With a crowded postseason picture, nearly every team has something to play for in the final week of the NFL regular season. Consequently, we should see fewer upsets stemming from postseason squads resting their starters.
Indeed, most of this weekend's favorites at least need to jockey for playoff seeding. Only the Broncos have clinched a first-round bye, and just one team—Kansas City—is locked into its current playoff seeding.
NFL players are a prideful bunch, and even teams eliminated from the postseason will revel in playing spoiler. But how many of those squads will actually come through with the upset, and how many will falter when the favored team comes out determined to salt away the game early?
It's impossible to accurately answer that question now, but here's a guess at which favorites are most likely to cover the spread on the eve of Week 17.
Panthers (-5.5) over Falcons
Carolina can complete its remarkable ascension to a first-round bye with a road victory over the 4-11 Falcons. Atlanta showed plenty of fight in its narrow Monday night loss to the 49ers, but the Panthers thoroughly dominated the action in a 34-10 romp over the Falcons in Week 9.
If there is anything that could potentially trip up the Panthers, it's their own injuries. Steve Smith will be out this week (and possibly beyond) with a knee sprain he suffered last week. Moreover, the Panthers will apparently be cautious with Cam Newton after their star quarterback injured his ankle in the second half of Carolina's Week 16 win:
Still, this is a mismatch on paper because of the Panthers' exceptional rushing attack. Carolina, 11th in rushing yardage per game, gets to feast on a Falcons defense that has conceded 4.8 yards per rush, second-worst in the league. Atlanta was decimated by front seven injuries early in the season, losing Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon to injuries. The Panthers should have little trouble making headway on the ground.
Matt Ryan has played better over the past few games, though he continues to turn the ball over at an alarming rate. Look for Carolina to put up enough points to run away early and send the Falcons home with a whimper.
Steelers (-6.5) over Browns
Of the four teams jockeying for the sixth seed, Pittsburgh is the least probable team to earn the final wild-card spot. And yet, the Steelers are probably the best candidate of all four, rebounding from a ghastly 2-6 start to give themselves a chance at a playoff berth.
The Steelers have had a multitude of young players step up and eliminate the silly mental gaffes that plagued this team in the first half. Pittsburgh has also had a nice infusion of big plays. After generating just six turnovers through the first eight games, 29th in the league, the Steelers have gotten 12 takeaways in seven games since, a much more tenable rate.
Thus, the Steelers should expose a moribund Browns offense that has almost no threat beyond Josh Gordon. As ESPN's Browns reporter Pat McManamon notes, the Cleveland offense has taken some drastic steps backwards after an encouraging start:
A few weeks ago it would have been convenient to say the Browns were a quarterback away. That was the simple solution. It also was the wrong solution. A quarterback is needed, yes, but so is a lot more. And once the Browns let center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Wardleave via free agency -- there has been no effort to sign them -- there will be two more self-created holes to fill.
The Browns need a quarterback, a running back, a fullback, a second and third receiver, two or three offensive linemen, a second corner, a safety and perhaps another inside linebacker. Or two. If that doesn’t sound like a two- or three-year rebuilding project, it’s hard to say what does.
It's hard to see Cleveland spoiling a late-season run by its biggest rivals. With the game at Heinz Field, expect the Steelers to take care of business and keep their dim postseason hopes alive.
Broncos (-10.5) over Raiders
This line feels a few points too low, doesn't it? The Raiders have conceded 7.4 yards per attempt to opposing quarterbacks, 28th in the league, and an average quarterback rating of 102.3.
That is going to be death for Oakland facing Peyton Manning, whose Broncos still need a victory to clinch the AFC's top seed. Manning, who is the new proud owner of the passing touchdown record, is also just 266 yards away from breaking Drew Brees' two-year-old passing yardage record. Per Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News, Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver acknowledged that a huge challenge lies ahead for his unit:
"They're exceptional at how well they work together and how well he can take them to the next play," defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. "One play comes out, they throw it and complete it, and the next play is someone running a double move and he's gone. (Manning) has been the best at that for a long time."
The more pressing challenge for Denver is how the Broncos defense will adjust to life without Von Miller. Denver held up well when Miller was serving a six-game suspension to begin the season, but a lot of the players who kept them afloat during that stretch have faded.
Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers, who combined for 10 sacks through six games, have just 5.5 between them in the nine games since. Safety Rahim Moore is out with a leg injury and may not return, and while Champ Bailey has come back, he has been less than impressive. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), opposing quarterbacks have compiled a 100.1 quarterback rating on 23 targets against Bailey this year.
Terrelle Pryor and the dysfunctional Raiders offense won't provide a huge challenge, but it at least gives Denver the opportunity to experiment with some different personnel groupings. They may or may not have enough to make it through a diluted AFC field, but the Broncos certainly are capable of covering this spread.