (7-8) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
I don’t know how people can say Carson Wentz should be Philly’s unquestioned quarterback of the future regardless of what Nick Foles does this weekend or potentially next month, as the Eagles would be crazy to let a Super Bowl champion that’s 8-2 over the past two seasons to go elsewhere if he gets the team into the playoffs and makes another deep run. General manager Howie Roseman probably has too much invested in Wentz to do anything other than have him start in Week 1 of the 2019 season, though, and the only way for things to change would probably be another Lombardi Trophy leading to a trade request by the North Dakota State product. A lot obviously needs to play out for that to happen, but Foles should stay hot to close out the regular season against the Redskins, who released star safety D.J. Swearinger after he publicly criticized defensive coordinator Greg Manusky for not playing enough zone coverage. This could be a spot for Nelson Agholor—who was finally targeted on a deep ball for an 83-yard touchdown last week—to remain involved and Golden Tate to also do some damage with Josh Norman likely shadowing Alshon Jeffery. The only concern for Philadelphia is their struggles against mobile quarterbacks.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles
LAC (11-4) @ DEN (6-9) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
A loss by the Chiefs seems unlikely on Sunday, but the Chargers will undoubtedly go all out in Denver while hoping Oakland can pull off an upset. Also, Los Angeles should want to build momentum anyway following last Saturday night’s loss to Baltimore, and the Broncos—who won 23-22 in LA last month thanks to a last-second field goal—will provide a good road test before a potential rematch against the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens next week. Unfortunately, injuries have hit Denver’s offense this month, so Case Keenum will be leading an attack that features first-year players Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, and Royce Freeman. I think Vance Joseph’s team will need contribution by fellow rookie Bradley Chubb (seven tackles, 1.0 sack, two tackles for loss in first meeting) on the other side of the ball to make Philip Rivers uncomfortable with he and Von Miller both bringing pressure on the edge. If not, it could be a long afternoon with Rivers finding Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and others as a healthy Melvin Gordon handles work out of the backfield.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
OAK (4-11) @ KC (11-4) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
Those who only pay attention to what talking heads and “experts” in the national media say would believe this season has been an unmitigated disaster for the Raiders, but the aftermath of every victory has proven otherwise. On Christmas Eve in particular, the fans came out in full force for the final game in Oakland, and they went nuts for quarterback Derek Carr and head coach Jon Gruden heading over to embrace the crowd after the game, which is a good sign for the rabid fanbase remaining loyal—even if it doesn’t last—when the team moves to Las Vegas. Defensively, the Raiders have been much improved in recent weeks, but it will be a tall task to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs as the gunslinger looks to put an exclamation point on his MVP candidacy. This might be a bigger game than people realize considering New England is undefeated at home and would again be clear favorites in the AFC if Kansas City relinquishes the No. 1 seed this weekend, so Andy Reid should get his guys to bounce back from Sunday night’s loss and make sure the road in the conference goes through Arrowhead Stadium.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
CHI (11-4) @ MIN (8-6-1) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Other than the nightcap, Bears-Vikings is probably the biggest game of the week because of the implications for the NFC Wild Card Round. A Minnesota win would set up a rematch next week in Chicago, while a Bears win would probably give Philadelphia the No. 6 seed—something the rest of the conference doesn’t want to see at this point. In a perfect world, the Rams will be given a game by San Francisco to force Matt Nagy to keep his starters in for 60 minutes (because a win combined with an LA loss gives Chicago the No. 2 seed), but there is a real possibility of a lopsided score in Los Angeles deciding the fate of the final wild-card spot, which would be a shame. Assuming the Bears play to win, their defensive front should give a ton of problems to the Vikings offensive line, and I think a more basic game plan (to avoid revealing too much before potentially facing Minnesota again), might actually help Mitchell Trubisky avoid mistakes. Maybe we will see Kirk Cousins have the game that believers have been waiting for, but he is 4-24 against teams with a winning record, which could lead to plenty of questions for the franchise this offseason.
Winner: Chicago Bears
CLE (7-7-1) @ BAL (9-6) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
I had Baker Mayfield as a first-round prospect when mostly everyone else was calling him a Day 3 pick heading into his final season at Oklahoma, but leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft, character concerns kept him below Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, and Lamar Jackson for me. So far, the on-field performance has lived up to the hype, but the cockiness has already started wearing thin; and I am not the slightest bit a fan of Hue Jackson, but to stare a man down on the sidelines like Mayfield did says more about the rookie than it does his former head coach. To make matters worse, Mayfield at first denied the stare down after the game before owning up to it and saying that others aren’t competitive enough. One day, the pendulum will swing back against the 23-year-old, but will it be this weekend? While Baltimore continues to win since Lamar Jackson took over as the starter, I think they will soon run into an opponent that finally confuses the rookie into multiple mistakes. Gregg Williams has stated this is a playoff game for the Browns, and they will be able to pull out all the stops with no consequences other than a loss. Look for Nick Chubb and interior run-blockers to control the game and improve to 6-2 under the interim head coach.
Winner: Cleveland Browns
SF (4-11) @ LAR (12-3) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Jared Goff has some numbers to play for as he sits 342 yards shy of breaking Kurt Warner’s single-season franchise record for passing yards (4,830), but he and the Rams sound like they have their priorities in order as they look to clinch a first-round bye this week; Goff said leading up to Sunday’s game, “I could throw for 600 [yards] and lose and I wouldn’t be too happy about it,” also adding that they are treating the matchup against San Francisco “like a playoff game.” The former Cal standout has plenty of time to rewrite the franchise record books, but I think Sean McVay is fully aware of the potential milestone and might decide getting him there is a worthy confidence-booster for January. We might also see something similar happen for the Niners, as Kyle Shanahan previously admitted he was angry at himself for not getting George Kittle the single-game record for receiving yards by a tight end (215, and he finished with 210 all in the first half), and the second-year star is now within reach of Rob Gronkowski’s single-season record for receiving yards at the position (1,327), needing exactly 100 yards to set the new mark. I think both guys will get there, but the Rams have more to play for as a team.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
CIN (6-9) @ PIT (8-6-1) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
Pittsburgh has been a team that thrives on emotion that can sometimes work against them, but it’s good to see morale hasn’t been drained following JuJu Smith-Schuster’s game-ending fumble last week in New Orleans to knock the Steelers out of playoff position. Just yesterday, Antonio Brown found a creative way to pull for the Browns in their matchup against Baltimore, and today, Smith-Schuster was named team MVP for the 2018 season. Furthermore, they should get a huge boost with James Conner (ankle) logging two full practices that has him on track to return, and he will bring more balance against a Cincinnati defense that has struggled to defend both the pass and run this year. For the Bengals, Joe Mixon will need to carry the offense to have any chance, and maybe loaded boxes will allow John Ross to get behind the defense for his first career reception of 40+ yards. I think most of the tension at Heinz Field this weekend will be based on Ravens score, though.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
ARI (3-12) @ SEA (9-6) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX
Winner: Seattle Seahawks
IND (9-6) @ TEN (9-6) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
Andrew Luck is 10-0 in his career against the Titans, but as the former No. 1 overall pick himself said this week, “It doesn’t matter.” Every game is different, and it’s not like Indy has blown out Tennessee in every meeting since Luck was drafted. Sadly, we probably won’t be seeing Marcus Mariota (neck) if he’s unable to throw the ball effectively, but that would make Sunday night Blaine Gabbert’s opportunity to leave a lasting legacy with the Titans by getting them into the playoffs. Mike Vrabel’s team probably won’t have a chance if they allow T.Y. Hilton (9/155/2) to go crazy like he did in the first matchup between these teams, but Adoree’ Jackson has the speed to contain him, and the defense as a whole has reemerged over the past three weeks with 8.3 points allowed per game. The key battle will likely be Derrick Henry—who suddenly has 966 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns this year—against NFL tackle leader Darius Leonard, and I think the monster runner will continue his all-time great month to carry his team into the postseason for the second year in a row.
Winner: Tennessee Titans
Last week: 7-9 /// Overall: 117-123
Recommended picks last week: 4-1 /// Overall: 44-36
Dolphins @ Bills (-3.5)
Falcons (+1) @ Buccaneers
Cowboys (+7) @ Giants
Panthers (+9) @ Saints
Jets @ Patriots (-13.5)
Jaguars (+6.5) @ Texans
Lions @ Packers (-8)
Eagles (-7) @ Redskins
Chargers (-6.5) @ Broncos
Raiders (+13.5) @ Chiefs
Bears (+4) @ Vikings
Browns (+6) @ Ravens
49ers @ Rams (-10)
Bengals @ Steelers (-14.5)
Cardinals @ Seahawks (-13.5)
Colts @ Titans (+3)
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