Things we know with one jam-packed day left in the 2014 regular season:
• It looks like the jinx of the Super Bowl host will live on for a 49th consecutive year. For much of the season, Arizona appeared to be making a serious run at securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but the chance of that dream coming true is remote these days. Unless the red-hot Seahawks stumble at home against the Rams on Sunday, the Cardinals will be taking the wild-card route in January, making it very difficult for them to re-claim their University of Phoenix Stadium on Feb. 1.
• There have been much better showings from recent crops of new NFL head coaches than this year’s. Of the seven new hires in 2014, only Detroit’s Jim Caldwell is assured of being a playoff qualifier, with Houston’s Bill O’Brien the only other newbie who has a shot to finish with a winning record. Cleveland’s Mike Pettine might make .500 with an upset at Baltimore, and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer has done very solid first-year work. But Washington’s Jay Gruden, Tampa Bay’s Lovie Smith and Tennessee’s Ken Whisenhunt have led three of the worst teams in the league this season. Last year, three new coaches led their teams to the playoffs (Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, Andy Reid in Kansas City and Mike McCoy in San Diego), and two others just missed (Bruce Arians in Arizona and Marc Trestman in Chicago).
• The NFL, for all its talk of parity, is still a story of the haves and have-nots. Year after agonizing year, the playoffs remain just an illusion in places like Cleveland, Buffalo, Oakland, Jacksonville, St. Louis, Tennessee, Miami and Tampa Bay. On the flip side, there’s a chance we might have an astounding seven repeat division champions this year, with New England, Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati making it 4-for-4 in the AFC, while Seattle, Green Bay and Carolina all could possibly defend their crowns in the NFC (sorry Eagles fans, this stat only serves to deepen your pain). Pittsburgh and Baltimore are another pair of familiar AFC playoff entries, with the Steelers already in and the Ravens trying to join them.
Now the final week of the regular season will fill in the remaining blanks, and then the five-week survival test that is the postseason unfolds.
• Last week: 9-7; Season: 159-80 (.665).
• Best pick in Week 16: Green Bay 33, Tampa Bay 17 (Actual score: Packers 20-3).
• Worst pick in Week 16: New Orleans 37, Atlanta 27 (Actual score: Falcons 30-14).
Below are my Week 17 picks:
The Ravens didn’t just get defeated at Houston last week, they got badly out-played by the 8-7 Texans, a loss that could wind up changing the entire complexion of the season for Baltimore. But the Ravens will do what they have to do against the reeling Browns, and then hope they get help from Kansas City in their quest to overtake the Chargers. Three AFC North teams in the playoffs would make the six-team AFC field that much better in my opinion. As for the Browns, watch Connor Shaw play and play well, giving Cleveland better production than it got from its other rookie quarterback of the past two weeks. Wouldn’t that start off the 2015 offseason with a bang?
Well how ‘bout them Cowboys? Only when they seemed doomed to hit rock bottom this season, thanks to a presumed lack of defensive talent, did they wind up finally reaching their potential. Dallas isn’t a great team, but the Cowboys know who they are and what they do well and the NFC East almost always surprises us. Dallas becomes the division’s fourth different champion in the past four seasons, and the East hasn’t had a repeat champion since the Eagles won four titles in a row from 2001-'04.
The Colts should have been fined by the league for their no-show last week at Dallas. Who cares if you’re going to play your starters in every game, Chuck Pagano, if your starters don’t really play? Indianapolis needs to at least remove the stench of Week 16 before it looks ahead to its first-round playoff rematch against either the Bengals or Steelers. Fortunately for the Colts, the last-place Titans have specialized in opponents’ stench removal all season long.
The Texans’ long-shot playoff bid isn’t likely to unfold, but a winning record in coach Bill O’Brien’s first season on the job in Houston, which they can easily secure with a win over the Jaguars at home on Sunday, is a huge step forward after the 2-14 debacle of 2013. I thought O’Brien was the best hire of last year’s seven new head coaches in the NFL, and now I’m utterly convinced of it.
The Chargers must love Arrowhead Stadium by now. They’ve won there in each of the past two seasons, and are 5-2 in Kansas City from 2007 on. But I don’t see Philip Rivers being able to pull another rabbit out of his hat this week like that sleight of hand he executed against the 49ers eight days ago. The Chiefs need to win and get some help to make the playoffs, but they’ll have to settle for the satisfaction of merely extinguishing San Diego’s postseason hopes.
Not this time, Gang Green. Not this time. The Jets upset the Dolphins in Week 17 in Miami last year to help secure one more season for head coach Rex Ryan. But the Dolphins aren’t going to fall for the banana in the tail pipe again. Nothing will be saving Ryan from the firing line after this season’s three-win disaster. As the 46th season after the Jets’ only Super Bowl appearance ends, it’s fitting that it’ll conclude in South Florida, because all these years later New York is still trying to recapture the magic of Joe Namath and that iconic win at the Orange Bowl in Super Bowl III.
The Vikings and Bears are the non-playoff qualifying half of the four-team NFC North contingent, and while Green Bay and Detroit fight it out for the division title at Lambeau Field, Minnesota and Chicago wrap up seasons that had entirely different vibes. The Vikings are at least hopeful for the future with head coach Mike Zimmer in charge. The Bears are braced for change and reeling from the embarrassment of a spectacular failure.
Kids in New England grow up believing first-round playoff byes are their birthright. This is the fifth consecutive season (2010-'14) the Patriots will skip the first round of the postseason and then host a divisional round game. True, they haven’t made the most of that advantage, appearing in just one Super Bowl during that span ('11), but still, a week off around the holidays is always nice.
This is the first game in the two-year Chip Kelly coaching era that the Eagles have had nothing to play for, and I’m not expecting them to respond well to being in such virgin territory. The Giants on the other hand look fairly well energized by their three-game winning streak and the prospects that, alas, head coach Tom Coughlin’s tenure will not be coming to an end.
There’s nothing compelling to watch here except the Bucs’ bid to lose and wrap up the No. 1 overall draft pick, presumably for Oregon’s Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. So be careful, Tampa Bay. Now is no time to play the hero if you’re the Bucs. There will be no honor in finishing 3-13 and losing out on the grand prize.
Not that I think the Lions have much of a chance to win at Lambeau Field, but there is some nice symmetry on their side in this showdown for the NFC North title. Including the playoffs, Detroit has lost 23 consecutive games in the state of Wisconsin (either in Green Bay or Milwaukee), which is an NFL record for the most consecutive road losses versus any single opponent. But the Lions’ last win there came in Week 16 of 1991, when they beat the Packers 21-17 on a bitterly cold day at Lambeau. Detroit entered that game at 10-4 and earned the NFC Central title and a playoff berth with the victory. This year's Lions clinched a playoff berth last weekend, but they can wrap up its first division crown since 1993 if they pull the upset. The Packers, however, have their eyes on that No. 2 seed in the NFC and a much-needed week off to heal up Aaron Rodgers’ sore calf. Green Bay will find a way and log a perfect 8-0 record at home.
The Broncos aren’t surging into the postseason looking like a good bet to get back to the Super Bowl and finish the job this time, but if they can gut out a win over the plucky Raiders, it’ll earn them a week off to regroup and refocus in advance of the divisional round. That makes this week’s game worth one playoff victory, and that’s a prize I don’t expect Peyton Manning and Co. to let slip away.
I’m curious to see what Cardinals veteran QB Ryan Lindley does with his starting opportunity against a 49ers team that simply couldn’t put Philip Rivers and the Chargers away last Saturday night. Wonder if any playoff-bound team with a double-digit victory total has ever started four different quarterbacks in the same season before? But you can trace a lot of Arizona’s late-season troubles -- with a loss to San Francisco the Cardinals will finish 2-4 after starting 9-1 -- to the instability at quarterback. The stat of the year might be that teams facing Seattle the past nine games are 0-9 the following week, meaning Arizona is next in that line for defeat, the same way San Francisco was last week after losing to the Seahawks in Week 15. I have to believe the 49ers want to muster one last quality effort and get Jim Harbaugh a home-field victory in his final game wearing the headset for San Francisco. What a long, strange trip it has been for the 49ers this year, but you really could see this train wreck coming from a mile away.
Are there really still any Russell Wilson doubters out there? They must be down to a deluded handful or two at most after watching Seattle’s third-year, dual-threat quarterback destroy a quality Arizona defense last Sunday night. Wilson threw for 339 yards with two touchdowns, and ran for 88 yards and a score, making him, according to the NFL, the first player in league history with two career games topping 300 yards passing and at least 85 yards rushing. Wilson has passed for 3,236 yards and rushed for 842 this season, logging 4,078 yards of offense in 15 games. Seeing him do virtually anything he wanted to do against the Cardinals last week, it was pretty easy to imagine him back in that same stadium, taking the big confetti shower again, in another six weeks.
Now that it’s almost over, I’m kind of sad to see the punching-bag NFC South fun end so soon. Having a whole division to kick around all season long has been pretty entertaining and makes everyone feel that much better about themselves. But somebody’s got to win the worst division in NFL history, and by defeating the visiting Panthers, the Falcons will have richly earned it. After all, if Atlanta wins this, they will secure a perfect 6-0 record in the division (but a 1-9 record against everyone else). That makes Mike Smith’s Birds the best of the worst. And don’t forget that Arizona -- Atlanta’s likely first-round playoff opponent -- is the one non-division opponent the Falcons beat this season, in the Georgia Dome in Week 13.
The Bengals have led the division for most of the season, but the streaky Steelers are going to wind up on top of the AFC North at the end of the week that matters most -- the last one. Pittsburgh hasn’t been great at Heinz Field this season, losing there to both the Bucs and Saints, but it roughed up the Bengals in Cincinnati in Week 14, and it’ll take care of business on Sunday night, riding into the playoffs with the No. 3 seed in the AFC and a four-game winning streak.