Week 17 in the National Football League is here, and very little is settled in the playoff race. Up to 13 games out of the 16 scheduled for Sunday will have playoff implications in some way, whether it is on seeding, divisional titles, wild cards, first round byes, or all of the above. I’ve narrowed that list from 13 down to the 5 biggest games from Sunday, all of which (except one) have playoff implications for both teams.
Game of the Week: Green Bay Packers (7-7-1) at Chicago Bears (8-7)
The Bears are 3-point home underdogs in this game for the NFC North division title. Why? Aaron Rodgers. Early in the week, the Bears were favored by 3, but then the Packers announced QB Aaron Rodgers would return to action after a 7-week layoff with a broken left collarbone. The former MVP of both the NFL regular season and the Super Bowl returns for another big game, a spot he tends to thrive in. On the other sideline, Bears QB Jay Cutler is 1-8 in his career against the Packers, and has horrific numbers in recent games against them. The Bears are playing another good offense this week, just 7 days after allowing 54 points against the Eagles (in a game I picked them to win!). The Packers won’t score that much, but Aaron Rodgers will let the Bears’ defense know he’s back. By the way, the Packers are trying to become just the 2nd division winner since 1970 with no Pro-Bowlers (although that could change due to injuries and Super Bowl players dropping out of the Pro Bowl)
Packers 38, Bears 24.
Big Game Guarantee: Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) at Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
The Eagles are 7-point road favorites in another win-or-go-home divisional game, this one being in the NFC East. I had already decided after watching the Eagles beat the Bears 54-11 on Sunday night that I would pick them against the Cowboys, who seemingly have made it a perennial habit to play these Week 17 elimination games (only winning 1 in recent memory, in 2009). Then the news broke Monday (and was confirmed on Friday) that Cowboys QB Tony Romo had a season-ending back injury. While Kyle Orton is a more than worthy backup (69 career starts), it’s tough to ask someone to step into an elimination situation for their first significant playing time of the year. Recent teams in such a situation in Week 17 elimination games or playoff games are 1-3. The Eagles have won 6 out of 7, and are 5-2 on the road, although the Cowboys are 5-2 at home, and are attempting for their first sweep of division games since 1998 (they are 5-0 so far against the NFC East). The Cowboys defense has really been struggling ever since, ironically, the last time they played the Eagles, and the Eagles offense is firing on all cylinders, led by breakout QB Nick Foles.
Eagles 45, Cowboys 21.
Another Big Game Guarantee: San Francisco 49ers (11-4) at Arizona Cardinals (10-5)
The Cardinals are 1-point favorites in a game they must have to stay alive for an NFC Wild Card berth in the playoffs. They need the Saints, who will be playing their game simultaneously, to lose to the Buccaneers for this game to be a potential playoff clincher, although I wouldn’t hold my breath that the Bucs will beat the Saints. This is a tough Cardinal team at home, at 7-1, and they are the first team in 2 years to go into Seattle and leave with a win. Then again, the 49ers are 5-2 on the road, with their only losses to the Seahawks and Saints, and they beat the Cardinals 32-20 in Week 6. The 49ers have clinched a playoff berth, but still have an outside chance at the division title, and even more of an outside chance at being the NFC’s top seed. Both teams “need” this game to accomplish one of their goals, but the Cardinals need it more, and will have the crowd behind them (although I don’t think it will matter, in the end).
Cardinals 24, 49ers 20.
Upset of the Week: Baltimore Ravens (8-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-5)
The Bengals are a touchdown favorite at home, in a game with large playoff implications. The Bengals still have a shot at a first round bye, needing a win and some help. The Ravens still have a shot to make the playoffs, needing a win and some help. Therefore, this should be a good game, since both teams have a lot to play for. The Bengals are 7-0 at home this year, very quietly establishing themselves with one of the league’s biggest home-field advantages. The Ravens are 2-5 on the road, which is certainly problematic for coach John Harbaugh, although they picked up a big road win 2 weeks ago in Detroit and beat the Dolphins in Miami in a game that may come in handy as a playoff tie-breaker. They have also won 4 out of 5 and 5 out of 7 since their 3-6 start. Like last year’s team on their run to the Super Bowl title, they will find a way to win one they really need.
Ravens 23, Bengals 21.
Closer Than The Experts Think: Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-7)
This game is the exception out of these 5 games, because it doesn’t have any playoff implications for the Chiefs. No matter what happens in any game on Sunday, they will be the 5th seed in the AFC. The Chargers do have a lot to play for…maybe. They need a win and losses by both the Dolphins and Ravens to clinch the AFC’s 6th and final seed. Since the Dolphins and Ravens both play at 1:00 ET and this game is at 4:25 ET, the Chargers will know if their dreams are still alive or not. If my upset pick above is correct, this game will actually be meaningless for both teams. Either way, I think Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers will lead his team to victory, but by a margin closer than the spread which favors the Chargers by 9, but only because the game may only be meaningful for them and not the Chiefs, who may or may not rest some of their players. In Week 12, the Chargers beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, 41-38.
By the way, I just looked at my projections for how everyone would finish that I published in my “NFL Midseason Report”. For laughs, it had the Redskins at 8-8, the Texans and Falcons at 7-9, and the Dolphins at 6-10. Other than a handful of teams, however, I feel like my projections were fairly accurate, and there is a real possibility of me getting all 6 AFC teams correct, and almost in the right order.