Week 17 NFL Preview

Week 17 NFL Preview
December 27, 2013, 2:00 pm
Share This Post

There’s no Alphabet NFL Preview this week. There’s no time for gimmicks with so much on the line. Instead, we’re keeping it simple. Here are the 13 games that matter on Sunday, broken down in order of importance — from the Bears, Packers, Cowboys and Eagles playing for the prize, all the way down to the Steelers living on a prayer.
And here we go —

1. Green Bay at Chicago      
Time: 4:25 PM
Spread: Packers -3
Stakes: The winner of this game wins the NFC North and clinches a playoff berth. The loser gets a head start on the offseason.
The Story: Eight weeks, five losses and so many awkward press conferences after breaking his collarbone, Aaron Rodgers is back under center for Green Bay. When Rodgers went down (coincidentally, against the Bears), the Packers were 5-3, in first place in the NFC North and well on their way to a fifth straight playoff berth. Today, they’re 7-7-1 and will walk into Soldier Field on Sunday under do or die circumstances. Although in this case, “die” is another word for “swanky Caribbean vacation.”
The Other Team: It’s win or go home for the Bears, too. Going home would be easier to accomplish because they’ll already be home, but harder to swallow because they were in control. A win last week would have clinched the division (Reminder: They lost by 43 points). A win this week will clinch the division. But a loss would be crushing, and clinch their third straight season without a playoff berth.
The Wild Card: Rodgers’ return is getting most of the attention, and for good reason, but the Packers may also have Randall Cobb back in the line-up. The third year receiver’s missed more than 10 weeks with a fractured right tibia, so who knows how effective he’ll be, but his mere presence gives the Bears D something else to worry about — on top of Rodgers, on top of running back Eddie Lacy’s clean bill of health and on top of the fact that they rank 29th in the NFL in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed.
The Pick: I’m on record saying that Marc Trestman’s decision to hand the starting job back to Jay Cutler will submarine Chicago’s season and there’s no reason to waiver on that now. Assuming Aaron Rodgers stays healthy and Matt Flynn stays on the sideline, the Packers win. Let’s say, 31-21.
2. Philadelphia at Dallas
Time: 8:30 PM
Spread: Eagles -6.5
Stakes: The winner wins the NFC East and clinches a playoff berth. The loser is done.
The Story: Tony Romo’s back is a mess, but he hasn’t officially been ruled out. He also hasn’t practiced this week and is a long shot to play. If Romo can’t go, the Cowboys will turn to Kyle Orton, who hasn’t started a game since 2011, and has thrown a total of 15 passes in the two years since. All in all, it’s just another picture perfect week in Cowboys Nation.
(UPDATE: Tony Romo underwent back surgery this morning, and is OUT.)
The Other Team: It’s a shame that it has to come down to this. If Roger Goodell’s as powerful and almighty as he pretends to be, he should just snap his fingers and award the NFC East crown to Philly. They’re the better team. They have the greater chance of actually accomplishing something in the playoffs. They’re not pathetically dysfunctional; with an owner who’s wholly undeserving of a playoff berth and the payday associated with hosting a Wild Card game. The Eagles deserve it. But they’ll have to earn it this Sunday.
For what it’s worth, Philly is 5-5 in their last 10 games in Dallas.
The Wild Card: Jerry Jones claims that Jason Garrett isn’t coaching for his job on Sunday. Does that mean he’s already lost it? That’s the only explanation that makes sense. Although when Jerry Jones is involved, I guess making sense isn’t a requirement. Either way, the future of Garrett, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and just about every Cowboys employee without the last name Jones will be hanging in the balance under the national spotlight.
The Pick: The Eagles offense is rolling, and the Dallas defense is one of the worst in NFL history. That means Kyle Orton will have to post big numbers, which means I’m picking Philadelphia, 45-21.
3. Denver at Oakland  
Time: 4:25 PM
Spread: Broncos -11.5
Stakes: Denver can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win or a New England loss (vs. Bills).
The Story: Given the time of year, the Denver climate and their quarterback, the Broncos might prefer the road to the Super Bowl goes through Miami or the Indianapolis, but if they have to play in the cold, they might as well do it at home. Beat the Raiders on Sunday, and that’s where they’ll be.
The other team: Oakland (4-11) was eliminated from playoff contention a while ago, but in typical Raiders fashion, there’s plenty of scandal to fill in the void left by optimism and hope. In this case, Terrelle Pryor’s agent has accused head coach Dennis Allen of setting up his client to fail by starting him on Sunday.
Although, I’d argue that it was actually the agent who set his client up to fail by allowing him to sign with the Raiders.
The Wild Card: In the big picture, the Broncos loss to San Diego two weeks ago left them needing to win this week to clinch home-field. The only wild card is whether they suffer any more injuries in the process of doing so. Last week, they lost Von Miller for the rest of the year. Wes Welker may be ready for the Broncos first playoff game but he’s perpetually one hit away from the IR. Even if the Broncos win collectively on Sunday, they can’t afford many more individual losses.
The pick: It’s going to be 66 degrees in Oakland this weekend, and that should help the Broncos. As should the fact that they’re playing the Raiders. Denver wins, 38-14.
4. St. Louis at Seattle  
Time: 4:25 PM
Spread: Seahawks -11.5
Stakes: The Seahawks can clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win or a 49ers loss.
The Story: Last week’s home loss to the Cardinals put a damper on one of my favorite narratives of the season. Basically, that if the Seahawks grab the No. 1 seed, they’ll make the Super Bowl. Still, they have the best home-field advantage in the NFL, and a win against the Rams (who they’ve beaten eight straight times at home), will ensure they have it right on through the conference championship.
The other team: Big news in St. Louis! With a win on Sunday, the Rams (7-8) can clinch their first non-losing season since 2006!
The Wild Card: This won’t be an issue this week, but in the big picture, it looks like the Seahawks are almost guaranteed to be without Percy Harvin for the stretch run. He’s played only one game and 20 snaps this season after being acquired from the Vikings in the offseason, and this week, Pete Carroll suggested that Harvin might be headed for the IR. Big loss for Seattle. Even if they never actually had him this year, they were at least somewhat counting on him, and could certainly use him.

The Pick: Percy or no Percy, with the No. 1 seed on the line, the 12th Man roaring and Kellen Clemens on the other side of the ball, Seattle takes care of business, 35-14.
5. Buffalo at New England    
Time: 4:25 PM
Spread: Patriots -8.5
Stakes: The Patriots can clinch a first round bye with a win, or with losses by both Cincinnati (vs. Ravens) and Indianapolis (vs. Jaguars). The Pats can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win, plus a Denver loss.
The Story: Tom Brady has never lost to the Bills at home. If he can keep that streak going, he’ll spend next week watching the Wild Card round from his home with the moat, instead of his home with the flashy light tower.
The Other Team: The Bills are in a good place right now, fresh off their first two-game winning streak of the season — including last week’s impressive shutout against the Dolphins. Buffalo has nothing left to play for (in reality, they’re probably better off losing and improving their draft position), but first-year coach Doug Marrone is trying to build something, and finishing the year with three straight wins is a great way to go into the offseason.
The Wild Card: Who’s the starting QB? EJ Manuel missed last week’s game with a sprained left knee but was supposed to be healthy enough for the Pats. However, as of Thursday, his status for Sunday “still being evaluated” and back up Thad Lewis was getting first team reps at practice. If I’m Bill Belichick (Full disclosure: I am), I want Manuel under center. Lewis scares me with his legs, meanwhile Manuel would only be playing on one good one.
(UPDATE: Manuel is out. Lewis is in. Too bad.)
The Pick: It will be close, because it usually is. Only once in the last five games have the Pats beaten the Bills by more than 10 points at Gillette. But in the end, talent, coaching, experience and home-field wins out, and the Pats walk away with a first round bye. Final score: 24-17.
6. Carolina at Atlanta  
Time: 1 PM
Spread: Panthers -6
Stakes: The Panthers clinch the NFC South title and a first round bye in the playoffs with a win. They can clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win, plus a Seahawks loss and a 49ers loss (at Cardinals).
The Story: After five weeks, the Panthers were 1-3. Cam Newton was under constant criticism. Riverboat Ron Rivera was one loss away from being forced to find work on an actual riverboat. Another Panthers season was slipping away and it would be their fifth straight without a playoff appearance to show for it. Today, that playoff berth has already been clinched, and at 11-4, the Panthers are one win — against the 4-11 Falcons — away from their fifth division title in franchise history. Not to mention a first round bye.
The Other Team: It’s been a tough year for Atlanta, but here’s some good news: It’s over after this week.
The Wild Card: Despite the record and the injuries and overwhelming disappointment of a season, the Falcons still have some talent. As they showed last week in San Francisco, they still have some fight. And if there’s one area where the Panthers have struggled this year, it’s on the road. Three of their four losses have come outside of Carolina.
The Pick: Falcons won’t roll over, but the Panthers will still have their way: 31-24.
7. Tampa Bay at New Orleans
Time: 4:25 PM
Spread: Saints -12.5
Stakes: The Saints can clinch a playoff berth with a win or a Cardinals loss (vs. 49ers). They can clinch the NFC South and a first round bye with a win plus a Panthers loss.
The Story: Much like the Broncos Week 15 loss to the Chargers left them fighting for playoff position this week, the Saints’ Week 15 loss to the Rams has left them fighting for their playoff lives. They only need to beat the Bucs at home, and considering they haven’t lost at the Superdome all year, it’s no stretch to think they will. But unless they get some help from the Falcons, the Saints will be back on the road for the playoffs, and likely back home for the offseason shortly after that.
The Other Team: The Buccaneers started the season 0-8, and Greg Schiano looked like he was headed for the unemployment line. Then, they won four of five, rookie QB Mike Glennon showed significant promise and looked like he might save Schiano’s job. This week, they’ll take the field losers of two straight games, with their third consecutive losing season sealed and six years removed from their last trip to the playoffs. What does that mean for Schiano?
Honestly, I don’t have a clue. But deciding Schiano’s future is the first order of business when Tampa’s season ends on Sunday.
The Wild Card: The Bucs hung with the Saints back in Week 2. In fact, only a late-game drive and a last-second field goal saved New Orleans from an unacceptable loss. So, maybe the Bucs will feed off that confidence and shock the world on Sunday?
The Pick: No. No they won’t. Saints, 35-14.
8. Baltimore at Cincinnati
Time: 1 PM
Spread: Bengals -6
Stakes: The Bengals can clinch a first round bye with a win, plus a Patriots loss, the Bengals clinch a first round bye. The Ravens can clinch a playoff berth with a win, plus a Dolphins loss (vs. Jets) or a Chargers loss (vs. Chiefs). They also clinch, regardless of what happens against Cincinnati, if the Dolphins, Chargers and Steelers all lose.
The Story: The fight for the sixth seed in the AFC is more complicated than the Da Vinci Code. Four teams (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Miami and San Diego) are still alive, and none of them control their own destiny. Baltimore has the toughest match-up, but also has the slight advantage in that even if they lose, they can still get in if the other teams lose as well. Although, after last week’s performance, the Ravens are probably only worried about themselves. And maybe a little worried about the Bengals.
The Other Team: Cincinnati clinched the division and a playoff berth last week, and can only improve their seeding with help from the Bills. Still, seeing how they play at 1 while the Pats play at 4, the Bengals won’t hold back. And you know there’s at least a little added incentive in keeping their division rivals out of the postseason.
The Wild Card: We know that the Ravens can’t run the ball. They haven’t done it all year. Plus, the Bengals have the sixth ranked run defense in the NFL.
That puts pressure on Joe Flacco to get it done through the air, but the only problem with that is that Flacco is hurt. He injured his knee two weeks ago against Detroit, struggled while wearing a brace last week against the Pats, and if he can’t compete the way in which he’s accustomed on Sunday, the Ravens have no chance.
The Pick: Don’t think the Ravens have a chance. Give me Cincinnati, 35-20.
9. NY Jets at Miami      
Time: 1 PM
Spread: Dolphins -5.5
Stakes: The Dolphins can clinch a playoff berth with a win, plus a Ravens loss or a Chargers win.
The Story: Last week’s choke job in Buffalo made life a lot harder than it needed to be for Miami. Still, they probably have the best chance of emerging from the four-team pool. If the Bengals beat the Ravens, the Dolphins are in with a win.
The Other Team: Rex Ryan’s last game with the Jets? Yeah, I think Rex Ryan’s last game with the Jets. Farewell, friend. It was fun while it lasted. And please, can you do everyone in New England one last favor? When you take that defensive coordinator job this winter, make sure it’s for a team in the NFC.
The Wild Card: You know that Rex likes to bring the heat on defense, and as a result, the Jets are right outside the Top 10 in sacks this year. You know that the Dolphins have had some issues on the offensive line, and as a result, they’ve allowed more sacks than anyone in the league.
Last week, one of those sacks ended with Ryan Tannehill having to leave the game  with a knee injury, and while he’s practiced fully this week, he’s not 100 percent. If the Jets can get to the QB, and force him out of the game, the Dolphins could be toast.
The Pick: I don’t think the Dolphins will be toast, but I don’t think it will be easy. They’ll squeak this one out, 19-16, and sneak into the AFC’s final playoff spot.
10. Kansas City at San Diego        
Time: 4:25 PM
Spread: Chargers -9.5
Stakes: The Charges can clinch a playoff berth with a win, plus losses by the Dolphins and Ravens.
The Story: After their upset over the Broncos, the Chargers had a very slight chance to make the playoffs. They needed to win their last two, and hope that both the Dolphins AND Ravens lost their last two. That entailed Miami choking against the Bills and Baltimore falling at home to the broken down Pats . . . and that’s exactly what happened. Now, they need just a little more help, but it’s certainly realistic.
The Other Team: The Chiefs are locked into the fifth seed in the AFC and have nothing to play for. Dwayne Bowe is likely out for Kansas City with a concussion, and although Jamaal Charles is healthy, Andy Reid would be crazy to play Charles the entire game. (Translation: Charles will probably play the entire game)
The Wild Card: This game starts at 4:25, while the Dolphins and Ravens both play at 1. That means that the Chargers could very well be eliminated before they even take the field.
The Pick: Either way, they’ll be playing while the Chiefs will be conserving. Final Score: Chargers 31, Chiefs 14.
11. San Francisco at Arizona        
Time: 4:25 PM
Spread: Pick
Stakes: The 49ers can clinch the NFC West title and a first round bye with a win, plus a Seahawks loss. They can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win, plus losses by the Seahawks and Panthers. The Cardinals can clinch a playoff berth with a win plus a Saints loss.
The Story: There is a very good chance that the Cardinals will win 11 games this year, tie a franchise record for victories in a season, and miss the playoffs. They would become only the second team (2008 Pats are the other) since the playoffs expanded in 2002 to win 11 games and miss the postseason.
And they will, if the Saints beat the Bucs.
The Other Team: It’s about as likely that Bucs beat the Saints as it is that the Rams beat the Seahawks, but that’s what the 49ers need to happen for this game to mean anything. Otherwise, they’re locked into one of the two Wild Cards and will open up the playoffs on the road in Dallas, Philly, Chicago or Green Bay.
The Wild Card: No Wild Card, but here’s a cool sidebar. Sunday marks Anquan Boldin’s first game back in Arizona since being traded to the Ravens in 2010.
The Pick: It will be nuts in Arizona, and (given how unlikely it is that this game will matter) the Niners won’t be able to talk themselves into doing what it takes to overcome it. Cardinals win, 35-28.
12. Jacksonville at Indianapolis   
Time: 1 PM
Spread: Colts -10.5
Stakes: The Colts can clinch a first round bye with a win, plus losses by the Patriots (vs. Buffalo) and Bengals (vs. Ravens).
The Story: Will take a lot of help for this game to mean anything for the Colts playoff seeding, but after beating the Texans and Chiefs the last two weeks, you know Indy wants to let the good times roll and head into the postseason on a three-game winning streak.
The Other Team: Poor Jacksonville. Their three-game winning streak was followed by two straight losses (to Buffalo and Tennessee) and they’re once again among the lowliest of the low. Although, it’s probably better this way. Why not get a better draft pick, right?
I just wouldn’t recommend using it on the next Blaine Gabbert.
The Wild Card: That’s where the Colts will be next week.
The Pick: Colts 30, Jaguars 21.
13. Cleveland at Pittsburgh
Time: 1 PM
Spread: Steelers -7
Stakes: The Steelers can clinch a playoff berth with a win, plus losses by Miami, Baltimore and San Diego.
The Story: It’s unlikely, but not impossible. All Pittsburgh can do is beat the Browns and hope that the rest takes care of itself.
The Other Team: The Browns won three straight games after “The Trade” and followed that up by losing nine of 10. They’ll arrive in Pittsburgh on a seven-game losing streak with little motivation (or means) to break it.
The Wild Card: How many tackles will Mike Tomlin have?
The Pick: Steelers 35, Browns 14.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine