And so here we are. Barring the Pittsburgh Steelers falling victim to yet another team’s COVID outbreak (looking at you, Browns), Week 17 will wrap up on schedule, the final time Week 17 will, in fact, be the final week of the regular season. Playoff spots are up for grabs in both conferences, with the Browns and Rams dealing with all sorts of issues, both COVID-related and injury-related. So how will it all shake out? As yours truly aims to finish above .500 once again, I’ll need a little help just as a few of these teams will. At 18-19 in a year unlike any other, I’ll take a stab at a few more games than usual this week:
Last week: 3-4
Season: 18-19-1 (48.6%)
Dallas (-1.5) at New York Giants
The dream is still alive! My dream, anyway. That would be a 6-10 division winner in the NFC East while the AFC could very well see an 11-5 team on the outside looking in. It would take a Giants win coupled with a Philadelphia win, but if that happens, Big Blue will head to the postseason for the first time since 2016 and win its first division title since 2011. Dallas, though, has gotten hot just in time to have a chance. Andy Dalton looks like the guy that put up big regular-season numbers in Cincinnati, and the defense is starting to find its groove. With Daniel Jones’ mobility limited, the Cowboys should finish with four straight wins and kill “the dream.” Pick: Cowboys.
Jacksonville at Indianapolis (-14)
Well done, Jaguars, In mirroring the 2001 Carolina Panthers, you have secured the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Now, can you finish the job? Jacksonville is on pace to become the second team ever to win its opener, only to lose its final 15 games, joining the aforementioned Panthers. That one win, however? That would be against the Colts, this week’s desperate opponent needing a win and help to reach the playoffs after squandering a 17-point lead against the Steelers last week. With the Jags playing for nothing other than pride and the joy of finishing off a humiliating sweep of their division rivals, all the pressure is on Indy here. Taking the Jags last week backfired big time for me, but why not give it another go? Even if Mark Brunell makes an appearance for the Jags, I’ll take the points here. Pick: Jaguars.
Minnesota (-6.5) at Detroit
Sure, there’ll be no Dalvin Cook for the Vikings, but it’s likely there will be no sign of Matthew Stafford for the Lions, either, who looked even more awful than the Vikings last week — if that’s possible. Minnesota always beats Detroit (of course, who doesn’t?) and I’m going with the road favorites to complete another season sweep of its division rivals, which would make it seven straight wins overall. Pick: Vikings.
Atlanta at Tampa Bay (-7)
The Falcons are the kings of losing close games, and they discriminate against no one — including the Bucs two weeks ago. Tom Brady gets yet another chance to torment the Falcons in a game that is meaningless in a sense for the Bucs, who have secured a playoff spot. However, it is also important for the Bucs to keep the No. 5 seed, because that means a first-round game against the NFC Least winner. Even if Brady gets a little rest, I’ll still take the home favorites against a pitiful Falcons outfit that, with a win, can actually finish with a positive point differential in a five-win season. Pick: Buccaneers.
New York Jets at New England (-3)
Hello, 1986 Colts? That’s what the Jets are hoping, looking to join that Indianapolis club as the only other in NFL history to start 0-13 and finish with three straight wins. The first overall pick is already out the window, so why stop now? On the other side of things, the Patriots are looking to avoid their second four-game losing streak of 2020 after enduring just one in the Brady era from 2001 to 2019. You know that as challenging as this year has been for New England, Bill Belichick does not want to end the year with a loss to the Jets. Here’s thinking that the erstwhile “HC of the NYJ” has just enough coaching savvy up his sleeve to outperform Adam Gase in what will likely be his final game at the helm in New York. Pick: Patriots.
Baltimore (-12.5) at Cincinnati
Think about how bleak things looked for the Ravens right around Thanksgiving. After waiting six days to play their scheduled game against the Steelers with basically half of a roster, Baltimore sat at 6-5 and likely needing to win out to reach the playoffs. So far, so good. With their COVID outbreak (hopefully) behind them for good, the Ravens are picking up steam at the right time. The Bengals, though, have risen to the occasion of late. They shocked the Steelers two weeks ago and followed that up with a road win in Houston. The first meeting between these teams easily went Baltimore’s way, a 27-3 drubbing of Joe Burrow & Co. With the playoff destiny now firmly in their grip, I expect the Ravens to continue their torrid pace of late and finish strong against Cincinnati. Pick: Ravens.
Arizona (-3) at Los Angeles Rams
Two weeks ago, the Rams had full control of their destiny to win the NFC West. Fast forward to present, and they are now in a win-and-in mode just to grab a playoff spot. Worse yet, they’ll have to do so without Jared Goff (thumb) and Cooper Kupp (COVID). If ever there was a critical time for the Cards to end their seven-game losing streak to the Rams, it’s right now with John Wolford making his first NFL start for Los Angeles. Kyler Murray is banged up, but the Cardinals can still reach the playoffs with a win. It seems like we say this every year, but this could be Larry Fitzgerald’s final game if Arizona loses, so why not get one of the all-time great wideouts one more crack at the postseason? Pick: Cardinals.
Green Bay (-5.5) at Chicago
Where in the world did this come from for the Bears offense? Four straight games of 30-plus points for the first time since 1965? Chicago is in with a win, while the Packers also need a victory to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs (for whatever that may be worth in the 2020 season). Green Bay seems to be peaking even more than the Bears, who have fattened up on some poor opponents of late (Houston, Minnesota, Jacksonville). My instinct tells me the Packers will likely win, but in a rivalry game with a lot on the line for both clubs, I’ll take the points. Pick: Bears.
Los Angeles Chargers (-4) at Kansas City
What year is it? The Chargers are favored on the road in Kansas City? I kid — sort of — because of course Patrick Mahomes is sitting in favor of Chad Henne. The Chargers are finally winning some close games, much too little and much too late. Anthony Lynn could be coaching his final game with LA, but don’t put much blame on Justin Herbert, who has been sensational as a rookie. I like the Bolts to finish on a roll while the Chiefs rest up for postseason play. Pick: Chargers.
Washington (-2) at Philadelphia
Just in case the Cowboys don’t crush my 6-10 dream in the early window, the WFT is here to clean up in Game 256 of the season. The Eagles started hot last week against Dallas, going up 14-3 in a game that would have put them in a win-and-in scenario this week. Instead, the Cowboys outscored Philly, 34-3, the rest of the way, and now the Eagles are just playing out the string with Jalen Hurts. Will this be Doug Pederson’s swan song in Philly just three years removed from the franchise’s first Super Bowl title? Hard to say, but while I expect the Eagles to put up a decent fight, this feels too perfect in terms of the storyline for Washington. The combination of Alex Smith and Ron Rivera’s comeback stories and the whole name controversy feels too good to pass up. Pick: Washington.