This is remarkable. I can’t remember a single season in which so many teams had playoff hopes heading into week 17. And, sure, when you’re in the position of the Jacksonville Jaguars, there’s not a whole lot of reason to even talk about those hopes (or really even to call them hopes — they’re more like semi-grounded daydreams), but the fact that the list is so long and that also many teams have something to play for at this point sure does make things exciting. Makes you glad for Paul Tagliabue and his quest to promote competitive balance, too. Thanks, Paul. What it doesn’t do, particularly when you factor in the teams that, for one reason or another, have nothing to play for this weekend, is make for easy picking. Here’s my best stab at sizing up the final week of the regular season. Expect nothing you read here to happen.
NY Giants (-2.5) at Washington
Man, the Giants are in full-on collapse. Maybe the only thing crazier than the fact that New York can essentially clinch a playoff spot with a win is the fact that they can lose and still back into the playoffs at 7-9 (and losers of seven of their final eight games). I think they come up short in the end. And I expect to see Tom Coughlin standing on the unemployment line before the coin hits the ground in the first game of the post-season. Redskins by a touchdown.
Carolina (-3) at New Orleans
It can’t make teams like Atlanta too happy to know that the Saints, who have nothing to play for having locked up the NFC two seed (they can’t catch Chicago for the one) are probably gonna hand a win to the Panthers. Of course, it’s not like the Falcons have half a chance to win anyhow. New Orleans’ starters (minus a few banged up guys who are getting the whole week off) build a bit of a lead in the first half, but Carolina gets it back against the Saints’ backups in the second, and comes out on top by a point.
Cleveland (+4) at Houston
Yes, there is a reason to be excited about this game. When its over, we won’t have to think about either of these teams at least until draft day. So there’s that. Houston by six.
Detroit (+12.5) at Dallas
Quick, who’s more clueless, Terrell Owens or Matt Millen? OK, so it’s a trick question. The correct answer is William Clay Ford. The Cowboys lock up the five seed, and the opportunity to play for exactly one more week, with a 14-point victory over the Lions, who lock up the first pick in the 2007 draft, and a chance to ruin yet another high-potential college player.
Jacksonville (+2.5) at Kansas City
It’s the battle of the playoff longshots. Win and you’re probably still not in. I’m sad to say, I see Kansas City coming out ahead (by, let’s say a touchdown) which means we’ll once again have to spend a chunk of the off-season listening to Carl Peterson whine about how too few teams make the playoffs (when in fact 12 out of 32 is possibly too many and probably just enough).
New England (+3) at Tennessee
I’ve got no reason to believe this game won’t go to the Titans, who are playing for the remote hope of making the post season and with the very real goal of finishing this season on a very strong note (closing with seven straight wins and a 9-7 record after starting 0-5 would be rather impressive). And that’s got a lot to do with the fact that I have no reason to believe that the Patriots, who would be playing for nothing more solid than the off chance of snatching the three seed from Indianapolis (they’d need Indy to fall to Miami at home, which could happen but likely won’t), will actually show up to play. I can’t see Tom Brady (and a handful of other New England starters) spending much time on the field in this one. And still, there’s a little voice in my head telling me the Pats are gonna pull out an oddball win here. I’m not putting a dime on this game, but purely for fun, I’ll take the Pats to edge the Titans (and not care in the least when it turns out I was wrong).
Oakland (+12.5) at NY Jets
Seriously? Twelve and a half points? I can’t see the Jets scoring that many points against the Raiders defense, regardless of what’s on the line. Oh, sure, I expect the Jets to win, and to qualify for the AFC six seed in the process, but I expect them to do it by a score of something along the lines of 6-0.
Pittsburgh (+6) at Cincinnati
When all is said and done, this game will turn out to have been nothing but a battle between the season’s biggest bust and yet another also-ran squad from Cincinnati. While it’s going on, however, the Bengals will be playing for the hope of sneaking into the playoffs through the dog door around the side. And that should be enough to lift them over the Steelers. By four.
Seattle (+3.5) at Tampa Bay
Even with their starters in for much, if not all, of the game, it’s hard to imagine the Seahawks (who have sewn up the NFC four seed and can’t do any better) putting in much of an effort here. That bodes well for the Patriots, who have Seattle’s first-round draft pick and no doubt would love to see Deion and the gang finish 8-8. Tampa Bay by a touchdown.
St. Louis (-2) at Minnesota
Minnesota should have little trouble controlling St. Louis on the ground. And that’s nice for the Vikings. Thing is, the Rams mostly throw the ball. And having a miserable pass defense doesn’t tend to work out too well for you when you face a team that relies so heavily on its pass offense. So I’m gonna go ahead and take the Rams and give the two.
Arizona (+13.5) at San Diego
Do I have to say anything about this game? A win hands San Diego the AFC one seed. A loss and the Chargers probably drop to the two. That, and the fact that Arizona has allowed 115 yards a game on the ground this season when they weren’t facing maybe the best running back ever to play the game, is about what you need to know. Chargers by 20, minimum.
Atlanta (+7.5) at Philadelphia
I’ve never cared much for the Eagles, but I can’t tell you how much it delights me to see good old Jeff Garcia proving everybody wrong about him yet again. Right now, I look at the Eagles as one of two NFC teams with a legit shot of making it to Miami on February 4. This week, the Eagles bludgeon the Falcons.
Buffalo (+9) at Baltimore
You know, you’ve gotta respect what Buffalo has done this season. With the way they’re improving and the way the Jets are improving, you’ve gotta figure the AFC East is gonna be a very competitive three-team division next season (with the Dolphins left out in the cold). As for this weekend, well, the Ravens are one of the two or three best teams in football. Maybe they’re the best. And they’re playing to lock up the two seed. Baltimore wins this game by 10 or more.
Miami (+9) at Indianapolis
I’m not entirely ready to count Miami out of this game, given that the Fins have an impressive defense and a decent running game. Plus, you never know, maybe Cleo Lemon turns out to be a guy who lives up to his potential now that he’s been given a shot. Still, with the Colts playing to shore up the AFC three seed, and possibly for the two, you have to believe the Colts are gonna find a way to walk away with a win. I don’t see Indy coming out ahead by nine, but six or seven wouldn’t shock me.
San Francisco (+10.5) at Denver
The 49ers certainly appear to be a team headed in the right direction. And you kind of have to be rooting for Frank Gore to make it to 1,600 yards (he needs 58 here). But Denver’s playing for a wild card berth. And the Broncos are at home. That should add up to a Denver victory, I’m guessing by something along the lines of nine points.
Green Bay (+2.5) at Chicago
It won’t be clear until mid-afternoon whether Green Bay will be playing for a playoff spot here. I kind of think they will. But even if they’re out of it, I still think the Packers will be looking to ensure that Brett Favre’s career closes with a win. And considering the fact that the Bears have absolutely nothing to play for, having sewn up home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, I’m thinking the Pack has the edge. Green Bay by a field goal.