Throughout the season, the Notebook has broken down its NFL Sunday previews by the TV coverage, figuring it made the most sense to give maximum space to the games most people were seeing. Right now though, I’m so beyond annoyed with the NFL that I’m going to junk that format for the final installment. How is it that the Jets-Dolphins, a game with a less than 50 percent chance of impacting who makes the playoffs, goes to the nation, while the Ravens-Bengals—a game with HUGE implications in the entire AFC bracket—first gets flexed to the 4:15 PM ET slot and then is buried behind Chiefs-Broncos for national coverage. To watch the biggest game of Week 17 you have to live in Baltimore or Cincinnati or subscribe to the Sunday Ticket package. I suppose my annoyance isn’t with the NFL per se, but CBS, who made the scheduling decision, because of course what we all want is to first watch a New York team, then watch Tim Tebow. Games whose impact reverberates across the playoff bracket—well, who cares about that?
Now that my rant is out of my system, here are some thoughts on each game. To your shock I’m sure, it will start with Baltimore-Cincinnati. For the Bengals, this is a win-and-you’re in spot, with a victory clinching the #6 seed in the AFC and sending them to Houston next weekend. For the Ravens it’s not about survival, but it could ultimately decide their Super Bowl fate. A Baltimore victory clinches the AFC North and a first-round bye. If New England somehow lost to Buffalo, the Ravens can still be the #1 seed. But a loss means Pittsburgh need only take care of a gimme at Cleveland to earn that same seed, while Baltimore drops to #5 and faces an immediate visit to the champion of the AFC West. The most talented team in the AFC is probably playing to preserve its Super Bowl shot in the Queen City. The Ravens have shown they can win road playoff games, but they haven’t shown they can win three in a row , so getting it done here is imperative.
The game itself looks to be a defensive struggle. Cincinnati has a tremendous ability to dominate the interior and take away Baltimore’s running game with Ray Rice. The Raven defense can be in Andy Dalton’s face the balance of the afternoon and early evening and force mistakes. Cincinnati’s pass protection is pretty good and they need to account for Terrell Suggs at all times. This one promises to be a true slugfest in the trenches with a lot on the line. I lean Baltimore to win a 17-13 final, but more importantly I wish I could see this one.
Dallas-NY Giants is the Sunday night game (8:20 PM ET, NBC) and easily the best on the NFC side of the bracket. Both teams are 8-7 and the winner will host Detroit or Atlanta next week. For the Cowboys, giving Tony Romo time in the pocket is the imperative of the week. Not only are the Giants a very pedestrian defense when they aren’t getting heat, but Romo’s bruised throwing hand has to be kept healthy. To that end, I believe Jason Garrett would be well-served by calling some early misdirection running plays to keep the New York defensive front honest. Whether Felix Jones’ hamstring is healthy enough to make that work is another question.
The Giant offense is no longer about the running game—they have the worst yards-per-carry in the league and Eli Manning has had a genuinely elite year at quarterback. The matchup of Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham against a shaky secondary is ideal for Eli, and as long as the protection schemes make sure they know where Demarcus Ware is at, the Giants will score points. Playing at home, they get the win and their first playoff trip in three years.
OTHER KEY AFC GAMES
Kansas City-Denver: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are on hand at Invesco Field as the Broncos try and conclude their miracle run to the playoffs with the quarterback Tebow displaced—Kyle Orton—now quarterbacking KC. The Broncos looked horrible last week in Buffalo, but I believe with a home crowd they can get their running game going—both with Willis McGahee and Tebow, and if they can keep the Chiefs’ ground attack under control the home team should get the win it needs to bring home the AFC West.
San Diego-Oakland: A Kansas City loss opens the door for Oakland to win the AFC West, and a Cincinnati loss unleashes a flood of scenarios that could even produce a wild-card. The Chargers couldn’t stop Oakland’s Michael Bush on the ground in the teams’ first meeting and I see little reason to think they will now, especially with everyone presuming this is the final game for Norv Turner with the playoffs out of the question. San Diego also does not rush the passer well, and I see a big game for Carson Palmer. The Chargers will get their points—Oakland’s run defense is lousy and Ryan Matthews will be good for 100-plus, but in the end the Chargers are still the Chargers. Five years after firing Marty Schottenheimer, they still haven’t made a Super Bowl. Only now they aren’t making the playoffs either.
NY Jets-Miami: You won’t have a problem finding this one on TV in the early time slot and it’s putting it mildly to say Rex Ryan’s team has a lot of problems. Their best chance to win comes through pounding Shonn Greene on the ground and taking the pressure of Mark Sanchez, but the Miami rush defense is one of the AFC’s best and they can get after the quarterback. The Jet offense looked awful last week in a bad loss to the Giants, and I really don’t think it’ll be a lot better this week in Miami. The Dolphins are playing vastly better football right now (and are in fact better than any of the AFC’s wild contenders over the past several weeks) and the vultures are circling in the Big Apple around Sanchez. Miami puts Ryan’s team out of its misery.
Tennessee-Houston: The Titans have more playoff scenarios right now than the Republicans have had challengers to Mitt Romney. What fans can know is this—as long as Tennessee wins they’re alive into the late games. Beyond that, it’s a mess. The matchup on paper is less than ideal. The Titans are at their best when Chris Johnson is running, and the Houston defense defends the run extremely well—come to think of it the Houston defense does everything extremely well and with their recent slump I would think they’d want to play to win and get a little momentum back for next week’s home playoff game against the last wild-card. Tennessee’s rush defense ranks 14th in the AFC and that means a big day for Arian Foster and Ben Tate, as the Texans eliminate their division rival.
NOTEWORTHY AFC GAMES
Buffalo-New England: The health of Tom Brady’s shoulder is the overriding concern here, but he expects to play and with the #1 seed on the line, New England can’t afford to sit him. Buffalo showed spark last week in blowing out Denver and C.J. Spiller can cause problems for the Patriot defense out of the backfield. I can see the Bills being pesky and hanging around, but their own defense isn’t good enough to do more than that in Brady’s backyard.
Pittsburgh-Cleveland: We noted the wide variance the Steelers’ playoff position can still take and it’s looking like Ben Roethlisberger will play. I give the Browns credit for being ready to play last week in Baltimore, but they’ve been so bad all year long, that picking them in advance is way too big a leap of faith. This game will be in the 4:15 PM ET timeslot, alongside the Baltimore-Cincy game.
NOTEWORTHY NFC GAMES
San Francisco-St. Louis: The 49ers wrap up the #2 seed with a win here and against the NFC’s worst passing offense, both in yards-per-attempt and sacks allowed, they’re going to get it.
Carolina-New Orleans: This game is Fox’s prime matchup in the early time slot, with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the Bayou. Losing the Giants-Cowboys game killed Fox’s slate of games so Joe and Troy get a trip to the Big Easy. New Orleans needs help from St. Louis to move up to the #2 slot. Carolina wants to close out a nice rebuilding year on a good note. The Panther offense can move the ball and I see Cam Newton keeping pace with Drew Brees, who might be on a letdown after breaking Dan Marino’s single-season pass yardage record on Monday Night, and little reason to think this game will ultimately matter. Newton pulls out a win for the Panthers.
Detroit-Green Bay: It means nothing to Green Bay, and it just a little bit to Detroit. If the Lions win they clinch the #5 seed, which means a trip to the NFC East champ rather than New Orleans in the playoffs. It means something, but not enough to risk injury. All the talk is about how soon Green Bay will rest starters, but what about their opponent? The Lions don’t have the benefit of a bye next week and I wouldn’t go all-out for seeding position.
Atlanta-Tampa Bay: Atlanta takes the #5 seed if they win and Detroit loses, and like the Lions, I think they would be well-advised to rest starters. Not only for the reasons mentioned above, but two additional factors. First, if the Falcons do end up going to New Orleans you can’t tell me they wouldn’t want some revenge after the Saints kept throwing the ball in a blowout to get Brees the record (a decision I would have made too by the way ). Second, as badly as Tampa is collapsing, if the Falcons second-string can probably beat them anyway.
ANDREW LUCK SWEEPSTAKES
Indianapolis-Jacksonville: It’s down to the Colts and Rams for the #1 pick in the draft, and Indy needs to lose here to sew it up. To the disappointment of tankers everywhere, the Colts have shown some professional pride and won their last two games. But I think the tankers get their wish here—Jacksonville’s playing above average defense, especially against the run, and it’s Donald Brown in the backfield that’s been the offensive key to their wins Maurice Jones-Drew gets 100-plus of his own and Indy starts weighing the Luck-Peyton decision.
CLOSE OUT THE SEASON GAMES
Seattle-Arizona: Both teams just started a little too late, playing well in the second half, but each at 7-8. Seattle nearly upset San Francisco last week and I give them the edge here to get to .500.
Chicago-Minnesota: Toby Gerhart is the man in the backfield for the Vikings, who lost Adrian Peterson until at least next September. With the Vikes off a win in Washington and the Bears flailing, Minnesota closes the year with another win.
Washington-Philadelphia. As a ‘Skins fan I was utterly disgusted with the Minnesota loss. If Washington would have gotten to 7-9, that at least sounds like a team building to respectability. The difference between 6-10 and 5-11 isn’t as dramatic. Philadelphia played with real pride last week in Dallas, and if Washington doesn’t, this one could get ugly.