Week 17 has finally arrived.
For some, there are no more next weeks ... no more standings watching ... no more getting back on track. You're either on track or off it. Meanwhile, it's now or never for the Vikings, Eagles, Ravens, Steelers, Colts and Titans. Those bubble teams are playing for the right to keep playing. That's the beauty of Week 17 in the NFL: playoff football -- one week early!
The postseason doesn't officially begin until Wild Card Weekend, yet Bears at Vikings will provide a playoff atmosphere. So will Browns at Ravens, with a pair of rookie QBs facing off for the first time (remember: Joe Flacco started Baltimore's Week 5 game against Cleveland) in a series that could define the AFC North for years to come. Then comes the matchup with the most prominent big-game feel: the nightcap in Nashville. The Colts play the Titans in a simple win-and-in scenario. That's what the final week of the regular season is all about. Or not. As always, this final regular-season Sunday is chock-full o' complex playoff scenarios.
Week 17: Where math meets gridiron mayhem.
The AFC's playoff permutations are enough to make your head spin, despite the fact that half the conference has already been eliminated. A small example: If the Jets upset the Patriots, the latter could go from competing for the top seed to dropping all the way down to No. 4. Josh McCown won't be starting that game, but who doesn't remember when a 24-year-old named Josh McCown took one of these not-gonna-happen scenarios, and made it all too real ...
Of course, this is the last week that carries a full slate of games. So even Falcons at Bucs get a full write-up. Ditto Dolphins at Bills and Panthers at Saints. Games without playoff implications need lovin', too! Send your take on any matchup: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Elliot Harrison went 13-3 onhis predictions for Week 16, bringing his record for the season to 161-77-2. How will he fare in Week 17? His picks are below.
SUNDAY, DEC. 30
If you thought the offensive display last week in Miami was bad, wait until the Bills come to town. One week after facing the Jags' 30th-ranked scoring offense, the Dolphins' defense will see the league's No. 31 attack. Buffalo's offense has been stuck in neutral -- mired in neutral -- all year. The difference between these teams comes on defense, where the Bills have played more consistently overall. (You try defending short fields after Josh Allen/Derek Anderson/Nathan Peterman throws yet another ball to a waiting DB.) Buffalo's defense is no great shakes, but it is viable enough to keep the team close, giving Josh Allen the opportunity to make a big play or three (often with his legs) to steal a game. Miami owns no such weapon on offense and must get back to basics in order to get back to .500. Run. The. Rock. The Patriots piled up 273 rushing yards on Sean McDermott's front seven last week. There is no reason Adam Gase shouldn't take the same tack, even without future Hall of Famer Frank Gore. But alas, I'm seeing the emotionally backed Bills riding their home crowd to a season-ending W.
Despite being locked into the fourth seed, the Cowboys will not be resting their starters. This from Jerry Jones, who said as much following the win over the Bucs and again on Wednesday. On paper, this is a Cowboys win, with them ramping up for the playoffs. Or Dallas could fare like it did Week 15 in Indy and sleepwalk its way through the second half, trying to arm-tackle Saquon Barkley. For his part, the rookie phenom needs just 114 scrimmage yards to reach 2,000, which would have him join Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James as the only rookies to ever accomplish that feat. Couple Barkley with a possible return of Odell Beckham Jr., and this NFC East matchup could get interesting quick. (UPDATE:Giants coach Pat Shurmur announced on Friday that Beckham will not play in the season finale.) Ezekiel Elliott has a 183-yard lead in the rushing race, so he might not get too many carries.
Historical note: It was 25 years ago when Emmitt Smith played the "shoulder game," a Dallas-New York classic that decided both the NFC East and home-field advantage on the final Sunday of the season.
Another meaningless game in the NFC, as neither the Bucs nor Falcons are vying for a playoff spot. In fact, both are trying to avoid the NFC South cellar. If Tampa loses, it will have finished last for the second straight year and in eight of the previous 10 seasons since Jon Gruden departed. If you recall, the previous meeting between these two teams nearly finished in Kenyan Drake/Miami miracle fashion, when DeSean Jackson dropped the final lateral on one of those routine pitch-the-ball-around-500-times plays that have become a Sunday tradition. If Matt Ryan (33:6 TD-to-INT ratio, 108.5 passer rating) plays as effectively as he has for the bulk of the season, Atlanta should pick up its seventh win. The only real difference between his performance at home and on the road has been how many sacks he's taken (17 in eight games at home compared with 23 in seven on the road) and his yards per attempt (8.8 to 7.3). Otherwise, the passing game has been consistent. As far as the other quarterback, it's hard to know what to expect from Jameis Winston at this point ... or going forward. Will this be his last start as a Buc?
What looked like a sexy Week 17 matchup two months ago now feels like a slow march -- death march -- for the Panthers, and a Super Bowl march for the Saints. New Orleans has already secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC, eerily similar to when the Saints faced the Panthers in the final week of the 2009 season. Sean Payton sat Drew Brees and gave Mark Brunell a turn at quarterback. Word on the street is Payton is bringing Brunell back for this game, too. Just kidding. How much Teddy Bridgewater Carolina sees is anyone's guess. Expect the Panthers to play hard, as they don't want to depart 2018 with a total whimper by losing eight in a row. With the rumor mill encircling Ron Rivera, his locker room is sure to rally, as well. Strategically, OC Norv Turner must find ways to create vertical opportunities for third-stringer Kyle Allen. Why not feature D.J. Moore, too, to get a better idea how capable the 2018 first-rounder is of becoming a full-service WR1?
How the Jets respond from last week's crushing loss to the Packers could have a major impact on much of the AFC playoff field. If New York upsets Bill Belichick and friends and Houston takes care of Jacksonville, New England will drop to the third seed or possibly even the fourth seed, if Baltimore beats Cleveland. This means the Patriotswould miss out on a bye and instead would host a wild-card game. That's huge for a number of reasons, including that the fifth seed will either be the Chiefs or the Chargers. What a significant swing that'd be. Yep, all that has to happen is for Sam Darnold to get hot, like he was in the first three quarters against Green Bay. Also at issue: Gang Green's 26th-ranked run defense. In other words, the Jets are better off making Tom Brady beat them. New England's ground game stacked up nearly three bills last week, and by and large, Todd Bowles' defense has stunk in this area. Patriots win.
The Jaguars won last week while the Texans lost for the second time in three games. (That was my ill-fated attempt to make this game seem more competitive.) Tilting this matchup is the fact that Houston is at home, with much to play for. If the Patriots lay an egg (a musket?) versus the Jets, the Texans could secure a first-round bye with a win. They might have Lamar Miller's services this week to help them do that, at least according to head coach Bill O'Brien. That's important because Deshaun Watson won't have Demaryius Thomas -- and perhaps not DeAndre Hopkins, either. If you watched the fourth quarter of the Texans' crazy loss to the Eagles on Sunday, then you know Watson can take over a game by himself. He chucked a touchdown pass to a guy from Limewood College who spells his name "Vyncint." Sorry, it was Limestone College. Blake Bortles will get the nod at quarterback, with one more chance to show Tom Coughlin and Co. he can be the answer. You know what? I'm rooting for the guy.
Once upon a time, Matthew Stafford and Matt Flynn closed out a season at Lambeau with about a zillion yards passing. Not sure if Eric Hipple and Lynn Dickey managed such nonsense in their day, but wouldn't be surprised to see Aaron Rodgers close out the year with 350 yards and three scores. The Lions' defense has hung in games most of the season, although the unit gifted Kirk Cousins a Hail Mary last week that put Detroit firmly behind the eight ball. Let's hope they don't re-gift Rodgers another desperation heave like a few years back. As alluded to in the Power Rankings, Matt Patricia and staff must use this last week to find some synchronicity on offense. Get all the unconnected parts to start, well, connecting, because this Detroit attack has been terrible for two months. The Lions haven't scored more than 22 points since Week 7. They're 28th in yards per play at a scant 5.1. In the red zone, that total shrinks to 2.3. That's pathetic. Meanwhile, Green Bay has discovered a pair of receivers who will figure into 2019 plans in MVS and ESB. Maybe Detroit needs an acronym, like a GT. Oh, wait -- they had one of those ... and traded him.
The Eagles have much on the line this week. They are the only team in the NFC currently outside of the top six seeds that still has a chance to make the playoffs. All the other NFC participants have been mathematically eliminated. (Had the Redskins pulled out a road win against the Titans last week, then both Philadelphia and Washington would've been playoff-viable.) As it stands now, the Eagles need a victory and a Vikings loss to the Bears to earn the right to defend their Super Bowl title. They also need Nick Foles to ball out ... again. The run game has been hit or miss all season, thus if the passing game gets off to a slow start, it could be a long day for Philadelphia. The Redskins have shown plenty of fight the last two weeks, while doing a bang-up job against Tennessee's vaunted running game. They held Derrick Henry and friends to less than 100 yards for the first time since Week 11. So anticipate the Eagles giving Darren Sproles touches, either on draw plays or quick screens, to neutralize Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, help Foles and not lean on the Josh Adams-led ground game too hard.
The Chargers come into this matchup looking to not only rebound after a terrible outing against the Ravens, but to possibly secure home-field throughout the playoffs. The Bolts would need to beat the Broncos, then hope that the Raiders pull off a massive upset at Arrowhead against the Chiefs. If that plan falls through, then they'll be locked into the fifth spot. Sounds wild, but that's how the AFC has played out down the stretch this season. Of course, after the way in which Philip Rivers and Co. played last week, they can't afford to look past Denver. Anthony Lynn's group will get Austin Ekeler back, which helps in both the run and pass games. The Broncos have played uninspired football for three weeks. This past Monday night represented their floor, coming out flat against the Raiders, then wilting in the final moments of the game. To play spoiler, Case Keenum must find better chemistry with a wide receiver corps sans veterans. He hasn't accomplished that -- or much productivity, period -- this entire month.
This is simple: The Chiefs win and they earn both the AFC West title and the No. 1 seed in the conference. Now, the simplest way to do that is to run on these Raiders often. Teams have employed the ground forces at will on Oakland, making third downs quite manageable. This is part of the reason why Jon Gruden's team ranks 30th in third-down defense. Damien Williams' workload aside, Patrick Mahomes is just 184 pass yards away from 5,000 and just two throwing touchdowns shy of 50. Those are remarkable stats for a second-year player. Granted, Dan Marino threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns his sophomore year against defenses that weren't hamstrung by the NFL rulebook. Marino also started most of his rookie season, while Mahomes had only one start under his belt entering this year. All that said, don't look past these Raiders, who have won three of their last six and gave the Chiefsall they could handle earlier this month
The Bears have much to play for this Sunday in Minnesota, as a Chicago win coupled with a Rams loss to the 49ers would vault Matt Nagy and Co. into the No. 2 seed, giving them a bye. It'd also mean that Chicago's Divisional Round opponent would then have to travel to bone-cold Soldier Field in mid-January to face that defense. If the Vikings are to prevail, they must give Dalvin Cook more work on the ground to slow down the Bears' pass rush. Cook has yet to carry the football 20 times in a game this season, but his increased rushing attempts over the last two weeks have contributed to wins. If Minnesota wins this weekend, the Vikes secure at least the No. 6 seed -- No. 5, if the Seahawks falter against the Cardinals. The latter probably won't happen, meaning there's a good chance Mike Zimmer's boys will end up playing these same Bears on Wild Card Weekend. Weird.
This matchup is an absolute beaut. With Gregg Williams now in charge and Baker Mayfield's star ascending, the Browns are suddenly viable against anybody. The challenge for Mayfield will be to let the game come to him. He's going up against perhaps the most disciplined defense in the league, a group that not only leads the NFL in points allowed, but also yards allowed and yards per play. The Ravensalso rank third in big plays allowed (20-plus yards), so Mayfield must be patient. Cleveland won a dogfight against Baltimore earlier in the season by leaning on the defense, before their rookie QB converted a huge third-and-long in OT to grab the win. The difference this time around is what's at stake -- with the Ravens playing for the AFC North title -- and the signal-caller on Baltimore's side. Joe Flaccostarted the Week 5 game in Cleveland, but now it's Lamar Jackson, who presents a whole new series of challenges for opposing defenses. Browns DEs Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah must do the same thing as Mayfield: Let the game come to them. If they crash down on running plays, Jackson will pull the football out of his RB's belly and go wild.
The 49ers have been such a tough out lately that nothing is guaranteed here for the home team. If the Rams can handle their pesky division foes from the north, they will retain the No. 2 seed. Last time these two teams met up, the 49ers could not block the Rams up front. Aaron Donald had a career day, C.J. Beathard got pummeled -- and so did the Niners. Nick Mullens has performed a notch or three better than Beathard, though, and will seek to put last week's poor decision on fourth down behind him. Los Angeles, meanwhile, could feature a Todd Gurley/C.J. Anderson combo, unless the former isn't ready to rock or this game gets outta hand early. Sean McVay needs his lead tailback healthy for the postseason, with Anderson's punishing runs (and fresh legs) enough to earn a win at the Coliseum. Don't expect these Niners to go down easy. They came awfully close to upsetting the same Bears team that absolutely stifled the Rams three weeks ago.
The Steelers hope to reboot their playoff chances against Cincy, although they will need help. First, they must dispatch the Bengals at Heinz Field, without keeping too much attention on the scoreboard. The Browns will be visiting the Ravens at the same time, which means this whole AFC North deal could come down to the waning moments. Remember, though, it was these same Bengals who ruined Baltimore's playoff chances last year on the final day of the season. Pittsburgh can ill afford to look past them as it did the Raiders in Week 14, a loss that put the Steelers in this win-and-need-help-to-get-in predicament in the first place. Cincy has stayed in games with Jeff Driskel, although the offense generated a paltry 209 total yards last week. OC Bill Lazor was uber-conservative with his young quarterback in Cleveland, opting for a balanced approach that resulted in the Bengals generating just 107 net yards passing. Given that Pittsburgh hasn't allowed 100 yards rushing by an opponent since November, Lazor can't lean on Joe Mixon to win the day. Thus the Driskel-[INSERT NAME HERE] connection will have to reprise the Andy Dalton-Tyler Boyd magic from last year to send Mike Tomlin's group fishing.
Oooh, boy. This game could get ugly fast -- unless Josh Rosen decides this is the week to break out. He will need help up front more than anything else to keep his Arizona 'mates in it. Pete Carroll has said the Seahawks won't rest players, even though they've already clinched a playoff berth. On that note, if Seattle wins, it will travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys in the wild-card round. If they lose, and the Vikings beat the Bears this weekend, then the Seahawks would travel to Chicago. Where would you rather go this time of year? Which team would Seattle rather play? The answers to both of those questions are easy, as the Seahawks' road to victory on Sunday will be if Arizona can't find improved ways to slow the run. Last time these teams met, the Seahawks rushed for 171 yards in what was a close game in Arizona. Back to the Cardinals' offensive line: Rosen has been sacked 39 times despite starting just 12 games, while the team averages a league-low 3.8 yards per carry. These are not promising figures when going on the road to the toughest place to play in the league.
This is perhaps the matchup of the weekend, as it's a win-and-in scenario for both the Colts and Titans. But if they tie ... yuck. Then this whole AFC wild-card deal gets funky. The Steelers, assuming they beat the Bengals and the Ravens beat the Browns, would leapfrog into the sixth seed on the strength of tiebreakers. While Indy at Tennessee does promise to be a close affair, Andrew Luck and the Coltsshould come out on top. The Titans will be without Jurrell Casey, who suffered a knee injury last week, while Marcus Mariota is banged up. The Colts' franchise QB is the difference, as he is not only a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year but remains in the MVP conversation, as well. Luck heads into Nashville sporting an 11-1 career record against top-five scoring defenses (Week 5 or later), per NFL Research. Tennessee is currently second in that category at 18.0 points allowed per game.
Odd note: Marlon Mack owns more 100-yard games this season than Derrick Henry. Who would have guessed that? Unless Henry and the Tennessee offense gobble all of the game clock, I'm going with the visitors on Sunday night.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter@HarrisonNFL.