So here we are folks, Week 17. Happy New Year to all our listeners, readers, followers, lovers and haters.
To adjust a phrase coined by RedZone’s Scott Hanson, “WE ARE IN THE WITCHING WEEK!”
“When play-offs become going home and going home becomes the play-offs.”
No Thursday Night Football. No Monday Night Football. Sh*t is getting serious.
Just the AFC South and NFC East division titles have gone to the wire after the Steelers, Seahawks and Saints clinched theirs last week and we know that Trevor Lawrence will (likely) be a Jaguar come April. However, plenty of games will decide the fates of teams and whether they’ll play post-season football this year. There’s also plenty of jostling inside that top 5 of the NFL Draft order to come too.
There are three games on Sky Sports this week but we are going to preview EVERY game with play-off implications.
Use the menu below to select your desired match-up or just scroll to your heart’s content.
Sky Sports – 6pm GMT – Steelers @ Browns
It all comes down to this for Cleveland. Win and they are in; lose and in all likelihood, they are out. After occupying a play-off spot for essentially the entire season, the Browns have reached the do-or-die stage with a home game against their biggest rival to end the longest play-off drought in all of football. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a big enough test at the best of times but for one last time in the NFL regular season, the bigger threat might come from COVID-19.
The Browns could have already punched their ticket with a win against the Jets last weekend but were dealt a body blow when linebacker BJ Goodson tested positive on Saturday. That in itself would have been a blow but when his close contacts were identified as linebacker buddy Jacob Phillips and the entire wide receiving room, it became a catastrophe. Since the conclusion of the game, Andrew Sendejo, the starting free safety, has also now tested positive for the virus and close contacts have been identified in Karl Joseph and Harrison Bryant. At the time of typing, the Browns have eight guys on the COVID list with Thursday being the earliest they may get some of the group back, pending negative test results.
Away from COVID issues, the Browns were down two key offensive line pieces also last week but there is every likelihood that rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills will return to shore up the blindside of Baker Mayfield. There is more of a question mark around the availability of Wyatt Teller but the magnitude of the game would suggest if Teller is even close to a ‘go’, he will be up for this one. The running game has stalled in the absence of Teller over recent weeks. He ranks as the number 1 guard in the NFL so his contribution to the Browns cannot be understated. Rookie Nick Harris, who was destroyed by the Jets, will likely start if Teller does not make it.
No news is good news so we will assume that Jarvis Landry and company will all be eligible to play this week. You simply have to put a line through the Browns wide receiving performance from last weekend and concentrate on what is likely to be a much better product this week. Landry, Higgins and Peoples-Jones have shown an excellent rapport with Mayfield over the past month and with a fire in their bellies from being forced to sit against the Jets they will want to put on a show. From a Browns stand point, that should mean fewer situations where the box is stacked to slow down the running game of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The former only needs to register 41 yards on Sunday to register a 1,000-yard season despite missing a quarter of the season through injury.
Defensively, the Browns could welcome back safety Ronnie Harrison, which would be a huge boost, particularly in light of the Sendejo and Joseph news. Denzel Ward will need to play better than he did against the Jets and a defensive quarterback will need to be established in Goodson’s continued absence. Too many times last week, Cleveland appeared out of position and were burned on two touchdowns with coverage breakdowns. The defensive line will look to set the tone with Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon playing particularly well of late. Myles Garrett has not looked the same player since returning from his own battle with COVID but news of a certain quarterback suiting up for Pittsburgh have certainly added to his own personal motivation for a big regular season finale.
We are of course talking about Mason Rudolph who will get the start for Pittsburgh. Last time the two were on the field together, we witnessed the infamous helmet swing incident, which led to multiple fines and suspensions for both teams. Expect the CBS announcing crew to bore you to tears with constant reminders of this throughout the game and in prematch video packages. In the bigger picture of the game, the Steelers have taken the decision to give Big Ben a week off to prepare for the play-offs. Having not had a bye week in its traditional sense, securing the AFC North with a big comeback win against the Colts last weekend has afforded Pittsburgh that luxury.
Mike Tomlin has indicated that decisions will be made later in the week with regards to other key players and their upcoming involvement in the game. It is highly likely that James Conner, Eric Ebron, JuJu and Diontae Johnson play a much reduced role on offence, even if they do officially suit up. Defensively, it’s likely that Cam Heyward, TJ Watt, Minkah Fitpatrick and Joe Haden could be in a similar position. Assuming Buffalo win their game, the Steelers will finish in the third seed regardless of what happens here. If a win guaranteed the second seed, it could well have been a different approach.
Certainly on paper, the more starters that Pittsburgh rests, the more a Browns victory becomes likely. But trust me, as a Browns fan, we have been here many times before. The players coming in will be looking to make an impact and give Mike Tomlin some selection dilemmas ahead of the meaningful play-off games to come. Chase Claypool, for example, will want to separate himself as a genuine weapon in the passing game after vanishing for portions of the season. Benny Snell will want to be considered for more work moving forwards, particularily with James Conner struggling. Hungry players with an opportunity may actually be more of a danger than players simply playing to not get injured.
Writer’s Pick – Shaun Blundell (@Shaun_F10Y)
Regardless of the situation, Browns vs Steelers is a huge rivalry game. In recent years, it has been far too lopsided to be considered a genuine rivalry but it would appear those days are drawing to an end. For the Browns however, those days need to end for good on Sunday. Win and you are in, it really is that simple.
Most Browns fans in their wildest dreams would have grabbed that scenario from you 17 weeks ago, so can they get over the line in the finale? Before a miraculous final 20 minutes against the Colts, even with their starters playing, Pittsburgh have been awful for a month. This game was very nearly for the divisional crown, such has been their drop-off from an 11-0 start. But we are where we are, and it is a really difficult game to call without knowing exactly what it will look like.
If the Browns get all of their eligible players back, I would favour them. If they don’t, I would favour the Steelers. If Pittsburgh rests all of their starters, I would favour the Browns. If they don’t, I would favour the Steelers.
The point is, it’s tight to call but let’s stick my neck out one last time: the Browns win and are in for the first time in forever.
Steelers 20 – 34 Browns
Sky Sports – 9.25pm GMT – Cardinals @ Rams
The Cardinals are the NFC version of Oliver Twist: “Please sir, can I have some more (football)?”
“MORE?!?!” say the Rams.
The Cardinals travel to SoFi stadium to face a Jared Goff and Cooper Kupp-less LA Rams, where they need a victory, coupled with a Chicago loss, to ensure they have more games to play this season.
Kyler Murray and the Cardinals were dealt an almost terminal blow last week against divisional rivals the San Francisco 49ers, falling 20-12 and leaving them on the outside looking in.
The Cardinals have not had the best time of it since their Week 8 bye, going 3-5 in that span with wins against the NFC East (completing the clean sweep) and of course that ‘Hail Murray- against the Bills.
The loss against the Patriots is the game they’ll look back on and feel that this was the result that they let themselves down on. In better news, Kyler Murray, who has battled niggles over the past month or two, has looked healthier and far more willing to run the ball with 29 rushes in the last three games. That being said, he has been somewhat questionable this week with a leg injury but has been seen on the practice field according to reports.
The bad news is that the former #1 overall pick and 2020 Pro Bowler has not won in his three previous attempts against the Rams including at least one sack and one interception in each of those games and having very little rushing production. McVay, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and co. all seem to have his number.
They may not necessarily have fellow Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins’ number though, who scored in this fixture on eight receptions, albeit for a lacklustre 52 yards. Hopkins, who many thought may struggle in a new team, is only four receptions away from tying his career best season for receptions but you can argue his TD receptions are way down.
Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds have continued to middle in the backfield. Neither Drake or Edmonds have topped scrimmage 100 yards since Week 10 in that game with the Bills.
A Troy Hill interception return for a touchdown was enough to seal the deal in the reverse fixture but the two running backs that scored TDs for the Rams that day will be missing. Cam Akers is on IR and Darrell Henderson suffered a leg injury last week against the Seahawks, courtesy of Jamal Adams as he was scooting for the end zone.
You have to wonder how much scoreboard watching there will be going on in this one as a Bears loss automatically means the Rams are in the post-season. A depleted Rams team may just turtle up and retreat, allowing the Cardinals to take a win and be in the play-offs with them, meaning three teams from the NFC West reach the post-season.
Talking of the Rams, they have thoroughly underwhelmed in the last fortnight, losing to the Jets (enough said) and the Seahawks. Jared Goff, who has crumbled like an overbaked biscuit, is out for this one due to a broken thumb courtesy of a Seahawk helmet when going through his throwing motion.
Step forward former AAF QB, John Wolford, who has not seen the field since the 2019 preseason and played for Arizona in the AAF.
The gameplan will probably be similar despite the change at QB. McVay will continue to be creative, and continue with misdirection, bootlegs and screens. With two RBs and their star WR missing, it may be a bit more difficult to execute. Can Wolford continue to be a hot shot? I very much doubt it.
They could welcome back OT Andrew Whitworth, who has been on IR since November and have also activated Micah Kiser, which I doubt Rams’ fans will take solace from.
Writer’s Pick – Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)
I cannot see anything other than a Cardinals victory here. The Rams defence has not been depleted anywhere near the same levels as the offence and will cause problems for Kyler so I can see a low-scoring game here.
If McVay can get anything out of this offence, it may well be his finest hour.
But the Cardinals probably only have to score 12-20 points to take this one and it will be the Rams tuning into Redzone or putting on their radios to check on events at Soldier Field.
Cardinals 20 – 10 Rams
Sky Sports – 1.20am GMT – Football Team @ Eagles
The final game of the 2020 NFL regular season sees the worst division in the history of football bring everything to a close.
For Washington, the goal is simple: win and they are NFC East Champions with a 7-9 record. If they lose, the title will go to the victor in the earlier Dallas against New York match-up. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has nothing to play for other than perhaps a slightly better pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. For the first time since 2016, the birds won’t be headed to the post-season and will leave 2020 with some serious questions to be asked. Once again, the NFC East will not have a repeat winner, a streak that dates back to 2004. The division has also never been won by a team with a losing record; 9-7 (on numerous occasions) is the lowest record to win the division prior to this year.
Week 17 match-ups are always difficult to predict, especially when one team has nothing left to play for. Philadelphia heads into the final game week following a drubbing at the hands of Andy Dalton and the impactful Cowboys wideouts. This means they will end with their lowest win total since 2012 when they went 4-12. Depending on results around them, Philadelphia could have the #3 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft with a loss; if they pull out the victory, they could pick as far back as #10. Either way, they will have a top 10 pick. With so many questions looming this off-season around QB, front office, head coach and beyond, it is looking like change is afoot for the Superbowl LII winners.
Philadelphia weren’t the only team with off-field issues dominating their coverage this week. Washington parted ways with Dwayne Haskins on Monday, finally ending the cloud of uncertainty that was beginning to engulf his Washington career. This season, Haskins went from starter > back-up > third string > back-up > starter > back-up > waived. It’s been a rollercoaster than I’m sure Head Coach Ron Rivera will be pleased to get off. He said in a statement “I told him that I believe it benefits both parties that we go our separate ways.” The encouraging cameo from Taylor Heinicke late in the game against Carolina on Sunday surely helped Washington’s decision to let the former first-round pick go. If Heinicke starts on Sunday in Philadelphia, he will become the 31st QB to start a game for Washington since 1993.
On the field, things have been just as up and down for Washington. Their dominant defensive line will be licking their lips at the prospect of facing a Philly O-line that has given up a league-leading 62 sacks so far this season. In the reverse fixture back in Week 1, Washington had eight sacks against the Eagles and what may have seemed like an early blip has turned out to be the level of the WFT’s pass rush attack. As a defence, they have 44 sacks on the season (6th in NFL); of those, Chase Young has 6.5 sacks and 9 tackles for loss, helping him earn a Pro Bowl nod in his rookie season (one of only two rookies to do so, with Justin Jefferson the other). I would look for Washington to dominate in the trenches against a Philadelphia O-line that has had 13 (THIRTEEN!?) different combinations this season.
On the other side of the football, it very much depends who will be under centre. Alex Smith has shown that he still has gas in the tank and has rejuvenated his career after that nasty leg break he suffered back in November 2018. Even though his stat line in 2020 doesn’t make for great reading (4 TD, 6 INT, 79.0 rating), the Washington offence looks calmer and more effective with Smith as the man with the ball. They will also get a couple of playmakers back for the trip to the City of Brotherly Love. Terry McLaurin will be back to add to his 3 TDs and 1,078 yards this season. They also eased Antonio Gibson back in with 10 rushes last week but he averaged 6.1 YPC. Those two weapons could assist HC Ron Rivera in this win-and-in game.
With Philadelphia, it is difficult to predict which team will show up. They could do what Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz suggested and have a ‘no-hat rule’ (not allowing Washington to win the NFC East crown) on Sunday night at the Lincoln Financial Field. However, with it being Week 17 and nothing left to play for, we could see outings from plenty of young players to see if they can impress coaches and put themselves in the conversation for the 2021 roster.
Jalen Hurts has already been named the starter by Head Coach Doug Pederson and it will be interesting to see how he can bounce back after probably his worst performance so far in Week 16 versus Dallas. His passer rating barely got above 70 and he was picked off twice. However, he did link up with a monster play to WR DeSean Jackson for an 81-yard TD as well as utilising his elusiveness, rushing 9 times for 69 yards averaging 7.7 YPC. The Eagles’ offensive unit has looked revitalised at times with Hurts under centre but it is still suffering with poor WR play, mismatches along the offensive line and penalties. Too. Many. Penalties. They had six false starts on Sunday in Dallas, with reduced fans in the crowd. That number is just not acceptable for an NFL offensive line.
Defensively, Philadelphia is struggling with injuries. With the injury report that came out on Wednesday containing Michael Jacquet, the Eagles now have only two healthy CBs on the roster (Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman). However, some won’t be too disheartened if Jacquet isn’t fit to go as he was pummelled by Andy Dalton on Sunday. He gave up 162 receiving yards from 9 targets, which is the second most of any corner in a single game in 2020. However, I will cut the guy some slack; he was an undrafted free agent this season and has had very little time to learn the defence, not to mention he was lined up against whoever D. Slay wasn’t covering, which was either Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb or Michael Gallup… With safety Rodney McLeod done for the year after tearing his ACL vs Arizona in Week 15, this Eagles secondary is barely limping over the line.
However, what I would expect to see is the pass rush to try and provide turnovers or force quick 3-and-outs for the offence. First-time Pro-Bowler Brandon Graham needs two more sacks to get his first ever double-digit sack season. If DT Javon Hargrave can share a sack, the Eagles will have five players (Graham, Cox, Sweat, Barnett and Hargrave) with five or more sacks, which no other team in the NFL has. However, with Sweat on IR, and Cox and Barnett missing practice on Wednesday, it remains to be seen if the Eagles’ pass-rushing pieces will be there to assist.
I think even if Taylor Heinicke does start for Washington, they will have too much for Philadelphia. The Eagles’ defence is just too depleted and is limping to the end of the season. If Washington can get out in front, the birds just won’t be able to bring it back. In Jalen Hurts’ three starts, Philadelphia have scored 54 first-half points, yet only 13 second-half points. On Sunday against Dallas, following their 14-3 start, Philly was then outscored 34 -3. Teams appear to be making in-game adjustments to Hurts and at the moment, Doug Pederson and Jalen Hurts don’t have an answer.
Writer’s Pick – Ste Tough (@SteTough)
This will be a close one. It probably won’t be pretty and I can see both teams coughing up the ball one or two times. However with Philadelphia’s injuries and just the torrid season they are having, I can see them losing this one. Before tough losses to Seattle and Carolina, Washington was putting together some momentum, winning 4 games in a row including a blow-out against Dallas. If they can hold that Dallas offence to 16 points, they can certainly hold Philadelphia to less.
Football Team 20 – 13 Eagles
6pm GMT – Cowboys @ Giants
Whichever teams comes out victorious at MetLife stadium WILL be in the play-offs before the Sunday Night Football game with the Football Team. With both teams being able to sniff meaningful January football, this should be a good NFC East clash.
The 6-9 Cowboys visit the 5-10 Giants with both teams still in the play-off hunt, which encapsulates 2020 in the NFL. The Giants still have a chance because of their head-to-head with Washington and the Cowboys have the same record so need to better Washington’s result.
The last time these two teams met back in Week 5, Andy Dalton took to the field due to that gruesome injury to Dak Prescott. The “Endzone Ed Sheeran”, as we like to call him here at F10Y HQ, has another chance to put a dagger in Big Blue and is coming off a brilliant and commanding performance last week against the Eagles.
Dalton has completed 65.4% of his passes this year after being in and out of the team due to injury, concussion and COVID, but has steered the Cowboys ship in the right direction. Just 14 TDs and 7 INTs in his 10 games isn’t going to fill them with too much confidence. That being said, 13 of those 14 scores have come since Week 11 when he returned to the field and three of the 7 INTs were before his two-week absence.
He’s thrown multiple touchdown passes in his last four games including three against Philly last week (yes there was a lot of YAC involved; eat your hearts out 49ers fans). The main reason for that is arguably the best WR trio in the league.
Rookie CeeDee Lamb has taken to the NFL like a duck to water or a sheep to shearing. While he hasn’t reached the heady heights of fellow rookie Justin Jefferson, Lamb has on the whole had a very impressive season, even without Dak Prescott. Lamb has had either over 50 receiving yards or 5 or more receptions on 11 occasions this season, and has been more than just a slot guy, taking jet sweeps to the house, scoring on special teams and also winning on the perimeter. He needs just 106 yards to surpass the 1,000 mark against the Giants.
It helps when you are aided by other fabulous receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. The latter had a “don’t forget about me” game against the Eagles, going for 2 TDs on 121 yards and some fine football play after the catch. Amari Cooper has himself yet another 1,000-yard season, albeit a fairly quiet one. The beauty of having three highly talented WRs is that it’s a ‘pick your poison’ type of scenario .None of these guys need to be the focal point from week to week, which makes it hard for opposing DCs.
The Cowboys do have the momentum off the back of three straight wins, putting up 30+ points on each occasion (albeit against bad teams) but it’s the defence that has come to play recently too, which has been very timely indeed. They have forced at least three turnovers in their last three games and have recorded a turnover every week since their Week 10 bye. They’ve given up yardage and sometimes points too but the opportunistic nature of the defence to turn the field on the opposition is vital for this Dallas team to continue not only this week, but if they head to the post-season.
These two teams served up a great game last time out, with the Cowboys winning 37-34 through a Greg Zuerlein kick as time expired, and the Cowboys have actually won the last seven games vs the Giants. The last time the Giants beat the Cowboys, Tony Romo was the quarterback (in his final season). Another highlight from this game in recent years of course was the Monday Night Football ‘Black Cat’ game, which has seemed to continually curse the Giants franchise since.
For the Giants, Daniel Jones has not looked the same QB since his hamstring injury and Colt McCoy has not been able to replicate his heroics he produced in CenturyLink field against Seattle.
They have lost their last three games to Baltimore, Cleveland and Arizona, and haven’t even looked close to a team that is going to win a game. They have a chance to put it all right here but with a total of 62 points in their last five games since their bye and total offence not surpassing 300 yards in any of their last four games, winning this game seems quite far-fetched.
They’ll take solace in the fact that three of their five wins have come in the division and, despite opening as underdogs with Vegas for this one, they will fancy causing an upset.
There’s a Catch-22 here though for the Giants. A win coupled with a Washington loss sees them in the play-offs, but a loss for the Giants coupled with wins for teams in and around the same record could actually see them picking from the #3 spot.
If the Giants are to win this game, it’ll have be won in the trenches. They’ll have to make the game a bit of a dog fight and grind a result out. Wayne Gallman will need to recall his form in the middle part of the season where he was regularly finding the end zone and having 100-yard games. The receivers Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard will need to be easily found by Daniel Jones, and Evan Engram will look to replicate his performance last time out against the Cowboys with a bit of trickery to find the end zone on a rush.
The defence will need to step back up in this one after going missing the past few weeks, especially after that dominant performance at Seattle in Week 13. They have forced just one turnover in their last three. Linebacker Blake Martinez will need to add to his tally of 80 solo tackles and will have to channel his inner Kyler Fackrell who had an interception return touchdown last time these two met. The secondary of James Bradberry (three interceptions on the season), recently extended Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers will need to figure out how to put a fire blanket over the Dallas wide receivers.
To help, they’ll need Leonard WIlliams and Dexter Williams to generate pressure on Dalton and against a Cowboys offensive line that has somehow stayed tight enough to not burst like drainpipes in winter. On a side note, All Pro guard Zack Martin has could possibly return for the Cowboys after joining the designated to return from IR list. Talk about good timing.
Most fans of non-NFC East teams will view the participant from this division as a team that is there to simply make up the numbers in the play-offs; however, I’ll just make you aware of the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the 2010 season (2011 play-offs). The New Orlean Saints came to visit and that’s when “Beast Mode” happened.
Any given Sunday and all that.
Writer’s Pick – Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)
It’ll be a cagey, low-scoring affair in my view and it would surprise me to see both teams turtle up for the majority. Whoever puts their cojones out first will probably win this one and I expect a lot of 4th-down plays. Dallas have the momentum, the better offence and the better weapons, but it’s a weaker foundation with Andy Dalton rather than Dak Prescott at quarterback. New York could have a trick or two saved for this one but a team that is struggling to move the ball, put up points and a questionably healthy QB (still) means that you have to go with the Cowboys for this one.
Giants 17 – 24 Cowboys
6pm GMT – Dolphins @ Bills
Can 2021 start by finishing off one of the Cinderella stories brought to us in 2020? The Miami Dolphins are on the cusp of meaningful January football, but may well need to win to get into the dance, as they take on the red hot Buffalo Bills to close out the regular season. The maths are quite straightforward for Miami: a win guarantees them their spot; a defeat will see them needing a defeat from either the Colts, Ravens or Browns for them to cling onto a Wild Card berth.
Let’s start however with their opponents in this one. The Bills were a fancied pick for the AFC East in the pre-season musings, with the assumed drop-off of the Patriots coupled with assumed mediocrity at best from the Dolphins and Jets. They haven’t disappointed and kudos must go out to them for capturing their first divisional title since way back in 1995. A win here in the season finale will lock up the number 2 seed in the AFC, which is certainly worth its bounty. A guarantee of at least two home play-off games (assuming they win the first), the assumed weakest play-off opponent in that they would play the 7th seed in Week 1 of the post-season and perhaps most importantly, the guarantee of no Patrick Mahomes until at least the Championship game, if both teams get that far.
The final caveat of course is one out of coincidence, but important never the less. A win for Buffalo here could eliminate Miami and as sports has proven down the years, when you have a chance to take out a foe, do so! The plans on how much players play this week has been a closely guarded secret but with some real tangible benefits to winning this game, I would expect the majority of starters to play at least a good portion of this game.
With that in mind, let’s assume that superstar Josh Allen does indeed suit up. In last week’s massacre of the Patriots, he broke Bills franchise records. He now is the franchise leader for completions on a single season, surpassing Drew Bledsoe with 380 completions and counting. He has also overtaken Jim Kelly for the most passing touchdowns in a single season with 34. The outsider for the MVP race has shown phenomenal growth in year 3 and is one of the major factors in the Bills’ results this year. I say one of the major factors as he has plenty of support from running mate Stefon Diggs who has excelled since his trade from the Vikings.
The defence, however, is ranked pretty much in the middle of the pack and has if anything taken a slight step backwards, compared to the dominant group of the 2019 season. They rank 8th against the pass, where premier corner Tre’Davious White leads a talented group. Against the run, however, they rank 19th, giving up 123 yards per game, and 14th in terms of points given up, surrendering 23.3 points per game. Having the number 4 ranked total offence has certainly helped them out throughout the course of the campaign.
So the evidence is there for the Dolphins to game plan for victory. Run the ball effectively and then run it some more. That, however, has proved to be a difficult thing for Miami to accomplish with any sort of consistency this year. Injuries have plagued them at the position with Salvon Ahmed, DeAndre Washington and Matt Brieda seeing plenty of carries with starter Myles Gaskin battling niggles. Gaskin looked sharp last week against the Raiders, averaging 6.7 yards per carry but he didn’t find the end zone and the Dolphins’ leading touchdown rusher on the season is still Jordan Howard who was released weeks ago.
The run game really does need to sparkle as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has really struggled to move the ball over the past few weeks. In two games combined, he hasn’t thrown for 250 total yards while throwing just one touchdown pass and a long ball of just 15 yards. He really needs to put it together this week as Ryan Fitzpatrick will not be unleashed from the bench to save the day. The veteran has been the saviour in Miami but he is unfortunately on the COVID list and will not be backing up Tua this week. That role will go to Jake Rudock who hasn’t tossed an NFL pass since 2017.
The defence ranks as the stingiest in the league giving up just 18.8 points per game. Fuelled by a league-leading 27 turnovers (tied with Pittsburgh), despite giving up a lot of yardage at times, the Dolphins have by and large prevented teams from scoring. Xavien Howard has had an unbelievably good season and has registered nine interceptions personally. Emmanuel Ogbah leads the team in sacks and the veteran leadership brought by Kyle Van Noy has had a transformational effect on a group that was already good before his arrival.
This really is a case of strength on strength. Miami’s four-most frequently targeted defenders (Xavien Howard, Nik Needham, Eric Rowe and Byron Jones) allow a collective completion percentage of 61.8%. The Bills’ top four wide receivers in targets (Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, John Brown and Gabriel Davis) catch 71.4% of their targets. It promises to be an absolute cracker.
Writer’s Pick – Shaun Blundell (@Shaun_F10Y)
If you prefer to view the current state of the NFL by power rankings and not by records, you will find many an observer pegging the Bills ahead of everyone else in the league right now. They are playing some brilliant football and have a high-powered offence that will be able to run with anyone. The defence makes more than its fair share of a contribution and they look a complete unit. Miami have been phenomenal this year and will certainly be up for this one and will make it an interesting contest. I would be really worried about Tua however. Whispers of using their top draft pick (acquired from Houston) on a QB seem harsh, but the reality is the team is probably closer to winning than people realised and can’t afford to be held back at the most important position. I have to side with the Bills in this one, which will leave Miami looking for help from elsewhere with regards to their Wild Card hopes.
Bills 24 – 17 Dolphins
6pm GMT – Ravens @ Bengals
This is as simple as it gets in terms of playoff scenarios: the Baltimore Ravens win and they will be handed a shiny ticket to the post-season dance. They lose and it is likely a lost season, one where the reigning NFL MVP gets dethroned and Lamar Jackson’s play-off record remains on a goose egg.
For the Bengals, a team on a two-game hot streak with a bunch of ragtag starters and a rather good bunch of WRs, this is the opportunity to sign off the 2020 season on a most unexpected high, considering they lost their overall #1 selection QB Joe Burrow to injury quite a while ago.
The Ravens have hopefully learnt the valuable lesson of not underestimating their opponent. Last season, they crashed and burned against the Tennessee Titans in the play-offs, wasting a jaw dropping 14-2 season where Lamar Jackson broke the QB single-season rushing record. The Bengals are not the Titans, but they have beaten the Steelers and the Texans recently, one by digging deep into the defensive playbook and one by out-duelling a dynamic Deshaun Watson.
When the two teams met earlier in the season, the Ravens held Joe Burrow to zero touchdowns and managed to sack him seven times, holding the Bengals to three total points, having gone 27-0 up with just over 30 seconds left. Lamar did not look particularly good, connecting on just over 50% of his passes and inexplicably only rushing for 3 yards on two attempts. In 2019, Lamar had 26 rushing attempts in two games against Cincinnati, gaining 217 yards and two scores, averaging a chain moving 8.3 yards a carry.
Despite some season-derailing injuries to Burrow and Pro Bowl RB Joe Mixon, the Bengals have shown some guts in December. With both superstars healing for 2021, the future in Cincy looks in safe hands thanks to rookie receiving sensation Tee Higgins (pictured), who leads the team in catches, yards and touchdowns. Higgins needs just 93 yards to crack 1,000 as a rookie, a milestone he deserves to achieve having been a threat all season.
The Bengals have been without a 100-yard back since Week 4, even though Washington cast-off Samaje Perine ripped off 95 yards on the ground last week. Current starting QB Brandon Allen had a monster game in Week 16 against a woeful Texans pass D, but don’t expect the same aerial success against a Ravens secondary that is far more disciplined and tough.
The Ravens will continue to deploy a formula that has led to 10 wins this season, running the football both conventionally with rookie JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards (pictured), and unconventionally with Lamar Jackson, who has shown that he is capable of being the box-office performer he was throughout 2019 in December 2020.
Baltimore need to mix the run and pass to win this game and to start winning play-off games (if they get there). This means getting the ball to TE Mark Andrews and WR Marquise Brown, who has had an underwhelming 53 catches to date this season.
The Ravens’ strength beyond the power running game is the defence, which is normally well disciplined and capable of big turnovers in pressure situations. Two key members of the secondary, Marcus Peters and grizzled veteran Jimmy Smith, are both currently listed as questionable, so more pressure goes onto Marlon Humphrey to have a big game.
Rookie LB Patrick Queen has fitted in like a cold hand into a sheep’s wool-lined mitten, and he leads the team in tackles with 102. The team has 39 sacks and surprisingly no individual defender has more than four (Calais Campbell). Sometimes, the collective unit is better than its individual parts. Fully fit, this remains one of the best units in football.
Brandon Allen has shown he is a serviceable back-up QB, and with weapons around him and an offensive line that is working weekly miracles, the Bengals can scare anyone. Scaring is good but you don’t defeat the Kraken by shouting nasty words at its mottled face.
Writer’s Pick – Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro)
This game is going to feature a big dose of Gus ‘the bus’ Edwards, a RB who is often dismissed as ‘just another back’. If JK Dobbins is still carrying an injury he picked up in Week 16, then Mark Ingram could be activated. Either way, Lamar Jackson will be making more than two attempts to gain first downs, and will be likely low odds on a rushing TD during the game.
Lamar needs just 93 yards on the ground to become the first QB to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. It will be a challenge, but one missed tackle and a 5-yard scramble turns into a 50-yard score.
This game simply means more to the Ravens, and they will not be underestimating the Bengals, despite a rather straightforward win earlier in the season. I expect Lamar to sign off the regular season in style and this writer to score his second sandwich (I’ll take a Halloumi pitta wrap please, Tim) thanks to the great #8.
Ravens 29 – 17 Bengals
9.25pm GMT – Titans @ Texans
With one week to go, the AFC is all but sorted. The Chiefs, Bills and Steelers are all locked into post-season football already; behind them, five 10-5 teams (Titans, Dolphins, Ravens, Browns and Colts) are fighting for four play-off spots. It’s a case of musical chairs: when the music stops, one team is going to be left standing.
At the moment, the Titans control their own destiny. Despite losing 40-14 to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, they are the best positioned of the AFC contenders to make the post-season. Only this road game against the 4-11 Houston Texans stands between them and an appearance in the Wild Card Round next week. They could even lose and still get into the play-offs if one of the Colts, Ravens or Dolphins also lose. Essentially, Tennessee have the advantage thanks to the tiebreakers so if they (somehow) blow this one, they’ll have no one but themselves to blame.
Many pundits were torn between the Titans and the Colts as the winner of the AFC South this year and as expected, it’s gone down to the wire (as it usually does for the Titans). A win at NRG Stadium on Sunday evening or an Indy loss hands them the division. Indy are currently the ones standing outside the post-season sweet shop steaming up the window, but their Week 17 opponents are the one-win Jaguars. (Playing devil’s advocate for a minute, the Jags’ only victory came against Indianapolis back in Week 1 and with the #1 draft pick sewn up, they don’t have to #TankForTrevor any more. But I digress…)
With a win all but written in stone for their title rivals, the Titans need to match them if they are going to take the divisional crown for the first time since 2008. Luckily, they face an underwhelming Texans team who shared a 42-36 overtime thriller back in October but have been on a four-game losing skid since Thanksgiving. Having lost twice in three weeks to the Colts, they followed up with an uninspiring 37-31 loss to the lowly Bengals last time out, despite Deshaun Watson’s three TDs.
In fact, only Watson (first in the NFL with 8.8 yards per attempt, second with 4,458 passing yards and third with 297.2 YPG) is keeping them in any way relevant, although David Johnson’s 128 rushing yards last week was a long-overdue return to form and their top receiver, Brandin Cooks, is just 16 shy of a 1,000-yard season. Despite Houston’s poor record, this is Watson’s best-ever season with his most TDs, fewest picks, most passing yards and best completion rate. He injured his hand in Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati, catching it in a defender’s face mask while attempting a pass, but still plans to suit up for their final game of 2020.
The Titans’ loss at a snow-covered Lambeau Field last weekend was a rare off-night for their offence. The defeat ended a five-game run of scoring at least 30 points, but they still rank fifth in overall offence (390.1 YPG), third in scoring (450 points) and second in rushing yards (2,402).
In Week 15, they stuck 46 points on Detroit and put up nearly 500 total yards of offence, 147 of which came on the ground through Derrick Henry. Defensively, Houston are below average in most categories and rank 31st in run defence. Worryingly for them, Henry – the league’s leading rusher (first in attempts and yards, third in TDs) – needs ‘just’ 223 rushing yards to get to 2,000 for the season. Do not rule it out.
But it’s not all about the ground game. Tennessee have two wideouts, Corey Davis and AJ Brown, within sniffing distance of the 1,000-yard milestone while QB Ryan Tannehill has a solid 32 TD:7 INT ratio, despite his two-interception outing in Green Bay.
Writer’s Pick – Sean Tyler (@SeanTylerUK)
Tennessee, the 7.5-point favourites, are expected to bounce back from their poor snow-show, although Deshaun Watson is more than capable of putting up points against the league’s fifth-worst pass defence. But who knows how motivated Houston are for this one? The only thing they’re playing for is Miami’s final position in next year’s draft, thanks to the multi-player, multi-pick trade that saw this year’s first-rounder go to South Florida.
Both teams have plenty going on offensively and defences that rank in the NFL’s bottom four so expect a high-scoring affair, much like their last meeting in Week 6. Then, King Henry rushed for 212 yards and 2 TDs, and the QBs notched four scores apiece. With Derrick Henry bang in form and the Titans owning the league’s best turnover differential (+11), it’s hard to see anything but another win, a play-off berth and the AFC South title for Tennessee.
Titans 38 – 27 Texans
9.25pm GMT – Jaguars @ Colts
The Indianapolis Colts will be looking to jump back into the play-off picture in Week 17 as they welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars to Lucas Oil Stadium for this all important match-up.
For Colts fans, players and coaches, their shot at the post-season is fairly easy to understand with them needing one team out of the Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns or Baltimore Ravens to lose, if we were to pre-suppose they do beat the Jaguars.
Head Coach Frank Reich has already stressed to his team that they need to focus on their own scoreline first however, telling media on Wednesday: “It’s better not to have them (other scores) up there (on the big screen). It’s irrelevant. It can do nothing to add to what we have to focus on. It only has a potential negative effect in our view.”
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves in this tie yet however. Despite the 1-14 Jags entering the game as a 14-point underdog for the fixture, Jacksonville actually played one of their best games of the season against the Colts in Week 1 by managing a 27-20 shock win over Phillip Rivers.
In that game, Rivers managed to throw for well over 350 yards while only managing only one passing touchdown, and their incredible stable of running backs managed only 76 yards between them.
Things have changed since then however. Not only is Rivers now performing at a high level, but in the absence of Maron Mack, rookie Jonathan Taylor from Wisconsin has managed 919 rushing yards in 14 games. He’s currently on a run of five games that has seen him average 97.6 yards per game and five touchdowns.
Despite the loss to the Steelers last week, Taylor even managed 74 yards and two scores as the one-two punch of him and Nyheim Hines once again stretched the defence to breaking point at times.
The Colts’ offence looked smooth and polished in the first half of the Steelers game last week (we won’t mention the second half) and they should have some decent luck in Week 17 against a Jaguars defensive unit that has allowed the third-most rushing yards (2023), sixth-most passing yards (4,067) and the second-most points (464) on the year.
On the other side of the ball, Darius Leonard has led a defensive unit that has been spectacular against the run but struggled against the pass. This was put in graphic detail for all to see during their Week 16 collapse, as Big Ben and Diontae Johnson threw themselves back into the game.
Things didn’t get any easier with the news that starting left tackle Anthony Constanzo will end his season early to have ankle surgery and might destabilise what has been a superb O-line for most of the year. Wide receiver Michael Pittman also potentially misses the game with a concussion.
As for the Jags, their big injury news comes in the form of another start for Mike Glennon and the report that incredible undrafted rookie running back James Robinson has officially been shut down for the season, having claimed his 1,000 rushing yards in what has been a dysfunctional offensive effort for much of the year.
They were crushed by David Montgomery and the Chicago Bears last week, as their struggling defence allowed the running back to go for over 110 scrimmage yards and a touchdown.
Their biggest victory actually came from another source this season, with the Jets winning their two games and promoting the Jags to first overall pick in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. With the right care, the QB prospect can sort this struggling franchise out for years and years to come.
With the team thoroughly out of meaningful reasons to play hard against the Colts on Sunday other than pride, two LSU alumni have stood out as bright spots in the darkness of the 1-14 season for the Jags. Rookie pass-rusher K’Lavon Chaisson and underrated receiver DJ Chark have both shown moments of serious note, and both will be glad to finish this season and get started again with a more complete roster in 2021.
Chark has managed 700 yards and five scores despite a dismal selection of quarterbacks and passing performance but showed his own ability with a stunning toe-tap touchdown last week in the loss to the Bears. While he didn’t practice on Wednesday, the presumption is that he will be back in time for Sunday, as the Jags look to cap off their own season with some pride and some gumption with which to otherwise remember a season that quickly devolved into fighting for the first overall pick.
Writer’s Pick – Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)
This pick is probably one of the easier ones I have faced all year, with the huge underdog without its best player in James Robinson and likely to rest a couple of their best pieces at least partially, as they look to next season with excitement.
The Colts need this game badly, and while results in other places could still make them just the third team in NFL history to miss the play-offs with 11 wins, I expect the experience of Phillip Rivers and Frank Reich to make clean work of revenge against a Jags team who look down for the count before a ball is even kicked.
Colts 35 – 10 Jags
9.25pm GMT – Packers @ Bears
The Packers travel to Soldier Field where a win guarantees them the #1 seed. It would also likely confirm Aaron Rodgers, the current clubhouse leader, as the 2020 League MVP.
The Packers have won six of their last seven, steamrolling most teams in their way; their only loss came in overtime against the Colts. They face a Bears team that have seen a mini-resurgence, winning their last three games after a six-game losing streak after starting the season 5-1.
Whether they’ve got to this position on merit, luck or a mixture of both is up for debate but for any team going into Week 17, all you can ask as a coach, player or fan is that you have a chance.
The Packers blew away the Bears in Week 12 at Lambeu but this is a Bears team that is possibly a bit more confident and gritty than that game. David Montgomery has come to the team’s aid in the last few weeks, totting up 529 yards on the ground in his last five games, scoring seven times. He has over 1,000 rushing yards on the season now.
After the Packers somewhat stifled Derrick Henry (as much as a team can in December), Montgomery will have to have an effective game for the Bears to try and get ahead in this game. His 10-carry, 53-yard average thus far and 0 TDs on the ground (he has one receiving TD) against the Packers will need to be improved upon.
Montgomery’s efforts have helped take the heat off Mitch Trubisky and how much he has had to carry the team, but he has quietly been very effective since his Week 12 re-introduction into the line-up. His efforts – 10 TDs and 4 INTs since Week 12 with three games with over 70% completion, 2 QB ratios over 100 (and two others north of 95) has all culminated in helping the Bears have a chance to control their own destiny.
The bad news is that Mitch is 1-5 in games against the Packers and has only a 59% completion percentage in those games.
The Chicago Bears’ defence will need to continue its recent string of performances that have seen them bend but not necessarily break. They rank second in red zone scoring percentage on defence and sixth best on 3rd-down conversions allowed. Top tackling linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan, supported by leading team sacker Khalil Mack, have a lot to do with the defensive performances this year and will need to get through one of the better offensive lines to get their mitts on Aaron Rodgers. Their defensive line including 31-year-old going on 21 Akiem Hicks has gotten a decent amount of production in his ninth year after a injury-hit 2019.
For the Packers, argulably the hottest team in the league, Aaron Rodgers will continue to go to Davante Adams, a connection we have seen 109 times this season, 17 of those in the end zone. Many belittled the Packers’ draft selections and many wondered why they didn’t go after Will Fuller (lucky for them they didn’t) before the trade deadline, but Aaron Rodgers just does not care. With Adams’ ability and talent to get open despite his hopping at the line, Rodgers seemingly has more than enough with his supporting cast currently at his disposal.
We could see further emergence of 2020 second round draft pick AJ Dillon, who rumbled for his first 100-yard game on the ground and 2 TDs against the Titans, doing his best Derrick Henry impression.
If the Packers do wrap up homefield advantage and a bye, they are more than well equipped to handle any team that comes in to Lambeau. They are actually well balanced both on the ground and through the air, being able to adapt to any team that comes into their house. The Packers’ defence is middle of the road in most metrics, which isn’t particularly a bad thing, but only one team has put up 400 offensive yards on it this season, and required overtime to do so.
Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage have been great in that secondary, and have not given up huge plays for most of the season. At the front end, Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith has 12.5 sacks on the season but it’s a testament to this team that 14 different players have a recorded sack this season. They’ll be beefed up by the midweek addition of DT Damon Harrison.
Writer’s Pick – Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)
It’s a ”win and in’ situation for the Bears, something which Bears fans could have only dreamed of at the beginning of December. Once again, they seem to be at the mercy of “Hot Rod” and the Packers.
I think the #1 seed carrot being dangled right under the nose of the Packers will be more than enough to ensure they are victorious. It will be a tight game and the Bears will be gritty and try to slow the game down, relying on Montgomery rather than Mitch Trubisky (similar to the last few weeks that’s helped them get to this position).
If the Bears can’t win their last home game of the 2020 season, they’ll be looking to the NFC West and hoping for some help from the Rams. Get the radios out!
Packers 28 – 25 Bears