- Featuring plenty of games with either playoff implications or draft pick implications, Week 13 has something for everyone. SI's Chris Burke makes his picks—with a holiday spin.
Earlier this week on SI.com, we took a look at the teams still alive for the No. 1 pick at the 2017 draft (although, in truth it’s a four-team race). But what about those clubs stuck in NFL purgatory, between the top draft selections and the playoffs?
It’s getting awfully late in the regular season for any drastic turnarounds, but it’s also not out of the question that a sub .500 team could get hot late and sneak in. To wit: The 2015 Redskins were 5–7 after Week 13 yet won their division, while the Texans did the same despite sitting at 6–7 after Week 14.
Which of the teams currently sitting below the break-even line have the most hope for a late playoff push this season? Excluding those with little realistic chance, a look from the least likely to most likely to crash the postseason party.
Carolina and Los Angeles (4–7): Nope.
San Diego (5–6): The problem facing the Chargers (and any other AFC hopeful) is that 10–6 might not even get it done. It’s not going to be enough to win the AFC West, and the two current wild cards (Kansas City and Miami) are 8–3 and 7–4, respectively.
Arizona (4-6-1): The Cardinals have to win out, for starters, but even then, 9-6-1 might not cut it. Winning out also will require victories over Washington, Miami, New Orleans and Seattle in consecutive weeks, before a sneakily tough game at Los Angeles in Week 17.
Philadelphia (5–6): Their 3–0 start a distant memory, the Eagles close their regular-season schedule by facing four consecutive teams currently holding playoff spots (Washington, Baltimore, New York and Dallas). Only the Ravens matchup is on the road, so it’s possible, but there’s a long climb ahead.
New Orleans (5–6): Because they still play the Buccaneers twice and then the Falcons in Week 17, the Saints still can take care of themselves quite well before the season concludes. They absolutely cannot afford a slip-up this Sunday vs. Detroit, because a loss might bury them in at least the wild-card race.
Green Bay (5–6): The Lions and Vikings would have loved nothing more than for Philadelphia to take down the Packers last Monday night. Aaron Rodgers can carry a team for weeks when he gets hot, which he appears to be right now. Green Bay’s schedule is trying but far from overwhelming—home games with Houston, Seattle and Minnesota; road games at Chicago and NFC North-leading Detroit, to close the year.
Indianapolis (5–6): Houston is the weakest division leader, even more so than another 6–5 squad, Baltimore. If the Colts can keep Andrew Luck healthy, the AFC South is there for the taking, and Houston has to visit Indianapolis in Week 14. The Colts first must get this week’s Monday nighter, at the Jets, and they also must visit Minnesota and Oakland back-to-back in Weeks 15 and 16.
Still a lot of football to be played.
A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints: Cooks did not see a target in a 49-point outburst vs. Los Angeles and reportedly has grown a little miffed at his role. This week could give Cooks a chance to get back in the swing of things. He posted 10 catches for 124 yards and a TD vs. Detroit last season, despite seeing Darius Slay quite a bit.
2. Juwan Thompson, RB/FB, Broncos: All the hubbub in Denver this week is over Trevor Siemian’s injury, but the Broncos also had to place starting FB Andy Janovich (ankle) on injured reserve. Thompson is next in line for that blocking role, which Janovich thrived in this season. For a run game that’s already been struggling, losing a promising lead blocker could be a tough hit.
3. Josh Norman, CB, Redskins: What will Washington do with Norman on Sunday? Or, rather, if it chooses to keep him outside, would that simply encourage Arizona to pound passes into Larry Fitzgerald in the slot? Granted, the Cardinals tend to do that anyway, but letting Norman track Fitz inside could shift the dynamic.
4. Ladarius Green, TE, Steelers: It has been a very long wait, but Green—an alluring free-agent pickup by Pittsburgh, right after Heath Miller’s retirement—finally is starting to show up. He caught three passes for 30 yards in Week 10 vs. Dallas and two for 67 last week vs. Indianapolis. Jesse James is a steady, short-yardage TE. Green has the ability to be the seam-attacking mismatch Pittsburgh has been missing.
• Last week: 13–3 overall (113-61-1 season), 12-3-1 vs. the spread (86-84-8 season).
• Best pick in Week 12: Bills 27, Jaguars 21 (actual score: Bills 28–21)
• Worst pick in Week 12: Eagles 31, Packers 24 (actual score: Packers 27–13).
Were this game in Los Angeles, where the Rams’ defense has made life extremely difficult for opposing quarterbacks, it would be a strong upset possibility. On the road, though, that Rams’ D has not been nearly as formidable: 291.8 yards passing allowed over its last five, plus New Orleans rushed for 209 last week. Even a hobbled Tom Brady (knee), minus Rob Gronkowski (back), should be able to slice and dice his way to some points. Can Jared Goff respond in kind? The rookie threw for three TDs last week in that 49–21 loss to the Saints.
Watchability index (Christmas movie scale): The Santa Clause. Certainly not the worst holiday movie option out there, but an utterly predictable one.
Detroit has been the league’s most dramatic team—it has not had an outcome decided by more than seven points this season and has trailed in the fourth quarter in all 11 games. New Orleans ranks first in passing offense, total offense and second in points. So, all signs point to a high-flying showdown. When these teams met late last year, Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees combined for 595 yards and six touchdowns. Stafford is going to have to light it up Sunday, because his defense is in for a long day. Detroit continues to allow an absurd completion percentage (74%), while Brees is clicking at a league-leading 71.5% rate. Even if Darius Slay can help slow Brandin Cooks or Michael Thomas, the Saints can lean on Willie Snead in the slot or Coby Fleener against a Lions defense that has been unable to cover tight ends.
Watchability index: Die Hard. Yes, this counts as a Christmas movie—the whole plot centers around an office Christmas party, right? And it’s nonstop action from start to finish.
These teams have a combined one win since Halloween (Philadelphia upset Atlanta in Week 10). The Bengals’ offense is a nonstarter at this point, minus A.J. Green and Gio Bernard, but its defense actually has been steady of late—the Giants, Bills and Ravens averaged just 18.7 points against it in Weeks 10–12, respectively. It could be another rough day for Carson Wentz, if Ryan Mathews (knee) sits and the run game treads water. Wentz should have WR Jordan Matthews available; he’ll be a high-volume target, if so. Andy Dalton posted a paltry 5.9 yards per attempt last week, but that approach resulted in 283 yards and a TD. He could lead the way if the Eagles’ pass rush struggles again.
Watchability index: The Holiday. Jack Black landing Kate Winslet is about as believable as either of these teams making the playoffs.
For approximately the 15th time over the past three seasons, Aaron Rodgers is “back,” tying him with Brett Favre, Michael Phelps and Garth Brooks in the all-time not-done-yet rankings. Drawing Houston’s excellent pass defense on a gimpy hamstring will test just how resurgent Rodgers is. Davante Adams turned in another big game last week (113 yards, two catches)—he’s a legit No. 1/2 option in the offense now. Teams capable of spreading the ball around can give Green Bay’s defense fits. That doesn’t describe Houston at all, so unless Lamar Miller tops 100 yards rushing for the fourth time this season, there won’t be many points to come by for the Texans.
Watchability index: Frosty the Snowman. Watchable and backed by reputation, but not nearly as good as you might be led to believe.
Julio Jones has 1,140 yards receiving this season but it’s been an interesting trek there. He has been held to 35 yards or fewer in four games, including last week ... and the Falcons almost seem to welcome that, because extra attention on him frees up everyone else. Marcus Peters could give Jones headaches Sunday, so which of Atlanta’s other weapons comes through? Odds are on Taylor Gabriel, who is becoming a quiet star. This is a game in which Alex Smith could carry over the momentum he found late last week—Atlanta’s D ranks dead last against the pass and has allowed 25 passing TDs. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill (25 combined targets in Week 12) will handle most of the looks, if Jeremy Maclin (groin) can’t play.
Watchability index: Elf. Flawed? Sure. Fun? Hell yeah. The defenses here might feel like Buddy did after taking laps in the revolving door.
If the offenses plan to do any work in Baltimore Sunday, they had better make things happen on first or second down. The Dolphins (33.3%) and Ravens (33.6%) rank No. 1 and No. 2 in third-down defense on the season. At home, the Ravens are even more dominant, allowing opponents to move the sticks on just 25.3% of third downs. Miami might have to use the pass to set up the run, rather than vice versa—Baltimore allows just 75 yards per game on the ground; Jay Ajayi managed a mere 2.5 yards per carry last week. Meanwhile, the Dolphins have held five of seven opponents to 200 or fewer yards passing. Joe Flacco struggled to find big gainers last week. Can he flip the script?
Watchability index: Scrooged. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but I will go to bat for it. Totally underrated.
This is a dangerous one for the Broncos, who suddenly find themselves outside looking in at the AFC’s top six. They lost a Sunday night heartbreaker to Kansas City last week and now draw a Jacksonville team that, while well below .500, has nearly toppled Kansas City, Houston, Detroit and Buffalo on consecutive weekends. Denver QB Trevor Siemian (foot) is a question mark, too—he was in a walking boot mid-week. Regardless, this game will have to be won via the run game, special teams and turnovers. Both the Broncos and Jaguars have top three pass defenses.
Watchability index: It’s a Wonderful Life. While it takes some endurance to get there, the ending is worth it.
A critical game when it comes to settling the 2017 draft order. Beyond that, the intrigue lies at quarterback: Will the recent Colin Kaepernick renaissance continue? Can Matt Barkley do enough to put himself in the Bears’ plans for next season? A number to remember: 451. That’s the highest combined rushing total in a game this year (Browns-Bengals, Week 7). If Chicago’s Jordan Howard finds room early, it could be in jeopardy.
Watchability index: Fred Claus. Maybe Jingle All the Way. Whatever the worst one is.
All it took was a 62-yard deep ball from Tyrod Taylor to Sammy Watkins last week to remind everyone how much Buffalo had missed Watkins while he was out. Unfortunately, Watkins could be down again Sunday because of the broken bone in his foot. Even if he plays in limited fashion, the onus again will fall back to Taylor and LeSean McCoy. This matchup does favor them—Oakland is allowing 117 rushing yards per game. Offensively, the Raiders would love to take a little heat of Derek Carr and his previously dislocated pinkie finger. In theory, this is another game where their own rushing attack could find its footing, but they had just 85 yards combined on the ground in Weeks 11–12. It’ll likely have to be Carr through the air, as usual.
Watchability index: A Christmas Story. Even if you’ve seen it a million times and know the plot by heart, that shouldn’t stop you from watching it when it’s on.
The last time the Cardinals looked like even remote contenders was their 6–6 tie vs. Seattle in Week 7. And yet, a win on Sunday would pull them within at least 1.5 games of a wild-card spot. Despite Atlanta hanging 38 points on them last weekend, the Cardinals have the defense to pull this off, especially with Washington TE Jordan Reed (shoulder) ailing. If Arizona CB Patrick Peterson limits WR DeSean Jackson on top of that, the red-hot Kirk Cousins will have to bank on Jamison Crowder and Pierre Garcon. No secret that David Johnson will be Arizona’s go-to—the Redskins have allowed the most rushing TDs in the league (16). Will he find any help from Carson Palmer?
Watchability index: Muppet Christmas Carol. Despite having nowhere near the hype of other holiday classics, this is a gem. Here, take three minutes and watch Michael Caine sing “Thankful Heart” as Scrooge.
If you want to check out the best of what the wide receiver position can be, watch Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. trade blows Sunday. New York’s pass rush could cause Ben Roethlisberger issues and its secondary, led by potential All-Pro Landon Collins, has been opportunistic if nothing else. But this is a solid matchup for Brown nonetheless. Ditto Beckham, especially since the Giants are working harder than ever to create mismatches with him by moving him around their formations. If Brown and Beckham cancel out in some capacity, which other players provide the decisive boost? Clearly, Le’Veon Bell is a candidate, but don’t rule out New York’s Paul Perkins as a sleeper—he’s had double-digit touches three of the Giants’ past four games.
Watchability index: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This is the Christmas movie for me, and one of my favorites all-time, period. So, it draws top billing with a game that should be compelling from kickoff to the final horn.
Tampa Bay’s defense has been phenomenal the past three weeks, forcing nine turnovers and holding the Bears, Chiefs and Seahawks to an average of 10.7 points. Even on a really good day, Philip Rivers is a safe bet to cough up the football once or twice, so we’ll see how costly any miscues are Sunday. This Chargers offense is a different animal than what the Bucs have seen of late, led by a top-five passing attack—Seattle is 15th; Kansas City 24th. The passing game on the other side of the ball will feature Mike Evans, as always. He’s coming off a two-TD game vs. Seattle, but he figures to see plenty of surprise NFL interceptions leader Casey Heyward. RB Doug Martin has enjoyed a significant uptick in playing time the past two weeks, well removed from his previous injury issues. The Chargers’ run D has been strong but is vulnerable with Brandon Mebane (bicep) done for the year.
Watchability index: Love Actually. A couple of teams that are easy to fall for, even if the jury’s still out on how good they are. Perfect fit for this movie.
This has developed into quite the rivalry these past four years. The Seahawks won four straight slugfests, then the Panthers took the last two, including a 31–24 playoff win in which they once led 31–0. There is a different feel to this one, because Carolina is well outside the playoff picture and mediocre on defense. Banging an old drum here, but the Panthers have been downright miserable defending away from home—they’ve allowed 33.5 points in their past four road trips, and that’s with Los Angeles scoring just 10. They can give Seattle problems up front (everyone can, at this point), but Luke Kuechly (concussion) still is not there to clean up the mess. The Bucs stuffed Russell Wilson, but Seattle’s QB ran for 80 yards, offering just the latest sign that he’s feeling close to 100%. Carolina has its own O-line issues, with Ryan Kalil (shoulder) on I.R. Cam Newton has never had much luck throwing vs. Seattle, with two TDs and three INTs in four career appearances. Can he and Jonathan Stewart control the tempo on the ground?
Surprise star of Week 12: Jermaine Gresham, TE, Cardinals. He’s scored in two straight games and saw 10 targets last week. On top of that, the Redskins have allowed 68 receptions to opposing tight ends, third-highest total among all defenses.
Upset of the week: Chiefs (+3.5) over Falcons. Doubling down after picking the Chiefs to win in Denver last week. Their offense can attack Atlanta in those intermediate spaces where its defense isn’t great, and Peters gives the Chiefs a fighter’s chance to causing Matt Ryan headaches.
College upset of the week: Wyoming (+7) over San Diego State. Wyoming QB Josh Allen already is drumming up buzz for the 2018 draft—he’s a 6’ 5” gunslinger with a big arm. San Diego State has the superstar RB in Donnell Pumphrey, but Wyoming’s Brian Hill is pretty good in his own right.