We have reached the final week of the NFL regular season, and week after week the NFL has proven to be unpredictable (just as every other season) mostly because of parity, injuries and blind luck. And then there’s Week 17, the worst of them all. How can you know if a team is going to perform or not? What motivation do they have? 16 of the NFL’s 32 teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. New England has already locked up the #1 seed in the AFC, and the Philadelphia Eagles are guaranteed the #3 seed in the NFC. That leaves less than half the league playing for anything. I’m warning you now, it won’t be a normal week (not that any week in the NFL is ever “normal”). Last week: 10 wins – 6 losses. Season record: 124-111-5.
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons (-14): The Falcons need to win to secure the #1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Considering they are 6-1 at home this year, I’m guessing they wouldn’t mind hosting a few more games in the Georgia Dome. If the Falcons don’t show up for this game, those Super Bowl aspirations from a couple weeks ago will seem very distant.
Pittsburgh Steelers (-5.5) at Cleveland Browns: With a win, the Steelers will win the AFC North and the #2 seed (and its accompanying bye) in the AFC playoffs. A loss could drop them to the 5th position, if the Ravens were to win. Pittsburgh is banged up, and a week off would really help them get their star safety Troy Polamalu healthy for the playoffs. There’s enough riding on this game for the Steelers to show up.
Minnesota Vikings (+3.5) at Detroit Lions: The most significant thing about this game is that it may very well be the last time Brett Favre is on the sidelines as an NFL player. This will (hopefully) mark the end of the sports media’s round the clock, 24/7 coverage of all things Favre (I’m looking at you, ESPN). Other than that, it’s completely meaningless, so I’ll take the points and Brett Favre-less Vikings. Let’s go JOE WEBB!
Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs (-3.5): A win for the Chiefs guarantees them the #3 seed (though a loss may still be enough if Indy were to lose). It would also complete a flawless 8-0 home stand at Arrowhead Stadium. Very impressive, and it’s at least something to play for. Which is more than the Raiders can boast.
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots (-5.5): This may be the hardest game of the week to predict. Historically, the Pats have played hard in these situations during Bill Belichick’s tenure. But last year, WR Wes Welker got hurt in the regular season finale, causing him to miss the Patriots playoff game, a loss to Baltimore. Will Belichick rest his starters more than he has done in the past? Perhaps, but QB Tom Brady wants to play and even the backups for New England will have a field day.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+7) at New Orleans Saints: Finally, a game with both teams fighting for something, however remote the chances. The Saints are pretty much locked into the #5 seed, barring a surprise upset of Carolina over Atlanta, but the chance for homefield advantage and a bye is still there. And Tampa needs a win and some serious help (NYG loss and GB loss) to get into the playoffs. Tampa Bay is more desperate, and they can at least keep this game close.
Buffalo Bills at New York Jets (-1.5): I guess bookmakers figure the Jets aren’t taking this game seriously. With a wildcard slot locked up for the playoffs, the Jets have a slight chance to move from a #6 seed to a #5 seed, but the difference in seeding won’t be much of a factor. Either way, they will be going on the road and will need three wins to get to the Super Bowl. Jets QB Mark Sanchez may not play much, but Buffalo may start their backup QB Brian Brohm, not wanting to chance aggravating injuries to their starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Those Harvard kids are soft. Man up, Fitzpatrick!
Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens (-9.5): With a win and a Pittsburgh loss to Cleveland, the Ravens would win the AFC North and get the #2 seed and a bye for the playoffs. What is Cincy playing for? Maybe T.O. and Ochocinco are trying to get their reality TV shows renewed. But both receivers sat out last week, and I wouldn’t expect to see them on the field on Sunday or on VH1 anymore.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos (+3.5): Two teams without anything to play for. The Chargers have to be surprised they put themselves in this position, where they couldn’t climb out of the hole they dug for themselves with that terrible 2-5 start. And while I may rag on Tim Tebow, he’s the kind of guy that won’t throw in the towel even if the game won’t affect the playoffs. I’m sure this game won’t be meaningless to him, and he’ll have the Broncos wanting this game more than the downtrodden Chargers.
Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers (-9.5): If Atlanta or New Orleans win in the early games, Chicago will be set as the #2 seed. The Bears need a win, and losses from both the Falcons and Saints to jump up to the #1 and get homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Unfortunately, even in a old-timey rivalry game, the Bears will most likely rest instead of trying to knock out their NFC North rivals from playoff contention. Lame, but probably the best decision for the players’ health and stamina.
Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts (-9.5): The Colts have a “win and you’re in” situation with the AFC South title and playoff berth. The Titans are in the midst of a downward spiral, losing 7 of their last 8 games. Peyton Manning won’t let the Colts lose, just like last week’s win at Oakland.
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles (-3): Neither team has anything to play for, despite the fact that the Eagles are in the playoffs and Dallas is nowhere near. The big difference for me is that Philly’s backup QB is Kevin Kolb, a sold serviceable QB who was the opening day starter for the Eagles. He’s no Michael Vick but he isn’t a slouch. For Dallas, third-string Stephen McGee may play if backup Jon Kitna can’t go. I know Philly fans don’t think Kolb is great after his lackluster performances earlier in the year, but he’s got to be a better bet than Stephen McGee.
Arizona Cardinals (+6) at San Francisco 49ers: Probably the most meaningless game of the whole season right here. I know both teams are horrible, but there isn’t even a top draft pick up for grabs for either team. Just good old-fashioned mediocrity. When in doubt, take the points, especially when the Smiths, Alex and Troy, are the QBs for the other team.
New York Giants (-4) at Washington Redskins: The Giants are playing for the final playoff spot in the NFC. The G-men need a win and a Packers loss, and they would be the #6 seed. The Redskins are playing to ruin their rivals. Maybe if these players cared about rivalries and such. Doubtful if you ask me. Washington should roll over after a controversy-laden, tiring and disappointing season.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+3) at Houston Texans: Right now, I can tell you, this is a terrible pick. It’s based solely on the fact that the Jags have something to play for. With a win and an Indy loss, the Jags would win the AFC South and a playoff berth. However, they are without their starting QB David Garrard and RB Maurice Jones-Drew, both out with injuries. So this is completely on a whim, but I think Jacksonville backup RB Rashard Jennings has got what it takes. But it might just be wishful thinking that the Colts won’t make the playoffs on my part. Whatever.
St. Louis Rams (-3) at Seattle Seahawks: If there are football gods, they will not let a 7-9 Seahawks team win the NFC West and a playoff berth. The Rams have been the best (and most fun) team from this lousy division, and it’d be a shame if they didn’t get the chance to be slaughtered in the first round of the playoffs. But come on, a team with a losing record has never been to the playoffs, and here’s to it not happening on Sunday. Cheers! and Happy New Year’s!