Cam Newton ran away with last season’s MVP race, carrying 48 of a possible 50 votes. J.J. Watt scored a victory of similar proportions for Defensive Player of the Year, with 37 votes (Aaron Donald placed second, with seven). There are seasons when the award winners are obvious, long before the playoffs begin.
This is not one of those seasons.
Is the NFL MVP Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or one of the Cowboys’ standout rookies? Which of those two Dallas youngsters, QB Dak Prescott or RB Ezekiel Elliott, is the Offensive Rookie of the Year? Can Khalil Mack capture Defensive Player of the Year, or will someone like Von Miller, Aaron Donald or even Landon Collins bump him?
To the extent there can be drama in postseason awards, the 2016 season has produced it, just about across the board. And that includes the Coach of the Year race.
There are three clear candidates: Oakland’s Jack Del Rio, Miami’s Adam Gase and Dallas’s Jason Garrett. Should any other names be in the discussion?
The leading vote-getters there, Reid and Belichick, both make for interesting cases. Reid won his only Coach of the Year award in 2002, yet this is his eighth double-digit win season since. Belichick has three wins, last in 2010—he is 61–19 in the five seasons following that.
Especially in Belichick’s case, have voters simply taken success for granted? To think that Belichick has gone five straight seasons without being named Coach of the Year, despite winning at least a dozen games in all of those seasons certainly suggests so. Meanwhile, Reid now is 42–21 during his Kansas City tenure.
Coach of the Year, fairly or not, does tend to swing away from those with proven track records to coaches whose teams surprise. Hence, Ron Rivera’s 2013 and ’15 titles and Bruce Arians’s in 2014 (with Arizona) and ’12 (as the interim in Indianapolis). That’s why Del Rio, Garrett and Gase—all playoff-bound—are generally believed to be the front-runners right now.
It’s also why Quinn, whose Falcons already have wrapped up the NFC South, and McAdoo, whose Giants will finish as a 10- or 11-win team, could sneak into the mix. (McAdoo’s odds are much longer, given Garrett’s work within the same division.)
Will anything that happens in Week 17 swing the voting? It could, if Del Rio misses out on the AFC West title at the last moment without his starting QB.
So, what’s on tap for the final weekend of the regular season?
A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Darius Slay, CB, Lions: Slay left Week 15 early and missed Week 16 due to a hamstring injury. Detroit just signed CB Crezdon Butler a few days ago, too, perhaps an indication that Slay won’t be ready for Sunday. But the Lions need him. He is their top cornerback by a significant margin, and might be their only hope of keeping Aaron Rodgers in check. If he plays, he’ll draw Jordy Nelson quite a bit, although Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin also has used him at times on Randall Cobb (who is questionable himself).
2. Adam Gotsis, DE, Broncos: Denver is running on fumes, and it will hand much of its Week 17 workload over to its younger players. Enter the rookie Gotsis, who figures to see heavy snaps with Derek Wolfe (neck) likely out and and Sylvester Williams also limited this week. The Broncos have to contain Oakland’s run game to pick up a win.
3. Bashaud Breeland, CB, Redskins: Odell Beckham Jr. may not play all 60 minutes Sunday, but he should be out there—and matched up with Josh Norman—for a bit. If Eli Manning wants to steer clear of that head-to-head, his next option could be Sterling Shepard, likely against Breeland. A big play here or there by New York’s offense would make Washington a lot more uneasy Sunday.
4. Charcandrick West, RB, Chiefs: Starting RB Spencer Ware is expected to play Sunday after leaving the Chiefs’ Christmas Eve win with an injury to his ribs. If he can’t go, or if he is ineffective, West again would be next man up. He managed just 35 yards on 14 carries last Saturday. And the Chargers are stingy on the ground: 3.9 yards per carry allowed. The Chiefs just do not want to be in a lot of third-and-longs against Joey Bosa up front and an opportunistic San Diego secondary.
• Last week: 7-9 overall (156-81-1 season), 6-10 vs. the spread (119-109-10 season).
• Best pick in Week 16: Raiders 27, Colts 25 (actual score: Raiders 33–25).
• Worst pick in Week 16: Bears 24, Redskins 21 (actual score: Redskins 41–21).
Dallas coach Jason Garrett says that everyone who is healthy will play. He didn’t guarantee they would go the whole 60 minutes. QB Mark Sanchez is expected to be active, and it might behoove the Cowboys to give Prescott and Elliott the second half off, especially with star left tackle Tyron Smith (knee) out. Dallas doesn’t want to expose Prescott to too many hits from that Philadelphia pass rush. The Eagles’ D didn’t sack Eli Manning in a Week 16 Thursday win, but it did pick him off three times. Philly also pushed Dallas to the limit back in Week 8, a 29–23 Cowboys win that was one of the rare times the NFC East champs have had to come from behind.
Watchability index: 8 for the first half, probably around a 4 for the second. The Eagles would love to close Carson Wentz’s rookie year with a win here.
A running theme you’ll notice is that Week 17 is as much about which players aren’t playing as those that are. For the Steelers, all indications are that Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will sit, wisely. Is that enough for the Browns to get their second win? Maybe. Backup QB Landry Jones played a decent game in an earlier spot start vs. New England, but Bell and Brown combined for upwards of 260 yards in that game. It’s likely to be Jones vs. Cody Kessler, because Robert Griffin III suffered a concussion in Cleveland’s first win last Sunday. Kessler was 7 of 14 for 128 yards in a 24–9 Week 11 loss to Pittsburgh ... before leaving with a concussion, because Browns QBs are doomed to be injured.
Watchability index: 2. As in, the number of wins and the 2017 draft pick the Browns could wind up with if they care enough Sunday.
From Landry Jones–Cody Kessler to EJ Manuel-Ryan Fitzpatrick. Jets fans will wonder, understandably, why their team is playing a QB about to hit free agency rather than their untested rookie Christian Hackenberg. Perhaps it’s because Bryce Petty already got torn apart behind the Jets’ O-line. Fitzpatrick did throw for 374 yards and a TD during a Week 2 win in Buffalo, but the Bills’ issues the past couple months have come on the ground—just ask Jay Ajayi (206 yards in Week 16). Matt Forte found the end zone three times during that September victory. It’ll be the Bilal Powell show if Forte (shoulder) is sidelined again. Much of this will come down to how much the Bills want interim coach Anthony Lynn to grab the full-time job.
Watchability index: 5. It’s intriguing, at least as far as the early slate goes, because of the Bills’ coaching upheaval.
The Colts will be haunted this off-season, as they watch the playoffs from home, by three intra-division losses: two to Houston and one, in Week 3, at Jacksonville. The Jaguars hung 30 points on the board that day, their highest output until this past Sunday. Not that anyone has necessarily noticed, but the Jaguars’ pass defense has been stout—its 6.5 yards-per-attempt allowed is second in the league. And the matchup of Indianapolis WR T.Y. Hilton vs. Jacksonville CB Jalen Ramsey, perhaps the Defensive Rookie of the Year, should be good. Hilton scored in the Week 4 loss at Jacksonville, yet averaged just 6.0 yards on seven receptions.
Watchability index: 2. If we could get a camera isolated on Hilton when the Colts have the ball, that would be preferable to whatever else goes on.
Last season, the Patriots eased up during a Week 17 road trip to Miami, and their resulting loss eventually sent them on the road for the conference title game, a 20–18 loss in Denver. Bill Belichick will do whatever he can to guard against a repeat. His job could be much easier if the Dolphins opt to give reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week Jay Ajayi a little breather. Miami coach Adam Gase said, via the Miami Herald, that Ajayi was “a little banged up” coming out of Week 16, and the Dolphins have to travel to Pittsburgh or Houston for next week’s wild-card round. Miami is coughing up 4.9 yards per rush attempt, 31st in the league, so this could be a LeGarrette Blount–Dion Lewis type of game. Blount had 123 yards in a Week 2 win over Miami, with Jimmy Garoppolo under center.
Watchability index: 7.5. Halfway between an average game and a weekly best, depending on how aggressively Miami plays it.
The Legend of Matt Barkley abruptly ended last week, as the Bears’ QB fired five interceptions in a loss to Washington. Of course, the Vikings’ once-feared defense has allowed a combined 759 yards and 72 points the past two weeks, as the team’s playoff hopes have vanished. So, who knows. Sam Bradford had season-highs for completions (34), attempts (50), yards (382) and TDs (four) last week in Green Bay, although much of it came in garbage time. The Bears shut his offense down during a 20–10 win in Week 8. With Adrian Peterson (knee) likely sidelined again, can Jerick McKinnon or Matt Asiata snap the Vikings’ streak of 11 straight games without 100 yards rushing?
Watchability index: 1. Unless you’re a fan of one of these teams (and maybe even if you are), it’s tough to feel any excitement.
This had so much potential, at least as far as the AFC South goes. All Tennessee had to do last Saturday was win in Jacksonville to turn this into a do-or-die showdown for the division. Instead, the Titans lost and Marcus Mariota fractured his leg, so this game gets buried along with the other 1 p.m. ET kicks. The Texans will start Tom Savage, which should answer any questions about their plans for the playoffs—this is the last chance they have to get Savage rolling before hosting a postseason matchup with Oakland or Kansas City. Tennessee’s secondary had no answers for Blake Bortles (325 yards) in Week 16.
Watchability index: 3. Did I mention that Matt Cassel is starting for Tennessee? No? Oh, well, you’ve been warned.
Tough to ask the Ravens to get up for this one after they lost the AFC North by about six inches last week. That potential Hall of Fame WR Steve Smith says this is his final game might help. The 37-year-old needs an all-time performance (303 yards) to reach the 15,000-yard mark for his career, but he’d probably settle for one last TD. Cincinnati limited him to 20 yards on four catches in a 19–14 Baltimore win on Nov. 27. If rumors are to believed, this also could be the final game of Marvin Lewis’s Cincinnati tenure, which began in 2003. We’ll see.
Watchability index: 6. Love him or hate him, Smith has been one of the league’s great entertainers for more than a decade. It’s worth checking out his finale.
These teams slugged it out on a Monday night in Week 5, with the Bucs emerging victorious on a Roberto Aguayo field goal at the buzzer. The Panthers fell to 1–4, slipped further with another close loss at New Orleans the following week and never fully recovered. If their offense plays the way it did in Week 15 at Washington, though, Cam Newton should find more room against Tampa Bay’s secondary this time around. Jameis Winston will get his looks, too, against a league-worst Carolina pass defense allowing 273.5 yards per game. Mike Evans is 44 yards shy of his first 1,300-yard season.
Watchability index: 4. The defensive issues on both sides make an up-and-down shootout very possible. Tampa Bay still has a verrrrry long shot hope of sneaking into the playoffs.
Now we get into the real show. Things have fallen into place quite nicely for Washington, which clinches a wild-card spot Sunday with a win here plus anything other than a tie between Green Bay and Detroit. Two hurdles in their way: 1) A Giants team that, despite being locked in as the NFC’s No. 5 seed, is promising to play everyone (The Redskins did beat them in Week 3, 29–27); 2) Injuries. TE Jordan Reed (shoulder) could return, but starting safety Donte Whitner (quad) just landed on IR and S/LB Su’a Cravens (biceps) is likely to remain out. Four linebackers also were limited in practice this week. The good news for Washington is that New York’s offense has been stuck in mud. Not since Nov. 27 have the Giants hit the 20-point barrier, and they failed to get there last week despite 470 yards.
Watchability index: 8. These rivals already have played one entertaining game this year. Sunday should be a repeat. The Giants aren’t going to roll over so Washington can reach the postseason.
Atlanta’s Week 3 win in New Orleans was part of a month-long, season-defining streak that also included victories at Oakland, at Denver and against Carolina. Of note: The Falcons’ RBs led the way, with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combining for 194 yards rushing and three TDs (all by Coleman), as well as finishing as the team's top two receivers. New Orleans has been gouged by backs all year, especially through the air—its 772 yards receiving allowed to the position ranks 31st, ahead of only ... Atlanta. The Falcons have to focus on Mark Ingram, who is just 60 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season and sounds plenty motivated to get there. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan could stamp his MVP candidacy, plus help the Falcons wrap up a first-round bye, with another big performance.
Watchability index: 9. The Saints have rolled up more than 900 yards over the past two weeks. This has “shootout” written all over it.
Carson Palmer has said he plans to stick around for 2017. Will Larry Fitzgerald do the same? Probably, but it’s possible this is the last time we see the Cardinals’ incredible playmaker. He needs 20 yards Sunday to hit 1,000 for the second straight year and the eighth time overall. David Johnson has an outside chance at 1,000 yards receiving, too—a career-best 159 yards would get him there—incredible considering he’s already rushed for 1,233 yards. For the Rams, Jared Goff will take his seventh stab at his first NFL win. And then the entire franchise will try to forget this season ever happened.
Watchability index: 1. Johnson is worth the price of admission (or the effort to turn the channel to this game). That’s about it.
Is Matt McGloin at all capable of keeping the Raiders rolling, or did their Super Bowl hopes effectively end last week when Derek Carr broke his leg? Answers will start coming Sunday, when McGloin makes his first start since his rookie season of 2013. This might not be an ideal matchup to hone the McGloin–Amari Cooper/Michael Crabtree rapport—the Broncos’ cornerbacks limited that duo to 83 yards in Oakland’s 30–20 win back on Nov. 6. But it should be an opportunity to use the run game to set up McGloin for quick, timing routes. Denver’s run D has been an Achilles’ heel all year; Oakland is averaging 157.3 yards on the ground the past four weeks. Rookie QB Paxton Lynch will see a little time, according to Broncos coach Gary Kubiak. Will it matter? The Trevor Siemian-led offense has 23 total points during an ongoing three-game losing streak.
Watchability: 8. Do the defending champs have enough pride to fuel a strong season-ending performance? The Raiders need this one to wrap the AFC West and a first-round bye.
Another off-season of change may await the 49ers. Chip Kelly probably gets another year, but what of GM Trent Baalke or QB Colin Kaepernick? This could mark the end of the line. Seattle, despite its loss last week, still has a shot at a first-round bye—it needs a win plus an Atlanta loss. That should cover the motivation angle, but the 49ers have a handful of pass rushers that could give Seattle’s maligned O-line trouble. Whether anyone has noticed or not, Kaepernick has played well down the stretch, and the Seahawks’ D has not been the same without Earl Thomas. This is a bigger test than it probably should be for Seattle. If Pete Carroll’s team wins, it will be via the run game—San Francisco has been horrid there defensively, allowing 4.9 yards per attempt.
A Chiefs win coupled with a Raiders loss hands the AFC West title to Kansas City. First, the win. The Chiefs haven’t seen San Diego since Week 1—an odd scheduling quirk where these teams bookend the season against each other. San Diego led that game, in Kansas City, 24–3 before collapsing in a 33–27 OT loss. That’s indicative of this whole season for the Chargers, who have been god-awful late (1–8 in games decided by seven points or fewer). Much of their troubles can be tied back to turnovers. They have 33 on the year (second most in the NFL), while the Chiefs have forced a league-leading 31. K.C.’s offense has come a long way since the season-opener, thanks in large part to the emergence of Tyreek Hill as a matchup nightmare.
Watchability index: 6. How watchable this game is hinges directly on what’s happening in Denver at the same time. If the Broncos start inching toward an upset, the Chiefs will notice.
The first time folks raised questions about the Green Bay offense, following a Week 2 loss to Minnesota, Aaron Rodgers responded with a four-TD outburst against Detroit en route to a 34–27 win. The Packers had to hold on for dear life in that game, because their defense had little answer for Matthew Stafford either—he threw for 385 yards and three TDs. How much will Sunday’s NFC North-deciding clash resemble the earlier meeting? The Lions might prefer it not. When they won in Green Bay last season, it was amuch more sluggish 18–16 game, in which Detroit used aggressive man coverage, pressured Rodgers into three sacks and limited the run game. A track meet would favor Rodgers and the Packers; the Lions want to be a ball-control team, even if it happens via short passing. Both secondaries have issues, but the Lions are not built to hunt the big play, at least not the way that Rodgers can.
Watchability index: 10. Assuming Washington wins earlier in the day Sunday, the loser here is done for the year. Interesting subplot, should this game get to OT: In the event of a tie, both teams would qualify for the postseason, with the Packers as division champs and Lions as a wild card.
Surprise star of Week 17: DeAndre Washington, RB, Raiders. He actually was a surprise star last week, churning out 99 yards on 12 carries. With McGloin in at QB and Denver weak against the run, a repeat could be in the cards.
Upset of the week: Texans (+3) at Titans. Between the disappointment at losing out on the division and the Mariota injury, it will be hard for Tennessee to drum up much excitement here. The Texans will have an eye on next week, but they should treat this as an important dress rehearsal for their offense.