With nearly every game this weekend holding playoff implications, this year's Week 17 NFL slate is a bit easier to project than the typically capricious final week. Most teams have something to play for, and resting starters is out of the question for the majority of squads.
Thus, the underdogs who cover this weekend will not have the benefit of Peyton Manning sitting for a half. In fact, most of the teams below have more to play for than the favored team they are pitted against. With that in mind, these are the teams I believe will end up covering their respective spreads today:
|Ravens @ Bengals||CIN -6.5||BAL|
|Texans @ Titans||TEN -7||HOU|
|Jaguars @ Colts||IND -11||JAX|
|Bills @ Patriots||NE -9||BUF|
|Bucs @ Saints||NO -12||TB|
|Chiefs @ Chargers||SD -10||KC|
|49ers @ Cardinals||SF -1||ARZ|
Below are rationalizations for the three highlighted contests.
Ravens (+6.5) over Bengals
A perfect storm of circumstances has conspired to make the Ravens nearly a full touchdown underdogs to the Bengals. The Ravens are coming off a stunning 41-7 home defeat to the Patriots, a loss where Joe Flacco looked hobbled by his leg injury. Moreover, the Bengals are 7-0 at home in 2013 and have scored at least 40 points in four of their past five home victories.
Nevertheless, Baltimore has won five of six meetings with Cincinnati since 2011, with the Bengals' lone win coming in Week 17 last year when the Ravens rested their starters. The Ravens are a feisty bunch who will not be intimidated by the hostile environment, and they should keep things close.
Whether or not Baltimore prevails will likely come down to a few key plays in the fourth quarter, but if the game ends in a one-possession contest, it will likely cover this spread. The Ravens may not get a chance to defend their Super Bowl, but they will be tough to take down.
Buccaneers (+12) over Saints
No, Who Dat Nation, I'm not predicting a monumental upset that may knock New Orleans out of the playoffs. With apologies to Cardinals fans, the Saints should cruise on their home field, and the Bucs have sputtered a bit after a nice midseason stretch.
Nevertheless, this is a big spread, and the Saints have enough issues that actually play into Tampa's favor. The Bucs have a strong front seven that harassed Drew Brees for five sacks, five hits and 14 hurries in their Week 2 meeting. New left tackle Terron Armstead had a rough debut at the position, and per Larry Holder of The Times Picayune, Sean Payton is sticking with the rookie:
There's zero doubt the Bucs will target Armstead as the Panthers did by sending multiple blitzes his way. But Payton said Armstead has the ability to improve "a lot" from the first week to the second week.
"There's a difference, especially with the way practices are now of getting those full-speed live rushes, and I think that he is someone that picks things up quick," Payton said. "He is very athletic and very explosive. We saw that in last week's game, which was really encouraging."
Despite those words of encouragement, it seems unlikely the Saints offensive line can hold the fort all game against Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. Thus, Tampa should be able to limit New Orleans' scoring output, even if its own offense is unable to produce much. Look for the Saints to win rather comfortably but for the Bucs to sneak under the projected line.
Cardinals (+1) over 49ers
It's a bit baffling that Arizona is somehow a home underdog, given its Week 16 triumph in Seattle and a 6-1 record in Glendale. The 49ers have already clinched a playoff berth, and though they could theoretically vault as high as the top seed, San Francisco is likely to be on the road come wild-card weekend.
The Cardinals struggled a bit containing the 49ers rushing game in their Week 6 meeting. San Francisco ran for 149 yards, easily a season-high for an Arizona opponent. And yet, with Michael Crabtree back in the lineup and Colin Kaepernick looking more comfortable in recent weeks, Jess Root of SB Nation believes a Crabtree-Patrick Peterson matchup will be pivotal:
Peterson has had struggles with Crabtree in previous meetings. Peterson and Bruce Arians have said recently that the Crabtree they see on film is not quite the guy he was before his injury. Even still, that could be fun to watch. Peterson completely took Anquan Boldin out of the game. Moving Peterson to Crabtree will put a lesser guy on Boldin, so that could impact the game. But Peterson and Crabtree are talented and motivated. My guess is that we will see wins from both players.
The turnover-prone Carson Palmer had gone six out of seven weeks without throwing multiple picks before his four-interception debacle against Seattle last week. If the veteran quarterback can protect the ball better, look for the Cardinals to pull out a win and get to 11-5.