Last-Minute Predictions for NFL Week 17
It's hard to believe that it's Week 17, the final NFL Sunday of the 2013 regular season.
This is the most compelling final week since the NFL made the decision to play only division games on the final Sunday, with playoff spots and seeding up for grabs in both conferences.
There are two win-or-go-home division title games: Green Bay at Chicago and Philadelphia at Dallas. There are four teams fighting for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC: Baltimore, Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh. There's a wild-card spot in the NFC up for grabs as well, and no team in either conference has clinched home-field advantage.
For true NFL fans, Sunday is Christmas. Read on for my last-minute predictions.
Cincinnati Will Win a Defensive Struggle Versus Baltimore
Even though the Bengals have already clinched the AFC North title, they still have a lot to play for in Sunday's game against the Ravens.
First, they have an opportunity to knock Baltimore out of playoff contention. The Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champions, and every team would be happy if John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco didn't make it into January.
Second, they can exact a measure of revenge for a tough 20-17 loss in Baltimore.
They still have a chance to earn the No. 2 seed with a win and a New England loss versus Buffalo. Of course, that means a first-round bye in the postseason. On the other hand, they could drop to the No. 4 seed with a loss and a Colts win.
Lastly, it's a chance to make a major statement and finish off an unblemished 2013 home record. Cincinnati is 7-0 this year at Paul Brown Stadium and is guaranteed to host at least one home playoff game. A win over a tough opponent like Baltimore would send the Bengals into the postseason feeling confident as they seek their first playoff victory since 1990.
The Bengals will get the job done in a major defensive struggle. There's little doubt the Ravens defense will come to play, especially after getting destroyed last week by New England, and their offense won't be able to put many points on the board against the Bengals' fearsome front.
Bleacher Report's experts agree, with all 12 predicting the Bengals to come out on top.
New York Will Upset Miami on the Road
Last week, the Dolphins laid an egg of epic proportion. I mean, Humpty Dumpty would have been proud of the egg laid by coach Joe Philbin's team.
Miami had an opportunity to take control of its playoff destiny with a win against an undermanned Bills team, but it was thoroughly dominated and shut out. It was an embarrassing all-around effort.
But the Dolphins can still claim the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC with a win over the Jets and some help. They need to win and have Baltimore lose to Cincinnati or win and have San Diego beat Kansas City.
Don't count on Miami holding up its end. The Jets are going to pull off the upset and knock the Dolphins out of the postseason.
New York was annihilated by Miami in Week 13, 23-3, and is an organization facing uncertainty. It's unclear if coach Rex Ryan will return in 2014, although reports, such as Manish Mehta's of the New York Daily News, state that it's looking like he will return.
Rookie quarterback Geno Smith hasn't done enough to secure the starting job heading into next season, so Week 17 will be his opportunity to prove that he can be a franchise quarterback.
Ryan told Newsday's Kimberley A. Martin:
This team whipped us probably more than any team in the league. Our worst performance was against Miami the last time at our place. And so we think we've improved as a team and we certainly have the opportunity to prove it Sunday against Miami, with all that they have playing for it. So we'll know if we've improved.
Coming off a 19-0 loss to the Thad Lewis-led Bills, the Dolphins lost the momentum they gained during their three-game winning streak. Ryan's club will gut out a hard-fought win to improve to 8-8 on the season.
Peyton Manning Will Close the Year with 55 Touchdown Passes
Peyton Manning is having a year for the ages. Last week, he broke the all-time record for most touchdown passes in a season with 51 and is well on his way to capturing his record fifth MVP award.
But he's not done yet. In fact, Manning will finish the season with an unprecedented 55 touchdown passes after Denver eviscerates Oakland on Sunday.
The Broncos still have a lot to play for. If they lost to Oakland and the Patriots defeated the Bills, New England would claim home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. So the onus will be on Manning and co. to bury the Raiders and leave no doubt.
The Raiders have the 26th-ranked pass defense in the league and were torched by Manning in Week 3 to the tune of 374 yards and three touchdowns. The Silver and Black can't compete with Denver's offensive attack.
Manning will throw four touchdown passes in a Broncos' blowout win, capping off with panache the greatest statistical season by a quarterback in NFL history.
Aaron Rodgers Will Throw for 3 Touchdowns, and Green Bay Will Win the NFC North
Aaron Rodgers will make his highly anticipated return to the lineup just in time for the team's win-or-go-home NFC North title game against the Bears.
While Rodgers is coming off a broken collarbone, which coincidentally occurred versus Chicago in November, Bleacher Report's Dave Siebert, MD believes he will be just fine, writing:
Furthermore, unless Rodgers suffers an aforementioned disastrous hit—and assuming no significant associated ligament or soft tissue damage existed or exists—his collarbone should produce only minimal pain and soreness as the game goes on, if any.
Rodgers absolutely owns the Bears, with an 8-2 record against them, including a victory in the 2010 NFC title game. Chicago's defense hasn't given up under 20 points once this season, and it just gave up 54 to Nick Foles and the Eagles.
Rodgers is the best player in football, and the Packers are a better team than the Bears. Eddie Lacy will have success running the football against the league's worst run defense, and Rodgers will throw for at least three touchdowns as Green Bay outlasts Chicago for the division.
San Francisco Will Win in Arizona
The Cardinals are one of the feel-good stories of the 2013 season. Coach Bruce Arians has done a fabulous job, guiding his team to a surprising 10-5 record in the brutal NFC West.
However, the team needs a minor miracle to make the postseason. In order to qualify, it'll have to beat San Francisco and have the Buccaneers down the Saints in New Orleans.
Forget about the Bucs and Saints, because the Cardinals aren't beating the 49ers, even in Arizona.
While Bleacher Report's experts are torn on this game, with six votes apiece for each team, I'm feeling confident about the 49ers.
San Francisco is the better team and is riding a five-game winning streak, and it has championship pedigree. Plus, it has a lot to play for.
- The 49ers get the No. 1 seed with a win and losses by the Seahawks and Panthers to the Rams and Falcons, respectively.
- They get the No. 2 seed with a win and a Seattle loss, assuming Carolina wins.
- If both Seattle and Carolina win, and San Francisco wins, it gets the No. 5 seed.
- If San Francisco loses and New Orleans loses, it gets the No. 5 seed.
- The Niners get the No. 6 seed with a loss and a New Orleans win.
As you can see, the team's status is completely up in the air.
Since receiver Michael Crabtree returned, the offense has been performing at a much higher level, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick seems to be getting better each week. In fact, Crabtree posted his first 100-yard receiving effort of the season last week versus the Falcons.
The game will be close, but the 49ers will pull it out at the end and carry a six-game win streak into the playoffs.
Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham Will Go off and Lead New Orleans to the Postseason
The Saints were 9-2 after a Week 12 victory in Atlanta and looked like they were headed for the NFC South title. But they've lost three of four games since and can miss out on the postseason if they lose and Arizona takes down San Francisco at home.
Thankfully for the Saints, the game is in the friendly confines of the Superdome, and their opponent is the 4-11 Buccaneers. Don't expect this one to be close.
Coach Sean Payton told the Associated Press' Brett Martel (via the Shreveport Times):
The challenge this week is trying guard against thinking about those various scenarios. We control one thing. We know if we're able to go out and play well and win, we're guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. ... I don't want to spend those two hours prior to the game with the television sets going and all the other potential distractions that can take place with a game that's being played prior to ours.
That will be key, as it is dangerous to scoreboard-watch instead of focusing on the game at hand.
When the two teams met in Week 2, Drew Brees threw for 322 yards, and tight end Jimmy Graham caught 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. With a playoff berth on the line, the two stars will bring their A-games and dominate the Bucs.
So while the Saints will face a difficult road to the Super Bowl, likely having to win three road games to get there, at least they'll qualify for the postseason by crushing Tampa Bay.
San Diego Will Claim the Sixth and Final AFC Playoff Spot
Coming into the season, I expected the Chargers to be no better than a five- or six-win team. Needless to say, that was one prediction that didn't pan out.
Coach Mike McCoy has done a phenomenal job, and Philip Rivers is once again playing at an elite level. As a result, the Chargers are within striking distance of the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. They need to beat Kansas City and have both the Dolphins and Ravens lose.
That's exactly what's going to happen.
The Chiefs have nothing to play for. They're already locked into the fifth seed in the AFC, and coach Andy Reid told NFL.com's Marc Sessler that he's unsure how much he's going to play his starters. It's a strategy he's employed in the past when he was coaching the Eagles.
That means the Chargers likely won't have to deal with Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles and the rest of the starters for most of the game. If Norv Turner were still the coach, this would likely be letdown city for Chargers fans. But McCoy won't let that happen.
The Chargers will cruise to an easy home victory against the Chiefs backups, and by virtue of Baltimore and Miami both losing, they will earn the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
Philadelphia Will Rack Up 400 Yards of Total Offense and Win the NFC East
Much of the hoopla surrounding Sunday night's win-and-in matchup for the NFC East title between Philadelphia and Dallas has centered around Tony Romo's back surgery.
The popular belief is that without Romo, the Cowboys have no chance of winning. Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman said as much earlier this week in a fantastic piece that is well worth your time.
But what people are failing to mention is that it doesn't matter who's under center for Dallas. The Cowboys will lose to the Eagles because their defense is absolutely atrocious.
The Cowboys could start a healthy Romo and lose. Heck, they could bring back Troy Aikman or Roger Staubach and not be able to win. Why? Because the quarterback doesn't play defense, and that's Dallas' issue.
The Cowboys defense is ranked dead last in football, while the Eagles rank ninth in the NFL in passing and first in rushing.
Yes, the Cowboys did hold the Eagles to three points in Week 7, but that was with Nick Foles and Matt Barkley splitting snaps under center. Philly has won six of seven, and it's largely been because of the offense.
B/R's Brad Gagnon detailed why you shouldn't expect a repeat performance of that particular game on Sunday night.
Even if Kyle Orton plays well, it won't be enough. Chip Kelly's high-octane offense, run by Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy to perfection, will dominate, and the Eagles will claim the NFC East title.