Far be it from us to tell you to take any time away from watching football, especially on the last weekend of the 2018-2019 season when everyone’s favorite team is guaranteed to play one last time. But, if you’re only interested in watching teams who have playoff implications, then you might want to hold off until the games with a 4:25 pm (EST) kickoff because that’s when the real action starts this weekend. Here are five week 17 games with playoff implications that we’ll be paying attention to on Sunday afternoon and evening, as they’ll have a direct impact on what the matchups will look like in the opening round of the playoffs next weekend.
Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs (-13.5)
Before you scoff at the idea of this game being important, don’t forget that the Kansas City Chiefs, despite having the best record in the AFC, still have yet to either clinch home field advantage in the playoffs or even the AFC West division crown, and also have the same record (3-3) as the Oakland Raiders over each of their last six games.
Of course, Kansas City’s three losses came against teams that will play in this year’s postseason, whereas two of Oakland’s three wins came against teams that’ll be watching the playoffs from their couch (if not spending January conducting interviews for the next head coach of their respective teams).
With all of that being said, let’s put to bed this preposterous notion that there’s someone else who could – or should – win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award this year, other than Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes has already broken the all-time Chiefs passing yards record (set by Trent Green in 2004), and tied Dan Marino’s old single single-season touchdown passes record (48), and still has one more game left to play. Not only is it highly probable he’ll finish with at least 50 passing touchdowns this year (accomplished only twice in NFL history), but he currently has a staggering 12 more touchdown passes than any other quarterback in the NFL. He’s on pace to throw for more than 5,100 yards, which has only been accomplished by three sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady).
But with Mahomes, it’s much more than just statistical mastery. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for more yards than Mahomes as of this moment, Tampa Bay’s Ryan Fitzpatrick has better yards per attempt than Mahomes, and 15 different quarterbacks have a higher completion percentage. And with all of that, not one of those guys made some of the near-inhuman throws that Mahomes has pulled off this year.
Using famed sportswriter Bill Simmons’ criteria for an MVP candidate, he should be a guy whom we identify as the biggest storyline as a season when viewing a year in retrospect, a guy who would probably be the first overall pick if two teams were on the playground and picking guys to be on their team, and the guy who represents the greatest value over an average replacement player. It’s hard to see any other guy in the NFL – including Drew Brees or Phillip Rivers – fitting any of that criterion better than Mahomes.
All of that said, back to the game at hand: if we’re using a tired sports cliché, then you should throw away the record books and the previous accolades when two bitter division rivals – like the Chiefs and Raiders – square off. There hasn’t been very much for Oakland fans to hang their hat on this season. But, dropping an enormous turd in Kansas City’s postseason punch bowl would undoubtedly give them an enormous amount of satisfaction.
Then again, Jon Gruden has been the Grinch that stole Christmas all year long for the Raiders. So, expecting a win in this game seems light years more far-fetched than even the loftiest Christmas miracle. Kansas City wins this game, comfortably enough to cover the two-touchdown spread, and perhaps give backup quarterback Chad Henne some end-of-season reps, too.
Pick: Kansas City (-13.5)
Los Angeles Chargers (-6.5) at Denver Broncos
Despite the breathtaking views, unbeatable hiking opportunities, incredible food scene, and legalized availability of certain plants with psychotropic effects, the Los Angeles Chargers have to treat their visit to Denver as a full-fledged business trip.
Between the last weekend of September and midway through December, the Chargers had lost one game. As you might’ve guessed, that one game was against these same Broncos, thanks to a walk-off game-winning field goal by Broncos’ kicker Brandon McManus that capped off a back-and-forth game that the Chargers all but gave away (with 3:59 left in the 3rd quarter of said game, the Chargers held a 95.6% win probability).
Despite their hiccup against Baltimore last Sunday (with said “hiccup” comprising their entire offense getting shut down by the Ravens’ defense), the Chargers have a confirmed reservation for the postseason, and will clinch the AFC West division title (and also home-field advantage in the playoffs) with a win (or a tie) over Denver plus a loss by the Chiefs.
As mentioned, it’s tough to purchase stock in the idea of the Chiefs losing to the Raiders, which means the Chargers are locked into the 5th seed in the playoffs, facing the prospect of traveling to the stadium of the division winner with the worst win-loss record.
A win against Denver would put the Chargers’ road record at 7-1 for the season. But, although the Broncos are going to miss the playoffs for the third straight year, this game isn’t exactly a layup.
Sure, the “Black Monday” buzzards are currently circling Broncos’ head coach Vance Joseph, as a loss on Sunday would effectively seal his dismissal by Broncos’ Czar John Elway. But team leaders on the Broncos – including quarterback Case Keenum and franchise pass rusher Von Miller – have publicly commented that they’re going to go out and try and win this game for Joseph, so Chargers fans expecting the Broncos to be more focused on vacation plans than football assignments should think otherwise.
Denver can do a few things that the Ravens did to the Chargers last week, including making Phillip Rivers uncomfortable (the Broncos have the 5th-best passing defense according to FootballOutsiders.com’s passing defense DVOA metric), and pressuring him (Denver is tied for the 6th-most quarterback sacks in the NFL, with two different pass rushers – Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb – recording at least 12 sacks).
Then again, Rivers also had over 400 yards passing the last time these two teams played, so it’s not like any of those meant anything when these two teams played just over one month ago. And Denver isn’t exactly playing at full strength at the moment, given their current three-game losing streak (including two losses to cellar-dwelling teams like San Francisco and Oakland), and their season-ending injury to Pro Bowl running back Phillip Lindsay.
Expect the Broncos to come out and put up a good fight at the start of the game, but run out of gas against a Chargers team that has better personnel than them. That’s why this 6.5-point line feels too high, and you should take the points.
Pick: Denver (+6.5)
Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings (-5)
Fellow children of the 1980s will undoubtedly have fond memories of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. In that vein: the Chicago Bears have something of a “Choose Your Own Playoff Adventure” situation when they play their NFC North rival Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
If Chicago goes to Minnesota and beats the fighting-for-their-postseason-lives Vikings on Sunday, they’ll either send the Vikings home for the playoffs and play the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the playoffs (assuming Philadelphia beats a Washington Redskins team that’s in yet another December tailspin). Or, they might even secure a first-round bye in the playoffs, if the San Francisco 49ers upset the Los Angeles Rams this weekend (unlikely, though far from impossible).
If the Bears decide to give their starters rest, they’ll still hold on to the #3 seed in the playoffs, but not only will they let the Minnesota Vikings into the postseason (regardless of the outcome of the Philadelphia-Washington) game, but also set up a rematch with Minnesota in the opening round of the playoffs.
However, even though the Bears hold the proverbial cards in this game, their dual is far more about what the Vikings will do, as opposed to what the Bears will.
After a three-game winning streak in October, Minnesota pulled out to a 4-2-1 record, looking ahead to an admittedly tough slate of games that would define the remainder of their season.
From there, they went 2-4, losing three of those four games by double-digit points, and losing by five points to these same Chicago Bears, thanks to a last-minute touchdown that made the final score look more closer than the game that had taken place. Like in their last effort against Chicago, Minnesota pulled off a couple of unremarkable wins over the last two weeks to make their play over the last eight weeks more competitive than it actually was.
That’s why Sunday’s game represents a critical referendum on the Kirk Cousins experience. Put simply: if Minnesota is even to return to the postseason (let alone the NFC Championship game they made it to last year), Cousins has to beat a team with a winning record.
The four games they’ve lost among their last eight outings? They were all against teams with winning teams (and their four wins were against teams with losing records). Of the eight wins that Cousins has quarterbacked this season, seven of them came against teams with losing records as of today; that one win over a “winning” team came against Philadelphia, back in Week 5 when the Eagles were still struggling through their Super Bowl hangover (between Week 4 and Week 15 of this year, the Eagles also had a .500 record or below, so take that into account when judging Cousins’ ability to “rise to the occasion”).
All of that being said, and regardless of the opponent’s record, Cousins is 0-2 over his past two Week 17 “win and in” games, when he started for the Redskins. If Chicago does come out with the mindset of giving this game their full effort (as stated by Bears head coach Matt Nagy), that could very easily fall to 0-3.
Taking the points in this matchup feels like easy money.
Pick: Chicago (+5)
Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens (-6)
Like eating your dinner before your dessert, let’s get the important stuff out of the way. The Baltimore Ravens will earn a postseason berth with a win (which would automatically give them the AFC North division title), or a tie (plus a tie by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, and Tennessee Titans; the latter happen two play each other on Sunday). There’s a road in which the Ravens can even secure a first-round bye in the playoffs, but that would require a loss by the New England Patriots and Houston Texans, and the Colts vs. Titans not ending in a tie (or a whole bunch of other math that’s not worth discussing in the approximate 0.001% chance the Colts and Titans do finish in a tie).
Now, let’s get to the good stuff. And by good stuff, I mean the Cleveland Browns. And I’m not joking.
The Browns are 5-1 over their last six games. That means that since the second weekend of November, they’ve lost one game. In case you didn’t realize it: the same team that won seven games between September of 2015 through the first weekend of November of 2018 currently has seven wins this season alone. If firing Hue Jackson can result in a dramatic breakthrough for the NFL’s most moribund team (Cleveland is 5-2 since dismissing Jackson), maybe the world’s leading disease research centers should hire Jackson just to fire him, since it has paradigm-shifting results.
But seriously, how can you not love this Browns team? They’ve got a “no-effs-given” young supernova at quarterback (Baker Mayfield — more on him in a second), a rookie running back on the cusp of being the team’s second player with 1,000 yards rushing over the past decade, a head coach who believes he turns down dozens of job offers each year, and offensive coordinator who’s no longer the best kept secret in the NFL, and a defense that’s still among the best in the NFL in stopping opponents from throwing the football (Cleveland is 6th in the NFL in passing defense DVOA).
Getting back to Mayfield: in some NFL circles, Mayfield might’ve surpassed New York Giants’ running back Saquon Barkley as the favorite for the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. But if he wants to tilt the votes in his favor, his biggest – if not last – opportunity to do so lies in sending fellow 2018 NFL Draft first-round pick Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens home for the playoffs (also assuming the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field).
So, do I think the Cleveland Browns are going to beat the Baltimore Ravens? Of course not. Baltimore is still a really good home team (5-2 overall, and 3-0 with Jackson under center), and they come into this game on a hot streak as scalding as Cleveland’s. Mayfield and the Browns will definitely make this game close, but at least as of right now, the Ravens are the better team. Again: only as of right now.
That’s why I’m taking the points.
Pick: Cleveland (+6)
Indianapolis Colts (-3) at Tennessee Titans
There’s a simple equation for the Indianapolis Colts vs. Tennessee Titans matchup on Sunday evening: whoever loses goes home, and watches the AFC South division rival that eliminated them from the playoff race go on to play in the postseason.
The sportsbooks – and the rest of the country – clearly like the Colts in this game, considering Indianapolis went up from 2.5-point favorites when the lines opened, up to three-point favorites (though some sportsbooks still have them laying 2.5, meaning if there was any action on this line, it’s in the Colts’ favor).
But if you’re a football fan who’s hoping for the best four possible matchups in the opening round of the playoffs, then you should perform whatever ceremonial ritual needed to appease the football gods, and help ensure the Colts win this weekend.
Tennessee has a 9-6 record through 16 weeks of the regular season; nobody can take that away from them. But the Titans’ nine wins feel like the NFL equivalent of the Philadelphia Flyers selecting their (infamously) new mascot: you might’ve accomplished something in your own eyes, but the beauty of said accomplishment is really in the eye of the beholder.
With all due respect to fans of the Tennessee Titans, to put it more bluntly: there are those teams who other teams don’t want to play, and there are teams that most NFL fans don’t want to watch. The Titans are the latter.
They’ll ram the ball down your throat (Tennessee averages 31.5 carries for 178 yards rushing during their current four-game streak), and hope their above-average (though otherwise unexceptional) defense can do just enough to edge out a win in a game that would probably earn negative style points, if such a thing were awarded.
Before running back Derrick Henry suddenly transformed into the second coming of Earl Campbell (he has 532 yards and eight rushing touchdowns in December), Tennessee didn’t have a single player that any NFL fan outside of The Volunteer State would think “I want to watch that guy play.”
It speaks volumes when Tennessee’s three Pro Bowl players are two linemen that are often overlooked in conversations of “best players at their position” (left tackle Taylor Lewan and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey) and their punter.
The one guy whom the NFL could try and market for the Titans – quarterback Marcus Mariota – continues to spend as much time being planted on the ground as he does making plays.
Mariota has taken yet another merciless beating this year. Against Washington last week, Mariota told a local radio station that most of the right side of his body went “numb and tingly,” and indicated he had a nerve injury after falling awkwardly on his elbow during a sack. He’s been sacked 42 times this year, meaning he’s effectively averaging three sacks every time he steps on the field, putting him among seven quarterbacks who’ve taken the most sacks this year.
For the sake of playoff weekend, and the sake of football fans in the other 49 states in our great country (and all other countries around the world), pray that the Titans don’t win this game.
Pick: Indianapolis (-3)